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."
With infinite delicacy John Bunyan here tells us the sad story of Matthew's sore sickness at the House Beautiful. The cause of the sore sickness, its symptoms, its serious nature, and its complete cures are all told with the utmost plainness; but, at the same time, with the most exquisite delicacy. Bunyan calls the ancient physician who is summoned in and who effects the cure, Mr. Skill, but you must believe that Bunyan himself is Mr. Skill; and I question if this skilful writer ever wrote a more skilful page than just this page that now lies open before him who has the eyes to read it.