When It Was Dark/Chapter 9

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IT was at Victoria Station that Basil said good-bye to Helena. Spence had been back again in London for a fortnight. Mr. Byars and his daughter were to go straight back to Manchester the same day, and Gortre was to take possession of his new quarters in Lincoln's Inn and enter on his duties at St. Mary's without delay.

It had been a pleasant holiday, they all agreed, as the train brought them up from Newhaven; how pleasant they had hardly realised till it was all over. They had been all brought more intimately together than ever before. Gortre had come to know Mr. Byars with far more completeness than had been possible during their busy parochial life at Walktown. The elder man's calm and steadfast belief, his wide knowledge and culture, the Christian sanity of his life, were never more manifest than in the uninterrupted communion of this time of rest and pleasure.

He saw in his future father-in-law such a man as he himself humbly hoped that he might become. The impulsiveness of an eager youth had toned down into the mature judgment of middle age. The enthusiasms of life's springtime had solidified into quiet strength and force, and faith and intellect had combined into a deep and immovable conviction. And Mr. Byars's was no simple, childlike nature to whom goodness and belief were easy, a natural attribute of the man. He was subtle rather, complex, and the victory over himself had cost him more than it costs most men. So much Gortre realised, and his love and admiration for the vicar were tempered with that joyous awe that one fine nature is privileged to feel at the contact with another.

To Helena also this time of holiday had been very precious. To mark the fervour of her chosen one, the energy he threw into Life, Love, and Religion, to find him a man and yet a priest, to follow him in thought to the ivory gates of his Ideals — these were her uplifting occupations; and to all these as they walked and talked, listened to the music at the Casino, explored the ancient forest and castle at Arques, or knelt with bowed heads as the sacring bell rang and the priests moved about the altar — these had been the united bond of the great knowledge and hope they shared together.

After the farewells had been said in the noisy station, and Basil's cab drove him rapidly towards his new home, he felt wonderfully ready and prepared for his new work.

The moving panorama of Victoria Street, the sudden stately vision of Palace Yard, the grandeur of the Embankment — all spoke to the young man of a vivid, many-coloured, and pulsating life which was waiting for him and his activities. Here, indeed, was a fine battlefield and theatre for the Holy War.

The cab moved slowly up Chancery Lane and then turned into the sudden quiet of Lincoln's Inn. It was almost like going back to Oxford, he thought, with a quick glow of pleasure to see himself surrounded by mellow, ancient buildings once more.

All his heavy personal effects had been sent up from Walktown some days before, and when he had carried up his two portmanteaus he knocked at the "oak" or outside door of the chambers, which was shut, and waited for a response. He saw that his name was freshly painted on the lintel of the door under the two others:

Mr. Harold M. Spence.

Mr. Cyril Hands.

Rev. Basil Gortre.

In a minute he heard footsteps. The inner door was opened and he saw a tall, thin man, bearded and brown, peering at him through spectacles.

"Ah! Gortre, I suppose," said the other. "We were expecting you. I'm Hands, you know, home for another month yet. Give me these bags. Come in, come in."

He followed the big, stooping fellow with a sense of well-being at the cheery bohemianism of his greeting.

He found himself in a very large room indeed, panelled from floor to ceiling, the woodwork painted a sage green. Three great windows, each with a cushioned seat in its recess, looked down into the quadrangle below. Curtained doors faced him on all sides of the room, which was oddly shaped and full of nooks and angles. Books and newspapers covered two or three writing-tables and were piled on shelves between the doors. A bright fire burned in a large grate and the mantel above was covered with Oxford photographs, pipes, and tobacco jars. There was a note of comfort everywhere, of luxurious comfort though not of luxury. The furniture was not new and it bore the signs of long use no less than careful choice. Bohemia it was, but not a squalid Bohemia. If a room can have a personality, this was a gentlemanly room. One saw that gentlemen lived here, men who, without daintiness or a tinge of the sybarite, yet liked a certain order and fitness around them. At once Basil felt in key with the place. There was no jarring note anywhere.

"I've got you a sort of meal, Gortre," said Hands, pleasantly, "though we were rather in doubt as to what a man could want at four o'clock in the afternoon! Spence suggested afternoon tea, as you'll be wanting to dine later on. But Mrs. Buscall, our laundress, suggested cold beef and Bass's beer — after a sea voyage which she regards as a sort of Columbus adventure. So fall to — here you are. Harold is just getting up."

Indeed, as he spoke there came a noise of vigorous splashing from behind one of the closed doors and Spence's voice bellowed out a greeting.

Basil looked puzzled for a moment and Hands laughed as he saw it.

"You must remember that Spence doesn't get back from the office till three in the morning," he said. "He's writing four leaders a week now, and on his late nights, when he comes back, his brain is too alert and excited to sleep, so he has some Bovril and just works away at other stuff till morning. He won't interfere with us, though. I never hear him come in, nor will you. These chambers are a regular rabbit warren for size and ramification."

Basil went into the bedroom he was to have, a spacious, clean, and simply furnished place, and when he came out again for his meal found Spence, in a loose suit of flannels, smoking a cigarette. The journalist joined him at the table.

In a very short time Gortre felt thoroughly at home. He knew by a kind of instinct that he should be happy in Lincoln's Inn. Hands had still a month to spend in London before he went back to Palestine to continue his work for the Exploring Society, and he looked forward to many interesting talks with him, the actual agent and superintendent of the work at Jerusalem, the trained eye and arm of the great and influential English Society.

And as for Spence, he had known him intimately ever since his first Oxford days, many years ago now. Harold Spence was like a brother to him — had always been that.

The first hour's conversation, desultory as it was, in a sense, showed him how full and varied his new life promised to be. After the noisy seclusion of Walktown he felt that he was now in the centre of things. Both Spence and Hands were thoroughly cultured men, and both were distinguished above the crowd in their respective spheres.

Basil heard keen, critical, "inside" talk for almost the first time. His two companions knew everybody, were at the hub of things. Two nights ago Spence had been talking to the Prime Minister for ten minutes. — The Daily Wire was the unofficial Government organ. Hands had been at Lambeth with the Archbishop, the president and patron of the Palestine Society. They were absolute types of the keen, vigorous, and young mental aristocracy which is always on the active service of English life. They belonged to the executive branch.

"I'm sorry, Basil," Spence said suddenly, "I've got a note for you from Father Ripon. I forgot to give it to you. He sent it down by a special messenger this morning. Here it is."

Father Ripon was the vicar of St. Mary's, Gortre's new chief.

He took the note and opened it, reading as follows:

"The Clergy House,
"St Mary's, Bloomsbury.

"Dear Mr. Gortre, — Friend Spence says that you will arrive in London this afternoon. I don't believe in wasting time and I want a good long talk with you before you begin your work with us. To-night I am due at Bethnal Green to give a lecture. I shall be driving home about ten and I'll call at Lincoln's Inn on my way. If this will not be too late for you, we can then talk matters over. —
Sincerely yours in Christ, Arthur Ripon."

Basil passed the note to Spence.

"That'll be all right," he said. "I shall be at work, and Hands will be in his own room. What a man Ripon is! He's just the incarnation of breezy energy. Brusque, unconventional as Dr. Parker himself, but one of the sincerest Christians and best men I ever met or ever shall meet. He signs his note like that because he means it. He hates cant, and what in some men would appear cant, or at least a rather unnecessary form of ending, is to him just an ordinary every-day fact. You will get on with Father Ripon, Basil, I'm sure. You'll get to love the man as we all do. I never knew any one so absolutely joyous as he is. He's about the happiest man in town, I should say. His private income is nearly two thousand a year, and his living's worth something too, and yet I don't suppose his own expenses are fifty pounds. He lives more or less on porridge — when he remembers to eat at all — and his only extravagance is hansom cabs, so that he can cram more work into the day."

They all laughed, and Spence began to tell anecdotes of the famous "ritualistic" parson who daily filled more stomachs, saved more souls, and shocked more narrow-minded people than any two men in Crockford.

At seven o'clock they all went out together — Spence to his adjacent office in Fleet Street, the other two to dine quietly at the University Club.

"London depresses me," said Hands, when they were seated on the top of an omnibus and rolling westward through the Strand. "I am afraid that I shall never be in love with London any more. I always dislike my vacations, or rather my business visits to town. It's necessary that I attend the annual meeting of the Society and see people in authority, and I have to give a few lectures too. But I hate it all the same. I love the simple life of the East, the sun, the deep blue shadows, my silent Arabs. I know of no more beautiful sight than the Holy City — why do they call Rome the 'Holy City'? Jerusalem is the Holy City — when the hills are covered with the January snows. It is a wonderful, immemorial land, Gortre, a silent, beautiful country. Just before I came over here I spent a fortnight working at some inscriptions in a very ancient Latin monastery. I never knew such peace. The monks are all sad-faced, courteous Syrians, and they move along the rock balconies like benignant ghosts. And then one comes back and is plunged into this!"

He threw out his hand over the side of the omnibus with a note of disgust in his rather dreamy voice. The Strand was all brilliantly lit and waiting crowds stood by all the theatre doors. Men and women passed in and out of the bright orange light of bars and restaurants, and small filthy boys stabbed the deep roar of the traffic with their shrill voices as they called out the evening papers.

They dined quietly and simply at the big warm club in Piccadilly. Hands did most of the talking and Gortre was content to listen to the pleasant monotony of the low, level voice and to fall under the man's peculiar spell or charm — a charm that he always exercised upon another artistic temperament.

Hands was a poet by nature and sentiment. His strange, lonely life among the evidences of the past under the Eastern sky had toned, mellowed, and orientalised his vision.

As he listened Gortre also began to feel something of the mystery and magic influence of that country of God's birth.

It was half-past nine when they got back to the chambers again. Hands went at once to his own room to work and Basil sat down in front of a red, glowing fire, gazing into the hot caverns, lost in reverie. It was as though he had taken some opiate and there was nothing better in life than to sit thus and dream in the warm silence of the firelit room.

A few minutes after ten he was suddenly called out of the clouds by a furious knocking at the door of the chambers.

The sound cut into his dreams like a knife.

He went to open the door, and Father Ripon, his new vicar, came in like a whirlwind. His voluminous black cloak brought cold air in its folds; his breezy, genial personality was so actual a fact, struck such a strident, material note, that dreams and reverie fled before it.

Gortre turned up the gas-jets and flooded the room with light.

Father Ripon was a tall, well-made man, too active to be portly, but with hints of a tendency towards plumpness, which was never allowed to ripen. His iron-grey hair was cropped close to his large, well-shaped head. The shrewd, merry eyes, of a rare red-hazel colour, were shaded by heavy grey brows, which gave them a singular directness and penetration. The nose was aquiline, the lips thin, though the mouth was large, and the chin massive and somewhat protruding. The mobile face, lined and seamed by the strenuous life of its owner, was very seldom in repose. It glowed and flashed continually with changing expression. On those occasions when the play of feature sank to rest for a moment, at the giving of a benediction or the saying of a solemn prayer in church, a nobility and asceticism transformed the face into something saintly. But in the ordinary business of life the large humanity of the man gave him a readier title to the hearts of his people than their knowledge of the underlying saintliness of his character.

"Whisky?" he said, as Gortre asked him to take some. "No, thanks. Teetotaler for sake of example, always have been — and don't like the stuff either, never did. But I'll have some coffee and some bread and butter, if you've got it, and some of those oranges I see there. Forgot to lunch and had no time to dine!"

He began ravenously upon the oranges and with little further preamble plunged at once into the business of the parish. To emphasise a point, he flung a piece of orange peel savagely into the fire now and again.

"Our congregation," he said, "is peculiar to the church. You'll realise that when you get among them. I don't suppose in the whole of London there is a more difficult class of people to reach than our own. In the first place, it's a young congregation, speaking generally. 'Good,' you'll say; 'ductible material, plenty of enthusiasm to work on.' Not a bit of it. Most of the men are engaged in the City as clerks upon a small wage. They are mentally rather "small" men. Their lives are hard and monotonous, their outlook upon life petty and vulgar. The lowest and the highest classes are far easier to get at because they are temperamentally more alike. The anarchists have some right on their side when they condemn the bourgeoisie! It's difficult to show a small brain a big thing. Our difficulty is to explain the stupendous truths of Christianity to flabby and inert, machine-like fellows. When we do get hold of them, the very monotony of their lives makes religion a more valuable thing to them. But the temptations of this class are terribly strong, living alone in lodgings as they do. The cheap music-hall and bar attract them; dissipation forms their society. Their views of women are taken from their association with the girls of the streets and the theatres. As they have no settled place in society, they are horribly afraid of ridicule. They are a far more difficult lot than their colleagues who live in the suburbs and have chances for healthier recreations.

"Then much of our work lies among women who seem irretrievably lost, and, I fear, very often are so. The Bloomsbury district is honeycombed with well-conducted dens of impurity. The women of a certain class have fixed upon the parish as their home. I don't mean the starving prostitute that one meets in the East End, I mean the fairly prosperous, utterly vicious, lazy women. You will meet with horrors of vice, a marvellous and stony indifference, in the course of your work. To reach some of these well-dressed, well-fed, well-housed girls, to show them the spiritual and even the economic and material end of their lives, requires almost superhuman powers. If an angel came some of them would not believe. And in the great and luxurious buildings of flats which have sprung up in all the squares, the well-known London demi-mondaines — people who dance upon the stage and whose pictures glare upon one from every hoarding — have made their homes and constantly parade before the eyes of others the wealth which is the reward of lust.

"This is a wicked part of London, Gortre. And yet, day by day, in our beautiful church, where the Eucharist is celebrated and prayers go up unceasingly, we have evidences that our work is acceptable and that the Power is with us. Magdalen still comes with her jewels and her tears of repentance. I ask and beg of you to remember certain things — keep them always before your eyes — during your ministry among us. Whenever a man or woman comes to you, either at confession or otherwise, and tells of incredible sins, welcome the very slightest movement towards the light. Cultivate an all-embracing sympathy. I firmly believe that more souls have been lost by a repellent manner on the part of a priest, or an apparent lack of understanding, than any one has any idea of. Remember that when a thoroughly evil and warped nature has made a great effort and laid its spiritual case before a priest, it expects in its inner consciousness a pat on the back for its new efforts. It wants commendation. One must fight warily, with a thorough psychological knowledge, with a broad humanity. To take even the slightest signs of repentance as a matter of course, to throw any doubt upon its reality or permanence, is to accept an awful responsibility. Err rather on the side of sentiment. Who are we to judge?"

Gortre had listened with deep attention to Father Ripon's earnest words. He began to realise more clearly the difficulties of his new life. And yet the obstacles did not daunt him. They seemed rather a trumpet note for battle. Ripon's enthusiasm was contagious; he felt the exhilaration of the tried soldier at a coming contest.

"One more thing," said the vicar. "In all your teaching and preaching hammer away at the great central fact of the Incarnation. No system of morals will reach these people — however plausible, however pure — unless you constantly bring the supernatural side of religion before them. Preach the Incarnation day in, day out. Don't, like so many men, regard it as an accepted fact merely, using it as a postulate on which to found a scheme of conduct. Once get the central truth of all into the hearts of a congregation, and then all else will follow. Now, good-night. I've kept you late, but I wished to have a talk with you. A good deal will devolve upon you. I have especially arranged that you should not live in the Clergy House with Stokes, Carr, and myself. I would rather that your environment should be more secular. Stokes and Carr are perhaps a little too priestly, too "professional" in manner, if you understand what I am driving at. Keep yourself from that. If you go among the young men, see them at home, smoke with them, and take what they offer you in the way of refreshment. Well, good-bye. You are to preach at Sunday Evensongs you know. Sir Michael Manichoe, our patron, will be there, and there will be a large congregation."

He turned, said good-night with sudden abruptness, as if he had been lingering too long and was displeased with himself, and hurried away. It was his usual manner of farewell.

A few minutes afterwards Gortre went to bed. He found it difficult to believe that he had walked down the Faubourg de la Barre that morning. It had been a crowded day.