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Philistia (Chapter17)

2006-08-28 23:24

  Chapter XVII. 'Come Ye Out and be Ye Separate.'

  Arthur Berkeley's London lodgings were wonderfully snug and comfortable for the second floor of a second-rate house in a small retired side street near the Embankment at Chelsea. He had made the most of the four modest little rooms, with his quick taste and his deft, cunning fingers:——four rooms, or rather boxes, one might almost call them; a bedroom each for himself and the Progenitor; a wee sitting-room for meals and music——the two Berkeleys would doubtless as soon have gone without the one as the other; and a tiny study where Arthur might work undisturbed at his own desk upon his new and original magnum opus, destined to form the great attraction of the coming season at the lately-opened Ambiguities Theatre. Things had prospered well with the former Oxford curate during the last twelve-month. His cantata at Leeds had proved a wonderful success, and had finally induced him to remove to London, and take to composing as a regular profession. He had his qualms about it, to be sure, as one who had put his hand to the plough and then turned back; he did not feel quite certain in his own mind how far he was justified in giving up the more spiritual for the more worldly calling; but natures like Arthur Berkeley's move rather upon passing feeling than upon deeper sentiment; and had he not ample ground, he asked himself, for this reconsideration of the monetary position? He had the Progenitor's happiness to insure before thinking of the possible injury to his non-existent parishioners. If he was doing Whippingham Parva or Norton-cum-Sutton out of an eloquent and valuable potential rector, if he was depriving the Church in the next half-century of a dignified and portly prospective archdeacon, he is at least making his father's last days brighter and more comfortable than his early ones had ever been. And then, was not music, too, in its own way, a service, a liturgy, a worship? Surely he could do higher good to men's souls——as they call them——to whatever little spark of nobler and better fire there might lurk within those dull clods of common clay he saw all around him——by writing such a work as his Leeds cantata, than by stringing together for ever those pretty centos of seventeenth-century conceits and nineteenth-century doubts or hesitations which he was accustomed to call his sermons! Whatever came of it, he must give up the miserable pittance of a curacy, and embrace the career open to the musical talents.

  So he fitted up his little Chelsea rooms in his own economically sumptuous fashion with some bits of wall paper, a few jugs and vases, and an etching or two after Meissonier; planted the Progenitor down comfortably in a large easy-chair, with a melodious fiddle before him; and set to work himself to do what he could towards elevating the British stage and pocketing a reasonable profit on his own account from that familiar and ever-rejuvenescent process. He was quite in earnest, now, about producing a totally new effect of his own; and believing in his work, as a good workman ought to do, he wrought at it indefatigably and well in the retirement of a second-pair back, overlooking a yardful of fluttering clothes, and a fine skyline vista of bare, yellowish brick chimneys.

  'What part are you working at to-day, Artie?' said the old shoemaker, looking over his son's shoulder at the blank music paper before him. 'Quartette of Biological Professors, eh?'

  'Yes, father,' Berkeley answered with a smile. 'How do you think it runs now?' and he hummed over a few lines of his own words, set with a quaint lilt to his own inimitable and irresistible music:——

  And though in unanimous chorus We mourn that from ages before us No single enaliosaurus To-day should survive,

  Yet joyfully may we bethink us,With the earliest mammal to link us,We still have the ornithorhyncus Extant and alive!

  'How do you think the score does for that, father, eh? Catching air rather, isn't it?'

  'Not a better air in the whole piece, Artie; but, my boy, who do you think will ever understand the meaning of the words. The gods themselves won't know what you're driving at.'

  'But I'm going to strike out a new line, Daddie dear. I'm not going to play to the gallery; I mean to play to the stalls and boxes.'

  'Was there ever such a born aristocrat as this young parson is!' cried the old man, lifting up both his hands with a playful gesture of mock-deprecation. 'He's hopeless! He's terrible! He's incorrigible! Why, you unworthy son of a respectable Paddington shoemaker, if even the intelligent British artizans in the gallery don't understand you, how the dickens do you suppose the oiled and curled Assyrian bulls in the stalls and boxes will have a glimmering idea of what you're driving at? The supposition's an insult to the popular intelligence——in other words, to me, sir, your Progenitor.'

  Berkeley laughed. 'I don't know about that, father,' he said, holding up the page of manuscript music at arm's length admiringly before him; 'but I do know one thing: this comic opera of mine is going to be a triumphant success.'

  'So I've thought ever since you began it, Artie. You see, my boy, there's a great many points in its favour. In the first place you can write your own libretto, or whatever you call it; and you know I've always held that though that Wagner man was wrong in practice——a most inflated thunder-bomb, his Lohengrin——yet he was right in theory, right in theory, Artie; every composer ought to be his own poet. Well, then, again, you've got a certain peculiar vein of humour of your own, a kind of delicate semi-serious burlesque turn about you that's quite original, both in writing and in composing; you're a humourist in verse and a humourist in music, that's the long and the short of it. Now, you've hit upon a fresh lode of dramatic ore in this opera of yours, and if my judgment goes for anything, it'll bring the house down the first evening. I'm a bit of a critic, Artie; by hook or by crook, you know, paper or money, I've heard every good opera, comic or serious, that's been given in London these last thirty years, and I flatter myself I know something by this time about operatic criticism.'

  'You're wrong about Wagner, father,' said Arthur, still glancing with paternal partiality at his sheet of manuscript: 'Lohengrin's a very fine work, a grand work, I assure you. I won't let you run it down. But, barring that, I think you're pretty nearly right in your main judgment. I'm not modest, and it strikes me somehow that I've invented a genre. That's about what it comes to.'

  'If you'd confine yourself to your native tongue, Mr. Parson, your ignorant old father might have some chance of agreeing or disagreeing with you; but as he doesn't even know what the thingumbob you say you've invented may happen to be, he can't profitably continue the discussion of that subject. However, my only fear is that you may perhaps be writing above the heads of the audience. Not in the music, Artie; they can't fail to catch that; it rings in one's head like the song of a hedge warbler——tirree, tirree, lu-lu-lu, la-la, tirree, tu-whit, tu-whoo, tra-la-la——but in the words and the action. I'm half afraid that'll be over their heads, even in the gallery. What do you think you'll finally call it?'

  'I'm hesitating, Daddy, between "Evolution" and "The Primate of Fiji." Which do you recommend——tell me?'

  'The Primate, by all means,' said the old man gaily. 'And you still mean to open with the debate in the Fijian Parliament on the Deceased Grandmother's Second Cousin Bill?'

  'No, I don't, Daddy. I've written a new first scene this week, in which the President of the Board of Trade remonstrates with the mermaids on their remissness in sending their little ones to the Fijian Board Schools, in order to receive primary instruction in the art of swimming. I've got a capital chorus of mermaids to balance the other chorus of Biological Professors on the Challenger Expedition. I consider it's a happy cross between Ariosto and Aristophanes. If you like, I'll give you the score, and read over the words to you.' 'Do,' said the old man, settling himself down in comfort in his son's easy-chair, and assuming the sternest air of an impartial critic. Arthur Berkeley read on dramatically, in his own clever airy fashion, suiting accent and gesture to the subject matter through the whole first three acts of that exquisitely humorous opera, the Primate of Fiji. Sometimes he hummed the tune over to himself as he went; sometimes he played a few notes upon his flute by way of striking the key-note; sometimes he rose from his seat in his animation, and half acted the part he was reading with almost unconscious and spontaneous mimicry. He read through the famous song of the President of the Local Government Board, that everybody has since heard played by every German band at the street corners; through the marvellously catching chorus of the superannuated tide-waiters; through the culminating dialogue between the London Missionary Society's Agent and the Hereditary Grand Sacrificer to the King of Fiji. Of course the recital lacked everything of the scenery and dresses that give it so much vogue upon the stage; but it had at least the charmingly suggestive music, the wonderful linking of sound to sense, the droll and inimitable intermixture of the plausible and the impossible which everybody has admired and laughed at in the acted piece.

  The old shoemaker listened in breathless silence, keeping his eye fixed steadily all the time upon the clean copy of the score. Only once he made a wry face to himself, and that was in the chorus to the debate in the Fijian Parliament on the proposal to leave off the practice of obligatory cannibalism. The conservative party were of opinion that if you began by burying instead of eating your deceased wife, you might end by the atrocious practice of marrying your deceased wife's sister; and they opposed the revolutionary measure in that well known refrain:——

  Of change like this we're naturally chary,Nolumus leges Fijiae mutari.

  That passage evidently gave the Progenitor deep pain.

  'Stick to your own language, my boy,' he murmured; 'stick to your own language. The Latin may be very fine, but the gallery wil never understand it.' However, when Arthur finished at last, he drew a long breath, and laid down the roll of manuscript with an involuntary little cry of half-stifled applause.

  'Artie,' he said rising from the chair slowly, 'Artie, that's not so bad for a parson, I can tell you. I hope the Archbishop won't be tempted to cite you for displaying an amount of originality unworthy of your cloth.'

  'Father,' said Arthur, suddenly, after a short pause, with a tinge of pensiveness in his tone that was not usual with him, in speaking at least; 'Father, I often think I ought never to have become a parson at all.'

  'Well, my boy,' said the old man, looking up at him sharply with his keen eyes, 'I knew that long ago. You've never really believed in the thing, and you oughtn't to have gone in for it from the very beginning. It was the music, and the dresses, and the decorations that enticed you, Artie, and not the doctrine.'

  Arthur turned towards him with a pained expression. 'Father,' he said, half reproachfully, 'Father, dear father, dou't talk to me like that. Don't think I'm so shallow or so dishonest as to subscribe to opinions I don't believe in. It's a curious thing to say, a curious thing in this unbelieving age, and I'm half ashamed to say it, even to you; but do you know, father, I really do believe it: in my very heart of hearts, I fancy I believe every word of it.'

  The old man listened to him compassionately and tenderly, as a woman listens to the fears and troubles of a little child. To him, that plain confession of faith was, in truth, a wonder and a stumbling-block. Good, simple-hearted, easy-going, logical-minded, sceptical shoemaker that he was, with his head all stuffed full of Malthus, and John Stuart Mill, and political economy, and the hard facts of life and science, how could he hope to understand the complex labyrinth of metaphysical thinking, and childlike faith, and aesthetic attraction, and historical authority, which made a sensitive man like Arthur Berkeley, in his wayward, half-serious, emotional fashion, turn back lovingly and regretfully to the fair old creed that his father had so long deserted? How strange that Artie, a full-grown male person, with all the learning of the schools behind him, should relapse at last into these childish and exploded mediaeval superstitions! How incredible that, after having been brought up from his babyhood upward on the strong meat of the agnostic philosophers, he should fall back in his manhood on the milk for babes administered to him by orthodox theology! The simple-minded old sceptic could hardly credit it, now that Arthur told him so with his own lips, though he had more than once suspected it when he heard him playing sacred music with that last touch of earnestness in his execution which only the sincerest conviction and most intimate realisation of its import can ever give. Ah well, ah well, good sceptical old shoemaker; there are perhaps more things in heaven and earth and in the deep soul of man than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  Still, though the avowal shocked and disappointed him a little, the old man could not find it in his heart to say one word of sorrow or disapproval, far less of ridicule or banter, to his dearly loved boy. He felt instinctively, what Herbert Le Breton could not feel, that this sentimental tendency of his son's, as he thought it, lay far too deep and seemed far too sacred for mere argument or common discussion. 'Perhaps,' he said to himself softly, 'Artie's emotional side has got the better of his intellectual. I brought him up without telling him any thing of these things, except negatively, and by way of warning against superstitious tendencies; and when he went to Oxford, and saw the doctrines tricked out in all the authority of a great hierarchy, with its cathedrals, and chapels, and choirs, and altars, and robes, and fal-lal finery, it got the better of him; got the better of him, very naturally. Artie's a cleverer fellow than his old father——had more education, and so on; and I'm fond of him, very fond of him; but his logical faculty isn't quite straight, somehow: he lets his feelings have too much weight and prominence against his calmer reason! I can easily understand how, with his tastes and leanings, the clericals should have managed to get a hold over him. The clericals are such insinuating cunning fellows. A very impressionable boy Artie was, always; the poetical temperament and the artistic temperament always is impressionable, I suppose; but shoemaking certainly does develop the logical faculties. Seems as though the logical faculties were situated in the fore-part of the brain, as they mark them out on the phrenological heads; and the leaning forward that gives us the shoemaker's forehead must tend to enlarge them——give them plenty of room to expand and develop!' Saying which thing to himself musingly, the father took his son's hand gently in his, and only smoothed it quietly as he looked deep into Arthur's eyes, without uttering a single word.

  As for Arthur Berkeley, he sat silent, too, half averting his face from his father's gaze, and feeling a little blush of shame upon his cheek at having been surprised unexpectedly into such an unwonted avowal. How could he ever expect his father to understand the nature of his feelings! To him, good old man that he was, all these things were just matters of priestcraft and obscurantism——fables invented by the ecclesiastical mind as a means of getting fat livings and comfortable deaneries out of the public pocket. And, indeed, Arthur was well accustomed at Oxford to keeping his own opinions to himself on such subjects. What chance of sympathy or response was there for such a man as he in that coldly critical and calmly deliberative learned society? Not, of course, that all Oxford was wholly given over even then to extreme agnosticism. There were High Churchmen, and Low Churchmen, and Broad Churchmen enough, to be sure: men learned in the Fathers, and the Canons, and the Acts of the General Councils; men ready to argue on the intermediate state, or on the three witnesses, or on the heretical nature of the Old Catholic schism; men prepared with minute dogmatic opinions upon every conceivable or inconceivable point of abstract theology. There were people who could trace the Apostolic succession of the old Cornish bishops, and people who could pronounce authoritatively upon the exact distinction between justification and remission of sins. But for all these things Arthur Berkeley cared nothing. Where, then, among those learned exegetical theologians, was there room for one whose belief was a matter, not of reason and argument, but of feeling and of sympathy? He did not want to learn what the Council of Trent had said about such and such a dogma; he wanted to be conscious of an inner truth, to find the world permeated by an informing righteousness, to know himself at one with the inner essence of the entire universe. And though he could never feel sure whether it was all illusion or not, he had hungered and thirsted after believing it, till, as he told his father timidly that day, he actually did believe it somehow in his heart of hearts. Let us not seek to probe too deeply into those inner recesses, whose abysmal secrets are never perfectly clear even to the introspective eyes of the conscious self-dissector himself.

  After a pause Arthur spoke again. He spoke this time in a very low voice, as one afraid to open his soul too much, even to his father. 'Dear, dear father,' he said, releasing his hand softly, 'you don't quite understand what I mean about it. It isn't because I don't believe, or try to believe, or hope I believe, that I think I ought never to have become a parson. In my way, as in a glass, darkly, I do strive my best to believe, though perhaps my belief is hardly more in its way than Ernest Le Breton's unbelieving. I do want to think that this great universe we see around us isn't all a mistake and an abortion. I want to find a mind and an order and a purpose in it; and, perhaps because I want it, I make myself believe that I have really found it. In that hope and belief, with the ultimate object of helping on whatever is best and truest in the world, I took orders. But I feel now that it was an error for me. I'm not the right man to make a parson. There are men who are born for that role; men who know how to conduct themselves in it decently and in seemly fashion; men who can quietly endure all its restraints, and can fairly rise to the height of all its duties. But I can't. I was intended for something lighter and less onerous than that. If I stop in the Church I shall do no good to myself or to it; if I come out of it, I shall make both parties freer, and shall be able to do more good in my own generation. And so, father, for the very same reasons that made me go into it, I mean to come out again. Not in any quarrel with it, nor as turning my back upon it, but just as the simple acknowledgment of a mistaken calling. It wouldn't be seemly, for example, for a parson to write comic operas. But I feel I can do more good by writing comic operas than by talking dogmatically about things I hardly understand to people who hardly understand me. So before I get this opera acted I mean to leave off my white tie, and be known in future, henceforth and for ever, as plain Arthur Berkeley.'

  The old shoemaker listened in respectful silence. 'It isn't for me, Artie,' he said, as his son finished, 'to stand between a man and his conscience. As John Stuart Mill says in his essay on "Liberty," we must allow full play to every man's individuality. Wonderful man, John Stuart Mill; I understand his grandfather was a shoemaker. Well, I won't talk with you about the matter of conviction; but I never wanted you to be a parson, and I shall feel all the happier myself when you've ceased to be one.'

  'And I,' said Arthur, 'shall feel all the freer; but if I had been able to remain where I was, I should have felt all the worthier, for all that.'

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