The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXVI

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XXVI
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XXVI.

THE SCHOOLMASTER.

Alexander Graham, the schoolmaster, was the son of a grieve, or farm-overseer, in the north of Scotland. By straining every nerve his parents had succeeded in giving him a university education, the narrowness of whose scope was possibly favorable to the development of what genius, rare and shy, might lurk among the students. He had labored well, and had gathered a good deal from books and lectures, but far more from the mines they guided him to discover in his own nature. In common with so many Scotch parents, his had cherished the most wretched as well as hopeless of all ambitions, seeing it presumes to work in a region into which no ambition can enter — I mean that of seeing their son a clergyman. In presbyter, curate, bishop, or cardinal ambition can fare but as that of the creeping thing to build its nest in the topmost boughs of the cedar. Worse than that: my simile is a poor one, for the moment a thought of ambition is cherished, that moment the man is out of the kingdom. Their son, with already a few glimmering insights which had not yet begun to interfere with his acceptance of the doctrines of his Church, made no opposition to their wish, but having qualified himself to the satisfaction of his superiors, at length ascended the pulpit to preach his first sermon.

The custom of the time as to preaching was a sort of compromise between reading a sermon and speaking extempore, a mode morally as well as artistically false; the preacher learned his sermon by rote, and repeated it — as much like the man he therein was not, and as little like the parrot he was, as he could. It is no wonder, in such an attempt, either that memory should fail a shy man or assurance an honest man. In Mr. Graham's case it was probably the former: the practice was universal, and he could hardly yet have begun to question it, so as to have had any conscience of evil. Blessedly, however, for his dawning truth and well-being, he failed — failed utterly, pitifully. His tongue clave to the roof of his mouth; his lips moved, but shaped no sound; a deathly dew bathed his forehead; his knees shook; and he sank at last to the bottom of the chamber of his torture, whence, while his mother wept below and his father clenched hands of despair beneath the tails of his Sunday coat, he was half led, half dragged down the steps by the bedral, shrunken together like one caught in a shameful deed, and with the ghastly look of him who has but just revived from the faint supervening on the agonies of the rack. Home they crept together, speechless and hopeless, all three, to be thenceforth the contempt, and not the envy, of their fellow-parishioners. For if the vulgar feeling toward the home-born prophet is superciliousness, what must the sentence upon failure be in ungenerous natures, to which every downfall of another is an uplifting of themselves! But Mr. Graham's worth had gained him friends in the presbytery, and he was that same week appointed to the vacant school of another parish.

There it was not long before he made the acquaintance of Griselda Campbell, who was governess in the great house of the neigborhood, and a love, not the less true that it was hopeless from the first, soon began to consume the chagrin of his failure, and substitute for it a more elevating sorrow; for how could an embodied failure, to offer whose miserable self would be an insult, dare speak of love to one before whom his whole being sank worshipping? Silence was the sole armor of his privilege. So long as he was silent the terrible arrow would never part from the bow of those sweet lips: he might love on, love ever, nor be grudged the bliss of such visions as, to him seated on its outer steps, might come from any chance opening of the heavenly gate. And Miss Campbell thought of him more kindly than he knew. But before long she accepted the offered situation of governess to Lady Annabel, the only child of the late marquis's elder brother, at that time himself marquis, and removed to Lossie House. There the late marquis fell in love with her and persuaded her to a secret marriage. There also she became, in the absence of her husband, the mother of Malcolm. But the marquis of the time, jealous for the succession of his daughter, and fearing his brother might yet marry the mother of his child, contrived, with the assistance of the midwife, to remove the infant and persuade the mother that he was dead, and also to persuade his brother of the death of both mother and child; after which, imagining herself wilfully deserted by her husband, yet determined to endure shame rather than break the promise of secrecy she had given him, the poor lady accepted the hospitality of her distant relative, Miss Horn, and continued with her till she died.

When he learned where she had gone, Mr. Graham seized a chance of change to Portlossie that occurred soon after, and when she became her cousin's guest went to see her, was kindly received, and for twenty years lived in friendly relations with the two. It was not until after her death that he came to know the strange fact that the object of his calm, unalterable devotion had been a wife all those years, and was the mother of his favorite pupil. About the same time he was dismissed from the school on the charge of heretical teaching, founded on certain religious conversations he had had with some of the fisher-people who sought his advice; and thereupon he had left the place and gone to London, knowing it would be next to impossible to find, or gather another school in Scotland after being thus branded. In London he hoped, one way or another, to avoid dying of cold or hunger or in debt: that was very nearly the limit of his earthly ambition.

He had just one acquaintance in the whole mighty city, and no more. Him he had known in the days of his sojourn at King's College, where he had grown with him from bejan to magistrand. He was the son of a linendraper in Aberdeen, and was a decent, good-humored fellow, who, if he had not distinguished, had never disgraced himself. His father, having somewhat influential business relations, and finding in him no leanings to a profession, bespoke the good offices of a certain large retail house in London, and sent him thither to learn the business. The result was, that he had married a daughter of one of the partners, and become a partner himself. His old friend wrote to him at his shop in Oxford Street, and then went to see him at his house on Haverstock Hill.

He was shown into the library, in which were, two mahogany cases with plate-glass doors, full of books, well cared for as to clothing and condition, and perfectly placid, as if never disturbed from one week's end to another. In a minute Mr. Marshal entered — so changed that he could never have recognized him; still, however, a kind-hearted, genial man. He received his class-fellow cordially and respectfully, referred merrily to old times, begged to know how he was getting on, asked whether he had come to London with any special object, and invited him to dine with them on Sunday. He accepted the invitation, met him, according to agreement, at a certain chapel in Kentish town, of which he was a deacon, and walked home with him and his wife.

They had but one of their family at home, the youngest son, whom his father was having educated for the Dissenting ministry in the full conviction that he was doing not a little for the truth, and justifying its cause before men, by devoting to its service the son of a man of standing and worldly means, whom he might have easily placed in a position to make money. The youth was of simple character and good inclination — ready to do what he saw to be right, but slow in putting to the question anything that interfered with his notions of laudable ambition or justifiable self-interest. He was attending lectures at a Dissenting college in the neighborhood, for his father feared Oxford or Cambridge — not for his morals, but his opinions in regard to Church and State.

The schoolmaster spent a few days in the house. His friend was generally in town, and his wife, regarding him as very primitive and hardly fit for what she counted society — the class, namely, that she herself represented — was patronizing and condescending; but the young fellow, finding, to his surprise, that he knew a great deal more about his studies than he did himself, was first somewhat attracted, and then somewhat influenced by him, so that at length an intimacy tending to friendship arose between them.

Mr. Graham was not a little shocked to discover that his ideas in respect of the preacher's calling were of a very worldly kind. The notions of this fledging of Dissent differed from those of a clergyman of the same stamp in this: the latter regards the church as a society with accumulated property for the use of its officers; the former regarded it as a community of communities, each possessing a preaching-house which ought to be made commercially successful. Saving influences must emanate from it of course, but Dissenting saving influences.

His mother was a partisan to a hideous extent. To hear her talk you would have thought she imagined the apostles the first Dissenters, and that the main duty of every Christian soul was to battle for the victory of Congregationalism over episcopacy, and voluntaryism over State endowment. Her every mode of thinking and acting was of a levelling commonplace. With her, love was liking, duty something unpleasant — generally to other people — and kindness patronage. But she was just in money matters, and her son too had every intention of being worthy of his hire, though wherein lay the value of the labor with which he thought to counterpoise that hire it were hard to say.