"This shut me up rather; but I plucked up courage presently.
"'You don't seem to like going to church, Miss Lizzie.'
"Her face flushed.
"'Who dares to say so? I am very regular in my attendance.'
"'Not a doubt of it. But you don't enjoy being there.'
"'Confess, now. - You don't like my sermons.'
"'Do you like them yourself, Mr. Armstrong?'
"Here was a floorer! Did I like them myself? - I really couldn't honestly
say I did. I was not greatly interested in them, further than as they
were my own, and my best attempts to say something about something I
knew nothing about. I was silent. She stood looking at me out of clear
"'Now you have begun this conversation, Mr. Armstrong, I will go on with
it,' she said, at length. 'It was not of my seeking. - I do not think you
believe what you say in the pulpit.'
"Not believe what I said! Did I believe what I said? Or did I only
believe that it was to be believed? The tables were turned with a
vengeance. Here was the lay lamb, attacked and about to be worried by
the wolf clerical, turning and driving the said wolf to bay. I stood and
felt like a convicted criminal before the grey eyes of my judge. And
somehow or other I did not hate those clear pools of light. They were
very beautiful. But not one word could I find to say for myself. I stood
and looked at her, and I fear I began to twitch at my neck cloth, with a
vague instinct that I had better go and hang myself. I stared and
stared, and no doubt got as red as a turkey-cock - till it began to be
very embarrassing indeed. What refuge could there be from one who spoke
the truth so plainly? And how do you think I got out of it?" asked Mr.
Armstrong of me, John Smith, who, as he told the story, felt almost in
as great confusion and misery as the narrator must have been in at that
time, although now he looked amazingly jolly, and breathed away at his
cigar with the slow exhalations of an epicure.
"Mortal cannot tell," I answered.
"One mortal can," rejoined he, with a laugh. - "I fell on my knees, and
made speechless love to her."
Here came a pause. The countenance of the broad-church-man changed as if
a lovely summer cloud had passed over it. The jolly air vanished, and he
looked very solemn for a little while.
"There was no coxcombry in it, Smith. I may say that for myself. It was
the simplest and truest thing I ever did in my life. How was I to help
it? There stood the visible truth before me, looking out of the woman's
grey eyes. What was I to do? I thank God, I have never seen the truth
plain before me, let it look ever so ghostly, without rushing at it. All
my advances have been by a sudden act - to me like an inspiration; - an
act done in terror, almost, lest I should stop and think about it, and
fail to do it. And here was no ghost, but a woman-angel, whose _Thou
art the man_ was spoken out of profundities of sweetness and truth.
Could I turn my back upon her? Could I parley with her? - with the Truth?
No. I fell on my knees, weeping like a child; for all my misery, all my
sense of bondage and untruth, broke from me in those tears.
"My hat had fallen off as I knelt. My head was bowed on my hands. I felt
as if she could save me. I dared not look up. She tells me since that
she was bewildered and frightened, but I discovered nothing of that. At
length I felt a light pressure, a touch of healing, fall on my bended
head. It was her hand. Still I hid my face, for I was ashamed before
"'Come,' she said, in a low voice, which I dare say she compelled to be
firm; 'come with me into the Westland Woods. There we can talk. Some one
may come this way.'
"She has told me since that a kind of revelation came to her at the
moment; a sight not of the future but of the fact; and that this lifted
her high above every feeling of mere propriety, substituting for it a
conviction of right. She felt that God had given this man to her; and
she no more hesitated to ask me to go with her into the woods, than she
would hesitate to go with me now if I asked her. And indeed if she had
not done so, I don't know what would have come of it - how the story
would have ended. I believe I should be kneeling there now, a whitened
skeleton, to the terror and warning of all false churchmen who should
pass through the lonely lane.
"I rose at once, like an obedient child, and turned in the direction of
the Westland Woods, feeling that she was by my side, but not yet daring
to look at her. - Now there are few men to whom I would tell the trifle
that followed. It was a trifle as to the outside of it; but it is
amazing what _virtue_, in the old meaning of the word, may lie in a
trifle. The recognition of virtue is at the root of all magical spells,
and amulets, and talismans. Mind, I felt from the first that you and I
would understand each other."
"You rejoice my heart," I said.
"Well, the first thing I had to do, as you may suppose, to make me fit
to look at her, was to wipe my eyes. I put my hand in my pocket; then my
first hand in the breast pocket; then the other hand in the other
pocket; and the slow-dawning awful truth became apparent, that here was
a great brute of a curate, who had been crying like a baby, and had no
handkerchief. A moment of keen despair followed - chased away by a vision
of hope, in the shape of a little white cloud between me and the green
grass. This cloud floated over a lady's hand, and was in fact a delicate
handkerchief. I took it, and brought it to my eyes, which gratefully
acknowledged the comfort. And the scent of the lavender - not lavender
water, but the lavender itself, that puts you in mind of country
churches, and old bibles, and dusky low-ceiled parlours on Sunday
afternoons - the scent of the lavender was so pure and sweet, and lovely!
It gave me courage.
"'May I keep it?' I asked
"'Yes. Keep it,' she answered.
"'Will you take my arm now?'
"For answer, she took my arm, and we entered the woods. It was a summer
afternoon. The sun had outflanked the thick clouds of leaves that
rendered the woods impregnable from overhead, and was now shining in, a
little sideways, with that slumberous light belonging to summer
afternoons, in which everything, mind and all, seems half asleep and all
"'Let me carry the jug,' I said.
"'No,' she answered, with a light laugh; 'you would be sure to spill the
cream, and spoil both your coat and mamma's tea.'
"'Then put it down in this hollow till we come back.'
"'It would be full of flies and beetles in a moment. Besides we won't
come back this way, shall we? I can carry it quite well. Gentlemen don't
like carrying things.'
"I feared lest the tone the conversation had assumed, might lead me away
from the resolution I had formed while kneeling in the lane. So, as
usual with me, I rushed blindly on the performance.
"'Miss Lizzie, I am a hypocritical and unhappy wretch.'
"She looked up at me with a face full of compassionate sympathy. I could
have lost myself in that gaze. But I would not be turned from my
purpose, of which she had no design, though her look had almost the
power; and, the floodgates of speech once opened, out it came, the whole
confession I have made to you, in what form or manner, I found, the very
first time I looked back upon the relation, that I had quite forgotten.
"All the time, the sun was sending ever so many sloping ladders of light
down through the trees, for there was a little mist rising that
afternoon; and I felt as if they were the same kind of ladder that Jacob
saw, inviting a man to climb up to the light and peace of God. I felt as
if upon them invisible angels were going up and down all through the
summer wood, and that the angels must love our woods as we love their
skies. And amidst the trees and the ladders of ether, we walked, and I
talked, and Lizzie listened to all I had to say, without uttering a
syllable till I had finished.
"At length, having disclosed my whole bondage and grief, I ended with
"'Now, what is to be done?'
"She looked up in my face with those eyes of truth, and said:
"'That money must be paid, Mr. Armstrong.'
"'But how?' I responded, in despair.
"She did not seem to heed my question, but she really answered it.
"'And, if I were you, I would do no more duty till it was paid.'
"Here was decision with a vengeance. It was more than I had bargained
for. I was dumb. A moment's reflection, however, showed me that she was
perfectly right - that what I had called _decision with a
vengeance_, was merely the utterance of a child's perception of the
true way to walk in.
"Still I was silent; for long vistas of duty, and loss, and painful
action and effort opened before me. At length I said:
"'You are quite right, Miss Lizzie.'
"'I wish I could pay it for you,' she rejoined, looking up in my face
with an expression of still tenderness, while the tears clouded her eyes
just as clouds of a deeper grey come over the grey depths of some summer
"'But you can help me to pay it.'
"'Love me,' I said, and no more. I could not.
"The only answer she made, was to look up at me once more, then stop,
and, turning towards me, draw herself gently against my side, as she
held my arm. It was enough - was it not?
"_Love me_, I said, and she did love me; and she's down stairs, as
I told you; and I think she is not unhappy."
"But you're not going to stop there," I said.
"No, I'm not. - That very evening I told the vicar that I must go. He
pressed for my reasons; but I managed to avoid giving a direct answer. I
begged him to set me at liberty as soon as possible, meaning, when he
should have provided himself with a substitute. But he took offence at
last, and told me I might go when I pleased; for he was quite able to
perform the duties himself. After this, I felt it would be unpleasant
for him as well as for me, if I remained, and so I took him at his word.
And right glad I was not to have to preach any more to Lizzie. It was
time for me to act instead of talk.
"But what was I to do? - The moment the idea of ceasing to _do
church_ was entertained by me, the true notion of what I was to do
instead presented itself. It was this. I would apply to my cousin, the
accountant. He was an older man, considerably, than myself, and had
already made a fortune in his profession. We had been on very good terms
indeed, considering that he was a dissenter, and all but hated the
church; while, I fear, I quite despised dissenters. I had often dined
with him, and he had found out that I had a great turn for figures, as
he called it. Having always been fond of mathematics, I had been able to
assist him in arriving at a true conclusion on what had been to him a
knotty point connected with life-insurance; and consequently he had a
high opinion of my capacity in his department.
"I wrote to him, telling him I had resolved to go into business for a
time. I did not choose to enlighten him further; and I fear I fared the
better with him from his fancying that I must have begun to entertain
doubts concerning church-establishments. I had the cunning not to ask
him to employ me; for I thought it very likely he would request my
services, which would put me in a better position with him. And it fell
out as I had anticipated. He replied at once, offering me one hundred
and fifty pounds to begin, with the prospect of an annual advance of
twenty pounds, if, upon further trial, we both found the arrangement to
our minds. I knew him to be an honourable man, and accepted the proposal
at once. And I cannot tell how light-hearted I felt as I folded up my
canonicals, and put them in a box to be left, for the meantime, in the
charge of my landlady.
"I was troubled with no hesitation as to the propriety of the
proceeding. Of course I felt that if it had been mere money-making, a
clergyman ought to have had nothing to do with it; but I felt now, on
the other hand, that if any man was bound to pay his debts, a clergyman
was; in fact, that he could not do his duty till he had paid his debts;
and that the wrong was not in turning to business now, but in having
undertaken the office with a weight of filthy lucre on my back and my
conscience, which my pocket could never relieve them of. Any scruple
about the matter, I felt would be only superstition; that, in fact, it
was a course of action worthy of a man, and therefore of a clergyman. I
thought well enough of the church, too, to believe that every man of any
manliness in it, would say that I had done right. And, to tell the
truth, so long as Lizzie was satisfied with me, I did not care for
archdeacon, or bishop. I meant just to drop out of the ranks of the
clergy without sign, and keep my very existence as secret as possible,
until the moment I had achieved my end, when I would go to my bishop,
and tell him all, requesting to be reinstated in my sacred office. There
was only one puzzle in the affair, and that was how the act towards Mrs.
Payton in regard to her daughter's engagement to me. The old lady was
not gifted with much common sense, I knew; and I feared both that she
would be shocked at the idea, and that she would not keep my secret. Of
course I consulted Lizzie about it. She had been thinking about it
already, and had concluded that the best way would be for her to tell
her mother the fact of our engagement, and for me to write to her from
London that I did not intend taking a second charge for some time yet;
and so leave Lizzie to act for the rest as occasion might demand. All
this was very easily managed, and in the course of another week, chiefly
devoted to the Westland Woods, I found myself at a desk in Cannon
"And now began a real experience of life. I had resolved to regard the
money I earned as the ransom-money of the church, paid by her for the
redemption of an erring servant from the power of Mammon: I would
therefore spend upon myself not one penny more than could be helped.
With this view, and perhaps with a lurking notion of penance in some
corner of my stupid brain, I betook myself to a lodging house in Hatton
Garden, where I paid just three shillings a week for a bedroom, if that
could be called a room which was rather a box, divided from a dozen
others by partitions of seven or eight feet in height. I had, besides,
the use of a common room, with light and fire, and the use of a kitchen
for cooking my own victuals, if I required any, presided over by an old
man, who was rather dirtier than necessity could justify, or the amount
of assistance he rendered could excuse. But I managed to avoid this
region of the establishment, by both breakfasting and dining in
eating-houses, of which I soon found out the best and cheapest. It is
amazing upon how little a man with a good constitution, a good
conscience, and an object, can live in London. I lived and throve. My
bedroom, though as small as it could possibly have been, was clean, with
all its appointments; and for a penny a week additional, I had the use
of a few newspapers. The only luxuries I indulged in, besides one pipe
of bird's-eye a day, were writing verses, and teaching myself German.
This last led to some little extravagance, for I soon came to buy German
books at the bookstalls; but I thought the church would get the
advantage of it by and by; and so I justified myself in it. I translated
a great many German songs. Now and then you will hear my brother sing
one of them. He was the only one of my family who knew where I lived.
The others addressed their letters to my cousin's place of business. My
father was dreadfully cut up at my desertion of the church, as he
considered it. But I told my brother the whole story, and he went home,
as he declared, prouder of his big brother than if he had been made a
bishop of. I believe he soon comforted the dear old man, by helping him
to see the matter in its true light; and not one word of reproach did I
ever receive from his lips or his pen. He did his best likewise to keep
the whole affair a secret.
"But a thousand pounds with interest, was a dreadful sum. However, I
paid the interest and more than fifty pounds of the principal the first
year. One good thing was, I had plenty of clothes, and so could go a
long time without becoming too shabby for business. I repaired them
myself. I brushed my own boots. Occasionally I washed my own collars.
"But it was rather dreadful to think of the years that must pass before
I could be clear, before I could marry Lizzie, before I could open my
mouth again to utter truths which I now began to _see_, and which
grew dearer to me than existence itself. As to Lizzie, I comforted
myself by thinking that it did not matter much whether we were married
or not - we loved each other; and that was all that made marriage itself
a good thing, and we had the good thing as it was. We corresponded
regularly, and I need not say that this took a great many hours from
German and other luxuries, and made the things I did not like, much
easier to bear.
"I am not stoic enough to be able to say that the baseness and meanness
of things about me gave me no discomfort. In my father's house, I had
been used to a little simple luxury, for he liked to be comfortable
himself, and could not be so, unless he saw every one comfortable about
him as well. At college, likewise, I had not thwarted the tendency to
self-indulgence, as my condition now but too plainly testified. It will
be clear enough to you, Mr. Smith, that there must have been things
connected with such a mode of life, exceedingly distasteful to one who
had the habits of a gentleman; but it was not the circumstances so much
as the companions of my location, that bred me discomfort. The people
who shared the same roof with me, I felt bound to acknowledge as so
sharing, although at first it was difficult to know how to behave to
them, and their conduct sometimes caused me excessive annoyance. They
were of all births and breedings, but almost all of them, like myself,
under a cloud. It was not much that I had to associate with them; but
even while glancing at a paper before going up to my room, for I allowed
myself no time for that at the office, I could not help occasionally
hearing language which disgusted me to the back-bone, and made me say to
myself, as I went slowly up the stairs, 'My sins have found me out, and
I am in hell for them.' Then, as I sat on the side of my bed in my
stall, the vision of the past would come before me in all its
beauty - the Westland Woods, the open country, the comfortable abode, and
above all, the homely gracious old church, with its atmosphere of ripe
sacredness and age-long belief; for now I looked upon that reading-desk,
and that pulpit, with new eyes and new thoughts, as I will presently try
to show you. I had not really lost them, in the sense in which I
regarded them now, as types of a region of possibly noble work; but even
with their old aspect, they would have seemed more honourable than this
constant labour in figures from morning to night, till I thought
sometimes that the depth of punishment would be to have to reckon to all
eternity. But, as I have said, I had my consolations - Lizzie's letters,
my books, a walk to Hampstead Heath on a holiday, an occasional peep
into Goethe or Schiller on a bright day in St. Lawrence Pountney
church-yard, to which I managed to get admittance; and, will you believe
it? going to a city church on Sundays. More of this anon. So that, if I
was in hell for my sins, it was at least not one of Swedenborg's hells.
Never before did I understand what yet I had always considered one of
the most exquisite sonnets I knew:
"Mourner, that dost deserve thy mournfulness,
Call thyself punished, call the earth thy hell;
Say, 'God is angry, and I earned it well;
'I would not have him smile and not redress.'
Say this, and straightway all thy grief grows less.
'God rules at least, I find, as prophets tell,
'And proves it in this prison.' Straight thy cell
Smiles with an unsuspected loveliness.
- 'A prison - and yet from door and window-bar,
'I catch a thousand breaths of his sweet air;
'Even to me, his days and nights are fair;
'He shows me many a flower, and many a star;
'And though I mourn, and he is very far,
'He does not kill the hope that reaches there.'"
"Where did you get that wonderful sonnet?" I cried, hardly interrupting
him, for when he came to the end of it, he paused with a solemn pause.
"It is one of the stars of the higher heavens which I spied through my
"Will you give me a copy of it?"
"With all my heart. It has never been in print."
"Then your star reminds me of that quaint simile of Henry Vaughan,
'If a star were confined into a tomb,
Her captive flames must needs burn there;
But when the hand that locked her up gives room,
She'll shine through all the sphere.'"
"Ah yes; I know the poem. That is about the worst verse in it, though."
"What a number of verses you know!"
"They stick to me somehow."
"Is the sonnet your own?"
"My dear fellow, how could I speak in praise of it as I do, if it were
my own? I would say 'I wish it were!' only that would be worse
selfishness than coveting a man's purse. No. It is not mine."
"Well, will you go on with your story - if you will yet oblige me."
"I will. But I fear you will think it strange that I should be so
communicative to one whose friendship I have so lately gained."
"I believe there is a fate in such things," I answered.
"Well, I yield to it - if I do not weary you?"
"Go on. There is positively not the least danger of that."
"Well, it was not to hell I was really sent, but to school - and that not
a fashionable boarding, or expensive public school, but a day-school
like a Scotch parish school - to learn the conditions and ways and
thoughts of my brothers and sisters.
"I soon got over the disgust I felt at the coarseness of the men I met.
Indeed I found amongst business-gentlemen what affected me with the same
kind of feeling - only perhaps more profoundly - a coarseness not of the
social so much as of the spiritual nature - in a word, genuine
selfishness; whereas this quality was rather less remarkable in those
who had less to be selfish about. I do not say therefore that they had
less of it. - I soon saw that their profanity had chiefly a negative
significance; but it was long before I could get sufficiently accustomed
to their vileness, their beastliness - I beg the beast's pardon! - to keep
from leaving the room when a vein of that sort was opened. But I
succeeded in schooling myself to bear it. 'For,' thought I, 'there must
be some bond - some ascertainable and recognizable bond between these men
and me; I mean some bond that might show itself as such to them and me.'
I found out, before long, that there was a tolerably broad and visible
one - nothing less than our human nature, recognized as such. For by
degrees I came to give myself to know them. I sat and talked to them,
smoked with them, gave them tobacco, lent them small moneys, made them
an occasional trifling present of some article of dress, of which I had
more than I wanted; in short, gained their confidence. It was strange,
but without any reproof from me, nothing more direct than simple
silence, they soon ceased to utter a word that could offend me; and
before long, I had heard many of their histories. And what stories they
were! Set any one to talk about himself, instead of about other people,
and you will have a seam of the precious mental metal opened up to you
at once; only ore, most likely, that needs much smelting and refining;
or it may be, not gold at all, but a metal which your mental alchemy may
turn into gold. The one thing I learned was, that they and I were one,
that our hearts were the same. How often I exclaimed inwardly, as some
new trait came to light, in the words, though without the generalizing
scorn, of Shakspere's Timon - "More man!" Sometimes I was seized with a
kind of horror, beholding my own visage in the mirror which some poor
wretch's story held up to me - distorted perhaps by the flaws in the
glass, but still mine: I saw myself in other circumstances and under
other influences, and felt sometimes for a moment, as if I had been
guilty of the very deeds - more often of the very neglects that had
brought my companion to misery. I felt in the most solemn moods of
reflection, that I might have done all that, and become all that. I saw
but myself, over and over again, with wondrous variations, none
sufficient to destroy the identity. And I said to myself that, if I was