TOWARDS the close of last July, when the London season was fast dying of the dust, Otho Laurence had invited what the Morning Post called ‘a select circle of friends,’ to spend a quiet Sunday with him at his cool villa by the sea.
This singular retreat was the work of a very singular man, Otho Laurence’s uncle, who had squandered on it an immense fortune, and had designed it as far as possible to embody his own tastes and character. He was a member of a Tory family of some note, and had near relations in both Houses of Parliament; but he was himself possessed of a deep though quiet antipathy to the two things generally most cherished by those of his time and order, the ideas of Christianity and Feudalism; and he studiously kept himself clear of all public life. Pride of birth, indeed, he had in no small measure; but it was the pride of a Roman of the Empire rather than of an Englishman; a pride which, instead of connecting him with prince or people, made him shun the one as a Cæsar, and forget the other as slaves. All his pleasures were those of a lettered voluptuary, who would, as he himself said, have been more in place under Augustus or the Antonines; and modern existence, under most of its aspects, he affected to regard as barbarous. Next to a bishop, the thing he most disliked was a courtier; next to a courtier, a fox-hunting country gentleman. But nothing in his life, perhaps, was so characteristic of him as his leaving of it. During his last hours he was soothed by a pretty and somewhat educated housemaid, whom he called Phyllis, and whom he made sit by his bedside, and read aloud to him Gibbon’s two chapters on Christianity. Phyllis had just come to the celebrated excerpt from Tertullian, in which that father contemplates the future torments of the unbelievers, when the parish clergyman, who had been sent for by Mr. Laurence’s widowed sister-in-law, arrived to offer his services.
‘How shall I admire’ 1—these were the words that, read in a low sweet tone, first greeted his ears when he was shown softly into the sick chamber—’ how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs, so many fancied gods, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in a fiercer fire than ever they kindled against the Christians!’ The clergyman was at first much reassured at hearing words so edifying; but when he turned to old Mr. Laurence, he was dismayed to see on his pale face, no signs of awe, but only a faint smile, full of sarcastic humour. He therefore glanced at the book that was lying on the girl’s lap, and discovered to his horror the work of the infidel historian. He was at first struck dumb; but, soon recovering himself, began to say something suitable at once to his own profession and to the sick man’s needs. Mr. Laurence answered him with the greatest courtesy, but with many thanks declined any assistance from him; saying wistfully that he knew he had not long to live, and that his one wish was that he could open his veins in a bath, and so fade gently into death; ‘and then,’ he added, ‘my soul, if I have one, might perhaps be with Petronius, and with Seneca. And yet sleep would, I think, be better than even their company.’ The poor clergyman bade a hasty adieu, and Phyllis resumed her reading. Mr. Laurence listened to every word: the smile returned to his lips that had for a moment left them, and was still upon them when, half-an-hour afterwards, he died, so quietly that Phyllis did not perceive it, but continued her reading for some time to ears that could hear nothing.
All his property he left to his nephew Otho, including his splendid villa, which was indeed, as it was meant to be, a type of its builder. It was a house of pillars, porticoes, and statues, designed ambitiously in what was meant to be a classical style; and though its splendours might not be all perhaps in the best taste, nor even of the most strictly Roman pattern, there was yet an air about its meretricious stateliness by which the clays of the Empire were at once suggested to one, a magnificence that: would at any rate have pleased Trimalcio, though it might have scandalised Horace.
Otho Laurence inherited with his uncle’s house something of the tastes and feelings of which it was the embodiment. But, though an epicure by training and by temper, he had been open to other influences as well. At one time of his life he had, as it is expressed by some, experienced religion; and not religion only, but thought and speculation also. Indeed, ever since he was twenty-four, he had been troubled by a painful sense that he ought to have some mission in life. The only difficulty was that he could find none that would suit him. He had considerable natural powers, and was in many ways a remarkable man; but, unhappily, one of those who are remarkable because they do not become famous, not because they do. He was one of those of whom it is said till they are thirty, that they will do something; till they are thirty-five, that they might do something if they chose; and after that, that they might have done anything if they had chosen. Laurence was as yet only three years gone in the second stage, but such of his friends as were ambitious for him feared that three years more would find him landed in the third. He, too, was beginning to share this fear; and, not being humble enough to despair of himself, was by this time taking to despair of his century. He was thus hardly a happy man; but, like many unhappy men, he was capable of keen enjoyments. Chief amongst these was society in certain forms, especially a party in his own house, such as that which he had now assembled there. To this one in particular he looked forward with more than usual pleasure, partly because of the peculiar elements which he had contrived to combine in it, but chiefly because amongst them was to be his friend Robert Leslie, who had been living abroad, and whom he had not seen for two years.
Laurence’s aunt, Lady Grace, helped to receive the guests, who by dinner-time on Saturday evening had all arrived. Robert Leslie was the last. The dressing-bell had just done ringing as he drove up to the door, and the others had already gone upstairs; but he found Laurence in the library, sitting with his head on his hand, and a pile of menu-cards on the desk before him. The two friends met with much warmth, and then examined each other’s faces to see if either had changed.
‘You told me you had been ill,’ said Laurence, having again looked at Leslie, ‘and I am afraid you don’t seem quite well yet.’
‘You forget,’ said Leslie, whose laugh was a little hollow, ‘that I was on the sea six hours ago; and, as you know, I am a wretched sailor. But the worst of human maladies are the most transient also—love , that is half despairing, and sea-sickness that is quite so.’
‘I congratulate you,’ said Laurence, again examining his friend’s face, ‘on your true cynical manner. I often thought we might have masters in cynicism just as we have masters in singing. Perhaps I shall be able to learn the art from you.’
‘Oh!’ said Leslie, ‘the theory is simple enough. Find out, by a little suffering, what are the things you hold most sacred, and most firmly believe in, and, whenever an occasion offers, deny your faith. A cynic is a kind of inverted confessor, perpetually making enemies for the sake of what he knows to be false.’
‘Ah!’ said Laurence, ‘but I don’t want theory. I know what is sacred just as well as you, and, when I am beast enough to be quite out of tune with it, I have the good sense to call it a phantom. But I don’t do this with sufficient energy. It is skill in cynical practice I want—a lesson in the pungent manner—the bitter tone—’
‘Then please not to take your lessons from me,’ said Leslie. ‘Imitation may be the sincerest flattery, but it is, of all, the most irritating: and a cynic, as you are good enough to call me, feels this especially. For a cynic is the one preacher, remember, that never wants to make converts. His aim is to outrage, not to convince: to create enemies, not to conquer them. The peculiar charm that his creed has for him, is his own peculiarity in holding it. He is an acid that can only fizz with an alkali, and he therefore hates in others what he most admires in himself. So if you hear me say a bitter thing, please be good enough to brim over immediately with the milk of human kindness. If I say anything disrespectful about friendship, please be good enough to look hurt; and if I happen to say—what is the chief part of the cynic’s stock-in-trade—that no woman was ever sincere or faithful, I trust you have some lady amongst your visitors who will look at me with mournful eyes, and say to me, “Ah, if you did but know!”’
‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘perhaps I have; but, talking of what people are to say, I have something here about which I want you to help me. You see these cards; they are all double. Now that second half is for something quite new, and of my own invention. The cook has written his part already, so you need not look so alarmed; but he has only provided for the tongue as a tasting instrument; I am going to provide for it as a talking one. In fact, I am going to have a menu for the conversation, and to this I shall make everyone strictly adhere. For it has always seemed absurd to me to be so careful about what we put into our mouths, and to leave chance to arrange what comes out of them; to be so particular as to the order of what we eat, and to have no order at all in what we talk about. This is the case especially in parties like the present, where most of the people know each other only a little, and if left to themselves would never touch on the topics that would make them best acquainted, and best bring out their several personal flavours. That is what I like to see conversation doing. I ought to have written these menus before; but I have been busy all day, and, besides, I wanted you to help me. I was just beginning without you when you arrived, as I could wait no longer; but I have put down nothing yet: indeed I could not fix upon the first topic that is to correspond with the soup—the first vernal breath of discussion that is to open the buds of the shy and strange souls. So come, now—what shall we begin with? What we want is something that anyone can talk easily about, whether he knows anything of it or not—something, too, that may be treated in any way, either with laughter, feeling, or even a little touch of temper.’
‘Love,’ suggested Leslie.
‘That is too strong to begin with,’ said Laurence, ‘and too real. Besides, introduced in that way, it would be, I think, rather common and vulgar. No—the only thing that suggested itself to me was religion.’
‘Nothing could be better in some ways,’ said Leslie; ‘but might not that, too, be rather strong meat for some? I apprehend, like Bottom, that “the ladies might be afeared of the lion.” I should suggest rather the question, “Are you High-church or Low-church?” There is something in that which at once disarms reverence, and may also just titillate the interests, the temper, or the sense of humour. Quick,’ he said, taking one of the cards, ‘and let us begin to write.’
‘Stop,’ said Laurence; ‘not so fast, let me beg of you. Instead of religion, or anything connected with it, we will have, “What is the Aim of Life?” Is not this the thing of things to suit us? About what do we know less or talk more? There is a Sphinx in each of our souls that is always asking us this riddle; and when we are lazy or disappointed, we all of us lounge up to her, and make languid guesses. So about this we shall all of us have plenty to say, and can say it in any way we like, flippant, serious, or sentimental. Think, too, how many avenues of thought and feeling it opens up! Evidently the “Aim of Life” is the thing to begin with.’
Leslie assented; and before many minutes they had made the menu complete.
The ‘Aim of Life’ was to be followed by ‘Town and Country,’ which was designed to introduce a discussion as to where the Aim of Life was to be best attained. After this, by an easy transition, came ‘Society;’ next by way of entreés, ‘Art and Literature,’ ‘Love and Money,’ ‘Riches and Civilisation;’ then ‘The Present,’ as something solid and satisfying; and lastly, a light superfluity to dally with, brightly coloured and unsubstantial, with the entremets came ‘The Future.’
‘And who is here,’ said Leslie, as they were ending their labours, ‘to enjoy this feast of reason?’
‘I will tell you,’ said Laurence. ‘In the first place, there is Lady Ambrose, a woman of a very old but poor family, who has married a modern M.P. with more than a million of money. She is very particular about knowing the right people, and has lovely, large grey eyes. Then there is Miss Merton, a Roman Catholic young lady, the daughter of old Sir Ascot Merton, the horse-racing evangelical. I knew her well five years ago, but had not seen her since her conversion, till to-day. Then we have Dr. Jenkinson, the great Broad-church divine who thinks that Christianity is not dead, but changed by himself and his followers in the twinkling of an eye.’
‘I met Dr. Jenkinson,’ said Leslie, ‘just before I went abroad, at a great dinner given by Baron Isaacs, in honour of his horse having won the Derby. Well—and who else is there?’
‘Two celebrated members of the Royal Society,’ said Laurence; ‘no less persons than—But, good gracious! it is time we were up-stairs dressing. Come along directly, and I will explain the other people to you before dinner.’
1 Vide Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, chapter xv.