Chapter VIII.

BROWN was settled in the parsonage. We had removed to a little cottage. My mother remained in Wales for the sake of its cheapness. Her income, which would have been next to nothing in England, could just support us there. The tranquil village life flowed on again as usual; and still more quiet was the life in our tiny home. Now that our little band was so sadly diminished, Marion did not care to ramble as of old, but Janet and I still kept up our wanderings; sometimes together, sometimes alone, for I did not fear now to go anywhere by myself—my black dress protected me from insult from the elder children, and ensured the punishment of any of the younger ones who ventured to deride me. Although very glad of this, I was not grateful for it. I felt that my deformity ought to have been itself a shield from unkindness.

It was late in spring; the May had begun to load the hedges—looking in the distance like streams of foaming cream, bubbling over on the long green grass that rose on each side up to a man's waist. I “knew of” scores of nests, with their white, and blue, and fawn, and faint-green spotted treasures.

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I had been loitering in the castle ruins. Like Coleridge's hermit, I had there—

—a cushion plump—
It was the turf that almost hid
A rotted alder stump.

The tree that had fattened on decay, had bowed itself to Time, and the root was half covered by the Spring's gay velvet pall. It was a favourite haunt of mine. The sight of the jagged ugliness that Beauty was burying with such gentle care, soothed me, though I could not say why. Leaning on my yielding couch, my head supported by my hands, I had watched the distant English hills resting cloud-like on the sea, softly veiled, as they were, in a wood-smoke blue, pierced here and there by a long slanting line of ruddy gold from the westering sun; and had been wondering what the people were like who lived over there, and whether I should ever see them, and thinking how delightful it would be to get away from a place where every one knew that I was ugly, and yet that, perhaps, I should feel still more miserable amongst strangers, who would be always finding out my ugliness for the first time, and disliking me for it more than those who were accustomed to me. When the sun went down, the light lingered so long, and the air continued so balmy, that instead of returning home, I struck across the village green—marvelling to see no one on it—into the lanes beyond. The hawthorn's luscious fragrance, and the briar's more pungent sweetness—to the scent, what the pineapple is to the taste—mingled their perfumes like lovers' sighs; the bat wheeled round and round in its swift phantom-like gambols; and the blind beetle dashed itself ever and anon, with a startling, stinging thud, against my face, and then went booming on in the grey, dewy twilight. Besides its monotonous drone, and the twitter of the birds settling themselves for the night in their snug nests, the only sound I heard was the occasional tinkle of a sheep-bell or deep-mouthed bay of a house dog—miles away they seemed.

I had rambled for about a mile, when music—human voices—suddenly fell upon my ear. It was a psalm tune. Solemnly the hymn rolled on in the gathering gloom, swelled into thunder, sank into a plaintive wail, and then broke out again in a wild chorus—unearthly, as a spirit-song. Half-frightened, I turned my steps in the direction of the sound, and soon reached a hollow—scooped out by pre-adamite waters—in the downs inclining to the sea. The valley was thronged with people, indistinctly seen in the uncertain light; clustered like swarming bees, both in the bottom of the basin, and on its gently-sloping sides. The hymn ceased as I gained the spot, and a man standing up in one of the high-backed cars of

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the district—placed on a mound that broke the smooth uniformity of the hollow—began to preach.

Almost all the inhabitants of the Principality are Methodists. Even those who go to their parish church in the morning, generally “attend chapel” in the afternoon and evening. The Celtic temperament craves after excitement, and is unconquerably superstitious. Wesley, with his energetic appeals to the emotional half of our being, and his implicit faith in ghosts, and visible, audible devils, was just the man to leave his mark in Wales. This was a Methodist gathering, assembled to listen to a famed “revivalist.”

“The wicked shall be turned into hell,” was the preacher's brief, emphatic text; and emphatically enough he expounded it. He painted the place of torment as though he saw it: the hills of burning brimstone wreathed with pale-blue flames, the blasted strand of smouldering ashes, the lake whose red waves broke in crests of white-hot foam, the damned springing like flying fish from its torture, and beaten back by myriad fiends that overshadowed it with dusky vampire-wings; the sullen, thunderous gloom of the brooding atmosphere; the opening in the floor of Heaven through which its glory streamed in tantalising sheen, the murky shaft down which the chorus of the everlasting song of praise came echoing: “For ever and for ever!”—to be reverberated, as words of doom, from shore to shore in hell! A shudder ran through the congregation when he came to this. I saw their heads moving like bulrushes shaken by a sudden sigh of wind. I felt the fear, too, passing through me electrically, as it were. The description itself was quite enough to horrify a child, but my terror was intensified by the sympathy of that great throng. Before the sermon was over, scores of women were in hysterics. Every five minutes or so, a maniacal cry—making my flesh creep as it rang through the darkness—announced that another soul was rendered mad by fear. Even strong men were moved, and crowded together like sheep, with many a back-cast glance of dread at the outer circle of deepening gloom. One close by me fell upon the ground, and, like the demoniac, “wallowed, foaming.”

At length, the preacher sunk back exhausted in the car, and again a hymn was sung.

As the sweet, sad music went up to the peaceful stars now shining brightly overhead, the awful picture the ranter had conjured up faded from my mind. True, there was something like what he had said in the Bible, but my father never tried to frighten people to Heaven that way, like a savage sheep-dog barking at the sheep—he always talked about

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God's love. There was something wrong in this fierce doctrine, I felt sure. I could not make it tally with the lovely scenes through which I had been roaming,—the meadows flooded with sunset gold, the green leaves fluttering in the fragrant air, the wild flowers trailing from the hedges; nor with that calm, star-studded sky above. I determined to forget it all. But then I remembered how ugly I was, and how very miserable I had often been; and I thought of the wreck, and of death. It wasn't all beauty and happiness here. Perhaps there might be a place where there was none. My thoughts got into a tangle, and I gave up thinking.

After the service, there was what I believe is called a “Penitent Prayer Meeting.” Forms were placed in front of the car, and “all labouring under convictions of sin” were invited to come up to these benches, to be prayed over by the preacher and the elders of the congregation. Numbers went at first, and I heard loud sobbings and frequent bursts of singing. As the throng thinned, I edged my way up to the “penitent forms,” and the moon having risen, had a clear view of what was going on. What I saw, effectually removed the last trace of solemnity from my feelings.

The scene reminded me of a sheep shearing. The excitement having abated, very few penitents came forward voluntarily now; so that the elders were obliged to make raids amongst the bystanders, and literally to “compel them to come in.” The involuntary penitents when released, hurried back to their companions exactly like shorn sheep. There were other ludicrous circumstances. Two grades of holiness are recognised amongst these religionists—somewhat analogous to the degrees of bachelor and master of arts—“Justification” and “Sanctification.” Over a justified sinner the elders sang one verse of triumph, over a sanctified, two. By some mistake the pæan of sanctification was about to be raised over a young woman who had only reached the inferior status; whereupon the elder who—in the technical language of Methodism—had been “the means of her conversion,” shouted out at the top of his voice, “Hod yer noise, will yer? She be awnly jostified!” I heard one boy, too, say to another: “Rachart, Rachart! I'll go, if thou'lt go,” and, when he came back: “I say, Rachart, I got convarted quick. Folk scrowged so, I was a'mos' smawthered!” Like the boy, most of those who were induced to go up “got converted quick,” and—child as I was—I could not help seeing the blasphemous indecency of baking Christians in rows after this fashion, like a batch of buns. Amongst those who really did seem in earnest about the matter was a young woman of whom I had a mysterious dread, having heard that she was, emphatically, a “bad girl.” What

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the phrase exactly meant, of course, I did not know; but it separated her for me from the rest of her sex, as an abnormal woman, a monster of iniquity. I have since thought that she must have been very bad, for breaches of chastity in the lower order of Welsh women are anything but rare. Nevertheless, if she had sinned like a Magdalen, she repented like one at this prayer-meeting. It was frightful to hear her cries. Her sobs shook her bosom, as though the seven devils were struggling within, contesting their hold with their ejecter inch by inch.

When the assembly dispersed, I was thrown into the company of this girl, as our roads home lay for some distance the same way. I trembled when she first spoke to me, but there was something very winning in her voice, and, at length, I took her hand, and she helped me over the huge stone staircase stiles they have in Wales. She had just got over the last, and had turned round to take me in her arms, when old Syl. jumped up out of a ditch in which he had been lying, and caught her by the wrist.

“So you've been gettin' convarted, have yer?” he said, with a sneer. “Come along, you fool!”

“Oh, not to-night, Syl.!” I heard her answer in a pleading tone; but he dragged her away, over the marsh behind the Burrows, in the direction of his cottage.

Next day, about noon, Foster galloped up to our house, and, without getting off his horse, cried out, “Where's Arthur? He must come along with me.” Both Syl. and the girl had been found dead in the cottage. The coroner had been sent for; and, learning that I had been seen returning with the girl from the prayer-meeting, had come to take me to the inquest.

The jury, and a crowd of villagers, were standing outside the garden gate, when we rode up to the cottage; not daring to enter a second time, until the doctor arrived. I did not wonder at their white lips and faces when I saw the sight the outer room contained.

It was a small chamber with a door, just opposite the front door, leading into a bed-room behind, and another door, belonging to a sort of lumber room, on one side. This door was wide open. On the ground lay Maggie Williams, with a broad green bruise upon her beautiful temple. Her long black hair was clutched in the old villain's hand, as though he had been dragging her towards the bed-room. With the other hand extended, as if to ward off an approaching foe, he stood, as he had staggered back against the bed-room door-post, staring with bursting eyeballs at the doorway of the lumber room. The despairing horror of those eyes—still manifest beneath the glazing film of Death—will haunt me to my dying

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day. A stick was caught between him and the wall, evidently dropped when raised over his shoulder in act a second time to strike. The ground was strewed with broken glass: on a round claw-table stood a candlestick guttered with grease, a case-bottle of rum, almost empty, a water-jug and two tumblers, one still full of spirits. My evidence, of course, could throw no light upon the mystery of his end:—

 Qualis vita,
 Finis ita,—

a black riddle that must rest unsolved until the final Apocalypse of All Things!