William James Dawson.

A prophet in Babylon : a story of social service online

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ture, "let us get out of it all. Let us find a cottage
somewhere and be free. But, no, that's cowardice.
It's only running away. And I gave Roberts my
word last night that I would go on, that I would
win out somehow. . . . Margaret, help me to be

"My poor dear, you're worried." She had risen
from her seat and stood by his side. She laid her
cool, capable hands a moment on his own, and said :
"I think I know how you feel."

"No, you don't, dear," he said. "You don't know
how this sort of thing tortures me, and God forbid
that I should tell you."

"Well, don't be tortured," she said, brightly. "I
don't pretend to be a philosopher, like you; but
there's one bit of philosophy I do know admit the
facts and then make the best of them. I never knew
a house yet where everything went on perfectly.
Something is always going wrong, but then you
expect it, and you don't let people know more of it
than you can help. I guess churches are pretty
much the same. There's a lot of things go on in the
basement that aren't reported upstairs. But there's
no need to think too much about them. Now you
go and make your sermon like a good boy, and for-
get all about Roberts and the rest of them. It takes


courage to forget, more courage I sometimes think
than anything else, but it's the only way to go
through life with comfort/*

Gaunt could not help smiling, which was pre-
cisely the effect which she wished to produce.

"I believe," he said, "there's more real wisdom
in your little finger than in my whole body."

"Oh, wisdom of a kind," she said, with a laugh.
"Wisdom of the plain, not the decorated kind. A
woman who has run a house with three maids in
New York City for seven years, and never failed to
put a dinner on the table properly, can't help learn-
ing a few things worth knowing, and the chief is,
just to go on and don't worry."

"But how not to worry, that's the question, Mar-
garet. I don't think you quite realize my position,

"Oh, yes, I do. I've seen trouble coming for a
long time. Do you think I've not noticed the change
in the church, people leaving, and all that? If it
were your fault I should worry fast enough, but I
know it isn't, and so I don't worry."

"It doesn't matter whose fault it is, from what I
can see. It's the thing itself, the humiliation of it."

"/ don't feel humiliated, anyway," she said,
proudly. "When I am I'll let you know, be sure
of that. It it comes to that, I'd rather see you lead-
ing a forlorn hope than finding everything easy.
It's much more interesting for one thing, and it
appeals to one more. Of course you're going to be


disappointed in some of the people. Adversity leaves
only the worthiest for one's friends. Well, I don't
know but what it's worth it. I think you've always
thought people better than they are, the church
people, I mean, and so you expect from them a good
deal more than they can give. Don't you think it
would be wise just to admit what every one else
sees to be the truth, that church people are pretty
much like other folk, with all sorts of streaks in
them, and none of them good or bad right through?"

"But they ought to be better than other folk, Mar-
garet. If they are not, it is my reproach."

"If God made them so, I don't see why you should
worry because you can't improve on His workman-
ship. If they are good enough for Him to make,
they should be good enough for you to put up with.
So you take my advice, dear, and just go on, and
don't worry."

Margaret left the room with a bright smile of
gentle mockery, and Gaunt went to his library.
Usually the mere sight of the large, quiet room, with
its long rows of books, brought an instant com-
posure, but to-day the charm failed.

His was the kind of mind which, once started on a
theme, cannot dismiss it at will. It analyzes, dis-
cusses, dramatizes the intruding thought; allows it
to possess the fancy, to dominate the will, until the
entire brain is full of its echoes, its endless personifi-
cations, its subtle variations. And the thought which
obsessed him now was this humiliating thought that


he was a "seller of rhetoric/' a brain and voice
bought for a certain sum of money by an organisa-
tion called a church.

He had never quite seen himself in this light be-
fore. But once having so seen himself, he could see
nothing else. It did not help him to reassure him-
self that he had never tampered with his sincerity
for gain. His boast of freedom was true as far
as it went; he had taught what he pleased, and had
never consciously modified his teachings to suit any
man's views. But behind this boast there emerged
a disconcerting question : had not his power to please
the taste of his hearers arisen simply from the fact
that he had accepted his environment, and uncon-
sciously adapted himself to it? Was not his whole
mental life like the dyer's hand, "subdued to what
it worked in" ? He remembered now some of those
hasty socialistic generalisations which he had taken
for truths in his seminary days. He had then held,
or thought he held, very decided views on the in-
equality of wealth. Suppose these views had truth
in them, why had he not preached them? And he
knew that the reason for his silence did not lie in
any radical change of view, but in his unconscious
compliance with his environment. It was uncon-
scious, perhaps, but not the less real. For a man's
temper is revealed by unconscious qualities as well
as conscious; is even more truthfully revealed, be-
cause there is no effort to retard the truth.

From this his mind passed at a bound to a more


disturbing question: was the accepted organisation
of a modern church right ? Could any sincere man
suppose that the poor Man of Nazareth would have
approved the hire of men for their talents as the
ministers of His Church? Was it not inevitable
that the real truth about things could scarcely be
spoken under such conditions, since he who lived to
please must needs please to live ?

And the longer he thought, the clearer there rose
before his mind the vision of the Man out of whose
Tragedy all churches had been born His poverty
and contentment with poverty; His simplicity and
entire unworldliness; His disdain for appearances,
for conventions, for the smooth hypocrisies of tradi-
tional religion; His boldness in the face of certain
social disaster; His sublime unselfishness; and at
last His solitary death, deserted even by those who
had believed Him, and yet secure in His own knowl-
edge of victory, in His own sense of the things for
which He was born having been really done. Alas,
who could say that? Whose life was not based on
compromise? And yet surely the very essence of
that divine Life was the lesson that compromise with
truth is death, that the only victory is complete

Dared he be sincere, he, John Gaunt? That was
the real question which confronted him. It was the
only real question in life.

But like most questions that go to the core and
root of things it was spoken so quietly that he did


not at first comprehend its force. It was a still small
voice within his soul, the sound of a bell heard
underneath the sea, in a submerged belfry. It fell
strangely on the ear of his spirit. For, like most
men who lead a busy public life, he had gradually
ceased to have any real acquaintance with himself.
The very need, the constant call, for the expression
of his thoughts had led him to a rapid harvesting
only of such thoughts as lay upon the surface of
the mind; he knew nothing of the depths. And now
from that depth of his own unrecognized personality
there came this quiet voice, which spoke with incom-
parable clearness, asking him whether he had ever
been sincere; whether he could be, even if he would?

In the ordinary sense of the term he could answer,
Yes : he had never dealt falsely with himself. But
he now saw that such a reply was insufficient. Had
he dealt truly? Had he ever allowed his soul free
play? And he knew he had not. It was not the
selling of rhetoric which troubled him now; it was
rather that he had sold himself. Not in any vulgar
sense, of course; not as men did who made fortunes
by fraud or dishonesty; but he had sold himself
for praise, and had lived by and for praise, and that
was why the withdrawal of praise was to him a

So decisive was the verdict that he looked round
the room uneasily, as though he feared that the in-
ward voice might be overheard.

As he did so, his eyes fell upon a large photo-


gravure of a picture which had always fascinated
him, the Christ upon the Cross, by Velasquez. Mar-
garet, with her practical mind, had always objected
to it, as much too morbid and depressing for the
library of a thinker. He had often thought of re-
moving it, but whenever he essayed to do so, the
pathos of the picture moved him afresh, and seemed
to protest against the wrong he would do it. He
looked at it now, the dim background, the bowed
head with the dark hair fallen over the forehead
in the last abandonment of pain, the white, rigid
limbs, the finality, the majesty, the conquering tran-
quillity of it all -he looked, and instinctively fell
upon his knees.

For He had heard that silent spectator on the

And He had asked the question, too He whose
death was the sublime vindication of sincerity.

"God help me to be sincere; I will try."

He hardly knew that he had spoken the words.
Perhaps he did not. But his inmost soul had spoken,
and deep had answered unto deep.



GAUNT worked throughout the day steadily
at his sermon without making much prog-
ress. He was usually a rapid worker, but
to-day his faculty of concentration failed him. He
tried theme after theme, but each in turn seemed
barren. He searched his notebook for suggestions,
but found none. It would seem that his emotional
experience had had the unforeseen effect of altering
the values of his entire world of thought, as the
wave of earthquake creates new landscapes, by dis-
placement and transposition.

Ordinarily his sensitive taste would have been
quickly attracted by some poetic phrase of Scripture,
which he would have clothed with literary allusion,
and expanded into a series of suggestive paragraphs.
The result would have been an essay, more or less
exquisite according to his mood. How often had he
gone into the pulpit to deliver such an essay, him-
self keenly aware of its fine points, and glad in the
knowledge of his own efficiency ! How often had he
been thrillingly conscious of the visible delight of
his hearers when he reached and declaimed those
passages in his discourse which best displayed his
ability ! But now, for a reason which he had not yet



fully apprehended, such a method of preaching sud-
denly appeared to him futile and empty. Yet he
knew no other. The habit of seven years was not
to be broken in a moment. So he toiled on with a
perplexed mind, and a painful sense of disappoint-
ment in himself.

In the evening his friend Palmer called. Palmer
was the one deacon, already referred to, who could
be said to live an intellectual life. He was a spare
man of about forty, with a high dome of forehead,
fringed by grizzled black hair, a satirical mouth, and
a pair of peculiarly keen light-blue eyes. He had
had a curious career. The son of prosperous farm-
ing folk in the South, he had worked his way
through college with the sparsest help from home,
for his father had had no sympathy with his ambi-
tions. He had intended entering the ministry, but
had been prevented by his own early loss of faith.
At the close of his college course he had actually
been a student in a theological seminary, but the
little stock of faith he took with him to the seminary
had been quite dissolved in his attempt to acquire
theological knowledge. The further he went, the
less he found in which he could really believe. He
was further discouraged by the low tone of reli-
gious feeling among his fellow-students, and to a
certain degree among the professors also. In the
general talk among the students he found the min-
istry regarded almost entirely as a profession. The
main theme of conversation was the status of various


churches, the salaries they paid, and the chances
each man thought he had of securing a prize. There
were exceptions, of course. There was Rees Allen,
a genuine enthusiast, who had gone to China as a
missionary, and had perished in the Boxer riots.
There was another good little fellow called Stimson,
whose faith was proof against all criticism simply
because his intellect was radically incapable of under-
standing that criticism could exist in relation to
faith. These men, and a few others of kindred
qualities, formed a group by themselves, and with
them he had no contact. As to the professors he
could never rid himself of the idea that they were
the paid apologists of a system of truth which they
themselves only believed with many reservations.
In this conclusion he was not quite just: he was
simply misled by the fact that he knew the professors
only on their intellectual side ; and he did not allow
for the fact that it was their main business to criti-
cise the basis of faith rather than impart its spirit.
But, although in later years he judged more fairly,
at the time these immature conclusions were disas-
trous to him. The result was that when the time
came for him to enter the ministry, his repugnance
to it had become invincible. He knew that he had
nothing to teach that was of any moment to the
world; and when the professor whom he most re-
spected assured him that faith would come by the
inculcation of faith in others, he replied satirically
that at least the success of the process was not appa-


rent in his instructors. That sentence closed to him
the career of the ministry.

When the doors of the seminary closed behind
him, he went out into the world without the least
idea of what path he would take. At first he drifted
westward, attracted by the freedom, energy, virility,
and infinite promise of the West. One summer
found him bridge-building on the Yukon, another
engaged in journalistic work in Seattle. For a whole
winter he toiled in a lumber camp in Wisconsin.
Here, for the first time, he came to grips with real
life that primitive life of men which has gone on
since the first day broke, and will continue to the
hour when the last sunset leaves the world tenant-
less and dark. There was no time for speculative
thought in a life that endured hunger and thirst, the
pressure of primal needs, the lash of excessive and
unintermitted labour. He fared roughly, slept
soundly, was drenched with rain and storm, and
came to rejoice in the crude valours of his daily toil.
He came also to appreciate the manhood of his asso-
ciates. They were strange comrades for one of his
upbringing; men coarse in thought and life, and
often stained by crime, but they took life with a
sort of brutal good-nature, and they had the crown-
ing virtue of courage. He found in them, and in
the life he lived with them, just the kind of tonic
which his soul needed. Questions of creed and
destiny seemed irrelevant and ridiculous in such
scenes. They were the mere toys over which chil-


dren disputed; they belonged to an artificial life; the
very vastness of the forest, the march of stars across
the lonely heavens, the daily contact with primeval
earth, removed him at an immeasurable distance
from such trivialities. That winter in the lumber
camp taught him many lessons, the chief of which
were faith in man as man, and the conviction that
the chief business of life is to live, not to get a living,
and still less to pass one's time in tedious disputes
about the nature of life.

All the time, however, he was slowly, though un-
consciously, coming to the knowledge of his own
faculties. He knew that this life of primitive exer-
tion could not last; it was but an episode. It was
inevitable that he should return to cities, and in due
time he found himself in New York studying law.
Here, at last, his analytic mind found its true arena.
He succeeded slowly in his career, not for want of
energy, but because he had no great passion for
success. He was content with modest competence,
where most men of his ability would have pushed on
to fortune. But he was one of those men who find
in leisure for books and private study a much
happier fruit of labour than could ever come
through wealth purchased at the price of a con-
stantly harassed and divided mind. He lived a quiet
and cultured life in one of the older houses of Wash-
ington Square, with his favourite sister Esther as
his housekeeper. When Gaunt came to Mayfield
Avenue Church, Palmer found him out, attracted


by the reports of Gaunt's unusual intellectual ability.
In the quiet life which he now lived some of his
old religious beliefs had come back to him, though
in changed and attenuated forms. He had no diffi-
culty in joining a church where freedom of belief
was so wide as in Gaunt's church. Later on he
was unable to discover any valid reason why he
should not become a deacon in the church, although
he accepted the position more out of love for Gaunt
than any other reason, and even then reluctantly.
So it had come to pass that the two men had become
intimate friends, and there was rarely a Friday
night when Palmer did not come round to Gaunt's
house to smoke his cigar, and talk over books and

It was the custom with Gaunt to discuss with
Palmer the themes of his addresses, and it was nat-
ural on this occasion that he should begin by describ-
ing to his friend the new difficulties he had encoun-

"I don't know when I've felt so flat/' he said.
"It's not that I've run out of ideas, my mind is rest-
less with ideas, but I don't seem able to co-ordinate
them, don't seem to find any kind of text that offers
hospitality for them."

"Didn't know texts were created for any such
purpose," said Palmer, drily.

"Perhaps not, but it seems the best use you can
put them to. If one didn't do that, logically it ought
to be enough just to read a text and be done with it."


"Why not?" said Palmer. "After all Paul man-
ages to say more in five words than you do in five

"Why not? Because my occupation would be
gone, for one thing," laughed Gaunt. "And if it
comes to that why don't you state a law and sit
down without making a speech on behalf of your

"I do whenever I can," said Palmer.

"I'd do it, too if I could."

"Oh, no, you wouldn't. You're far too fond of
hearing your own voice for that. And people are
too fond of hearing you, and you're too amiable not
to indulge them."

"That's not very flattering to me, Palmer."

"I don't flatter any one. At least I try not. Flat-
tery is the diplomacy of feebleness. When you find
me indulging in flattery you may conclude my intel-
lect is decaying."

"Well, I'm bound to say you do usually tell me
the truth about myself. How many fine theories of
mine you've ridiculed out of existence in this very
room! And yet, Palmer, there are some things
about me I don't believe you so much as suspect
things that I myself have only suspected lately."

"What things?"

"I don't know whether I can tell you. At least
I can't tell you in so many words. But let me ask
you a question. You've listened to me for several
years, and your approval of what I've said I take


for granted. I would like to know if in all these
years I've ever helped you?"

"Why, of course you have. If you hadn't I'm not
the man to have listened to you so long. No man
of any intellect can listen to eloquence without a
sense of exhilaration, a kind of glow which sends
him back to common duty with a lighter heart."

"That's not what I mean/' said Gaunt, slowly.
"Let me try to be plain, though I don't find it easy."

"No, orators never do. They wouldn't be orators
if they did."

"Please don't jest, I'm really serious."

"Very well, I'll be sober as a judge. State your
case, and I'll say nothing till you're through."

"Well, then, this is the point. It has come home
to me to-day in quite a new way that all these years
I may have been playing at truth, playing at life.
Answer me honestly this question : Have I, in any-
thing I have ever said or done, helped you in such a
way as to add any vital elements to your life? I
don't doubt your admiration, your appreciation; you
have given me these in a measure much beyond my
deserts. But admiration is a diet on which a man's
soul cannot live. Have you discovered any new
truth through me ? Have I got at your soul in any
real way? I know the very phrase sounds strange
and strained. Perhaps you will think that it savours
of cant. You and I have discussed theologies and
philosophies without number, but I don't remember
one genuine conversation on religion. It is because


of this that I shrink even now from naming it. But
I can't be silent any longer. There comes a time in
a man's life when he takes stock of himself, goes
through his life with a relentless inquisition, and
that time came to me this morning. And just be-
cause I know you won't flatter me, I want to put my
question with absolute frankness : Have I, or have I
not, in all these years done anything to create in you
a more real and definite sense of religion ?"

Palmer rose from his seat, and walked up and
down the room in perfect silence for some minutes.
Then he stood beside the chair on which Gaunt was
sitting, and laid his hand upon his shoulder.

"You're sure you want me to tell you ?"

"I'm quite sure."

"Well, let me tell you a story. Some years ago,
as you know, I was working for my bread in a lum-
ber camp in Wisconsin. The life was hard and
brutal, but as near primitive life as a modern man
can get. I suppose not a man amongst us ever
prayed, or read the Scripture, or gave the least
thought to religion; and for months I was no better
than the rest. One day there arrived in the camp
a little under-sized fellow called Milton. He was
so obviously out of place that we nicknamed him in
jest Taradise Lost.' He did his best to do the work
other men did, but he was obviously unfitted for it.
When we got back from the woods at night, and
lay down in our bunks in the huge shack, with a
red-hot stove in the middle, poor Taradise Lost' was


subjected to all sorts of cruel horseplay. This went
on for weeks, and Taradise Lost' never once retorted
with an oath or angry word, so that at last the men
gave up nagging him because there was no fun in it.
Presently, he revealed a new side to his character.
If a man was sick and mad with drink 'Paradise Lost'
would sit up all night with him, and help him fight
through the horrors. There were one or two bad
accidents that winter, and Taradise Lost' was always
ready to play the nurse, and did it with a skill and
tenderness no woman could surpass. All this time
he never said a word about religion, although we
knew he carried a New Testament in his pocket,
and chaffed him a good deal about it.

"One night, it was near Christmas, we were all
together in the shack, and most of us pretty dull, for
we were thinking of friends and homes far away.
Suddenly Taradise Lost' offered to sing to us. At
any ordinary time his offer would have been received
with shouts of derision. The little man whipped
out a Sankey's hymnbook, and began to sing in a
sweet, clear tenor, 'Shall we gather at the River?'
At the second verse some one heaved a boot at him,
but the little man went on with a smile, and at the
third verse we were actually joining in the chorus.
Then he pulled out his Testament, and without ask-
ing anybody's leave began to read us the beautiful
story of the birth of Jesus. It sounded as if we had
never heard it before, and somehow the recollection
of the star-shine outside, and the lonely forest, and


our warm shack in the lonely waste, made Bethlehem
and the watching Shepherds seem real. Then he
read the death of Jesus, and with such simple pathos
that I know my eyes filled with tears, and I was
not the only one. When he had done he began to
speak to us. I can't reproduce his speech, but some
of it I shall never forget.

" Tm just one of yourselves, lads/ he said, 'and
not a bit better than you, but I've got a Friend some

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Online LibraryWilliam James DawsonA prophet in Babylon : a story of social service → online text (page 2 of 21)