Alger Hiss lay sprawled on the jetty in his wetsuit. Oops, there ought to have been a space there… in his wet suit. It was a stylish and elegant suit, from Gabbitas & Thring, and it was sopping wet because some minutes earlier, Alger Hiss had toppled into the river basin, inadvertently, and had to haul himself back on to the jetty with no little exertion. He was still panting, and making a half-hearted attempt to wring out his soaking cuffs, when who should come striding along from the direction of the ice cream kiosk but Whittaker Chambers? Alger Hiss hailed his alleged pal with a weedy wave of his besuitsleeved arm. Whittaker Chambers waved back, and came lolloping along the jetty. His suit was less stylish, less elegant, and its crumpling was born of neglect rather than fashion.
“How now, Hiss,” he said, “I see you have been for a swim in the basin.”
“Not so, Chambers,” Hiss replied, his panting somewhat abated, “I am afraid I fell in, clumsily.”
Whittaker Chambers removed a shred of lettuce from between his blackened rotting teeth and flicked it to the ground, but it sank gently in the air and came to land on the natty shoulderpiece of Alger Hiss’s suit.
“Do you insult me, Chambers, for my clumsiness?” cried Hiss, shattered and woebegone.
“Forgive me, Hiss,” said Chambers, “I did not aim that lettuce-shred at you, and its falling upon you was as accidental as your toppling into the basin.”
“On this occasion I shall believe you, Chambers,” said Hiss, marshalling his dignity, though he still lay sprawled, “Though you cannot claim to have been distracted, as I was when I toppled.”
“Oh?” said Chambers, “And what was it that distracted your attention and caused you to lose your footing at the very edge of the basin?”
“My gaze was fixed upon the immensity of the heavens above us, rather than as it more wisely would have been upon the muddy path along which I trod,” said Hiss.
A glimmer of understanding flashed across Whittaker Chambers’s face.
“Ah,” he said, “You were looking up hoping to spot perhaps a Soviet spy plane scanning our terrain for valuable intelligence?”
“Not at all,” replied Hiss, clambering at last to his feet, “I was lost in contemplation.”
Whittaker Chambers looked at his alleged pal in some surprise.
“What is there to contemplate?” he asked, “The sky is blue, and has clouds in it, and, fugitively, now and then, birds. And, if we are lucky, spy planes. But…”
“Oh Chambers, Chambers!” said Hiss, interrupting him, “Be mindful of what Chalmers said. What is seen may be nothing to what is unseen; for what is seen is limited by the range of our instruments. What is unseen has no limit; and though all which the eye of man can take in, or his fancy can grasp, were swept away, there might still remain as ample a field, over which the Divinity may expatiate, and which He may have peopled with innumerable worlds. If the whole visible creation were to disappear, it would leave a solitude behind it – but to the Infinite Mind that can take in the whole system of nature, this solitude might be nothing; a small unoccupied point in that immensity which surrounds it, and which he may have filled with the wonders of his omnipotence. Though this earth were to be burned up, though the trumpet of its dissolution were sounded, though yon sky were to pass away as a scroll, and every visible glory, which the finger of the Divinity has inscribed on it, were to be put out for ever – an event, so awful to us, and to every world in our vicinity, by which so many suns would be extinguished, and so many varied scenes of life and of population would rush into forgetfulness – what is it in the high scale of the Almighty’s workmanship? a mere shred, which, though scattered into nothing, would leave the universe of God one entire scene of greatness and of majesty. Though this earth, and these heavens, were to disappear, there are other worlds which roll afar; the light of other suns shines upon them; and the sky which mantles them, is garnished with other stars. Is it presumption to say, that the moral world extends to these distant and unknown regions? that they are occupied with people? that the charities of home and of neighbourhood flourish there? that the praises of God are there lifted up, and his goodness rejoiced in? that piety has there its temples and its offerings? and the richness of the divine attributes is there felt and admired by intelligent worshippers?”
Alger Hiss paused, and Whittaker Chambers took the opportunity to suggest that they stroll together, arm in arm, to the ice cream kiosk. Hiss nodded in agreement, and continued.
“And what is this world in the immensity which teems with them – and what are they who occupy it? The universe at large would suffer as little, in its splendour and variety, by the destruction of our planet, as the verdure and sublime magnitude of a forest would suffer by the fall of a single leaf. The leaf quivers on the branch which supports it. It lies at the mercy of the slightest accident. A breath of wind tears it from its stem, and it lights on the stream of water which passes underneath.”
“Just as my dislodged shred of lettuce lighted upon your natty shoulder,” said Chambers.
“Indeed,” said Hiss, “In a moment of time, the life we know, by the microscope, it teems with, is extinguished; and an occurrence so insignificant in the eye of man, and on the scale of his observation, carries in it, to the myriads which people this little leaf, an event as terrible and as decisive as the destruction of a world. Now, on the grand scale of the universe, we, the occupiers of this ball, which performs its little round among the suns and the systems that astronomy has unfolded – we may feel the same littleness, and the same insecurity. We differ from the leaf only in this circumstance, that it would require the operation of greater elements to destroy us. But these elements exist. The fire which rages within, may lift its devouring energy to the surface of our planet, and transform it into one wide and wasting volcano. The sudden formation of elastic matter in the bowels of the earth – and it lies within the agency of known substances to accomplish this – may explode it into fragments. The exhalation of noxious air from below, may impart a virulence to the air that is around us; it may affect the delicate proportion of its ingredients; and the whole of animated nature may wither and die under the malignity of a tainted atmosphere. A blazing comet may cross this fated planet in its orbit, and realize all the terrors which superstition has conceived of it. We cannot anticipate with precision the consequences of an event which every astronomer must know to lie within the limits of chance and probability. It may hurry our globe towards the sun – or drag it to the outer regions of the planetary system – or give it a new axis of revolution; and the effect, which I shall simply announce, without explaining it, would be to change the place of the ocean, and bring another mighty flood upon our islands and continents. These are changes which may happen in a single instant of time, and against which nothing known in the present system of things provides us with any security. They might not annihilate the earth, but they would unpeople it; and we who tread its surface with such firm and assured footsteps, are at the mercy of devouring elements, which, if let loose upon us by the hand of the Almighty, would spread solitude, and silence, and death, over the dominions of the world.”
“Your own footsteps were not so firm and assured when you toppled into the river basin,” said Chambers, “But I should not tease you. Let me buy you a choc ice.”
The pair had arrived at the ice cream kiosk.
“Just one thing,” added Chambers, “When you speak of the Almighty, I assume you refer to Stalin?”
“Hush, Chambers!” hissed Hiss, putting his finger to his lips, “Be careful. The fellow behind the ice cream kiosk counter may be a Federal Agent!”
Whittaker Chambers slapped his forehead dramatically.
“Dammit, Hiss, you are right of course. I am sorry.”
To be on the safe side, he made a great show, as he purchased two choc ices, of saluting the paper stars-and-stripes fluttering from the kiosk’s shingle roof.
Munching their confectionery, as cold and chilly as the Siberian steppes, Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers walked off together in the blazing sunshine.
Further reading : Discourses On The Christian Revelation, Viewed In Connection With The Modern Astronomy by Thomas Chalmers D.D. & LL.D. (1817)