Born in Exile, by George Gissing

Part V

Chapter I

The cuckoo clock in Mrs. Roots’s kitchen had just struck three. A wind roared from the north-east, and light thickened beneath a sky which made threat of snow. Peak was in a mood to enjoy the crackling fire; he settled himself with a book in his easy-chair, and thought with pleasure of two hours’ reading, before the appearance of the homely teapot.

Christmas was just over — one cause of the feeling of relief and quietness which possessed him. No one had invited him for Christmas Eve or the day that followed, and he did not regret it. The letter he had received from Martin Warricombe was assurance enough that those he desired to remember him still did so. He had thought of using this season for his long postponed visit to Twybridge, but reluctance prevailed. All popular holidays irritated and depressed him; he loathed the spectacle of multitudes in Sunday garb. It was all over, and the sense of that afforded him a brief content.

This book, which he had just brought from the circulating library, was altogether to his taste. The author, Justin Walsh, he knew to be a brother of Professor Walsh, long ago the object of his rebellious admiration. Matter and treatment rejoiced him. No intellectual delight, though he was capable of it in many forms, so stirred his spirit as that afforded him by a vigorous modern writer joyously assailing the old moralities. Justin Walsh was a modern of the moderns; at once man of science and man of letters; defiant without a hint of popular cynicism, scornful of English reticences yet never gross. ‘Oui, repondit Pococurante, il est beau d’ecrire ce qu ‘on pense; c’est le privilege de l’homme.’ This stood by way of motto on the title-page, and Godwin felt his nerves thrill in sympathetic response.

What a fine fellow he must be to have for a friend! Now a man like this surely had companionship enough and of the kind he wished? He wrote like one who associates freely with the educated classes both at home and abroad. Was he married? Where would he seek his wife? The fitting mate for him would doubtless be found among those women, cosmopolitan and emancipated, whose acquaintance falls only to men in easy circumstances and of good social standing, men who travel much, who are at home in all the great centres of civilisation.

As Peak meditated, the volume fell upon his knee. Had it not lain in his own power to win a reputation like that which Justin Walsh was achieving? His paper in The Critical Review, itself a decided success, might have been followed up by others of the same tenor. Instead of mouldering in a dull cathedral town, he might now be living and working in France or Germany. His money would have served one purpose as well as the other, and two or three years of determined effort ——

Mrs. Roots showed her face at the door.

‘A gentleman is asking for you, sir — Mr. Chilvers.’

‘Mr. Chilvers? Please ask him to come up.’

He threw his book on to the table, and stood in expectancy. Someone ascended the stairs with rapid stride and creaking boots. The door was flung open, and a cordial but affected voice burst forth in greeting.

‘Ha, Mr. Peak! I hope you haven’t altogether forgotten me? Delighted to see you again!’

Godwin gave his hand, and felt it strongly pressed, whilst Chilvers gazed into his face with a smiling wistfulness which could only be answered with a grin of discomfort. The Rev. Bruno had grown very tall, and seemed to be in perfect health; but the effeminacy of his brilliant youth still declared itself in his attitudes, gestures, and attire. He was dressed with marked avoidance of the professional pattern. A hat of soft felt but not clerical, fashionable collar and tie, a sweeping ulster, and beneath it a frock-coat, which was doubtless the pride of some West End tailor. His patent-leather boots were dandiacally diminutive; his glove fitted like that of a lady who lives but to be bien gantee. The feathery hair, which at Whitelaw he was wont to pat and smooth, still had its golden shimmer, and on his face no growth was permitted.

‘I had heard of your arrival here, of course,’ said Peak, trying to appear civil, though anything more than that was beyond his power. ‘Will you sit down?’

‘This is the “breathing time o’ the day” with you, I hope? I don’t disturb your work?’

‘I was only reading this book of Walsh’s. Do you know it?’

But for some such relief of his feelings, Godwin could not have sat still. There was a pleasure in uttering Walsh’s name. Moreover, it would serve as a test of Chilvers’ disposition.

‘Walsh?’ He took up the volume. ‘Ha! Justin Walsh. I know him. A wonderful book! Admirable dialectic! Delicious style!’

‘Not quite orthodox, I fancy,’ replied Godwin, with a curling of the lips.

‘Orthodox? Oh, of course not, of course not! But a rich vein of humanity. Don’t you find that? — Pray allow me to throw off my overcoat. Ha, thanks! — A rich vein of humanity. Walsh is by no means to be confused with the nullifidians. A very broad-hearted, large-souled man; at bottom the truest of Christians. Now and then he effervesces rather too exuberantly. Yes, I admit it. In a review of his last book, which I was privileged to write for one of our papers, I ventured to urge upon him the necessity of restraint; it seems to me that in this new work he exhibits more self-control, an approach to the serene fortitude which I trust he may attain. A man of the broadest brotherliness. A most valuable ally of renascent Christianity.’

Peak was hardly prepared for this strain. He knew that Chilvers prided himself on ‘breadth’, but as yet he had enjoyed no intercourse with the broadest school of Anglicans, and was uncertain as to the limits of modern latitudinarianism. The discovery of such fantastic liberality in a man whom he could not but dislike and contemn gave him no pleasure, but at least it disposed him to amusement rather than antagonism. Chilvers’ pronunciation and phraseology were distinguished by such original affectation that it was impossible not to find entertainment in listening to him. Though his voice was naturally thin and piping, he managed to speak in head notes which had a ring of robust utterance. The sound of his words was intended to correspond with their virile warmth of meaning. In the same way he had cultivated a habit of the muscles which conveyed an impression that he was devoted to athletic sports. His arms occasionally swung as if brandishing dumb-bells, his chest now and then spread itself to the uttermost, and his head was often thrown back in an attitude suggesting self-defence.

‘So you are about to join us,’ he exclaimed, with a look of touching interest, much like that of a ladies’ doctor speaking delicately of favourable symptoms. Then, as if consciously returning to the virile note, ‘I think we shall understand each other. I am always eager to study the opinions of those among us who have scientific minds. I hear of you on all hands; already you have strongly impressed some of the thinking people in Exeter.’

Peak crossed his legs and made no reply.

‘There is distinct need of an infusion of the scientific spirit into the work of the Church. The churchman hitherto has been, as a matter of course, of the literary stamp; hence much of our trouble during the last half-century. It behoves us to go in for science — physical, economic — science of every kind. Only thus can we resist the morbific influences which inevitably beset an Established Church in times such as these. I say it boldly. Let us throw aside our Hebrew and our Greek, our commentators ancient and modern! Let us have done with polemics and with compromises! What we have to do is to construct a spiritual edifice on the basis of scientific revelation. I use the word revelation advisedly. The results of science are the divine message to our age; to neglect them, to fear them, is to remain under the old law whilst the new is demanding our adherence, to repeat the Jewish error of bygone time. Less of St Paul, and more of Darwin! Less of Luther, and more of Herbert Spencer!’

‘Shall I have the pleasure of hearing this doctrine at St Margaret’s?’ Peak inquired.

‘In a form suitable to the intelligence of my parishioners, taken in the mass. Were my hands perfectly free, I should begin by preaching a series of sermons on The Origin of species. Sermons! An obnoxious word! One ought never to use it. It signifies everything inept, inert.’

‘Is it your serious belief, then, that the mass of parishioners here or elsewhere — are ready for this form of spiritual instruction?’

‘Most distinctly — given the true capacity in the teacher. Mark me; I don’t say that they are capable of receiving much absolute knowledge. What I desire is that their minds shall be relieved from a state of harassing conflict — put at the right point of view. They are not to think that Jesus of Nazareth teaches faith and conduct incompatible with the doctrines of Evolutionism. They are not to spend their lives in kicking against the pricks, and regard as meritorious the punctures which result to them. The establishment in their minds of a few cardinal facts — that is the first step. Then let the interpretation follow — the solace, the encouragement, the hope for eternity!’

‘You imagine,’ said Godwin, with a calm air, ‘that the mind of the average church-goer is seriously disturbed on questions of faith?’

‘How can you ignore it, my dear Peak? — Permit me this familiarity; we are old fellow-collegians. — The average churchgoer is the average citizen of our English commonwealth — a man necessarily aware of the great Radical movement, and all that it involves. Forgive me. There has been far too much blinking of actualities by zealous Christians whose faith is rooted in knowledge. We gain nothing by it; we lose immensely. Let us recognise that our churches are filled with sceptics, endeavouring to believe in spite of themselves.’

‘Your experience is much larger than mine,’ remarked the listener, submissively.

‘Indeed I have widely studied the subject.’

Chilvers smiled with ineffable self-content, his head twisted like that of a sagacious parrot.

‘Granting your average citizen,’ said the other, ‘what about the average citizeness? The female church-goers are not insignificant in number.’

‘Ha! There we reach the core of the matter! Woman! woman! Precisely there is the most hopeful outlook. I trust you are strong for female emancipation?’

‘Oh, perfectly sound on that question!’

‘To be sure! Then it must be obvious to you that women are destined to play the leading part in our Christian renascence, precisely as they did in the original spreading of the faith. What else is the meaning of the vast activity in female education? Let them be taught, and forthwith they will rally to our Broad Church. A man may be content to remain a nullifidian; women cannot rest at that stage. They demand the spiritual significance of everything. — I grieve to tell you, Peak, that for three years I have been a widower. My wife died with shocking suddenness, leaving me her two little children. Ah, but leaving me also the memory of a singularly pure and noble being. I may say, with all humility, that I have studied the female mind in its noblest modern type. I know what can be expected of woman, in our day and in the future.’

‘Mrs. Chilvers was in full sympathy with your views?’

‘Three years ago I had not yet reached my present standpoint. In several directions I was still narrow. But her prime characteristic was the tendency to spiritual growth. She would have accompanied me step by step. In very many respects I must regard myself as a man favoured by fortune — I know it, and I trust I am grateful for it — but that loss, my dear Peak, counterbalances much happiness. In moments of repose, when I look back on work joyously achieved, I often murmur to myself, with a sudden sigh, Excepto quod non simul esses, caetera Iaetus!’

He pronounced his Latin in the new-old way, with Continental vowels. The effect of this on an Englishman’s lips is always more or less pedantic, and in his case it was intolerable.

‘And when,’ he exclaimed, dismissing the melancholy thought, ‘do you present yourself for ordination?’

It was his habit to pay slight attention to the words of anyone but himself, and Peak’s careless answer merely led him to talk on wide subjects with renewal of energy. One might have suspected that he had made a list of uncommon words wherewith to adorn his discourse, for certain of these frequently recurred. ‘Nullifidian’, ‘morbific’, ‘renascent’, were among his favourites. Once or twice he spoke of ‘psychogenesis’, with an emphatic enunciation which seemed to invite respectful wonder. In using Latin words which have become fixed in the English language, he generally corrected the common errors of quantity: ‘minnus the spiritual fervour’, ‘acting as his loccum tennens’. When he referred to Christian teachers with whom he was acquainted, they were seldom or never members of the Church of England. Methodists, Romanists, Presbyterians appeared to stand high in his favour, and Peak readily discerned that this was a way of displaying ‘large-souled tolerance’. It was his foible to quote foreign languages, especially passages which came from heretical authors. Thus, he began to talk of Feuerbach for the sole purpose of delivering a German sentence.

‘He has been of infinite value to me — quite infinite value. You remember his definition of God? It is constantly in my mind. “Gott ist eine Trane der Liebe, in tiefster Verborgenheit vergossen uber das menschliche Elend.” Profoundly touching! I know nothing to approach it.’

Suddenly he inquired:

‘Do you see much of the Exeter clergy?’

‘I know only the Vicar of St. Ethelreda’s, Mr. Lilywhite.’

‘Ha! Admirable fellow! Large-minded, broad of sympathies. Has distinctly the scientific turn of thought.’

Peak smiled, knowing the truth. But he had hit upon a way of meeting the Rev. Bruno which promised greatly to diminish the suffering inherent in the situation. He would use the large-souled man deliberately for his mirth. Chilvers’s self-absorption lent itself to persiflage, and by indulging in that mood Godwin tasted some compensation for the part he had to play.

‘And I believe you know the Warricombes very well?’ pursued Chilvers.

‘Yes.’

‘Ha! I hope to see much of them. They are people after my own heart. Long ago I had a slight acquaintance with them. I hear we shan’t see them till the summer.’

‘I believe not.’

‘Mr. Warricombe is a great geologist, I think? — Probably he frequents public worship as a mere tribute to social opinion?’

He asked the question in the airiest possible way, as if it mattered nothing to him what the reply might be.

‘Mr. Warricombe is a man of sincere piety,’ Godwin answered, with grave countenance.

‘That by no means necessitates church-going, my dear Peak,’ rejoined the other, waving his hand.

‘You think not? I am still only a student, you must remember. My mind is in suspense on not a few points.’

‘Of course! Of course! Pray let me give you the results of my own thought on this subject.’

He proceeded to do so, at some length. When he had rounded his last period, he unexpectedly started up, swung on his toes, spread his chest, drew a deep breath, and with the sweetest of smiles announced that he must postpone the delight of further conversation.

‘You must come and dine with me as soon as my house is in reasonable order. As yet, everything is sens dessus-dessous. Delightful old city, Exeter! Charming! Charming!’

And on the moment he was gone.

What were this man’s real opinions? He had brains and literature; his pose before the world was not that of an ignorant charlatan. Vanity, no doubt, was his prime motive, but did it operate to make a cleric of a secret materialist, or to incite a display of excessive liberalism in one whose convictions were orthodox? Godwin could not answer to his satisfaction, but he preferred the latter surmise.

One thing, however, became clear to him. All his conscientious scruples about entering the Church were superfluous. Chilvers would have smiled pityingly at anyone who disputed his right to live by the Establishment, and to stand up as an authorised preacher of the national faith. And beyond a doubt he regulated his degree of ‘breadth’ by standards familiar to him in professional intercourse. To him it seemed all-sufficient to preach a gospel of moral progress, of intellectual growth, of universal fraternity. If this were the tendency of Anglicanism, then almost any man who desired to live a cleanly life, and to see others do the same, might without hesitation become a clergyman. The old formulae of subscription were so symbolised, so volatilised, that they could not stand in the way of anyone but a combative nihilist. Peak was conscious of positive ideals by no means inconsistent with Christian teaching, and in his official capacity these alone would direct him.

He spent his evening pleasantly, often laughing as he recalled a phrase or gesture of the Rev. Bruno’s.

In the night fell a sprinkling of snow, and when the sun rose it gleamed from a sky of pale, frosty blue. At ten o’clock Godwin set out for his usual walk, choosing the direction of the Old Tiverton Road. It was a fortnight since he had passed the Warricombes’ house. At present he was disposed to indulge the thoughts which a sight of it would make active.

He had begun the ascent of the hill when the sound of an approaching vehicle caused him to raise his eyes — they were generally fixed on the ground when he walked alone. It was only a hired fly. But, as it passed him, he recognised the face he had least expected to see — Sidwell Warricombe sat in the carriage, and unaccompanied. She noticed him — smiled — and bent forward. He clutched at his hat, but it happened that the driver had turned to look at him, and, instead of the salute he had intended, his hand waved to the man to stop. The gesture was scarcely voluntary; when he saw the carriage pull up, his heart sank; he felt guilty of monstrous impudence. But Sidwell’s face appeared at the window, and its expression was anything but resentful; she offered her hand, too. Without preface of formal phrase he exclaimed:

‘How delightful to see you so unexpectedly! Are you all here?’

‘Only mother and I. We have come for a day or two.’

‘Will you allow me to call? If only for a few minutes’——

‘We shall be at home this afternoon.’

‘Thank you! Don’t you enjoy the sunshine after London?’

‘Indeed I do!’

He stepped back and signed to the driver. Sidwell bent her head and was out of sight.

But the carriage was visible for some distance, and even when he could no longer see it he heard the horse’s hoofs on the hard road. Long after the last sound had died away his heart continued to beat painfully, and he breathed as if recovering from a hard run.

How beautiful were these lanes and hills, even in mid-winter! Once more he sang aloud in his joyous solitude. The hope he had nourished was not unreasonable; his boldness justified itself. Yes, he was one of the men who succeed, and the life before him would be richer for all the mistakes and miseries through which he had passed. Thirty, forty, fifty — why, twenty years hence he would be in the prime of manhood, with perhaps yet another twenty years of mental and bodily vigour. One of the men who succeed!

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 21:57