The Rev. J. J. Meldon and the Chief Secretary

by George A. Birmingham

From “Spanish Gold.”

The Chief Secretary lay back in Higginbotham’s hammock-chair. There was a frown on his face. His sense of personal dignity was outraged by the story he had just heard. He had not been very long Chief Secretary of Ireland, and, though not without a sense of humour, he took himself and his office very seriously. He came to Ireland intending to do justice and show mercy. He looked forward to a career of real usefulness. He was prepared to be opposed, maligned, misunderstood, declared capable of every kind of iniquity. He did not expect to be treated as a fool. He did not expect that an official in the pay of one of the Government Boards would assume as a matter of course that he was a fool and believe any story about him, however intrinsically absurd. He failed to imagine any motive for the telling of such a story. There must, he assumed, have been a motive, but what it was he could not even guess.

Meldon entered the hut without knocking at the door.

“Mr. Willoughby, I believe,” he said, cheerily. “You must allow me to introduce myself since Higginbotham isn’t here to do it for me. My name is Meldon, the Rev. J. J. Meldon, B.A., of T.C.D.”

The Chief Secretary intended to rise with dignity  and walk out of the hut. He failed because no one can rise otherwise than awkwardly out of the depths of a hammock-chair.

“Don’t stir,” said Meldon, watching his struggles. “Please don’t stir. I shouldn’t dream of taking your chair. I’ll sit on the corner of the table. I’ll be quite comfortable, I assure you. How do you like Inishgowlan, now you are here? It’s a nice little island, isn’t it?”

Mr. Willoughby succeeded in getting out of his chair. He walked across the hut, turned his back on Meldon, and stared out of the window.

“I came up here to have a chat with you,” said Meldon. “Perhaps you wouldn’t mind turning round; I always find it more convenient to talk to a man who isn’t looking the other way. I don’t make a point of it, of course. If you’ve got into the habit of keeping your back turned to people, I don’t want you to alter it on my account.”

Mr. Willoughby turned round. He seemed to be on the point of making an angry remark. Meldon faced him with a bland smile. The look of irritation faded in Mr. Willoughby’s face. He appeared puzzled.

“It’s about Higginbotham’s bed,” said Meldon, “that I want to speak. It’s an excellent bed, I believe, though I never slept in it myself. But,——”

“If there’s anything the matter with the bed,” said Mr. Willoughby severely, “Mr. Higginbotham should himself represent the facts to the proper authorities.”

“You quite misunderstand me. And, in any case, Higginbotham can’t move in the matter because he doesn’t, at present, know that there’s anything wrong about the bed. By the time he finds out, it will be too  late to do anything. I simply want to give you a word of advice. Don’t sleep in Higginbotham’s bed to-night.”

“I haven’t the slightest intention of sleeping in it.”

“That’s all right. I’m glad you haven’t. The fact is”—Meldon’s voice sank almost to a whisper—“there happens to be a quantity of broken glass in that bed. I need scarcely tell a man with your experience of life that broken glass in a bed isn’t a thing which suits everybody. It’s all right, of course, if you’re used to it, but I don’t suppose you are.”

Mr. Willoughby turned, this time towards the door. There was something in the ingenuous friendliness of Meldon’s face which tempted him to smile. He caught sight of Higginbotham standing white and miserable on the threshold. He made a snatch at the dignity which had nearly escaped him and frowned severely.

“I think, Mr. Higginbotham,” he said, “that I should like to take a stroll round the island.”

“Come along,” said Meldon. “I’ll show the sights. You don’t mind climbing walls, I hope. You’ll find the place most interesting. Do you care about babies? There’s a nice little beggar called Michael Pat. Any one with a taste for babies would take to him at once. And there’s a little girl called Mary Kate, a great friend of Higginbotham’s. She’s the granddaughter of old Thomas O’Flaherty Pat. By the way, how are you going to manage about Thomas O’Flaherty’s bit of land? There’s been a lot of trouble over that?”

Mr. Willoughby sat down again in the hammock-chair and stared at Meldon.

“Of course, it’s your affair, not mine,” said Meldon. “Still, if I can be of any help to you, you’ve only got  to say so. I know old O’Flaherty pretty well, and I may say without boasting that I have as much influence with him as any man on the island.”

“If I want your assistance I shall ask for it,” said Mr. Willoughby, coldly.

“That’s right,” said Meldon. “I’ll do anything I can. The great difficulty, of course, is the language. You don’t talk Irish yourself, I suppose. Higginbotham tells me he’s learning. It’s a very difficult language, highly inflected. I’m not very good at it myself. I can’t carry on a regular business conversation in it. By the way, what is your opinion of the Gaelic League?”

A silence followed. Mr. Willoughby gave no opinion of the Gaelic League. Meldon sat down again on the corner of the table and began to swing his legs. Higginbotham still stood in the doorway. Mr. Willoughby, with a bewildered look on his face, lay back in the hammock-chair.

“I see,” said Meldon, “that you’ve sent your yacht away. That was what made me think you were going to sleep in Higginbotham’s bed. I suppose she’ll be back before night.”

“Really——” began Mr. Willoughby.

Meldon replied at once to the tone in which the word was spoken.

“I don’t want to be asking questions. If there’s any secret about the matter you’re quite right to keep it to yourself. I quite understand that you Cabinet Ministers can’t always say out everything that’s in your mind. I only mentioned the steamer because the conversation seemed to be languishing. You wouldn’t talk about Thomas O’Flaherty Pat’s field, and you  wouldn’t talk about the Gaelic League, though I thought that would be sure to interest you. Now you won’t talk about the steamer. However, it’s quite easy to get on some other subject. Do you think the weather will hold up? The glass has been dropping the last two days.”

Mr. Willoughby struggled out of the hammock-chair again. He drew himself up to his full height and squared his shoulders. His face assumed an expression of rigid determination. He addressed Higginbotham:

“Will you be so good as to go up to the old man you spoke of——”

“Thomas O’Flaherty Pat,” said Meldon. “That’s the man he means, you know, Higginbotham.”

“And tell him——” went on Mr. Willoughby.

“If you’re to tell him anything,” said Meldon, “don’t forget to take someone with you who understands Irish.”

“And tell him,” repeated Mr. Willoughby, “that I shall expect him here in about an hour to meet Father Mulcrone.”

“I see,” said Meldon. “So that’s where the yacht’s gone. You’ve sent for the priest to talk sense to the old boy. Well, I dare say you’re right, though I think we could have managed with the help of Mary Kate. She knows both languages well, and she’d do anything for me, though she is rather down on Higginbotham. It’s a pity you didn’t consult me before sending the steamer off all the way to Inishmore. However, it can’t be helped now.”

Higginbotham departed on his errand and shut the door of the hut after him. The Chief Secretary turned to Meldon.

“You’ve chosen to force your company on me this afternoon in a most unwarrantable manner.”

“I’ll go at once if you like,” said Meldon. “I only came up here for your own good, to warn you about the state of Higginbotham’s bed. You ought to be more grateful to me than you are. It isn’t every man who’d have taken the trouble to come all this way to save a total stranger from getting his legs cut with broken glass. However, if you hunt me away, of course, I’ll go. Only, I think, you’ll be sorry afterwards if I do. I may say without vanity that I’m far and away the most amusing person on this island at present.”

“As you are here,” said Mr. Willoughby, “I take the opportunity of asking you what you mean by telling that outrageous story to Mr. Higginbotham. I’m not accustomed to having my name used in that way, and, to speak plainly, I regard it as insolence.”

“You are probably referring to the geological survey of this island.”

“Yes. To your assertion that I employed a man called Kent to survey this island. That is precisely what I refer to.”

“Then you ought to have said so plainly at first, and not have left me to guess at what you were talking about. Many men couldn’t have guessed, and then we should have been rambling at cross purposes for the next hour or so without getting any further. Always try and say plainly what you mean, Mr. Willoughby. I know it’s difficult, but I think you’ll find it pays in the end. Now that I know what’s in your mind, I’ll be very glad to thrash it out with you. You know Higginbotham, of course?”

“Yes.”

“Intimately?”

“I met him this afternoon for the first time.”

“Then you can’t be said really to know Higginbotham. That’s a pity, because without a close and intimate knowledge of Higginbotham, you’re not in a position to understand that geological survey story. Take my advice and drop the whole subject until you know Higginbotham better. After spending a few days on the island in constant intercourse with Higginbotham you’ll be able to understand the whole thing. Then you’ll appreciate it. In the meanwhile, I’m sure you won’t mind my adding, since we are on the subject,—and it was you who introduced it—that you ought not to go leaping to conclusions without a proper knowledge of the facts. I said the same thing this morning to Major Kent, when he insisted that you had come here to search for buried treasure.”

Mr. Willoughby pulled himself together with an effort. He felt a sense of bewilderment and hopeless confusion. The sensation was familiar. He had experienced it before in the House of Commons when the Irish members of both parties asked questions on the same subject. He knew that his only chance was to ignore side-issues, however fascinating, and get back at once to the original point.

“I’m willing,” he said, “to listen to any explanation you have to offer; but I do not see how Mr. Higginbotham’s character alters, or can alter, the fact that you told him what I can only describe as an outrageous lie.”

“The worst thing about you Englishmen is that you have such blunt minds. You don’t appreciate the lights and shades, the finer nuances, what I may  perhaps describe as the chiaroscuro of things. It’s just the same with my friend Major Kent. By the way, I ought to apologise for him. He ought to have come ashore and called upon you this afternoon. It isn’t a want of loyalty which prevented him. He’s a strong Unionist and on principle he respects His Majesty’s Ministers, whatever party they belong to. The fact is, he was a bit nervous about this geological survey business. He didn’t know exactly how you’d take it. I told him that you were a reasonable man, and that you’d see the thing in a proper light, but he wouldn’t come.”

“Will you kindly tell me what is the proper light in which to view this extraordinary performance of yours?”

“Certainly. It will be a little difficult, of course, when you don’t know Higginbotham, but I’ll try.”

“Leave Mr. Higginbotham out,” said the Chief Secretary, irritably. “Tell me simply this: Were you justified in making a statement which you knew to be a baseless invention? How do you explain the fact that you told a deliberate—that you didn’t tell the truth?”

“I’ve always heard of you as an educated man. I may assume that you know all about pragmatism.”

“I don’t.”

“Well, you ought to. It’s a most interesting system of philosophy quite worth your while to study. I’m sure you’d like it if you understand it. In fact, I expect you’re a pragmatist already without knowing it. Most of us practical men are.”

“I’m waiting for an explanation of the story you told Mr. Higginbotham.”

“Quite right. I’m coming to that in a minute.  Don’t be impatient. If you’d been familiar with the pragmatist philosophy it would have saved time. As you’re not—though as Chief Secretary for Ireland I think you ought to be—I’ll have to explain. Pragmatism may be described as the secularising of the Ritschlian system of theological thought. You understand the Ritschlian theory of value judgments, of course?”

“No, I don’t.” Mr. Willoughby began to feel very helpless. It seemed easier to let the tide of this strange lecture sweep over him than to make any effort to assert himself.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” he said. “I think I could listen to your explanation better if I smoked.”

He took from his pocket a silver cigar-case.

“Smoke away,” said Meldon. “I don’t mind in the least. In fact, I’ll take a cigar from you and smoke, too. I can’t afford cigars myself, but I enjoy them when they’re good. I suppose a Chief Secretary is pretty well bound to keep decent cigars on account of his position.”

Mr. Willoughby handed over the case. Meldon selected a cigar and lit it. Then he went on—

“The central position of the pragmatist philosophy and the Ritschlian theology is that truth and usefulness are identical.”

“Eh?”

“What that means is this. A thing is true if it turns out in actual practice to be useful, and false if it turns out in actual practice to be useless. I daresay that sounds startling to you at first, but if you think it over quietly for a while you’ll get to see that there’s a good deal in it.”

Meldon puffed at his cigar without speaking. He wished to give Mr. Willoughby an opportunity for meditation. Then he went on—

“The usual illustration—the one you’ll find in all the text-books—is the old puzzle of the monkey on the tree. A man sees a monkey clinging to the far side of a trunk of a tree—I never could make out how he did see it, but that doesn’t matter for the purposes of the illustration. He (the man) determines to go round the tree and get a better look at the monkey. But the monkey creeps round the tree so as always to keep the trunk between him and the man. The question is, whether, when he has gone round the tree, the man has or has not gone round the monkey. The older philosophers simply gave that problem up. They couldn’t solve it, but the pragmatist—”

“Either you or I,” said Mr. Willoughby, feebly, “must be going mad.”

“Your cigar has gone out,” said Meldon. “Don’t light it again. There’s nothing tastes worse than a relighted cigar. Take a fresh one. There are still two in the case and I shall be able to manage along with one more.”

“Would you mind leaving out the monkey on the tree and getting back to the geological survey story?”

“Not a bit. If it bores you to hear an explanation of the pragmatist theory of truth, I won’t go on with it. It was only for your sake I went into it. You can just take it from me that the test of truth is usefulness. That’s the general theory. Now apply it to this particular case. The story I told Higginbotham turned out to be extremely useful—quite as useful as I had any reason to expect. In fact, I don’t see that we could very well  have got on without it. I can’t explain to you just how it was useful. If I did, I should be giving away Major Kent, Sir Charles Buckley, Euseby Langton, and perhaps old Thomas O’Flaherty Pat; but you may take it that the utility of the story has been demonstrated.”

Mr. Willoughby made an effort to rally. He reminded himself that he was Cabinet Minister and a great man, that he had withstood the fieriest eloquence of Members for Munster constituencies, and survived the most searching catechisms of the men from Antrim and Down. He called to mind the fact that he had resolutely said “No” to at least twenty-five per cent. of the people who came to him in Dublin Castle seeking to have jobs perpetrated. He tried to realise the impossibility of a mere country curate talking him down. He hardened his heart with the recollection that he was in the right and the curate utterly in the wrong. He sat up as well as he could in the hammock-chair and said sternly—

“Am I to understand that you regard any lie as justifiable if it serves its purpose?”

“Certainly not,” said Meldon; “you are missing the whole point. I was afraid you would when you prevented me from explaining the theory of truth to you. I never justify lies under any circumstances whatever. The thing I’m trying to help you grasp is this: A statement isn’t a lie if it proves itself in actual practice to be useful—it’s true. There, now, you’ve let that second cigar go out. You’d better light that one again. I hate to see a man wasting cigar after cigar, especially when they’re good ones.”

Mr. Willoughby fumbled with the matches and made more than one attempt to relight the cigar.

“The reason,” Meldon went on, “why I think you’re almost certain to be a pragmatist is that you’re a politician. You’re constantly having to make speeches, of course; and in every speech you must, more or less, say something about Ireland. When you are Chief Secretary the other fellow, the man in opposition who wants to be Chief Secretary but isn’t, gets up and says you are telling a pack of lies. That’s not the way he expresses himself, but it’s exactly what he means. When his turn comes round to be Chief Secretary, and you are in opposition, you very naturally say that he’s telling lies. Now, that’s a very crude way of talking. You are, both of you, as patriotic and loyal men, doing your best to say what is really useful. If the things you say turn out in the end to be useful, why, then, if you happen to be a pragmatist, they aren’t lies.”

Mr. Willoughby stuck doggedly to his point. Just so his countrymen, though beaten by all the rules of war, have from time to time clung to positions which they ought to have evacuated.

“A lie,” he said, “is a lie. I don’t see that you’ve made your case at all.”

“I know I haven’t, but that’s because you insist on stopping me. If you’ll allow me to go back to the man who went round the tree with the monkey on it——”

“Don’t do that, I can’t bear it.”

“Very well. I won’t. I suppose we may consider the matter closed now, and go on to talk of something else.”

“No. It’s not closed,” said Mr. Willoughby, with a fine show of spirited indignation. “I still want to know why you told Mr. Higginbotham that I sent Major Kent to make a geological survey of this island. It’s  all very well to talk as you’ve been doing, but a man is bound to tell the truth and not to deceive innocent people.”

“Look here, Mr. Willoughby,” said Meldon, “I’ve sat and listened to you calling me a liar half-a-dozen times, and I havn’t turned a hair. I’m not a man with remarkable self-control, and I appreciate your point of view. You are irritated because you think you are not being treated with proper respect. You assert what you are pleased to call your dignity, by trying to prove that I am a liar. I’ve stood it from you so far, but I’m not bound to stand it any longer, and I won’t. It doesn’t suit you one bit to take up that high and mighty moral tone, and I may tell you it doesn’t impress me. I’m not the British Public, and that bluff honesty pose isn’t one I admire. All these platitudes about lies being lies simply run off my skin. I know that your own game of politics couldn’t be played for a single hour without what you choose to describe as deceiving innocent people. Mind you, I’m not blaming you in the least. I quite give in that you can’t always be blabbing out the exact literal truth about everything. Things couldn’t go on if you did. All I say is, that, being in the line of life you are, you ought not to set yourself up as a model of every kind of integrity and come out here to an island, which, so far as I know, nobody ever invited you to visit, and talk ideal morality to me in the way you’ve been doing. Hullo! here’s Higginbotham back again. I wonder if he has brought Thomas O’Flaherty Pat with him. You’ll be interested in seeing that old man, even if you can’t speak to him.”

Higginbotham started as he entered the hut. He did not expect to find Meldon there. He was surprised  to see Mr. Willoughby crumpled up, crushed, cowed in the depths of the hammock-chair, while Meldon, cheerful and triumphant, sat on the edge of the table swinging his legs and smoking a cigar.

“You’d better get that oil stove of yours lit, Higginbotham,” said Meldon. “The Chief Secretary is dying for a cup of tea. You’d like some tea, wouldn’t you, Mr Willoughby?”

“I would. I feel as if I wanted some tea. You won’t say that I’m posing for the British Public if I drink tea, will you?”

It was Meldon who lit the stove, and busied himself with the cups and saucers. Higginbotham was too much astonished to assist.

“There’s no water in your kettle,” said Meldon. “I’d better run across to the well and get some. Or I’ll go to Michael Pat’s mother and get some hot. That will save time. When I’m there I’ll collar a loaf of soda-bread and some butter if I can. I happen to know that she has some fresh butter because I helped her to make it.”

Mr. Willoughby rallied a little when the door closed behind Meldon.

“Your friend,” he said to Higginbotham, “seems to me to be a most remarkable man.”

“He is. In college we always believed that if only he’d give his mind to it and taken some interest in his work, he could have done anything.”

“I haven’t the slightest doubt of it. He has given me a talking to this afternoon such as I haven’t had since I left school—not since I left the nursery. Did you ever read a book on pragmatism?”

“No.”

“You don’t happen to know the name of the best book on the subject?”

“No, but I’m sure that Meldon—”

“Don’t,” said Mr. Willoughby. “I’d rather not start him on the subject again. Have you any cigars? I want one badly. I got no good of the two I half smoked while he was here.”

“I’m afraid not. But your own cigar-case has one in it. It’s on the table.”

“I can’t smoke that one. To put it plainly, I daren’t. Your friend Meldon said he might want it. I’d be afraid to face him if it was gone.”

“But it’s your own cigar! Why should Meldon——”

“It’s not my cigar. Nothing in the world is mine any more, not even my mind, or my morality, or my self-respect is my own. Mr. Meldon has taken them from me, and torn them in pieces before my eyes. He has left me a nervous wreck of a man I once was. Did you say he was a parson?”

“Yes. He’s curate of Ballymoy.”

“Thank God, I don’t live in that parish! I should be hypnotised into going to church every time he preached, and then——. Hush! Can he be coming back already? I believe he is. No other man would whistle as loud as that. If he begins to illtreat me again, Mr Higginbotham, I hope you’ll try and drag him off. I can’t stand much more.”