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George MacDonald.

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"He seems to have succeeded in reconciling you to the prosecution of
your efforts, however; for I saw you go out with your sketching
apparatus this afternoon."

"Yes," she answered shyly. "He was so kind that somehow I got heart to
try again. He's very nice, isn't he?"

My answer was not quite ready.

"Don't you like him, papa?"

"Well - I like him - yes. But we must not be in haste with our judgments,
you know. I have had very little opportunity of seeing into him. There
is much in him that I like, but - "

"But what? please, papa."

"To tell the truth then, Wynnie, for I can speak my mind to you, my
child, there is a certain shyness of approaching the subject of
religion; so that I have my fears lest he should belong to any of these
new schools of a fragmentary philosophy which acknowledge no source of
truth but the testimony of the senses and the deductions made therefrom
by the intellect."

"But is not that a hasty conclusion, papa?"

"That is a hasty question, my dear. I have come to no conclusion. I was
only speaking confidentially about my fears."

"Perhaps, papa, it's only that he's not sure enough, and is afraid of
appearing to profess more than he believes. I'm sure, if that's it, I
have the greatest sympathy with him."

I looked at her, and saw the tears gathering fast in her eyes.

"Pray to God on the chance of his hearing you, my darling, and go to
sleep," I said. "I will not think hardly of you because you cannot be
so sure as I am. How could you be? You have not had my experience.
Perhaps you are right about Mr. Percivale too. But it would be an
awkward thing to get intimate with him, you know, and then find out
that we did not like him after all. You couldn't like a man much, could
you, who did not believe in anything greater than himself, anything
marvellous, grand, beyond our understanding - who thought that he had
come out of the dirt and was going back to the dirt?"

"I could, papa, if he tried to do his duty notwithstanding - for I'm
sure I couldn't. I should cry myself to death."

"You are right, my child. I should honour him too. But I should be very
sorry for him. For he would be so disappointed in himself."

I do not know whether this was the best answer to make, but I had
little time to think.

"But you don't know that he's like that."

"I do not, my dear. And more, I will not associate the idea with him
till I know for certain. We will leave it to ignorant old ladies who
lay claim to an instinct for theology to jump at conclusions, and
reserve ours - as even such a man as we have been supposing might well
teach us - till we have sufficient facts from which to draw them. Now go
to bed, my child."

"Good-night then, dear papa," she said, and left me with a kiss.

I was not altogether comfortable after this conversation. I had tried
to be fair to the young man both in word and thought, but I could not
relish the idea of my daughter falling in love with him, which looked
likely enough, before I knew more about him, and found that _more_ good
and hope-giving. There was but one rational thing left to do, and that
was to cast my care on him that careth for us - on the Father who loved
my child more than even I could love her - and loved the young man too,
and regarded my anxiety, and would take its cause upon himself. After I
had lifted up my heart to him I was at ease, read a canto of Dante's
_Paradise_, and then went to bed. The prematurity of a conversation
with my wife, in which I found that she was very favourably impressed
with Mr. Percivale, must be pardoned to the forecasting hearts of
fathers and mothers.

As I went out for my walk the next morning, I caught sight of the
sexton, with whom as yet I had had but little communication, busily
trimming some of the newer graves in the churchyard. I turned in
through the nearer gate, which was fashioned like a lych-gate, with
seats on the sides and a stone table in the centre, but had no roof.
The one on the other side of the church was roofed, but probably they
had found that here no roof could resist the sea-blasts in winter. The
top of the wall where the roof should have rested, was simply covered
with flat slates to protect it from the rain.

"Good-morning, Coombes," I said.

He turned up a wizened, humorous old face, the very type of a
gravedigger's, and with one hand leaning on the edge of the green
mound, upon which he had been cropping with a pair of shears the too
long and too thin grass, touched his cap with the other, and bade me a
cheerful good-morning in return.

"You're making things tidy," I said.

"It take time to make them all comfortable, you see, sir," he returned,
taking up his shears again and clipping away at the top and sides of
the mound.

"You mean the dead, Coombes?"

"Yes, sir; to be sure, sir."

"You don't think it makes much difference to their comfort, do you,
whether the grass is one length or another upon their graves?"

"Well no, sir. I don't suppose it makes _much_ difference to them. But
it look more comfortable, you know. And I like things to look
comfortable. Don't you, sir?"

"To be sure I do, Coombes. And you are quite right. The resting-place
of the body, although the person it belonged to be far away, should be
respected."

"That's what I think, though I don't get no credit for it. I du believe
the people hereabouts thinks me only a single hair better than a Jack
Ketch. But I'm sure I du my best to make the poor things comfortable."

He seemed unable to rid his mind of the idea that the comfort of the
departed was dependent upon his ministrations.

"The trouble I have with them sometimes! There's now this same one as
lies here, old Jonathan Giles. He have the gout so bad! and just as I
come within a couple o' inches o' the right depth, out come the edge of
a great stone in the near corner at the foot of the bed. Thinks I,
he'll never lie comfortable with that same under his gouty toe. But the
trouble I had to get out that stone! I du assure you, sir, it took me
nigh half the day. - But this be one of the nicest places to lie in all
up and down the coast - a nice gravelly soil, you see, sir; dry, and
warm, and comfortable. Them poor things as comes out of the sea must
quite enjoy the change, sir."

There was something grotesque in the man's persistence in regarding the
objects of his interest from this point of view. It was a curious way
for the humanity that was in him to find expression; but I did not like
to let him go on thus. It was so much opposed to all that I believed
and felt about the change from this world to the next!

"But, Coombes," I said, "why will you go on talking as if it made an
atom of difference to the dead bodies where they were buried? They care
no more about it than your old coat would care where it was thrown
after you had done with it."

He turned and regarded his coat where it hung beside him on the
headstone of the same grave at which he was working, shook his head
with a smile that seemed to hint a doubt whether the said old coat
would be altogether so indifferent to its treatment when, it was past
use as I had implied. Then he turned again to his work, and after a
moment's silence began to approach me from another side. I confess he
had the better of me before I was aware of what he was about.

"The church of Boscastle stands high on the cliff. You've been to
Boscastle, sir?"

I told him I had not yet, but hoped to go before the summer was over.

"Ah, you should see Boscastle, sir. It's a wonderful place. That's
where I was born, sir. When I was a by that church was haunted, sir.
It's a damp place, and the wind in it awful. I du believe it stand
higher than any church in the country, and have got more wind in it of
a stormy night than any church whatsomever. Well, they said it was
haunted; and sure enough every now and then there was a knocking heard
down below. And this always took place of a stormy night, as if there
was some poor thing down in the low wouts (_vaults_), and he wasn't
comfortable and wanted to get out. Well, one night it was so plain and
so fearful it was that the sexton he went and took the blacksmith and a
ship's carpenter down to the harbour, and they go up together, and they
hearken all over the floor, and they open one of the old family wouts
that belongs to the Penhaligans, and they go down with a light. Now the
wind it was a-blowing all as usual, only worse than common. And there
to be sure what do they see but the wout half-full of sea-water, and
nows and thens a great spout coming in through a hole in the rock; for
it was high-water and a wind off the sea, as I tell you. And there was
a coffin afloat on the water, and every time the spout come through, it
set it knocking agen the side o' the wout, and that was the ghost."

"What a horrible idea!" I said, with a half-shudder at the unrest of
the dead.

The old man uttered a queer long-drawn sound, - neither a chuckle, a
crow, nor a laugh, but a mixture of all three, - and turned himself yet
again to the work which, as he approached the end of his narration, he
had suspended, that he might make his story _tell_, I suppose, by
looking me in the face. And as he turned he said, "I thought you would
like to be comfortable then as well as other people, sir."

I could not help laughing to see how the cunning old fellow had caught
me. I have not yet been able to find out how much of truth there was in
his story. From the twinkle of his eye I cannot help suspecting that if
he did not invent the tale, he embellished it, at least, in order to
produce the effect which he certainly did produce. Humour was clearly
his predominant disposition, the reflex of which was to be seen, after
a mild lunar fashion, on the countenance of his wife. Neither could I
help thinking with pleasure, as I turned away, how the merry little old
man would enjoy telling his companions how he had posed the new parson.
Very welcome was he to his laugh for my part. Yet I gladly left the
churchyard, with its sunshine above and its darkness below. Indeed I
had to look up to the glittering vanes on the four pinnacles of the
church-tower, dwelling aloft in the clean sunny air, to get the feeling
of the dark vault, and the floating coffin, and the knocking heard in
the windy church, out of my brain. But the thing that did free me was
the reflection with what supreme disregard the disincarcerated spirit
would look upon any possible vicissitudes of its abandoned vault. For
in proportion as the body of man's revelation ceases to be in harmony
with the spirit that dwells therein, it becomes a vault, a prison, from
which it must be freedom to escape at length. The house we like best
would be a prison of awful sort if doors and windows were built up.
Man's abode, as age begins to draw nigh, fares thus. Age is in fact the
mason that builds up the doors and the windows, and death is the angel
that breaks the prison-house and lets the captives free. Thus I got
something out of the sexton's horrible story.

But before the week was over, death came near indeed - in far other
fashion than any funereal tale could have brought it.

One day, after lunch, I had retired to my study, and was dozing in my
chair, for the day was hot, when I was waked by Charlie rushing into
the room with the cry, "Papa, papa, there's a man drowning."

I started up, and hurried down to the drawing-room, which looked out
over the bay. I could see nothing but people running about on the edge
of the quiet waves. No sign of human being was on - the water. But the
one boat belonging to the pilot was coming out from the shelter of the
lock of the canal where it usually lay, and my friend of the coastguard
was running down from the tower on the cliff with ropes in his hand. He
would not stop the boat even for the moment it would need to take him
on board, but threw them in and urged to haste. I stood at the window
and watched. Every now and then I fancied I saw something white heaved
up on the swell of a wave, and as often was satisfied that I had but
fancied it. The boat seemed to be floating about lazily, if not idly.
The eagerness to help made it appear as if nothing was going on. Could
it, after all, have been a false alarm? Was there, after all, no
insensible form swinging about in the sweep of those waves, with life
gradually oozing away? Long, long as it seemed to me, I watched, and
still the boat kept moving from place to place, so far out that I could
see nothing distinctly of the motions of its crew. At length I saw
something. Yes; a long white thing rose from the water slowly, and was
drawn into the boat. It rowed swiftly to the shore. There was but one
place fit to land upon, - a little patch of sand, nearly covered at
high-water, but now lying yellow in the sun, under the window at which
I stood, and immediately under our garden-wall. Thither the boat shot
along; and there my friend of the coastguard, earnest and sad, was
waiting to use, though without hope, every appliance so well known to
him from the frequent occurrence of such necessity in the course of his
watchful duties along miles and miles of stormy coast.

I will not linger over the sad details of vain endeavour. The honoured
head of a family, he had departed and left a good name behind him. But
even in the midst of my poor attentions to the quiet, speechless,
pale-faced wife, who sat at the head of the corpse, I could not help
feeling anxious about the effect on my Connie. It was impossible to
keep the matter concealed from her. The undoubted concern on the faces
of the two boys was enough to reveal that something serious and painful
had occurred; while my wife and Wynnie, and indeed the whole household,
were busy in attending to every remotest suggestion of aid that reached
them from the little crowd gathered about the body. At length it was
concluded, on the verdict of the medical man who had been sent for,
that all further effort was useless. The body was borne away, and I led
the poor lady to her lodging, and remained there with her till I found
that, as she lay on the sofa, the sleep that so often dogs the steps of
sorrow had at length thrown its veil over her consciousness, and put
her for the time to rest. There is a gentle consolation in the firmness
of the grasp of the inevitable, known but to those who are led through
the valley of the shadow. I left her with her son and daughter, and
returned to my own family. They too were of course in the skirts of the
cloud. Had they only heard of the occurrence, it would have had little
effect; but death had appeared to them. Everyone but Connie had seen
the dead lying there; and before the day was over, I wished that she
too had seen the dead. For I found from what she said at intervals, and
from the shudder that now and then passed through her, that her
imagination was at work, showing but the horrors that belong to death;
for the enfolding peace that accompanies it can be known but by sight
of the dead. When I spoke to her, she seemed, and I suppose for the
time felt tolerably quiet and comfortable; but I could see that the
words she had heard fall in the going and coming, and the
communications of Charlie and Harry to each other, had made as it were
an excoriation on her fancy, to which her consciousness was ever
returning. And now I became more grateful than I had yet been for the
gift of that gipsy-child. For I felt no anxiety about Connie so long as
she was with her. The presence even of her mother could not relieve
her, for she and Wynnie were both clouded with the same awe, and its
reflex in Connie was distorted by her fancy. But the sweet ignorance of
the baby, which rightly considered is more than a type or symbol of
faith, operated most healingly; for she appeared in her sweet merry
ways - no baby was ever more filled with the mere gladness of life than
Connie's baby - to the mood in which they all were, like a little sunny
window in a cathedral crypt, telling of a whole universe of sunshine
and motion beyond those oppressed pillars and low-groined arches. And
why should not the baby know best? I believe the babies do know best. I
therefore favoured her having the child more than I might otherwise
have thought good for her, being anxious to get the dreary, unhealthy
impression healed as soon as possible, lest it should, in the delicate
physical condition in which she was, turn to a sore.

But my wife suffered for a time nearly as much as Connie. As long as
she was going about the house or attending to the wants of her family,
she was free; but no sooner did she lay her head on the pillow than in
rushed the cry of the sea, fierce, unkind, craving like a wild beast.
Again and again she spoke of it to me, for it came to her mingled with
the voice of the tempter, saying, "_Cruel chance_," over and over
again. For although the two words contradict each other when put
together thus, each in its turn would assert itself.

A great part of the doubt in the world comes from the fact that there
are in it so many more of the impressible as compared with the
originating minds. Where the openness to impression is balanced by the
power of production, the painful questions of the world are speedily
met by their answers; where such is not the case, there are often long
periods of suffering till the child-answer of truth is brought to the
birth. Hence the need for every impressible mind to be, by reading or
speech, held in living association with an original mind able to combat
those suggestions of doubt and even unbelief, which the look of things
must often occasion - a look which comes from our inability to gain
other than fragmentary visions of the work that the Father worketh
hitherto. When the kingdom of heaven is at hand, one sign thereof will
be that all clergymen will be more or less of the latter sort, and mere
receptive goodness, no more than education and moral character, will be
considered sufficient reason for a man's occupying the high position of
an instructor of his fellows. But even now this possession of original
power is not by any means to be limited to those who make public show
of the same. In many a humble parish priest it shows itself at the
bedside of the suffering, or in the admonition of the closet, although
as yet there are many of the clergy who, so far from being able to
console wisely, are incapable of understanding the condition of those
that need consolation.

"It is all a fancy, my dear," I said to her. "There is nothing more
terrible in this than in any other death. On the contrary, I can hardly
imagine a less fearful one. A big wave falls on the man's head and
stuns him, and without further suffering he floats gently out on the
sea of the unknown."

"But it is so terrible for those left behind!"

"Had you seen the face of his widow, so gentle, so loving, so resigned
in its pallor, you would not have thought it so _terrible_."

But though she always seemed satisfied, and no doubt felt nearly so,
after any conversation of the sort, yet every night she would call out
once and again, "O, that sea, out there!" I was very glad indeed when
Mr. Turner, who had arranged to spend a short holiday with us, arrived.

He was concerned at the news I gave him of the shock both Connie and
her mother had received, and counselled an immediate change, that time
might, in the absence of surrounding associations, obliterate something
of the impression that had been made. The consequence was, that we
resolved to remove our household, for a short time, to some place not
too far off to permit of my attending to my duties at Kilkhaven, but
out of the sight and sound of the sea. It was Thursday when Mr. Turner
arrived, and he spent the next two days in inquiring and looking about
for a suitable spot to which we might repair as early in the week as
possible.

On the Saturday the blacksmith was busy in the church-tower, and I went
in to see how he was getting on.

"You had a sad business here the last week, sir," he said, after we had
done talking about the repairs.

"A very sad business indeed," I answered.

"It was a warning to us all," he said.

"We may well take it so," I returned. "But it seems to me that we are
too ready to think of such remarkable things only by themselves,
instead of being roused by them to regard everything, common and
uncommon, as ordered by the same care and wisdom."

"One of our local preachers made a grand use of it."

I made no reply. He resumed.

"They tell me you took no notice of it last Sunday, sir."

"I made no immediate allusion to it, certainly. But I preached under
the influence of it. And I thought it better that those who could
reflect on the matter should be thus led to think for themselves than
that they should be subjected to the reception of my thoughts and
feelings about it; for in the main it is life and not death that we
have to preach."

"I don't quite understand you, sir. But then you don't care much for
preaching in your church."

"I confess," I answered, "that there has been much indifference on that
point. I could, however, mention to you many and grand exceptions.
Still there is, even in some of the best in the church, a great amount
of disbelief in the efficacy of preaching. And I allow that a great
deal of what is called preaching, partakes of its nature only in the
remotest degree. But, while I hold a strong opinion of its value - that
is, where it is genuine - I venture just to suggest that the nature of
the preaching to which the body you belong to has resorted, has had
something to do, by way of a reaction, in driving the church to the
other extreme."

"How do you mean that, sir?"

"You try to work upon people's feelings without reference to their
judgment. Anyone who can preach what you call rousing sermons is
considered a grand preacher amongst you, and there is a great danger of
his being led thereby to talk more nonsense than sense. And then when
the excitement goes off, there is no seed left in the soil to grow in
peace, and they are always craving after more excitement."

"Well, there is the preacher to rouse them up again."

"And the consequence is that they continue like children - the good
ones, I mean - and have hardly a chance of making a calm, deliberate
choice of that which is good; while those who have been only excited
and nothing more, are hardened and seared by the recurrence of such
feeling as is neither aroused by truth nor followed by action."

"You daren't talk like that if you knew the kind of people in this
country that the Methodists, as you call them, have got a hold of. They
tell me it was like hell itself down in those mines before Wesley come
among them."

"I should be a fool or a bigot to doubt that the Wesleyans have done
incalculable good in the country. And that not alone to the people who
never went to church. The whole Church of England is under obligations
to Methodism such as no words can overstate."

"I wonder you can say such things against them, then."

"Now there you show the evil of thinking too much about the party you
belong to. It makes a man touchy; and then he fancies when another is
merely, it may be, analysing a difference, or insisting strongly on
some great truth, that he is talking against his party."

"But you said, sir, that our clergy don't care about moving our
judgments, only our feelings. Now I know preachers amongst us of whom
that would be anything but true."

"Of course there must be. But there is what I say - your party-feeling
makes you touchy. A man can't always be saying in the press of
utterance, '_Of course there are exceptions_.' That is understood. I
confess I do not know much about your clergy, for I have not had the
opportunity. But I do know this, that some of the best and most liberal
people I have ever known have belonged to your community."

"They do gather a deal of money for good purposes."

"Yes. But that was not what I meant by _liberal_. It is far easier to
give money than to be generous in judgment. I meant by _liberal_, able
to see the good and true in people that differ from you - glad to be
roused to the reception of truth in God's name from whatever quarter it
may come, and not readily finding offence where a remark may have
chanced to be too sweeping or unguarded. But I see that I ought to be
more careful, for I have made you, who certainly are not one of the
quarrelsome people I have been speaking of, misunderstand me."

"I beg your pardon, sir. I was hasty. But I do think I am more ready to
lose my temper since - "

Here he stopped. A fit of coughing came on, and, to my concern, was
followed by what I saw plainly could be the result only of a rupture in


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Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldThe Seaboard Parish Volume 2 → online text (page 5 of 12)