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10: The Message

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Author Topic: 10: The Message  (Read 98 times)
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« on: February 12, 2023, 11:40:37 am »


BEFORE Christmas, the counter-revolution had been successfully carried through, a general election held, and a more or less reactionary Government returned to power. The majority of the workers had gone back to their old employment, the country's credit had been temporarily bolstered up by the various financial arrangements and promises, Government paper money was worth nearly a third of its original face-value, and that section of the community which lies between the aristocracy and the owners on the one hand, and the manual-workers on the other, was hopefully looking forward to a return of the old conditions before the strike. The resuscitated Press had, for the time being, abandoned its various shades of political colour, and presented a united statement of optimistic belief in the revived constitution as represented by the new Houses of Parliament. (The Herald had ceased to exist, as had, also, for the moment, the right of free speech.) The principle of devolution that had come into practice as a consequence of the recent chaos was presently to be confirmed in an inclusive Act; and, meanwhile, Ireland was trying to arrange its internal differences, and Scotland was offering a loan to the English Government.

Yet none but the ignorant and the over-sanguine could see any promise of stability in the existing conditions. Labour had returned to work, careless and reluctant. A proportion of the men had lost the habit of regular hours spent in uncongenial employments, and the majority of them were uneasy about the future. It had been clearly stated that the use of a military police was only a temporary expedient, but the fact that the inducements to join that force were so great that the number of applicants exceeded that of the vacancies, had an ominous and, as it seemed to the workers, a peculiarly threatening air. The regime, in short, had most of the disadvantages of the Bolshevik oligarchy, with the difference that in England the owners still held the control; a state of affairs that was essentially unhealthy and inherently unstable.

European civilisation, indeed, seemed to be waning. In 1920, Edward Shanks had published a novel entitled The People of the Ruins, in which he had prophesied a gradual decline, within a century and a half, to the conditions of the Middle Ages. And there were blank and terrible moments in Paul's life about this time, when he believed that that prophecy might prove a true one. He had certainly no faith either in the powers of the present Government---or in those of any other Government which might succeed it---to stay that decline. He knew that Labour would not be able to rule Labour. Humanity had not reached the point of development at which a man would obey his nominal equal for love, and Paul's classic doubt of the possibility of finding volunteers for the dirty work, under a system of theoretically perfect communism, had now become a certainty. Moreover, the greater part of the work under the conditions of twentieth-century trade was, if not actually dirty, most certainly uncongenial. In the nineteenth century that work had been endurable for two reasons only; the first was the possibility of escaping from it by promotion or individual enterprise; the second, the impossibility of escaping from it except by death. The final effect of an educated, wage-earning class, then, must be the cessation of these uncongenial employments. Manufactories on a large scale must go; international trade must fall to an interchange of home-grown commodities; the greater part of modern machinery---the master of so many slaves---must be done away with; and men would then return to the cultivation of the land and the raising of stock, working shorter hours, and slowly reverting to the intellectual standards of the Middle Ages.

For all the developments of nineteenth-century progress had come as a result of confidence in the principles of credit and representative Government, principles that had given men liberty to develop their potentialities; while the individualistic, competitive system had, with certain exceptions, put a premium on invention and initiative. But representative Government had undermined its own authority by extending education to all classes, the tendency of the consequent increase of knowledge being to reduce the differences between the rulers and the ruled. And once Labour had become self-conscious, the end of the slowly elaborated British Constitution was already in sight. It had ceased to base its authority upon military force, and with its final loss of prestige as a result of the demonstration that it had no power to resist the wishes of a united minority of strikers, the confidence of the people in the whole system seemed to be utterly destroyed. And there was no other form of Government to take its place. The very principle of Government had been discredited; and Paul saw nothing to succeed it but a continually increasing segregation, until each parish framed its own laws and rules of conduct.

Until . . . He paused there always, and his eyes brightened. He had supreme faith in the reality of the message that had been given to him, but he no longer looked for an immediate fulfilment of the great promise. When he had returned to earth after his vision, he had been so exalted that he had believed the hour that heralded the coming of the new spirit might dawn at any moment. Two months of reflection had convinced him that he had no grounds for that hope. In the course of his vision, his own ascension had been very gradual. If it had been otherwise, he would not have been able to endure the glory of the climax. And just so, he argued, would the expected revelation come from above, slowly penetrating and uplifting the mind of man until he was ready to understand and receive the message of salvation.

Meanwhile, his own mission was plain before him. He---and perhaps others of whom he had no knowledge---had been almost miraculously chosen as an advance messenger of the new hope.

He had to preach his gospel to the people, to prepare them for the blessings to come. As he saw it, his was primarily and essentially a gospel of promise. His sight of hell had no relevance to his preaching, inasmuch as he looked for salvation on this earth, and no question of reward or punishment ever entered his mind. He believed, moreover, that his labours might, in however small a degree, hasten the coming of the spirit, and that was one inducement he could hold out to his possible converts; for he never suggested that the spirit he looked for would be coming to judgment. And for a practical morality, for the preparation by which men and women might hasten the transfiguration of the world, he had but one precept. He preached the brotherly love that begins with understanding, and ends by exceeding it. That was his single test. Hate was sin, and love was virtue.

But, in two months, he had received little encouragement from his congregation. They listened to him willingly enough. They obviously liked him, and appreciated his own simple spontaneous practice of the gospel he preached. But they had no real faith in any miraculous revelation presently to be accomplished, and they gave little sign of having been permanently converted to his doctrine, that love was the single test of morality, a test which seemed to them chiefly to sanction sexual excesses.

Moreover, the inspiration of Annie Heritage still worked against him. She professed a perfect devotion to his gospel, but her feeble mind was still under the influence of her earlier teaching, and her realistic accounts of the heaven and hell she declared herself able to visit at will, held a stronger appeal for many minds than Paul's simple rule of life or his promise of a coming transfiguration---a promise that they could not realise. In so far as they were able to picture it at all, they saw it as Christ returning to judgment; and muddled it up with Annie Heritage's visions of a Sunday-School Heaven, in which the blest were happy for good, orthodox reasons.

Even Imogen regarded her brother's gospel as a heresy. After her father's death, she had quite definitely taken up the religious life on approved lines. She went to church regularly, she disciplined herself, and she lost no opportunity of emphasising her opinion that the sin of sins was sexual immorality in any shape or form. And if the villagers did not like Imogen and resented her interference with their affairs, they could at least understand her.


But Paul had made one real convert, and it was her influence that finally sent him out into the world to preach to a larger, more susceptible congregation.

He was surprised to find her there in the Park on that mid-December afternoon. She had gone back to London with her father and mother, ten days after Lord Winston's death. London had already become possible again as a place of residence by then, and both Lord and Lady Fynemore had conceived an intense distaste for the Hall. Indeed, when the town immigrants had vacated it, either returning to their original homes or finding other quarters in the neighbourhood, the Hall had been no place for the fastidious to live in; and as yet no labour could be spared for the work of renovating the country homes of the reviving aristocracy.

Paul had been helping a farmer with his machinery on the farther side of Fynemore, and was returning home across the Park, when he saw Lady Angela. She was on one of the side paths, gathering dead wood, and he had not recognised her, when he turned out of his way to offer her his help. He had believed that she was one of the village women.

She straightened herself as he approached, still cherishing her modest burden of wood in her arms, and hailed him cheerfully.

"Help!" she called to him, and then, as he came nearer, "I'll never get enough for a decent fire, if you don't help me."

"Who are you collecting for?" he asked.

"Myself," she said. "Mayn't one ever do anything to please oneself?"

Paul smiled. He found it pleasant to be chaffed again about his mission. There had been no one to take that tone with him since the Bellinghams had gone. "Don't I do everything to please myself?" he asked.

"Oh, yes---if only I could, too," Angela replied, with a touch of impatience. "I had to come down to see you," she went on; "I've run away. I came by train, and I'm going to come and stay with you and Imogen to-night, but I wanted to play first, and for that I had to have a fire."

"There's a stack of cut wood in one of the outhouses," Paul said. "I'll come and help you to carry some of it up."

Angela glanced down at the collection she had made and was now carrying in the lifted skirts of her long, cloth coat. "I meant," she said, "to go on and on, going backwards and forwards until I had really got enough. It was a duty I had set myself to perform---thoroughly. A course of severe discipline. This was my third load," she added, and as she spoke released the skirts of her coat and let the wood fall at her feet. "And you are responsible for the return of my usual slackness. There's another of my duties left undone; and I'm no nearer to being prepared for---for what's coming, than ever I was."

"If everyone was as prepared as you are," Paul replied, "it might happen to-morrow."

She shook her head. "That's just why I wanted to see you," she said. "I'm different from you, and you will persist in treating me as if we thought just the same about these things. But, come along, and let's get that wood and then we'll build a great fire, and talk. There are things I want to tell you, and something I want to ask you."

"You're not different," Paul said, as they started to walk back together towards the Hall. "I can feel your response to my thought. We have different expressions, that's all." He stopped and put out his hand, pointing to the west. "Look," he said; "we both know that; it's only our account of it that varies."

Before them the Park dipped towards the lake in a sweep of open ground, some of which had been somewhat tentatively opened up that autumn with the intention of turning it into arable. From where they stood the smear of brown plough-land had the effect of an untidy intrusion upon the green orderliness of the landscape, but, beyond, the beautiful seemliness of the Park was undisturbed. In the middle-distance shone the broad, deep curve of the artificial water, approached from this side by a flight of shallow stone steps leading to the balustraded terrace, with its appropriate weeping-willows that in summer trailed long tresses in the lake. Behind that, the ground rose again and the timber grew closer, until it was massed into the gaunt wilderness of a winter wood, silhouetted now in a maze of fantastic tracery against the red fires of the sunset. The air was losing its dampness as night fell, crisping the moisture into fairy filaments that would presently crystallise on every rough surface, on the trees and on the grass and the even furrows of the turned earth; and already the breath of Paul and Angela showed white as an evanescent smoke at the first touch of frost. The ground was hardening beneath their feet, and above them the first prickle of faint stars was coming with a diamond brilliance.

"Does it . . . mean anything particular to you?" Angela asked, after a short silence.

"No," Paul said. "I don't see it; I feel it," he explained. "I'm part of it, and it's part of me. It's beautiful to me, now, partly with a regret for the glory of the autumn, and partly with a resolution to endure until the spring comes again. And this threat of frost and snow is an excitement and an adventure, something tremendous to be resisted."

"And to me," Angela replied, "it's just the echo of an emotion I once had, looking out of one of the windows of the Hall. We'd come down in January for the hunting, and father and mother were disputing in the room behind me; father was annoyed because there was going to be a frost. I'd just been playing Bach upstairs, and the fugue was still running in my head, and I was glad all of a sudden that there was this and my music, and that it didn't matter to me whether there was a frost or not."

"It's the same thing," Paul said. "The only difference is in the way we express it. The difference is in our bodies, which are just partial expressions of us, too. But the way we express ourselves doesn't really matter. There isn't a right or wrong way, I mean---in things like this. You love it and I love it, and we want to go on loving it more. That's what counts. It's jealousy and resentment and hate that prevents---I don't quite know how to say it---prevents the spirit from coming through, you know."

"I know," Angela agreed, as they turned again towards the house.


"It's a glorious fire now," she said, an hour later.

They had drawn a settee right up to the hearth-stone and were sitting on it side by side, leaning forward and staring into the heart of the flames. Behind them, the stately proportions of the music-room wavered fitfully in the uneven light of the leaping blaze. Very little damage had been done there by the refugees. It may have been that the rather formal furniture had not tempted them to make use of it. To them, no doubt, it had looked cold and bare. And, indeed, it was quite obvious from an examination of the Hall, as a whole, that they had shown a preference for the smaller rooms in every case, and particularly for the servants' quarters.

"I'll play to you when my hands get properly warm," Angela went on. "My piano is all right. It was locked all the time the people were here, and I tuned it just now. That's one of my real accomplishments. I brought my tools with me. I meant to have a magnificent afternoon all alone with my music, and I had a kind of vision of people hearing me from the Park and coming and standing outside and wondering. It was to have been very eerie and impressive, and in some sort of way rather mystical and religious. However, as they probably can't understand any music more subtle than Hymns, Ancient and Modern, perhaps it's as well I only dreamt it."

She paused a moment before she continued. "There's something I must say to you, Paul; something I've run away especially to say to you. It begins by the news that London's awful. All the people, our lot, have come back, and they're worse than they've ever been---decadent, made for amusement and excitement of every kind. It's taking the form of a reckless indecency with some of them. I haven't seen much of it, myself---mother has kept me out of it as much as she could---but I've seen some of it and heard no end. I think they feel that the present state of things isn't going to last long and they're trying to make the most of it---dancing on the edge of the pit. They simply don't care for anything or anybody, Paul; the worst of them don't. And there isn't any law and order to speak of. They get young men and women in from outside, too, clerks and waitresses and work-people, and so on. They can't shock each other any more, you see, and I suppose it's a kind of satisfaction to them to shock and terrify those others. None of it gets into the papers, of course, and when any one from outside tries to bring a case into the law courts, it gets hushed up somehow. But the people, the common people, I mean, are getting to know quite a lot about it, and if we do have another revolution, it will be a lot worse than the last.

"Well, Paul, what I've come to say to you is, that you're wasting yourself down here. I know you're doing a lot of good, but you might do much more. You ought to come up to London and form a society or something. Find out the people who feel more or less as you do about things---I believe there are quite a lot of them, really---and---and you know---preach your gospel. Or couldn't you even form a new kind of Government if you get enough people to help you? Because, listen, the present Government is deliberately trying to get up another war to distract attention from what's going on. Even my father says that it is the only thing that'll pull us all together again. I believe they'd welcome an invasion, if they were quite sure that we could resist it successfully in the end. The chief difficulty with them is, I fancy, that there's no other country ready to invade us at the present time, unless the whole thing is worked as a stunt between ourselves and another Government in much the same position. They say that things in France are quite as bad as they are here."

Paul shivered as she ceased speaking. A passing horror of doubt had shaken him while she talked of the pit into which society was apparently sinking. He had been confronted again by that spectre of the gradual relapse of mankind; by the idea of some climax that had been attained at the end of the nineteenth century, some highest point of culture and, earning from which the curve of progress must now slope inevitably down. All the forces of decline seemed to be arrayed against him, a frivolous and worthless aristocracy, a dishonest Government, a crass and self-seeking middle-class, a discontented and resentful body of workmen. And, for the moment, the glory and promise of his vision was as a vain and foolish dream that had tempted and snared him.

"Will you come to London and do what you can?" Angela asked.

"I don't know," Paul replied, in a low voice. "Here, after all, I can be of some use; the people know and like me. They often do their best just to oblige me. Up there I should be a stranger; a foolish fanatic who had suffered from shell-shock and never quite recovered; a case for the psychologist."

Angela was startled. "Paul!" she ejaculated. "You don't mean that you have lost faith in your vision?"

And yet if he had, what object in life, other than his present desire, could the future possibly hold for him? He asked himself the question, and knew that no other object was possible for him. Whether he had or had not faith in the coming of the spirit, he must spend himself in the love of his own kind; and in doing that he must surely express his certainty that the salvation of every living being was finally assured. For was not every man and woman his spiritual equal, and was he not himself assured of some ultimate transfiguration by which he would break the bonds of a physical confinement?

"No, no. I haven't lost my faith," he said. "I'll come and do what I can."

And as he made his affirmation the fire broke in a whirl of sparks, and in the white heart of it he seemed to see a faint reflection of the unendurable glory of his vision.

"Play to me," he said. "I feel as if I had been tempted by something evil, tempted to forget. But hope has come back to me now. I believe that the great light is coming to us, here on this earth. I believe that it will come soon, even if we are not ready to receive it."

She rose and went over to the piano, and as she stopped to adjust the music-stool she saw close up against the skirting, a candle that had rolled away there and been overlooked. She exclaimed at the discovery and picked the candle up, lighted it from the fire with a sprig of pine, and having set it in one of the silver candlesticks that still remained on the mantelpiece, stood it upon the piano.

"It's a holy relic," she said to Paul.

"And a symbol," he agreed.


She had no doubt what she should play, though it seemed to her as if she might have chosen something more inspiriting, more triumphant and enheartening than the delicate resigned sadness of that posthumous study of Chopin's.

But as she played, she knew that she had chosen rightly. Paul did not move, but she was aware of his thought. Some echo of the past was stirring in the room, and he was responding to that scene in the course of which he had five months ago pleaded the cause of peace with her father.

The fire had died down to a red glow, and the room was almost in darkness as she finished. She let her hands fall into her lap. She knew that she could not play any more that night. She had nothing to add. She was trembling with a thrill of resignation. She felt that she could relinquish every ambition she had ever cherished as the goal of present desire---music, love, even that physical life which, to her, had been the instrument of so many joys. She could relinquish all these and be glad that something greater remained to her, as she had once been glad in the realisation of her love of beauty.

She was only half-conscious of Paul's voice when he began to speak. She was aware of it as a low music that filled the room with a murmur of sound, but she could not distinguish his words. The murmur of his voice was nothing but a physical link between them, a means by which their thoughts could touch and intermingle. She was thinking with him and he with her, and their knowledge of each other transcended all earthly wisdom.

But presently it seemed to her that she was indeed listening to him, and that he was speaking to her of Chopin's message to them, and of how he had portrayed at once the sadness and the beauty of bodily death.

She knew, then, that civilisation was dying full of sin and splendour, of fierce incompleted desires and glorious accomplishments.

And it seemed to her that all human life was but a little candle burning in the great dark house of the world, a trembling light of aspiration and endeavour that would presently be quenched by the coming of the dawn.

March--September, 1920.


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