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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Inside Of The Cup - Volume 4 - Chapter 15. The Crucible
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The Inside Of The Cup - Volume 4 - Chapter 15. The Crucible Post by :solidarity Category :Long Stories Author :Winston Churchill Date :May 2012 Read :2077

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The Inside Of The Cup - Volume 4 - Chapter 15. The Crucible

VOLUME IV CHAPTER XV. THE CRUCIBLE

I

For better or worse John Hodder had flung his treasured beliefs into the crucible, and one by one he watched them crumble and consume away. None but his own soul knew what it cost him to make the test; and some times, in the early stages of it, he would cast down his book under the lamp and walk for hours in the night. Curiosity, and the despair of one who is lost impelled him to persist.

It had been said of him that he had a talent for the law, and he now discovered that his mind, once freed, weighed the evidence with a pitiless logic, paid its own tribute--despite the anguish of the heart--to the pioneers of truth whose trail it followed into the Unknown, who had held no Mystery more sacred than Truth itself, who had dared to venture into the nothingness between the whirling worlds.

He considered them, those whirling worlds, at night. Once they had been the candles of Jehovah, to light the path of his chosen nation, to herald the birth of his Son. And now? How many billions of blind, struggling creatures clung to them? Where now was this pin-point of humanity, in the midst of an appalling spectacle of a grinding, remorseless nature?

And that obscure Event on which he had staked his hopes? Was He, as John had written, the First Born of the Universe, the Word Incarnate of a system that defied time and space, the Logos of an outworn philosophy? Was that Universe conscious, as Berkeley had declared, or the blind monster of substance alone, or energy, as some modern scientists brutally and triumphantly maintained? Where was the Spirit that breathed in it of hope?

Such were some of the questions that thronged for solution. What was mind, what spirit? an attenuated vapour of the all-pervading substance?

He could not permit himself to dwell on these thoughts--madness lay that way. Madness, and a watching demon that whispered of substance, and sought to guide his wanderings in the night. Hodder clung to the shell of reality, to the tiny panorama of the visible and the finite, to the infinitesimal gropings that lay recorded before him on the printed page. Let him examine these first, let him discover--despite the price--what warrant the mind of man (the only light now vouchsafed to him in his darkness) gave him to speculate and to hope concerning the existence of a higher, truer Reality than that which now tossed and wounded him. It were better to know.

Scarcely had the body been lifted from the tree than the disputes commenced, the adulterations crept in. The spontaneity, the fire and zeal of the self-sacrificing itinerant preachers gave place to the paralyzing logic then pervading the Roman Empire, and which had sent its curse down the ages to the modern sermon; the geometrical rules of Euclid were made to solve the secrets of the universe. The simple faith of the cross which had inspired the martyr along the bloody way from Ephesus to the Circus at Rome was formalized by degrees into philosophy: the faith of future ages was settled by compromises, by manipulation, by bribery in Councils of the Church which resembled modern political conventions, and in which pagan Emperors did not hesitate to exert their influence over the metaphysical bishops of the factions. Recriminations, executions, murders--so the chronicles ran.

The prophet, the idealist disappeared, the priest with his rites and ceremonies and sacrifices, his power to save and damn, was once more in possession of the world.

The Son of Man was degraded into an infant in his mother's arms. An unhealthy, degenerating asceticism, drawn from pagan sources, began with the monks and anchorites of Egypt and culminated in the spectacle of Simeon's pillar. The mysteries of Eleusis, of Attis, Mithras, Magna Mater and Isis developed into Christian sacraments--the symbol became the thing itself. Baptism the confession of the new life, following the customs of these cults, became initiation; and from the same superstitious origins, the repellent materialistic belief that to eat of the flesh and drink of the blood of a god was to gain immortality: immortality of the body, of course.


Ah, when the superstitions of remote peoples, the fables and myths, were taken away; when the manufactured history and determinism of the Israelites from the fall of man to the coming of that Messiah, whom the Jews crucified because he failed to bring them their material Kingdom, were discredited; when the polemic and literal interpretations of evangelists had been rejected, and the pious frauds of tampering monks; when the ascetic Buddhism was removed; the cults and mysteries, the dogmas of an ancient naive philosophy discarded; the crude science of a Ptolemy who conceived the earth as a flat terrestrial expanse and hell as a smoking pit beneath proved false; the revelation of a Holy City of jasper and gold and crystal, the hierarchy with its divine franchise to save and rule and conquer,--when all these and more were eliminated from Christianity, what was left?

Hodder surveyed the ruins. And his mind recalled, that Sunday of rain in New York which had been the turning-point in his life, when he had listened to the preacher, when he had walked the streets unmindful of the wet, led on by visions, racked by fears. And the same terror returned to him now after all the years of respite, tenfold increased, of falling in the sight of man from the topmost tower.

What was to become of him, now that the very driving power of life was gone? Where would he go? to what might he turn his hand, since all were vanity and illusion? Careers meant nothing, had any indeed been possible to a man forty, left staring at stark reality after the rainbow had vanished. Nineveh had mocked and conquered him who had thought himself a conqueror. Self flew back and swung on its central pivot and took command. His future, his fate, what was to become of him. Who else now was to be considered? And what was to restrain him from reaching out his hand to pluck the fruit which he desired?...

II

What control from the Unknown is this which now depresses and now releases the sensitive thing called the soul of man, and sends it upward again until the green light of hope shines through the surface water? He might have grown accustomed, Holder thought, to the obscurity of the deeps; in which, after a while, the sharp agony of existence became dulled, the pressure benumbing. He was conscious himself, at such times, of no inner recuperation. Something drew him up, and he would find himself living again, at length to recognize the hand if not to comprehend the power.

The hand was Horace Bentley's.

What was the source of that serenity which shone on the face of his friend? Was it the light of faith? Faith in--what? Humanity, Mr. Bentley had told him on that first evening when they had met: faith in a world filled with cruelties, disillusionments, lies, and cheats! On what Authority was it based? Holder never asked, and no word of theology ever crossed Mr. Bentley's lips; not by so much as a sign did he betray any knowledge he may have had of the drama taking place in Holder's soul; no comment escaped him on the amazing anomalies of the life the rector was leading, in the Church but not of it.

It was only by degrees Holder came to understand that no question would be asked, and the frequency of his visits to Dalton Street increased. He directed his steps thither sometimes hurriedly, as though pursued, as to a haven from a storm. And a haven it was indeed! At all hours of the day he came, and oftener in the night, in those first weeks, and if Mr. Bentley were not at home the very sight of the hospitable old darky brought surging up within him a sense of security, of, relief; the library itself was filled with the peace of its owner. How many others had brought their troubles here, had been lightened on the very threshold of this sanctuary!

Gradually Hodder began to realize something of their numbers. Gradually, as he was drawn more and more into the network of the relationships of this extraordinary man,--nay, as he inevitably became a part of that network,--a period of bewilderment ensued. He found himself involved, and quite naturally, in unpremeditated activities, running errands, forming human ties on a human basis. No question was asked, no credentials demanded or rejected. Who he was made no difference--he was a friend of Horace Bentley's. He had less time to read, less time to think, to scan the veil of his future.

He had run through a score of volumes, critical, philosophical, scientific, absorbing their contents, eagerly anticipating their conclusions; filled, once he had begun, with a mania to destroy, a savage determination to leave nothing,--to level all....

And now, save for the less frequent relapsing moods, he had grown strangely unconcerned about his future, content to live in the presence of this man; to ignore completely the aspects of a life incomprehensible to the few, besides Mr. Bentley, who observed it.

What he now mostly felt was relief, if not a faint self-congratulation that he had had the courage to go through with it, to know the worst. And he was conscious even, at times, of a faint reviving sense of freedom he had not known since the days at Bremerton. If the old dogmas were false, why should he regret them? He began to see that, once he had suspected their falsity, not to have investigated were to invite decay; and he pictured himself growing more unctuous, apologetic, plausible. He had, at any rate, escaped the more despicable fate, and if he went to pieces now it would be as a man, looking the facts in the face,--not as a coward and a hypocrite.

Late one afternoon, when he dropped in at Mr. Bentley's house, he was informed by Sam that a lady was awaiting Mr. Bentley in the library. As Hodder opened the door he saw a tall, slim figure of a woman with her back toward him. She was looking at the photographs on the mantel.

It was Alison Parr!

He remembered now that she had asked for Mr. Bentley's number, but it had never occurred to him that he might one day find her here. And as she turned he surprised in her eyes a shyness he had never seen in them before. Thus they stood gazing at each other a moment before either spoke.

"Oh, I thought you were Mr. Bentley," she said.

"Have you been waiting long?" he asked.

"Three quarters of an hour, but I haven't minded it. This is such an interesting room, with its pictures and relics and books. It has a soothing effect, hasn't it? To come here is like stepping out of the turmoil of the modern world into a peaceful past."

He was struck by the felicity of her description.

"You have been here before?" he asked.

"Yes." She settled herself in the armchair; and Hodder, accepting the situation, took the seat beside her. "Of course I came, after I had found out who Mr. Bentley was. The opportunity to know him again--was not to be missed."

"I can understand that," he assented.

"That is, if a child can even be said to know such a person as Mr. Bentley. Naturally, I didn't appreciate him in those days--children merely accept, without analyzing. And I have not yet been able to analyze,--I can only speculate and consider."

Her enthusiasm never failed to stir and excite Hodder. Nor would he have thought it possible that a new value could be added to Mr. Bentley in his eyes. Yet so it was.

He felt within him, as she spoke, the quickening of a stimulus.

"When I came in a little while ago," Alison continued, "I found a woman in black, with such a sweet, sad face. We began a conversation. She had been through a frightful experience. Her husband had committed suicide, her child had been on the point of death, and she says that she lies awake nights now thinking in terror of what might have happened to her if you and Mr. Bentley hadn't helped her. She's learning to be a stenographer. Do you remember her?--her name is Garvin."

"Did she say--anything more?" Hodder anxiously demanded.

"No," said Alison, surprised by his manner, "except that Mr. Bentley had found her a place to live, near the hospital, with a widow who was a friend of his. And that the child was well, and she could look life in the face again. Oh, it is terrible to think that people all around us are getting into such straits, and that we are so indifferent to it!"

Hodder did not speak at once. He was wondering, now that she had renewed her friendship with Mr. Bentley, whether certain revelations on her part were not inevitable....

She was regarding him, and he was aware that her curiosity was aflame. Again he wondered whether it were curiosity or--interest.

"You did not tell me, when we met in the Park, that you were no longer at St. John's."

"Did Mr. Bentley tell you?"

"No. He merely said he saw a great deal of you. Martha Preston told me. She is still here, and goes to church occasionally. She was much surprised to learn that you were in the city.

"I am still living in the parish house," he said. "I am--taking my vacation."

"With Mr. Bentley?" Her eyes were still on his face.

"With Mr. Bentley," he replied.

He had spoken without bitterness. Although there had indeed been bitterness in his soul, it passed away in the atmosphere of Mr. Bentley's house. The process now taking place in him was the same complication of negative and positive currents he had felt in her presence before. He was surprised to find that his old antipathy to agnosticism held over, in her case; to discover, now, that he was by no means, as yet, in view of the existence of Horace Bentley, to go the full length of unbelief! On the other hand, he saw that she had divined much of what had happened to him, and he felt radiating from her a sympathetic understanding which seemed almost a claim. She had a claim, although he could not have said of what it was constituted. Their personal relationship bore responsibilities. It suddenly came over him, in fact, that the two persons who in all the world were nearest him were herself and Mr. Bentley! He responded, scarce knowing why he did so, to the positive current.

"With Mr. Bentley," he repeated, smiling, and meeting her eyes, "I have been learning something about the actual conditions of life in a modern city."

She bent a little toward him in one of those spontaneous movements that characterized her.

"Tell me--what is his life?" she asked. "I have seen so little of it, and he has told me nothing himself. At first, in the Park, I saw only a kindly old gentleman, with a wonderful, restful personality, who had been a dear friend of my mother's. I didn't connect those boys with him. But since then--since I have been here twice, I have seen other things which make me wonder how far his influence extends." She paused.

"I, too, have wondered," said the rector, thoughtfully. "When I met him, I supposed he were merely living in simple relationships with his neighbours here in Dalton Street, but by degrees I have discovered that his relationships are as wide as the city itself. And they have grown naturally--by radiation, as it were. One incident has led to another, one act of kindness to another, until now there seems literally no end to the men and women with whom he is in personal touch, who are ready to do anything in their power for him at any time. It is an institution, in fact, wholly unorganized, which in the final analysis is one man. And there is in it absolutely nothing of that element which has come to be known as charity."

Alison listened with parted lips.

"To give you an example," he went on, gradually be coming fired by his subject, by her absorption, "since you have mentioned Mrs. Garvin, I will tell you what happened in that case. It is typical of many. It was a question of taking care of this woman, who was worn out and crushed, until she should recover sufficiently to take care of herself. Mr. Bentley did not need any assistance from me to get the boy into the hospital--Dr. Jarvis worships him. But the mother. I might possibly have got her into an institutional home--Mr. Bentley did better than that, far better. On the day of the funeral we went directly from the cemetery to the house of a widow who owns a little fruit farm beyond the Park. Her name is Bledsoe, and it is not an exaggeration to say that her house, small as it is, contains an endowed room always at Mr. Bentley's disposal.

"Mrs. Garvin is there now. She was received as a friend, as a guest--not as an inmate, a recipient of charity. I shall never forget how that woman ran out in the sun when she saw us coming, how proud she was to be able to do this thing, how she ushered us into the little parlour, that was all swept and polished, and how naturally and warmly she welcomed the other woman, dazed and exhausted, and took her hat and veil and almost carried her up the stairs. And later on I found out from Miss Grower, who lives here, Mrs. Bledsoe's history. Eight or nine years ago her husband was sent to prison for forgery, and she was left with four small children, on the verge of a fate too terrible to mention. She was brought to Mr. Bentley's attention, and he started her in life.

"And now Mrs. Garvin forms another link to that chain, which goes on growing. In a month she will be earning her own living as stenographer for a grain merchant whom Mr. Bentley set on his feet several years ago. One thing has led to the next. And--I doubt if any neighbourhood could be mentioned, north or south or west, or even in the business portion of the city itself, where men and women are not to be found ready and eager to do anything in their power for him. Of course there have been exceptions, what might be called failures in the ordinary terminology of charity, but there are not many."

When he had finished she sat quite still, musing over what he had told her, her eyes alight.

"Yes, it is wonderful," she said at length, in a low voice. "Oh, I can believe in that, making the world a better place to live in, making people happier. Of course every one cannot be like Mr. Bentley, but all may do their share in their own way. If only we could get rid of this senseless system of government that puts a premium on the acquisition of property! As it is, we have to depend on individual initiative. Even the good Mr. Bentley does is a drop in the ocean compared to what might be done if all this machinery--which has been invented, if all these discoveries of science, by which the forces of an indifferent nature have been harnessed, could be turned to the service of all mankind. Think of how many Mrs. Garvins, of how many Dalton Streets there are in the world, how many stunted children working in factories or growing up into criminals in the slums! I was reading a book just the other day on the effect of the lack of nutrition on character. We are breeding a million degenerate citizens by starving them, to say nothing of the effect of disease and bad air, of the constant fear of poverty that haunts the great majority of homes. There is no reason why that fear should not be removed, why the latest discoveries in medicine and science should not be at the disposal of all."

The genuineness of her passion was unmistakable. His whole being responded to it.

"Have you always felt like this?" he asked.

"Like what?"

"Indignant--that so many people were suffering."

His question threw her into reflection.

"Why, no," she answered, at length, "I never thought----I see what you mean. Four or five years ago, when I was going to socialist lectures, my sense of all this--inequality, injustice was intellectual. I didn't get indignant over it, as I do now when I think of it."

"And why do you get indignant now?"

"You mean," she asked, "that I have no right to be indignant, since I do nothing to attempt to better conditions?--"

"Not at all," Hodder disavowed. "Perhaps my question is too personal, but I didn't intend it to be. I was merely wondering whether any event or series of events had transformed a mere knowledge of these conditions into feeling."

"Oh!" she exclaimed, but not in offence. Once more she relapsed into thought. And as he watched her, in silence, the colour that flowed and ebbed in her cheeks registered the coming and going of memories; of incidents in her life hidden from him, arousing in the man the torture of jealousy. But his faculties, keenly alert, grasped the entire field; marked once more the empirical trait in her that he loved her unflinching willingness to submit herself to an experiment.

"I suppose so," she replied at length, her thoughts naturally assuming speech. "Yes, I can see that it is so. Yet my experience has not been with these conditions with which Mr. Bentley, with which you have been brought in contact, but with the other side--with luxury. Oh, I am sick of luxury! I love it, I am not at all sure that I could do without it, but I hate it, too, I rebel against it. You can't understand that."

"I think I can," he answered her.

"When I see the creatures it makes," she cried, "I hate it. My profession has brought me in such close contact with it that I rebelled at last, and came out here very suddenly, just to get away from it in the mass. To renew my youth, if I could. The gardens were only an excuse. I had come to a point where I wanted to be quiet, to be alone, to think, and I knew my father would be going away. So much of my girlhood was spent in that Park that I know every corner of it, and I--obeyed the impulse. I wanted to test it."

"Yes," he said, absorbed.

"I might have gone to the mountains or the sea, but some one would have come and found me, and I should have been bound again--on the wheel. I shouldn't have had the strength to resist. But here--have you ever felt," she demanded, "that you craved a particular locality at a certain time?"

He followed her still.

"That is how I felt. These associations, that Park, the thought of my girlhood, of my mother, who understood me as no one else has since, assumed a certain value. New York became unbearable. It is just there, in the very centre of our modern civilization, that one sees the crudest passions. Oh, I have often wondered whether a man, however disillusioned, could see New York as a woman sees it when the glamour is gone. We are the natural prey of the conqueror still. We dream of independence--"

She broke off abruptly.

This confession, with the sudden glimpse it gave him of the fires within her that would not die down, but burned now more fiercely than ever, sent the blood to his head. His face, his temples, were hot with the fierceness of his joy in his conviction that she had revealed herself to him. Why she had done so, he could not say... This was the woman whom the world thought composed; who had triumphed over its opposition, compelled it to bow before her; who presented to it that self-possessed, unified personality by which he had been struck at their first meeting. Yet, paradoxically, the personality remained,--was more elusive than before. A thousand revelations, he felt, would not disclose it.

He was no nearer to solving it now.. Yet the fires burned! She, too, like himself, was aflame and unsatisfied! She, too, had tasted success, and had revolted!

"But I don't get anywhere," she said wearily. "At times I feel this ferment, this anger that things are as they are, only to realize what helpless anger it is. Why not take the world as it appears and live and feel, instead of beating against the currents?"

"But isn't that inconsistent with what you said awhile ago as to a new civilization?" Hodder asked.

"Oh, that Utopia has no reality for me. I think it has, at moments, but it fades. And I don't pretend to be consistent. Mr. Bentley lives in a world of his own; I envy him with all my heart, I love and admire him, he cheers and soothes me when I am with him. But I can't see--whatever he sees. I am only aware of a remorseless universe grinding out its destinies. We Anglo-Saxons are fond of deceiving ourselves about life, of dressing it up in beautiful colours, of making believe that it actually contains happiness. All our fiction reflects this--that is why I never cared to read English or American novels. The Continental school, the Russians, the Frenchmen, refuse to be deluded. They are honest."

"Realism, naturalism," he mused, recalling a course in philosophy, "one would expect the Russian, in the conditions under which he lives, possessing an artistic temperament combined with a paralysis of the initiative and a sense of fate, to write in that way. And the Frenchmen, Renan, Zola, and the others who have followed, are equally deterministic, but viewing the human body as a highly organized machine with which we may amuse ourselves by registering its sensations. These literatures are true in so far as they reflect the characteristics of the nations from which they spring. That is not to say that the philosophies of which they are the expressions are true. Nor is it to admit that such a literature is characteristic of the spirit of America, and can be applied without change to our life and atmosphere. We have yet, I believe, to develop our own literature; which will come gradually as we find ourselves."

"Find ourselves?" she repeated.

"Yes. Isn't that what we are trying to do? We are not determinists or fatalists, and to condemn us to such a philosophy would be to destroy us. We live on hope. In spite of our apparent materialism, we are idealists. And is it not possible to regard nature as governed by laws--remorseless, if you like the word--and yet believe, with Kant and Goethe, that there is an inner realm? You yourself struggle--you cling to ideals."

"Ideals!" she echoed. "Ideals are useless unless one is able to see, to feel something beyond this ruthless mechanism by which we are surrounded and hemmed in, to have some perception of another scheme. Why struggle, unless we struggle for something definite? Oh, I don't mean heavenly rewards. Nothing could be more insipid and senseless than the orthodox view of the hereafter. I am talking about a scheme of life here and now."

"So am I," answered Hodder. "But may there not be a meaning in this very desire we have to struggle against the order of things as it appears to us?"

"A meaning?"

"A little while ago you spoke of your indignation at the inequalities and injustices of the world, and when I asked you if you had always felt this, you replied that this feeling had grown upon you. My question is this: whether that indignation would be present at all if it were not meant to be turned into action."

"You believe that an influence is at work, an influence that impels us against our reason?"

"I should like to think so," he said. "Why should so many persons be experiencing such a feeling to-day, persons who, like yourself, are the beneficiaries of our present system of privilege? Why should you, who have every reason to be satisfied, materially, with things as they are, be troubling yourself with thoughts of others who are less-fortunate? And why should we have the spectacle, today, of men and women all over this country in social work, in science and medicine and politics, striving to better conditions while most of them might be much more comfortable and luxurious letting well enough alone?"

"But it's human to care," she objected.

"Ah--human!" he said, and was silent. "What do we mean by human, unless it is the distinguishing mark of something within us that the natural world doesn't possess? Unless it is the desire and willingness to strive for a larger interest than the individual interest, work and suffer for others? And you spoke of making people happier. What do you mean by happiness? Not merely the possession of material comforts, surely. I grant you that those who are overworked and underfed, who are burning with the consciousness of wrongs, who have no outlook ahead, are essentially hopeless and miserable. But by 'happiness' you, mean something more than the complacency and contentment which clothing and food might bring, and the removal of the economic fear,--and even the restoration of self-respect."

"That their lives should be fuller!" she exclaimed.

"That drudgery and despair should be replaced by interest and hope," he went on, "slavery by freedom. In other words, that the whole attitude toward life should be changed, that life should appear a bright thing rather than a dark thing, that labour should be willing vicarious instead of forced and personal. Otherwise, any happiness worth having is out of the question."

She was listening now with parted lips, apparently unconscious of the fixity of her gaze.

"You mean it is a choice between that or nothing," she said, in a low voice. "That there is no use in lifting people out of the treadmill--and removing the terror of poverty unless you can give them something more--than I have got."

"And something more--than I have got,"--he was suddenly moved to reply...

Presently, while the silence still held between them, the door opened and startled them into reality. Mr. Bentley came in.

The old gentleman gave no sign, as they rose to meet him, of a sense of tension in the atmosphere he had entered--yet each felt--somehow, that he knew. The tension was released. The same thought occurred to both as they beheld the peaceful welcome shining in his face, "Here is what we are seeking. Why try to define it?"

"To think that I have been gossiping with Mrs. Meyer, while you were waiting for me!" he said. "She keeps the little florist's shop at the corner of Tower Street, and she gave me these. I little guessed what good use I should have for them, my dear."

He held out to her three fragrant, crimson roses that matched the responsive colour in her cheeks as she thanked him and pinned them on her gown. He regarded her an instant.

"But I'm sure Mr. Hodder has entertained you," Mr. Bentley turned, and laid his hand on the rector's shoulder.

"Most successfully," said Alison, cutting short his protest. And she smiled at Hodder, faintly.

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