A Professional Consultation

Three months passed, during which the Allens’ pew was vacant at Tanner’s Lane. George remained at home with his only child, or was at his mother’s, or, shocking to relate, was in the fields, but not at chapel; nor were any of his family there. During the whole of these three months one image was forever before his eyes. What self-accusations! Of what injustice had he not been guilty? Little things, at the time unnoticed, turns of her head, smiles, the fall of her hair⁠—oh, that sweet sweet brown hair!⁠—all came back to him, and were as real before him as the garden wall. He thought of her lying in her grave⁠—she whom he had caressed⁠—of what was going on down there, under the turf, and he feared he should go mad. Where was she? Gone, forever gone⁠—gone before he had been able to make her understand how much he really loved her, and so send her to sleep in peace. But was she not in heaven? Would he not see her again? He did not know. Strange to say, but true, he, a member of Tanner’s Lane Church, who had never read a sceptical book in his life, was obliged to confess, perhaps not consciously, but none the less actually, he did not know.

In those dark three months the gospel according to Tanner’s Lane did nothing for him, and he was cast forth to wrestle with his sufferings alone. It is surely a terrible charge to bring against a religious system, that in the conflict which has to be waged by every son of Adam with disease, misfortune, death, the believers in it are provided with neither armour nor weapons. Surely a real religion, handed down from century to century, ought to have accumulated a store of consolatory truths which will be of some help to us in time of need. If it can tell us nothing, if we cannot face a single disaster any the better for it, and if we never dream of turning to it when we are in distress, of what value is it? There is one religious teacher, however, which seldom fails those who are in health, and, at last, did not fail him. He was helped by no priest and by no philosophy; but Nature helped him, the beneficent Power which heals the burn or scar and covers it with new skin.

At the end of the three months the Reverend John Broad received a brief note from Mr. Allen announcing that their pew at the chapel could be considered vacant, and that the subscription would be discontinued. Within a week Mr. Broad invited Brother Bushel, Brother Wainwright the cart-builder and blacksmith, and Brother Scotton the auctioneer, to a private meeting at his own house. In a short speech Mr. Broad said that he had sought a preliminary conference with them to lay before them the relationship in which the Allens stood to the church in Tanner’s Lane. They had formally ceased to attend his ministrations, but of course, as yet, they remained on the church books. It was a matter which he, as the minister of the flock, felt could not any longer be overlooked. He would say nothing of the part which the Allens had taken in the late unhappy controversies which had distracted the town, excepting that he considered they had displayed a heat and animosity inconsistent with their professions and detrimental to the best interests of the cause.

“I agree with that, Mr. Broad,” interrupted Mr. Bushel; “and I may say that, as you know, if you had done nothing, I should; for how any member of the⁠—gospel⁠—could live in⁠—and go on⁠—peace harmony with all men in the Church of Christ, I, at, least⁠—that’s my opinion.” Mr. Bushel was shortnecked, and shook his head always while he was talking, apparently in order to disengage his meaning, which consequently issued in broken fragments.

Mr. Broad resumed⁠—“I may, however, observe that George Allen was in company with the intoxicated mob which devastated Cowfold; and although he has asserted that he merely endeavoured to control its excesses⁠—and such appears to be the view taken by the civil authorities who have prosecuted the perpetrators of the outrages⁠—we, as members, my dear brethren, of Christ’s Body, have to be guided by other considerations. While upon this subject of George Allen, I may say, with as much delicacy as is permissible to a faithful minister of God’s holy Word, that I fear George has been⁠—a⁠—h’m⁠—what shall I say?⁠—at least led astray by an unhappy intimacy with a female residing in the metropolis who is an infidel. I have no doubt in my own mind that the knowledge of this fact accelerated the departure of my dear daughter, whose sorrow was of a twofold character⁠—sorrow, in the first place, with regard to her husband’s unfaithfulness, causing her thereby much personal affliction, which, however, endureth but for a moment, for she now inherits a far more exceeding weight of glory”⁠—Mr. Broad’s weekday and extempore quotations from the Bible were always rather muddled⁠—“and, in the second place, sorrow for her husband’s soul. I think we have distinct evidence of this intimacy, which I shall be able to produce at the proper moment. We have all observed, too, that whilst the Allens have not latterly attended Divine Service at Tanner’s Lane, they have not seceded to another place of worship. Finally, and by way of conclusion, let me remark that I have wrestled long with the Lord to know what was my duty towards these apostates and towards the Church of Christ. I considered at first I ought to remonstrate privately with Mr. Allen; but, alas! he has shown a recalcitrant disposition whenever I have attempted to approach him. I have consulted Brother Bushel on the subject; indeed, I may say that Brother Bushel had previously intimated to me the necessity of taking some steps in the matter, and had assured me that he could not any longer occupy the prominent position which he now occupies in the church⁠—so much, I may say, to our own edification and advantage⁠—if something were not done. We think, therefore, that the church should be privately convoked for deliberation. Brother Wainwright, what counsel have you to give?”

Brother Wainwright always had a heavy account with Brother Bushel. He was a little man, with a little round head covered with straggling hair, which came over his forehead. He sat with his hat between his knees, looked into it, scratched his head, and said with a jerk, “Oi agree with Brother Bushel.”

“Brother Scotton, what do you say?”

Brother Scotton was a Cowfold man, tall and thin, superintendent of the Sunday-school, and to a considerable extent independent of village custom. He was not only an auctioneer, but a land surveyor; he also valued furniture, and when there were any houses to be let, drew up agreements, made inventories, and had even been known to prepare leases. There was always, therefore, a legal flavour about him, and he prided himself on his distant professional relationship to full-blown attorneyhood. It was tacitly understood in Cowfold that his opinion in certain cases was at least equal to that of Mortimer, Wake, Collins & Mortimer who acted as solicitors for half the county. Mr. Scotton, too, represented Cowfold urban intelligence as against agricultural rusticity; and another point in his favour was, that he had an office⁠—no shop⁠—with a wire blind in the window with the words, “Scotton, Land Agent, Auctioneer, and Appraiser,” painted on it. On Mr. Broad’s present appeal for his verdict, he put himself in a meditative attitude, stretched out his legs to their full length, threw his head back, took his lower lip in his left hand, pulled up his legs again, bent forward, put his hands on his knees, and looked sideways at Mr. Broad.

“I suppose that Mr. Allen and his son will have the charges communicated to them, Mr. Broad, and be summoned to attend the meeting?”

“What do you say, Brother Bushel?”

“Don’t see no use in it. All very well them lawyers”⁠—a snap at Scotton⁠—“come and argyfy⁠—I hate argyfying, I do myself⁠—never seed no good on it. Get rid of a man⁠—I do. ‘Sickly sheep infects the flock and pisons all the rest.’ ” These last words formed part of a hymn of which Brother Bushel was fond.

“What do you say, Brother Wainwright?”

Brother Wainwright, although he could do nothing but agree with Brother Bushel, and never did anything but agree with him, preferred to make a show of reflection. He again looked in his hat, shut his mouth fast; again scratched his head; again shook it a little, and with another jerk, as if announcing a conclusion at which he had arrived with great certainty, but after a severe mental effort, he said:

“Oi go with Brother Bushel, Oi do.”

“Well,” said Scotton, extending his legs again and gazing at the ceiling, “I must nevertheless be permitted to adhere⁠—”

“Adhere,” interrupted Bushel. “What’s the use of talking like that? You always adhere⁠—what for, I should like to know?”

Scotton went on with dignity, not noticing the attack.

“Adhere, I was about to say, Mr. Broad, to my previously expressed opinion. I am not at all sure that the Allens have not a legal status, and that an action would not lie if we proceeded without due formalities. Tanner’s Lane, you must recollect, is in a peculiar position, and there is an endowment.”

Mr. Scotton had this advantage over Cowfold generally, that if he knew nothing about the law himself, excepting so far as bids at a sale were concerned, Cowfold knew less, and the mention of the endowment somewhat disturbed Mr. Broad’s mind.

“Brother Bushel is no doubt quite justified in his anxiety to avoid discussion, which will in all probability lead to no useful result; but, on the other hand, it will be as well, perhaps, to proceed with caution.”

“Well,” ejaculated Bushel, “do as yer like; you’ll see you’ll get in an argyfication and a mess, you take my word on it.”

“Suppose,” said Mr. Broad, his face shining as he spoke, “we hit upon a third course, the via media, you know, Brother Scotton”⁠—Brother Scotton nodded approvingly, as much as to say, “I know; but how about Bushel?”⁠—“the via media, and have a friendly meeting of the most influential members of the church⁠—a majority⁠—and determine upon a course of action, which we can afterwards ratify at the formal meeting, at which the Allens will be present. We shall in this way, it seems to me, prevent much debate, and practically arrive at a conclusion beforehand.”

“Yes,” said Scotton⁠—very slowly. “I don’t see, at the present moment, any particular objection; but I should not like to commit myself.”

“How does it strike you, Brother Bushel?”

“Arter that, I suppose Scotton ull want some sort of a dockyment sent. I’m agin all dockyments. Why, what’ll Allen do? Take it over to Collins⁠—Mortimer⁠—stamp it, ten-and-sixpenny stamp. What will yer do then?”

“No, Brother Bushel; I apprehend that it will be my duty as pastor to write to the Allens a simple letter⁠—a simple pastoral letter⁠—announcing that a church meeting will be convened at a certain hour in the vestry, to consider some statements⁠—charges⁠—naming them⁠—not going into unnecessary detail, and requesting their attendance.”

“That’s better; that wouldn’t be a dockyment, I s’pose; and yet praps he might stamp that. Resolution arterwards. Time they were out of it. Come on, Wainwright, gettin’ dark.”

“Well then, we agree,” said Mr. Broad⁠—“happily agree; and I trust that the Lord will yet prosper His Zion, and heal the breaches thereof. Will any of you take any refreshments before you go? Will you, Brother Bushel?”

Brother Bushel did not believe in Mr. Broad’s refreshments, save those which were spiritual, and declined them with some abruptness, preferring much a glass of hot brown brandy and water at the inn where his horse was. Brother Wainwright would have taken anything, but was bound to follow Brother Bushel, who was about to give him a lift homewards; and Brother Scotton was a teetotaller, one of the first who was converted to total abstinence in Cowfold, and just a trifle suspected at Tanner’s Lane, and by Bushel in particular, on that account. Water-drinking was not a heresy to which any definite objection could be raised; but Tanner’s Lane always felt that if once a man differed so far from his fellows as not to drink beer and spirits, there was no knowing where the division might end. “It was the thin end of the wedge,” Mr. Broad observed confidentially to Bushel once when the subject was mentioned.

The preliminary meeting, therefore, was held, and Mr. Broad having communicated the charges against the Allens⁠—absenting themselves from public worship, disturbance of the peace of the church, intercourse with infidel associates, and finally so far as George was concerned, “questionable behaviour,” as Mr. Broad delicately put it, “with an infidel female”⁠—it was determined to call them to account. There was some difference of opinion, however. It was thought by some that all reference to the election, direct or indirect, should be avoided, for the majority in Tanner’s Lane was certainly not Tory. But Brother Bushel seemed to consider this the head and front of the offence, and declared that if this were not part of the indictment he would resign. He also was opposed to giving the Allens any information beforehand, and, if he had been allowed to have his own way, would not have permitted them to attend. He would have them “cut off,” he said, “there and then, summararlilly.” He got into great difficulties with this last word, and before he could get rid of it had to shake his head several times. Others thought it would be dangerous to act in this style; and there seemed no chance of any agreement, until Mr. Broad once more “healed the incipient division” by proposing another via media, which was carried. It was determined that there should be only an allusion to the political charge. It was to be subsidiary. In fact, it was not to be a political charge at all, but a moral charge, although, as Mr. Broad privately explained to Brother Bushel, it would come to the same thing in the end. Then Mr. Broad, as he had suggested at an earlier stage, was himself to write a letter to the Allens, stating in “general terms” the dissatisfaction felt by the church and its minister with them, and requesting their appearance in the vestry on the day named. Brother Scotton was still malcontent, but as he was in a minority he held his peace. He resolved, however, on his own account, to acquaint the Allens with what had happened, and prepare them. They were no particular friends of his, but Bushel also was no particular friend, and his auctioneering trade had at least educated him, in the disputes amongst buyers, to hold the scales of justice a little more evenly than they were held by Bushel’s hands.

Neither George nor his father were much disturbed by any of the items in Scotton’s information nor by Mr. Broad’s letter, save the reference to Pauline. It is true it was very remote, but the meaning, especially after Scotton’s explanation, was obvious, and George was in a fury which his father found it very difficult to repress. For himself George did not care, but he did care that Pauline’s name should not be dragged into the wretched squabble. Father and son both agreed that the case should be laid before Zachariah; but when Mr. Allen came back from London he merely said, in answer to George’s inquiries, that Zachariah and himself were in perfect accord, and that at the meeting George was not to interfere.