‘MY dear Laurence,’ Mr. Luke began, ‘of course human life is a mockery, if you leave out the one thing in it that is of real importance. And it is because you have done this, that Lord Allen thinks that culture is so little worth caring for, though I doubt, by the way, if he expressed quite accurately what I conclude him to have meant. However,’ said Mr. Luke, clearing his throat, and looking round at the general company, ‘what was said about culture just now was perfectly right—perfectly right, and really capitally illustrated—as far as it went. The only fault was that, as I say, the most important point in the matter was entirely left out. It is quite true that culture is, as Mr. Laurence observed so happily, the sensitising of the mental palate—the making it a good taster. But a taster of what? Not only of social absurdities, or love affairs, or beautiful scenery, but of morality, of righteousness, of Christianity. The really profound work of culture is to make us judges of these—judges able to tell in an instant real righteousness and real Christianity from pseudo-righteousness and pseudo-Christianity, so that we may swallow the true like the healing water of life, and reject the false like a sample of bad claret—that we may have, in fact, just the same horror of any doctrine or dogma that is contrary to sweet reason (such, for instance,’ he said confidentially to Lady Grace, ‘as that of eternal punishment) that we have for young ladies who call their friends “saucy,” or for young ladies’ mothers who look on a bishop’s palace as a focus of the most polite society. So I think, if you only all recognise this, that culture includes—in fact, essentially is—the discernment of true righteousness, of true morality, you need none of you fear that to a really cultivated society life will be in any danger of becoming a mockery.’

‘I was sorry,’ said Miss Merton in a low tone to Laurence, ‘to hear you say that just now, because I know you don’t mean it.’

Laurence, who had been sitting a little above her on the bank, moved quietly down, and placed himself at her side.

‘You make me feel ashamed of myself,’ he said to her, ‘when you speak like this.’

There was something in his manner which a little embarrassed Miss Merton. She looked down, and said nothing for a moment; and then, not having quite command of her voice, she answered him in a tone rather louder than she intended.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘and don’t you think that some definite faith or other is needed by the world?’

‘Yes, I think so; I think so. I entirely agree with Miss Merton,’ exclaimed somebody. But it was not Laurence. To the surprise of everyone, it was Mr. Saunders. All eyes were turned on him.

‘Will you allow me,’ he said, looking round him with a nervous eagerness, as though doubtful if he should gain a hearing, ‘will you allow me to make a few observations here—it will only take a moment—to remind you of just a few things which I think ought not to be lost sight of? Well,’ Mr. Saunders went on, as he seemed to have secured the ear of the house, ‘in the first place as to history, just one word. The main use of history, which Mr. Laurence forgot altogether to mention, is of course, as Comte has so well established, to teach us his philosophy of it—to show us, in other words, how entirely non compos mentis the world was till our time, and that it is only in the present century that it has acquired the power of passing a reasonable judgment. And next, as to facts; mere facts, as facts, I think quite as useless as Mr. Laurence does, except for one reason. And that reason is the way in which from every side they confute, give the lie to, annihilate, the pretensions of revealed religion, and of the myths which it calls its history. This, however, by the way. It was not the chief thing that I wanted to say to you. Now, you all,’ Mr. Saunders went on, holding up his forefinger and addressing the company, ‘propose to form a picture of what the world ought to be—what I suppose you hope it will be; and you say, and very rightly, that the great secret is that it should appreciate properly the pleasures of human life. But, please mark this, you have quite ignored the most important thing of all—the vast change that all these pleasures are undergoing, that the whole aspect of life is undergoing, beneath the touch of modern thought and modern philosophy; nay—and this indeed is the special point I want to lay stress upon—Mr. Luke just now even used those obsolete and misleading words, righteousness and morality, soiled by so many unworthy associations. By the way,’ he exclaimed, stopping suddenly and looking round him, ‘I suppose I may speak the truth freely, as I know well enough that all to whom my vaticinations would be unwelcome are sure to mistake me for a Cassandra.’

‘Mistake him for a what?’ said Lady Ambrose, in a loud undertone.

‘She was a beautiful young unfortunate,’ whispered Mrs. Sinclair confidentially, ‘who was betrayed by the god Apollo.’

Mr. Saunders was conscious he had raised a smile. He considered it a full licence to proceed.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘as Miss Merton remarked a moment ago, some definite faith is needed by the world; and, as I now deliberately declare, some definite faith it will have—some one definite faith that will tolerate no dissent from it; and it will have this before fifty years are over.’

Everyone stared at Mr. Saunders, everyone except Mr. Luke, who simply smiled at the sky, and said, with an air of suppressed pleasantry, ‘I had imagined that our young friend’s motto was freedom.’

Mr. Saunders was nettled at this beyond description. With a vindictive quickness he fixed his eyes upon Mr. Luke.

‘Sight is free,’ he said, uttering his words very slowly, as if each one were a dagger in itself, and could give Mr. Luke a separate smart; ‘sight is free,’ he said, ‘and yet the sight of all healthy men, I conceive, is in agreement. It differs, I admit, when our eyes are dim with tears of hysterical feeling; or when we are drunk; or when we are fighting—in this last case, Mr. Luke, I am told we are often visited with illuminations of a truly celestial radiance—but it is surely not such exceptional vision as this that you praise as free. And it is just the same,’ said Mr. Saunders triumphantly, ‘with the mind. The minds of men will never have been so free as on that not-distant day when they shall all agree. And what will that agreement result in? Why, in the utter banishment, the utter destruction—I know no word strong enough to express my meaning—of all mystery and of all mysticism, and consequently of that supposed inscrutable difference between right and wrong, which has been made, in the hands of the priests, one of the most hideous engines of terror that were ever employed to degrade and crush mankind. Right and wrong, indeed! Righteousness and morality! There is something insidious in their very sound. No —“useful,” “healthful,” “serviceable,” “pleasant”—these will be the words of the future. Emancipated man will know no wrong, save unhealthiness and unpleasantness. That most treacherous handmaid of priestcraft, poetry, which, professing to heighten the lights of life, did, in reality, only deepen its shadows, will delude him no longer—she will be gone—gone for ever. Science, the liberator of humanity, will have cast its light upon her; and the lying vision will vanish. But why do I talk of poetry? Is not that, and every other evil—reverence, faith, mysticism, humility, and all the unclean company—comprised in this one word, Religion? Well, let religion—the ancien régime of the world—retire, as it has done, to its Versailles, and fence itself round for a little with its mercenary soldiers! The Paris of the world is, at any rate, left free—and there the Revolution of Humanity is begun. Science leads it, and in another fifty years there will not be another religion left. Surely most here must know this,’ continued Mr. Saunders, ‘although they may perhaps forget it sometimes. But the fact is notorious, and I really think—’


Where did that sudden, solemn exclamation come from—that single syllable at which the music of Mr. Saunders’s voice, ‘like a fountain’s sickening pulse,’ retired in a moment. Who had spoken? The sound surprised everybody. It was Mr. Stockton—Mr. Stockton, with a face all aglow with feeling, beneath his picturesque wide-awake hat, and holding in his hand a white pocket-handkerchief bordered with pale blue.

‘Perhaps,’ he continued, looking slowly round him, ‘I, as a man of science, who have been a patient apprentice at my work for six-and-twenty years, may be allowed to give some opinion on this matter. Destroy religion! Destroy poetry!’ he exclaimed, in his rich, bell-like voice, that was now resonant with an indignant melancholy. ‘Will science destroy either of these precious and exquisite heritages of the human race? Will it extinguish one profound, one ennobling, one devout feeling? Will it blight that rich culture on which the present age so justly prides itself? I have followed science for six-and-twenty years, I speak therefore from experience; and I boldly answer “No.” How indeed should it? I know, I deplore, and I trust also forgive, the common notion that it does. But how can that notion have arisen? That is what puzzles me. Is not science essentially religious, essentially poetical—nay, does it not deepen quite boundlessly the religion and poetry already existing in the world, and fuse the two together, as they were never fused before? Does it narrow our notions of life’s wonder and dignity to peer into the abyss of being, and learn something of the marvellous laws of things—to discover the same mysterious Something in a snow-flake, in the scent of a rose, in the “topmost star of unascended heaven,” and in some prayer or aspiration in the soul of man? True it is that this wondrous All is Matter, and that all matter is atoms in its last analysis. No idle metaphysics have clouded my brain, so I have been able to see these things clearly—’

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ cried Mr. Saunders, recovering himself, his voice tremulous with excitement, ‘I know all that. I know that in their last analysis a pig and a martyr, a prayer and a beef-steak, are just the same—atoms and atomic movement. We, the younger generation of thinkers, accept all the premisses you give us without a moment’s question. We only reason boldly and honestly on them, and I defy you to prove—Mr. Stockton, sir, if you will only listen to me—’

But there was little chance of that. Interrupted only for a moment, and whilst Mr. Saunders was yet speaking, Mr. Stockton’s eloquence swept on.

‘Consider ourselves,’ he said, ‘consider the race of men, and note the truly celestial light that science throws on that. We have ascended,’ said Mr. Stockton; ‘noble thought! We have not descended. We are rising towards heaven, we have not fallen from it. Yes—we, with attributes so like an angel’s, with understanding so like a God’s—to this height we have already risen. Who knows what future may not be in store for us? And then, on the other hand, when the awestruck eye gazes, guided by science, through the “dark backward and abysm of time,” and sees that all that is has unfolded itself, unmoved and unbidden, (astounding thought!) from a brainless, senseless, lifeless gas—the cosmic vapour, as we call it—and that it may, for aught we know, one day return to it—I say, when we realise, when we truly make our own, this stupendous truth, must not our feelings,’ said Mr. Stockton, letting his eyes rest on Miss Merton’s with an appealing melancholy—‘our feelings at such moments be religious? Are they not Religion?’

‘But,’ said Miss Merton, ‘there is nothing religious in a gas. I don’t see how anything religious can come out of it.’

‘Perfectly right!’ chuckled Mr. Saunders, faintly clapping his hands. ‘Nothing can come out of the sack but what’s in it. Miss Merton’s perfectly right.’

‘Ah, Miss Merton,’ Mr. Stockton continued, ‘don’t be frightened by the mere sound of the word matter. For who knows what matter is’—(‘Then, why talk about it?’ shrilled Mr. Saunders, unheeded)—‘that great Alpha and Omega of the Universe?’ Mr. Stockton went on. ‘And don’t wrong me by thinking that I “palter with you in a double sense,” and that I am not using the word religion in its truest, its profoundest signification. Do you think, Miss Merton, for instance, that I cannot feel with you, when, stirred to your inmost soul by some strain of Mozart or Beethoven, you kneel before your sacrificial altar, whilst the acolyte exalts the Host, and murmur with bowed head your litany to your beautiful Virgin? I say advisedly, Miss Merton, that I, as a man of science, can appreciate, and to a great extent share, your adoring—your adorable frame of mind.’

Mr. Stockton paused. His acquaintance with Catholic ritual, and the fact of thus finding herself elected, without any merit of her own, as the special object of so great a man’s eloquence, produced in Miss Merton an unfortunate sense of absurdity, and in another moment she was conscious of nothing but a most inappropriate desire to laugh. She compromised with her facial muscles, however, and only gave a smile, which she trusted would pass muster as one of grave enquiry. Mr. Stockton thought that it was so, and went on; but, unknown to himself, he felt all the while that it was not so, and his enthusiasm, he could not tell why, became somewhat more polemical.

‘Does science, then,’ he proceeded, ‘rob us of one iota of religious feeling, or degrade our notions of life’s measureless solemnity? Nay, it is rather the flippant conceptions of theology that would do that, by connecting everything with an eternal Personality—a personality so degraded as to have some connection with ourselves. The prayer of the theologian, “cabined, cribbed, confined” in spoken words, is directed to a Being that Science can make no room for, and would not want, if she could. The prayer of the man of science, for the most part of the silent sort, is directed whither? demands what? He is silent if you ask him, for his answer would be beyond the reach of words. Even to hint at its nature he would feel were a profanity.’

‘Do you know, Mr. Stockton,’ said Miss Merton, this time with a polite meekness, ‘all this rather bewilders me.’

‘And so it does me,’ said Mr. Stockton much pleased with Miss Merton’s manner; ‘and this august bewilderment, which gives fulness and tone to our existence, but which we can neither analyse nor comprehend—to me comes in one shape, to you in another, and is—religion. In the name, then, of all genuine science, and of all serious scientific men, let man keep, I say,’ said Mr. Stockton, looking round him, ‘this precious and ennobling heritage—let him keep it and shape it ever anew, to meet his ever-changing and deepening needs. In my dream of the future I see religions not diminished, but multiplied, growing more and more richly diverse, as they sink deeper into individual souls. Surely, science, then, is not come to destroy the past, but to fulfil it—and I confess I can myself see no better way of discovering what we desire in the future than by the charming analysis Mr. Laurence has been giving us of what we most admire in the present.’

‘See,’ said Donald Gordon softly, ‘here is science on the one side offering us all religions, and on the other none.’

‘Heigho!’ sighed Mr. Luke, very loud; ‘Let us agree about conduct first, and quarrel about theology afterwards.’

‘Precisely,’ resumed Mr. Stockton, to Mr. Luke’s extreme annoyance—Mr. Luke himself having still much to say, and considering that Mr. Stockton did but darken counsel by interrupting him—‘Mr. Luke is perfectly right.’ (‘I should like to know how you know that,’ thought Mr. Luke.) ‘Let us agree about conduct—morality, by-the-by, is the plainer word—that is the great thing. Let us agree about the noble and the beautiful. Let us agree heroically to follow truth—ay, truth; let us follow that, I say, picking our way step by step, and not look where we are going. Let us follow—what can I add to this?—the incomparable life of the great Founder of Christianity. Yes, Miss Merton, entertaining the views that I do, I say the incomparable life. Such is the message of science to the world; such is the instinct of culture when enriched and quickened by science.’

This was literally taking the bread out of Mr. Luke’s mouth. Not only was it repeating what he had said before, but it was anticipating, in a formless undisciplined way, the very thing that he was going to say again And the man who had robbed him thus was a mere Philistine—a mere man of science who was without even a smattering of Greek or Hebrew, and who thought sensori-motor nerves and spontaneous generation more important subjects than Marcion’s Gospel or the Psalms of David. For once in his life Mr. Luke was for the moment completely silenced. Laurence however somewhat soothed him, by replying to him, not to Mr. Stockton,

‘Yes, I believe I was wrong after all; and that true culture will really prevent us from looking on life as a mere mockery.’

Mr. Luke was going to have answered; but, worse even than Mr. Stockton’s, Mr. Saunders’s hated accents now got the start of him.

‘One word more,’ Mr. Saunders exclaimed, ‘one plain word if you will allow me. All this talk about Religion, Poetry, Morality, implies this—or it implies nothing—the recognition of some elements of inscrutable mystery in our lives and conduct; and to every mystery, to all mystery, science is the sworn, the deadly foe. What she is daily more and more branding into man’s consciousness is, that nothing is inscrutable that can practically concern man. Use, pleasure, self-preservation—on these everything depends; on these rocks of ages are all rules of conduct founded: and now that we have dug down to these foundations, what an entirely changed fabric of life shall we build upon them. Right and wrong, I again say, are entirely misleading terms; and the superstition that sees an unfathomable gulf yawning between them is the great bar to all healthful progress.’

‘And I say, on the contrary,’ said Laurence, replying very suavely to Mr. Saunders’s vehemence, ‘that it is on the recognition of this mysterious and unfathomable gulf that the whole of the higher pleasures of life depend—and the higher vicious pleasures as much as, if not more than, the virtuous.’

Lady Ambrose started at this.

I am not vicious,’ said Mr. Saunders snappishly. ‘When I call pleasure the one criterion of action, I am thinking of very different pleasures from what you think I mean.’

‘What is Mr. Saunders’s notion of the most passionate pleasure?’ said Mrs. Sinclair bewitchingly.

‘I agree with my great forerunner Hobbes’ said Mr. Saunders, ‘that the strongest of all pleasures are those arising from the gratification of curiosity; and he is the real ethical philosopher who subordinates all other appetites to this, like Bacon, who lost his life through pursuing a scientific experiment, or’ —he said pausing to think of another example—

‘Like Bluebeard’s wives?’ enquired Mrs. Sinclair naïvely. ‘I’m afraid I never give my husband his highest pleasure; for I never let him,’ she added in a regretful whisper, ‘open my letters, although I read all his. But, Mr. Saunders,’ she said, ‘if you are so fond of curiosity, you must have some mystery to excite it.’

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Saunders, ‘but mystery is a fox for us to hunt and shoot; not a God to hunt and shoot us.’

‘Fancy,’ exclaimed Lady Ambrose in horror, ‘shooting a fox! what sacrilege!’

This remark, so entirely spontaneous, and so entirely unexpected, produced a general laugh, in which all joined but Mr. Saunders himself, and Mr. Herbert.

‘Well,’ said Laurence at length, when the chorus had subsided, ‘may I read a certain letter of my uncle’s to myself, which is printed in this very book I have here? It was running in my mind just now, and is about the very matter we were speaking of— the connection of religions, of Christian morality, with all the higher pleasures of life.’

‘Very good,’ said Mr. Saunders. ‘Read what you please. I can only say that I have at this moment in my portmanteau an analysis I have made of all the Christian moral sentiments, in which I trace every one of them to such disgusting or paltry origins as shall at once rob them of all their pestilent prestige. I begin with the main root, the great first parent of all these evils, the conception of God, which I show may have arisen in seventy-three different ways, each one more commonplace than the other. By-and-by, if you will not fear to confront the document, I will show it to you.’

Mr. Luke meanwhile had seen his way to bringing Mr. Stockton’s true ignorance home to him, and had been regretting to him, in tones of insidious confidence, that hardly enough stress had been laid just now on the necessity of really wide reading—‘an intimacy,’ said Mr. Luke, ‘with the great literatures of the world—a knowledge and comparison of the best things that have been said and thought, in all the various ages, on the great questions of life, without which,’ he added, ‘as you and I know, that discrimination between right and wrong that we were speaking of just now, can never be anything more than a make-believe.’ Nor did Mr. Luke seem at all aware, as he was thus proceeding, that Laurence had found his place, and had already begun to read, as follows:

‘As I grow old, my dear Otho, I am coming to think over many things that I have hitherto thought too little about, and, amongst others, the great mystery of Christianity.’

At this point, however, Laurence and Mr. Luke were both interrupted by an entirely unforeseen event.