He had come to England at this period, -- and in the small provincial town where his final rupture with the illiterate theatrical manager had taken place, there was a curious, silent contest going on between the inhabitants and their vicar. The vicar was an extremely unpopular person, -- and the people were striving against him, and fighting him at every possible point of discussion. For so small a community the struggle was grim, -- and Aubrey for some time could not understand it, till one day an explanation was offered him by a man engaged in stitching leather, in a dirty evil-smelling little hole of a shop under a dark archway.
"You see, sir, it's this way," he said, "Bessie Morton, -- she wor as good a girl as ever stepped -- bright and buxom and kind hearted -- yes, that was Bessie, till some black scoundrel got her love at a soft moment, and took the better of her. Well! -- I suppose some good Christian folk would say she wor a bad 'un -- but I'll warrant she worn't bad at heart, but only just soft-like -- and she an orphan, with no one to look after her, or say she done ill or well. And there was a little child born -- the prettiest little creature ye ever saw -- Bessie's own copy -- all blue eyes and chestnut hair -- and it just lived a matter of fower year, and then it took sick and died. Bessie went nigh raving mad; that she did. And now, what do you think, sir? The passon refused to bury that there little child in consecrated ground, cos'twas born out of wedlock! What d'ye think of that for a follower of Jesus with the loving heart? What d'ye think of that?"
"Think!" said Aubrey indignantly, with an involuntary clenching of his hand, "Why, that it is abominable -- disgraceful! I should like to thrash the brute!"
"So would a many," said his informant with an approving chuckle, "So would a many! But that's not all -- there's more behind -- and worse too -- "
"Why, what can be worse?"
"Well, sir, we thinks -- we ain't got proofs to go on -- for Bessie keeps her own counsel -- but we thinks the passon hisself is the father of that there little thing he winnot lay in a holy grave!"
"Good God!" cried Aubrey.
"Ay, ay -- you may say 'Good God!' with a meaning, sir," said the leather-seller -- "And that's why, as we ain't got no facts and no power with bishops, and we ain't able to get at the passon anyhow, we're just making it as unpleasant for him in our way as we can. That's all the people can do, sir, but what they does, they means!"
This incident deeply impressed Aubrey Leigh, and proved to be the turning point in his career. Like a flash of light illumining some divinely written scroll of duty, he suddenly perceived a way in which to shape his own life and make it of assistance to others. He began his plan of campaign by going about among the poorer classes, working as they worked, living as they lived, and enduring what they endured. Disguised as a tramp, he wandered with tramps. He became for a time one of the "hands" in a huge Birmingham factory. After that he worked for several months at the coal pits among the lowest of the men employed there. Then he got a "job" in a dock-yard and studied the ways of shipping and humanity together. During this time of self-imposed probation, he never failed to write letters home to Canada, saying he was "doing well" in England, but how this "doing well" was brought about he never explained. And the actual motive and end of all his experiences was as yet a secret locked within his own heart. Yet when it was put into words it sounded simple enough,- -it was merely to find out how much or how little the clergy, or so- called "servants of Christ", obeyed their Master. Did they comfort the comfortless? Were they "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves"? Were they long-suffering, slow to wrath, and forbearing one to the other? Did they truly "feed the sheep"? Did they sacrifice themselves, their feelings, and their ambitions to rescue what was lost? All these and sundry other questions Aubrey Leigh set himself to answer, -- and by and by he found himself on an endless path of discovery, where at every step some new truth confronted him; -- some amazing hypocrisy burned itself in letters of flame against the splendour of church altars; -- some deed of darkness and bigotry and cruelty smirched the white robes of the "ordained to preach the Gospel". Gradually he became so intently and vitally interested in his investigations, and his sympathy for the uncomforted people who had somehow lost Christ instead of finding Him, grew so keen that he resolved to give up his entire life to the work of beginning to try and remedy the evil. He had no independent means, -- he lived from hand to mouth earning just what he could by hard labour, -- till one day, when the forces in his own soul said "Ready!" he betook himself to one small room which he hired in a fisherman's cottage on the coast of Cornwall, and there sat down to write a book. Half the day he wrote, and half the day he earned his bread as a common fisherman, going out with the others in storm and shine, sailing through sleet and hail and snow, battling with the waves, and playing with Death at every turn of the rocks, which, like the teeth of great monsters, jagged the stormy shore. And he grew strong, and lithe, and muscular -- his outward life of hard and changeful labour, accompanied by the inward life of intelligent and creative thought, gradually worked off all depression of soul and effeminacy of body,- -his experience of the stage passed away, leaving no trace on his mind but the art, the colour and the method, -- particularly the method of speech. With art, colour, and method he used the pen; -- with the same art, colour, and method he used his voice, and practised the powers of oratory. He would walk for miles to any lonely place where he could be sure of no interruption, -- and there he would speak aloud to the roaring waves and wide stretches of desolate land, and tell them the trenchant things he meant one day to thunder into human ears. Always of a fine figure, his bearing grew more dauntless and graceful, -- the dangers of the sea taught him self-control, -- the swift changes of the sky gave him the far-off rapt expression and keen flash of his eyes, -- the pitiful sorrows of the poor, in which, as he had elected to be one of them, he was bound to share, had deepened the sympathetic lines round his delicate mouth, and had bestowed upon his whole countenance that look which is seldom seen save in the classic marbles -- the look of being one with, and yet above mankind. All the different classes of people with whom he had managed to associate had called him "gentleman", a name he had gently but firmly repudiated. "Call me a Man, and let me deserve the title!" he would say smilingly, and his "mates" hearing this would eye each other askance, and whisper among themselves "that he WAS a gentleman for all that, though no doubt he had come down in the world and had to work for his living. And no shame to him as he gave himself no airs, and could turn a hand to anything." And so the time moved on, and he remained in the Cornish fishing village till his book was finished. Then he suddenly went up to London; -- and after a few days' absence came back again, and went contentedly on with the fishing once more.
A month or so later, one night when the blackness of the skies was so dense that it could almost be felt, it chanced that he and his companions were far out at sea in their little smack, which lay becalmed between two darknesses -- the darkness of the rolling water, and the darkness of the still heaven. Little waves lapped heavily against the boat's side, and the only glimpse of light at all was the yellow flicker of the lamp that hung from the mast of the vessel, casting a tremulous flicker on the sombrous tide, when all at once a great noise like the crash of thunder, or the roll of cannon, echoed through the air, and a meteor more brilliant than an imperial crown of diamonds, flared through the sky from height to depth, and with a blazing coruscation of flying stars and flame, dropped hissingly down into the sea. The fishermen startled, all looked up -- the heavy black nets dropped from their brown arms just as they were about to pull in.
"A sign of strife!" said one.
"Ay, ay! We shall hev a war maybe!"
Aubrey leaned far over the boat's side, and looked out into the dense blackness, made blacker than ever by the sudden coming and going of the flaming sky-phenomenon, -- and half unconsciously he murmured, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth, -- I come not to send peace, but a sword!" And he lost himself in dreams of the past, present, and future, -- till he was roused to give a hand in the dragging up of the nets, now full of glistening fish with silvery bodies and ruby eyes, -- and then his thoughts took a different turn and wandered off as far back as the Sea of Galilee when the disciples, fishing thus, were called by the Divine Voice, saying "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men!" And in silence he helped to row the laden boat homewards, for there was no wind to fill the sail, -- and the morning gradually broke like a great rose blooming out of the east, and the sun came peering through the rose like the calyx of the flower, -- and still in a dream, Aubrey walked through all that splendour of the early day home to his lodging, -- there to find himself, -- like Byron, -- famous. His book was in everyone's hand -- his name on everyone's tongue. Letters from the publisher whom his visit to London had made his friend, accompanied by a bundle of the chief newspapers of the day, informed him that he had in one bound taken his place at the very head and front of opinion, -- and, finest proof of power, the critics were out like the hounds in full cry, and were already baying the noble quarry. The Church papers were up in arms -- indignant articles were being added to the "weeklies" by highly respectable clergymen with a large feminine "following", and in the midst of all these written things, which in their silent print seemed literally to make a loud clamour in the quiet of his room, Aubrey, in his sea-stained fisherman's garb, with the sparkle of the salt spray still glittering on his closely curling bright hair, looked out at the clear horizon from which the sun had risen up in all its majesty, and devoutly thanked God!
"I have written part of my message," he said to himself, "And now by-and-by I shall speak!"
But he lived on yet for a time in the remote fishing village, waiting, -- without knowing quite what he waited for, -- while the great Gargantuan mouth of London roared his name in every imaginable key, high and low, and gradually swept it across the seas to America and Australia, and all the vast New World that is so swiftly rising up, with the eternal balance of things, to overwhelm the Old. And presently the rumour of his fame reached those whom he had left behind in the quiet little town of his birth and boyhood, -- and his mother, reading the frantic eulogies, and still more frantic attacks of the different sections of press opinion, wept with excitement and tenderness and yearning; and his father, startled at the strange power and authority with which this new Apostle of Truth appeared to be invested, trembled as he read, but nevertheless held himself more erect with a pride in his own old age that he had never felt before, as he said a hundred times a day in response to eager questioners -- "Yes, -- Aubrey Leigh is my son!" Then mother and father both wrote to Aubrey, and poured out their affectionate hearts to him and blessed him, which blessing he received with that strange heaving of the heart and contraction of the throat, which in a strong man means tears. And still he waited on, earning his bread in the humble village which knew nothing of him, save as one of themselves, -- for the inhabitants of the place were deaf and blind to the ways of the world, and read little save old and belated newspapers, so that they were ignorant of his newly celebrated personality, -- till one day the Fates gave him that chance for which, though he was unconscious of it, he had been holding himself back, and counting the slow strokes of time; -- time which seems to beat with such a laggard pulse when one sees some great thing needing to be done, and while feeling all the force to do it, yet has to control and keep back that force till the appointed hour strikes for action.
There had been a terrific storm at sea, and a herring smack had gone down within sight of land, sinking eight strong men with it, all husbands and fathers. One after the other, the eight bodies were thrown back from the surging deep in the sullen grey morning on the day after the catastrophe, -- one after the other they were borne reverently up from the shore to the village, there to be claimed by shrieking women and sobbing children, -- women, who from more or less contented, simple-hearted, hard-working souls, were transformed into the grandly infuriated forms of Greek tragedy -- their arms tossing, their hair streaming, their faces haggard with pain, and their eyes blind with tears. Throughout the heart-rending scene, Aubrey Leigh worked silently with the rest -- composing the stiff limbs of the dead, and reverently closing the glared and staring eyes; gently he had lifted fainting women from the corpses to which they clung, -- tenderly he had carried crying children home to their beds, -- and with sorrowful eyes fixed on the still heaving and angry billows, he had inwardly prayed for ways and means to comfort these afflicted ones, and raised their thoughts from the gloom of the grave to some higher consummation of life. For they were inconsolable, -- they could neither see nor understand any adequate cause for such grief being inflicted on them, -- and the entire little population of the village wore a resentful attitude towards God, and God's inexorable law of death. When the funeral day came, and the bodies of the eight unfortunate victims were committed to the earth, it happened, as fate would have it, that the rector of the parish, a kindly, sympathetic, very simple old man, who really did his best for his parishoners according to the faint perception of holy things that indistinctly illumined his brain, happened to be away, and his place was taken by the assistant curate, a man of irritable and hasty temper, who had a horror of "scenes," and who always put away all suggestions of death from him whenever it was possible. It was very disagreeable to him to have to look at eight coffins, -- and still more disagreeable to see eight weeping widows surrounded by forlorn and fatherless children -- and he gabbled over the funeral service as quickly as he could, keeping his eyes well on the book lest he should see some sobbing child looking at him, or some woman dropping in a dead faint before he had time to finish. He was afraid of unpleasant incidents -- and yet with all his brusque and nervous hurry to avoid anything of the kind, an unpleasant incident insisted on manifesting itself. Just as the fourth coffin was being lowered into the ground, a wild-haired girl rushed forward and threw herself upon it.
"Oh, my man, my man!" she wailed, "My own sweetheart!"
There was a moment's silence. Then one of the widows stepped out, and approaching the girl, laid her hand on her arm.
"Are ye making a mock of me, Mary Bell?" she said, "Or is it God's truth ye're speaking to my husband lying there?"
The distraught creature called Mary Bell looked up with a sudden passion glowing in her tear-wet eyes.
"It's God's truth!" she cried, "And ye needn't look scorn on me! -- for both our hearts are broken, and no one can ever mend them. Yes! It's God's truth! He was your husband, but my sweetheart! And we'll neither of us see a finer man again!"
The curate listened, amazed and aghast. Was nothing going to be done to stop this scandalous scene? He looked protestingly from right to left, but in all the group of fisher-folk not a man moved. Were these two women going to fight over the dead? He hummed and hawed -- and began in a thin piercing voice -- "My friends -- " when he was again interrupted by the passionate speech of Mary Bell.
"I'm sorry for ye," she said, lifting herself from the coffin to which she clung, and turning upon the widow of the drowned man, "and ye can be just as sorry for me! He loved us both, and why should we quarrel! A man is ever like that -- just chancy and changeful -- but he tried his honest hardest not to love me -- yes, he tried hard! -- it was my fault! for I never tried! -- I loved him! -- and I'll love him, till I go where he is gone! And we'll see who God'll give his soul to!"
This was too much for the curate.
"Woman!" he thundered, "Be silent! How dare you boast of your sin at such a time, and in such a place! Take her away from that coffin, some of you!"
So he commanded, but still not a man moved. The curate began to lose temper in earnest.
"Take her away, I tell you," and he advanced a step or two, "I cannot permit such a scandalous interruption of this service!"
"Patience, patience, measter," said one of the men standing by, "When a woman's heart's broke in two ways it ain't no use worrying her. She'll come right of herself in a minute."
But the curate, never famous for forbearance at any time, was not to be tampered with. Turning to his verger he said,
"I refuse to go on! The woman is drunk!"
But now the widow of the dead man suddenly took up the argument in a shrill voice which almost tore the air to shreds.
"She's no more drunk than you are!" she cried passionately, "Leave her alone! You're a nice sort of God's serving man to comfort we, when we're all nigh on losing our wits over this mornin' o' misery, shame on ye! Mary Bell, come here! If so be as my husband was your sweetheart, God forgive him, ye shall come home wi' me! -- and we'll never have a word agin the man who is lying dead there. Come wi' me, Mary!"
With a wild cry of anguish, the girl rushed into her arms, and the two women clung together like sisters united in the same passionate grief. The curate turned a livid white.
"I cannot countenance such immorality," he said, addressing the verger, though his words were heard by all present, "Enough of the service has been said! Lower the coffins into the earth!" and turning on his heel he prepared to walk away. But Aubrey Leigh stopped him.
"You will not finish the service, sir?" he asked civilly, but with something of a warning in the flash of his eyes.
"No! The principal part of it is over. I cannot go on. These women are drunk!"
"They are not drunk, save with their own tears!" said Aubrey, his rich voice trembling with indignation. "They are not mad, except with grief! Is it not your place to be patient with them?"
"My place! My place!" echoed the curate indignantly, "Man, do you know to whom you are talking?"
"I think I do," answered Aubrey steadily, "I am talking to a professed servant of Christ, -- Christ who had patience and pardon for all men! I am talking to one whose calling and vocation it is to love, to forgive, and to forbear -- whose absolute protestation has been made at the altar of God that he will faithfully obey his Master. Even if these unhappy women were drunk, which they are not, their fault in conduct would not release you from the performance of your duty, -- or the reverence you are bound to show towards the dead!"
Trembling with rage, the curate eyed him up and down scornfully.
"How dare you speak to me about my duty! You common lout! Mind your own business!"
"I will," said Aubrey, fixing his eyes full upon him, "And it shall be my business to see that you mind yours! Both your rector and bishop shall hear of this!"
He strode off, leaving the curate speechless with fury; and joining the little crowd of mourners who had been startled and interrupted by this unexpected scene, drew a prayer book from his pocket, and without asking anyone's permission read with exquisite gravity and pathos the concluding words of the funeral service, -- and then with his own hands assisted the grave-diggers to lay the coffined dead tenderly to rest. Awestruck, and deeply impressed by his manner the fisher-folk mechanically obeyed his instructions, and followed his movements till all the sad business was over, and then they lingered about the churchyard wistfully watching him, while he in turn, standing erect and bare-headed near the open graves, looked at them with a strange pity, love and yearning.
"It'll be all right when our owld passon comes back," said one of the men addressing him, "It's just this half eddicated wastrel of a chap as doesn't know, and doesn't care for the troubles of common folk like we."
Aubrey was silent for a space. "Common folk like we!" The words were full of pathetic humility, and the man who spoke them was a hero of no mean type, who had often buffeted the winds and waves to save a human life at the risk of his own. "Common folk like we!" Aubrey laid his hand gently on his "mate's" shoulder.
"Ben, old boy, there are no common folk in God's sight," he said, "Look there!" and he pointed to the graves that were just beginning to be filled in, "Every creature lying there had as much of God in him as many a king, and perhaps more. In this majestic universe there is nothing common!"
Ben shuffled one foot before the other uneasily.
"Ay, ay, but there's few as argify the way o' life in they lines!" he said, "There's a many that think -- but there's a main few that speak."
"That is true," said Aubrey, still keeping his hand on Ben's shoulder, "there's a main few that speak! Now, I want to speak, Ben, -- I want to have a talk to you and the rest of our mates about -- well! -- about the dangers of the sea and other things. Will you meet me on the shore this evening near the quay and listen to a word or two?"
Ben looked surprised but interested, and a puzzled smile came into his eyes.
"Be ye a goin' to preach to us like the passon?" he said, "Or like the fellers in the porter's caps as calls themselves Salvationists?"
"No! I only want to say a few parting words to you all."
"Parting words!" echoed Ben with a stupefied air.
"Yes -- I am going away to-morrow -- going for good. I have got some other work to do. But I shall not forget you all . . . and you will hear of me often, -- yes, you will hear of me! -- and some day I will come back. But to-night . . . I should just like to say good-bye."
Ben was secretly much distressed. "Gentleman Leigh" as he was sometimes called, had greatly endeared himself to their little community, and that he should leave them was not at all a desirable thing, and would, as Ben well knew, cause universal regret. But there was no time just now for either argument or protestation, so Ben accepted the blow as he accepted all buffetings of fate, and merely said,
"All right! We'll be there to-night for sure!" And then Aubrey, gravely content, walked slowly out of the little churchyard still bare-headed, his eyes dark with thought, -- and the reluctant sun came out of the gray sky and shone on his pale face and bright hair -- and one or two of the widowed women timidly touched his arm as he passed, and murmured, "God bless you!" And Mary Bell, the sorrowful and sinning, clinging to the waist of the woman she had wronged, looked up at him appealingly with the strained and hunted gaze of a lost and desperate creature, and as he met her eyes, turned shudderingly away and wept. And he, knowing that words were useless, and that even the kindliest looks must wound in such a case, passed on in silence, and when he reached his own lodging took some of the newspapers which spoke of himself and his book, and after marking certain passages, tied them up in a packet and sent them to the curate with whom he had crossed swords that morning, accompanied by a note which briefly ran thus: --
"You asked me how I 'dared' to speak to you about your duty. I reply -- By the force of truth and the power of the pen I dare! -- and I shall be ready to answer to God for it, as you must answer to him for leaving any part of YOUR duty undone.
And the day passed on, half in drifting clouds, half in glimpses of sunshine, till late afternoon, when the sky cleared altogether, and the waves sank to a dead calm; -- and with the night a shield-like moon, all glistening pearl and silver, rose up out of the east with a royal air of white and wondering innocence, as though she proclaimed her entire blamelessness for any havoc wrought by storm. And in the full radiance of that silvery splendour Aubrey Leigh, leaning against the sea-weed covered capstan of the quay, round which coils of wet rope glistened like the body of a sleeping serpent, told to an audience of human hearers for the first time the story of his life, and adventures, and the varied experiences he had gone through in order to arrive at some straight and clear comprehension of "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" of the Gospel of Love and Mutual Labour. His practised voice, perfect in all modulation, inflexion, and expression, carried each simple, well- chosen word home to the hearts of his hearers, -- not one so ignorant as not to understand him -- not one so blind as not to see the beauty of work and creative effort as he depicted them, -- not one so insensate as not to feel the calm, the grandeur, and repose of the strong soul of a man in complete sympathy with his fellow-men. They listened to him almost breathlessly -- their bronzed weather-beaten faces all turned towards his; forgetting to smoke, they let their pipes die out and drop from their hands -- and no interruption broke the even flow and cadence of his earnest language, save the slow ripple of the water beating against the quay, and the faint, occasional sigh of a stirring wind. Silhouetted black against the radiant sky were the masts of the fishing fleet, and the roofs of the fishermen's cottages -- dwellings so often made desolate by death- -and as Aubrey noted the fascinated attention with which these rough men heard him, his heart grew strong. "If a few listen, so will many," he said to himself, "The Master of our creed first taught His divine ethics to a few fishermen, -- to them the message was first given . . . and by them again delivered, -- and it is through our having departed from the original simplicity of utterance that all the evil has crept in. So let me be content with this night's work and await the future with patience." Then lifting up his voice once more he said, --
"You think your lot a hard one -- you, friends and brothers, who set the brown sails out to sea on a night of threatening storm, and bid farewell to your homes built safe upon the shore. You must meet all the horror of white foam and cloud-blackness, to drag from the sea its living spoil, and earn the bread to keep yourselves and those who are dependent upon you, -- you MUST do this, or the Forces of Life will not have you, -- they will cast you out and refuse to nourish you. For so is your fate in life, and work ordained. Then where is God? -- you cry, as the merciless billows rise to engulf your frail craft, -- why should the Maker of man so deliberately destroy him? Why should one human unit, doing nothing, and often thinking nothing, enjoy hundreds of pounds a day, while you face death to win as many pence? Is there a God of Love who permits this injustice? Ah, stop there, friends! There is no such thing as injustice! Strange as it sounds to this world of many contradictions and perplexities, I repeat there is no such thing as injustice. There is what SEEMS injustice -- because we are all apt to consider the material side of things only. That is where we make our great mistake in life and conduct. We should all remember that this world, and the things of this world, are but the outward expression of an inward soul -- the Matter evolved from Mind -- and that unless we are ourselves in harmony with the Mind, we shall never understand the Matter. Your millionaire is surrounded with luxuries, -- your fishermen has dry bread and herring, -- your millionaire dies, with a famous doctor counting his pulse-beats, and a respectable clergyman promising him heaven on account of the money he has left to the church in his will; your fisherman goes down in a swirl of black water, without a prayer -- for he has no time to pray -- without leaving a penny behind him, inasmuch as he has no pence to leave; and for both these different creatures we judge the end is come? No, -- the end is NOT come! It is the beginning only! If the millionaire has died with a thousand selfish sores in his mind, -- if his life's privileges have been wasted in high feeding and self-indulgence, -- if he has thought only of himself, his riches, his pride, his position, or his particular form of respectability, he will get the full result of that mental attitude! If the fisherman has been content with his earnings, and thanked God for them, -- if he has been honest, brave, true, and unselfish, and has shared with others their joys and sorrows, and if at the last he goes down in the waves trying to save some other life while losing his own, -- depend upon it he will rise to the full splendour of THAT mental attitude! For both millionaire and fisherman are but men, made on the same lines, of the same clay, and are each one, personally and separately responsible to God for the soul in them, -- and when both of them pass from this phase of being to the next, they will behold all things with spiritual eyes, not material ones. And then it may be that the dark will be discovered to be the bright, and the fortunate prove to be the deplorable, for at present we 'see through a glass darkly, but then, face to face.' The friends whom we have buried to-day are not dead,- -for death is not Death, but Life. And for those who are left behind it is merely a time of waiting, for as the Master said, 'There shall not a hair of your head perish. In your patience possess ye your souls.'"
He paused a moment, -- the moon rays illumined his delicate features, and a half sorrowful smile rested on his lips.
"I am no clergyman, my friends! I have not been 'ordained'. I am not preaching to you. I will not ask you to be good men, for there is something effeminate in the sound of such a request made to brawny, strong fellows such as you are, with an oath ready to leap from your lips, and a blow prepared to fly from your fists on provocation. I will merely say to you that it is a great thing to be a Man! -- a Man as God meant him to be, brave, truthful, and self-reliant, with a firm faith in the Divine Ordainment of Life as Life should be lived. There is no disgrace in work; -- no commonness, -- no meanness. Disgrace, commonness, and meanness are with those who pretend to work and never do anything useful for the world they live in. The king who amuses himself at the expense and ruin of his subjects is the contemptible person, -- not the labourer who digs the soil for the planting of corn which shall help to feed his fellows. And the most despicable creature of our time and century, is not the man who doubts Christ, or questions God -- for Christ was patient with the doubter, and God answers, through the medium of science, every honest question -- it is the man who pretends to believe and lives on the pretence, while his conduct gives the lie to his profession! That is why you -- and why thousands of others like you, are beginning to look upon many of the clergy with contempt, and to treat their admonitions with indifference. That is why thousands of the rising generation of men and women will not go to church. 'The parson does not do anything for me,' is a common every-day statement. And that the parson SHOULD do something is a necessary part of his business. His 'doing' should not consist in talking platitudes from the pulpit, or in sending round a collection plate. And if he has no money, and will not 'sell half that he has and give to the poor' as commanded, he can at any rate give sympathy. But this is precisely what he chiefly lacks. The parson's general attitude is one of either superiority or servility, -- a 'looking down' upon his poor parishoners -- a 'looking up' to his rich ones. A disinterested, loving observation of the troubles and difficulties of others never occurs to him as necessary. But this was precisely the example Christ gave us -- an unselfish example of devotion to others -- a supreme descent of the Divine into man to rescue and bless humanity. Now I know all your difficulties and sorrows, -- I have worked among you, and lived among you -- and I feel the pulse of your existence beating in my own heart. I know that when a great calamity overwhelms you all as it has done this week, you have no one to comfort you, -- no one to assure you that no matter how strange and impossible it seems, you have been deprived of your associates for some GOOD cause which will be made manifest in due season, -- that they have probably been taken to save them from a worse fate than the loss of earth-consciousness in the sea. For that, scientifically speaking, is all that death means -- the loss of earth-consciousness,- -but the gain of another consciousness, whether of another earth or a heaven none can say. But there is no real death -- inasmuch as even a grain of dust in the air will generate life. We must hold fast to the Soul of things -- the Soul which is immortal, not the body which is mortal. 'What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul!' That is what each man of us must find, and hold, and keep, -- his own soul! Apart from all creeds, and clergy, forms and rituals -- that is the vital matter. Stand clear of all things, -- all alone if need be, surrounded by the stupendous forces of this great universe, -- let us find, -- each man of us -- his own soul; find and keep it brave, truthful, upright, and bound straight on for the highest, -- the highest always! And the very stars in their courses will help us -- storms will but strengthen us -- difficulties but encourage us -- and death itself shall but give us larger liberty."
He ceased, and one by one the men drew closer to him, and thanked him, in voices that were tremulous with the emotion he had raised in them. The instinct which had led them to call him "Gentleman Leigh" had proved correct, -- and there was not a man among them all who did not feel a thrill of almost fraternal pride in the knowledge that the dauntless, hard-working "mate" who had fronted tempests with them, and worked with them in all weathers, had without any boast or loquacious preparation, made his name famous and fit for discussion in the great world of London far away, a world to which none of them had ever journeyed. And they pressed round him and shook his hand, and gave him simple yet hearty words of cheer and goodwill, together with unaffected expressions of regret that he was leaving them, -- "though for that matter," said one of them, "we allus felt you was a scholard-like, for all that you was so handy at the nets. For never did a bit of shell or weed come up from the sea but ye was a lookin' at it as if God had throwed it to yer for particular notice. And when a man takes to obsarvin' common things as if they were special birthday presents from the Almighty, ye may be pretty sure there's something out of the ordinary in him!"
Aubrey smiled, and pressed the hand of this roughly eloquent speaker, -- and then they all walked with him up from the shore to the little cottage where he had lived for so many months, and at the gate of which he bade them farewell.
"But only for a time," he said, "I shall see you all again. And you will hear of me!"
"Ay, ay, we'll hear of ye -- for we'll take the papers in just for news of yer!" said Ben, with a rough laugh which covered his deeper feelings, "And mebbe ye'll come back afore we's all drownded!"
And so with a few more kindly words they left him, and he stood at the gate watching their stalwart figures disappear down the different windings of the crooked and picturesque little street.
"God bless them all!" he murmured, "They have taught me many a grand lesson!"
The next day he took his quiet departure in the early morning before the village folks were up and stirring, -- and a month later he addressed a large meeting in one of the poorest and most densely populated districts of London on "The Ethics of Christ versus the Clergy", which attracted universal attention and created an enormous sensation. His book began to sell in thousands where it had previously sold in hundreds, and he earned sufficient from the profits of the sale to keep him going in the simple fashion of clothes and food to which he had strictly disciplined himself, so that he felt free to plunge into the thick of the fight. And he straightway did so. His name became a terror to liars, and a clarion sound of alarm in the ears of social hypocrites. He wrote another book which obtained even a larger hearing than the first -- and he spoke to the people on an average once a week, wherever he could assemble them together. All his addresses were made gratuitously, and he soon resembled a sort of blazing torch in the darkness, to which the crowds rushed for light and leading. In the midst of the sensation his writings and orations were creating, a noble lord, with several Church livings in his gift, asked him to stand for Parliament, and offered to pay the expenses of his election. At first Aubrey was sufficiently tempted by the offer to pause hesitatingly on the verge of acceptance, but twenty-four hours' hard thinking promptly pulled him together. "No," he said -- "I see what you mean! You and your party wish to tie my hands -- to gag my mouth, and make me as one of yourselves -- no, I will not consent to it. I will serve the people with all my life and soul! -- but not in YOUR way!"
And to avoid further discussion he went straight out of England for a time, and travelled through Europe, making friends everywhere, and learning new phases of the "Christian Dispensation" at every turn in his road. Paris had held him fascinated for a long while, not only because he saw her doom written like that of Babylon in letters of fire, and Ruin, like a giant bird of prey hovering over her with beak and claw prepared to pick the very flesh from her bones, -- but also because he had met Angela Sovrani, one of the most rarely- gifted types of womanhood he had ever seen. He recognised her genius at once, and marvelled at it. And still more did he marvel at her engagement of marriage with Florian Varillo. That such a fair, proud creature so splendidly endowed, could consent to unite herself to a man so vastly inferior, was an interesting puzzle to him. He had met Varillo by chance in Naples one winter before he ever saw Angela, and knew that half his claim to the notice of the social world there was the fact of his betrothal to the famous "Sovrani." And moved by a strange desire to follow out this romance, and also because he was completing his studies of the Roman Church viewed as a "moral support to the education and elevation of man," he, after leaving Paris, and paying a brief visit to Florence on a matter of business which could not be attended to otherwise than personally, went on as though drawn by some invisible magnet to Rome. He had only been twenty-four hours in the city, when chance had led him under the balcony where the sculptured angels fronted the moon, and from whence the sweet voice of Sylvie Hermenstein had floated towards him with the words, --
"Ti voglio ben assai, E tu non pensi a me."
And he who had faced crowds without a tremor, and had flung thunderbolts of splendid defiance at shams, with the manner of a young Ajax defying the lightning, now found himself strangely put out and disturbed in his usual composure by the innocent aspect, and harmless perfume of a rose, -- a mere little pink petalled thing, with not even a thorn on its polished green stalk! He had placed it in a glass of water on his writing table, and his eyes rested upon it the morning after he had received it with almost a reproachful air. What was its golden-hearted secret? Why, when he studied it, did he see the soft hue of a fair cheek, the flash of a bright eye, the drooping wave of a golden web of hair, the dainty curve of a white arm on which the sparkle of diamonds gleamed? How was it that he managed to perceive all this in the leaves of a rose? He could not tell; and he was angry with himself for his inability to explain the puzzle. He reminded himself that he had business in Rome -- "business," he repeated sternly to his own conscience, -- the chief part of which was to ascertain from some one of the leading spirits at the Vatican the view taken by the Papacy of the Ritualistic movement in England.
"If you can gauge correctly the real feeling, and render it in plain terms, apart from all conventional or social considerations," wrote his publisher in a letter which had just reached him -- "that is, if you dare to do so much -- and I think you will scarcely hesitate -- you will undoubtedly give great and lasting help to Christian England." As he read this over for the second or third time he remembered that he had an appointment with a certain powerful personage, known as Monsignor Gherardi, that morning at eleven.
"And you," he said, apostrophising the rose with a protesting shake of his head, "were nearly making me forget it!" He lifted the flower out of the water and touched it with his lips. "She was a fair creature, -- the woman who wore you last night!" -- he said with a smile as he put it carefully back again in its glass, "In fact, she was very much like you! But though I notice you have no thorns, I dare say she has!" He paused a moment, lost in thought, the smile still giving warmth and light to his features; then with a quick movement of impatience at his own delaying, threw on his coat and hat and left the room, saying, "Now for Gherardi!"