Thomas Wingfold, Curate - vol.2

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"Extraordinary young man!" exclaimed Mrs. Ramshorn as they left the church, with a sigh that expressed despair. "Is he an infidel or a fanatic? a Jesuit or a Socinian?"

"If he would pay a little more attention to his composition," said Bascombe indifferently, "he might in time make of himself a good speaker. I am not at all sure there are not the elements of an orator in him, if he would only reflect a little on the fine relations between speech and passion, and learn of the best models how to play upon the feelings of a congregation. I declare I don't know, but he might make a great man of himself. As long as he don't finish his sentences however, jumbles his figures, and begins and ends abruptly without either exordium or peroration, he needn't look to make anything of a preacher--and that seems his object."

"If that be his object, he had better join the Methodists at once. He would be a treasure to them," said Mrs. Ramshorn.

"That is not his object, George. How can you say so?" remarked Helen quietly, but with some latent indignation.

George smiled a rather unpleasant smile and held his peace.

Little more was said on the way home. Helen went to take off her bonnet, but did not re-appear until she was called to their early Sunday dinner.

Now George had counted upon a turn in the garden with her before dinner, and was annoyed--more, it is true, because of the emotion which he rightly judged the cause of her not joining him, than the necessity laid on him of eating his dinner without having first unburdened his mind; but the latter fact also had its share in vexing him.

When she came into the drawing-room it was plain she had been weeping; but, although they were alone, and would probably have to wait yet a few minutes before their aunt joined them, he resolved in his good nature to be considerate, and say nothing till after dinner, lest he should spoil her appetite. When they rose from the table, she would have again escaped, but when George left his wine and followed her, she consented, at his urgent, almost expostulatory request, to walk once round the garden with him.

As soon as they were out of sight of the windows, he began--in the tone of one whose love it is that prompts rebuke.

"How COULD you, my dear Helen, have so little care of your health, already so much shaken with nursing your brother, as to yield your mind to the maundering of that silly ecclesiastic, and allow his false eloquence to untune your nerves! Remember your health is the first thing--positively the FIRST and foremost thing to be considered, both for your own sake and that of your friends. Without health, what is anything worth?"

Helen made no answer, but she thought with herself there were two or three things for the sake of which she would willingly part with a considerable portion of her health. Her cousin imagined her conscience-stricken, and resumed with yet greater confidence.

"If you MUST go to church, you ought to prepare yourself beforehand by firmly impressing on your mind the fact that the whole thing is but part of a system--part of a false system; that the preacher has been brought up to the trade of religion, that it is his business, and that he must lay himself out to persuade people--himself first of all if he can, but anyhow his congregation, of the truth of everything contained in that farrago of priestly absurdities-- called the Bible, forsooth! as if there were no other book worthy to be mentioned beside it. Think for a moment how soon, were it not for their churches and prayers and music and their tomfoolery of preaching, the whole precious edifice would topple about their ears, and the livelihood, the means of contentment and influence, would be gone from so many restless paltering spirits! So what is left them but to play upon the hopes and fears and diseased consciences of men as they best can! The idiot! To tell a man when he is hipped to COME UNTO ME! Bah! Does the fool really expect any grown man or woman to believe in his or her brain that the man who spoke those words, if ever there was a man who spoke them, can at this moment anni domini"--George liked to be correct--"1870, hear whatever silly words the Rev. Mr. Wingfold, or any other human biped, may think proper to address to him with his face buried in his blankets by his bedside or in his surplice over the pulpit-bible?--not to mention that they would have you believe, or be damned to all eternity, that every thought vibrated in the convolutions of your brain is known to him as well as to yourself! The thing is really too absurd! Ha! ha! ha! The man died--the death of a malefactor, they say; and his body was stolen from his grave by his followers, that they might impose thousands of years of absurdity upon generations to come after them. And now, when a fellow feels miserable, he is to cry to that dead man, who said of himself that he was meek and lowly in heart, and straightway the poor beggar shall find rest to his soul! All I can say is that, if he find rest so, it will be the rest of an idiot! Believe me, Helen, a good Havannah and a bottle of claret would be considerably more to the purpose;--for ladies, perhaps rather a cup of tea and a little Beethoven!" Here he laughed, for the rush of his eloquence had swept away his bad humour. "But really," he went on, "the whole is TOO absurd to talk about. To go whining after an old Jew fable in these days of progress! Why, what do you think is the last discovery about light?"

"You will allow this much in excuse for their being so misled," returned Helen, with some bitterness, "that the old fable pretends at least to provide help for sore hearts; and except it be vivisection, I----"

"Do be serious, Helen," interrupted George. "I don't object to joking, you know, but you are not joking in a right spirit. This matter has to do with the well-being of the race; and we MUST think of others, however your Jew-gospel, in the genuine spirit of the Hebrew of all time, would set everybody to the saving of his own wind-bubble of a soul. Believe me, to live for others is the true way to lose sight of our own fancied sorrows."

Helen gave a deep sigh. Fancied sorrows!--Yes, gladly indeed would she live for ONE other at least! Nay more--she would die for him. But alas! what would that do for one whose very being was consumed with grief ineffable!--She must speak, else he would read her heart.

"There are real sorrows," she said. "They are not all fancied."

"There are very few sorrows," returned George, "in which fancy does not bear a stronger proportion than even a woman of sense, while the fancy is upon her, will be prepared to admit. I can remember bursts of grief when I was a boy, in which it seemed impossible anything should ever console me; but in one minute all would be gone, and my heart, or my spleen, or my diaphragm, as merry as ever. Believe that all is well, and you will find all will be well--very tolerably well, that is, considering."

"Considering that the well-being has to be divided and apportioned and accommodated to the various parts of such a huge whole, and that there is no God to look after the business!" said Helen, who, according to the state of the tide in the sea of her trouble, resented or accepted her cousin's teaching.

Few women are willing to believe in death. Most of them love life, and are faithful to hope; and I much doubt whether, if Helen had but had a taste of trouble to rouse the woman within her before her cousin conceived the wish of making her a proselyte, she would have turned even a tolerably patient ear to his instructions. Yet it is strange to see how even noble women, with the divine gift of imagination, may be argued into unbelief in their best instincts by some small man, as common-place as clever, who beside them is as limestone to marble. The knowing craft comes creeping up into the shadow of the rich galleon, and lo, with all her bountiful sails gleaming in the sun, the ship of God glides off in the wake of the felucca to the sweltering hollows betwixt the winds!

"You perplex me, my dear cousin," said Bascombe. "It is plain your nursing has been too much for you. You see everything with a jaundiced eye."

"Thank you, Cousin George," said Helen. "You are even more courteous than usual."

She turned from him and went into the house. Bascombe walked to the bottom of the garden and lighted his cigar, confessing to himself that for once he could not understand Helen.--Was it then only that he was ignorant of the awful fact that lay burrowing in her heart, or was he not ignorant also of the nature of that heart in which such a fact must so burrow? Was there anything in his system to wipe off that burning, torturing red? "Such things must be: men who wrong society must suffer for the sake of that society." But the red lay burning on the conscience of Helen too, and she had not murdered! And for him who had, he gave society never a thought, but shrieked aloud in his dreams, and moaned and wept when he waked over the memory of the woman who had wronged him, and whom he had, if Bascombe was right, swept out of being like an aphis from a rose-leaf.

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