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- Thomas Wingfold, Curate V1 - 5/29 -
the church, but don't mention Christ! At the same time, to do them justice, it is only of death in the abstract they decline to hear; they will listen to the news of the death of a great and good man, without any such emotion. Look at the poetry of death--I mean the way Christian poets write of it! A dreamless sleep they call it--the bourne from whence, knows no waking. 'She is gone for ever!' cries the mother over her daughter. And that is why such things are not to be mentioned, because in their hearts they have no hope, and in their minds no courage to face the facts of existence. We haven't the pluck of the old fellows, who, that they might look death himself in the face without dismay, accustomed themselves, even at their banquets, to the sight of his most loathsome handiwork, his most significant symbol--and enjoyed their wine the better for it!--your friend Horace, for instance."
"But your aunt now would never consent to such an interpretation of her opinions. Nor do I allow that it is fair."
"My dear sir, if there is one thing I pride myself upon, it is fair play, and I grant you at once she would not. But I am speaking, not of creeds, but of beliefs. And I assert that the forms of common Christian speech regarding death come nearer those of Horace than your saint, the old Jew, Saul of Tarsus."
It did not occur to Wingfold that people generally speak from the surfaces, not the depths of their minds, even when those depths are moved; nor yet that possibly Mrs. Ramshorn was not the best type of a Christian, even in his soft-walking congregation! In fact, nothing came into his mind with which to meet what Bascombe said--the real force whereof he could not help feeling--and he answered nothing. His companion followed his apparent yielding with fresh pressure.
"In truth," he said, "I do not believe that YOU believe more than an atom here and there of what you profess. I am confident you have more good sense by a great deal."
"I am sorry to find that you place good sense above good faith, Mr. Bascombe; but I am obliged by your good opinion, which, as I read it, amounts to this--that I am one of the greatest humbugs you have the misfortune to be acquainted with."
"Ha! ha! ha!--No, no; I don't say that. I know so well how to make allowance for the prejudices a man has inherited from foolish ancestors, and which have been instilled into him, as well, with his earliest nourishment, both bodily and mental. But--come now--I do love open dealing--I am myself open as the day--did you not take to the church as a profession, in which you might eat a piece of bread--as somebody says in your own blessed Bible--dry enough bread it may be, for the old lady is not over-generous to her younger children--still a gentlemanly sort of livelihood?"
Wingfold held his peace. It was incontestably with such a view that he had signed the articles and sought holy orders--and that without a single question as to truth or reality in either act.
"Your silence is honesty, Mr. Wingfold, and I honour you for it," said Bascombe. "It is an easy thing for a man in another profession to speak his mind, but silence such as yours, casting a shadow backward over your past, require courage: I honour you, sir."
As he spoke, he laid his hand on Wingfold's shoulder with the grasp of an athlete.
"Can the sherry have anything to do with it?" thought the curate. The fellow was, or seemed to be, years younger than himself! It was an assurance unimaginable--yet there it stood--six feet of it good! He glanced at the church tower. It had not vanished in mist! It still made its own strong, clear mark on the eternal blue!
"I must not allow you to mistake my silence, Mr. Bascombe," he answered the same moment. "It is not easy to reply to such demands all at once. It is not easy to say in times like these, and at a moment's notice, what or how much a man believes. But whatever my answer might be had I time to consider it, my silence must at least not be interpreted to mean that I do NOT believe as my profession indicates. That, at all events, would be untrue."
"Then I am to understand, Mr. Wingfold, that you neither believe nor disbelieve the tenets of the church whose bread you eat?" said Bascombe, with the air of a reprover of sin.
"I decline to place myself between the horns of any such dilemma," returned Wingfold, who was now more than a little annoyed at his persistency in forcing his way within the precincts of another's personality.
"It is but one more proof--more than was necessary--to convince me that the old system is a lie--a lie of the worst sort, seeing it may prevail even to the self-deception of a man otherwise remarkable for honesty and directness. Good night, Mr. Wingfold."
With lifted hats, but no hand-shaking, the men parted.
THE CURATE IN THE CHURCHYARD.
Bascombe was chagrined to find that the persuasive eloquence with which he hoped soon to play upon the convictions of jurymen at his own sweet will, had not begotten even communicativenes, not to say confidence, in the mind of a parson who knew himself fooled,--and partly that it gave him cause to doubt how far it might be safe to urge his attack in another and to him more important quarter. He had a passion for convincing people, this Hercules of the new world. He sauntered slowly back to his aunt's, husbanding his cigar a little, and looking up at the moon now and then,--not to admire the marvel of her shining, but to think yet again what a fit type of an effete superstition she was, in that she retained her power of fascination even in death.
Wingfold walked slowly away, with his eyes on the ground gliding from under his footsteps. It was only eleven o'clock, but this the oldest part of the town seemed already asleep. They had not met a single person on their way, and hardly seen a lighted window. But he felt unwilling to go home, which at first he was fain to attribute to his having drunk a little more wine than was good for him, whence this feverishness and restlessness so strange to his experience. In the churchyard, on the other side of which his lodging lay, he turned aside from the flagged path and sat down upon a gravestone, where he was hardly seated ere he began to discover that it was something else than the wine which had made him feel so uncomfortable. What an objectionable young fellow that Bascombe was! --presuming and arrogant to a degree rare, he hoped, even in a profession for which insolence was a qualification. What rendered it worse was that his good nature--and indeed every one of his gifts, which were all of the popular order--was subservient to an assumption not only self-satisfied but obtrusive!--And yet--and yet--the objectionable character of his self-constituted judge being clear as the moon to the mind of the curate, was there not something in what he had said? This much remained undeniable at least, that when the very existence of the church was denounced as a humbug in the hearing of one who ate her bread, and was her pledged servant, his very honesty had kept that man from speaking a word in her behalf! Something must be wrong somewhere: was it in him or in the church? In him assuredly, whether in her or not. For had he not been unable to utter the simple assertion that he did believe the things which, as the mouthpiece of the church, he had been speaking in the name of the truth every Sunday--would again speak the day after to-morrow? And now the point was--WHY could he not say he believed them? He had never consciously questioned them; he did not question them now; and yet, when a forward, overbearing young infidel of a lawyer put it to him--plump--as if he were in the witness-box, or rather indeed in the dock--did he believe a word of what the church had set him to teach?--a strange something--was it honesty?--if so, how dishonest had he not hitherto been?--was it diffidence?--if so, how presumptuous his position in that church!--this nondescript something seemed to raise a "viewless obstruction" in his throat, and, having thus rendered him the first moment incapable of speaking out like a man, had taught him the next--had it?--to quibble--"like a priest" the lawyer-fellow would doubtless have said! He must go home and study Paley--or perhaps Butler's Analogy--he owed the church something, and ought to be able to strike a blow for her. Or would not Leighton be better? Or a more modern writer--say Neander, or Coleridge, or perhaps Dr. Liddon? There were thousands able to fit him out for the silencing of such foolish men as this Bascombe of the shirt-front!
Wingfold found himself filled with contempt, but the next moment was not sure whether this Bascombe or one Wingfold were the more legitimate object of it. One thing was undeniable--his friends HAD put him into the priest's office, and he had yielded to go, that he might eat a piece of bread. He had no love for it except by fits, when the beauty of an anthem, or the composition of a collect, awoke in him a faint consenting admiration, or a weak, responsive sympathy. Did he not, indeed, sometimes despise himself, and that pretty heartily, for earning his bread by work which any pious old woman could do better than he? True, he attended to his duties; not merely "did church," but his endeavour also that all things should be done decently and in order. All the same it remained a fact that if Barrister Bascombe were to stand up and assert in full congregation--as no doubt he was perfectly prepared to do--that there was no God anywhere in the universe, the Rev. Thomas Wingfold could not, on the church's part, prove to anybody that there was;--dared not, indeed, so certain would he be of discomfiture, advance a single argument on his side of the question. Was it even HIS side of the question? Could he say he believed there was a God? Or was not this all he knew--that there was a church of England, which paid him for reading public prayers to a God in whom the congregation--and himself--were supposed by some to believe, by others, Bascombe, for instance, not?
These reflections were not pleasant, especially with Sunday so near. For what if there were hundreds, yes, thousands of books, triumphantly settling every question which an over-seething and ill-instructed brain might by any chance suggest,--what could it boot?--how was a poor finite mortal, with much the ordinary faculty and capacity, and but a very small stock already stored, to set about reading, studying, understanding, mastering, appropriating the contents of those thousands of volumes necessary to the arming of him who, without pretending himself the mighty champion to seek the dragon in his den, might yet hope not to let the loathly worm
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