Father Payne told us an odd story to-day of a big house on the outskirts of London, with a great garden and some fields belonging to it, that was shut up for years and seemed neglected. It was inhabited by an old retired Colonel and his daughter: the daughter had become an invalid, and her mind was believed to be affected. No one ever came to the house or called there. A wall ran, round it, and the trees grew thick and tangled within; the big gates were locked. Occasionally the Colonel came out of a side-door, a tall handsome man, and took a brisk walk; sometimes he would be seen handing his daughter, much wrapped up, into a carriage, and they drove together. But the place had a sinister air, and was altogether regarded with a gloomy curiosity.
When the Colonel died, it was discovered that the place was beautifully kept within, and the house delightfully furnished. It came out that, after a period of mental depression, the daughter had recovered her spirits, though her health was still delicate. The two were devoted to each other, and they decided that, instead of living an ordinary sociable life, they would just enjoy each other’s society in peace. It had been the happiest life, simple, tenderly affectionate, the two living in and for each other, and one, moreover, of open-handed, secret benevolence. Apart from the expenses of the household, the Colonel’s wealth had been used to support every kind of good work. Only one old friend of the Colonel’s was in the secret, and he spoke of it as one of the most beautiful homes he had ever seen.
Someone of us criticised the story, and asked whether it was not a case of refined selfishness. He added rather incisively that the expenditure of money on charitable objects seemed to him to show that the Colonel’s conscience was ill at ease.
Father Payne was very indignant. He said the world had gone mad on philanthropy and social service. Three-quarters of it was only fussy ambition. He went on to say that a beautiful and simple life was probably the thing most worth living in the world, and that two people could hardly be better employed than in making each other happy. He said that he did not believe in self-denial unless people liked it. Was it really a finer life to chatter at dinner-parties and tea-parties, and occasionally to inspect an orphanage? Perspiration was not the only evidence of godliness. Why, was it to be supposed that one could not live worthily unless one was always poking one’s nose into one’s neighbour’s concerns? He said that you might as well say that it was refined selfishness to have a rose-tree in your garden, unless you cut off every bud the moment it appeared and sent it to a hospital. If the critic really believed what he said, Aveley was no place for him. Let him go to Chicago!