Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 16

It was queer to turn one’s mind back from the social battles and eventfulness of distant England to life in the great garden. Here Mr. Sempack was still a large figure of thought and Lady Catherine simply lovely and florid and absurd. It seemed as though it could be only little marionette copies of them of which Philip told, Sempack bandaged in hospital and Lady Catherine become rather horribly strident, with blood upon her mudguards. She had killed a young man. She was such a fool that she would not greatly care, any more than such women cared for the killing of pheasants. That young man would simply become part of the decoration of her life like the dead and dying soldiers one sees in the corners of heroic portraits of great conquerors. And Philip away there. But also he was a voice here, his letters made him a voice very near to his musing reader. In his letters there were also little phrases, little reminders, that even an intimate novel cannot quote. These touched and caressed her. He seemed to be Philip close at hand telling of the Philip who went about England in a state of peevish indignation, accumulating rebellion against cold and capable Uncle Robert and all that Uncle Robert stood for in life. And while the problems of this struggle in the homeland passed processionally before her mind, she had also in the foreground, great handsome chunks of the wisdom of Mrs. McManus and alternatively the religion of Stella Binny.

With Stella Binny Mrs. Rylands discussed theology. The green leather book had been planned on generous lines to open with metaphysical and religious ideas. Stella had just been received in the Catholic Church and had arrived in a phase of shy proselytism. So naturally both ladies converged on a common preoccupation.

But if they converged they never met. When at last Stella took her unremarkable departure for England and Mrs. Rylands could think over all that had passed between them as one whole, she was impressed by that failure to meet, more than by anything else in their arguments and comparisons. In some quite untraceable way the idea of God as of a great being comprehending the universe and pervading every fibre of her existence had crept into her mind during the past month or so. It was as if He had always been there in her mind and yet as if He was only now becoming near and perceptible. So long as she had been in her first phase of love for Philip she had hardly given this presence a thought; now in the new phase that was developing, the presence presided. It was something profoundly still, something absolutely permanent, which embraced all her life and Philip and everything in her consciousness out to the uttermost star. But when she set herself to compare this gathering apprehension of God with Stella’s happy lucidities about her new faith, she found herself looking into a mental world that had not an idea nor a meaning in common with her own.

Indeed her impression was that Stella’s religion, so far from being of the same nature as her own, was nothing more than a huge furniture store of screens, hangings, painted windows, curtains and walls, ornaments and bric-à-brac, to banish and hide this one thing that constituted her own whole faith. This cosmic certitude, this simplicity beneath diversity, this absolute reassurance amidst perplexity and confusion, this profound intimacy, had nothing in common with the docketed Incomprehensible of Stella’s pious activities, who was locked away in some steel safe of dogmas, far away from the music and decorations. Stella became defensive and elusive directly Mrs. Rylands spoke of God. She gave her to understand that the Mysteries of the Being of God were unthinkable things, an affair for specialists, to be entrusted to specialists and left to specialists, like the mysteries discussed by Mr. Einstein. The good Roman Catholic hurried past them with a bowed head and averted eyes to deal with other things.

But Mrs. Rylands had not the slightest desire to deal with these other things. She found them not merely unattractive; she found them tiresome and even in some aspects repulsive. She had no taste for bric-à-brac in the soul. She wanted God herself. Belonging to a Church whose Holy Father conceivably stood in the presence of God, was no satisfaction to her. She herself wanted to stand in the presence of God. So far as Stella could be argued with upon this question, she argued with her about the Mass. “It brings one near. It is the ultimate nearness,” said Stella, dropping her voice to a whisper. “It would take me a billion miles away,” said Mrs. Rylands. She was naughty about the Mass and did her best to shock her friend. “I don’t want to eat God,” she blasphemed. “I want to know him.” She said that invoking the spirit by colours and garments and music reminded her of the hiving of swarming bees. She objected scornfully to the necessary priest. “God is hard enough to realise,” she said, “without the intervention of a shaven individual in petticoats — however symbolic his petticoats and his shaven face may be.” She recalled some crumbs of erudition that had fallen from the table of the parental vicarage and cited parallelisms between the old Egyptian religions and religious procedure and the Catholic faith and practice. She hunted out controversial material from the Encyclopædia Britannica. And from more destructive sources.

The miscellaneous literary accumulations of Casa Terragena included several volumes about Catholic mysticism, and among others one or two books by Saint Teresa and the Life and Revelations of Saint Gertrude with many details of her extremely physical kissings and caressings with her “adorable lover.” There was also Houtin’s account of the marvellous experiences of the sainted Abbess of Solesmes, who died so recently as 1909. Mrs. Rylands had dipped in these strange records and now she returned to them for ammunition. She read the blushing Stella how every Christmas Eve, the latter lady and her spiritual daughters gave the breast, with a great physical excitement, to the infant Jesus, and how her spiritual sons were afterwards rewarded by derivative ecstasies when their sisters described to them “the chaste emotions of this virginal milking.”

“Where, my dear,” cried Cynthia, “is God, the Wonderful, the Everlasting, in ecstasies like that?”

Stella was ill instructed as yet in the new faith she had embraced. But she had learnt the lesson of confidence in the authorities into whose hands she had given herself. “All this can be explained. . . . It is a special side of the faith.”

Mrs. Rylands propounding fresh perplexities had suddenly become aware that there was distress in her friend’s voice, in her eyes, in her flushed face. Things had appeared in a changed light. Stella was large and very blonde, a creature so gentle that abruptly, as the tears showed in her eyes and the note of fear betrayed itself in her voice, her little hostess had seen herself like a fierce little rationalist ferret, tackling this white rabbit of faith. Surely she had not been discussing great religious ideas at all. How could one discuss such things with Stella? She had simply been spoiling a new toy that had been making her friend very happy. “Oh Stella dear! Forgive my troubling you with my elementary doubts,” she had said. “I am very crude and ignorant. I know it, my dear. Of course there must be explanations.”

Stella dissolved in gratitude.

“Of course there are explanations. If only you could talk to men like Cardinal Amontillado, you would realise how explicable all these things are. They make it so clear. But I’m not clever nor trained.”

“I was just asking,” Mrs. Rylands had apologised.

“Some things of course are simply given us to try our faith,” Stella had said.

And Mrs. Rylands had changed the subject with the happy discovery of two pretty little birds flirting in a rose-brake.

Now however that Stella had gone Mrs. Rylands could look back on all their disputations and utter her matured and final verdict upon the great system that had embraced and taken possession of her friend. And it has to be recorded that the matured and final verdict of Mrs. Rylands upon Roman Catholic Christianity, its orders and subjugations, its gifts and consolations, its saints and mysteries and marvels and the enduring miracle of its existence, was delivered in one single word: Rubbish. “Rubbish,” she said — aloud and distinctly as though she had hearers. She said it aloud as she walked in the darkness of her garden after dinner. As one might rehearse a one word part. Mrs. McManus no doubt was hovering, but she could hover so skilfully and tactfully that it seemed to Mrs. Rylands that she was entirely by herself.

With this word given out to the night Mrs. Rylands asserted her tested and inalterable Protestantism, her resolution to keep the idea of God clean from all traces of primordial rites, of sublimated sensuality and wrappings of complication, and her relations with God simple and direct. God might be invisible, indescribable, veiled so deep in mystery as to be altogether undiscoverable, but at any rate He should not be caricatured in mysticism, worshipped in effigy and made the mouthpiece of authority. Better the Atheist who says there is nothing than the Catholic who says there is such stuff as altars are made of.

And with that word of dismissal Mrs. Rylands ceased to think about Roman Catholicism and fell into a deep meditation upon the mystery and majesty of her God.

Her God, that Being was; the frame and substance of her universe of which and by which all its things were made; the mighty essential reassurance of her particular mind. He was everywhere, but for her His seat was in her spirit and His centre was her heart. He had come as imperceptibly as a dawn and her life had ceased to be anæmic and dispersed and purposeless with His coming. Everything was suffused with tone and beauty because of Him. He had dawned upon her not as a dawn of light, for she knew no more than she had ever known, but as a dawn of courage. She perceived she could have as soon called him “Courage” as called him “God.” The courage of the earth and skies. A courage mighty beyond thinking and yet friendly and near. No Name he had, nor need for a name; no prayers nor method of approach. His utmost worship was a wordless quiet. But in such stillness and black clearness as this night gave, under the laced loveliness of the star-entangling branches, he seemed to be very close indeed to her.

Dreaming, drenched in worship and the sense of communion, Mrs. Rylands walked in her garden. The familiar paths just intimated themselves in the obscurity sufficiently to guide her steps. One serene planet high in the blue heaven was the most definite thing in that world of shadows and obscurity.

The little white figure came to rest and stood quite motionless upon the bridge where Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan had discovered the flamboyant quality of the gorge, but to-night, now that the moon rose late, all that ascendant clamour of lines was veiled under one universal curtain of velvet shadow. Far, far above, minute cascades caught a faint glimmer from the depth of the sky, and plunged into an abyss of darkness.

For a long time she remained there and her soul knelt and was comforted.

At last she stirred and went slowly down a slanting path that led towards the Via Aurelia, a path that in its windings up and down and round about, gave little glimpses between the trees now of Ventimiglia and now of the stars.

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