“We are living,” he continued more genially, “in an age of transition, and in a country which, though it has gained much by the Reformation, does not perceive how much it has also lost. You cannot and must not hawk Christ about in the streets as though you were in a heathen country whose inhabitants had never heard of him. The people here in London have had ample warning. Every church they pass is a protest to them against their lives, and a call to them to repent. Every church-bell they hear is a witness against them, everyone of those whom they meet on Sundays going to or coming from church is a warning voice from God. If these countless influences produce no effect upon them, neither will the few transient words which they would hear from you. You are like Dives, and think that if one rose from the dead they would hear him. Perhaps they might; but then you cannot pretend that you have risen from the dead.”
Though the last few words were spoken laughingly, there was a sub-sneer about them which made Ernest wince; but he was quite subdued, and so the conversation ended. It left Ernest, however, not for the first time, consciously dissatisfied with Pryer, and inclined to set his friend’s opinion on one side—not openly, but quietly, and without telling Pryer anything about it.
He had hardly parted from Pryer before there occurred another incident which strengthened his discontent. He had fallen, as I have shown, among a gang of spiritual thieves or coiners, who passed the basest metal upon him without his finding it out, so childish and inexperienced was he in the ways of anything but those back eddies of the world, schools and universities. Among the bad threepenny pieces which had been passed off upon him, and which he kept for small hourly disbursement, was a remark that poor people were much nicer than the richer and better educated. Ernest now said that he always travelled third class not because it was cheaper, but because the people whom he met in third class carriages were so much pleasanter and better behaved. As for the young men who attended Ernest’s evening classes, they were pronounced to be more intelligent and better ordered generally than the average run of Oxford and Cambridge men. Our foolish young friend having heard Pryer talk to this effect, caught up all he said and reproduced it more suo.
One evening, however, about this time, whom should he see coming along a small street not far from his own but, of all persons in the world, Towneley, looking as full of life and good spirits as ever, and if possible even handsomer than he had been at Cambridge. Much as Ernest liked him he found himself shrinking from speaking to him, and was endeavouring to pass him without doing so when Towneley saw him and stopped him at once, being pleased to see an old Cambridge face. He seemed for the moment a little confused at being seen in such a neighbourhood, but recovered himself so soon that Ernest hardly noticed it, and then plunged into a few kindly remarks about old times. Ernest felt that he quailed as he saw Towneley’s eye wander to his white necktie and saw that he was being reckoned up, and rather disapprovingly reckoned up, as a parson. It was the merest passing shade upon Towneley’s face, but Ernest had felt it.