How long the Vicar suffered under this infirmity of his nature, I am unable to say. The next morning he rose, as he always did, very early, and long before his lady approved of his rising. Not but she loved "the sweet hour of prime" herself--but she saw evidently that the good old man daily grew older: and she could not help thinking that more sleep would be good for him. But I believe she was mistaken.--The pure air--the undisturbed possession of God and nature--the quiet bracing of his mind for his daily duties--the order and leisure which early rising secured to him for the day to come, were still better for him. And, sometimes, when, on joining him before breakfast in his study, she saw his face, like that of Moses after his descent from the Mount, and his high converse with God, glistening [90/91] with inward peace and joy--with the comfortable sense of the Divine presence--she thought so too.--But, to return,--After a day spent, as, upon a dying bed, we shall wish to have spent every day--he sat down again, with a glad heart, to his manuscript.
'And, now, Sir,' he continued to read, 'I come to an event of my life, which is not the less interesting to me as it led to my connection with yourself.' The old gentleman involuntarily bowed his head, and read on.--'Such is the change in human things, that I, who had a few years since been esteemed too splendid for the pulpit of dissent, was now deemed too shabby. The congregation, as i said, had decayed in piety--but it had increased in wealth. Indeed, this very increase was partly the cause of this very decay. Dissent, like every other republic, rarely remains pure after it begins to be wealthy! Its purity depends upon its alienation from the world, with which [91/92] riches almost necessarily incorporate it. So happened it now. The increased riches of the congregation lured it into the vortex of ecclesiastical splendour--and the first thing cast overboard was my poor self. It was decided, in vestry, unanimously, with the exception at least of a single primitive old gentleman, who most pathetically pleaded the distresses of some poor widows in the congregation--that the "old cushion," as they were pleased to call me, should be discarded, and a new one, becoming the dignity of the congregation, be substituted in my place.'
"Old!!!" said the Vicar, "One of the virtues of Sparta was, a reverence for age. And I never heard of a Commonwealth, great or small, which flourished without it. For my part, it is the very age of my cushion which I honour. I never touch it without fancying I lay my hand where Latimer or Ridley have laid their's. I like nothing new in [92/93] religion--new translations, new doctrines, new systems. It is not a terra incognita in which any new discoveries are to be made." What this speech of the Vicar had to do with the Cushion it is difficult to say; but these wanderings may be excused in a good old man accustomed to short texts and long sermons. He soon returned to his manuscript.
'I confess, Sir, that I heard of my dismissal without any regret. My early habits unfitted me for dissent. I felt much tenderness, indeed, for the scrupulous dissenter, and much admiration of their general zeal; but I saw nothing which led me to think that, on the whole, stones of the church would be better employed in building meetings. The Dissenters are often important auxiliaries to the Church,--but they would be bad substitutes for it.--But I proceed. The changes in my circumstances were many and great. I passed through a variety of meetings. At length, I fell from [93/94] public into private life. And I shall beg to describe to you a few persons whose private devotions it was my lot to assist.
'Vetusta was the first. She was an aged lady, who, to the surprise of a good many gay friends, had lately possessed herself of some devout books, and of myself; and had, moreover, taken down some dubious pictures of nymphs and satyrs in her dressing-room to fit it up as an oratory.--Few people had run a more various course than Vetusta. She was a woman of unusually strong passions; for which, in her earliest years, she found a sufficient employment in a life of ceaseless dissipation. When, what is called pleasure, ceased to stimulate, she gave herself to books. When books also had lost their influence, she found a vacuum which she hoped religion might fill up. And, accordingly, by another roll of the wheel, she took up religion. Sensation was what she wanted--and [94/95] pleasure, books, devotion, were the successive substances out of which it was to be extracted. All were used much in the same spirit; and, it is not harsh to say, that she was just as much a Christian on her knees at sixty as at her toilet thirty years before. Admitted to her privacies, I narrowly watched this stimulating process. She read, talked, prayed, all that she might feel; and, so that she felt, cared little for the effect of her devotions upon her life and temper.'
"Such religion," said the Vicar, "is little better than dram-drinking. It is more decent, perhaps, but not less noxious. But, my dear," he added, "I would not be harsh. I fear the religion of many an old man is of the same complexion with that of Vetusta. We give ourselves to God when nothing else will have us, and think ourselves in search of him when, in fact, we are only in quest of our early sensations. The question is, whether, if I were young, I should [95/96] be willing to give the morning of life, the season of enjoyment, to God:"
"You forget, my love," said his lady, "that you did love and serve God in your youth."
"I thank God," replied the Vicar, "that, after my humble manner, I, in some measure did; but lie who has had fifty years acquaintance with his own heart, can scarcely believe that a tide of temptation, stronger by a single wave than that by which he is now assailed, did not overwhelm him. But the truth is, God "tempers the wind to the shorn lamb,' or rather, he hides the lambs of his flock in Ills own bosom."--He proceeded to read--
'When Vetusta died, I lay beside her, bearing the last book of devotion with which a poor niece who stood by had fruitlessly endeavoured to shed a ray of heavenly comfort upon the cheerless death-bed of her aunt. Vestuta, though she had ceased to love any thing here, [96/97] felt nothing but a chilly horror of an hereafter. The car which had, as it were, borne her affections from the earth, had not, like that of the prophet, translated them to heaven. She hung in suspense between two worlds, tired of the one, and unfit for the other. Such a deathbed shut out all the hopes which light up the dying eyes of a real Christian. Her niece no sooner saw the last breath quivering on her lips, than, shuddering at the awful scene, she almost unconsciously snatched me up, and the volume lying upon me, carried me to her chamber, locked the door, and then poured forth such a prayer to God as grief, the yawning chasm of the grave, the awful visions of eternity of which she had just caught a glimpse, were calculated to inspire. I became her property, lay in her closet, and saw and heard her in all her future moments of intercourse with God and with herself; and, from her peculiar character and circumstances, [97/98] soon felt a singular interest in her fate. The lesson taught by her little history is so useful, that it ought to be told to almost every parent but yourself, who have no need to learn it. And you, Sir, so love the young, that you will rejoice to see a beacon lighted up for other parents, though it may be useless to yourself. I shall, therefore, perform this important office.
'The name, then, of my new protectress was Selina; and a gentler spirit was scarcely ever let loose amidst the snares and tumults of the world. She had been taken from her parents by her aunt four years before I saw her. They were persons of the cast which would be called amiable--but amiable, rather, from easiness of temper, than from strength of principle. They had, indeed, little or no religion; and her father, especially, a man of almost morbid delicacy, on account of some indefensible conduct in a neighbour professing religion, [98/99] had contracted a strong antipathy to it. Their very narrow circumstances, and his infirm health, had induced them to resign her to her aunt; and both parents and child felt a real pang in the separation. They loved her as an amiable child deserved to be loved; and she loved them too well to observe any of their numerous defects.
Once introduced into her aunt's family, she soon perceived a great change in the appearance of things. The apparatus of religion surrounded her on every side. The devotions of the family were many and long; and her aunt, finding a new stimulus in the work of converting her niece, gave herself cordially to it; bridled her temper, and strongly and eloquently pleaded the cause of religion. The mind of Selina was soon awed by the warnings of her gloomy monitress. She began to discover that, at least, the terror of the law' had been veiled at home--that she herself had been [99/100] standing, perhaps, on the verge of perdition; without knowing it; and, adopting by degrees the creed and habits of her teacher, she fell into the formal, superstitious observance of such rites as her aunt prescribed. Far, indeed, was the religion she embraced from that of the gospel. It was, in fact, the law without the gospel--it was religion in eclipse--the dark without the illuminated part of the heavenly disc. Terror was her prevalent feeling. She saw God alone as he sits pavilioned in clouds, rolling the thunders, and flashing the lightnings of Mount Sinai; but not as he descends shorn of his beams, and with healing in his wings, upon the holy hill of Sion. This view of God naturally darkened all her prospects, and converted her religion into a sort of desponding effort to soothe, by her future life, the wrath of this despotic and vindictive Being. The character of the house corresponded with this state of mind. Her aunt, in order to rouze [100/101] her own feelings, surrounded herself with all those symbols of religion which were best calculated to awaken her exhausted sensibilities; and these, however lost upon herself, produced their full effect upon her niece. She became fitter for La Trappe, than for the holy, happy life of a Christian.'
The old Vicar here laid down the manuscript. "My dear, said he, "I almost shudder while I read this history. Is not God our Father, and shall we exhibit him to our children, and tremble before him ourselves as a mere tyrant? Shall not the happy face of nature--her scented flowers, her painted fruits, her golden harvests, yon 'brave unchanging firmament,' the shining lamps of heaven, the 'moon walking in her brightness,'--shall not this blessed book (and he once more emphatically laid his hand upon it) which is nothing less than a present deity--shall not, above all, the death of His dear son for a lost world, [101/102] teach us that 'God is love,'--that not mere awe, but awe tempered, softened, and illuminated by love is to be felt for him who thus 'first loved us?'
"Among the many causes which attach me to the services of our own church, this has always been one--its freedom from gloom and sternness--its mild, amiable, paternal spirit. Our dear child, my love, (and the tears rolled down his aged cheeks as he spoke) is, I doubt not, gone to heaven. And if I were called upon to name the means, which most, under the divine blessing, contributed to his early ripeness for it, I should say it was his mother's anxious care, as he walked by the way, at his lying down, and at his rising up, to set before him the image of God as a tender and compassionate father. At least, my love, the curse is not upon you of having given him dishonourable views of God--of having put him in the cleft of the rock while the Lord passed by without [102/103] letting him hear the glorious proclamation--the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth."
The old gentleman had touched a tender chord. It was their only child of whom he had been speaking. He had come up, and was cut down a like a flower. And though they had long ceased to mourn over him, and felt, at their age, that the line of separation was dwindling to nothing, yet whenever they spoke of him, they could speak of nothing else. They would sit together, and search their memories, and perhaps their imagination, for materials to build up a sort of little parental monument to his early charms and virtues. Thus they spent almost an hour now, and then, having consigned themselves in prayer to that heavenly Father, to whom their boy was gone, I need not say, they slept in peace.