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or the Silence of God
CHAPTER I. LAMBETH COURT
CHAPTER II. CAMBRIDGE
CHAPTER III. CHRISTMAS CAROLS
CHAPTER IV. FATHER VASSALL
CHAPTER V. VACATION
CHAPTER VI. MOUNT CARMEL
CHAPTER VII. THURLOE END
CHAPTER VIII. JUDGMENTS
CHAPTER IX. FORDHAM
CHAPTER X. "THE BLIND BEGGAR"
CHAPTER XI. URSULA
CHAPTER XII. ZANZIBAR
MY DEAR CHRISTOPHER,
Recently a very eminent Anglican divine gave us a book which he said embodied "forty years of profound thought." In it he deals to no small extent with the subject of this novel, a novel which, though hiddenly, I wish to dedicate to you.
I want to do so because, perhaps, you alone of all my friends will know how much herein written down is true to the life we both led and both have left. It is odd, I think, as I look back, how little we have seen of each other, and how much: how little, because great tracts of your life and mine have been traversed wholly apart, and we only met, in the beginning, when we had both of us come some distance along the way; but how much, since each time we met and walked a mile or two together, we talked very freely and we found we understood. Now, as like as not, I shall see increasingly less of you, seeing that you have become a Catholic, a religious, and a priest at that. It is little one knows of life and its surprises, but we have shaken hands at the cross-roads anyway. A moment, then, ere you go up the steep hill ahead of you, and a moment ere I take my own road that has I cannot see what level or uphill or down in it,—a moment ere you put my book in your pocket for the sake of the days gone by.
You will appreciate the fact that I should have put my thought into a novel and not into a book of serious theology. Man's thoughts about God are read best in a novel. Yes, on the one hand, they are best set in a transitory frivolous form that booksellers will expose on their stalls labelled with one of those neatly-printed little tickets—you know: "Just the Book for a Long Journey"—to catch the attention of a man off for his holiday or a girl bored with having to return. Yes, they are best set where they can be read in a few hours by the drawing-room fire. For, after all, ten years or forty or four hundred of man's profound thought about God is worth, maybe a little more than the price of a pound of chocolates, maybe a little less than that of a theatre seat. Besides the novel has a coloured wrapper, and they are not yet brave enough or sufficiently wise to wrap up theology in that form.
But on the other hand, my dear Chris, there is no form of writing yet devised quite so true or quite so profound as the novel of human affairs may well be. For, Incarnation or no Incarnation, beyond doubt you cannot separate man and God. We have no medium other than the human brain by which to think of Him, however illumined or deluded that brain may be, and no other measure of His Person than that of human life. Your abstract theologian may decide that He is or is not a Father: it is man's striving soul that knows; and against their presumptive reasoning of the spiritual heaven, I would set half a dozen pages torn from earth.
You will be well aware as you read that these chapters are such pages truly enough. I do not mean that it is not the stuff of fiction that is here, but I do protest that Claxted and Keswick and Port o' Man and Thurloe End and Fordham, yes, and Zanzibar, are true to type, though many readers will scarcely believe me. I can see the critics mocking though the ink is not yet dry upon the page. And if, by chance, one of them should catch a fleeting glimpse of his own face in the glass, he will assuredly throw it up at me that the mirror is distorted. Yet, as Samuel Butler says: "If a bona fide writer thinks a thing wants saying ... the question whether it will do him personally good or harm, or how it will affect this or that friend, never enters his head, or if it does, it is instantly ordered out again."
Allow me then, for this reason, your name within the boards. You will know, however much you disapprove, that there is no malice here. For what would I gain by mockery, old friend, who have already lost friends enough by speaking the truth? It is a pitiable dance this of ours around the altar of Baal, over which, if God be too divine, at least man should be human enough rather to weep than to mock. Yet I believe, as indeed I have written, that sorrow in the human story is but the shadow of a lovelier thing; that the grass grows green, that the flower blows red, that in the wide sea also are things creeping innumerable both small and great beasts, and that every one is good. And God's in His Heaven? Peradventure. At least His Veil is fair.
But—and it is a big "but"—for you in your high vocation and for me in this of mine, for each of us, oddly enough, in his own way, there is a verse from Miss V. H. Friedlaender's A Friendship which I find I cannot easily forget:
When we are grown We know it is for us To rend the flowery lies from worlds Foul with hypocrisy; To perish stoned and blinded in the desert— That men unborn may see.
And I want to set that down too, before a reader turns a page.
Ever yours, ROBERT KEABLE.
Bring me my Bow of burning gold! Bring me my Arrows of desire! Bring me my Spear! O clouds, unfold! Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand, Till we have built Jerusalem In England's green and pleasant land. BLAKE: Milton.
Thirsting for love and joy, Eager to mould and plan, These were the dreams of a boy.... ARTHUR C. BENSON: Peace and Other Poems.
It must be presumed that some reason underlies the nomenclature of the ways of our more modern towns, but the game of guessing will long remain an entertainment to the curious. True, we think to honour our illustrious dead by calling some business street wholly given over to modern commercialism after one of them, as also we occasionally seek satisfaction by casting forth a name now identified with our equally infamous enemies; but the process by which were named byways and courts that, after all, have not been in existence a lifetime, must remain a puzzle. Thus if, walking down the dreary monotony of Apple Orchard Road, one might conceive that at some time or another it boasted an apple-tree, the most nimble imagination baulks at that blind alley leading from it into an open irregular space entirely surrounded by the meanest houses, entitled Lambeth Court. It, at least, was surely never associated with an Archbishop. The mere sight of his gaiters there would have been the occasion for an hilarious five minutes. And if it was ever part of his property, the least said about that the better.
For all this the Borough of Claxted, now within the boundaries of Greater London, was a highly respectable town. Its citizens were mainly composed of those who go daily to the City round and about the decent hour of nine-thirty for frequently mysterious but none the less remunerative occupations, and of those who supply their households with the necessaries and pleasant superfluities of good living. A class apart, these latter nevertheless shone, in Claxted, with some of the lustre of their betters, and were, indeed, known, when Paul Kestern was young, as Superior Tradespeople. For both, at Claxted, there were miles of trim villas ascending to avenues of detached houses; churches there were, swept and garnished, or empty with an Evangelical Christian emptiness; Municipal buildings, dignified, sufficient, new and clean. There was, in short, an air about the place and its citizens, in those days, almost wholly neatly and simply Conservative. The Borough, moreover, obtained a suffragan bishop about this time, and may thus be said to have been sealed with a just measure of divine approval.
Yet the untroubled broad stream of Claxted's righteous prosperity had its occasional backwater into which there drifted the rubbish which would otherwise have defiled the comfortable colour of waters neither muddy nor translucent. Lambeth Court was one such. Possibly it was overlooked by the Borough Council; possibly it was allowed to remain for some such definite purpose as that it certainly fulfilled. In any case the Court afforded a "problem" for the church in whose parish it lay, and the principles of the Christian Endeavour Society, which set every young Christian immediately to work (thus preventing the leakage which otherwise occurs after the Sunday School age in the South), were offered in it an ample field for exercise. God knows it needed all that the young Christian Endeavourers and their more adult directors strove to give it. Their work was possibly a forlorn hope, but if the Sunshine Committee could not lighten the darkness of the Court, what else, asked Claxted, could? Nothing, it may well be conceded, except rebuilding and replanning to admit light and air. These, however, cost money, and besides the dwellers in Lambeth Court would only have moved themselves elsewhere. The poor, reflected the Claxted councillors, ye have with you always, and went home to dinner.
So far as the Christian Endeavour Society was concerned, it was Paul Kestern who discovered Lambeth Court. He was eighteen at the time and secretary of the Open-Air Committee—a committee, it must be explained perhaps, which did not function in town-planning but in gospel-preaching. One Sunday morning, returning from a children's service in the Mission Hall at the end of Apple Orchard Road, he entered it for the first time. A scholar had said that his elder sister, regular in attendance at the service, was sick, and Paul, enquiring her whereabouts, had learned that she lived "in the Court." Its inhabitants rarely aspired to the "Lambeth" part of their designation, but if the enquirer needed further enlightenment added "Behind the 'South Pole.'" Paul, thus informed, remembered the dim opening under the railway bridge behind the public-house of that name, and said he would "call in" that morning. The urchin looked doubtfully at his teacher's silk hat and frock coat, but ran off after service to acquaint his mother. Paul had followed at leisure.
It is not necessary to give a detailed description of Lambeth Court, but it may be pointed out how the place instantly struck Paul strategically. It was not too far from the Hall, he saw at once, to make the work of carrying the harmonium too heavy; every corner of its area could be reached with a powerful voice; in the very centre stood a lamp-post, and, what was more, that lamp-post stood alone in its glory in the Court. This condition offered two great advantages: first, that of supplying all the light required for the evangelists, and secondly, that of creating those dark shadows beyond beloved by Nicodemus and his like. The railway arch through which one entered and which shut off that end of the place, would, of course, occasionally vibrate with trains—an item on the debit side of the account; but on the other hand the filthy tumbling hovels were enclosed on three sides by hoardings and tall blank warehouse walls which would catch the voice, and their strips of refuse-strewn gardens, separated from each other by broken palings, were just such as would invite the inhabitants to sit and gossip there on summer and early autumn evenings. Paul noted all this in a moment so soon as he was inside the arch. He was a born evangelist.
But to do the boy justice, he noted far more than this. He saw the slatternly woman, with an unspeakable gaping blouse, her hair in curl-papers and her feet in bulging unlaced boots, who came to the door of the first cottage and shouted at a flaxen-haired little toddler of a girl playing with a matchbox in the gutter. The burning words fell on his ears like a scream from hell. "Maud-Hemily, yer bloody little bitch, come in out o' that muck or I'll smack your bottom for yer." He saw the two men by the lamp-post look at him, and he read aright their besotted faces. Neither spoke, but one spat well and truly at the base of the pillar, and that did for speech. He rapped on the door of No. 5, and when Jimmie opened it, he saw the remains of a meal in greasy newspapers on the filthy table, and his nostrils caught the smell of unwashed clothes and Sunday morning's kippers. He tried to avoid the wall as he went up the stairs. And when he was in the little overhead bedroom, whose window never opened and through whose grimy glass one read an advertisement of Reckitt's Blue on the hoarding opposite, and stood by the side of a heap of blankets and sacks on which lay and coughed a child of thirteen in consumption, a cracked article on a chair by her bedside over which she occasionally leaned and expectorated, his heart moved with something of that compassion which had been the outstanding characteristic of the greatest Evangelist the world has ever known.
He was more silent than his wont at the midday dinner. But when Saturday's hot joint, cold on Sundays, had been removed, he looked across the table to the clergyman at its head, and spoke. "Dad," he said, "do you know Lambeth Court?"
"Lambeth?" queried the clergyman. "No. Oh, let me see. Isn't it that place behind the 'South Pole'?"
"Yes. I went in to-day to see Queenie Archer. She's awfully bad again. Dad, it's a ghastly place. I thought I'd speak to the Committee this afternoon and arrange an open-air there."
His mother looked up from helping the pudding and spoke with a trace of anxiety. "Paul, she has consumption. Ought you to visit her, dear? And it's a dreadful place; I don't think the C.E. girls ought to go into it even for an open-air."
Paul moved restlessly. "They'd be all right with us, mother," he said. "Do you think Jesus Christ would have stayed away because it was dirty or because Queenie had consumption? If there's a place in the parish where souls need saving, that place is Lambeth Court."
His mother suppressed a little sigh. The speech was typical of Paul. As a Christian she loved him for it; as a mother she was very proud. But this irresistible logic, which he was so prone to use, however much it belonged to the atmosphere of religion in which she whole-heartedly believed, affrighted her a little. It opened up infinities. She made the rather pathetic appeal which was characteristic of her. "What do you think, father?" she queried.
Mr. Kestern had very kindly eyes, a forehead which would have made for intellectuality if his ever-narrowing outlook on life had given it a chance, and a weak chin hidden by a short-beard and moustache. He smiled at her. "The boy is quite right, dear," he said, "but, Paul, you should not run unnecessary risks, especially now. You might have left the visit to me. I will go to-morrow. As for the open-air, I should think it would be a capital place, but keep the girls by you and don't let them wander alone into the houses with tracts or leaflets. Do you mean to go to-night?"
"No, not to-night, dad. Our pitch is in Laurence Place to-night. I thought perhaps next Sunday."
"Next Sunday is the first in the month, dear," said his mother gently. "Won't it be rather late? You don't usually have open-airs on the first Sunday, do you?"
"I know, mother," said Paul, "but why not? It is better to be a bit late when we go to Lambeth Court. Some of the men may be out of the publics by then. And it always seems to me that Communion Sunday is the best in the month for an open-air. Surely after we've remembered His 'precious Death and Burial' at the Table, that is just the time for us to preach the Cross."
"And 'His glorious Resurrection and Ascension,' Paul," quoted his father softly. "Don't forget that. It's the living Saviour, no dead Christ on a crucifix, that we proclaim."
"I know, dad," said the boy, his eyes shining. "How could one think otherwise?"
"I don't know, laddie," said his father, smiling tenderly at him, "but some appear to do so. God guard you from such errors, Paul. Don't be over-confident; Satan can deceive the very elect."
Thus was the mission to Lambeth Court decided upon. Paul had carried his Committee with him, as he always did. Its eldest member, a married bank clerk of a nervous temperament, had indeed echoed something of Mrs. Kestern's fears. He thought that the Court was no place for ladies, and said, frankly, he would not care for his wife to go there. Paul, at the head of the Mission vestry table, played with a pencil, and showed his instinctive leadership again by not answering him. He looked up instead, and caught Edith Thornton's eyes as she sat opposite him. They were eager and indignant, and he nodded ever so slightly. Edith, therefore, had taken up her parable, and the more forcefully since she did not often speak on Committee. "Oh, Mr. Derrick," she exclaimed, "I don't agree with you at all! What about our missionaries' wives? What about the Salvation Army? Do you think any place can be too bad for a Christian if there is one single soul to be saved?" She flushed a little at her own vehemence.
Mr. Derrick coughed, fumbling with his watchchain. He was well aware that the Spirit was at work in Apple Orchard Mission Hall, and he was conscious of being one of the weaker brethren. Paul's very silence daunted him, for he honestly loved the eager Paul. "Let us pray about it," he suggested.
Paul pushed his chair back, and slipped to his knees. Instinctively he always knelt to pray, though the more general custom was to sit. "A few minutes' silent prayer first," he commanded, and, in the slow ticking of the clock, he prayed himself, with utter simplicity and earnestness, for Lambeth Court, for the guidance of the Holy Spirit—and for Mr. Derrick. The result was, of course, a foregone conclusion.
Thus, at intervals, all that golden summer, Lambeth Court heard the Word. True, the signs following were so small that the less zealous Endeavourers openly shook their heads, and even the more ardent of the band would have been tempted to give in. But Paul and Edith were of different mettle. At devotional meetings, Paul spoke of heroic souls who had preached for half a generation in heathen lands and not seen a convert, until, one day, the tide turned in all its power. Most effective was the story of the Moravians who laboured among a certain band of Esquimaux for forty years unblessing and unblessed, and then, discovering that the channels were choked in themselves, cleared them, and saw many mighty works. And in July, indeed, the doubters had received a knock-out blow. Mrs. Reynolds, of No. 11, had been as truly converted as Saul on the road to Damascus, converted by the human instrumentality of Edith and a novel tract in the shape of a small slip of cardboard bearing nothing but a question mark on one side and on the other:
HOW SHALL YE ESCAPE IF YE NEGLECT SO GREAT SALVATION?
Poor Mrs. Reynolds, one would have thought that her present woes were big enough to discount effectively all future ones. Reynolds hawked, when he had anything to hawk or time to spare from the "South Pole" and regular terms of service for His Majesty. Mrs. Reynolds, herself, drank, when, more rarely than her spouse, she had the wherewithal to obtain drink. Reynolds, who should have accounted himself blessed in the number of olive branches round about his table, illogically cursed whenever he saw them, but added to the tribe as fast as Nature permitted. It was, indeed, when his wife was expecting what turned out to be twins, that Edith came her way. Against orders, she left the circle and gave the woman a chair within her palings whereon she might sit and listen. Mrs. Reynolds, gently intoxicated, was grateful, and asked her visitor to fetch a Bible from within which had remained to the family because it could not be pawned. On the table Edith silently laid the tract. Mrs. Reynolds, returning later, had seen it, and had been (as she said) knocked all of a heap. Why, particularly, by that tract or just then, does not appear, and was not indeed questioned for a moment by the Endeavourers. For converted Mrs. Reynolds honestly and truly had been. Into her dwarfed and darkened life had shone the radiance of a new hope, and from her hardened heart, so strangely broken, had come welling out a vivid and wonderful spring. Regular at services, humble at home, zealous in her work, undaunted by scoffing and blows, Mrs. Reynolds had not only been constrained, nervously and pathetically, to testify publicly in her own Court, but honestly did testify by her life every day of the week. The very publican at the corner, who had a soft spot for Paul by the way, admitted it. "Let the poor devil alone," he would shout at Reynolds cursing his wife and damning the Mission across the bar, "or get out of 'ere. Christ! You're a bloody fool, you are! 'Ere's the Mission give you as good a wife as any man ever 'ad, and you cursin' of 'em. Wouldn't mind if they converted my ole woman, I wouldn't. She might 'old a prayer-meetin' now and agin in the bar-parlour, off-hours, if she'd keep it clean."
But this Sunday in October was to see the end of the effort for the season. In the first place, Paul left that week for his first term at Cambridge, and this was a bigger damper than the Committee cared to allow. In the second, however, it was getting cold in the evenings, and activities took a new direction in the winter. Thus, a little late, after Communion, the band sallied out for the last time. Some fifteen or twenty of them, they gathered round the lamp-post. A couple of young men distributed the hymn-sheets to the loungers in the gardens, with a cheerful smile and a word of friendly greeting, fairly well received, as a matter of fact, by now. Paul mounted his chair under the light. Edith took her seat beneath at the harmonium, for Miss Madeline Ernest, daughter of the Rev. John Ernest, an elderly assistant curate, who usually played, was unwell. The last faint radiance of the day was dying out over the railway bridge, and the stars shone steadily in a clear sky above the hoardings.
The Court greeted the Missioners in various moods. "They've come, Joe," said Mrs. Reynolds to her husband who, for once and for obvious reasons, was at home and sober; "won't yer come out and listen-like a bit? The 'ymns will cheer yer up, and they carn't do yer no 'arm anywise. It's yer larst charnst for the season, Joe."
"Garn," said Joe, "damn yer!"
Hilda Tillings put her hat at a becoming angle in the back kitchen of No. 9 and sallied out into the parlour. Her mother sniffed. "Silly fool," she said, "ter go and suck up ter 'em like that. 'E won't look twice at yer. It'll be a case between 'im and that there Madeline lidy, if yer asks me."
Hilda tossed her head. "Miss Ernest's not come to-night," she said. "I saw out of the top winder. 'Sides, yer don't know wat yer talking of, ma. I like the meeting." And she sallied out.
Two urchins, tearing at top speed under the arch, made for the lamp-post. "'Ere, 'ook it," gasped the first to arrive, sotto voce, to a diminutive imp already there. "I'll bash yer 'ead in for yer if yer don't. This 'ere's my job." And he clutched at the lantern which illuminated the music-book on the required occasions, and kicked his weaker brother on the shin.
"Silence, boys," said Mr. Derrick, in his best manner; "don't fight with that lantern now."
"Orl rite, guv'nor, but it's my job. Don't yer 'member me larst tyme? Yer said I 'eld it steady and yer give me a copper."
"I got 'ere fust"—shrilly, from the other.
"There, there, my lad, give it up. This boy usually holds it. No struggling, please. That's better. You can help with the harmonium afterwards if you like."
(The smaller boy recedes into the background snuffling. Throughout the first part of the meeting he is trying to kick the elder, jar the lantern, or otherwise molest its holder. After the second hymn, Edith intervenes with a penny. The smaller boy exits triumphantly.)
Paul, from his somewhat rickety chair, surveyed the little scene with a definite sense of exultation in his heart. The last trace of nervousness dropped from him with his first half-dozen sentences. He had the voice of an orator, a singularly attractive, arresting voice, that penetrated easily the furthest recesses of the Court and even brought in a few passers-by from the street. The only son, he was, as his parents often told him, the child of prayers, and he was named Paul that he might be an apostle. He would have been a dreadful prig if he had not been so tremendously convinced and in earnest. Radiant on that mission chair beneath the garish lamp-light, he bared his head and lifted his eyes to the heavens above him. Had they opened, with a vision of the returning Christ escorted by the whole angelic host, he would quite honestly not have been surprised; indeed, if anything, he was often surprised that they did not. Christ waited there as surely as he stood beneath to pray and preach. His young enthusiasm, his vital faith, stirred the most commonplace of the little group about him, and no wonder, for he added to it an unconscious and undeveloped but undoubted power. To-night, the last night of the series, the last night, perhaps, for ever there, he drew on all his gifts to the utmost. It was small wonder that such as Hilda came to listen and such as Mrs. Reynolds stayed to pray. There fell even on Theodore Derrick a sense that the Acts of the Apostles might after all be true.
They began by singing "Tell me the old, old story." Before the hymn was half over Paul had his audience under his influence as if they had been little children and he a beloved master, or an orchestra and he the efficient conductor. He laughed at them for not singing. He made them repeat the chorus in parts, women a line, men a line, children a line, and then the last line all together. He made them triumph it to God, and then whisper it to their own hearts. He stayed them altogether impressively, and would not have those sing who could not say whole-heartedly:
Remember I'm the sinner Whom Jesus came to save....
Then he prayed. No one there could pray as Paul prayed, and Paul himself might have wondered how long he would be able to pray so. An agnostic rarely interrupted Paul's meetings. There might be no sure knowledge of God, but it was plainly useless to tell that to Paul after you had heard him pray. Also, incidentally, there were few, however rough, who did not feel that it would be a brutal thing to do.
A hymn again—the "Glory Song," by request—and Paul announced his text, his farewell message, their last word to Lambeth Court for many months. It was the kind of text which, in his mouth, took on that irresistible logic that he loved, and which, in his own heart, glowed and beat like the throb of an immense dynamo. "The Cross," so he proclaimed, "is to them that are perishing foolishness, and to them that are being saved the power of God." Telling anecdotes, however commonplace, hammered in his points. It was not the Cross that was on trial; it was his hearers who were then and there being judged by the Cross. Was all this to them foolishness, or was it the power of God? An easy question! Each one knew well enough for himself. And the inevitable followed; indeed, in Paul's eager soul, could not be gainsaid. His hearers to a man were being saved—the speaker's face lit up with the honest joy of it;—or—or—perishing. The whispered word reached the far corners of the Court. It even reached Reynolds. He stirred uneasily, and wished he had more beer.
The boy on the chair announced that they would sing as a last hymn "God be with you till we meet again." The haunting lilt, the genuine poetry and life there is in it, overcame the crude composition, the tortured air which was the best the old harmonium could do, the vulgar surroundings, the banal words. At the third verse, Paul held up his hand. A little hush fell on the whole Court, which deepened as he spoke. Paul had not learnt the tricks that it was possible for him to play with his oratorical power, but it was a naturally clever thing that he did. The tone of his voice wholly changed. All hardness, logic, conquest, argument, had gone from him, and it vibrated with tenderness, was all but broken with honest emotion. He begged, by the pity and gentleness of the Saviour, that they might meet at His feet. They had, he said, all of them, to travel down the long roads of life; none knew where such might lead; would that all their diverse ways might at least lead home—home to the one safe shelter, home to the one sure haven, home to Jesus' feet.
The little band moved off out of the Court, the loungers' eyes looking curiously at Paul. He stopped again and again to shake hands, and, at the Mission Hall, found the instrument, books, chair, and the rest of the paraphernalia already put away. He said good-bye to one and another. Edith held out her hand.
"Are you alone?" he asked. "May I see you home?"
"I don't like to trouble you," she said.
He smiled at her eagerly. "I believe you know I'm glad of the chance," he replied.
She lived some way off and scarcely in his direction, but young Vintner, who usually escorted her home, saw the arrangement, and surrendered her to Paul without a question. Still he wished Miss Ernest had been there; then, of necessity, the vicar's son saw the curate's daughter home. Under those circumstances, he usually secured Edith, who fell to him likewise, more often than not, on school-treats or C.E. excursions or riding back on summer evenings with the Members' Cycling Club. But there was nothing tangible between them, and he was devoted to Paul like all the rest of their circle. So the two leaders went off together.
They said little at first. Their way lay down a long wide well-lit main street with many people about, if few vehicles seeing that it was Sunday evening. There was a sense of triumph in Paul, a sense growing steadily now that the service was over and other less personal influences laid for awhile aside, and he saw the commonplace street as a vista of magic and wonder. They passed a darkened church, all locked at this late hour, which was little thought of in their circle as lacking in evangelical zeal. At a street corner, under a banner with a text upon it, another open-air service from the local Wesleyan chapel was in progress, and a speaker with a harsh voice was thundering torrential salvation. Paul glanced at the girl by his side with a smile. "'Peace be to all them who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity,'" he quoted quietly.
She nodded. "But the Wesleyans are so noisy," she said, "and I don't see why they need have left the Church."
"We shall right all that," said Paul, utterly unconscious of boasting. "The Evangelicals in all the churches must come together. I don't know why there is any delay. They want someone to make a move. When I'm ordained I shall go and preach in Nonconformist chapels and invite them to my church no matter what the Bishop says. 'We must obey God rather than man.'"
The girl looked up at him. "Why does everything you say ring so unanswerably true?" she demanded with a little smile.
"Yes. Everyone thinks so. Do you know you frighten me sometimes."
"Frighten you! Why in the world?"
"Because you're irresistible. Do you remember last week's prayer meeting? Maud said to me afterwards: 'He'll make us all foreign missionaries.'"
"I wish I could," said Paul, quite gravely. "Why not?"
"That's just it," she replied. "When you say 'Why not?' there doesn't seem to be any answer. But my father would find one quickly enough."
They turned off into the first of a network of darker side-streets of villas leading to her road. A sedate suburban air brooded there, and except for a wandering couple and a distant policeman, no one else was in sight or hearing. The night was clear and sweet. A little moon was climbing into the sky. Paul and Edith slowed down instinctively.
Paul did not pursue the complication. Mr. Thornton was a photographer in Edward Street, a highly respectable person, a member of his father's church, but not within the circle of his father's actual friends. The mention of him gave Paul a slight jar about Edith. He knew well enough that if he had been seeing Madeline home, his mother would have been highly delighted, but that she would be slightly uneasy at hearing that he had been with Edith. But he was just discovering Edith. He liked Madeline—she was far too pretty, with her fair hair and big eyes and nicely-tempered lady-like admiration, not to be liked. At the last school-treat—oh well, but he hadn't said anything really. And it was in the return train that very day that he had, so to say, discovered Edith. He had found himself in her carriage, having strayed from that reserved for his father and mother to shepherd some late arrivals, and she had been opposite him the whole way. She was quiet—he had noticed that first; but when he did succeed in drawing her out a little, he had found a very attractive creature. It was hard to say why, but still, as he analysed her, she was frank, gay, and yet unexpectedly deep. And she, too, was pretty. He had seen her home from the station, for the first time, and discovered that his mother was just a little annoyed.
"Do you know," he said now, continuing the subject, "I can't make up my mind what I want exactly. There seems such a lot to do in England, and yet of course I'm pledged to be a foreign missionary."
"I see," she said.
"Well, what do you think?" he demanded. "It makes me burn to see the deadness and disunion among Christians at home, and yet the heathen, dying daily without Christ—how can one stay in England for a moment longer than is necessary?"
"God will surely show you what you must do," said the girl quietly.
There was a depth of sincerity in the simple words that struck him. It was the kind of thing Madeline would never have said, and would not have meant if she had. He eyed her with a sudden wish to see more of her. "Do you know I go to Cambridge on Tuesday?" he asked.
"It's going to cut me off from things here," he went on. "I shall have to work in the vacs., you know. And I'm tingling to get there. I'll have time to write a bit, and I expect editors will look at stuff that comes from the 'Varsity."
"I read that bit of yours in The Record," she said.
The implied praise pleased him. "Did you?" he cried. "Did you like it? I'm longing to be able to write as well as preach. I want God to have my pen as well as my tongue."
"Oh you are lucky!" she exclaimed involuntarily.
"You've so much to give. I've nothing."
He was extraordinarily touched by her humility. He wanted to take her arm, but he did not like to do so. They turned another corner, and were in her street.
"Don't say that," he said. "You've yourself—give that. No one can give more."
"I'm not sure," she said, with a nervous catch in her voice, "that I can give that."
"Why not?" he asked.
She did not reply directly. "I wonder what you will be like after a term at Cambridge," she said, inconsequently.
"It won't change me at all," said Paul.
The girl made little stabs with her umbrella at the pavement. "It will," she said. "I wonder if you'll come back the least bit the same. Oh, I know! You'll have new friends and new interests, and you'll think us all just a little cheap. You'll go away in the holidays, abroad very likely, and even our country won't seem the same to you."
Paul was surprised at her vehemence, and he came to a sudden resolution. "Do you know," he said, "I'm going to take a last bike ride to-morrow round Hursley Woods and Allington, just to say good-bye. I meant to go alone, but do you think you could come too? I'd love it. We'd be able to talk, up there in the heather. Will you?"
The girl slowed down still more; they were very near her home. She was so glad that he had asked her that she could hardly speak. "Yes," she said; and then, with a burst of confidence: "Do you think we ought to?"
"Why not?" he queried, frowning. "Well, we'll risk it anyway. Look here, let's meet at the bottom of Coster Lane—say at eleven. Shall we? That will give us two hours, lots of time."
She nodded without speaking, and put her hand on the latch.
"You won't be late—Edith," he said, calling her, on the impulse, by her Christian name.
She flushed in the kindly dark. "No," she said softly. How could she? she asked herself as she let herself in.
It was half-past ten when Paul climbed the steps of his father's house and rang the bell. The little family had finished supper and were waiting prayers for him. "Where have you been, Paul?" questioned his mother. "It's very late, dear."
"I saw Miss Thornton home, mother," said Paul.
"Oh, Paul! Was no one else going her way?"
"I did not think to ask," replied Paul frankly.
"Dear, you ought to take care. Such a lot is expected of your father's son. Did you go in?"
"Well, dear, go and take your boots off while Annie brings the cocoa in. And don't be long, Paul. I don't want you to miss prayers on your last Sunday."
He went out, closing the door. Mrs. Kestern looked across at her husband, stretched out in his arm-chair, tired after a heavy day, and gazing into the glowing coals. "Father, I think you ought to say something to him," she said. "That girl is very attractive, and quite clever enough not to run after him too obviously."
The clergyman stirred. "I don't know, dear," he said. "You know well enough we have never had any trouble of that sort with him, and Paul is not without ballast. God, Who redeemed me from all evil," he added gently, "bless the lad."
In truth Mr. Kestern was both right and wrong. The next morning, departing on his bicycle with a mere statement that he wanted a last ride, Paul was very conscious of doing something he had never done before. He had no sister, and his girl friends were mainly a family of cousins so closely interested in each other, that, although they were friendly enough and admitted him to the family circle on long summer holidays together, he was not really intimate with any one of them. Nor had he wanted any girl in his life. He and his father were great friends, and the two shared pleasures and work with a rare companionship. Paul, with his natural gifts, had thus been drawn into active religious life much earlier than is common, and he was naturally studious, fond of nature and of a literary bent. What with one thing and another, his life was full. With his father he departed on Saturday afternoons for the woods and the ponds, and Sunday was the best day of the week to him despite its strict observance in that Evangelical atmosphere. But nature is not easily defeated. He rode, now, to meet Edith, with a virgin stirring of his pulses.
She was wearing a little fur cap that sat piquantly on her brown hair, and was flushed and eager. Her slim figure, neatly dressed in a brown cloth coat and skirt, pleased him, with the tan stockings and shoes below at which he scarcely dared to glance. As they spun along the dry road together, under the autumnal trees whose brown twisted leaves fluttered to the ground with every breath that crossed the pale blue sky flecked with little white clouds above, she seemed to him a fitting part of the beauty of the world. Near the woods, the sun caught the slim trunks of the silver birches in a spinney there, and their silver contrasted exquisitely with the stretch of dying bracken beyond. A lark cried the ecstasy of living in the untroubled spaces of light and air.
The road climbed steeply to the woods, and they walked to the summit, he pushing her machine. They hesitated at the leafy glade that invited to the undulating heathery expanse of Hursley, but the artist in Paul decided against the temptation. "No," he said, "don't let's go in there. Everyone goes there. Let's coast down to Allington, and turn to the left. I know a lovely place up there where there will be no trace of Saturday afternoon's visitors. What do you say?"
She shot a look at him, and made a grace of submission. "Just as you like," she said.
So they mounted on the crest and were away down the long hill together. Oaks leant over the road at first, but beyond them the tall hedges were lovely with scarlet October hips and haws, masses of trailing Old Man's Beard, and sprays of purple blackberries. To the right the fields stretched away to a far distant ridge scarred with chalk where one might dig for fossils. Ahead clustered the old roofs of Allington, and the little church that stood below estates linked for centuries with Lambeth and Canterbury.
"After Lambeth Court, Allington Church," cried Paul gaily. "Let's go in."
They left their bicycles at the lych-gate and walked into the silent clean-swept place. She followed him in silence, and marvelled inwardly that he seemed to know so much. "That," he said, towards the end of the inspection, "is the coat of arms of Archbishop Whitgift. He was a poor man's son and had no armorial bearings, so he took a cross and inserted five little Maltese crosses for the Five Wounds of Christ, quartering it with the arms of Canterbury. It's very lovely here, isn't it?"
She glanced dubiously at the two candles and the cross on the altar. "It's rather 'high,' don't you think?"
He looked judicially at the simple neat sanctuary. "There is no harm in the things themselves," he said. "After all, they make for a sort of beauty, don't they? It's the Spirit that matters. When I'm ordained, I shall be willing to preach in a coloured stole if I can preach the gospel."
The daring heresy of it secretly astonished her. But it was like Paul, she thought. He stepped into a pew, and moved up to make room for her. "Let us pray a little, shall we?" he said simply.
She knelt by his side, her heart beating violently. In the hush of the place, it sounded so loud to her that she thought he must hear. She dared not look at him, but she knew what he was doing. Kneeling erect, his eyes would be open, seeing and yet not seeing. She felt very humble to be allowed to be there. That in itself was enough just now. She wished they might be there for ever and ever, just they two, and God.
Ten minutes later, in the heart of the deserted woods, he flung himself on the moss at her feet. "I love to lie like this and look right away into the depths of the trees," he said. "If you come alone and lie very still, rabbits come out and squirrels, and you begin to hear a hundred little noises that you never heard before. And I love the tiny insects that crawl up the blades of grass and find a world in a single tuft. Edith, how wonderfully beautiful the world is, isn't it?"
She did not want to speak at all, but he seemed to expect it. "Not everyone can see all that," she said. "But it is like you to feel it. And when you talk, I feel it too. Always, when you talk, you show me wonderful things."
"Do I?" he queried dreamily. "I don't mean to particularly. It's all so plain to me."
"That's just it," she said.
In a thicket close at hand, a thrush broke out into song. His praise ended, he flew down to a soft bit of ground and began busily to look for worms. Paul moved his head ever so slightly, and the bird and the boy looked at each other. The thrush eyed him boldly, summed him up with a quick little pipe, and flew away.
Paul sighed. "I almost wish I were not going to Cambridge," he said.
"Why?" she asked.
He reached out for a broken stick and began to play with it. "Oh, I don't know," he said restlessly. "Perhaps because it's so good to be here. Cambridge is a new world. I want to do great things, of course, but it's leaving things that I can do behind. Suppose I fail? I wish I could be ordained to-morrow and go to the Mission Hall to work at once. Or no, I'd like to go to Africa at once. Do you remember that man who came and spoke for the South American Missionary Society?"
"Well, I carried his bag to the station. He had pleaded for missionaries, and had said that he had been speaking at meetings for six months up and down the country, asking for help, and had not had a single volunteer. He was about to go back alone. So, on the station, I offered to go. I said he should not say again that he had had no offer of service. I was sixteen."
"What did he say?"
"Oh, the usual things. That I must be trained first. I asked what more was necessary than that one loved Jesus, and had been saved, and wanted to serve."
"Well, I thought he half believed that I was right. But he didn't dare say so, like all the rest of them. I must wait God's time, he said. God's time! He meant man's time."
She said nothing. "It's so hard to wait," he added restlessly.
"I'm glad you didn't go," she ventured.
"Many of us are," she equivocated.
"Why?" demanded Paul again, looking boldly at her.
She disdained further subterfuge. "You have made God real to me," she said, "and if you had gone, you would have had no opportunity to do that."
His eyes shone. "I'm very glad," he said softly. "Will you pray for me, Edith?"
She wanted to fling herself down beside him, to hide her flushed face in his coat, to shed the tears that would stupidly start behind her eyes for no reason at all, to tell him that she hardly dared to breathe his name, but that, when she prayed, she could think of scarcely anyone else; but she could not. Every instinct in her cried for him—religion, sex, passionate admiration. But she only clenched one little gloved hand tightly and said that she would. A daughter of Claxted could hardly do otherwise.
The minutes slipped by. Paul rolled over on his back and took out his watch. "My word," he exclaimed, "we ought to be going! We shall be late as it is. But what a topping morning it has been. Come on." And he jumped to his feet.
She got up slowly, and he dusted a few dry leaves from her skirt. Straightening himself, he stood looking at her. "I've known you such a little while," he said. "I wonder why?"
"Do you know me now?" she asked.
"Much better. When I come back, shall we have more rides like this?"
"I don't know," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"You may not want them. Your mother might not like it. And" (Eve will out, even in an Evangelical) "nor will Miss Ernest."
He flushed. "I shall do as I please," he said. "And I know I shall want you."
She lifted her dark eyes to his face. "Will you?" she cried. "Oh I hope you do! I can't help it. It means so much to me. Ask me just sometimes, Paul."
"Will you write to me at Cambridge?" he demanded.
She shook her head. "No," she said decidedly, "not yet, anyway. I can't write good enough letters for one thing, and for another you mustn't waste your time on me."
Paul stood considering her. He had an idea, but he was in truth rather frightened of it. It seemed to be going too far. But his desire won the battle with his caution. "Would you give me a photograph of yourself to take to Cambridge?" he asked.
"I haven't a good one," she said.
"But you've something—a snapshot, anything," he pressed eagerly.
She smiled radiantly and suddenly. "I've a rubbishy old thing they took on the river at Hampton Court last August," she said, "but my hair was down then."
"That'll be lovely!" he cried. "Do give me that."
"How? Shall I send it you?"
Paul's letters were not many, and fairly common property at the family breakfast table. He sought for an escape from that. "Will you be at the prayer meeting to-night?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Well, so shall I. In fact, I'm leading it. Write me a little letter and give it me afterwards, will you?"
She nodded. Neither of them were aware of incongruity. Possibly they were right, and there was none.
Paul's bedroom was a big attic at the top of the Vicarage, running the whole width of the house. It was entirely characteristic of him. In one corner was a large home-made cage for a pair of ring-doves, with a space in front for their perambulations, fitted with convenient perches. Under the window was what had been an aquarium, but was now, after many vicissitudes, temporarily doing duty as a vivarium. It was a third full of sand and pebbles and soil, and contained plants and a shallow pool of water, constituting, in its owner's imagination, a section of African forest for three water-tortoises, a family of green tree-frogs, and some half-developed tadpoles. Above a writing-desk was a bookshelf full of cheap editions of the English classics, purchased largely with prize money won by literary efforts in his school magazine. The books are worth reviewing, for his father's well-stocked shelves of Evangelical theology held none such. The great English poets were all there, with Carlyle, Emerson, Lamb, Machiavelli, Locke, Macaulay, and a further miscellaneous host. A smaller bookshelf held MSS. books—three slim volumes of his own verse, one of acrostics suitable for children's addresses, several of sermon notes, another of special hymns, choruses and tunes, and two of essays and short stories which had not seen the light in printer's ink. Paul would have added "as yet." Bound volumes of his school magazine shone resplendent in leather, and were sprinkled interiorly with his verse and prose. There were fencing sticks in a corner, and framed shooting and cadet groups. A cabinet contained glass jars and medicine bottles of chemicals, and a much-prized retort stood above it. The mantelpiece was fairly full with phials of spirit that had a home there, and in which had been preserved an embryo dog-fish, a newt with three legs, a small grass-snake, a treasured scorpion (the gift of an African missionary), and the like. Lastly, over the bed was a text. That, principally of all these treasures, was to go with its owner to Cambridge.
Paul that night sat on his little bed and looked around him. The last minutes of the eve of the great to-morrow had really come at last. He well remembered the hours in this room, during which the things that were now largely accomplished had seemed to him overwhelming obstacles in the race. The open scholarship, the school exhibitions, the Little Go—all these were past. There stretched ahead the Tripos and the Bishop's Examinations, but in imagination these were lesser difficulties than those already surmounted. Linked with them were his other ambitions, his writing, his preaching, and a vista of endless years. Like a traveller who has reached a hill-top, he viewed the peaks ahead.
Paul looked down on the letter in his hand. The ill-formed sprawling handwriting addressed it to P. Kestern, Esq., with several underlinings. He turned it over curiously, not in the least aware that the amazing thing was that this should be the first of its kind for him to handle. Then he broke the envelope and drew out first the photograph.
It had been badly and amateurishly snapped on a sunny day. The shadows were under-exposed, the lights far too strong. It showed part of a punt moored beneath the trees of a river bank, and one girl wholly, another in part, who lay stretched out at the far end. She in part, he decided, was Maud. Edith lay laughing unrestrainedly, one hand above her head gripping an overhanging branch, the other trailing in a black shade that was undoubtedly (from the context, so to speak) water. A plait of her hair lay across her shoulder. She did not look particularly pretty, but she did look jolly. Paul turned the photograph over. On the back he read: "From A. V." The inscription jarred on him. From Albert Vintner. Mentally, he could see Albert, in white flannels, a collar, a made tie, and brown shoes, taking it. A thoroughly good fellow, converted, earnest, but—— Yet he loathed himself for that "but."
He opened the half-sheet of paper that had enwrapped it. He was distinctly curious to see what she would say. He did not guess for a moment how long she had taken to say it.
"Here is the snap" (she had written, without introduction). "I look a lanky thing, and did not know that ('he' erased) it was being taken just then. Do you remember that you had gone on up the river, rowing your father and mother and Mr. and Miss Ernest? I did so wish I had been in your boat! And at tea you pretended I was not to have a cream bun! But it was a jolly day, wasn't it? And if the photo helps you to remember that and think kindly at Cambridge of all of us at Claxted, I am glad for you to have it.
"Yours sincerely, "EDITH."
Paul smiled. Then he frowned. He re-read the letter several times and looked again at the photograph. Then he folded the one in the other, and placed them in the inner recess of a new pocket-book. Then he reached for a Bible from which to read his evening Scripture Union portion.
We no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere; we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight. However ... this Chamber of Maiden-Thought becomes gradually darkened, and at the same time, on all sides of it, many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages. We see not the balance of good and evil—we are in a mist—we feel the "burden of the Mystery" ...—KEATS: Letters, May, 1818.
I asked for Truth— My doubts came in And with their din They wearied all my youth. D. M. DOLBEN: Requests.
His Name will flee, the while thou mouldest thy lips for speech.—JELLALUDIN.
"Yes, sir; this is the gentleman's keepin' room, sir. A bit small, but cosy and 'omelike, as I allus told pore Mr. Bruce wot was haccidental shot in Scotland last Haugust. I keeps my bit o' brooms and cleanin' things in that cupboard, sir—bedder's room they calls it, though it ain't much of a room. Through that there door is the bedroom, and that might be bigger, that's sartin sure. But I don't know as 'ow it much matters to the young gentlemen, sir. If so be they can lay down in it, and 'as room for a chest o' drawers and a bath on the floor, that's about all has they want. But you'll need to take a bit o' care in the bath, sir, if I may make bold to say so. Mr. Bruce, 'e fair soak 'is blankets now an' agin. Ah, that couch now, sir! Springs be broken, I will say. But then, lor, sir, how the young gentlemen bangs on 'em! They will 'ave their bit o' fun, sir, same as what you did in your day, I daresay. Still it's a bin like that for years, an' p'rhaps a new one would be a good thing. Expensive? Ah yes, sir. Things his dear. Let it stand over a bit, so to say. P'rhaps in 'is second year, with 'is friends an' all a-coming hup, it might be done. That all, sir? Thank you, sir, thank you kindly. Mr. Mavis is 'is gyp, sir, an' 'e'll be about soon I daresay, though 'e's none too fond of work, is Mavis. 'E'll tell you all you wants to know, sir. Good afternoon, sir."
Mrs. Rover departed, and shut the door behind her. Mr. Kestern smiled. "She's a talker, Paul," he said, "but a good sort, I daresay. The race of bedders doesn't seem to have changed since I was up. Well, what do you think of it?"