Yes, that was the sort of thing to say, but he felt a deep reluctance to saying it. It seemed ungentlemanly to have such a superior invulnerable God, part of that European conspiracy which opposes gun-boats to canoes and rifles to bows and arrows, which showers death from the mountains upon Indian villages, which rounds up the negro into an empire and tricks him of his patrimony.
Timothy Fortune is an Anglican missionary who sets out to convert the Polynesian island of Fanua. The islanders welcome him with open arms; they are charmed by his quirky ways: his apprehension around the scantily-clad women, the strange music he plays on his harmonium. But even though he stays many years, he gains only one convert, a youth named Lueli, and Lueli's soul is constantly a source of anxiety for Mr. Fortune. When he discovers Lueli's god--a small wooden idol that is "his" god in the way that all the islanders have their own hand-carved gods--at an altar in the forest, he despairs for his failure to convert Lueli properly.
Mr. Fortune--actually, Mr. Fortune's Maggot, the first of two slim novels collected in this edition--begins as a particularly sharp parody of European colonialism. Mr. Fortune bumbles around the island, as unaware of his own priggishness as only a condescending white missionary can be. He notes that Polynesians, even Lueli, have trouble conceiving of Jesus because they are "not sorrowful enough," without, of course, thinking through the logic of that statement. And yet Lueli, his young protege, is attached to Mr. Fortune with great ardor and intimacy and accepts his teaching with great equanimity, even when the subject is a particularly bungled lesson in geometry. What I expected, having heard a little about this book from Brent, was a barely sublimated gay romance, a love which Mr. Fortune represses through his own staunch religion. And it's not exactly not that. But while Mr. Fortune's blindness is played for laughs, the intimacy between him and Lueli never is.
About two-thirds of the way through, the novel changes in a way that is both obvious and subtle. A volcano tremor destroys Mr. Fortune's house, crushing everything inside, including the idol that he had demanded Lueli burn. Lueli's spirit dies with his own god, and he becomes despondent. But remarkably, Mr. Fortune's faith dies also, and in the passing of a heartbeat he gives up his Anglican mission for good. What follows is a meditation on love that took my breath away, a long-formulating realization that Mr. Fortune must leave the island to preserve Lueli, whom he loves above all things:
"I loved him," he thought. "From the moment I set eyes on him I loved him. Not with what is accounted a criminal love, for though I set my desire on him it was a spiritual desire. I did not even love him as a father loves a son, for that is a familiar love, and at the times when Lueli most entranced me it was as a being remote, intact, and incalculable. I waited to see what his next movement would be, if he would speak or no--it was the not knowing what he would do that made him dear. Yes, that was how I loved him best, those were my happiest moments; when I was just aware of him, and sat with my sense awaiting him, not wishing to speak, not wishing to make him notice me until he did so of his own accord because no other way would it be perfect, would it be by him. And how often, I wonder, have I let it be just like that? Perhaps a dozen times, perhaps twenty times all told, perhaps, when all is put together, for an hour out of the three years I had with him. For man's will is a demon that will not let him be. It leads him to the edge of a clear pool; and while he sits admiring it, with his soul suspended over it like a green branch and dwelling in its own reflection, will stretches out his hand and closes his fingers upon a stone--a stone to throw into it."
Guh. I'd give my hands to have written a paragraph as perfect as that one. It reveals something shockingly true about love: when it is real it comes out of a recognition of difference, seeing someone as a discrete person outside of yourself, and yet a difference that affirms its essential similarity. How crazy it is to encounter another being as full of spirit as yourself, yet so alien. And the same feeling produces a revulsion, a kind of anger. Like Oscar Wilde says, "Each man kills the thing he loves." But Wilde's pithiness is no match for Warner's lyrical elaboration, I think.
Warner felt so attached to Mr. Fortune that she revisited him years later in a smaller standalone novella called "The House of the Salutation." Mr. Fortune, having left Fanua, travels miserably around the world until he comes upon a widow living with a handful of servants in an old rundown mansion in the Argentine Pampas. The widow seizes upon Mr. Fortune's appearance with a love that is more recognizably romantic than the one he had with Lueli, but no less strange or reverent. This angers the widow's young heir, who suspects Mr. Fortune as having designs on the estate. "The heart is like a dog," she says. "It barks, and lies down again." The novella is strange and dense, without the touch of irony that lightens Mr. Fortune's Maggot, but touching, because Warner apparently could not forsake her apostate priest and was compelled to provide him, at last, with love.