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Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 18579

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

"Ah, good evening, Mr. Simeon!"

In the British Isles-search them all over-you will discover no more agreeable institution of its kind than the Venables Free Library, Merchester; which, by the way, you are on no account to confuse with the Free Public Library attached to the Shire Hall. In the latter you may study the newspapers with all the latest financial, police and betting news, or borrow all the newest novels-even this novel which I am writing, should the Library Sub-Committee of the Town Council (an austerely moral body) allow it to pass. In the Venables Library the books are mostly mellowed by age, even when naughtiest (it contains a whole roomful of Restoration Plays, an unmatched collection), and no newspapers are admitted, unless you count the monthly and quarterly reviews, of which The Hibbert Journal is the newest-fangled. By consequence the Venables Library, though open to all men without payment, has few frequenters; "which," says Brother Copas, "is just as it should be."

But not even public neglect will account for the peculiar charm of the Venables Library. That comes of the building it inhabits: anciently a town house of the Marquesses of Merchester, abandoned at the close of the great Civil War, and by them never again inhabited, but maintained with all its old furniture, and from time to time patched up against age and weather-happily not restored. When, early in the last century, the seventh Marquess of Merchester very handsomely made it over to a body of trustees, to house a collection of books bequeathed to the public by old Dean Venables, Merchester's most scholarly historian, it was with a stipulation that the amenities of the house should be as little as possible disturbed. The beds, to be sure, were removed from the upper rooms, and the old carpets from the staircase; and the walls, upstairs and down, lined with bookcases. But a great deal of the old furniture remains; and, wandering at will from one room to another, you look forth through latticed panes upon a garth fenced off from the street with railings of twisted iron-work and overspread by a gigantic mulberry-tree, the boughs of which in summer, if you are wise enough to choose a window-seat, will filter the sunlight upon your open book,

Annihilating all that's made

To a green thought in a green shade.

Lastly, in certain of the rooms smoking is permitted; some bygone trustee-may earth lie lightly on him!-having discovered and taught that of all things a book is about the most difficult to burn. You may smoke in 'Paradise,' for instance. By this name, for what reason I cannot tell, is known the room containing the Greek and Latin classics.

Brother Copas, entering Paradise with a volume under his arm, found Mr. Simeon seated there alone with a manuscript and a Greek lexicon before him, and gave him good evening.

"Good evening, Brother Copas!… You have been a stranger to us for some weeks, unless I mistake?"

"You are right. These have been stirring times in politics, and for the last five or six weeks I have been helping to save my country, at the Liberal Club."

Mr. Simeon-a devoted Conservative-came as near to frowning as his gentle nature would permit.

"You disapprove, of course," continued Brother Copas easily. "Well, so-in a sense-do I. We beat you at the polls; not in Merchester-we shall never carry Merchester-though even in Merchester we put up fight enough to rattle you into a blue funk. But God help the pair of us, Mr. Simeon, if our principles are to be judged by the uses other men make of 'em! I have had enough of my fellow-Liberals to last me for some time.… Why are you studying Liddell and Scott, by the way?"

"To tell the truth," Mr. Simeon confessed, "this is my fair copy of the Master's Gaudy Sermon. I am running it through and correcting the Greek accents. I am always shaky at accents."

"Why not let me help you?" Brother Copas suggested. "Upon my word, you may trust me. I am, as nearly as possible, impeccable with Greek accents, and may surely say so without vanity, since the gift is as useless as any other of mine."

Mr. Simeon, as we know, was well aware of this.

"I should be most grateful," he confessed, in some compunction. "But I am not sure that the Master-if you will excuse me-would care to have his sermon overlooked. Strictly speaking, indeed, I ought not to have brought it from home: but with six children in a very small house-and on a warm evening like this, you understand-"

"I once kept a private school," said Brother Copas.

"They are high-spirited children, I thank God." Mr. Simeon sighed. "Moreover, as it happened, they wanted my Liddell and Scott to play at forts with."

"Trust me, my dear sir. I will confine myself to the Master's marginalia without spying upon the text."

Brother Copas, as Mr. Simeon yielded to his gentle insistence, laid his own book on the table, and seated himself before the manuscript, which he ran through at great speed.

"H'm-h'm… here is oxyton-here and always… and proparoxyton: you have left it unaccented."

"I was waiting to look it up, having some idea that it held a contraction."

Brother Copas dipped pen and inserted the accent without comment.

"I see nothing else amiss," he said, rising.

"It is exceedingly kind of you."

"Well, as a matter of fact it is; for I came here expressly to cultivate a bad temper, and you have helped to confirm me in a good one.… Oh, I know what you would say if your politeness allowed: 'Why, if bad temper's my object, did I leave the Liberal Club and come here?' Because, my dear sir, at the Club-though there's plenty-it's of the wrong sort. I wanted a religiously bad temper, and an intelligent one to boot."

"I don't see what religion and bad temper have to do with one another," confessed Mr. Simeon.

"That is because you are a good man, and therefore your religion doesn't matter to you."

"But really," Mr. Simeon protested, flushing; "though one doesn't willingly talk of these inmost things, you must allow me to say that my religion is everything to me."

"You say that, and believe it. Religion, you believe, colours all your life, suffuses it with goodness as with a radiance. But actually, my friend, it is your own good heart that colours and throws its radiance into your religion."

'O lady, we receive but what we give,

And in our life alone does Nature live'-

"-Or religion either.… Pardon me, but a thoroughly virtuous or a thoroughly amiable man is not worth twopence as a touchstone for a creed; he would convert even Mormonism to a thing of beauty.… Whereas the real test of any religion is-as I saw it excellently well put the other day-'not what form it takes in a virtuous mind, but what effects it produces on those of another sort.' Well, I have been studying those effects pretty well all my life, and they may be summed up, roughly but with fair accuracy, as Bad Temper."

"Good men or bad," persisted Mr. Simeon, "what can the Christian religion do but make them both better?"

"Which Christian religion? Catholic or Protestant? Anglican or Nonconformist?… I won't ask you to give away your own side. So we'll take the Protestant Nonconformists. There are a good many down at the Club: you heard some of the things they said and printed during the Election; and while your charity won't deny that they are religious-some of 'em passionately religious-you will make haste to concede that their religion and their bad temper were pretty well inseparable. They would say pretty much the same of you Anglo-Catholics."

"You will not pretend that we show bad temper in anything like the same degree."

"Why should you?… I don't know that, as a fact, there is much to choose between you; but at any rate the worse temper belongs very properly to the under dog. Your Protestant is the under dog in England to-day; socially, if not politically.… Yes, and politically, too; for he may send what majority he will to the House of Commons pledged to amend the Education Act of 1902: he does it in vain. The House of Lords-which is really not a political but a social body, the citadel of a class-will confound his politics, frustrate his knavish tricks. Can you wonder that he loses his temper, sometimes inelegantly? And when the rich Nonconformist tires of striving against all the odds-when he sets up his carriage and his wife and daughters find that it won't carry them where they had hoped-when he surrenders to their persuasions and goes over to the enemy-why, then, can you wonder that his betrayed coreligionists roar all like bears or foam like dogs and run about the city?… I tell you, my dear Mr. Simeon, this England of ours stands in real peril to-day of merging its class warfare in religious differences."

"You mean it, of course, the other way about-of merging our religion in class warfare."

"I mean it as I said it. Class warfare is among Englishmen a quite normal, healthy function of the body politic: it keeps the blood circulating. It is when you start infecting it with religion the trouble begins.… We are a sane people, however, on the whole; and every sane person is better than his religion."

"How can you say such a thing?" "How can you gainsay it-nay, or begin to doubt it-if

only you will be honest with yourself? Consider how many abominable things religion has taught, and man, by the natural goodness of his heart, has outgrown. Do you believe, for example, that an unchristened infant goes wailing forth from the threshold of life into an eternity of punishment? Look me in the face, you father of six! No, of course you don't believe it. Nobody does. And the difference is not that religion has ceased to teach it-for it hasn't-but that men have grown decent and put it, with like doctrines, silently aside in disgust. So it has happened to Satan and his fork: they have become 'old hat.' So it will happen to all the old machinery of hell: the operating decency of human nature will grow ashamed of it-that is all… Why, if you look into men's ordinary daily conduct-which is the only true test-they never believed in such things. Do you suppose that the most frantic Scotch Calvinist, when he was his douce daily self and not temporarily intoxicated by his creed, ever treated his neighbours in practice as men predestined to damnation? Of course he didn't!"

"But religion," objected Mr. Simeon, "lifts a man out of himself-his daily self, as you call it."

"It does that, by Jove!" Brother Copas felt for his snuff-box. "Why, what else was I arguing?"

"And," pursued Mr. Simeon, his voice gaining assurance as it happened on a form of words he had learnt from somebody else, "the efficacy of religion is surely just here, that it lifts the individual man out of his personality and wings him towards Abba, the all-fatherly-as I heard it said the other day," he added lamely.

"Good Lord!"-Brother Copas eyed him over a pinch. "You must have been keeping pretty bad company, lately. Who is it?… That sounds a trifle too florid even for Colt-the sort of thing Colt would achieve if he could… Upon my word, I believe you must have been sitting under Tarbolt!"

Mr. Simeon blushed guiltily to the eyes. But it was ever the mischief with Brother Copas's worldly scent that he overran it on the stronger scent of an argument.

"But it's precisely a working daily religion, a religion that belongs to a man when he is himself, that I'm after," he ran on. "You fellows hold that a sound religious life will ensure you an eternity of bliss at the end. Very well. You fellows know that the years of a man's life are, roughly, threescore and ten. (Actually it works out far below that figure, but I make you a present of the difference.) Very well again. I take any average Christian aged forty-five, and what sort of premium do I observe him paying-I won't say on a policy of Eternal Bliss-but on any policy a business-like Insurance Company would grant for three hundred pounds? There is the difference too," added Brother Copas, "that he gets the eternal bliss, while the three hundred pounds goes to his widow."

Brother Copas took a second pinch, his eyes on Mr. Simeon's face. He could not guess the secret of the pang that passed over it-that in naming three hundred pounds he had happened on the precise sum in which Mr. Simeon was insured, and that trouble enough the poor man had to find the yearly premium, due now in a fortnight's time. But he saw that somehow he had given pain, and dexterously slid off the subject, yet without appearing to change it.

"For my part," he went on, "I know a method by which, if made Archbishop of Canterbury and allowed a strong hand, I would undertake to bring, within ten years, every Dissenter in England within the Church's fold."

"What would you do?"

"I would lay, in one pastoral of a dozen sentences, the strictest orders on my clergy to desist from all politics, all fighting; to disdain any cry, any struggle; to accept from Dissent any rebuff, persecution, spoliation-while steadily ignoring it. In every parish my Church's attitude should be this: 'You may deny me, hate me, persecute me, strip me: but you are a Christian of this parish and therefore my parishioner; and therefore I absolutely defy you to escape my forgiveness or my love. Though you flee to the uttermost parts of the earth, you shall not escape these: by these, as surely as I am the Church, you shall be mine in the end.'… And do you think, Mr. Simeon, any man in England could for ever resist that appeal? A few of us agnostics, perhaps. But we are human souls, after all; and no one is an agnostic for the fun of it. We should be tempted-sorely tempted-I don't say rightly."

Mr. Simeon's eyes shone. The picture touched him.

"But it would mean that the Church must compromise," he murmured.

"That is precisely what it would not mean. It would mean that all her adversaries must compromise; and with love there is only one compromise, which is surrender.… But," continued Brother Copas, resuming his lighter tone, "this presupposes not only a sensible Archbishop but a Church not given up to anarchy as the Church of England is. Let us therefore leave speculating and follow our noses; which with me, Mr. Simeon-and confound you for a pleasant companion!-means an instant necessity to cultivate bad temper."

He picked up his volume from the table and walked off with it to the window-seat.

"You are learning bad temper from a book?" asked Mr. Simeon, taking off his spectacles and following Brother Copas with mild eyes of wonder.

"Certainly.… If ever fortune, my good sir, should bring you (which God forbid!) to end your days in our College of Noble Poverty, you will understand the counsel given by the pilot to Pantagruel and his fellow-voyagers-that considering the gentleness of the breeze and the calm of the current, as also that they stood neither in hope of much good nor in fear of much harm, he advised them to let the ship drive, nor busy themselves with anything but making good cheer. I have done with all worldly fear and ambition; and therefore in working up a hearty Protestant rage (to which a hasty promise commits me), I can only tackle my passion on the intellectual side. Those fellows down at the Club are no help to me at all.… My book? It is the last volume of Mr. Froude's famous History of England. Here's a passage now-

"'The method of Episcopal appointments, instituted by Henry VIII, as a temporary expedient, and abolished under Edward as an unreality, was re-established by Elizabeth, not certainly because she believed that the invocation of the Holy Ghost was required for the completeness of an election which her own choice had already determined, not because the bishops obtained any gifts or graces in their consecration which she herself respected, but because the shadowy form of an election, with a religious ceremony following it, gave them the semblance of spiritual independence, the semblance without the substance, which qualified them to be the instruments of the system which she desired to enforce. They were tempted to presume on their phantom dignity, till a sword of a second Cromwell taught them the true value of their Apostolic descent.…

"That's pretty well calculated to annoy, eh? Also, by the way, in its careless rapture it twice misrelates the relative pronoun; and Froude was a master of style. Or what do you say to this?-

"'But neither Elizabeth nor later politicians of Elizabeth's temperament desired the Church of England to become too genuine. It has been more convenient to leave an element of unsoundness at the heart of an institution which, if sincere, might be dangerously powerful. The wisest and best of its bishops have found their influence impaired, their position made equivocal, by the element of unreality which adheres to them. A feeling approaching to contempt has blended with the reverence attaching to their position, and has prevented them from carrying the weight in the councils of the nation which has been commanded by men of no greater intrinsic eminence in other professions.'

"Yet another faulty relative!

"'Pretensions which many of them would have gladly abandoned have connected their office with a smile. The nature of it has for the most part filled the Sees with men of second-rate abilities. The latest and most singular theory about them is that of the modern English Neo-Catholic, who disregards his bishop's advice, and despises his censures; but looks on him nevertheless as some high-bred, worn-out animal, useless in himself, but infinitely valuable for some mysterious purpose of spiritual propagation.'"

Brother Copas laid the open volume face-downward on his knee-a trivial action in itself; but he had a conscience about books, and would never have done this to a book he respected.

"Has it struck you, Mr. Simeon," he asked, "that Froude is so diabolically effective just because in every fibre of him he is at one with the thing he attacks?"

"He had been a convert of the Tractarians in his young days, I have heard," said Mr. Simeon.

"Yes, it accounts for much in him. Yet I was not thinking of that- which was an experience only, though significant. The man's whole cast of mind is priestly despite himself. He has all the priesthood's alleged tricks: you can never be sure that he is not faking evidence or garbling a quotation.… My dear Mr. Simeon, truly it behoves us to love our enemies, since in this world they are often the nearest we have to us."

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