[From Captain of the Parish, 1897]
PARSON COSNAHAN of Inchport was accounted a holy man. His persistent pretensions had gained him., that reputation. In him the Church had not only an adequate embodiment of its religion, but also a guardian and inquisitor. With precept and example such as his, if it could have known the day of its visitation, it might have been without fault or defect. Unhappily, himself excepted, there was an insufficiency in its pastors. Even in association with the soundest and saintliest of his contemporaries he was ever on the watch, and caught at the slightest faults of accent in their shibboleths-not for reproof, but his own pronunciation was, in fact, the canon. He magnified his own office, it being filled by himself. He demanded in all men goodness visible and ready-made, conformable to his own pattern. Of the underworking currents that flow in man and in the community making for freshness and wholesomeness, he knew nothing. He was tall, thin, angular; turned out his heels with a stiff jerk as he walked; bad white hair, straight, long, clipped round evenly, and with an inward curl; had a long lower jaw that habitually dropped and closed with a spasmodic snap; an eye with a fixed expression of being the weaker combatant, but with an advantage over the adversary.
He hated sin hardly less than he feared sinners. His courage was that of a man in a panic, who strikes hastily, not daring to trust to his staying powers. He had his eyes on everything that went on, ever suspicious, ever furtive. He had marked more than once the gaiety of Ellen, the smiling audacity of Lizzie, riding together through the town, and his lower jaw closed with a convulsive snap. Dress was a vice that had others in its train.
He did not credit Mr. Ollikins with strength of mind. Ellen's demand to be treated as a "lady" was "audacious;" and Mrs. Molvurra's version of Ellen had conveyed an idea that the mistress had to deal every day of her life with a veritable Tartar-a young person to whom, ere it was too late, it were well that a lesson should be taught. Lizzie's reputation was indeed settled, if Ellen's was not also mildly doubtful. Her moonlight walk at such an altitude above human habitations was a substantial condemnation. It appealed to the imagination. Details were added-always brilliantly when the imagination is roused. Besides, what is known is a trifle compared with what is not known.
Unconscious of all this, Ellen and Lizzie had projected attending Inchport Church on Whitsunday; and accordingly, on Whitsunday morning rode into the town; put up their horses at Cashen's, and walked through the narrow streets and across the market-place to the old church, which stands beside it-simple, ancient, whitewashed, with bell-gable over its western door.
There were none comparable to them among the beauties of Inchport, and the congregation, slowly gathering towards the church and part already in their pews, stared and whispered. The sexton led the two fair strangers to the front pew, dusty and dingy, with faded cushions and kneeling buffets-a square box of some town magnate, whose fortunes or indifference had allowed its glories to fade and the pew to become a place for respectable strangers.
The bells in the bell-gable jangled, and the ropes rasped against the wall. All eyes were fixed on them, on their broad hats and fashionable plumes, their hair, their lace, their forms, their movements, their bearing, the witchery of glowing beauty, the grace of the creature too manifest in the house of the Creator. When the parson ascended the pulpit, he looked down on Ellen and Lizzie in their pew. Meanwhile, from all angles of view, the congregation were comfortably settling themselves so as to have the two charming heads in their eye. His pause made all look up. His lower jaw snapped with convulsive energy, and he began his sermon. There was something more than usual in his earnestness, and all eyes were fixed on him as he concluded
"These are evil days. It behoves the Church, therefore, to give no uncertain sound. Men go wilfully after their own inventions. As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be in the days of the Son of Man. Men are falling away. There be many that say, 'Lo, He is here! Lo, He is there!' Go ye not after them. And if in such days the Church fail in her duty, whose shall the responsibility be ? It will fall on the heads of her fearful and false and unworthy ministers. The Lord give us strength in the day of falling away."
He descended from the pulpit and returned to the communion table. The larger half of the congregation withdrew; those who purposed to receive the sacrament remaining in their places. The church door was left standing open in the bright and warm summer air. The parson began the words of invitation: "Ye that do truly and earnestly repent." And when he had received the communion he rose, paten in hand, advanced a step, and stood looking down the church. The sexton, according to custom, opened the pews for the communicants to approach the rail, a dozen at a time. The first pew he opened was that in which Ellen and Lizzie sat; and they rose, and advancing to the rail, knelt down. Ellen had taken off her gloves. She wore her mother's rings, and kneeling at the rail she gently clasped her hands. There was a pause. The congregation observed it, and their eyes were lifted and fixed on Parson Cosnahan. Then he spoke distinct, so as to be heard of the whole congregation.
"Young women ! I cannot admit you to receive this holy sacrament. You have come here in apparel not becoming women professing godliness. Withdraw yourselves until such time as you can come in modesty of attire and in lowliness of spirit."
Ellen raised her eyes with a look of innocent incredulousness, but it swiftly gave place to a piercing look of appeal. His face was unchanged. In perplexity and indignation she rose to her feet and touched Lizzie on the shoulder. They stood for a moment side by side. Ellen's eyes swept down the church, over the whole congregation, dazed and confused as if by lightning. Parson Cosnahan stood like a block of stone. She extended her left hand as if to touch something. She looked up and saw the painted window on the south side of the chancel, the noonday sun pouring through it-a woman there in a robe of gorgeous splendour, gold and scarlet and blue. She withdrew her hand and placed its open palm on her heart. She turned from the rail, walked down the steps, raised her hands to her face, and her bosom heaving with a great sob, she burst into tears. They passed down the aisle indifferent to the eyes fixed on them ; Lizzie pale, erect, and inscrutable as a statue.
At the door Ellen stopped and leaned against the door-post as if to rest. It was as if a new and again a new fountain of grief was bursting within her at every sob. Then the parson's voice was heard administering the sacrament. It recalled her to herself, and she walked on. Her long, clinging, flowing skirt extended itself and swept the pathway, and she drew it out of the dust as she came down the churchyard steps with a movement of proud abandon.
The congregation who bad left the church were still exchanging Sunday salutations and greetings, slowly dispersing and moving along the streets. When Ellen and Lizzie passed, a whisper went round from lip to lip. There was something strange, and with incredible swiftness the truth was known that they had been turned away from the sacrament. Their figures were not unfamiliar in the town, and their names passed from one to another with a bewilderment of comment. With the instinct of wonder a crowd followed them.
"And what was it for, at all ? It's for no good, anyway." " He's right; there's no religion and them dressed like that. And bless me, look at the way they're carrying their frocks! Is that religion?"
" Aw, maybe he had reasons for turning them two away ! " "Aye, and far too good reasons. Let them take it."
In other comments there was a tone of sympathy.
" But it's an awful thing to do, for all-anyway in these days. Once of a time it was different, maybe."
"It's too bad altogether, going that far with them, whatever it's for."
With a third set the sympathy went even further.
" My gum ! but the black one is a beauty ! Step and step, that's a foot, you, sir ! "
"The two is beauties! The light hair is the nicest, man!" " No! that's the cleanest pair of heels in the town to-day, by -
" Heels or head, or any mortal thing, she's as good."
" Aye, and what does old Clutch know ? He's a cussed old fool. Let him go to blazes! "
" Dash it, hush you, sir ! Don't be swearing on Sunday !, They'll hear."
" He's mad they're so nice; that's what's amiss with the old fool."
The crowd, townsmen and fishermen, came up the street and gathered at Cashen's stable-yard. The gates were open, and they could see Ellen and Lizzie by the saddle-steps, wait ing while their horses were being saddled. The vein of talk in the street was still sympathetic, but the majority were silent in expectancy.
Catch me at Cosna'an's church ! "
" Aw ! thou're all right. He'll never heave thee overboard for thy good looks, boy."
" No, nor thee for thy clothes, and patches like that all over them."
" Dash it all ! that's why I got the patches on, to be even with him."
" Aye, thou've known the parson before to-day, maybe ! " " Aye, man ! "
" Look out, you, sir 1 Here's the horses."
The sight of Joey was to Ellen like the face of a friend. In a trice they were in the saddle, and, side by side, walked their horses out into the street. The crowd opened, the men touched their bats; together the horses broke into a gallop and swept round the turn into the country road; then the crowd rushed to the end of the street, fain to watch the two graceful figures till they disappeared over the rise outside the town.