Ineffable false joys, unspeakable false terror and distress, strange phantoms only seen as in a glass darkly, chase each other without rhyme or reason, and play hide-and-seek across the twilit field and through the dark recesses of our clouded and imperfect consciousness.
And the false terrors and distress, however unspeakable, are no worse than such real terrors and distress as are only too often the waking lot of man, or even so bad; but the ineffable false joys transcend all possible human felicity while they last, and a little while it is! We wake, and wonder, and recall the slight foundation on which such ultra-human bliss has seemed to rest. What matters the foundation if but the bliss be there, and the brain has nerves to feel it?
Poor human nature, so richly endowed with nerves of anguish, so splendidly organized for pain and sorrow, is but slenderly equipped for joy.
What hells have we not invented for the afterlife! Indeed, what hells we have often made of this, both for ourselves and others, and at really such a very small cost of ingenuity, after all!
Perhaps the biggest and most benighted fools have been the best hell-makers.
Whereas the best of our heavens is but a poor perfunctory conception, for all that the highest and cleverest among us have done their very utmost to decorate and embellish it, and make life there seem worth living. So impossible it is to imagine or invent beyond the sphere of our experience.
Now, these dreams of mine (common to many) of the false but ineffable joys, are they not a proof that there exist in the human brain hidden capacities, dormant potentialities of bliss, unsuspected hitherto, to be developed some day, perhaps, and placed within the reach of all, wakers and sleepers alike?
A sense of ineffable joy, attainable at will, and equal in intensity and duration to (let us say) an attack of sciatica, would go far to equalize the sorrowful, one-sided conditions under which we live.
* * * * *
But there is one thing which, as a school-boy, I never dreamed—namely, that I, and one other holding a torch, should one day, by common consent, find our happiness in exploring these mysterious caverns of the brain; and should lay the foundations of order where only misrule had been before: and out of all those unreal, waste, and transitory realms of illusion, evolve a real, stable, and habitable world, which all who run may reach.
* * * * *
At last I left school for good, and paid a visit to my Uncle Ibbetson in Hopshire, where he was building himself a lordly new pleasure-house on his own land, as the old one he had inherited a year or two ago was no longer good enough for him.
It was an uninteresting coast on the German Ocean, without a rock, or a cliff, or a pier, or a tree; even without cold gray stones for the sea to break on—nothing but sand!—a bourgeois kind of sea, charmless in its best moods, and not very terrible in its wrath, except to a few stray fishermen whom it employed, and did not seem to reward very munificently.
Inland it was much the same. One always thought of the country as gray, until one looked and found that it was green; and then, if one were old and wise, one thought no more about it, and turned one's gaze inward. Moreover, it seemed to rain incessantly.
But it was the country and the sea, after Bluefriars and the cloisters—after Newgate, St. Bartholomew, and Smithfield.
And one could fish and bathe in the sea after all, and ride in the country, and even follow the hounds, a little later; which would have been a joy beyond compare if one had not been blessed with an uncle who thought one rode like a French tailor, and told one so, and mimicked one, in the presence of charming young ladies who rode in perfection.
In fact, it was heaven itself by comparison, and would have remained so longer but for Colonel Ibbetson's efforts to make a gentleman of me—an English gentleman.
What is a gentleman? It is a grand old name; but what does it mean?
At one time, to say of a man that he is a gentleman, is to confer on him the highest title of distinction we can think of; even if we are speaking of a prince.
At another, to say of a man that he is not a gentleman is almost to stigmatize him as a social outcast, unfit for the company of his kind—even if it is only one haberdasher speaking of another.
Who is a gentleman, and yet who is not?
The Prince of Darkness was one, and so was Mr. John Halifax, if we are to believe those who knew them best; and so was one "Pelham," according to the late Sir Edward Bulwer, Earl of Lytton, etc.; and it certainly seemed as if he ought to know.
And I was to be another, according to Roger Ibbetson, Esquire, of Ibbetson Hall, late Colonel of the—, and it certainly seemed as if he ought to know too! The word was as constantly on his lips (when talking to me) as though, instead of having borne her Majesty's commission, he were a hairdresser's assistant who had just come into an independent fortune.
This course of tuition began pleasantly enough, before I left London, by his sending me to his tailors, who made me several beautiful suits; especially an evening suit, which has lasted me for life, alas; and these, after the uniform of the gray-coat school, were like an initiation to the splendors of freedom and manhood.
Colonel Ibbetson—or Uncle Ibbetson, as I used to call him—was my mother's first cousin; my grandmother, Mrs. Biddulph, was the sister of his father, the late Archdeacon Ibbetson, a very pious, learned, and exemplary divine, of good family.
But his mother (the Archdeacon's second wife) had been the only child and heiress of an immensely rich pawnbroker, by name Mendoza; a Portuguese Jew, with a dash of colored blood in his veins besides, it was said; and, indeed, this remote African strain still showed itself in Uncle Ibbetson's thick lips, wide open nostrils, and big black eyes with yellow whites—and especially in his long, splay, lark-heeled feet, which gave both himself and the best bootmaker in London a great deal of trouble.
Otherwise, and in spite of his ugly face, he was not without a certain soldier-like air of distinction, being very tall and powerfully built. He wore stays, and an excellent wig, for he was prematurely bald; and he carried his hat on one side, which (in my untutored eyes) made him look very much like a "swell," but not quite like a gentleman.
To wear your hat jauntily cocked over one eye, and yet "look like a gentleman!"
It can be done, I am told; and has been, and is even still! It is not, perhaps, a very lofty achievement—but such as it is, it requires a somewhat rare combination of social and physical gifts in the wearer; and the possession of either Semitic or African blood does not seem to be one of these.
Colonel Ibbetson could do a little of everything—sketch (especially a steam-boat on a smooth sea, with beautiful thick smoke reflected in the water), play the guitar, sing chansonnettes and canzonets, write society verses, quote De Musset—
"Avez-vous vu dans Barcelone Une Andalouse au sein bruni?"
He would speak French whenever he could, even to an English ostler, and then recollect himself suddenly, and apologize for his thoughtlessness; and even when he spoke English, he would embroider it with little two-penny French tags and idioms: "Pour tout potage"; "Nous avons change tout cela"; "Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galere?" etc.; or Italian, "Chi lo sa?" "Pazienza!" "Ahime!" or even Latin, "Eheu fugaces," and "Vidi tantum!" for he had been an Eton boy. It must have been very cheap Latin, for I could always understand it myself! He drew the line at German and Greek; fortunately, for so do I. He was a bachelor, and his domestic arrangements had been irregular, and I will not dwell upon them; but his house, as far as it went, seemed to promise better things.
His architect, Mr. Lintot, an extraordinary little man, full of genius and quite self-made, became my friend and taught me to smoke, and drink gin and water.
He did his work well; but of an evening he used to drink more than was good for him, and rave about Shelley, his only poet. He would recite "The Skylark" (his only poem) with uncertain h's, and a rather cockney accent—
"'Ail to thee blythe sperrit! Bird thou never wert, That from 'eaven, or near it Po'rest thy full 'eart In profuse strains of hunpremeditated hart."
As the evening wore on his recitations became "low comic," and quite admirable for accent and humour. He could imitate all the actors in London (none of which I had seen) so well as to transport me with delight and wonder; and all this with nobody but me for an audience, as we sat smoking and drinking together in his room at the "Ibbetson Arms."
I felt grateful to adoration.
Later still, he would become sentimental again; and dilate to me on the joys of his wedded life, on the extraordinary of intellect and beauty of Mrs. Lintot. First he would describe to me the beauties of her mind, and compare her to "L.E.L." and Felicia Hemans. Then he would fall back on her physical perfections; there was nobody worthy to be compared to her in these—but I draw the veil.
He was very egotistical. Whatever he did, whatever he liked, whatever belonged to him, was better than anything else in world; and he was cleverer than any one else, except Mrs. Lintot, to whom he yielded the palm; and then he would cheer up and become funny again.
In fact his self-satisfaction was quite extraordinary; and what is more extraordinary still, it was not a bit offensive—at least, to me; perhaps because he was such a tiny little man; or because much of this vanity of his seemed to have no very solid foundation, for it was not of the gifts I most admired in him that he was vainest; or because it came out most when he was most tipsy, and genial tipsiness redeems so much; or else because he was most vain about things I should never have been vain about myself; and the most unpardonable vanity in others is that which is secretly our own, whether we are conscious of it or not.
And then he was the first funny man I had ever met. What a gift it is! He was always funny when he tried to be, whether one laughed with him or at him, and I loved him for it. Nothing on earth is more pathetically pitiable than the funny man when he still tries and succeeds no longer.
The moment Lintot's vein was exhausted, he had the sense to leave off and begin to cry, which was still funny; and then I would jump out of his clothes and into his bed and be asleep in a second, with the tears still trickling down his little nose—and even that was funny!
But next morning he was stern and alert and indefatiguable, as though gin and poetry and conjugal love had never been, and fun were a capital crime.
Uncle Ibbetson thought highly of him as an architect, but not otherwise; he simply made use of him.
"He's a terrible little snob, of course, and hasn't got an h in his head" (as if that were a capital crime); "but he's very clever—look at that campanile—and then he's cheap, my boy, cheap."
There were several fine houses in fine parks not very far from Ibbetson Hall; but although Uncle Ibbetson appeared in name and wealth and social position to be on a par with their owners, he was not on terms of intimacy with any of them, or even of acquaintance, as far as I know, and spoke of them with contempt, as barbarians—people with whom he had nothing in common. Perhaps they, too, had found out this incompatibility, especially the ladies; for, school-boy as I was, I was not long in discovering that his manner towards those of the other sex was not always such as to please either of them or their husbands or fathers or brothers. The way he looked at them was enough. Indeed, most of his lady-friends and acquaintances through life had belonged to the corps de ballet, the demi-monde, etc.—not, I should imagine, the best school of manners in the world.
On the other hand, he was very friendly with some families in the town; the doctor's, the rector's, his own agent's (a broken-down brother officer and bosom friend, who had ceased to love him since he received his pay); and he used to take Mr. Lintot and me to parties there; and he was the life of those parties.
He sang little French songs, with no voice, but quite a good French accent, and told little anecdotes with no particular point, but in French and Italian (so that the point was never missed); and we all laughed and admired without quite knowing why, except that he was the lord of the manor.
On these festive occasions poor Lintot's confidence and power of amusing seemed to desert him altogether; he sat glum in a corner.
Though a radical and a sceptic, and a peace-at-any-price man, he was much impressed by the social status of the army and the church.
Of the doctor, a very clever and accomplished person, and the best educated man for miles around, he thought little; but the rector, the colonel, the poor captain, even, now a mere land-steward, seemed to fill him with respectful awe. And for his pains he was cruelly snubbed by Mrs. Captain and Mrs. Rector and their plain daughters, who little guessed what talents he concealed, and thought him quite a common little man, hardly fit to turn over the leaves of their music.
It soon became pretty evident that Ibbetson was very much smitten with a Mrs. Deane, the widow of a brewer, a very handsome woman indeed, in her own estimation and mine, and everybody else's, except Mr. Lintot's, who said, "Pooh, you should see my wife!"
Her mother, Mrs. Glyn, excelled us all in her admiration of Colonel Ibbetson.
For instance, Mrs. Deane would play some common little waltz of the cheap kind that is never either remembered or forgotten, and Mrs. Glyn would exclaim, "Is not that lovely?"
And Ibbetson would say: "Charming! charming! Whose is it? Rossini's? Mozart's?"
"Why, no, my dear colonel. Don't you remember? It's your own!"
"Ah, so it is! I had quite forgotten." And general laughter and applause would burst forth at such a natural mistake on the part of our great man.
Well, I could neither play nor sing, and found it far easier by this time to speak English than French, especially to English people who were ignorant of any language but their own. Yet sometimes Colonel Ibbetson would seem quite proud of me.
"Deux metres, bien sonnes!" he would say, alluding to my stature, "et le profil d'Antinoues!" which he would pronounce without the two little dots on the u.
And afterwards, if he had felt his evening a pleasant one, if he had sung all he knew, if Mrs. Deane had been more than usually loving and self-surrendering, and I had distinguished myself by skilfully turning over the leaves when her mother had played the piano, he would tell me, as we walked home together, that I "did credit to his name, and that I would make an excellent figure in the world as soon as I had decrasse myself; that I must get another dress-suit from his tailor, just an eighth of an inch longer in the tails; that I should have a commission in his old regiment (the Eleventeenth Royal Bounders), a deuced crack cavalry regiment; and see the world and break a few hearts (it is not for nothing that our friends have pretty wives and sisters); and finally marry some beautiful young heiress of title, and make a home for him when he was a poor solitary old fellow. Very little would do for him: a crust of bread, a glass of wine and water, and a clean napkin, a couple of rooms, and an old piano and a few good books. For, of course, Ibbetson Hall would be mine and every penny he possessed in the world."
All this in confidential French—lest the very clouds should hear us—and with the familiar thee and thou of blood-relationship, which I did not care to return.
It did not seem to bode very serious intentions towards Mrs. Deane, and would scarcely have pleased her mother.
Or else, if something had crossed him, and Mrs. Deane had flirted outrageously with somebody else, and he had not been asked to sing (or somebody else had), he would assure me in good round English that I was the most infernal lout that ever disgraced a drawing-room, or ate a man out of house and home, and that he was sick and ashamed of me. "Why can't you sing, you d—d French milksop? The d—d roulade-monger of a father of yours could sing fast enough, if he could do nothing else, confound him! Why can't you talk French, you infernal British booby? Why can't you hand round the tea and muffins, confound you! Why, twice Mrs. Glyn dropped her pocket-handkerchief and had to pick it up herself! What, 'at the other end of the room,' were you? Well, you should have skipped across the room, and picked it up, and handed it to her with a pretty speech, like a gentleman! When I was your age I was always on the lookout for ladies' pocket-handkerchiefs to drop—or their fans! I never missed one!"
Then he would take me out to shoot with him (for it was quite essential that an English gentleman should be a sportsman)—a terrible ordeal to both of us.
A snipe that I did not want to kill in the least would sometimes rise and fly right and left like a flash of lightning, and I would miss it—always; and he would d—n me for a son of a confounded French Micawber, and miss the next himself, and get into a rage and thrash his dog, a pointer that I was very fond of. Once he thrashed her so cruelly that I saw scarlet, and nearly yielded to the impulse of emptying both my barrels in his broad back. If I had done so it would have passed for a mere mishap, after all, and saved many future complications.
* * * * *
One day he pointed out to me a small bird pecking in a field—an extremely pretty bird—I think it was a skylark—and whispered to me in his most sarcastic manner—
"Look here, you Peter without any salt, do you think, if you were to kneel down and rest your gun comfortably on this gate without making a noise, and take a careful aim, you could manage to shoot that bird sitting? I've heard of some Frenchmen who would be equal to that!"
I said I would try, and, resting my gun as he told me, I carefully aimed a couple of yards above the bird's head, and mentally ejaculating,
"'All to thee blythe sperrit!"
I fired both barrels (for fear of any after-mishap to Ibbetson), and the bird naturally flew away.
After this he never took me out shooting with him again; and, indeed, I had discovered to my discomfiture that I, the friend and admirer and would-be emulator of Natty Bumppo the Deerslayer, I, the familiar of the last of the Mohicans and his scalp-lifting father, could not bear the sight of blood—least of all, of blood shed by myself, and for my own amusement.
The only beast that ever fell to my gun during those shootings with Uncle Ibbetson was a young rabbit, and that more by accident than design, although I did not tell Uncle Ibbetson so.
As I picked it off the ground, and felt its poor little warm narrow chest, and the last beats of its heart under its weak ribs, and saw the blood on its fur, I was smitten with pity, shame, and remorse; and settled with myself that I would find some other road to English gentlemanhood than the slaying of innocent wild things whose happy life seems so well worth living.
I must eat them, I suppose, but I would never shoot them any more; my hands, at least, should be clean of blood henceforward.
Alas, the irony of fate!
The upshot of all this was that he confided to Mrs. Deane the task of licking his cub of a nephew into shape. She took me in hand with right good-will, began by teaching me how to dance, that I might dance with her at the coming hunt ball; and I did so nearly all night, to my infinite joy and triumph, and to the disgust of Colonel Ibbetson, who could dance much better than I—to the disgust, indeed, of many smart men in red coats and black, for she was considered the belle of the evening.
Of course I fell, or fancied I fell, in love with her. To her mother's extreme distress, she gave me every encouragement, partly for fun, partly to annoy Colonel Ibbetson, whom she had apparently grown to hate. And, indeed, from the way he spoke of her to me (this trainer of English gentlemen), he well deserved that she should hate him. He never had the slightest intention of marrying her—that is certain; and yet he had made her the talk of the place.
And here I may state that Ibbetson was one of those singular men who go through life afflicted with the mania that they are fatally irresistible to women.
He was never weary of pursuing them—not through any special love of gallantry for its own sake, I believe, but from the mere wish to appear as a Don Giovanni in the eyes of others. Nothing made him happier than to be seen whispering mysteriously in corners with the prettiest woman in the room. He did not seem to perceive that for one woman silly or vain or vulgar enough to be flattered by his idiotic persecution, a dozen would loathe the very sight of him, and show it plainly enough.
This vanity had increased with years and assumed a very dangerous form. He became indiscreet, and, more disastrous still, he told lies! The very dead—the honored and irreproachable dead—were not even safe in their graves. It was his revenge for unforgotten slights.
He who kisses and tells, he who tells even though he has not kissed—what can be said for him, what should be done to him?
Ibbetson one day expiated this miserable craze with his life, and the man who took it—more by accident than design, it is true—has not yet found it in his heart to feel either compunction or regret.
* * * * *
So there was a great row between Ibbetson and myself. He d——d and confounded and abused me in every way, and my father before me, and finally struck me; and I had sufficient self-command not to strike him back, but left him then and there with as much dignity as I could muster.
Thus unsuccessfully ended my brief experience of English country life—a little hunting and shooting and fishing, a little dancing and flirting; just enough of each to show me I was unfit for all.
A bitter-sweet remembrance, full of humiliation, but not altogether without charm. There was the beauty of sea and open sky and changing country weather; and the beauty of Mrs. Deane, who made a fool of me to revenge herself on Colonel Ibbetson for trying to make a fool of her, whereby he became the laughing-stock of the neighborhood for at least nine days.
And I revenged myself on both—heroically, as I thought; though where the heroism comes in, and where the revenge, does not appear quite patent.
For I ran away to London, and enlisted in her Majesty's Household Cavalry, where I remained a twelvemonth, and was happy enough, and learned a great deal more good than harm.
* * * * *
Then I was bought out and articled to Mr. Lintot, architect and surveyor: a conclave of my relatives agreeing to allow me ninety pounds a year for three years; then all hands were to be washed of me altogether.[A]
[Footnote A: Note.—I have thought it better to leave out, in its entirety, my cousin's account of his short career as a private soldier. It consists principally of personal descriptions that are not altogether unprejudiced; he seems never to have quite liked those who were placed in authority above him, either at school or in the army. MADGE PLUNKET.]
* * * * *
So I took a small lodging in Pentonville, to be near Mr. Lintot, and worked hard at my new profession for three years, during which nothing of importance occurred in my outer life. After this Lintot employed me as a salaried clerk, and I do not think he had any reason to complain of me, nor did he make any complaint. I was worth my hire, I think, and something over; which I never got and never asked for.
Nor did I complain of him; for with all his little foibles of vanity, irascibility, and egotism, and a certain close-fistedness, he was a good fellow and a very clever one.
His paragon of a wife was by no means the beautiful person he had made her out to be, nor did anybody but he seem to think her so.
She was a little older than himself; very large and massive, with stern but not irregular features, and a very high forehead; she had a slight tendency to baldness, and colorless hair that she wore in an austere curl on each side of her face, and a menacing little topknot on her occiput. She had been a Unitarian and a governess, was fond of good long words, like Dr. Johnson, and very censorious.
But one of my husband's intimate friends, General——, who was cornet in the Life Guards in my poor cousin's time, writes me that "he remembers him well, as far and away the tallest and handsomest lad in the whole regiment, of immense physical strength, unimpeachable good conduct, and a thorough gentleman from top to toe."
Her husband's occasional derelictions in the matter of grammar and accent must have been very trying to her!
She knew her own mind about everything under the sun, and expected that other people should know it, too, and be of the same mind as herself. And yet she was not proud; indeed, she was a very dragon of humility, and had raised injured meekness to the rank of a militant virtue. And well she knew how to be master and mistress in her own house!
But with all this she was an excellent wife to Mr. Lintot and a devoted mother to his children, who were very plain and subdued (and adored their father); so that Lintot, who thought her Venus and Diana and Minerva in one, was the happiest man in all Pentonville.
And, on the whole, she was kind and considerate to me, and I always did my best to please her.
Moreover (a gift for which I could never be too grateful), she presented me with an old square piano, which had belonged to her mother, and had done duty in her school-room, till Lintot gave her a new one (for she was a highly cultivated musician of the severest classical type). It became the principal ornament of my small sitting-room, which it nearly filled, and on it I tried to learn my notes, and would pick out with one finger the old beloved melodies my father used to sing, and my mother play on the harp.
To sing myself was, it seems, out of the question; my voice (which I trust was not too disagreeable when I was content merely to speak) became as that of a bull-frog under a blanket whenever I strove to express myself in song; my larynx refused to produce the notes I held so accurately in my mind, and the result was disaster.
On the other hand, in my mind I could sing most beautifully. Once on a rainy day, inside an Islington omnibus, I mentally sang "Adelaida" with the voice of Mr. Sims Reeves—an unpardonable liberty to take; and although it is not for me to say so, I sang it even better than he, for I made myself shed tears—so much so that a kind old gentleman sitting opposite seemed to feel for me very much.
I also had the faculty of remembering any tune I once heard, and would whistle it correctly ever after—even one of Uncle Ibbetson's waltzes!
As an instance of this, worth recalling, one night I found myself in Guildford Street, walking in the same direction as another belated individual (only on the other side of the road), who, just as the moon came out of a cloud, was moved to whistle.
He whistled exquisitely, and, what was more, he whistled quite the most beautiful tune I had ever heard. I felt all its changes and modulations, its majors and minors, just as if a whole band had been there to play the accompaniment, so cunning and expressive a whistler was he.
And so entranced was I that I made up my mind to cross over and ask him what it was—"Your melody or your life!" But he suddenly stopped at No. 48, and let himself in with his key before I could prefer my humble request.
Well, I went whistling that tune all next day, and for many days after, without ever finding out what it was; till one evening, happening to be at the Lintots. I asked Mrs. Lintot (who happened to be at the piano) if she knew it, and began to whistle it once more. To my delight and surprise she straightway accompanied it all through (a wonderful condescension in so severe a purist), and I did not make a single wrong note.
"Yes," said Mrs. Lintot, "it's a pretty, catchy little tune—of a kind to achieve immediate popularity."
Now, I apologize humbly to the reader for this digression; but if he be musical he will forgive me, for that tune was the "Serenade" of Schubert, and I had never even heard Schubert's name!
And having thus duly apologized, I will venture to transgress and digress anew, and mention here a kind of melodic malady, a singular obsession to which I am subject, and which I will call unconscious musical cerebration.
I am never without some tune running in my head—never for a moment; not that I am always aware of it; existence would be insupportable if I were. What part of my brain sings it, or rather in what part of my brain it sings itself, I cannot imagine—probably in some useless corner full of cobwebs and lumber that is fit for nothing else.
But it never leaves off; now it is one tune, now another; now a song without words, now with; sometimes it is near the surface, so to speak, and I am vaguely conscious of it as I read or work, or talk or think; sometimes to make sure it is there I have to dive for it deep into myself, and I never fail to find it after a while, and bring it up to the top. It is the "Carnival of Venice," let us say; then I let it sink again, and it changes without my knowing; so that when I take another dive the "Carnival of Venice" has become "Il Mio Tesoro," or the "Marseillaise," or "Pretty Little Polly Perkins of Paddington Green." And Heaven knows what tunes, unheard and unperceived, this internal barrel-organ has been grinding meanwhile.
Sometimes it intrudes itself so persistently as to become a nuisance, and the only way to get rid of it is to whistle or sing myself. For instance, I may be mentally reciting for my solace and delectation some beloved lyric like "The Waterfowl," or "Tears, Idle Tears," or "Break, Break, Break"; and all the while, between the lines, this fiend of a subcerebral vocalist, like a wandering minstrel in a distant square, insists on singing, "Cheer, Boys, Cheer," or, "Tommy, make room for your uncle" (tunes I cannot abide), with words, accompaniment, and all, complete, and not quite so refined an accent as I could wish; so that I have to leave off my recitation and whistle "J'ai du Bon Tabac" in quite a different key to exorcise it.
But this, at least, I will say for this never still small voice of mine: its intonation is always perfect; it keeps ideal time, and its quality, though rather thin and somewhat nasal and quite peculiar, is not unsympathetic. Sometimes, indeed (as in that Islington omnibus), I can compel it to imitate, a s'y meprendre, the tones of some singer I have recently heard, and thus make for myself a ghostly music which is not to be despised.
Occasionally, too, and quite unbidden, it would warble little impromptu inward melodies of my own composition, which often seemed to me extremely pretty, old-fashioned, and quaint; but one is not a fair judge of one's own productions, especially during the heat of inspiration; and I had not the means of recording them, as I had never learned the musical notes. What the world has lost!
Now whose this small voice was I did not find out till many years later, for it was not mine!
* * * * *
In spite of such rare accomplishments and resources within myself, I was not a happy or contented young man; nor had my discontent in it anything of the divine.
I disliked my profession, for which I felt no particular aptitude, and would fain have followed another—poetry, science, literature, music, painting, sculpture; for all of which I most unblushingly thought myself better fitted by the gift of nature.
I disliked Pentonville, which, although clean, virtuous, and respectable, left much to be desired on the score of shape, color, romantic tradition, and local charm; and I would sooner have lived anywhere else: in the Champs-Elysees, let us say—yes, indeed, even on the fifth branch of the third tree on the left-hand side as you leave the Arc de Triomphe, like one of those classical heroes in Henri Murger's Vie de Boheme.
I disliked my brother apprentices, and did not get on well with them, especially a certain very clever but vicious and deformed youth called Judkins, who seemed to have conceived an aversion for me from the first; he is now an associate of the Royal Academy. They thought I gave myself airs because I did not share in their dissipations; such dissipations as I could have afforded would have been cheap and nasty indeed.
Yet such pothouse dissipation seemed to satisfy them, since they took not only a pleasure in it, but a pride.
They even took a pride in a sick headache, and liked it, if it were the result of a debauch on the previous night; and were as pompously mock-modest about a black eye, got in a squabble at the Argyll Rooms, as if it had been the Victoria Cross. To pass the night in a police cell was such glory that it was worth while pretending they had done so when it was untrue.
They looked upon me as a muff, a milksop, and a prig, and felt the greatest contempt for me; and if they did not openly show it, it was only because they were not quite so fond of black eyes as they made out.
So I left them to their inexpensive joys, and betook myself to pursuits of my own, among others to the cultivation of my body, after methods I had learned in the Life Guards. I belonged to a gymnastic and fencing and boxing club, of which I was a most assiduous frequenter; a more persevering dumb-beller and Indian-clubber never was, and I became in time an all-round athlete, as wiry and lean as a greyhound, just under fifteen stone, and four inches over six feet in height, which was considered very tall thirty years ago; especially in Pentonville, where the distinction often brought me more contumely than respect.
Altogether a most formidable person; but that I was of a timid nature, afraid to hurt, and the peacefulest creature in the world.
My old love for slums revived, and I found out and haunted the worst in London. They were very good slums, but they were not the slums of Paris—they manage these things better in France.
Even Cow Cross (where the Metropolitan Railway now runs between King's Cross and Farringdon Street)—Cow Cross, that whilom labyrinth of slaughter-houses, gin-shops, and thieves' dens, with the famous Fleet Ditch running underneath it all the while, lacked the fascination and mystery of mediaeval romance. There were no memories of such charming people as Le roi des Truands and Gringoire and Esmeralda; with a sigh one had to fall back on visions of Fagin and Bill Sykes and Nancy.
And as to the actual denizens! One gazed with a dull, wondering pity at the poor, pale, rickety children; the slatternly, coarse women who never smiled (except when drunk); the dull, morose, miserable men. How they lacked the grace of French deformity, the ease and lightness of French depravity, the sympathetic distinction of French grotesqueness. How unterrible they were, who preferred the fist to the noiseless and insidious knife! who fought with their hands instead of their feet, quite loyally; and reserved the kicks of their hobnailed boots for their recalcitrant wives!
And then there was no Morgue; one missed one's Morgue badly.
And Smithfield! It would split me truly to the heart (as M. le Major used to say) to watch the poor beasts that came on certain days to make a short station in that hideous cattle-market, on their way to the slaughter-house.
What bludgeons have I seen descend on beautiful, bewildered, dazed, meek eyes, so thickly fringed against the country sun; on soft, moist, tender nostrils that clouded the poisonous reek with a fragrance of the far-off fields! What torture of silly sheep and genially cynical pigs!
The very dogs seemed demoralized, and brutal as their masters. And there one day I had an adventure, a dirty bout at fisticuffs, most humiliating in the end for me and which showed that chivalry is often its own reward, like virtue, even when the chivalrous are young and big and strong, and have learned to box.
A brutal young drover wantonly kicked a sheep, and, as I thought, broke her hind-leg, and in my indignation I took him by the ear and flung him round onto a heap of mud and filth. He rose and squared at me in a most plucky fashion; he hardly came up to my chin, and I refused to fight him. A crowd collected round us, and as I tried to explain to the by-standers the cause of our quarrel, he managed to hit me in the face with a very muddy fist.
"Bravo, little 'un!" shouted the crowd, and he squared up again. I felt wretchedly ashamed and warded off all his blows, telling him that I could not hit him or I should kill him.
"Yah!" shouted the crowd again; "go it, little un! Let 'im 'ave it! The long un's showing the white feather," etc., and finally I gave him a slight backhander that made his nose bleed and seemed to demoralize him completely. "Yah!" shouted the crowd; "'it one yer own size!"
I looked round in despair and rage, and picking out the biggest man I could see, said, "Are you big enough?" The crowd roared with laughter.
"Well, guv'ner, I dessay I might do at a pinch," he replied; and I tried to slap his face, but missed it, and received such a tremendous box on the ear that I was giddy for a second or two, and when I recovered I found him still grinning at me. I tried to hit him again and again, but always missed; and at last, without doing me any particular damage, he laid me flat three times running onto the very heap where I had flung the drover, the crowd applauding madly. Dazed, hatless, and panting, and covered with filth, I stared at him in hopeless impotence. He put out his hand, and said, "You're all right, ain't yer, guv'ner? I 'ope I 'aven't 'urt yer! My name's Tom Sayers. If you'd a 'it me, I should 'a' gone down like a ninepin, and I ain't so sure as I should ever 'ave got up again."
He was to become the most famous fighting-man in England!
I wrung his hand and thanked him, and offered him a sovereign, which he refused; and then he led me into a room in a public-house close by, where he washed and brushed me down, and insisted on treating me to a glass of brandy-and-water.
I have had a fondness for fighting-men ever since, and a respect for the noble science I had never felt before. He was many inches shorter than I, and did not look at all the Hercules he was.
He told me I was the strongest built man for a youngster that he had ever seen, barring that I was "rather leggy." I do not know if he was sincere or not, but no possible compliment could have pleased me more. Such is the vanity of youth.
And here, although it savors somewhat of vaingloriousness, I cannot resist the temptation of relating another adventure of the same kind, but in which I showed to greater advantage.
It was on a boxing-day (oddly enough), and I was returning with Lintot and one of his boys from a walk in the Highgate Fields. As we plodded our dirty way homeward through the Caledonian Road we were stopped by a crowd outside a public-house. A gigantic drayman (they always seem bigger than they really are) was squaring up to a poor drunken lout of a navvy not half his size, who had been put up to fight him, and who was quite incapable of even an attempt it self-defence; he could scarcely lift his arms, I thought at first it was only horse-play; and as little Joe Lintot wanted to see, I put him up on my shoulder, just as the drayman, who had been drinking, but was not drunk, and had a most fiendishly brutal face, struck the poor tipsy wretch with all his might between the eyes, and felled him (it was like pole-axing a bullock), to the delight of the crowd.
Little Joe, a very gentle and sensitive boy, began to cry; and his father, who had the pluck of a bull-terrier, wanted to interfere, in spite of his diminutive stature. I was also beside myself with indignation, and pulling off my coat and hat, which I gave to Lintot, made my way to the drayman, who was offering to fight any three men in the crowd, an offer that met with no response.
"Now, then, you cowardly skunk!" I said, tucking up my shirt-sleeves; "stand up, and I will knock every tooth down your ugly throat."
His face went the colors of a mottled Stilton cheese, and he asked what I meddled with him for. A ring formed itself, and I felt the sympathy of the crowd with me this time—a very agreeable sensation!
"Now, then, up with your arms! I'm going to kill you!"
"I ain't going to fight you, mister; I ain't going to fight nobody. Just you let me alone!"
"Oh yes, you are, or you're going on your marrow-bones to be pardon for being a brutal, cowardly skunk"; and I gave him a slap on the face that rang like a pistol-shot—a most finished, satisfactory, and successful slap this time. My finger-tips tingle at the bare remembrance.
He tried to escape, but was held opposite to me. He began to snivel and whimper, and said he had never meddled with me, and asked what should I meddle with him for?
"Then down on your knees—quick—this instant!" and I made as if I were going to begin serious business at once, and no mistake.
So down he plumped on his knees, and there he actually fainted from sheer excess of emotion.
As I was helped on with my coat, I tasted, for once in my life the sweets of popularity, and knew what it was to be the idol of a mob.
Little Joey Lintot and his brothers and sisters, who had never held me in any particular regard before that I knew of, worshipped me from that day forward.
And I should be insincere if I did not confess that on that one occasion I was rather pleased with myself, although the very moment I stood opposite the huge, hulking, beer-sodden brute (who had looked so formidable from afar) I felt, with a not unpleasant sense of relief, that he did not stand a chance. He was only big, and even at that I beat him.
The real honors of the day belonged to Lintot, who, I am convinced, was ready to act the David to that Goliath. He had the real stomach for fighting, which I lacked, as very tall men are often said to do.
And that, perhaps, is why I have made so much of my not very wonderful prowess on that occasion; not, indeed, that I am physically a coward—at least, I do not think so. If I thought I were I should avow it with no more shame than I should avow that I had a bad digestion, or a weak heart, which makes cowards of us all.
It is that I hate a row, and violence, and bloodshed, even from a nose—any nose, either my own or my neighbor's.
* * * * *
There are slums at the east end of London that many fashionable people know something of by this time; I got to know them by heart. In addition to the charm of the mere slum, there was the eternal fascination of the seafaring element; of Jack ashore—a lovable creature who touches nothing but what he adorns it in his own peculiar fashion.
I constantly haunted the docks, where the smell of tar and the sight of ropes and masts filled me with unutterable longings for the sea—for distant lands—for anywhere but where it was my fate to be.
I talked to ship captains and mates and sailors, and heard many marvellous tales, as the reader may well believe, and framed for myself visions of cloudless skies, and sapphire seas, and coral reefs, and groves of spice, and dusky youths in painted plumage roving, and friendly isles where a lovely half-clad, barefooted Neuha would wave her torch, and lead me, her Torquil, by the hand through caverns of bliss!
Especially did I haunt a wharf by London Bridge, from whence two steamers—the Seine and the Dolphin, I believe—started on alternate days for Boulogne-sur-Mer.
I used to watch the happy passengers bound for France, some of them, in their holiday spirits, already fraternizing together on the sunny deck, and fussing with camp-stools and magazines and novels and bottles of bitter beer, or retiring before the funnel to smoke the pipe of peace.
The sound of the boiler getting up steam—what delicious music it was! Would it ever get up steam for me? The very smell of the cabin, the very feel of the brass gangway and the brass-bound, oil-clothed steps were delightful; and down-stairs, on the snowy cloth, were the cold beef and ham, the beautiful fresh mustard, the bottles of pale ale and stout. Oh, happy travellers, who could afford all this, and France into the bargain!
Soon would a large white awning make the after-deck a paradise, from which, by-and-by, to watch the quickly gliding panorama of the Thames. The bell would sound for non-passengers like me to go ashore—"Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galere!" as Uncle Ibbetson would have said. The steamer, disengaging itself from the wharf with a pleasant yoho-ing of manly throats and a slow, intermittent plashing of the paddle-wheels, would carefully pick its sunny, eastward way among the small craft of the river, while a few handkerchiefs were waved in a friendly, make-believe farewell—auf wiedersehen!
Oh, to stand by that unseasonably sou'-westered man at the wheel, and watch St. Paul's and London Bridge and the Tower of London fade out of sight—never, never to see them again. No auf wiedersehen for me!
Sometimes I would turn my footsteps westward and fill my hungry, jealous eyes with a sight of the gay summer procession in Hyde Park, or listen to the band in Kensington Gardens, and see beautiful, welldressed women, and hear their sweet, refined voices and happy laughter; and a longing would come into my heart more passionate than my longing for the sea and France and distant lands, and quite as unutterable. I would even forget Neuha and her torch.
After this it was a dreary downfall to go and dine for tenpence all by myself, and finish up with a book at my solitary lodgings in Pentonville. The book would not let itself be read; it sulked and had to be laid down, for "beautiful woman! beautiful girl!" spelled themselves between me and the printed page. Translate me those words into French, O ye who can even render Shakespeare into French Alexandrines—"Belle femme? Belle fille?" Ha! ha!
If you want to get as near it as you can, you will have to write, "Belle Anglaise," or "Belle Americaine;" only then will you be understood, even in France!
Ah! elle etait bien belle, Madame Seraskier!
At other times, more happily inspired, I would slake my thirst for nature by long walks into the country. Hampstead was my Passy—the Leg-of-Mutton Pond my Mare d'Auteuil; Richmond was my St. Cloud, with Kew Gardens for a Bois de Boulogne; and Hampton Court made a very fair Versailles—how incomparably fairer, even a pupil of Lintot's should know.
And after such healthy fatigue and fragrant impressions the tenpenny dinner had a better taste, the little front parlor in Pentonville was more like a home, the book more like a friend.
For I read all I could get in English or French.
Novels, travels, history, poetry, science—everything came as grist to that most melancholy mill, my mind.
I tried to write; I tried to draw; I tried to make myself an inner life apart from the sordid, commonplace ugliness of my outer one—a private oasis of my own; and to raise myself a little, if only mentally, above the circumstances in which it had pleased the Fates to place me.[A]
[Footnote A: Note—It Is with great reluctance that I now come to my cousin's account of deplorable opinions he held, at that period of his life, on the most important subject that can ever engross the mind of man. I have left out much, but I feel that in suppressing it altogether, I should rob his sad story of all its moral significance; for it cannot be doubted that most of his unhappiness is attributable to the defective religious training of his childhood, and that his parents (otherwise the best and kindest people I have ever known) incurred a terrible responsibility when they determined to leave him "unbiased," as he calls it, at that tender and susceptible age when the mind is "Wax to receive, marble to retain." Madge Plunket.]
* * * * *
It goes without saying that, like many thoughtful youths of a melancholy temperament, impecunious and discontented with their lot, and much given to the smoking of strong tobacco (on an empty stomach), I continuously brooded on the problems of existence—free-will and determinism, the whence and why and whither of man, the origin of evil, the immortality of the soul, the futility of life, etc., and made myself very miserable over such questions.
Often the inquisitive passer-by, had he peeped through the blinds of No.—Wharton Street, Pentonville, late at night, would have been rewarded by the touching spectacle of a huge, rawboned ex-private in her Majesty's Life Guards, with his head bowed over the black and yellow key-board of a venerable square piano-forte (on which he could not play), dropping the bitter tear of loneliness and Weltschmertz combined.
It never once occurred to me to seek relief in the bosom of any Church.
Some types are born and not made. I was a born "infidel;" if ever there was a congenital agnostic, one agnostically constituted from his very birth, it was I. Not that I had ever heard such an expression as agnosticism; it is an invention of late years....
"J'avais fait de la prose toute ma vie sans le savoir!"
But almost the first conscious dislike I can remember was for the black figure of the priest, and there were several of these figures in Passy.
Monsieur le Major called them maitres corbeaux, and seemed to hold them in light esteem. Dr. Seraskier hated them; his gentle Catholic wife had grown to distrust them. My loving, heretic mother loved them not; my father, a Catholic born and bred, had an equal aversion. They had persecuted his gods—the thinkers, philosophers, and scientific discoverers—Galileo, Bruno, Copernicus; and brought to his mind the cruelties of the Holy Inquisition, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew; and I always pictured them as burning little heretics alive if they had their will—Eton jackets, white chimney-pot hats, and all!
I have no doubt they were in reality the best and kindest of men.
The parson (and parsons were not lacking in Pentonville) was not so insidiously repellent as the blue-cheeked, blue-chinned Passy priest; but he was by no means to me a picturesque or sympathetic apparition, with his weddedness, his whiskers, his black trousers, his frock-coat, his tall hat, his little white tie, his consciousness of being a "gentleman" by profession. Most unattractive, also, were the cheap, brand-new churches wherein he spoke the word to his dreary-looking, Sunday-clad flock, with scarcely one of whom his wife would have sat down to dinner—especially if she had been chosen from among them.
To watch that flock pouring in of a Sunday morning, or afternoon, or evening, at the summons of those bells, and pouring out again after the long service, and banal, perfunctory sermon, was depressing. Weekdays, in Pentonville, were depressing enough; but Sundays were depressing beyond words, though nobody seemed to think so but myself. Early training had acclimatized them.
I have outlived those physical antipathies of my salad days; even the sight of an Anglican bishop is no longer displeasing to me, on the contrary; and I could absolutely rejoice in the beauty of a cardinal.
Indeed, I am now friends with both a parson and a priest, and do not know which of the two I love and respect the most. They ought to hate me, but they do not; they pity me too much, I suppose. I am too negative to rouse in either the deep theological hate; and all the little hate that the practice of love and charity has left in their kind hearts is reserved for each other—an unquenchable hate in which they seem to glory, and which rages all the more that it has to be concealed. It saddens me to think that I am a bone of contention between them.
And yet, for all my unbelief, the Bible was my favorite book, and the Psalms my adoration; and most truly can I affirm that my mental attitude has ever been one of reverence and humility.
But every argument that has ever been advanced against Christianity (and I think I know them all by this time) had risen spontaneously and unprompted within me, and they have all seemed to me unanswerable, and indeed, as yet, unanswered. Nor had any creed of which I ever heard appeared to me either credible or attractive or even sensible, but for the central figure of the Deity—a Deity that in no case could ever be mine.
The awe-inspiring and unalterable conception that had wrought itself into my consciousness, whether I would or no, was that of a Being infinitely more abstract, remote, and inaccessible than any the genius of mankind has ever evolved after its own image and out of the needs of its own heart—inscrutable, unthinkable, unspeakable; above all human passions, beyond the reach of any human appeal; One upon whose attributes it was futile to speculate—One whose name was It, not He.
The thought of total annihilation was uncongenial, but had no terror.
Even as a child I had shrewdly suspected that hell was no more than a vulgar threat for naughty little boys and girls, and heaven than a vulgar bribe, from the casual way in which either was meted out to me as my probable portion, by servants and such people, according to the way I behaved. Such things were never mentioned to me by either my father or mother, or M. le Major, or the Seraskiers—the only people in whom I trusted.
But for the bias against the priest, I was left unbiassed at that tender and susceptible age. I had learned my catechism and read my Bible, and used to say the Lord's Prayer as I went to bed, and "God bless papa and mamma" and the rest, in the usual perfunctory manner.
Never a word against religion was said in my hearing by those few on whom I had pinned my childish faith; on the other hand, no such importance was attached to it, apparently, as was attached to the virtues of truthfulness, courage, generosity, self-denial, politeness, and especially consideration for others, high or low, human and animal alike.
I imagine that my parents must have compromised the matter between them, and settled that I should work out all the graver problems of existence for myself, when I came to a thinking age, out of my own conscience, and such knowledge of life as I should acquire, and such help as they would no doubt have given me, according to their lights, had they survived.
I did so, and made myself a code of morals to live by, in which religion had but a small part.
For me there was but one sin, and that was cruelty, because I hated it; though Nature, for inscrutable purposes of her own, almost teaches it as a virtue. All sins that did not include cruelty were merely sins against health, or taste, or common-sense, or public expediency.
Free-will was impossible. We could only seem to will freely, and that only within the limits of a small triangle, whose sides were heredity, education, and circumstance—a little geometrical arrangement of my own, of which I felt not a little proud, although it does not quite go on all-fours—perhaps because it is only a triangle.
That is, we could will fast enough—too fast; but could not will how to will—fortunately, for we were not fit as yet, and for a long time to come, to be trusted, constituted as we are!
Even the characters of a novel must act according to the nature, training, and motives their creator the novelist has supplied them with, or we put the novel down and read something else; for human nature must be consistent with itself in fiction as well as in fact. Even in its madness there must be a method, so how could the will be free?
To pray for any personal boon or remission of evil—to bend the knee, or lift one's voice in praise or thanksgiving for any earthly good that had befallen one, either through inheritance, or chance, or one's own successful endeavor—was in my eyes simply futile; but, putting its futility aside, it was an act of servile presumption, of wheedling impertinence, not without suspicion of a lively sense of favors to come.
It seemed to me as though the Jews—a superstitious and business-like people, who know what they want and do not care how they get it—must have taught us to pray like that.
It was not the sweet, simple child innocently beseeching that to-morrow might be fine for its holiday, or that Santa Claus would be generous; it was the cunning trader, fawning, flattering, propitiating, bribing with fulsome, sycophantic praise (an insult in itself), as well as burnt-offerings, working for his own success here and hereafter, and his enemy's confounding.
It was the grovelling of the dog, without the dog's single-hearted love, stronger than even its fear or its sense of self-interest.
What an attitude for one whom God had made after His own image—even towards his Maker!
* * * * *
The only permissible prayer was a prayer for courage or resignation; for that was a prayer turned inward, an appeal to what is best in ourselves—our honor, our stoicism, our self-respect.
And for a small detail, grace before and after meals seemed to me especially self-complacent and iniquitous, when there were so many with scarcely ever a meal to say grace for. The only decent and proper grace was to give half of one's meal away—not, indeed, that I was in the habit of doing so! But at least I had the grace to reproach myself for my want of charity, and that was my only grace.
* * * * *
Fortunately, since we had no free-will of our own, the tendency that impelled us was upward, like the sparks, and bore us with it willy-nilly—the good and the bad, and the worst and the best.
By seeing this clearly, and laying it well to heart, the motive was supplied to us for doing all we could in furtherance of that upward tendency—pour aider le bon Dieu—that we might rise the faster and reach Him the sooner, if He were! And when once the human will has been set going, like a rocket or a clock or a steam-engine, and in the right direction, what can it not achieve?
We should in time control circumstance instead of being controlled thereby; education would day by day become more adapted to one consistent end; and, finally, conscience-stricken, we should guide heredity with our own hands instead of leaving it to blind chance; unless, indeed, a well-instructed paternal government wisely took the reins, and only sanctioned the union of people who were thoroughly in love with each other, after due and careful elimination of the unfit.
Thus, cruelty should at least be put into harness, and none of its valuable energy wasted on wanton experiments, as it is by Nature.
And thus, as the boy is father to the man, should the human race one day be father to—what?
That is just where my speculations would arrest themselves; that was the X of a sum in rule of three, not to be worked out by Peter Ibbetson, Architect and Surveyor, Wharton Street, Pentonville.
As the orang-outang is to Shakespeare, so is Shakespeare to ... X?
As the female chimpanzee is to the Venus of Milo, so is the Venus of Milo to ... X?
Finally, multiply these two X's by each other, and try to conceive the result!
* * * * *
Such was, crudely, the simple creed I held at this time; and, such as it was, I had worked it all out for myself, with no help from outside—a poor thing, but mine own; or, as I expressed it in the words of De Musset, "Mon verre n'est pas grand—mais je bois dans mon verre."
For though such ideas were in the air, like wholesome clouds, they had not yet condensed themselves into printed words for the million. People did not dare to write about these things, as they do at present, in popular novels and cheap magazines, that all who run may read, and learn to think a little for themselves, and honestly say what they think, without having to dread a howl of execration, clerical and lay.
And it was not only that I thought like this and could not think otherwise; it was that I felt like this and could not feel otherwise; and I should have appeared to myself as wicked, weak, and base had I ever even desired to think or feel otherwise, however personally despairing of this life—a traitor to what I jealously guarded as my best instincts.
And yet to me the faith of others, if but unaggressive, humble, and sincere, had often seemed touching and pathetic, and sometimes even beautiful, as childish things seem sometimes beautiful, even in those who are no longer children, and should have put them away. It had caused many heroic lives, and rendered many obscure lives blameless and happy; and then its fervor and passion seemed to burn with a lasting flame.
At brief moments now and then, and especially in the young, unfaith can be as fervent and as passionate as faith, and just as narrow and unreasonable, as I found; but alas! its flame was intermittent, and its light was not a kindly light.
It had no food for babes; it could not comfort the sick or sorry, nor resolve into submissive harmony the inner discords of the soul; nor compensate us for our own failures and shortcomings, nor make up to us in any way for the success and prosperity of others who did not choose to think as we did.
It was without balm for wounded pride, or stay for weak despondency, or consolation for bereavement; its steep and rugged thoroughfares led to no promised land of beatitude, and there were no soft resting-places by the way.
Its only weapon was steadfastness; its only shield, endurance; its earthly hope, the common weal; its earthly prize, the opening of all roads to knowledge, and the release from a craven inheritance of fear; its final guerdon—sleep? Who knows?
Sleep was not bad.
So that simple, sincere, humble, devout, earnest, fervent, passionate, and over-conscientious young unbelievers like myself had to be very strong and brave and self-reliant (which I was not), and very much in love with what they conceived to be the naked Truth (a figure of doubtful personal attractions at first sight), to tread the ways of life with that unvarying cheerfulness, confidence, and serenity which the believer claims as his own special and particular appanage.
So much for my profession of unfaith, shared (had I but known it) by many much older and wiser and better educated than I, and only reached by them after great sacrifice of long-cherished illusions, and terrible pangs of soul-questioning—a struggle and a wrench that I was spared through my kind parents' thoughtfulness when I was a little boy.
* * * * *
It thus behooved me to make the most of this life; since, for all I knew, or believed, or even hoped to the contrary, to-morrow we must die.
Not, indeed, that I might eat and drink and be merry; heredity and education had not inclined me that way, I suppose, and circumstances did not allow it; but that I might try and live up to the best ideal I could frame out of my own conscience and the past teaching of mankind. And man, whose conception of the Infinite and divine has been so inadequate, has furnished us with such human examples (ancient and modern, Hebrew, Pagan, Buddhist, Christian, Agnostic, and what not) as the best of us can only hope to follow at a distance.
I would sometimes go to my morning's work, my heart elate with lofty hope and high resolve.
How easy and simple it seemed to lead a life without fear, or reproach, or self-seeking, or any sordid hope of personal reward, either here or hereafter!—a life of stoical endurance, invincible patience and meekness, indomitable cheerfulness and self-denial!
After all, it was only for another forty or fifty years at the most, and what was that? And after that—que scais-je?
The thought was inspiring indeed!
By luncheon-time (and luncheon consisted of an Abernethy biscuit and a glass of water, and several pipes of shag tobacco, cheap and rank) some subtle change would come over the spirit of my dream.
Other people did not have high resolves. Some people had very bad tempers, and rubbed one very much the wrong way.
What a hideous place was Pentonville to slave away one's life in! ...
What a grind it was to be forever making designs for little new shops in Rosoman Street, and not making them well, it seemed! ...
Why should a squinting, pock-marked, bowlegged, hunch-backed little Judkins (a sight to make a recruiting-sergeant shudder) forever taunt one with having enlisted as a private soldier? ...
And then why should one be sneeringly told to "hit a fellow one's own size," merely because, provoked beyond endurance, one just grabbed him by the slack of his trousers and gently shook him out of them onto the floor, terrified but quite unhurt? ...
And so on, and so on; constant little pin-pricks, sordid humiliations, ugliness, meannesses, and dirt, that called forth in resistance all that was lowest and least commendable in one's self.
One has attuned one's nerves to the leading of a forlorn hope, and a gnat gets into one's eye, or a little cinder grit, and there it sticks; and there is no question of leading any forlorn hope, after all, and never will be; all that was in the imagination only: it is always gnats and cinder grits, gnats and cinder grits.
By the evening I had ignominiously broken down, and was plunged in the depths of an exasperated pessimism too deep even for tears, and would have believed myself the meanest and most miserable of mankind, but that everybody else, without exception, was even meaner and miserabler than myself.
They could still eat and drink and be merry. I could not, and did not even want to.
* * * * *
And so on, day after day, week after week, for months and years....
Thus I grew weary in time of my palling individuality, ever the same through all these uncontrollable variations of mood.
Oh, that alternate ebb and flow of the spirits! It is a disease, and, what is most distressing, it is no real change; it is more sickeningly monotonous than absolute stagnation itself. And from that dreary seesaw I could never escape, except through the gates of dreamless sleep, the death in life; for even in our dreams we are still ourselves. There was no rest!
I loathed the very sight of myself in the shop-windows as I went by; and yet I always looked for it there, in the forlorn hope of at least finding some alteration, even for the worse. I passionately longed to be somebody else; and yet I never met anybody else I could have borne to be for a moment.
And then the loneliness of us!
Each separate unit of our helpless race is inexorably bounded by the inner surface of his own mental periphery, a jointless armor in which there is no weak place, never a fault, never a single gap of egress for ourselves, of ingress for the nearest and dearest of our fellow-units. At only five points can we just touch each other, and all that is—and that only by the function of our poor senses—from the outside. In vain we rack them that we may get a little closer to the best beloved and most implicitly trusted; ever in vain, from the cradle to the grave.
Why should so fantastic a thought have persecuted me so cruelly? I knew nobody with whom I should have felt such a transfusion of soul even tolerable for a second. I cannot tell! But it was like a gadfly which drove me to fatigue my body that I should have by day the stolid peace of mind that comes of healthy physical exhaustion; that I should sleep at night the dreamless sleep—the death in life!
"Of such materials wretched men are made!" Especially wretched young men; and the wretcheder one is, the more one smokes; and the more one smokes, the wretcheder one gets—a vicious circle!
Such was my case. I grew to long for the hour of my release (as I expressed it pathetically to myself), and caressed the idea of suicide. I even composed for myself a little rhymed epitaph in French which I thought very neat—
Je n'etais point. Je fus. Je ne suis plus.
* * * * *
Oh, to perish in some noble cause—to die saving another's life, even another's worthless life, to which he clung!
I remember formulating this wish, in all sincerity, one moonlit night as I walked up Frith Street, Soho. I came upon a little group of excited people gathered together at the foot of a house built over a shop. From a broken window-pane on the second floor an ominous cloud of smoke rose like a column into the windless sky. An ordinary ladder was placed against the house, which, they said, was densely inhabited; but no fire-engine or fire-escape had arrived as yet, and it appeared useless to try and rouse the inmates by kicking and beating at the door any longer.
A brave man was wanted—a very brave man, who would climb the ladder, and make his way into the house through the broken window. Here was a forlorn hope to lead at last!
Such a man was found. To my lasting shame and contrition, it was not I.
He was short and thick and middle-aged, and had a very jolly red face and immense whiskers—quite a common sort of man, who seemed by no means tired of life.
His heroism was wasted, as it happened; for the house was an empty one, as we all heard, to our immense relief, before he had managed to force a passage into the burning room. His whiskers were not even singed!
Nevertheless, I slunk home, and gave up all thoughts of self-destruction—even in a noble cause; and there, in penance, I somewhat hastily committed to flame the plodding labor of many midnights—an elaborate copy in pen and ink, line for line, of Retel's immortal wood-engraving "Der Tod als Freund," which Mrs. Lintot had been kind enough to lend me—and under which I had written, in beautiful black Gothic letters and red capitals (and without the slightest sense of either humor or irreverence), the following poem, which had cost me infinite pains:
F, i, fi—n, i, ni! Bon dieu Pere, j'ai fini... Vous qui m'avez lant puni, Dans ma triste vie, Pour tant d'horribles forfaits Que je ne commis jamais Laissez-moi jouir en paix De mon agonie!
Les faveurs que je Vous dois, Je les compte sur mes doigts: Tout infirme que je sois, Ca se fait bien vite! Prenez patience, et comptez Tous mes maux—puis computez Toutes Vos severites— Vous me tiendrez quitte!
Ne pour souffrir, et souffrant— Bas, honni, bete, ignorant, Vieux, laid, chetif—et mourant Dans mon trou sans plainte, Je suis aussi sans desir Autre que d'en bien finir— Sans regret, sans repentir— Sans espoir ni crainte!
Pere inflexible et jaloux, Votre Fils est mort pour nous! Aussi, je reste envers Vous Si bien sans rancune, Que je voudrais, sans facon, Faire, au seuil de ma prison, Quelque petite oraison ... Je n'en sais pas une!
J'entends sonner l'Angelus Qui rassemble Vos Elus: Pour moi, du bercail exclus. C'est la mort qui sonne! Prier ne profite rien ... Pardonner est le seul bien: C'est le Votre, et c'est le mien: Moi, je Vous pardonne!
Soyez d'un egard pareil! S'il est quelque vrai sommeil Sans ni reve, ni reveil, Ouvrez-m'en la porte— Faites que l'immense Oubli Couvre, sous un dernier pli, Dans mon corps enseveli, Ma conscience morte!
Oh me duffer! What a hopeless failure was I in all things, little and big.
I had no friends but the Lintots and their friends. "Les amis de nos amis sont nos amis!"
My cousin Alfred had gone into the army, like his father before him. My cousin Charlie had gone into the Church, and we had drifted completely apart. My grandmother was dead. My Aunt Plunket, a great invalid, lived in Florence. Her daughter, Madge, was in India, happily married to a young soldier who is now a most distinguished general.
The Lintots held their heads high as representatives of a liberal profession, and an old Pentonville family. People were generally exclusive in those days—an exclusiveness that was chiefly kept up by the ladies. There were charmed circles even in Pentonville.
Among the most exclusive were the Lintots. Let us hope, in common justice, that those they excluded were at least able to exclude others.
I have eaten their bread and salt, and it would ill become me to deny that their circle was charming as well as charmed. But I had no gift for making friends, although I was often attracted by people the very opposite of myself; especially by little, clever, quick, but not too familiar men; but even if they were disposed to make advances, a miserable shyness and stiffness of manner on my part, that I could not help, would raise a barrier of ice between us.
They were most hospitable people, these good Lintots, and had many friends, and gave many parties, which my miserable shyness prevented me from enjoying to the full. They were both too stiff and too free.
In the drawing-room, Mrs. Lintot and one or two other ladies, severely dressed, would play the severest music in a manner that did not mitigate its severity. They were merciless! It was nearly always Bach, or Hummel, or Scarlatti, each of whom, they would say, could write both like an artist and a gentleman—a very rare but indispensable combination, it seemed.
Other ladies, young and middle-aged, and a few dumb-struck youths like myself, would be suffered to listen, but never to retaliate—never to play or sing back again.
If one ventured to ask for a song without words by Mendelssohn—or a song with words, even by Schubert, even with German words—one was rebuked and made to blush for the crime of musical frivolity.
Meanwhile, in Lintot's office (built by himself in the back garden), grave men and true, pending the supper hour, would smoke and sip spirits-and-water, and talk shop; formally at first, and with much politeness. But gradually, feeling their way, as it were, they would relax into social unbuttonment, and drop the "Mister" before each other's names (to be resumed next morning), and indulge in lively professional chaff, which would soon become personal and free and boisterous—a good-humored kind of warfare in which I did not shine, for lack of quickness and repartee. For instance, they would ask one whether one would rather be a bigger fool than one looked, or look a bigger fool than one was; and whichever way one answered the question, the retort would be that "that was impossible!" amid roars of laughter from all but one.
So that I would take a middle course, and spend most of the evening on the stairs and in the hall, and study (with an absorbing interest much too well feigned to look natural) the photographs of famous cathedrals and public buildings till supper came; when, by assiduously attending on the ladies, I would cause my miserable existence to be remembered, and forgiven; and soon forgotten again, I fear.
I hope I shall not be considered an overweening coxcomb for saying that, on the whole, I found more favor with the ladies than with the gentlemen; especially at supper-time.
After supper there would be a change—for the better, some thought. Lintot, emboldened by good-cheer and good-fellowship, would become unduly, immensely, uproariously funny, in spite of his wife. He had a genuine gift of buffoonery. His friends would whisper to each other that Lintot was "on," and encourage him. Bach and Hummel and Scarlatti were put on the shelf, and the young people would have a good time. There were comic songs and negro melodies, with a chorus all round. Lintot would sing "Vilikins and his Dinah," in the manner of Mr. Robson, so well that even Mrs. Lintot's stern mask would relax into indulgent smiles. It was irresistible. And when the party broke up, we could all (thanks to our host) honestly thank our hostess "for a very pleasant evening," and cheerfully, yet almost regretfully, wish her good-night.
It is good to laugh sometimes—wisely if one can; if not, quocumque modo! There are seasons when even "the crackling of thorns under a pot" has its uses. It seems to warm the pot—all the pots—and all the emptiness thereof, if they be empty.
* * * * *
Once, indeed, I actually made a friend, but he did not last me very long.
It happened thus: Mrs. Lintot gave a grander party than usual. One of the invited was Mr. Moses Lyon, the great picture-dealer—a client of Lintot's; and he brought with him young Raphael Merridew, the already famous painter, the most attractive youth I had ever seen. Small and slight, but beautifully made, and dressed in the extreme of fashion, with a handsome face, bright and polite manners, and an irresistible voice, he became his laurels well; he would have been sufficiently dazzling without them. Never had those hospitable doors in Myddelton Square been opened to so brilliant a guest.
I was introduced to him, and he discovered that the bridge of my nose was just suited for the face of the sun-god in his picture of "The Sun-god and the Dawn-maiden," and begged I would favor him with a sitting or two.
Proud indeed was I to accede to such a request, and I gave him many sittings. I used to rise at dawn to sit, before my work at Lintot's began; and to sit again as soon as I could be spared.
It seems I not only had the nose and brow of a sun-god (who is not supposed to be a very intellectual person), but also his arms and his torso; and sat for these, too. I have been vain of myself ever since.
During these sittings, which he made delightful, I grew to love him as David loved Jonathan.
We settled that we would go to the Derby together in a hansom. I engaged the smartest hansom in London days beforehand. On the great Wednesday morning I was punctual with it at his door in Charlotte Street. There was another hansom there already—a smarter hansom still than mine, for it was a private one—and he came down and told me he had altered his mind, and was going with Lyon, who had asked him the evening before.
"One of the first picture-dealers in London, my dear fellow. Hang it all, you know, I couldn't refuse—awfully sorry!"
So I drove to the Derby in solitary splendor, but the bright weather, the humors of the road, all the gay scenes were thrown away upon me, such was the bitterness of my heart.
In the early afternoon I saw Merridew lunching on the top of a drag, among some men of smart and aristocratic appearance. He seemed to be the life of the party, and gave me a good-humored nod as I passed. I soon found Lyon sitting disconsolate in his hansom, scowling and solitary; he invited me to lunch with him, and disembosomed himself of a load of bitterness as intense as mine (which I kept to myself). The shrewd Hebrew tradesman was sunk in the warm-hearted, injured friend. Merridew had left Lyon for the Earl of Chiselhurst, just as he had left me for Lyon.
That was a dull Derby for us both!
A few days later I met Merridew, radiant as ever. All he said was:
"Awful shame of me to drop old Lyon for Chiselhurst, eh? But an earl, my dear fellow! Hang it all, you know! Poor old Mo had to get back in his hansom all by himself, but he's bought the 'Sun-god' all the same."
Merridew soon dropped me altogether, to my great sorrow, for I forgave him his Derby desertion as quickly as Lyon did, and would have forgiven him anything. He was one of those for whom allowances are always being made, and with a good grace.
He died before he was thirty, poor boy! but his fame will never die. The "Sun-god" (even with the bridge of that nose which had been so wofully put out of joint) is enough by itself to place him among the immortals. Lyon sold it to Lord Chiselhurst for three thousand pounds—it had cost him five hundred. It is now in the National Gallery.
Poetical justice was satisfied!
* * * * *
Nor was I more fortunate in love than in friendship.
All the exclusiveness in the world cannot exclude good and beautiful maidens, and these were not lacking, even in Pentonville.
There is always one maiden much more beautiful and good than all the others—like Esmeralda among the ladies of the Hotel de Gondelaurier. There was such a maiden in Pentonville, or rather Clerkenwell, close by. But her station was so humble (like Esmeralda's) that even the least exclusive would have drawn the line at her! She was one of a large family, and they sold tripe and pig's feet, and food for cats and dogs, in a very small shop opposite the western wall of the Middlesex House of Detention. She was the eldest, and the busy, responsible one at this poor counter. She was one of Nature's ladies, one of Nature's goddesses—a queen! Of that I felt sure every time I passed her shop, and shyly met her kind, frank, uncoquettish gaze. A time was approaching when I should have to overcome my shyness, and tell her that she of all women was the woman for me, and that it was indispensable, absolutely indispensable, that we two should be made one—immediately! at once! forever!
But before I could bring myself to this she married somebody else, and we had never exchanged a single word!
If she is alive now she is an old woman—a good and beautiful old woman, I feel sure, wherever she is, and whatever her rank in life. If she should read this book, which is not very likely, may she accept this small tribute from an unknown admirer; for whom, so many years ago, she beautified and made poetical the hideous street that still bounds the Middlesex House of Detention on its western side; and may she try to think not the less of it because since then its writer has been on the wrong side of that long, blank wall, of that dreary portal where the agonized stone face looks down on the desolate slum:
"Per me si va tra la perduta gente ...!"
After this disappointment I got myself a big dog (like Byron, Bismarck, and Wagner), but not in the spirit of emulation. Indeed, I had never heard of either Bismarck or Wagner in those days, or their dogs, and I had lost my passion for Byron and any wish to emulate him in any way; it was simply for the want of something to be fond of, and that would be sure to love me back again.
He was not a big dog when I bought him, but just a little ball of orange-tawny fluff that I could carry with one arm. He cost me all the money I had saved up for a holiday trip to Passy. I had seen his father, a champion St. Bernard, at a dog-show, and felt that life would be well worth living with such a companion; but his price was five hundred guineas. When I saw the irresistible son, just six weeks old, and heard that he was only one-fiftieth of his sire's value, I felt Passy must wait, and became his possessor.
I gave him of the best that money could buy—real milk at fivepence a quart, three quarts a day, I combed his fluff every morning, and washed him three times a week, and killed all his fleas one by one—a labour of love. I weighed him every Saturday, and found he increased at the rate of six to nine weekly; and his power of affection increased as the square of his weight. I christened him Porthos, because he was so big and fat and jolly; but in his noble puppy face and his beautiful pathetic eyes I already foresaw for his middle age that distinguished and melancholy grandeur which characterized the sublime Athos, Comte de la Fere.
He was a joy. It was good to go to sleep at night and know he would be there in the morning. Whenever we took our walks abroad, everybody turned round to look at him and admire, and to ask if he was good-tempered, and what his particular breed was, and what I fed him on. He became a monster in size—a beautiful, playful, gracefully galumphing, and most affectionate monster, and I, his happy Frankenstein, congratulated myself on the possession of a treasure that would last twelve years at least, or even fourteen, with the care I meant to take of him. But he died of distemper when he was eleven months old.
I do not know if little dogs cause as large griefs when they die as big ones; but I settled there should be no more dogs—big or little—for me.
* * * * *
After this I took to writing verses and sending them to magazines, where they never appeared. They were generally about my being reminded, by a tune, of things that had happened a long time ago: my poetic, like my artistic vein, was limited.
Here are the last I made, thirty years back. My only excuse for giving them is that they are so singularly prophetic.
The reminding tune (an old French chime which my father used to sing) is very simple and touching; and the old French words run thus:
"Orleans, Beaugency! Notre Dame de Clery! Vendome! Vendome! Quel chagrin, quel ennui De compter toute la nuit Les heures—Les heures!"
That is all. They are supposed to be sung by a mediaeval prisoner who cannot sleep; and who, to beguile the tediousness of his insomnia, sets any words that come into his head to the tune of the chime which marks the hours from a neighboring belfry. I tried to fancy that his name was Pasquier de la Mariere, and that he was my ancestor.
_There is an old French air, A little song of loneliness and grief— Simple as nature, sweet beyond compare— And sad—past all belief!
Nameless is he that wrote The melody—but this I opine: Whoever made the words was some remote French ancestor of mine.
I know the dungeion deep Where long he lay—and why he lay therein; And all his anguish, that he could not sleep For conscience of a sin._
I see his cold, hard bed; I hear the chimes that jingled in his ears As he pressed nightly, with that wakeful head, A pillow wet with tears.
Oh, restless little chime! It never changed—but rang its roundelay For each dark hour of that unhappy time That sighed itself away.
And ever, more and more, Its burden grew of his lost self a part— And mingled with his memories, and wore Its way into his heart.
And there it wove the name Of many a town he loved, for one dear sake, Into its web of music; thus he came His little song to make.
Of all that ever heard And loved it for its sweetness, none but I Divined the clew that, as a hidden word, The notes doth underlie.
That wail from lips long dead Has found its echo in this breast alone! Only to me, by blood-remembrance led, Is that wild story known!
And though 'tis mine, by right Of treasure-trove, to rifle and lay bare— A heritage of sorrow and delight The world would gladly share—
Yet must I not unfold For evermore, nor whisper late or soon, The secret that a few slight bars thus hold Imprisoned in a tune.
For when that little song Goes ringing in my head, I know that he, My luckless lone forefather, dust so long, Relives his life in me!
I sent them to ——'s Magazine, with the six French lines on at the which they were founded at the top. ——'s Magazine published only the six French lines—the only lines in my handwriting that ever got into print. And they date from the fifteenth century!
Thus was my little song lost to the world, and for a time to me. But long, long afterwards, I found it again, where Mr. Longfellow once found a song of his: "in the heart of a friend"—surely the sweetest bourne that can ever be for any song!
Little did I foresee that a day was not far off when real blood remembrance would carry me—but that is to come.
* * * * *
Poetry, friendship and love having failed, I sought for consolation in art, and frequented the National Gallery, Marlborough House (where the Vernon collection was), the British Museum, the Royal Academy, and other exhibitions.
I prostrated myself before Titian, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Veronese, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Signorelli—the older the better; and tried my best to honestly feel the greatness I knew and know to be there; but for want of proper training I was unable to reach those heights, and, like most outsiders, admired them for the wrong things, for the very beauties they lack—such transcendent, ineffable beauties of feature, form, and expression as an outsider always looks for in an old master, and often persuades himself he finds there—and oftener still, pretends he does!
I was far more sincerely moved (although I did not dare to say so) by some works of our own time—for instance, by the "Vale of Rest," the "Autumn Leaves," "The Huguenot" of young Mr. Millais—just as I found such poems as Maud and In Memoriam, by Mr. Alfred Tennyson, infinitely more precious and dear to me than Milton's Paradise Lost and Spenser's Faerie Queene.
Indeed, I was hopelessly modern in those days—quite an every-day young man; the names I held in the warmest and deepest regard were those of then living men and women. Darwin, Browning, and George Eliot did not, it is true, exist for me as yet; but Tennyson, Thackeray, Dickens, Millais, John Leech, George Sand, Balzac, the old Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Alfred de Musset!
I have never beheld them in the flesh; but, like all the world, I know their outer aspect well, and could stand a pretty stiff examination in most they have ever written, drawn, or painted.
Other stars of magnitude have risen since, but of the old galaxy four at least still shine out of the past with their ancient lustre undimmed in my eyes—Thackeray; dear John Leech, who still has power to make me laugh as I like to laugh; and for the two others it is plain that the Queen, the world, and I are of a like mind as to their deserts, for one of them is now an ornament to the British peerage, the other a baronet and a millionaire; only I would have made dukes of them straight off, with precedence over the Archbishop of Canterbury, if they would care to have it so.
It is with a full but humble heart that I thus venture to record my long indebtedness, and pay this poor tribute, still fresh from the days of my unquestioning hero-worship. It will serve, at least, to show my reader (should I ever have one sufficiently interested to care) in what mental latitudes and longitudes I dwelt, who was destined to such singular experience—a kind of reference, so to speak—that he may be able to place me at a glance, according to the estimation in which he holds these famous and perhaps deathless names.
It will be admitted, at least, that my tastes were normal, and shared by a large majority—the tastes of an every-day young man at that particular period of the nineteenth century—one much given to athletics and cold tubs, and light reading and cheap tobacco, and endowed with the usual discontent; the last person for whom or from whom or by whom to expect anything out of the common.
* * * * *
But the splendor of the Elgin Marbles! I understood that at once—perhaps because there is not so much to understand. Mere physically beautiful people appeal to us all, whether they be in flesh or marble.
By some strange intuition, or natural instinct, I knew that people ought to be built like that, before I had ever seen a single statue in that wondrous room. I had divined them—so completely did they realize an aesthetic ideal I had always felt.