LAURENCE, though he had forewarned his guests of his menu before they left the drawing-room, yet felt a little anxious when they sat down to dinner; for he found it not altogether easy to get the conversation started. Lady Ambrose, who was the first to speak, began somewhat off the point.
‘What a charming change it is, Mr. Laurence,’ she said, ‘to look out on the sea when one is dressing, instead of across South Audley Street!’
‘Hush!’ said Laurence softly, with a grave, reproving smile.
‘Really,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘I beg your pardon. I thought Dr. Jenkinson had said grace.’
‘If he has,’ said Laurence, ‘it is very good of him, for I am afraid he was not asked. But what I mean is, that you must only talk of what is on the cards; so be good enough to look at your menu, and devote your attention to the Aim of Life.’
‘Really, this is much too alarming,’ said Lady Ambrose. ‘How is one to talk at so short a notice on a subject one has never thought about before? ’
‘Why, to do so,’ said Laurence, ‘is the very art of conversation; for in that way, one’s ideas spring up fresh like young roses that have all the dew on them, instead of having been kept drying for half a lifetime between the leaves of a book. So do set a good example, and begin, or else we shall never be started at all; and my pet plan will turn out a fiasco.’
There was, indeed, as Laurence said this, something very near complete silence all round the table. It was soon broken.
‘Are you High-church or Low-church?’ was a question suddenly uttered in a quick eager girl’s voice by Miss Prattle, a young lady of eighteen, to the astonishment of the whole company. It was addressed to Dr. Jenkinson who was sitting next her.
Had a pin been run into the Doctor’s leg, he could not have looked more astounded, or given a greater start. He eyed his fair questioner for some time in complete silence.
‘Can you tell me the difference?’ he said at last, in a voice of considerable good humour, yet with just a touch of sharpness in it.
‘I think,’ said Miss Merton, who was sitting on the other side of him, ‘that my card is a little different. I have the “Aim of Life” on mine, and so I believe has everybody else.’
‘Well,’ said the Doctor, laughing, ‘let us ask Miss Prattle what is her aim in life.’
‘Thank Heaven,’ said Laurence, ‘Dr. Jenkinson has begun. I hope we shall all now follow.’
Laurence’s hope was not in vain. The conversation soon sprang up everywhere; and the company, though in various humours, took most of them very kindly to the solemn topic that had been put before them. Mr. Luke, who was sitting by Mrs. Sinclair, was heard in a loudish voice saying that his own favourite Muse had always been Erato; Mr. Rose had taken a crimson flower from a vase on the table, and, looking at it himself with a grave regard, was pointing out its infinite and passionate beauties to the lady next him; and Mr. Stockton was explaining that the Alps looked grander, and the sky bluer than ever, to those who truly realised the atomic theory. No one, indeed, was silent except Mr. Herbert and Mr. Storks, the former of whom smiled rather sadly, whilst the latter looked about him with an inquisitorial frown.
Laurence was delighted with the state of things, and surveyed the table with great satisfaction. Whilst his attention was thus engaged, Lady Ambrose turned to Leslie, and began asking him if he had been in town much this season. She was taken with his look, and wished to find out if he would really be a nice person to like.
‘Please,’ interposed Laurence pleadingly, ‘do try and keep to the point—please, Lady Ambrose.’
‘I want to find out Mr. Leslie’s aim in life by asking him where he has been,’ she answered.
‘I have been in a great many places,’ said Leslie, ‘but not to pursue any end—only to try and forget that I had no end to pursue.’
‘This is a very sad state of things,’ said Lady Ambrose; ‘I can always find something to do, except when I am quite alone, or in the country when the house is empty. And even then I can make occupation. I draw, or read a book, or teach my little boy some lessons. But come—what do you think is the real aim of life?—since that is what I must ask him, is it not, Mr. Laurence?’
‘Don’t ask me,’ said Leslie; ‘I told you I hadn’t a notion; and I don’t suppose we any of us have.’
‘That can’t be true,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘for just listen how everyone is talking. I wish we could hear what they are saying. You might learn something then, perhaps, Mr. Leslie, since you are so very ignorant.’
It happened that, as Lady Ambrose said this, the conversation suddenly flagged, and Laurence took advantage of the lull to ask if any satisfactory conclusions had been come to during the past five minutes, ‘because we up here,’ he said, ‘are very much in the dark, and want to be enlightened.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Storks gruffly, ‘has any one found out what is the aim of life?’ As he said this he looked about him defiantly, as though all the others were butterflies, that he could break, if he chose, upon his wheel. His eye at last lit upon Mr. Saunders, who, considering this a challenge to himself, immediately took up the gauntlet. The young man spoke with the utmost composure, and, as his voice was high and piercing, everybody could hear him.
‘The aim of life,’ he said, adjusting his spectacles, ‘is progress.’
‘What is progress?’ interrupted Dr. Jenkinson coldly, without looking at Mr. Saunders, and as though any answer to his question was the last thing he expected.
‘Progress,’ replied Mr. Saunders slowly, ‘has been found, like poetry, somewhat hard to define.’
‘Very true,’ said the Doctor drily, and looking straight before him.
His accents were of so freezing a sharpness that he seemed to be stabbing Mr. Saunders with an icicle. Mr. Saunders, however, was apparently quite unwounded.
‘But I,’ he continued with the utmost complacency, ‘have discovered a definition which will, I think, meet with general acceptance. There is nothing original in it—it is merely an abstract of the meaning of all our great liberal thinkers—progress is such improvement as can be verified by statistics, just as education is such knowledge as can be tested by examinations. That, I conceive, is a very adequate definition of the most advanced conception of progress, and to persuade people in general to accept this is at present one of the chief duties of all earnest men.’
‘Entirely true!’ said Mr. Herbert, with ironical emphasis; ‘an entirely true definition of progress as our age prizes it.’
Mr. Saunders was delighted, and, imagining he had made a disciple, he turned to Mr. Herbert and went on.
‘For just let us,’ he said, ‘compare a man with a gorilla, and see in what the man’s superiority lies. It is evidently not in the man’s ideas of God, and so forth—for in his presumable freedom from these the gorilla is the superior of the man—but in the hard and verifiable fact, that the man can build houses and cotton-mills, whereas the highest monkey can scarcely make the rudest approach to a hut.’
‘But can you tell me,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘supposing men some day come to a state in which no more of this progress is possible, what will they do then? ’
‘Mr. Mill, whom in almost all things I reverence as a supreme authority,’ said Mr. Saunders, ‘asked himself that very question. But the answer he gave himself was one of the few things in which I venture to dissent from him. For, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed, he thinks the human race is to find its chief enjoyment in reading Wordsworth’s poetry.’ 1
‘Indeed!’ said Mr. Herbert; ‘and did Mill come to any conclusion so sane as that?’
‘I, on the contrary, believe,’ Mr. Saunders went on, ‘that as long as the human race lasts, it will still have some belief in God left in it, and that the eradication of this will afford an unending employment to all enlightened minds.’
Leslie looked at Lady Ambrose, expecting to see her smile. On the contrary she was very grave, and said, ‘I think this is shocking.’
‘Well,’ said Laurence in a soothing tone to her, ‘it is only the way of these young men in times of change like ours. Besides, he is very young—he has only just left Oxford—’
‘If these irreligious views are to be picked up at Oxford,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘I shall be obliged to send my little boy, when he grows up, to Cambridge. And as for what you say about “times of change”— I am not a conservative, as you know—indeed, I quite go in for reform, as my husband does: but I don’t think religion ought to be dragged into the matter.’
‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘let us listen to what Lord Allen is saying.’
‘He is sure,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘not to say anything but what is nice.’
Allen was speaking in a low tone, but his voice was so clear that Lady Ambrose was quite able to hear him.
‘To me it seems,’ he was saying, blushing a little as he found suddenly how many people were listening to him, ‘that the aim of life has nearly always been plain enough in a certain way—always, and for all men—’
‘Indeed?’ said Mr. Saunders, raising his eyebrows.
‘Yes,’ said Allen, slightly turning towards him, and raising his voice somewhat. ‘It has been, I think, as a single magnet, acting on all, though upon many by repulsion. It is quite indescribable in words. But there are two things by which you can tell a man’s truth to it—a faith in God. and a longing for a future life.’
‘Lord Allen,’ exclaimed Mr. Herbert, and the sound of his voice made everyone at once a listener, ‘that is very beautifully put! And it is, indeed, quite true, as you say, that the real significance of life must be for ever indescribable in words. But, in the present day, I fear also that for most of us it is not even thinkable in thought. The whole human race,’ he went on in measured melancholy accents, ‘is now wandering in an accursed wilderness, which not only shows us no hilltop whence the promised land may be seen, but which, to most of the wanderers, seems a promised land itself. And they have a God of their own too, who engages now to lead them out of it if they will only follow him: who, for visible token of his Godhead, leads them with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night—the cloud being the black smoke of their factory chimneys, and the fire the red glare of their blast-furnaces. And so effectual are these modern divine guides, that if we were standing on the brink of Jordan itself, we should be utterly unable to catch, through the fire and the smoke, one single glimpse of the sunlit hills beyond.’
Mr. Herbert said these last words almost fiercely; and they were followed by a complete hush. It was almost directly broken by Mr. Rose.
‘To me,’ he said, raising his eyebrows wearily, and sending his words floating down the table in a languid monotone, ‘Mr. Herbert’s whole metaphor seems misleading. I rather look upon life as a chamber, which we decorate as we would decorate the chamber of the woman or the youth that we love, tinting the walls of it with symphonies of subdued colour, and filling it with works of fair form, and with flowers, and with strange scents, and with instruments of music. And this can be done now as well—better, rather —than at any former time: since we know that so many of the old aims were false, and so cease to be distracted by them. We have learned the weariness of creeds; and know that for us the grave has no secrets. We have learned that the aim of life is life; and what does successful life consist in? Simply,’ said Mr. Rose, speaking very slowly, and with a soft solemnity, ‘in the consciousness of exquisite living—in the making our own each highest thrill of joy that the moment offers us—be it some touch of colour on the sea or on the mountains, the early dew in the crimson shadows of a rose, the shining of a woman’s limbs in clear water, or—’
Here unfortunately a sound of ‘’Sh’ broke softly from several mouths. Mr. Rose was slightly disconcerted, and a pause that would have been a little awkward seemed imminent. Laurence, to prevent this, did the first thing that occurred to him, and hastily asked Dr. Jenkinson what his view of the matter was.
The Doctor’s answer came in his very sharpest voice.
‘Do any of us know what life is?’ he said. ‘Hadn’t we better find that out first?’
‘Life,’ continued Mr. Rose, who had now recovered himself, ‘is a series of moments and emotions.’
‘And a series of absurdities too, very often,’ said Dr. Jenkinson.
‘Life is a solemn mystery,’ said Mr. Storks, severely.
‘Life is a damned nuisance,’ muttered Leslie to himself, but just loud enough to be heard by Lady Ambrose, who smiled at him with a sense of humour that won his heart at once.
‘Life is matter,’ Mr. Storks went on, ‘which, under certain conditions not yet fully understood, has become self-conscious.’
‘Lord Allen has just been saying that it is the preface to eternity,’ said Mr. Saunders.
‘Only, unfortunately,’ said Laurence, ‘it is a preface that we cannot skip, and the dedication is generally made to the wrong person.’
‘All our doubts on this matter,’ said Mr. Saunders, ‘are simply due to that dense pestiferous fog of crazed sentiment that still hides our view, but which the present generation has sternly set its face to dispel and conquer. Science will drain the marshy grounds of the human mind, so that the deadly malaria of Christianity, which has already destroyed two civilisations, shall never be fatal to a third.’
‘I should rather have thought,’ said Mrs. Sinclair, in her soft clear voice, and casting down her eyes thoughtfully, ‘that passion and feeling were the real heart of the matter: and that religion of some sort was an ingredient in all perfect passion. There are seeds of feeling in every soul, but these will never rise up into flowers without some culture—will they, Mr. Luke? And this culture is, surely,’ she said dreamily, ‘the work of Love who is the gardener of the soul, and of Religion, the under-gardener, acting as Love bids it.’
‘Ah, yes!’ said Mr. Luke, looking compassionately about him. ‘Culture! Mrs. Sinclair is quite right; for without culture we can never understand Christianity, and Christianity, whatever the vulgar may say of it, is the key to life, and is co-extensive with it.’
Lady Ambrose was charmed with this sentiment.
‘Quite so, Mr. Luke, I quite agree with you,’ she said, in her most cordial manner. ‘But I wish you would tell me a little more about Culture. I am always so much interested in those things.’
‘Culture,’ said Mr. Luke, ‘is the union of two things—fastidious taste and liberal sympathy. These can only be gained by wide reading guided by sweet reason; and when they are gained, Lady Ambrose, we are conscious, as it were, of a new sense, which at once enables us to discern the Eternal and the absolutely righteous, wherever we find it, whether in an epistle of St. Paul’s or in a comedy of Menander’s. It is true that culture sets aside the larger part of the New Testament as grotesque, barbarous, and immoral; but what remains, purged of its apparent meaning, it discerns to be a treasure beyond all price. And in Christianity—such Christianity, I mean, as true taste can accept—culture sees the guide to the real significance of life, and the explanation,’ Mr. Luke added with a sigh, ‘of that melancholy which in our day is attendant upon all clear sight.’
‘But why,’ said Allen, ‘if you know so well what life’s meaning is, need you feel this melancholy at all? ’
‘Ah!’ said Mr. Luke, ‘it is from this very knowledge that the melancholy I speak of springs. We—the cultured—we indeed see. But the world at large does not. It will not listen to us. It thinks we are talking nonsense. Surely that is enough to sadden us. Then, too, our ears are perpetually being pained and deafened by the din of the two opposing Philistinisms—science and orthodoxy—both equally vulgar, and equally useless. But the masses cannot see this. It is impossible to persuade some that science can teach them nothing worth knowing, and others that the dogmatic utterances of the gospels are either ignorant mistakes or oriental metaphors. Don’t you find this, Jenkinson?’ he added, addressing the Doctor across the table in a loud mournful voice.
‘Laurence,’ said the Doctor, apparently not hearing the question, ‘haven’t we talked of this quite long enough? Town and Country—let us go on to that; or else we shall be getting very much behind-hand.’
These words of the Doctor’s caused a rapid change in the conversation. And as it appeared impossible to agree as to what the aim of life was, most turned eagerly to the simpler question of where it might be best attained. At first there seemed to be a general sense on all sides that it was a duty to prefer the country. There, the voices of Nature spoke to the soul more freely, the air was purer and fresher; the things in life that were really valuable were more readily taken at their true worth; foolish vanities and trivial cares were less likely to degrade the character; one could have flowers; one could listen to the music of birds and rivers; a country house was more comfortable than a town one; and few prospects were so charming as an English park. But the voice of Mr. Saunders was soon heard proclaiming that progress was almost entirely confined to towns, and that the modern liberal could find little scope for action in the country. ‘If he does anything there,’ Mr. Saunders said, ‘he can only make his tenants more comfortable and contented; and that is simply attaching them more to the existing order of things. Indeed, even now, as matters stand, the healthy rustic, with his fresh complexion and honest eye, is absolutely incapable of appreciating the tyranny of religion and society. But the true liberal is undeceived by his pleasing exterior, and sees a far nobler creature in the pale narrow-chested operative of the city, who at once responds to the faintest cry of insurgence.’
Slight causes often produce large results; and these utterances of Mr. Saunders turned the entire torrent of opinion into a different channel. Mr. Luke, who had a moment before been talking about ‘liberal air,’ and ‘sedged brooks,’ and ‘meadow grass,’ now admitted that one’s country neighbours were sure to be narrow-minded sectarians, and that it was better to live amongst cultured society, even under a London fog, than to look at all the splendour of provincial sunsets, in company with a parson who could talk of nothing but his parishioners and justification by faith. Others, too, followed in the same direction; and the verdict of the majority soon seemed to be that, except in a large country house, country life, though it might be very beautiful, was still very tiresome. But the voice of Mr. Saunders was again heard, during a pause, laying it down that no true liberal could ever care to live in the country now; and Lady Ambrose, who highly disapproved of him and his views in general, saw here a fitting opportunity for contradicting him, asserting that, though she and her husband were both advanced, liberals, yet the pleasantest part of their year was that spent upon their moor in Scotland. ‘And then, too,’ she added, turning to Laurence, ‘I am devoted to our place in Gloucestershire, and I would not miss for anything such things as my new dairy, and my cottages, with the old women in them.’
‘And yet,’ said Laurence, smiling, ‘Sir George would never go near the place if it were not for the shooting.’
‘Indeed he would,’ said Lady Ambrose, a little indignantly. ‘He likes the life so much, and is so fond of his gardens, and greenhouses, and—’
But she was here interrupted by Mr. Herbert, who, mistaking the Sir George Ambrose mentioned for another Baronet of the same name—a gentleman of a very old but impoverished Catholic family—broke in as follows, somewhat to the consternation of Lady Ambrose, whose husband was a great cotton-spinner, of the most uncertain origin.
‘Sir George,’ he said, ‘is, as I know well, an entirely honest gentleman of ancient lineage. He is indeed a perfectly beautiful type of what the English Squire properly ought to be. For he lives upon his own land, and amongst his own people; and is a complete and lovely example to them of a life quite simple indeed, but in the highest sense loyal, noble, and orderly. But what is one amongst so many? To most of his own order Sir George Ambrose appears merely as a madman, because he sees that it is altogether a nobler thing for a man to be brave and chivalrous than it is to be fashionable; and because he looks forward on his dying day to remembering the human souls that he has saved alive, rather than the pheasants that he has shot dead.’
Now, the husband of Lady Ambrose being known to most present for his magnificent new country house, his immense preserves, and his yacht of four hundred tons that never went out of the Solent, there was naturally some wonder excited by Mr. Herbert’s words, since the thought of any other Sir George never came for an instant into anyone’s head. Lady Ambrose herself was in utter amazement. She could not tell what to make of it, and she was as near looking confused as she had ever been in her life. The awkwardness of the situation was felt by many: and to cover it a hum of conversation sprang up, with forced alacrity. But this did not make matters much better; for in a very short time Mr. Herbert’s voice was again audible, uttering words of no measured denunciation against the great land-owners of England, ‘who were once,’ he said, ‘in some true sense a Nobility, but are now the portentousest Ignobility that the world ever set eyes upon.’ Everyone felt that this was approaching dangerous ground: nor were they at all reassured when Mr. Herbert, who was, it appeared, quoting from a letter which he had received, he said, that morning from the greatest of modern thinkers, concluded amidst a complete silence with the following passage, ‘Yes, here they come, with coats of the newest fashion, with pedigrees of the newest forging, with their moors in Scotland, with their rivers in Norway, with their game preserves in England, with some thousands of human beings calling them masters, somewhere—they probably forget where—and with the mind of a thinking man, or with the heart of a gentleman, nowhere. Here they come, our cotton-spinning plutocrats, bringing in luxury, and vulgarity, and damnation!’
These last words came like a thunderclap. Laurence hardly knew where to look. The result, however, was more satisfactory than could have been expected. There are some emotions, as we all know, that can be calmed best by tears. Lady Ambrose did not cry. She did something better—she laughed.
‘What would poor Sir George say?’ she whispered to Laurence. ‘He is fishing in Norway at this very moment. But do you really think,’ she went on, being resolved not to shirk the subject, ‘that Society is really as bad as Mr. Herbert says? I was looking into the Comte de Grammont’s Memoirs the other day, and I am sure nothing goes on in London now so bad as what he describes.’
‘Do you know, Lady Ambrose,’ said Mr. Herbert, who concluded that he had given her much pleasure by his late remarks, ‘I think the state of London at the present day infinitely worse than anything Grammont or his biographer could have dreamt of.’
‘Quite so,’ said Mr. Luke; ‘the bulk of men in our days are just as immoral as they were in Charles the Second’s; the only difference is that they are incomparably more stupid; and that, instead of decking their immorality with the jewels of wit, they clumsily try to cover it with the tarpaulin of respectability. This has not made the immorality any the better; it has only made respectability the most contemptible word in the English language.’
‘The fop of Charles’s time,’ said Leslie, ‘aimed at seeming a wit and a scholar. The fop of ours aims at being a fool and a dunce.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘society was diseased then, it is true, and marks of disease disfigured and scarred its features. Still, in spite of this, it had some sound life left in it. But now the entire organism is dissolving and falling asunder. All the parts are refusing to perform their functions. How, indeed, could this possibly be otherwise, when the head itself, the aristocracy, the part whose special office is to see and think, has now lost completely both its brains and eyes, and has nothing head-like left it except the mouth; and that cannot so much as speak. It can only eat and yawn.’
‘Society, you see, Mr. Herbert,’ said Lady Ambrose, who felt bound to say something, ‘is so much larger now than it was.’
‘Oh,’ said Laurence, shrugging his shoulders, ‘in that sense, I really think there is almost no society now.’
‘I don’t see how there can be,’ said Miss Merton, ‘when what is called society is simply one great scramble after fashion. And fashion is such a delicate fruit, that it is sure to be spoilt if it is scrambled for.’
‘I am glad,’ said Laurence, ‘you don’t abuse fashion as some people do. I look on it as the complexion of good society, and as the rouge of bad; and when society gets sickly and loses its complexion, it takes to rouge—as it is doing now; and the rouge eats into its whole system, and makes its health worse than ever.’
‘You are the last person, Mr. Laurence,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘you who go out so much, that I should have expected to hear talking against society like that.’
‘Ah!’ said Laurence, ‘we cannot escape from our circumstances: I only wish we could. I go into the best society I can get, but I am not blind to the fact that it is very bad. Of course there are a number of the most delightful people in it: I am not denying that for a moment. But not only is society not made up out of a few of its parts, but even the best parts suffer from the tone of the whole. And taking society as a whole, I honestly doubt if it was ever at any time so generally bad as it is now. I am not saying that it has forgotten its duties—that it cannot even conceive that it ever had any; that is of course quite true: but Mr. Herbert has said that already. I am not complaining of its moral badness, but of its social badness—of its want of practical skill in life as a fine art—a want that it often feels itself, and yet has not the skill to remedy. Think for a moment how barbarous are its amusements; how little culture there is in its general tone; how incapable it is of any enlightened interest!’
‘Really,’ said Mr. Stockton, ‘I think you are doing society a great injustice. It seems to me that enlightened interest is the very thing that is everywhere on the spread. The light of intellect is emerging from the laboratory and the dissecting-room, where it had its birth, and is gilding, with its clear rays, the dinner-table, and even the ball-room. A freer, a truer, and a grander view of things, seems to me to be rapidly dawning on the world.’
‘I fear, my dear sir,’ said Mr. Luke, ‘that these pleasing opinions of yours will not bear testing.’
‘Do you mean,’ said Mr. Stockton, ‘that society as a rule is not infinitely better informed now than it was thirty years ago? Has it not infinitely fewer prejudices and infinitely more knowledge?’
‘We should look to the effects of the knowledge, not to the knowledge itself,’ said Mr. Luke. ‘We cannot test the health of a society from looking over its examination papers in physical science.’
‘How would you test it?’ said Mr. Stockton, with a slight curl of the lip.
‘There are many tests,’ said Mr. Luke. ‘Here is one, amongst the very subjects that Mr. Laurence has ordered us to talk about—art and literature.’
‘I accept the test,’ said Mr. Stockton. ‘What, then, can be nobler than much modern poetry? There is some that I look upon as quite of the highest order.’
‘When I spoke of our literature,’ said Mr. Luke loftily, ‘I was not thinking of poetry. We have no poetry now.’
‘Indeed?’ said Mr. Stockton; ‘I imagined you had written some yourself.’
‘Ah!’ exclaimed Mr. Luke, drawing a long sigh, ‘I once knew what Goethe calls “the divine worth of tone and tears.” But my own poems only prove the truth of what I say. They could only have been written in evil days. They were simply a wail of pain; and now that I am grown braver, I keep silence. Poetry in some ages is an expression of the best strength; in an age like ours it is the disguise of the worst weakness—or, when not that, it is simply a forced plant, an exotic. No, Mr. Stockton, I was not speaking of our poetry, but of the one kind of imaginative literature that is the natural growth of our own day, the novel. Now, the novel itself is a plant which, when it grows abundantly and alone, you may be sure is a sign of a poor soil. But don’t trust to that only. Look at our novels themselves, and see what sort of life it is they image—the trivial interests, the contemptible incidents, the absurdity of the virtuous characters, the viciousness of the characters who are not absurd. Spain was in some ways worse in Cervantes’ time than England is in ours; but you may search all our novels for one character that has one tithe of Don Quixote’s heroism, for one of our sane men that breathed in so healthy and pure an atmosphere as the inspired madman. And this is not from want of ability on the novelist’s part. Some of them have powers enough and to spare; but the best novels only reflect back most clearly the social anarchy, and the bad ones are unconscious parts of it.’
‘And as for our painting,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘that reflects, even more clearly than our literature, our hideous and our hopeless degradation. The other day, when I walked through the Royal Academy, my mind was literally dazzled by the infernal glare of corruption and vulgarity that was flashed upon me from every side. There were, indeed, only two pictures in the whole collection that were not entirely abominable; and these were, one of them three boulders in the island of Sark, the other a study of pebbles on the beach at Ilfracombe.’
‘I know little about the technicalities of art,’ said Mr. Stockton, ‘so I will not presume to dispute this point with you.’
‘Well,’ said Leslie, ‘here is another test quite as good as art and literature—love and money, and their relations in our days.’
He would have continued speaking; but Mr. Herbert allowed him no time.
‘The very things,’ he said, ‘I was about to touch upon—the very things the pictures the other day suggested to me. For, seeing how the work of the painter becomes essentially vile so soon as it becomes essentially venal, I was reminded of the like corruption of what is far more precious than the work of any painter—our own English girls, who are prepared for the modern marriage-market on precisely the same principles as our pictures for the Royal Academy. There is but one difference. The work of the modern painter is vile from its very beginning—in its conception and execution alike; but our girls we receive, in the first instance, entirely fair and sacred from the hands of God himself, clothed upon with a lovelier vesture than any lilies of the field—’
‘Really,’ whispered Lady Ambrose to Laurence, ‘Providence has done so very little for us, as far as vesture goes.’
‘—And we,’ Mr. Herbert went on, ‘with unspeakable profanity presume to dress and to decorate them, till the heavenly vesture is entirely hidden, thinking, like a modern Simon Magus, that the gifts of God are to be purchased for money, and not caring to perceive that, if they are to be purchased with the devil’s money, we must first convert them into the devil’s gifts.’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Sinclair, with a faint smile, ‘the day for love-matches is quite gone over now.’
But her words were drowned by Mr. Saunders, who exclaimed at the top of his voice, and in a state of great excitement, ‘Electric telegraphs—railways—steam printing presses—let me beg of you to consider the very next subject set for us—riches and civilisation—and to judge of the present generation by the light of that.’
‘I have considered them,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘for the last thirty years—and with inexpressible melancholy.’
‘I conceive,’ said Mr. Saunders, ‘that you are somewhat singular in your feelings.’
‘I am,’ replied Mr. Herbert; ‘and that in most of my opinions and feelings I am singular, is a fact fraught for me with the most ominous significance. Yet, how could I—who think that health is more than wealth, and who hold it a more important thing to separate right from wrong than to identify men with monkeys—how could I hope to be anything but singular in a generation that deliberately, and with its eyes open, prefers a cotton-mill to a Titian?’
‘I hold it,’ said Mr. Saunders, ‘to be one of the great triumphs of our day, that it has so subordinated all the vaguer and more lawless sentiments to the solid guidance of sober economical considerations. And not only do I consider a cotton-mill, but I consider even a good sewer, to be a far nobler and a far holier thing—for holy in reality does but mean healthy—than the most admired Madonna ever painted.’
‘A good sewer,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘is, I admit, an entirely holy thing; and would all our manufacturers and men of science bury themselves underground, and confine their attention to making sewers, I, for one, should have little complaint against them.’
‘And are railways, telegraphs, gas-lamps—is the projected Channel tunnel, nothing in your eyes? Is it nothing that all the conditions of life are ameliorated, that mind is daily pursuing farther its conquest over matter?’
‘Have we much to thank you for,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘that you have saved us from an hour of sea-sickness, if in return you give us a whole lifetime of heart-sickness? Your mind, my good sir, that you boast of, is so occupied in subduing matter, that it is entirely forgetful of subduing itself—a matter, trust me, that is far more important. And as for your amelioration of the conditions of life—that is not civilisation which saves a man from the need of exercising any of his powers, but which obliges him to exert his noble powers; not that which satisfies his lower feelings with the greatest ease, but which provides satisfaction for his higher feelings, no matter at what trouble.’
‘Other things being equal,’ said Mr. Saunders, ‘I apprehend that the generation that travels sixty miles an hour is at least five times as civilised as the generation that travels only twelve.’
‘But the other things are not equal,’ said Mr. Herbert: ‘and the other things, by which I suppose you mean all that is really sacred in the life of man, have been banished or buried by the very things which we boast of as our civilisation.’
‘That is our own fault,’ said Mr. Saunders, ‘not the fault of civilisation.’
‘Not so,’ said Mr. Herbert. ‘Bring up a boy to do nothing for himself—make everything easy for him—to use your own expression, subdue matter for him—and that boy will never be able to subdue anything for himself. He will be weak in body, and a coward in soul—’
‘Precisely,’ said Mr. Saunders. ‘And that is really, if you look dispassionately at the matter, a consummation devoutly to be wished. For why do we need our bodies to be strong?—To overcome obstacles. Why do we need to be brave?—To attack enemies. But by and by, when all our work is done by machinery, and we have no longer any obstacles to overcome, or any hardships to endure, strength will become useless, and bravery dangerous. And my own hope is that both will have ere long vanished; and that weakness and cowardice, qualities which we now so irrationally despise, will have vindicated their real value, by turning universal civilisation into universal peace.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘that is exactly what the modern world is longing for—a universal peace; which never can nor will mean anything else than peace with the devil.’
‘Really,’ said Lady Ambrose to Leslie, ‘do you think we are in such a bad way as all this? Dr. Jenkinson, I must ask you—you always know these things—do you think we are so very bad?’
‘Yes—yes,’ said the Doctor, turning towards her with a cheerful smile, ‘there is a great deal that is very bad in our own days— very bad indeed. Many thoughtful people think that there is more that is bad in the present than there has ever been in the past. Many thoughtful people in all days have thought the same.’
‘Whenever wise men,’ said Herbert, ‘have taken to thinking about their own times, it is quite true that they have always thought ill of them. But that is because the times must have gone wrong before the wise men take to the business of thinking about them at all. We are never conscious of our constitutions till they are out of order.’
‘Ah! yes,’ said Mr. Luke; ‘how true that is, Herbert! Philosophy may be a golden thing. But it is the gold of the autumn woods, that soon falls, and leaves the boughs of the nation naked.’
‘Yes,’ said Leslie, ‘leaving nothing but
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.’
‘Thank you, Mr. Leslie,’ exclaimed Mr. Herbert across the table, ‘thank you—an exquisitely apt quotation.’
‘Then you, Mr. Leslie,’ said Lady Ambrose in a disappointed voice, ‘you are one of these desponding people too, are you? I never heard anything so dismal in my life.’
‘I certainly think,’ said Leslie, ‘that our age in some ways could not possibly be worse. Nobody knows what to believe, and most people believe nothing. Don’t you find that?’
‘Indeed I do not,’ said Lady Ambrose, with some vigour, ‘and I am very sorry for those who do. That Mr. Saunders,’ she added, lowering her voice, ‘is the first person I ever heard express such views. We were dining only the other day with the Bishop of ——, and I’ll tell you what he said, Mr. Leslie. He said that the average number of churches built yearly during the last ten years was greater than it had ever been since the Reformation. That does not look as if religion was on the decline, does it? I know the Bishop spoke of a phase of infidelity that was passing over the nation: but that, he said, would soon have drifted by. Indeed, he told us that all the teachings of modern irreligious science were simply reproductions of—you must not laugh at me if I say the names wrong—Epicurus and Democritus—which had been long ago refuted. And that was no peculiar crotchet of his own mind; for a very clever gentleman who was sitting next me said that that was the very thing which all the bishops agreed in saying—almost the only thing indeed in which they did agree.’
‘Ah!’ said Leslie, ‘materialism once came to the world like a small street boy throwing mud at it; and the indignant world very soon drove it away. But it has now come back again, dirtier than ever, bringing a big brother with it, and Heaven knows when we shall get rid of it now.’
‘In every state of transition,’ said Dr. Jenkinson to Miss Merton, ‘there must always be much uneasiness. But I don’t think,’ he said, with a little pleased laugh, ‘that you will find these times really much worse than those that went before them. No—no. If we look at them soberly, they are really a great deal better. We have already got rid of a vast amount of superstition and ignorance, and are learning what Christianity really is. We are learning true reverence—that is, not to dogmatise about subjects of which we cannot possibly know anything.’
‘Just so, Jenkinson,’ said Mr. Luke;’ that is the very thing I am trying to teach the world myself. Personal immortality, for instance, which forms no part of the sweet secret of authentic Christianity—’
‘Yes—yes,’ said the Doctor hastily; ‘the Church had degraded the doctrine. It needed to be expressed anew.’
‘Of course,’ said Miss Merton, ‘I, as a Catholic—’
‘Dear! dear!’ exclaimed the Doctor, in some confusion, ‘I beg your pardon. I had no notion you were a Roman Catholic.’
‘I was going to say,’ Miss Merton went on, ‘that, though of course as a Catholic I am not without what I believe to be an infallible guide, I feel just as much as anyone the bad state in which things are now. It is so difficult to shape one’s course in life. One has nowhere any work cut out for one. There is a want of—well—’ she said, smiling, ‘of what perhaps, when religion has been analysed by science, will be called moral ozone in the air.’
‘Such a feeling is not unnatural,’ said the Doctor; ‘but you will find it vanish if you just resolve cheerfully to go on doing the duty next you—even if this be only to order dinner. And,’ he said, turning to her rather abruptly, ‘don’t despond over the times: that only makes them worse. Besides, they are not really at all bad. There is no need for desponding at all.’
‘But there is at least excuse,’ said Laurence, ‘when we see all the old faiths, the old ideas, under which the world has so long found shelter, fading
Like the baseless fabric of a vision,rapidly and for ever away from us.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said the Doctor, as if that settled the question.
‘Christianity,’ said Mr. Stockton, ‘is only retiring to make way for something better. Religions are not quickened unless they perish. Look forward at the growing brightness of the future, not at the faded brightness of the past.’
‘Why not look at the present?’ said Dr. Jenkinson. ‘Depend upon it, it is not wise to be above one’s times. There’s plenty of religion now. The real power of Christianity is growing every day, even where you least expect it.’
‘In what part of Christianity,’ said Leslie, ‘its real power lies, it would be unbecoming in me to profess that I know. But this I do know, that if you take four out of five of the more thoughtful and instructed men of the day, you will find that not only have they no faith in a personal God or a personal immortality, but the very notions of such things seem to them absurdities.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘it was once thought a characteristic of the lowest savages to be without a belief in a future life. It will soon be thought a characteristic of the lowest savages to be with one.’
‘Really now—’ said Mr. Luke, in a voice whose tone seemed to beseech everyone to be sensible, ‘personal immortality and a personal Deity are no doctrines of Christianity. You, Jenkinson, I know agree with me.’
There was nothing the Doctor so disliked as these appeals from Mr. Luke. He made in this case no response whatever. He turned instead to Miss Merton.
‘You see,’ he said to her in a very quiet but very judicial way, ‘the age we live in is an age of change. And in all such ages there must be many things that, if we let them, will pain and puzzle us. But we mustn’t let them. There have been many ages of change before our time, and there are sure to be many after it. Our age is not peculiar.’
Here he paused, as he had a way of doing at times between his sentences. This practice now, as it had often been before, was of a disservice to him; for it gave a fatal facility for interruption when he could least have wished it. In this case Leslie entirely put him out, by attacking the very statement which the Doctor least of all had designed to bear question.
‘But in some ways,’ said Leslie, ‘this age is peculiar, surely. It is peculiar in the extraordinary rapidity of its changes. Christianity took three hundred years to supplant polytheism; atheism has hardly taken thirty to supplant Christianity.’ Dr. Jenkinson did not deign to take the least notice of this.
‘I suppose,’ said Miss Merton to Leslie, ‘that you think Catholicism quite a thing of the past?’
‘I’m afraid,’ said Leslie, ‘that my opinion on that is of very small importance. But, however that may be, you must admit that in the views of the world at large there have been great changes; and these, I say, have come on us with so astonishing a quickness that they have plunged us into a state of mental anarchy that has not been equalled since mental order has been known. There is no recognised rule of life any where. The old rules only satisfy those who are not capable of feeling the need of any rule at all. Every one who does right at all only does what is right in his own eyes. All society, it seems, is going to pieces.’
‘I,’ said Mr. Rose, ‘look upon social dissolution as the true condition of the most perfect life. For the centre of life is the individual, and it is only through dissolution that the individual can re-emerge. All the warrings of endless doubts, all the questionings of matter and of spirit, which I have myself known, I value only because, remembering the weariness of them, I take a profounder and more exquisite pleasure in the colour of a crocus, the pulsations of a chord of music, or a picture of Sandro Botticelli’s.’
Mr. Rose’s words hardly produced all the effect he could have wished; for the last part was almost drowned in the general rustle of the ladies rising.
‘Before we go, Mr. Laurence,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘will you be good enough to tell me the history of these salt-cellars? I wanted to have asked you at the beginning of dinner, but you made yourself so very appalling then, that I really did not venture.’
‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘no doubt they surprise you. They were a present made to me the other day by a friend of mine—an eminent man of science, and are models of a peculiar kind of retort he has invented, for burning human bodies, and turning them into gas.’
‘Good gracious!’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘how horrible! I insist, Mr. Laurence, on your having another set to-morrow night—remember.’
‘There,’ said Laurence, when the gentlemen had resettled themselves, and had begun their wine, ‘there is the new version of the skeleton at the banquet-board—the two handfuls of white dust, to which we, the salt of the earth, shall one day crumble. Let us sacrifice all the bulls we have to Pluto illacrimabilis—let us sacrifice ourselves to one another, or to Heaven—to this favour must we come. Is not that so, Mr. Storks?’
‘Laurence,’ said Dr. Jenkinson briskly, ‘the conversation hasn’t kept pace with the dinner. We have got no farther than “The Present” yet. The ladies are going to talk of “The Future” by themselves. See— there they are out on the terrace.’
Mr. Storks here drew his chair to the table, and cleared his throat.
‘It is easier,’ he said, ‘to talk about the present now we are alone—now they,’ he nodded his head in the direction of the party outside, ‘are gone out to talk about the future in the moonlight. There are many things which even yet it does not do to say before women—at least, before all women.’
‘My aunt,’ said Laurence, ‘is a great authority on woman’s education and true position; and she has written an essay to advance the female cause.’
‘Indeed?’ said Mr. Storks; ‘I was not aware of that. I shall look forward with much pleasure to some conversation with her. But what I was going to say related to the present, which at dinner was on all sides so mercilessly run down. I was going to claim for the present age, in thought and speculation (and it is these that give their tone to its entire conduct of life), as its noble and peculiar feature, a universal, intrepid, dogged resolve to find out and face the complete truth of things, and to allow no prejudice, however dear to us, to obscure our vision. This is the only real morality: and not only is it full of blessing for the future, but it is giving us “manifold more in this present time” as well. The work of science, you see, is twofold; it enlarges the horizon of the mind, and improves the conditions of the body. If you will pardon my saying so, Mr. Herbert, I think your antipathy to science must be clue to your not having fully appreciated its true work and dignity.’
‘The work of science is, I know, twofold,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘speculative and practical.’
‘Exactly so,’ said Mr. Storks approvingly.
‘And all it can do for us in speculation,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘is to teach us that we have no life hereafter: all it can do for us in practice, is to ruin our life here. It enervates us by providing us with base luxury; it degrades us by turning our attention to base knowledge.’
‘No—no,’ said Dr. Jenkinson, with one of his little laughs, ‘not that. I don’t think, Mr. Storks, that Mr. Herbert always quite means what he says. We mustn’t take him at his word.’
‘My dear sir,’ said Mr. Herbert, turning to the Doctor, ‘you are a consecrated priest of the mystical Church of Christ’—Dr. Jenkinson winced terribly at this—‘and let me ask you if you think it the work of Christ to bring into men’s minds eternal corruption, instead of eternal life—or, rather, not corruption, I should say, but putrefaction. For what is putrefaction but decomposition? And at the touch of science all our noblest ideas decompose and putrefy, till our whole souls are strewn with dead hopes and dead religions, with corpses of all the thoughts we loved
Quickening slowly into lower forms.You may call it analysis, but I call it death.’
‘I wish we could persuade you,’ said Mr. Stockton, very temperately, ‘to take a fairer view of things. Surely truth cannot in the long run be anything but life-giving.’
‘Let us take care of facts,’ said Mr. Storks, ‘and fictions—I beg your pardon, religion—will take care of itself.’
‘And religion,’ said Mr. Stockton, ‘will take care of itself very well. Of course we don’t waste time now in thinking about personal immortality. We shall not live; but the mind of man will; and religion will live too, being part of the mind of man. Religion is, indeed, to the inner world what the sky is to the outer. It is the mind’s canopy—the infinite mental azure in which the mysterious source of our being is at once revealed and hidden. Let us beware, then, of not considering religion noble; but let us beware still more of considering it true. We may fancy that we trace in the clouds shapes of real things; and, as long as we know that this is only fancy, I know of no holier occupation for the human mind than such cloud-gazing. But let us always recollect that the cloud which to us may seem shaped like a son of man, may seem to another to be backed like a weasel, and to another to be very like a whale. What, then,’ Mr. Stockton added, ‘can be a nobler study than the great book of Nature, or, as we used to call it, the works of God?’
‘Pray do not think,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘that I complain of this generation because it studies Nature. I complain of it because it does not study her. Yes,’ he went on, as he saw Mr. Stockton start, ‘you can analyse her in your test tubes, you can spy at her through your microscopes; but can you see her with your own eyes, or receive her into your own souls? You can tell us what she makes her wonders of, and how she makes them, and how long she takes about it. But you cannot tell us what these wonders are like when they are made. When God said, “Let there be light, and light was, and God saw that it was good,” was he thinking, as he saw this, of the exact velocity it travelled at, and of the exact laws it travelled by, which you wise men are at such infinite pains to discover; or was he thinking of something else, which you take no pains to discover at all—of how it clothed the wings of the morning with silver, and the feathers of the evening with gold? Is water, think you, a nobler thing to the modern chemist, who can tell you exactly what gases it is made of, and nothing more; or to Turner, who could not tell you at all what it is made of, but who did know and who could tell you what it is made—what it is made by the sunshine, and the cloud-shadow, and the storm-wind—who knew how it paused in the taintless mountain trout-pool, a living crystal over stones of flickering amber; and how it broke itself turbid, with its choirs of turbulent thunder, when the rocks card it into foam, and where the tempest sifts it into spray? When Pindar called water the best of things, was he thinking of it as the union of oxygen and hydrogen—’
‘He would have been much wiser if he had been,’ interposed Dr. Jenkinson. ‘Thales, to whose theory, as you know, Pindar was referring—’ But the Doctor’s words were utterly unavailing to check the torrent of Mr. Herbert’s eloquence. They only turned it into a slightly different course.
‘Ah! masters of modern science,’ he went on, ‘you can tell us what pure water is made of; but, thanks to your drains and your mills, you cannot tell us where to find it. You can, no doubt, explain to us all about sunsets; but the smoke of your towns and your factories has made it impossible for us to see one. However, each generation is wise in its own wisdom; and ours would sooner look at a fœtus in a bottle, than at a statue of the god Apollo, from the hand of Phidias, and in the air of Athens.’
During all this speech Mr. Storks had remained with his face buried in his hands, every now and then drawing in his breath through his teeth, as if he were in pain. When it was over he looked up with a scared expression, as if he hardly knew where he was, and seemed quite unable to utter a syllable.
‘Of course,’ said Mr. Stockton, ‘mere science, as science, does not deal with moral right and wrong.’
‘No,’ said Mr. Saunders, ‘for it has shown that right and wrong are terms of a bygone age, connoting altogether false ideas. Mere automata as science shows we are—clockwork machines, wound up by meat and drink—’
‘As for that,’ broke in Mr. Storks, who had by this time recovered himself—and his weighty voice at once silenced Mr. Saunders, ‘I would advise our young friend not to be too confident. We may be automata, or we may not. Science has not yet decided. And upon my word,’ he said, striking the table, ‘I don’t myself care which we are. Supposing the Deity—if there be one—should offer to make me a machine, if I am not one, on condition that I should always go right, I, for one, would gladly close with the proposal.’
‘But you forget,’ said Allen, ‘that in the moral sense there would be no going right at all, if there were not also the possibility of going wrong. If your watch keeps good time you don’t call it virtuous, nor if it keeps bad time do you call it sinful.’
‘Sin, Lord Allen,’ said Mr. Storks, ‘is a word that has helped to retard moral and social progress more than anything. Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so; and the superstitious and morbid way in which a number of entirely innocent things have been banned as sin, has caused more than half the tragedies of the world. Science will establish an entirely new basis of morality; and the sunlight of rational approbation will shine on many a thing, hitherto overshadowed by the curse of a hypothetical God.’
‘Exactly so,’ exclaimed Mr. Saunders eagerly. ‘Now, I’m not at all that sort of man myself,’ he went on, ‘so don’t think it because I say this.’
Everyone stared at Mr. Saunders in wonder as to what he could mean.
‘We think it, for instance,’ he said, ‘a very sad thing when a girl is as we call it ruined. But it is we really that make all the sadness. She is ruined only because we think she is so. And I have little doubt that that higher philosophy of the future that Mr. Storks speaks of will go far, some day, towards solving the great question of women’s sphere of action, by its recognition of prostitution as an honourable and beneficent profession.’
‘Sir!’ exclaimed Mr. Storks, striking the table, and glaring with indignation at Mr. Saunders, ‘I could hardly have believed that such misplaced flippancy—’
‘Flippancy! it is reasoned truth,’ shrieked Mr. Saunders, upsetting his wine-glass. Luckily this brought about a pause. Laurence took advantage of it.
‘See,’ he said, ‘Dr. Jenkinson has left us. Will no one have any more wine?—Then suppose we follow him.’
1 Vide J. S. Mill’s Autobiography.