The Conversion of An Anarchist

By G.K Chesterton


LADY JOAN GARNET had eyebrows long before she had any hair; and a cock of the eyebrow from which the wisest and oldest nurses in the family deduced that she would marry the wrong man. Perhaps she did; those who read this tale must decide the point for themselves. (For however that may be) some twenty-three years afterwards, when Lady Joan had plenty of hair, almost too much in fact, and of a heavy bronze tint, she still had the distinct and defiant eyebrow darker in color and as it were disconnected from the rest of her face But though she ran to eyebrow, she did not look supercilious; only rather cross.

She was indeed of a restless and enterprising temper, and in our modern, highly civilized society it did not take her long to find a man wrong enough to marry. The prophetic nurses, indeed had no notion it would be as wrong as that. In the Smart Set in which she lived men talking Socialism and Anarchism were common enough, of course, but men believing in them (or in anything else) were rare, and Andrew Home was a perfectly serious Anarchist. He was a young Scot who had worked his way up from a plough to a professorship, and been taken up by the aristocrats as aristocrats will take up anything curious-so long as it is not of ancient lineage. The rich gentleman shrinks from nobody, except the poor gentleman.

He was strong, lank and rawboned, yet with a certain air, not uncommon in Scotch peasants, of being (in the strict and literal sense) well bred; he had a long, handsome, hatchet face with something like a sneer on it; yet he was very compassionate to the poor and to animals. He had a complete philosophic scheme of negations. He looked at Nothing from every possible point of view; he divided Nothing into sections and then recombined it into systems; he distinguished one kind of Nothing from another kind of Nothing, and then proved that the difference amounted to Nothing, after all. Yet he was not a bore, though uncontroversial persons might call him a bully; he made with Lady Joan the one mistake so often made by a clever man with a clever woman, that of arguing with her just ten minutes too long.

For the rest he was famous and fairly rich by this time, and when Lady Joan announced her engagement to him, the scandal that ensued did not in the least arise from his being a parvenu, still less from his being an Atheist, but solely from his refusal to be married in a church. As was pointed out by more than one member of our most intellectual class, a fellow may come from all kind of things, and a fellow may think all kind of things, but a fellow ought to be able to stick it out for an hour in church. The Scot was a hard man to drive; he had shaken the foundations of his fiancée’s conventional morality, and his answer was a threat as well as a defiance. It amounted to a broad hint that marriage itself (if examined through his best microscope) was one of the varying and allotropic forms of Nothing, and that if they would not allow him the Registrar he would do without that official. Joan, so far from being shocked, took the thing with an innocent anarchism not uncommon in the young, and the cause of many highly intellectual elopements. In fact, she said that if she was forbidden to marry the wrong man, she-would not marry him, which would be worse. Now this is a thing still considered wrong even by the rich.

Nevertheless about three weeks afterwards, Mr. Anthony Home F.R.S., was decorously and thoroughly married to Lady Joan Garnet in a fashionable church crowded with all kinds of important people with whom (Heaven be thanked) this story has nothing to do. If anyone cares to know how the conversion or surrender came about, it befell through the world-embracing beneficence of the Liberty Hall Club. Lady Joan had come in, looking particularly radiant; she was talkative and full of tales for her lover about this Bohemian (though by no means democratic) society in which she had spent an evening “They say I may be elected to the club,” she said with great relish. “But they doubt if I’m advanced enough.”

“Advanced in what direction?” asked Home.

“Oh in all directions!” cried Lady Joan waving her muff and boa with a world embracing gesture. “Why, that’s just the point. You can say anything at the Liberty Hall Club-you can defend any view Anarchist or Atheist or-or whatever’s supposed to be worse. They include all, yes, all the opinions in the world and then they talk.”

“It must be rather stimulating for you,” he said and a shade crossed his brow that was not thought, but very ancient instinct.

“It’s frightfully exciting,” she agreed.  “Do come with me to the meeting there this evening! You’ll be sure to secure my election, and you’ll probably be elected yourself. Remember,” and the nature of her smile altered a little, “remember sometimes, please, that I am really very proud of you.”

“All right,” said Andrew Home, turning away, and putting his in the rack; he also spoke in a somewhat changed voice. Two hours later they both got into a cab and drove to the place assigned.

“They got place They were received at the Club of all the opinions by a bony lady, whose green clothes clung to her like long seaweed, she had a long, wooden face, and also a long wooden arm and hand, which shot out so as to startle a guest, who could not believe an arm could be so long unless it were a telescope. To Lady Joan she said in a deep voice, “Happy to see you here again!” To Professor Home she said in a lower voice still, “We are proud of this acquisition.”

The acquisition walked up the room with the heavy sneer, that was his least human trait, decidedly deepening on his face. He was in dull and strict evening dress, while the people all around him were in clothes that can be assigned to no hour of the recognized day or night: a medley of pyjamas, shooting knickers and early morning dressing gowns might partly explain the men; a medley of winding sheets with improper bathing costumes might explain the women-only they all hastened to explain themselves. To judge by his face, the Anarchist found this explanation inadequate.

Joan knew the men he liked, as women do know men in such cases. She knew that all these men in mad costumes were harmless; and she knew that her own man was dangerous. She kept on turning her face to him to see what he thought of all the people to whom he was introduced; and each time she thought she was nearer and nearer to some lawless outbreak. She was almost relieved to think that the shabby evening clothes falling about his long, lank figure could not possibly conceal a bomb.

He was introduced to Dr. Omar Ross, an enormous atheist in almost clerical costume, above which rose a long pink neck terminating in a round, red face and a grin. He was introduced to Mr. Thaddeus Wilkes, the celebrated student of Eastern Religions; one of those unlucky little men for whom, wherever they sit, the light always catches their eyeglasses. Before the end of the evening he was actually introduced to his hostess, the lady who had welcomed him at the door. She was a Mrs. Gurge. Mr. Gurge was presumably out.

It may have been Joan’s personal infatuation, but all these people seemed to look much smaller than they had the evening before. It seemed to her that Satan himself had come to visit a lot of little devils. She felt a disquiet and a disproportion as she heard Mr. Thaddeus Wilkes explaining to Andrew the very things Mr. Wilkes last night explained to her.

“…every kind of opinion you see” Mr. Wilkes was saying, “can be expressed in the club…”

“Well,” said Home with a stolid face, “suppose I express the opinion that the police ought to raid this club?”

“But you don t express that opinion,” said Mr. Wilkes cocking his eyeglasses coquettishly, “a man of your known Liberal tendencies…”

“I do express that opinion,” said Home with decision. “I think everyone now in this room ought to be in jail.”

“He he; and why?” tittered the Student of Eastern Religions

“Because we’re not respectable,” answered Home. “One must respectable.”

“Respectability!” shrieked the little man, leaping up and looking for his eyeglasses, “why it’s respectability that’s created all the persecutions and superstitions, and abominations; all the loss of individuality, of progress, of self ownership, and self-respect…”

“Self-respect,” repeated Home, nodding. “True. And how can respect anything that is not respectable?”

“It is a quibble-a common pun!” l shrieked the eager Wilkes, but his outcry was cut through by the heavy voice of Mrs. Gurge asking, with tragic eyes on Home, the following simple question:

“Don’t all these things come,” she said, “because love is not free?”

“Well of course, it isn’t,” said Andrew Home, simply, “love means that a man, in one respect at least, is not free”

“But would there not be more joy, more old Greek gaiety,” said Mrs. Gurge in a lugubrious voice, “if marriage were abolished?”

“Why?” asked Home blankly. “The Greeks believed in marriage.”

“Do you really mean to say,” broke out Mrs. Gurge, with an alteration of voice that was as startling as an animal’s cry, “do you dare to say that it’s just or right that a woman should be tied to a man-that it’s tolerable-that-

“That’s what I mean to say,” said Mr. Home

Then, after a pause, he added, “But I think they should be married in a church, and, therefore, of course, before three o’clock.”

“And what right have you to say such things?” cried Mrs. Gurge, standing up, and trembling all over. “You are the sort that has persecuted everything-what right have you-where have you got your right?”

“I got it from you,” said Home, with great gentleness. “You and this gentleman told me that all opinions are permitted in this club.” He looked at the ceiling, and then proceeded, “so I think that an indissoluble church marriage, celebrated in a church before three o’clock-“

“Oh tcha!” cried the lady, and leapt to her feet and turned her back.

“You cannot think,” cried Mr. Wilkes, rising with very crooked eyeglasses, “that a mere building or a mere hour can matter.”

“No?” said Home, with a broad and beaming smile. “Why not?”

The little man with the eyeglasses turned with angry gestures of shoulders, but the big atheist in the semi-clerical dress bawled out in a good big parson’s voice. “It’s all environment.”

“I beg your pardon.” inquired Home brightly.

“It’s all environment,” bellowed the big man. “You think respectability’s all right because you’ve always been respectable; you believe in being married in church because you’ve always been to church-“

“That must be the explanation,” assented Home, getting wearily to his feet. “I always thought that perpetual churchgoing of mine would be my undoing. But I think, mind you,” and he lifted a warning finger, “I think you gravely neglect religious considerations! To say that ‘it’s all environment’ is decidedly against sound Church teaching; it neglects the degree of self-determination evidently deducible from the dogma of original sin, as implied even in Holy Scripture and finally defined at the Third Council of Thessapol-“

“Oh such damned rubbish,” said the apoplectic Dr. Ross, and turned his back before the other could finish.

“Dr. Omar Ross, I believe?” said Andrew Home, very coolly, but in such a way as to make the big man turn his red face round again and say, “Well?”

“That man in eyeglasses,” said Home quietly, “is so small that it would be smaller still to hit him. But as you are different, may I say that I am not used to these manners? I come to a club where I am expressly told that any opinion is tolerated, and while I am expressing an opinion for which thousands have died, a gentleman cuts me short in the very middle of a Greek word and turns his back on me. When that happens, there are only two other things that can happen. If we are rationalists, you will apologize. If we are savages and gentlemen, let us go and fight in the backyard.”

Dr. Omar Ross gasped for a moment like a fish; his scarlet face turned a sort of salmon pink, and he answered in a quite new voice, “I will fight you if you like, but rally-really! Perhaps it was rather rude of me to turn my back, but upon my blessed word, I-I’d never heard such things in my life! Sound Church teaching! And Original Sin! I do apologize, Mr. Home. I think you had a right, by the rules of the club, but really, really there is a limit to-to-“

“There is,” said Home, nodding. “There is a limit to Liberty Hall. I know now what the limit is.”

Striding swiftly across the room, he reached Lady Joan, who was engaged in conversation, apparently of great gloom with Mrs. Gurge in the doorway. As he came near he heard Mrs. Gurge saying:

“I’m very sorry, of course; extremely sorry. But I don’t think I could promise anything like a chance. The vacancies in the club are so few-and-and some of the members are so very keen on having people who are really advanced that really-“

“That really we must be going,” said Mr. Home shaking hands with her heartily.  “I’ve never got such good out of an evening in my life. Come along, Joan; we can get a taxi at the corner.”

When they had bundled into the taxi-cab, there was a long silence, and then Lady Joan said:

“You are an extraordinary person, Andrew. Are you mad?”

“Not now,” he answered, with composure.

“But those people were all arguing for the things you’ve always been arguing for.”

“Permit me a masculine distinction,” said Andrew. “They were arguing badly.”

“Well, you were pretty wild,” she said, laughing. “And you don’t believe in any of those things, respectability and marriage and all the rest that you were defending.”

He was silent

“You don’t believe that a marriage must take place in a church before three; you don’t believe in a church at all, and as for a Council of the Church-” And she laughed with delight.

“You have such a pretty laugh, Joan,” he said very softly, “much nicer to hear than Dr. Omar Ross’s.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, and stopped, staring.

“I don’t believe I can say what I mean; I don’t believe you can hear it,” he said, “but I have found the limit of anarchy. Anarchists will endure everything except one thing-sense. They will tolerate a hundred heresies-they will not tolerate orthodoxy. There is one thing that is sure to be right; the thing that is most hated. There is one thing that is most hated. Respectability!”

She was still looking at him with a devoted but painful curiosity; she saw his rigid face taking on that white flame which marks the eternal fanatic in every Scotchman. They are a race of the suddenly converted.

“Look at that poor chap out in the rain,” he said. “That’s what they call the Man of the Street. It means that he’s ordinary. Why is he outcast? Because he’s ordinary. He wants a house, a wife, and a baby-all the humdrum things God dreamed of when he made the world. That’s why we put that man to sweep our streets and black our boots; because he wants what God wanted long ago; and not whatever we shall want the Wednesday after next. Think of him, and then think of those people in Liberty Hall Club-” A surge of disgust went over him like an earthquake- “those foxes have holes, and those vultures of the air have nests; but man has nowhere to lay his head.”

“I don’t think I understand it.” said Lady Joan Garnet.

“Do you understand this,” asked Andrew Home. “A man will be married to a woman in a particular brick or stone church before three.”

“Yes” she said “I understand that easily.”

“You were always cleverer than I,” he said quite simply. “I have only just understood it myself.”


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