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- Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood - 40/86 -
"That is no concern of ours. Let them fight it out between them, I am sure any trouble that comes of it is no more than they all deserve. A low family--men and women of them."
"I assure you, I think very differently."
"I daresay you do."
"But neither your opinion nor mine has anything to do with the matter."
Here I turned to Miss Oldcastle and went on--
"It is a chance which seldom occurs in one's life, Miss Oldcastle--a chance of setting wrong right by a word; and as a minister of the gospel of truth and love, I beg you to assist me with your presence to that end."
I would have spoken more strongly, but I knew that her word given to me would be enough without her presence. At the same time, I felt not only that there would be a propriety in her taking a personal interest in the matter, but that it would do her good, and tend to create a favour towards each other in some of my flock between whom at present there seemed to be nothing in common.
But at my last words, Mrs Oldcastle rose to her feet no longer red--now whiter than her usual whiteness with passion.
"You dare to persist! You take advantage of your profession to persist in dragging my daughter into a vile dispute between mechanics of the lowest class--against the positive command of her only parent! Have you no respect for her position in society?--for her sex? MISTER WALTON, you act in a manner unworthy of your cloth."
I had stood looking in her eyes with as much self-possession as I could muster. And I believe I should have borne it all quietly, but for that last word.
If there is one epithet I hate more than another, it is that execrable word CLOTH--used for the office of a clergyman. I have no time to set forth its offence now. If my reader cannot feel it, I do not care to make him feel it. Only I am sorry to say it overcame my temper.
"Madam," I said, "I owe nothing to my tailor. But I owe God my whole being, and my neighbour all I can do for him. 'He that loveth not his brother is a murderer,' or murderess, as the case may be."
At that word MURDERESS, her face became livid, and she turned away without reply. By this time her daughter was half way to the house. She followed her. And here was I left to go home, with the full knowledge that, partly from trying to gain too much, and partly from losing my temper, I had at best but a mangled and unsatisfactory testimony to carry back to Thomas Weir. Of course I walked away--round the end of the house and down the avenue; and the farther I went the more mortified I grew. It was not merely the shame of losing my temper, though that was a shame--and with a woman too, merely because she used a common epithet!--but I saw that it must appear very strange to the carpenter that I was not able to give a more explicit account of some sort, what I had learned not being in the least decisive in the matter. It only amounted to this, that Mrs and Miss Oldcastle were in the shop on the very day on which Weir was dismissed. It proved that so much of what he had told me was correct--nothing more. And if I tried to better the matter by explaining how I had offended them, would it not deepen the very hatred I had hoped to overcome? In fact, I stood convicted before the tribunal of my own conscience of having lost all the certain good of my attempt, in part at least from the foolish desire to produce a conviction OF Weir rather than IN Weir, which should be triumphant after a melodramatic fashion, and--must I confess it?--should PUNISH him for not believing in his son when _I_ did; forgetting in my miserable selfishness that not to believe in his son was an unspeakably worse punishment in itself than any conviction or consequent shame brought about by the most overwhelming of stage-effects. I assure my reader, I felt humiliated.
Now I think humiliation is a very different condition of mind from humility. Humiliation no man can desire: it is shame and torture. Humility is the true, right condition of humanity--peaceful, divine. And yet a man may gladly welcome humiliation when it comes, if he finds that with fierce shock and rude revulsion it has turned him right round, with his face away from pride, whither he was travelling, and towards humility, however far away upon the horizon's verge she may sit waiting for him. To me, however, there came a gentle and not therefore less effective dissolution of the bonds both of pride and humiliation; and before Weir and I met, I was nearly as anxious to heal his wounded spirit, as I was to work justice for his son.
I was walking slowly, with burning cheek and downcast eyes, the one of conflict, the other of shame and defeat, away from the great house, which seemed to be staring after me down the avenue with all its window-eyes, when suddenly my deliverance came. At a somewhat sharp turn, where the avenue changed into a winding road, Miss Oldcastle stood waiting for me, the glow of haste upon her cheek, and the firmness of resolution upon her lips. Once more I was startled by her sudden presence, but she did not smile.
"Mr Walton, what do you want me to do? I would not willing refuse, if it is, as you say, really my duty to go with you."
"I cannot be positive about that," I answered. "I think I put it too strongly. But it would be a considerable advantage, I think, if you WOULD go with me and let me ask you a few questions in the presence of Thomas Weir. It will have more effect if I am able to tell him that I have only learned as yet that you were in the shop on that day, and refer him to you for the rest."
"I will go."
"A thousand thanks. But how did you manage to--?"
Here I stopped, not knowing how to finish the question.
"You are surprised that I came, notwithstanding mamma's objection to my going?"
"I confess I am. I should not have been surprised at Judy's doing so, now."
She was silent for a moment.
"Do you think obedience to parents is to last for ever? The honour is, of course. But I am surely old enough to be right in following my conscience at least."
"You mistake me. That is not the difficulty at all. Of course you ought to do what is right against the highest authority on earth, which I take to be just the parental. What I am surprised at is your courage."
"Not because of its degree, only that it is mine!"
And she sighed.--She was quite right, and I did not know what to answer. But she resumed.
"I know I am cowardly. But if I cannot dare, I can bear. Is it not strange?--With my mother looking at me, I dare not say a word, dare hardly move against her will. And it is not always a good will. I cannot honour my mother as I would. But the moment her eyes are off me, I can do anything, knowing the consequences perfectly, and just as regardless of them; for, as I tell you, Mr Walton, I can endure; and you do not know what that might COME to mean with my mother. Once she kept me shut up in my room, and sent me only bread and water, for a whole week to the very hour. Not that I minded that much, but it will let you know a little of my position in my own home. That is why I walked away before her. I saw what was coming."
And Miss Oldcastle drew herself up with more expression of pride than I had yet seen in her, revealing to me that perhaps I had hitherto quite misunderstood the source of her apparent haughtiness. I could not reply for indignation. My silence must have been the cause of what she said next.
"Ah! you think I have no right to speak so about my own mother! Well! well! But indeed I would not have done so a month ago."
"If I am silent, Miss Oldcastle, it is that my sympathy is too strong for me. There are mothers and mothers. And for a mother not to be a mother is too dreadful."
She made no reply. I resumed.
"It will seem cruel, perhaps;--certainly in saying it, I lay myself open to the rejoinder that talk is SO easy;--still I shall feel more honest when I have said it: the only thing I feel should be altered in your conduct--forgive me--is that you should DARE your mother. Do not think, for it is an unfortunate phrase, that my meaning is a vulgar one. If it were, I should at least know better than to utter it to you. What I mean is, that you ought to be able to be and do the same before your mother's eyes, that you are and do when she is out of sight. I mean that you should look in your mother's eyes, and do what is RIGHT."
"I KNOW that--know it WELL." (She emphasized the words as I do.) "But you do not know what a spell she casts upon me; how impossible it is to do as you say."
"Difficult, I allow. Impossible, not. You will never be free till you do so."
"You are too hard upon me. Besides, though you will scarcely be able to believe it now, I DO honour her, and cannot help feeling that by doing as I do, I avoid irreverence, impertinence, rudeness--whichever is the right word for what I mean."
"I understand you perfectly. But the truth is more than propriety of behaviour, even to a parent; and indeed has in it a deeper reverence, or the germ of it at least, than any adherence to the mere code of respect. If you once did as I want you to do, you would find that in reality you both revered and loved your mother more than you do now."
"You may be right. But I am certain you speak without any real idea of the difficulty."
"That may be. And yet what I say remains just as true."
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