THE PURIFYING OF THE PECULIAR PEOPLE
Ione had neither seen nor heard of her hostess since the inauspicious encounter in the garden. It was therefore with some relief and surprise that she received the following missive from Caleb at the door of the Garden House:--
“Congregation of the Peculiar People,
"Rayleigh Abbey, Rayleigh.
“First Day of the Twefth Month of the
“The POWER will be manifested at eight to-night. Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy has the honour to invite Miss March to be present. The trumpet will be blown from the walls and the boundaries of Zion purged. 'Without are dogs!' Tea and silent prayer at seven-thirty sharp."
Ione was alone in the Nest-among-the-Leaves, of which Caleb was sole ministering angel. Idalia and Marcus had gone up to town early in the morning — for a "let-up" as the former irreverently phrased it. Ione had refused to accompany them, being of the judicious opinion that the young people had better be left to their own resources for a few days. Also, by returning with them to London, as they had urged her to do, she seemed to be putting an additional barrier between herself and Keith Harford.
So she remained at Rayleigh Abbey, and spent the day with a book in the garden. The early morning interview with the Seeress had somewhat shaken her nerves, and the curious humming sound in her ears which had haunted her for some weeks seemed to have greatly increased. Ione had been feeling faint and ill all day, but in spite of this she resolved to accept the invitation of her lady hostess for that evening. The folly would serve to arouse her, she thought. She owed something to the hospitality she was accepting, and besides — she might see Keith Harford.
Tea and silent prayer were already over when, under the guidance of Caleb, Ione reached the great iron staircase which led to the balcony of the chapel. Caleb had insisted upon Ione partaking of the excellent little dinner which he had prepared for her, alleging as an excuse his master's anger if he permitted Ione "to go and bust herself on that there swill."
It still rained, though in more sedate fashion than in the morning. So Ione had taken with her on her passage through the dark garden her water-proof and a red sailor hat with a black silk band, which, as with inevitable womanly forethought she admitted, "would take no harm whatever happened."
As Ione looked down from the place which had been kept for her in the front of the balcony, she saw the body of the chapel already darkened. The elevated stage or choir was bare and empty while from beneath there came the hum and hushed rustle of many people seated closely and waiting with no ordinary interest. There were but few looking down from the balcony that night, or walking to and fro. The pit seemed to have monopolised the faithful. It was obvious that trumpeting and purgation were important functions among the devotees of the New Religion.
The service began in the usual way. Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, with magnificent dignity, which was slightly marred by the red shawl dropping midway, stalked to her elevated throne upon the right of the platform. But on this occasion a new figure attended her. Mr. H. Chadford Eaton it was who picked up the shawl, and conducted the Lady Principal to her seat — indubitably Mr. Eaton, more resplendent than ever in fine frock-coat of broadcloth and the most fashionable of ties and gaiters. Ione could hardly believe her eyes when she saw him take up his position on the seat formerly occupied by the Admiral.
Thereafter Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, rising with immense dignity, delivered a sort of introductory homily upon the latest phase of the New Religion. This, like all new Truth (with a capital T), ran on somewhat antiquated lines. Water and fire together gave power, she said — the power which connected continent with continent, and enabled the Bournborough express to bring fresh devotees from the centre of the world's darkness to the Treasure-house of the World's Light, whence illumination would presently flash forth upon the Universe. She referred to Rayleigh Abbey. Water and fire were the primordial cleansing elements. They must be applied to the spiritual community before the POWER could be liberated. They must apply them fearlessly — however painful the application for the individual or to their own feelings. There must be no Achans in the camp, and there should be none after that night.
At this announcement a deep-toned "Amen" burst from the multitude of the faithful in the darkened chapel beneath.
Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy went on with renewed confidence. These were her words:--
"Before denunciations of unfaithfulness are made, it will stir the hearts of all true believers who know that there is a very distinguished person amongst us to-night — one who has come with a truly inquiring mind — and who, having in the course of his business, searched out all earthly wisdom, has now become convinced of the wisdom which is beyond and above the earth, as it is revealed by means of the New Religion. I refer to Mr. Chadford Eaton, Late Manager of the World's Wisdom Emporium. Not for years has the Truth received so distinguished a convert, and one too, who was not only a true believer himself, but is prepared to spend his life and ability in the furtherance of the Great Cause, the germ of which, thirty-two years ago, was delivered to the founder of Rayleigh Abbey in the gospel of Mustard and Water!"
Then, after Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy sat down, there ensued a most impressive pause. The choir seemed momentarily to grow gloomier. The willow-leaf lamps shone one by one more clearly out of the gathering darkness. A hush fell upon the audience till even Ione was impressed. Then, without warning, in their stoles of white the Seeress and her husband appeared standing together at the top of the platform. Their hands were raised as if beseeching the Power to descend upon them.
"Let the sinful and the sick, the evil of heart and the sinful of life, the halt, the maimed, the diseased and the dying come forward. All pain is ignorance. All suffering is sin. The purified, the trusting do not suffer. To them is given the Power, and they are healed!"
It was the sonorous voice of Mrs. Howard-Hodge speaking in a rapid recitative, and in short, distinct sentences, clearly heard by every one in the hall.
"Come to the anointing oil. Escape the casting out. There is yet time. The Power can cleanse. The Power can heal. All sin is soul-disease. All disease is bodily sin. The Power cleanses both equally. Have you guilt on your soul? The anointing oil can cleanse and heal. Have you pain and disease in your body? That also (under the new dispensation) is sin. Get healed. Now is the time. Come!"
And starting up here and there among the audience, first one by one, and then in little knots and driblets, men and women came and flung themselves down by the railing. The unseen folk in the dusky chapel beneath accompanied the incantation with a low murmur, which broke ever and anon into a sort of gloomy outburst of thanksgiving, as this or that well-known figure made its way to the front.
"Come in your sin — come in your sickness. Leave the earthly physician. Come to the Power!" cried the Seeress.
"Amen! Amen! We will come to the Power!" responded the faithful.
"Cast your drugs to the moles and the bats! Throw away your crutches! Cast behind you your rags and bandages. Come and receive the anointing oil, which has power to heal all that believe!"
"Amen, it cleanses! — Amen, it heals!" came again the answering echo.
“Bring your children — ye that believe. From the fever that burns, from the decline that wastes, from the anguish of the head, the heart, the limb, deliver your babes and sucklings! All can be cured if you only believe."
The rail was now full. The officiating pair went round and round with the anointing oil, muttering incantations. After they had gone twice about the circle, a man suddenly rose up, and in a piercing falsetto cried aloud, "I believe. Great is the Power! I came with a palsied right hand. Now I can move it. I came in bandages. I have thrown them away. And now, behold, I can lift up my hand in sight of you all!"
And certainly he was as good as his word. Hastily he unwrapped and extended a limb which, though still stiff, indubitably moved in all its parts.
"Great is the Power. Amen!" thundered the faithful out of the dark.
Then, as the Seer and Seeress went their rounds, ever quicker and louder came the confessions of healing, of complete or partial recovery, and ever deeper and more sonorous grew the thanksgivings of the elect.
At last all was over. The last man had given his testimony. The final sick woman had been dismissed with her pining child, strong in the belief that now the oil of new health had been poured into the expiring lamp of its life.
The platform was bare. Seer and Seeress had vanished together. Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy rose again. There was a sheaf of papers in her hand.
"Now," she said, "after this noble manifestation of the Power, we arrive at a stern and unpleasing, but highly necessary part of our work. It is the purifying of the Peculiar People. Let the lights be raised, that we may look upon the countenances of the evil-doers — and, recognising, learn henceforth to shun them."
At her word the lights were suddenly enlarged from willow-shaped, flickering blades to the broad glow of ordinary gas jets.
Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy took the first paper and glanced at it.
"Charity Attenborough — accused of speaking against the Lady Principal of this Abbey. Stand up and say what you have to say in answer. Charity Attenborough!"
A round-faced, merry-eyed girl rose uncertainly and like one utterly surprised, from a front bench. The people about drew themselves away from contamination with the garments of the accused, and the whole auditory settled to a minute and self-satisfied attention.
“Please, I never did, ma'am!" said Charity, bridling indignantly beneath the stare of so many unfriendly eyes. "I brought my father here, and it's done him a heap o' good. I never said nothin' else."
"Sub-warden Griggs of D Flat in the Convalescent Annex, rise and give your testimony!" cried Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy sternly.
A slouching man, with his head abnormally to one side, and clad in the uniform of the attendants at the cheap boarding-house connected with the Abbey, rose from the side of the chapel.
"If your ladyship pleases, I heard this girl a-sayin' to another girl in the room next but one in D Flat that you was all a pack of swindlers, chargin' two pound a week for what didn't cost you five bob!"
"I never did!" interjected Charity Attenborough, "that Griggs is a white-haired old liar!"
Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy held up her hands in horror. "Who was that other girl?" she asked the witness, her eyes turned to heaven in a permanent kind of meek resignation.
"Mary Jane Parr!" responded the man promptly.
"Well, and what did Mary Jane Parr answer?"
"She said you was all swindlers, but that your ladyship was a starcher!"
A low moan of horror burst from the audience, as if forced from them by such diabolical sentiments.
"What shall be done to these evil-speaking ones?" cried the Lady Abbess, turning up her eyes yet more, and bringing her fat hands piously together like a marble knight upon a tombstone.
"Let them be cast out!" thundered the chorus with one voice, as if accustomed to the formula.
Several attendants, apparently equally well versed in their duties, promptly advanced upon the culprits, and took them by the arms.
"You will find your boxes packed outside the door," said Mrs. Hardy, with a grand gesture. "The dustman will convey you and them to the station for a consideration."
Then there ensued other cases — first and worst, one Herman Kent, who had failed to pay his week's fees for board, lodging, and baths. Kent rebelliously and publicly declared that the accommodation would have been dear at "nuthin-at-all." Another, Gilbert Greatorix by name, had maligned the Seer, and stated how much coin of the realm he would take (an inconsiderable sum) to knock his ugly nose in.
These, and other similar cases being summarily settled, there ensued silence, and Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy stood a long time quite still with a paper in her hand. At last she spoke, in a sepulchral tone fitted to express the terrible communication she had to make to the Peculiar People.
"Now I come to the most painful duty of all. 'If your right hand offend you, cut it off; or your right eye, pluck it out.' All unsuspecting we have been cherishing a viper amongst us, my friends and fellow-believers. And though this serpent has been warmed in the bosom of those near and dear to me, yet for the sake of the flock and the people committed to me, I shall proclaim, and purge, and spare not. Ione March, stand up!"
A bombshell bursting at her feet could not have stunned Ione more. She felt unable to speak or think. Every eye was turned upon her, and as she sat alone in the lighted front of the gallery, opposite the platform, she seemed to be in a kind of dock.
"This young woman," said Mrs. Hardy in a strident voice, pointing at her with her finger, "came here as companion to my dear and only son's wife—the daughter, as you are all aware, of a very distinguished and — ah — wealthy citizen of America. She came and was received with honour as a modest and reputable person. But alas! how easily and how grievously are the innocent and unsuspecting deceived! She has had an accomplice in guilt — one, too, highly favoured, which makes his infamy the more wicked. I publicly name a sometime dependent, Keith Harford, once tutor to my son. I have long suspected — yesterday I fully discovered their treason. And to-day there has been put into my hand a paper which proves that this woman, under cover of nursing a pretended sickness, removed the misguided young man from the care and tendance of a respectable widow (who is present with us to testify to the fact!) and kept him for five weeks at her own lodgings, in a low and disreputable part of the city. Shall such persons company with the purified and elect? Susanna Horehound, stand up!"
But it was Keith Harford who stood up in the front of the gallery to the right, his face white and tense with anger and surprise.
"Who dares to say this thing?" he cried. "Who dares bring into this place the names of two people neither of whom have ever had the smallest connection with your sect of liars and hypocrites?"
"Blasphemy and defamation hurt us not," responded Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, "and we have always claimed the right to oversee the conduct of all who sojourn under this roof. We may be a little Zoar amid so many mighty Sodoms and flourishing Gomorrahs, but at least we have always kept our skirts free from pollution."
Meanwhile Mrs. Horehound, holding a scent-bottle to her nostrils, and her heavy face more full of malice than ever, had been standing ready to give her evidence.
"Yes," she said, as soon as she got an opening, "I testify that this here is the shameless woman wot come to my house and took away my lodger, that was paying me twenty-five shillings for as good a bedroom, and as well looked after — what with hot bottles and mustard plasters to his feet — as ever could be. Had he been my own son, as the saying is, I couldn't have done more. She and another that was worse, they come, and cruel hard they spoke against me, that has been a decent woman and much respected in the neighbourhood all my days. And there and then they took the young man away, though he was not in his right mind, but talked nonsense and that continuous."
Thus far Mrs. Horehound, lodging-house keeper, of Tarvit Street.
Then, as to what happened afterwards, it appeared that there were two reputable witnesses — Mr. Chadford Eaton, the new and distinguished adherent of the Faith, and his coadjutor in the Private Intelligence department of the World's Wisdom Emporium, Mr. Polydore Webster.
But before these worthy gentlemen could give their testimony, Keith Harford had leaped upon the platform.
"Listen," he cried, his face white and rigid with emotion, "this young lady, whose name is too sacred and worthy to be spoken even once in the hearing of such filthy and currish ears, is my affianced wife. Let any man speak against her at his peril. He will find that he must reckon with me — as by Heaven he shall. Neither she nor I have any connection with your drivelling superstitions. We own none of your laws, and we depart with gladness from a sect so obscene, and a place made so offensive by low scandal-mongering and peeping slander."
While Keith was speaking, a great disgust of her surroundings had come over Ione. Dazed and blinded she arose, and walking like one in whose eyes a too bright light has shined, she went uncertainly towards the stairway, feeling her way with her hand. Keith, seeing her depart, abruptly quitted the platform, and sought the nearest way out that he might meet her. And behind them, thus expelled with ignominy from the full college of the elect, pursued the thundered formula with which the faithful ratified the dread sentence of their superior:
"Let the wicked be cast out, and let them no more return!"
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.