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

“The room is all ready now,” said Lady Atherley, “but Lucinda has never written to say what train she is coming by.”

“A good thing, too,” said Atherley; “we shall not have to send for her. Those unlucky horses are worked off their legs already. Is that the carriage coming back from Rood Warren? Harold, run and stop it, and tell Marsh to drive round to the door before he goes to the stables. I may as well have a lift down to the other end of the village.”

“What do you want to do at the other end of the village?”

“I don’t want to do anything, but my unlucky fate as a landowner compels me to go over and look at an eel-weir which has just burst. Lindy, come along with me, and cheer me up with one of your ghost stories. You are as good as a Christmas annual.”

“And on your way back,” said Lady Atherley, “would you mind the carriage stopping to leave some brandy at Monk’s? Mr. Austyn told me last night he was so weak, and the doctor has ordered him brandy every hour.”

Atherley was disappointed with what he called my last edition of the ghost; he complained that it was little more definite than the Canon’s.

“Your last two stories are too highflown for my simple tastes. I want a good coherent description of the ghost himself, not the particular emotions he excited. I had expected better things from Austyn. Upon my word, as far as we have gone, old Aunt Eleanour’s is the best. I think Austyn, with his mediaeval turn of mind and his quite mediaeval habit of living upon air, might have managed to raise something with horns and hoofs. It is a curious thing that in the dark ages the devil was always appearing to somebody. He doesn’t make himself so cheap now. He has evidently more to do; but there is a fashion in ghosts as in other things, and that reminds me our ghost, from all we hear of it, is decidedly rococo. If you study the reports of societies that hunt the supernatural, you will find that the latest thing in ghosts is very quiet and commonplace. Rattling chains and blue lights, and even fancy dress, have quite gone out. And the people who see the ghosts are not even startled at first sight; they think it is a visitor, or a man come to wind the clocks. In fact, the chic thing for a ghost in these days is to be mistaken for a living person.”

“What puzzles me is that a sceptic like you can so easily swallow the astonishing coincidence of these different people all having imagined the ghost in the same house.”

“Why, the coincidence is not a bit more astonishing than several people in the same place having the same fever. Nothing in the world is so infectious as ghost-seeing. The oftener a ghost is seen, the oftener it will be seen. In this sort of thing particularly, one fool makes many. No, don’t wait for me. Heaven only knows when I shall be released.”

The door of Monk’s cottage was open, but no one was to be seen within, and no one answered to my knock, so, anxious to see him again, I groped my way up the dark ladder-like stairs to the room above. The first thing I saw was the bed where Monk himself was lying. They had drawn the sheet across his face: I saw what had happened. His wife was standing near, looking not so much grieved as stunned and tired. “Would you like to see him, sir?” she asked, stretching out her withered hand to draw the sheet aside. I was glad afterwards I had not refused, as, but for fear of being ungracious, I would have done.

Since then I have seen death “in state” as it is called invested with more than royal pomp, but I have never felt his presence so majestic as in that poor little garret. I know his seal may be painful, grotesque even: here it was wholly benign and beautiful. All discolorations had disappeared in an even pallor as of old ivory; all furrows of age and pain were smoothed away, and the rude peasant face was transfigured, glorified, by that smile of ineffable and triumphant repose.

Many times that day it rose before me, never more vividly than when, at dinner, Mrs. Molyneux, in colours as brilliant as her complexion, and jewels as sparkling as her eyes, recounted in her silvery treble the latest flowers of fashionable gossip. I am always glad to be one of any audience which Mrs. Molyneux addresses, not so much out of admiration for the discourse itself, as for the charm of gesture and intonation with which it is delivered. But the main question the subject of Atherley’s conversion she did not approach till we were in the drawing-room, luxuriously established in deep and softly-cushioned chairs. Then, near the fire, but turned away from it so as to face us all, and in the prettiest of attitudes, she began, gracefully emphasising her more important points by movements of her spangled fan.

“I do not mention the name of the religion I wish to speak to you about, because now I hope you won’t be angry, but I am going to be quite horribly rude because Sir George is certain to be so prejudiced against oh yes, Sir George, you are; everybody is at first. Even I was, because it has been so horribly misrepresented by people who really know nothing about it. For instance, I have myself heard it said that it was only a kind of spiritualism. On the contrary, it is very much opposed to it, and has quite convinced me for one of the wickedness and danger of spiritualism.”

“Well, that is so much to its credit,” Atherley generously acknowledged.

“And then, people said it was very immoral. Far from that; it has a very high ethical standard indeed a very moral aim. One of its chief objects is to establish a universal brotherhood amongst men of all nations and sects.”

“A what?” asked Atherley.

“A universal brotherhood.”

“My dear Mrs. Molyneux, you don’t mean to seriously offer that as a novelty. I never heard anything so hackneyed in my life. Why, it has been preached ad nauseam for centuries!”

“By the Christian Church, I suppose you mean. And pray how have they practised their preaching?”

“Oh, but excuse me; that is not the question. If your religion is as brand-new as you gave me to understand, there has been no time for practice. It must be all theory, and I hoped I was going to hear something original.”

“Oh really, Sir George, you are quite too naughty. How can I explain things if you are so flippant and impatient? In one sense, it is a very old religion; it is the truth which is in all religions, and some of its interesting doctrines were taught ages before Christianity was ever heard of, and proved, too, by miracles far far more wonderful than any in the New Testament. However, it is no good talking to you about that; what I really wanted you to understand is how infinitely superior it is to all other religions in its theological teaching. You know, Sir George, you are always finding fault with all the Christian Churches and even with the Mahommedans too, for that matter because they are so anthropomorphic, because they imply that God is a personal being. Very well, then, you cannot say that about this religion, because this is what is so remarkable and elevated about it it has nothing to do with God at all.”

“Nothing to do with what did you say?” asked Lady Atherley, diverted by this last remark from a long row of loops upon an ivory needle which she appeared to be counting.

“Nothing to do with God.”

“Do you know, Lucinda,” said Lady Atherley, “if you would not mind, I fancy the coffee is just coming in, and perhaps it would be as well just to wait for a little, you know just till the servants are out of the room? They might perhaps think it a little odd.”

“Yes,” said Atherley, “and even unorthodox.”

Mrs. Molyneux submitted to this interruption with the greatest sweetness and composure, and dilated on the beauty of the new chair-covers till Castleman and the footman had retired, when, with a coffee-cup instead of a fan in her exquisite hand, she took up the thread of her exposition.

“As I was saying, the distinction of this religion is that it has nothing to do with God. Of course it has other great advantages, which I will explain later, like its cultivation of a sixth sense, for instance

“Do you mean common sense?”

“Jane, what am I to do with Sir George? He is really incorrigible. How can I possibly explain things if you will not be serious?”

“I never was more serious in my life. Show me a religion which cultivates common sense, and I will embrace it at once.”

“It is just because I knew you would go on in this way that I do not attempt to say anything about the supernatural side of this religion, though it is very important and most extraordinary. I assure you, my dear Jane, the powers that people develop under it are really marvellous. I have friends who can see into another world as plainly as you can see this drawing-room, and talk as easily with spirits as I am talking with you.”

“Indeed!” said Lady Atherley politely, with her eyes fixed anxiously on something which had gone wrong with her knitting.

“Unfortunately, for that kind of thing you require to undergo such severe treatment; my health would not stand it; the London season itself is almost too much for me. It is a pity, for they all say I have great natural gifts that way, and I should have so loved to have taken it up; but to begin with, one must have no animal food and no stimulants, and the doctors always tell me I require a great deal of both.”

“Besides, lé jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle,” said Atherley, “if the spirits you are to converse with are anything like those we used to meet in your drawing-room.”

“That is not the same thing at all; these were only spooks.”

“Only what?”

“No, I will not explain; you only mean to make fun of it, and there is nothing to laugh at. What I am trying to show you is that side of the religion you will really approve the unanthropomorphic side. It is not anything like atheism, you know, as some ill-natured people have said; it does not declare there is no God; it only declares that it is worse than useless to try and think of Him, far less pray to Him because it is simply impossible. And that is quite scientific and philosophical, is it not? For all the great men are agreed now that the conditioned can know nothing of the unconditioned, and the finite can know nothing of the infinite. It is quite absurd to try, you know; and it is equally absurd to say anything about Him. You can’t call Him Providence, because, as the universe is governed by fixed laws, there is nothing for him to provide; and we have no business to call Him Creator, because we don’t really know that things were created. Besides,” said Mrs. Molyneux, resuming her fan, which she furled and unfurled as she continued, “I was reading in a delightful book the other day I can’t remember the author’s name, but I think it begins with K or P. It explained so clearly that if the universe was created at all, it was created by the human mind. Then you can’t call Him Father it is quite blasphemous; and it is almost as bad to say He is merciful or loving, or anything of that kind, because mercy and love are only human attributes; and so is consciousness too, therefore we know He cannot be conscious; and I believe, according to the highest philosophical teaching, He has not any Being. So that altogether it is impossible, without being irreverent, to think of Him, far less speak to Him or of Him, because we cannot do so without ascribing to Him some conceivable quality and He has not any. Indeed, even to speak of Him as He is not right; the pronoun is very anthropomorphic and misleading. So, when you come to consider all this carefully, it is quite evident though it sounds rather strange at first that the only way you can really honour and reverence God is by forgetting Him altogether.”

Here Mrs. Molyneux paused, panting prettily for breath; but quickly recovering herself, proceeded: “So in fact, it is just the same, practically speaking remember I say only practically speaking as if there were no God; and this religion

“Excuse me,” said Atherley; “but if, as you have so forcibly explained to us, there is, practically speaking, no God, why should we hamper ourselves with any religion at all?”

“Why, to satisfy the universal craving after an ideal; the yearning for something beyond the sordid realities of animal existence and of daily life; to comfort, to elevate

“No, no, my dear Mrs. Molyneux; pardon me, but the sooner we get rid of all this sort of rubbish the better. It is the indulgence they have given to such feelings that has made all the religions such a curse to the world. I don’t believe, to begin with, that they are universal. I never experienced any such cravings and yearnings except when I was out of sorts; and I never met a thoroughly happy or healthy person who did. If people keep their bodies in good order and their minds well employed, they have no time for yearnings. It was bad enough when there was some pretext for them; when we imagined there was a God and a world which was better than this one. But now we know there is not the slightest ground for supposing anything of the kind, we had better have the courage of our opinions, and live up to them, or down to them. As to the word ‘ideal,’ it ought to be expunged from the vocabulary; I would like to make it penal to pronounce, or write, or print the word for a century. Why, we have been surfeited with the ideal by the Christian Churches; that’s why we find the real so little to our taste. We’ve been so long fed upon sweet trash, we can’t relish wholesome food. The cure for that is to take wholesome food or starve, not provide another sickly substitute. Pray, let us have no more religions. On the contrary, our first duty is to be as irreligious as possible to believe in as little as we can, to trust in nobody but ourselves, to hope for nothing but the actual, to get rid of all high-flown notions of human beings and their destiny, and, above all, to avoid as poison the ideal, the sublime, the

His words were drowned at last in musical cries of indignation from Mrs. Molyneux. I remember no more of the discussion, except that Atherley continued to reiterate his doctrine in different words, and Mrs. Molyneux to denounce it with unabated fervour.

My thoughts wandered I heard no more. I was tired and depressed, and felt grateful to Lady Atherley when, with invariable punctuality, at a quarter to eleven, she interrupted the symposium by rising and proposing that we should all go to bed.

My last distinct recollection of that evening is of Mrs. Molyneux, with the folds of her gown in one hand, and a bedroom candlestick in the other, mounting the dark oak stairs, and calling out fervently as she went

“Oh, how I pray that I may see the ghost!”

The night was stormy, and I could not sleep. The wind wailed fitfully outside the house, while within doors and windows rattled, and on the stairs and in the passages wandered strange and unaccountable noises, like stealthy footsteps or stifled voices. To this dreary accompaniment, as I lay awake in the darkness, I heard the lessons of the last few days repeated: witness after witness rose and gave his varying testimony; and when, before the discord and irony of it all, I bitterly repeated Pilate’s question, the smile on that dead face would rise before me, and then I hoped again.

Between three and four the wind fell during a short space, and all responsive noises ceased. For a few minutes reigned absolute silence, then it was broken by two piercing cries the cries of a woman in terror or in pain.

They disturbed even the sleepers, it was evident; for when I reached the end of my passage I heard opening doors, hurrying footsteps, and bells ringing violently in the gallery. After a little the stir was increased, presumably by servants arriving from the farther wing; but no one came my way till Atherley himself, in his dressing-gown, went hurriedly downstairs.

“Anything wrong?” I called as he passed me.

“Only Mrs. Molyneux’s prayer has been granted.”

“Of course she was bound to see it,” he said next day, as we sat together over a late breakfast. “It would have been a miracle if she had not; but if I had known the interview was to be followed by such unpleasant consequences I shouldn’t have asked her down. I was wandering about for hours looking for an imaginary bottle of sal-volatile Jane described as being in her sitting-room: and Jane herself was up till late or rather early this morning, trying to soothe Mrs. Molyneux, who does not appear to have found the ghost quite such pleasant company as she expected. Oh yes, Jane is down; she breakfasted in her own room. I believe she is ordering dinner at this minute in the next room.”

Hardly had he said the words when outside, in the hall, resounded a prolonged and stentorian wail.

“What on earth is the matter now?” said Atherley, rising and making for the door. He opened it just in time for us to see Mrs. Mallet go by Mrs. Mallet bathed in tears and weeping as I never have heard an adult weep before or since in a manner which is graphically and literally described by the phrase “roaring and crying.”

“Why, Mrs. Mallet! What on earth is the matter?”

“Send for Mrs. de Noel,” cried Mrs. Mallet in tones necessarily raised to a high and piercing key by the sobs with which they were accompanied. “Send for Mrs. de Noel; send for that dear lady, and she will tell you whether a word has been said against my character till I come here, which I never wish to do, being frightened pretty nigh to death with what one told me and the other; and if you don’t believe me, ask Mrs. Stubbs as keeps the little sweet-shop near the church, if any one in the village will so much as come up the avenue after dark; and says to me, the very day I come here, ‘You have a nerve,’ she says; ’I wouldn’t sleep there if you was to pay me,’ she says; and I says, not wishing to speak against a family that was cousin to Mrs. de Noel, ’Noises is neither here nor there,’ I says, ’and ghostisses keeps mostly to the gentry’s wing,’ I says. And then to say as I put about that they was all over the house, and frighten the London lady’s maid, which all I said was and Hann can tell you that I speak the truth, for she was there ’some says one thing,’ says I, ’and some says another, but I takes no notice of nothink.’ But put up with a deal, I have more than ever I told a soul since I come here, which I promised Mrs. de Noel when she asked me to oblige her; which the blue lights I have seen a many times, and tapping of coffin-nails on the wall, and never close my eyes for nights sometimes, but am entirely wore away, and my nerve that weak; and then to be so hurt in my feelings, and spoke to as I am not accustomed, but always treated everywhere I goes with the greatest of kindness and respect, which ask Mrs. de Noel she will tell you, since ever I was a widow; but pack my things I will, and walk every step of the way, if it was pouring cats and dogs, I would, rather than stay another minute here to be so put upon; and send for Mrs. de Noel if you don’t believe me, and she will tell you the many high families she recommended me, and always give satisfaction. Send for Mrs. de Noel

The swing door closed behind her, and the sounds of her grief and her reiterated appeals to Mrs. de Noel died slowly away in the distance.

“What on earth have you been saying to her?” said Atherley to his wife, who had come out into the hall.

“Only that she behaved very badly indeed in speaking about the ghost to Mrs. Molyneux’s maid, who, of course, repeated it all directly and made Lucinda nervous. She is a most troublesome, mischievous old woman.”

“But she can cook. Pray what are we to do for dinner?”

“I am sure I don’t know. I never knew anything so unlucky as it all is, and Lucinda looking so ill.”

“Well, you had better send for the doctor.”

“She won’t hear of it. She says nobody could do her any good but Cecilia.”

“What! ‘Send for Mrs. de Noel?’ Poor Cissy! What do these excited females imagine she is going to do?”

“I don’t know, but I do wish we could get her here.”

“But she is in London, is she not, with Aunt Henrietta?”

“Yes, and only comes home to-day.”

“Well, I will tell you what we might do if you want her badly. Telegraph to her to London and ask her to come straight on here.”

“I suppose she is sure to come?”

“Like a shot, if you say we are all ill.”

“No, that would frighten her. I will just say we want her particularly.”

“Yes, and say the carriage shall meet the 5.15 at Whitford station, and then she will feel bound to come. And as I shall not be back in time, send Lindy to meet her. It will do him good. He looks as if he had been sitting up all night with the ghost.”

It was a melancholy day. The wind was quieter, but the rain still fell. Indoors we were all in low spirits, not even excepting the little boys, much concerned about Tip, who was not his usual brisk and complacent self. His nose was hot, his little stump of a tail was limp, he hid himself under chairs and tables, whence he turned upon us sorrowful and beseeching eyes, and, most alarming symptom of all, refused sweet biscuits. During the afternoon he was confided to me by his little masters while they made an expedition to the stables, and I was sitting reading by the library fire with the invalid beside me when Lady Atherley came in to propose I should go into the drawing-room and talk to Mrs. Molyneux, who had just come down.

“Did she ask to see me?”

“No; but when I proposed your going in, she did not say no.”

I did as I was asked to do, but with some misgivings. It was one of the few occasions when my misfortune became an advantage. No one, especially no woman, was likely to rebuff too sharply the intruder who dragged himself into her presence. So far from that, Mrs. Molyneux, who was leaning against the mantelpiece and looking down listlessly into the fire, moved to welcome me with a smile and to offer me a hand startlingly cold. But after that she resumed her first attitude and made no attempt to converse she, the most ready, the most voluble of women. Then followed an awkward pause, which I desperately broke by saying I was afraid she was not better.

“Better! I was not ill,” she answered, almost impatiently, and walked away towards the other side of the room. I understood that she wished to be alone, and was moving towards the door as quietly as possible when I was suddenly checked by her hand upon my elbow.

“Mr. Lyndsay, why are you going? Was I rude? I did not mean to be. Forgive me; I am so miserable.”

“You could not be rude, I think, even if you wished to. It is I who am inconsiderate in intruding

“You are not intruding; please stay.”

“I would gladly stay if I could help you.”

Can any one help me, I wonder? She went slowly back to the fire and sat down upon the fender-stool, and resting her chin upon her hand, and looking dreamily before her, repeated

“Can any one help me, I wonder?”

I sat down on a chair near her and said

“Do you think it would help you to talk of what has frightened you?”

“I don’t think I can. I would tell you, Mr. Lyndsay, if I could tell any one; for you know what it is to be weak and suffering; you are as sympathetic as a woman, and more merciful than some women. But part of the horror of it all is that I cannot explain it. Words seem to be no good, just because I have used them so easily and so meaninglessly all my life just as words and nothing more.”

“Can you tell me what you saw?”

“A face, only a face, when I woke up suddenly. It looked as if it were painted on the darkness. But oh, the dreadfulness of it and what it brought with it! Do you remember the line, ’Bring with you airs from heaven or blasts from hell’? Yes, it was in hell, because hell is not a great gulf, like Dante described, as I used to think; it is no place at all it is something we make ourselves. I felt all this as I saw the face, for we ourselves are not what we think. Part of what I used to play with was true enough; it is all Maya, a delusion, this sense life it is no life at all. The actual life is behind, under it all; it goes deep deep down, it stretches on, on and yet it has nothing to do with space or time. I feel as if I were beating myself against a stone wall. My words can have no sense for you any more than they would have had for me yesterday.”

“But tell me, why should this discovery of this other life make you so miserable?”

“Oh, because it brings such a want with it. How can I explain? It is like a poor wretch stupefied with drink. Don’t you know the poor creatures in the Eastend sometimes drink just that they may not feel how hungry and how cold they are? ‘They remember their misery no more.’ Is the life of the world and of outward things like that, if we live too much in it? I used to be so contented with it all its pleasures, its little triumphs, even its gossip; and what I called my aspirations I satisfied with what was nothing more than phrases. And now I have found my real self, now I am awake, I want much more, and there is nothing only a great silence, a great loneliness like that in the face. And the theories I talked about are no comfort any more; they are just what pretty speeches would be to a person in torture. Oh, Mr. Lyndsay, I always feel that you are real, that you are good; tell me what you know. Is there nothing but this dark void beyond when life falls away from us?”

She lifted towards me a face quivering with excitement, and eyes that waited wild and famished for my answer the answer I had not for her, and then indeed I tasted the full bitterness of the cup of unbelief.

“No,” she said presently, “I knew it; no one can do me any good but Cecilia de Noel.”

“And she believes?”

“It is not what she believes, it is what she is.”

She rested her head upon her hand and looked musingly towards the window, down which the drops were trickling, and said

“Ever since I have known Cecilia I have always felt that if all the world failed this would be left. Not that I really imagined the world would fail me, but you know how one imagines things, how one asks oneself questions. If I was like this, if I was like that, what should I do? I used to say to myself, if the very worst happened to me, if I was ill of some loathsome disease from which everybody shrank away, or if my mind was unhinged and I was tempted with horrible temptations like I have read about, I would go to Cecilia. She would not turn from me; she would run to meet me as the father in the parable did, not because I was her friend but because I was in trouble. All who are in trouble are Cecilia’s friends, and she feels to them just as other people feel towards their own children. And I could tell her everything, show her everything. Others feel the same; I have heard them say so men as well as women. I know why Cecilia’s pity is so reverent, so pure. A great London doctor said to me once, ’Remember, nothing is shocking or disgusting to a doctor.’ That is like Cecilia. No suffering could ever be disgusting or shocking to Cecilia, nor ridiculous, nor grotesque. The more humiliating it was, the more pitiful it would be to her. Anything that suffers is sacred to Cecilia. She would comfort, as if she went on her knees to one; and her touch on one’s wounds, one’s ugliest wounds, would be like,” she hesitated and looked about her in quest of a comparison, then, pointing to a picture over the door, a picture of the Magdalene, kissing the bleeding feet upon the Cross, ended, “like that.”

“Oh, Mrs. Molyneux,” I cried, “if there be love like that in the world, then

The door opened and Castleman entered.

“If you please, sir, the carriage is at the door.”