Read CHAPTER XI. of The Bertrams Volume II, free online book, by Anthony Trollope, on ReadCentral.com.

HURST STAPLE.

The next three or four days passed by heavily enough, and then Arthur Wilkinson returned.  He returned on a Saturday evening; as clergymen always do, so as to be ready for their great day of work.  There are no Sabbath-breakers to be compared, in the vehemence of their Sabbath-breaking, to hard-worked parochial clergymen ­unless, indeed, it be Sunday-school children, who are forced on that day to learn long dark collects, and stand in dread catechismal row before their spiritual pastors and masters.

In the first evening there was that flow of friendship which always exists for the few first hours of meeting between men who are really fond of each other.  And these men were fond of each other; the fonder perhaps because each of them had now cause for sorrow.  Very little was said between Arthur and Adela.  There was not apparently much to alarm the widow in their mutual manner, or to make her think that Miss Gauntlet was to be put in her place.  Adela sat among the other girls, taking even less share in the conversation than they did; and Arthur, though he talked as became the master of the house, talked but little to her.

On the following morning they all went to church, of course.  Who has courage to remain away from church when staying at the clergyman’s house?  No one ever; unless it be the clergyman’s wife, or perhaps an independent self-willed daughter.  At Hurst Staple, however, on this Sunday they all attended.  Adela was in deepest mourning.  Her thick black veil was down, so as to hide her tears.  The last Sunday she had been at church her father had preached his last sermon.

Bertram, as he entered the door, could not but remember how long it was since he had joined in public worship.  Months and months had passed over him since he had allowed himself to be told that the Scriptures moved him in sundry places to acknowledge and confess his sins.  And yet there had been a time when he had earnestly poured forth his frequent prayers to heaven; a time not long removed.  It was as yet hardly more than three years since he had sworn within himself on the brow of Olivet to devote himself to the service of his Saviour.  Why had that oath been broken?  A girl had ridiculed it; a young girl had dissipated all that by the sheen of her beauty, by the sparkle of her eye, by the laughter of her ruddy lip.  He had promised himself to his God, but the rustling of silks had betrayed his heart.  At her instance, at her first word, that promise had been whistled down the wind.

And to what had this brought him now?  As for the bright eyes, and the flashing beauty, and the ruddy lips, they were made over in fee-simple to another, who was ready to go further than he had gone in seeking this world’s vanities.  Even the price of his apostasy had vanished from him.

But was this all? was this nearly all? was this as anything to that further misery which had come upon him?  Where was his faith now, his true, youthful, ardent faith; the belief of his inner heart; the conviction of a God and a Saviour, which had once been to him the source of joy?  Had it all vanished when, under the walls of Jerusalem, over against that very garden of Gethsemane, he had exchanged the aspirations of his soul for the pressure of a soft white hand?

No one becomes an infidel at once.  A man who has really believed does not lose by a sudden blow the firm convictions of his soul.  But when the work has been once commenced, when the first step has been taken, the pace becomes frightfully fast.  Three years since his belief had been like the ardour of young love, and now what were his feelings?  Men said that he was an infidel; but he would himself deny it with a frigid precision, with the stiffest accuracy of language; and then argue that his acknowledgment of a superhuman creative power was not infidelity.  He had a God of his own, a cold, passionless, prudent God; the same God, he said, to whom others looked; with this only difference, that when others looked with fanatic enthusiasm, he looked with well-balanced reason.  But it was the same God, he said.  And as to the Saviour, he had a good deal also to say on that subject; a good deal which might show that he was not so far from others as others thought.  And so he would prove that he was no infidel.

But could he thus satisfy himself now that he again heard the psalms of his youth? and remembered as he listened, that he had lost for ever that beauty which had cost him so dear?  Did he not now begin to think ­to feel perhaps rather than to think ­that, after all, the sound of the church bells was cheering, that it was sweet to kneel there where others knelt, sweet to hear the voices of those young children as they uttered together the responses of the service?  Was he so much wiser than others that he could venture on his own judgment to set himself apart, and to throw over as useless all that was to others so precious?

Such were his feelings as he sat, and knelt, and stood there ­mechanically as it were, remembering the old habits.  And then he tried to pray.  But praying is by no means the easiest work to which a man can set himself.  Kneeling is easy; the repetition of the well-known word is easy; the putting on of some solemnity of mind is perhaps not difficult.  But to remember what you are asking, why you are asking, of whom you are asking; to feel sure that you want what you do ask, and that this asking is the best way to get it; ­that on the whole is not easy.  On this occasion Bertram probably found it utterly beyond his capacity.

He declined to go to afternoon church.  This is not held to be de rigueur even in a parson’s house, unless it be among certain of the strictly low-church clergymen.  A very high churchman may ask you to attend at four o’clock of a winter morning, but he will not be grievously offended if, on a Sunday afternoon, you prefer your arm-chair, and book ­probably of sermons; but that is between you and your conscience.

They dined early, and in the evening, Bertram and his host walked out.  Hitherto they had had but little opportunity of conversation, and Bertram longed to talk to some one of what was within his breast.  On this occasion, however, he failed.  Conversation will not always go exactly as one would have it.

“I was glad to see you at church to-day,” said the parson.  “To tell you the truth, I did not expect it.  I hope it was not intended as a compliment to me.”

“I rather fear it was, Arthur.”

“You mean that you went because you did not like to displease us by staying away?”

“Something like it,” said Bertram, affecting to laugh.  “I do not want your mother and sisters, or you either, to regard me as an ogre.  In England, at any rate in the country in England, one is an ogre if one doesn’t go to church.  It does not much matter, I believe, what one does when one is there; so long as one is quiet, and lets the parson have his say.”

“There is nothing so easy as ridicule, especially in matters of religion.”

“Quite true.  But then it is again true that it is very hard to laugh at anything that is not in some point ridiculous.”

“And God’s worship is ridiculous?”

“No; but any pretence of worshipping God is so.  And as it is but a step from the ridiculous to the sublime, and as the true worship of God is probably the highest sublimity to which man can reach; so, perhaps, is he never so absolutely absurd, in such a bathos of the ridiculous, as when he pretends to do so.”

“Every effort must sometimes fall short of success.”

“I’ll explain what I mean,” said Bertram, attending more to himself than his companion.  “What idea of man can be so magnificent as that which represents him with his hands closed, and his eyes turned to that heaven with which he holds communion?  But imagine the man so placed, and holding no such communion!  You will at once have run down the whole gamut of humanity from St. Paul to Pecksniff.”

“But that has nothing to do with belief.  It is for the man to take care that he be, if possible, nearer to St. Paul than to Pecksniff.”

“No, it has nothing to do with belief; but it is a gauge, the only gauge we have, of what belief a man has.  How many of those who were sitting by silently while you preached really believed?”

“All, I hope; all, I trust.  I firmly trust that they are all believers; all, including yourself.”

“I wonder whether there was one; one believer in all that which you called on us to say that we believed? one, for instance, who believes in the communion of saints? one who believes in the resurrection of the body?”

“And why should they not believe in the communion of saints?  What’s the difficulty?”

“Very little, certainly; as their belief goes ­what they and you call belief.  Rumtunshid gara shushabad gerostophat.  That is the shibboleth of some of the Caucasian tribes.  Do you believe in Rumtunshid?”

“If you will talk gibberish when talking on such a matter, I had rather change the subject.”

“Now you are unreasonable, and want to have all the gibberish to yourself.  That you should have it all to yourself in your own pulpit we accede to you; but out here, on the heath, surely I may have my turn.  You do not believe in Rumtunshid?  Then why should farmer Buttercup be called on to believe in the communion of the saints?  What does he believe about it?  Or why should you make little Flora Buttercup tell such a huge fib as to say, that she believes in the resurrection of the body?”

“It is taught her as a necessary lesson, and will be explained to her at the proper age.”

“No; there is no proper age for it.  It will never be explained to her.  Neither Flora nor her father will ever understand anything about it.  But they will always believe it.  Am I old enough to understand it?  Explain it to me.  No one yet has ever attempted to do so; and yet my education was not neglected.”

Wilkinson had too great a fear of his friend’s powers of ridicule to venture on an explanation; so he again suggested that they should change the subject.

“That is always the way,” said Bertram.  “I never knew a clergyman who did not want to change the subject when that subject is the one on which he should be ever willing to speak.”

“If there be anything that you deem holy, you would not be willing to hear it ridiculed.”

“There is much that I deem holy, and for that I fear no laughter.  I am ready to defy ridicule.  But if I talk to you of the asceticism of Stylites, and tell you that I admire it, and will imitate it, will you not then laugh at me?  Of course we ridicule what we think is false.  But ridicule will run off truth like water from a duck’s back.  Come, explain to me this about the resurrection of the body.”

“Yet, in my flesh, shall I see God,” said Arthur, in a solemn tone.

“But I say, no.  It is impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible with God.”

“Yes; it is impossible that his own great laws should change.  It is impossible that they should remain, and yet not remain.  Your body ­that which we all call our body ­that which Flora Buttercup believes to be her body (for in this matter she does believe) will turn itself, through the prolific chemistry of nature, into various productive gases by which other bodies will be formed.  With which body will you see Christ? with that which you now carry, or that you will carry when you die?  For, of course, every atom of your body changes.”

“It little matters which.  It is sufficient for me to believe as the Scriptures teach me.”

“Yes; if one could believe.  A Jew, when he drags his dying limbs to the valley of Jehoshaphat, he can believe.  He, in his darkness, knows nothing of these laws of nature.  But we will go to people who are not in darkness.  If I ask your mother what she means when she says ­’Not by confusion of substance; but by unity of person,’ what will she answer me?”

“It is a subject which it will take her some time to explain.”

“Yes, I think so; and me some time longer to understand.”

Wilkinson was determined not to be led into argument, and so he remained silent.  Bertram was also silent for awhile, and they walked on, each content with his own thoughts.  But yet not content.  Wilkinson would have been contented to be let alone; to have his mind, and faith, and hopes left in the repose which nature and education had prepared for them.  But it was not so with Bertram.  He was angry with himself for not believing, and angry with others that they did believe.  They went on in this way for some ten minutes, and then Bertram began again.

“Ah, that I could believe!  If it were a thing to come at, as a man wishes, who would doubt?  But you, you, the priest, the teacher of the people, you, who should make it all so easy, you will make it so difficult, so impossible.  Belief, at any rate, should be easy, though practice may be hard.”

“You should look to the Bible, not to us.”

“Yes; it is there that is our stumbling-block.  A book is given to us, not over well translated from various languages, part of which is history hyperbolically told ­for all Eastern language is hyperbolical; part of which is prophecy, the very meaning of which is lost to us by the loss of those things which are intended to be imaged out; and part of which is thanksgiving uttered in the language of men who knew nothing, and could understand nothing of those rules by which we are to be governed.”

“You are talking of the Old Testament?”

“It is given to us as one whole.  Then we have the story of a mystery which is above, or, at least, beyond the utmost stretch of man’s comprehension; and the very purport of which is opposed to all our ideas of justice.  In the jurisprudence of heaven can that be just which here, on earth, is manifestly unjust?”

“Is your faith in God so weak then, and your reliance on yourself so firm, that you can believe nothing beyond your own comprehension?”

“I believe much that I do not understand.  I believe the distance of the earth from the sun.  I believe that the seed of a man is carried in a woman, and then brought forth to light, a living being.  I do not understand the principle of this wondrous growth.  But yet I believe it, and know that it is from God.  But I cannot believe that evil is good.  I cannot believe that man placed here by God shall receive or not receive future happiness as he may chance to agree or not to agree with certain doctors who, somewhere about the fourth century, or perhaps later, had themselves so much difficulty in coming to any agreement on the disputed subject.”

“I think, Bertram, that you are going into matters which you know are not vital to faith in the Christian religion.”

“What is vital, and what is not?  If I could only learn that!  But you always argue in a circle.  I am to have faith because of the Bible; but I am to take the Bible through faith.  Whence is the first spring of my faith to come? where shall I find the fountain-head?”

“In prayer to God.”

“But can I pray without faith?  Did any man ever kneel before a log, and ask the log that he might believe in the log?  Had he no faith in the log, could it be possible that he should be seen there kneeling before it?”

“Has the Bible then for you no intrinsic evidence of its truth?”

“Yes, most irrefragable evidence; evidence that no thinking man can possibly reject.  Christ’s teaching, the words that I have there as coming from his mouth are irresistible evidence of his fitness to teach.  But you will permit me to use no such evidence.  I must take it all, from the beginning of my career, before I can look into its intrinsic truth.  And it must be all true to me:  the sun standing still upon Gibeon no less than the divine wisdom which showed that Caesar’s tribute should be paid to Cæsar.”

“If every man and every child is to select, how shall we ever have a creed? and if no creed, how shall we have a church?”

“And if no church, how then parsons?  Follow it on, and it comes to that.  But, in truth, you require too much; and so you get ­nothing.  Your flocks do not believe, do not pray, do not listen to you.  They are not in earnest.  In earnest!  Heavens! if a man could believe all this, could be in earnest about it, how possibly could he care for other things?  But no; you pride yourselves on faith; but you have no faith.  There is no such thing left.  In these days men do not know what faith is.”

In the evening, when the ladies had gone to their rooms, they were again together; and Bertram thought that he would speak of Caroline.  But he was again foiled.  There had been some little bickering on the part of Mrs. Wilkinson.  She had been querulous, and had not cared to hide it, though George and Adela were sitting there as guests.  This had made her son unhappy, and he now spoke of it.

“I am sorry you should hear my mother speak in that way, George.  I hope I am not harsh to her.  I try to refrain from answering her.  But unless I go back to my round jackets, and take my food from her hand like a child, I cannot please her.”

“Perhaps you are too careful to please her.  I think you should let her know that, to a certain extent, you must be master in your own house.”

“Ah!  I have given that up long since.  She has an idea that the house is hers.  I do not care to thwart her in that.  Perhaps I should have done it at first; but it is too late now.  To-night she was angry with me because I would not read a sermon.”

“And why then didn’t you?”

“I have preached two to-day.”  And the young clergyman yawned somewhat wearily.  “She used to read them herself.  I did put a stop to that.”

“Why so? why not let her read them?”

“The girls used to go to sleep, always ­and then the servants slept also, I don’t think she has a good voice for sermons.  But I am sure of this, George ­she has never forgiven me.”

“And never will.”

“Sometimes, I almost think she would wish to take my place in the pulpit.”

“The wish is not at all unnatural, my dear fellow.”

“The truth is, that Lord Stapledean’s message to her, and his conduct about the living, has quite upset her.  I cannot blame Lord Stapledean.  What he did was certainly kind.  But I do blame myself.  I never should have accepted the living on those terms ­never, never.  I knew it when I did it, and I have never since ceased to repent it.”  And so saying he got up and walked quickly about the room.  “Would you believe it now; my mother takes upon herself to tell me in what way I should read the absolution; and feels herself injured because I do not comply?”

“I can tell you but of one remedy, Arthur; but I can tell you of one.”

“What remedy?”

“Take a wife to yourself; one who will not mind in what way you read the absolution to her.”

“A wife!” said Wilkinson, and he uttered a long sigh as he continued his walk.

“Yes, a wife; why not?  People say that a country clergyman should never be without a wife; and as for myself, I firmly think that they are right.”

“Every curate is to marry, then?”

“But you are not a curate.”

“I should only have the income of a curate.  And where should I put a wife?  The house is full of women already.  Who would come to such a house as this?”

“There is Adela; would not she come if you asked her?”

“Adela!” said the young vicar.  And now his walk had brought him to the further end of the table; and there he remained for a minute or two.  “Adela!”

“Yes, Adela,” said Bertram.

“What a life my mother would lead her!  She is fond of her now; very.  But in that case I know that she would hate her.”

“If I were you, I would make my wife the mistress of my house, not my mother.”

“Ah! you do not understand, George.”

“But perhaps you do not like Adela ­perhaps you could not teach yourself to love her?”

“Perhaps not,” said Wilkinson.  “And perhaps she could not teach herself to like me.  But, ah! that is out of the question.”

“There is nothing between you and Adela then?” asked Bertram.

“Oh, no; nothing.”

“On your honour, nothing?”

“Nothing at all.  It is quite out of the question.  My marrying, indeed!”

And then they took their bedroom candlesticks and went to their own rooms.