Well, the second person whom I admitted through my door was the High Church curate of the parish—at least, I deduced High Church from his collar and the cross which dangled from his watch chain. He seemed to be a fine upstanding manly fellow—in fact, I am bound in honesty to admit that I have never met the washy tea-party curate outside the pages of Punch. As a body, I think they would compare very well in manliness (I do not say in brains) with as many young lawyers or doctors. Still, I have no love for the cloth. Just as cotton, which is in itself the most harmless substance in the world, becomes dangerous on being dipped into nitric acid, so the mildest of mortals is to be feared if he is once soaked in sectarian religion. If he has any rancour or hardness in him it will bring it out. I was therefore by no means overjoyed to see my visitor, though I trust that I received him with fitting courtesy. The quick little glance of surprise which he shot round him as he entered my consulting-room, told me that it was not quite what he had expected.

“You see, the Vicar has been away for two years,” he explained, “and we have to look after things in his absence. His chest is weak, and he can’t stand Birchespool. I live just opposite, and, seeing your plate go up, I thought I would call and welcome you into our parish.”

I told him that I was very much obliged for the attention. If he had stopped there all would have been well, and we should have had a pleasant little chat. But I suppose it was his sense of duty which would not permit it.

“I trust,” said he, “that we shall see you at St. Joseph’s.”

I was compelled to explain that it was not probable.

“A Roman Catholic?” he asked, in a not unfriendly voice.

I shook my head, but nothing would discourage him.

“Not a dissenter!” he exclaimed, with a sudden hardening of his genial face.

I shook my head again.

“Ah, a little lax—a little remiss!” he said playfully, and with an expression of relief. “Professional men get into these ways. They have much to distract them. At least, you cling fast, no doubt, to the fundamental truths of Christianity?”

“I believe from the bottom of my heart,” said I, “that the Founder of it was the best and sweetest character of whom we have any record in the history of this planet.”

But instead of soothing him, my conciliatory answer seemed to be taken as a challenge. “I trust,” said he severely, “that your belief goes further than that. You, are surely prepared to admit that He was an incarnation of the God-head.”

I began to feel like the old badger in his hole who longs to have a scratch at the black muzzle which is so eager to draw him.

“Does it not strike you,” I said, “that if He were but a frail mortal like ourselves, His life assumes a much deeper significance? It then becomes a standard towards which we might work. If, on the other hand, He was intrinsically of a different nature to ourselves, then His existence loses its point, since we and He start upon a different basis. To my mind it is obvious that such a supposition takes away the beauty and the moral of His life. If He was divine then He COULD not sin, and there was an end of the matter. We who are not divine and can sin, have little to learn from a life like that.”

“He triumphed over sin,” said my visitor, as if a text or a phrase were an argument.

“A cheap triumph!” I said. “You remember that Roman emperor who used to descend into the arena fully armed, and pit himself against some poor wretch who had only a leaden foil which would double up at a thrust. According to your theory of your Master’s life, you would have it that He faced the temptations of this world at such an advantage that they were only harmless leaden things, and not the sharp assailants which we find them. I confess, in my own case, that my sympathy is as strong when I think of His weaknesses as of His wisdom and His virtue. They come more home to me, I suppose, since I am weak myself.”

“Perhaps you would be good enough to tell me what has impressed you as weak in His conduct?” asked my visitor stiffly.

“Well, the more human traits—’weak’ is hardly the word I should have used. His rebuke of the Sabbatarians, His personal violence to the hucksters, His outbursts against the Pharisees, His rather unreasoning petulance against the fig-tree because it bore no fruit at the wrong season of the year, His very human feeling towards the housewife who bustled about when He was talking, his gratification that the ointment should have been used for Him instead of being devoted to the poor, His self-distrust before the crisis—these make me realise and love the man.”

“You are a Unitarian, then, or rather, perhaps, a mere Deist?” said the curate, with a combative flush.

“You may label me as you like,” I answered (and by this time I fear that I had got my preaching stop fairly out); “I don’t pretend to know what truth is, for it is infinite, and I finite; but I know particularly well what it is NOT. It is not true that religion reached its acme nineteen hundred years ago, and that we are for ever to refer back to what was written and said in those days. No, sir; religion is a vital living thing, still growing and working, capable of endless extension and development, like all other fields of thought. There were many eternal truths spoken of old and handed down to us in a book, some parts of which may indeed be called holy. But there are others yet to be revealed; and if we are to reject them because they are not in those pages, we should act as wisely as the scientist who would take no notice of Kirschoff’s spectral analysis because there is no mention of it in Albertus Magnus. A modern prophet may wear a broadcloth coat and write to the magazines; but none the less he may be the little pipe which conveys a tiny squirt from the reservoirs of truth. Look at this!” I cried, rising and reading my Carlyle text. “That comes from no Hebrew prophet, but from a ratepayer in Chelsea. He and Emerson are also among the prophets. The Almighty has not said His last say to the human race, and He can speak through a Scotchman or a New Englander as easily as through a Jew. The Bible, sir, is a book which comes out in instalments, and ‘To be continued,’ not ‘Finis,’ is written at the end of it.”

My visitor had been showing every sign of acute uneasiness during this long speech of mine. Finally, he sprang to his feet, and took his hat from the table.

“Your opinions are highly dangerous, sir,” said he. “It is my duty to tell you so. You believe in nothing.”

“Nothing which limits the power or the goodness of the Almighty,” I answered.

“You have evolved all this from your own spiritual pride and self-sufficiency,” said he, hotly. “Why do you not turn to that Deity whose name you use. Why do you not humble yourself before Him?”

“How do you know I don’t?”

“You said yourself that you never went to church.”

“I carry my own church about under my own hat,” said I. “Bricks and mortar won’t make a staircase to heaven. I believe with your Master that the human heart is the best temple. I am sorry to see that you differ from Him upon the point.”

Perhaps it was too bad of me to say that. I might have guarded without countering. Anyhow; it had the effect of ending an interview which was becoming oppressive. My visitor was too indignant to answer, and swept out of the room without a word. From my window I could see him hurry down the street, a little black angry thing, very hot and troubled because he cannot measure the whole universe with his pocket square and compasses.

Think of it, and think of what he is, an atom among atoms, standing at the meeting point of two eternities! But what am I, a brother atom, that I should judge him?

After all, I own to you, that it might have been better had I listened to what he had to say, and refused to give my own views. On the other hand, truth MUST be as broad as the universe which it is to explain, and therefore far broader than anything which the mind of man can conceive. A protest against sectarian thought must always be an aspiration towards truth. Who shall dare to claim a monopoly of the Almighty? It would be an insolence on the part of a solar system, and yet it is done every day by a hundred little cliques of mystery mongers. There lies the real impiety.

Well, the upshot of it all is, my dear Bertie, that I have begun my practice by making an enemy of the man who, of the whole parish, has the most power to injure me. I know what my father would think about it, if he knew.

And now I come to the great event of this morning, from which I am still gasping. That villain Cullingworth has cut the painter, and left me to drift as best I may.

My post comes at eight o’clock in the morning, and I usually get my letters and take them into bed to read them. There was only one this morning, addressed in his strange, unmistakable hand. I made sure, of course, that it was my promised remittance, and I opened it with a pleasurable feeling of expectation. This is a copy of what I read:—

“When the maid was arranging your room after your departure, she cleared some pieces of torn paper from under the grate. Seeing my name upon them, she brought them, as in duty bound, to her mistress, who pasted them together and found that they formed a letter from your mother to you, in which I am referred to in the vilest terms, such as ‘a bankrupt swindler’ and ‘the unscrupulous Cullingworth.’ I can only say that we are astonished that you could have been a party to such a correspondence while you were a guest under our roof, and we refuse to have anything more to do with you in any shape or form.”

That was a nice little morning greeting was it not, after I had, on the strength of his promise, started in practice, and engaged a house for a year with a few shillings in my pocket? I have given up smoking for reasons of economy; but I felt that the situation was worthy of a pipe, so I climbed out of bed, gathered a little heap of tobacco-dust from the linings of my pocket, and smoked the whole thing over. That life-belt of which I had spoken so confidingly had burst, and left me to kick as best I might in very deep water. I read the note over and over again; and for all my dilemma, I could not help laughing at the mingled meanness and stupidity of the thing. The picture of the host and hostess busying themselves in gumming together the torn letters of their departed guest struck me as one of the funniest things I could remember. And there was the stupidity of it, because surely a child could have seen that my mother’s attack was in answer to my defence. Why should we write a duet each saying the same thing? Well, I’m still very confused about it all, and I don’t in the least know what I am going to do—more likely to die on the last plank, than to get into port with my ensign mast-high. I must think it out and let you know the result. Come what may, one thing only is sure, and that is that, in weal or woe, I remain, ever, your affectionate and garrulous friend.