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Cheerful Yesterdays

Chapter X — Some Harmless Cranks And a Knavish Impostor

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Chapter X
Some Harmless Cranks And a Knavish Impostor

The city of Christchurch has for some extraordinary reason always been a happy hunting-ground for eccentrics. In this chapter I propose to sketch a few of those with whom I personally came in contact. I apologise sincerely for including in one and the same chapter perfectly innocent and honourable cranks on the one hand, and a rascally impostor on the other. There is nothing in common between the two classes at all, except that Christchurch gave equal welcome to both, and that the innocent crank is of all people the most likely to be preyed upon by the impudent impostor.

Even in my student days I came to know some of the cranks. In my freshman's year I went one Sunday night with a number of other undergraduates to a lecture. The advertised synopsis attracted us. Bill-posters and newspaper advertisements gave out the subject: "The Earth is Flat—after all." This was really more than we could stand. As undergraduates in our first year, we flattered ourselves that in addition to being omniscient, we knew a little mathematical geography, and so we attended the lecture with the deliberate intention of "rocking" the meeting.

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But we didn't. A very old man with a most venerable and kindly appearance came on to the platform, and, without any chairman or other person to introduce him, opened his theme. He had a very attractive speaking voice. There was something magnetic about him: he held his audience, undergraduates and all, spell-bound. With many learned citations from the ancients, with much abstruse mathematical calculation, he demonstrated that in spite of the evidence of the theodolite, the phenomena of the visible horizon, the shadow of the earth seen in eclipse—all the physicists and astronomers were wrong, and the earth was indeed as flat as the ancients had conceived it to be. Those were days when public meetings sometimes became riotous, and when stale eggs and dead rats were occasional weapons in popular controversy; and yet that audience, undergraduates and all, let the old man prattle on without serious interruption, and I like to record it as a merit in my fellow-collegians that it was a particularly unruly undergraduate who at the close of the lecture, in grave and perfectly decorous terms, proposed a courteous vote of thanks. The situation was full of humour, but it was also instinct with pathos; the audience fortunately appreciated the pathos quite as much as the humour. For the irony of it all was that the lecturer was a surveyor who, with his own theodolite, had surveyed much of the Canterbury Plains. When he was an old man, senile decay overtook the tired brain, and it assumed the ironical form of this obsession.

But I am afraid from what I heard that at subsequent lectures the audience did not behave so well.

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I suppose there are those who will reckon Samuel Butler among the cranks who lived in Canterbury, for the views he held in the sixties were certainly divergent enough from accepted religions and philosophies to merit the term. But the crank of sixty years ago is the sapiens of to-day, and—well, in any case, I have already given him a chapter to himself.

There was one man who resided for some years in Christchurch who was as much a genius as Butler was, though not so versatile. This was Van der Velden, the Dutch artist. I don't know what drew him to New Zealand. He had, I believe, an established reputation in his own country. Paintings of his were already to be found in most of the galleries of Europe. But he wandered out to the Antipodes in search, perhaps, of a career less for himself than for his growing family. He was a genre painter of the Dutch school, given to doing sombre interiors in which the still life often interested him as much as the living figures, and in which there was always some touch of drama depicted. One of his pictures I saw from time to time over a long period of years. It was a large canvas, from memory I should say at least 8 feet by 6 feet. In the foreground sat a young Dutch peasant woman in a rocking-chair, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes looking into space, with a poignant expression of agony that justified the title "The Sorrowful Future." Those eyes, once painted, were never altered—the face, too, I think he let alone, as also some wonderful work done on the rocking-chair. He would take as much pains with his "still life"—an old Dutch clock on the wall, a crucifix in a monastery with a page 124glint of sunlight on it, a shawl over a woman's shoulders—as he did with the living motif. But everything else in that canvas he painted and repainted from year to year. I don't think I ever saw it twice the same. Now he would have a drunken sot of a husband lying in a torpor in the left foreground. At other times he would have one or more children scraping food out of a bowl or playing with a crude toy behind the young mother's chair. But if any feature failed to satisfy him he would dip a broad brush in paint and ruthlessly smear out the painstaking work of many weeks. I have myself seen him do that, sometimes in a paroxysm of anger. But the face of the woman he never touched. In that he seemed to know he had accomplished something which stamped the picture with genius. So far as I can remember, the last time I saw the picture there was no figure of a drunken husband in the foreground, but some scattered playing-cards and an overturned pewter flagon lying on the earthen floor of the cottage to suggest the ruin of the young wife's dream of happiness, while for the group of children behind the chair was substituted a baby in a Dutch cradle. It was a badly drawn and hydrocephalous-looking baby, I thought, but that really mattered very little; for in that huge canvas you saw only one thing—the tragedy in the eyes that looked into "The Sorrowful Future."

Van der Velden went to live in Sydney with his family for a few years. While over there on a visit I met him again.

I first saw him in King Street. He was in high fettle. He wore his slouch hat well over to the left, his cloak was thrown gracefully over his page 125shoulder as though to leave his sword-arm free, and he looked quite strikingly the part he sometimes affected, the "Laughing Cavalier." I greeted him without apprehension—I could see in his eye that he thought life was being good to him. "I have just sold "The Sorrowful Future," he told me, "to the National Gallery: they gif me £500 for it; the largest price effer paid for a bicture by any artist resident in Australia." At last he had found a city where his genius was appreciated, and he was off to the Blue Mountains, he told me, with his whole family to celebrate the event. He was in the mountains four weeks; did all the sights in chartered motor-cars, treated his family and himself to every luxury, and scattered his money with lavish generosity. After a month he returned to Sydney penniless. I met him again and asked him what he was doing. "Starrrving," was his gloomy answer. "But," I said, "I thought you had recently sold 'The Sorrowful Future' for a good price?' "Sold 'The Sorrowful Future'!" he roared at me with scorn. "Sold it? Bah! I geef it away!"

Van der Velden's friendship for me—and I am proud to remember that he regarded me as a friend —had a curious beginning. At the Exhibition of the Canterbury Society of Arts at which his works were shown for the first time in New Zealand, I was "specialled" by one of the newspapers to do a critique. Heaven knows I knew little enough about art, but then there were a good many subjects on which I wrote special articles without much special knowledge. I dealt with the local artists first, with the water-colours of Mr.——, "the delicate little page 126seascapes" of Mr. ——, "the forceful study of rocks and sea-spray exhibited this year" by Mr. ——, and having dealt with all the Mr. "Blanks," damned some of them with faint praise, and lauded others with as much sincerity as I felt was justified, I proceeded to deal in a very different strain with the canvases of this great Dutch master who had come amongst us—canvases which were a revelation in craftsmanship, and should prove an inspiration to our young colonial artists.

By some freak of the printer's devil the "Mr." was omitted from before Van der Velden's name— perhaps the printer thought "Van" was Dutch for "Mr." At any rate, my friend met me in the street next day, and shaking me warmly by the hand, said "Alpére, you know noddings about ar-r-r-t; but you are a shentlemans." I was a little taken aback and asked to what I owed this generous appreciation. "You speak of the baintings of Mr.——and the water-colours of Mr.——, and then you say'canvases of Van der Velden.'" Once more he gripped my hand, and repeating, "You are a shentlemans," strode off.

He was, in fact, a megalomaniac of a very harmless though most extravagant type. His obiter dicta on art and life, religion and philosophy, spoken in his thick Dutch accent, made thicker in the small hours of the morning by occasional potations of Hollands gin, were even more wonderful, I sometimes thought, in their flashlights on life than the most illuminating impressions conveyed by the masterpieces of his brush.

It was, however, in the matter of religious—or irreligious—eccentrics that the credulity of the page 127Christchureh people was mostly made manifest. There is one little wooden building right in the centre of the town which has a significant history. It was erected more than half a century ago by a handful of German residents in the town and consecrated as a Lutheran church, I several times heard service there conducted by a Lutheran pastor in his stuff cassock and Elizabethan ruff. I had acquired by that time a little more German than I knew in the days when I kept night-school at Napier. I remember with interest that this little church possessed the first complete chime of bells hung in Christchurch. They were a gift from Prince Bismarck to the German congregation in New Zealand, and were said to have been cast from a gun captured by the Prussians at Sedan.

It says little for the sense of humour of the towns-people that in response to popular clamour, and in pursuance of an Order in Council, these bells, early in 1915, were solemnly removed from their turret and melted down in a local foundry. But then humour does not thrive amid the clangours of war.

The little German congregation fell asunder, and the trustees in whom the building and site were vested leased the church for a term of years to the Free Thought Association. Again I went there one Sunday, out of curiosity, with some fellow-students. An Anglican clergyman, it had been announced, who had been unfrocked for heterodoxy, was to lecture. We went expecting to hear a philosophical discourse on the foundations of unbelief; but when we had listened for half an hour to banalities about Adam's ninth rib, and Cain's wife, and how Noah ventilated the Ark, we left the hall page 128in a body in high disgust. Militant free-thought went the way of evangelical Lutheranism, and once more the little building was untenanted for some years. It was then, I understand, put up to competition, and among the applicants, I believe, were Theosophists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Christa-delphians. But I have noticed since, by the name on a wooden board at the corner, that the successful tenderers were "The Spiritualist Church," for these good people are now the occupants. I understand that the devout gather there with much edification on Sunday nights to listen to the priceless wisdom uttered by Mr. W. T. Stead's Julia, Sir Oliver Lodge's Raymond, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's—er—merely Mary Ann.

The most remarkable of the many religious impostors who played upon the credulity of the Christchurch public was a man named Arthur Bentley Worthington. He called himself at first "Dr." Worthington, and let it be understood that he was a Doctor of Law from an American University. At other times he was "Counsellor" Worthington, a member of the American Bar; but as he could produce no diplomas in proof of these qualifications, and as pertinent questions began to be asked about them, he dropped them and allowed them to be forgotten, because he had very soon made them unnecessary. Before he had been many months in Christchurch he had firmly established himself in the hearts of hundreds of people as a Prophet of Righteousness.

He arrived from nowhere in particular, except that it was understood, and his accent confirmed this, that his country of origin was U.S.A. He page 129began his meetings in a small rented hall where he prelected upon what was vaguely called the "New Teaching." He possessed many qualities of mind and person which were valuable stock-in-trade for a charlatan. He had a handsome, intellectual face, with a fine head of grey hair, compelling eyes, with which he riveted the attention of his hearer, and a mobile mouth which he appreciated far too much to conceal by beard or moustache; his hands were finely modelled, and put to good use in gesture that was never exaggerated. He usually wore the frock-coat still fashionable in those days tightly buttoned around a good figure. One shrewdly suspected that his fondness for a frock-coat, which was already beginning to be relegated to shop-walkers, was assumed in order to disguise the fact that he was badly knock-kneed. This was the only defect in his fine physique, and even this, someone suggested, was not congenital but acquired from his habit of looking at the world through his legs and seeing everything upside-down. He brought with him from America a very beautiful woman of a singularly delicate and refined face, distinguished like him by a beautiful head of white hair; and she was as good and gracious as she was beautiful. Whether she was his wife or his dupe I don't know, nor, I think, in her case does it matter.

To love, to sacrifice all, and be forgotten— That is woman's saga.

So wrote Henrik Ibsen in his youth. That, at any rate, was her saga; let it rest at that.

The "New Teaching" soon had adherents by the hundred. If I am asked to explain what the page 130new teaching was, I can only say I don't know. I never managed to understand it—nor did any of its adherents, and that was its strength. For Worthington had the gift of stating the most palpable platitude as though it were a profound and entirely new contribution to philosophy. The "Teaching" was a farrago, drawn from Plato, Bishop Berkeley, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Worthington had undoubtedly a clever brain, but the cleverest brain turned loose on Plato (in a translation), adrift in the "idealism" of Berkeley's philosophy, or caught in the beautiful mazes of Emerson's thought, without the accepted cultural standards for guide, might well find itself hopelessly confused. I attended many of his lectures or sermons or whatever he pleased to call them, under instructions from a newspaper which sought to expose him, and if possible break his growing influence in the town. But in my armoury of satire, ridicule, and invective there was no weapon any more effective than Mrs. Partington's broom. I soon satisfied myself that the preacher did not understand what he preached. His obscurity was part of his attractiveness for the many. "He tells you something you don't get in the Churches," was an observation I frequently overheard among the crowd as they were leaving his lecture, and that at least one could endorse with a hearty assent. "Brethren," I remember him saying one night by way of illustrating his "idealism," "brethren, you think you see a lamp before me on the table. You think that lamp is an actual, concrete, permanent lamp. You are wrong. The only actual, real, and eternal thing is the concept of that lamp in your minds and mine." He developed page 131the theme and grew emphatic. He finally declared with great impressiveness, "The lamp you think you see is symbolic of the concept merely—it has no existence in actuality." And then, in one of his gestures, he knocked the lamp over at the very climax of his rhetoric! Fortunately no damage was done, although it was a kerosene lamp; there was no panic in the audience, no excitement. They hung upon his words and accepted unquestioningly the teaching of their prophet. Why should they be excited or panic-stricken? There was no lamp there Ipse dixerat!

Had all his teaching been as harmless as his Berkeleyan "idealism" he might well have been allowed to go his way without interference, and been permitted without hindrance to enjoy to the full his reflection "O Lord, what fools these mortals be!" But there were other features of the "Teaching" in which he subtly insinuated doctrines subversive of public morals. There was, for example, the "Society of the Blue Veil," admission to which was open to spinster ladies only; and there were vague and uneasy rumours about the initiation mysteries. One suspected that Worthington, like so many prophets and founders of modern religions, was a sexual pervert. And when crash and exposure did at last come, this unpleasant conjecture was abundantly verified.

Equally, of course, the "New Teaching" was associated with gastronomic theory. There seems to be some mysterious affinity between fancy religions and fancy foods. Worthington inculcated and even enjoined a strictly vegetarian diet upon his followers. This was as much an essential part of page 132his teaching as the transmigration of souls. Therein he in part resembled Pythagoras, who ate lentils and bade his disciples "fear to kill a woodcock lest they dispossessed the soul of their grandam."

One of the staunchest members of his congregation, and the most trusted in that he was placed in charge of the inevitable collection, was a well-known and highly respected house-painter and decorator in the town. The prophet had firmly persuaded him that in a previous incarnation he had been engaged in painting the doors of Noah's Ark; and his simple acceptance of this article of faith seemed to lend a dignity to his bearing as he marched up the aisle of the Temple and deposited the well-laden salvers at the feet of the Prophet.

For the first few months the "Teaching" was promulgated in a hired hall; but dupes and adherents increased with amazing rapidity, and in a very short time there was erected on a central site in the city the "Temple of Truth," This was a large wooden structure, with seating accommodation for approximately a thousand people. The interior decoration was exceedingly crude and ugly, but no doubt impressive to the members of the congregation. The splendours of Jerusalem and Chicago were happily mingled. There were suggestions of Solomon's temple; and the triangles and set squares and compasses in massive gilt, with here and there a swastika, were suggestive to me of the symbolism of Freemasonry. But that may be because I am not a Mason.

The overhanging roof on the façade of the temple was supported on several huge fluted pillars that looked most imposing. They appeared to be of a page 133rough grey stone, and I wondered where this stone had been quarried. In consequence of information received, as policemen say, I tested these noble pillars. I found that they were hollow inside, and, what is more, they were made of wood. Apparently while the surface paint was still wet, coarse sand had been blown on to it, and this gave a most convincing appearance to the sham pillars of the Temple of Truth. I forget the cost of the structure. The Temple itself, together with the Temple house adjoining, in which the Prophet was sumptuously lodged, must have cost at least £10,000, and, unlike most temples and places of worship in the Colony, it was triumphantly opened free of debt. The adherents of the Prophet came forward with most lavish generosity to build the Temple. They gave tithe and double tithe of all their possessions. It must not by any means be supposed that the followers of this Yankee crook were all of them hysterical women or decadent men. As far as I could judge, and I attended a great many meetings of his congregation, they were just average, middle-class, business people. One was surprised at the number of men—they almost outnumbered the women of the congregation. One of these, a "black" or "white rod," or something equally important, was a very well-known pressman, very much a man of the world, something of a scoffer, we had thought, and above all, a generous liver. His conversion to the "New Teaching" came as a great surprise to his townsfolk, and especially to those who, like myself, were habitués of "Fleet Street." And it was no temporary mood so far as he was concerned. He was among the valiant die-hards who stood by the page 134Prophet until quite near the end. Some of us wondered whether this genial bon viveur really practised the whole of the teaching, including the beans and lentils diet. There was certainly no diminution of girth visible. Perhaps he had obtained what the High Priest had liberally given himself, a dispensation from the rigours of the vegetarian diet; for very soon after Worthington grew prosperous—and that did not take long to come about—one understood that a little quail on toast was permitted occasionally at his own table, and that the processes of digestion were helped by the Widow Clicquot.

The existence of this sect, if such it may be called, and the startling increase in the number of followers, would in any circumstances have been alarming to members of other religious bodies; but there were ugly rumours in circulation about the mysterious tenets and secret practices of the cult, and not orthodox people alone, but ordinary decent-minded citizens were taking alarm. Vigilance committees were organised, and some efforts made to get direct evidence in support of the charges made against Worthington. But every inquiry was met with the same explanation—the "lady in the case" always turned out to be a "spiritual sister" of the High Priest, a most virtuous adherent to the "New Teaching," and a woman, in most cases spinster or widow, whose banking account afforded a much more likely explanation than her gaunt figure and uncomely face for the attraction she appeared to exercise over the Prophet. An association of Protestant ministers had in the meantime been pursuing investigations in the United States, and at last there came to hand page 135through official sources the information which broke him. He had already shamefully deserted the lady he had brought with him from America, and had entered into a new alliance with a member of his flock. It now appeared that he was "wanted" in seven or eight States of the Union on charges of bigamy. He had, it was computed, at least eight "wives" alive in various parts of the United States, all of them the poorer spiritually and financially for his ministrations. The crash, so far as Christchurch was concerned, was complete. The trustees of the Temple of Truth shut its doors upon him, so he hired a hall and had the effrontery to announce a public lecture in his own defence. The streets in the vicinity were thronged with people. The magistrate, for, I think, the only time in the history of the city, was called in to read the Riot Act, and with police assistance the Prophet escaped with his life from the crowd.

Not long after he received a "call" to the pulpit of a large and important nonconformist congregation in Sydney; but his pastorate there was brief. Again temptation presented itself in the guise of a widow of considerable means and greater credulity. Worthington persuaded her that he was Osiris, and she Isis, reincarnated to fulfil the high purposes of the Gods, and to sit enthroned side by side not in a world-old temple on the banks of the Nile, but on a plush-covered sofa in a Melbourne apartment house.

Having once persuaded the impressionable widow that she was indeed the All-Mother, spouse of the many-eyed God, he had but to tell her that the High Gods of Egypt practised community of goods, to page 136induce her to transfer her banking account. But, alas! Isis proved unfaithful to her Osiris, she prosecuted her god for fraud, and his career was terminated, so far as I have been able to trace it, by a long term of penal servitude. One of his Christchurch adherents, with a fidelity pathetic in its simplicity, visited him in his Australian prison, and there, to his grief and humiliation, saw the High Priest of the Temple of Truth, no longer robed as became his sacred office in the frock-coat of righteousness, but garbed in the crude coarseness of prison attire, engaged not in swinging the censer in the inner sanctuary of the Temple, but in scrubbing the prison bath with sandstone soap.

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