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OUT OF THE CLOUD;
A TALE; BY P. W. P.
CHAPTER XI X.
THE INFIDEL MEETING. ACCORDING to the promise he had given, Stokes left word at the Rectory that “the Monthly Meeting of the Inquirers would be held in Tom Davidson's parlour on the first Tuesday evening, beginning at eight o'clock." The said Davidson was a pensioner who retired from the army upon his serjeant's pay, which, in addition to the interest of money he had saved, supplied all his wants, and enabled him to defy those who spoke bitterly of his unorthodox opinions. He had travelled widely, and was a close reader, so that, although his circumstances were comparatively humble, he was better informed on many points than are some of those who occupy a far more important position. He was an avowed unbeliever, and was proud of having it in his power to place a good-sized room at the disposal of the Inquirers, when a larger meeting was to be held than could be accommodated in one of the smaller cottages. And upon this occasion, it having been hinted that “opposition was expected,” there was the certainty of an overflow, so there was no other resource than that of going to Tom Davidson's.
At eight o'clock the room was full, but, when the Rector arrived, after a little bustle, a comfortable seat, near to a small table, was provided for him, upon which pens, ink, and paper, were placed, evidently intended for his use should he desire to take notes of the proceedings. There was no clapping of hands, or noisy clamour, when he took his seat, but it was unmistakably evident that his presence gave great satisfaction, and strengthened the conviction that there would be what Davidson styled “a battle royal about the goodness of David, and the faith of Abraham."
It was a rule of the society that he should take the chair in whose house the meeting was held, and thus, without any voting, Tom Davidson rose from his solid grin-chair to commence the proceedings,
VOL VI. NEW SERIER, VOL. II.
“Gentlemen," said he," some of you, perhaps, don't know what is to come on to-night, and I had better explain. We gave up two evenings to the reading of some religious tracts upon the patriarchs sent to me from Rose Hall. Miss Margery Poinder called in after I had got them, to know if they had been read. I promised her to go through them, and, as a soldier should, I kept my word with the lady. They were all read in the two evenings. Since then we have been giving our opinions about them, and the patriarchs, too, and to-night is to end that matter. And, to be plain about it, I don't think the whole bundle of Jew Fathers were worth being talked about for five evenings. There's nothing to be got out of them worth learning, and I'm sure we shan't get on if we act as they did, for the days of prospering through knavery and murder are gone for ever. Still, of course, we want to know the truth. There are some people who actually think as how we want to get hold of a lie, and swear by it, as if it were a truth—people that are mad or blind enough to imagine that we want to fight against God, and then go into the lake of fire, to be there for ever. Now, if there are any of that sort here to-night, let me tell them that it's, all such talk as that is, only fudge; we are not quite so foolish as they take us to be, and, if they cannot do anything to convince us, why, then, it's just no use to strear us out of our seven senses, or to try to frighten, when they can't reason with us. We are not going to be bullied, and won't be compelled to say we believe what we don't believe, and what we know is not believed by them as tries to frighten us.'
Davidson resumed his seat, merely intimating that he should be glad to hear any gentleman who desired to express an opinion. Some minutes passed without any response to the invitation, for a sudden dumbness had smitten those who were in the habit of speaking. Finding that no one rose, Lester addressed himself to the meeting, and expressed the hope that his presence would not check the proceedings. "I am anxious," he said, “to do good unto all present if that is in my power, but, of course, before hoping to do so, I must hear what your real opinions are. At present, believing none of the rumours against you, I am here to form my own estimate, and trust in being enabled to do so. Yet, perhaps, although a stranger to your views, I may
ask your chairman if he will explain how it is that he has learnt the important fact, that they who endeavour to induce you to accept the religion of the Bible do not themselves believe it. I have heard the same statement made by one of your members, and, as I conceive it to be utterly impossible for any man to know that another does not believe what he professes, I think it my duty to protest against such uncharitable and unjust charges. If your cause be good, it is bad policy to sustain it by unfair insinuations. Prove all that you can against them, but do not bring charges which, although they may damage the reputation of good men, cannot, from their very nature, be either proved or refuted.”
There was some considerable applause followed these remarks, which however, did not operate unfavourably upon Davidson, for he rose at once and proceeded to furnish the desired information.
Yes, the gentleman is right,” he said, “in asking for an explanation. It does seem to be wrong to say that they do not believe what they professes, and yet, for all that, it is quite right. But this is the way I comes at my certainty. They say that all men who do not believe as they do are sure to
It's no use mincing the matter, for that is what they set up as the whole truth. Now, if they believed it, they couldn't be happy-couldn't sit to their business, for, in spite of all their prejudices, they'd be obliged to
go to hell.
come and hunt us up to try and get us out of the scrape. They are not so bad at heart as their creed would make them, and it would be a bad job if men, in a good many points, were not better than their doctrinal beliefs. Suppose that they believed we should all be burnt if we stayed two hours in this house, could they rest easy until they got us out ? All Crosswood would be up in arms, and if we wouldn't go out by fair means, their being sure by stopping we should be burned, they'd have us out neck and heels by force. I know they would ; and so if they believed in any right-down plain way that our souls would be burning throughout eternity, they'd be coming to lis in shoals every minute in the day, for they couldn't be happy until they had got us to believe. Whereas, with the exception of the gentleman who has asked me the question, they won't come near us. That convinces me they don't believe what they say. Or if they do, then it's only a sort of tongue belief, which hasn't found its way into their hearts.”
Lester could not avoid feeling the force of this reproachful justification, and thus, although not blind to-in a logical sense-its weak point, he made no attempt to continue the discussion. The ice, however, had been broken, and a labourer rose up to give the following opinion upon the general question :
“I don't see what good’s agoin' to come out o' this. We'd better talk about land and taxes. There's some'at in that, nothin' in this. 'Cause it's plain enough that the priests just put their cunnin' heads together and then wrote the Bible, so that they could make a pretty penny out of the people, and get pounds out of the squires for keepin' the poor folk down. I heard a sermon t'other wet Sunday, which was all about Adam and the Apple; and there was a deal in it about what sinners we was through them two munchin' that pippin, if it was a pippin. But it's clean against sense, and I don't believe a word of it. And as to the fall, why, the story about it's no better. Why, the people, poor souls, didn't see any difference atween good from evil, and I want to know how, in that case, they was agoin' to be made 'sponsible. I've got a babhy at home as broke a pitcher t’other day, just arter the Missus had told un to let it be. But I couldn't lick un for it. Not I, 'cause thelittle chap didn't know good from evil. When he's got to know that, then if he smashes another, I shall tan him, and no mistake. That's jist the same as Adam and Eve. What did they know of right and wrong, more than my babby, till their eyes was opened to know what was good from what was evil? If they'd munched the apple after their eyes was wide
then I wouldn't go about to say as they hadn't done wrong; but seein' as it was all done afore they know'd the difference, then I say it's clean agin plain sense to say as how God held them to be 'sponsible, and that all we is to pay for their sin and blunder. Its all a priestly got-up business, that's the long and short o’ the story, and there's an end of it."
All this was said with a terrible energy, that bespoke confidence in the speaker's integrity, even from those who would be likely to treat his homespoken logic with mirthfulness. But this energy and earnestness was shown by nearly all the speakers.
Bates, a plasterer, was speedily upon his legs, to put in his word against he last sentence of the preceding orator.
He did “not agree with the story about their makin' up the book, although there is no doubt about the priests makin' lashin's of money out of it. But,' he continued, “ if they wrote it, they were not half sharp about the Cain and Abel story, as they ought to have been, for that are right agin their doctrine.
Cain was sort of religiously jealous; he quarrelled with his brother because of differin' about the kind of acceptable sacrifices, and, so far as I can see, there can be no more said than this, that, but for religion, the first murder would never have been done. And thus they who believe the story makes it out that God wouldn't accept the offerin' of Cain, because he didn't offer it rightly, but took that of Abel. Now, I can't understand how they know'd abonť Cain not doin' it right, nor about the acceptance. There aint no way us I can guess in which they'd get to know either of them things. If the story wor true, I should say Cain guessed it, and might have guessed wrong; but it aint true, and all the talk in the world 'll never make me see it in
Here a burly man rose up to declare that the very worst part of the book was that story about the Ark.
· If,” said he, “ God had wanted to have drowned the wickedness of the world, then He wouldn't have been satisfied with keeping Noah and his sons alive, for nobody can say as they were wortli savin’. Then as to the Ark, what I want to know is just this, how all the beasts and birds could be got into such a small hold— how they could live there without being cleaned out; how Noah and his people could stow away all the provender for themselves and the beasts; and how it was that air was let in to keep 'em all agoin'. If it was all pitched close, and the door shut on the outside, none could enter, and all would have died, as they did on board the Irish ship. They die now, and that's a fact. Of course, they'd ha' died then. But, as our worthy chairman says, “it aint worth while to trouble about it, for there's no sort of truth in the story.'
The tide of fierce repudiation now rose very rapidly, and the speakers were content to retain their seats while giving utterance to their objections. One man declared that from among the patriarchs Abraham should be picked out and exposed as a great knave and coward. “Why," said he, as if in reply to a stifled murmur against the use of such epithets, “ didn't he go down to Egypt and tell the king that Sarah, his wife, was not his wife, but his sister ; didn't he take all the asses and presents Pharoah made together, and then, when Sarah came back to him, didn't he go away out of the country, carryin' all his plunder with him ?”
“Plunder ! " loudly whispered Lester, being unable to restrain himself.
· Yes, plunder,” repeated the man, somewhat savagely; "for what a chap gets under false pretences is plunder, and if he had told the truth the king wouldn't have given him a single camel. But he found out that it was a prosperous trade, and tried the trick over again. Didn't he serve Abimelech, the King of Gera, in the same way? telling him that Sarah was not his wife. And then, when, as they say, God told the poor deluded king the truth, didn't Abraham accept a lot of things from him? They say that God told the king to get Abraham to pray for him, and then he shouldn't be punished; but I knows that aint true. God won't ask a liar to pray for the relief of honest men in that fashion. And there won't be much for any good man to hope for if God won't bless him until he gets the deceivers to pray for him. It's the victim, not the victimiser, that has got to pray."
Here another interposed to observe that Isaac had done the same by his wife, “and," he continued, a pretty sort of fellow Jacob was.
They cries out about Esau sellin' his birthright, but didn't Jacob catch his poor brother just at the time when he come in from a hard day's huntin', tired and hungry, And empty-handed, and refuse to give him pottage to eat until he sold his they did.”
birthright? I know of a chap as ruined a poor starvin' gal just when she hadn't a friend to help her, or a penny in the world; she sold her virtue to get bread to live, and I say he wor wus than she was, and so wor Jacob wus nor Esau. He was what people commonly call a liar to his poor blind father, and I'm sure he was not much better than a thief to Laban. But what's the use of our talkin' about these people? Some people calls 'em good and great, and we can't alter their opinion, 'cos they don't know anythin' about it. There is some," continued he, glancing at Lester, "who says that they were noble souls, and then asks us to imitate them, but I reckon they'd soon send us to gaol for three months if we wor to plunder as
It is impossible to report the whole of the speeches delivered by various persons who took part in the proceedings, and all upon the one strain; not a single word favourable to the Bible or to its heroes escaped the lips of any ; but from the occasional pauses it was eridently hoped that the rector would rise and say what could be said in their favour. Finding that he calmly retained his seat, one of the Inquirers, bolder than the rest, ventured upon assailing a series of his recent sermons. Lester had been preaching about the religious fervour and penitence of David, and without discussing his character as a whole, had given utterance to many sentences which were understood to indicate a respect for that monarch of Israel. The man who now rose had heard the series, and, without any preliminary remarks, he launched out into a fierce denunciation of David's whole career, as being that of a selfish conspirator, a narrow-minded tyrant, a gross sensualist, and a treacherous friend, one who would not stick at the commission of any crime so long as his own personal safety and profit were secured.
Involuntarily Lester said, “No! no! no !” but neither rose nor made any additional remark.
The speaker became angry, and was rendered quite incapable of summarising the events in David's life, which he viewed as justifying the language he had used. “As well defend Henry the Eighth, or the worst of the Popes ?" he shouted, still in anger. But, as he neared the close, becoming cooler, he spoke with greater clearness, and then his description of the death-bed of sithe hardened criminal ” was truly eloquent and heart-stirring. He dwelt upon the murderous advice given by the dying king to Solomon, "Not to permit the hoar head of Joab--the man upon whom he had so greatly relied
down in peace to the grave;" and then, turning to the similar advice in the case of Shimei, unto whom he had previously extended pardon, he asked, “What can we say of the monarch who, having given this pardon,
urned, when dying, to charge his successor, saying, "Bring thou his grey head to the grave with blood'? Adding, “ It is an insult to our common morality to call him good, whose last injunctions were those of blood and vengeance, and it is blasphemy against the Divinity to say that he was a man after God's own heart.
No one else rose to speak, and, after waiting a few minutes, the chairman said, "I should be glad to hear our respected rector upon these points. He has heard what we believe, and if we are in error, I am sure we shall be all glad of correction. I would not lose the chance of hearing him in this room, where we are at liberty to ask questions about what we cannot understand, and may give reasons for our opinions.
Thus distinctly invited to speak, Lester, not without many misgivings, complied; but his manner plainly betrayed that he had far less confidence