The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXVII

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XXVII
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XXVII.

THE PREACHER.

The sermon Mr. Graham heard at the chapel that Sunday morning in Kentish Town was not of an elevating, therefore not of a strengthening, description. The pulpit was at that time in offer to the highest bidder — in orthodoxy, that is, combined with popular talent. The first object of the chapel's existence — I do not say in the minds of those who built it, for it was an old place, but certainly in the minds of those who now directed its affairs — was not to save its present congregation, but to gather a larger — ultimately that they might be saved, let us hope, but primarily that the drain upon the purses of those who were responsible for its rent and other outlays might be lessened. Mr. Masquar, therefore, to whom the post was a desirable one, had been mainly anxious that morning to prove his orthodoxy, and so commend his services. Not that in those days one heard so much of the dangers of heterodoxy — that monster was as yet but growling far off in the jungles of Germany — but certain whispers had been abroad concerning the preacher which he thought it desirable to hush, especially as they were founded in truth. He had tested the power of heterodoxy to attract attention, but having found that the attention it did attract was not of a kind favorable to his wishes, had so skilfully remodelled his theories that, although to his former friends he declared them in substance unaltered, it was impossible any longer to distinguish them from the most uncompromising orthodoxy; and his sermon of that morning had tended neither to the love of God, the love of man, nor a hungering after righteousness — its aim being to disprove the reported heterodoxy of Jacob Masquar.

As they walked home, Mrs. Marshal, addressing her husband in a tone of conjugal disapproval, said, with more force than delicacy, "The pulpit is not the place to give a man to wash his dirty linen in."

"Well, you see, my love," answered her husband in a tone of apology, "people won't submit to be told their duty by mere students, and just at present there seems nobody else to be had. There's none in the market but old stagers and young colts — eh, Fred? — But Mr. Masquar is at least a man of experience."

"Of more than enough, perhaps," suggested his wife. "And the young ones must have their chance, else how are they to learn? You should have given the principal a hint. It is a most desirable thing that Frederick should preach a little oftener."

"They have it in turn, and it wouldn't do to favor one more than another,"

"He could hand his guinea, or whatever they gave him, to the one whose turn it ought to have been, and that would set it all right."

At this point the silk-mercer, fearing that the dominie, as he called him, was silently disapproving, and willing therefore to change the subject, turned to him and said, "Why shouldn't you give us a sermon, Graham?"

The schoolmaster laughed. "Did you never hear," he said, "how I fell like Dagon on the threshold of the Church, and have lain there ever since?"

"What has that to do with it?" returned his friend, sorry that his forgetfulness should have caused a painful recollection.

"That is ages ago, when you were little more than a boy. Seriously," he added, chiefly to cover his little indiscretion, "will you preach for us the Sunday after next?" Deacons generally ask a man to preach for them.

"No," said Mr. Graham.

But even as he said it a something began to move in his heart — a something half of jealousy for God, half of pity for poor souls buffeted by such winds as had that morning been roaring, chaff-laden about the church, while the grain fell all to the bottom of the pulpit. Something burned in him: was it the word that was as a fire in his bones, or was it a mere lust of talk? He thought for a moment. "Have you any gatherings between Sundays?" he asked.

"Yes, every Wednesday evening," replied Mr. Marshal. "And if you won't preach on Sunday, we shall announce tonight that next Wednesday a clergyman of the Church of Scotland will address the prayer-meeting."

He was glad to get out of it so, for he was uneasy about his friend, both as to his nerve which might fail him, and his Scotch oddities which would not.

"That would be hardly true," said Mr. Graham, "seeing I never got beyond a license."

Nobody here knows the difference between a licentiate and a placed minister; and if they did, they would not care a straw. So we'll just say clergyman."

"But I won't have it announced in any terms. Leave that alone, and I will try to speak at the prayer-meeting."

"It won't be in the least worth your while except we announce it. You won't have a soul to hear you but the pew-openers, the woman that cleans the chapel, Mrs. Marshal's washerwoman, and the old greengrocer we buy our vegetables from. We must really announce it."

"Then I won't do it. Just tell me: what would our Lord have said to Peter or John if they had told him that they had been to synagogue and had been asked to speak, but had declined because there were only the pew-owners, the chapel-cleaner, a washerwoman, and a greengrocer present?"

"I said it only for your sake, Graham: you needn't take me up so sharply."

"And ra-a-ther irreverently, don't you think? Excuse me, sir," said Mrs. Marshal very softly. But the very softness had a kind of jelly-fish sting in it.

"I think," rejoined the schoolmaster, indirectly replying, "we must be careful to show our reverence in a manner pleasing to our Lord. Now, I cannot discover that he cares for any reverences but the shaping of our ways after his; and if you will show me a single instance of respect of persons in our Lord, I will press my petition no further to be allowed to speak a word to your pew-openers, washerwoman and greengrocer."

His entertainers were silent — the gentleman in the consciousness of deserved rebuke, the lady in offence.

Just then the latter bethought herself that their guest, belonging to the Scotch Church, was, if no Episcopalian, yet no Dissenter, and that seemed to clear up to her the spirit of his disapproval.

"By all means, Mr. Marshal," she said, "let your friend speak on the Wednesday evening. It would not be to his disadvantage to have it said that he occupied a Dissenting pulpit. It will not be nearly such an exertion, either; and if he is unaccustomed to speak to large congregations, he will find himself more comfortable with our usual week-evening one."

"I have never attempted to speak in public but once," rejoined Mr. Graham, "and then I failed."

"Ah! that accounts for it," said his friend's wife; and the simplicity of his confession, while it proved him a simpleton, mollified her.

Thus it came that he spent the days between Sunday and Thursday in their house, and so made the acquaintance of young Marshal.

When his mother perceived their growing intimacy, she warned her son that their visitor belonged to an unscriptural and worldly community, and that notwithstanding his apparent guilelessness — deficiency indeed — he might yet use cunning arguments to draw him aside from the faith of his fathers. But the youth replied that, although, in the firmness of his own position as a Congregationalist, he had tried to get the Scotchman into a conversation upon Church government, he had failed: the man smiled queerly and said nothing. But when a question of New Testament criticism arose he came awake at once, and his little blue eyes gleamed like glowworms.

"Take care, Frederick!" said his mother. "The Scriptures are not to be treated like common books and subjected to human criticism."

"We must find out what they mean, I suppose, mother," said the youth.

"You're to take just the plain meaning that he that runneth may read," answered his mother. "More than that no one has any business with. You've got to save your own soul first, and then the souls of your neighbors if they will let you; and for that reason you must cultivate, not a spirit of criticism, but the talents that attract people to the hearing of the Word. You have got a fine voice, and it will improve with judicious use. Your father is now on the outlook for a teacher of elocution to instruct you how to make the best of it and speak with power on God's behalf."

When the afternoon of Wednesday began to draw toward the evening there came on a mist — not a London fog, but a low wet cloud — which kept slowly condensing into rain; and as the hour of meeting drew nigh with the darkness it grew worse. Mrs. Marshal had forgotten all about the meeting and the schoolmaster; her husband was late, and she wanted her dinner. At twenty minutes past six she came upon her guest in the hall, kneeling on the door-mat, first on one knee, then on the other, turning up the feet of his trousers. "Why, Mr. Graham," she said kindly as he rose and proceeded to look for his cotton umbrella, easily discernible in the stand among the silk ones of the house, "you're never going out in a night like this?"

"I am going to the prayer-meeting, ma'am," he said.

" Nonsense! You'll be wet to the skin before you get halfway."

"I promised, you may remember, ma'am, to talk a little to them."

"You only said so to my husband. You may be very glad, seeing it has turned out so wet, that I would not allow him to have it announced from the pulpit. There is not the slightest occasion for your going. Besides, you have not had your dinner."

"That's not of the slightest consequence, ma'am. A bit of bread and cheese before I go to bed is all I need to sustain nature and fit me for understanding my proposition in Euclid. I have been in the habit, for the last few years, of reading one every night before I go to bed."

"We Dissenters consider a chapter of the Bible the best thing to read before going to bed," said the lady with a sustained voice.

"I keep that for the noontide of my perceptions — for mental high water," said the schoolmaster. "Euclid is good enough after supper. Not that I deny myself a small portion of the Word," he added with a smile as he proceeded to open the door, when I feel very hungry for it."

"There is no one expecting you," persisted the lady, who could ill endure not to have her own way, even when she did not care for the matter concerned. "Who will be the wiser or the worse if you stay at home?"

"My dear lady," returned the schoolmaster, "when I have on good grounds made up my mind to a thing, I always feel as if I had promised God to do it; and indeed it amounts to the same thing very nearly. Such a resolve, then, is not to be unmade, except on equally good grounds with those upon which it was made. Having resolved to try whether I could not draw a little water of refreshment for souls which, if not thirsting, are but fainting the more, shall I allow a few drops of rain to prevent me?"

"Pray don't let me persuade you against your will," said his hostess, with a stately bend of her neck over her shoulder as she turned into the drawing-room.

Her guest went out into the rain, asking himself by what theory of the will his hostess could justify such a phrase — too simple to see that she had only thrown it out, as the cuttle-fish its ink, to cover her retreat.

But the weather had got a little into his brain: into his soul it was seldom allowed to intrude. He felt depressed and feeble and dull. But at the first corner he turned he met a little breath of wind. It blew the rain in his face and revived him a little, reminding him at the same time that he had not yet opened his umbrella. As he put it up he laughed. "Here I am," he said to himself, "lance in hand, spurring to meet my dragon!"

Once when he used a similar expression, Malcolm had asked him what he meant by his dragon. "I mean," replied the schoolmaster, "that huge slug, the commonplace. It is the wearifulest dragon to fight in the whole miscreation. Wound it as you may, the jelly mass of the monster closes, and the dull one is himself again — feeding all the time so cunningly that scarce one of the victims whom he has swallowed suspects that he is but pabulum slowly digesting in the belly of the monster."

If the schoolmaster's dragon, spread abroad as he lies, a vague dilution, everywhere throughout human haunts, has yet any head-quarters, where else can they be than in such places as that to which he was now making his way to fight him? What can be fuller of the wearisome, depressing, beauty-blasting commonplace than a Dissenting chapel in London on the night of the weekly prayer-meeting, and that night a drizzly one?" The few lights fill the lower part with a dull, yellow, steamy glare, while the vast galleries, possessed by an ugly twilight, yawn above like the dreary openings of a disconsolate eternity. The pulpit rises into the dim, damp air, covered with brown holland, reminding one of desertion and charwomen, if not of a chamber of death and spiritual undertakers who have shrouded and coffined the truth. Gaping, empty, unsightly, the place is the very skull of the monster himself — the fittest place of all wherein to encounter the great slug, and deal him one of those death-blows which every sunrise, every repentance, every childbirth, every true love, deals him. Every hour he receives the blow that kills, but he takes long to die, for every hour he is right carefully fed and cherished by a whole army of purveyors, including every trade and profession, but officered chiefly by divines and men of science.

When the dominie entered all was still, and every light had a nimbus of illuminated vapor. There were hardly more than three present beyond the number Mr. Marshal had given him to expect; and their faces, some grim, some grimy, most of them troubled, and none blissful, seemed the nervous ganglions of the monster whose faintly-gelatinous bulk filled the place. He seated himself in a pew near the pulpit, communed with his own heart, and was still. Presently the ministering deacon, a humbler one, in the worldly sense than Mr. Marshal, for he kept a small ironmongery shop in the next street to the chapel, entered, twirling the wet from his umbrella as he came along one of the passages intersecting the pews. Stepping up into the desk which cowered humbly at the foot of the pulpit, he stood erect and cast his eyes around the small assembly. Discovering there no one that could lead in the singing, he chose out and read one of the monster's favorite hymns, in which never a sparkle of thought or a glow of worship gave reason wherefore the holy words should have been carpentered together. Then he prayed aloud, and then first the monster found tongue, voice, articulation. If this was worship, surely it was the monster's own worship of itself. No God were better than one to whom such were fittng words of prayer. What passed in the man's soul God forbid I should judge: I speak but of the words that reached the ears of men.

And over all the vast of London lay the monster, filling it like the night — not in churches and chapels only — in almost all theatres and most houses — most of all in rich houses: everywhere he had a foot, a tail, a tentacle or two — everywhere suckers that drew the life-blood from the sickening and somnolent soul.

When the deacon — a little brown man, about five and thirty — had ended his prayer, he read another hymn of the same sort — one of such as form the bulk of most collections, and then looked meaningly at Mr. Graham, whom he had seen in the chapel on Sunday with his brother deacon, and therefore judged one of consequence, who had come to the meeting with an object, and ought to be propitiated: he had intended speaking himself. After having thus for a moment regarded him, "Would you favor us with a word of exhortation, sir?" he said in a stage-like whisper.

Now the monster had by this time insinuated a hair-like sucker into the heart of the schoolmaster, and was busy. But at the word, as the Red-cross Knight when he heard Orgoglio in the wood staggered to meet him, he rose at once, and, although his umbrella slipped and fell with a loud discomposing clatter, calmly approached the reading-desk. To look at his outer man, this knight of the truth might have been the very high priest of the monster, which, while he was sitting there, had been twisting his slimy, semi-electric, benumbing tendrils around his heart. His business was nevertheless to fight him, though to fight him in his own heart and that of other people at one and the same moment he might well find hard work. And the loathly worm had this advantage over the knight, that it was the first time he had stood up to speak in public since his failure thirty years ago. That hour again for a moment overshadowed his spirit. It was a wavy harvest morning in a village of the north. A golden wind was blowing, and little white clouds flying aloft in the sunny blue. The church was full of well-known faces, upturned, listening, expectant, critical. The hour vanished in a slow mist of abject misery and shame. But had he not learned to rejoice over all dead hopes and write Te Deums on their coffin-lids? And now he stood in dim light, in the vapor from damp garments, in dinginess and ugliness, with a sense of spiritual squalor and destitution in his very soul. He had tried to pray his own prayer while the deacon prayed his, but there had come to him no reviving, no message for this handful of dull souls — there were nine of them in all — and his own soul crouched hard and dull within his bosom. How to give them one deeper breath? How to make them know they were alive? Whence was his aid to come?

His aid was nearer than he knew. There were no hills to which he could lift his eyes, but help may hide in the valley as well as come down from the mountain, and he found his under the coal-scuttle bonnet of the woman that swept out and dusted the chapel. She was no interesting young widow. A life of labor and vanished children lay behind as well as before her. She was sixty years of age, seamed with the small-pox, and in every seam the dust and smoke of London had left a stain. She had a troubled eye, and a gafe that seemed to ask of the universe why it had given birth to her. But it was only her face that asked the question: her mind was too busy with the ever-recurring enigma, which, answered this week, was still an enigma for the next: — how she was to pay her rent — too busy to have any other question to ask. Or would she not rather, have gone to sleep altogether, under the dreary fascination of the slug monster, had she not had a severe landlady who would be paid punctually or turn her out? Anyhow, every time and all the time she sat in the chapel she was brooding over ways and means, calculating pence and shillings — the day's charing she had promised her, and the chances of more — mingling faint regrets over past indulgences — the extra half-pint of beer she drank on Saturday, the bit of cheese she bought on Monday. Of this face of care, revealing a spirit which Satan had bound, the schoolmaster caught sight — caught from its commonness, its grimness, its defeature, inspiration and uplifting, for there he beheld the oppressed, down-trodden, mire-fouled humanity which the Man in whom he believed had loved because it was his Father's humanity divided into brothers, and had died straining to lift back to the bosom of that Father. Oh tale of horror and dreary monstrosity, if it be such indeed the bulk of its priests on the one hand and its enemies on the other represent it! Oh story of splendrous fate, of infinite resurrection and uplifting, of sun and breeze, of organ-blasts and exultation, for the heart of every man and woman, whatsoever the bitterness of its cark or the weight of its care, if it be such as the Book itself has held it from age to age!

It was the mere humanity of the woman, I say, and nothing in her individuality of what is commonly called the interesting, that ministered to the breaking of the schoolmaster's trance. "O ye of little faith!" were the first words that flew from his lips — he knew not whether uttered concerning himself or the charwoman the more — and at once he fell to speaking of him who said the words, and of the people that came to him and heard him gladly — how this one, whom he described, must have felt, Oh, if that be true! how that one, whom also he described, must have said, Now he means me! and so laid bare the secrets of many hearts, until he had concluded all in the misery of being without a helper in the world, a prey to fear and selfishness and dismay. Then he told them how the Lord pledged himself for all their needs — meat and drink and clothes for the body, and God and love and truth for the soul — if only they would put them in the right order and seek the best first.

Next he spoke a parable to them — of a house and a father and his children. The children would not do what their father told them, and therefore began to keep out of his sight. After a while they began to say to each other that he must have gone out, it was so long since they had seen him; only they never went to look. And again after a time some of them began to say to each other that they did not believe they had ever had any father. But there were some who dared not say that — who thought they had a father somewhere in the house, and yet crept about in misery, sometimes hungry and often cold, fancying he was not friendly to them,, when all the time it was they who were not friendly to him, and said to themselves he would not give them anything. They never went to knock at his door, or call to know if he were inside and would speak to them. And all the time there he was sitting sorrowful, listening and listening for some little hand to come knocking, and some little voice to come gently calling through the keyhole; for sorely did he long to take them to his bosom and give them everything. Only if he did that without their coming to him, they would not care for his love or him — would only care for the things he gave them, and soon would come to hate their brothers and sisters, and turn their own souls into hells and the earth into a channel of murder.

Ere he ended he was pleading with the charwoman to seek her Father in his own room, tell him her troubles, do what he told her and fear nothing. And while he spoke, lo! the dragon-slug had vanished; the ugly chapel was no longer the den of the hideous monster: it was but the dusky bottom of a glory-shaft, adown which gazed the stars of the coming resurrection.

"The whole trouble is that we won't let God help us," said the preacher, and sat down.

A prayer from the greengrocer followed, in which he did seem to be feeling after God a little; and then the ironmonger pronounced the benediction, and all went — among the rest Frederick Marshal, who had followed the schoolmaster, and now walked back with him to his father's where he was to spend one night more.