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Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 14617

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

"I am not," said the Bishop, "putting this before you as an argument. I have lived and mixed with men long enough to know that they are usually persuaded by other things than argument, sometimes by better. … I am merely suggesting a modus vivendi-shall we call it a truce of God?-until we have all done our best against a common peril: for, as your Petition proves you to be earnest Churchmen, so I may conclude that to all of us in this room our Cathedral stands for a cherished monument of the Church, however differently we may interpret its history."

He leaned forward in his chair, his gaze travelling from one to another with a winning smile. All the petitioners were gathered before him in the Master's library. They stood respectfully, each with his hat and staff. At first sight you might have thought he was dismissing them on a pilgrimage.

Master Blanchminster sat on the Bishop's right, with Mr. Colt close behind him; Mr. Simeon at the end of the table, taking down a verbatim report in his best shorthand.

"I tell you frankly," pursued the Bishop, "I come rather to appeal for concord than to discuss principles of observance. If you compel me to pronounce on the points raised, I shall take evidence and endeavour to deal justly upon it: but I suggest to you that the happiness of such a Society as this is better furthered by a spirit of sweet reasonableness than by any man's insistence on his just rights."

"Fiat Caelum ruat justitia," muttered Brother Copas. "But the man is right nevertheless."

"Principles," said the Bishop, "are hard to discuss, justice often impossible to deal.… 'Yes,' you may answer, 'but we are met to do this, or endeavour to do it, and not to indulge in irrelevancy.' Yet is my plea so irrelevant?… You are at loggerheads over certain articles of faith and discipline, when a sound arrests you in the midst of your controversy. You look up and perceive that your Cathedral totters; that it was her voice you heard appealing to you. `Leave your antagonisms and help one another to shore me up-me the witness of past generations to the Faith. Generations to come will settle some of the questions that vex you; others, maybe, the mere process of time will silently resolve. But Time, which helps them, is fast destroying us. You are not young, and my necessity is urgent. Surely, my children, you will be helping the Faith if you save its ancient walls.' I bethink me," the Bishop went on, "that we may apply to Merchester that fine passage of Matthew Arnold's on Oxford and her towers: 'Apparitions of a day, what is our puny warfare against the Philistines compared with the warfare which this queen of romance has been waging against them for centuries, and will wage after we are gone?'" He paused, and on an afterthought succumbed to the professional trick of improving the occasion. "It may even be that the plight of our Cathedral contains a special lesson for us of St. Hospital: 'If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand'"

"Tilly vally!" muttered Brother Copas, and was feeling for his snuff-box, but recollected himself in time.

"You may say that you are old men, poor men; that it is little you could help. Do not be so sure of this. I am informed, for instance, that the proceeds of our forthcoming Pageant are to be devoted to the Restoration Fund, and not (as was originally intended) to missionary purposes."

Here Mr. Simeon, bending over his shorthand notes, blushed to the ears. It was he, good man, who had first thought of this, and suggested it to Mr. Colt; as it was Mr. Colt who had suggested it to the Committee in the presence of reporters, and who, on its acceptance, had received the Committee's thanks.

"I am further told"-here the Bishop glanced around and caught the eye of the Chaplain, who inclined his head respectfully-"that a-er-representation of the Foundation Ceremony of St. Hospital may be included among the-er-"

"Episodes," murmured Mr. Colt, prompting.

"Eh?-yes, precisely-among the Episodes. I feel sure it would make a tableau at once impressive and-er-entertaining-in the best sense of the word.… So, you see, there are possibilities; but they presuppose your willingness to sink some differences and join heartily in a common cause.… Or again, you may urge that to re-edify our Cathedral is none of your business-as officially indeed it is none of mine, but concerns the Dean and Chapter. I put it to you that it concerns us all." Here the Bishop leaned back in his chair, on the arms of which he rested his elbows; and pressing his finger-tips together, gazed over them at his audience. "That, at any rate, is my plea; and I shall be glad, if you have a spokesman, to hear how the suggestion of a 'truce of God' presents itself to your minds."

In the pause that followed, Brother Copas felt himself nudged from behind. He cleared his throat and inclined himself with a grave bow.

"My lord," he said, "my fellow-petitioners here have asked me to speak first to any points that may be raised. I have stipulated, however, that they hold themselves free to disavow me here in your lordship's presence, if on any point I misrepresent them."

The Bishop nodded encouragingly.

"Well then, my lord, it is peculiarly hard to speak for them when at the outset of the inquiry you meet us with a wholly unexpected appeal … an appeal (shall I say?) to sentiment rather than to strict reason."

"I admit that."

"As I admit the appeal to be a strong one.… But before I try to answer it, may I deal with a sentence or two which (pardon me) seemed less relevant than the rest?… If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. True enough, my lord: but neither can it aspire."

The Bishop lifted his eyebrows. But before he could interpose a word Brother Copas had mounted a hobby and was riding it, whip and spur.

"My lord, when a Hellene built a temple he took two pillars, set them upright in the ground, and laid a third block of stone a-top of them. He might repeat this operation a few times or a many, according to the size at which he wished to build. He might carve his pillars, and flourish them off with acanthus capitals, and run friezes along his architraves: but always in these three stones, the two uprights and the beam, the trick of it resided. And his building lasted. The pillars stood firm in solid ground, into which the weight of the cross-beam pressed them yet more firmly. The whole structure was there to endure, if not for ever, at least until some ass of a fellow came along and kicked it down to spite an old religion, because he had found a new one.… But this Gothic-this Cathedral, for example, which it seems we must help to preserve-is fashioned only to kick itself down."

"It aspires."

"Precisely, my lord; that is the mischief. When the Greek temple was content to repose upon natural law-when the Greek builder said, 'I will build for my gods greatly yet lowlily, measuring my effort to those powers of man which at their fullest I know to be moderate, making my work harmonious with what little it is permitted to me to know'-in jumps the rash Christian, saying with the men of Babel, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven; or, in other words, 'Let us soar above the l

aw of earth and take the Kingdom of Heaven by storm.'… With what result?"

"'Sed quid Typh?us et validus Mimas

Contra sonantem Palladis ?gida… ?'"

"The Gothic builders, like the Titans, might strain to pile Pelion on Olympus. Vis consili expers, my lord. From the moment they take down their scaffolding-nay, while it is yet standing-the dissolution begins. All their complicated structure of weights, counterweights, thrusts, balances, has started an internecine conflict, stone warring against stone, the whole disintegrating-"

"Excuse me, Brother-"

"Copas, my lord."

"Excuse me, Brother Copas," said the Bishop with a smile, "if I do not quite see to what practical conclusion we are tending."

"There is a moral ahead, my lord.… Thanks to Mr. Colt's zeal, we have all begun to aspire along our different lines, with the result that St. Hospital has become a house divided against itself. Now, if I may say it modestly, I think your lordship's suggestion an excellent one. We are old poor men-what business have we, any longer, with aspiration? It is time for us to cease from pushing and thrusting at each other's souls; time for us to imitate the Greek beam, and practise lying flat.… I vote for the truce, my lord; and when the time comes, shall vote for extending it."

"You have so odd a way of putting it, Brother-er-Copas," his lordship mildly expostulated, "that I hardly recognise as mine the suggestion you are good enough to commend."

Brother Copas's eye twinkled.

"Ah, my lord! It has been the misfortune of my life to follow Socrates humbly as a midwife of men's ideas, and be accused of handing them back as changelings."

"You consent to the truce, at any rate?"

"No, no!" muttered old Warboise.

Copas turned a deaf ear.

"I vote for the truce," he said firmly, "provided the one condition be understood. It is the status quo ante so far as concerns us Protestants, and covers the whole field. For example, at the Sacrament we receive the elements in the form which life-long use has consecrated for us, allowing the wafer to be given to those Brethren who prefer it. Will the Master consent to this?"

Master Blanchminster was about to answer, but first (it was somewhat pitiful to see) turned to Mr. Colt. Mr. Colt bent his head in assent.

"That is granted," said the Master.

"Nor would we deny the use of Confession to those who find solace in it-"

"Yes, we would," growled Brother Warboise.

"-Provided always," pursued Copas, "that its use be not thrust upon us, nor our avoidance of it injuriously reckoned against us."

"I think," said the Master, "Brother Copas knows that on this point he may count upon an honourable understanding."

"I do, Master.… Then there is this new business of compulsory vespers at six o'clock. We wish that compulsion removed."

"Why?" snapped Mr. Colt.

"You would force me to say, sir, 'Because it interferes with my fishing.' Well, even so, I might confess without shame, and answer with Walton, that when I would beget content and increase confidence in the power and wisdom and providence of Almighty God I will walk the meadows by Mere, 'and there contemplate the lilies that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures that are not only created but fed (man knows not how) by the goodness of the God of nature, and therefore trust in Him.'… But I am speaking here rather on behalf of Brother Warboise-if he will leave off nudging me in the small of the back. It happens that for a number of years Brother Warboise has daily, at this hour, paid a visit to a sick and paralysed friend-"

"He is not a friend," rasped out Brother Warboise. "On the contrary-"

"Shall we," interposed the Master, "agree to retain the service on the understanding that I am willing to hear any reasonable plea for non-attendance? I need hardly say, my lord, that visiting the sick would rank with me before any formal observance; and," he added, with the hint of a smile which Brother Copas caught, "even to less Christian excuses I might conceivably be willing to listen."

So, piece by piece, the truce was built up.… When the petitioners had thanked his lordship and withdrawn, and Mr. Simeon, having gathered up his notes, presently followed them out, the Bishop, the Master, and the Chaplain sat for half an hour talking together.

The time came for Mr. Colt to take his leave, being due at a Pageant rehearsal. When he was gone the Bishop suggested a quiet stroll in the home-park, and the two old divines fared forth to take the benediction of evening, still keeping good grave converse as they paced side by side.

"My dear Eustace," said the Bishop (they were friends of long standing, and in private used Christian names in place of titles), "confess, now that this business is over, it was not so bad as you feared."

The Master respired the cool air with a quiet sigh.

"No, Walter, it was not so bad as I feared. But having ruled all these years without question, you understand-"

"You have certainly not ruled all these years for nothing. They were honest fellows, and made it pretty plain that they loved you. It does not rankle, I hope?"

"No." Master Blanchminster drew another deep breath and emitted it as if expelling the last cloudy thought of resentment. "No," he repeated; "I believe I may say that it rankles no longer. They are honest fellows-I am glad you perceived that."

"One could read it in all of them, saving perhaps that odd fellow who acted as spokesman. Brother-er-Copas?… He lectured me straightly enough, but there is always a disposition to suspect an eccentric."

"He was probably the honestest man in the room," answered Master Blanchminster with some positiveness.

"I am the more glad to hear it," said the Bishop, "because meeting a man of such patent capacity brought so low-"

"I assure you, he doesn't even drink-or not to excess," the Master assured him.

They were passing under the archway of the Porter's Lodge.

"But hallo!" said the Bishop, as they emerged upon the great quadrangle, "what in the world is going on yonder?"

Again, as the Master had viewed it many hundreds of times, the sunset shed its gold across the well-kept turf between long shadows cast by the chimneys of the Brethren's lodgings. As usual, in the deep shadow of the western front were gathered groups of inmates for the evening chat. But the groups had drawn together into one, and were watching a child who, solitary upon the grass-plot, paced through a measure before them 'high and disposedly.'

"Brayvo!" shrilled the voice of Mrs. Royle, champion among viragoes. "Now, at the turn you come forward and catch your skirts back before you curtchey!"

"But what on earth does it all mean?" asked the Bishop, staring across from the archway.

"It's-it's Bonaday's child-he's one of our Brethren: as I suppose, rehearsing her part for the Pageant."

Corona's audience had no eyes but for the performance. As she advanced to the edge of the grass-plot and dropped a final curtsey to them, their hands beat together. The clapping travelled across the dusk of the quadrangle to the two watchers, and reached them faintly, thinly, as though they listened in wonder at ghosts applauding on the far edge of Elysian fields.

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