Project Canterbury

The Velvet Cushion

By John Cunningham

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

Chapter XII.

WHEN the Vicar returned to his manuscript, he read as follows:

'I am now, Sir, approaching the last great crisis of my life, the time of my finally leaving London for the hills of Westmoreland. The cause of my removal was this. At the moment when the meeting, of which I was the only ornament and superfluity, was built, the church was filled by the second son of a noble family, whose want of talents had early designated him, willing; or unwilling, to spend the tithes of a considerable living.'

"Monstrous," said the Vicar. "I trust such offences are rare. Can any profession demand loftier talents? Shall the representative of God be chosen from the lowest orders of his creation? Shall he be selected to enter the sanctuary, [135/136] to unravel the web of prophecy, to hurl the thunders of heaven, to unveil that awful image before which angels hide their faces, to display to thousands the interminable regions of joy and sorrow--who has scarce faculties for the common offices of life? If I had a son with the talents of an angel, I would carry him, like Samuel, to the temple; or, like Hannibal, to the altar of his country, and there consecrate him as the soldier of the cross, the eternal enemy of ignorance and guilt."

"Read on, my love," said the old lady, who saw him here touching on the verge of that topic which of all others most wrung his heart--the loss of a darling child. He understood her, and began again to read.

'The young clergyman was an easy, kind-hearted creature, who might have seconded an address, or even have presided at a turnpike meeting with considerable effect; but had neither piety [136/137] nor vigor for his sacred employment. His people were grossly neglected. The 'hungry sheep looked up and were not fed,' and they accordingly sought for what they deemed more productive pastures. And the meeting, which waited, like Absalom in the gate, for all the discontented, and promised to supply all their wants, soon filled itself with the stragglers. But the young incumbent broke his neck in a fox-chase; and his wretched father, softened and shocked at the event, and at the state of the parish, appointed such a pastor to the living as made every good man's heart leap for joy. Our meeting was soon, in its turn, abandoned; and I slumbered over a large surface of empty pews. Upon this the chapel was closed; and I, with the pulpit, conveyed once more to a pawnbroker's. The pulpit was boughs by an auctioneer, and I by the churchwardens of this very parish; who, finding rates high, and corn low, and velvet [137/138] scarce, on account of a war with the continent, carried me off, torn and tarnished as I was, with a phrase not very honourable either to me or to the establishment, saying--'this 'ull do.' Thus, then, Sir, bearing the burden of the fatter of these church dignitaries, I was jolted down to this happy valley. This has been the last scene of my life, and, I am free to say, the happiest.

'But, Sir, you will be anxious, I am sure, to hear the history of some of your predecessors in the living. And it is my intention to gratify you. I think it right, however, to observe, that, of a large proportion of them, no very interesting records remain. Mankind are much alike. And a little country village is not likely to call out their peculiarities. Some few were mere profligates, whose memory I do not wish to perpetuate. Many of them were persons of decent, cold, correct manners, varying slightly, perhaps, [138/139] in the measure of their zeal, their doctrinal exactness, their benevolence, their industry, their talents--but, in general, of that neutral class which rarely affords materials for history, or subjects of instruction. They were men of that species who are apt to spring up in the bosom of old and prosperous establishments, whose highest praise is that they do no harm.

'The first person whose history I shall give you is one, of a class exceedingly small. He indeed is the only specimen of it that, in my long experience, I have chanced to see. But his errors are of so mischievous a nature, and the punishment of them in his case, was so signal, that I cannot consent to pass them over.

'Munster, for so I will call him, was a spoiled child. He lost his father early; and his mother, captivated by the strength of his attachment, which naturally centered all in her, requited it by anticipating all his whims, and indulging all his [139/140] caprice and ill temper. In consequence, he became peevish, headstrong, and passionate. Now and then, indeed, some better qualities seemed, as it were, to flash in his character. But the gleam was only for a moment, and seemed to leave a deeper gloom behind. His feelings were quick--his spirits variable. He loved and hated, worked and idled, laughed and cried, all in a moment, and always in excess.

'When sent to school, he was chiefly distinguished by quarrelling with the larger half of his school-fellows, and forming the rest into a party against them, of which his vehemence rather than his talents or industry, made him the leader. And, the habits of school, he carried to college, where he was chiefly known as a person whom no one liked, and whom every one feared. These numerous defects were, however, brightened by one more promising quality. He had acquired under the eye of his mother, who, [140/141] though a weak, was really a pious woman, a certain awe of gross sin. The effect of this, however was, not to correct his life, but to reduce it to a sort of alternation of sin and sorrows. Such a life could make no man happy; and, especially one who had few friends to cheer him, little real taste for dissipation, and that kind of bilious habit, which is apt to divide the life of its victim between anger and melancholy. In such a state, therefore, he was not likely to remain long. And accordingly, on a sudden, he proclaimed himself a converted character. He forsook at once, not only his vices, but his college occupations--not only his profligate, but his moral companions. His acquaintance looked on with astonishment. The good trembled when they saw such hands laid on the ark of God. The bad scoffed to find religion with such a champion. But Munster went on his way, heedless both of the one, and of the other. He soon entered [141/142] the Church, and became the curate of this very parish. And here, I shall endeavour to describe him, first, as a minister; and next, as the father of a family.

'His doctrines were, in the main, those of the Scriptures, and of the Reformers. But then he held and taught them less practically than either. His grand maxim, for instance, was, 'preach of faith, and works will follow'--whereas, the Bible and the Church evidently deem the same attention due to both--concluding, that a man is just as likely to act as to think wrong.'

"The hands of my watch," said the Vicar, "are quite as incorrect as the wheels. But let us read on."

'Neither did the spirit of moderation in these high authorities satisfy him. Sometimes, he so magnified a truth, as to strain it to the dimensions of error. Sometimes he seemed to reduce the whole of religion to a single doctrine. In short, [142/143] as some men possess the art of giving error the air of truth, so he gave truth the complexion and the nature of error. Few men had a better creed, and few put a worse interpretation to it.'

'But, however defective his opinions might be, his life was far worse. Although ardent in the pulpit, and in the discharge of most other public duties, his zeal did not extend to the more retired duties of his office. He rarely, for instance, sought out in the remote corners of his parish those lambs of his flock, who either had not yet found the heavenly pastures, or had, unhappily, wandered from them. Those quiet labours, which no eye sees, and no voice applauds but that of God, had no charms for him. To be heard, to be felt, to be admired, in the great congregation, was all he loved. Many are the wounded spirits which he never attempted to heal. Many the broken hearts which he never stopped to bind up. They cried for help, indeed, [143/144] but their Levite passed by on the other side. When he should have been aiding them, he was gone to act the Apostle, or to head the Crusade, in some public enterprise, to which, not God, but his vanity had called him. Many are those of his parish whose faces he will first recognize at the bar of God--sheep which he should have carried in his bosom--children to whom he should have been as a father.--Into the secular business of his parish he entered with great eagerness; and, unfortunately for his general influence as a minister, carried into it as worldly a spirit as any of his people--thus proving that the Apostle in the pulpit was a mere man in the ordinary concerns of life; and that, like bad pictures, it was to distance rather than to colouring, his character owed even the little effect it had. His charities were extensive and shewy. Rather indeed than curtail them, he had much narrowed the education of an only son, designed for the ministry; and even [144/145] delayed his payments to some by no means affluent tradesmen. And the money, thus doubtfully secured, was, in many instances, ill bestowed. His gifts were often either partial, or ostentatious. They were inscribed, for instance, on the walls of the popular chapel--but rarely on the hearts of the afflicted and unobtrusive poor. But, Sir, you will be glad, I think, to hear something of the effect of his ministry on his congregation.

'The importance then of the doctrines on which he dwelt, the vigor of his manner, and a good deal of natural eloquence, insured him a large and an attentive audience. And, such is the value of truth, even when debased by a mixture of error, that, in many instances, the happiest results flowed from his exertions. Many, through the mercy of God, received the wheat and rejected the chaff--which, with a too nearly approaching liberality, he had scattered around him. They learned from him, for example, [145/146] to love their Saviour, and that absorbed many baser emotions. They learned, also, to read the Scriptures; and, there, found the antidote, even, for their preacher's errors. To some of his hearers, however, his ministry was far from beneficial. Some timid minds were driven to despair--some bolder spirits urged to presumption. And, in general, his most ardent converts were, by no means, the most complete Christians. Their tempers especially, betrayed some defects in their religious system; and shewed that a millenium which should arise from the complete diffusion of his principles, would not be of that kind in which the 'lion should lie down with the kid.'

'But let us now, Sir, follow him into his family. As something great and public was necessary to call out his zeal, he was not likely to shine in the domestic circle. There, the stimulus of popular applause could not follow him; and, consequently, those qualities which in public [146/147] served in some measure to balance his defects, altogether vanished. To his wife, he was too often cold and irritable. His son, who discovered little or no bias towards religion, was repelled still further from it by the unchanging frowns of his father. Of his daughter, who had early imbibed many of his own opinions and tastes, whose person was fine, whose talents were considerable, and who, in a better soil, might have been expected to ripen into a most interesting and valuable creature, he was extravagantly fond. And, twenty years after his marriage, she alone remained to share either his joys or sorrows. His wife had died early--I will not say of a broken heart--but certainly, a troubled mind had hastened the decay of an infirm body. His son had gone to sea; and was atoning for his father's excesses in one way, by his own excesses in another. The daughter therefore alone remained to smooth the pillow of a somewhat premature old [147/148] age--to nurse him through sleepless nights, and days of pain--to calm an uneasy mind, and to supply the void created by a popularity gradually declining, as his public powers decayed.

'This daughter, however, loved him; for she had always seen his bright side. And, had her education been more complete, her mind better disciplined, her sensibility less morbid, her religion partaken less of the defects of his own--it is possible that, under the blessing of their common Father, this parsonage would have displayed one of the most beautiful of all spectacles--that of a child paying back the early tenderness of a parent, by leading his weary steps into the way of peace. But, alas! neither had oil to spare for the lamp of the other; each, like flame in the various chambers of a burning edifice, did but aggravate the other's infirmities.

'And now, I approach to the really tragical conclusion of his story. The [148/149] hospitality of Munster was a good deal confined to those who chimed in with him in religious sentiments--who, either echoed, or exceeded his own extravagancies. This select band had full range of his house. And, if they appeared to bear the test as to a few chosen points, he did not stretch them on the rack of more extended scrutiny. Among those who were thus frequent guests at the vicarage, was a person from a neighbouring village, of whom little more was known than that immediately after his first visit to Munster, he had discarded a female of suspicious character from his family, and had vehemently addicted himself to the vicarage, and to religion. These traits were a sufficient passport to the attention of both father and daughter; and before long, he was almost as necessary to the happiness of the one, as of the other. To the father, he talked upon his select topics--fighting under his banners in all controversies, and [149/150] straining all his extravagancies to something still more extravagant. With the daughter, he neither talked nor thought of controversies; and deluged her credulous ear with far other professions than those of piety. Of this, however, Munster was not unconscious. Nor was he displeased to learn, that he was likely to be called upon to consign a darling child to the arms of so valuable a protector. In the midst, however, of this career, a sudden check was given to the intimacy, by intelligence that the stranger was a mere adventurer and hypocrite. Munster, at once both forbad him the house, and commanded his daughter to dismiss him. But here the previous misconduct of Munster himself, and the imperfect education he had given her, began to produce their natural consequences. She had seen him so often deceived, capricious, precipitate--with all her love for him had so little respect for his judgment--and, with all her sanguine religious [150/151] feeling, so little controul over herself, that she could not, even for a moment, resolve to obey her father. And when, after a short time, having consented to clandestine meetings, the stranger loudly proclaimed his innocence, and condemned the base suspicions of her father, she soon acquiesced both in his protestations and his indignation, and agreed to an elopement and a secret marriage. What was her father's horror to miss her one morning at a breakfast table of which she had long been the only consolation--to discover that she was fled--that she had given herself to a villain, and left an aged parent to break his heart alone.

Her fate may easily be conceived.--A marriage, indeed, took place; and, for a few months, the novelty of her circumstances, and the indignation she felt against her father's conduct, and especially at his neglect to answer a letter she addressed to him, conspired to lay her conscience asleep. But soon the vision [151/152] dissolved--she received the deaths blow of her happiness, and the curse of her disobedience, in the slackening attention of her husband. And at the end of a year, she was left destitute--a mother, in a state of impaired health and spirits--wanting even the means of existence, in a lodging in London. It is wonderful that, even then, her shattered mind did not break down under the burden of her calamities. But she hastened, as fast as her circumstances admitted, down to Westmoreland. It was night when she reached the parsonage. She burst open the garden door, rushed up to the window of her father's study, which looked into the garden, and at which there was a light, and saw him seated in his arm chair, pale, emaciated, insane, fastened in a straight waistcoat, and his keeper standing over him. She sunk to the ground; and when after a month, her bodily health in a measure returned,, her mind, as if in sympathy with that of the parent she [152/153] had destroyed, had contracted the disease of which he died. There were those who had seen parent and child during this month, and heard the father raving for his daughter, and the daughter raving for the father. The fact was, there had been insanity in the family; and when to a life of unusual excitement, were superadded mortified vanity, disappointed hopes, wounded affections, and, above all, certain awful glimpses of the world to come--all these had served to quicken the seeds of latent disease, and to bring him to the sad state of which his daughter had been a spectator. He sat there, like the fig-tree, cursed for unproductiveness, touched and withering under the angry hand of God. Before the month of her bodily illness was expired, he died, and his awe-struck parishioners followed to the grave a man whose misfortunes had, in their eyes, cancelled his faults; whom, if they had never loved, they had now, at least, learned to pity; and [153/154] who, they trembled to think, must have missed of that heaven which, in such ardent language, he had often displayed to them. You know, Sir, his tomb in the church-yard. I believe the dead pastor has spoken even more powerfully than the living one. Such, indeed, was the awe produced by his death, that his spirit seemed to dwell among the tombs; and few of the country-people, for a long time, crossed the churchyard, who did not look suspiciously around them, hasten their steps, and put up a prayer to God, that, in them, good principles might issue in a holy life, in obedient passions, and a resigned will.

'His daughter, as I said, recovered her bodily health, but not the tone of her mind. A cord was struck there which never ceased to vibrate. She lingered out twenty years in a neighbouring mad-house; and many of the parish, who went to visit her, brought back the [154/155] most touching accounts of her condition. Her derangement had not suspended, though it had confused the memory of her misfortunes. Nor had her religious sensibility abated, but, on the contrary, it seemed to quicken her agonies, and to cast a more aweful character over the illusions of her mind. Combining, with the representation of scripture, the splendid images of her own heated fancy, she would occasionally present the most sublime pictures of the glories of heaven, and the triumphs of the good; and, then, suddenly striking her bosom, would say, "but they never left a father--they never dishonoured a God."'

Here the story closed, and it was well for the Vicar and his lady that it did; for age had by no means dried up the sensibilities of their nature. He had stopped, as if strangled with grief, at least twenty times in the narration before he could read it articulately. But his was not a mind likely to exhaust itself in [155/156] useless sorrows. Soon he began to contrast his own happiness with the calamity, of his predecessor--to thank that gracious Being who had preserved him from such an abuse of religion, and to pray for power to unite, in his own life, the holy doctrines and the heavenly temper of his master. I thought, also, that I heard him say to his lady--"happy the child who is taken from the uncertain wing of his earthly parent to repose in the bosom of his God." At all events,--that this story served to reconcile him to what he had been accustomed to consider as the sternest dispensation of his life, is clear, from the following verses, which were found the next morning on the table of his study.

As the sweet flower which scents the morn
But withers in the rising day;
Thus lovely was my Henry's dawn.
Thus swiftly fled his life away.

[157] And as the flower, that early dies,
Escapes from many a coming woe;
No lustre lends to guilty eyes,
Nor blushes on a guilty brow.

So the sad hour that took my boy
Perhaps has spared some heavier doom;
Snatched him from scenes of guilty joy,
Or from the pangs of ill to come.

He died before his infant soul
Had ever burnt with wrong desires;
Had ever spurn'd at heaven's controul,
Or ever quenched its sacred fires.

He died to sin, he died to care,
But for a moment felt the rod;
Then, springing on the viewless air,
Spread his light wings, and soared to God.

This--the blest theme that cheers my voice.
The grave is not my darling's prison;
The 'stone' that covered half my joys,
Is 'roll'd away' and 'he is risen.'

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