H.G. Wells.

Soul of a Bishop online

. (page 1 of 19)
Online LibraryH.G. WellsSoul of a Bishop → online text (page 1 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by An Anonymous Volunteer and David Widger


By H. G. Wells



"Man's true Environment is God"

J. H. OLDHAM in "The Christian Gospel" (Tract of the N. M. R. and H.)




IT was a scene of bitter disputation. A hawk-nosed young man with a
pointing finger was prominent. His face worked violently, his lips moved
very rapidly, but what he said was inaudible.

Behind him the little rufous man with the big eyes twitched at his robe
and offered suggestions.

And behind these two clustered a great multitude of heated, excited,
swarthy faces....

The emperor sat on his golden throne in the midst of the gathering,
commanding silence by gestures, speaking inaudibly to them in a tongue
the majority did not use, and then prevailing. They ceased their
interruptions, and the old man, Arius, took up the debate. For a time
all those impassioned faces were intent upon him; they listened as
though they sought occasion, and suddenly as if by a preconcerted
arrangement they were all thrusting their fingers into their ears and
knitting their brows in assumed horror; some were crying aloud and
making as if to fly. Some indeed tucked up their garments and fled. They
spread out into a pattern. They were like the little monks who run from
St. Jerome's lion in the picture by Carpaccio. Then one zealot rushed
forward and smote the old man heavily upon the mouth....

The hall seemed to grow vaster and vaster, the disputing, infuriated
figures multiplied to an innumerable assembly, they drove about like
snowflakes in a gale, they whirled in argumentative couples, they spun
in eddies of contradiction, they made extraordinary patterns, and then
amidst the cloudy darkness of the unfathomable dome above them there
appeared and increased a radiant triangle in which shone an eye. The eye
and the triangle filled the heavens, sent out flickering rays, glowed
to a blinding incandescence, seemed to be speaking words of thunder
that were nevertheless inaudible. It was as if that thunder filled the
heavens, it was as if it were nothing but the beating artery in the
sleeper's ear. The attention strained to hear and comprehend, and on the
very verge of comprehension snapped like a fiddle-string.


The word remained like a little ash after a flare.

The sleeper had awakened and lay very still, oppressed by a sense of
intellectual effort that had survived the dream in which it had arisen.
Was it so that things had happened? The slumber-shadowed mind, moving
obscurely, could not determine whether it was so or not. Had they indeed
behaved in this manner when the great mystery was established? Who
said they stopped their ears with their fingers and fled, shouting with
horror? Shouting? Was it Eusebius or Athanasius? Or Sozomen.... Some
letter or apology by Athanasius?... And surely it was impossible that
the Trinity could have appeared visibly as a triangle and an eye. Above
such an assembly.

That was mere dreaming, of course. Was it dreaming after Raphael? After
Raphael? The drowsy mind wandered into a side issue. Was the picture
that had suggested this dream the one in the Vatican where all the
Fathers of the Church are shown disputing together? But there surely God
and the Son themselves were painted with a symbol - some symbol - also?
But was that disputation about the Trinity at all? Wasn't it rather
about a chalice and a dove? Of course it was a chalice and a dove! Then
where did one see the triangle and the eye? And men disputing? Some such
picture there was....

What a lot of disputing there had been! What endless disputing! Which
had gone on. Until last night. When this very disagreeable young man
with the hawk nose and the pointing finger had tackled one when one was
sorely fagged, and disputed; disputed. Rebuked and disputed. "Answer me
this," he had said.... And still one's poor brains disputed and would
not rest.... About the Trinity....

The brain upon the pillow was now wearily awake. It was at once
hopelessly awake and active and hopelessly unprogressive. It was like
some floating stick that had got caught in an eddy in a river, going
round and round and round. And round. Eternally - eternally - eternally

"But what possible meaning do you attach then to such a phrase as
eternally begotten?"

The brain upon the pillow stared hopelessly at this question, without an
answer, without an escape. The three repetitions spun round and round,
became a swiftly revolving triangle, like some electric sign that
had got beyond control, in the midst of which stared an unwinking and
resentful eye.


Every one knows that expedient of the sleepless, the counting of sheep.

You lie quite still, you breathe regularly, you imagine sheep jumping
over a gate, one after another, you count them quietly and slowly until
you count yourself off through a fading string of phantom numbers to
number Nod....

But sheep, alas! suggest an episcopal crook.

And presently a black sheep had got into the succession and was
struggling violently with the crook about its leg, a hawk-nosed black
sheep full of reproof, with disordered hair and a pointing finger. A
young man with a most disagreeable voice.

At which the other sheep took heart and, deserting the numbered
succession, came and sat about the fire in a big drawing-room and argued
also. In particular there was Lady Sunderbund, a pretty fragile tall
woman in the corner, richly jewelled, who sat with her pretty eyes
watching and her lips compressed. What had she thought of it? She had
said very little.

It is an unusual thing for a mixed gathering of this sort to argue about
the Trinity. Simply because a tired bishop had fallen into their party.
It was not fair to him to pretend that the atmosphere was a liberal and
inquiring one, when the young man who had sat still and dormant by the
table was in reality a keen and bitter Irish Roman Catholic. Then the
question, a question-begging question, was put quite suddenly, without
preparation or prelude, by surprise. "Why, Bishop, was the Spermaticos
Logos identified with the Second and not the Third Person of the

It was indiscreet, it was silly, to turn upon the speaker and affect an
air of disengagement and modernity and to say: "Ah, that indeed is the
unfortunate aspect of the whole affair."

Whereupon the fierce young man had exploded with: "To that, is it, that
you Anglicans have come?"

The whole gathering had given itself up to the disputation, Lady
Sunderbund, an actress, a dancer - though she, it is true, did not say
very much - a novelist, a mechanical expert of some sort, a railway peer,
geniuses, hairy and Celtic, people of no clearly definable position,
but all quite unequal to the task of maintaining that air of reverent
vagueness, that tenderness of touch, which is by all Anglican standards
imperative in so deep, so mysterious, and, nowadays, in mixed society at
least, so infrequent a discussion.

It was like animals breaking down a fence about some sacred spot. Within
a couple of minutes the affair had become highly improper. They had
raised their voices, they had spoken with the utmost familiarity of
almost unspeakable things. There had been even attempts at epigram.
Athanasian epigrams. Bent the novelist had doubted if originally there
had been a Third Person in the Trinity at all. He suggested a reaction
from a too-Manichaean dualism at some date after the time of St. John's
Gospel. He maintained obstinately that that Gospel was dualistic.

The unpleasant quality of the talk was far more manifest in the
retrospect than it had been at the time. It had seemed then bold
and strange, but not impossible; now in the cold darkness it seemed
sacrilegious. And the bishop's share, which was indeed only the weak
yielding of a tired man to an atmosphere he had misjudged, became a
disgraceful display of levity and bad faith. They had baited him.
Some one had said that nowadays every one was an Arian, knowingly or
unknowingly. They had not concealed their conviction that the bishop did
not really believe in the Creeds he uttered.

And that unfortunate first admission stuck terribly in his throat.

Oh! Why had he made it?


Sleep had gone.

The awakened sleeper groaned, sat up in the darkness, and felt gropingly
in this unaccustomed bed and bedroom first for the edge of the bed and
then for the electric light that was possibly on the little bedside

The searching hand touched something. A water-bottle. The hand resumed
its exploration. Here was something metallic and smooth, a stem. Either
above or below there must be a switch....

The switch was found, grasped, and turned.

The darkness fled.

In a mirror the sleeper saw the reflection of his face and a corner
of the bed in which he lay. The lamp had a tilted shade that threw
a slanting bar of shadow across the field of reflection, lighting a
right-angled triangle very brightly and leaving the rest obscure. The
bed was a very great one, a bed for the Anakim. It had a canopy with
yellow silk curtains, surmounted by a gilded crown of carved wood.
Between the curtains was a man's face, clean-shaven, pale, with
disordered brown hair and weary, pale-blue eyes. He was clad in purple
pyjamas, and the hand that now ran its fingers through the brown hair
was long and lean and shapely.

Beside the bed was a convenient little table bearing the light, a
water-bottle and glass, a bunch of keys, a congested pocket-book, a
gold-banded fountain pen, and a gold watch that indicated a quarter past
three. On the lower edge of the picture in the mirror appeared the back
of a gilt chair, over which a garment of peculiar construction had been
carelessly thrown. It was in the form of that sleeveless cassock of
purple, opening at the side, whose lower flap is called a bishop's
apron; the corner of the frogged coat showed behind the chair-back, and
the sash lay crumpled on the floor. Black doeskin breeches, still warmly
lined with their pants, lay where they had been thrust off at the corner
of the bed, partly covering black hose and silver-buckled shoes.

For a moment the tired gaze of the man in the bed rested upon these
evidences of his episcopal dignity. Then he turned from them to the
watch at the bedside.

He groaned helplessly.


These country doctors were no good. There wasn't a physician in the
diocese. He must go to London.

He looked into the weary eyes of his reflection and said, as one makes a
reassuring promise, "London."

He was being worried. He was being intolerably worried, and he was ill
and unable to sustain his positions. This doubt, this sudden discovery
of controversial unsoundness, was only one aspect of his general
neurasthenia. It had been creeping into his mind since the "Light Unden
the Altar" controversy. Now suddenly it had leapt upon him from his own
unwary lips.

The immediate trouble arose from his loyalty. He had followed the King's
example; he had become a total abstainer and, in addition, on his own
account he had ceased to smoke. And his digestion, which Princhester
had first made sensitive, was deranged. He was suffering chemically,
suffering one of those nameless sequences of maladjustments that still
defy our ordinary medical science. It was afflicting him with a general
malaise, it was affecting his energy, his temper, all the balance and
comfort of his nerves. All day he was weary; all night he was wakeful.
He was estranged from his body. He was distressed by a sense of
detachment from the things about him, by a curious intimation of
unreality in everything he experienced. And with that went this levity
of conscience, a heaviness of soul and a levity of conscience, that
could make him talk as though the Creeds did not matter - as though
nothing mattered....

If only he could smoke!

He was persuaded that a couple of Egyptian cigarettes, or three at the
outside, a day, would do wonders in restoring his nervous calm. That,
and just a weak whisky and soda at lunch and dinner. Suppose now - !

His conscience, his sense of honour, deserted him. Latterly he had had
several of these conscience-blanks; it was only when they were over that
he realized that they had occurred.

One might smoke up the chimney, he reflected. But he had no cigarettes!
Perhaps if he were to slip downstairs....

Why had he given up smoking?

He groaned aloud. He and his reflection eyed one another in mutual

There came before his memory the image of a boy's face, a swarthy little
boy, grinning, grinning with a horrible knowingness and pointing
his finger - an accusing finger. It had been the most exasperating,
humiliating, and shameful incident in the bishop's career. It was
the afternoon for his fortnightly address to the Shop-girls' Church
Association, and he had been seized with a panic fear, entirely
irrational and unjustifiable, that he would not be able to deliver the
address. The fear had arisen after lunch, had gripped his mind, and then
as now had come the thought, "If only I could smoke!" And he had smoked.
It seemed better to break a vow than fail the Association. He had fallen
to the temptation with a completeness that now filled him with shame and
horror. He had stalked Dunk, his valet-butler, out of the dining-room,
had affected to need a book from the book-case beyond the sideboard,
had gone insincerely to the sideboard humming "From Greenland's icy
mountains," and then, glancing over his shoulder, had stolen one of
his own cigarettes, one of the fatter sort. With this and his bedroom
matches he had gone off to the bottom of the garden among the laurels,
looked everywhere except above the wall to be sure that he was alone,
and at last lit up, only as he raised his eyes in gratitude for the
first blissful inhalation to discover that dreadful little boy peeping
at him from the crotch in the yew-tree in the next garden. As though God
had sent him to be a witness!

Their eyes had met. The bishop recalled with an agonized distinctness
every moment, every error, of that shameful encounter. He had been too
surprised to conceal the state of affairs from the pitiless scrutiny of
those youthful eyes. He had instantly made as if to put the cigarette
behind his back, and then as frankly dropped it....

His soul would not be more naked at the resurrection. The little boy
had stared, realized the state of affairs slowly but surely, pointed his

Never had two human beings understood each other more completely.

A dirty little boy! Capable no doubt of a thousand kindred

It seemed ages before the conscience-stricken bishop could tear himself
from the spot and walk back, with such a pretence of dignity as he could
muster, to the house.

And instead of the discourse he had prepared for the Shop-girls' Church
Association, he had preached on temptation and falling, and how he knew
they had all fallen, and how he understood and could sympathize with the
bitterness of a secret shame, a moving but unsuitable discourse that
had already been subjected to misconstruction and severe reproof in the
local press of Princhester.

But the haunting thing in the bishop's memory was the face and gesture
of the little boy. That grubby little finger stabbed him to the heart.

"Oh, God!" he groaned. "The meanness of it! How did I bring myself - ?"

He turned out the light convulsively, and rolled over in the bed, making
a sort of cocoon of himself. He bored his head into the pillow and
groaned, and then struggled impatiently to throw the bed-clothes off
himself. Then he sat up and talked aloud.

"I must go to Brighton-Pomfrey," he said. "And get a medical
dispensation. If I do not smoke - "

He paused for a long time.

Then his voice sounded again in the darkness, speaking quietly, speaking
with a note almost of satisfaction.

"I shall go mad. I must smoke or I shall go mad."

For a long time he sat up in the great bed with his arms about his


Fearful things came to him; things at once dreadfully blasphemous and
entirely weak-minded.

The triangle and the eye became almost visible upon the black background
of night. They were very angry. They were spinning round and round
faster and faster. Because he was a bishop and because really he did not
believe fully and completely in the Trinity. At one and the same time
he did not believe in the Trinity and was terrified by the anger of the
Trinity at his unbelief.... He was afraid. He was aghast.... And oh! he
was weary....

He rubbed his eyes.

"If I could have a cup of tea!" he said.

Then he perceived with surprise that he had not thought of praying. What
should he say? To what could he pray?

He tried not to think of that whizzing Triangle, that seemed now to be
nailed like a Catherine wheel to the very centre of his forehead,
and yet at the same time to be at the apex of the universe. Against
that - for protection against that - he was praying. It was by a great
effort that at last he pronounced the words:

"Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord ...."

Presently he had turned up his light, and was prowling about the room.
The clear inky dinginess that comes before the raw dawn of a spring
morning, found his white face at the window, looking out upon the great
terrace and the park.



IT was only in the last few years that the bishop had experienced
these nervous and mental crises. He was a belated doubter. Whatever
questionings had marked his intellectual adolescence had either been
very slight or had been too adequately answered to leave any serious
scars upon his convictions.

And even now he felt that he was afflicted physically rather than
mentally, that some protective padding of nerve-sheath or brain-case had
worn thin and weak, and left him a prey to strange disturbances, rather
than that any new process of thought was eating into his mind. These
doubts in his mind were still not really doubts; they were rather alien
and, for the first time, uncontrolled movements of his intelligence.
He had had a sheltered upbringing; he was the well-connected son of
a comfortable rectory, the only son and sole survivor of a family
of three; he had been carefully instructed and he had been a willing
learner; it had been easy and natural to take many things for granted.
It had been very easy and pleasant for him to take the world as he found
it and God as he found Him. Indeed for all his years up to manhood
he had been able to take life exactly as in his infancy he took his
carefully warmed and prepared bottle - unquestioningly and beneficially.

And indeed that has been the way with most bishops since bishops began.

It is a busy continuous process that turns boys into bishops, and it
will stand few jars or discords. The student of ecclesiastical biography
will find that an early vocation has in every age been almost universal
among them; few are there among these lives that do not display the
incipient bishop from the tenderest years. Bishop How of Wakefield
composed hymns before he was eleven, and Archbishop Benson when scarcely
older possessed a little oratory in which he conducted services and - a
pleasant touch of the more secular boy - which he protected from a too
inquisitive sister by means of a booby trap. It is rare that those
marked for episcopal dignities go so far into the outer world
as Archbishop Lang of York, who began as a barrister. This early
predestination has always been the common episcopal experience.
Archbishop Benson's early attempts at religious services remind one both
of St. Thomas a Becket, the "boy bishop," and those early ceremonies of
St. Athanasius which were observed and inquired upon by the good bishop
Alexander. (For though still a tender infant, St. Athanasius with
perfect correctness and validity was baptizing a number of his innocent
playmates, and the bishop who "had paused to contemplate the sports of
the child remained to confirm the zeal of the missionary.") And as with
the bishop of the past, so with the bishop of the future; the Rev. H. J.
Campbell, in his story of his soul's pilgrimage, has given us a pleasant
picture of himself as a child stealing out into the woods to build
himself a little altar.

Such minds as these, settled as it were from the outset, are either
incapable of real scepticism or become sceptical only after catastrophic
changes. They understand the sceptical mind with difficulty, and their
beliefs are regarded by the sceptical mind with incredulity. They have
determined their forms of belief before their years of discretion, and
once those forms are determined they are not very easily changed. Within
the shell it has adopted the intelligence may be active and lively
enough, may indeed be extraordinarily active and lively, but only within
the shell.

There is an entire difference in the mental quality of those who are
converts to a faith and those who are brought up in it. The former know
it from outside as well as from within. They know not only that it is,
but also that it is not. The latter have a confidence in their creed
that is one with their apprehension of sky or air or gravitation. It
is a primary mental structure, and they not only do not doubt but they
doubt the good faith of those who do. They think that the Atheist and
Agnostic really believe but are impelled by a mysterious obstinacy to
deny. So it had been with the Bishop of Princhester; not of cunning
or design but in simple good faith he had accepted all the inherited
assurances of his native rectory, and held by Church, Crown, Empire,
decorum, respectability, solvency - and compulsory Greek at the Little
Go - as his father had done before him. If in his undergraduate days he
had said a thing or two in the modern vein, affected the socialism
of William Morris and learnt some Swinburne by heart, it was out of a
conscious wildness. He did not wish to be a prig. He had taken a far
more genuine interest in the artistry of ritual.

Through all the time of his incumbency of the church of the Holy
Innocents, St. John's Wood, and of his career as the bishop suffragan
of Pinner, he had never faltered from his profound confidence in those
standards of his home. He had been kind, popular, and endlessly active.
His undergraduate socialism had expanded simply and sincerely into a
theory of administrative philanthropy. He knew the Webbs. He was
as successful with working-class audiences as with fashionable
congregations. His home life with Lady Ella (she was the daughter of
the fifth Earl of Birkenholme) and his five little girls was simple,
beautiful, and happy as few homes are in these days of confusion. Until
he became Bishop of Princhester - he followed Hood, the first bishop,
as the reign of his Majesty King Edward the Peacemaker drew to its
close - no anticipation of his coming distress fell across his path.


He came to Princhester an innocent and trustful man. The home life
at the old rectory of Otteringham was still his standard of truth and
reality. London had not disillusioned him. It was a strange waste of
people, it made him feel like a missionary in infidel parts, but it was
a kindly waste. It was neither antagonistic nor malicious. He had always
felt there that if he searched his Londoner to the bottom, he would
find the completest recognition of the old rectory and all its data and

But Princhester was different.

Princhester made one think that recently there had been a second and
much more serious Fall.

Princhester was industrial and unashamed. It was a countryside savagely
invaded by forges and mine shafts and gaunt black things. It was scarred
and impeded and discoloured. Even before that invasion, when the heather
was not in flower it must have been a black country. Its people were
dour uncandid individuals, who slanted their heads and knitted their
brows to look at you. Occasionally one saw woods brown and blistered by
the gases from chemical works. Here and there remained old rectories,
closely reminiscent of the dear old home at Otteringham, jostled and

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryH.G. WellsSoul of a Bishop → online text (page 1 of 19)