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THE little chapel at Dalmatian Heights sat upon a hill, among a grove of pines, the most romantic of all trees. Life, a powerful but clumsy dramatist, does not reject the most claptrap "situations," which a sophisticated playwright would discard as too obvious. For this sandy plateau, strewn with satiny pine-needles, was the very horizon that had looked so blue and beckoning from the little house by the pond. Not far away was the great Airedale estate, which Gissing had known only at an admiring distance — and now he was living there as an honoured guest.
The Bishop had taken him to call upon the Airedales; and they, delighted that the chapel was to be re-opened, had insisted upon his staying with them. The chapel, in fact, was a special interest with Mr. Airedale, who had been a leading contributor toward its erection. Gissing was finding that life seemed to be continually putting him into false positions; and now he discovered, somewhat to his chagrin, that the lovely little shrine of St. Spitz, whose stained windows glowed like rubies in its cloister of dark trees, was rather a fashionable hobby among the wealthy landowners of Dalmatian Hills. It had been closed all summer, and they had missed it. The Bishop, in his airy and indefinite way, had not made it quite plain that Gissing was only a lay reader; and in spite of his embarrassed disclaimers, he found himself introduced by Mr. Airedale to the country-house clique as the new "vicar."
But at any rate it was lucky that the Airedales had insisted on taking him in as a guest; for he had learned from the Bishop (just as the latter was leaving) that there was no stipend attached to the office of lay reader. Fortunately he still had much of the money he had saved from his salary as General Manager. And whatever sense of anomaly he felt was quickly assuaged by the extraordinary comfort and novelty of his environment. In the great Airedale mansion he experienced for the first time that ultimate triumph of civilization — a cup of tea served in bed before breakfast, with slices of bread-and-butter of tenuous and amazing fragile thinness. He was pleased, too, with the deference paid him as a representative of the cloth, even though it compelled him to a solemnity he did not inwardly feel. But most of all, undoubtedly, he was captivated by the loveliness and warmth of Miss Airedale.
The Bishop had not erred. Admiring the aristocratic Roman trend of her brow and nose; the proud, inquisitive carriage of her somewhat rectangular head; her admirable, vigorous figure and clear topaz eyes, Gissing was aware of something he had not experienced before — a disturbance both urgent and agreeable, in which the intellect seemed to play little part. He was startled by the strength of her attractiveness, amazed to learn how pleasing it was to be in her company. She was very young and brisk: wore clothes of a smart sporting cut, and was (he thought) quite divine in her riding breeches. But she was also completely devoted to the chapel, where she played the music on Sundays. She was a volatile creature, full of mischievous surprise: at their first music practice, after playing over some hymns on the pipe-organ, she burst into jazz, filling the quiet grove with the clamorous syncope of Paddy-Paws, a favourite song that summer.
So into the brilliant social life of the Airedales and their friends he found himself suddenly pitch-forked. In spite of the oddity of the situation, and of occasional anxiety when he considered the possibility of Mr. Poodle finding him out, he was very happy. This was not quite what he had expected, but he was always adaptable. Miss Airedale was an enchanting companion. In the privacy of his bedroom he measured himself for a pair of riding breeches and wrote to his tailor in town to have them made as soon as possible. He served the little chapel assiduously, though he felt it better to conceal from the Airedales the fact that he went there every day. He suspected they would think him slightly mad if they knew, so he used to pretend that he had business in town. Then he would slip away to the balsam-scented hilltop and be perfectly happy sweeping the chapel floor, dusting the pews, polishing the brasswork, rearranging the hymnals in the racks. He arranged with the milkman to leave a bottle of milk and some cinnamon buns at the chapel gate every morning, so he had a cheerful and stealthy little lunch in the vestry-room, though always a trifle nervous lest some of his parishioners should discover him.
He practised reading the lessons aloud at the brass lectern, and discovered how easy is dramatic elocution when you are alone. He wished it were possible to hold a service daily. For the first time he was able to sing hymns as loud as he liked. Miss Airedale played the organ with emphatic fervour, and the congregation, after a little hesitation, enjoyed the lusty sincerity of a hymn well trolled. Some of his flock, who had previously relished taking part in the general routine of the service, were disappointed by his zeal, for Gissing insisted on doing everything himself. He rang the bell, ushered the congregation to their seats, read the service, recited the Quadrupeds' Creed, led the choir, gave out as many announcements as he could devise, took up the collection, and at the close skipped out through the vestry and was ready and beaming in the porch before the nimblest worshipper had reached the door. On his first Sunday, indeed, he carried enthusiasm rather too far: in an innocent eagerness to prolong the service as much as possible, and being too excited to realize quite what he was doing, he went through the complete list of supplications for all possible occasions. The congregation were startled to find themselves praying simultaneously both for rain and for fair weather.
In a cupboard in the vestry-room he had found an old surplice hanging; he took it down, tried it on before the mirror, and wistfully put it back. To this symbolic vestment his mind returned as he sat solitary under the pine-trees, looking down upon the valley of home. It was the season of goldenrod and aster on the hillsides: a hot swooning silence lay upon the late afternoon. The weight and closeness of the air had struck even the insects dumb. Under the pines, generally so murmurous, there was something almost gruesome in the blank stillness: a suspension so absolute that the ears felt dull and sealed. He tried, involuntarily, to listen more clearly, to know if this uncanny hush were really so. There was a sense of being imprisoned, but only most delicately, in a spell, which some sudden cracking might disrupt.
The surplice tempted him strongly, for it suggested the sermon he felt impelled to deliver, against the Bishop's orders. For the beautiful chapel in the piny glade was, somehow, false: or, at any rate, false for him. The architect had made it a dainty poem in stone and polished wood, but somehow God had evaded the neat little trap. Moreover, the God his well-bred congregation worshipped, the old traditionally imagined snow-white St. Bernard with radiant jowls of tenderness, shining dewlaps of love; paternal, omnipotent, calm — this deity, though sublime in its way, was too plainly an extension of their own desires. His prominent parishioners — Mr. Dobermann-Pinscher, Mrs. Griffon, Mrs. Retriever; even the delightful Mr. Airedale himself — was it not likely that they esteemed a deity everlastingly forgiving because they themselves felt need of forgiveness? He had been deeply shocked by the docility with which they followed the codes of the service: even when he had committed his blunder of the contradictory prayers, they had murmured the words automatically, without protest. To the terrific solemnities of the Litany they had made the responses with prompt gabbling precision, and with a rapidity that frankly implied impatience to take the strain off their knees.
Somehow he felt that to account for a world of unutterable strangeness they had invented a God far too cheaply simple. His mood was certainly not one of ribald easy scoff. It was they (he assured himself) whose theology was essentially cynical; not he. He was a little weary of this just, charitable, consoling, hebdomadal God; this God who might be sufficiently honoured by a decorously memorized ritual. Yet was he too shallow? Was it not seemly that his fellows, bound on this dark, desperate venture of living, should console themselves with decent self-hypnosis?
No, he thought. No, it was not entirely seemly. If they pretended that their God was the highest thing knowable, then they must bring to His worship the highest possible powers of the mind. He had a strange yearning for a God less lazily conceived: a God perhaps inclement, awful, master of inscrutable principles. Yet was it desirable to shake his congregation's belief in their traditional divinity? He thought of them — so amiable, amusing, spirited and generous, but utterly untrained for abstract imaginative thought on any subject whatever. His own strange surmisings about deity would only shock and horrify them. And after all, was it not exactly their simplicity that made them lovable? The great laws of truth would work their own destinies without assistance from him! Even if these pleasant creatures did not genuinely believe the rites they so politely observed (he knew they did not, for belief is an intellectual process of extraordinary range and depth), was it not socially useful that they should pretend to do so?
And yet — with another painful swing of the mind — was it necessary that Truth should be worshipped with the aid of such astonishingly transparent formalisms, hoaxes, and mummeries? Alas, it seemed that this was an old, old struggle that must be troublesomely fought out, again and again down the generations. Prophets were twice stoned — first in anger; then, after their death, with a handsome slab in the graveyard. But words uttered in sincerity (he thought) never fail of some response. Though he saw his fellows leashed with a heavy chain of ignorance, stupidity, passion, and weakness, yet he divined in life some inscrutable principle of honour and justice; some unreckonable essence of virtue too intimate to understand; some fumbling aspiration toward decency, some brave generosity of spirit, some cheerful fidelity to Beauty. He could not see how, in a world so obviously vast and uncouth beyond computation, they could find a puny, tidy, assumptive, scheduled worship so satisfying. But perhaps, since all Beauty was so staggering, it was better they should cherish it in small formal minims. Perhaps in this whole matter there was some lovely symbolism that he did not understand.
The soft brightness was already lifting into upper air, a mingled tissue of shadows lay along the valley. In the magical clarity of the evening light he suddenly felt (as one often does, by unaccountable planetary instinct) that there was a new moon. Turning, he saw it, a silver snipping daintily afloat; and not far away, an early star. He had found no creed in the prayer-book that accounted for the stars. Here, at the bottom of an ocean of sky, we look aloft and see them thick-speckled — mere barnacles, perhaps, on the keel of some greater ship of space. He remembered how at home there had been a certain burning twinkle that peeped through the screen of the dogwood tree. As he moved on his porch, it seemed to flit to and fro, appearing and vanishing. He was often uncertain whether it was a firefly a few yards away, or a star the other side of Time. Possibly Truth was like that.
There was a light swift rustle behind him, and Miss Airedale appeared.
"Hullo!" she said. "I wondered where you were. Is this how you spend your afternoons, all alone?"
Stars, creeds, cosmologies, promptly receded into remote perspective and had to shift for themselves. It was true that Gissing had somewhat avoided her lately, for he feared her fascination. He wished nothing else to interfere with his search for what he had not yet found. Postpone the female problem to the last, was his theory: not because it was insoluble, but because the solution might prove to be less interesting than the problem itself. But side by side with her, she was irresistible. A skittish brightness shone in her eyes.
"Great news!" she exclaimed. "I've persuaded Papa to take us all down to Atlantic City for a couple of days."
"Wonderful!" cried Gissing. "Do you know, I've never been to the seashore."
"Don't worry," she replied. "I won't let you see much of the ocean. We'll go to the Traymore, and spend the whole time dancing in the Submarine Grill."
"But I must be back in time for the service on Sunday," he said.
"We're going to leave first thing in the morning. We'll go in the car, and I'll drive. Will you sit with me in the front seat?"
"Watch me!" replied Gissing gallantly.
"Come on then, or you'll be late for dinner. I'll race you home!" And she was off like a flash.
But in spite of Miss Airedale's threat, at Atlantic City they both fell into a kind of dreamy reverie. The wine-like tingle of that salty air was a quiet drug. The apparently inexhaustible sunshine was sharpened with a faint sting of coming autumn. Gissing suddenly remembered that it was ages since he had simply let his mind run slack and allowed life to go by unstudied.
Mr. and Mrs. Airedale occupied a suite high up in the terraced mass of the huge hotel; they wrapped themselves in rugs and basked on their private balcony. Gissing and the daughter were left to their own amusements. They bathed in the warm September surf; they strolled the Boardwalk up beyond the old Absecon light, where the green glimmer of water runs in under the promenade. They sat on the deck of the hotel — or rather Miss Airedale sat, while Gissing, courteously attentive, leaned over her steamer-chair. He stood so for hours, apparently in devoted chat; but in fact he was half in dream. The smooth flow of the little rolling shays just below had a soothing hypnotic effect. But it was the glorious polished blue of the sea-horizon that bounded all his thoughts. Even while Miss Airedale gazed archly up at him, and he was busy with cheerful conversation, he was conscious of that broad band of perfect colour, monotonous, comforting, thrilling. For the first time he realized the great rondure of the world. His mind went back to the section of the prayer-book that had always touched him most pointedly — the "Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea." In them he had found a note of sincere terror and humility. And now he viewed the sea for the first time in this setting of notable irony. The open dazzle of placid elements, obedient only to some cosmic calculus, lay as a serene curtain against which the quaint flamboyance of the Boardwalk was all the more amusing. The clear rim of sea curving off into space drew him with painful curiosity. Here at last was what he had needed. The proud waters went over his soul. Here indeed the blue began.
He looked down at Miss Airedale, who had gone to sleep while waiting for him to say something. He tiptoed away and went to his room to write down some ideas. Against the wide challenge of that blue hemisphere, where half the world lay open and free to the eye, the Bishop's prohibition lost weight. He was resolved to preach a sermon.
At dusk he met Miss Airedale on the high balcony that runs around the reading-room of the hotel. They were quite alone up there. Along the Boardwalk, in the pale sentimental twilight, the translucent electric globes shone like a long string of pearls. She was very tempting in a gay evening frock, and reproached him for having neglected her. She shivered a little in the cool wind coming off the darkening water. The weakness of the hour was upon him. He put his arm tenderly round her as they leaned over the parapet.
"See those darling children down on the sand," she said. "I do adore puppies, don't you?"
He remembered Groups, Bunks, and Yelpers. Nothing is so potent as the love of children when you are away from them. She gazed languishing at him; he responded with a generous pressure. But his alarmed soul thrilled with panic.
"You must excuse me a moment, while I dress for dinner," he said. He was strangely terrified by the look of secret understanding in her beautiful eyes. It seemed to imply some subtle, inexpressible pact. As a matter of truth, she was unconscious of it: it was only the old demiurge speaking in her; the old demiurge which was pursuing him just as ardently as he was trailing the dissolving blue of his dream. But he was much agitated as he went down in the elevator.
"Heavens," he said to himself; "are we all only toys in the power of these terrific instincts?" For the first time he was informed of the infinite feminine capacity for being wooed.
That night they danced in the Submarine Grill. She floated in his embrace with triumphant lightness. Her eyes, utilized as temporary lamps by a lighting-circuit of which she was quite unaware, beamed with happy lustre. The lay reader, always docile to the necessities of occasion, murmured delightful trifles. But his private thoughts were as aloof and shining and evasive as the goldfish that twinkled in the glass pool overhead. He picked up her scarf and her handkerchief when she dropped them. He smiled vaguely when she suggested that she thought she could persuade Mr. Airedale to stay in Atlantic City over the week-end, and why worry about the service on Sunday? But when she and the yawning Mrs. Airedale had retired, he hastened to his chamber and packed his bag. Stealthily he went to the desk and explained that he was leaving unexpectedly on business, and that the bill should go to Mr. Airedale, whose guest he had been. He slipped away out of the side door, and caught the late train. Mrs. Airedale chaffed her daughter that night for whining in her sleep.