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away, the red sore was exposed bleeding and bare. Was he responsible
for those words? He could remember them all now; each like a burning
arrow lacerated his bosom, and he pulled them to and fro. Remembrance
in the watches of the night, dawn fills the dark spaces of a window,
meditations grow more and more lucid. He could now distinguish the
instantaneous sensation of wrong that had flashed on his excited mind in
the moment of his sinning.... Then he could think no more, and in the
twilight of contrition he dreamed vaguely of God's great goodness, of
penance, of ideal atonements. Christ hung on the cross, and far away the
darkness was seared with flames and demons.

And as strength returned, remembrance of his blasphemies grew stronger
and fiercer, and often as he lay on his pillow, his thoughts passing in
long procession, his soul would leap into intense suffering. "I stood on
the verge of death with blasphemies on my tongue. I might have been
called to confront my Maker with horrible blasphemies in my heart and on
my tongue; but He in His Divine goodness spared me: He gave me time to
repent. Am I answerable, O my God, for those dreadful words that I
uttered against Thee, because I suffered a little pain, against Thee Who
once died on the cross to save me! O God, Lord, in Thine infinite mercy
look down on me, on me! Vouchsafe me Thy mercy, O my God, for I was
weak! My sin is loathsome; I prostrate myself before Thee, I cry aloud
for mercy!"

Then seeing Christ amid His white million of youths, beautiful singing
saints, gold curls and gold aureoles, lifted throats, and form of harp
and dulcimer, he fell prone in great bitterness on the misery of earthly
life. His happinesses and ambitions appeared to him less than the
scattering of a little sand on the sea-shore. Joy is passion, passion
is suffering; we cannot desire what we possess, therefore desire is
rebellion prolonged indefinitely against the realities of existence;
when we attain the object of our desire, we must perforce neglect it in
favour of something still unknown, and so we progress from illusion to
illusion. The winds of folly and desolation howl about us; the sorrows
of happiness are the worst to bear, and the wise soon learn that there
is nothing to dream of but the end of desire.... God is the one ideal,
the Church the one shelter from the misery and meanness of life. Peace
is inherent in lofty arches, rapture in painted panes.... See the mitres
and crosiers, the blood-stained heavenly breasts, the loin-linen hanging
over orbs of light.... Listen! ah! the voices of chanting boys, and out
of the cloud of incense come Latin terminations, and the organ still is
swelling.

In such religious aestheticisms the soul of John Norton had long
slumbered, but now it awoke in remorse and pain, and, repulsing its
habitual exaltations even as if they were sins, he turned to the primal
idea of the vileness of this life, and its sole utility in enabling man
to gain heaven. Beauty, what was it but temptation? He winced before a
conclusion so repugnant to him, but the terrors of the verge on which
he had so lately stood were still upon him in all their force, and he
crushed his natural feelings....

The manifestation of modern pessimism in John Norton has been described,
and how its influence was checked by constitutional mysticity has
also been shown. Schopenhauer, when he overstepped the line ruled by
the Church, was instantly rejected. From him John Norton's faith
had suffered nothing; the severest and most violent shocks had come
from another side - a side which none would guess, so complex and
contradictory are the involutions of the human brain. Hellenism, Greek
culture and ideal; academic groves; young disciples, Plato and Socrates,
the august nakedness of the Gods were equal, or almost equal, in his
mind with the lacerated bodies of meagre saints; and his heart wavered
between the temple of simple lines and the cathedral of a thousand
arches. Once there had been a sharp struggle, but Christ, not Apollo,
had been the victor, and the great cross in the bedroom of Stanton
College overshadowed the beautiful slim body in which Divinity seemed to
circulate like blood; and this photograph was all that now remained of
much youthful anguish and much temptation.

A fact to note is that his sense of reality had always remained in a
rudimentary state; it was, as it were, diffused over the world and
mankind. For instance, his belief in the misery and degradation of
earthly life, and the natural bestiality of man, was incurable; but of
this or that individual he had no opinion; he was to John Norton a blank
sheet of paper, to which he could not affix even a title. His childhood
had been one of bitter tumult and passionate sorrow; the different and
dissident ideals growing up in his heart and striving for the mastery,
had torn and tortured him, and he had long lain as upon a mental rack.
Ignorance of the material laws of existence had extended even into his
sixteenth year, and when, bit by bit, the veil fell, and he understood,
he was filled with loathing of life and mad desire to wash himself
free of its stain; and it was this very hatred of natural flesh that
precipitated a perilous worship of the deified flesh of the God. But
mysticity saved him from plain paganism, and the art of the Gothic
cathedral grew dear to him. It was nearer akin to him, and he assuaged
his wounded soul in the ecstacies of incense and the great charms of
Gregorian chant.

But fear now for the first time took possession of him, and he
realised - if not in all its truth, at least in part - that his love of
God had only taken the form of a gratification of the senses, a
sensuality higher but as intense as those which he so much reproved.
Fear smouldered in his very entrails, and doubt fumed and went out like
steam - long lines and falling shadows and slowly dispersing clouds. His
life had been but a sin, an abomination, and the fairest places darkened
as the examination of conscience proceeded. His thought whirled in
dreadful night, soul-torturing contradictions came suddenly under his
eyes, like images in a night-mare; and in horror and despair, as a woman
rising from a bed of small-pox drops the mirror after the first glance,
and shrinks from destroying the fair remembrance of her face by pursuing
the traces of the disease through every feature, he hid his face in his
hands and called for forgiveness - for escape from the endless record of
his conscience. With staring eyes and contracted brows he saw the flames
which await him who blasphemes. To the verge of those flames he had
drifted. If God in His infinite mercy had not withheld him?... He
pictured himself lost in fires and furies. Then looking up he saw the
face of Christ, grown pitiless in final time - Christ standing immutable
amid His white million of youths....

And the worthlessness and the abjectness of earthly life struck him with
awful and all-convincing power, and this vision of the worthlessness of
existence was clearer than any previous vision. He paused. There was but
one conclusion ... it looked down upon him like a star - he would become a
priest. All darkness, all madness, all fear faded, and with sure and
certain breath he breathed happiness; the sense of consecration nestled
in its heart, and its light shone upon his face.

There was nothing in the past, but there is the sweetness of meditation
in the present, and in the future there is God. Like a fountain flowing
amid a summer of leaves and song, the sweet hours came with quiet and
melodious murmur. In the great arm-chair of his ancestors he sits thin
and tall. Thin and tall. The great flames decorate the darkness, and the
twilight sheds upon the rose curtains, walking birds and falling petals.
But his thoughts are dreaming through long aisle and solemn arch, clouds
of incense and painted panes.... The palms rise in great curls like the
sky; and amid the opulence of gold vestments, the whiteness of the
choir, the Latin terminations and the long abstinences, the holy oil
comes like a kiss that never dies ... and in full glory of symbol and
chant, the very savour of God descends upon him ... and then he awakes,
surprised to find such dreams out of sleep.

His resolve did not alter; he longed for health because it would bring
the realisation of his desire, and time appeared to him cruelly long.
Nor could he think of the pain he inflicted on his mother, so centred
was he in this thought; he was blind to her sorrowing face, he was deaf
to her entreaty; he could neither feel nor see beyond the immediate
object he had in mind, and he spoke to her in despair of the length of
months that separated him from consecration; he speculated on the
possibility of expediting that happy day by a dispensation from the
Pope. The moment he could obtain permission from the doctor he ordered
his trunks to be packed, and when he bid Mrs Norton and Kitty Hare
good-bye, he exacted a promise from the former to be present at Stanton
College on Palm Sunday. He wished her to be present when he embraced
Holy Orders.




CHAPTER IV.


Every morning Mrs Norton flung her black shawl over her shoulders,
rattled her keys, and scolded the servants at the end of the long
passage. Kitty, as she watered the flowers in the greenhouse, often
wondered why John had chosen to become a priest and grieve his mother.
Three times out of five when the women met at lunch, Mrs Norton said:

"Kitty, would you like to come out for a drive?"

Kitty answered, "I don't mind; just as you like, Mrs Norton."

After tea at five Kitty read for an hour, and in the evening she played
the piano; and she sometimes endeavoured to console her hostess by
suggesting that people did change their minds, and that John might not
become a priest after all. Mrs Norton looked at the girl, and it was
often on her lips to say, "If you had only flirted, if you had only paid
him some attentions, all might have been different." But heart-broken
though she was, Mrs Norton could not speak the words. The girl looked so
candid, so flowerlike in her guilelessness, that the thought seemed a
pollution. And in a few days Mr Hare sent for Kitty; and with her
departed the last ray of sunlight, and Thornby Place grew too sad and
solitary for Mrs Norton.

She went to visit some friends; she spent Christmas at the Rectory; and
in the long evenings when Kitty had gone to bed, she opened her heart
to her old friend. The last hope was gone; there was nothing for her to
look for now. John did not even write to her; she had not heard from him
since he left. It was very wrong of the Jesuits to encourage him in such
conduct, and she thought of laying the whole matter before the Pope. The
order had once been suppressed; she did not remember by what Pope; but
a Pope had grown tired of their intrigues, and had suppressed the order.
She made these accusations in moments of passion, and immediately after
came deep regret.... How wrong of her to speak ill of her religion, and
to a Protestant! If John did become a priest it would be a punishment
for her sins. But what was she saying? If John became a priest, she
should thank God for His great goodness. What greater honour could he
bestow upon her? Next day she took the train to Brighton, and went to
confession; and that very same evening she pleadingly suggested to Mr
Hare that he should go to Stanton College, and endeavour to persuade
John to return home. The parson was of course obliged to decline. He
advised her to leave the matter in the hands of God, and Mrs Norton went
to bed a prey to scruples of conscience of all kinds.

She even began to think it wrong to remain any longer in an essentially
Protestant atmosphere. But to return to Thornby Place alone was
impossible, and she begged for Kitty. The parson was loth to part with
his daughter, but he felt there was much suffering beneath the calm
exterior that Mrs Norton preserved. He could refuse her nothing, and he
let Kitty go.

"There is no reason why you should not come and dine with us every day;
but I shall not let you have her back for the next two months."

"What day will you come and see us, father dear?" said Kitty, leaning
out of the carriage window.

"On Thursday," cried the parson.

"Very well, we shall expect you," replied Mrs Norton; and with a sigh
she sank back on the cushions, and fell to thinking of her son.

At Thornby Place everything was soon discovered to be in a sad state of
neglect. There was much work to be done in the greenhouse, the azaleas
were being devoured by insects, and the leaves required a thorough
washing. It was easy to see that the cats had not been regularly fed,
and one of the tame rooks had flown away. Remedying these disasters,
Mrs Norton and Kitty hurried to and fro. There was a ball at Steyning,
and Mrs Norton consented to do the chaperon for once; and the girl's
dress was a subject of gossip for a month - for a fortnight an absorbing
occupation. Most of the people who had been at the hunt breakfast were
at the ball, and Kitty had plenty of partners. These suggested husbands
to Mrs Norton, and she questioned Kitty; but she did not seem to have
thought of the ball except in the light of a toy which she had been
allowed to play with one evening. The young men she had met there had
apparently interested her no more than if they had been girls, and she
regretted John only because of Mrs Norton. Every morning she ran to see
if there was a letter, so that it might be she who brought the good
news. But no letter came. Since Christmas John had written two short
notes, and now they were well on in April. But one morning as she stood
watching the springtide, Kitty saw him walking up the drive; the sky
was growing bright with blue, and the beds were catching flower beneath
the evergreen oaks. She ran to Mrs Norton, who was attending to the
canaries in the bow-window.

"Look, look, Mrs Norton, John is coming up the drive; it is he; look!"

"John!" said Mrs Norton, seeking for her glasses nervously; "yes, so it
is; let's run and meet him. But no; let's take him rather coolly. I
believe half his eccentricity is only put on because he wishes to
astonish us. We won't ask him any questions; we'll just wait and let him
tell his own story...."

"How do you do, mother?" said the young man, kissing Mrs Norton with
less reluctance than usual. "You must forgive me for not having answered
your letters. It really was not my fault; I have been passing through a
very terrible state of mind lately.... And how do you do, Kitty? Have
you been keeping my mother company ever since? It is very good in you;
I am afraid you must think me a very undutiful son. But what is the
news?"

"One of the rooks is gone."

"Is that all?... What about the ball at Steyning? I hear it was a great
success."

"Oh, it was delightful."

"You must tell me about it after dinner. Now I must go round to the
stables and tell Walls to take the trap round to the station to fetch my
things."

"Are you going to be here some time?" said Mrs Norton, assuming an
indifferent air.

"Yes, I think so; that is to say, for a couple of months - six weeks. I
have some arrangements to make, but I will speak to you about all that
after dinner."

With these words John left the room, and he left his mother agitated and
frightened.

"What can he mean by having arrangements to make?" she asked. Kitty
could of course suggest no explanation, and the women waited the
pleasure of the young man to speak his mind. He seemed, however, in
no hurry to do so; and the manner in which he avoided the subject
aggravated his mother's uneasiness. At last she said, unable to bear the
suspense any longer:

"Are you going to be a priest, John, dear?"

"Of course, but not a Jesuit...."

"And why? have you had a quarrel with the Jesuits?"

"Oh, no; never mind; I don't like to talk about it; not exactly a
quarrel, but I have seen a great deal of them lately, and I have found
them out. I don't mean in anything wrong, but the order is so entirely
opposed to the monastic spirit. It is difficult to explain; I really
can't.... What I mean is ... well, that their worldliness is repugnant to
me - fashionable friends, confidences, meddling in family affairs, dining
out, letters from ladies who need consolation.... I don't mean anything
wrong; pray don't misunderstand me. I merely mean to say that I hate
their meddling in family affairs. Their confessional is a kind of
marriage bureau; they have always got some plan on for marrying this
person to that, and I must say I hate all that sort of thing.... If I
were a priest I would disdain to ... but perhaps I am wrong to speak like
that. Yes, it is very wrong of me, and before ... Kitty, you must not
think I am speaking against the principles of my religion, I am only
speaking of matters of - "

"And have you given up your rooms in Stanton College?"

"Not yet; that is to say, nothing is settled definitely, but I do not
think I shall go back there; at least not to live."

"And you still are determined on becoming a priest?"

"Certainly, but not a Jesuit."

"What then?"

"A Carmelite. I have seen a great deal of these monks lately, and it is
only they who preserve some of the old spirit of the old ideal. To enter
the Carmelite Chapel in Kensington is to step out of the mean
atmosphere of to-day into the lofty charm of the Middle Ages. The long
straight folds of habits falling over sandalled feet, the great rosaries
hanging down from the girdles, the smell of burning wax, the large
tonsures, the music of the choir; I know nothing like it. Last Sunday I
heard them sing St Fortunatus' hymn,... the _Vexilla regis_ heard in the
cloud of incense, and the wrath of the organ!... splendid are the rhymes!
the first stanza in U and O, the second in A, and the third in E;
passing over the closed vowels, the hymn ascends the scale of sound - "

"Now, John, none of that nonsense; how dare you, sir? Don't attempt to
laugh at your mother."

"My dear mother, you must not think I am sneering because I speak of
what is uppermost in my mind. I have determined to become a Carmelite
monk, and that is why I came down here."

Mrs Norton was very angry; her temper fumed, and she would have burst
into violent words had not the last words, "and that is why I came down
here," frightened her into calmness.

"What do you mean?" she said, turning round in her chair. "You came down
here to become a Carmelite monk; what do you mean?"

John hesitated. He was clearly a little frightened, but having gone so
far he felt he must proceed. Besides, to-day, or to-morrow, sooner or
later the truth would have to be told. He said:

"I intend altering the house a little here and there; you know how
repugnant this mock Italian architecture is to my feelings.... I am
coming to live here with some monks - "

"You must be mad, sir; you mean to say that you intend to pull down the
house of your ancestors and turn it into a monastery?"

John drew a breath of relief, the worst was over now; she had spoken the
fulness of his thought. Yes, he was going to turn Thornby Place into a
monastery.

"Yes," he said, "if you like to put it in that way. Yes, I am going to
turn Thornby Place into a monastery. Why shouldn't I? I am resolved
never to marry; and I have no one except those dreadful cousins to leave
the place to. Why shouldn't I turn it into a monastery and become a
monk? I wish to save my soul."

Mrs Norton groaned.

"But you make me say more than I mean. To turn the place into a Gothic
monastery, such a monastery as I dreamed would not be possible, unless
indeed I pulled the whole place down, and I have not sufficient money to
do that, and I do not wish to mortgage the property. For the present I
am determined only on a few alterations. I have them all in my head. The
billiard room, that addition of yours, can be turned into a chapel. And
the casements of the dreadful bow-window might be removed, and mullions
and tracery fixed on, and, instead of the present flat roof, a sloping
tiled roof might be carried up against the wall of the house. The
cloisters would come at the back of the chapel."

John stopped aghast at the sorrow he was causing, and he looked at his
mother. She did not speak. Her ears were full of merciless ruins; hope
vanished in the white dust; and the house with its memories sacred and
sweet fell pitilessly: beams lying this way and that, the piece of
exposed wall with the well-known wall paper, the crashing of slates. How
they fall! John's heart was rent with grief, but he could not stay his
determination any more than his breath. Youth is a season of suffering,
we cannot surrender our desire, and it lies heavy and burning on our
hearts. It is so easy for age, so hard for youth to make sacrifices.
Youth is and must be wholly, madly selfish; it is not until we have
learnt the folly of our aims that we may forget them, that we may pity
the sufferings of others, that we may rejoice in the triumphs of our
friends. To the superficial therefore, John Norton will appear but the
incarnation of egotism and priggishness, but those who see deeper will
have recognised that he is one who has suffered bitterly, as bitterly
as the outcast who lies dead in his rags beneath the light of the
policeman's lantern. Mental and physical wants! - he who may know one may
not know the other: is not the absence of one the reason of the other?
Mental and physical wants! the two planes of suffering whence the great
divisions of mankind view and envy the other's destinies, as we view a
passing pageant, as those who stand on the decks of crossing ships gaze
regretfully back.

Those who have suffered much physical want will never understand John
Norton; he will find commiseration only from those who have realised _à
priori_ the worthlessness of existence, the vileness of life; above all,
from those who, conscious of a sense of life's degradation, impetuously
desire their ideal - the immeasurable ideal which lies before them,
clear, heavenly, and crystalline; the sea into which they would plunge
their souls, but in whose benedictive waters they may only dip their
fingertips, and crossing themselves, pass up the aisle of human
tribulation. We suffer in proportion to our passions. But John Norton
had no passion, say they who see passion only in carnal dissipation. Yet
the passions of the spirit are more terrible than those of the flesh;
the passion for God, the passion of revolt against the humbleness of
life; and there is no peace until passion of whatever kind has wailed
itself out.

Foolish are they who describe youth as a time of happiness; it is one of
fever and anguish.

Beneath its apparent calm, there was never a stormier youth than John's.
The boy's heart that grieves to death for a chorus-girl, the little
clerk who mourns to madness for the bright life that flashes from the
point of sight of his high office stool, never felt more keenly the
nervous pain of desire and the lassitudes of resistance. You think John
Norton did not suffer in his imperious desire to pull down the home of
his fathers and build a monastery! Mrs Norton's grief was his grief, but
to stem the impulse that bore him along was too keen a pain to be
endured. His desire whelmed him like a wave; it filled his soul like a
perfume, and against his will it rose to his lips in words. Even when
the servants were present he could not help discussing the architectural
changes he had determined upon, and as the vision of the cloister, with
its reading and chanting monks, rose to his head, he talked, blinded by
strange enthusiasm, of latticed windows, and sandals.

His mother bit her thin lips, and her face tightened in an expression of
settled grief. Kitty was sorry for Mrs Norton, but Kitty was too young
to understand, and her sorrow evaporated in laughter. She listened to
John's explanations of the future as to a fairy tale suddenly touched
with the magic of realism. That the old could not exist in conjunction
with the new order of things never grew into the painful precision of
thought in her mind. She saw but the show side; she listened as to an
account of private theatricals, and in spite of Mrs Norton's visible
grief, she was amused when John described himself walking at the head
of his monks with tonsured head and a great rosary hanging from a
leather girdle. Her innocent gaiety attracted her to him. As they walked
about the grounds after breakfast, he spoke to her about pictures and
statues, of a trip he intended to take to Italy and Spain, and he did
not seem to care to be reminded that this jarred with his project for


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Online LibraryGeorge MooreA Mere Accident → online text (page 6 of 11)