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The Velvet Cushion

By John Cunningham

London: Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1814.

Chapter VI.

THE venerable couple had seated themselves to tea,--the lady, in spight of her lord's decided preference for green, had dexterously slipped in, for the sake of his nerves, an undue proportion of black, the old sofa was wheeled round, the fire stirred, Shock had leapt up into a vacant chair, the candles were trimmed, and, hi short, all was prepared for the resumption of his reading between every cup and mouthful, when a neighbour entered the room. He was an erect sort of personage, something like the pictures one occasionally sees of a cavalier; a resemblance of which, perhaps, he was proud, as he was said to plead a distant relationship to the Stuarts themselves. At all events, he was an enthusiastic lover of the family; more than equalling our Vicar in his attachment to the first [51/52] Charles, and far transcending him, which, indeed, was a matter of no difficulty, in his attachment to the second. The old gentleman, who was now ten times more occupied with his Cushion than ever, at once broke ground upon his favourite topic, told his visitor all the story,--the substance of what he had read, the exact quantity he had read, and, finally, begged to know if he was disposed to partake, first of some tea, and then of the richer feast prepared for him in the precious memoir. The visitor, as the memoir had reached the precise period which he deemed most worthy of notice, and of which, indeed, he himself, but for an unaccountable habit of bad spelling, had often conceived a wish to write the history,--at once consented. Behold, then, the due preliminaries of bread and butter being settled, the three seated to their interesting employment; and the old gentleman as happy as a King, I mean as a good King, begin to read.

'I confess that, neither what I saw of [52/53] the Protector at church, or heard of him from my loquacious friends, the Sexton and Clerk, was calculated to destroy the remembrance of my personal indignities, or to conciliate my esteem for the author of them. He was a person in whom, unhappily, great talents and great vices met together,--a 'bold bad man."

"Very just, I am sure," said the Visitor, and took off his other glove, which before, as if doubtful about staying, he had kept in his hand.

"Just, I fear it is," said the charitable Vicar; "but, let us hope, full strong. I must hope that he did not mean to be as wicked as he seems. He was, after all, an enthusiast; and, in such men, the head is generally the dupe of the heart." The Visitor thought, as many other people will think, the Vicar's charity much misplaced; but he let him read on.

'At length, Sir, to my astonishment, I heard, in a whisper, (for in those days none spoke louder about state affairs) [53/54] from the Reader to the Clerk, that the Protector had suddenly sickened, either of a bad conscience, or of a tertian ague, and, in spight of the prophecies of some pseudo religious quacks about him, had died. And I cannot say but that, if I had thought him better prepared for so awful a change, I should have cordially joined in the general rejoicing. It was forcibly said of him, that 'he was one of those men who, whenever they die, die for the good of their country."

"That," said the Vicar drily, "must depend on the character of his successor."

Here the Visitor began to chafe a little; but the old gentleman had so much of what is called bonhommie about him, and said his hardest things so very softly, that it was impossible to be really angry with him. He read again.

'I pass over the momentary reign of his son, who, being fitter for a country gentleman than a sovereign, had the [54/55] good fortune himself to make the discovery, and was quite as ready to exchange his sceptre for a pitchfork, as the nation to require the exchange.--I pass on, then, at once, to the days of Charles II. And here, Sir, I confess, that although I had seen two great national changes, I was not prepared for what followed. The people were naturally very glad to see the King back- But how did they testify their joy? By the most extravagant excesses,--as if they wanted a King, merely for the illustrious privilege of breaking every law of God and man. If they had known that particular monarch better, they would have known, that there was only one man in the nation to whom he was disposed to grant this plenary indulgence.'

"Who was that?" asked the old lady. Neither the Visitor nor the Vicar thought fit to reply,--though, I suspect, they had the most opposite answer upon their lips.--The latter proceeded to read.

[56] 'The Court took the lead in profligacy, and the lower orders soon followed. Even the Church was infected. The nation, a month since, to all appearance, a living mass of enthusiasm, was suddenly transmuted into a nation of rioters. The mob, who had scarcely ceased to cry "Hosannah!" now cried, "Crucify him!" Excessive heat was chased, as it were, and expelled by excessive cold, I can fancy nothing like it.'--

"Except," said the Vicar, whom his wife esteemed something of a wag, "a hail storm in the dog days." He then proceeded to read.

'You can conceive nothing more changed than the sermons. For a long time I had been of little service in the church; for most of the Commonwealth preachers had a notion that words once impressed upon paper lost all their efficacy,--that, what a man conceived in his study, when he had time to pray and read, was necessarily bad; and what he [56/57] conceived in the pulpit, where he had time for neither, was necessarily good. So that my only function, during this disastrous period, was to endure the lusty thumps of puritannical fists; the weight of which, I must say, more than compensated for every other subduction of labour.--Indeed, they beat me as thoroughly as they could have done had they known my antipathy to the beaters..

'At length, however, the Restoration, with some other good things, brought back written sermons. The character of the new sermons, however, I confess, did not please me. The resolution apparently taken by the Royalists was, first, to do all that the Republicans had left undone; and, secondly, to leave undone all they had done. Now, if no particle of truth had mixed up with the Puritan errors, this rule would have been wise. But as their system included a remarkable mixture of truth and error, nothing could be more mischievous.'

[58] "It was," said the Vicar, "inflicting upon religion something like the Roman punishment of tying a man to an ape, and casting both together into the Tiber."

The Visitor, whom I shall hereafter call the Cavalier, since he had the look and the mind of one, liked neither the remark nor the simile, both of which he deemed too honorable to Puritanism--and taking the glove again from his pocket, drew it on. Something also he said gruffly and indistinctly; but the Vicar, not liking the tone in which he spoke, thought even his own voice pleasanter than his, and therefore began to read again.

'Henceforward, Sir, we heard little more of Christ, and faith, and conversion; for which words were substituted Socrates, reason, and moderation; as if truth and devotion were opposed to good sense and sobriety. I am persuaded, a good Heathen coming to Church, might, [58/59] except indeed on the festivals, have often concluded himself in his own temple. True doctrine was out of fashion with the nation, and good morals unpalatable to the King.'

"What King could that be?" said the old lady; one of whose little frailties was to ask unlucky questions?"

"I am quite sure," said the Vicar, whose peculiar art it was to evade these questions--"it was not George the Third."

"It must be Louis the XIVth," said the Visitor.

"Perhaps," replied the Vicar, "if we read on, we shall hear." And accordingly he read on.

'I have been much struck, Sir, in my long life, with one circumstance, that, whenever the Church of Christ for a long time had rest, through any particular event, the great mysteries of the gospel became unpopular. Whenever the monarch was either arbitrary or licentious, [59/60] certain features of Popery began to discover themselves in the national religion. And so it was now. Pomp grew, and devotion languished. Violent assaults were made on the sanctity of the Sabbath. The saints did not indeed again take possession of the vacant niches, nor the Pope come over to be crowned--transubstantiation and purgatory were also abjured--hut, what may be called the genius of Popery, I mean--the form without the spirit of religion, presided in the pulpit, and at the altar, almost as much as ever. It was a more subtle Popery--Popery in a mask--Popery, like an Italian assassin, doing its work, without shewing its face.

'But, Sir, I had not much leisure to speculate upon the state of things in the Establishment; for, one Wednesday evening, on which day, after morning prayers, I had always been allowed to be at rest in my box, I found myself suddenly in. the gripe of a new rector of the [60/61] parish, who, casting me, somewhat contemptuously, my stabbed side uppermost, on the vestry table (if the old Vicar hast worn a sword, I am sure he would Lave then laid his hand upon the hilt of it), in a loud tone, said to the circle of eager vestrymen around him, 'There, gentlemen, judge for yourselves--is such a cushion worthy of such a Church?' 'Or,' said an upholsterer, who hoped to be called upon to supply a new cushion, 'of such a Clergyman?' 'Surely,' observed a laceman, 'it would do well enough with new lace and tassels. 'Certainly,' said a dealer in tints and dyes, 'if it were only cleaned and dyed'--But, as there chanced to be more than one of a trade in the vestry--as a mere repair would not answer the upholsterer's purpose, nor new lace the dyer's, it was determined to make a grace of a necessity, and generously to comply with the Clergyman's wish. My dismissal was accordingly agreed upon, noted, and [61/62] signed in the vestry book; and an order driven for another. I accordingly became the perquisite of the pew-opener; and will now proceed to tell you what use he made of his new possession.'

"If it had been hanged, drawn, and quartered," said the now-bursting Visitor, "it was far too happy a fate for it. Is not the memoir down-right Puritanism and treason, from beginning to end?"

"If it was, Sir," said the Vicar calmly, "it should be cut into thread-papers tomorrow. But, on the contrary, it has, personal reasons--see there, Sir, (pointing to the lacerated side of the Cushion), for detesting the Puritans--

'Look, in this place, ran Casca's dagger through,
'See what a rent the envious Casca made.'

"And, as for loyalty, why, Sir, I hope I may venture to say, that I am a loyal man. There hangs a King (pointing to his darling picture), to save whose head I would willingly have laid my own on [62/63] the block." The old Lady absolutely groaned out at the terrible vision her lord had conjured up--"but, I must say, that, by a somewhat unequal distribution, he seems to have had all the virtue of the family. It was just like the old peach tree in the garden, my love, where, as you well know, all the sap has run to one branch. Of what, Sir, in Charles II." continued he, "can we speak favourably? Of his religion?" "No--" said the Visitor, who was at the bottom a conscientious man. "Of his morals?"--"No." "Of his politics?"--"No." "Of his good old English spirit?"--"No." "Well, then, since we can say nothing good of him, we had better" added the kind old Gentleman, say nothing at all. If, Sir, I had caught him sleeping in the cave of Makkedah, I would not have touched even the skirt of his garment, but I would have gently jogged his Majesty, when thus slumbering over the interests of his country, and [63/64] have said to him--'Sire, the Crown of England will be a Crown of thorns to any man who wears it without deserving it. Poetical compacts vanish away, but the title of a good King is registered in Heaven, and stamped on the hearts of his people."

"Perhaps, my love," said the old lady, "if any one had said this to him, he would have been reclaimed."

"Let us hope so,"' said her lord, "and just touch for a moment on another topic noticed in the Memoir. Did you not notice the hints given there of a revival of Popery?"

"To be sure,--and that it always appeared when any other form or system of religion disappeared."

"Like rats," said the Vicar, who it seems had got up in a humour for similies, "like rats in an empty house."

"Sir," said the Visitor, who combined an absolute antipathy for Popery with a profound respect for a kind of Protestantism [64/65] not much unlike it, "I can see nothing like Popery in the religion of the days of Charles the Second."

"Now, for my part," answered the Vicar, "I see something like it in the religion of all days. Popery seems to me the religion of human nature. It is the weed which both springs up wherever the soil is uncultivated, and endeavours to choke whatever is sown. The Pope is a mere man, who endeavours to choke temporal to spiritual power, and to get both into his own hands. People have talked of Popes Wesley, and Whitfield and they, with many others, are proofs, perhaps, that you may have Popes without tiaras."

"And what is Popery?" asked the old lady.

"The religion of forms," answered the Vicar, "a sort of pantomime, where much was to be done by dumb shew."

"But," asked the Visitor, who knowing the Vicar's strict adherence to the [65/66] rites of his own Church, and his almost superstitious reverence for it, thought he had here caught him tripping, "do you, then, despise forms?"

"Far from it," replied the Vicar, "I never yet saw, nor expect to see, religion survive their destruction. But, because I cannot walk without my old stick, I do not mistake it for my legs,--nor, because I cannot preach without my cushion here, and do perhaps think all my sermons somewhat the better for it, do I yet mistake it for a sermon."

"If you had, my love," said his lady, who deemed the bare comparison of the best of sermons to a cushion little short of impiety, "you would make a greater mistake than any you ever made in your life." And, as the Visitor had not always found the said sermons quite as composing and comfortable as the image would imply, he heartily assented to this declaration.

"Upon the whole," said the Vicar, "I [66/67] seem, as I said, to see Popery enter whenever the door is not barred by the treble bolt of a humble, practical, devout spirit. I see it in the broad-brimmed hat of a Quaker, in the smooth silk hat of a Methodist, in the cant language of some other sectaries; and, finally, I see it sometimes where I would least of all wish to see it, at the font and the altar of our own truly spiritual Church."

"In what cases?" asked the Visitor.

"When," replied the old Gentleman, "the priests or the people imagine that the mere rite supersedes real vital religion in the heart of the worshipper."

"I fear," said the Visitor, "I have something of Popery running in my own veins."

"That very fear," said the Vicar, "' will, by the divine blessing, carry off the disease." And then he caught him tenderly by the hand. "Do not think," said he, if that I led intentionally the conversation to this issue; but, as Providence has conducted [67/68] us to this point, let us make the best use of your circumstances. I do think, you have named your chief fault. The correctness of your life, your zeal for the Church, your integrity, your benevolence, have long made me love you, and feel ashamed of myself--and I have often said, but 'One thing lackest thou yet,' seek, dear Sir, to add the spirit to the form of religion--bring fire to your altar--put the soul into the act--and then, I shall be as inferior to you in devotion, as I have long been in every thing-else. I am your Shepherd, Sir, but the sheep often knows his way to the best pastures better than his Shepherd. Happy, most happy shall I be, to tread in your steps."

There was something in this honest, simple, pastoral address of the good Vicar, that sunk to the very heart of his Visitor, I saw him lift his handkerchief to his face as if to weep--but, as the old Lady at almost the same [68/69] moment observed, "how much these wood fires affect the eyes;" and he and the Vicar assented to it--this might possibly be the cause. I heard him, however, a few moments afterwards, when they were out of the room, with eyes full of tears, but yet lifted up with a sort of holy confidence to God, exclaim, "The true worshipper shall worship thee in spirit and in truth." The same Gentleman died two years afterwards, and this codicil was found to his will--"I leave to the Vicar of -------- in --------, my Baskett's Bible and Prayer Book, as a testimony of gratitude for his having first taught me to use them both as I ought." The old Vicar keeps them in a choice corner of his library; and his Lady, in gentle disobedience to his orders, will, when he is absent, tell the story, and look a little proud of her husband. This, however, the less signifies, as I am quite sure he is not proud of himself.

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