The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter Ten - The Spiritual Pastor

ST. SEBASTIAN’S CHURCH, SITUATED in the centre of Mayfair, is justly famous for the beauty of its structure, the excellence of its singing, the splendour of its vestments and the magnificence of its vicar, Mr. Sandow, who might well be taken, as far as superb physical proportions go, to be the show-pupil of his hardly less illustrious namesake. He is ‘Hon.’ and ‘Rev.,’ but he prefers his letters to be addressed to him as ‘The Rev. the Hon. J. S. Sandow’ instead of ‘The Hon. the Rev.,’ for, as he says, the ‘Hon.’ is an accident—not, of course, implying that there was any irregularity about his birth—and that ‘the Rev.’ is the more purposeful of his prefixes. To do him justice, he lives up to this fine pronouncement, and while, if his brother, Lord Shetland, lunches with him he is regaled with the simplest of family meals, he entertains an athletic Bishop who is a friend of his with the sumptuousness due from a Rev. to a Prince of the Church, and takes him down in a motor to Queen’s Club, where they have a delightful game of racquets together.

His ecclesiastical politics, as exhibited in the{184} services at St. Sebastian’s, are distinctly High. But they are also Broad, since for those of his parishioners who prefer it, there is an early celebration at 8 A.M. conducted by two of his curates. Matins, sung in plain-song by an admirable choir, follows at 10 A.M., and this is usually attended by a packed congregation. By eleven, in any case, which is the hour for the sermon, there is not a seat to be had in the church, for Mr. Sandow invariably preaches himself, and from Pimlico and the wilds of South Kensington, from Bayswater and Regent’s Park, eager listeners flock to hear him. This is no quarter of an hour’s oration: he seldom preaches less than fifty minutes, and often the large Louis Seize clock below the organ loft, with its discreetly nude bronze figures of Apollo and Daphne in the vale of Tempe sprawling over it, chimes noon on its musical bells before he has finished. A short pause succeeds the conclusion of the sermon, and the choir enters the church again from the vestry in magnificent procession and panoply of banners, followed by the clergy in full vestments. Clouds of the most expensive incense befog the chancel, and if what is enacted there is not the Mass, it is an uncommonly good imitation of it.{185}

Mr. Sandow’s ecclesiastical doctrines thus preach themselves, so to speak, in the manner of this service, and there is little directly doctrinal in his sermons. He ranges the religions of the world, culling flowers from Buddhism, Mohammedanism, Fire Worship, Christian Science, and has even been known to find something totemistic, if not positively sacramental, in the practice of cannibalism. The first part of these sermons is always extremely erudite, and out of his erudition there springs a sort of sunlit Pantheism. He splits no hairs over it, and does not insist on any definitely limited meaning being attached to the word ‘immanent’; it satisfies him to prove the pervasiveness of Deity. At other times, instead of rearing his creed as this substructure of world-religion, he mines into the sciences and gives his congregation delightful glimpses into the elements of astronomy, with amazing figures as to the distance of the fixed stars. Or he investigates botany, and Aquilegia rolls off his tongue as sonorously as Aldebaran. Out of the arts as well, from music, painting, sculpture he delves his gold, that gold which he finds so freely distributed throughout the entire universe. Having got it, he becomes the goldsmith, and shows his listeners how to turn their{186} lives into wondrous images of pure gold, the gold of the complete consciousness that there is nothing in this world common or unclean, or less than Divine. He snaps his fingers in the face of Satan, and tells him, as if he was a mere Mrs. Harris, that there is no ‘sich a person.’ All is divine, and therefore we must set about our businesses with joy and exultation. Not only will sorrow and sighing flee away, but they actually have fled away: it is impossible that they should have a place in the world such as he has already proved the existence of by the aid of botany or music or cannibalism. Indeed if it were possible to conceive the existence of sin, we should, we could only expect to find it where, by reason of people not realizing the splendour of those realities, they allow themselves to be depressed or gloomy. And (since the Louis Seize clock has already chimed) Now.

There is no doubt that this robust joyousness suits his congregation very well, for the most of the inhabitants of his parish, the owners of nice houses in Curzon Street and Park Lane and other comfortably-situated homes, have really a great deal to be jolly about, and Mr. Sandow points out their causes for thankfulness in patches so purple that they almost explode with richness of{187} colour. Another great theme of his, when for a Sunday or two he has made his hearers feel how lucky all mankind is to be born into this glorious world, is the duty of kindliness and simplicity. Indeed his collected sermons rather resemble the collected works of Ouida, who could write so charmingly about pairs of little wooden shoes, and with the same pen, make us swoon with the splendours of Russian princesses, and the gorgeousness of young guardsmen with their plumes of sunny hair, and their parties at the Star and Garter hotel where they throw the half-guinea peaches at the fireflies.[A] If joy is the violins in this perfect orchestra of a world, simplicity and kindliness are, according to Mr. Sandow, the horns and the trombones. Crowned heads are of no account to him if accompanied by cold hearts, but he has found (greatly to their credit) that the inhabitants of splendid houses, and the owners of broad acres are among the simplest and kindliest of mankind, and he often takes an opportunity to tell them so, ex cathedra, from his pulpit. And since it is impossible not to be gratified in hearing a professional testimonial, publicly delivered, to your merits, his unbounded popularity with his con{188}gregation is amply accounted for, and the offertories at St. Sebastian’s rain on him, as on some great male Danae, showers of gold.

[A] A fact.

At the convenient hour of six, so that devotional exercises should not interfere with tea or dinner, Vespers are celebrated with extreme magnificence. The church blazes with lights, which shine out through clouds of incense, and the air is sonorous with the splendour and shout of plain-song. And at eleven (evening dress optional) is sung Compline. Here Mr. Sandow makes a wise concession to the more Anglican section of his flock, and the psalms are sung to rich chants by Stainer and Havergal and the Rev. P. Henley, while the hymn is some popular favourite out of the Ancient and Modern book. Though evening dress is optional, and no beggar in rags, should such ever present himself, would be turned away, evening dress is the more general, for many people drop in on their way home from dinner, and the street is a perfect queue of motor-cars, as if a smart evening-party was going on. And then you shall see rows of brilliant dames in gorgeous gowns and tiaras, singing lustily, and young men and maidens and solid substantial fathers all in a row, with their fat chins rising and falling as they rumble away at{189} Rev. P. Henley in their throats. For certainly Mr. Sandow has succeeded in making religion, or at any rate attendance at Sunday services, fashionable in his parish: it is the Thing to go to church, though whether like other fashions, such as diabolo or jig-saw puzzles, it is a temporary enthusiasm remains to be seen.

On week-days the devotional needs of his congregation are not so sumptuously attended to, for Mr. Sandow, certainly as wise as most children of light, is aware that his flock are very busy people, and does not care to risk the institution of a failure. Besides he has very strong notions of the duty of every man and woman to do their work in the world, even if, apparently, their work chiefly consists in the passionate pursuit of pleasure. But he likes splendour (as well as simplicity) in those advantageously situated, just as he likes splendour in his Sunday services. He is, too, himself, a very busy man, for since he makes it his duty to know his flock individually, and since his flock are that sort of sheep which gives luncheon and dinner-parties and balls in great profusion, it follows that he has a great many invitations to these festivities, and accepts as many as he can possibly manage. But he always practises the observance of fasts, and never eats meat{190} on Fridays. To make meagre on Fridays and vigils therefore has become rather fashionable also, and since most of his entertainers have excellent chefs, Friday, though a meatless day, is an extremely well-fed one, for with salmon trout and caviare, and a dish of asparagus and some truffles, and an ice pudding and some soufflé of cheese, you can make a very decent pretence of lunching, especially if particularly good wines flow fast as a compensation for this ecclesiastical abstinence. It is a pastime for hostesses also to exercise the ingenuity of their chefs in producing dishes, strictly vegetarian, in which a subtle combination of herbs and condiments produces a meaty flavour, and to observe Mr. Sandow’s face when he thinks he tastes veal. But he is formally assured that no four-legged or two-legged animal has as much as walked into the stew-pot, and in consequence, with many compliments, he asks for a second helping.

All this endears Mr. Sandow to his people; they say, ‘He is so very human and not the least like a clergyman.’ He would not be pleased with this expression if it came to his ears, though if he was told he was not in the least like most other clergymen there would be no complaint. For he thinks that the office of a priest is to enter{191} into the joys and pleasures of those he ministers to, not only to exact their attendance at church, and, as he modestly says of himself, ‘bore them stiff’ with his interminable sermons, and who shall say he is wrong? Indeed to see him at a ball, it is more the other guests that enter into his pleasures than he into theirs, for he is one of the best dancers that ever stepped, and there is a queue of ladies, as at the booking-office of Victoria Station on a Bank Holiday, waiting to have a turn with the Terpsichorean vicar. But, like some modified Cinderella, he keeps early hours, and vanishes on the stroke of one, in order to be up in good time in the morning, and at his work. For in addition to all his parties, his interviews, his dances, his Sunday services, his games of racquets, he has a further life of his own, being a voluminous and widely-read author.

This literary profession of his is no mere matter of a parish-magazine, or of letters to the Guardian about the Eastward position, or the Spectator about early buttercups, but he publishes on his own account at least two volumes every year. Usually those take the form of essays, written in the second or pair-of-wooden-shoes manner, and probably each of them contains a greater number of true and edifying reflections than have{192} ever before appeared between the covers of a single volume. It is no disparagement of them to say that they seem to go on for ever, for so do the waters of a spring, except in times of such severe drought as is unknown to the pen of this ready writer. They all begin in an enticing manner, for Mr. Sandow tells you how he was walking across the Park one morning, when he observed two sparrows quarrelling over a piece of bread that some kind bystander had thrown them. This naturally gives rise to reflections as to the distressing manner in which ill-temper spoils our day. The kind bystander is, of course, Providence, who throws quantities of bread, and Mr. Sandow tells us that it is the truer wisdom not to behave like silly sparrows and all wrangle over one piece, but hop cheerfully away, with a blessing, in the certainty of finding plenty more. Or again Mr. Sandow describes how he was hurrying to the station to catch a train, fussing himself with the thought that he would not be in time for it, and not noticing the limpid blue of the sky and the white clouds that floated across it. When he came to the station he found he had still five minutes to spare and so need not have hurried at all, but drunk in the gladness of God’s spring. From this lesson, he humbly hopes,{193} he will be less disposed to fuss in the future, but trust to the wise hand that guides him. We are not told what would have been the moral if Mr. Sandow had missed his train, but then, after all he did not write about that, and one can only conjecture that it would have been a lesson to him as to how to wait patiently (picking up edifying crumbs at the station) for the next train. Or he sees a house in process of being pulled down, with gaping wall showing the internal decoration, and tenderly wonders what sweet private converse took place in front of the denuded fire-place. His vivid imagination pictures charming scenes: on one wall on the third storey was a paper with repeated images of Jack and Jill and Red Riding Hood and Little Miss Muffit, and he conjectures that here was the nursery, and the paper looked down on children at play. But the children are grown up now; they have outlived their nursery, as we all do, but instead of regretting days that are no more we must go on from strength to strength, till we reach the imperishable house of many mansions which nobody will ever pull down. At the end of each of these musings written in the pair-of-wooden-shoes mode comes a passage of this kind in the second manner, a sudden purple patch about im{194}perishable houses, or the towers of Beulah, or the dawning of the everlasting day.

It is just possible that this skeleton-analysis of Mr. Sandow’s works may faintly produce the impression that there is something a shade commonplace about them, that they lack the clarion of romance, of excitement, of distinction in thought, or whatever it is that we look for when we read books. And it is idle to deny that this impression is ill-founded: no flash of blinding revelation ever surprises the reader, nor does he ever feel that the perusal of them has added a new element to or presented a fresh aspect of life; only that here, gracefully expressed, is precisely what he had always thought. This probably is the secret of their amazing popularity, for there is nothing more pleasing than to find oneself in complete harmony with one’s author. Anybody might have written them, provided only he had a fluent pen and an edifying mind. Mr. Sandow never gave one of his readers, even the most squeamish and sensitive, the smallest sense of discomfort or anxiety. He flows pleasantly along, faintly stimulating, and though he suggests no soul-questionings that could possibly keep anybody awake o’ nights, a very large number of the public are delighted to read a little more in the morning. For Mr.{195} Sandow never fails you; his fund of mild and pleasant reflection is absolutely unending, and if from a mental point of view the study of his works is rather like eating jam from a spoon, you can at least be certain that you will never bite on a stone and jar your teeth. And if you do not by way of intellectual provender like eating jam, why, you need not read Mr. Sandow’s books, but those of somebody else.

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