Read CHAPTER IV - CANON VERNADE’S GOSPEL of Cecilia de Noel, free online book, by Lanoe Falconer, on

There was no Mrs. de Noel in the carriage when it returned; she had gone to London to stay with Mrs. Donnithorne, whom Atherley spoke of as Aunt Henrietta, and was not expected home till Wednesday.

“I am sorry,” Lady Atherley observed, as we drove home through the dusk; “I should like to have had her here when Uncle Augustus was with us. I would have asked Mrs. Mostyn to dine with us, but I am not sure she and Uncle Augustus would get on. When her sister, Mrs. Donnithorne, met Uncle Augustus and his wife at lunch at our house once, she said she thought no minister of the Gospel ought to allow his child to take part in worldly amusements or cérémonials. It was very awkward, because Uncle Augustus’s eldest girl had been presented only the day before. And Aunt Clara, Uncle Augustus’s wife, you know, who is rather quick, said it depended whether the minister of the Gospel was a gentleman or a shoe-black, because Mrs. Donnithorne was attending a dissenting chapel then where the preacher was quite a common uneducated sort of person. And after that they would not talk to each other, and, altogether, I remember, it was very unpleasant. I do think it is such a pity,” cried Lady Atherley with real feeling, “when people will take up these extreme religious views, as all the Atherleys do. I am sure it is quite a comfort to have someone like you in the house, Mr. Lyndsay, who is not particular about religion.”

“If this is the best Aunt Eleanour has to show in the way of a ghost, she does well to keep so quiet about it,” was Atherley’s comment on that part of the story which, by special permission, I repeated to him next day. “I never heard a weaker ghost story. She explains the whole thing away as she tells it. She was, as she candidly admits, ill and feverish sickening for a fever, in fact, when the most rational person’s senses are apt to play them strange tricks. She is alone at the dead of night in a house she believes to be haunted; and then her dog an odious little beast, I remember him well, always barking at something or nothing; the dog suggests there is somebody near. She looks round into a dark part of the room, and naturally, inevitably all things considered sees a ghost. Did you say it wore a ruff and puffed sleeves?”

“So Mrs. Mostyn said.”

“Of course, because, as I told you, Aunt Eleanour believed in the Elizabethan portrait theory. If it had been Aunt Henrietta, the ghost would have been in armour. Ghosts and all visitors from the other world obligingly correspond with the preconceived notions of the visionary. When a white robe and a halo were considered the proper celestial outfit, saints and angels always appeared with white robes and halos. In the same way, the African savage, who believes in a god with a crooked leg, always sees him in dreams, waking or asleep, with a crooked leg; and

Here we were interrupted by a great stir in the hall outside, and Lady Atherley looked in to explain that the carriage with Uncle Augustus was just coming down the drive.

Her manner reminded me of the full importance of this arrival, as well as of the unfortunate circumstance that, owing to the ill-timed absence of the dissenting plasterer, the Canon must be lodged in the little room opposite to my own.

However, when I went into the drawing-room, I found him accepting his niece’s apologies and explanations with great good-humour. To me also he was especially gracious.

“I had the pleasure of dining at Lindesford, Mr. Lyndsay, when you must have been in long clothes. I remember we had some of the finest trout I ever tasted. Are they still as good in your river?”

His voice, like himself, was massive and impressive; his bearing and manner inspired me with wistful admiration: what must life be to a man so self-confident, and so rightly self-confident?

“Is not Uncle Augustus a fine-looking man?” asked Lady Atherley, when he had left the room with Atherley. “I cannot think why they do not make him a bishop; he would look so well in the robes. He ought to have had something when the last ministry was in, for Aunt Clara and Lord Lingford are cousins; but, unfortunately, the families were on bad terms because of a lawsuit.”

The morning after was bright and fair, so that sunlight mingled with the drowsy calm Sunday in the country as we remember it, looking lovingly back from lands that are not English to the tenderer side of the Puritan Sabbath. But I missed my little aubade from the lawn, and not till breakfast-time did I behold my small friends, who then came into the breakfast-room, one on either side of their mother two miniature sailors, exquisitely neat but visibly dejected. Behind walked Tip, demurely recognising the change in the atmosphere, but, undisturbed thereby, he at once, with his usual air of self-satisfied dignity, assumed his place in the largest arm-chair.

“The landau could take us all to church except you, George,” said Lady Atherley, looking thoughtfully into the fire as we waited for breakfast and the Canon. “But I suppose you would prefer to walk?”

“Why should you suppose I am going to church, either walking or driving?”

“Well, I certainly hoped you would have gone to-day; as Uncle Augustus is going to preach it seems only polite to do so.”

“Well, I don’t mind; I daresay it will do me no harm; and if it is understood I attend only out of consideration for my wife’s uncle, then

He was interrupted by the entrance of the person in question.

Many times during breakfast Denis looked thoughtfully at his great-uncle, and at last inquired

“Do you preach very long sermons, Uncle Augustus?”

“They are not generally considered so,” replied the Canon with some dignity.

“Denis, I have often told you not to ask questions,” said Lady Atherley.

“When I am grown up,” remarked Harold, “I will be an atheist.”

“Do you know what an atheist is?” inquired his father.

“Yes, it is people who never go to church.”

“But they go to lecture-rooms, which you would find worse.”

“But they don’t have sermons.”

“Don’t they? Hours long, especially when they bury each other.”

“Oh!” said Harold, evidently taken aback, and somewhat reconciled to the church.

“When I am grown up,” said Denis, “I mean to be the same church as Aunt Cissy.”

“And what may that be?” inquired the Canon.

Denis was silent and looked perplexed; but some time afterwards, when we were talking of other things, he called out, with the joy of one who has captured that elusive thing, a definition:

“In Aunt Cissy’s church they climb trees and make toffee on Sundays.”

After which Lady Atherley seemed glad to take them both away with her.

It was perhaps this remark that led the Canon to ask, on the way to church

“Is it true that Mrs. de Noel attends a dissenting chapel?”

“No,” said Lady Atherley. “But I know why people say so. She lent a field last year to the Methodists to have their camp-meeting in.”

“Oh! but that is a pity,” said the Canon. “A very great pity a person in her position encouraging dissent, especially when there is no real occasion for it. Clara’s nephew, young Littlemore, did something of the kind last year, but then he was standing for the county; and though that hardly justifies, it excuses, a little pandering to the multitude.”

“Cissy only let them have it once,” said Lady Atherley, as if making the best of it. “And, indeed, I believe it rained so hard that day they were not able to have the meeting after all.”

Then the carriage stopped before the lych-gate, through which the fresh-faced school children were trooping; and while the bell clanged its last monotonous summons, we walked up between the village graves to the old church porch that older yews overshadow, where the village lads were loitering, as Sunday after Sunday their sleeping forefathers had loitered before them.

We worshipped that morning in a magnificent pew to one side of the chancel, and quite as large, from which we enjoyed a full view of clergy and congregation. The former consisted of the Canon, Mr. Jackson, clergyman of the parish, and a young man I had not seen before. Not a large number had mustered to hear the Canon; the front seats were well filled by men and women in goodly apparel, but in the pews behind and in the side aisles there was a mere sprinkling of worshippers in the Sunday dress of country labourers. Our supplicaitions were offered with as little ritualistic pageantry as Mrs. Mostyn herself could have desired, though the choir probably sang oftener and better than she would have approved. In spite of their efforts it was as uninspiring a service as I have ever taken part in. This was not due, as might be suspected, to Atherley’s presence, for his demeanour was irreproachable. His little sons, delighted at having him with them, carefully found his places for him in prayer and hymnbook, and kept watch that he did not lose them afterwards, so that he perforce assumed a really edifying degree of attention. Nor, indeed, did the rest of the congregation err in the direction of restlessness or wandering looks, but rather in the opposite extreme, insomuch that during the litany, when we were no longer supported by music, and had, most of us, assumed attitudes favourable to repose, we appeared one and all to succumb to it, especially towards the close, when, from the body of the church at least, only the aged clerk was heard to cry for mercy. But with the third service, there came a change, which reminded me of how once in a foreign cathedral, when the procession filed by the singing-men nudging each other, the standard-bearers giggling, and the English tourists craning to see the sight the face of one white-haired old bishop beneath his canopy transformed for me a foolish piece of mummery into a prayer in action. So it was again, when the young stranger turned to us his pale clear-cut face, solemn with an awe as rapt as if he verily stood before the throne of Him he called upon, and felt Its glory beating on his face; then, by that one earnest and believing presence, all was transformed and redeemed; the old emblems recovered their first significance, the time-worn phrases glowed with life again, and we ourselves were altered our very heaviness was pathetic: it was the lethargy of death itself, and our poor sleepy prayers the strain of manacled captives striving to be free.

The Canon’s sermon did not maintain this high-strung mood, though why not it would be difficult to say. Like all his, it was eloquent, brilliant even, declaimed by a fine voice of wide compass, whose varying tones he used with the skill of a practised orator. The text was “Our conversation is in Heaven,” its theme the contrast between the man of this world, with his heart fixed upon its pomps, its vanities, its honours, and the believer indifferent to all these, esteeming them as dross merely compared to the heavenly treasure, the one thing needful. Certainly the utter worthlessness of the prizes for which men labour and so late take rest, barter their happiness, their peace, their honour, was never more scathingly depicted. I remember the organ-like bass of his note in passages which denounced the grovelling worship of earthly pre-eminence and riches, the clarion-like cry with which he concluded a stirring eulogy of the Christian’s nobler service of things unseen.

“Brethren, as His kingdom is not of this world, so too our kingdom is not of this world.”

“I think you will admit, George,” said Lady Atherley, as we left the church, “that you have had a good sermon to-day.”

“Yes, indeed,” heartily assented Atherley. “It was excellent. Your uncle certainly knows his business, which is more than can be said of most preachers. It was a really splendid performance. But who on earth was he talking about those wonderful people who don’t care for money or success, or the best of everything generally? I never met any like them.”

“My dear George! How extraordinary you are! Any one could see, I should have thought, that he meant Christians.”

Atherley and the children walked home while we waited for the Canon, who stayed behind to exchange a few words in the vestry with his old schoolfellow, Mr. Jackson.

As we drove home he made, aloud, some reflections, probably suggested by the difference between their positions.

“It really grieves me to see Jackson where he is at his age. He deserves a better living. He is an excellent fellow, and not without ability, but wanting, unfortunately, in tact and savoir-faire. He always had an unhappy knack of blurting out the truth in season and out of season. I did my best to get him a good living once a first-rate living in Sir John Marsh’s gift; and I warned him before he went to lunch with Sir John to be careful what he said. ‘Sir John,’ I said, ’is one of the old school; he thinks the Squire is pope of the parish, and you will have to humour him a little. He will talk a great deal of nonsense in this strain, and be careful not to contradict him, for he can’t bear it.’ But Jackson did contradict him flatly; he told me so himself, and, of course, Sir John would have nothing to say to him. ’But he made such extravagant statements,’ said Jackson. ’If I had kept quiet he would have thought I agreed with him.’ ’What did that matter?’ I said. ’Once you were vicar you could have shown him you didn’t.’ ’The truth is,’ said Jackson, ’I cannot sit by and hear black called white without protesting.’ That is Jackson all over! A man of that kind will never get on. And then, such an imprudent marriage a woman without a penny!”

“I have never seen any one who wore such extraordinary bonnets,” said Lady Atherley.

“Who was that young man who bowed to the altar and crossed himself?” asked the Canon.

“I suppose that must be Mr. Austyn, curate in charge at Rood Warren. He comes over to help Mr. Jackson sometimes, I believe. George has met him; I have not. I want to get him over to dinner. He is a nephew of Mr. Austyn of Temple Leigh.”

“Oh, that family!” said the Canon. “I am sorry he has taken up such an extreme line. It is a great mistake. In the Church, preferment in these days always goes to the moderate men.”

“Rood Warren is not far from here,” said Lady Atherley, “and he has a parishioner Oh, that reminds me. Mr. Lyndsay, would you be so kind as to look out and tell the coachman to drive round by Monk’s? I want to leave some soup.”

“Monk, I presume, is a sick labourer?” said the Canon. “I hope you are not as indiscriminate in your charities as most Ladies Bountiful.”

“Mr. Jackson says this is a really deserving case. He knows all about him, though he really is in Mr. Austyn’s parish. Monk has never had anything from the parish, and been working hard all his life, and he is past seventy. He was breaking stones on the road a few weeks ago; but he caught a chill or something one very cold day, and has been laid up ever since. This is the house. Oh, Mr. Lyndsay, you should not trouble to get out. As you are so kind, will you carry this in?”

The interior of the tiny thatched cottage was scrupulously clean and neat, as they nearly all are in the valley, but barer and more scantily furnished than most of them. No photographs or pictures decorated the white-washed walls, no scraps of carpet or matting hid the red-brick floor. The Monks were evidently of the poorest. An old piece of faded curtain had been hung from a rope between the chimney-piece and the door to shield the patient from the draught. He sat in a stiff wooden arm-chair near the fire, drawing his breath laboriously. “He was better now,” said his wife, a nurse as old and as frail-looking as himself. “Nights was the worst.” His shoulders were bent, his hair white with age, his withered features almost as coarse and as unshapely as the poor clothes he wore. The mask had been rough-hewn, to begin with; time and exposure had further defaced it. No gleam of intellectual life transpierced and illumined all. It was the face of an animal ugly, ignorant, honest, patient. As I looked at it there came over me a rush of the pity I have so often felt for this suffering of age in poverty so unpicturesque, so unwinning, to shallow sight so unpathetic and I put out my hand and let it rest for a moment on his own, knotted with rheumatism, stained and seamed with toil. Then he looked up at me from under his shaggy brows with haggard, wistful eyes, and gasped: “It’s hard work, sir; it’s hard work.” And I went out into the sunshine, feeling that I had heard the epitome of his life.

That night Mrs. Mallet surpassed herself by her rendering of a menu, especially composed by Atherley for the delectation of their guest. Their pains were not wasted. The Canon’s commendation of each course and we talked of little else, I remember, from soup to dessert was as discriminating as it was warm.

“I am glad you approve of our cook, Uncle,” said Lady Atherley in the drawing-room afterwards, “for she is only a stop-gap. Our own cook left us quite suddenly the other day, and we had such difficulty in finding this one to take her place. No one can imagine how inconvenient it is to have a haunted house.”

“My dear Jane, you don’t mean to tell me you are afraid of ghosts?”

“Oh no, Uncle.”

“And I am sure your husband is not?”

“No; but unfortunately cooks are.”

“Eh! what?”

Then Lady Atherley willingly repeated the story of her troubles.

“Preposterous! perfectly preposterous!” cried the Canon. “The Education Act in operation for all these years, and our lower orders still believe in bogies and hobgoblins! And yet it is hardly to be wondered at; their social superiors are not much wiser. The nonsense which is talked in society at present is perfectly incredible. Persons who are supposed to be in their right mind gravely relate to me such incidents that I could imagine myself transported to the Middle Ages. I hear of miraculous cures, of spirits summoned from the dead, of men and women floating in the air; and as to diabolic possession, it seems to have become as common as colds in the head.”

He had risen, and now addressed us from the hearthrug.

“Then Mrs. Molyneux and others come and tell me about personal friends of their own who can foretell everything that is going to happen; who can read your inmost thoughts; who can compel others to do this and to do that, whether they like it or no; who, being themselves in one quarter of the globe, constantly appear to their acquaintances in another. ‘What!’ I say. ’They can be in two places at once, then! Certainly no conjurer can equal that!’”

“And what do they say to that?” asked Atherley.

“Oh, they assure me the extraordinary beings who perform these marvels are not impostors, but very superior and religious characters. ’If they are not impostors,’ I say, ’then their right place is the lunatic asylum.’ ’Oh but, Canon Vernade, you don’t understand; it is only our Western ignorance which makes such things seem astonishing! Far more marvellous things are going on, and have been going on for centuries, in the East; for instance, in the Brotherhoods of I forget some unpronounceable name.’ ‘And how do you know they have?’ I ask. ’Oh, by their traditions, which have been handed on for generations.’ ’That is very reliable information indeed,’ I say. ’Pray, have you ever played a game of Russian scandal?’ ’Well; but, then, there are the sacred books. There can be no mistake about them, for they have been translated by learned European professors, who say the religious sentiments are perfectly beautiful.’ ‘Very possibly,’ I say. ’But it does not follow that the historical statements are correct.’”

“I gave my ladies’ Bible-class a serious lecture about it all the other day. I said: ’Do, my dear ladies, get rid of these childish notions, these uncivilised hankerings after marvels and magic, which make you the dupe of one charlatan after another. Take up science, for a change; study natural philosophy; try and acquire accurate notions of the system under which we live; realise that we are not moving on the stage of a Christmas pantomime, but in a universe governed by fixed laws, in which the miraculous performances you describe to me never can, and never could, have taken place. And be sure of this, that any book and any teacher, however admirable their moral teaching, who tell you that two and two make anything but four, are not inspired, so far as arithmetic and common sense are concerned.’”

“Hear, hear!” cried Atherley heartily.

The Canon’s brow contracted a little.

“I need hardly explain,” he said, “that what I said did not apply to revealed truth. Jane, my dear, as I must leave by an early train to-morrow, I think I shall say good-night.”

I fell asleep that night early, and dreamt that I was sitting with Gladys in the frescoed dining-room of an old Italian palace. It was night, and through the open window came one long shaft of moonlight, that vanished in the aureole of the shaded lamp standing with wine and fruit upon the table between us. And I said in my dream

“Oh, Gladys, will it be always like this, or must we part again?”

And she, smiling her slow soft smile, said: “You may stay with me till the knock comes.”

“What knock, my darling?”

But even as I spoke I heard it, low and penetrating, and I stretched out my arms imploringly towards Gladys; but she only smiled, and the knock was repeated, and the whole scene dissolved around me, and I was sitting up in bed in semi-darkness, while somebody was tapping with a quick agitated touch at my door. I remembered then that I had forgotten to unlock it before I went to bed, and I rose at once and made haste to open it, not without a passing thrill of unpleasant conjecture as to what might be behind it. It was a tall figure in a long grey garment, who carried a lighted candle in his hand. For a moment, startled and stupefied as I was, I failed to recognise the livid face.

“Canon Vernade! You are ill?”

Too ill to speak, it would seem, for without a word he staggered forward and sank into a chair, letting the candle almost drop from his hand on to the table beside him; but when I put out my hand to ring the bell, he stayed me by a gesture. I looked at him, deadly pale, with blue shadows about the mouth and eyes, his head thrown helplessly back, and then I remembered some brandy I had in my dressing-bag. He took the glass from me and raised it to his lips with a trembling hand. I stood watching him, debating within myself whether I should disobey him by calling for help or not; but presently, to my great relief, I saw the stimulant take effect, and life come slowly surging back in colour to his cheeks, in strength to his whole prostrate frame. He straightened himself a little, and turned upon me a less distracted gaze than before.

“Mr. Lyndsay, there is something horrible in this house.”

“Have you seen it?”

He shook his head.

“I saw nothing; it is what I felt.”

He shuddered.

I looked towards the grate. The fire had long been out, but the wood was still unconsumed, and I managed, inexpertly enough, to relight it. When a long blue flame sprang up, he drew his chair near the hearth and stretched towards the blaze his still tremulous hands.

“Mr. Lyndsay,” he said, in a voice as strangely altered as his whole appearance, “may I sit here a little till it is light? I dread to go back to that room. But don’t let me keep you up.”

I said, and in all honesty, that I had no inclination to sleep. I put on my dressing-gown, threw a rug over his knees, and took my place opposite to him on the other side of the fire; and thus we kept our strange vigil, while slowly above us broke the grim, cold dawn of early spring-time, which even the birds do not brighten with their babble.

Silently staring into the fire, he vouchsafed no further explanations, and I did not venture to ask for any; but I doubt if even such language as he could command would have been so full of horrible suggestion as that grey set face, and the terror-stricken gaze, which the growing light made every minute more distinct, more weird. What had so suddenly and so completely overthrown, not his own strength merely, but the defences of his faith? He groped amongst them still, for, from time to time, I heard him murmuring to himself familiar verses of prayer and psalm and gospel, as if he sought therewith to banish some haunting fear, to quiet some torturing suspicion. And at last, when the dull grey day had fully broken, he turned towards me, and cried in tones more heart-piercing than ever startled the great congregations in church or cathedral

“What if it were all a delusion, and there be no Father, no Saviour?”

And the horror of that abyss into which he looked, flashing from his mind to my own, left me silent and helpless before him. Yet I longed to give him comfort; for, with the regal self-possession which had fallen from him, there had slipped from me too some undefined instinct of distrust and disapproval. All that I felt now was the sad tie of brotherhood which united us, poor human atoms, strong only in our capacity to suffer, tossed and driven, whitherward we knew not, in the purposeless play of soulless and unpitying forces.