Menu Close


The Gospel of Content

By Frederick Greenwood

How it was that I, being so young a man and not a very tactful
one, was sent on such an errand is more than I should be
able to explain. But many years ago some one came to me with
a request that I should go that evening to a certain street at King’s
Cross, where would be found a poor lady in great distress; that I
should take a small sum of money which was given to me for the
purpose in a little packet which disguised all appearance of coin,
present it to her as a ” parcel ” which I had been desired to deliver,
and ask if there were any particular service that could be done for
her. For my own information I was told that she was a beautiful
Russian whose husband had barely contrived to get her out of the
country, with her child, before his own arrest for some deep
political offence of which she was more than cognisant, and that
now she was living in desperate ignorance of his fate. Moreover,
she was penniless and companionless, though not quite without
friends ; for some there were who knew of her husband and had a
little help for her, though they were almost as poor as herself.
But none of these dare approach her, so fearful was she of the
danger of their doing so, either to themselves or her husband or


                        12 The Gospel of Content

her child, and so ignorant of the perfect freedom that political
exiles could count upon in England. “Then,” said I,” what ex-
pectation is there that she will admit me, an absolute stranger to
her, who may be employed by the police for anything she knows
to the contrary ? ” The answer was : ” Of course that has been
thought of. But you have only to send up your name, which, in
the certainty that you would have no objection, has been com-
municated to her already. Her own name, in England, is Madame

It was a Saturday evening in November, the air thick with
darkness and a drizzling rain, the streets black and shining where
lamplight fell upon the mud on the paths and the pools in the
roadway, when I found my way to King’s Cross on this small
errand of kindness. King’s Cross is a most unlovely purlieu at its
best, which must be in the first dawn of a summer day, when the
innocence of morning smiles along its squalid streets, and the
people of the place, who cannot be so wretched as they look, are
shut within their poor and furtive homes. On a foul November
night nothing can be more miserable, more melancholy. One or
two great thoroughfares were crowded with foot-passengers who
bustled here and there about their Saturday marketings, under the
light that flared from the shops and the stalls that lined the road-
way. Spreading on every hand from these thoroughfares, with
their noisy trafficking so dreadfully eager and small, was a maze
of streets built to be ” respectable ” but now run down into the
forlorn poverty which is all for concealment without any rational
hope of success. It was to one of these that I was directed—a
narrow silent little street of three-storey houses, with two families
at least in every one of them.

Arrived at No. 17, I was admitted by a child after long delay,
and by her conducted to a room at the top of the house. No


                         By Frederick Greenwood 13

voice responded to the knock at the room door, and none to
the announcement of the visitor’s name ; but before I entered I
was aware of a sound which, though it was only what may be
heard in the grill-room of any coffee-house at luncheon time, made
me feel very guilty and ashamed. For the last ten minutes I had
been gradually sinking under the fear of intrusion—of intrusion
upon grief, and not less upon the wretched little secrets of poverty
which pride is so fain to conceal ; and now these splutterings of a
frying-pan foundered me quite. What worse intrusion could
there be than to come prying in upon the cooking of some poor
little meal ?

Too much embarrassed to make the right apology (which, to
be right, would have been without any embarrassment at all) I
entered the room, in which everything could be seen in one
straightforward glance : the little square table in the centre, with
its old green cover and the squat lamp on it, the two chairs, the
dingy half carpet, the bed wherein a child lay asleep in a lovely
flush of colour, and the pale woman with a still face, and with the
eyes that are said to resemble agates, standing before the hearth.
Under the dark cloud of her hair she looked the very picture of
Suffering—Suffering too proud to complain and too tired to speak.
Beautiful as the lines of her face were, it was white as ashes and
spoke their meaning ; but nothing had yet tamed the upspringing
nobility of her tall, slight, and yet imperious form.

Receiving me with the very least appearance of curiosity or any
other kind of interest, but yet with something of proud constraint
(which I attributed too much, perhaps, to the untimely frying-
pan), she waved her hand toward the farther chair of the two, and
asked to be excused from giving me her attention for a moment.
By that she evidently meant that otherwise her supper would be
spoiled. It is not everything that can be left to cook unattended ;


                        14 The Gospel of Content

and since this poor little supper was a piece of fish scarce bigger
than her hand, it was all the more likely to spoil and the less
could be spared in damage. So I quietly took my seat in a position
which more naturally commanded the view out of window than or
the cooking operations, and waited to be again addressed.

On the mantel-board a noisy little American clock ticked as it
its mission was to hurry time rather than to measure it, the frying-
pan fizzed and bubbled without any abatement of its usual habit
or any sense of compunction, now and then the child tossed upon
the bed from one pretty attitude to another ; and that was all that
could be heard, for Madame Vernet’s movements were as silent as
the movements of a shadow. In almost any part of that small
room she could be seen without direct looking; but at a moment
when she seemed struck into a yet deeper silence, and because of
it, I ventured to turn upon her more than half an eye. Standing
rigidly still, she was staring at the door in an intensity of listening
that transfigured her. But the door was closed, and I with the
best of hearing directed to the same place could detect no new
sound : indeed, I dare swear that there was none. It was merely
accidental that just at this moment the child, with another toss of
the lovely black head, opened her eyes wide ; but it deepened the
impressiveness of the scene when her mother, seeing the little one
awake, placed a finger on her own lips as she advanced nearer to
the door. The gesture was for silence, and it was obeyed as if in
understood fear. But still there was nothing to be heard without,
unless it were a push of soft drizzle against the window-panes.
And this Madame Vernet herself seemed to think when, after a
little while, she turned back to the fire—her eyes mere agates
again which had been all ablaze.

Stooping to the fender, she had now got her fish into one warm
plate, and had covered it with another, and had placed it on the


                        By Frederick Greenwood 15

broad old-fashioned hob of the grate to keep hot (as I surmised)
while she spoke with and got rid of me, when knocking was heard
at the outer door, a pair or hasty feet came bounding up the
stair, careless of noise, and in flashed a splendid radiant creature
of a man in a thin summer coat, and literally drenched to the skin.

It was Monsieur Vernet, whose real name ended in ” ieff.”
By daring ingenuity, by a long chain of connivance yet more
hazardous, by courage, effrontery, and one or two miraculous
strokes of good fortune, he had escaped from the fortress to which
he had been conveyed in secret and without the least spark of
hope that he would ever be released. For many months no one
but himself and his jailers knew whether he was alive or dead : his
friends inclined to think him the one thing or the other according
to the brightness or the gloominess or the hour. Smuggled into
Germany, and running thence into Belgium, he had landed in
England the night before ; and walking the whole distance to
London, with an interval of rour hours’ sleep in a cartshed, he
contrived to bring home nearly all of the four shillings with
which he started.

But these particulars, it will be understood, I did not learn
till afterwards. For that evening my visit was at an end from
the moment (the first of his appearance) when Vernet seized his
wife in his arms with a partial resemblance to murder. Un-
observed, I placed my small packet on the table behind the lamp,
and then slipped out ; but not without a last view of that affecting
” domestic interior,” which showed me those two people in a
relaxed embrace while they made me a courteous salute in response
to another which was all awkwardness, their little daughter stand-
ing up on the bed in her night-gown, patiently yet eagerly
waiting to be noticed by her father. In all likelihood she had not
to wait long.


                        16 The Gospel of Content

This was the beginning of my acquaintance with a man who
had a greater number of positive ideas than any one else that ever
I have known, with wonderful intrepidity and skill in expound-
ing or defending them. However fine the faculties of some
other Russians whom I have encountered, they seemed to move
in a heavily obstructive atmosphere ; Vernet appeared to be oppressed
by none. His resolutions were as prompt as his thought ; what-
ever resourse he could command in any difficulty, whether the
least or the greatest, presented itself to his mind instantly, with
the occasion for it ; and every movement of his body had the same
quickness and precision. His pride, his pride of aristocracy, could
tower to extraordinary heights ; his sensibility to personal slights
and indignities was so trenchant that I have seen him white and
quivering with rage when he thought himself rudely jostled by a
fellow-passenger in a crowded street. And yet any comrade in
conspiracy was his familiar if he only brought daring enough
into the common business ; and wife, child, fortune, the exchange
of ease for the most desperate misery, all were put at stake for
the sake of the People and at the call of their sorrows and
oppressions. And of one sort of pride he had no sense whatever—
fine gentleman as he was, and used from his birth to every refine-
ment of service and luxury : no degree of poverty, nor any
blameless shift for relieving it, touched him as humiliating. Priva-
tion, whether for others or himself, angered him ; the contrast
between slothful wealth and toiling misery enraged him ; but he
had no conception of want and its wretched little expedients as

For example. It was in November, that dreary and inclement
month, when he began life anew in England with a capital or
three shillings and sevenpence. It was a bleak afternoon in
December, sleet lightly falling as the dusk came on and melting


                        By Frederick Greenwood 17

as it fell, when I found him gathering into a little basket what
looked in the half-darkness like monstrous large snails. With as
much indifference as if he were offering me a new kind of
cigarette, Vernet put one of these things into my hand, and I
saw that it was a beautifully-made miniature sailor’s hat. The
strands of which it was built were just like twisted brown straw
to the eye, though they were of the smallness of packthread ; and
a neat band of ribbon proportionately slender made all complete.
But what were they for ? How were they made ? The answer
was that the design was to sell them, and that they were made of the
cords—more artistically twisted and more neatly waxed than usual
—that shoemakers use in sewing. As for the bands, Madame
Vernet had amongst her treasures a cap which her little daughter
had worn in her babyhood ; and this cap had close frills of lace,
and the frills were inter-studded with tiny loops of ribbon—a
fashion of that time. There were dozens of these tiny loops, and
every one of them made a band for Vernet’s little toy hats.
Perhaps in tenderness for the mother’s feelings, he would not let her
turn the ribbons to their new use, but had applied them himself;
and having spent the whole of a foodless day in the manufacture
of these little articles, he was now about to go and sell them. He
had selected his ” pitch ” in a flaring bustling street a mile away ;
and he asked me (” I must lose no time,” he said) to accompany
him in that direction. I did so, with a cold and heavy stone in
my breast which I am sure had no counterpart in his own. As he
marched on, in his light and firm soldierly way, he was loud in praise
of English liberty : at such a moment that was his theme. Arrived
near his ” pitch,” he bade me good-night with no abatement of
the high and easy air that was natural to him ; and though I
instantly turned back of course, I knew that at a few paces farther
the violently proud man moved off the pathway into the gutter,


                        18 The Gospel of Content

and stood there till eleven o clock ; for not before then did he sell
the last of his little penny hats. Another man, equally proud,
might have done the same thing in Vernet’s situation, but not
with Vernet’s absolute indifference to everything but the coldness
of the night and the too-great stress of physical want.

But this Russian revolutionist was far too capable and versatile
a man to lie long in low water. He had a genius for industrial
chemistry which soon got him employment and from the sufficiently
comfortable made him prosperous by rapid stages. But what of
that ? Before long another wave of political disturbance rose in
Europe ; Russia, Italy, France,’twas all one to Vernet when his
sympathies were roused ; and after one or two temporary disappear-
ances he was again lost altogether. There was no news of him for
months ; and then his wife, who all this while had been sinking back
into the pallid speechless deadness of the King’s Cross days,
suddenly disappeared too.


For more than thirty years—a period of enormous change in all
that men do or think—no word of Vernet came to my know-
ledge. But though quite passed away he was never forgotten long,
and it was with an inrush of satisfaction that, a year or two ago, I
received this letter from him :

“. . . . I have been reading the ——Review, and it determines
me to solicit a pleasure which I have been at full-cock to ask for
many times since I returned to England in 1887. Let us meet. I
have something to say to you. But let us not meet in this horrifically
large and noisy town. You know Richmond ? You know the Star


                        By Frederick Greenwood 19

and Garter Hotel there ? Choose a day when you will go to find
me in that hotel. It shall be in a quiet room looking over the trees
and the river, and there we will dine and sit and talk over our dear
tobacco in a right place.

“To say one word of the past, that you may know and then forget.
Marie is gone—gone twelve years since ; and my daughter, gone. I
do not speak of them. And do not you expect to find in me any
more the Vernet of old days.”

Nor was he. The splendidly robust and soldierly figure of
thirty-five had changed into a thin, fine-featured old man, above
all things gentle, thoughtful, considerate. Except that there was
no suggestion of a second and an inner self in him, he might have
been an ecclesiastic ; as it was, he looked rather as if he had been all
his life a recluse student of books and state affairs.

It was a good little dinner in a bright room overlooking the
garden ; and it was served so early that the declining sunshine of
a June day shone through our claret-glasses when coffee was brought
in. Our first talk was of matters of the least importance—our
own changing fortunes over a period of prodigious change for the
whole world. From that personal theme to the greater mutations
that affect all mankind was a quick transition ; and we had not
long been launched on this line of talk before I found that in
very truth nothing had changed more than Vernet himself. It
was the story of Ignatius Loyola over again, in little and with a

“Yes,” said he, my mind filling with unspoken wonder at this
during a brief pause in the conversation, ” Yes, prison did me
good. Not in the rough way you think, perhaps, as of taking
nonsense out of a man with a stick, but as solitude. Strict
Catholics go into retreat once a year, and it does them good as
Catholics: whether otherwise I do not know, but it is possible.

The Yellow Book—Vol. II. B


                        20 The Gospel of Content

You have a wild philosopher whom I love ; and wild philosophers
are much the best. In them there is more philosophic sport, more
surprise, more shock; and it is shock that crystallises. They
startle the breath into our own unborn thoughts—thoughts formed
in the mind, you know, but without any ninth month for them :
they wait for some outer voice to make them alive. Well, once
upon a time I heard this philosopher, your Mr. Ruskin, say that
only the most noble, most virtuous, most beautiful young men
should be allowed to go to the war ; the others, never. And he
maintained it—ah ! in language from some divine madhouse in
heaven. But as to that, it is a great objection that your army is
already small. Yet of this I am nearly sure ; it is the wrong men
who go to gaol. The rogues and thieves should give place to honest
men—honest reflective men. Every advantage of that conclusive
solitude is lost on blackguard persons and is mostly turned to harm.
For them prescribe one, two, three applications of your cat-o’-nine

” There is knout like it ! ” said I, intending a severity of retort
which I hoped would not be quite lost in the pun.

“——and then a piece of bread, a shilling, and dismissal to the
most devout repentance that brutish crime is ever acquainted with,
repentance in stripes. Imprisonment is wasted on persons of so
inferior character. Waste it not, and you will have accommodation
for wise men to learn the monk’s lesson (did you ever think it ah
foolishness?) that a little imperious hardship, a time of seclusion
with only themselves to talk to themselves, is most improving.
For statesmen and reformers it should be an obligation.”

” And according to your experience what is the general course
of the improvement ? In what direction does it run ? ”

” At best ? In sum total ? You know me that l am no monk
nor lover of monks, but I say to you what the monk would say


                        By Frederick Greenwood 21

were he still a man and intelligent. The chief good is rising
above petty irritation, petty contentiousness ; it is patience with
ills that must last long; it is choosing to build out the east wind
instead of running at it with a sword.”

“And, if I remember aright, you never had that sword out of
your hand.”

“From twenty years old to fifty, never out of my hand. But
there were excuses—no, but more than excuses ; remember that
that was another time. Now how different it is, and what satisfac-
tion to have lived to see the change ! ”

” And what is the change you are thinking of! “

” One that I have read of—only he must not flatter himself that
he alone could find it out—in some Review articles of an old
friend of Vernet’s whose portrait is before me now.” And then,
a little to my distress, but more to my pleasure, he quoted from two
or three forgotten papers of mine on the later developments of
social humanity, the “evolution of goodness ” in the relations
of men to each other, the new, great and rapid extension of
brotherly kindness ; observations and theories which were welcomed
as novel when they were afterwards taken up and enlarged upon
by Mr. Kidd in his book on ” Social Evolution.”

” For an ancient conspirator and man of the barricades,” con-
tinued Vernet, by this time pacing the room in the dusk which he
would not allow to be disturbed, ” for a blood-and-iron man who
put all his hopes of a better day for his poor devils of fellow-
creatures on the smashing of forms and institutions and the sub-
stitution of others, I am rather a surprising convert, don’t you
think ? But who could know in those days what was going on
in the common stock of mind by—what shall we call it ? Before
your Darwin brought out his explaining word ‘evolution’ I should
have said that the change came about by a sort of mental chemistry ;


                        22 The Gospel of Content

that it was due to a kind of chemical ferment in the mind, unsus-
pected till it showed entirely new growths and developments.
And even now, you know, I am not quite comfortable with
‘evolution’ as the word for this sudden spiritual advance into
what you call common kindness and more learned persons call
‘altruism.’ It does not satisfy me, ‘evolution.'”

” But you can say why it doesn’t, perhaps.”

” Nothing, more, I suppose, than the familiar association of
‘evolution’ with slow degrees and gradual processes. Evolution
seems to speak the natural coming-out of certain developments
from certain organisms under certain conditions. The change comes,
and you see it coming ; and you can look back and trace its
advance. But here? The human mind has been the same for ages ;
subject to the same teaching ; open to the same persuasions and
dissuasions ; as quick to see and as keen to think as it is now ; and
all the while it has been staring on the same cruel scenes of misery
and privation : no, but very often worse. And then, presto ! there
comes a sudden growth of fraternal sentiment all over this field of
the human mind ; and such a growth that if it goes on, if it goes on
straight and well, it will transform the whole world. Transform
its economies ?—it will change its very aspect. Towns, streets,
houses will show the difference ; while as to man himself, it
will make him another being. For this is neither a physical
nor a mere intellectual advance. As for that, indeed, perhaps
the intellectual advance hasn’t very much farther to go on its
own lines, which are independent of morality, or of goodness
as I prefer to say : the simple word ! Well, do you care if
evolution has pretty nearly done with intellect ? Would you
mind if intellect never made a greater shine ? Will your heart
break if it never ascends to a higher plane than it has reached
already ? ”


                        By Frederick Greenwood 23

” Not a bit ; if, in time, nobody is without a good working share
of what intellect there is amongst us.”

” No, not a bit ! Enough of intellect for the good and happi-
ness of mankind if we evolve no more of it. But this is another
thing ! This is a spiritual evolution, spiritual advance and develop-
ment—a very different thing ! Mark you, too, that it is not
shown in a few amongst millions, but is common, general. And
though, as you have said, it may perish at its beginnings, trampled
out by war, the terrible war to come may absolutely confirm it.
For my part, I don’t despair of its surviving and spreading even
from the battle-field. It is your own word that not only has the
growth of common kindness been more urgent, rapid and general
this last hundred years than was ever witnessed before in the whole
long history of the world, but it has come out as strongly in
making war as in making peace. It is seen in extending to
foes a benevolence which not long ago would have been thought
ludicrous and even unnatural. Why, then, if that’s so, the feeling
may be furthered and intensified by the very horrors of the next
great war, such horrors as there must be ; and—God knows ! God
knows !—but from this beginning the spiritual nature of man may
be destined to rise as far above the rudimentary thing it is yet (I
think of a staggering blind puppy) as King Solomon’s wits were
above an Eskimo’s.”

” Still the same enthusiast,” I said to myself, ” though with so
great a difference.” But what struck me most was the reverence
with which he said ” God knows ! ” For the coolest Encyclopedist
could not have denied the existence of God with a more settled
air than did ” the Vernet of old days.”

” And yet,” so he went on, ” were the human race to become
all-righteous in a fortnight, and to push out angels wings from its
shoulders, every one ! every one ! all together on Christmas Day,


                        24 The Gospel of Content

it would still be the Darwinian process. Yes, we must stick to it,
that it is evolution, I suppose, and I’m sure it contents me well
enough. What matter for the process ! And yet do you know
what I think ?

Lights had now been brought in by the waiter—a waiter who
really could not understand why not. But we sat by the
open window looking out upon the deepening darkness of the
garden, beyond which the river shone as if by some pale effulgence
of its own, or perhaps by a little store of light saved up from the
liberal sunshine of the day.

“Do you know what I think ?” said Vernet, with the look of
a man who is about to confess a weakness of which he is ashamed.
” I sometimes think that if I were of the orthodox I should draw
an argument for supernatural religion, against your strict materi-
alists, from this sudden change of heart in Christian countries.
For that is what it is. It is a change of heart ; or, if you like to
have it so, of spirit ; and the remarkable thing is that it is nothing
else. Whether it lasts or not, this awakening of brotherliness cannot
be completely understood unless that is understood. What else
has changed, these hundred years ? There is no fresh discovery of
human suffering, no new knowledge of the desperate poverty and toil
of so many of our fellow-creatures: nor can we see better with
our eyes, or understand better what we hear and see. This that
we are talking about is a heart-growth, which, as we know, can
make the lowliest peasant divine ; not a mind-growth, which can
be splendid in the coldest and most devilish man. Well, then,
were I of the orthodox I should say this. When, after many
generations, I see a traceless movement of the spirit of man
like the one we are speaking of—a movement which, if it gains
in strength and goes on to its natural end, will transfigure human
society and make it infinitely more like heaven—I think the


                        By Frederick Greenwood 25

divine influence upon the development of man as a spirit may be
direct and continuous ; or, it would be better to say, not without

Vernet had to be reminded that the intellectual development of
man had also shown itself in sudden starts and rushes toward per-
fection—now in one land, now in another ; and never with an
appearance of gradual progress, as might be expected from the nature
of things. And therefore nothing in the spiritual advance which
is declared by the sudden efflorescence of ” altruism ” dissociates
it from the common theory of evolution. This he was forced to
admit. ” I know,” he replied ; ” and as to intellectual develop-
ment showing itself by starts and rushes, it is very obvious.” But
though he made the admission, I could see that he preferred belief
in direct influence from above. And this was Vernet !—a most
unexpected example of that Return to Religion which was not so
manifest when we talked together as it is to-day.

” You see, I am a soldier,” he resumed, ” and a soldier born and
bred does not know how to get on very long without feeling the
presence of a General, a Commander. That I find as I grow
old ; my youth would have been ashamed to acknowledge the
sentiment. And for its own sake, I hope that Science is becoming
an old gentleman too, and willing to see its youthful confidence in
the destruction of religious belief quite upset. For upset it cer-
tainly will be, and very much by its own hands. Most of the new
professors were sure that the religious idea was to perish at last in
the light of scientific inquiry. None of them seemed to suspect
what I remember to have read in a fantastic magazine article two
or three years ago, that unbelief in the existence of a providential
God, the dissolution of that belief, would not retard but probably
draw on more quickly the greater and yet unfulfilled triumphs of
Christ on earth. Are you surprised at that ? Certainly it is not


                        26 The Gospel of Content

the general idea of what unbelief is capable of. ‘And what,’ says
some one in the story, ‘what are those greater triumphs ?’ To
which the answer is : ‘The extension of charity, the diffusion of
brotherly love, greed suppressed, luxury shameful, service and self-
sacrifice a common law’—something like what we see already
between mother and child, it was said. Now what do you think
of that as a consequence of settled unbelief? As for Belief, we
must allow that that has not done much to bring on the greater
triumphs of Christianity.”

” And how is Unbelief to do this mighty work ? ” said I.

” You would like to know ! Why, in a most natural way, and
not at all mysterious. But if you ask in how long a time——!
Well, it is thus, as I understand. What the destruction of religious
faith might have made of the world centuries ago we cannot tell ;
nothing much worse, perhaps, than it was under Belief, for belief
can exist with little change of heart. But these are new times.
Unbelief cannot annihilate the common feeling of humanity. On
the contrary, we see that it is just when Science breaks religion
down into agnosticism that a new day of tenderness for suffering
begins, and poverty looks for the first time like a wrong. And
why ? To answer that question we should remember what cen-
turies of belief taught us as to the place of man on earth in the
plan of the Creator. This world, it was a ‘scene of probation.’
The mystery of pain and suffering, the burdens of life apportioned
so unequally, the wicked prosperous, goodness wretched, innocent
weakness trodden down or used up in starving toil—all this was
explained by the scheme of probation. It was only for this life ;
and every hour of it we were under the eyes of a heavenly Father
who knows all and weighs all ; and there will be a future of
redress that will leave no misery unreckoned, no weakness uncon-
sidered, no wrong uncompensated that was patiently borne. Don’t


                        By Frederick Greenwood 27

you remember ? And how comfortable the doctrine was ! How
entirely it soothed our uneasiness when, sitting in warmth and
plenty, we thought of the thousands of poor wretches outside !
And it was a comfort for the poor wretches too, who believed
most when they were most miserable or foully wronged that in
His own good time God would requite or would avenge.

” Very well. But now, says my magazine sermoniser, sup-
pose this idea of a heavenly Father a mistake and probation a
fairy tale; suppose that there is no Divine scheme of redress
beyond the grave : how do we mortals stand to each other then ?
How do we stand to each other in a world empty of all promise
beyond it ? What is to become of our scene-of-probation com-
placency, we who are happy and fortunate in the midst of so much
wrong ? And if we do not busy ourselves with a new dispensa-
tion on their behalf, what hope or consolation is there for the
multitude of our fellow-creatures who are born to unmerited
misery in the only world there is for any of us ? It is clear that
if we must give up the Divine scheme of redress as a dream,
redress is an obligation returned upon ourselves. All willnot be
well in another world : all must be put right in this world or no-
where and never. Dispossessed of God and a future life, mankind
is reduced to the condition of the wild creatures, each with a
natural right to ravage for its own good. If in such conditions
there is a duty of forbearance from ravaging, there is a duty of
helpful surrender too ; and unbelief must teach both duties, unless
it would import upon earth the hell it denies. ‘Unbelief is a call
to bring in the justice, the compassion, the oneness of brother-
hood that can never make a heaven for us elsewhere.’ So the
thing goes on ; the end of the argument being that in this way
unbelief itself may turn to the service of Heaven and do the work
of the believer’s God. More than that : in the doing of it the


                        28 The Gospel of Content

spiritual nature of man must be exalted, step by step. That may
be its way of perfection. On that path it will rise higher and
higher into Divine illuminations which have touched it but very
feebly as yet, even after countless ages of existence.

” Do you recognise these speculations ? ” said Vernet, after a

I recognised them well enough, without at all anticipating that
so much of them would presently re-appear in the formal theory
of more than one social philosopher.

There was a piano in the little room we dined in. For a
minute or two Vernet, standing with his cigar between his lips,
went lightly over the keys. The movement, though extremely
quick, was wonderfully soft, so that he had not to raise his voice
in saying :

” I have an innocent little speculation of my own. How long
will it be before this spiritual perfectioning is pretty near accom-
plishment ? Two thousand years ? One thousand years ?
Twenty generations at the least ! Ah, that is the despair of us
poor wretches of to-day and to-morrow. Well, when the time
comes I fancy that an entirely new literature will have a new
language. There will certainly be a new literature if ever spiritual
progress equals intellectual progress. The dawning of conceptions
as yet undreamt of, enlightenments higher than any yet attained
to, may be looked for, I suppose, as in the natural order of things ;
and even without extraordinary revelations to the spirit, the spiritual
advance must have an enormous effect in disabusing, informing
and inspiring mental faculty such as we know it now. And
meanwhile ? Meanwhile words are all that we speak with, and
how weak are words ? Already there are heights and depths of
feeling which they are hardly more adequate to express than the
dumbness of the dog can express his love for his master. Yet


                        By Frederick Greenwood 29

there is a language that speaks to the deeper thought and finer
spirit in us as words do not—moving them profoundly though
they have no power of articulate response. They heave and struggle
to reply, till our breasts are actually conscious of pain sometimes ;
but—no articulate answer. Do you recognise —— ?”

I pointed to the piano with the finger of interrogation.

” Yes,” said Vernet, with a delicate sweep of the keyboard,
” it is this ! It is music ; music, which is felt to be the most
subtle, most appealing, most various of tongues even while we
know that we are never more than half awake to its pregnant
meanings, and have not learnt to think of it as becoming the last
perfection of speech. But that may be its appointed destiny. No,
I don t think so only because music itself is a thing of late, speedy
and splendid development, coming just before the later diffusion of
spiritual growth. Yet there is something in that, something
which an evolutionist would think apposite and to be expected.
There is more, however, in what music is—a voice always under-
stood to have powerful innumerable meanings appealing to we
know not what in us, we hardly know how ; and more, again, in
its being an exquisite voice which can make no use of reason, nor
reason of it ; nor calculation, nor barter, nor anything but
emotion and thought. The language we are using now, we two,
is animal language by direct pedigree, which is worth observation
don’t you think ? And, for another thing, when it began it had
very small likelihood of ever developing into what it has become
under the constant addition of man’s business in the world and
the accretive demands of reason and speculation. And the poets
have made it very beautiful no doubt ; yes, and when it is most
beautiful it is most musical, please observe : most beautiful, and
at the same time most meaning. Well, then ! A new nature,
new needs. What do you think ? What do you say against


                        30 The Gospel of Content

music being wrought into another language for mankind, as it
nears the height of its spiritual growth ? “

“I say it is a pretty fancy, and quite within reasonable speculation.”

” But yet not of the profoundest consequence,” added Vernet,
coming from the piano and resuming his seat by the window.

“No ; but what is of consequence is the cruel tedium of these evolu-
tionary processes. A thousand years, and how much movement ?

” Remember the sudden starts towards perfection, and that the
farther we advance the more we may be able to help.”

“Well, but that is the very thing I meant to say. Help is not
only desirable, it is imperatively called for. For an unfortunate
offensive movement rises against this better one, which will be checked,
or perhaps thrown back altogether, unless the stupid reformers who
confront the new spirit of kindness with the highwayman’s demand
are brought to reason. What I most willingly yield to friend and
brother I do not choose to yield to an insulting thief ; rather
will I break his head in the cause of divine Civility. Robbery is
no way of righteousness, and your gallant reformers who think it
a fine heroic means of bringing on a better time for humanity should
be taught that some devil has put the wrong plan into their heads.
It is his way of continuing under new conditions the old conflict
of evil and good.”

“But taught ! How should these so-earnest ones be taught ?”

” Ah, how ! Then leave the reformers ; and while they inculcate
their mistaken Gospel of Rancour, let every wise man preach the
Gospel of Content.”

“Content—with things as they are ?”

“Why, no, my friend; for that would be preaching content
with universal uncontent, which of course cannot last into a
reign of wisdom and peace. But if you ask me whether I mean
content with a very very little of this world’s goods, or even con-


                        By Frederick Greenwood 31

tentment in poverty, I say yes. There will be no better day till
that gospel has found general acceptance, and has been taken into
the common habitudes of life. The end may be distant enough ;
but it is your own opinion that the time is already ripe for the
preacher, and if he were no Peter the Hermit but only another,
another—— ”

” Father Mathew, inspired with more saintly fervour—— “

“Who knows how far he might carry the divine light to which
so many hearts are awakening in secret ? This first Christianity,
it was but ‘the false dawn.’ Yes, we may think so.”

Here there was a pause for a few moments, and then I put in a
word to the effect that it would be difficult to commend a gospel
of content to Poverty.

“But,” said Vernet, ” it will be addressed more to the rich and
well-to-do, as you call them, bidding them be content with enough.
Not forbidding them to strive for more than enough—that would
never do. The good of mankind demands that all its energies
should be maintained, but not that its energies should be meanly
employed in grubbing for the luxury that is no enjoyment but only
a show, or that palls as soon as it is once enjoyed, and then is no
more felt as luxury than the labourer’s second pair of boots or the
mechanic’s third shirt a week. For the men of thousands per
annum the Gospel of Content would be the wise, wise, wise old
injunction to plain living and high thinking, only with one addi-
tion both beautiful and wise : kind thinking, and the high and the
kind thinking made good in deed. And it would work, this gospel ;
we may be sure of it already. For luxury has became common ; it
is being found out. Where there was one person at the beginning
of the century who had daily experience of its fatiguing disappoint-
ments, now there are fifty. Like everything else, it loses dis-
tinction by coming abundantly into all sorts of hands ; and mean-


                        32 The Gospel of Content

while other and nobler kinds of distinction have multiplied and
have gained acknowledgment. And from losing distinction—
this you must have observed—luxury is becoming vulgar ; and I
don’t know why the time should be so very far off when it will be
accounted shameful. Certain it is that year by year a greater
number of minds, and such as mostly determine the currents of
social sentiment, think luxury low ; without going deeper than the
mere look of it, perhaps. These are hopeful signs. Here is good
encouragement to stand out and preach a gospel of content which
would be an education in simplicity, dignity, happiness, and yet
more an education of heart and spirit. For nothing that a man
can do in this world works so powerfully for his own spiritual good
as the habit of sacrifice to kindness. It is so like a miracle that it
is, I am sure, the one way—the one way appointed by the laws or
our spiritual growth.

“Yes, and what about preaching the gospel of content to Poverty ?
Well, there we must be careful to discriminate—careful to dis-
entangle poverty from some other things which are the same thing
in the common idea. Say but this, that there must be no content
with squalor, none with any sort of uncleanness, and poverty takes
its own separate place and its own unsmirched aspect. An honour-
able poverty, clear of squalor, any man should be able to endure
with a tranquil mind. To attain to that tranquillity is to attain to
nobleness ; and persistence in it, though effort fail and desert go
quite without reward, ennobles. Contentment in poverty does not
mean crouching to it or under it. Contentment is not cowardice,
but fortitude. There is no truer assertion of manliness, and none
with more grace and sweetness. Before it can have an established
place in the breast of any man, envy must depart from it—envy,
jealousy, greed, readiness to take half-honest gains, a horde of small
ignoble sentiments not only disturbing but poisonous to the


                        By Frederick Greenwood 33

ground they grow in. Ah, believe me ! if a man had eloquence
enough, fire enough, and that command of sympathy that your
Gordon seems to have had (not to speak of a man like Mahomet or
to touch on more sacred names), he might do wonders for mankind
in a single generation by preaching to rich and poor the several
doctrines of the Gospel of Content. A curse on the mean
strivings, stealings, and hoardings that survive from our animal
ancestry, and another curse (by your permission) on the gaudy
vanities that we have set up for objects in life since we became
reasoning creatures.”

In effect, here the conversation ended. More was said, but nothing
worth recalling. Drifting back to less serious talk, we gossiped
till midnight, and then parted with the heartiest desire (I speak for
myself) of meeting soon again. But on our way back to town Vernet
recurred for a moment to the subject of his discourse, saying :

” I don’t make out exactly what you think now of the prospect
we were talking of.”

My answer pleased him. ” I incline to think,” said I, ” what I
have long thought : that if there is any such future for us, and I
believe there is, we of the older European nations will be nowhere
when it comes. In existence—yes, perhaps ; but gone down.
You see we are becoming greybeards already ; while you in Russia
are boys, with every mark of boyhood on you. You, you are a
new race—the only new race in the world ; and it is plain that
you swarm with ideas of precisely the kind that, when you come
to maturity, may re-invigorate the world. But first, who knows
what deadly wars ? ”

He pressed his hand upon my knee in a way that spoke a great
deal. We parted, and two months afterwards the Vernet whose
real name ended in ” ieff” was ” happed in lead.”

MLA citation:

Greenwood, Frederick. “The Gospel of Content.” The Yellow Book, vol. 2, July 1894, pp. 11-33. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.