Read CHAPTER XVIII. of Paul Faber‚ Surgeon, free online book, by George MacDonald, on ReadCentral.com.

THE PARK AT NESTLEY.

Just inside the park, on a mossy knoll, a little way from the ancient wrought-iron gate that opened almost upon the one street of Owlkirk, the rector dug the foundation of his chapel ­an oblong Gothic hall, of two squares and a half, capable of seating all in the parish nearer to it than to the abbey church.  In his wife’s eyes, Mr. Bevis was now an absolute saint, for not only had he begun to build a chapel in his own grounds, but to read prayers in his own church!  She was not the only one, however, who remarked how devoutly he read them, and his presence was a great comfort to Wingfold.  He often objected to what his curate preached ­but only to his face, and seldom when they were not alone.  There was policy in this restraint:  he had come to see that in all probability he would have to give in ­that his curate would most likely satisfy him that he was right.  The relation between them was marvelous and lovely.  The rector’s was a quiet awakening, a gentle second birth almost in old age.  But then he had been but a boy all the time, and a very good sort of boy.  He had acted in no small measure according to the light he had, and time was of course given him to grow in.  It is not the world alone that requires the fullness of its time to come, ere it can receive a revelation; the individual also has to pass through his various stages of Pagan, Guèbre, Moslem, Jew, Essene ­God knows what all ­before he can begin to see and understand the living Christ.  The child has to pass through all the phases of lower animal life; when, change is arrested, he is born a monster; and in many a Christian the rudiments of former stages are far from extinct ­not seldom revive, and for the time seem to reabsorb the development, making indeed a monstrous show.

“For myself,” ­I give a passage from Wingfold’s note-book, written for his wife’s reading ­“I feel sometimes as if I were yet a pagan, struggling hard to break through where I see a glimmer of something better, called Christianity.  In any case what I have, can be but a foretaste of what I have yet to be; and if so, then indeed is there a glory laid up for them that will have God, the I of their I, to throne it in the temple he has built, to pervade the life he has lifed out of himself.  My soul is now as a chaos with a hungry heart of order buried beneath its slime, that longs and longs for the moving of the breath of God over its water and mud.”

The foundation-stone of the chapel was to be laid with a short and simple ceremony, at which no clergy but themselves were to be present.  The rector had not consented, and the curate had not urged, that it should remain unconsecrated; it was therefore uncertain, so far at least as Wingfold knew, whether it was to be chapel or lecture hall.  In either case it was for the use and benefit of the villagers, and they were all invited to be present.  A few of the neighbors who were friends of the rector and his wife, were also invited, and among them was Miss Meredith.

Mr. and Mrs. Bevis had long ere now called upon her, and found her, as Mrs. Bevis said, fit for any society.  She had lunched several times with them, and, her health being now greatly restored, was the readier to accept the present invitation, that she was growing again anxious about employment.

Almost every one was taken with her sweet manner, shaded with sadness.  At one time self-dissatisfaction had made her too anxious to please:  in the mirror of other minds she sought a less unfavorable reflection of herself.  But trouble had greatly modified this tendency, and taken the too-much out of her courtesy.

She and Mrs. Puckridge went together, and Faber, calling soon after, found the door locked.  He saw the gathering in the park, however, had heard something about the ceremony, concluded they were assisting, and, after a little questioning with himself, led his horse to the gate, made fast the reins to it, went in, and approached the little assembly.  Ere he reached it, he saw them kneel, whereupon he made a circuit and got behind a tree, for he would not willingly seem rude, and he dared not be hypocritical.  Thence he descried Juliet kneeling with the rest, and could not help being rather annoyed.  Neither could he help being a little struck with the unusual kind of prayer the curate was making; for he spoke as to the God of workmen, the God of invention and creation, who made the hearts of his creatures so like his own that they must build and make.

When the observance was over, and the people were scattering in groups, till they should be summoned to the repast prepared for them, the rector caught sight of the doctor, and went to him.

“Ha, Faber!” he cried, holding out his hand, “this is kind of you!  I should hardly have expected you to be present on such an occasion!”

“I hoped my presence would not offend you,” answered the doctor.  “I did not presume to come closer than just within earshot of your devotions.  Neither must you think me unfriendly for keeping aloof.”

“Certainly not.  I would not have you guilty of irreverence.”

“That could hardly be, if I recognized no presence.”

“There was at least,” rejoined Mr. Bevis, “the presence of a good many of your neighbors, to whom you never fail to recognize your duty, and that is the second half of religion:  would it not have showed want of reverence toward them, to bring an unsympathetic presence into the midst of their devotion?”

“That I grant,” said the doctor.

“But it may be,” said the curate, who had come up while they talked, “that what you, perhaps justifiably, refuse to recognize as irreverence, has its root in some fault of which you are not yet aware.”

“Then I’m not to blame for it,” said Faber quietly.

“But you might be terribly the loser by it.”

“That is, you mean, if there should be One to whom reverence is due?”

“Yes.”

“Would that be fair, then ­in an All-wise, that is, toward an ignorant being?”

“I think not.  Therefore I look for something to reveal it to you.  But, although I dare not say you are to blame, because that would be to take upon myself the office of a judge, which is God’s alone, He only being able to give fair play, I would yet have you search yourself, and see whether you may not come upon something which keeps you from giving full and honest attention to what some people, as honest as yourself, think they see true.  I am speaking only from my knowledge of myself, and the conviction that we are all much alike.  What if you should discover that you do not really and absolutely disbelieve in a God? ­that the human nature is not capable of such a disbelief? ­that your unbelief has been only indifference and irreverence ­and that to a Being grander and nobler and fairer than human heart can conceive?”

“If it be so, let Him punish me,” said the doctor gravely.

“If it be so, He will,” said the curate solemnly, “ ­and you will thank Him for it ­after a while.  The God of my belief is too good not to make Himself known to a man who loves what is fair and honest, as you do.”

The doctor was silent.

While they were talking thus, two ladies had left the others and now approached them ­Mrs. Wingfold and Miss Meredith.  They had heard the last few sentences, and seeing two clergymen against one infidel, hastened with the generosity of women to render him what aid they might.

“I am sure Mr. Faber is honest,” said Helen.

“That is much to say for any man,” returned the curate.

“If any man is, then,” adjected Juliet.

“That is a great If,” rejoined Wingfold.” ­Are you honest, Helen?” he added, turning to his wife.

“No,” she answered; “but I am honester than I was a year ago.”

“So am I,” said her husband; “and I hope to be honester yet before another is over.  It’s a big thing to say, I am honest.”

Juliet was silent, and Helen, who was much interested with her, turned to see how she was taking it.  Her lips were as white as her face.  Helen attributed the change to anger, and was silent also.  The same moment the rector moved toward the place where the luncheon-tables were, and they all accompanied him, Helen still walking, in a little anxiety, by Juliet’s side.  It was some minutes before the color came back to her lips; but when Helen next addressed her, she answered as gently and sweetly as if the silence had been nothing but an ordinary one.

“You will stay and lunch with us, Mr. Faber?” said the rector.  “There can be no hypocrisy in that ­eh?”

“Thank you,” returned the doctor heartily; “but my work is waiting me, and we all agree that must be done, whatever our opinions as to the ground of the obligation.”

“And no man can say you don’t do it,” rejoined the curate kindly.  “That’s one thing we do agree in, as you say:  let us hold by it, Faber, and keep as good friends as we can, till we grow better ones.”

Faber could not quite match the curate in plain speaking:  the pupil was not up with his master yet.

“Thank you, Wingfold,” he returned, and his voice was not free of emotion, though Juliet alone felt the tremble of the one vibrating thread in it. “ ­Miss Meredith,” he went on, turning to her, “I have heard of something that perhaps may suit you:  will you allow me to call in the evening, and talk it over with you?”

“Please do,” responded Juliet eagerly.  “Come before post-time if you can.  It may be necessary to write.”

“I will.  Good morning.”

He made a general bow to the company and walked away, cutting off the heads of the dandelions with his whip as he went.  All followed with their eyes his firm, graceful figure, as he strode over the grass in his riding-boots and spurs.

“He’s a fine fellow that!” said the rector. “ ­But, bless me!” he added, turning to his curate, “how things change!  If you had told me a year ago, the day would come when I should call an atheist a fine fellow, I should almost have thought you must be one yourself!  Yet here I am saying it ­and never in my life so much in earnest to be a Christian!  How is it, Wingfold, my boy?”

“He who has the spirit of his Master, will speak the truth even of his Master’s enemies,” answered the curate.  “To this he is driven if he does not go willingly, for he knows his Master loves his enemies.  If you see Faber a fine fellow, you say so, just as the Lord would, and try the more to save him.  A man who loves and serves his neighbor, let him speak ever so many words against the Son of Man, is not sinning against the Holy Ghost.  He is still open to the sacred influence ­the virtue which is ever going forth from God to heal.  It is the man who in the name of religion opposes that which he sees to be good, who is in danger of eternal sin.”

“Come, come, Wingfold! whatever you do, don’t mis-quote,” said the rector.

“I don’t say it is the right reading,” returned the curate, “but I can hardly be convicted of misquoting, so long as it is that of the two oldest manuscripts we have.”

“You always have the better of me,” answered the rector.  “But tell me ­are not the atheists of the present day a better sort of fellows than those we used to hear of when we were young?”

“I do think so.  But, as one who believes with his whole soul, and strives with his whole will, I attribute their betterness to the growing influences of God upon the race through them that have believed.  And I am certain of this, that, whatever they are, it needs but time and continued unbelief to bring them down to any level from whatever height.  They will either repent, or fall back into the worst things, believing no more in their fellow-man and the duty they owe him ­of which they now rightly make so much, and yet not half enough ­than they do in God and His Christ.  But I do not believe half the bad things Christians have said and written of atheists.  Indeed I do not believe the greater number of those they have called such, were atheists at all.  I suspect that worse dishonesty, and greater injustice, are to be found among the champions, lay and cleric, of religious Opinion, than in any other class.  If God were such a One as many of those who would fancy themselves His apostles, the universe would be but a huge hell.  Look at certain of the so-called religious newspapers, for instance.  Religious!  Their tongue is set on fire of hell.  It may be said that they are mere money-speculations; but what makes them pay?  Who buys them?  To please whom do they write?  Do not many buy them who are now and then themselves disgusted with them?  Why do they not refuse to touch the unclean things?  Instead of keeping the commandment, ’that he who loveth God love his brother also,’ these, the prime channels of Satanic influence in the Church, powerfully teach, that He that loveth God must abuse his brother ­or he shall be himself abused.”

“I fancy,” said the rector, “they would withhold the name of brother from those they abuse.”

“No; not always.”

“They would from an unbeliever.”

“Yes.  But let them then call him an enemy, and behave to him as such ­that is, love him, or at least try to give him the fair play to which the most wicked of devils has the same right as the holiest of saints.  It is the vile falsehood and miserable unreality of Christians, their faithlessness to their Master, their love of their own wretched sects, their worldliness and unchristianity, their talking and not doing, that has to answer, I suspect, for the greater part of our present atheism.”

“I have seen a good deal of Mr. Faber of late,” Juliet said, with a slight tremor in her voice, “and he seems to me incapable of falling into those vile conditions I used to hear attributed to atheists.”

“The atheism of some men,” said the curate, “is a nobler thing than the Christianity of some of the foremost of so-called and so-believed Christians, and I may not doubt they will fare better at the last.”

The rector looked a little blank at this, but said nothing.  He had so often found, upon reflection, that what seemed extravagance in his curate was yet the spirit of Scripture, that he had learned to suspend judgment.

Miss Meredith’s face glowed with the pleasure of hearing justice rendered the man in whom she was so much interested, and she looked the more beautiful.  She went soon after luncheon was over, leaving a favorable impression behind her.  Some of the ladies said she was much too fond of the doctor; but the gentlemen admired her spirit in standing up for him.  Some objected to her paleness; others said it was not paleness, but fairness, for her eyes and hair were as dark as the night; but all agreed, that whatever it was to be called, her complexion was peculiar ­some for that very reason judging it the more admirable, and others the contrary.  Some said she was too stately, and attributed her carriage to a pride to which, in her position, she had no right, they said.  Others judged that she needed such a bearing the more for self-defense, especially if she had come down in the world.  Her dress, it was generally allowed, was a little too severe ­some thought, in its defiance of the fashion, assuming.  No one disputed that she had been accustomed to good society, and none could say that she had made the slightest intrusive movement toward their circle.  Still, why was it that nobody knew any thing about her?