Read CHAPTER V - AUSTYN’S GOSPEL of Cecilia de Noel, free online book, by Lanoe Falconer, on ReadCentral.com.

“He did not see the ghost, you say; he only felt it? I should think he did on his chest. I never heard of a clearer case of nightmare. You must be careful whom you tell the story to, old chap; for at the first go-off it sounds as if it was not merely eating too much that was the matter. It was, however, indigestion sure enough. No wonder! If a man of his age who takes no exercise will eat three square meals a day, what else can he expect? And Mallet is rather liberal with her cream.”

Atherley it was, of course, who propounded this simple interpretation of the night’s alarms, as he sat in his smoking-room reviewing his trout-flies after an early breakfast we had taken with the Canon.

“You always account for the mechanism, but not for the effect. Why should indigestion take that mental form?”

“Why, because indigestion constantly does in sleep, and out of it as well, for that matter. A nightmare is not always a sense of oppression on the chest only; it may be an overpowering dread of something you dream you see. Indigestion can produce, waking or asleep, a very good imitation of what is experienced in a blue funk. And there is another kind of dream which is produced by fasting that, I need hardly say, I have never experienced. Indeed, I don’t dream.”

“But the ghost the ghost he almost saw.”

“The sinking horror produced the ghost, instead of vice versa, as you might suppose. It is like a dream. In unpleasant dreams we fancy it is the dream itself which makes us feel uncomfortable. It is just the other way round. It is the discomfort that produces the dream. Have you ever dreamt you were tramping through snow, and felt cold in consequence? I did the other night. But I did not feel cold because I dreamt I was walking through snow, but because I had not enough blankets on my bed; and because I felt cold I dreamt about the snow. Don’t you know the dream you make up in a few moments about the knocking at the door when they call you in the morning? And ghosts are only waking dreams.”

“I wonder if you ever had an illusion yourself gave way to it, I mean. You were in love once twice,” I added hastily, in deference to Lady Atherley.

“Only once,” said Atherley, calmly. “Do you ever see her now, Lindy? She has grown enormously fat. Certainly I have had my illusions, and I don’t object to them when they are pleasant and harmless on the contrary. Now, falling in love, if you don’t fall too deep, is pleasant, and it never lasts long enough to do much mischief. Marriage, of course, you will say, may be mischievous only for the individual, it is useful for the race. What I object to is the deliberate culture of illusions which are not pleasant but distinctly depressing, like half your religious beliefs.”

“George,” said Lady Atherley, coming into the room at this instant; “have you oh, dear! what a state this room is in!”

“It is the housemaids. They never will leave things as I put them.”

“And it was only dusted and tidied an hour ago. Mr. Lyndsay, did you ever see anything like it?”

I said “Never.”

“If Lindy has a fault in this world, it is that he is as pernickety, as my old nurse used to say as pernickety as an old maid. The stiff formality of his room would give me the creeps, if anything could. The first thing I always want to do when I see it is to make hay in it.”

“It is what you always do do, before you have been an hour there,” I observed.

“Jane, in Heaven’s name leave those things alone! Is this sort of thing all you came in for?”

“No; I really came in to ask if you had read Lucinda Molyneux’s letter.”

“No, I have not; her writing is too bad for anything. Besides, I know exactly what she has got to say. She has at last found the religion which she has been looking for all her life, and she intends to be whatever it is for evermore.”

“That is not all. She wants to come and stay here for a few days.”

“What! Here? Now? Why, what oh, I forgot the ghost! By Jove! You see, Jane, there are some advantages in having one on the premises when it procures you a visit from a social star like Mrs. Molyneux. But where are you going to put her? Not in the bachelor’s room, where your poor uncle made such a night of it? It wouldn’t hold her dressing bag, let alone herself.”

“Oh, but I hope the pink room will be ready. The plasterer from Whitford came out yesterday to apologise, and said he had been keeping his birthday.”

“Indeed! and how many times a year does he have a birthday?”

“I don’t know, but he was quite sober; and he did the most of it yesterday and will finish it to-day, so it will be all right.”

“When is she coming, then?”

“To-morrow. You would have seen that if you had read the letter. And there is a message for you in it, too.”

“Then find me the place, like an angel; I cannot wade through all these sheets of hieroglyphics. In the postscript? Let me see: ’Tell Sir George I look forward to explaining to him the religious teaching which I have been studying for months.’ Months! Come; there must be something in a religion which Mrs. Molyneux sticks to for months at a time ’studying for months under the guidance of its great apostle Baron Zinkersen ’ What is this name? ’The deeper I go into it all the more I feel in it that faith, satisfying to the reason as well as to the emotions, for which I have been searching all my life. It is certainly the religion of the future’ future underlined ’and I believe it will please even Sir George, for it so distinctly coincides with his own favourite theories.’ Favourite theories, indeed! I haven’t any. My mind is as open as day to truth from any quarter. Only I distrust apostles with no vowels in their names ever since that one, two years ago, made off with the spoons.”

“No, George, he did not take any plate. It was money, and money Lucinda gave him herself for bringing her letters from her father.”

“Where was her father, then?” I inquired, much interested.

“Well, he was a he was dead,” answered Lady Atherley; “and after some time, a very low sort of person called upon Lucinda and said she wrote all the letters; but Lucinda could not get the money back without going to law, as some people wished her to do; but I am glad she did not, as I think the papers would have said very unpleasant things about it.”

“The apostle I liked best,” said Atherley, “was the American one. I really admired old Stamps, and old Stamps admired me; for she knew I thoroughly understood what an unmitigated humbug she was. She had a fine sense of humour, too. How her eyes used to twinkle when I asked posers at her prayer-meetings!”

“Dreadful woman!” cried Lady Atherley. “Lucinda brought her to lunch once. Such black nails, and she said she could make the plates and dishes fly about the room, but I said I would rather not. I am thankful she does not want to bring this baron with her.”

“I would not have him. I draw the line there, and also at spiritual séances. I am too old for them. Do you remember one I took you to at Mrs. Molyneux’s, Lindy, five years ago, when they raised poor old Professor Delaine, and he danced on the table and spelt bliss with one s? I was haunted for weeks afterwards by the dread that there might be a future life, in which we should make fools of ourselves in the same way. What is this?”

“It is the carriage just come back from the station. Mr. Lyndsay and the little boys are going over to Rood Warren with a note for me. I hope you will see Mr. Austyn, Mr. Lyndsay, and persuade him to come over to-morrow.”

“What! To dine?” said Atherley. “He won’t come out to dinner in Lent.”

I thought so myself, but I was glad of the excuse to see again the delicate, austere face. As we drove along, I tried to define to myself the quality which marked it out from others. Not sweetness, not marked benevolence, but the repose of absolute spiritual conviction. Austyn’s God can never be my God, and in his heaven I should find no rest; but, one among ten thousand, he believed in both, as the martyrs believed who perished in the flames, with a faith which would have stood the atheist’s test; “We believe a thing, when we are prepared to act as if it were true.”

Rood Warren lay in a little hollow beside an armlet of the stream that waters all the valley. The hamlet consisted of a tiny church and a group of labourers’ cottages, in one of which, presumably because there was no other habitation for him, the curate in charge made his home. An apple-faced old woman received me at the door, and hospitably invited me to wait within for Mr. Austyn’s return from morning service, which I did, while the carriage, with the little boys and Tip in it, drove up and down before the door. The room in which I waited, evidently the one sitting-room, was destitute of luxury or comfort as a monk’s cell.

Profusion there was in one thing only books. They indeed furnished the room, clothing the walls and covering the table; but ornaments there were none, not even sacred or symbolical, save, indeed, one large and beautifully-carved crucifix over a mantelpiece covered with letters and manuscripts. I have thought of this early home of Austyn’s many a time as dignities have been literally thrust upon him by a world which since then has discovered his intellectual rank. He will end his days in a palace, and, one may confidently predict of him, remain as absolutely indifferent to his surroundings as in the little cottage at Rood Warren.

But he did not come, and presently his housekeeper came in with many apologies to explain he would not be back for hours, having started after service on a round of parish visiting instead of first returning home, as she had expected. She herself was plainly depressed by the fact. “I did hope he would have come in for a bit of lunch first,” she said, sadly.

All I could do was to leave the note, to which late in the day came an answer, declining simply and directly on the ground that he did not dine out in Lent.

“I cannot see why,” observed Lady Atherley, as we sat together over the drawing-room fire after tea, “because it is possible to have a very nice dinner without meat. I remember one we had abroad once at an hotel on Good Friday. There were sixteen courses, chiefly fish, no meat even in the soup, only cream and eggs and that sort of thing, all beautifully cooked with exquisite sauces. Even George said he would not mind fasting in that way. It would have been nice if he could have come to meet Mrs. Molyneux to-morrow. I am sure they must be connected in some way, because Lord

And then my mind wandered whilst Lady Atherley entered into some genealogical calculations, for which she has nothing less than a genius. My attention was once again captured by the name de Noel, how introduced I know not, but it gave me an excuse for asking

“Lady Atherley, what is Mrs. de Noel like?”

“Cecilia? She is rather tall and rather fair, with brown hair. Not exactly pretty, but very ladylike-looking. I think she would be very good-looking if she thought more about her dress.”

“Is she clever?”

“No, not at all; and that is very strange, for the Atherleys are such a clever family, and she has quite the ways of a clever person, too; so odd, and so stupid about little things that anyone can remember. I don’t believe she could tell you, if you asked her, what relation her husband was to Lord Stowell.”

“She seems a great favourite.”

“Oh, no one could possibly help liking her. She is the most good-natured person; there is nothing she would not do to help one; she is a dear thing, but most odd, so very odd. I often think it is so fortunate that she married a sailor, because he is so much away from home.”

“Don’t they get on, then?”

“Oh dear, yes; they are devoted to each other, and he thinks everything she does quite perfect. But then he is very different from most men; he thinks so little about eating, and he takes everything so easy; I don’t think he cares what strange people Cecilia asks to the house.”

“Strange people!”

“Well; strange people to have on a visit. Invalids and people that have nowhere else they could go to.”

“Do you mean poor people from the East End?”

“Oh no; some of them are quite rich. She had an idiot there with his mother once who was heir to a very large fortune in the Colonies somewhere; but of course nobody else would have had them, and I think it must have been very uncomfortable. And then once she actually had a woman who had taken to drinking. I did not see her, I am thankful to say, but there was a deformed person once staying there, I saw him being wheeled about the garden. It was very unpleasant. I think people like that should always live shut up.”

There was a little pause, and then Lady Atherley added

“Cecilia has never been the same since her baby died. She used to have such a bright colour before that. He was not quite two years old, but she felt it dreadfully; and it was a great pity, for if he had lived he would have come in for all the Stowell property.”

The door opened.

“Why, George; how late you are, and how wet! Is it raining?”

“Yes; hard.”

“Have you bought the ponies?”

“No; they won’t do at all. But whom do you think I picked up on the way home? You will never guess. Your pet parson, Mr. Austyn.”

“Mr. Austyn!”

“Yes; I found him by the roadside not far from Monk’s cottage, where he had been visiting, looking sadly at a spring-cart, which the owner thereof, one of the Rood Warren farmers, had managed to upset and damage considerably. He was giving Austyn a lift home when the spill took place. So, remembering your hankering and Lindy’s for the society of this young Ritualist, I persuaded him that instead of tramping six miles through the wet he should come here and put up for the night with us; so, leaving the farmer free to get home on his pony, I clinched the matter by promising to send him back to-morrow in time for his eight o’clock service.”

“Oh dear! I wish I had known he was coming. I would have ordered a dinner he would like.”

“Judging by his appearance, I should say the dinner he would like will be easily provided.”

Atherley was right. Mr. Austyn’s dinner consisted of soup, bread, and water. He would not even touch the fish or the eggs elaborately prepared for his especial benefit. Yet he was far from being a skeleton at the feast, to whose immaterial side he contributed a good deal not taking the lead in conversation, but readily following whosoever did, giving his opinions on one topic after another in the manner of a man well informed, cultured, thoughtful, original even, and at the same time with no warmer interest in all he spoke of than the inhabitant of another planet might have shown.

Atherley was impressed and even surprised to a degree unflattering to the rural clergy.

“This is indeed a rara avis of a country curate,” he confided to me after dinner, while Lady Atherley was unravelling with Austyn his connection with various families of her acquaintance. “We shall hear of him in time to come, if, in the meanwhile, he does not starve himself to death. By the way, I lay you odds he sees the ghost. To begin with; he has heard of it everybody has in this neighbourhood; and then St. Anthony himself was never in a more favourable condition for spiritual visitations. Look at him; he is blue with asceticism. But he won’t turn tail to the ghost; he’ll hold his own. There’s metal in him.”

This led me to ask Austyn, as we went down the bachelor’s passage to our rooms, if he were afraid of ghosts.

“No; that is, I don’t feel any fear now. Whether I should do so if face to face with one, is another question. This house has the reputation of being haunted, I believe. Have you seen the ghost yourself?”

“No, but I have seen others who did, or thought they did. Do you believe in ghosts?”

“I do not know that I have considered the subject sufficiently to say whether I do or not. I see no prima facie objection to their appearance. That it would be supernatural offers no difficulty to a Christian whose religion is founded on, and bound up with, the supernatural.”

“If you do see anything, I should like to know.”

I went away, wondering why he repelled as well as attracted me; what it was behind the almost awe-inspiring purity and earnestness I felt in him that left me with a chill sense of disappointment? The question was so perplexing and so interesting that I determined to follow it up next day, and ordered my servant to call me as early as Mr. Austyn was wakened.

In the morning I had just finished dressing, but had not put out my candles, when a knock at the door was followed by the entrance of Austyn himself.

“I did not expect to find you up, Mr. Lyndsay; I knocked gently, lest you should be asleep. In case you were not, I intended to come and tell you that I had seen the ghost.”

“Breakfast is ready,” said a servant at the door.

“Let me come down with you and hear about it,” I said.

We went down through staircase and hall, still plunged in darkness, to the dining-room, where lamps and fire burned brightly. Their glow falling on Austyn’s face showed me how pale it was, and worn as if from watching.

Breakfast was set ready for him, but he refused to touch it.

“But tell me what you saw.”

“I must have slept two or three hours when I awoke with the feeling that there was someone besides myself in the room. I thought at first it was the remains of a dream and would quickly fade away; but it did not, it grew stronger. Then I raised myself in bed and looked round. The space between the sash of the window and the curtains my shutters were not closed allowed one narrow stream of moonlight to enter and lie across the floor. Near this, standing on the brink of it, as it were, and rising dark against it, was a shadowy figure. Nothing was clearly outlined but the face; that I saw only too distinctly. I rose and remained up for at least an hour before it vanished. I heard the clock outside strike the hour twice. I was not looking at it all this time on the contrary, my hands were clasped across my closed eyes; but when from time to time I turned to see if it was gone, it was reminded me of a wild beast waiting to spring, and I seemed to myself to be holding it at bay all the time with a great strain of the will, and, of course” he hesitated for an instant, and then added “in virtue of a higher power.”

The reserve of all his school forbade him to say more, but I understood as well as if he had told me that he had been on his knees, praying all the time, and there rose before my mind a picture of the scene moonlight, kneeling saint, and watching demon, which the leaf of some illustrated missal might have furnished.

The bronze timepiece over the fireplace struck half-past six.

“I wonder if the carriage is at the door,” said Austyn, rather anxiously. He went into the hall and looked out through the narrow windows. There was no carriage visible, and I deeply regretted the second interruption that must follow when it did come.

“Let us walk up the hill and on a little way together. The carriage will overtake us. My curiosity is not yet satisfied.”

“Then first, Mr. Lyndsay, you must go back and drink some coffee; you are not strong as I am, or accustomed to go out fasting into the morning air.”

Outside in the shadow of the hill, where the fog lay thick and white, the gloom and the cold of the night still lingered, but as we climbed the hill we climbed, too, into the brightness of a sunny morning brilliant, amber-tinted above the long blue shadows.

I had to speak first.

“Now tell me what the face was like.”

“I do not think I can. To begin with, I have a very indistinct remembrance of either the form or the colouring. Even at the time my impression of both was very vague; what so overwhelmed and transfixed my attention, to the exclusion of everything besides itself, was the look upon the face.”

“And that?”

“And that I literally cannot describe. I know no words that could depict it, no images that could suggest it; you might as well ask me to tell you what a new colour was like if I had seen it in my dreams, as some people declare they have done. I could convey some faint idea of it by describing its effect upon myself, but that, too, is very difficult that was like nothing I have ever felt before. It was the realisation of much which I have affirmed all my life, and steadfastly believed as well, but only with what might be called a notional assent, as the blind man might believe that light is sweet, or one who had never experienced pain might believe it was something from which the senses shrink. Every day that I have recited the creed, and declared my belief in the Life Everlasting, I have by implication confessed my entire disbelief in any other. I knew that what seemed so solid is not solid, so real is not real; that the life of the flesh, of the senses, of things seen, is but the “stuff that dreams are made of” “a dream within a dream,” as one modern writer has called it; “the shadow of a dream,” as another has it. But last night

He stood still, gazing straight before him, as if he saw something that I could not see.

“But last night,” I repeated, as we walked on again.

“Last night? I not only believed, I saw, I felt it with a sudden intuition conveyed to me in some inexplicable manner by the vision of that face. I felt the utter insignificance of what we name existence, and I perceived too behind it that which it conceals from us the real Life, illimitable, unfathomable, the element of our true being, with its eternal possibilities of misery or joy.”

“And all this came to you through something of an evil nature?”

“Yes; it was like the effect of lightning oh a pitch-dark night the same vivid and lurid illumination of things unperceived before. It must be like the revelation of death, I should think, without, thank God, that fearful sense of the irrevocable which death must bring with it. Will you not rest here?”

For we had reached Beggar’s Stile. But I was not tired for once, so keen, so life-giving was the air, sparkling with that fine elixir whereby morning braces us for the day’s conflict. Below, through slowly-dissolving mists, the village showed as if it smiled, each little cottage hearth lifting its soft spiral of smoke to a zenith immeasurably deep, immaculately blue.

“But the ghost itself?” I said, looking up at him as we both rested our arms upon the gate. “What do you think of that?”

“I am afraid there is no possible doubt what that was. Its face, as I tell you, was a revelation of evil evil and its punishment. It was a lost soul.”

“Do you mean by a lost soul, a soul that is in never-ending torment?”

“Not in physical torment, certainly; that would be a very material interpretation of the doctrine. Besides, the Church has always recognised degree and difference in the punishment of the lost. This, however, they all have in common eternal separation from the Divine Being.”

“Even if they repent and desire to be reunited to Him?”

“Certainly; that must be part of their suffering.”

“And yet you believe in a good God?”

“In what else could I believe, even without revelation? But goodness, divine goodness, is far from excluding severity and wrath, and even vengeance. Here the witness of science and of history are in accord with that of the Christian Church; their first manifestation of God is always of ‘one that is angry with us and threatens evil.’”

The carriage had overtaken us and stopped now close to us. I rose to say good-bye. Austyn shook me by the hand and moved towards the carriage; then, as if checked by a sudden thought, returned upon his steps and stood before me, his earnest eyes fixed upon me as if the whole self-denying soul within him hungered to waken mine.

“I feel I must speak one word before I leave you, even if it be out of season. With the recollection of last night still so fresh, even the serious things of life seem trifles, far more its small conventionalities. Mr. Lyndsay, your friend has made his choice, but you are dallying between belief and unbelief. Oh, do not dally long! We need no spirit from the dead to tell us life is short. Do we not feel it passing quicker and quicker every year? The one thing that is serious in all its shows and delusions is the question it puts to each one of us, and which we answer to our eternal loss or gain. Many different voices call to us in this age of false prophets, but one only threatens as well as invites. Would it not be only wise, prudent even, to give the preference to that? Mr. Lyndsay, I beseech you, accept the teaching of the Church, which is one with that of conscience and of nature, and believe that there is a God, a Sovereign, a Lawgiver, a Judge.”

He was gone, and I still stood thinking of his words, and of his gaze while he spoke them.

The mists were all gone, now, leaving behind them in shimmering dewdrops an iridescent veil on mead and copse and garden; the river gleamed in diamond curves and loops, while in the covert near me the birds were singing as if from hearts that over-brimmed with joy.

And slowly, sadly, I repeated to myself the words Sovereign, Lawgiver, Judge.

I was hungering for bread; I was given a stone.