This is a short excerpt from a novella (it’s a pretty funny romantic comedy), in which the ‘black sheep son’ [Alan] of a respectable wealthy family (who owns a biscuit corporation) is trying to explain to an english lady why he rebelled against his family, and got himself arrested for apparent burglary and pickpocketing.
“When I was drowning in the Pacific, I think I had a Vision. I rose for the third time to the top of a great wave and I saw a Vision. I think that what I saw was Religion….”
“Oh, I don’t mean that I met a Baptist missionary. There are two kinds of missionaries: the right kind and the wrong kind, and they’re both wrong. At least they’re both wrong as to the thing I am thinking about. The stupid missionaries say the savages grovel in the mud before mud idols, and will all go to hell for idolatry unless they turn teetotallers and wear billycock hats. The intelligent missionaries say the savages have great possibilities and often quite a high moral code, which is quite true, but isn’t the point. What they don’t see is that very often the savages have really got hold of religion, and that lots of people with a high moral code don’t know what religion means. They would run screaming with terror, if they got so much as a glimpse of Religion. It’s an awful thing.
“I learnt something about it from the lunatic with whom I lived on the desert island. I told you he had practically gone mad, as well as gone native. But there was something to learn from him, that can’t be learnt from ethical societies and popular preachers. The poor fellow had floated to shore by hanging on to a queer, old-fashioned umbrella, that happened to have the head carved in a grotesque face, and when he came raving out of his delirium, so far as he ever came out of it, he regarded the umbrella as the god that had saved him, and stuck it up in a sort of shrine and grovelled before it and offered it sacrifices. That’s the point. . . . Sacrifices. When he was hungry he would burn some of his food before it. When he was thirsty, he would still pour out some of the native beer that he brewed. I believe he might have sacrificed me to his idol. I’m sure he would have sacrificed himself. I don’t mean”–he spoke more slowly still and very thoughtfully–“I don’t exactly mean that the cannibals are right, or human sacrifice or all that. They’re wrong–if you come to think of it–they’re really wrong, because people don’t want to be eaten. But if I want to be sacrificed who is going to stop me? Nobody, not God himself, will stop me, if I want to suffer injustice. To forbid me to suffer injustice would be the greatest injustice of all.”
“You are rather disconnected,” she said, “but I begin to have a glimmering of what you mean. I presume you don’t mean that you saw from the top of the wave the vision of the divine umbrella.”
“And do you think,” he asked, “that what I saw was a picture of angels playing harps out of the Family Bible? What I saw, so far as I can be said to have merely seen anything, was my father sitting at the head of the table, in some great dinner or directors’ meeting, and perhaps everybody drinking his health in champagne, while he sat gravely smiling, with his glass of water beside him, because he is a strict temperance man. Oh, my God!”
“Well,” said Millicent, the smile rising slowly to the surface again; “it certainly seems rather different from heaven and the harps.”
“But I,” went on Alan, “was lost like loose seaweed and sinking like a stone, to be forgotten in the slime under the sea.”
“It was horribly hard,” she said in a trembling voice.
To her surprise he answered with a rather jarring laugh.
“Do you think I mean that I envied him?” he cried. “That would be a rum way of realizing religion. It was all the other way. From the top of the wave I looked down and saw him with a clear horror of pity. From the top of the wave I prayed, for one passionate instant, that my miserable death might avail to deliver him from that hell.
“Horrible hospitality, horrible courtesy, horrible compliments and congratulations, praise and publicity and popularity of the old firm, the old sound business traditions, and the sun of success high in heaven and glittering everywhere on one great ghastly whited sepulchre of human hypocrisy. And I knew that within, it was full of dead men’s bones, of men who had died of drink or starvation or despair, in prisons and workhouses and asylums, because this hateful thing had ruined a hundred businesses to build one. Horrible robbery, horrible tyranny, horrible triumph. And most horrible of all, to add to all the horrors, that I loved my father.
“He had been good to me when I was little, and when he was poorer and simpler, and as a boy I began by making hero-worship of his success. The first great coloured advertisements were to me what coloured toy-books are to other children. They were a fairy tale, but, alas, the one fairy tale one could not continue to believe. So there I was, feeling what I felt and yet knowing what I knew. You have to love as I loved and hate as I hated, before you see afar off the thing called Religion, and the other name of it is Human Sacrifice.”
“But surely,” said Millicent, “things are ever so much better with the business now.”
“Yes,” he said, “things are better and that is what makes it worse. That is the worst of all.”
He paused a moment and went on in a lower key:
“Jack and Norman are good fellows, as good as they can be,” he said; “they have done their best, but for what? Their best to make the best of it. To cover it up. To put a new coat of whitewash on the whited sepulchre. Things are to be forgotten, things are to be dropped out of conversation, things are to be thought better of–more charitably–after all it’s an old story now. But that’s nothing to do with what things are, in the world where things are, and always are; in the world of heaven and hell. Nobody has apologized. Nobody has confessed. Nobody has done penance. And in that moment, from the top of the wave, I cried to God that I might do penance, if it were only by dying in the sea. . . . Oh, don’t you understand?
“Don’t you understand how shallow all these moderns are, when they tell you there is no such thing as Atonement or Expiation, when that is the one thing for which the whole heart is sick before the sins of the world? The whole universe was wrong, while the lie of my father flourished like the green bay-tree. It was not respectability that could redeem it. It was religion, expiation, sacrifice, suffering. Somebody must be terribly good, to balance what was so bad. Somebody must be needlessly good, to weigh down the scales of that judgement. He was cruel and got credit for it. Somebody else must be kind and get no credit for it. Don’t you understand?“
“Yes, I begin to understand,” she said. “I think you are rather incredible.”
“I swore in that moment,” said Alan, “that I would be called everything that he ought to be called. I would have the name of a thief, because he deserved it. I would be despised and rejected and perhaps go to jail, because I chose after that fashion to be my father. Yes, I would inherit. I would be his heir.”