There were some severe precisians in John Bunyan's day who took the objection to the author of the Pilgrim's Progress that he sometimes laughed too loud.
"One may (I think) say, both he laughs and cries, May well be guessed at by his watery eyes. Some things are of that nature as to make One's fancy chuckle while his heart doth ake. When Jacob saw his Rachel with the sheep, At the same time he did both laugh and weep."
And even Dr. Cheever, in his excellent lectures on the Pilgrim's Progress, confesses that though the Second Part never ceases for a moment to tell the serious story of the Pilgrimage, at the same time, it sometimes becomes so merry as almost to pass over into absolute comedy. "There is one passage," says Cheever, "which for exquisite humour, quiet satire, and naturalness in the development of character is scarcely surpassed in the language. It is the account of the courtship between Mr. Brisk and Mercy which took place at the House Beautiful."
Now, the insertion of such an episode as that of Mr. Brisk into such a book as the Pilgrim's Progress is only yet another proof of the health, the strength, and the truth to nature of John Bunyan's mind. His was eminently an honest, straightforward, manly, English understanding. A smaller man would not have ventured on Mr. Brisk in such a book as the Pilgrim's Progress. But there is no affectation, there is no prudery, there is no superiority to nature in John Bunyan. He knew quite well that of the thousands of men and women who were reading his Pilgrim there was no subject, not even religion itself, that was taking up half so much of their thoughts as just love-making and marriage. And, like the wise man and the true teacher he was, he here points out to all his readers how well true religion and the fullest satisfaction of the warmest and the most universal of human affections can be both harmonised and made mutually helpful. In Bunyan's day love was too much left to the playwrights, just as in our day it is too much left to the poets and the novelists. And thus it is that in too many instances affection and passion have taken full possession of the hearts and the lives of our young people before any moral or religious lesson on these all-important subjects has been given to them: any lesson such as John Bunyan so winningly and so beautifully gives here. "This incident," says Thomas Scott, "is very properly introduced, and it is replete with instruction."
Now, Mr. Brisk, to begin with, was, so we are told, a young man of some breeding,--that is to say, he was a young man of some social position, some education, and of a certain good manner, at least on the surface. In David Scott's Illustrations Mr. Brisk stands before us a handsome and well-dressed young man of the period, with his well-belted doublet, his voluminous ruffles, his heavily-studded cuffs, his small cane, his divided hair, and his delicate hand,--altogether answering excellently to his name, were it not for the dashed look of surprise with which he gets his answer, and, with what jauntiness he can at the moment command, takes his departure. "Mr. Brisk was a man of some breeding," says Bunyan, "and that pretended to religion; but a man that stuck very close to the world." That Mr. Brisk made any pretence to religion at any other time and in any other place is not said; only that he put on that pretence with his best clothes when he came once or twice or more to Mercy and offered love to her at the House Beautiful. The man with the least religion at other times, even the man with no pretence to religion at other times at all, will pretend to some religion when he is in love with a young woman of Mercy's mind. And yet it would not be fair to say that it is all pretence even in such a man at such a time. Grant that a man is really in love; then, since all love is of the nature of religion, for the time, the true lover is really on the borders of a truly religious life. It may with perfect truth be said of all men when they first fall in love that they are, for the time, not very far away from the kingdom of heaven. For all love is good, so far as it goes. God is Love; and all love, in the long-run, has a touch of the divine nature in it. And for once, if never again, every man who is deeply in love has a far-off glimpse of the beauty of holiness, and a far-off taste of that ineffable sweetness of which the satisfied saints of God sing so ecstatically. But, in too many instances, a young man's love having been kindled only by the creature, and, never rising from her to his and her Creator, as a rule, it sooner or later burns low and at last burns out, and leaves nothing but embers and ashes in his once so ardent heart. Mr. Brisk's love-making might have ended in his becoming a pilgrim but for this fatal flaw in his heart, that even in his love-making he stuck so fast to the world. It is almost incredible: you may well refuse to believe it--that any young man in love, and especially a young gentleman of Mr. Brisk's breeding, would approach his mistress with the question how much she could earn a day. As Mr. Brisk looks at Mercy's lap so full of hats and hosen and says it, I can see his natty cane beginning to lengthen itself out in his soft-skinned hand and to send out teeth like a muck-rake. Give Mr. Brisk another thirty years or so and he will be an ancient churl, raking to himself the sticks and the straws and the dust of the earth, neither looking up to nor regarding the celestial crown that is still offered to him in exchange for his instrument.
"Now, Mercy was of a fair countenance, and, therefore, all the more alluring." But her fair countenance was really no temptation to her. "Sit still, my daughter," said Naomi to Ruth in the Old Testament. And it was entirely Mercy's maidenly nature to sit still. Even before she had come to her full womanhood under Christiana's motherly care she would have been an example to Ruth. Long ago, while Mercy was still a mere girl, when Mrs. Light-mind said something to her one day that made her blush, Mercy at last looked up in real anger and said, We women should be wooed; we were not made to woo. And thus it was that all their time at the House Beautiful Mercy stayed close at home and worked with her needle and thread just as if she had been the plainest girl in all the town. "I might have had husbands afore now," she said, with a cast of her head over the coat that lay on her lap, "though I spake not of it to any. But they were such as did not like my conditions, though never did any of them find fault with my person. So they and I could not agree." Once Mercy's mouth was opened on the subject of possible husbands it is a miracle that she did not go on in confidence to name some of the husbands she might have had. Mercy was too truthful and too honourable a maiden to have said even on that subject what she did say if it had not been true. No doubt she believed it true. And the belief so long as she mentioned no names, did not break any man's bones and did not spoil any man's market. Don't set up too prudishly and say that it is a pity that Mercy so far forgot herself as to make her little confidential boast. We would not have had her without that little boast. Keep-at-home, sit-still, hats and hosen and all--her little boast only proves Mercy to have been at heart a true daughter of Eve after all.
There is an old-fashioned word that comes up again and again in the account of Mr. Brisk's courtship,--a word that contains far more interest and instruction for us than might on the surface appear. When Mr. Brisk was rallied upon his ill-success with Mercy, he was wont to say that undoubtedly Mistress Mercy was a very pretty lass, only she was troubled with ill conditions. And then, when Mercy was confiding to Prudence all about her possible husbands, she said that they were all such as did not like her conditions. To which Prudence, keeping her countenance, replied, that the men were but few in their day that could abide the practice that was set forth by such conditions as those of Mercy. Well, tossed out Mercy, if nobody will have me I will die a maid, or my conditions shall be to me as a husband! As I came again and again across that old seventeenth-century word "conditions," I said to myself, I feel sure that Dr. Murray of the Oxford Scriptorium will have noted this striking passage. And on turning up the Sixth Part of the New English Dictionary, there, to be sure, was the old word standing in this present setting. Five long, rich, closely packed columns stood under the head of "Condition"; and amid a thousand illustrations of its use, the text: "1684, Bunyan, Pilgr., ii. 84. He said that Mercy was a pretty lass, but troubled with ill conditions." Poor illiterate John Bunyan stood in the centre of a group of learned and famous men, composed of Chaucer, Wyclif, Skelton, Palsgrave, Raleigh, Featly, Richard Steel, and Walter Scott--all agreeing in their use of our word, and all supplying examples of its use in the best English books. By Mercy's conditions, then, is just meant her cast of mind, her moral nature, her temper and her temperament, her dispositions and her inclinations, her habits of thought, habits of heart, habits of life, and so on.
"Well," said Mercy proudly, "if nobody will have me, I will die a maid, or my conditions shall be to me as a husband. For I cannot change my nature, and to have one that lies cross to me in this,--that I purpose never to admit of as long as I live." By this time, though she is still little more than a girl, Mercy had her habits formed, her character cast, and, more than all, her whole heart irrevocably set on her soul's salvation. And everything--husband and children and all--must condition themselves to that, else she will have none of them. She had sought first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and she will seek nothing, she will accept nothing--no, not even a husband--who crosses her choice in that. She has chosen her life, and her husband with it. Not the man as yet, but the whole manner of the man. The conditions of the man, as she said about herself; else she will boldly and bravely die a maid. And there are multitudes of married women who, when they read this page about Mercy, will gnash their teeth at the madness of their youth, and will wildly wish that they only were maids again; and, then, like Mercy, they would take good care to make for themselves husbands of their own conditions too--of their own means, their own dispositions, inclinations, tastes, and pursuits. For, according as our conditions to one another are or are not in our marriages,
"They locally contain or heaven or hell; There is no third place in them."
What untold good, then, may all our young women not get out of the loving study of Mercy's sweet, steadfast, noble character! And what untold misery may they not escape! From first to last--and we are not yet come to her last--I most affectionately recommend Mercy to the hearts and minds of all young women here. Single and married; setting out on pilgrimage and steadfastly persevering in it; sitting still till the husband with the right conditions comes, and then rising up with her warm, well-kept heart to meet him--if any maiden here has no mother, or no elder sister, or no wise and prudent friend like Prudence or Christiana to take counsel of--and even if she has--let Mercy be her meditation and her model through all her maidenly days.
"Nay, then," said Mercy, "I will look no more on him, for I purpose never to have a clog to my soul." A pungent resolve for every husband to read and to think to himself about, who has married a wife with a soul. Let all husbands who have such wives halt here and ask themselves with some imagination as to what may sometimes go on, at communion times, say, in the souls of their wives. It is not every wife, it is true, who has a soul to clog; but some of our wives have. Well, now, let us ask ourselves: How do we stand related to their souls? Do our wives, when examining the state of their souls since they married us, have to say that at one time they had hoped to be further on in the life of the soul than they yet are? And are they compelled before God to admit that the marriage they have made, and would make, has terribly hindered them? Would they have been better women, would they have been living a better life, and doing far more good in the world, if they had taken their maidenly ideals, like Mercy, for a husband? Let us sometimes imagine ourselves into the secrets of our wives' souls, and ask if they ever feel that they are unequally and injuriously yoked in their deepest and best life. Do we ever see a tear falling in secret, or hear a stolen sigh heaved, or stumble on them at a stealthy prayer? A Roman lady on being asked why she sometimes let a sob escape her and a tear fall, when she had such a gentleman of breeding and rank and riches to her husband, touched her slipper with her finger and said: "Is not that a well-made, a neat, and a costly shoe? And yet you would not believe how it pinches and pains me sometimes."
But some every whit as good women as Mercy was have purposed as nobly and as firmly as Mercy did, and yet have wakened up, when it was too late, to find that, with all their high ideals, and with all their prudence, their husband is not in himself, and is not to them, what they at one time felt sure he would be. Mercy had a sister named Bountiful, who made that mistake and that dreadful discovery; and what Mercy had seen of married life in her sister's house almost absolutely turned her against marriage altogether. "The one thing certain," says Thomas Mozley in his chapter on Ideal Wife and Husband, "is that both wife and husband are different in the result from the expectation. Age, illness, an increasing family, no family at all, household cares, want of means, isolation, incompatible prejudices, quarrels, social difficulties, and such like, all tell on married people, and make them far other than they once promised to be." When that awakening comes there is only one solace, and women take to that supreme solace much more often than men. And that solace, as you all know, is true, if too late, religion. And even where true religion has already been, there is still a deeper and a more inward religion suited to the new experiences and the new needs of life. And if both husband and wife in such a crisis truly betake themselves to Him who gathereth the solitary into families, the result will be such a remarriage of depth and tenderness, loyalty and mutual help, as their early dreams never came within sight of. Not early love, not children, not plenty of means, not all the best amenities of married life taken together, will repair a marriage and keep a marriage in repair for one moment like a living and an intense faith in God; a living and an intense love to God; and then that faith in and love for one another that spring out of God and out of His love alone.
"The tree Sucks kindlier nurture from a soil enriched By its own fallen leaves; and man is made, In heart and spirit, from deciduous hopes And things that seem to perish."
* LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH