THE ROMANCE OF
RICHARD LE GALLIENNE
TWO IN HEAVEN
TWO ON EARTH.
I. OF A CURIOUS MEETING OF EXTREMES II. INTRODUCES MORE UNROMANTIC MATERIAL III. OF ELI MOGGRIDGE AND THE NEW SPIRIT IV. ENDS QUITE ROMANTICALLY V. OF THE ARTIST IN MAN AND HIS MATERIALS VI. OF A WONDERFUL QUALITY IN WOMEN VII. THE LITERARY AND PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY OF COALCHESTER. VIII. THE PLOT AGAINST COALCHESTER IX. "THE DAWN" X. HOW THEY BROUGHT THE GOOD NEWS OF A MORRIS WALL-PAPER TO COALCHESTER XI. A LITTLE ABOUT JENNY XII. HOW THE RENAISSANCE CAME IN PERSON TO NEW ZION XIII. IN WHICH JENNY KISSES MR. MOGGRIDGE XIV. THE GREAT EVENT OF MR. TALBOT'S LIFE XV. JENNY'S BOTTOM DRAWER XVI. THEOPHIL ALL THIS TIME XVII. "O THAT 'T WERE POSSIBLE..." XVIII. ONE DAY OUT OF ALL THE YEARS XIX. PREPARATIONS FOR A FAST AND OTHER SADNESS XX. IN WHICH JENNY CRIES XXI. IN WHICH JENNY IS MYSTERIOUSLY HONOURED XXII. THE TRYST LETHEAN XXIII. JENNY'S LYING IN STATE XXIV. THE BEGINNING OF THE PILGRIMAGE—A MESSAGE FROM JENNY XXV. JENNY'S POSTE RESTANTE XXVI. FURTHER CONCERNING THEOPHIL'S LIFE AFTER THE DEATH OF JENNY XXVII. ISABEL CALLING XXVIII. BACK IN ZION PLACE XXIX. AND SUDDENLY THE LAST
The Romance of Zion Chapel
OF A CURIOUS MEETING OF EXTREMES
On the dreary suburban edge of a very old, very ignorant, very sooty, hardhearted, stony-streeted, meanly grim, little provincial town there stands a gasometer. On one side of this gasometer begins a region of disappointed fields, which, however, has hardly begun before a railway embankment cuts across, at an angle convenient for its entirely obscuring the few meadows and trees that in this desolate land do duty for a countryside. The dull workmen's streets that here abruptly present unfinished ends to the universe must console themselves with the gasometer. And indeed they seem more than content. For a street boasting the best view, as it runs out its sordid line longer than the rest, is proudly called Gasometer Street. Some of the streets that are denied the gasometer cluster narrow and dark, hardly built twenty years perhaps, yet long since drearily old,—with the unattractive antiquity of old iron and old clothes,—round a mouldy little chapel, in what we can only describe as the Wesleyan Methodist style of architecture. Cased in weather-stained and decaying stucco, it bears upon its front the words "New Zion," and the streets about it are named accordingly: Zion Passage, Zion Alley, Zion Walk, Zion Street. There is a house too which had been lucky enough to call itself Zion View, the very morning before the house at the corner had contemplated doing the same. At Zion View lived and still lives Mr. Moggridge, the huge, good-natured, guffawing pillar of New Zion,—on whom, at the moment, however, we will not call.
A nice dull place, you may say, from which to issue invitations to a romance. Well, of course, it must seem so if pretty places are the reader's idea of romance. Curiously enough, the preference of the Lady Romance herself is for just such dull places. These dreary, soot-begrimed streets are the very streets she loves best to appear in, on a sudden, some astonished day, with a sound of silk skirts and a spring wind of attar of roses. Contrast, surprise,—these are her very soul. Dull places and bright people,—these she loves to bring together, and watch for laughter and tears. You are never safe from Romance, and the place to seek her is never the place where she was last found.
Well, at all events, it is to Gasometer Street and New Zion that you are respectfully invited, and before you decline the invitation with a shrug, I will tell you this about the gasometer. The romantic eyes of one of the greatest French poets once looked on that gasometer! I won't pretend that they dwelt there, but look on it they once did—the eyes of that great, sad, scandalous, religious French poet—on a night of weary rain that set someone quoting,—also in that street,—
"Il pleure dans mon coeur Comme il pleut sur la ville."
Yes, and that French poet passed the gasometer on his way to New Zion. Actually.
Romance! Why, I wouldn't exchange Gasometer Street for the Isles of Greece!
INTRODUCES MORE UNROMANTIC MATERIAL
That French poet only concerns us here as, so to say, the highest light in the contrast which it was the happy business of Theophilus Londonderry, Jenny Talbot, and two or three devoted friends to make in the vicinity of Gasometer Street and indeed in little Coalchester at large.
Theophilus Londonderry! It is rather a mouthful of a name. Yet it's so like the long, expansive, good-natured, eloquent fellow it stands for, that I must not shorten it, though we shall presently abbreviate it for purposes of affectionate reference. He himself liked "Theophil" for its reminiscence of another French poet, though "Theo" was perhaps the more suitable abbreviation for one of his profession. Really, or perhaps rather seemingly, Theophilus Londonderry had two professions,—or say one was a profession and the other was a vocation, a "call." By day he professed to be a clerk in a cotton-office,—and he was no fool at that (there is no need for a clever man to be a fool at anything), but by night, and occasionally of an afternoon,—when he got leave of absence to solemnise a marriage, or run through a funeral,—he was a spiritual pastor, the young father of his flock.
Here I must permit myself some necessary remarks on the subject of Nonconformity, its influence on individualities and its direct relationship to Romance. In the churches of England or of Rome,—though he sometimes looked wistfully towards the latter,—Theophilus Londonderry, with his disabilities of worldly condition, would have found no place to be himself in. His was an organism that could not long have breathed in any rigid organisation. It was the non-establishment, the comparative free-field, of Nonconformity that gave him his chance. Conscious, soon after his first few breaths, of a personal force that claimed operation in some human employment, some work not made with hands, but into which also entered the spirit of man, and being quite poor, and entirely hopeless of family wealth or influence, there were only two fields open to him, Art or Nonconformity. To art in the usual sense of the word he was not called, but to the art of Demosthenes he was unmistakably called; and for this Nonconformity—with a side entrance into politics—was his opportunity.
This bourne of his faculties had indeed been predestined for him by no remoter influence than his father, himself a lay-preacher, when he was not the business manager of a large hardware store,—a lay-preacher with a very gentle face, the face of a father, a woman, a saint, and a failure all in one.
I say failure by no means unkindly. Londonderry's father was made to be a good bishop, to radiate from a hallowed security sweet lights of blessing. His talent was gentleness, not in itself a fighting quality,—a quality that needs a place prepared for it, needs the hand of strength or opportunity to set it upon the hill. That he had made himself learned, that his sympathy knew much of the soul of man, that he was conscious of a very near communion with the Divine—were qualifications that alone might not avail. Yet were they not lost, for, apart from their own restricted exercise in the circle of his own little "cause" and the other causes for which, in the technical phrase, he would occasionally "supply," they had passed into his son, and met in him other more energetic qualities, such as a magnetic eloquence, a love of laughter, and a mighty humanity.
Thus Theophilus Londonderry was partly his father licked into shape and partly something bigger and more effectively vital.
At sixteen he was learned in all the theologies; at nineteen he was said to have preached a great sermon; at twenty-two he was the success of a big political meeting; and at twenty-four he was the new lay-pastor at New Zion.
This is not to be the theological history of a soul, so I shall not attempt to decide upon the exact proportion of literal acceptance of Christian dogma underlying the young pastor's sermons. I doubt if he could have told you himself, and I am sure he would have considered the point as unimportant as I do. His was a message of humanity delivered in terms of Christianity. The message was good, the meaning honest. He would, no doubt, have preferred another pulpit with other formulas, but that pulpit was not forthcoming; so, like all the strong and the wise, he chose the formulas offered to him, using as few as possible, and humanising all he used; and never for a single second of time, whatever the apparent contradictions on the surface, was Theophilus Londonderry that poorest of all God's creatures,—a hypocrite. However you may judge him, you must never make that mistake about him.
OF ELI MOGGRIDGE AND THE NEW SPIRIT
New Zion, despite its name, was, as I have hinted, no longer new. The fiery zeal which had once made it a living schism had long since died out of it. Carried years before, a little blazing ember of faith, from a flourishing hearth of Nonconformity some streets away, it had puffed and gleamed a little space in the eloquence of the offended zealots who carried it hotfoot that Sunday morning, but its central fire had been poor, and for a long time no evangelistic bellows had awakened in it even a spark.
Its original elders had long since lost heart and passed away. A dwindling remnant of their children, from old association, just kept its doors from actually closing, and made a mournful interruption in its musty silence on Sundays. Life was too low to support a Wednesday prayer-meeting, and Sunday by Sunday that life ebbed lower. New life from the outside must come, and speedily, or it must die.
But new life was already on the way. On the town side the sad streets round New Zion led one into a more prosperous High Street, and indeed Zion Street itself, as it turned the corner, flamed into quite a jovial and ruddy shop—a provision merchant's, and kept by Eli Moggridge. The name did its owner considerable wrong, for its suggestion of puritanical sanctimoniousness was a flat contradiction of the jovial and ruddy personality, the huge red-whiskered laugher, for whom it stood, and of whom the shop, with its healthy smell of cheese and its air of exuberant prosperity, was a much more truthful expression. Well, the business was growing with such gusto that Mr. Moggridge felt he might afford a home away from his shop, and thus he came to take the biggish empty house which presently put on new paint and once more seemed quite proud of being "Zion View."
Till this time, Mr. Moggridge. had "attended" elsewhere, but he was not so young as he had been and somewhat stouter, and the stealthy approach of comfortable habits had suggested to him that his old chapel was rather at an unnecessary distance. Then, too, the fact of his house being called after New Zion seemed to impose a sort of obligation towards the sad old chapel. Besides, Mr. Moggridge was not inhumanly above the pleasures of self-importance, and though he did not express it in just those words, or indeed in any words at all, the idea of his being the Maecenas of New Zion was suddenly born within him.
Now, quick was even the word with Mr. Moggridge, as became a successful man of business, and for him to conceive an idea was to carry it out, as goods were always delivered from Mr. Moggridge's shop, with despatch. Also in some dim far-off way Mr. Moggridge's mind had, all unconsciously, been stirred by vibrations of what we call the New Spirit. The new spirit of any age works its way even into its businesses, and though Mr. Moggridge wouldn't have so described it, it was the "New Spirit" that had made the success of his provision shop. Speaking of the need of New Zion, Mr. Moggridge called it "new blood." He meant the "New Spirit;" and it was in reply to his advertisement for a new pastor, that the "New Spirit" in the person of Theophilus Londonderry came one Sunday to preach at New Zion.
ENDS QUITE ROMANTICALLY
Eli Moggridge was a judge of men, and he liked Theophilus Londonderry at a glance. Theophilus Londonderry was also a judge of men, and he liked Eli Moggridge. In fact, two men that needed each other had met.
You couldn't help laughing a little at Mr. Moggridge at first, soon you couldn't help respecting him,—Theophilus Londonderry was almost to know what it was to love him. Indeed, that Mr. Moggridge was just the man he was was a matter of no small importance to the young minister. A chief deacon is nothing less than a fate, and it is in his power to be no little of a tyrant. Had Mr. Moggridge's interest in New Zion been of a different character, he would inevitably have been as great a hindrance as he was to prove a help. Fortunately that interest was recreative rather than severely religious. It was to be for him a sort of Sunday-business to which he was to devote his vast spare energies. He wanted to see it a "going concern," and, hating stagnation in his neighbourhood, he looked about for a specialist whom he could trust to make it move and hum and whizz.
Luckily, in so far as he was an amateur theologian, he was broad, with further mental allowances for expansion. What was wanted at New Zion, he explained to the young minister at supper after the close of an evening service which had more than kept the promise of the morning, was not Dogma, but common-sense every-day religion, a religion to help a man in his business, not a Sunday-coat religion, a cheerful human religion; and it happened that something of this very sort was what Theophilus Londonderry was eagerly prepared to supply.
The stipend was small, a poor sixty pounds a year, but Mr. Moggridge guaranteed to swell it to a hundred if necessary from his own resources, and he wanted it clearly understood that, short, of course, of the broad general principles of Christian teaching, no restrictions were to be placed either by him or anyone else on the young man's expression of the faith that was in him. "All we want you to do," he said in conclusion, "is to make the place go, give it new blood, new fire; as to how you do it, that is your own business—and I shall no more interfere with you in that than I should expect you to instruct me on the subject of York hams. We must all be specialists nowadays,—specialists," repeated Mr. Moggridge, with a feeling that he too had discovered planets.
So it came to pass that "The Rev. Theophilus Londonderry, Pastor," presently lit up with a sudden vehemence of new gold-leaf the faded dusty name board of the chapel, and that, his own home being at too great a distance for his ministrations, he came to lodge with some nice old-fashioned people called Talbot at No. 3, Zion Lane.
I want you to like funny old Mrs. Talbot, and I want you to love her little daughter Jenny; so, to make it the easier, I shall not describe them at too great a length. Old Mr. and Mrs. Talbot were the sole survivors of the less active founders of New Zion, meekly not militantly pious, stubborn as sheep in a dumb obstinacy of ancient faith, but in no sense dialectical, and in every sense harmless.
Mr. Talbot was a working stone-mason, and on rare occasions when front parlour people caught glimpses of him, he was observed to be sitting in the kitchen in some uncomfortable attitude of unoccupation, "like white-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone." It is not recorded that he ever thought on any subject, and it is certain that he seldom spoke. He would flee from a stranger as from a lion, and, when confronted by such from the wilds of the front parlour, he would bob his old head pathetically, and make no attempt at speech beyond a muffled good-evening. It disconcerted him to be expected to speak, and his tongue slumbered in his mouth,—for he was an old weary man, and perhaps very wise.
Old Mrs. Talbot, whose wifehood had long since been submerged in an immeasurable motherhood and the best of cooks, would do the little thinking the house required, take charge of the old man's earnings, pay the rent and the burial club, and scheme little savings against Jenny's marriage—which she kept, not in an old stocking, but in a precious teapot of some old-fashioned ware reputed valuable, and itself carefully wrapped up in a yellow handkerchief of Cashmere. The old lady had a heart of fun in her, and even her notion of romance, and her withered old apple of a face, with its quaint ringleted hair, had once been bonny and red, you might be sure. But she was half blind now, and a good deal deaf, and her sweet old mouth was hard to get at when she kissed you, as she had a motherly way of insisting if she liked you. She, too, was very old, and she, I know, was very wise.
Jenny—well, there is really not much to describe about Jenny, beyond that she was sweetly little, had a winning old-fashioned air about her, was very good, that is, very kind, and was adored by the school-children, whom she taught first for love and then for dress and pocket-money. She was but nineteen, and all unminted woman as yet. No lover had yet come to stamp her features with his masterful superscription. Was she pretty? Heroines ought to be either very pretty or very plain. Well, the beauty that was going to be was as yet only beginning at the eyes. They were already beautiful. No, she wasn't pretty yet, but she wasn't plain.
Jenny's face slept as yet. When the fairy prince came and kissed it, there was no telling to what beauty it would awake. The fairy prince! That was going to be our friend Theophil, of course. Well, of course, though it's a little early on to admit it. However, I am unequal to the task of concealing from the hawk-eyed reader through a succession of chapters that Jenny and Theophil were to be each other's "fates." Of course, he hadn't been there a month before Jenny's face was beginning to wear that superscription of his passionate intelligence, to grow merry from his laughter, and still sweeter by his kisses.
Of course, Theophil and Jenny fell in love. Do you think it was merely to save New Zion and to bring the Renaissance to Coalchester that Theophilus Londonderry was sent to live in Zion Place—or for any other purpose less important than to love Jenny? Yes, we may as well take that for granted as we begin the next chapter.
OF THE ARTIST IN MAN AND HIS MATERIALS
There is only one way to give life to the dead or the moribund, the way of the Hebrew prophet,—to give it one's own. Theophilus Londonderry instinctively knew this, and he began at once to breathe mightily upon New Zion.
The goldsmith blows merrily all day through his little blowpipe, but it is gold he is working on. The poet breathes upon the dictionary, and lo! it flushes and breaks into flower. But then he is breathing on words. The material of such artists is a joy in itself. They are workers in the precious metals. Theophilus Londonderry had very different material to mould,—an old chapel and some very dull humanity. Humanity is not a precious metal, but if you know how to use it, it is excellent clay,—a clay not without streaks of gold.
What was Theophilus Londonderry's purpose with his material, his will towards the uncreated world over which his young vitalising spirit was moving? To save it? Yes, incidentally; but primarily to express himself by means of it, to set it vibrating to the rhythm of his nature, to set it dancing to a tune of his piping. Already he was being stamped in gold on Jenny's face. The coarser face of the world was to wear his smile too. For the pebble had only been thrown in at New Zion. Who knows to what coasts of fame the imperious ripples of his personality would circle on before they touched the shores of death?
We may be polite as we please to humanity in the mass, and humanity in occasional rarely encountered individuals is—well, divine; and to such we gladly and humbly and rapturously pay divine honours. But in any given thousand human beings, poor or rich, what would be your calculation for the average of such divine,—how many faces would you fall down and worship, how many hands would you care to take, how many hearts would you dare to trust?
Alas, the rather good eyes must go so often with the disastrous chin, the mouth succeed where the nose fails, the expansive impulse be checked by the narrow habit, the little gleam of gold be lost in the clay.
Preponderant charm does not crowd into chapels or anywhere else to be minted, it is busy on some vantage height of its own, impressing its own image; and it is with minds maimed by the cruel machinery of life, natures stunted and starved by adverse and innutritive condition, that the artist in man must be satisfied. With what pathetic little flashes of faculty, what fleeting and illusory glimpses of insight, what waifs and strays of attractiveness, must he work and be happy, and with what a thankfulness that the tenth rate is not twentieth or thirtieth!
Then, too, how often must the intractible material be impressed again and again and again before it begins to wear the first trace of your image. Once a poet has impressed himself with mastery upon words, the impression remains for ever, the words do not disperse in idle crowds when he has done speaking to them, never again to reassemble in a like combination; whereas the greatest oratorical mover of men is doomed, even after his most electrical self-impression, to see his image, as soon as taken, fade away, with a shuffle of escaping feet and a scramble for hats and cloaks. It was a masterpiece; but with the last touch, see, the colours are flying in a hundred directions, and the very canvas itself is off in a thousand threads of hurried disintegration!
But all this, of course, has to do entirely with the poetry of the ministerial life; prosaic even as preaching and praying to the New Zioners may sound, there was yet a drearier prose. For these artistic materials had not only to be preached and prayed to,—they had to be in a measure lived with, listened to, personally studied, and individually considered. Each was an atom to be set in vibration, and each needed to be set or kept going in his own way. All this prose had to be made help in the poetry. How skilful you had to be to rouse the interest you needed and escape the many interests you did not need, to awaken the single gift without bringing upon you all the rest, to suffer the fool wisely,—that is, to the extent of his tiny wisdom, and no more. To encourage say Miss Annie Smith in her district-visiting—what a talent she has for that!—but firmly to forget her at concerts; to welcome Mr. Jones's services at collections, but gently to discourage him at prayer meetings; in short, to meet all at the point where their natures were really and usefully alive, but at no other point of their circumferences.
However, nature had made this as easy as breathing to the Reverend Theophilus, for, apart from his humour and good nature, he was a lover of character for its own sake, and to the student of character there is no such person as a bore. Brother Saunderson was no doubt as wearisome an old man as the world holds, but his manner of neighing to the Lord in prayer was worth it all. And it is rather a pity if the reader imagines that to laugh at his neigh is to forget respect for his venerable faith.
Thus mightily, gently, cunningly, coaxingly, Theophilus Londonderry breathed upon New Zion, and Eli Moggridge was a noble second, according to his word. At every service of every kind, and at all times, he was there, swelling out from a pewful of ruddy daughters, and endlessly beaming round at his fellow-worshippers, as much as to say, "Didn't I say he was the man for New Zion?"
The old channels were beginning to fill with the new spirit, the old disused machinery was once more in motion. In two months' time every possible form of meeting was in a healthy condition of attendance, prayer-meeting, church-meeting, mothers' meeting, Bible class, Dorcas society, Band of Hope, Sunday-school, all briskly in motion; and the ladies, led by Jenny, were all as busy as bees over a bazaar. New Zion had indeed become a veritable merry-go-round of religious and social activities. Yes, it was beginning to move, indeed, it was almost beginning to hum—another few months and it would fairly whizz, as Eli Moggridge had foreseen; and the sound of the humming and the speed of the whizzing would grow louder and louder and faster and faster, till not merely Zion Place and Zion Alley and Zion Passage and Zion Street heard it and were caught up in the infectious dance, but the very High Street itself should hum and whizz.
The High Street! what are High Streets to the soul of Theophilus Londonderry? What is Coalchester itself?—though that shall soon be humming and whizzing too. This is but the whirling centre of the ever-spreading wheel of force that has begun to turn at New Zion. Coalchester will spin soon, and then the disappointed fields around it, then the neighbouring towns would join the reel, and so on and on, faster and faster, madder and madder, till even London itself moves, and the world that changes its axis at the will of any strong spirit will whirl its immeasurable velocities around the vortex pulpit of Theophilus Londonderry.
Yes, the pebble had only been thrown in at New Zion.
OF A WONDERFUL QUALITY IN WOMEN
Darwin expended many years of his life in the study of disagreeable animals, that he might prove the adaptability of organism to environment. How much pleasanter and briefer had been his task, if he had begun his studies at once with the creature whose long history has been one unbroken succession of inspired and noble adaptations!
Woman's adaptability to man is one of the most mysterious, as it is perhaps the most pathetic, of all the modes of her mysterious being. Like certain protection-seeking animals, she is always the colour of the rock, the husband-rock, in whose shadow she lives. Sometimes, of course, she is her own rock; but in such cases man is never her chameleon to a like degree or indeed in a like manner. Such adaptability is not one of the forms of his greatness, and even when he achieves it, it is not becoming to him.
For woman's adaptability is not the domination of a weaker nature by a stronger, it is in itself a noble and world-necessary form of strength.
Strength is needed as well for the taking as the making of an impression,—something more than mere ductility. Weakness may never bear the stamp of power,—it breaks in the moulding; and it is rather because woman is so strong that she is able to take the Caesarean stamp of any form of power. Nor cares she by whose hands she is moulded, whose image she wears, be it warrior, poet, or priest, so long as she feels the veritable grasp and impress of power. Some women are already made in the image of the man they are to love before they meet him. Very wonderful, very terrible, then, is the meeting, and it is a meeting that usually comes too late. But oftener God gives a man a little measure of porcelain and a handful of stars, and leaves him to make the woman he needs for himself; and very wonderful too is that making,—though the man will always have been the father before he was the lover.
Why, one may ponder, should a man who is great enough to mould a woman to help him be great, not be great enough to do without her at all? Let lovers of the unfathomable ask at the same time: Why is man, man? and woman, woman? and what are both?
This gentle doll with the sweet breath, which he nips up in his arms and kisses, and gives a tongue that she may talk back to him his own words, endows with brains that she may think his thoughts,—a quaint little helpless lovely parody of his wisdom and power; a toy, yes; a refreshment, yes; a place of peace, yes,—but how much more! Yes, more by all that we don't understand when we say "woman."
Why a great man should need, not a great woman, but a little woman, a very little woman,—how is it to be explained, unless it be that woman, however little, is mysteriously great, just because she is a woman, a little woman? Unknown properties were wrapped up somewhere in that porcelain; to press it with the lips is to feel strange virtue coming into one,—the devil was in those stars.
Great men are only nourished on the elements. Woman is an element, all the elements in one,—earth, air, fire, and water, met together in a rose. She is a spring among the rocks, and she comes up dimpling from the roots of the world. She is just as simple and just as strange. O! little shining spring of woman that is called Jenny, a great man must draw up through you the unfathomed, deep strengths of the old world. He bends above you and drinks, and as he drinks, his face is mirrored in yours.
"Jenny, I don't think I'd read 'Miss ——,' if I were you," would say the great man.
"No, dear?" So Jenny was presently reading Ruskin instead, and wondering how she could ever have read "Miss ——." And deep in her dear heart she was saying, "Of course not; great men's wives never read 'Miss ——.'"
And yet had the great man said, "Read Gaboriau instead,"—as a certain very great man does,—Jenny's heart would have said, "Of course, great men's wives always read Gaboriau."
No! great men's wives read "Sesame and Lilies," and "Sartor Resartus," and "Marius the Epicurean," and "Richard Feverel," and "Virginibus Puerisque,"—they even try to read Newman's "Apologia." Such were the books on the sunnier side of Theophilus Londonderry's little library in No. 3 Zion Place. In dark corners behind easy-chairs were the deep-sea pools of theology,—pools which had long since given up all the fish they had in them for their owner,—slabs of antique divinity, such as you would find likewise in the equally cherished library of Londonderry Senior.
Such were the fathers that slumbered on in a well-earned repose, and which, far from desiring new readers, were so old that they were glad to rest undisturbed,—being far too self-important to confuse a considerate regard for their repose with neglect. And many of them were really quite valuable as decoration, because of their fine old coats of gilded leather; and such were ranged in the more penetrable shadows or even in the lamp-light. Theophilus would point to them as to a portrait-gallery of dead ancestors. One might admire the quaint and distinguished cut of their clothes without dreaming of wearing the same,—and indeed old divinity, he used to say, was poor food for young divines.
His divinity indeed was fed on the technical side, it is to be feared, by the more destructive biblical criticism, like most destructive engines, coming all the way from Germany, and at its more vital centres by importations of strong meat from Russia and Scandinavia. Tolstoi and Ibsen were his archprophets.
There was likewise a great Paris moralist called Zola, and a strange old American father called Walt Whitman. And beauty, that can never be far away from strength, found many new and wonderful prophets in that little library,—poets and painters and musicians of whom hardly anyone else in Coalchester had yet heard, and certainly no one above the age of twenty-five.
Surely youth is in nothing more marvellous than in its mysterious power of attracting to itself into the most out-of-the-way places the sustenance and companionship it needs. In the unlikeliest wilderness inspired youth is never without the mysteriously-brought food and the company of angels. Powers of the air will sweep across continents to rescue it from prison, soft gales travel from south to north to sow seeds of beauty in its narrow ways, and little songs will flutter like butterflies for hundreds of miles to cheer its heart.
The Time-Spirit had given its angels charge concerning these young people, and, remote as they were from all the fiery centres of thought and the dreaming schools of art, Zion Place, no less than the Rue de Rivoli, took its thought of the newest and its beauty of the best.
THE LITERARY AND PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY OF COALCHESTER
I have said that Coalchester was a very ignorant old town. I did not mean to imply that there were no M.A.'s there. In fact, there were quite a number. You may be sure that if spiritual and intellectual life had its representatives, as we have seen, spiritual and intellectual death had its representatives, too—by which I don't mean either to imply that the M.A.'s were dead M.A.'s, dead and buried with Latin over them in the old brassed and effigied church, which was so old and large that it was hardly less conceited than a cathedral. Spiritual and intellectual death in Coalchester, as elsewhere, was officially represented by the Literary and Philosophical Society, which still unblushingly went on retaining its adjectives, even in the face of its "Transactions," which seemed mainly composed of treasurer's reports, with an occasional paper on fossils.
Indeed the one spark of life in the pathetic old society was its real interest in the antediluvian and prehistoric. For the life that was dead it had a perfect passion, and it sometimes held conversaziones to gaze at it through microscopes. Occasionally it would waken up to literature with a paper on Akenside. In everything that didn't in the least matter some of these mild old gentlemen were genuinely learned. Not that they hadn't read the great poets, even in the original Greek, Latin, and Italian. Poets in dead and foreign languages were a form of fossils, and English poets—with that divine bloom upon them!—they had a way of fossilising by spectacles, so that they never read them alive. Thus they had never read Shakespeare even in the original.
Once, long ago in Coalchester, a hundred years ago, there had been a little circle of elegant literati, connoisseurs of literature and art,—men, so far as men of that age might be, genuinely, if timidly and old-maidishly, affectionate towards belles-lettres; men who had got so far as to appreciate the freshness of an Elizabethan song; minor Bishops Percy; and such lavender is the true love of anything that their memories still hung about the walls of the old Lyceum along with their portraits; while so necessary are great names for little towns to boast of, that the compiler of the local gazetteer implied that Coalchester glowed at night with quite a lustre from their names. Besides, they proved very useful in damping young men. And yet you wouldn't know their names if I were to write them—as I would rather like to do.
The learned Dr. Sibley, he wrote a pleasant little essay on "Taste," you know, with a few additional notes on chiaroscuro; and then there was the learned Dr. Ambrose, who wrote quite a pretty little treatise on Song-writing.
No! Of course you won't know any of them. Yet they were all once, and are still, "The Learned." You'll never hear Theophilus Londonderry spoken of as that, I'm afraid.
As it is the property of fame to grow with time, and the way of a great name to begin with brains and end with lords, a great man's descendants are not unnaturally found persons of much greater consequence than the original great one. In like manner the dignity and importance of the members of the Literary and Philosophical Society had grown, in direct ratio to their distance from the original founders of it; and the learned Doctors Sibley and Ambrose, who really did know something about art and poetry and certainly loved them, can never have been persons of such consequence as one or two of their descendants who are nameless, and who certainly knew nothing about either.
One of the real objects of this sad little Society was passionately to ignore what they contemptuously called local talent. It is true that there was not much to ignore, and, after all, it has now to be recorded to their credit that they did unreservedly give Theophilus Londonderry his chance. By what quaintness of accident he could not imagine, he suddenly found himself invited to lecture before them. The invitation read something like a command, and there seemed to be an implication that if all were satisfactory, he might thus earn the right of acknowledging the patronage of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Coalchester.
Theophilus Londonderry's subject, therefore, was "Walt Whitman,"—a name which conveyed no offence to the Committee, for the simple reason that it conveyed nothing. It was a strange and humorous thing for the young man to think of, that his was to be the first human voice that had spoken that name of the future aloud in Coalchester. As he rose to give his paper, he pronounced its title slowly, with his full carrying voice, and allowed the strange new name to roll away in menacing echoes through the old Lyceum: "W-a-l-t W-h-i-t-m-a-n."
Even yet no one saw the coming doom, heard not the voice that tolled a funeral bell through all Lyceums and other haunted houses of dead learning. The Canon in the chair smiled benignantly, with an expression that I can only compare to buttered rolls. He was just three hundred years old that very day, and the audience (a scanty fifty or so) ran from a hundred and fifty upwards. The only young men present besides the lecturer were two friends of his I have yet to introduce,—Rob Clitheroe, a fiery young poet and pamphleteer of many ambitions, and James Whalley (little James Whalley he was always called) a gentle lover of letters, with perhaps the most delicate taste in the whole little coterie; and Mr. Moggridge,—not entirely comfortable, it having been by some mysterious atmospheric effect conveyed to him that he was a tradesman and a dissenter, in which latter capacity he felt a certain traditional resentment towards his complacent fellow listeners. A quite recent ancestor had refused to pay tithes. That ancestor was in his blood to-night.
Jenny was not there. Ladies were not admitted to the meetings of the Society, there being a sort of implication that masonries of learning, occult sciences of the brain, were practised at their meetings,—matters which never came out in the "Transactions."
The lecture was a straightforward and eloquent account of Whitman's writings and doctrines, with extracts from "The Leaves of Grass;" and from beginning to end you might have heard a pin drop, particularly during one or two of the quotations. When it was ended the buttered-roll expression had faded from the Canon's face, and his "our young friend" expression was ready for the chairman's remarks. Londonderry's sitting down awakened a few sad echoes that were no doubt hand-clappings, but seemed like the napping of the wings of night-birds frightened by a light. But the Lit-and-Phils were not frightened; they were entirely bewildered and rather indignant, that was all. It was characteristic of their incapacity to grasp the humanity of any subject, even when it was dangerous, that the criticism which followed was directed almost entirely against Whitman's metrical vagaries. This was not poetry! Had not their revered founder, the learned Dr. Ambrose ...
The Canon kindly said, showing his pastoral interest in the local newspaper, that the verses which their young friend Mr. Rob Clitheroe, who was present with them that evening, occasionally contributed to the Coalchester "Argus" were in his opinion better poetry than anything Walt Whitman had written, though he confessed that his acquaintance with Walt Whitman was of the slightest. This disastrous compliment sent the blood to young Clitheroe's cheeks, and he felt surer than ever that he would never be a real poet,—though, as a matter of fact, he had written some quite pretty lines.
It was an occasion that of course only the Lit-and-Phils could take seriously, and the way home to New Zion was a laughter of four beneath the stars,—Mr. Moggridge's deep guffaws coming every now and again, like the bay of some distant watch-dog, at the young minister's brilliant mimicry of the ancient men they had left behind.
Then the gentle voice of little James Whalley took advantage of a silence: "Isn't it high time that we brought the Renaissance to Coalchester?"
"Capital!" cried Londonderry; "come in for a bit of supper, all of you, and let us talk over the plan of campaign."
THE PLOT AGAINST COALCHESTER
Old Mrs. Talbot had been prepared for some such invasion, and had an excellent rabbit-pie awaiting them. There was a delightful trait of old Mrs. Talbot's which I would like to record, a curious chronological method of remembering great occasions and startling events by the food of the day. Thus, for example, when with eyes that would still fill with tears, though it was ten years ago, she would tell the story of how her only boy had been brought home dead one night from an accident at his workshop, she would fix the date by saying, "It was about six o'clock at night, and I'd just got a nice little bit of liver and bacon cooking for your father's dinner, when there came a knock at the door ..." Sometimes it was, "I'd just sent Liz out for a little bit of fish," or it would be Spanish onions maybe, or a lovely little rabbit, that marked the day.
The night when the attack on Coalchester was planned was marked, as I have said, by rabbit-pie. Mrs. Talbot would hardly have understood the significance of that rabbit-pie, though in the course of her occasional bobbings in and out of the room, to see that the young men were doing justice to her food,—she had a curious notion that young men never ate enough,—she would hear snatches of what she called "deep talk," or shake her old head at her coming son-in-law, whom she already adored and mothered, with a "Law! what a boy it is!" She wasn't quite sure sometimes as to the soundness of his "doctrine," but wisely decided that her business was rather with his stomach than his brains,—which no doubt God Almighty would look after for himself.
Wit at the expense of Coalchester can only be of interest to Coalchester wits and their butts, so I shall not record the bright and animated talk which helped to digest Mrs. Talbot's rabbit-pie, but confine myself to a practical outcome of it.
What interests me specially about these young men was their rare practicality. They were no mere dreamers, helpless visionaries, with ideas they had no notion how to embody. Dreamers, of course, they were,—otherwise there had been no point in their being practical,—but they were dreamers who understood something of how dreams are best got on to the market of realities.
Characteristically, it was the poet of the party from whom the most practical suggestion came. In itself, of course, there was no great originality in the idea of a weekly paper to be called "The Dawn," devoted to the dissemination of the new light on every possible subject,—politics and municipal misgovernment; the new social ideals; the newest and most delicate forms of art, music, and literature. It was in the suggested method of publication and circulation that the originality lay. The paper was to be given away and made to pay its expenses by tradesmen's advertisements, a guarantee of a certain minimum distribution being given. This method had, of course, been tried before for purposes of mere publicity, but never, I think, for the dissemination of truth and beauty. The truth about life was to be paid for by lies about bacon and butter,—or, let us say, business exaggerations rendered innocuous by custom, and therefore as harmless as truth.
Obviously Mr. Moggridge, who not unnaturally had felt a sense of moving about in worlds not realised during much of the deep talk, was here an authority of importance, and the idea at once appealed to him. He would promise a permanent advertisement, and he even promised illustrations, in the form of blocks already engraved and occasionally used by the "Argus," of the flourishing shops at 33, 34, 35 High Street, and 58, 59 Zion Street. He had also some blocks of gigantic hams most hammily pictured, which might also be of use, and he would also be able to bring in a number of his fellow tradesmen. Invaluable Mr. Moggridge! What were truth without you!
The poet, on his part, guaranteed to supply all the poetry that might be required, and indeed agreed to do special rhyming advertisements, at, say, half a guinea apiece. He would also assist Londonderry in the political and municipal departments, not only in the higher flights, but lend a hand even in castigations of local jobs, abuses, and absurdities.
Gentle James Whalley would write round-about essays, for which he had a charming gift, and generally take in charge the aesthetic interests of the paper, though, as all were lovers of art and literature, those subjects would be handled now by one and now by another. Even Jenny was to have her place on the staff, and write dress articles, which would not only tend to improve the aspect of Coalchester streets, but attract millinery advertisements. She already announced the title of her first article, which was very grand: "Dress as a form of self-expression."
It was two in the morning before the proceedings terminated, and even then good old Mrs. Talbot was still up to press steaming bumpers of very hot whisky and water upon the wayfarers; "to keep the cold out," she explained—though I need hardly say that the project had not waited till that hour to be suitably recommended to the god of all enterprises.
Next to the delight of holding new and unpopular opinions is the delight of having a medium for their unedited expression, though this is a delight given to few reformers. "The Dawn," however, was to be such a medium; and when the first number appeared, as it did nearly a month from the meeting recorded in the last chapter, four people, nay, five—for we mustn't forget Mr. Moggridge—were supremely happy. With the exception of the poet, who, as we have seen, occasionally irradiated the poet's corner of the "Argus," and Mr. Moggridge, it was a first appearance in print for three out of the five contributors; and though each talked most of the articles by the others, they were secretly longing to get away with the little paper to some corner where they could gloat over their own special contribution.
Not that they had any ridiculous ideas of the literary importance of the articles in question, but because it seemed so strange to see the warm words of their mouths thus condensed into cold print, so strange to think that people all over Coalchester were reading them. Little Jenny in particular felt quite a cold but pleasant shiver of notoriety as she thought of it, while to her lover the delighted perusal and reperusal of a large-type leading article, headed "In Darkest Coalchester!" brought a new sense of power.
The poet, as was only to be expected, had his little grievance with the printer, who, in spite of all his remonstrances and corrections in proof,—the printer was a little wrong-headed Scotchman,—had insisted at the last moment in heading his Tyrtean "Proem," a fine aerial trumpet-blast somewhat Shelleyan in style, with the word that was evidently intended, namely, "Poem." However, he was somewhat consoled by reading his caustic column of notes headed "The World outside Coalchester," the very heading of which was a revelation. Then, too, he very much enjoyed his article on "Bad Lighting in Coalchester," with its evident allegoric insinuation that Coalchester needed lighting in more ways than one, and that "The Dawn" was prepared to undertake, free of charge, the top-lighting of which it was most in need.
James Whalley contributed a review of "Mr. Swinburne's new Poems," through which article Mr. Moggridge's illustrated hams plainly showed from the other side.
New truth is too often printed in very worn-out type, but the promoters of "The Dawn" had wisely remembered how hard truth is to read, and had given it good clear type, and generally made it a very comely and attractive little paper. It bore a motto that sounded almost like a threat, "We come to stay,"—a boast which it manfully kept for several years. As I lift my eyes from this paper, they rest on no less than ten great half-yearly volumes, which flash "The Dawn"—"The Dawn"—along a darksome folio shelf, as they have flashed it week after week across darkest Coalchester; and "The Dawn" ceased, at length, not from lack of power and encouragement to continue, but because the world had grown sadder by then, and it had lost the will to go on living.
In spite of this hardy existence, I suppose "The Dawn" will win no record of itself in the histories of the press, though merely as spirited journalism it deserves to do so; while in the history of the human spirit at Coalchester it demands a grateful celebration such as it will, again, most surely not receive from the literary and philosophical historian of the town. At all events, honoured or forgotten as it may be, should you ever come across its strange young pages, I know you will agree with me that it was a wonderful little paper. It was not, you may suspect, conservative, being, as it was, very alive and very young. In fact, its radiant radicalism brings tears to one's eyes to-day, when so many of the noble ideals it championed, to the length and strength of its little angry arm, are lying smashed beneath the iron blows of the capitalism that has outlived even the noble eloquence of Theophilus Londonderry.
Like all young people, it was all for the young, the new; and I think you will be astonished, if you do ever turn over its pages, at the remarkable instinct for the crescent life possessed by these young men; and, were it worth while, I could easily prove that several of the more exquisite continental writers, now the fashion this many a year, first found a humble welcome in that quaint little organ of New Zion.
Yes! it was a triumph for New Zion too. This modest and hitherto obscure corner of the town suddenly found itself, comparatively, in a blaze of publicity, for a column headed "Work at New Zion," evidently meant to be weekly, left no doubt from what quarter of the town the dawn was to be looked for. This was perhaps the most delightful thing about the paper,—its calm assumption that the real aristocracy of the town was to be found in that little back street, and that, if Coalchester was to have any spiritual or intellectual life, it must seek it there. In Zion Street, and nowhere else in Coalchester, were the angels descending into the waters. And the best part of the joke was that the assumption was literally true.
HOW THEY BROUGHT THE GOOD NEWS OF A MORRIS WALL-PAPER TO COALCHESTER
Coalchester was too much taken by surprise by "The Dawn" to pretend to ignore it, and its first recognition was appropriately made in a ludicrously abusive article in "The Argus,"—"the one-eyed Argus," as it was mockingly nicknamed in the next week's issue of the new paper. The joke was one that was lost on Coalchester, which had never dreamed of expecting a hundred eyes in its "Argus," which to it was but the usual name for a sleeping newspaper. It was, however, to do them justice, seen and chuckled over by one or two members of the Literary and Philosophical Society. "The young beggars know their—classical dictionary, at all events," said one of them maliciously, which was quite bright for a Lit-and-Phil.
One tangible result of the little paper was the almost immediate doubling of the attendance at New Zion. Curiosity had been aroused in this militant young minister with the strange ideas, and Theophilus Londonderry wished for nothing better than to gratify it. In the oxygen of success even the dullest metals will scintillate, and it needed but such small beginnings of his future to make Theophilus as nearly irresistible as natural gifts and success together can make a man.
Some people go to chapel to worship, a few to learn, but most, odd as it may sound, to be entertained. A vivid and magnetic preacher is as near as many will allow themselves to approach the theatre. Theophilus was a born actor—of himself; a part so few can or dare play. He gave you good stimulating truth; but it was not so much in the newness of the ideas which he passed on from his books to his hearers, as in the newness of himself, that of course the charm lay. A few people, not many or important, disliked him; but all had to listen, and a good many came to New Zion again. Above all, the women heard him gladly; and to this sure sign of a future Theophilus was far from blind. "He has women at his back, he cannot fail," was a phrase he sometimes recalled out of his favourite Brand. Yes, and had he not one little angel-woman at his side?
It had been the spring of 1886 when he came to New Zion. It was now the autumn, and early in September announcements had been made of a series of autumnal lectures to be given by the Rev. Theophilus Londonderry; Rob Clitheroe, Esquire; James Whalley, Esquire; and other distinguished lecturers, at New Zion.
In the list were papers on "The Duty of Novel Reading," "Henrik Ibsen," "A Morris Wall-Paper," "The Nude in Art," and "The Darwinian Theory," by Mr. Londonderry himself; "Coalchester, its Past and its Future," by Mr. Rob Clitheroe; together with "Ireland's Sacred Right to Home Rule," by the same lecturer; "Wagner and the New Music," by Mr. James Whalley, with a paper on "Some Really New Books," by the same; and a paper-on "Good Taste in Dress," by Miss Jenny Talbot—the virago!
The batteries were to be turned on poor Coalchester with a vengeance. For some time past there had been uneasy suspicions in the town that strange and somewhat ungodly forms of new learning and beauty were being stored as in an arsenal in that little house at 3 Zion Place. A large cast of the Venus of Milo, it was known, had come from Covent Garden, London, via a poor little dealer in artistic materials in the town, who on one occasion had shown a bewildering picture to one of his customers with the remark, "What do you make of this, Mr. Littlejohn?"
Mr. Littlejohn could make nothing of it, nor indeed could the artists' colourman, who had been used to pictures all his life.
No wonder, for it was the first Rossetti that had ever been seen in Coalchester.
And it was the same at the little paperhanger's shop where Theophilus had ordered some pieces of Morris wall-paper for his room.
"Law! what a taste, to be sure!" had exclaimed the paperhanger's wife as they opened the parcel. "How any one dare live with such patterns is beyond me." The paperhanger's wife verbed better than she knew. Few are those indeed who dare live with beauty.
When the paper was hung in Theophil's room, so great was the sensation in the household that even old Mr. Talbot ventured to look in at it, keeping very close to his wife. It was so the old man had stood open-mouthed before the first steam-engine, and here again was the Devil plainly at work.
"Lord a-mercy, Jane," he said to his wife, "what is the world coming to?"
The world was indeed changing beneath the old man's feet, and the heavens opening as never before in his time—with, he might be right, some assistance from beneath; and—it was undoubtedly safer in the kitchen.
Mrs. Talbot in these matters lived and loved by faith in her boy, as she called him. But even she had her doubts, which she expressed in a way that showed, funny old woman as she was, that she was not without a sort of blind insight.
"I suppose it's all right, boy," she said, "and it sounds silly to say about a lot of harmless lines and flowers, but it seems to your old mother that there's something wrong about that paper,—something almost wicked in it. It reminds me of that nasty music you and Jenny are so fond of playing."
Here Theophil enveloped her in a huge hug, and laughingly mocked her with playful caresses, smiling to himself all the same. For the music she had referred to was Dvorak.
A LITTLE ABOUT JENNY
Meanwhile, as New Zion moved and hummed and whizzed, and as "The Dawn" went on dawning week by week,—you couldn't expect the dawn oftener than once a week in Coalchester,—the love of Jenny and Theophil grew more and more perfect.
There was a long while to wait yet before Jenny was to bear what seemed to her the finest of all names, for old Mrs. Talbot, easily manageable as a rule, had a way of quietly putting her foot down on occasion that would have surprised you. Jenny was only just passed nineteen, and was no fit wife for any man yet, least of all for a great sprawling fellow like that. Let her get a little more flesh on her bones, something more than all spirit and nerves, let her get well turned twenty, and it might be thought of, but not now.
No! it's no use coming with your nonsense, you silly big fellow! You know when the soft old mother says a thing, she means it.
So it proved. Old Mrs. Talbot on this point remained a homely form of adamant. However, the lovers were not badly off. Living in the same house, they saw almost as much of each other as if they had been married, and from the evenings she spent there, Jenny had come to regard Theophil's room and his books as hers too.
She had developed wonderfully in these months, had Jenny. She was a real little great man's wife now; and as Theophil looked at her, with her lit eager face, her whole soul so alive to help him in however humble a way, her whole life his, his, his,—such love seemed almost tragic in its very beauty and joy. It was so irremediably—love. At times he almost trembled before it. He would almost chide her with its divine completeness.
What if he were to be taken from her? Oughtn't she to keep just a little of herself for foothold? We ought all to belong to ourselves as well as to another. It was such a risk. Suppose he were to die, Jenny!
No doubt it was very wise, but Jenny was wiser. She could never belong to herself again. She was his, and his only, for ever; and if he died—if he were to be taken away ...
But he could never be taken from her any other way? No one else, nothing but death, could take him ...
"No, nothing but death—and perhaps not even death."
"You are sure, darling? O, you are quite, quite sure?"
"Sure from my soul, little child. Look in it and see."
A lover's eyes are his soul.
Yes, Theophil loved Jenny, loved her even more with her own dependence on love than he knew of. He was, the reader need scarcely be told, an almost wildly ambitious man, and a few months ago he would have said that there was nothing which was more to him than the expression of the power that was in him. But there was something that was even more to him now, and if it could be imagined that he might some day be asked to choose between his ambition and Jenny, he could honestly have answered from his soul, "Give me Jenny."
Whoever thinks this an easily natural answer to make, may know something about love, but evidently knows little about ambition. Still, life seldom sets us such silly examination questions as that, and need one say that that question was never put to Jenny's lover? He was far too proud of the woman he had made of that little measure of porcelain and that handful of stars.
HOW THE RENAISSANCE CAME IN PERSON TO NEW ZION
The winter months had gone by; all but one of those incendiary lectures had been given, not without storm and tempest; "The Dawn" still came up each week with anger and singing, and the first year of Londonderry's ministry at New Zion neared its close. The lecture season was presently to end, on the last Friday in March, with a concert which was to include a series of recitations by a lady-reciter from London. Londonderry had written to a lecture agency for the name of a likely reciter, man or woman, and they had sent him the name of Isabel Strange.
On the occasion of the last lecture, Mr. Moggridge had not been satisfied with the colour of the platform. It wanted repainting, and I think it very likely that it was a strain of that boyishness which I hope survives in us all, and one of whose quaint fancies is an envy of house-painters, so happy all day with paint-pot and brush and great smooth boards to dab and smooth, that decided him to do the job himself. Mr. Moggridge had this great element of refinement, that he thought nothing honest beneath him.
It was the Friday of the entertainment, about one o'clock, and though Mr. Moggridge had practically finished the work the day before, he had slipped in during his lunch-hour to give it a final touch or two. He had brought his lunch in the form of a pork-pie, and while with one hand he plunged the pie occasionally among his red whiskers, with the other he would lean forward and touch up a knot or a nail-hole that needed a little more paint. And he was proud as a boy of the simple bit of slap-dashing, and entirely absorbed in it and the pork-pie.
Presently he became aware that he was not alone. Someone had entered the schoolroom at the far end. He turned round, with the paint-brush in one hand and the pork-pie in the other, and became abashed, for a beautiful lady had entered the room and was evidently about to make an enquiry. The surreptitiousness that seems to inhere in pork-pies prompted Mr. Moggridge to slip the pie into his trousers' pocket—for his coat was off, and a white apron had taken its place.
"Just doing a little bit of amateur painting," he explained rather awkwardly, advancing to the lady.
"So I see," said the lady, with a pleasant smile. "This, I believe, is Zion Chapel—and I suppose this is the room where I am to recite. My name is Isabel Strange, and I have come a little earlier, I daresay, than you expected; but I always like to see the room I'm to recite in—just to try my voice in and run over my pieces."
"Certainly, of course," said Mr. Moggridge; "but you have come all the way from London and so early. You will have some refreshment first, and if you'll honour Mrs. Moggridge and me—I may as well explain that I am the chief deacon," said Mr. Moggridge, dexterously slipping off his painter's apron and getting into his coat. So, with a wistful glance at his work of art, Mr. Moggridge carried off the beautiful London lady to Zion View.
But was Isabel Strange beautiful? It was a new sort of beauty if she was—or perhaps a very old sort. Yet beautiful was the first word that had sprung into Mr. Moggridge's mind as she had surprised him in the schoolroom. Perhaps wonderful was the exacter word, wonderful in a way that included beauty,—wonderful, and with a strange air about her that suggested exceptional refinement, exquisite sensitiveness to refined things.
"Beautiful, O dear no!" said Mrs. Moggridge, to whom feminine beauty did not appeal, as the young lady freshened herself up after her travel in Mrs. Moggridge's best bedroom. "Why! she hasn't a regular feature in her face!"
Mrs. Moggridge herself had neat little pretty features set in fat.
"Look at that long upper lip and her nose!"
Mrs. Moggridge omitted mention of eyes singularly powerful and very true and sweet, as also of a long lithe mouth that reminded you of a beautiful serpent, a serpent which the true eyes plainly said would do you no harm.
Presently, however, Mrs. Moggridge had to admit that she was very attractive. She knew she meant fascinating, but she wouldn't admit that to Mr. Moggridge, who had dropped the subject; though a mind which again had asserted its dim preference for new fashions was perhaps groping after expression of some such perplexity as this: why, if a face has the same effect upon you as beauty, may it not be described as beautiful? If Mr. Moggridge really got so far even as cloudily to ponder that, it is evident that he was not far from the kingdom of beauty.
It is, of course, true enough that some faces are spoilt by flaws such as every Mrs. Moggridge can point out,—faces that begin in one style and end in another, half Greek perhaps and half Gothic; yet even such faces, if their individuality is strong enough, have their own rococo charm. For all but supremely great faces, of which perhaps the world has not seen half-a-dozen, absolute regularity, so-called correctness, of features is a calamity, and regular beauty on the ordinary human levels is only another form of mediocrity.
Wonderful English girls! face after face indistinguishable from each other as rose after rose. How sweet you are! how fragrant! what a bloom! It is a wonderful rose-girl-farm from which you come. How pretty you look laced up one after another on your standards, and how skilfully you are guarded against any form of variation! Perhaps no women potteries in the world produce so exquisite a surface, delicate as a lily and strong as marble. Indeed you are wonderful porcelain, you fair English girls, wonderful porcelain; but where are the stars?
Mrs. Moggridge had also remarked that Miss Strange was "very easy in her manners." This was not always the case with ladies in Coalchester, and Mrs. Moggridge did not mean the remark as an unreserved compliment. She liked a certain stiffness in strangers. It was not, however, in Isabel Strange's nature to oblige her in that particular. Her way of pouring her grace into Mrs. Moggridge's great arm-chair suggested at once that she had lived there for ever so long, and to him particularly she chatted as with an old acquaintance. You could not make a stranger of her. She ate some cold fowl which presently appeared, entirely without embarrassment, though two Miss Moggridges sat like dummies and watched her.
"That's an interesting face!" she said presently, pointing to a conspicuous portrait of a young man on the mantelpiece.
"That's Mr. Londonderry," said Mr. Moggridge.
"O! that's Mr. Londonderry, is it?" she said. "H'm,... I hadn't expected him to be so young."
"Yes! He's a wonderful young man for his position," said Mr. Moggridge, started on what was now his favourite topic. "He'll be a great man some day, will Mr. Londonderry."
Isabel looked up at Mr. Moggridge with added interest. Such a genuine interest in great men as his voice betokened was a surprise in him.
Then Mr. Moggridge proceeded to narrate the history of New Zion, told of its former desolation, his lucky advertisement, and its present prosperity.
"Yes, it was a dead-and-alive place was New Zion when we moved in here, wasn't it, missus?" turning to his wife; "but now, since Mr. Londonderry came, there is always something moving. Yes, there's always something going on at New Zion," he repeated, rubbing his hands gleefully. Mr. Moggridge did so love anything that was alive.
Mr. Moggridge also told the story of "The Dawn," and generally, as he would have said, posted her up in the position of things at New Zion. At the end she found herself generally looking forward to meeting this young minister and his friends, who were evidently a little nest of surprise-people in what had indeed seemed a most unpromising corner of the world,—perhaps the most unpromising corner that her nomadic wandering minstrel existence had brought her to.
Isabel Strange, according to old-fashioned reckoning, was not a very young woman. That is, she was already twenty-eight, though, having to fight a silly world with its own silly weapons, she called herself twenty-five, which it was still quite safe for her to do; and though the nerve-intensity of her face was the worst thing in the world for wrinkles, they would when they came be very interesting wrinkles, and her eyes and mouth would keep the world from looking at the rest of her features for a long time to come. A face so full of the mystery of light could only be eclipsed by one darkness, and even in that those magnetic eyes would shine through the cold closed lids.
Surprises were welcome to her, for she got few. Her life was rather a dreary one, as the life of an elocution teacher may well be. At one time she had dreamed of the stage, but her voice was not quite big enough for that, some managers had said, and indeed her mettle was perhaps a little too fine for the stage. The positive and enduring joys of her life were that she lived in London—for which she had the kind of passion that some people have for the Earth-Mother—and loved beauty as some women love religion. She had been loved many times, but never quite as she needed, as she demanded, to be loved. Vivid, passionate, and exquisite, she was what we call "modern" to the tips of her beautiful fingers; that is, she united the newest opinions on all things with many ancient charms. At the same time she was a good woman, though very wonderful and highly dangerous.
Presently Mr. Moggridge, who from where he sat commanded a view of the street, exclaimed, "Why, here is Mr. Londonderry himself!" rising as he spoke and passing into the hall, where he was met by a curiously rich and mellow voice, which Isabel Strange thus heard for the first time; and then the glorified original of the photograph entered the room.
As her eyes and hands met his, her soul gave a little half-humorous "Oh!" of surprise; for photography, which seems to have been invented to flatter the mediocre and belittle the exceptional, had indeed given Londonderry an "interesting face," as we have heard, but missed all the rest—"all the rest" of a large, mobile, talking face, not exactly handsome perhaps, but decidedly good-looking and full of various commands and appeals, thought on the brow and laughter in the eyes, humour and eloquence all along the large and somewhat loose mouth, with plenty of go in the powerful but not anxiously determined chin. These were the moral qualities of the face, which Isabel Strange did not miss; but it was the fascination of its general vitality that struck her most, as an important introduction was made, to the usual fantastic accompaniment of small talk.
Let us not prolong the small-talk of the situation further, but introduce Miss Strange as speedily as possible to Jenny also and to the little study in 3 Zion Place.
Here her eager examination of the shelves was one succession of cries of sympathetic delight. "Why, you have got all the books I ever want to read again!" she exclaimed. "What wonderful people you are! How have you done it—in Zion Place?"
"I suppose the books must have been blown here," answered Theophil, gaily, "on the same fair wind that blew Miss Isabel Strange."
"Yes," said little Jenny, affectionately pressing her shoulder as the three leaned forward looking at the shelves, "for if we seem wonderful people to you, what must you seem to us—here, as you may well say, in Zion Place?"
"What does she remind you of?" said Jenny presently, with candid admiration. "I know! Why, of course, she just is the very woman. Wait—I'll go and fetch it;" and Theophil and Isabel were thus left for a moment or two alone,—a fact of no importance beyond this, that it was the first moment in their lives that they had ever been together alone.
Jenny returned presently with a small copy of Botticelli's "Primavera," which hung in her bedroom; and it was undoubtedly true that the figure of Flora might well have passed for a portrait of Isabel. The nose was a little longer, that was all; but the rest of the face—particularly the eyes and mouth—was all but exact, and the general correspondence between the two faces in subtlety, strangeness, and, so to say, determined refinement, was complete.
"It is strange that I should have loved that face so," said Jenny.
"It is very sweet of you,—Jenny, I had almost said,—but you are too kind to me, and a little selfish too—you give me no time to admire you. I wonder if Mr. Londonderry is modern enough to allow ladies to smoke in his study."
And thus it comes out that Jenny often smoked there!
The smoking-sister is now almost as common as a taste for Botticelli, and perhaps equally insincere; but in 1886 there still remained that sense of contrast in both which we have declared the essence of romance. At present those curious people who resent the popular acceptance of an ideal of beauty which they have done their best to popularise are beginning to affect that a taste for Botticelli is a mark of the bourgeoisie. So does the whirligig of time bring in the paradoxer.
A new kind of woman, while she is always the despairing hope of men, is seldom acceptable to women; yet when the evening came and Isabel stood up to recite in New Zion schoolroom, women as well as men were instantaneously attracted. She stood very simply, with one hand lightly touching the table at which Londonderry sat as chairman, and the other at her side; and before she began her first recitation she glanced quietly over the audience, as though her eyes were thus preparing the proper magnetic atmosphere for her voice.
She began with some simple Longfellow poem, that New Zion might feel at home; then she recited a fairy poem called "The Forsaken Merman," which, of course, was only a fairy tale, and yet somehow was so full of human pathos that it was more real than if it had been really "real," that is, prosaic.
For impressing the imagination of her audience she relied mainly on her own imagination and her voice; striking no attitudes, and allowing herself nothing of that facial distortion which is the resort of the unimaginative, and destroys not creates illusion. Of course, her face changed, but the change was one of which she was probably unconscious, and which she couldn't have reproduced to her mirror; it was not a play of features, but a play of lights and shadows and nerves, a flow or an ebb of radiance in the eyes, a subtle sensitiveness of the lips and nerves; and her effect was mainly produced by her voice, over which she wielded indescribable powers of modulation. It was a voice so sympathetic, so intimate, that it almost seemed too intimate, too appealingly sympathetic. It was so a woman might recite to a man she loved, but you almost felt as though the voice were too personal a revelation for an audience,—felt an impulse, so to say, to throw a veil over it, though you were glad from your soul that no one threw it. And the voice was a wonderful actor too. It could act the scenery as well. You saw it all, you heard it all, you felt it all, in the voice:—the great winds blowing shorewards, the wild white horses in the spray,
"The white-walled town, And the little gray church on the windy shore;"
and when she said, "Down, down, down!" you were indeed in the very depths of the sea—and were all sitting, Mr. Moggridge with the rest, amid coral caves and seaweed, and in a curious green and shimmering light.
But what a world of heart-break there was in her "Come, dear children, come away!" You felt you simply couldn't bear her to say it again. Next time you'd have to cry, and cry you did, and you weren't ashamed, for suddenly when you came out of the trance of the voice you found that every one else was crying too, and Mr. Londonderry had quite forgotten that he was a chairman, and had to be nudged to announce the next piece.
This was a very strange poem, and made you feel like a stained-glass window; it was full of incense, but it was full of something else too. It began
"The blessed damozel leaned out From the gold bar of heaven" ...
and there was something in the voice that suggested such a height up above the world that you drew your breath lest she should fall over. And there was a lover crying in the poem, you could hear him crying far away down on the earth, and there were some lines which went:
"We two will lie i' the shadow of That mystic living tree Within whose secret growth the Dove Is sometimes felt to be" ...
that made you feel what a strange holy thing love was, after all; and then there was a curious verse with nothing but women's names in it, yet somehow it seemed the loveliest of all; and when again you came out of the voice, you were not crying but feeling wonderfully blest somehow and rather frightened. Jenny sent a wonderful look to Theophil—it was so they should bathe together in God's sight—and Theophil sent back as wonderful a look as a chairman dare venture on. Otherwise, of course, it would have been as wonderful as Jenny's.
Thus did Isabel Strange recite at New Zion; and perhaps one can best judge of the impression she made, from the fact that the little boys at the back, who during the last lecture on "Henrik Ibsen" had discovered a most exciting new way of making continued existence possible, quite forgot it and would have to keep it for Sunday afternoon Sunday-school.
Everyone went home in a dream, and little Jenny shone like a light with the excitement and wonder of it all.
"How wonderful you are! Doesn't it seem strange to be so wonderful?" said Jenny afterwards, as the two girls took off their outdoor things in Jenny's room.
"Dear child!" said Isabel, kissing Jenny on her brow, "it is you that are wonderful."
There is no joy in the world better worth seeing, better worth living, than the joy of young people with the same dreams, the same thoughts, and—so important—the same words for them, blown together by some unexpected conjunction of the four winds, met by some blissful dispensation of the planets of youth.
There have been periods in history especially favourable for the ecstasy of such meetings, early mornings of the human spirit, when lovely new truth and lovely new beauty were dawning wild and dewy in the strange east, and while the deep breathing of the older generations still asleep made a more wonderful loneliness of dawn, for the hushed and happy bands of young people holding each other's hands and watching in the magic twilight.
To have been young in Italy in the time of Dante, in England in the time of Shakespeare, and to have met in such a mighty morning—with danger too to keep us grateful. Ah, we have missed those dawns; and yet I doubt if the whole recovered beauty of Greece and Rome, or the thrilling new fashions in romance and poetry wafted across the seas from Italy to help make Shakespeare, ever gave young people a keener thrill of newness and mystery than the books and pictures so eagerly discussed by the little group that gathered over supper that night in 3 Zion Place.
To have read "The House of Life!"—to have seen the "Venus Verticordia"! Ah! that was life! And Isabel had actually been to Mr. G.F. Watts's studio—walked about there a whole afternoon. The young New Zioners looked at her.
"O Theophil, we must go to London," cried Jenny. She meant when they were married.
Theophil pressed her hand tenderly, as she impulsively sought his for sympathy, and his eyes left Isabel's face a moment to smile a true "yes" into Jenny's.
Of course no one had eyes for anyone but Isabel that night. Was she not, as the announcements had said, "of London," an ambassadress of beauty from the capital of the great queen? There was really little she could tell these clever young people, who amazed and attracted her by their reality,—the unrealities of "intensity" and "modernity" and the rest had, of course, already begun in London,—but she represented to them the sparkle of the new beauty and truth they loved. She knew little intimate anecdotes of the poets and painters they loved, piquant gossip and brilliant mots; and then she was one of those women who are like incense in a room, enriching by her very presence, exhaling mystery and distinction, like a pomander of strange spices.
You might love her for a long time or a little, but love her you were obliged to while you were with her, whoever else you loved too. There was no other word for it. Even little James Whalley had conscience-pangs as he looked at Isabel, for he had been engaged for five years; but the poet's heart, that is, all the combustible portion of it, was already burnt to a cinder. Poets' hearts, however, are used to burning. The inflammable air of sighs about them is ever in a perpetual state of ignition; so it has come, no doubt, from long custom, that nature has made them at their centre as fireproof as the phoenix. Otherwise, indeed, the poetic life would be impossible to live; poets could not go on maintaining the deadly fire of love, to which it is one of the conditions of their precarious art that they must daily expose themselves. Sometimes, indeed, as we know, even these firemen of the emotions dare the burning house once too often, and we hear their death-song amid the flames.
Well, we can talk of Theophil again. Meanwhile Jenny was as much in love with her herself, and he held Jenny's hand and loved her, O yes, so dearly—and was quite safe. Fear not, little Jenny; it was only death, you remember, that was to separate Jenny and Theophil.
Mrs. Talbot—if she won't bore you—had made an interesting remark. She had not escaped Isabel's charm, but there was "something," something a little alarming about her,—a little like that wicked wall-paper.
Jenny divulged this criticism over supper when her mother was out of ear-shot.
"How very clever of her!" exclaimed Isabel.
"She said the same of Dvorak's music," said Jenny.
"Good again," said Isabel. "How clever of her! Don't you feel how right she is? We are all like that wall-paper, and everything we care about is like it. The New Spirit—that is, the devil—is in that wall-paper. A psychometrist could detect Wagner and Keats, and Schopenhauer, and Rossetti and Swinburne, and all the rest of them in that wall-paper, just as surely as he could have detected Tupper and Eliza Cook in the wall-papers of 1851. Am I not right?"
"If we could only paper New Zion like this!" exclaimed Theophil, a curious new feeling of joy and pain shooting through him to hear a woman thus expressing herself as an independent brain.
"Yes! New Zion! I'd quite forgotten all about New Zion. It seems impossible to think of you together."
"And a little absurd, I suppose," said Theophil.
"It is uncouth material, I admit," he continued, "and yet somehow it amuses us to mould it all the more; and then you mustn't forget that we had been given no other—but I don't suppose you can understand?" (Theophil often used "we" in this imperatorial sense, meaning himself, as of course he had every right to mean.)
"O yes, but I can," Isabel hastened to correct. "I understand power."
"Beauty always does," was the young minister's reply.
"Besides," he presently resumed, "we are glad to have been Nonconformists—once. A Puritan training is a good thing—to look back upon. You are all the more thorough in your pleasures, the truer humanist, for something of it still lurking in your blood."
"Yes, of course you're right. I don't like the word 'pagan'; but for want of a better, we might say that the best pagans have come of Puritan stock. Besides, it is half the romance of life to have something to escape from, isn't it?"
"And someone to escape with the other half," responded Theophil, nimble as a real town wit.
O it was a wonderful night. Let us build five tabernacles!
"Good-night, dear Jenny."
"Good-night, dear wonderful Isabel."
So at last the two girls bade each other good-night at the door of Jenny's bedroom, where Isabel was to sleep.
Masterful youth! So wild to take, so eager to surrender, the Christian name. Strange, what passion sometimes can be put into a Christian name!
When the door was shut on Isabel, she made no haste to undress. Indeed, she sat down on the side of the bed as though she had been waiting to sit down for ever so long, sat very still as in a dream, and an hour went by and she was still sitting and gazing in front of her.