The blinds were half-down at luncheon in the dining-room, to keep out the brilliant summer sun. The guests dropped in by ones and twos, somewhat tired and exhausted by the divine service of the morning; and the sight of the table was not a little refreshing to them, as it shone whitely in the soft gloom, with its flowers and ferns, and its day-lit glimmer of glass and silver. Soon, however, a piece of news was circulated that was even more refreshing than the luncheon. Dr. Jenkinson, owing to his late exertions, and the gas-light, and the draughts upon the stage, was suffering from a headache, which inclined him to keep his room; and accordingly an unhopedfor prospect of freely discussing the sermon dawned brightly upon the whole party.
Mr. Stockton, who had been much struck with the strictly prosaic style of Dr. Jenkinson’s discourse, and who had been secretly contrasting this with the more impassioned character of his own mind, was the first to begin.
‘The sermon was perhaps ingenious,’ he said, turning to Lady Ambrose, ‘but I’m afraid our friend’s forte is certainly not poetry.’
‘Surely,’ said Donald Gordon with extreme solemnity of manner and only a slight twinkle in his eye, ‘his forte is something far better. Poetry can only make us happy for a little while. Such doctrines as we have heard this morning ought to make us happy always.’
As for Lady Ambrose, to whom both these remarks were addressed, she was in doubt what altogether to think of the matter. More than half her heart inclined her to look upon Dr. Jenkinson as a valuable ally; but there was yet, all the while, a fatal something that whispered to her a vague distrust of him. She was therefore waiting anxiously to hear what would be said by others, before taking any side herself; her mind all the while being busy with the profoundest questions. This suspense of judgment produced a certain gravity and depression in her, which was visible on her face, and which seemed to communicate itself to nearly everyone at her end of the table. For Lady Ambrose was a communicative woman. Her spirits, good or bad, were generally caught by those near her. As for Mr. Herbert, however, no one else seemed needed to depress him. Low, slow, and melancholy, his accents at once caught the ear of Lady Ambrose.
‘I have heard to-day,’ he said to Mrs. Sinclair, who was sitting next him, ‘an entirely new and in every way memorable doctrine, which I never heard before from the mouth of man, woman, or child; nor can I tell by what steps any human being could have arrived at it. I have heard that the world—the world as it is—could not be better than it is; that there is no real sorrow in it— no real evil—no real sin.’
‘Poor Dr. Jenkinson!’ said Mrs. Sinclair, also in a melancholy voice; ‘I suppose he has never loved.’
‘Ah,’ exclaimed Mr. Stockton,—his voice was melancholy as well—‘the whole teachings of that school have always seemed to me nothing more than a few fragments of science imperfectly understood, obscured by a few fragments of Christianity imperfectly remembered.’
‘You forget,’ said Leslie, ‘that Dr. Jenkinson’s Christianity is really a new firm trading under an old name, and trying to purchase the goodwill of the former establishment.’
Lady Ambrose, who had not liked Leslie so much on further acquaintance as she had at first expected she should, was very indignant at him for so flippant a speech as this—she felt sure it was flippant, though she did not quite understand its meaning—but once again Mr. Herbert’s grave accents arrested her.
‘It is simply,’ he was saying to Mrs. Sinclair, evidently alluding to the same subject—‘it is simply our modern atheism trying to hide its own nakedness, for the benefit of the more prudish part of the public, in the cast grave-clothes of a Christ who, whether he be risen or no, is very certainly, as the angel said, not here.’
‘All discussion of such matters seems to me but a diseased activity,’ said Mr. Rose, raising languidly a white deprecating hand.
Mr. Storks too, though for different reasons, was apparently of the same opinion.
‘In his main points,’ he said with a severe dogmatism that seemed designed to end all further controversy, ‘and putting aside his quasi-religious manner of expressing it—which considering his position may be pardoned—I conceive Dr. Jenkinson to have been entirely right.’
Hitherto Lady Ambrose’s views had been wavering to and fro, in a sad uncertainty. But now her mind at once cleared. Her worst suspicions of the Doctor were confirmed by this fatal commendation. The gloom on her face deepened, and she had a look almost of distress about her as she turned to Laurence.
‘You look tired,’ he said to her.
‘No,’ said Lady Ambrose wearily: ‘at least, perhaps I am a little. Do you know, I always think one feels rather dull if one doesn’t get the letters one expects.’
‘Perhaps you don’t know,’ said Laurence, ‘that the letters you got this morning were only those of last night’s post. Our Sunday letters we are obliged to send for, and they don’t generally come till later on in the day.’
‘Really!’ exclaimed Lady Ambrose, with surprise, as a smile slowly spread over her face, and her frank eyes lit up again. ‘The Duchess couldn’t have forgotten it,’ she said to herself half-consciously. Strangely enough, a new warmth, it seemed, had dawned upon her, and her ice-bound gloom began to thaw—to thaw only, however, not to evaporate. It did not go; it only became voluble.
‘Do you know, Mr. Laurence,’ she began, ‘I have been thinking over and over again about many of the things that were said last night; and I really am afraid that the world is getting very bad. It is very sad to think so; but, with all this infidelity and wickedness of which we hear so much, I’m afraid it is true. For my own part, you know, there is nothing I dislike so much as to hear the Bible profanely spoken about; though, of course, I know one is tempted sometimes to make jokes out of it oneself. And then,’ Lady Ambrose added—her ideas did not always follow one another in the strictest order—‘hardly a week passes without some new scandal. I had a letter only this morning, telling me all the particulars about Colonel Eardly and poor Lady Arthur. And that man, you know—just fancy it!—it will not be very long before we shall be obliged to receive him again. However,’ said Lady Ambrose, with a slightly more cheerful accent, ‘that sort of thing, I believe, is confined to us. The middle classes are all right—at least, one always hears so.’
At this moment Lord Allen’s voice was heard.
‘But now,’ Lady Ambrose went on to Laurence, very slightly moving her head in the direction of Lord Allen, and speaking in a low tone, ‘how different he is!’
Lady Ambrose had the greatest admiration for Lord Allen, though her acquaintance with him had hitherto been of the slightest; and Laurence, not knowing how to respond to all her late remarks, was glad that her attention was thus called elsewhere.
‘Don’t you think,’ Allen was saying, half addressing himself to Mr. Herbert, half to Mr. Luke, ‘that though at the present moment things as they are may be worse than they have ever been before, there are yet ideas amongst us of things as they might be, that are in advance of what has ever been before? I know quite well how society is falling to pieces, and how all our notions of duty are becoming confused or lost. I know too how utterly without any religion we are’—(Lady Ambrose started)— ‘at least, any religion that one man can express to another, and that can enable men to act in concert. But still, I can’t help feeling that, in spite of all this, a higher class of conceptions both of religion and morality, and social relations also, is forming itself in the minds of thinking men.’
‘Perfectly true, Lord Allen,’ said Mr. Luke, ‘perfectly true! It is indeed the very essence of the cultured classes to be beyond their time—to have, indeed, every requisite for making everything better, except the practical power. As you say, what man’s life ought to be—what true morality is—what is true sense, and what is true nonsense—these are matters never at any time distinguished so truly as by some of us in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Only, unfortunately,’ said Mr. Luke, sighing slowly, and looking round the table, ‘the dense ignorance of the world at large hampers and hinders such men as these, so that all that their teaching and their insight can do, is only to suggest a Utopia in the future, instead of leading to any reality in the present.’
‘All my happiness is in a kind of Utopia,’ sighed Mrs. Sinclair.
‘Yes—yes,’ said Mr. Luke wearily; ‘so in these days must be the happiness of all of us—except that of the world at large.’
Mr. Storks was here heard clearing his throat. With an ominous pugilistic smile he turned towards Mr. Luke.
‘Are you quite sure,’ he said, ‘that the reason why your friends do nothing practical is not because they will build Utopias? I, as I have already said, entirely hold with Dr. Jenkinson that the world is as good as it can be—has, indeed, been always as good as it could have been—has, that is, been always persistently progressing by one constant course of evolution. I don’t myself profess to be a student of history; but, as far as I at all understand its teachings, the one thing it most clearly shows to us is, that what strikes a superficial observer as simply the decadence of old orders of things, is really, under the surface, the birth of the new. Indeed,’ said Mr. Storks, shrugging his shoulders, ‘of course it must be so. We are all part of Nature; and, little as we think it, we are all working together by invincible and inviolable laws. Nature will have her own way; and those who have studied her carefully know that her way is always the best. Even supposing we could transplant ourselves into some different, some more advanced state of society, my dear sir, do you think we should be any happier there? As much happier, I suppose, as you or I should be if we were translated into the heaven our nurses used to tell us of, where nothing was done but to sing Tate and Brady’s psalms with the angels to all eternity. The air of our own age is the only air fit for us. In any other we should languish.’
‘I languish in this,’ said Mr. Luke, looking up to the ceiling.
Scarcely were the words out of his mouth than Mr. Saunders exclaimed, in his most excited and shrillest voice, ‘I deny it—I entirely deny it!’
Mr. Luke was thunderstruck. Even Mr. Storks was taken aback by the audacity of the contradiction; and as for the rest of the company, they could not conceive where on earth Mr. Saunders had left his manners. Mr. Storks, however, was still more astonished, and still less pleased, when he discovered, as Mr. Saunders proceeded, what was the real meaning of his speech.
‘I entirely deny,’ Mr. Saunders went on, ‘that the ways of Nature are the best ways. The belief that they are so is of all faiths the one that most obviously contradicts experience. Did I accept this, I could accept anything—Transubstantiation even. I should literally feel that I had no right to condemn any doctrine because it was groundless, gratuitous, and absurd. This faith in the goodness of Nature—why, that it is a faith, is not that enough to condemn it? What but faith, let me ask, has enslaved and stunted the world hitherto? And this particular faith, I would remind you, which you flatter yourself will oppose religion, has been in most cases its child, and is always ready to be its parent. I on the contrary maintain that, far from being the best, Nature is the most odious of things —that the whole universe is constructed on the most hateful principles; in fact, that out of the primordial atoms only one thing has developed itself in which the good outweighs the evil; and that is the one thing that is usually opposed to Nature—man, and the reason of man.’
Mr. Storks turned sharply round, and, with an awful look in his eyes of contemptuous indignation, stared Mr. Saunders into silence. He held him fixed in this way for a few moments, and then said to him in a voice of grim unconcern, ‘May I trouble you for the mustard.’ Then again turning to Mr. Luke, ‘You see,’ he proceeded, ‘what I take to be civilisation—indeed, the whole duty of man— is the gradual self-adaptation of the human organism to its environment—an adaptation which must take place, and any attempts to hinder which are simply neither more nor less than disease. Progress, which it is our highest life to further, is a thing that will continue despite the opposition of individuals. Its tendencies are beyond the control of individuals, and are to be sought in the spirit of the age at large,—not—if you will forgive me the word—in the crotchets of this or that thinker. And it seems to me to be the hopeful and distinguishing feature of the present day, that men are learning generally to recognise this truth—that they are learning not to cry out against progress, but to investigate its grand and inevitable laws, and submit themselves willingly to them. And the tendency of our own day is, I am proud to say, a tendency towards firm, solid, verifiable knowledge, and as a result of this, towards the acquisition of a firm and solid happiness also.’
‘To me,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘it seems rather that the only hope for the present age lies in the possibility of some individual wiser than the rest getting the necessary power, and in the most arbitrary way possible putting a stop to this progress—utterly stamping out and obliterating every general tendency peculiar to our own time. Mr. Storks will perhaps think me very foolish. Perhaps I am. I freely own that I could more easily tell a good action, if I saw it, than a good piece of protoplasm, and that I think the understanding of a holy moral law, by which an individual may live, of infinitely more importance than the discovery of all the laws of progress in the world. But let Mr. Storks despise me, and not be angry with me—’
‘My dear sir,’ interposed Mr. Storks, with a gruff courtesy, ‘why should I do either the one or the other?’
‘Because,’ said Mr. Herbert, slightly waving his hand, and speaking with great emphasis, ‘had I only the power, I would myself put a forcible stop to all this evolution. I would make a clean sweep of all the improvements that the present day so much vaunts. I would collect an army of strong, serviceable, honest workmen, and send them to blow up Manchester, and Birmingham, and Liverpool, and Leeds, and Wolverhampton—’
‘And all the artisans in them?’ asked Mr. Storks.
‘Well,’ said Mr. Herbert, smiling, ‘I would, perhaps, give the artisans notice of this gunpowder plot of mine. And yet their existence has always presented a painful difficulty to me. For if there is no other life, I think they have a very bad time of it here; and if there is another life, I think that they will all certainly be damned. But it is not only Manchester and Birmingham that I would blow up. I would blow up also every anatomical museum in the land, save such as were absolutely necessary for the use of professional doctors, that the foul sights in them should not taint men’s imaginations, and give them an appetite for beastly knowledge. I would destroy every railway, and nearly every steam-engine; and I would do a number of other things of a like sort, by way of preparing the ground for a better state of society. Indeed, so far am I from believing that an entirely different and better state of society is unthinkable, that I believe it to be not impracticable; and I am at the present moment collecting money, from such as will here and there confide in me, for the purpose of purchasing land, and of founding a community upon what seem to me to be true and healthful principles—a Utopia, in fact—in which I trust may be once again realised upon earth those two things to which we are now such strangers—order and justice.’
‘I once began a book about justice,’ said Laurence, ‘on the model of Plato’s Republic.’
‘What is Plato’s Republic?’ said Lady Ambrose. ‘Tell me.’
‘It is a book,’ said Laurence, ‘which describes the meeting of a party of friends, who fell discussing high topics just as we are doing, and, amongst others, What is justice?’
‘What!’ exclaimed Lady Ambrose. ‘Did not they know that?’
‘You forget,’ said Laurence,’ that this was very long ago.’
‘To be sure,’ said Lady Ambrose; ‘and they were of course all heathens. Well— and what conclusions did they come to as to the nature of justice?’
‘At first,’ said Laurence,’ though Socrates himself was amongst them, they were all completely at a loss how to define it. But at last they hit upon the notion of constructing an ideal perfect state, in which of course justice would be lurking somewhere. Now there are in life, Plato says, four great virtues— wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice; and no sooner has the ideal state been constructed, than it appears that three of these virtues are specially illustrated and embodied, each in a particular class of citizens. Thus, wisdom is specially embodied in the theoretical politicians and religious speculators of the day; courage is embodied in the practical men who maintain and execute the regulations and orders of the philosophers; and temperance is embodied in the commercial and industrial classes, who loyally submit themselves to their betters, and refrain from meddling in matters that are too high for them. And now, where is justice? In what class is that embodied specially?’
‘In the judges and the magistrates and the policemen,’ said Lady Ambrose.
‘No,’ said Laurence; ‘it is peculiar to no class. It resides in all. It is that virtue which enables the others to exist and to continue.’
‘But surely,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘all that is not what we mean by justice now?’
‘Certainly not,’ said Laurence; ‘and my book was designed to investigate what justice is, as it exists now. I, like Plato, constructed a state, making it, however, a real rather than an ideal picture. But when I had done this, I could find no earnest thinking class to represent wisdom; no class of practical politicians that would carry out even the little wisdom they knew, and so represent courage; and certainly no commercial or industrial class that would refrain for a single day from meddling in matters that were too high for them, and so represent temperance. So I analysed life in a somewhat different way. I divided it into happiness, misery, and justice. I then at once discovered that the rich represented all the happiness of which we are now capable, and the poor all the misery; and that justice was that which set this state of things going and enabled it to continue.’
‘Ah, Laurence,’ exclaimed Mr. Herbert, clapping his hands gently in sad applause, ‘I like that. I wish you had worked out this idea more fully.’
‘Suppose,’ exclaimed Leslie, ‘that we try this afternoon to construct a Utopia ourselves. Let us embody our notions of life as it ought to be in a new Republic.’
‘Well,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘I am not a Conservative; I don’t object. I’m sure at any rate that there is much we could all of us alter, if we only had our own way.’
‘Much,’ said Lady Grace, with severe briskness.
‘Much,’ said Miss Merton, with a soft, half-serious smile.
‘Much,’ said Lord Allen, catching eagerly at the idea.
‘Well, then,’ said Laurence, ‘let us all do our best to give those airy somethings, our aspirations, a local habitation and a name.’
The majority of the company took very kindly to the proposal. Lady Grace was especially pleased, as it seemed to provide at once a whole afternoon’s occupation for the party; and it was arranged accordingly that as soon as luncheon was over they should adjourn for castle-building to a shady spot in the garden.