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knowledge that he secretly felt that her decision would be founded on strong common sense. He tried to assure himself that it was her dangerous laxity of principle that blinded her to the nobility and sanctity of asceticism; but it was impossible to feel that such was the case. He was teased by a wish which he would not acknowledge that she might advance arguments which he could not controvert; though to himself he said that she would be his temptation in tangible form, and that he would struggle against it with his whole soul.

His opportunity came while they were discussing the election of the bishop. Mrs. Morison was not immediately concerned in the matter, not being a churchwoman, but she had an intelligent interest in all questions of the day.

“I find it hard to understand,” Mrs. Morison observed, “how any churchman can be so blind to the importance of conciliating public thought and the general feeling as for a moment to think of any other candidate than Mr. Strathmore. He is so completely in sympathy with the broadening tendencies of the time.”

“But that means ultimately the destruction of creeds,” Maurice objected, answering rather the implication than her words.

“I think that perhaps the highest courage men are called upon to show,” she answered, “is that of giving up a theory which has served its use. The race forces us to do it sooner or later, but the men who are really great are those who are able to say frankly that their creeds have done their work, and that the new day must have new ones. You might almost say that the extent to which a man prefers truth to himself is to be judged by his willingness to give up a dogma that is outworn.”

“But you leave no stability to truth.”

“The truth is stable without effort or will of mine,” she returned, smiling; “but surely you would have human appreciation of it advance.”

He felt that there must be an answer to this, but he was not able to see just what it was, and he shifted the question.

“But Mr. Strathmore,” he said hesitatingly, “is married.”

“Yes,” she assented. “‘The husband of one wife.'”

“If you begin to quote Scripture against me,” Maurice retorted, laughing in spite of himself, “I might easily reply to St. Paul by St. Paul. But letting that pass, it is certainly true that the church has always held that marriage absorbs a man in earthly things so that he cannot give the best of his thoughts to his work.”

“When the church sets itself against marriage,” Mrs. Morison responded quietly, “it seems to me to be setting up to know more than the Creator of the race.”

Maurice colored, although he might not have been able to tell whether his strongest feeling was horror at this bold language or joy at the emphasis with which she spoke.

“Perhaps I should beg your pardon for saying so frankly what I think,” Mrs. Morison continued. “It isn’t the way in which one generally talks to a clergyman; but the subject is one for which I haven’t much patience, and of course I couldn’t help seeing that you are in doubt yourself.”

Maurice started.

“What do you mean?” he stammered. “I–I in doubt?”

“I hadn’t any intention of forcing your confidence,” returned she. “I am an old woman, and sometimes I find that I don’t make allowance enough for the slowness of you young people in arriving at a knowledge of self.”

He cast down his eyes.

“Until this moment,” he said, “I have never acknowledged to myself that I was in doubt. I see what you mean, and it shows that I have been playing with fire.”

She looked at him questioningly, then turned the subject.

“Which is perhaps a hint that our fire is going down. Sit still, please. Every woman likes to tend her own fire.”

“I should have learned that by this time,” was his answer. “I lost an inheritance once by insisting upon fixing a fire.”

“That sounds interesting. Is it proper to ask for the story?”

“Oh, there isn’t much of a story. I had a great-aunt who was worth a lot of money, and who was eccentric. She was in a way fond of me when I was a child, and used to have me at the house a good deal. I confess I didn’t like it much. Things went by rule, and the rules were often pretty queer. One of them was that nobody should presume to touch the fire if she was in the room. I liked to play with the fire as well as she did, and when I was a boy just in my teens I used to do it. After she’d corrected me half a dozen times I got into my foolish pate that it was my duty to cure her of her whim. So I set to poking the fire ostentatiously until she lost her temper and ordered me out of the house. Then she burned up the will in my favor and made a new one, giving all her money to the church.”

“How unjust,” commented Mrs. Morison, “and how human. Did you never make peace with her?”

“Yes, but of course I was careful that she should understand that I didn’t do it for the sake of her money. She told my mother that she had made a new will in my favor, but it never turned up. My aunt’s death was very singular. She was found dead in her bed, and the woman who lived with her, an old nurse of mine, had disappeared. Of course there was at once suspicion of foul play, but the doctors pronounced the death natural, and there was no evidence of theft.”

“Did you never discover the nurse?”

“Never. We tried, for we thought she might give a clue to the missing will. She’d been in the family so long that she was a sort of confidential servant, and knew all Aunt Morse’s affairs. She was devoted to me.”

“The romance may not be ended yet,” Mrs. Morison suggested smilingly. “Who knows but the missing nurse will some day turn up with the missing will.”

“I’m afraid that after a dozen years there’s little enough chance of it.”

His mind was so racked upon this wretched question of the right of a priest to marry, that he could not rest until he had drawn from Berenice also an expression of opinion on the subject. He made Mr. Strathmore again the excuse for the introduction of the topic.

“I don’t see,” he said to her, “how you can think that it’s well to have a married bishop. His wife is sure to be meddling in the affairs of the diocese.”

She looked at him with a mocking glance.

“Do you wish to drag me into a discussion of the wisdom of allowing the clergy to have wives?” she asked cruelly.

He flushed with confusion, but tried to carry a bold front.

“Very likely it does come down to the general principle of the thing,” he answered.

“Well then, the question of the marriage of the clergy doesn’t interest me in the least.”

She looked so pretty and mischievous that he began to lose his head.

“But it is of the greatest possible interest to me,” he returned, with a manner which gave the words a personal application.

She flushed in her turn, and tossed her head.

“That is by no means the same thing,” she retorted.

“But what interests me you might try to consider; just out of charity, of course.”

“Oh, well, then, since you ask me, this celibacy of the clergy of our church isn’t at all a thing that anybody can take seriously. Everybody knows that a clergyman may have his vows absolved by the bishop, so that after all he can marry if he wants to; so that the whole thing seems”–

“Well?” he demanded, as she broke off. “Seems how?”

“Pardon me. I didn’t realize what I was saying.”

“Seems how?” he repeated insistently.

He challenged her with his eyes, and he could see the spark which kindled defiantly in hers. She threw back her head saucily.

“Well, since you insist! I was going to say that it made the whole thing seem a little like amateur theatricals.”

He became grave instantly.

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “You do not seem to understand that what you are speaking of may mean the bitter sacrifice of a man’s whole life. Even a clergyman is human, and may love as strongly, as completely”–

He choked with the emotion he could not control. He realized that he was telling his passion, and there came to him an overwhelming sense that he must never tell it save in this indirect manner. He hastened on lest she should interrupt him.

“Don’t you suppose that a priest may know what it is to worship the very ground a woman walks on? Don’t you suppose he has had his heart beat till it suffocated him just because her fingers touched his or her gown brushed him? A man is a man after all, and the dreams that come to one are much the same as come to another. The difference is that the priest has to tear his very heart out, and turn his back on all that other men may find delight in.”

Berenice looked at him with shining eyes, not undimmed, he thought, by tears.

“If you really care for her so much,” she said softly, “you can give only a divided heart to your work. It is better to own that to yourself, isn’t it?”

“For her?” he echoed.

“Oh, there must be somebody,” she returned hastily, her color coming. “No matter about that.”

“But think of giving up!” he cried, leaning toward her. “Even those who believe nothing despise a renegade priest.”

“That’s of less consequence than that he should ruin his life and despise himself.”

He held out his uninjured hand impulsively.

“Berenice!” he whispered.

She flushed celestial red, and for an instant her eyes responded to the love in his. Then she sprang to her feet, with a laugh.

“There!” she cried. “See what dunces we are to get to discussing theology. I’ll never forgive you if you try to inveigle me into another talk about such subjects. Here is Mehitabel to say that she’s ready to help you with your packing.”

XVI

THE GREAT ASSAY OF ART
Macbeth, iv. 3.

“I am sorry if I kept you waiting,” Mrs. Wilson said to her husband, coming into the library one afternoon, “but the fact is that I was dressing for a comedy.” “Gad! you dress for a comedy every day, as far as that goes.”

She made a mocking courtesy.

“Well, what is life without comedy?”

“Oh, nothing but a bore, of course. Is this comedy with some of your ministerial hangers-on?”

She sat down by the fire and stretched out her feet upon a hassock. She was radiant with beauty and mischief, and dressed to perfection.

“That isn’t a respectful way to speak of the clergy.”

“It’s as respectful as I feel,” he responded, lighting a pipe. “You do have a nice gang of them round. There’s Candish, for instance. He looks like an advertisement for a misfit tailor, and he’s fairly putrid with philanthropy.”

Elsie gave a quick burst of laughter. Then she pretended to frown.

“Chauncy,” she said, “you have the most abominable way of putting things that I ever heard. What would you say to the youngsters from the Clergy House that I have in train? They’re perfect lambs, and they love each other like twins. Have you seen them?”

“Oh, yes; I’ve seen them. They seem to have been brought up on sterilized milk of the gospel, and to have Jordan water for blood.”

“Oh, don’t be too sure. You can’t tell from a man’s looks how red his blood is, especially if he’s a priest. I suppose it’s the men that have to hold themselves in hardest that make the best ministers.”

“I dare say,” he answered indifferently. “Priest-craft has always been clever enough to see that unless the things it called sins were natural and inevitable its occupation would be gone. However, as long as folks will follow after them they’d be foolish to give up their trade.”

“Of course,” his wife assented laughingly. “You won’t get a rise out of me, my dear boy.”

Dr. Wilson chuckled.

“You’re a devilish humbug,” he remarked admiringly; “but you do manage to get a lot of fun out of it.”

She smoothed her gown a moment, half smiling and half grave.

“Of course it’s of no use to tell you that in spite of all my fun I’m serious at bottom,” she said slowly; “but it’s a fact all the same. I don’t take things with doleful solemnity like the old tabbies; but that’s no sign that I’m not just as sincere. It’s no matter, though; you won’t believe it. What did you want to see me about?”

“Oh, it was about those mortgages. I saw Lincoln this morning, and he has heard from Mrs. Frostwinch. She insists upon paying them off.”

“Then there isn’t any truth in the story that that Sampson woman is circulating that Anna is going to build a spiritual temple or something. I never believed that Anna could be such an idiot as to give her money for anything so vulgar.”

“The whole thing is nonsensical on the face of it,” was his response. “Mrs. Frostwinch can’t build churches, let alone temples, if there’s any difference.”

“Oh, in these days,” Elsie interpolated, “a temple is only a church _declasse_.”

“She has only a life interest in the property,” Wilson went on. “Berenice Morison is residuary legatee of almost everything, unless Mrs. Frostwinch has saved up her income.”

The talk ran on business for a few moments, Wilson advising with shrewdness, and practically deciding the matter for his wife.

“I suppose,” he said, when this was disposed of, “that Mrs. Frostwinch is too much wrapped up in faith-cure nonsense to take much interest in your holy war against Strathmore.”

“She isn’t so much wrapped up in that stuff as you think. Dear Anna hasn’t any sense of humor, but she’s a model of propriety, and she’s constantly shocked at herself for being alive by a treatment so irregular. She was mortified beyond words when that Crapps woman gave a treatment to Mrs. Bodewin Ranger’s dog.”

“That snarling little black devil that’s always under foot at the Rangers’? Gad! I’d like to give it a treatment!”

“It got its ear hurt somehow, and Mrs. Crapps pretended to cure it. Mrs. Ranger was all but in tears over it, she was so grateful. Anna was entirely disgusted. She told Mrs. Crapps that she hadn’t known before that she was in the hands of a veterinary.”

Dr. Wilson smoked in silence for a moment. The fire of soft coal purred in the grate, the smoke from his pipe ascended in the warm air. The thin sunshine of the winter afternoon filtered in through the windows, and made bright patches on the rugs.

“By the way,” Wilson asked lazily, “how is the campaign going? I haven’t heard anything interesting about it for some time.”

“Oh, things are moving on. The man I sent up to canvass the western part of the state–one of your sterilized milk-of-the-word babies, you know,–got smashed up in the accident; but he’ll be back in a few days. Cousin Anna has brought her pensioners into line beautifully. There’s no doubt that we’ll carry the convention.”

“What happens after that?”

“The election has to be ratified by a majority of bishops; but of course they’ll hardly dare to go against the convention, even if they want to.”

“It would make things much more interesting if they’d do it, and get up a scandal,” commented the doctor. “You’ll get bored to death with the whole thing if something exciting doesn’t turn up.”

“I had half a mind to get up a scandal myself with Mr. Strathmore,” Elsie said with a laugh; “but I confess I should be afraid of that she- dragon of a wife of his.”

“It’s devilish interesting to know that you are afraid of anybody.”

“At least,” she went on, “I could go to New York and see Bishop Candace. I can wind him round my finger. I’d tell him what Mrs. Strathmore said about his Easter sermon last year. With a little judicious comment that would do a good deal. I never yet saw a man that couldn’t be managed through his vanity.”

“I suppose that explains why I’m as clay in your hands.”

“Oh, you’re not a man; you’re a monster,” she retorted, rising. “Well, I must go and prepare for my comedy.”

He regarded her with a look of evident admiration; a look not without a savor of the sense of ownership, and, too, not entirely devoid of good- natured insolence.

“You are devilishly well dressed for it,” he observed.

“Thank you,” returned Elsie, sweeping him a courtesy again. “The wife that can win compliments from her own husband has indeed scored a triumph.”

Dr. Wilson puffed out a cloud of smoke with a characteristic chuckle.

“I have to admire you to justify my own taste. But you haven’t told me about the comedy.”

She thrust forward one of her pretty slippers.

“Do you see that?” she demanded.

“I suppose you expect me to say that I see the prettiest foot in Boston.”

“Thank you again, but I’m not yet reduced to trying to drag compliments out of you, Chauncy. I sha’n’t do that till the other men fail me. It’s the slipper I wanted you to notice, and these ravishing stockings.”

“If the comedy has stockings in it,” he began; but she stopped him.

“There, no impudence,” she said. “Did you ever see anything so entirely heavenly as those stockings and slippers? I declare I’ve wanted ever since I put them on to keep my feet on the table to look at.”

“You might do worse.”

“Oh, I’m going to.”

“Indeed! It’s apparently getting time for me to interfere. What’s your game?”

“I’m going to squelch that detestable Fred Rangely.”

“How?”

“My slippers,” Elsie said vivaciously, again thrusting one of them forward, “are ravishing.”

“Gad,” her husband returned, regarding her with a look of the utmost amusement in his topaz-brown eyes, “you have a good deal to say about them.”

“Do you notice anything particular about my hair?” she asked.

“It looks as if it might come down.”

“It will come down,” she corrected, nodding. Then she glanced at the clock. “It will come down in about twenty minutes; all tumbling over my shoulders. I shall be so mortified and surprised!”

Her husband stretched himself luxuriously back in his chair, regarding her with laughing eyes. There was an air of perfect understanding between the two which might have been an effectual enlightenment for any man who thought of making love to the wife. Elsie went on, telling off on her slender fingers the points as she made them.

“In fifteen minutes I shall be standing on the piano in the drawing- room, straightening a picture. I never can bear a picture crooked, and I had Jane tip it a little this morning, just to vex me. Fred Rangely will come in unannounced. Of course I shall be dreadfully confused, and have to get down. In my maidenly confusion I am almost sure I can’t help showing my slippers, and just a trifle–a very discreet trifle, of course,–of these beautiful, beautiful stockings. Nothing vulgar, you know, but”–

“But just enough,” interpolated Wilson with huge enjoyment. “You needn’t apologize. I don’t begrudge the poor devil whatever satisfaction he can get out of that.”

“And then as he is helping me down, with his heart in a flutter,–it will flutter, I assure you.”

“You mean his vanity; but it’s of no consequence. He’d call it a heart if he were putting the scene in a novel.”

“With his whichever it is in a flutter, by some provoking accident down comes my hair and tumbles over his shoulders.”

Wilson regarded her with amused admiration.

“Five years ago,” he observed placidly, “I should have thought you were telling me half the truth to cover the other half, and were really having a devilish flirtation with that cad.”

Elsie flushed, and into her gay voice came a strain of seriousness.

“Five years are five years,” she answered. “Don’t go to dragging all that up again, Chauncy.”

His laugh was not untinged with malicious delight, but he put his hand on hers and patted her fingers.

“All right, old girl. Bygones are bygones. But what in the world is all this fooling with Rangely for?”

“Why, don’t you see? The fool is sure to say something so silly that I can snub him within an inch of his life. I’ve only been holding off until he had that thing written for the Churchman. Now I’ve got that, I’ll settle him.”

“Oh, the gratitude of women!”

“Why, it isn’t that. He needn’t be smirking at me the way he does. I simply won’t stand it. Besides, he makes eyes at me wherever I go, just to advertise the fact that he’s silly about me. He’s a cad, through and through. Would you come here as he does if I refused to invite your wife?”

Chauncy Wilson laughed again, leaning forward to knock the ashes out of his pipe.

“He’s a fool, fast enough; and I dare say you’re tired of his beastly spooning; but all the same, the real reason for this circus is that you want to amuse yourself.”

She drew up her head in mock dignity.

“Of course,” she returned, “if my own husband does not appreciate how I resent”–She broke off in a burst of laughter. “Nobody ever understood me but you, Chauncy,” she cried. “Good-by. It’s time I took the stage.”

She threw him a kiss, and went to the drawing-room. Looking at her watch, she placed herself behind the curtains of a window which commanded the avenue. Presently she espied her victim, and with a last glance around to assure herself that everything was as she wished it to be, she mounted to the top of the piano. There she hastily tucked the hem of her skirt between the piano and the wall. The reflection in a great blue-black Chinese jar showed her when Rangely appeared between the portieres, so that she was able to step back as if to view the effect of her work just as he reached the middle of the room.

“Be careful!” exclaimed he, hurrying forward. “You almost stepped off backward!”

She wheeled about quickly.

“O Mr. Rangely!” she cried. “How did you get into the room without my knowing? How horrid of you to surprise me like that!”

“But think how charming it is for me,” he responded with an elaborate air of gallantry. “It is so delightful to see you on a pedestal.”

“Meaning that I am no better than a graven image?” she demanded with a smile. “If that is the best you can do, I may as well come down.”

She held out her hand for his, and then sat down, displaying one of the fascinating slippers, and the openwork instep of her silk stocking, through the meshes of which the pearly skin gleamed evasively.

“My dress is caught,” she said, turning to conceal her face, and pretending to pull at her skirt. “I hope my slippers haven’t damaged the piano.”

“The piano is harder than my heart if they haven’t!”

She gave a sly twitch at a hairpin.

“That is very pretty,” observed she, giving her head a shake that brought her hair down in a rolling billow. “Oh, dear! Now my hair has”–

Before she could finish he had dropped her fingers, and gathered her hair in both hands, kissing it again and again.

“Mr. Rangely!” she exclaimed. “What do you mean?”

For reply he stooped to her foot, and kissed the mesh-clad instep fervidly.

“How dare you!” she cried, scrambling down hastily without his assistance.

But, alas, even trickery is not always successful in this uncertain world! The hold of the piano upon the hem of her gown was stronger than she realized. She tripped and stumbled, half-hung for a second, and then dropped in an inglorious heap at the feet of the man she wished to humiliate.

Elsie was on her feet in a minute. She did not take the hand which Rangely extended, but drew back, her eyes sparkling with rage.

“Oh, you find it laughable, do you?” she cried. “A gentleman would at least have concealed his amusement!”

He grew suddenly grave, and seemed not a little surprised.

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I hope you were not hurt.”

She looked at him scornfully without replying, and then walked to the mantel, where there was a small antique mirror of silver.

“Thank you, not in the least.”

Her tone was no warmer than an arctic night. She gathered her hair, and began to twist it up. He followed and stood behind her with an air at once deprecatory and insinuating.

“I shouldn’t think you could see in that thing,” he observed.

She took no notice of his words.

“If I laughed,” continued he, “it was only from nervousness. I was carried away”–

“I observed that you were,” she interrupted icily.

He stood awkwardly a moment, while she finished putting up her hair. Then, as she turned toward him, he smiled again, holding out his hand.

“Surely you are not angry with me,” he pleaded. “I care more for your feeling toward me than for anything else in the world.”

“It would amuse Mrs. Rangely to hear you say so, not to mention my husband.”

He stared at her with the air of a man not sure whether he is awake or dreaming.

“What are they to us?” he asked, sinking his voice almost to a whisper.

“Mrs. Rangely may be nothing to you, but Dr. Wilson is still a good deal to me, thank you.”

He looked at her again with perplexity in his glance, but with his face hardening.

“You surely cannot mean that you have ceased to care for me just for a second of meaningless laughter?”

She swept him a scornful courtesy.

“You do these things better in your novels, Mr. Rangely, which shows what an advantage it is to have time to think speeches over. I wouldn’t have my hero say a thing like that, if I were you. It would make him seem like a conceited cad.”

The insolence of her manner was such as no man could bear. Rangely crimsoned to the temples. He paced across the room, while she coolly seated herself in a great Venetian chair, and began to play with a little jade image. He came back to her, and stood a moment as if he could not find words.

“Why don’t you go?” she asked, looking up at him as if he were a servant sent upon an errand.

“Because,” he broke out angrily, “when I go I shall not come back; and I should like to understand this thing.”

She shrugged her shoulders, and leaned back in her chair, looking him over from head to foot.

“Why you quarrel with me is more than I know,” he went on. “You’ve got tired of me, I suppose, and want to amuse yourself with another man.”

The red flushed in her cheek.

“If my husband, who you say is nothing to us, were here,” she said, “he would horsewhip you.”

The other laughed savagely.

“He is not here, however, so you may digest my remark at your leisure.”

Mrs. Wilson rose from her seat with an air of dignity which was really imposing.

“Mr. Rangely,” she said, “it is not my custom to bandy words, even with my equals. I have allowed you the freedom of my house because I was willing to help you in your desire to be useful to Father Frontford. You have taken advantage of my kindness to insult me. This seems to me sufficiently to explain the situation.”

He stared at her a moment in evident amazement. Then he burst into hoarse laughter.

“My desire to be useful to Father Frontford!” he echoed. “That is the best yet! You know I cared nothing about your pottering old church politics except to please you.”

“I see that I was deceived completely,” she responded coldly.

She crossed the room and pressed an ivory button.

“Deceived!” he sneered. “It would take a clever man to deceive you.”

She looked not at him, but beyond him. He turned, and saw a footman in the doorway.

“The gentleman wishes to be shown out, Forrester,” said she.

She held the tips of her fingers to Rangely.

“Thank you so much for coming,” she murmured in her most conventional manner.

“The pleasure has been mine,” he responded.

They both bowed, and Rangely followed the footman.

XVII

A BOND OF AIR
Troilus and Cressida, i. 3.

“You have made a new man of me,” Maurice Wynne had said to Mrs. Morison in bidding her good-by; and the words repeated themselves in his mind as he came back to Boston, and as he once more took up for a few days his home with Mrs. Staggchase.

There is nothing more inflammable than the punk left by the decay of a religion, and any theology may be said to be doomed from the moment when men begin to ask themselves whether they believe it. Maurice had been so strenuously questioning his belief that it is small wonder that he found his heart full of fire. In the days of his stay at Brookfield, moreover, he had been rapidly journeying on the road toward a new view of life; and the idea of returning to the Clergy House became to him well-nigh intolerable. It seemed like taking upon himself once more the swaddling-clothes of infancy.

On the afternoon of his return, he hurried to see Ashe, and found himself obliged to wait some time for his friend’s return from a committee meeting. Mr. Herman chanced to be at home alone, and Maurice sat with him in the library. Wynne had come to know the sculptor fairly well, and had been warmly drawn toward him. He was to-day struck more than ever by the strength and self-poise which Herman showed. The young man was seized with a desire to appeal to the sanity and the kindliness of one who seemed to possess both so aboundingly.

“Have you ever found yourself all at sea, Mr. Herman?” he asked abruptly.

“Of course. I fancy every man has had that experience.”

“But,” Maurice hurried on, more impulsively yet, “you can never have felt that you were a renegade and a hypocrite. That’s where I am now.”

The sculptor regarded him with evident surprise, yet with a look so keen that Maurice felt his cheeks grow warm.

“Does that mean,” Herman asked with kindly deliberation, “that you are tired and out of sorts, or is it something deeper?”

Wynne was silent a moment. Now that he had broken the ice, he feared to go on. It was something of a shock to find himself on the brink of a confidence when he had not intended to make one.

“I’m afraid it goes deep,” he answered. “The truth is, Mr. Herman, that I’ve come back with my whole mind in a turmoil.”

Herman seemed to hesitate in his turn.

“I’m afraid I’m a poor one to help you, Mr. Wynne. Mrs. Herman does the mental straightening-out for this family. Besides, we look at things so differently, you and I, that I shouldn’t know how to put things to you if I tried.”

“I’ve no right to bother anybody with my troubles,” Maurice said.

“That anybody could help you would give you a claim upon him,” Herman responded cheerily. “I noticed, Mr. Wynne, that things were not going right with you before you went away. May I give you a piece of advice?”

“I shall be glad if you will.”

“Then if I were you, I’d go and talk with Mr. Strathmore.”

“With Mr. Strathmore!” Maurice echoed in surprise.

“Oh, I know he isn’t exactly of your way of thinking in church matters,” Herman proceeded. “He’s still farther from my position, but he’s the man I should go to. He is so human, and so sympathetic, that there isn’t such another man in Boston for comfort and advice.”

“But I’ve always been opposed,” Maurice protested, “to all”–

“That’s no matter. He’s too big a man for that to make any difference. Go to him as a fellow that’s in a hobble, and the only thing he’ll consider is how to help you. He’s had experience, and he has the gift of understanding.”

No more was said on the subject, but the words stuck in Wynne’s mind. Since all things seemed to him to be turning round, why should he not take this one more departure from the old ways? Yet it was in some sort almost like treason to Father Frontford to seek aid and comfort from Strathmore. Although the thing had never been so stated in words, it was understood at the Clergy House that Strathmore was to be looked upon in the light of an enemy to the faith, and Wynne felt as if he had been enrolled to fight the popular preacher under the banner of Father Frontford. It seemed the more treasonable to desert the Father Superior now that he was in the midst of a desperate struggle. Maurice knew, however, that it was useless to carry to his old confessor doubts which for the heart of the stern priest could not exist. He would simply be told that doubt was of the devil and was to be crushed; and the young man felt that this would leave him where he was now. If he were to seek aid, it must at least be from one who would understand his state of mind.

Wynne resumed his clerical garb on the morning after his return to Boston. His conscience reproached him for the strong distaste which he felt for the dress, and his spirits were of the lowest. About the middle of the forenoon, he started out to try the effects of a walk. It was a clear, brisk morning, with a white frost still on the pavements where the sun had not fallen. The air was invigorating, and Maurice began to feel its exhilaration. He walked more briskly, holding his head more erect, even forgetting to be irritated by the swish of his cassock about his legs. Without consciously determining whither he would go, he followed the streets toward the house of Mr. Strathmore, in that strange yet not uncommon state of mind in which a man knows fully what he is doing, yet assures himself that he has no purpose. When at last he found himself ringing the bell, Wynne carried his private histrionics so far that he told himself that he was surprised to be there.

The visitor was shown at once to the study of Mr. Strathmore, whose readiness to receive those who sought him was one of the traits which endeared him to the general public. Maurice felt the keen and inquiring look which the clergyman bestowed upon him, and found himself somewhat at a loss how to begin.

“I am from the Clergy House of St. Mark,” he said, rather awkwardly.

“So I judged from your dress,” Strathmore responded cordially. “Sit down, please. That is a comfortable chair by the fire.”

The professed ascetic smiled, but he took the chair indicated.

“It is a beautiful, brisk morning,” the host went on. “The tingle in the air makes a man feel that he can do impossible things.”

Wynne looked up at him with a smile. He was won by the heartiness of the tone, by the bright glance of the eye, by some intangible personal charm which put him at once at his ease and made him feel that understanding and sympathy were here.

“And I have done the impossible,” he said. “I have ventured to come to talk with you about the celibacy of the clergy.”

He saw the face of the other change with a curious expression, and then melt into a smile.

“And what am I, a married clergyman, expected to say on such a topic?”

Maurice smiled at the absurdity of his own words, and then with sudden gravity broke out earnestly:–

“I am completely at sea. All things I have believed seem to be failing me. I don’t even know what I believe.”

“Will you pardon me,” Strathmore asked, “if I ask why you consult me rather than your Superior?”

Maurice flushed and hesitated: yet he felt that nothing would do but absolute frankness.

“I will tell you!” he returned. “I was to be a priest. I went into the Clergy House supposing that that was settled. I see now that I really followed a friend. If he went, I couldn’t be shut out. Now I have been among men, and”–

He hesitated, but the friendly smile of the other reassured him.

“And among women,” he went on bravely; “and–and”–

“And you have discovered the meaning of a certain text in Genesis which declares that ‘male and female created He them,'” concluded Strathmore.

Wynne felt the tone like a caress. He seemed to be understood without need of more speech. His condition, which had seemed to him so intricate and so unique, began to appear possible and human. He was not so completely cut off from human sympathy as he had felt.

“Yes,” he assented; “I will be frank about it. I did not think that Father Frontford would understand what it meant to feel that life is given to us to be glorified by the love of a woman.”

“If this is all that is troubling you,” Strathmore remarked, “it seems to me that your position, though it may not be pleasant, is not very tragical. Our bishops are generally willing to absolve from vows of celibacy.”

“I doubt if Father Frontford would be,” Maurice commented involuntarily.

“That is perhaps one of his virtues in the eyes of his supporters,” Strathmore suggested with a twinkle.

“I have not taken the vows, however,” Maurice responded hastily, flushing, and ignoring the thrust.

“Then what is your trouble?”

“When I meant to take them, it was the same thing.”

“Do I understand you that to intend to do a thing and then to change the mind is the same as to do it?”

“Oh, no; not that; but I am not clear that it isn’t my duty to take them. I’m not sure that it is right for a priest to marry–if you will pardon my saying so.”

“And you come to me to convince you? It seems to me that Providence has already done that through the agency of some young woman. If you really know what it is to love a good woman there is no real doubt in your mind as to the sacredness of marriage,–for the clergy or for anybody else. Isn’t your trouble perhaps an obstinate dislike to seem to abandon a position once taken?”

The words might have sounded severe but for the tone in which they were spoken.

“But that is not the whole of the matter,” Maurice continued, feeling as if he were being carried forward by an irresistible current. “If I have been mistaken on this point about which I have felt so sure and so strongly, what confidence can I have in my other beliefs?”

“Ah, it goes deep,” Strathmore said with emphasis. “It is of no use to put old wine into new bottles. The effect of trying to make you young men accept mediaevalism, like clerical celibacy, is in the end to make you doubt everything. Haven’t you any respect for the authority of the church?”

“Oh, implicit!” Maurice responded.

“But,” his host remarked with a smile, “because you begin to have doubts about a thing which the church doesn’t inculcate, you show an inclination to throw overboard all that she does teach.”

Maurice was silent a moment, playing with a rosary which he wore at his belt. He was surprised that he had never thought of this; and he was startled by the doubt which had arisen in his mind as soon as he had declared his implicit faith in the church. He realized in a flash that while he had spoken honestly, he had not told the truth.

“I am afraid that I’m not quite honest,” he said, “though I meant to be. I’m afraid that after all I don’t feel sure of all the church teaches.”

“My dear young man,” the other replied kindly, “you are fighting against the age. You have been taught to believe,–if you will pardon me,–that the thing for a true man to do is to resist the light of reason. There are, for instance, a great many things which used to be received literally which we now find it necessary to interpret figuratively. It would be refusing to use the reason heaven gives us if we refused to recognize this. The teachings of the church are true and infallible, but every man must interpret them according to the light of his own conscience and reason.”

“But if this is once allowed I don’t see where you are to draw the line. The heathen are very likely honest enough.”

“I said the teaching of the church, Mr. Wynne. If a man earnestly searches his heart and follows this guide as he understands it, there can be no danger.”

“Mr. Strathmore,” Maurice said, “perhaps it seems like forcing myself upon you, and then taking the liberty of fighting your views; but this is too vital to me to allow of my stopping for conventionalities. You seem to me to be inconsistent. You refer to the church as the supreme authority, but you give into the hand of every man a power over that authority.”

The other smiled with that warm, sympathetic glance which was so winning.

“Does it seem possible to you,” asked he, “that two human beings ever mean quite the same thing by the same words? Isn’t there always some little variation, at least, in the impression that a given phrase conveys to you and to me?”

“Theoretically I suppose that this is true,” assented Maurice; “but practically it doesn’t amount to much, does it?”

“It at least amounts to this,” was the reply, “that what one man means by a set form of words cannot be exactly the same that another would mean by it. The creed is one thing to the simple-minded, ignorant man, and something infinitely higher and richer to a Father in the church. You would allow that, of course.”

“Yes,” Maurice hesitatingly assented, “but I shouldn’t have thought of it as an excuse for laxity of doctrine.”

“I am not recommending laxity of doctrine. I am only saying that since absolute unity of conception is impossible, it is idle to insist upon it. I am not excusing anything. A fact cannot need an excuse in the search for truth.”

The young deacon felt himself sliding into deeper and deeper waters, though the mien of Strathmore seemed to inspire confidence. He was more and more uncertain what he believed or ought to believe.

“But is this the belief of the church?” he persisted.

“What is the belief of the church if not the belief of its members?”

“I do not know,” Maurice answered. “I came to you to be told.”

He tried to grasp definitely the belief which was being presented to him, but it appeared as elusive as a shadow in the mist. Mr. Strathmore’s look was as frank and clear as ever. There was in his eyes no sign of wavering or of evasion; his smile was full of warmth and sympathy.

“My dear young friend,” the elder said, “I don’t pretend to speak with the authority of the church; but to me it seems like this. We live in an age when we must recognize the use of reason. We are only doing frankly what men have in all ages been doing in their hearts. Men always have their private interpretations whether they recognize it or not. Nothing more is ever needed to create a schism than for some clear thinker to define clearly what he believes. There are always those who are ready to follow him because this seems so near to what many are thinking.”

“But that is because so few persons are ever able to define for themselves what they do believe,” Maurice threw in.

“Then do they ever really appreciate what the doctrines of the church are?” Strathmore asked significantly.

Maurice shook his head. He seemed to himself to be entangled in a net of words. He could not tell whether the man before him was entirely sincere or not. There seemed something hopelessly incongruous between the position of Mr. Strathmore as a religious leader and these opinions which seemed to strike at the very foundations of all creeds; yet the manner and look with which all was said were evidently honest and unaffected.

“Don’t suppose that I think it would be wise to proclaim such a doctrine from the housetops,” continued Strathmore, answering, Maurice felt, the doubt in the face of the latter. “I speak to you as one who is face to face with these facts, and must have the whole of it.”

Maurice rose with a feeling that he must get away by himself and think.

“Mr. Strathmore,” he said, “I am more grateful than I can say for your kindness. I’m afraid that I’ve seemed stupid and ungracious, but I haven’t meant to be either. I see that every man must work out his own salvation.”

“But with fear and trembling, Mr. Wynne.”

The smile of the rector was so warm and so winning that it cheered Maurice more than any words could have cheered him; Mr. Strathmore grasped the young man warmly by the hand and added:–

“Don’t think me a heretic because I have spoken with great frankness. Remember that the good of the church is to me more dear than anything else on earth except the good of men for whom the church exists. God help you in your search for light.”

XVIII

CRUEL PROOF OF THIS MAN’S STRENGTH As You Like It, i. 2.

The afternoon was already darkening into dusk one day late in January when Philip Ashe stood in the hallway of a squalid tenement house, looking out into a dingy court. The place was surrounded by tall buildings which cut off the light and made day shorter than nature had intended, an effect which was not lessened by the clothes drying smokily on lines above. In one corner of the court yawned like the entrance to a cave the mouth of the passageway by which it was entered. In another stood a dilapidated handcart in which some dweller there was accustomed to carry abroad his rubbishy wares. The windows were for the most part curtainless, rising row above row with an aspect of wretchedness which gave Ashe a sense of discomfort so strong as almost to be physical. Here and there rags and old hats did duty instead of glass; some windows were open, framing slatternly women.

These women were stupidly quiet. Ashe wondered if they would have talked to each other across the court if he had not been in sight, or if the gathering dusk silenced them. One of them was smoking a short black pipe, and once let fall a spark upon the head of another idler a couple of floors below. The injured woman poured forth a volley of oaths, and Ashe expected a war of words. Nothing of the sort occurred. The figure above was so indifferent as hardly to glance down where the offended harridan was steaming with a fume of curses.

Philip began to be uneasy. He looked up at the darkening sky, and backward to the gloom of the stairway behind him. No gas had been lighted in the building, and he wondered if any ever were. It was certainly too late for Mrs. Fenton to be poking about in these dangerous places. They had been doing charity visiting together, and she had insisted on coming to this one house more before going home. He had remonstrated, but she had laughed at his fears.

“I don’t believe any of these places are really dangerous,” she had declared. “I’ve been coming here for years, and nobody ever troubled me.”

“By daylight it is all very well,” he had answered, “but it’s a different thing after dark. I have been here once or twice to see some sick person in the evening, and it is a rough place.”

“But it isn’t after dark,” she had persisted, “and it won’t be for an hour.”

She had had her way, but Ashe reflected uneasily that if harm came to her it would be his fault. He should have insisted upon her going home. The light was fading fast, and the locality was one of the worst in town. He wondered why the mere absence of daylight gave wickedness so much boldness. Men who by day were the veriest cowards seemed to spring into appalling fearlessness as soon as darkness gave its uncertain promise of concealment. The thought made him turn, and begin slowly to walk up the stairs.

He was not sure what floor she meant to visit. She was going, he knew, to see a woman whose husband got drunk and beat her. She had told him about the poor creature as they came along. She was sure Mrs. Murphy must have known a decent life. She set her down as having been a housekeeper or upper servant who had foolishly married a rascal. The woman, Mrs. Fenton had added, was evidently ashamed of her present condition, and afraid that those who had known her in her better days should discover her.

“It is pitiful,” Mrs. Fenton had said musingly, “to see how she clings to her husband. She pulls down her sleeves to cover the bruises, and tells how good he was to her when they were first married. She says he doesn’t mean to hurt her, but that he’s the strongest man in the court, and doesn’t realize what he is doing. She’s even proud of his strength.”

“Strength is apt to impress women,” Ashe had answered, not without a secret sense of humiliation to lack this quality.

As he walked gropingly up the dark stairway, a man came clumsily after, and presently stumbled past him. A strong smell of liquor enveloped the newcomer, and he lurched heavily against Ashe without apology. Philip heard his uneven steps mounting in the gloom, and followed almost mechanically. He paused in one of the hallways to listen to a babble of words in one of the rooms. It was chiefly profanity, but it hardly seemed to be ill-natured. It was simply a family cursing each other with well-accustomed vehemence. He grew every instant more and more uneasy, and thought of knocking at every door until he found his friend. What right had philanthropy to demand that a beautiful, noble woman should be exposed to the chances of a nest of ruffianism and vice? He was indignant at the committee for not delegating such work to men. Then he remembered that Mrs. Fenton was herself on the committee, and that it was by her own insistence that she was here.

“She is capable of any sacrifice to what she believes to be right,” he said to himself; “but she is too good for such work; she is too delicate, too”–

Suddenly a noise arose on the floor above him. A man’s voice, thick with anger or drink, was pouring out a stream of words, half oaths; a woman was shrilly entreating. Ashe sprang quickly upstairs, and as he did so he heard Mrs. Fenton scream. The sound was behind a door, and without stopping to deliberate he tried to open it. The latch yielded, but he could not open.

“Let me in!” he cried fiercely. “What is the matter?”

The voice of a man who was evidently against the door answered him with blasphemies. A woman within cried to the man to stop, while Mrs. Fenton called to Ashe for help. Philip set his shoulder against the door and strained with all his might to force it. He remembered then what Mrs. Fenton had said about the strength of the husband of her pensioner.

“Go to the window, and call the police,” he shouted.

“He’s holding me!” Mrs. Fenton cried back pantingly.

Philip strained more desperately, and as he did so he heard the window within flung open, and the voice of a woman yelling for the police. The man inside sprang forward with an oath, the door yielded, and Philip plunged headlong into the room.

As Philip fell upon his knees, he saw a man seize the woman who from the window was calling for help, and fling her to the floor. The sound of her fall, with her wild shriek beaten into a choking gasp by the force with which she struck, turned his heart sick; but his fear for Mrs. Fenton kept him up. He scrambled to his feet, and as he did so she ran toward him.

“Your cassock is all dust!” she cried hysterically. “Oh, come away!”

The absurdity of the words made him burst into nervous laughter; yet he saw that the drunken man was coming, and he instinctively put her behind him and took some sort of a posture of defense.

“Save yourself,” he cried hastily. “He’s killed the woman.”

All this passed with the quickness of thought. There seemed to Philip hardly the time of a breath between the opening of the door and the blow which now fell upon the side of his face. Fortunately he partly evaded it, but he reeled and staggered, feeling the earth shake and the air full of stinging points of fire. He saw the figure of his assailant towering between him and the light; he had a glimpse of Mrs. Fenton rushing to the window to call again for help; he realized with a horrible shrinking that that hammer-like fist was again striking out for his face; he was conscious of a sickening impulse to run, a humiliating and overwhelming sense of his inability to cope with this brute and of even his ignorance how to try; yet most of all he felt the determination to defend Edith or to die in the attempt. In a wild and futile fashion he dashed against his assailant, striking blindly and furiously, crying with rage and weakness, but throwing all his force into the fight. He felt crushing blows on his head and chest. Once he was struck on the side of the throat so that he gasped for breath with the sensation that he was drowning. Now and then he felt his own fist strike flesh, and the sensation was to him horrible. He fought blindly, doggedly, inwardly weeping for the shame and the pity of it, wondering if there would never be any end, and what would happen to Mrs. Fenton if he were beaten helpless. Surely if aid were coming it must have arrived long ago. He had been fighting for hours. He kept striking on, but he felt his strength failing, and he could have laughed wildly at the pitiful feebleness of his blows. He was knocked down, and scrambled up again, amazed that he was not killed or disabled. His one hope lay in the fact that the man was evidently much the worse for drink, and often struck as blindly as himself. If he could but occupy the brute’s attention until help came, Mrs. Fenton would be saved.

Suddenly he was aware that the roaring in his ears was not all from the ringing in his head, but that heavy steps were sounding from the stairway. In a moment more screaming women were swarming in, and the din become intolerable as they scuttled about him, calling out to his opponent to stop and not to do murder. Men followed, and a couple of policemen came in their wake. Ashe saw through heavy eyelids the shine of brass buttons, and felt that the wearers of the uniforms to which these belonged had seized upon his assailant. He staggered against the wall, sick, faint, and dizzy. The two policemen were having a severe struggle to subdue their prisoner, and it seemed to Philip that all the inhabitants of the neighborhood were crowding in at the narrow door. The wife lay where she had been dashed to the floor, and Mrs. Fenton bent over her.

“Oh, Mr. Ashe,” the latter said, coming to him, “you must be terribly hurt! I think Mrs. Murphy’s killed.”

He tried to smile, but his face was swollen and unmanageable.

“It’s no matter about me,” he managed with difficulty to say, “if you are not hurt.”

The realities of life came back. The whirling rush of the swift moments of the fight seemed already far off. The crowd examined him with frank curiosity, commenting on him as “the dude that’s been scrappin’ with Mike Murphy.” He saw some of the women busy over the prostrate form of Mrs. Murphy, lifting her from the floor to the bed.

“Well, Mike,” one of the policemen said, “I guess this job’ll be your last. You’ve done it this time.”

The prisoner seemed to have become sober all at once, now that he was in the hands of the law. He went over to the bed, between his captors, and examined the injured woman with the air of one accustomed to such occurrences.

“Oh, the old woman’ll pull round all right,” he growled. “She ain’t no flannel-mouth charity chump.”

Without a word Ashe put his hand upon the arm of Mrs. Fenton, and led her toward the door. The insult cut him more than all that had gone before. What had passed belonged to a drunken and irrational mood. This taunt came evidently from deliberate contempt and ingratitude. Philip had a bewildered sense of being outside of all conditions which he could understand. This shameless effrontery and brutality seemed to him rather the distorted fantasy of an evil dream than anything which could be real. His one thought now was to get his companion away before she was exposed to fresh insult.

They were detained a little by the police; but after giving their addresses were allowed to go. Ashe felt shaky and exhausted, but the hand of Mrs. Fenton was on his arm, and the need of sustaining her gave him strength. They got with some difficulty through the crowd and out of the court, and after walking a block or two were fortunate enough to find a carriage.

“Mr. Ashe,” Mrs. Fenton said, as they drove up Hanover Street, “I’m afraid you’re terribly hurt; and it is all my fault.”

“No, no,” he replied with swollen lips. “The fault was mine. I shouldn’t have let you go into that place.”

“But you did try to stop me; only I was obstinate. Oh, I don’t know how to thank you for coming as you did.”

“But what happened before I came?”

Mrs. Fenton shuddered.

“Oh, I don’t think I know very clearly. That great drunken man came in, and asked me for money. Of course I didn’t give it to him; and his wife tried to get him to let me go. Then he struck her on the mouth!”

“The brute!” Ashe involuntarily cried, clenching his bruised fists.

“Then he caught me by the waist, and I screamed; and in another minute I heard you at the door.”

“But it was the woman that called the police.”

“Yes; and when she did that I was fearfully frightened. I knew that if she called the police against her own husband she must think that he’d really hurt me.”

Philip leaned back in the carriage, dizzy with the overwhelming sense of the peril that had beset her,–her! Then, mastered by an overpowering impulse, he threw himself forward and caught her hands, covering them with kisses.

“Oh, my darling!” he gasped. “Oh, thank God you are safe!”

She dragged her hands away from him, and shrank back.

“Mr. Ashe!” she cried. “What is the matter with you? What are you doing?”

He did not attempt to retain his hold, but drew himself back into the darkness of his corner of the carriage. A strange calmness followed his outbreak; a sort of joyous uplifting which made him master of himself completely.

“I am sinning,” he answered with a riotous sense of delight. “I am laying up remorse for all my future. I am telling you I love you; that I love you: I love you! I love you and I have saved you; and I shall brood over that, and do penance, and brood over it again, and do penance again, all my life long!”

“Oh, you are confused, excited, hurt,” she cried. “You don’t know what you are saying!”

“I know only too well what I am saying. I am saying that I”–

“Oh, for pity’s sake, don’t!” she moaned, putting out her hand.

He caught her wrist, and again kissed her hand passionately.

“Yes, I know that I ought not to say this now when you have had to bear so much already; that I ought never to say it; but it is said! It is said! You’ll forget it, but I shall remember it all my life. I shall remember that you heard me say that I love you!”

He threw himself back into his corner, and she shrank into hers, while the carriage went rattling over the pavement. Aching and sore, Philip yet knew a wild exhilaration, a certain divine madness which was so intense a delight that it almost made him weep. It was like a religious ecstasy, recalling to his mind moments in which he had seemed to be lifted almost to trance-like communion with holy spirits.

“I ought to ask you to forgive me, Mrs. Fenton,” he said as they drew near her house, “but I cannot. I did not mean to do this; but I can’t regret it. I am sorry for you; I am sorry–I shall be sorry, that is– for the sin of it; but the sin is sweet.”

He wondered at his own voice, so even yet so high in pitch.

“Oh, what shall I do?” Mrs. Fenton cried sobbingly. “Is it my fault that this happened?”

“Oh, nothing can be your fault. It is all mine! But you must love me, I love you so!”

“No, no,” she exclaimed vehemently. “I don’t love you! I cannot love you! For pity’s sake don’t say such things!”

She buried her face in her hands and burst into sobs. Philip set his lips together, smiling bitterly at the pain it gave him. He controlled his voice as well as he was able.

“I beg you will forgive me,” said he. “I have been out of my head. Forget my impertinence, and”–

He could not finish, but the stopping of the carriage at her door saved him the need of farther effort.

He assisted her to alight, rang the bell, and said goodnight in a voice which he was sure did not betray him to the coachman.

XIX

‘TWAS WONDROUS PITIFUL
Othello, i. 3.

Poor Ashe got home more dead than alive. His passion had shaken him like a delirium. He had been swept away by his emotion, and had thrown to the winds past and future. He felt as the carriage drove away from Mrs. Fenton’s as if he had been swung up and down on some monstrous wave and dashed, broken and bleeding, on a rough shore. He could not think; and fortunately for him he was even too benumbed to feel greatly.

He reached the Hermans’ in a sort of half-stupor, in which indifference, keen joy, and bitter contrition were strangely mingled. The contrition, however, seemed somehow to belong to the future; it was what he must endure when the time should come for repentance; the joy was a present blessing, tingling in his every fibre.

He met Mrs. Herman in the hall. She exclaimed when she saw him, and he stood smiling at her, swaying as if he were intoxicated.

“What has happened?” she cried. “What have you done to your face?”

The room and his cousin swam before him in a golden mist. He felt that he was grinning idiotically, yet he could not stop. He tried to speak, but his lips seemed too swollen to form words. He put out his hand to grasp a chair, and perceived that he could not reach it.

“I–fall!” he managed to ejaculate.

Mrs. Herman caught him, and supported him to a chair. He felt her arm around him, and he wondered how he came to be thus embraced. He tried to grope back into the dusk of his mind to tell what had happened, and the fiery glow of the moment in which he had kissed the hand of Mrs. Fenton came back to him. He sat suddenly erect.

“Cousin Helen,” he said, with husky fervor, “I have been a wretch, and I rejoice in it! I have found out how sweet it is to sin! I am lost, lost, lost!”

He buried his face in his hands, almost hysterical. He felt his cousin’s hand on his shoulder.

“Philip,” she said decisively, “you must stop this, and tell me what has happened.”

“I beg your pardon,” he answered, dropping his hands. “Mrs. Fenton was attacked by a drunken man in the North End, and I fought him. I am afraid that I am pretty disreputable looking.”

“Yes, you are. I hope that is the worst of it.”

She took him by the arm and led him into the library, where she established him in an easy-chair by the fire.

“I’ll send for a doctor to look you over,” she said, “and meanwhile you are to take what I give you.”

She left him, and Philip sat looking into the coals.

“Ah, if the glove had been off!” he murmured half aloud.

He flushed hotly, and struck his clenched hand against his breast, rubbing it back and forth until the haircloth within stung and smarted.

“No, no,” he said to himself fiercely. “I will not think about it!”

Helen came back with a tumbler of something hot and fragrant, which made his eyes water as he drank. It sent a strange sensation of warmth through him, and seemed to restore his energy. The doctor, who came in soon after, found nothing serious the matter. Ashe was temporarily disfigured, but had luckily escaped without worse injury. He was sent to bed, and despite his expectation of passing the night in an agony of remorse, he sank almost immediately into a dreamless sleep.

When Philip awoke his first sensation was that of stiffness and soreness,–soreness such as he had felt once when he had slept on the floor with his arms extended in the form of a cross. The thought of penance performed gave him a thrill of happiness, but to this instantly succeeded the remembrance of the events of yesterday, and his brief satisfaction vanished.

His face was discolored, and as he set out after breakfast to seek his spiritual adviser he felt a grim satisfaction in going abroad thus marked. It was in the nature of a mortification and a penance. He repeated prayers as he walked, his eyes cast down, his bosom pricked by haircloth. He felt that he had already begun the expiation of the sin of yesterday.

He found Father Frontford at home, but so occupied as to be unable to listen to him. It would have been impossible for Philip to do as Maurice had done, and go to a man like Strathmore; and indeed, he had come to his Father Superior partly because of the sharpness with which he felt that his offending would be judged. Where Maurice would question, Philip would submit blindly and with ardent faith.

“Good-morning,” the Father greeted Ashe kindly, holding out his left hand, while the right held suspended the pen which had already produced a heap of letters. “I am very glad to see you; but you find me extremely busy. There are so many things to be thought of just now, and so many letters to be written.”

“Yes?” Philip responded absently.

“The election is so near at hand now,” the other continued, “that we cannot leave any stone unturned. I am writing to some of the country clergy this morning. By the way, I wanted to speak to you about Montfield.”

Philip wondered at himself for the remoteness which the affairs of the church had for him, so absorbed had he been in his own experiences.

“It seems to me,” Father Frontford went on with fresh animation, “that perhaps you can do something there. Can’t you go down and talk with Mr. Wentworth? He’s inclined to support Mr. Strathmore. You should be able to influence him; you are his spiritual son.”

Mr. Wentworth was the rector in Philip’s native town, and under him both Ashe and Wynne had come from Congregationalism into the Church.

“It is possible,” Philip said doubtfully. “Mr. Wentworth is, however, rather inclined to disagree with me nowadays. He is completely carried away by Mr. Strathmore.”

A strange look came into the face of the old priest. He laid down his pen, and pressed together the tips of his white fingers, thin with fasting and self-denial.

“Did you not once tell me,” he asked, “that Mr. Wentworth has hoped for years that he might bring your mother also into the fold?”

“Yes.”

“And you are her only child?”

“Yes.”

Father Frontford cast down his eyes; then raised them to flash a glance of vivid intelligence upon Ashe. Then again he looked down.

“I think that you had better run down and see your mother,” he said. “It is possible that she may be even now leaning toward the truth; and in any case you might arouse Mr. Wentworth to fresh activity. It is of much importance that the country clergy should be pledged not to support Mr. Strathmore in the convention.”

Philip went away confused and baffled. He said to himself that his feeling was caused solely by his disappointment that he had found no opportunity to talk with the Father Superior about his own affairs; but it was impossible for him to put out of his mind the way in which his mission to Montfield had been spoken of. He was willing to go down and do what he could to arouse Mr. Wentworth to the gravity of the situation, but he could neither forget nor endure the hint that he should make of the hope of his mother’s conversion to the church a bribe. He could not think of this without being moved to blame Father Frontford; and he set himself to argue his mind into the belief that there was no harm in the suggestion. He walked along in a reverie as deep as it was painful, trying to see that the occasion called for the use of all lawful means, and that it was natural for the Father to suppose that Mrs. Ashe might be influenced more readily if the rector yielded to the wishes of her son in voting for Frontford.

“My dear Ashe, what have you been doing to yourself?” a strong voice asked him.

He came with a start to the consciousness of where he was, and that he had almost run into the Rev. De Lancy Candish. The thought flashed through his mind that Father Frontford had been too deeply absorbed in his plans to notice the bruised face of his deacon.

“How do you do?” he exclaimed impulsively. “Providence has sent you to me. Can you spare me a little of your time?”

“Certainly,” the other answered, with some appearance of surprise. “I’m on my way home now.”

They walked in silence toward the home of Mr. Candish, Ashe trying to frame some form of words by which he could confess the sin of his heart without betraying Mrs. Fenton. He wondered if Maurice Wynne could have helped him, and reflected how they had been in the habit of confiding everything to one another. Now he shrank from opening his heart to his friend, and was almost seeking out a confidant in the highways and hedges.

“You have not told me what sort of an accident you have had,” Candish observed, as he fitted the latch-key into the lock of his door.

“I was attacked by a man in the North End,” Philip answered, obeying the wave of the hand which invited him to enter. “He had insulted Mrs. Fenton, and”–

“Mrs. Fenton!” echoed Candish.

The tone made Ashe turn quickly. Into his mind flashed the words of Helen and of Mrs. Wilson connecting the name of Candish with that of Mrs. Fenton. In his longing for comfort and advice he had seized upon the rector of the Nativity without remembering that he was the last person to whom he should come.

“Ah,” he said, “it was true!”

Candish did not answer, and they went into the study in silence. The host sat down in the well-worn chair by his writing-table, while Philip took a seat facing him.

“What a foolish thing for me to say,” Ashe broke out; then surprised at the querulousness of his tone he stopped abruptly.

“Mr. Ashe,” Candish said gravely, “if there is anything I can do for you will you tell me what it is?”

Philip rose quickly, and took a step towards him, leaning down over the thin, homely face.

“I have found you out!” he cried with exultation. “I came to confess my sin to you, and I find that you love her too!”

“Don’t be hysterical and melodramatic,” was the cool response. “Sit down, and let us talk rationally if we are to talk at all.”

The manner of Candish recalled Philip to himself. He sat down heavily.

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “Since that fight I have been half beside myself. I am like a hysterical girl.”

The other regarded him compassionately.

“Mr. Ashe,” responded he, “there is no good in my pretending that I didn’t understand what you meant just now. You and I are both given to the priesthood. If we both love a woman”–

“I love her,” burst in Philip, half defiantly, half remorsefully, “and I have told her so! I have condemned myself”–

“Stop,” Candish interrupted. “First you have to think of her.”

Philip stared in silence. It came over him how entirely he had been thinking of himself, and how little he had considered Mrs. Fenton in his reflections upon the events of the previous evening. Here was a man who could love her so well as to think of her first and himself last.

“But I have given her up,” Philip stammered.

“Was she yours to give up?”

There was nothing bitter or sneering in the words; they were said simply and dispassionately.

“No,” Philip answered, dropping his voice; “she was not mine.”

The older man rose and walked to the fire, where he stood looking down at the flaming coals.

“After all,” he said, “we are pretty much in the same plight. I knew her when her husband brought her here a bride, the loveliest creature alive. Arthur Fenton was a clever, selfish, wholly irreligious man; and I could not help seeing how completely he failed to understand or appreciate his wife. She was kind to me, and when her trouble came she turned to me for comfort and sympathy. It is my weakness that I love her; but she will never know it.”

“And does she love nobody?” demanded Ashe jealously.

Candish turned upon him a look of rebuke.

“What right have you or I to ask that question?” he retorted sternly. “I do penance for loving her, and God is my witness how carefully I have hidden it. It is not for me to question her right to love if she please.”

Philip rose, and went to the other, holding out his hand.

“Mr. Candish,” said he earnestly, “you have taught me my lesson. I have been a weak fool, and worse. I will pray for strength to lay my passion on the altar and forget it.”

The rector took the extended hand, looking into Philip’s eyes with a glance so wistful, so humble, and so tender that the remembrance went with Ashe long.

“And forget it?” he repeated. “I do not know that I could do that!”

He dropped the hand of Ashe, and shook himself as if he would shake off the mood which had taken possession of him.

“Come,” he declared resolutely, “this will not do. This is not the sort of mood that makes men. Let me give you a single piece of advice,–I am older, you know; don’t pity yourself, whatever else you do. In the first place, that would be equivalent to saying that Providence doesn’t know what is best for you; and in the second, it spoils all one’s sense of values.”

As Ashe that afternoon journeyed down to Montfield, he recalled all the details of this interview. The more he considered the more he respected Candish and the less satisfaction he found in his own conduct. Yet perhaps the human mind cannot cease self-justification at any point short of annihilation, and Philip still had in his secret thought a deep feeling that the church should more absolutely settle the question of the celibacy of its clergy, so that there might be no more doubts. He honored the attitude of Candish, and he resolved to imitate it. He who has never shaken hands with the devil, however, can have little idea how hard it is to loose his grasp; and Philip groaned at the thought of how far he was even from wishing to put his love out of its high place in his heart.

His mind was calmer as he sat that evening talking with his mother. Mrs. Ashe was a plain, sweet-faced woman, with gray hair brushed smoothly under her cap of black lace. There was in her pale, faded face little beauty of feature or coloring; yet the light of her kindly and delicate spirit shone through. Maurice Wynne had once said that she was like a sweet-pea,–born with wings, but tethered so that she might not fly away. Philip, with his exquisite sensitiveness, found an unspeakable comfort in her presence; a soothing sense of rest and peace so blissful that it seemed almost wrong. There are even in this worldly age many women who hide under the covering of uneventful, commonplace lives existences full of spiritual richness,–women who find in religion not the mechanical acceptance of form, not a mere superstition which encrusts an outworn creed, but a vital, uplifting force; a power which fills their souls with imaginative warmth and fervor. The worth of an experience is to be estimated by the emotional fire which it kindles; and to the lives of such women the dull, colorless round of their daily existence gives no real clue. Theirs is the life of the spirit, and for them the inner is the only true life. It is when the sunken eye shines with a glow from deep within; when the thin cheeks faintly warm with the ghost of a flush and the blue veins swell from the throbbing of a heart stirred by a spiritual vision, that the observer gets a hint of the realities of such a life.

Mrs. Ashe was a type of the saintly woman that the spirit of Puritanism bred in rural New England. Such women are the living embodiment of the power which has inspired whatever is best in the nation; the power which has been a living force amid the worldliness, the materialism, the crudity that have threatened to overwhelm the people of this yet young land, so prematurely old. In her face was a look of high unworldliness that marks the mystic, the inheritance from ancestors bred in a faith impossible without mysticism in the very fibres of the race. The heroic self-denial, the persistent belief, the noble fidelity to the ideal which is the salvation of a nation, shine in such a countenance, and make real the high deeds of a past generation the narrowness of whose creeds too often blinds us to-day to the greatness of their character.

She smiled a little on hearing the object of her son’s visit.

“I am glad to see you on any terms,” she observed, “but I cannot say that I think your coming very wise.”

“But, mother,” he urged, “don’t you see that it is a matter of so much importance that we ought not to neglect any chance?”

“My dear boy,” questioned she, “do you really think that it is of so much importance who is bishop?”

“It is of the greatest possible importance,” he returned earnestly. “Of course you don’t agree with me as to the importance of forms of worship, but suppose that it were your own church, and the question were of having a man put into a place so influential. Wouldn’t you be troubled if one were likely to be chosen who taught what you regarded as heresy?”

She smiled on him still, but he saw the seriousness in her eyes.

“Yes,” she said, “I suppose I should; but doesn’t it ever occur to you, Philip, that we are all too much inclined to feel that everything is going wrong if Providence doesn’t work in our way? We can’t help, I suppose, the habit of regarding our plans as somehow essential to the proper management of the universe.”

He laughed and shook his head.

“You always had a most effective way of taking down my conceit,” he responded. “I don’t mean that it is necessary that Father Frontford shall be bishop because I want him, but”–

“But because you believe in him,” his mother interrupted with a little twinkle in her eye. “Well, we cannot do better than to follow our convictions, I suppose.”

She ended with a sigh, and Philip knew that it was because into her mind came the sadness she felt at his defection from the faith of his fathers.

“Yes, you trained me from the cradle to do what I thought right without considering the consequences.”

They fell into more general talk after that; and after the news of the family and the neighborhood had been pretty well exhausted, Mrs. Ashe said:–

“I have asked Alice Singleton to make me a visit.”

“Alice Singleton! Why, mother, I cannot think of a person I should have supposed it less likely you would want to stay with you.”

“I’m afraid that I don’t want her very much; but she wrote me that she was very lonely, that she hadn’t any plans, and that Boston seemed to her a very homesick place. Her mother was my nearest friend, you know; and if Alice needs friendship it’s very little for me to do for her.”

“I didn’t know she’d been in Boston,” Philip commented thoughtfully. “She never seemed to me honest, mother. I never could be charitable to her at all.”

The sweet face of his mother took on a curious expression of mingled amusement and contrition.

“If I must confess it, Phil,” she said, “neither could I; and I’m afraid that there was more notion of doing penance in my asking her than of real hospitality. She is after all not to blame for her manner, and no doubt we do her wrong.”

“If you have come to doing penance, mother, there’s no knowing how soon you will be with me.”

“No, Phil,” she answered softly, “do you remember what Monica told her son? ‘Not where he is, shalt thou be, but where thou art he shall be.'”

He shook his head, sighing.

“I ought not to have touched on that matter, mother. You know that I am trying to follow my conscience.”

“Yes, I cling to that. I should be miserable if I did not believe that your way and my way will come together somewhere, on this side or the other; and I bid you Godspeed on whatever way you go with prayerful conviction.”

A sudden impulse leaped up within him, and it was almost as if some voice not his own spoke through his lips, so little was he conscious of meaning to ask such a question.

“Even if the way led to Home?”

Mrs. Ashe grew paler, but her eyes steadfastly met those of her son.

“I trust you in the hands of God,” she said.

Late that night Philip woke from a heavy sleep into which fatigue had plunged him. He reached out his arm, and drew aside the curtain near his bed, so that he might see the window of his mother’s chamber. A faint light was shining there; and he knew that the beams of the candle fell on his mother on her knees.

XX

IN WAY OF TASTE
Troilus and Cressida, iii. 3.

The two deacons were together again in the Clergy House. Maurice frankly confessed to himself that he did not like it, and he wondered if Philip were also dissatisfied. It was a question too delicate to ask, however; and he contented himself with watching his friend to discover, if possible, whether the stay outside had affected Ashe as it had him. They returned late in the afternoon, and their greeting was of the warmest.

“Dear old boy,” Maurice cried, “you don’t know how glad I am to get at you again. Where in the world have you kept yourself?”

“Just at the last,” Philip responded, “I’ve been down to Montfield.”

“Down home? Have you really? How is everybody? I hope your mother is well.”

“She is very well, and I do not remember anybody that we know who isn’t. I went down to see Mr. Wentworth, and found that he is already pledged to Mr. Strathmore.”

“Is he really? How did that happen?”

“It seems that he is a cousin of that Mrs. Gore where we heard that heathen, and she is greatly interested in Mr. Strathmore’s election. Mr. Wentworth promised her his vote. How people are carried away by that man. Mr. Wentworth told me that he looked upon him as the greatest man in the church to-day.”

“It is strange,” Maurice assented absently; “but he is a man of great personal fascination.”

“To me,” Philip retorted, “he is a whited sepulchre. His doctrine of mental reservation amounts to nothing less than that a priest is at liberty to believe anything he pleases if he will only conform outwardly.”

Maurice was secretly much of the same opinion, but they came now to the dinner table, where silence was the rule. Wynne had a feeling of dishonesty from the fact that he concealed from his friend that he had sought an interview with Strathmore, yet he felt that he could not confess the visit. While they sat at table a brother read aloud, and the reading chanced to be to-night from the book of Job. The words of the splendid poem mingled in the mind of Maurice with the most incongruous and unpriestly thoughts. He chafed at the routine into which he had fallen as into a pit from which he had once escaped; the meagre repast seemed to him pitifully poor; and most of all he was angry with himself that he could not feel joy at his return to the house which was the symbol of the consecrated work to which he had given his life. After dinner came an hour and a half of recreation, and in this he was called to the study of the Father Superior.

“You returned so late in the day,” the Father said with a smile, “that you will not mind giving up recreation to-night. I wish to speak with you on a matter of importance.”

Maurice took the seat toward which the other waved his hand. He felt alien and strange. He recalled the attitude of submission and reverence with which he had once been accustomed to enter this room, the respect with which he had heard every word of the Father; and he blamed himself bitterly that he now took rather a defensive mood, and felt an instinctive desire to escape. He reflected that he had been poisoned by the world; yet he could not wholly shut out the consciousness that he had no genuine desire to be freed from the sweet madness which had seized him. He tried to put all thought of these matters by, however, and to give his whole attention to what the priest might say to him.

“I think that you have met Mrs. Frostwinch,” the Father said.

“I went to her house once,” Maurice answered, surprised at the remark, and feeling his pulse quicken at the remembrance of his first sight of Berenice.

“I remember that you mentioned it in confession,” was the grave reply. “Satan sets his snares in the most unlikely places.”

The words seemed almost a reply to Wynne’s secret thought. His first impulse was to resent this open allusion to a sacred confidence whispered in the confessional. It was like a stab in the back, or a trick to take unfair advantage; and the matter was made worse by this allusion to a snare of Satan, which could mean nothing else but Berenice herself. Maurice flushed hotly, but habit was strong in him, and he cast down his eyes without reply.

“Have you heard that Mrs. Frostwinch is on her way home?” Father Frontford went on.

“No.”

“It is said that her faith-healing superstition has failed her, and she is coming home to die.”

“To die?” echoed Maurice.

He recalled Mrs. Frostwinch as he had seen her, gracious, high-bred, apparently brilliantly well; and it appeared monstrously impossible that death should be near her. She had seemed a woman who would defy death, and live on simply by her own splendid will.

“So it is said,” the Father assured him. “Do you know how important it is to us to have her influence in the election?”

“I know that there are certain votes that she may influence, and that she is in”–he almost said “your,” but he caught himself in time–“our interests.”

“There are three and perhaps four votes which depend upon her. Three are sure to go over to the other side if she is not able to stand behind them. They are all dependent upon her for support in one way or another.”

“But surely,” Maurice suggested, “they would not vote unconscientiously? They wouldn’t sell their convictions for her support?”

“They would not vote unconscientiously,” was the dry response, “but they believe that the support which she gives to them and to their missions is of more importance than that the man they really prefer should be chosen.”

“But what can be done?”

Father Frontford sat leaning back in his chair, his face in shadow, and the tips of his thin fingers pressed together in his habitual gesture.

“Perhaps nothing,” he answered.

His voice had dropped into a soft, silky half-tone, insinuating and persuasive. Maurice began to have an uneasy feeling as if he were being hypnotized; yet the words of the other came to him with a quality strangely soothing and attractive.

“Perhaps,” the priest went on after a pause of a second, “perhaps everything that is necessary.”

It seemed to Maurice that there was something significant in the tone which the words did not reveal. He looked keenly at the shadowed face, but without being able clearly to make out its expression. He could see little but the bright eyes holding and dominating his own.

“It is for you to do this work,” Father Frontford continued; “and it is wonderful how Providence brings good out of all things. Here is an opportunity for you not only to expiate your fault, but to serve the cause of the church.”

Without understanding, Maurice began to tremble with inner dread lest the name of Berenice should again be brought up between himself and this pitiless priest.

“I do not see that there is anything that I can do,” he said coldly.

“On the contrary. Do you chance to know anything about the Canton estate? I suppose you are not likely to.”

“Nothing whatever. What is the Canton estate?”

“Mrs. Frostwinch was a Canton. Her father was a brother of old Mrs. Morison.”

Maurice could not see how all this involved him, but he became more and more uneasy.

“The estate of old Mr. Canton,” the Father went on in the same smooth voice, “was, as I have just learned from Mrs. Wilson, left to his daughter for life and to her children after her. If she died childless it was to go to Miss Morison.”

“And she is childless?”

“She is childless. If she is taken away now, the property will all be in the hands of Miss Morison.”

There was a moment of stillness in which the thought most insistent in the mind of Maurice was that in this fortune fate had raised another wall between himself and Berenice. He spoke to escape the reflection.

“But all this is surely not my concern.”

“It is your concern if it shows you a way in which the votes of those clergymen may be assured, although Mrs. Frostwinch should not recover.”

“It shows me no way.”

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