OF RESPECT OF PERSONS
Father Payne had been out to luncheon one day with some neighbours. He had groaned over the prospect the day before, and had complained that such goings-on unsettled him.
"Well, Father," said Rose at dinner, "so you have got through your ordeal! Was it very bad?"
"Bad!" said Father Payne, "why should it be bad? I'm crammed with impressions—I'm a perfect mine of them."
"But you didn't like the prospect of going?" said Rose.
"No," said Father Payne, "I shrank from the strain—you phlegmatic, aristocratic people,—men-of-the-world, blases, highly-born and highly-placed,—have no conception of the strain these things are on a child of nature. You are used to such things, Rose, no doubt—you do not anticipate a luncheon-party with a mixture of curiosity and gloom. But it is good for me to go to such affairs—it is like a waterbreak in a stream—it aerates and agitates the mind. But you don't realise the amount of observation I bring to bear on such an event—the strange house, the unfamiliar food, the new inscrutable people—everything has to be observed, dealt with, if possible accounted for, and if unaccountable, then inflexibly faced and recollected. A torrent of impressions has poured in upon me—to say nothing of the anxious consideration beforehand of topics of conversation, and modes of investigation! To stay in a new house crushes me with fatigue—and even a little party like this, which seems, I daresay, to some of you, a negligible, even a tedious thing, is to me rich in far-flung experience."
"Mayn't we have the benefit of some of it?" said Rose.
"Yes," said Father Payne, "you may—you must, indeed! I am grateful to you for introducing the subject—it is more graceful than if I had simply divested myself of my impressions unsolicited."
"What was it all about?" said Rose.
"Why," said Father Payne, "the answer to that is simple enough—it was to meet an American! I know that race! Who but an American would have heard of our little experiment here, and not only wanted to know—they all do that—but positively arranged to know? Yes, he was a hard-featured man—a man of wealth, I imagine—from some place, the grotesque and extravagant name of which I could not even accurately retain, in the State of Minnesota."
"Did he want to try a similar experiment?" said Barthrop.
"He did not," said Father Payne. "I gathered that he had no such intention—but he desired to investigate ours. He was full of compliments, of information, even of rhetoric. I have seldom heard a simple case stated more emphatically, or with such continuous emphasis. My mind simply reeled before it. He pursued me as a harpooner might pursue a whale. He had the whole thing out of me in no time. He interrogated me as a corkscrew interrogates a cork. That consumed the whole of luncheon. I made a poor show. My experiment, such as it is, stood none of the tests he applied to it. It appeared to be lacking in all earnestness and zeal. I was painfully conscious of my lack of earnestness. 'Well, sir,' he said at the conclusion of my examination-in-chief, 'I seem to detect that this business of yours is conducted mainly with a view to your own entertainment, and I admit that it causes me considerable disappointment.' The fact is, my boys," said Father Payne, surveying the table, "that we must be more conscious of higher aims here, and we must put them on a more commercial footing!"
"But that was not all?" said Barthrop.
"No, it was not all," said Father Payne; "and, to tell you the truth, I was more alarmed by than interested in the Minnesota merchant. I couldn't state my case—I failed in that—and I very much doubt if I could have convinced him that there was anything in it. Indeed, he said that my conceptions of culture were not as clear-cut as he had hoped."
"He seems to have been fairly frank," said Rose.
"He was frank, but not uncivil," said Father Payne. "He did not deride my absence of definiteness, he only deplored it. But I really got more out of the subsequent talk. We adjourned to a sort of portico, a pretty place looking on to a formal garden: it was really very charmingly done—a clever fake of an, old garden, but with nothing really beautiful about it. It looked as if no one had ever lived in it, though the illusion of age was skilfully contrived—old paving-stones, old bricks, old lead vases, but all looking as if they were shy, and had only been just introduced to each other. There was no harmony of use about it. But the talk—that was the amazing thing! Such pleasant intelligent people, nice smiling women, courteous grizzled men. By Jove, there wasn't a single writer or artist or musician that they didn't seem to know intimately! It was a literary party, I gathered: but even so there was a haze of politics and society about it—vistas of politicians and personages of every kind, all known intimately, all of them quoted, everything heard and whispered in the background of events—we had no foregrounds, I can tell you, nothing second-hand, no concealments or reticences. Everyone in the world worth knowing seemed to have confided their secrets to that group. It was a privilege, I can tell you! We simply swam in influences and authenticities. I seemed to be in the innermost shrine of the world's forces—where they get the steam up, you know!"
"But who are these people, after all?" said Rose.
"My dear Rose!" said Father Payne. "You mustn't destroy my illusions in that majestic manner! What would I not have given to be able to ask myself that question! To me they were simply the innermost circle, to whom the writers and artists of the day told their dreams, and from whom they sought encouragement and sympathy. That was enough for me. I stored my memory with anecdotes and noble names, like the man in Pride and Prejudice."
"But what did it all come to?" said Rose.
"Well," said Father Payne, "to tell you the truth, it didn't amount to very much! At the time I was dazzled and stupefied—but subsequent reflection has convinced me that the cooking was better than the food, so to speak."
"You mean that it was mostly humbug?" said Rose.
"Well, I wouldn't go quite as far as that," said Father Payne, "but it was not very nutritive—no, the nutriment was lacking! Come, I'll tell you frankly what I did think, as I came away. I thought these pretty people very adventurous, very quick, very friendly. But I don't truly think they were interested in the real thing at all—only interested in the words of the wise, and in the unconsidered trifles of the Major Prophets, so to speak. I didn't think it exactly pretentious—but they obviously only cared for people of established reputation. They didn't admire the ideas behind, only the reputations of the people who said the things. They had undoubtedly seen and heard the great people—I confess it amazed me to think how easily the men of mark can be exploited—but I did not discern that they cared about the things represented,—only about the representatives. The American was different. He, I think, cared about the ideas, though he cared about them in the wrong way. I mean that he claimed to find everything distinct, whereas the big things are naturally indistinct. They loom up in a shadowy way, and the American was examining them through field-glasses. But my other friends seemed to me to be only interested in the people who had the entree, so to speak—the priests of the shrine. They had noticed everything that doesn't matter about the high and holy ones—how they looked, spoke, dressed, behaved. It was awfully clever, some of it; one of the women imitated Legard the essayist down to the ground—the way he pontificates, you know—but nothing else. They were simply interested in the great men, and not interested in what make the great men different from other people, but simply in their resemblance to other people. Even great people have to eat, you know! Legard himself eats, though it's a leisurely process; and this woman imitated the way he forked up a bit, held it till the bit dropped off, and put the empty fork into his mouth. It was excruciatingly funny—I'll admit that. But they missed the point, after all. They didn't care about Legard's books a bit—they cared much more about that funny cameo ring he wears on his tie!"
"It all seems to me horribly vulgar," said Kaye.
"No, it was no more vulgar than a dance of gnats," said Father Payne. "They were all alive, those people. They were just gnats, now I come to think of it! They had stung all the great men of the day—even drawn a little blood—and they were intoxicated by it. Mind, I don't say that it is worth doing, that kind of thing! But they were having their fun—and the only mistake they made was in thinking they cared about these people for the right reasons. No, the only really rueful part of the business was the revelation to me of what the great people can put up with, in the way of being feted, and the extent to which they seem able to give themselves away to these pretty women. It must be enervating, I think, and even exhausting, to be so pawed and caressed; but it's natural enough, and if it amuses them, I'm not going to find fault. My only fear is that Legard and the rest think they are really living with these people. They are not doing that; they are only being roped in for the fun of the performance. These charming ladies just ensnare the big people, make them chatter, and then get together, as they did to-day, and compare the locks of hair they have snipped from their Samsons. But it isn't a bit malicious—it's simply childish; and, by Jove, I enjoyed myself tremendously. Now, don't pull a long face, Kaye! Of course it was very cheap—and I don't say that anyone ought to enjoy that sort of thing enough to pursue it. But if it comes in my way, why, it is like a dish of sweetmeats! I don't approve of it, but it was like a story out of Boccaccio, full of life and zest, even though the pestilence was at work down in the city. We must not think ill of life too easily! I don't say that these people are living what is called the highest life. But, after all, I only saw them amusing themselves. There were some children about, nice children, sensibly dressed, well-behaved, full of go, and yet properly drilled. These women are good wives and good mothers; and I expect they have both spirit and tenderness, when either is wanted. I'm not going to bemoan their light-mindedness; at all events, I thought it was very pleasant, and they were very good to me. They saw I wasn't a first-hander or a thoroughbred, and they made it easy for me. No, it was a happy time for me—and, by George, how they fed us! I expect the women looked after all that. I daresay that, as far as economics go, it was all wrong, and that these people are only a sort of scum on the surface of society. But it is a pretty scum, shot with bright colours. Anyhow, it is no good beginning by trying to alter them! If you could alter everything else, they would fall into line, because they are good-humoured and sensible. And as long as people are kindly and full of life, I shall not complain; I would rather have that than a dreary high-mindedness."
Father Payne rose. "Oh, do go on, Father!" said someone.
"No, my boy," said Father Payne, "I'm boiling over with impressions—rooms, carpets, china, flowers, ladies' dresses! But that must all settle down a bit. In a few days I'll interrogate my memory, like Wordsworth, and see if there is anything of permanent worth there!"
Father Payne had been listening to some work of mine: and he said at the end, "That is graceful enough, and rather attractive—but it has a great fault: it is sometimes ambiguous. Several of your sentences can have more than one meaning. I remember once at Oxford," he said, smiling, "that Collins, one of our lecturers, had been going through a translation-paper with me, and had told me three quite distinct ways of rendering a sentence, each backed by a great scholar. I asked him, I remember, whether that meant that the original writer—it was Livy, I think—had been in any doubt as to what his words were meant to convey. He laughed, and said, 'No, I don't imagine that Livy intended to make his meaning obscure. I expect, if we took the passage to him with the three renderings, he would deride at least two of them, and possibly all three, and would point out that we simply did not know the usage of some word or phrase which would have been absolutely clear to a contemporary reader,' But Collins went on to say that there might also be a real ambiguity about the passage: and then he quoted the supposed remark of the bishop who declined to wear gaiters, and said, 'I shall wear no clothes to distinguish myself from my fellow-Christians.' This was printed in his biography, 'I shall wear no clothes, to distinguish myself from my fellow-Christians.' 'That sentence may be fairly called ambiguous,' Collins said, 'when its sense so much depends upon punctuation.'
"Now," Father Payne went on, "you must remember, in writing, that you write for the eye, you don't write for the ear. A book isn't primarily meant to be read aloud: and you mustn't resort to tricks of emphasis, such as italics and so forth, which can only be rendered by voice-inflections. It is your first duty to be absolutely clear and limpid. You mustn't write long involved sentences which necessitate the mind holding in solution a lot of qualifying clauses. You must break up your sentences, and even repeat yourself rather than be confused. There is no beauty of style like perfect clearness, and in all writing mystification is a fault. You ought never to make your reader turn back to the page before to see what you are driving at."
"But surely," I said, "there are great writers like Carlyle and George Meredith, for instance, who have been difficult to understand."
"Yes," said Father Payne, "but that's a fault, though it may be a magnificent fault. It may mean such a pressure of ideas and images that the thing can hardly be written at length—and it may give you a sense of exuberant greatness. You may have to forgive a great writer his exuberance—you may even have to forgive him the trouble it costs to penetrate his exact thoughts, for the sake of steeping yourself in the rush and splendour of the style. But obscurity isn't a thing to aim at for anyone who is trying to write; it may be, in the case of a great writer, a sort of vociferousness which intoxicates you: and the man may convey a kind of inspiration by his very obscurities. But it must be an impulse which simply overpowers him—it mustn't be an effect deliberately planned. You may perhaps feel the bigness of the thought all the more in the presence of a writer who, for all his power, can't confine the stream, and comes down in a cataract of words. But if you begin trying for an effect, it is like splashing about in a pool to make people believe it is a rushing river. The movement mustn't be your own contortions, but the speed of the stream. If you want to see the bad side of obscurity, look at Browning. The idea is often a very simple one when you get at it; it's only obscure because it is conveyed by hints and jerks and nudges. In Pickwick, for instance, one does not read Jingle's remarks for the underlying thought—only for the pleasure of seeing how he leaps from stepping-stone to stepping-stone. You mustn't confuse the pleasure of unravelling thought with the pleasure of thought. If you can make yourself so attractive to your readers that they love your explosions and collisions, and say with a half-compassionate delight—'how characteristic—but it is worth while unravelling!' you have achieved a certain success. But the chance is that future ages won't trouble you much. Disentangling obscurities isn't bad fun for contemporaries, who know by instinct the nuances of words; but it becomes simply a bore a century later, when people are not interested in old nuances, but simply want to know what you thought. Only scholars love obscurity—but then they are detectives, and not readers."
"But isn't it possible to be too obvious?" I said—"to get a namby-pamby way of writing—what a reviewer calls painfully kind?"
"Well, of course, the thought must be tough," said Father Payne, "but it's your duty to make a tough thought digestible, not to make an easy thought tough. No, my boy, you may depend upon it that, if you want people to attend to you, you must be intelligible. Don't, for God's sake, think that Carlyle or Meredith or Browning meant to be unintelligible, or even thought they were being unintelligible. They were only thinking too concisely or too rapidly for the reader. But don't you try to produce that sort of illusion. Try to say things like Newman or Ruskin—big, beautiful, profound, delicate things, with an almost childlike naivete. That is the most exquisite kind of charm, when you find that half-a-dozen of the simplest words in the language have expressed a thought which holds you spell-bound with its truth and loveliness. That is what lasts. People want to be fed, not to be drugged: That, I believe, is the real difference between romance and realism, and I am one of those who gratefully believe that romance has had its day. We want the romance that comes from realism, not the romance which comes by neglecting it. But that's another subject."
"I don't think there is a single word in the English language," said Father Payne, "which is responsible for such unhappiness as the word 'believe.' It is used with a dozen shades of intensity by people; and yet it is the one word which is always being used in theological argument, and which, like the ungodly, 'is a sword of thine.'"
"I always mean the same thing by it, I believe!" I said.
"Excuse me," said Father Payne, "but if you will take observations of your talk, you will find you do not. At any rate, I do not, and I am more careful about the words I use than many people. If I have a heated argument with a man, and think he takes up a perverse or eccentric opinion, I am quite capable of saying of him, 'I believe he must be crazy.' Now such a sentence to a foreigner would carry the evidence of a deep and clear conviction; but, as I say it, it doesn't really express the faintest suspicion of my opponent's sanity—it means little more than that I don't agree with him; and yet when I say, 'If there is one thing that I do believe, it is in the actual existence of evil,' it means a slowly accumulated and almost unalterable opinion. In the Creed, one uses the word 'believe' as the nearest that conviction can come to knowledge, short of indisputable evidence; and some people go further still, and use it as if it meant an almost higher sort of knowledge. The real meaning is just what Tennyson said,
"'Believing where we cannot prove,'
where it signifies a conviction which we cannot actually test, but on which we are content to act."
"But," I said, "if I say to a friend—'You are a real sceptic—you seem to me to believe nothing,' I mean to imply something almost cynical."
"Yes," said Father Payne, "you mean that he has no enthusiasm or ideals, and holds nothing sacred, because those are just the convictions which cannot be proved."
"Some people," I said, "seem to me simply to mean by the word 'believe' that they hold an opinion in such a way that they would be upset if it turned out to be untrue."
"Yes," said Father Payne, "it is the intrusion of the nasty personal element which spoils the word. Belief ought to be a very impersonal thing. It ought simply to mean a convergence of your own experience on a certain result; but most people are quite as much annoyed at your disbelieving a thing which they believe, as at your disbelieving a thing which they know. You ought never to be annoyed at people not accepting your conclusions, and still less when your conclusion is partly intuition, and does not depend upon evidence. This is the sort of scale I have in my mind—'practically certain, probable, possible, unproved, unprovable.' Now, I am so far sceptical that, apart from practical certainties, which are just the convergence of all normal experience, the fact that any one person or any number of persons believed a thing would not affect my own faith in it, unless I felt sure that the people who believed it were fully as sceptical as and more clear-headed than myself, and had really gone into the evidence. But even so, as I said, the things most worth believing are the things that can't be proved by any evidence."
"What sort of things do you mean?" I said.
"Well, a thing like the existence of God," said Father Payne; "that at best is only a generalisation from an immense range of facts, and a special interpretation of them. But the amazing thing in the world is the vast number of people who are content to believe important things on hearsay, because, on the whole, they love or trust the people who teach them. The word 'believing,' when I use it, doesn't mean that a good man says it, and that I can't disprove it, but a sort of vital assent, so that I can act upon the belief almost as if I knew it. It means for me some sort of personal experience, I could not love or hate a man on hearsay, just because people whom I loved or trusted said that they either loved or hated him. I might be so far biassed that I should meet him expecting to find him either lovable or hateful, but I could not adopt a personal emotion on hearsay—that must be the result of a personal experience; and yet the adoption of a personal emotion on hearsay is just what most people seem to me to be able to do. I might believe that a man had done good or bad things on hearsay: but I could have no feeling about him unless I had seen him. I could not either love or hate a historical personage: the most I could do would be to like or dislike all stories told about him so much that I could wish to have met him or not to have met him."
"Isn't it a question of imagination?" I said.
"Yes," said Father Payne, "and most ordinary religious belief is simply an imaginative personification: but that is a childish affair, not a reasonable affair: and that is why most religious teachers praise what they call a childlike faith, but what is really a childish faith. I don't honestly think that our religious beliefs ought to be a dog-like kind of fidelity, unresentful, unquestioning, undignified confidence. The love of Bill Sikes' terrier for Bill Sikes doesn't make Bill Sikes an admirable or lovable man: it only proves his terrier a credulous terrier. The only reason why we admire such a faith is because it is pleasant and convenient to be blindly trusted, and to feel that we can behave as badly as we like without alienating that sort of trust. I have sometimes thought that the deepest anguish of God must lie in His being loved and trusted by people to whom He has been unable so far to show Himself a loving and careful Father. I don't believe God can wish us to love Him in an unreasonable way—I mean by simply overlooking the bad side of things. A man, let us say, with some hideous inherited disease or vice ought not to love God, unless he can be sure that God has not made him the helpless victim of disease or vice."
"But may the victim not have a faith in God through and in spite of a disease or a vice?" I said.
"Yes, if he really faces the fact of the evil," said Father Payne; "but he must not believe in a muddled sort of way, with a sort of abject timidity, that God may have brought about his weakness or his degradation. He ought to be quite clear that God wishes him to be free and happy and strong, and grieves, like Himself, over the miserable limitation. He must have no sort of doubt that God wishes him to be healthy or clean-minded. Then he can pray, he can strive for patience, he can fight his fault: he can't do it, if he really thinks that God allowed him to be born with this horror in his blood. If God could have avoided evil—I don't mean the sharp sorrows and trials which have a noble thing behind them, but the ailments of body or soul that simply debase and degrade—if He could have done without evil, but let it creep in, then it seems to me a hopeless business, trying to believe in God's power or His goodness. I believe in the reality of evil, and I believe too in God with all my heart and soul. But I stand with God against evil: I don't stand facing God, and not knowing on which side He is fighting. Everything may not be evil which I think evil: but there are some sorts of evil—cruelty, selfish lust, spite, hatred, which I believe that God detests as much as and far more than I detest them. That is what I mean by a belief, a conviction which I cannot prove, but on which I can and do act."
"But am I justified in not sharing that belief?" I said.
"Yes," said Father Payne; "if you, in the light of your experience, think otherwise, you need not believe it—you cannot believe it! But it is the only interpretation of the facts which sets me free to love God, which I do not only with heart and soul, but with mind and strength. If I could believe that God had ever tampered with what I feel to be evil, ever permitted it to exist, ever condoned it, I could fear Him—I should fear Him with a ghastly fear—but I could not believe in Him, or love Him as I do."
"No, I couldn't do that," said Lestrange to Barthrop, in one of those unhappy little silences which so often seemed to lie in wait for Lestrange's most platitudinal utterances. "It wouldn't be consistent with a sense of honour."
Father Payne gave a chuckle, and Lestrange looked pained, "Oughtn't one to have a code of honour?" he said.
"Why, certainly!" said Father Payne, "but you mustn't impose your code on other people. You mustn't take for granted that your idea of honour means the same thing to everyone. Suppose you lost money at cards, and called it a debt of honour, and thought it dishonourable not to pay it; while at the same time you didn't think it dishonourable not to pay a poor tradesman whose goods you had ordered and consumed, am I bound to accept your code of honour?"
"But there is a difference there," said Rose, "because the man to whom you owe a gambling debt can't recover it by law, while a tradesman can. All that a debt of honour means is that you feel bound to pay it, though you are not legally compelled to do so."
"Yes," said Father Payne, "that is so, in a sense, I admit. But still, one mustn't shelter oneself behind big words unless one is certain that they mean exactly the same to one's opponent. When I was at school there was a master who used to be fond, as he said, of putting the boys on their honour: but he never asked if we accepted the obligation. If I say, 'I give you my honour not to do a thing,' then I can be called dishonourable if I don't do it; but you can't put me on my honour unless I consent."
"But surely honour means something quite definite?" said Lestrange.
"Tell me what it is, then," said Father Payne. "Rose, you seem to have ideas on the subject. What do you mean by honour?"
"Isn't it one of the ultimate things," said Rose, "which can't be defined, but which everyone recognises—like blue and green, let me say, or sweet and bitter?"
"No," said Father Payne; "at least I don't think so. It seems to me rather an artificial thing, because it varies at different dates. It used, not so long ago, to be considered an affair of honour to fight a duel with a man if he threw a glass of wine in your face. And what do you make of the old proverb, 'All is fair in love and war'? That seems to mean that honour is not a universal obligation. Then there's the phrase, 'Honour among thieves,' which isn't a very exalted one; or the curious thing, schoolboy honour, which dictates that a boy may know that another boy is being disgracefully and cruelly bullied, and yet is prevented by his sense of honour from telling a master about it. I admit that honour is a fine idea; but it seems to me to cover a lot of things in human nature which are very bad indeed. It may mean only a sort of prudential arrangement which binds a set of people together for a bad purpose, because they do not choose to be interfered with, and yet call the thing honour for the sake of the associations."
"Yes, I don't think it is necessarily a moral thing," said Rose, "but that doesn't seem to me to matter. It is simply an obligation, pledged or implied, that you will act in a certain way. It may conflict with a moral obligation, and then you have to decide which is the greater obligation."
"Yes, that is perfectly true," said Father Payne, "and as long as you admit that honour isn't in itself bound to be a good thing, that is all I want. Lestrange seemed to use it as if you had only got to say that a motive was honourable, to have it recognised by everyone as right. Take the case of what are called 'national obligations.' A certain party in the State, having secured a majority of votes, enters into some arrangement—a treaty, let us say—without consulting the nation. Is that held to be for ever binding on a nation till it is formally repealed? Is it dishonourable for a citizen belonging, let us say, to the minority which is not represented by the particular Government which makes the treaty, to repudiate it?"
"Yes, I think it may be fairly called dishonourable," said Rose; "there is an obligation on a citizen to back up his Government."
"Then I should feel that honour is a very complicated thing," said Father Payne. "If a citizen thinks a treaty dishonourable, and if it is also dishonourable for him to repudiate it, it seems to me he is dishonourable whatever he does. He is obliged to consent for the sake of honour to a dishonourable thing being done. It seems to me perilously like a director of a firm having to condone fraudulent practices, because it is dishonourable to give his fellow-directors away. It is this conflict between individual honour and public honour which puzzles me, and which makes me feel that honour isn't a simple thing at all. A high conception of private honour seems to me a very fine thing indeed. I mean by it a profound hatred of anything false or cowardly or perfidious, and a loathing of anything insincere or treacherous. That sort of proud and stainless chivalry seems to me to be about the brightest thing we can discern, and the furthest beauty we can recognise. But honour seems also, according to you, to be a principle to which you can be committed by a majority of votes, whether you approve of it or not; and then it seems to me a merely detestable thing, if you can be bound by honour to acquiesce in something which you honestly believe to be base. It seems to me a case of what Tennyson describes:
"'His honour rooted in dishonour stood, And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.'"
"But surely social obligations must often conflict with private beliefs," said Rose. "A nation or a society has got to act collectively, and a minority must be over-ridden."
"I quite agree," said Father Payne, "but why mix up honour with it at all? I don't object to a man who conscientiously dissents to some national move being told that he must lump it. But if he is called dishonourable for dissenting, then honour does not seem to me to be a real word at all, but only a term of abuse for a man who objects to some concerted plan. You can't make a dishonest thing honest because a majority choose to do it—at least I do not believe that morality is purely a matter of majorities, or that the dishonour of one century can become the honour of the next. I am inclined to believe just the opposite. I believe that the man who has so sensitive a conscience about what is honourable or not, that he is called a Quixotic fool by his contemporaries, is far more likely to be right than the coarser majority who only see that a certain course is expedient. I should believe that he saw some truth of morality clearly which the rougher sort of minds did not see. The saint—call him what you like—is only the man who stands higher up, and sees the sunrise before the people who stand lower down."
"But everyone has a right to his own sense of honour," said Rose.
"Certainly," said Father Payne, "but you must be certain that a man's sense of honour is lower than your own before you call him dishonourable for differing from you. If a man is less scrupulous than myself, I may think him dishonourable, if I also think that he knows better. But what I do not think that any of us has a right to do is to call a man dishonourable if he has more scruples than oneself. He may be over-scrupulous, but the chances are that any man who sacrifices his convenience to a scruple has a higher sense of honour than the man who throws over a scruple for the sake of his convenience. That is why I think honour is a dangerous word to play with, because it is so often used to frighten people who don't fall in with what is for the convenience of a gang."
"But surely," said Rose, "morality is after all only a word for what society agrees to consider moral."
"Yes, in a sense that is so," said Father Payne; "it is only a word to express a phenomenon. But I believe that morality is a real thing, for all that; and that our conceptions of it get clearer, as the world goes on. It is something outside of us—a law of nature if you like—which we are learning; not merely a thing which we invent for our convenience. But that is too big a business to go into now."
I cannot remember now what public man it was who had died of a breakdown from overwork, but I heard Father Payne say, after dinner, referring to the event, "I wish it to be clearly understood that I think a man who dies of deliberate or reckless overwork is a victim of self-indulgence. It is nothing more or less than giving way to a passion. I am as sure as I can be of anything," he went on, "that a thousand years hence that will be recognised by human beings, and that they will feel it to be as shameful for a man to die of spontaneous overwork as for him to die of drink or gluttony or any other vice. I don't of course mean," he added, "the cases of men who have had some definite and critical job to carry through, and have decided that the risk is worth running. A man has always the right to risk his life for a definite aim—but I mean the men—you can see it in biographies, and the worst of it is that they are often the biographies of clergymen—who, in spite of physical warnings, and entreaties from their friends, and definite statements by their doctors that they are shortening their lives by labour, still cannot stop, or, if they stop, begin again too soon. No man has any right to think his work so important as that—to take unimportant things too seriously is the worst sort of frivolity."
"But isn't it the finer kind of people," said Kaye, "who make the mistake?"
"Yes, of course," said Father Payne, "but so, too, if you look into it, you will too often find that it is the finer kinds of imaginative people who take to drink and drugs. I remember," he added, "once going to see a poor friend of mine in an asylum, and the old doctor at the head of it said, 'It isn't the stupid people who come here, Mr. Payne; it is the clever people!'"
"But does not your principle about the right to risk one's life hold good here too?" said Barthrop.
"No, I think not," said Father Payne. "A man may choose to try a dangerous thing, climb a mountain, explore a perilous country, go up in a balloon, where an element of risk is inseparable from the experiment; but ordinary work isn't risky in itself. Why," he added, "I was reading a book the other day, the life of Fitzherbert, you know, who was a man of prodigious laboriousness, who died early, worn out. He had an impossible standard of perfection. If he had to write an article, he read all the literature on the subject over and over; he wrote and re-wrote his stuff. There was a case quoted in the book, as if it were to Fitzherbert's credit, when he had to send in an article by a certain date—just a Quarterly article. It had to go in on the Friday. He had finished it on the Monday before, when his mind misgave him. He destroyed the article, began again, sate up all Monday night and all Wednesday night, and wrote the whole thing afresh. He was laid up for a month after it. That is simply the act of an unbalanced mind."
"I can't help feeling that there is something fine about it," said Vincent.
"There is always something fine about unreasonable things," said Father Payne, "or in a man making a sacrifice for an idea. But there is an entire lack of proportion about this performance; and if Fitzherbert thought his work so valuable as that, then he ought to have reflected that he was simply limiting his future output by this reckless expenditure of force. But the whole case was a sad one—Fitzherbert worked in a ghastly way as a boy and as a young man. He had a very broad outlook, he was interested in everything; and when he was at Oxford, he told a friend that he was discovering a hundred subjects on which he hoped to have a say. Well, then, the middle part of his life was spent in preparing himself, under the same sort of pressure, to entitle himself to have his say: and then came his first bad break-down—and the end of his life, which was a wretched period, was spent in finding elaborate reasons why he should not commit himself to any opinion whatever. If he was asked his opinion, he always said he had not studied the subject adequately. That seems to me the life of a man suffering from a sort of nightmare. Things are not so deep as all that—at least, if no one is to give an opinion on any point until he has mastered the whole sum of human opinion on the point, then we shall never make any progress at all. I remember Fitzherbert's strong condemnation of Ruskin, for giving his opinion cursorily on all subjects of importance. Yet Ruskin did a greater work than Fitzherbert, because he at least made people think, while Fitzherbert only prevented them from daring to think. I don't mean that people ought to feel competent to express an opinion on everything—yet even that habit cures itself, because, if you do it, no one pays any attention. But if a man has gone into a subject with decent care, or if he has reflected upon problems of which the data are fairly well known, I think there is every reason why he should give an opinion. It is very easy to be too conscientious. There are plenty of fine hints of opinions in Fitzherbert's letters. You could make a very good book of Pensees out of them—he had a clear, forcible, and original mind; but he did not dare to say what he thought; and you may remember that if he was ever sharply criticised, he felt it deeply, as a sort of imputation of dishonesty. A man must not go down before criticism like that."
"But everyone must do their work in their own way?" said I.
"Yes," said Father Payne, "but Fitzherbert ended by doing nothing—he only snubbed and silenced his own fine mind, by giving way to this unholy passion for examining things. No, I want you fellows to have common-sense about these matters. There is a great deal too much sanctity attached to print. The written word—there's a dark superstition about it! A man has as much right to write as he has to talk. He may say to the world, to his unseen and unknown friends in it, whatever he may say to his intimates. You should write just as you could talk to any gentleman, with the same courtesy and frankness. Of course you must run the risk of your book falling into the hands of ill-bred people—that can't be helped—and of course you must not pretend that your book is the result of deep and copious labour, if it is nothing of the kind. But heart-breaking toil is not the only qualification for speaking. There are plenty of complicated little topics—all the problems which arise from the combination of individuals into societies—which people ought to think about, and which are really everyone's concern. The interplay, I mean, of human relations—the moral, religious, social, intellectual ideas—which have all got to be co-ordinated. A man does not need immense knowledge for that; in fact if he studies the history of such things too deeply, he is often apt to forget that old interpreters of such things had not got all the present data. There is an immense future before writers who will interest people in and familiarise them with ideas. Some people get absorbed in life in the wrong way, just bent on acquisition and comfort—some people, again, live as if they were staying in somebody else's house—but what you want to induce men and women to do is to realise the sort of thing that life really is, and to attempt to put it in some kind of proportion. The mischief done by men like Fitzherbert, who was fond of snapping at people who produced ideas for inspection, is that ordinary people get to confuse wisdom with knowledge; and that won't do! And so the man who sets to work like Fitzherbert loses his alertness and his observation, with the result that instead of bringing a very fresh and incisive mind to bear on life, he loses his way in books, and falls a victim to the awful passion for feeling able to despise other people's opinions."
"But isn't it possible," said Vincent, "for a man to get the best out of life for himself by a sort of passion for exact knowledge—like the man in the Grammarian's funeral, I mean?"
"Personally," said Father Payne, "I always think that Browning did a lot of harm by that poem. He was glorifying a real vice, I think. If the Grammarian had said to himself, 'There is all this nasty work to be done by someone; I can do it, and I can save other people having to waste their time over it, by doing it once and for all,' it would have been different. But I think he was partly indulging a poor sort of vanity by just determining to know what no other man knew. The point of work is twofold. It is partly good for the worker, to tranquillise his life and to reduce it to a certain order and discipline; but you mustn't do it only for the sake of your own tranquillity, any more than the artist must work for the sake of luxuriating in his own emotions. You must have something to give away: you must have some idea of combination, of helping other people to find each other and to understand each other. It is vicious to isolate yourself for your own satisfaction. Fitzherbert and the Grammarian were really misers. They just accumulated, and enjoyed the pleasure of having their own minds clear. That doesn't seem to me in itself to be a fine thing at all. It is simply the oldest of temptations, 'Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.' That is the danger of the critical mind, that it says, 'I will know within myself what is good,' The only excuse for the critical mind is to help people not to be taken in by what is bad. It is better to be like Plato and Ruskin, to make mistakes, to have prejudices, to be unfair, even to be silly, because at least you encourage people to think that life is interesting—and that is about as much as any of us can do."
"Isn't it rather odd," said someone to Father Payne after dinner, "that great men have as a rule rather preferred the company of their inferiors to the company of their equals?"
"I don't know," said Father Payne; "I think it's rather natural! By Jove, I know that a very little of the society of a really superior person goes a very long way with me. No, I think it is what one would expect. When the great man is at work, he is on the strain and doing the lofty business for all he is worth; when he is at leisure, he doesn't want any more strain—he has done his full share."
"But take the big groups," said someone, "like the Wordsworth set, or the pre-Raphaelite set—or take any of the great biographies—the big men of any time seem always to have been mutual friends and correspondents. You have letters to and from Ruskin from and to all the great men of his day."
"Letters, yes!" said Father Payne; "of course the great men know each other, and respect each other; but they don't tend to coagulate. They relish an occasional meeting and an occasional letter, and they say how deeply they regret not seeing more of each other—but they tend to seek the repose of their own less exalted circle. The man who has fine ideas prefers his own disciples to the men who have got a different set of fine ideas. That is natural enough! You want to impart the ideas you believe in—you don't want to argue about them, or to have them knocked out of your hand. Depend upon it, the society of an intelligent person, who can understand you enough to stimulate you, and who is grateful for your talk, is much pleasanter, and indeed more fruitful, than the society of a man who is fully as intelligent as yourself, and thinks some of your conclusions to be rot!"
"But doesn't all that encourage people to be prophets?" Vincent said. "One of the depressing things about great men is that they grow to consider themselves a sort of special providence—the originators of great ideas rather than the interpreters."
"Yes," said Father Payne, "of course the little coteries and courts of great men are rather repulsive. But the best people don't do that. They live contentedly in a circle which combines with its admiration for the hero a comfortable feeling that, if other people knew what they know, they wouldn't feel genius to be quite so extraordinary as is commonly believed. And we must remember, too, that most great men seem greater afterwards than they did at the time. More of a treat and a privilege, I mean."
"Do you think one ought to try to catch a sight of great men who are contemporaries?" said I.
"Yes, a sight, I think," said Father Payne. "It's a pleasant thing to realise how your big man sits and looks and talks, what his house is like, and so forth. I have often rather regretted I haven't had the curiosity to get a sight of the giants. It helps you to understand them. I remember a pleasant old gentleman, Vinter by name, who lived in London. Vinter the novelist was his son. When young Vinter became famous for a bit, and people wanted to know him, old Vinter made a glorious rule. He told his son that he might invite any well-known person he liked to the house, to luncheon or dinner—but that unless he made a special exception in any one's favour, they were not to be invited again. There's a fine old Epicurean! He liked to realise what the bosses looked like, but he wasn't going to be bothered by having to talk respectfully to them time after time."
"But that's rather tame," said Vincent. "The point surely would be to get to know a big man well."
"Why, yes," said Father Payne, "but Vinter was a wise old man; now I should say to any young man who had a chance of really having a friendship with a great man, 'Of course, take it and thank your stars!' But I shouldn't advise any young man to make a collection of celebrities, or to go about hunting them. In fact I think for an original young man, it is apt to be rather dangerous to have a real friendship with a great man. There's a danger of being diverted from your own line, and of being drawn into imitative worship. A very moderate use of great men in person should suffice anyone. Your real friends ought to be people with whom you are entirely at ease, not people whom you reverence and defer to. It's better to learn to bark than to wag your tail. I don't think the big men themselves often begin by being disciples."
"Then who is worth seeing?" said Vincent. "There must be somebody!"
"Why, to be frank," said Father Payne, "agreeable men like me, who haven't got too much authority, and are not surrounded by glory and worship! I'm interested in most things, and have learnt more or less how to talk—you look out for ingenious and kindly elderly men, who haven't been too successful, and haven't frozen into Tories, and yet have had some experience;—men of humour and liveliness, who have a rather more extended horizon than yourself, and who will listen to what you say instead of shutting you up, and saying 'Very likely' as Newman did—after which you were expected to go into a corner and think over your sins! Or clever, sympathetic, interesting women—not too young. Those are the people whom it is worth taking a little trouble to see."
"But what about the young people!" said Vincent.
"Oh, that will look after itself," said Father Payne. "There's no difficulty about that! You asked me whom it was worth while taking some trouble to see, and I prescribe a very occasional great man, and a good many well-bred, cultivated, experienced, civil men and women. It isn't very easy to find, that sort of society, for a young man; but it is worth trying for."
"But do you mean that you should pursue good talk?" said Vincent.
"A little, I think," said Father Payne; "there's a good deal of art in it—unconscious art in England, probably—but much of our life is spent in talking, and there's no reason why we shouldn't learn how to get the best and the most out of talk—how to start a subject, and when to drop it—how to say the sort of things which make other people want to join in, and so on. Of course you can't learn to talk unless you have a lot to say, but you can learn how to do it, and better still how not to do it. I used to feel in the old days, when I met a clever man—it was rare enough, alas!—how much more I could have got out of him if I had known how to do the trick. It's a great pleasure, good talk; and the fact that it is so tiring shows what a real pleasure it must be. But a man with whom you can only talk hard isn't a companion—he's an adversary in a game. There have been times in my life when I have had a real tough talker staying here with me, when I have suffered from crushing intellectual fatigue, and felt inclined to say, like Elijah, 'Take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers.' That is the strange thing to me about most human beings—the extent to which they seem able to talk without being tired. I agree with Walter Scott, when he said, 'If the question was eternal company without the power of retiring within myself, or solitary confinement for life, I should say, "Turnkey, lock the cell!"' Companionship doesn't seem to me the normal thing. Solitude is the normal thing, with a few bits of talk thrown in, like meals, for refreshment. But you can't lay down rules for people about it. Some people are simply gregarious, and twitter together like starlings in a shrubbery: that isn't talk—it's only a series of signals and exclamations. The danger of solitude is that the machinery runs just as you wish it to run—and that wears it out."
"But isn't your whole idea of talk rather strenuous—a little artificial?" said Vincent.
"Not more so than fixed meals," said Father Payne, "or regular exercise. But, of course silent companionship is the greatest boon of all. I have a belief that even in silent companionship there is a real intermingling of vital and mental currents, and that one is much pervaded and affected by the people one lives with, even if one does not talk to them. The very sight of some people is as bad as an argument! The ideal thing, of course, is to have a few intimate friends and some comfortable acquaintances. But I am rather a fatalist about friendship, and I think that most of us get about as much as we deserve. Anyhow, it's all worth taking some trouble about; and most people make the mistake of not taking any trouble or putting themselves about; and that's not the way to behave!"
I suppose I had said something high-minded, showing a supposed contempt of money, for Father Payne looked at me in silence.
"You mustn't say such things," said he, at last. "I'll tell you why! What you said was perfectly genuine, and I have no doubt you feel it—but, if I may say so, it's like talking about a place where you have never been, as if you had visited it, when you have only read about it in the guide-book. I don't mean that you wish to deceive for an instant—but you simply don't know! That's the tragic thing about money—that it is both so important and so unimportant. If you have enough money, you need never give it a thought; if you haven't, it's the devil! It's like health—no one who hasn't been on the wrong side of the dividing line knows what a horrible place the wrong side is. Those two things—I daresay there are others—poverty and ill-health—put a man on the rack. The healthy man, and the man with a sufficient income, are apt to think that the poor man and the ill man make a great fuss about very little. I don't know about ill-health, but by George, I know all about poverty—and I'll tell you once for all. For twenty years I was poor, and this is what that means. To be tied hand and foot to a piece of hideous drudgery—morning by morning, month by month, and with the consciousness too that, if health fails you, or if you lose your work, you will either starve or have to sponge on your friends—never to be able to do what you like or go where you like—to know that the world is full of beautiful places, delightful people, interesting ideas, books, talk, art, music—to sicken for all these things, and not even to have the time or energy to get hold of such scraps of them as can be found cheap in London—to feel time slipping away, and all your instincts for beautiful things unused and unsated—to live a solitary, grubby, nasty life—never able to entertain a friend, or to go a trip with a friend, or to do a kindness, or to help anyone generously—and yet to feel that with an income which many people would regard as ridiculously inadequate, you could do most of these things—the slavery, the bondage, the dreariness of it!" He broke off, much moved.
"But," said I, "don't many quite poor people live happily and contentedly and kindly with minute incomes?"
"Why, yes," said Father Payne, "of course they do!—and I'm willing enough to admit that I ought to have done better than I did. But then I had been brought up differently, and by the time I had done with Oxford, I had all the tastes and instincts of the well-to-do man. That was the mischief, that I had tasted freedom. Of course, if I had been cast in a stronger and nobler mould, it would have been different—but all my senses had been acutely developed, my faculties of interest and enjoyment and appreciation—not gross things, mind you, nor feelings that ought to be starved, but just the wholesome delights of the well-educated man. I did not want to be extravagant, and I knew too that there were millions of people in the same case as myself. There was every reason why I should behave decently about it! If I had been really interested in my work, I could have done better—but I did not believe in the value of my work—I taught men, not to educate them, but that they might pass an examination and never look at the beastly stuff again. Whenever I reached the point at which I became interested, I had to hold my hand. And then, too, the work tired me without exercising my mind. There were the vacations, of course—but I couldn't afford to leave London—I simply lived in hell. I don't say that I didn't get some discipline out of it—and my escape gave me a stock of gratitude and delight that has been simply inexhaustible. The misery of it for me was that I had to live an unreal life. If I had been poor, and had had my leisure, and had worked at things I cared about, with a set, let us say, of young artists, all working too at things which they cared about, it would have been different—but I hadn't the energy left to make friends, or the time to find any congenial people. I can't describe what a nightmare it all was—so that when I hear you speaking as if money didn't really matter, I simply feel that you don't know what a tragedy it can be, or what your own income saves you from. You and I have the Epicurean temperament, my boy; it's no good pretending we haven't—things appeal to our mind and senses in a way they don't appeal to everyone. So I don't think that people ought to talk lightly about money, unless they have known poverty and not suffered under it. I used to ask myself in those days if it was possible to suffer more, when every avenue reaching away out of my life to the things I loved and cared for seemed to be closed to me by an impassable barrier."
"But one can practise oneself in doing without things?" I said.
"With about as much success," said Father Payne, "as you can practise doing without food."
"But isn't it partly that people are unduly reticent about money?" I said. "If people could only say frankly what they can and what they can't afford, it would simplify things very much."
"I don't know," said Father Payne. "Money is one of those curious things—uninteresting if you have enough, tragic if you haven't. I don't think talking about money is vulgar—I think it is simply dull: to discuss poverty is like discussing a disease—to discuss wealth is like talking about food or wine. The poverty that simply humiliates and pinches can't be joked about—it's far too serious for that! Of course, there are men who don't really feel the call of life. Look at our friend Kaye! If Kaye had to live in London lodgings, he wouldn't mind a bit, if he could get to the Museum Reading-Room—he only wants books and his own work—he doesn't want company or music or art or talk or friends. He is wholly indifferent to nasty food or squalor. Poverty is not a real evil to him. If he had money he wouldn't know how to spend it. I read a book the other day about a priest who lived a very devoted life in the slums—he had two rooms in a clergy-house—and there was a chapter in praise of the way in which he endured his poverty. But it was all wrong! What that man really enjoyed was preaching and ceremonial and company—he had a real love of human beings. Well, that man's life was crammed with joy—he got exactly what he wanted all day long. It wasn't a self-sacrificing life—it would have been to you and me—but he no doubt woke day after day, with a prospect of having his whole time taken up with things he thoroughly enjoyed."
"But what about the people," I said, "who really enjoy just the sense of power which money gives them, without using it—or the people whose only purpose in using it is the pleasure of being known to have it?"
"Oh, of course, they are simply barbarians," said Father Payne, "and it doesn't do them any harm to be poor. No, the tragedy lies in the case of a man with really expansive, generous, civilised instincts, to whom the world is full of wholesome and urgent delights, and whose life is simply starved out of him by poverty. I have a great mind to send you to London for a couple of months, to live on a pound a week, and see what you make of it."
"I'll go if you wish it," I said.
"It might bring things home to you," said Father Payne, smiling, "but again it probably would not, because it would only be a game—the real pinch would not come. Most people would rather enjoy migrating to hell from heaven for a month—it would just give them a sharper relish for heaven."
"But do you really think your poverty hurt you?" I said.
"I have no doubt it did," said Father Payne. "Of course I was rescued in time, before the bitterness really sank down into my soul. But I think it prevented my ever being more than a looker-on. I believe I could have done some work worth doing, if I could have tried a few experiments. I don't know! Perhaps I am ungrateful after all. My poverty certainly gave me a wish to help things along, and I doubt if I should have learnt that otherwise. And I think, too, it taught me not to waste compassion on the wrong things. The people to be pitied are simply the people whose minds and souls are pinched and starved—the over-sensitive, responsive people, who feel hunted and punished without knowing why. It's temperament always, and not circumstance, which is the happy or the unhappy thing. I felt, when you said what you did about poverty, that you neither knew how harmless it could be, or how infinitely noxious it might be. I don't take a high-minded view of money myself. I don't tell people to despise it. I always tell the fellows here to realise what they can endure and what they can't. The first requisite for a sensible man is to find work which he enjoys, and the next requisite is for him to earn as much as he really needs—that is to say without having to think daily and hourly about money. I don't over-estimate what money can do, but it is foolish to under-estimate what the want of it can do. I have seen more fine natures go to pieces under the stress of poverty than under any other stress that I know. Money is perfectly powerless as a shield against many troubles—and on the other hand it can save a man from innumerable little wretchednesses and horrors which destroy the beauty and dignity of life. I don't believe mechanically in humiliation and renunciation and ignominy and contempt, as purifying influences. It all depends upon whether they are gallantly and adventurously and humorously borne. They often make some people only sore and diffident, and I don't believe in learning to hate life. Not to learn your own limitations is childish: and one of the insolences which is most heavily punished is that of making a sacrifice without knowing if you can endure the consequences of it. The people who begin by despising money as vulgar are generally the people who end by making a mess which other people have to sweep up. So don't be either silly or prudent about money, my boy! Just realise that your first duty is not to be a burden on yourself or on other people. Find out your minimum, and secure it if you can; and then don't give the matter another thought. If it is any comfort to you, reflect that the best authors and artists have almost invariably been good men of business, and don't court squalor of any kind unless you really enjoy it."
Father Payne, talking one evening, made a statement which involved an assumption that the world was progressing. Rose attacked him on this point. "Isn't that just one of the large generalisations," he said, "which you are always telling us to beware of?"
"It isn't an assumption," said Father Payne, "but a conviction of mine, based upon a good deal of second-hand evidence. I don't think it can be doubted. I can't array all my reasons now, or we should sit here all night—but I will tell you one main reason, and that is the immensely increased peaceableness of the world. Fighting has gone out in schools, and none but decayed clubmen dare to deplore it: corporal punishment has diminished, and isn't needed, because children don't do savage things; bullying is extinct in decent schools; crimes of violence are much more rare; duelling is no longer a part of social life, except for an occasional farcical performance between literary men or politicians in France—I saw an account of one in the papers the other day. It was raining, and one of the combatants would not furl his umbrella: his seconds said that it made him a bigger target. "I may be shot," he said, "but that is no reason why I should get wet!" Then there is the mediaeval nonsense among students in Germany, where they fence like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Generally speaking, however, the belief that a blow is an argument has gone out. Then war has become more rare, and is more reluctantly engaged in. I suppose that till the date of Waterloo there was hardly a year in history when some fighting was not going on. No, I think it is impossible not to believe that the impulse to kick and scratch and bite is really on the decline."
"But need that be a proof of progress?" said Rose. "May it not only mean a decrease of personal courage, and a greater sensitiveness to pain?"
"I think not," said Father Payne, "because when there is fighting to be done, it is done just as courageously—indeed I think more courageously than used to be the case. No, I think it is the training of an instinct—the instinct of self-restraint. I believe that people have more imagination and more sympathy than they used to have; there is more tolerance of adverse opinion, a greater sense of liberty in the air: opponents have more respect for each other, and do not attribute bad motives so easily. Why, consider how much milder even the newspapers are. If one reads old reviews, old books of political controversy, old pamphlets—how much more blackguarding and calling names one sees. Anonymous journalists, anonymous reviewers, are now the only people who keep up the tradition of public bad manners—all signed articles and criticisms are infinitely politer than they used to be."
"But," persisted Rose, "isn't that simply a possible proof of the general declension of force?"
"Certainly not," said Father Payne, "it only means more equilibrium. You must remember that equilibrium means a balance of forces, not a mere diminution of them. There is more force present in a banked-up reservoir than in a rushing stream. The rushing stream merely means a force making itself felt without a counterbalancing force—but that isn't nearly as strong as the pressure in a reservoir exerted by the water which is trying to get out, and the resistance of the dam which is trying to keep it in. You must not be taken in by apparent placidity: it often means two forces at work instead of one. Peace, as opposed to war, is a tremendous counterpoising of forces, and it simply means an organised resistance. In old days, there was no cohesion of the forces which desire peace, and violence was unresisted. There can be no doubt, I think, that in a civilised country there are many more forces at work than in a combative country. I do not suppose that we can either of us prove whether the forces at work in the world have increased or diminished. Let us grant that the amount is constant. If so, a great deal of the force that was combative has now been transformed to the force which resists combat. But I imagine that on the whole most people would grant that human energies have increased: if that is so, certainly the combative element has not increased in proportion, while the peaceful element has increased out of all proportion."
"But," said Vincent, "you often talk in the most bellicose way, Father. You say that we ought all to be fighting on the side of good."
"Yes," said Father Payne, "on the side of resistance to evil, I admit; but you can fight without banging and smashing things, as the dam fights the reservoir by silent cohesion. There is a temptation, from which some people suffer, to think that one can't be fighting for God at all, unless one is doing it furiously, and all the time, and successfully, and on a large and impressive scale. That is a fatal blunder. To hide your adversary's sword is often a very good way of fighting. To have an open tussle often makes the bystanders sympathise with the assailant. It is really a far more civilised thing, and often stands for a higher degree of force and honour, to be able to bear contradiction not ignobly. Direct conflict is a mistake, as a rule—blaming, fault-finding, censuring, snapping, punishing. The point is to put all your energy into your own life and work, and make it outweigh the energy of the combative critic. Do not fight by destroying faulty opinion, but by creating better opinion. You fight darkness by lighting a candle, not by waving a fan to clear it away. Look at one of the things we have been talking about—bullying in schools. That has not been conquered by expelling or whipping boys, or preaching about it—it has been abolished by kindlier and gentler family life, by humaner school-masters living with and among their boys, till the happiness of more peaceful relations all round has been instinctively perceived."
"But isn't it right to show up mean and dishonest people, to turn the light of publicity upon cruel and detestable things?" said Vincent.
"Exactly, my dear Vincent," said Father Payne; "but you can't turn the light of publicity on evil unless the light is there to turn. The reason why bullying continued was because people believed in it as inseparable from school life, and even, on the whole, bracing. What has got rid of it is a kinder and more tender spirit outside. I don't object to showing up bad things at all. By all means put them, if you can, in a clear light, and show their ugliness. Show your shame and disgust if you like, but do not condescend to personal abuse. That only weakens your case, because it merely proves that you have still some of the bully left in you. Be peaceable writers, my dear boys," said Father Payne, expanding in a large smile. "Don't squabble, don't try to scathe, don't be affronted! If your critic reveals a weak place in your work, admit it, and do better! I want to turn you out peace-makers, and that needs as much energy and restraint as any other sort of fighting. Don't make the fact that your opponent may be a cad into a personal grievance. Make your own idea clear, stick to it, repeat it, say it again in a more attractive way. Don't you see that not yielding to a bad impulse is fighting? The positive assertion of good, the shaping of beauty, the presentment of a fruitful thought in so desirable a light that other people go down with fresh courage into the dreariness and dullness of life, with all the delight of having a new way of behaving in their minds and hearts—that's how I want you to fight! It requires the toughest sort of courage, I can tell you. But instead of showing your spirit by returning a blow, show your spirit by propounding your idea in a finer shape. Don't be taken in by the silly and ugly old war-metaphors—the trumpet blown, the gathering of the hosts. That's simply a sensational waste of your time! Look out of your window, and then sit down to your work. That's the way to win, without noise or fuss."
I walked one afternoon with Father Payne just as winter turned to spring, in the pastures. There was a mound at the corner of one of his fields, on which grew a row of beech trees of which Father Payne was particularly fond. He pointed out to me to-day how the most southerly of the trees, exposed as it was to the full force of the wind, grew lower and sturdier than the rest, and how as the trees progressed towards the north, each one profiting more by the shelter of his comrades, they grew taller and more graceful. "I like the way that stout little fellow at the end grows," said Father Payne. "He doesn't know, I suppose, that he is protecting the rest, and giving them room to expand. But he holds on; and though he isn't so tall, he is bulkier and denser than his brethren. He knows that he has to bear the brunt of the wind, so he puts out no sail. He just devotes himself to standing four-square—he is not going to be bullied! He would like to be as smooth and as shapely as the rest, but he knows his own business, and he has adapted himself, like a sensible fellow, to his rough conditions."
A little later Father Payne stopped to look at a great sow-thistle that was growing vigorously under a hedge-row. "Did you ever see such a bit of pure force?" said Father Payne. "I see a fierce conscious life in every inch of that plant. Look at the way he clips himself in, and strains to the earth: look at his great rays of leaves, thrust out so geometrically from the centre, with the sharp, horny, uncompromising thorns. And see how he flattens down his leaves over the surrounding grasses: they haven't a chance; he just squeezes them down and strangles them. There is no mild and delicate waving of fronds in the air. He means to sit down firmly on the top of his comrades. I don't think I ever saw anything with such a muscular pull on—you can't lift his leaves up; look, he resists with all his might! Just consider the immense force which he is using: he is not merely snuggling down: he is just hauling things about. You don't mean to tell me that this thistle isn't conscious! He knows he has enemies, but he is going to make the place his very own—and all that out of a drifting little arrow of down!"
"Now that may not be a sympathetic or even Christian way of doing things," he went on presently, "but for all that, I do love to see the force of life, the intentness of living. I like our friend the beech a little better, because he is helping his friends, though he doesn't know it, and the thistle is only helping himself. But I am sure that it is the right way to go at it! We mustn't be always standing aside and making room: we mustn't obliterate ourselves. We have a right to our joy in life, and we mustn't be afraid of it. If we give away what we have got, it must cost us something—it must not be a mere relinquishing."
"It is rather hard to combine the two principles," I said—"the living of life, I mean, and the giving away of life."
"Well, I think that devotion is better than self-sacrifice," said Father Payne. "On the whole I mistrust weakness more than I mistrust strength. It's easy to dislike violence—but I rather worship vitality. I would almost rather see a man forcing his way through with some callousness, than backing out, smiling and apologising. You can convert strength, you can't do anything with weakness. Take the sort of work you fellows do. I always feel I can chasten and direct exuberance: what I can't do is to impart vigour. If a man says his essay is short because he can't think of anything to write, I feel inclined to say, 'Then for goodness' sake hold your tongue!' It's the people who can't hold their tongue, who go on roughly pointing things out, and commenting, and explaining, and thrusting themselves in front of the show, who do something. Of course force has to be kept in order, but there it is—it lives, it must have its say. What you have to learn is to insinuate yourself into life, like ivy, but without spoiling other people's pleasure. That's liberty! The old thistle has no respect for liberty, and that is why he is rooted up. But it's rather sad work doing it, because he does so very much want to be alive. But it isn't liberty simply to efface yourself, because you may interfere with other people. The thing is to fit in, without disorganising everything about you."
He mused for a little in silence; then he said, "It's like almost everything else—it's a weighing of claims! I don't want you fellows to be either tyrannical or slavish. It's tyrannical to bully, it's slavish to defer. The thing is to have a firm opinion, not to be ashamed of it or afraid of it; to say it reasonably and gently, and to stick to it amiably. Good does not attack, though if it is attacked it can slay. Good fights evil, but it knows what it is fighting, while evil fights good and evil alike. I think that is true. I don't want you people to be controversial or quarrelsome in what you write, and to go in for picking holes in others' work. If you want to help a man to do better, criticise him privately—don't slap him in public, to show how hard you can lay on. Make your own points, explain if you like, but don't apologise. The great writers, mind you, are the people who can go on. It's volume rather than delicacy that matters in the end. It must flow like honey—good solid stuff—not drip like rain, out of mere weakness. But the thing is to flow, and largeness of production is better than little bits of overhandled work. Mind that, my boy! It's force that tells: and that's why I don't want you to be over-interested in your work. You must go on filling up with experience; but it doesn't matter where or how you get it, as long as it is eagerly done. Be on the side of life! Amor fati, that's the motto for a man—to love his destiny passionately, and all that is before him; not to droop, or sentimentalise, or submit, but to plunge on, like a 'sea-shouldering whale'! You remember old Kit Smart—
'Strong against tide, the enormous whale Emerges as he goes.'
"Mind you emerge! Never heed the tide: there's plenty of room for it as well as for you!"
Lestrange was being genially bantered by Rose one day at dinner on what Rose called "problems of life and being," or "springs of action," or even "higher ground." Lestrange was oppressively earnest, but he was always good-natured.
"Ultimately?" he had said, "why, ultimately, of course, you must obey your conscience."
"No, no!" said Father Payne, "that won't do, Lestrange! Who are you, after all? I mean that the 'you' you speak of has something to say about it, to decide whether to disobey or to obey. And then, too, the same 'you' seems to have decided that conscience is to be obeyed. The thing that you describe as 'yourself' is much more ultimate than conscience, because if it is not convinced that conscience is to be obeyed, it will not obey. I mean that there is something which criticises even the conscience. It can't be reason, because your conscience over-rides your reason, and it can't be instinct, generally speaking, because conscience often over-rides instinct."
"I am confused," said Lestrange. "I mean by conscience the thing which says 'You ought!' That is what seems to me to prove the existence of God, that there is a sense of a moral law which one does not invent, and which is sometimes very inconveniently aggressive."
"Yes, that is all right," said Father Payne, "but how is it when there are two 'oughts,' as there often are? A man ought to work—and he ought not to overwork—something else has to be called in to decide where one 'ought' begins and the other ends. There is a perpetual balancing of moral claims. Your conscience tells you to do two things which are mutually exclusive—both are right in the abstract. What are you to do then?"
"I suppose that reason comes in there," said Lestrange.
"Then reason is the ultimate guide?" said Father Payne.
"Oh, Father, you are darkening counsel," said Lestrange.
"No, no," said Father Payne, "I am just trying to face facts."
"Well, then," said Lestrange, "what is the ultimate thing?"
"The ultimate thing," said Father Payne, "is of course the thing you call yourself—but the ultimate instinct is probably a sense of proportion—a sense of beauty, if you like!"
"But how does that work out in practice?" said Vincent. "It seems to me to be a mere argument about names and titles. You are using conscience as the sense of right and wrong, and, as you say, they often seem to have conflicting claims. Lestrange used it in the further sense of the thing which ultimately decides your course. It is right to be philanthropic, it is right to be artistic—they may conflict; but something ultimately tells you what you can do, which is really more important than what you ought to do."
"That is right," said Father Payne, "I think the test is simply this—that whenever you feel yourself paralysed, and your natural growth arrested by your obedience to any one claim—instinct, reason, conscience, whatever it is—the ultimate power cuts the knot, and tells you unfailingly where your real life lies. That is the real failure, when owing to some habit, some dread, some shrinking, you do not follow your real life. That, it seems to me, is where the old unflinching doctrines of sin and repentance have done harm. The old self-mortifying saints, who thought so badly of human nature, and who tore themselves to pieces, resisting wholesome impulses—celibate saints who ought to have been married, morbidly introspective saints who needed hard secular work, those were the people who did not dare to trust the sense of proportion, and were suspicious of the call of life. Look at St. Augustine in the wonderful passage about light, 'sliding by me in unnumbered guises'—he can only end by praying to be delivered from the temptation to enjoy the sight of dawn and sunset, as setting his affections too much upon the things of earth. I mistrust the fear of life—I mistrust all fear—at least I think it will take care of itself, and must not be cultivated. I think the call of God is the call of joy—and I believe that the superstitious dread of joy is one of the most potent agencies of the devil."
"But there are many joys which one has to mistrust," said Lestrange; "mere sensual delights, for instance."
"Yes," said Father Payne, "but most healthy and normal people, after a very little meddling with such delights, learn certainly enough that they only obscure the real, wholesome, temperate joys. You have to compromise wisely with your instincts, I think. You mustn't spend too much time in frontal attacks upon them. You have a quick temper, let us say. Well, it is better to lose it occasionally and apologise, than to hold your tongue about matters in which you are interested for fear of losing it. You are avaricious—well, hoard your money, and then yield on occasions to a generous impulse. That's a better way to defeat evil, than by dribbling money away in giving little presents which no one wants. I don't believe in petty warfare against faults. You know the proverb that if you knock too long at a closed door, the Devil opens it to you? Just give your sins a knock-down blow every now and then. I believe in the fire of life more than I believe in the cold water you use to quench it. Everything can be forgiven to passion; nothing can be forgiven to chilly calculation. The beautiful impulse is the thing that one must not disobey; and when I see people do big, wrong-headed, unguarded, unwise things, get into rows, sacrifice a reputation or a career without counting the cost, I am inclined to feel that they have probably done better for themselves than if they had been prudent and cautious. I don't say that they are always right, because people yield sometimes to a mere whim, and sometimes to a childishly overwhelming desire; but if there is a real touch of unselfishness about a sacrifice—that's the test, that some one else's joy should be involved—then I feel that it isn't my business to approve or disapprove. I feel in the presence of a force—an 'ought' as Lestrange says, which makes me shy of intervening. It's the wind of the Spirit—it blows where it will—and I know this, that I'm thankful beyond everything when I feel it in my own sails."
"Tell me when you feel it next, Father," said Vincent.
"I feel it now," said Father Payne, "now and here." And there was something in his face which made us disinclined to ask him any further questions.
Someone had been telling a curious story about a contested peerage. It was a sensational affair, involving the alteration of registers, the burning down of a vestry, and the flight of a clergyman.
"I like that story," said Father Payne, "and I like heraldry and rank and all that. It's decidedly picturesque. I enjoy the zigzagging of a title through generations. But the worst of it is that the most picturesque of all distinctions, like being the twentieth baron, let us say, in direct descent, is really of the nature of a stigma; a man whose twentieth ancestor was a baron has no excuse for not being a duke."
"But what I don't like," said Rose, "is the awful sense of sanctity which some people have about it. I read a book the other day where the hero sacrificed everything in turn, a career, a fortune, an engagement to a charming girl, a reputation, and last of all an undoubted claim to an ancient barony. I don't remember exactly why he did all these things—it was noble, undoubtedly it was noble! But there was something which made me vaguely uncomfortable about the order in which he spun his various advantages."
"It's only a sense of beauty slightly awry," said Father Payne; "names are curiously sacred things—they often seem to be part of the innermost essence of a man. I confess I would rather change most things than change my name. I would rather shave my head, for instance."
"But my hero would have had to change his name if he had claimed the peerage," said Rose.
"Yes, but you see the title was his right name," said Father Payne; "he was only masquerading as a commoner, you must remember. Why I should value an ancient peerage is because I think it might improve my manners."
"Impossible!" said Vincent.
"Thank you," said Father Payne. "Yes, my manners are very good for a commoner—but I should like to be a little more in the grand style. I should like to be able to look long at a person, who said something of which I disapproved, and then change the subject. That would be fine! But I daren't do that now. Now I have to argue. Do you remember in Daniel Deronda, Grandcourt's habit of looking stonily at smiling persons. I have often envied that! Whereas my chief function in life is looking smilingly at stony persons, and that's very bourgeois."
"We must show more animation," said Barthrop to his neighbour.
"I mean it!" said Father Payne, "but come, I won't be personal! Seriously, you know, the one thing I have admired in the very few great people I have ever met is the absence of embarrassment. They don't need to explain who they are, they haven't got to preface their statements of opinion by fragments of autobiography, to show their right to speak. It is convenient to feel that if people don't know who you are, they will feel slightly foolish afterwards when they discover, like the man who shook hands warmly with Queen Victoria, and said, "I know the face quite well, but I can't put a name to it." It did not show any pride of birth in the Queen to be extremely amused by the incident. But even more than that I admire the case which people of that sort get by having had, from childhood onwards, to meet all sorts of persons, and to behave themselves, and to see that people do not feel shy or uncomfortable. I sometimes go about the village simply teeming with benevolence, and I pass some one, and can't think of anything to say. If I had the great manner, I should say, "Why, Tommy, is that you?" or some such human signal, which would not mean anything in particular, but would after all express exactly what is in my mind. But I can't just do that. I rack my brains for an appropriate remark, because I am bourgeois, and have not the point of honour, as the French say. And by the time I have elaborated it, Tommy is gone, and Jack is passing, and I begin elaborating again; whereas I should simply add, if I were aristocratic, 'And that's you, Jack, isn't it?' That's the way to talk."
We all laughed; and Barthrop said, "Well, I must say, Father, that I have often envied you your power of saying something to everyone."
"I have spent more trouble on it than it is worth," said Father Payne; "and that's my point, that if I were only a great man, I should have learnt it all in childhood, and should not have to waste time over it at all. That's the best of rank; it's a device for saving trouble; it saves introduction and explanation and autobiography and elaborate civility, and makes people willing to be pleased by the smallest sign of affability. You may depend upon it that it was a very true instinct which made the Scotch minister pray that all might have honourable ancestors. It isn't a sacred thing, rank, and it isn't a magnificent thing—but it's a pleasant human sort of thing in the right hands. What is more, in these democratic days, it tends to make people of rank additionally anxious not to parade the fact—and I doubt if there is anything on the whole happier than having advantages which you don't want to parade—it gives a tranquil sort of contentment, and it removes all futile ambitions. To be, by descent, what a desperately industrious lawyer or a successful general feels himself amply rewarded for his toil by becoming, isn't nothing. I'm always rather suspicious of the people who try to pretend that it is nothing at all. The rank is but the guinea stamp, of course. But after all the stamp is what makes it a guinea instead of an unnegotiable disc of metal!"
Father Payne used often to say that he was more interested in biography than in any other form of art, and believed that there was a greater future before it than before any other sort of literature. "Just think," I remember his saying, "human portraiture—the most interesting thing in the world by far—what the novel tries to do and can't do!"
"What exactly do you mean by 'can't do'?" I said.
"Why, my boy," said Father Payne, "because we are all so horrified at the idea of telling the truth or looking the truth in the face. The novel accommodates human nature, patches it up, varnishes it, puts it in a good light: it may be artistic and romantic and poetical—but it hasn't got the beauty of truth. Life is much more interesting than any imaginative fricassee of it! These realistic fellows—they are moving towards biography, but they haven't got much beyond the backgrounds yet."
"But why shouldn't it be done?" I said. "There's Boswell's Johnson—why does that stand almost alone?"
"Why, think of all the difficulties, my boy," said Father Payne. "There's nothing like Boswell's Johnson, of course—but what a subject! There's nothing that so proves Boswells genius—we mustn't forget that—as the other wretched stuff written about Johnson. There's a passage in Boswell, when he didn't see Johnson for a long time, and stuck in a few stories collected from other friends. They are awfully flat and flabby—they have all been rolled about in some one's mind, till they are as smooth as pebbles—some bits of the crudest rudeness, not worked up to—some knock-down schoolboy retorts which most civilised men would have had the decency to repress—and then we get back to the real Boswell again, and how fresh and lively it is!"
"But what are the difficulties you spoke of?" I said.
"Why, in the first place," said Father Payne, "a biography ought to be written during a man's life and not after it—and very few people will take the trouble to write things down day after day about anyone else, as Boswell did. If it waits till after a man's death, a hush falls on the scene—everyone is pious and sentimental. Of course, Boswell's life is inartistic enough—it wanders along, here a letter, there a lot of criticism, here a talk, there a reminiscence. It isn't arranged—it has no scheme: but how full of zest it is! And then you have to be pretty shameless in pursuing your hero, and elbowing other people away, and drawing him out; and you have to be prepared to be kicked and trampled upon, when the hero is cross: and then you have to be a considerable snob, and say what you really value and admire, however vulgar it is. And then you must expect to be called hard names when the book appears. I was reading a review the other day of what seemed to me to be a harmless biography enough—a little frank and enthusiastic affair, I gathered: and the reviewer wrote in the style of Pecksniff, caddish and priggish at the same time: he called the man to task for botanising on his friend's grave—that unfortunate verse of Wordsworth's, you know—and he left the impression that the writer had done something indelicate and impious, and all with a consciousness of how high-minded he himself was.
"You ought to write a biography as though you were telling your tale in a friendly and gentle ear—you ought not to lose your sense of humour, or be afraid of showing your subject in a trivial or ridiculous light. Look at Boswell again—I don't suppose a more deadly case could be made out against any man, with perfect truth, than could be made out against Johnson. You could show him as brutal, rough, greedy, superstitious, prejudiced, unjust, and back it all up by indisputable evidence—but it's the balance, the net result, that matters! We have all of us faults; we know them, our friends know them—why the devil should not everyone know them? But then an interesting man dies, and everyone becomes loyal and sentimental. Not a word must be said which could pain or wound anyone. The friends and relations, it would seem, are not pained by the dead man's faults, they are only pained that other people should know them. The biography becomes a mixture of disinfectants and perfumes, as if it were all meant to hide some putrid thing. It's like what Jowett said about a testimonial, 'There's a strong smell here of something left out!' We have hardly ever had anything but romantic biographies hitherto, and they all smell of something left out. There's a tribe somewhere in Africa who will commit murder if anyone tries to sketch them. They think it brings bad luck to be sketched, a sort of 'overlooking' as they say. Well that seems to be the sort of superstition that many people have about biographies, as if the departed spirit would be vexed by anything which isn't a compliment. I suppose it is partly this—that many people are ill-bred, glum, and suspicious, and can't bear the idea of their faults being recorded. They hate all frankness: and so when anything frank gets written, they talk about violating sacred confidences, and about shameless exposures. It is really that we are all horribly uncivilised, and can't bear to give ourselves away, or to be given away. Of course we don't want biographies of merely selfish, stupid, brutal, ill-bred men—but everyone ought to be thankful when a life can be told frankly, and when there's enough that is good and beautiful to make it worth telling.