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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Browning Club in Boston

By Arlo Bates (1850–1918)

[The Philistines. 1889.]

THE PRESIDENT of the club, at this moment, called the assembly to order, and announced that Mr. Fenwick had kindly consented—“Readers always kindly consent,” muttered Fenton aside to Mrs. Staggchase—to read “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” to which they would now listen. There was a rustle of people settling back into their chairs; the reader brushed a lank black lock from his sallow brow, and with a tone of sepulchral earnestness began:
  • “‘No more wine? then we’ll push back chairs, and talk.’”
  • For something over an hour the monotonous voice of the reader went dully on. Fenton drew out his tablets and amused himself and Miss Dimmont by drawing caricatures of the company, ending with a sketch of a handsome old dowager who went so soundly to sleep that her jaw fell. Over this his companion laughed so heartily that Mrs. Staggchase leaned forward smilingly and took his tablets away from him; whereat he produced an envelope from his pocket and was about to begin another sketch, when suddenly, and apparently somewhat to the surprise of the reader, the poem came to an end.

    There was a joyful stir. The dowager awoke, and there was a perfunctory clapping of hands when Mr. Fenwick laid down his volume, and people were assured that there was no mistake about his being really quite through. A few murmurs of admiration were heard, and then there was an awful pause, while the president, as usual, waited in the never-fulfilled hope that the discussion would start itself without help on his part.

    “How cleverly you do sketch,” Miss Dimmont said, under her breath; “but it was horrid of you to make me laugh.”

    “You are grateful,” Fenton returned, in the same tone. “You know I kept you from being bored to death.”

    “I have a cousin, Miss Wainwright,” pursued Miss Dimmont, “whose picture we want you to paint.”

    “If she is as good a subject as her cousin,” Fenton answered, “I shall be delighted to do it.”

    The president had, meantime, got somewhat ponderously upon his feet, half a century of good living not having tended to increase his natural agility, and remarked that the company were, he was sure, extremely grateful to Mr. Fenwick for his very intelligent interpretation of the poem read.

    “Did he interpret it?” Fenton whispered to Mrs. Staggchase. “Why wasn’t I told?”

    “Hush!” she answered, “I will never let you sit by me again if you do not behave better.”

    “Sitting isn’t my metier, you know,” he retorted.

    The president went on to say that the lines of thought opened by the poem were so various and so wide that they could scarcely hope to explore them all in one evening, but that he was sure there must be many who had thoughts or questions they wished to express, and to start the discussion he would call upon a gentleman whom he had observed taking notes during the reading—Mr. Fenton.

    “The old scaramouch!” Fenton muttered, under his breath. “I’ll paint his portrait and send it to ‘Punch.’”

    Then with perfect coolness he got upon his feet and looked about the parlor.

    “I am so seldom able to come to these meetings,” he said, “that I am not at all familiar with your methods, and I certainly had no idea of saying anything; I was merely jotting down a few things to think over at home, and not making notes for a speech, as you would see if you examined the paper.”

    At this point Miss Dimmont gave a cough which had a sound strangely like a laugh strangled at its birth.

    “The poem is one so subtile,” Fenton continued, unmoved; “it is so clever in its knowledge of human nature, that I always have to take a certain time after reading it to get myself out of the mood of merely admiring its technique, before I can think of it critically at all. Of course the bit about ‘an artist whose religion is his art’ touches me keenly, for I have long held to the heresy that art is the highest thing in the world, and, as a matter of fact, the only thing one can depend upon. The clever sophistry of Bishop Blougram shows well enough how one can juggle with theology; and, after all, theology is chiefly some one man’s insistence that everybody else shall make the same mistakes that he does.”

    Fenton felt that he was not taking the right direction in his talk, and that in his anxiety to extricate himself from a slight awkwardness he was rapidly getting himself into a worse one. It was one of those odd whimsicalities which always came as a surprise when committed by a man who usually displayed so much mental dexterity, that now, instead of endeavoring to get upon the right track, he simply broke off abruptly and sat down.

    His words had, however, the effect of calling out instantly a protest from the Rev. De Lancy Candish. Mr. Candish was the rector of the Church of the Nativity, the exceedingly ritualistic organization with which Mrs. Fenton was connected. He was a tall and bony young man, with abundant auburn hair and freckles, the most ungainly feet and hands, and eyes of eager enthusiasm, which showed how the result of New England Puritanism had been to implant in his soul the true martyr spirit. Fenton was never weary of jeering at Mr. Candish’s uncouthness, his jests serving as an outlet not only for the irritation physical ugliness always begot in him, but for his feeling of opposition to his wife’s orthodoxy, in which he regarded the clergyman as upholding her. The rector’s self-sacrificing devotion to truth, moreover, awakened in the artist a certain inner discomfort. To the keenly sensitive mind there is no rebuke more galling than the unconscious reproof of a character which holds steadfastly to ideals which it has basely forsaken. Arthur said to himself that he hated Candish for his ungainly person. “He is so out of drawing,” he once told his wife, “that I always have a strong inclination to rub him out and make him over again.” In that inmost chamber of his consciousness where he allowed himself the luxury of absolute frankness, however, the artist confessed that his animosity to the young rector had other causes.

    As Fenton sank into his seat, Mrs. Staggchase leaned over to quote from the poem—

  • “‘For Blougram, he believed, say, half he spoke.’”
  • The artist turned upon her a glance of comprehension and amusement, but before he could reply, the rough, rather loud voice of Mr. Candish arrested his attention.

    “If the poem teaches anything,” Mr. Candish said, speaking according to his custom, somewhat too warmly, “it seems to me it is the sophistry of the sort of talk which puts art above religion. The thing that offends an honest man in Bishop Blougram is the fact that he looks at religion as if it were an art, and not a vital and eternal necessity,—a living truth that cannot be trifled with.”

    “Ah,” Fenton’s smooth and beautiful voice rejoined, “that is to confound art with the artificial, which is an obvious error. Art is a passion, an utter devotion to an ideal, an absolute lifting of man out of himself into that essential truth which is the only lasting bond by which mankind is united.”

    Fenton’s coolness always had a confusing and irritating effect upon Mr. Candish, who was too thoroughly honest and earnest to quibble, and far from possessing the dexterity needed to fence with the artist. He began confusedly to speak, but with the first word became aware that Mrs. Fenton had come to the rescue. Edith never saw a contest between her husband and the clergyman without interfering if she could, and now she instinctively spoke, without stopping to consider where she was.

    “It is precisely for that reason,” she said, “that art seems to me to fall below religion. Art can make man contented with life only by keeping his attention fixed upon an ideal, while religion reconciles us to life as it really is.”

    A murmur of assent showed Arthur how much against the feeling of those around him were the views he was advancing.

    “Oh, well,” he said, in a droll sotto voce, “if it is coming down to a family difference we will continue it in private.”

    And he abandoned the discussion.

    “It seems to me,” pursued Mr. Candish, only half conscious that Mrs. Fenton had come to his aid, “that Bishop Blougram represents the most dangerous spirit of the age. His paltering with truth is a form of casuistry of which we see altogether too much nowadays.”

    “Do you think,” asked a timid feminine voice, “that Blougram was quite serious? That he really meant all he said, I mean?”

    The president looked at the speaker with despair in his glance; but she was adorably pretty and of excellent social position, so that snubbing was not to be thought of. Moreover, he was thoroughly well trained in keeping his temper under the severest provocation, so he expressed his feelings merely by a deprecatory smile.

    “We have the poet’s authority,” he responded, in a softly patient voice, “for saying that he believed only half.”

    There was a little rustle of leaves, as if people were looking over their books, in order to find the passage to which he alluded. Then a young girl in the front row of chairs, a pretty creature, just on the edge of womanhood, looked up earnestly, her finger at a line on the page before her.

    “I can’t make out what this means,” she announced, knitting her girlish brow:

  • “‘Here, we’ve got callous to the Virgin’s winks
  • That used to puzzle people wholesomely.’
  • Of course he can’t mean that the Madonna winks; that would be too irreverent.”

    There were little murmurs of satisfaction that the question had been asked, confusing explanations which evidently puzzled some who had not thought of being confused before; and then another girl, ignoring the fact that the first difficulty had not been disposed of, propounded another.

    “Isn’t the phrase rather bold,” she asked, “where he speaks of ‘blessed evil’?”

    “Where is that?” some one asked.

    “On page 106, in my edition,” was the reply; and a couple of moments were given to finding the place in the various books.

    “Oh, I see the line,” said an old lady, at last. “It’s one—two—three—five lines from the bottom of the page:

  • “‘And that’s what all the blessed evil’s for.’”
  • “You don’t think,” queried the first speaker, appealing personally to the president, “that Mr. Browning can really have meant that evil is blessed, do you?”

    The president regarded her with an affectionate and fatherly smile.

    “I think,” he said, with an air of settling everything, “that the explanation of his meaning is to be found in the line which follows—

  • “‘It’s use in Time is to environ us.’”
  • “Heavens!” whispered Fenton to Mrs. Staggchase; “fancy that incarnate respectability environed by ‘blessed evil’!”

    “For my part,” she returned, in the same tone, “I feel as if I were visiting a lunatic asylum.”

    “Yes, that line does make it beautifully clear,” observed the voice of Miss Catherine Penwick; “and I think that’s so beautiful about the exposed brain, and lidless eyes, and disemprisoned heart. The image is so exquisite when he speaks of their withering up at once.”

    Fenton made a droll grimace for the benefit of his neighbor, and then observed with great apparent seriousness:

    “The poem is most remarkable for the intimate knowledge it shows of human nature. Take a line like

  • “‘Men have outgrown the shame of being fools;’
  • We can see such striking instances of its truth all about us.”

    “How can you?” exclaimed Elsie Dimmont, under her breath.

    Fenton had not been able wholly to keep out of his tone the mockery which he intended, and several people looked at him askance. Fortunately for him, a nice old gentleman who, being rather hard of hearing, had not caught what was said, now broke in with the inevitable question, which, sooner or later, was sure to come into every discussion of the club:

    “Isn’t this poem to be most satisfactorily understood when it is regarded as an allegory?”

    The members, however, did not take kindly to this suggestion in the present instance. The question passed unnoticed, while a severe-faced woman inquired, with an air of vast superiority:

    “I have understood that Bishop Blougram is intended as a portrait of Cardinal Wiseman; can any one tell me if Gigadibs is also a portrait?”

    “Oh, Lord!” muttered Fenton, half audibly. “I can’t stand any more of this.”

    And at that moment a servant came to tell him that his carriage was waiting.