The next day being the day of rest, Mrs Nixon arose from her nook at 5:30 a.m. and woke Edwin. She did this from good-nature, and because she could refuse him nothing, and not under any sort of compulsion. Edwin got up at the first call, though he was in no way remarkable for his triumphs over the pillow. Twenty-five minutes later he was crossing Trafalgar Road and entering the school-yard of the Wesleyan Chapel. And from various quarters of the town, other young men, of ages varying from sixteen to fifty, were converging upon the same point. Black night still reigned above the lamplights that flickered in the wind which precedes the dawn, and the mud was frozen. Not merely had these young men to be afoot and abroad, but they had to be ceremoniously dressed. They could not issue forth in flannels and sweater, with a towel round the neck, as for a morning plunge in the river. The day was Sunday, though Sunday had not dawned, and the plunge was into the river of intellectual life. Moreover, they were bound by conscience to be prompt. To have arrived late, even five minutes late, would have spoilt the whole effect. It had to be six o’clock or nothing.
The Young Men’s Debating Society was a newly formed branch of the multifarous activity of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. It met on Sunday because Sunday was the only day that would suit everybody; and at six in the morning for two reasons. The obvious reason was that at any other hour its meetings would clash either with other activities or with the solemnity of Sabbath meals. This obvious reason could not have stood by itself; it was secretly supported by the recondite reason that the preposterous hour of 6 a.m. appealed powerfully to something youthful, perverse, silly, fanatical, and fine in the youths. They discovered the ascetic’s joy in robbing themselves of sleep and in catching chills, and in disturbing households and chapel-keepers. They thought it was a great thing to be discussing intellectual topics at an hour when a town that ignorantly scorned intellectuality was snoring in all its heavy brutishness. And it was a great thing. They considered themselves the salt of the earth, or of that part of the earth. And I have an idea that they were.
Edwin had joined this Society partly because he did not possess the art of refusing, partly because the notion of it appealed spectacularly to the martyr in him, and partly because it gave him an excuse for ceasing to attend the afternoon Sunday school, which he loathed. Without such an excuse he could never have told his father that he meant to give up Sunday school. He could never have dared to do so. His father had what Edwin deemed to be a superstitious and hypocritical regard for the Sunday school. Darius never went near the Sunday school, and assuredly in business and in home life he did not practise the precepts inculcated at the Sunday school, and yet he always spoke of the Sunday school with what was to Edwin a ridiculous reverence. Another of those problems in his father’s character which Edwin gave up in disgust!
The Society met in a small classroom. The secretary, arch ascetic, arrived at 5:45 and lit the fire which the chapel-keeper (a man with no enthusiasm whatever for flagellation, the hairshirt, or intellectuality) had laid but would not get up to light. The chairman of the Society, a little Welshman named Llewelyn Roberts, aged fifty, but a youth because a bachelor, sat on a chair at one side of the incipient fire, and some dozen members sat round the room on forms. A single gas jet flamed from the ceiling. Everybody wore his overcoat, and within the collars of overcoats could be seen glimpses of rich neckties; the hats, some glossy, dotted the hat-rack which ran along two walls. A hymn was sung, and then all knelt, some spreading handkerchiefs on the dusty floor to protect fine trousers, and the chairman invoked the blessing of God on their discussions. The proper mental and emotional atmosphere was now established. The secretary read the minutes of the last meeting, while the chairman surreptitiously poked the fire with a piece of wood from the lower works of a chair, and then the chairman, as he signed the minutes with a pen dipped in an excise ink-bottle that stood on the narrow mantelpiece, said in his dry voice —
“I call upon our young friend, Mr Edwin Clayhanger, to open the debate, ‘Is Bishop Colenso, considered as a Biblical commentator, a force for good?’”
“I’m a damned fool!” said Edwin to himself savagely, as he stood on his feet. But to look at his wistful and nervously smiling face, no one would have guessed that he was thus blasphemously swearing in the privacy of his own brain.
He had been entrapped into the situation in which he found himself. It was not until after he had joined the Society that he had learnt of a rule which made it compulsory for every member to speak at every meeting attended, and for every member to open a debate at least once in a year. And this was not all; the use of notes while the orator was ‘up’ was absolutely forbidden. A drastic Society! It had commended itself to elders by claiming to be a nursery for ready speakers.
Edwin had chosen the subject of Bishop Colenso — the ultimate wording of the resolution was not his — because he had been reading about the intellectually adventurous Bishop in the “Manchester Examiner.” And, although eleven years had passed since the publication of the first part of “The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined,” the Colenso question was only just filtering down to the thinking classes of the Five Towns; it was an actuality in the Five Towns, if in abeyance in London. Even Hugh Miller’s “The Old Red Sandstone, or New Walks in an Old Field,” then over thirty years old, was still being looked upon as dangerously original in the Five Towns in 1873. However, the effect of its disturbing geological evidence that the earth could scarcely have been begun and finished in a little under a week, was happily nullified by the suicide of its author; that pistol-shot had been a striking proof of the literal inspiration of the Bible.
Bishop Colenso had, in Edwin, an ingenuous admirer. Edwin stammeringly and hesitatingly gave a preliminary sketch of his life; how he had been censured by Convocation and deposed from his See by his Metropolitan; how the Privy Council had decided that the deposition was null and void; how the ecclesiastical authorities had then circumvented the Privy Council by refusing to pay his salary to the Bishop (which Edwin considered mean); how the Bishop had circumvented the ecclesiastical authorities by appealing to the Master of the Rolls, who ordered the ecclesiastical authorities to pay him his arrears of income with interest thereon, unless they were ready to bring him to trial for heresy; how the said authorities would not bring him to trial for heresy (which Edwin considered to be miserable cowardice on their part); how the Bishop had then been publicly excommunicated, without authority; and how his friends, among whom were some very respectable and powerful people, had made him a present of over three thousand pounds. After this graphic historical survey, Edwin proceeded to the Pentateuchal puzzles, and, without pronouncing an opinion thereon, argued that any commentator who was both learned and sincere must be a force for good, as the Bible had nothing to fear from honest inquiry, etcetera, etcetera. Five-sixths of his speech was coloured by phrases and modes of thought which he had picked up in the Wesleyan community, and the other sixth belonged to himself. The speech was moderately bad, but not inferior to many other speeches. It was received in absolute silence. This rather surprised Edwin, because the tone in which the leading members of the Society usually spoke to him indicated that (for reasons which he knew not) they regarded him as a very superior intellect indeed; and Edwin was not entirely ashamed of the quality of his speech; in fact, he had feared worse from himself, especially as, since his walk with Mr Orgreave, he had been quite unable to concentrate his thoughts on Bishop Colenso at all, and had been exceedingly unhappy and apprehensive concerning an affair that bore no kind of relation to the Pentateuch.
The chairman began to speak at once. His function was to call upon the speakers in the order arranged, and to sum up before putting the resolution to the vote. But now he produced surprisingly a speech of his own. He reminded the meeting that in 1860 Bishop Colenso had memorialised the Archbishop of Canterbury against compelling natives who had already more than one wife to renounce polygamy as a condition to baptism in the Christian religion; he stated that, though there were young men present who were almost infants in arms at that period, he for his part could well remember all the episode, and in particular Bishop Colenso’s amazing allegation that he could find no disapproval of polygamy either in the Bible or in the writings of the Ancient Church. He also pointed out that in 1861 Bishop Colenso had argued against the doctrine of Eternal Punishment. He warned the meeting to beware of youthful indiscretions. Every one there assembled of course meant well, and believed what it was a duty to believe, but at the same time . . .
“I shall write father a letter!” said Edwin to himself. The idea came to him in a flash like a divine succour; and it seemed to solve all his difficulties — difficulties unconnected with the subject of debate.
The chairman went on crossing t’s and dotting i’s. And soon even Edwin perceived that the chairman was diplomatically and tactfully, yet very firmly, bent upon saving the meeting from any possibility of scandalising itself and the Wesleyan community. Bishop Colenso must not be approved beneath those roofs. Evidently Edwin had been more persuasive than he dreamt of; and daring beyond precedent. He had meant to carry his resolution if he could, whereas, it appeared, he ought to have meant to be defeated, in the true interests of revealed religion. The chairman kept referring to his young friend the proposer’s brilliant brains, and to the grave danger that lurked in brilliant brains, and the inability of brilliant brains to atone for lack of experience. The meeting had its cue. Young man after young man arose to snub Bishop Colenso, to hope charitably that Bishop Colenso was sincere, and to insist that no Bishop Colenso should lead him to the awful abyss of polygamy, and that no Bishop Colenso should deprive him of that unique incentive to righteousness — the doctrine of an everlasting burning hell. Moses was put on his legs again as a serious historian, and the subject of the resolution utterly lost to view. The Chairman then remarked that his impartial role forbade him to support either side, and the voting showed fourteen against one. They all sang the Doxology, and the Chairman pronounced a benediction. The fourteen forgave the one, as one who knew not what he did; but their demeanour rather too patently showed that they were forgiving under difficulty; and that it would be as well that this kind of youthful temerariousness was not practised too often. Edwin, in the language of the district, was ‘sneaped.’ Wondering what on earth he after all had said to raise such an alarm, he nevertheless did not feel resentful, only very depressed — about the debate and about other things. He knew in his heart that for him attendance at the meetings of the Young Men’s Debating Society was ridiculous.
He allowed all the rest to precede him from the room. When he was alone he smiled sheepishly, and also disdainfully; he knew that the chasm between himself and the others was a real chasm, and not a figment of his childish diffidence, as he had sometimes suspected it to be. Then he turned the gas out. A beautiful faint silver surged through the window. While the debate was in progress, the sun had been going about its business of the dawn, unperceived.
“I shall write a letter!” he kept saying to himself. “He’ll never let me explain myself properly if I start talking. I shall write a letter. I can write a very good letter, and he’ll be bound to take notice of it. He’ll never be able to get over my letter.”
In the school-yard daylight reigned. The debaters had already disappeared. Trafalgar Road and Duck Bank were empty and silent under rosy clouds. Instead of going straight home Edwin went past the Town Hall and through the Market Place to the Sytch Pottery. Astounding that he had never noticed for himself how beautiful the building was! It was a simply lovely building!
“Yes,” he said, “I shall write him a letter, and this very day, too! May I be hung, drawn, and quartered if he doesn’t have to read my letter tomorrow morning!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51