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Frances loved to take her place amongst them within the cool dark walls, leaving the busy brilliant world outside, and seeming to breathe the airs of bygone ages in that unchanged and unchanging Temple of the Christian Faith. The ancient icons which adorned the walls with their gold and gorgeous colours still shining bright through the dust of centuries, had for her a nameless charm despite the stiffness of the figures and the dark hue of the faces surrounded with their gilded nimbus, and she entered enthusiastically into many of the significant ceremonies enacted there. The old priest knew her well, and although he dared not admit her to Communion as he would personally have been very willing to do, he never passed her by, when he came round, swinging the silver censer before each person that the fragrant incense laden with the breath of prayer might bear their intercessions up to Heaven, and to her as well as to the Greeks around him, he would offer the book of the Gospels that she might stoop to kiss it according to their simple reverential custom.
Frances Amherst had been brought up by her parents as a faithful and consistent member of the Church of England. Their religious teaching had been of a type that would in these advanced days be considered somewhat old-fashioned and prosaic, and many of the developments both in theory and practice, which have followed the great Catholic revival were at that time quite unknown to her. She had been confirmed at an earlier age than usual, in order that it might be accomplished before she left England, where also she made her first Communion; and although she accepted most sincerely and earnestly all that she had been taught, her soul could hardly be said to have been awakened at all, in the true sense of the word. Her foreign life had given the highest cultivation to her mind and intellect, but it had been so full of interest and occupation and of all that could make this world attractive, that the mighty realities lying unseen beyond it could not make themselves truly felt within her spirit. She performed all her religious duties conscientiously, and honestly tried to do her duty as in the sight of God, but there could be no greater proof how completely her faith in all its splendid truths was as yet external to herself, than the fact that her reading which had made her familiar with many schools of thought had never raised a question in her mind even as to the smallest details. She was an insatiable devourer of books, and her parents, conscious that she was greatly their superior in powers of thought, left her entirely free to read whatever she pleased when she had once passed out of the stage of childhood ; at Constantinople the literature of France and Italy was chiefly within her reach, and she read whatever came in her way without scruple or misgiving. For English books she was mainly dependent upon travellers who were always ready to lend their store to the bright clever girl whatever it might be, and as many of them were learned and scientific men she made acquaintance with most of the new theories and speculative fancies of the day.
Her state of spiritual slumber existing side by side with vivid intellectual life, went on undisturbed till it sustained a terrible awakening in the day when the family suddenly saw ruin and disgrace staring them in the face, and all the safety and happiness of their home torn away as if from a wrecked ship driven out by a resistless storm into the whirlwind of waters.
To Frances Amherst it was as though the solid earth had given way beneath her very feet and opened out before her a gulf of hopeless misery into which the next step must plunge her, helpless and bewildered. The triple wall of security and comfort that bad fenced her in, safe in the sheltering love of her parents, and happy in all the joys and luxuries they secured to her, broke down in all directions, for in the first shock of the cruel blow which fell so unexpectedly on Mr. Amherst, he had an attack of faintness, which was at his age most alarming, and for the whole of one dreadful night Frances believed he would not rally, and that losing him she would lose her mother also, for she could not imagine it possible that the devoted wife should survive him. It was then when all that had been life to her before seemed falling into fragments round her, that Frances woke out of the serene and confident dream of youth, to recognise for the first time the awful uncertainty and incompleteness of this mortal existence,—the utterly ephemeral nature of all its joys, the delusiveness of its hopes, the bitter truth for every soul that dwells within its limits, of the comprehensive words, vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.
Where was she to fly for shelter in the mists and shadows that en. compassed her, with nothing solid or secure in the world that reeled around her, or the ground that rocked beneath her feet, or the heavens where fitful gleams of light mocked the longing eyes which sought an unsetting sun ? where? where, but to a life which should be for everlasting, to a love that cannot die, to a home in the City whose foundations are on the eternal hills, whose Builder and Maker is God.
The instinct of immortality burnt like a flame of fire through all the earthly joys and visionary hopes which hitherto had filled her soul, and taught her in one startling revelation the immeasurable value of those Divine truths, whose substance she had never really grasped while acknowledging them with devout belief in theory.
Thenceforward the hope of eternal life, contrasting in its deathless radiance with the poor shadow of existence full of delusion and failure which earth seemed alone to offer her, became the one only and most precious treasure of her whole being. She clung to it with almost an agony of acceptance, with an unspeakable terror lest it should ever fail her, and flung herself into the most ardent religious exercises, as if in them alone she could find security and peace.
This highly wrought state of feeling did not leave her with the removal of the painful circumstances which had caused it. Her father recovered entirely his usual health when the good offices of his nephew relieved his mind of all fear for the future, and softened the lingering pain which his losses and disappointment still occasioned him to some extent,—while as we have seen a secure and sheltered home was once more provided for the family in England. The panic of terror with which Frances had looked out into a desolate and hopeless future had quite passed away, and she had become entirely serene and thankful, -but never again could she rest in the delusive dream of her youth, -no more could this changeful uncertain world ever seem to her a safe or sure abiding place, she saw that at every step unexpected sorrows might reveal themselves, and that even if her earthly future could be bright and happy as she once had pictured it, already behind the veil that bid it, might be heard the tread of that approaching death in which all human hopes and treasures must be engulfed at last. Frances felt that whatever might be her lot the Faith of CHRIST would be to her the one Pearl of great price for evermore,—and that to hold it in secure possession must be thenceforth the changeless effort of her life. Precious as it had thus become to her however, she had not yet entered into the very heart of that Eternal Love of which it is the outward expression,—not yet had she apprehended Him Who is the Divine Life of every undying spirit, as the Personal Friend Whom she might know in closest union and most intimate confidence, in Whom all the affections and aspirations of her nature might have their complete satisfaction. He was to her a Heavenly Vision—the Perfection of Loveliness—the Hope of all the ends of the earth—the Resurrection
and the Life—but she ever beheld Him redeeming the human race in the anguish of Calvary,--or enthroned in the inaccessible glory,-and not then had she understood what it is to hold Him enshrined in the innermost depths of the heart as the Nearest and Dearest, the one supreme and only perfect joy. She had yet to learn the secret of the LORD.
Although Frances had not thus entered into the very Holy of Holies, she was none the less ardent in her appreciation of that which she had apprehended, and for a time her thoughts were almost exclusively occupied with the religion which had become so momentous a reality to her.
The disasters which befell the Amherst family and so greatly influenced Frances herself, had occurred just before the beginning of Lent, a season which Eastern Christians observe most devoutly, and she followed the course of services in the Greek Church with all the new-born enthusiasm they had wrought in her. The church was open night and day during Holy Week, and Frances only joined the more fervently in the beautiful devotions of that period, because her heart was so full of thankfulness for the removal of the terrors which had oppressed her, and for the serene future which through her cousin's kindness seemed opening out for them all. It was on Maundy Thursday that the circumstance occurred, which has required so full an explanation of Frances' previous state of mind, without which it could not have been rightly understood.
She rose on that morning very early after only a few hours' sleep, that she might assist at the Celebration of the Holy Eucharist which was to take place at dawn. Already the first blush of the new-born day was mantling over the distant Asiatic hills in loveliest roseate hues, and the light of the yet unseen sun was spreading in golden glory over the eastern heavens when she reached the low veiled archway that led into the church, and passed behind it into the silence and gloom of the incense-laden air. It was a strange contrast to the radiant world of morning she had left, and the hushed solemnity of the scene where the light had not yet penetrated impressed her strongly. The places set apart for men and women were alike thronged, but the worshippers wearied out with a long vigil, crouched for the most part on the stone pavement, swaying themselves slowly to and fro as they murmured the ceaseless response to the low voice of the unseen priest, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison. Frances stole noiselessly in behind the
women, and knelt down in a corner, burying her face in her hands while her thoughts flew away to dwell rapturously on that glorious immortal life, which had been purchased for all believers by the Sacred Agony the Church would that day commemorate. There for a little time in peace and joy she knelt, and then just as the deep whispered words of Consecration thrilled through the Holy Doors, a sudden inexplicable influence smote upon her soul as if from a power external to herself, plunging her into a horror of unspeakable darkness like a black thunder-cloud sweeping down to blot out the very sun. All that she had ever read or heard of theories antagonistic to the Faith rushed over her in a whelming flood, seeming to carry away from her all power to believe, to hope, or even to realize the truths whereby alone the human race can live eternally. It was as though some mysterious force had taken possession of her whole being and borne her swiftly away from every ground of belief and trust, to fling her down in the unendurable gloom and hopelessness of living existences unexplained by the faintest ray of Divine Light, and only writhing amid a chaos hideous with confusion, darkness, and mystery.
Frances felt as if her senses were forsaking her under the terrible might of the spiritual shock she had received, she rose and staggered out of the church into the open air. There was all nature rejoicing in the lovely light of morning, the blue sky pure and undimmed as must be the air that circles round the Throne of God, the green fields and flower-decked vales fair as the pastures where the Good Shepherd leads His ransomed flock, the birds carolling their happy praises through the lambent air, how did they all mock her with their joy and brightness ! for it seemed to her smitten soul in that hour as if just when she had learned to know and value the Faith of CHRIST as true and only life, it had departed from her and left her sunk in an abyss of formless void, where she saw nothing save a universe without a Maker, a world without a SAVIOUR, an Eternity without a God.
It might not be difficult to account for this strange experience which befell Frances Amherst and has probably not been unknown to many other earnest souls, as simply the result of a combination of various causes ; primarily no doubt it arose from the insidious poison she had almost unconsciously imbibed from the works of infidel French and Italian authors, and in after years she learned to look upon
it as in part a chastisement for having so recklessly trusted herself in the hands of the enemies of CHRIST; but it was also undoubtedly to some extent