ONCE more the theatre was brightly lighted; and once more the congregation was assembled in the tier of boxes. There was not so much excitement as there had been in the morning; indeed, the reserved decorum that reigned might have been said to partake almost of the nature of apathy. When, however, Dr. Seydon entered, none could deny that he did indeed look a reverend man; and the very aspect of the place seemed to grow devotional at his presence. Lady Ambrose perceived with a full heart that he was duly habited in a surplice; and her bosom warmed with a sense of safety and of comfort as he took his place and solemnly produced his prayer-book. Nor was Lady Ambrose alone in this sudden stir of feeling. There was another of the worshippers who was moved even more strongly, though in a slightly different way. Many starts had been given on the stage in that theatre; but none of these, it may be safely said, ever equalled one now given in the boxes, as Dr. Jenkinson, who had been kneeling with his face hid in his hands, raised his eyes, and saw for the first time who it was confronting him—no obscure rural clergyman, as he had anticipated, but that illiberal apologist of superstition, whose officious bigotry had robbed the Upper House of its most enlightened spiritual peer. Dr. Jenkinson, however, with the heroism of a true martyr, suffered bravely for his faith in the comprehensiveness of Christianity. His face assumed, in another moment, an expression of cherubic suavity; in his gentlest and devoutest tones he was soon taking his part in the whole service, and that too with such an exquisite clearness of articulation, that, amongst the confused murmurs of the rest, the entire evening office sounded like a duet between him and Dr. Seydon. It is true that there was something in the ring of this one audible voice that gave the latter a sense of something being wrong somewhere; but luckily, being a little shortsighted, he could not recognise the owner of it; and Dr. Jenkinson, feeling no manner of call to endure the sermon, retired furtively as soon as the prayers were over.
‘Weren’t they read beautifully!’ said Lady Ambrose to Lady Grace in a whisper. ‘Oh, how glad I shall be to hear him preach once again!’ she added, as Dr. Seydon, having risen from his knees, retired, his hands clasped before him, through the side door. Lady Ambrose, however, was entirely alone in this gladness. Most of the others dreaded the sermon that was imminent, and some even meditated following Dr. Jenkinson. But events were too quick for them. Hardly, it seemed, had Dr. Seydon left the stalls, than the curtain drew rapidly up, and displayed again the gorge in the Indian Caucasus, only with a preacher in it very different from the one who had stood there in the morning. The whole congregation gave a sudden gasp of surprise. It was not Dr. Seydon that they saw. It was Mr. Herbert.
With a gracious gravity he advanced towards the footlights; and made a slight bow to the house—a bow of deprecation and apology.
‘A little while ago, in the garden,’ he said, ‘I confessed to our kind host, Mr. Laurence, that there were a few things that I should like quietly to say to you; and Mr. Laurence has become sponsor for you all, and has promised, in your names, that you would suffer me to say them here. It is true,’ Mr. Herbert went on, with a smile and a wave of his hand, ‘that when I look round me at this glittering semicircle, I begin to feel not a little shy of you, and to repent of my own temerity. You, however, have given me to-day so much good food for reflection, that I feel bound, in the commonest honesty, to make what poor return I can. So remember, that if I weary you, you have really brought it upon yourselves.
‘Well—to begin, then. You think me—you need not deny it, for I know you think me—a somewhat crotchety and melancholy individual, averse to modern knowledge and to modern progress, and seeing, as a rule, everything very yellow indeed, with his jaundiced eyes. But I think myself that I am not by any means so obstinate and so wrong-headed as I am quite aware that I appear to you; nay, my own opinion is that I err, rather, in not being quite obstinate enough. It is true that I have persistently pointed out that England is at present given over wholly to ignoble pursuits, and is ruining herself with deadly industries. But I have never said hitherto, so far as I know, that we might not rally, and that a brighter future might not be in store for us. Nay, I hailed a piece of news to-day with the most unfeigned delight, which seemed an omen to me that such a brighter future actually was in store for us. In a paper that reached me this afternoon there was a letter on the prospects of the English iron trade; and I read in that letter that nineteen foundries in Middlesborough have been closed within the last three months, and the Moloch fires in their blast-furnaces extinguished; that ten more foundries in the same place are scarcely able to continue work, and must very shortly be closed likewise; and that the dense smoke-cloud that so long has darkened that whole country is beginning to clear away, and will open ere long upon astonished human eyes, that have never yet beheld it, the liquid melted blue of the deep wells of the sky. It is quite true that this indication of a reviving prosperity for our country suggests more than it proves. But at any rate it put me this afternoon, when I joined your party, into quite a right and hopeful mood for appreciating your conceptions of a better order of things. It is in fact simply to explain my appreciation that I am, in this most unconscionable way, now detaining you.
‘Let me say in the first place, then, how profoundly right I consider the manner in which you set to work. For it is one of the most vital of all truths, that in a perfect state all the parts will be perfect; and that if the highest classes be as good as they can be, so also will be all the other classes. And I want to tell you, in the next place, how entirely fair and lovely did all the elements seem to be, out of which you composed for your higher classes their ideal existence. For you gave them every outward grace that could adorn life, and every inward taste and emotion that could enrich it, and every species of intellectual activity that could stimulate it. Your society was indeed to be truly the crème de la crème: it was to be made beautiful, and profound, and brilliant, by lovers, and theologians, and wits, and men of science, and poets, and philosophers, and humourists—all men and women of the world, and fit to live in society, as well as to educate it. This would indeed be, as was said at dinner, Rome and Athens and Florence, at their best, and let me add Paris also, united and reanimated, and enriched by the possession of yet wider knowledge, and the possibilities of freer speculation. That truly is a dazzling picture. But even that is not all. There was your city itself too, of which a lovely glimpse was given us, with its groves, its gardens, its palaces, and its exquisite reproductions of the world’s noblest architectures; and all this under our softest English skies, and by our bluest English seas. Ah,’ exclaimed Mr. Herbert, smiling, and clasping his hands gently, ‘how I should like to live in a city like that! I can literally see it now with my mind’s eye, whilst I am talking. I see its private houses with their wonders of wrought marble; I see its theatres, its museums, its chapels and churches of all denominations, its scientific lecture rooms, and its convents. For what strikes me more forcibly than anything is that all forms of faith and philosophy seem to find here an impartial home, and to unite in animating one harmonious social life. In fact, so vividly do I see this scene which your words have called up before me, that I want very much, if you will let me, to acid one small feature to it, myself. It is a very humble detail, this of mine. In the eyes of the men of science, who lead modern thought, it is simply a sanitary matter. It relates to the way in which you shall dispose of your dead. Now in this, at least, you will be surprised to hear I quite keep pace with the times, being a sincere advocate for cremation; and what I should want to do in your city, would be to supply it with an establishment, hidden underground, where the bodies of the dead should be turned into gas, in properly devised retorts; the gas from each body being received in a small separate gasometer. Above these gasworks, and amongst your fair towers and spires, and your superb institutions, and art-galleries, I would build a circular domed temple of umbred marble, blind and blank upon the face of it, without carved work, and without window; only there should be written above the portal, not as in Dante’s vision,
Per me si va nell’ eterno dolore,but one verse out of our English translation of the Bible, for women and little children to read; and another verse out of a Latin poet, which is, I believe, an equivalent for the original of that translation, for men and scholars to read. The first should be, “Though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” And the other:
Per me si va tra la perduta gente—
Quæris quo jaceas post obitum loco?And within, around the dark walls, should be a number of separate shrines, like—to use the simile that Dante would have chosen—the stalls in a great stable; and to each shrine there should be a separate gas-jet. And when the life of any was over, after the fire had done its work upon the dead body, that man or woman who felt most bitterly the loss of the one that had been, should repair to this temple, to an appointed shrine, and there, in silence kneeling before it, should light the gas-jet; and thus evoking for the last time that which was once so loved and loving, pass, with what thoughts might be, a brief vigil before it, till its flicker grew slowly faint upon the watcher’s face, and at length it went out and ended utterly and for ever. And above, over these sanctuaries of bereavement and final leave-taking, there should hang from the domed roof one rude iron lamp, always burning—casting a pale flare upwards upon the darkness. This would be the common lamp of the poor, for whose sake, dying, no one felt bereavement, or whom no one at any rate could find time to say good-bye to; but who thus united together, apart by themselves, would do all that would be at all seemly in them—would remind you mutely and unobtrusively by their joint light, that one thing at least they shared with you, namely death. It is not of the poor, however, that I am mainly thinking now. It is of your higher classes, who have leisure to feel sorrow and all its holy influences. And these, I say, would find in this simple funeral service one that would meet all their diverse needs, and be in tune with all their diverse feelings. It would suit all. For to some it would symbolise an absolute disbelief in any life beyond; and to all the rest it would symbolise a bewildered doubt about any life beyond. For in one or other of these states of mind everyone would be.
Quo non nata jacent.
‘Do you deny it?’ exclaimed Mr. Herbert, raising his voice suddenly, and looking round the theatre with a passionate anger, at which the whole audience were literally electrified. ‘Do you deny it?’ he exclaimed. ‘I tell you that it is so. I tell you too that that is your own case, and that in your Utopia you have aggravated the evil, and have not remedied it. You are all deniers or doubters, I tell you, every one of you. The deniers, I know, will not contradict me; so at present I need not speak to them. It is to you—the majority, you who will contradict me; you who are so busy with your various affirmations, with your prayers, your churches, your philosophies, your revivals of old Christianities, or your new improvements on them; with your love of justice, and humanity, and toleration; it is to you that I speak. It is to you that I say that, however enlightened and however sure you may be about all other matters, you are darkened and uncertain as to this—whether there really is any God at all who can hear all the prayers you utter to Him, or whether there really is any other life at all, where the aspirations you are so proud of will be realised, and where the wrongs you are so pitiful over will be righted. There is not one amongst you who, watching a dead friend, flickering for the last time before you in the form of a gas-flame, and seeing how a little while and this flame was with you, and again a little while and it was not with you, would be at all sure whether this was really because, as your hearts would suggest to you, it went to the Father, or because, as your men of science would assert to you, it went simply—out.
‘Listen to me for a moment, and I can prove that this is so, to you. You are rich, and you have leisure to think of things in what light you will, and your life is to a great extent made easy for you by the labour of others. I do not complain of that. There can be no civilisation without order, and there can be no order without subordination. Outward goods must be apportioned unequally, or there would be no outward goods to apportion. But you who have the larger share of these are bound to do something for those who have the less. I say you are bound to do so; or else sooner or later that larger share will be taken away from you. Well, and what is it you propose to do? I know your answer—I have heard it a thousand times. You will educate them—you will teach them. And truly, if you know how to do that properly, you will have done all you need do. But,’ exclaimed Mr. Herbert, his voice again rising, and quivering with excitement, ‘that is just what you do not know. I am not casting my words at random. Out of your own mouths will I judge you. There never was a time when you talked so much as now about teaching the people, and yet do not you yourselves confess that you cannot agree together as to what to teach them? You can agree about teaching them—I know this too well—countless things that you think will throw light upon life; but life itself you leave a blank darkness upon which no light can be thrown. You say nothing of what is good in it, and of what is evil. Does success in it lie in the enjoyment of bodily pleasures, or in the doing of spiritual duty? Is there anything in it that is right for its own sake, or are all things right only because of their consequences? And seeing that, if we struggle for virtue, our struggles can never be quite successful here, is there any other place where they may have, I do not say their reward, but their consummation? To these questions only two answers can be given, and one must be entirely true, and the other entirely false. But you—you dare not give either; you are too enlightened. It is true that you can afford to be liberal about these matters; you can afford to consider truth and falsehood equally tolerable. But for the poor man surely it is not so. It must make some difference to him what you teach him, whether your teaching is to open his eyes to his God and to his duty, and so place his noblest happiness in his own hands, or whether it is to open his eyes to those verified Utilitarian principles from which he will learn that his own life and labour are only not utterly contemptible, because they conduce to a material well-being in which he himself can have no share. If, with entire belief yourselves, you are prepared to give him the former teaching, why then it is well and good both for him and you. But if not, beware of teaching him at all. You will but be removing a cataract from his mind’s eye that he may stare aghast and piteous at his own poverty and nakedness, or that he may gaze with a wild beast’s hunger at your own truly noble prosperity which he can never taste, save in the wild beast’s way.
‘But enough of the poor; enough of this division of happiness. Let me ask you to consider now what sort of happiness there is to divide—I say divide, meaning that you will get the whole of it. And as I have said before, this happiness is very fair in seeming. Knowledge, and culture, and freedom, and toleration—you have told us what fine things all these can do for you. And I admit it myself too; I feel it myself too. Lovely, indeed, to look upon are the faiths, the philosophies, the enthusiasms of the world—the ancient products of the ages—as the sunshine of the modern intellect falls on them. See, they look clearer, and brighter, and more transparent—see, they form themselves into more exquisite and lucid shapes, more aërial structures. But why? Do not deceive yourselves; it is for a terrible reason. It is because, like a fabric of snow, they are one and all dissolving.
‘Listen, and I will show you that this is so. Aristotle says that what is truly a man’s Self is the thinking part of him. This sooner or later all the other parts obey—sooner or later, willingly or unwillingly; and if this Self be base, the whole man will be base; if the Self be noble, the whole man will be noble. And as it is with the individual man, so it is with the ages and the generations. They obey their several Selves, whatever these Selves may be. The world once had a Self whose chief spokesman was a Jewish peasant called Jesus; and sooner or later the world followed him. Later on, it had a Self whose chief spokesmen were Dominics or Luthers or Loyolas; and in like manner the world followed them. Later still, it had got another Self, and the chief spokesmen of this were Voltaires and Rousseaus, And in each case the world was convinced at heart, consciously or unconsciously, that the vital truths of life were to be sought for only where these Selves sought for them. With Jesus and with Luther it sought them in duty and in a turning to the true God; with Voltaire and Rousseau, in justice, and in a turning from the false God. And now, where do you seek them? Where does the Self of your age seek them—your Self, that thinking part of you before which you all either quail or worship? Does it seek them either in justice, or loving-kindness, or in the vision of the most high God! No—but in the rotting bodies of dead men, or in the writhing bodies of live cats. And in your perplexity, and your amazed despair, ever and again you cry to it, What shall we do to be saved? Show us the Father! Show us the high and holy One that inhabiteth Eternity! And what does your Self answer you? It answers you with a laugh, “There is no high and holy One at all. How say ye then to me, Show us the Father? For the Earth saith, He is not with me; and the depth saith, He is not with me; and our filthy phials of decaying animal matter say, He is not with us. Argal, ye poor foolish seekers, He is nowhere.” You may try to escape from your own Self, but you cannot; you may try to forget its answer, but you cannot. Loudly you may affirm with your lips; but the importunate denial is ever at your heart. Patriæ quis exsul se quoque fugit?
‘What do you do then in this perplexity—this halting between two opinions? Why, you do this. You try to persuade yourselves that neither opinion is of much moment—that the question cannot be decided absolutely—that it should not be decided absolutely—in fact, that it is one of your chief glories that you leave it undecided. But I tell you, in that case, that though you say you are rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; you are, in reality, wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked. I am not casting my words at random. Again out of your own mouths will I judge you. All your culture, you say, is based ultimately upon this—a discrimination between right and wrong. True, profoundly true. But will you be able to say what is right and what is wrong any longer, if you don’t know for whom anything is right and for whom anything is wrong—whether it is for men with immortal souls, or only with mortal bodies— who are only a little lower than the angels, or only a little better than the pigs? Whilst you can still contrive to doubt upon this matter, whilst the fabric of the old faith is still dissolving only, life still for you, the enlightened few, may preserve what happiness it has now. But when the old fabric is all dissolved, what then? When all divinity shall have gone from love and heroism, and only utility and pleasure shall be left, what then? Then you will have to content yourselves with complete denial; or build up again the faith that you have just pulled down—you will have to be born again, and to seek for a new Self.
‘But suppose we accept denial, you will say, what then? Many deniers have lived noble lives, though they have looked neither for a God nor for a heaven. Think of Greece, you will say to me, and that will answer you. No—but that is not so, and that will not answer me. The Greeks never, in your sense, denied God; they never, in your sense, denied eternal life—never, because they never knew them. They felt God only; they felt him unconsciously; and in denying the God they knew, they were really affirming the God they felt. But you—do not you deceive yourselves. Do not think you can ever again be as the Greeks. The world’s progress has a twofold motion. History moves onwards round some undiscovered centre, as well as round what you consider its discovered axis; and though it seems to repeat itself, it never can repeat itself. The Atheism of the modern world is not the Atheism of the ancient: the long black night of the winter is not the swift clear night of the vanished summer. The Greek philosopher could not darken his life, for he knew not from what mysterious source the light fell upon it. The modern philosopher does know, and he knows that it is called God, and thus knowing the source of light he can at once quench it.
‘What will be left you then if this light be quenched? Will art, will painting, will poetry be any comfort to you? You have said that these were magic mirrors which reflected back your life for you. Well—will they be any better than the glass mirrors in your drawing-rooms, if they have nothing but the same listless orgy to reflect? For that is all that will be at last in store for you; nay, that is the best thing that possibly can be in store for you; the only alternative being not a listless orgy for the few, but an undreamed of anarchy for all. I do not fear that, however. Some will be always strong, and some will be always weak; and though, if there is no God, no divine and fatherly source of order, there will be, trust me, no aristocracies, there will still be tyrannies. There will still be rich and poor; and that will then mean happy and miserable; and the poor will be— as I sometimes think they are already—but a mass of groaning machinery, without even the semblance of rationality; and the rich, with only the semblance of it, but a set of gaudy, dancing marionettes, which it is the machinery’s one work to keep in motion.
‘What, then, shall you do to be saved? Rend your hearts, I say, and do not mend your garments. Seek God earnestly, and peradventure you still may find Him—and I—even I may find Him also. For I—who am I that speak to you? Am I a believer? No, I am a doubter too. Once I could pray every morning, and go forth to my day’s labour stayed and comforted. But now I can pray no longer. You have taken my God away from me, and I know not where you have laid Him. My only consolation in my misery is that at least I am inconsolable for His loss. Yes,’ cried Mr. Herbert, his voice rising into a kind of threatening wail, ‘though you have made me miserable, I am not yet content with my misery. And though I too have said in my heart that there is no God, and that there is no more profit in wisdom than in folly, yet there is one folly that I will not give tongue to. I will not say Peace, peace, when there is no peace. I will not say we are still Christians, when we can sip our wine smilingly after dinner, and talk about some day defining the Father; and I will only pray that if such a Father be, He may have mercy alike upon those that hate Him, because they will not see Him; and on those who love and long for Him, although they no longer can see Him.’
Mr. Herbert’s voice ceased. The curtain fell. The whirlwind was over; the fire was over; and after the fire, from one of the side boxes came a still small voice.
‘Very poor taste—very poor taste.’
It was perceived that Dr. Jenkinson, having discovered almost immediately who was really to be the preacher, had stolen back silently into the theatre.