The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
The hymn had engaged my attention; when it was over I had time to take stock of the congregation. They were chiefly farmers--fat, very well-to-do folk, who had come some of them with their wives and children from outlying farms two and three miles away; haters of popery and of anything which any one might choose to say was popish; good, sensible fellows who detested theory of any kind, whose ideal was the maintenance of the status quo with perhaps a loving reminiscence of old war times, and a sense of wrong that the weather was not more completely under their control, who desired higher prices and cheaper wages, but otherwise were most contented when things were changing least; tolerators, if not lovers, of all that was familiar, haters of all that was unfamiliar; they would have been equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practised.
"What can there be in common between Theobald and his parishioners?" said Christina to me, in the course of the evening, when her husband was for a few moments absent. "Of course one must not complain, but I assure you it grieves me to see a man of Theobald's ability thrown away upon such a place as this. If we had only been at Gaysbury, where there are the A's, the B's, the C's, and Lord D's place, as you know, quite close, I should not then have felt that we were living in such a desert; but I suppose it is for the best," she added more cheerfully; "and then of course the Bishop will come to us whenever he is in the neighbourhood, and if we were at Gaysbury he might have gone to Lord D's."
Perhaps I have now said enough to indicate the kind of place in which Theobald's lines were cast, and the sort of woman he had married. As for his own habits, I see him trudging through muddy lanes and over long sweeps of plover-haunted pastures to visit a dying cottager's wife. He takes her meat and wine from his own table, and that not a little only but liberally. According to his lights also, he administers what he is pleased to call spiritual consolation.
"I am afraid I'm going to Hell, Sir," says the sick woman with a whine. "Oh, Sir, save me, save me, don't let me go there. I couldn't stand it, Sir, I should die with fear, the very thought of it drives me into a cold sweat all over."
"Mrs Thompson," says Theobald gravely, "you must have faith in the precious blood of your Redeemer; it is He alone who can save you."
"But are you sure, Sir," says she, looking wistfully at him, "that He will forgive me--for I've not been a very good woman, indeed I haven't--and if God would only say 'Yes' outright with His mouth when I ask whether my sins are forgiven me--"
"But they are forgiven you, Mrs Thompson," says Theobald with some sternness, for the same ground has been gone over a good many times already, and he has borne the unhappy woman's misgivings now for a full quarter of an hour. Then he puts a stop to the conversation by repeating prayers taken from the "Visitation of the Sick," and overawes the poor wretch from expressing further anxiety as to her condition.
"Can't you tell me, Sir," she exclaims piteously, as she sees that he is preparing to go away, "can't you tell me that there is no Day of Judgement, and that there is no such place as Hell? I can do without the Heaven, Sir, but I cannot do with the Hell." Theobald is much shocked.
"Mrs Thompson," he rejoins impressively, "let me implore you to suffer no doubt concerning these two cornerstones of our religion to cross your mind at a moment like the present. If there is one thing more certain than another it is that we shall all appear before the Judgement Seat of Christ, and that the wicked will be consumed in a lake of everlasting fire. Doubt this, Mrs Thompson, and you are lost."
The poor woman buries her fevered head in the coverlet in a paroxysm of fear which at last finds relief in tears.
"Mrs Thompson," says Theobald, with his hand on the door, "compose yourself, be calm; you must please to take my word for it that at the Day of Judgement your sins will be all washed white in the blood of the Lamb, Mrs Thompson. Yea," he exclaims frantically, "though they be as scarlet, yet shall they be as white as wool," and he makes off as fast as he can from the fetid atmosphere of the cottage to the pure air outside. Oh, how thankful he is when the interview is over!
He returns home, conscious that he has done his duty, and administered the comforts of religion to a dying sinner. His admiring wife awaits him at the Rectory, and assures him that never yet was clergyman so devoted to the welfare of his flock. He believes her; he has a natural tendency to believe everything that is told him, and who should know the facts of the case better than his wife? Poor fellow! He has done his best, but what does a fish's best come to when the fish is out of water? He has left meat and wine--that he can do; he will call again and will leave more meat and wine; day after day he trudges over the same plover-haunted fields, and listens at the end of his walk to the same agony of forebodings, which day after day he silences, but does not remove, till at last a merciful weakness renders the sufferer careless of her future, and Theobald is satisfied that her mind is now peacefully at rest in Jesus.