Tale Xiv - Poem by George Crabbe
THE STRUGGLES OF CONSCIENCE.
A serious Toyman in the city dwelt,
Who much concern for his religion felt;
Reading, he changed his tenets, read again,
And various questions could with skill maintain;
Papist and Quaker if we set aside,
He had the road of every traveller tried;
There walk'd a while, and on a sudden turn'd
Into some by-way he had just discern'd:
He had a nephew, Fulham: --Fulham went
His Uncle's way, with every turn content;
He saw his pious kinsman's watchful care,
And thought such anxious pains his own might spare,
And he the truth obtain'd, without the toil, might
In fact, young Fulham, though he little read,
Perceived his uncle was by fancy led;
And smiled to see the constant care he took,
Collating creed with creed, and book with book.
At length the senior fix'd; I pass the sect
He call'd a Church, 'twas precious and elect;
Yet the seed fell not in the richest soil,
For few disciples paid the preacher's toil;
All in an attic room were wont to meet,
These few disciples, at their pastor's feet;
With these went Fulham, who, discreet and grave,
Follow'd the light his worthy uncle gave;
Till a warm Preacher found the way t'impart
Awakening feelings to his torpid heart:
Some weighty truths, and of unpleasant kind,
Sank, though resisted, in his struggling mind:
He wish'd to fly them, but, compell'd to stay,
Truth to the waking Conscience found her way;
For though the Youth was call'd a prudent lad,
And prudent was, yet serious faults he had -
Who now reflected--'Much am I surprised;
I find these notions cannot be despised:
No! there is something I perceive at last,
Although my uncle cannot hold it fast;
Though I the strictness of these men reject,
Yet I determine to be circumspect:
This man alarms me, and I must begin
To look more closely to the things within:
These sons of zeal have I derided long,
But now begin to think the laugher's wrong!
Nay, my good uncle, by all teachers moved,
Will be preferr'd to him who none approved; -
Better to love amiss than nothing to have loved.'
Such were his thoughts, when Conscience first
To hold close converse with th' awaken'd man:
He from that time reserved and cautious grew,
And for his duties felt obedience due;
Pious he was not, but he fear'd the pain
Of sins committed, nor would sin again:
Whene'er he stray'd, he found his Conscience rose,
Like one determined what was ill t'oppose,
What wrong t'accuse, what secret to disclose;
To drag forth every latent act to light,
And fix them fully in the actor's sight:
This gave him trouble, but he still confess'd
The labour useful, for it brought him rest.
The Uncle died, and when the Nephew read
The will, and saw the substance of the dead -
Five hundred guineas, with a stock in trade -
He much rejoiced, and thought his fortune made;
Yet felt aspiring pleasure at the sight,
And for increase, increasing appetite;
Desire of profit idle habits check'd
(For Fulham's virtue was to be correct);
He and his Conscience had their compact made -
'Urge me with truth, and you will soon persuade;
But not,' he cried, 'for mere ideal things
Give me to feel those terror-breeding stings.'
'Let not such thoughts,' she said, 'your mind
Trifles may wake me, but they never wound;
In them indeed there is a wrong and right,
But you will find me pliant and polite;
Not like a Conscience of the dotard kind,
Awake to dreams, to dire offences blind:
Let all within be pure, in all beside
Be your own master, governor, and guide;
Alive to danger, in temptation strong,
And I shall sleep our whole existence long.'
'Sweet be thy sleep,' said Fulham; 'strong must
The tempting ill that gains access to me:
Never will I to evil deed consent;
Or, if surprised, oh! how will I repent!
Should gain be doubtful, soon would I restore
The dangerous good, or give it to the poor;
Repose for them my growing wealth shall buy,
Or build--who knows?--an hospital like Guy.
Yet why such means to soothe the smart within,
While firmly purposed to renounce the sin?'
Thus our young Trader and his Conscience dwelt
In mutual love, and great the joy they felt;
But yet in small concerns, in trivial things,
'She was,' he said, 'too ready with the stings;'
And he too apt, in search of growing gains,
To lose the fear of penalties and pains:
Yet these were trifling bickerings, petty jars,
Domestic strifes, preliminary wars;
He ventured little, little she express'd
Of indignation, and they both had rest.
Thus was he fix d to walk the worthy way,
When profit urged him to a bold essay: -
A time was that when all at pleasure gamed
In lottery chances, yet a law unblamed:
This Fulham tried; who would to him advance
A pound or crown, he gave in turn a chance
For weighty prize--and should they nothing share,
They had their crown or pound in Fulham's ware;
Thus the old stores within the shop were sold
For that which none refuses, new or old.
Was this unjust? yet Conscience could not rest,
But made a mighty struggle in the breast,
And gave th' aspiring man an early proof
That should they war he would have work enough:
'Suppose,' said she, 'your vended numbers rise
The same with those which gain each real prize,
(Such your proposal), can you ruin shun?' -
'A hundred thousand,' he replied, 'to one.'
'Still it may happen.'--'I the sum must pay.'
'You know you cannot.'--'I can run away.'
'That is dishonest.'--'Nay, but you must wink
At a chance hit: it cannot be, I think.
Upon my conduct as a whole decide,
Such trifling errors let my virtues hide.
Fail I at meeting? am I sleepy there?
My purse refuse I with the priest to share?
Do I deny the poor a helping hand?
Or stop the wicked women in the Strand?
Or drink at club beyond a certain pitch?
Which are your charges? Conscience, tell me
''Tis well,' said she, 'but--' 'Nay, I pray,
Trust me, I will not into danger run.'
The lottery drawn, not one demand was made;
Fulham gain'd profit and increase of trade.
'See now,' said he--for Conscience yet arose -
'How foolish 'tis such measures to oppose:
Have I not blameless thus my state advanced?'
'Still,' mutter'd Conscience, 'still it might have
'Might!' said our hero: 'who is so exact
As to inquire what might have been a fact?'
Now Fulham's shop contain'd a curious view
Of costly trifles, elegant and new:
The papers told where kind mammas might buy
The gayest toys to charm an infant's eye;
Where generous beaux might gentle damsels please,
And travellers call who cross the land or seas,
And find the curious art, the neat device,
Of precious value and of trifling price.
Here Conscience rested, she was pleased to find
No less an active than an honest mind;
But when he named his price, and when he swore
His Conscience check'd him that he ask'd no more,
When half he sought had been a large increase
On fair demand, she could not rest in peace;
(Beside th' affront to call th' adviser in,
Who would prevent, to justify the sin):
She therefore told him that 'he vainly tried
To soothe her anger, conscious that he lied;
If thus he grasp'd at such usurious gains,
He must deserve, and should expect her pains.'
The charge was strong; he would in part confess
Offence there was--But, who offended less?
'What! is a mere assertion call'd a lie?
And if it be, are men compell'd to buy?
'Twas strange that Conscience on such points should
While he was acting (he would call it) well;
He bought as others buy, he sold as others sell;
There was no fraud, and he demanded cause
Why he was troubled when he kept the laws?'
'My laws!' said Conscience. 'What,' said he, '
Oral or written, human or divine?
Show me the chapter, let me see the text;
By laws uncertain subjects are perplex'd:
Let me my finger on the statute lay,
And I shall feel it duty to obey.'
'Reflect,' said Conscience, ''twas your own
That I should warn you--does the compact tire?
Repent you this?--then bid me not advise,
And rather hear your passions as they rise:
So you may counsel and remonstrance shun;
But then remember it is war begun;
And you may judge from some attacks, my friend,
What serious conflicts will on war attend.'
'Nay, but,' at length the thoughtful man
'I say not that; I wish you for my guide;
Wish for your checks and your reproofs--but then
Be like a conscience of my fellow-men;
Worthy I mean, and men of good report,
And not the wretches who with Conscience sport:
There's Bice, my friend, who passes off his grease
Of pigs for bears', in pots a crown apiece;
His Conscience never checks him when he swears
The fat he sells is honest fat of bears;
And so it is, for he contrives to give
A drachm to each--'tis thus that tradesmen live;
Now why should you and I be over-nice?
What man is held in more repute than Bice?'
Here ended the dispute; but yet 'twas plain
The parties both expected strife again:
Their friendship cool'd, he look'd about and saw
Numbers who seem'd unshackled by his awe;
While like a schoolboy he was threatened still,
Now for the deed, now only for the will:
Here Conscience answered 'To thy neighbour's guide
Thy neighbour leave, and in thine own confide.'
Such were each day the charges and replies,
When a new object caught the trader's eyes;
A Vestry-patriot, could he gain the name,
Would famous make him, and would pay the fame.
He knew full well the sums bequeath'd in charge
For schools, for almsmen, for the poor, were large;
Report had told, and he could feel it true,
That most unfairly dealt the trusted few;
No partners would they in their office take,
Nor clear accounts at annual meetings make.
Aloud our hero in the vestry spoke
Of hidden deeds, and vow'd to draw the cloak;
It was the poor man's cause, and he for one
Was quite determined to see justice done:
His foes affected, laughter, then disdain,
They too were Ioud; and threat'ning, but in vain;
The pauper's friend, their foe, arose and spoke
Fiercely he cried, 'Your garbled statements show
That you determine we shall nothing know;
But we shall bring your hidden crimes to light,
Give you to shame, and to the poor their right.'
Virtue like this might some approval ask -
But Conscience sternly said, 'You wear a mask!'
'At least,' said Fulham, 'if I have a view
To serve myself, I serve the public too.'
Fulham, though check'd, retain'd his former
And this the cautious rogues began to feel:
'Thus will he ever bark,' in peevish tone
An elder cried--'the cur must have a bone.'
They then began to hint, and to begin
Was all they needed--it was felt within:
In terms less veil'd an offer then was made;
Though distant still, it fail'd not to persuade:
More plainly then was every point proposed,
Approved, accepted, and the bargain closed.
The exulting paupers hail'd their Friend's success,
And bade adieu to murmurs and distress.
Alas! their Friend had now superior light,
And, view'd by that, he found that all was right;
'There were no errors, the disbursements small;
This was the truth, and truth was due to all.'
And rested Conscience? No! she would not rest,
Yet was content with making a protest:
Some acts she now with less resistance bore,
Nor took alarm so quickly as before:
Like those in towns besieged, who every ball
At first with terror view, and dread them all;
But, grown familiar with the scenes, they fear
The clanger less, as it approaches near;
So Conscience, more familiar with the view
Of growing evils, less attentive grew:
Yet he, who felt some pain and dreaded more,
Gave a peace-offering to the angry poor.
Thus had he quiet--but the time was brief;
From his new triumph sprang a cause of grief;
In office join'd, and acting with the rest,
He must admit the sacramental test.
Now, as a sectary, he had all his life,
As he supposed, been with the Church at strife: -
No rules of hers, no laws had he perused,
Nor knew the tenets he by rote abused;
Yet Conscience here arose more fierce and strong
Than when she told of robbery and wrong.
'Change his religion! No! he must be sure
That was a blow no Conscience eould endure.'
Though friend to Virtue, yet she oft abides
In early notions, fix'd by erring guides;
And is more startled by a call from those,
Than when the foulest crimes her rest oppose:
By error taught, by prejudice misled,
She yields her rights, and Fancy rules instead;
When Conscience all her stings and terror deals,
Not as Truth dictates, but as Fancy feels:
And thus within our hero's troubled breast,
Crime was less torture than the odious test.
New forms, new measures, he must now embrace,
With sad conviction that they warr'd with grace;
To his new church no former friend would come,
They scarce preferr'd her to the Church of Rome;
But thinking much, and weighing guilt and gain,
Conscience and he commuted for her pain;
Then promised Fulham to retain his creed,
And their peculiar paupers still to feed;
Their attic-room (in secret) to attend,
And not forget he was the preacher's friend:
Thus he proposed, and Conscience, troubled, tried,
And wanting peace, reluctantly complied.
Now, care subdued, and apprehensions gone,
In peace our hero went aspiring on;
But short the period--soon a quarrel rose,
Fierce in the birth, and fatal in the close;
With times of truce between, which rather proved
That both were weary, than that either loved.
Fulham e'en now disliked the heavy thrall,
And for her death would in his anguish call,
As Rome's mistaken friend exclaimed, 'Let Carthage
So felt our hero, so his wish express'd,
Against this powerful sprite--delenda est:
Rome in her conquest saw not danger near,
Freed from her rival and without a fear;
So, Conscience conquer'd, men perceive how free,
But not how fatal, such a state must be.
Fatal, not free, our hero's; foe or friend,
Conscience on him was destined to attend:
She dozed indeed, grew dull, nor seem'd to spy
Crime following crime, and each of deeper dye;
But all were noticed, and the reckoning time
With her account came on--crime following crime.
This, once a foe, now Brother in the Trust,
Whom Fulham late described as fair and just,
Was the sole Guardian of a wealthy maid,
Placed in his power, and of his frown afraid:
Not quite an idiot, for her busy brain
Sought, by poor cunning, trifling points to gain;
Success in childish projects her delight,
She took no heed of each important right.
The friendly parties met--the Guardian cried,
'I am too old; my sons have each a bride:
Martha, my ward, would make an easy wife:
On easy terms I'll make her yours for life;
And then the creature is so weak and mild.
She may be soothed and threaten'd as a child.'
'Yet not obey,' said Fulham, 'for your fools,
Female and male, are obstinate as mules.'
Some points adjusted, these new friends agreed,
Proposed the day, and hurried on the deed.
''Tis a vile act,' said Conscience. 'It will
Replied the bolder man, 'an act of love:
Her wicked guardian might the girl have sold
To endless misery for a tyrant's gold;
Now may her life be happy--for I mean
To keep my temper even and serene.'
'I cannot thus compound,' the spirit cried,
'Nor have my laws thus broken and defied:
This is a fraud, a bargain for a wife;
Expect my vengeance, or amend your life.'
The Wife was pretty, trifling, childish, weak;
She could not think, but would not cease to speak.
This he forbade--she took the caution ill,
And boldly rose against his sovereign will;
With idiot-cunning she would watch the hour,
When friends were present, to dispute his power:
With tyrant-craft, he then was still and calm,
But raised in private terror and alarm:
By many trials, she perceived how far
To vex and tease, without an open war;
And he discovered that so weak a mind
No art could lead, and no compulsion bind;
The rudest force would fail such mind to tame,
And she was callous to rebuke and shame;
Proud of her wealth, the power of law she knew,
And would assist him in the spending too:
His threat'ning words with insult she defied,
To all his reasoning with a stare replied;
And when he begg'd her to attend, would say,
'Attend I will--but let me have my way.'
Nor rest had Conscience: 'While you merit pain
From me,' she cried, 'you seek redress in vain.'
His thoughts were grievous: 'All that I possess
From this vile bargain adds to my distress;
To pass a life with one who will not mend,
Who cannot love, nor save, nor wisely spend,
Is a vile prospect, and I see no end:
For if we part, I must of course restore
Much of her money, and must wed no more.
'Is there no way?'--Here Conscience rose in
'Oh! fly the danger of this fatal hour;
I am thy Conscience, faithful, fond, and true:
Ah, fly this thought, or evil must ensue;
Fall on thy knees, and pray with all thy soul,
Thy purpose banish, thy design control:
Let every hope of such advantage cease,
Or never more expect a moment's peace.'
Th' affrighten'd man a due attention paid,
Felt the rebuke, and the command obey'd.
Again the wife rebell'd, again express'd
A love for pleasure--a contempt of rest;
'She whom she pleased would visit, would receive
Those who pleased her, nor deign to ask for leave.'
'One way there is,' said he; 'I might contrive
Into a trap this foolish thing to drive:
Who pleased her, said she?--I'll be certain who.'
'Take heed,' said Conscience 'what thou mean'st to
Ensnare thy wife?'--'Why, yes,' he must confess,
'It might be wrong, but there was no redress;
Beside to think,' said he, 'is not to sin.'
'Mistaken man!' replied the power within.
No guest unnoticed to the lady came,
He judged th' event with mingled joy and shame;
Oft he withdrew, and seem'd to leave her free,
But still as watchful as a lynx was he;
Meanwhile the wife was thoughtless, cool, and gay,
And, without virtue, had no wish to stray.
Though thus opposed, his plans were not
'Revenge,' said he, 'will prompt that daring mind;
Refused supplies, insulted and distress'd,
Enraged with me, and near a favourite guest -
Then will her vengeance prompt the daring deed,
And I shall watch, detect her, and be freed.'
There was a youth--but let me hide the name,
With all the progress of this deed of shame;
He had his views--on him the husband cast
His net, and saw him in his trammels fast.
'Pause but a moment--think what you intend,'
Said the roused Sleeper: 'I am yet a friend.
Must all our days in enmity be spent?'
'No!' and he paused--'I surely shall repent:'
Then hurried on--the evil plan was laid,
The wife was guilty, and her friend betray'd,
And Fulham gain'd his wish, and for his will was
Had crimes less weighty on the spirit press'd,
This troubled Conscience might have sunk to rest;
And, like a foolish guard, been bribed to peace,
By a false promise, that offence should cease;
Past faults had seem'd familiar to the view,
Confused if many, and obscure though true;
And Conscience, troubled with the dull account,
Had dropp'd her tale, and slumber'd o'er th'
But, struck by daring guilt, alert she rose,
Disturb'd, alarm'd, and could no more repose:
All hopes of friendship and of peace were past,
And every view with gloom was overcast.
Hence from that day, that day of shame and sin,
Arose the restless enmity within:
On no resource could Fulham now rely,
Doom'd all expedients, and in vain, to try;
For Conscience, roused, sat boldly on her throne,
Watch'd every thought, attack'd the foe alone,
And with envenom'd sting drew forth the inward
Expedients fail'd that brought relief before,
In vain his alms gave comfort to the poor,
Give what he would, to him the comfort came no
Not prayer avail'd, and when (his crimes confess'd)
He felt some ease, she said, 'Are they redress'd?
You still retain the profit, and be sure,
Long as it lasts, this anguish shall endure.'
Fulham still tried to soothe her, cheat,
But Conscience laid her finger on the deed,
And read the crime with power, and all that must
He tried t'expel her, but was sure to find
Her strength increased by all that he design'd;
Nor ever was his groan more loud and deep
Than when refresh'd she rose from momentary sleep.
Now desperate grown, weak, harass'd, and afraid,
From new allies he sought for doubtful aid;
To thought itself he strove to bid adieu,
And from devotions to diversions flew;
He took a poor domestic for a slave
(Though avarice grieved to see the price he gave);
Upon his board, once frugal, press'd a load
Of viands rich the appetite to goad;
The long protracted meal, the sparkling cup,
Fought with his gloom, and kept his courage up:
Soon as the morning came, there met his eyes
Accounts of wealth, that he might reading rise;
To profit then he gave some active hours,
Till food and wine again should renovate his
Yet, spite of all defence, of every aid,
The watchful Foe her close attention paid;
In every thoughtful moment on she press'd,
And gave at once her dagger to his breast;
He waked at midnight, and the fears of sin,
As waters through a bursten dam, broke in;
Nay, in the banquet, with his friends around,
When all their cares and half their crimes were
Would some chance act awake the slumbering fear,
And care and crime in all their strength appear:
The news is read, a guilty victim swings,
And troubled looks proclaim the bosom-stings:
Some pair are wed; this brings the wife in view;
And some divorced; this shows the parting too:
Nor can he hear of evil word or deed,
But they to thought, and thought to sufferings
Such was his life--no other changes came,
The hurrying day, the conscious night the same;
The night of horror--when he starting cried
To the poor startled sinner at his side,
'Is it in law? am I condemned to die?
Let me escape!--I'll give--oh! let me fly -
How! but a dream!--no judges! dungeon! chain!
Or these grim men!--I will not sleep again -
Wilt thou, dread being! thus thy promise keep?
Day is thy time--and wilt thou murder sleep?
Sorrow and want repose, and wilt thou come,
Nor give one hour of pure untroubled gloom?
'Oh! Conscience! Conscience! man's most faithful
Him canst thou comfort, ease, relieve, defend;
But if he will thy friendly checks forego,
Thou art, oh? woe for me, his deadliest foe?'
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