RONALD AND I
Studies from Life
DEIGHTON BELL & CO.
LONDON GEORGE BELL & SONS
Several of the following sketches have appeared already in the Cambridge Review and the Cantab. Perhaps the friends who welcomed them then may welcome them now, on their reappearance in another and more permanent form.
The story of “Our Rector” has been received in episcopal quarters with polite incredulity. It may be that episcopal supervision was less far-reaching in those days than now. At any rate, the things I have narrated, and things stranger still, did occur in our village, and in all essential details, including the postprandial cigar, the story of “Our Rector” is a literal “study from life.”
I would forget, if I could, that the “Cruel, Crawling Foam” is also a record of fact.
|Ronald and I:|
|Broadwater: a Shadow from the Past||1|
|On the Race Course at Bayview||25|
|On the Sands||31|
|Echoes from an Organ Loft||55|
|Fighting the Cholera||67|
|Judy, or Retrieved||99|
|The Cruel, Crawling Foam||133|
|Bindo: a Sketch||155|
|‘Declined with Thanks’: a Postscript||181|
Turn your steps westward, and about four miles beyond Bayview you will come to a rising ground where three ways meet.
One—the road to the right—trends northward, following with occasional deviations the coast line of Dead Man’s Bay, a replica in miniature of the Bay of Biscay, and one which claims, almost as regularly, its tithe of life and wreckage.
The path on the left hand enters a lodge gate, and begins to fall gently but without intermission towards the sea. A curious impression that you are reaching the end of all things is followed by the feeling that your next step will be planted in the sea—and then you come to Broadwater.
p. 2The huge square-set building stands on a level plateau, guarded by a semicircle of hills from every wind that blows, excepting the south-west. The architecture is neither impressive in itself nor characteristic of any particular period. Yet, looking down upon it from the hills above, the eye will find ample satisfaction in the colouring of the roof, for lichens have painted the crumbling tiles with every conceivable hue of vermilion and gold.
A stranger, journeying for the first time along the road, would complain of the lack of trees. And trees in the open there are none. Nothing less cringing than gorse and heather can show front against the brine-laden winds of the Atlantic. The south-west wind is jealous of its prerogatives, and denudes a neighbourhood of isolated growth almost as surely as does the poison-steeped atmosphere of the midlands.
Yet, if you trouble to make nearer acquaintance with Broadwater, you will find that every ravine and gully is crowded with trees—“groves” the villagers call them—whose tops lie level with the ground on either side, so that a slight divergence from p. 3the recognised track might land the unwary traveller among their foliage, almost without a change in his plane of elevation.
The grand old house stands, as I have said, on a plateau, protected from the north and east by the hills, down which the road winds in and out like a white ribbon. On the west it faces the Atlantic, and the lawn, merging in the park, falls rapidly seawards till it meets the natural barrier of the beach. As a rule the barrier stands well; yet times there are when the sea will no longer “harrow the valleys, or be bound with a band in the furrow,” but, laughing at the puny obstruction, lays its tribute of drift and wreckage and human life almost on the very door-step of the house.
Whether you love the scene or not, will depend on your age and temperament, and something, too, on the circumstances under which you view it. Steeped in the quiet twilight of an autumn evening, its perfect stillness and repose appeal irresistibly to a heart that yearns for rest, and many such have coveted it. But let a Londoner come upon it when a furious south-wester is raging, and the double windows are veiled with an p. 4impermeable film of brine, and you can feel the chimneys rocking overhead—and the chances are he will hurry from it as from the abomination of desolation.
After our uncle’s death, Ronald, it was well known, was to reign in his stead—supplanting myself, albeit the son of an elder brother and the natural heir. But my father had been unlucky enough to marry the woman of old Heyward’s choice, and the sin of the father was to be visited upon the son. Our uncle (to do him justice) never made a pretence of equity in the matter. “I should turn in my grave,” he said, “if I thought that son of his was to follow in my room.” And there the matter ended. Short of this, he was fond of me in his own undemonstrative way. Only lately he had settled me at Bayview with a handsome allowance, where I was to make acquaintance with the rudiments of the law till it was time for me to enter at Cambridge.
Honestly I can say that I never grudged Ronald his inheritance. He and I were brothers rather than cousins, and I cannot remember the time when the sturdy little Viking was not dear to my heart. Perhaps p. 5it was I who gave the most, and he who took it. But that is only as it should be, provided he who gives and he who takes are equally nothing loth.
The house was an ideal home for us, so long as we shared it in common. When we were separated, it became unutterably dull for the one who was left companionless. Ghosts it must have had in plenty. There certainly was an “impluvium,” which in these days is rarer than a ghost. I mean that the whole centre of the house was open to the winds of heaven, for the purpose of collecting the rain water which fell into a huge reservoir at the basement.
The ghosts, if any, never showed themselves—frightened in all probability by the antagonism of Ronald’s temperament. But we discovered what was next best to the real article—the equipments and paraphernalia of one. In a disused coach-house we came one day on an old travelling carriage of the fashion in use sixty years ago, when paterfamilias took himself and his family for a progress round the country. Rumble it had, and imperial, and a chest of most unearthly pattern, accommodated to the space under the back seat.
p. 6But the glass was broken in the frames, and the hangings were mouldy. The very woodwork was so worm-eaten that at a touch you would expect it to crumble into dust, like one of the Pharaohs when he is disencumbered of his trappings. It was painted—or rather had been painted—a sable black, but the colour had deteriorated with time to the hue of rusty crêpe.
Our first impression suggested that it was some time-honoured memorial of the past—the carriage, it might be, in which a bride and bridegroom had made their home-coming under auspices of exceptional promise. But a second glance through the broken semicircular skylight told rather of intentional neglect or indifference. The plaster of the coach-house, where it still clung to the lath, had broken out into patches of mouldiness, defiant of the first principles of cleanliness, while an army of spiders, who must have worked unmolested for years, had tied the carriage to the walls and floor with a net-work of dirt-begrimed strands.
“Don’t you do nought of the kind, Master Ronald,” said the coachman, lowering his voice to a whisper. “That carriage has been driven up to these very doors by old Nick himself, or one or other of his coachmen. Aye, you may laugh. But it’s true enough, and not so long ago neither. They’d forgotten—had your aunt and uncle—that it was here in the stable at all: it must have been here years before they bought the place—till he came and drove it round to the front door one night, all mouldy and ramshackled just as you see it now.”
“Do tell us, Frampton, about it. I’ll promise not to laugh.”
“Well, ’twas the night before we were starting for the South of France, and I was going with them to look after the horses they were to hire in Paris. The house had been full of visitors for Christmas, but most of them had gone the day before, and the rest of them were to leave along with us.
“They were fairly puzzled what it could mean, as they expected no visitors, least of all at that time of night. Your aunt got up first and then called your uncle. And there, full in the moonlight, stood that identical carriage, and the coachman was a skellington—dressed in black and weepers, for all the world like an undertaker at a funeral. He turned his eyes—or what should have been his eyes—full upon them both. And then your aunt went faint, and I believe your uncle did no better. Anyhow, when they came back to their senses, carriage and coachman were gone.”
“And what did it mean, Frampton?”
“Well, that’s more than I can tell you, Master Ronald. It’s fairly puzzled all of us. I’m sure I’ve bothered my head times over to try and piece it together, seeing it meant no harm to them, but only to a lot of folk they’d never seen or heard of.”
“How did that come about?”
“When we got to Paris, we put up at one of them big hotels—I forget the name of it. And one day he and she were going up p. 9to their rooms in the lift. Just as they were stepping aboard of it, they looked chanceways at the man who managed it, and I’m blessed if it wasn’t the same coachman as had driven that there carriage up to the door at Broadwater. They were that frightened that they stepped back, and the lift went up without them. And well it was they did so, for something or other went wrong with the hauling gear, and every soul on board of it was killed.
“And now you know, Master Ronald, why your uncle won’t have that carriage never touched. He’s got it into his head, and you won’t get it out again, that it was sent to save his life. All I can say is that, if that’s what it did mean, old Nick carries on his business in a queer, roundabout kind of way.”
Not many days after Frampton had imparted to us his sensational story, we were told to expect a visit from the family lawyer. Ronald and I always hailed his visits with delight. He was one of those cheery individuals p. 10whom boys can chum with. In age he must have been nearly seventy-five, but hale and hearty still: entering into our amusements, never minding our noise, and tipping us when he left with a liberality that appalled our uncle. Ronald and I would have put him down for fifty. But boys do not recognise the gradations of age. To them a man seems definitely old at fifty, and live as long as he may after that, years will add nothing to the mystery of his age, if only he keeps young in heart and interests. At sixty, seventy, or even eighty, he will in their eyes be fifty still.
As a matter of course Ronald and I were told to put in an appearance on the day of his arrival. The unvarying order of the programme was that, after he had had a few words with our uncle, we two should form his escort in a progress round the park and outlying farms.
“So your uncle still cherishes the old Crofton coach,” he said, as we passed the outhouse tenanted by the family ghost. “I wonder he cares to keep it,”—almost Ronald’s own words to Frampton, the coachman—from which it was clear he had never heard p. 11of our uncle’s visitant, nor did we venture to enlighten him.
“Do you know anything about it, Sir?” asked Ronald, in the eager tone of one who had by no means lost hope of solving the mystery.
“My boy, I’ve ridden in it.”
Ronald’s face was a study. “Ridden in it? actually ridden in that coach? And did you, Sir, did you see the devil?” he continued anxiously. “Frampton says he always drives it.”
“Not exactly, Ronald. And, by the way, my lad, I wouldn’t, if I were you, introduce his name quite so familiarly into your conversation. Frampton must be cautioned, Fred, as to what he tells the boy.”
“Well, he didn’t exactly say that, Sir,” continued Ronald, willing to justify his friend. “He called him old Nick.”
“That’s a trifle better. Anyhow, I didn’t see him, though I can’t say honestly that my ride was a pleasant one. I’d been staying here with old Crofton, just before he sold the place to your uncle, and I had business too to transact with Thorpe of Thorpe Hill. As luck would have it, all the carriages here p. 12were in use but this one. It wasn’t in the state it is now, but it was out of date and uncomfortable even then. However, it took me there all right. It was on the way back that I had my adventure.
“I had barely composed myself to sleep with the consciousness of having dined too well—Thorpe never stinted his guests—when I was roused by an uneasy feeling that I was not the sole occupant of the carriage. The interior was lit up by a weird, fantastic light that came and went, rose and fell, like the glow that throbs over a brick-kiln or a blast furnace. After all, it may have been only the reflection of my own cigar which I had instinctively kept alight during my short nap. From out the border-land which separates sleep from waking, I saw two figures on the opposite seat. For a time I studied them with hardly more interest than I should the figures in a pantomime, till it was forced upon me by their wild gesticulation that this was no pantomime enacting for my benefit, but a veritable tragedy of life and death. The one figure shrank cowering in a corner of the carriage; the other stood over it with uplifted hand. But no voice or sound proceeded p. 13from them. Only on the hand of one, the figure that crouched and trembled, I recognised the famous Thorpe emerald—as the family lawyer I knew it well—while the other that stormed and threatened might have passed for old Crofton himself, in so far as youth of twenty can anticipate the form and lineaments of seventy-five.
“The details had hardly had time to shape themselves within my brain, when the light died out. I heard—or fancied I heard—a short, sharp gasp, an inarticulate cry for mercy, and the carriage drew up before the gate of Broadwater.”
That night after dinner we were subjected to a close cross-examination by our uncle.
“The boys have told me your surprising story, Mr. Roberts. May I ask how it is I never heard it from you before?”
“Why, to tell you the truth, Mr. Heyward, you wouldn’t have heard it now if my little friend Ronald hadn’t rushed me into telling it by his burst of eagerness. You might have said I’d been dining too well—as indeed I had—and that isn’t exactly the thing to recommend a family lawyer. So you’ve got my reputation at your mercy, young gentlemen. p. 14For, of course, it was the dinner—a nightmare of some kind, no doubt. Though I’m bound to say I never had a nightmare, either before or afterwards, that was half so vivid and real. It was quite the worst quarter of an hour I ever passed in my life.”
“Perhaps not so much of a nightmare as you suppose,” rejoined the uncle, and then proceeded to narrate his own experiences. I remember thinking how much better Frampton told the story than he did, in spite of his rather unorthodox language.
“Phew! that alters the whole question. Corroborative evidence with a vengeance—evidence that one might almost take into court. For even if you had been dining not wisely, your sister hadn’t, I know. Anyhow, we three staid gentlefolk could create a pretty sensation with our three independent testimonies. To think that a belief in ghosts should be forced upon me at my age! Why I shall be dragged next into believing the village legend.”
“What is it? I never even heard of it.”
“That Ronald’s old carriage is somehow mixed up with the quarrel between Thorpe and Broadwater—that it stands in the way p. 15of their family union. So you see, young gentlemen, where you’ve got to look for a wife as soon as the carriage is gone. But it doesn’t look like it yet. Old Thorpe’s dead, and the house shut up, and the only survivor of the family is on the point, they tell me, of marrying her cousin. Above all, you guard the old carriage, Heyward, as if it were a priceless heirloom. But perhaps you are right; it isn’t your business to get rid of it.”
So the old carriage mouldered on in the coach-house, and its net-work of cobwebs grew grimier each day.
How the spiders maintained themselves was a mystery, for no fly could have run the blockade of the window, even if the inducement had been greater. At last Ronald and I wove a legend around them in our turn, which terrified us more than did the carriage itself. We decided that, after long years of mutual slaughter, the victory had rested in the end with two or three hoary monsters, who had ensconced themselves within the p. 16framework of the ruined carriage, from which they looked out upon the solitude they were creating. Little by little the uncanny idea grew upon us till, regardless of all probability, we fancied we could see their eyes peering out of the darkness.
More than once we made illicit expeditions at midnight in the hope that we might find the ghostly coachman cleaning and repairing his equipage for another sortie. But we could see nothing. If either of us had gone alone, the result might have been different; we should have seen, or pretended to see, many matters of interest.
November was, as a rule, our month of storms at Broadwater, though February often ran it close; and, in the year that followed upon Frampton’s story, a gale broke upon us on the third of the month that beat the record of our times for violence. We had not been without warning of its coming. The sea had been “crying out” at intervals—sure token that the storm had paused to gather breath, bidding the sea take forward its message to the shore.
Not when the gale is at its height—at any rate along our coast—can you best realise p. 17the grandeur of the sea. Study it rather on one of these quiet days of warning, when you can trace a wave almost from its inception, till it curls over at your feet with a dull roar, regular as the boom of a minute gun, and audible for miles inland.
Lashed into foam, and its voice drowned by the wind, it parts with much of its majesty, and becomes merely a symbol of turmoil and unrest. What it gains in wildness, it loses in self-control, like the seething rapids of Niagara before they compose themselves into dignity prior to the final plunge.
Then came another and a final warning. It was one of those rare sunsets which leave an imprint on the memory for life. Not a sunset in which conflicting colours are fused into each other by soft and subtle gradations—these we see often and soon forget—but one of war and discord; when colours, the most antagonistic, meet without blending, and produce effects that would be called crude and coarse upon a painter’s canvas.
On a background of unvarying crimson, black and purple clouds were projected, clean cut in outline, and solid, to all appearance, as the hull of an Atlantic liner that was cleaving p. 18her way across the sea beneath them. The sea itself borrowed its colours from the sky, but jealously guarded them from encroaching on the beach beyond, which shone white as silver in the unnatural glow. Beyond it still, the valleys and hills that rose behind Broadwater were painted a dark and luminous green, on which a few scattered homesteads stood out in clear and startling relief. For the moment distance was annihilated, and a step or two, or so it seemed, might have compassed the mile of space that separated us from our own house door.
A sunset like this, following upon a “crying” sea, can never be misread by the dwellers on our coast. It warns every fisherman that he must haul his lerret to the very summit of the ridge, and every Coastguard station along the dreaded Bay that it behoves them to be awake and watching. But it was not till midnight that the storm broke upon us.
Our faith in the old house was strong. It had outlived so many storms, and the gale of ’24 must have been worse than this, or so we kept saying for mutual encouragement. But it was hard to believe it, and the comfort was quickly followed by a disquieting thought p. 19that each year, as it passed, left the chimneys older and less capable of resisting the pressure. We were disquieted, too, for others; we knew well by experience what a night like this might bring us from the sea. Times upon times, in similar gales, we had been hurried to the beach by signals of distress, and had helped the Coastguard, sometimes in saving life, oftener in furthering that painful recall to life which is more agonizing to witness than death itself.
Happily there came to-night no appealing cry. Even if it had pierced its way through wind and rain, those whom it summoned could only have watched and waited for one of those strange freaks by which the sea now and again elects to spare a human life. At the height of the gale, when gust upon gust followed each other with ever increasing fury, we were still seated in the drawing-room under various pretences. Ronald and I said openly that we were afraid of venturing our lives in the upper rooms, just under the chimneys. Our uncle jeered at our cowardice, but stayed where he was. “The noise would prevent my sleeping,” he said, “but, as for danger, I’d as lief sleep in the garrets as p. 20anywhere; only the servants’ beds ain’t as comfortable as my own. The old house’ll last our time yet.”
As if in answer to his boast, the gale made another defiant howl. It was answered by a dull crash, followed by a continuous roar of falling materials—followed again by a dead silence that was audible above the rush of wind and rain. It took us only a few minutes to satisfy ourselves that the fabric of the house was safe. It was a chimney stablewards that had gone, crashing through a hay loft and lumber room right down on the top of our ghostly carriage, and clearing Broadwater of spiders for the period of our lives. Even the uncle himself could find no plea for extending his protection to a mass of shivered fragments. If the powers of darkness had destroyed their own handiwork, or failed in ability to protect it, there was no reason to suppose that the hand of man would be more successful. So the fiat went forth—not, I believe, without great searching of heart on the part of our uncle—and carriage and cobwebs, and even the stable itself were swept away, and, as Bunyan says, I saw them no more.
p. 21“Well, I’m glad that it’s gone,” said a quiet, sweet voice at my elbow, as Ronald and I were watching the departure of the last load of materials. And, turning, I saw before me the woman who was to be the guiding star of Ronald’s life, yes, and my own life too. She was little more than a girl then—only a few years older than Ronald himself—with a great calm truthfulness in her eyes, and the air of one who had already known sorrow, and been refined, not hardened, by the experience.
“Yes,” she repeated, “I am glad it’s gone. And now we can be friends. It has been so lonely for me at Thorpe ever since my father died, and I have so wanted to make friends with you; only that old carriage stood in the way. It was silly, no doubt, to be so much afraid, but then I am Scotch—and the Scotch you know are very superstitious,” she added with a smile. “Besides, ever since I can remember anything, I’ve been told that the old carriage meant mischief and trouble between Thorpe and Broadwater. It is true, no doubt, that an ancestor of mine did die in it, and that all sorts of ghastly rumours were current as to how he met his death. p. 22But nothing ever came of them, and it was commonly assumed that he died of heart disease; he had certainly been ailing for years before. Thank heaven! the very scene of the crime—if such it were—has been swept away at last. And it is pleasant, isn’t it? to recommence our life’s friendship here where it was wrecked. Though I fear we shan’t meet often as yet, for my husband that is to be lives abroad, till I can persuade him to give up his post and settle down with me for good in the dear old home. But you will be my friends, won’t you, for always?”
She held out her hand in pledge of her friendship. And we shall be friends, I think, “for always.” I like the old-fashioned phrase.
Besides, it was her own.
It was Ronald’s birthday, and the day fixed for the Races at Bayview—an unlucky coincidence, for he always showed a keen spirit of enterprise on that particular morning. He was now fourteen, and looked a trifle older owing to his splendid physique. Even in the nursery visitors had christened him the “Infant Hercules.” A Viking he was in miniature, with clear blue eyes and short, crisp hair, carrying with him an atmosphere of suppressed fun that, dangerous as it might prove, was a certain guarantee against dulness or want of spirit. He had behaved himself beautifully for an entire month. But I distrusted him to-day. He had never seen the races, and had constantly signified his intention of doing so. So when his uncle said to him at breakfast, “You are not to go to the races; they are destructive of morality, especially to a boy of your age,” and Ronald p. 26winked at me across the table, I felt sure he intended to go.
“No sir,” he said respectfully—“and I suppose you won’t go either. Of course they can’t do you any harm at your age; but they can’t do you any good.”
“As it happens, Ronald, I shall go—just to make sure that you don’t. Besides, I think it a good principle that elderly people should be seen doing things which they forbid to their youngsters. Unquestioning obedience is a fine thing. It doesn’t follow that because I allow myself a cigar to quiet my nerves, therefore you should smoke who don’t know what a nerve means.”
“No sir: of course it doesn’t”—and he winked again.
For myself, I distinctly intended to go to the races, seeing that I was past the age at which my uncle feared their contagion; though neither was I old enough to plead the principle which he had so astutely paraded on his own account. And so I went.
Ronald had left the house soon after breakfast—for a ride (he said)—and, as I saw nothing of him on the racecourse, I was comfortable in the belief that for once he had p. 27obeyed orders. When the races were nearly over, a little stable boy came up to me and touched his cap:
“Hold your horse, sir?”
By Jove, it was Ronald. He had borrowed Dick the groom’s livery, and had had a fine time of it, he told me, in that unconventional attire.
Just then our uncle rode up. “Now stand away, Fred, and don’t be seen talking to me, and I’ll show you some rare sport.”
“Hold your horse, sir?”—this to our uncle.
“Well, I don’t mind if you do, and I’ll have a stroll with Fred here till it’s time to go home.”
After a lounge along the course, chatting with friends and criticising the horses, we came back to where we left Ronald. “Thanks,” said the uncle, as he re-mounted, “here’s a shilling for you. A lucky dog you are, too, for it’s got a hole in it, I see. Good-day.”
When dinner was over that evening, the uncle waxed genial over a bottle of ’75 Margaux. “We’d a capital day’s racing, Ronald. I’m almost sorry you weren’t with us. Next year, all well, my boy, I’ll take you myself.”
p. 28“Thanks, sir”—and he winked the third time. “By the way, you haven’t lost a shilling, sir, have you? I picked up this one while you were at the races. You’re a lucky dog, sir, if it does belong to you, for it’s got a hole in it?”
Verdict: Acquitted, but don’t do it again.
Broadwater was fearfully dull on a Sunday, so I came over from Bayview where I was staying, that Ronald and I might help each other in getting through the day.
It was a blazing afternoon in August, and the park, shut in by hills, shimmered in a haze of heat. “I can’t stand this,” said Ronald. “Air I must get somehow, and, as it’s not to be got nearer than the sea, we’ll walk to the shore in search of it. It’s rather hard on you, to be sure, who’ve done the walk once already. But it’s better than lounging about here, where it’s too hot to speak or think; and, at any rate, we shall see the trippers.”
It happened, most unluckily, that just as we reached the pier, an open air service had begun. Of course they had chosen the hottest corner possible for it; a nook sheltered by the masonry of the pier, which carefully excluded every breath of wind that might be p. 32travelling to us from the sea. But, despite the heat, it was a temptation to mild excitement that Ronald found it impossible to resist.
“Not so good as the nigger minstrels, but better than nothing,” he said. So we joined the throng of listeners. It was the usual audience, the devotees (mainly women) forming the inner circle, in close proximity to the preacher and the harmonium. Next came the half-hearted, weaker vessels, who separated the former as by a wall from the irreverent throng of idlers who laughed and talked and smoked on the outside fringe. The preacher was a man of the ordinary type, only a little stouter, a little more flaccid and even more illiterate than usual. Where do they come from, these preachers? Are they men who think they have a call or a gift? and are they accepted for the office on their own valuation? Certainly they are not chosen for any capability that can approve itself to the impartial hearer.
The present representative of the school was enlarging, when we came up, upon the demerits of the publican. Ronald, after a few minutes, began to fume and fret. But he behaved for a while excellently well, though p. 33I could hear him muttering words in an undertone distinctly uncomplimentary to the preacher.
“And it is publicans like these—the scum and refuse of Jerusalem—that are represented in this town to-day by the inn-keepers, barmen, and pot-boys, who an hour or two hence will be serving many of their fellow creatures—many, I fear, of this audience—with drink, to the ruin of their lives here and of their hopes of salvation hereafter.”
“Nothing of the sort,” shouted Ronald, “he wasn’t an innkeeper at all; he was a tax-gatherer. Every schoolboy knows that.”
The silence that followed was awful; every eye was turned upon the boy, and it was a strain upon my loyalty to remain at his side, and not then and there renounce his acquaintance.
“Oh, he wasn’t, wasn’t he, young man?” said the preacher. “Well, as you seems to know more about the Bible than I do, perhaps you’ll step up here and take my place. Kindly tell us, if you please, out of your superior knowledge, what he was, and why he was called a publican if he was a tax-collector; and why a poor collector of rates, p. 34who only did his duty, is held up to our scorn and reprobation; yes, our reprobation.” (This word he regarded as a crushing climax.)
To my complete and indescribable confusion, Ronald, nothing loth, accepted the challenge with delight, and the next moment was standing on the platform addressing an appreciative audience. What a sermon he gave them!—lasting without a pause or break for exactly half-an-hour; every thought reasoned out, and closing with a peroration of consummate eloquence. By a clever feint he had diverted the text of the preacher to one on the Pharisee and the Publican, making a scathing attack on the Pharisaism of the day, which went to church, and gave its alms openly and never in secret; which paid its way and kept the conventional commandments, and neglected (as of little count) the weightier things of unselfishness and love. “A day is coming when it will matter nothing where we lived, nor in what occupations, nor amidst what circumstances, but only how we wrought, and in what spirit we suffered. Be the thing you say; be unselfish, in your own poor way, to your friends and to your home, and to the world about you; that is worth p. 35ten thousand sermons and a hundred thousand Articles of Religion.” A dead silence followed as he stepped down from the platform; he had left a charm upon us that it seemed sacrilege to break. Then came a word or two. “What a wonderful boy!—a second Spurgeon; with all his eloquence and none of his irreverence.”
“Summat worth hearin’, I calls it; how he did pitch into they bloomin’ aristocrats. I’ll come and hear ye, young master, whensomdever you holds forth agin.”
“Well—I never!” It was with this ungrammatical aposiopesis that I started, so soon as I could find breath to start at all. “Where on earth, Ronald, did you get it all from?” The boy had come back to me looking as cool as a cucumber, and highly delighted with the sensation he had created.
“Don’t tell, Fred,” he answered, “but it was a sermon of Vaughan’s. We are made to analyse his sermons at school, and say them afterwards for repetition lessons. So when that old donkey fell foul of the publican, I had one handy you see, on that very subject, and I thought it a pity not to fire it off.”
p. 36Surely, I thought, he’ll be satisfied now, and I tried to draw him away from the crowd, who were becoming a trifle too much interested in our name and identity. But no; not a bit of it. The excitement was full upon him still. So up he went to the harmonium (they had now started a hymn), and looking over the shoulder of the performer (she was a pretty girl of eighteen) he began to sing as lustily as the best of them. By degrees his arm, I saw, began to steal about her waist, and, fuss and fidget as she might, she was powerless to help herself. Her hands were occupied with the keyboard, and her feet with the blower, and with her voice she had to lead the singing. So he had her at his mercy, and hugged her disgracefully, while she, poor girl, was powerless to resist. The audience all thought she was his sister, and highly commended him, it was clear, for the countenance and support he was giving her.
While the last line of the last verse was being sung, the temptation became too strong for resistance, and Ronald stooped down and kissed her—an action which touched still further the sympathetic heart of the audience.
p. 37“A dear, good young feller that, as ever I see’d”—said an old lady in my immediate neighbourhood. “I only wish as how he were a son of mine; a preachin’ that fine, for all the world like the Bishop, and a’ lookin’ arter his sister so prettily—and a nice young girl she is too.”
After this exploit he slipped across the circle and joined me, and a minute later—with hot and blazing cheeks—I was thankful to find myself round the corner, and well on the way home before the throng of listeners had begun to disperse. I felt, indeed, as must that Bishop, who, to oblige a small girl younger in years than in experience, condescended to ring at a street door, and was rewarded with the advice, “Run! run for yer life! they’ll knock the ’ead off yer shoulders if they catches ye.” I wonder what he elected to do? pocket his dignity and run? or rely upon his clerical attire to see him through? In any case our anxiety would be more protracted. What if the escapade should reach our uncle’s ears? However I was spared this climax. The story of it got wind in the servants’ hall, as all stories do; but the servants were far too loyal to Master p. 38Ronald to betray him, and so it never made its way up stairs to the drawing room.
But the career of that preacher was ended—in Bayview.
We had two, if not three, celebrities in our village. The Rector is dead; the Clerk is dead; the Professor still lives. But, independently of this claim to our respect, let us give precedence to the Church.
Less than fifty years ago the services in a parish not ten miles from one of our well-known watering places were done—or left undone—by surely the queerest cleric of his time.
A grand old man he was in person—tall, and venerable as Bede himself, with the most benevolent of faces and the most silver of silver hair. Fit to be an archbishop, so far as appearances went, but most unfit to have the charge of the hundred souls—there were no more of them—committed to his trust.
To these he ministered, or (as I have said) failed to minister, on Sunday mornings; for often as not the services, stipulated for at the price of £75 per annum, were left unperformed on the shallowest of pretexts. It might be p. 42the weather; it might be that he was indisposed; often, I fear, it was from sheer disinclination.
To the hamlet that clustered close round the church it was a matter of comparative indifference. They never believed by anticipation in the service till the bell was actually sounding; and his henchman (clerk, sexton, choirmaster and gravedigger in one) had strict orders to withhold this summons till the Rector himself was actually in view. But to our party, who lived two miles away, the question of service or no service was a serious one. It meant hesitation in starting, and reluctance to risk the chance—provocation, too, even to my long-suffering father, when he found the church door barred, and a south-wester brewing, in the teeth of which we had to struggle home over a barren down, unsupported by the nutriment, mental and moral, on which we had calculated. But the service, when it did take place, was a queerer experience by far than the service foregone. The orchestra would have been the despair of Nebuchadnezzar. It consisted of a single flageolet, blown by the wheezy old sexton—one Joseph Edwards by name. We did not p. 43even boast of a serpent—instrument immortalised by Mr. Hardy for its volume of tone in supplementing deficiencies. Now the flageolet is a pet aversion of mine, and I can forgive Nebuchadnezzar many of his iniquities for having (so far as we know) excluded it from his band. Indeed, musicians themselves would seem to be ashamed of it, for they have re-christened it, I am told, by a humbler name. But I was careful not to betray my feelings to my friend Joseph, and listened patiently while he enlarged on the capabilities and melodiousness of his pet instrument. “Not but what I’m getting a bit wheezy (he’d often say to me), and can’t make the flourishes as onst I could. But ’tis may be better as it is. They quieter tunes are belike more godly. Anyhow the choir—poor souls—got right puzzled among my turns and quavers, coming in here, there and no how at the finish.”
But, praise it as he might, the flageolet is the worst instrument possible to constitute an orchestra; especially when played as Joseph played it. It gave out a series of squeaks and counter-squeaks—punctuated and accentuated by his wheezes rather than p. 44by the requirements of the tune. Indeed, a boy learning the bugle, or a Punch and Judy panpipe, would have discoursed more decorous music. To me the panpipe and the flageolet seem nearly akin; only the flageolet is the more powerful instrument of the two, and Punch is more exacting than we were in the choice of an executant.
Once, as a special favour, I was invited by Joseph to attend a choir practice. It was before his hand or, I should say, his breath had lost its cunning; and it took place on this wise. An hour before service (which on this occasion was actually realised) Joseph took his stand in the reading desk, flageolet in hand, while a group of apple-cheeked cottagers—fishermen mainly, and plough-boys—grouped themselves in my father’s pew below. In one point at any rate Joseph had anticipated the ritual of later days; he repudiated all women from his choir. “’Taint no place for ’em,” he’d say; “I wonder what ’postle Paul ’d think, if he could ha’ heard they two women at S. Matthew’s screechin’ out ‘O ’twas a joyful sound to hear’—and none of us, let alone the choir, privileged to put in a joyful sound along wi ’em. If women p. 45baint allowed to preach in Church, stands to reason that they baint allowed to sing.”
“Now boys, turn to ‘Aurelia,’ and go for to remember that we sing the whole on’t right through this time. Last time as ever we did it some on you took to skipping and one sang one verse and t’other the next, whereby I had to blow myself nigh faint to hide your discordance. And mind ye too, sing ’en slow, not as if you wanted to get shot on’t.”
All went well at the first rehearsal, for Joseph played the air distinctly and without disturbing flourishes—only with an intolerable drawl, mindful in all probability of “passon’s” injunctions; of which more anon.
“Well sung,” says he; “you be a good choir when you be so minded; and well instructed, too, though I says it as didn’t ought to. Now then, we’ll see what ye can do when I puts in the flourishes.”
This was a change for the worse, and what had been a melancholy dirge became a haphazard scramble for notes, each boy seizing on the one that he could detect among the enveloping flourishes, regardless whether it was the same note that had found favour p. 46with his neighbour. In the end the hymn became a sacrilegious fugue, devoid of time, harmony or sequence. Yet Joseph was never disquieted at the result. On the contrary, he regarded it as a tribute to his skill, addressing his choir at the finish as a general might address his discomfited troops: “You’ve done your best, and none of us can’t do no more. Better luck at church-time, and this I do say, that ’tis few players can overlay a melody as I can wi’ flourishes and expect them as sings it to pick out the tune.”
But to return to our Rector. The fun began (I write, remember, as a boy of ten) with the First Lesson. When the time for it approached, great preparations were seen to be in progress. Our benevolent Archbishop retired into the recesses of the reading desk (a high, square pew, scarcely to be differentiated from our own) and disposed his lunch in orderly array upon the sill overhanging my father’s head. And, to give time for its consumption, a boy was summoned from the congregation—usually it was his own son, a curly-pated lad of thirteen—to discourse the Lesson. Manfully he grappled with the difficulties and hard names of the Old Testament—p. 47sticking and halting at nothing, and making a record of false quantities and mispronunciations that I have never heard beaten during a twenty years’ experience of the average undergraduate. Meanwhile his father lunched peacefully, careless what havoc he made with the Kings of Israel and Judah. But woe betide the boy if ever he tried to skip a name. A guttural rebuke issued from the depths of the reading desk: “None of that, Jack; go back, my lad, and try it again.”
But his greatest delight of all was to hear Jack struggling with the genealogy in St. Luke. A series of chuckles issued from the corner where the old man lay ensconced, that gathered in volume with every fresh fall; and when the boy, hot and discomfited, retired from the fray, there was a pause in the proceedings till the old man had recovered himself sufficiently to resume his functions. His luncheon meanwhile had been progressing steadily, not without the gurgling sound of something comforting to facilitate digestion. It puzzled me for years to discover the raison d’ être of this extraordinary meal, knowing as I did that an hour later he would be dining with one of his cottagers, after careful preliminary p. 48enquiry as to which house could offer the most attractive fare. Only quite lately, long after the idea of luncheon had been stereotyped upon my brain, I found out that the so-called luncheon was, after all, no luncheon at all, but only a retarded breakfast. Our Rector being a late riser, and having a five-mile walk before him, could find no opportunity of taking it in comfort till he had reached the haven of the parish reading desk.
A cigar was the indispensable accompaniment of the second Lesson, during which period its fumes could be seen ascending like “curling incense” to the blackened rafters of the roof. Indeed, the only thing that ever really shattered my father’s equanimity was the sight of its reeking end, projected over his head from the sill of the reading desk, where the Rector had reluctantly placed it while he applied himself to the requirements of the “Benedictus.”
When the flageolet sounded the key note of the first hymn, the Rector regarded it as the signal of a temporary relaxation. He was for a time off duty, and the cigar was again in requisition. But in fine and balmy p. 49weather, he found the atmosphere of the church too close for its enjoyment. It “gathered sweetness from the open air.” So, attired in surplice, stole and bands, our Rector strolled out into the churchyard—giving us pleasant little vista-views of his enjoyment as he passed and re-passed the windows of the aisles. That it might be enjoyed in perfection and unto the end, the hymns selected were inordinately long. But, if fate was against him, and the wind light, and the cigar drew slowly, he had no false shame in appearing on the chancel steps to announce with all the dignity of a formal notice that the last two verses of the hymn would be repeated. After which he disappeared into the churchyard again.
The sermon was to me, as a boy, full of the most delightful interest. It had an infinity of anticipation. No one knew what was coming—least of all the Rector himself. We felt stimulated by the chance of any and every possibility. A clergyman of the strictest sect of the Evangelicals, he always preached in a surplice. (It was in the days, remember, when the Geneva gown was the badge of that school, and the sign of a high church cleric was barely appearing above the horizon).
p. 50But I sadly fear that our Rector was influenced by no question of principle or non-principle; I cannot, I think, be wronging him if I infer that his preference for the surplice was due to sheer indifference or indolence.
Then came the always exciting task of moving the immense Bible from the reading desk to the pulpit. He regarded it, I think, almost in the light of a fetish, and certainly, so long as I knew him, would never have attempted a sermon with any smaller and less trustworthy guide. He balanced the enormous volume in his right hand, and, with his left hand on the rails, steadied himself as he made the painful and perilous ascent. The hope, I fear, of us boys was that the book would one day slip from his hand and imperil the head of the clerk beneath, who was now no longer choirmaster, but, like a Roman flute player, had crossed over to his proper seat and resumed his duties beneath the pulpit. But the hope was never realised, and I have felt ever since that my life has lacked something in consequence.
The choice of his text was the longest part of his sermon. The Bible was opened haphazard, as though he intended to execute p. 51a sort of sors Vergiliana. But so casual a method was quite unsuited to the dignity of our Rector. The pages were turned and re-turned; whole chapters were read and carefully studied, and, after a quarter of an hour of this preliminary investigation, a text was given out, that for glaring irrelevance and disconnection with everything else could never have been surpassed if he had taken it at sight. A name out of a genealogy—the Christian name Mary—Tophet—the daubed wall—pillows for all armholes—are among the subjects that I distinctly remember were selected for our edification. But of the treatment alas! I remember nothing—nothing then, and certainly nothing now, when I would give £50 to trace the exact process of his reasoning.
The last sermon I ever heard him deliver was on the text, “And there shall be no more sea”—an unwise and disquieting subject for a congregation, most of whom came of a race of fishermen, and gained their living from the element which he so confidently annihilated.
Such was our Rector. Not reverent or discreet, you will say, in his capacity of priest. No, but a kindly, genial old man; devoted to his parishioners, if not to his duties; clever too, and companionable in society, and inexhaustible to the boys of the parish in the matter of marbles and gingerbread.
It is with affection that I recall him, for, in spite of his eccentricities, and perhaps because of them, I loved him well.—R.I.P.
“Pale fingers moved upon the keys,
The ghost hands of past centuries.”
From Joseph’s flageolet to one of the finest organs in England—from the scene of “our Rector’s” ministrations to a building that could have swallowed up his church and his school room and all the house property in his parish—was a startling transition for a boy of fourteen.
I wonder how often, during my first experience of a cathedral service, my thoughts travelled back to the tiny hamlet in the west, with its ruined chancel on which the Atlantic had spent its rage, and its few cottages straggling on and up behind an avenue of elms, to where the new church, safe in a sheltered paradise of its own, looks down compassionately upon the wreckage of the past.
In times to come I got to know every nook and corner of the great organ loft at K. p. 56It was built in those large minded days before architects had conceived the fatal idea of economising space. Ascending by a broad staircase that rose with the dignity of an inclined plane, you came out upon a plateau, roomier and more comfortable than many a London flat. The sanctum of the organist—indeed, the huge instrument itself—were little more than incidents of the loft. There was a chamber for the wife of the dean, and another chamber for the wife of the organist, together with a library for the Church music; and still there was room in it for blind man’s buff—when the choristers could get the chance.
The organ itself might have been a mile away—so little did you hear of it. In this respect the loft resembled the deck of a battleship, where the men who work the guns hear least of the explosion. Only a few muttered growls from the big pipes that lined the walls on either side, or burrowed in the caverns underneath, suggested the proximity of sound. The crash of the full organ was delivered at a point far above your head, somewhere among the shadowy outlines of the roof.
The space allotted to the dean’s wife on p. 57the other side of the organ was less comfortable than ours, but far more interesting. The floor outside her enclosure was broken by yawning chasms to give the great pipes breathing room; and though they were of wood, and spoke, as wooden pipes should speak, in hollow muffled tones, they must, I fancy, have confused her devotions and raised a small hurricane about the nape of her neck.
Linking the present to the past were the names of by-gone choristers, carved in schoolboy fashion upon the old oak panels, who had sung their last note a hundred years ago—it might be in this very gallery. It was easy to picture them passing and re-passing still through the trap door which opened at our feet—a white robed procession of the voiceless dead.
An organ loft is a delightfully irresponsible place from which to take part in a service, especially when the instrument is a large one, well removed from the congregation on the top of a screen—above all, when you do not happen to be the organist.
I would not for an instant be understood to imply that the sense of aloofness necessarily engenders irreverence. On the contrary, many p. 58of the most solemn hours of my life were passed within the recesses of the great organ at K., and my friend the organist might have been a pattern to the congregation in true devotional spirit. But the necessities imposed by a choral service afforded him little opportunity for a devotional attitude, while he would have been more, or less, than human if he had not utilised our isolation to impart to me pleasant little details regarding the progress of the service. These would be interrupted at intervals by parenthetical instructions whenever he wanted help in the management of his stops.
A reminiscence of an organ-loft monologue would read something as follows: “Draw the Gamba, please. How flat that boy Robinson’s singing; and oh! those h’s of his! Principal, please, and now the mixtures. Green’s getting shaky in his top notes; he only looked at that upper G. Take care; you put in that coupler before I had finished the bar. What a nuisance it is! I shall never get a boy like him . . . The finest hymn written, don’t you think? (They were singing Stainer’s ‘Saints of God’) . . . and ‘Aurelia’ is the second best. (Well done! Joseph, I thought; p. 59you’re in it after all.) Get me Wely’s Offertoire in G, will you? It’s poor stuff, but the people will have it. The Oboe, please, for the air . . . And now for the scramble . . . Turn over in good time; I can see ahead of me, but I can’t see through the page.” And he dashed into the finale at the hurricane pace that alone makes the thing endurable. Even he couldn’t talk till it was done.
Sometimes we were interested in events that were proceeding in the world beneath us. “What on earth’s the man reading the fifteenth for? it’s the sixteenth that’s the lesson for the day.” “Oh, it’s Henderson,” would be my reply. “He always chooses a fine chapter to show off his voice and elocution. If he’s hauled up for it, he’ll say he did it by mistake.”
On one occasion we were favoured by a reader, fresh from the study of Aristophanes, with the startling announcement that the First Lesson for the day was taken from the Book of Ecclesiazusae.
One day I heard voices in the choir beneath. I knew, before I saw the speakers reflected from the mirror in front of me, that they were two limp figures in blue serge and p. 60coal-scuttle bonnets. The strident tones were unmistakeable, the product, in so far as the human throat can compass it, of a long and careful assimilation of the clash of the cymbals.
“A rare fine buildin’, this,” said one, “and what a hinstrument! I only wish we ’ad it in our place; draw a sight better than drums and cymbals, wouldn’t it? And a deal noisier.”
“You’re right,” answered the other, “but, for all that, I wouldn’t exchange with that lot to get it. They deans and chapters and canons, and heaven knows what they calls theirselves, aye, and the bisshup hisself, is that sunk in ignorance and self-conceit that they can’t see the right way; no, nor never will.”
Occasionally, but very rarely, matters went wrong in our own department. The water that fed the hydraulic gear failed, or was cut off at the main, and the organ “went out” in the middle of an anthem. One afternoon in November it clouded over so suddenly that we could hardly see our faces in the organ loft. Worse luck still, the matches were damp, and till I could be back with some more, Dr. H. had to guess at the anthem as best he could. I am p. 61not musician enough to know how he surmounted the difficulty, but I suspect that the choir that day must have been treated to an amount of improvisation to which they were wholly unaccustomed from an organist who, as a rule, played what he had to play, and rarely indulged in vagaries.
But our worst disaster was of earlier date. Bildad the Shuhite blew the organ. He had received that name because he cleaned shoes in a corner of the Close. It was in prehistoric days before hydraulic gear was dreamed of in connexion with the organ. As luck would have it, Bildad fell sick, and had to supply a deputy at the last moment. Dr. H. studied the man carefully, mistrusting, I think, his intelligence. But his answers were satisfactory, though I thought with the Doctor that he protested too much. Anyhow, the service was due, and we had no time to waste on our fears. The singing began, but the organ was irresponsive, and, hurrying to the back of the loft, I found our deputy-blower contemplating with blank stolidity the mechanism at his command, and pleading with an injured air, “Sir, I am a’ waitin’ for you to begin!”
p. 62One day I was laboriously extracting discords from the great instrument with Dr. H. at my elbow, when a gentle voice at our side asked for permission to try the instrument. What a delight it was, after the horrors I had been perpetrating, to see the long fingers charm out the melody, till they drifted at last into the chords of Chopin’s great march. Surely, I thought, the composer must hear and welcome such a perfect realisation of his wondrous dream.
“Charrlie, me boy, thry the pey-dals,” came a voice from below, with the raciest and most captivating of brogues. It was my first introduction to Ireland’s great musician—Sir Robert Stewart—and his still greater pupil, composer in prospective of the Requiem and Revenge.
At our next interview the Professor of the future gave me a friendly lecture on Wagner, emphasising his teaching the while by illustrative passages, which he played, I remember, in thick woollen gloves, of which he hadn’t troubled to divest himself, being pressed for time and the organ loft none too warm. The mechanism of the organ, I am bound to add, was old and antiquated—not p. 63as it is in these days, when the notes speak if a fly sits upon them, or you venture to sneeze in their neighbourhood.
I have made acquaintance with strange scenes in an organ loft—an organist of surpassing ability playing through a service when he was drunk, but certainly not incapable. Yet a deputy sat by him, ready to take his place in case he should prove unequal to retaining his seat at the instrument. I have seen a fight between two choristers who had been sent to fetch music for the choir. It began on this wise. “I can lick you ’ead over ’eels in ’oly ’oly ’oly,” said one. The taunt was not to be endured by a chorister of spirit, so “Come on!” said the other; and they had fought it out to the bitter end at the back of the organ before ever Dr. H. was aware that the battle was in progress. I have seen courtship too—ending, as all courtship should do, in matrimony—while the organist played unsuspiciously a soft and dreamy accompaniment. And I have seen heroism too—grand as any displayed upon a field of battle—when my friend came from his sick bed and played through a service magnificently while the death dew gathered p. 64on his face. And I coveted, as I never coveted before or since, the divine gift of music, which would have enabled me to spare him his long and patient hour of martyrdom.
And, at the end, he played the Dead March, never knowing that it was for himself he played it, while a furious thunder-storm raged over head, and the roll of the thirty-two-foot pipes was drowned by reverberating peals. As the final chords came crashing from his hands, he said to me, “Handel must have written it, I think, to an accompaniment like this. And yet the modern school of organists would have us leave out the drums! I shall never care to play it again.”
And three weeks afterwards he was dead.
Was it an escapade, I wonder? or was it something greater and grander? There are, I suppose, escapades good and bad; heroic and unheroic.
One evening I was tidying up Ronald’s room at Cambridge. We were both of us in residence now: I as an M.A., while he had just entered as an undergraduate. He was as studiously untidy as I was the reverse, and, but for me, his room, artistic as it was, would always have looked like a boudoir that had been used over-night for a tap-room. Pipes, tobacco, and matches met the eye everywhere, scattered among vases of flowers and ferns; no two sheets of the Times were together in one place; “Esmond” lay cheek by jowl with “Tom Jones” (the former, I was glad to see, the better worn), while there was more than a suspicion that his surplice was in use as a bed for a litter of kittens.
Ronald himself lay at his ease upon the sofa, watching—I cannot say with interest, p. 68but at any rate without prejudice—my improvements for the worse. But I roused him at last. In replacing a small box of Italian olive wood I knocked off the lid, and an aggregation of articles unimaginable were scattered on the floor.
“Hullo! stop that, old man,” he said. “You’ll be losing or breaking some of my most cherished possessions.”
“What on earth are they, Ronald? Here’s a small crucifix and a missal (you haven’t turned Roman Catholic, have you?) and any amount of rings—most of them brass—and, by Jove, a lock of hair! Is the last a love token? It looks uncommonly like the relic of another escapade. Did it belong to the girl who played the harmonium on the beach at Bayview? I didn’t know you’d got so far as that. Besides, her hair was light, if I remember. Out with it, old man, and clear your conscience by confession.”
“Have done with your jokes, Fred; you’re the last fellow to chaff like that if you knew the rights of it. And, if I must tell you, I must. But I didn’t want you to know of the matter; it looks too much like boasting. However, you find out everything I do; so p. 69I may as well tell you all about this, before you hunt it up for yourself in some underhand way, or make a tale out of it that isn’t the true one. You know Richards, Fred; the man my uncle made me travel with last autumn—to see the world, as he called it. I never liked the fellow, and always thought him a cad; but I didn’t know till then that he was a coward as well as a cad.”
“I always thought him both,” was my reply.
“Taormina in Sicily was one of the places we stopped at: the loveliest spot that you could dream of, if you dreamed your hardest. You’ve never been there, have you? Well: the town itself is a fair day’s walk up hill from the sea, and Mola’s another day’s walk above that; by which time you’ve nearly reached the clouds—only, as it happens, Sicily doesn’t boast of any. But you needn’t go higher than Taormina for the loveliest view on earth. They may talk of seeing Madrid, Seville, Naples, and a hundred other places, and then dying contented—why, there’s none of them that’s a patch on Taormina. Sit down in the proscenium of the old theatre, facing Etna, with the Straits of Messina and the foot of p. 70Italy laid out like a map on your left: and you can do without another view for the rest of your natural life. The only objection we found to it was that in September of last year it was most awfully hot, and Taormina is pestiferous enough to be a Turkish settlement. It is worse, I think, than the old town of Granada, which is perhaps the filthiest place that I know in Europe. The cholera, too, was about last year, especially in Italy; and, if it did cross the Straits, Taormina was ripe and handy for it.
“After we’d been there for a week or so it did come with a vengeance. First a suspicious case or two, then a case that was not suspicious at all, and then it fell like a thunderbolt on the town. Richards was off directly, and with him everyone in the place who could afford to go; so the poorer people, with their old priest, who stuck to his work like a man, had it all to themselves.
“Now it looks like boasting, but I didn’t like to run. Besides, I had come there for a fortnight, and I was fond of the place and the view and the old theatre—so why go? Anyhow I didn’t budge, and did what I could to help the old man in his difficulty—it was little p. 71enough. However, I had heaps of money, and they wanted that more than anything. And he taught me something about medicine—what little he knew of it; though, after all, nothing but stimulants at one stage and opium at another seemed to do them the slightest good.
“What a time it was! I pray that I may never stand face to face with cholera again. Overhead, a sky like brass, and, veiling the town, a dusky, steel-blue haze, almost as palpable as gauze: the distinctive colour (I’ve been told) of a cholera atmosphere. They died like flies, crowded in their close, evil-smelling dwellings, though we lighted fires in the streets to clear the air; an idea I borrowed, I believe, from ‘Old St. Paul’s.’
“Late one evening I hurried from a sick room to get a breath of air in the theatre below. My friend, the old priest, was there before me. This was an unusual coincidence, as he scarcely ever gave himself a moment’s rest. Yet he might have done so now, for in ten days’ time the disease abated as rapidly as it had begun. And besides, he had organised a band of fairly efficient helpers.
“‘Good evening, signor,’ he said. ‘You see p. 72me in my church; for I find in it the same relief that my brethren in the cities find within the walls of a cathedral. To me it would seem a poor exchange—for what cathedral built by man could match this view?’ As he spoke he pointed through the ruined arches to where Etna towered in the distance. Surely the noblest drop-scene ever fashioned by the hand of nature, and not unworthily framed by the artist who had designed the theatre. Between the ruined columns on the left a steamer, environed by a little group of feluccas, made a series of dissolving views as it overtook and passed them on the sea below. But I saw he had some trouble on his mind over and above his care for his patients.
“‘Take courage, padre mio. The worst is over. That shroud of steel-blue mist is lifting day by day. I should like to know what causes it. I believe if we had had the power of gauging it, its changes would have made no bad register of the death-rate in the town.’
“‘You are right, my son; the worst is past; and, thanks mainly to you, I have been enabled to do my duty while it lasted. Without you I could have done little. Take p. 73an old man’s thanks, signor, on behalf of those who are left and those who are gone. Neither the one nor the other will ever forget you, here or in the world that holds them now. Yet I could almost wish that you had never come.’
“‘Why so?’ I asked.
“‘I wish, at any rate’ (speaking with more vehemence than his wont), ‘that you had not brought with you that false-hearted friend of yours.’
“‘You mean Richards. Yes, he is a coward to run away like that.’
“‘Worse, far worse. You know little Ninetta well, who lives at your lodgings up the hill—the prettiest girl in Taormina they call her, and I fancy they are right. She is down with the cholera—didn’t you know it? Taken this morning, and, unless I am wrong in my judgment, it is one of the worst cases we have had—hopeless, I should say, from the very first.’
“‘Poor little Ninetta! It does seem hard; taken, too, just when the disease was dying out. But what has Richards to do with it?’
“‘The confessional is sacred, my friend. But it may be that, in this one case, the p. 74cholera has struck in kindliness. Though I am sorry he should be away when he might have made her end more peaceful. Even when I left her to come and find you, she was perpetually calling for him. Put her off with excuses; it won’t be for long. Don’t let her think him a coward as well as a villain. If you weren’t a heretic, I would absolve you beforehand for any necessary evasion.’
“‘You may be sure I’ll do my best. The evasions won’t lie heavy upon my conscience. Goodnight.’
“There was no hope for her, as he had said. During the early stage of her illness she was always asking for him—wondering why he stayed away—for I obeyed the priest’s injunctions, and never told her he’d been coward enough to run. As she got worse, she began to wander, and, from having seen us so often together, she would confuse him with me; and, at the last, was perfectly happy so long as I was with her; calling me by his name, and thanking him, as she imagined, for all his care and kindness to her. The lock of hair that puzzled you is hers. She gave it to me just before she died (she had nothing else to give, poor girl) in the belief she was giving it p. 75to Richards. And then, quite quietly, still in the belief that he was with her, and that it was his hand and not mine that she was holding, she died.
“There you have the story, Fred, such as it is. All the other things were given me by the villagers—the few of them, that is, who lived—all except the missal, which came from my old friend the priest. It was his most cherished possession; given, I believe, in the hope of converting me. Well, if conversion would make me another such as he was, I wouldn’t say no to it.
“Shall I ever see him again, I wonder? Some day, Fred, you and I will go and hunt him up.”
I HAVE been looking through all my old letters to-night. It is a strange sensation in these days, when the shuttle spins so fast, to re-read the letters between childhood and manhood. All details seem softened, viewed through the haze of time. Human nature was (or so it seems to one) so much kindlier then than now. What pleasant ghosts are raised by these old letters; what touches that one missed in them in the hurried, feverish days when they were written! In so very many cases, too, the hands that penned them are still. I have come upon one from Ronald, written when he was just twenty-five. It is singularly devoid of romance, compared with many of the others, and has “brisked me up” considerably, when I was verging on melancholia.
“Dear Fred (it runs),
“I shall want you for a wedding a month hence. Guess the name of the happy lady. No more escapades from—Yours respectably,
p. 80Who was she? and how had he managed it? were the questions I asked myself at the time. Somehow or other, I couldn’t imagine Ronald proposing to his lady-love in a conventional, Christianlike way. True, time had sobered him considerably. He was now a handsome young fellow, living quietly and sedately with his uncle at Broadwater; not easy to recognise as the lad who had discomfited an itinerant preacher, and played the stable-boy on the race-course at Bayview. But the spirit of Bohemianism dies hard, and I was possessed with the idea that, even in the act of “placing himself” for life, Ronald would make opportunity for a final fling. He was having a really bad time of it with his uncle, and, in spite of occasional outbursts, when the Viking blood got the better of him, had been fairly amenable to discipline. The old man, I know, must have been a constant thorn in his flesh; very selfish, and very dogmatic on all points, especially politics. If he could have reasoned logically himself, or have listened to reason in others, he would have been less objectionable. But he formed his opinions on grounds as strictly illogical as does the average woman, and, to p. 81do him justice, never abandoned them. For example:
“What a grand speech that was of Gladstone’s yesterday, Ronald!”
“Do you think so, sir? It seemed a trifle commonplace to me in comparison with Dizzy’s reply.”
“Pshaw! Dizzy’s no speaker at all compared with him.”
“Did you ever hear him, sir?”
“Never—and don’t want to.”
“Then you have read his speeches, sir?”
“Never—and I hope I never may.”
This was his recognised line of argument (Heaven save the mark!) on all topics. Yet to differ from any of his conclusions was a most serious offence, which Ronald in time learned how to avoid. His own part in a conversation became limited to a series of characterless phrases—“Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” “Of course, sir”—which passed muster as entirely satisfactory. Occasionally, it is true, they were flavoured with a salt of sarcasm, but as this only rebounded harmlessly, without piercing his uncle’s pachydermatous hide, the peace was seldom broken between them. Outsiders were less merciful.
p. 82“Growing a trifle dogmatical is Heyward, isn’t he?”—one club member would say to another—when a theory, accepted obediently by my uncle’s household, had been thrust a little prematurely down a stranger’s throat. “But there: he’s getting on in years—sixty, I should say, if he’s a day—and we shall all of us like our own way then. Indeed, youngsters like it too, as a Master of Trinity found with his junior Fellows. ‘Not one of us is infallible,’ he said to them, ‘not even the youngest.’”
It was a gentlemanly face, was old Heyward’s, though, if you happened to be a judge of faces, you would probably have added “a weak one.” Yes, and—No. Not strong, certainly, in intellect or knowledge, though the features are scored with deep-cut lines, that might be mistaken by the casual observer for traces of reflective thought. But lines traced by the hand of intellect ennoble and brighten the face, even in the act of carving it; these had only soured and embittered it. Such strength as they show is the strength of a dogged persistency, which clings to an opinion, right or wrong, because it admits no counter argument, and always carries its point by a process of blank obstructiveness. But p. 83each victory thus gained is of the nature of a defeat, narrowing and confining the soul still more within its self-imposed limits, deafening it to the interests of an outer world, and to the joys and sorrows of humanity at large.
His sister was a tall, angular woman, with thin, compressed lips and a cold, grey eye, betokening a far more active and aggressive will. But probably no two people were ever more entirely in harmony, till Ronald sowed dissension between them. Even dissimilarities, in their case, became points of agreement. For instance, the uncle read much and forgot all that he read, while she read nothing and had consequently nothing to forget. Then again, they were united in their devotion to comfort, for which each required the other. Wider forms of attachment they ignored and dispensed with, as unprofitable for the furtherance of the main issue. Friends, servants, animals, who were found detrimental, simply disappeared without comment, as unobtrusively as did the obnoxious teachers in Madame Beck’s famous pensionnat in the Rue Fossette.
In the art of “nagging” our uncle was supreme, bearing out Sarah Grand’s theory that women are nowhere in this province, p. 84which has been reckoned peculiarly their own. Curling himself up gracefully in his favourite armchair, and lighting a cigar, he would prepare himself to enjoy it. Sometimes the attack would be sudden and wanting in delicacy.
“Ronald, I wish you could manage to be down in time for dinner.” Ronald, be it observed, had been five minutes late, but yet five minutes prior to its announcement by the butler.
“My tie was so infern—intolerably hard to fasten, sir. I must get a Jemima.”
“A Jemima!” shouted the uncle—scandalised at the idea of Ronald contemplating the introduction of some rustic handmaid—“What on earth do you mean?”
“A hand-made tie, sir.” (The pun is yours, old man, not mine. Besides, the uncle wouldn’t have seen it, even if he’d given me the chance.—R.)
A mollified pause of ten minutes. The next time he would preface his thrust with a feint, to throw Ronald off his guard.
“What a wonderfully nice young fellow Carter is. Gets himself up as if he were living in town. I do like to see a fellow wear p. 85a tall hat on Sunday; it’s far and away more respectable than a round one.”
Ronald was incorrigible in this respect, and became as the deaf adder.
Five minutes’ grace.
“How that fellow Stanton did talk at dinner; one couldn’t get a word in edgeways. By-the-by, I think you talk a little too freely, Ronald, to men older and wiser than yourself.”
“Semper ego auditor tantum?” muttered Ronald.
“What is it you are saying, Ronald? I do wish you would speak up.”
“I said I would only listen in future, sir. Nunquamne reponam?” (the latter sotto voce).
“There you are—muttering again.”
“I was only saying I wished I could write a book, sir.”
Miss Heyward couldn’t hold a candle to her brother in this particular department. She lacked altogether the delicacy of “finesse” which is essential to its development, and, strange to say, possessed in a high degree by people of feeble intelligence. But she seconded him bravely in cases where temper and determination would serve its purpose. p. 86Here it was to advocate stronger measures, and hers was the master mind. She was not without a suspicion that time and reiteration had blunted the edge of her brother’s innuendo. When therefore she was called in for consultation, Ronald knew that it betokened a definite and concerted campaign. He would be sent to Coventry, or fed on roast pork, and specialities that his soul abhorred, or (but for his age) have been whipped. Finally, and in the last resort, his pocket money would be docked—a punishment that was known to be effective. Spending little upon himself, he had always a band of pensioners who were dependent on him for assistance. So it was through them that he could most surely be reached. “Seething the kid in the mother’s milk,” as we are told in ‘Kenilworth,’ is an occupation that offers a wide field to the ingenuity of the inventive.
“Two’s company and three’s none,” muttered Ronald, when, on entering a room suddenly, he found an animated conversation drop suddenly into silence, while an echo of his own escapades and iniquities lingered in the air.
A strange and melancholy life it was for a lad of Ronald’s temperament; a strange and incongruous fellowship:
“For East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”
Yet it had in it one redeeming feature. Only a mile from Broadwater, in the white house that nestles in the heart of the valley, just visible to us over a depression in the lulls, lived a young widow of twenty-eight—Ronald’s dearest friend, and his comforter and consoler whenever the monotony of existence seemed almost intolerable to the lad just entering on manhood.
The coalition between Ronald and Mrs. Thorpe was regarded with extreme disfavour by the uncle. “Making a milksop of the lad,” he called it sneeringly. But the villagers, one and all of them, were emphatic in their praise. “A nice couple they’d make,” said old widow Denvers. “I only hope it may come off, and that I may be alive to see it. And love each other they do already, unless my old eyes deceive me. See how he follers her about and well nigh wusshups the ground p. 88she treads on. Why he’d be at Thorpe Hill all day, if only that old aunt of his didn’t watch him like a cat. Drat her!”
A feeling of companionship had steadily grown up between them. The almost daily meetings and constant interchange of ideas had produced their natural result, and the companionship that had at first been a pleasure had long become a necessity. Yet, strange to say, neither had recognised the fact. Ronald himself would have scouted the idea. Possessed of not a penny in his own rights, and dependent only on what his uncle allowed him, he would have ridiculed the notion of asking the richest woman in the county to become his wife. Indeed it was the deterrent influence of their relative positions that had excluded the possibility from finding a place among the contingencies of his life. Yet she it was, however unwittingly, who was the cause of Ronald’s last escapade.
The idea had frequently occurred to him that she had inspired his uncle with the nearest approximation to love of which his nature was capable. Not according to the accepted traditions of lovemaking, nor exhibited in a manner that would be patent to the world at large. But p. 89he showed her attentions that he withheld from all other women. He would enquire solicitously after her health, and the health of her dogs, in huge Grandisonian phrases; above all, he would vacate for her his favourite armchair, and waive her into it with a bow of old-world politeness. (To his sister, who ruled his household, the chair in question was rigorously debarred). Then again, she was a Liberal in politics. Not that this counted for much, because he maintained that women should be allowed no politics at all, beyond presenting a feeble reflex of the man who was nearest or dearest to them. Much as he hated Conservatism, he would sooner have seen the wife of his friend Jacobs pose as the rankest of Tories, than at variance with her husband in a way so subversive of the relation of the sexes.
“What a blessing it is to get across here for a change of air,” said Ronald, flinging himself down on a chair in Mrs. Thorpe’s drawing-room, where she was arranging her flowers for the day.
“Well, what’s the matter now? Is it the aunt or the uncle who has ruffled you this morning?”
p. 90“Not so much the people as the atmosphere. The air seems laden with small trivialities. I feel like the man in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ who lived in a cloud of dust that he was constantly raising. Whereas life ought to be lived on a breezy upland, with your face to the sea.”
“I think I understand what you mean, though your reminiscences of Bunyan are a trifle mixed. And perhaps the dust is better for you.”
“Not a bit of it, when it’s of one’s own making. Now you haven’t a scrap of dust in your house.”
“I’m not so sure. Look at that piano. Anyhow, you didn’t come all this way so early in the morning to treat me to a revised version of Bunyan’s allegory. What’s the matter, Ronald?”
“I believe the old man’s jealous of me. He says I’m over here too often—that people are beginning to talk, and all manner of rot. I’m almost sure he wants to marry you himself.”
“My dear boy, you’re dreaming. Do you think that I would abandon my independence, and all my advanced theories on women, to adopt your uncle’s musty, antediluvian ideas? p. 91Not a bit of it. Why I’d sooner marry you, if the worst came to the worst, though even that wouldn’t suit me either.”
“It would suit me,” muttered Ronald, “just down to the ground.”
The uncle’s sight had of late been failing him, owing to some weakness or lesion of the nerve that no spectacles could remedy. Under these circumstances, his favourite amanuensis was Ronald; for, though I regret to say it, his sister’s spelling was occasionally defective, and his uncle was particular above all things that his correspondence should be strictly orthographic. Not that this characteristic could be imputed to Miss Heyward as a fault, especially in these days, when even Peeresses (I am told) have adopted phonetic spelling, and orthography has been relegated to our village schools as the symbol of a lower and less intellectual class. But the uncle was conservative in everything but politics, and regarded the innovation as a forecast of the nation’s decadence.
One morning he called Ronald into his study, with a thoughtful, pre-occupied air that betokened business of more than average importance.
p. 92“Ronald, I’m thinking of marrying—and who do you suppose is my choice? A great friend of yours by the way, Mrs. Thorpe. I like her amazingly; a most well-bred woman, who will look famously at the head of my table. Then again, she’s got money, though it’s true I don’t want it. And her property marches with mine; and we’ll enclose it all in a ring fence, and have the finest estate in the county. She’s got a few crotchets, I know, but they’ll soon be ousted when she’s found a sensible man to advise her. I grant I’m a trifle old for her, but people think nothing of that in these days when the fault is on the right side. What do you say to it? a good idea, isn’t it?”
“Very good indeed, sir,” said Ronald—demurely, but doubtingly.
“You ain’t very hearty about it, Ronald. I expected you to jump at the suggestion. Indeed, I thought you were a little gone on her yourself, and would have welcomed her warmly for your aunt. You’re across at her house pretty well every day.”
“Yes, sir, I am; and I do like her very much. Indeed, I wouldn’t have minded marrying her myself.”
p. 93“Good Lord! if that doesn’t beat everything! A mere boy like you, without a penny in the world except what you get from me—and I’m not dead yet by a long way, Ronald—you to be in love with the richest woman in the county! God bless me! What are the boys coming to? But there—it’s nonsense. Put it out of your head, my lad, and sit down and write what I tell you.”
The letter, when it was forwarded, ran thus:
“Dear Mrs. Thorpe,
“I write on a subject that touches very nearly the happiness of my future life (‘it touches mine, R.’) You must have seen, I imagine, how much I have admired and loved you (‘my sentiments exactly R.’); nor can you be blind to the fact that no other woman occupies the place in my esteem which has been wholly given to you (‘couldn’t have expressed myself better, R.’) I now offer you my hand and heart (‘savours of the complete letter writer, but true notwithstanding, R.’), together with all my worldly possessions (‘£50, all included, R.’) You know, I fancy, my ways and habits as no other woman can know them (‘too well by half, R.’) My temper is equable, and I am, I think, companionable (‘query? R.’) My nephew Ronald will continue to live with us; you know him well (‘I should just think so, R.’) He is a really good-hearted, well-meaning lad (‘thanks, p. 94old man, R.’), but a little uppish at times, and thinks he knows everything, like all the boys of the present day (‘I retract my thanks, R.’) But I fancy that you and he will get on together (‘admirably, R.’)
“I shall await your answer with impatience, and anxiously hope it may be favourable (‘to me, R.’)
“Your sincere admirer,
(‘Your loving friend, R.’)
The answer came next day, and was a crushing blow to my uncle’s hopes. She thanked him gratefully for the offer, and regretted the disappointment her answer would cause him. But her affections, she said, had long been bestowed on his nephew, and she had lately had reason to believe (italics at Ronald’s request) that the feeling was reciprocated. She was in a position, she added, to disregard monetary considerations in the choice of a husband.
* * * *
There was strife within the gates of Broadwater on the announcement of Ronald’s engagement. The uncle was furious at being supplanted this second time, and, to make matters worse, the offender in this case was p. 95the nephew of his choice. So wroth was he that he nearly made me his heir out of spite, and, for two or three days, my price rose considerably on the matrimonial market. But, on giving tongue to his wrath, he found himself without a supporter. “A servile war had broken out” (to quote from ‘Cometh up,’—sweetest of all love stories, but, Great Dionysius! what Greek!) and his sister was in a state of open rebellion. It was she who headed the rising, and with her went all the servants, which left our uncle in a minority of one. She was, naturally enough, well pleased at the progress of events, and anticipated with satisfaction the continuance of her reign.
Ronald, so soon as his month’s probation was ended, was thankful to be received out of the fray into the sanctuary of Thorpe. Not that he was at peace, even there. His conscience gave him twinges, and I had a word to say to him on the subject, and his wife had a word or two more. But it was all for his good, and he had brought it upon himself by treating matrimony (of all estates in the world) in a spirit of graceless levity.
* * * * *
p. 96And what of myself? Well, reader, I had lost my chance, or, perhaps, willingly foregone it. All Ronald’s pet schemes had been safe in my hands, and I was little likely to oppose the present one, when, almost from the first, I had pictured its realisation, and seen how necessary it was to the happiness and stability of his life. My unselfishness—call it passivity if you will—carried with it its own reward, for neither of the two was happy without me, and Thorpe Hill practically became my home.
Ronald became her ‘fidus Achates’ and Lord High Almoner in all her acts of charity. Occasionally, it is true, he misunderstood or exceeded his instructions, as, for instance, when he went round with a parcel of physic to a sick cottager.
“How be I to take ’m? did she tell ’e?”
“No: she didn’t, but she meant all, I suppose, unless it’s written inside.”
This was a large order, as the parcel contained castor oil, a black draught, and six blue pills.
“And which be I to take fust? She must ha’ told ’e that.”
Again Ronald was at fault.
“Much, I allow, as the gentry do their vittles—solids fust, and drinks atterwards.”
The prescriptions, whatever the order observed in their administration, answered to perfection, and Ronald’s fame was greatly magnified by the result. His drugs were in p. 100high request everywhere, and were reported to be “powerfully fine.”
One day his wife said to him, “Ronald, would you like to hear a project I have in hand for reclaiming a pet drunkard?”
“Very much: what is it?”
“I shall give him a dog.”
“Good Lord! how will that help him? It reminds one of a story in the ‘Arabian Nights,’ where somebody with a crack-jaw name gives to somebody else—a porter, I think it was—a lump of lead, promising it will make his fortune. But he wisely declined to specify by what particular method the charm would work. I think the man weighted a fish-line with it, and caught a salmon with a diamond in its mouth. But you can hardly expect your scheme to work like that.”
“Wait and see, Ronald. I read in a German story book the other day how a dog had turned a man into an early riser (I shall give you one, Ronald), and made him charitable, and religious, and all the rest of it. Surely I can trust my dog to reclaim a man from one single failing.”
“I should like to see how he’s going to do it,” said Ronald incredulously. “The chances p. 101are your protégé will take his dog the first day to the nearest public-house. And, if he gets biscuits there, as a nice dog is sure to do, he’ll want no coaxing to take his master there every day. And the last state of that man will be worse than the first.”
“I am afraid there is no worse possible in this case. At any rate I have faith in my dog.”
The next day a ragged little hound, called “Judy,” was selected from the kennels at Thorpe Hill, and despatched to the protégé in question. Pure white she was, and so small, that, at a shift, you could hold her in the hollow of your hand. A veritable little mongrel, of course, if ever there was one. Indeed, nothing but a mongrel would have had the capacity for so delicate a mission. For, as we all know, it is to the mongrel that we look for intelligence and originality. The consciousness of inherited merit is fatal to intellectual progress in an animal of pedigree. Partiality—but only the most prejudiced—might have called Judy a rough Irish terrier. Only her ears didn’t lop, but were carried erect like a donkey’s, and her legs were too long, and her tail had an ugly “kinck” in it.
p. 102Having abused her sufficiently for her personal appearance, let me add that she had the sweetest and most winning of faces—chiefly composed of eyes, which were so large in comparison with the rest of her features that they seemed to swallow them up, giving to the face, as a whole, the thin, troubled look of premature age, which is so pathetic in any sick animal. But Judy was far from being delicate, and enjoyed to the full the zest and sparkle of life. With her head on one side, and her ears pricked up, and attention bestowed on the curl of her tail, a matter in which she was often negligent, she would have matched the best of them as a study of arrested life.
The two—the dog and the young reprobate she was expected to reform—took to each other with all their hearts, and soon became inseparable. But at first Ronald’s pessimistic prophecy seemed likely to be realised. True to his natural instinct, her master took Judy at once to the nearest public-house, and, as the biscuits due to an intelligent dog were always forthcoming, Judy fell in entirely with her master’s view as to the direction their daily walk should take. Ronald triumphed p. 103maliciously but prematurely. For Judy was to be recalled to her duty by a stern dispensation.
It happened one day, that, as she and her master were starting, a troop of bicyclists came scorching down the hill, and Judy, caught off her guard and losing her head, was run over, and taken up for dead. After long days of anxious nursing she was called slowly back to life, at least to a measure of life. But the little dog’s nerve was gone. From that day forward no persuasion could tempt her to follow her master along the public road. Warned by experience, she dreaded bicyclists at every turning. Just so far as the garden gate, and no further, she would follow him, and, with a thin little feeble whine, plead almost in words for a change of route. But the master’s heart was steeled. It was to be a conflict of will between them. And which was to conquer? the dog or the man? For days and weeks the result trembled in the scale. But the walk grew dreary apart from his companion, and, going and returning, he was haunted by the piteous whine. Then at last he succumbed. The day’s walk along the high road was exchanged for a run in the nearest field or common, and Judy’s heart rejoiced, and her p. 104spirit came again to her, and she became—almost, but never quite—her natural self again.
Thenceforth the sympathy between these two was complete. When Judy was ill again, almost to death, she was restful nowhere but in her master’s presence. When he left the room, her eyes would languidly follow him; when he came back, they kindled to life again, breathed into by a new spirit; and when he took her in his arms, all pain and disquiet ceased, and she lay neither shivering nor moaning—lost to all feeling but the satisfied assurance of his love.
“Well, Ronald, and how about my experiment?”
“You’ve beaten me,” was the reply. “What a wonderful woman you are!”
“In quo tam similem videbis Issam
Ut sit tam similis sibi nec ipsa.”
She was a very little dog with a very large soul, and all her soul looked out of her eyes. No one whom she loved could doubt p. 105her love, when once her eyes had assumed their final expression. “I am your friend for life,” they said, “and for death—and perhaps beyond it.”
In the frivolous days of her youth she had snapped at the knickerbockers of a chubby errand boy, and been promptly handed over for punishment. But she broke from the executioner under the indignity of the first stroke, and fled for refuge to her master’s bedroom, from which no efforts could dislodge her. So, making the best of a bad business, he took to his bed too for company’s sake. Judy was deeply touched by this practical sympathy, and it formed, I believe, the historic ground-work of their life-long friendship.
Her pedigree was mixed. Her father was a white English terrier of unimpeachable breed, who lived a sober, self-contained existence, with no friend but the postman, whom he followed conscientiously on all his rounds of delivery. Her mother was the daughter of a “King Charles,” who had been woo’d and won by a fox. Fair and frail, she was careless of the duties of life, and passed her time in eating and sleeping, sleeping and eating—she is sleeping and eating still, the latter with an p. 106ever increasing appetite as the time at her disposal grows less.
Judy repudiated in toto her maternal parentage, and reproduced all the best characteristics of her father, combined with a brilliant intelligence, and a far wider appreciation of the sympathies of life. Her minor peculiarities were borrowed from those of a cat. She sat like a cat, pounced like a cat, and washed her face like a cat, using either or both of her paws with a truly feline indifference. She could climb bushes, too, hanging on by her teeth, to the detriment of any unwary fledgling who presumed over confidently upon the limitation of natural gifts.
Judy often came on a visit to Thorpe Hill, where she regularly spent an hour after dinner in digging at the root of a favourite beech tree, with the energy of a dog that is close on a prize. From which I inferred that she was a truffle-terrier in disguise, who would make all our fortunes, and set Matthew to dig in her place till he blasphemed against Judy and the truffles and me. But Matthew didn’t put his heart into his work, or realise the fact that Judy’s credit was at stake. And I always believed in her more than I did in him. Later p. 107on she justified my confidence—not, I admit, by a discovery of truffles, but (better still) of a full-grown Roman or Anglo-Saxon, crouching among his household divinities. Judy was complacently proud of him as a very superior find, in spite of Matthew’s sneer, “Tweren’t triffles, I knowed,” and forthwith transferred her attentions to a neighbouring tree, under which, for all I know, others of his family may still be reposing.
It is humbling to admit that she was wholly devoid of tricks, properly so called: partly because no one had troubled to teach her any, and partly, I think, because she accounted it a waste of time to try and acquire them. No one who studied her thoughtful little face could doubt that she held higher and more recondite theories of the responsibilities of life.
It was probably the same reason that led her to pass her days in silence. Few objects she thought were worth the trouble involved of setting in motion the harsh and cumbrous method by which alone a dog converses—certainly not meat and drink, and therefore she declined to ask for them. The prospect of a walk, or the sight of a blackbird deriding p. 108her from a twig, formed the only exceptions and proved the rule. Otherwise Judy would have been a canine Trappist. And her reticence was the more remarkable, seeing that her mother passed her time in futile and vociferous talking. Probable Judy regarded her as an object lesson and a warning. She was certainly disdainful of her noise.
But she had two natural gifts: you may call them tricks if you will. She took her meals like a Christian, seated, or rather kneeling, at table beside her master, with her paws doubled under her knees. From this post of vantage she would watch the whole proceedings of dinner with the curiosity of an epicure. But dining on her own account offered little attraction. The position of her paws, it is true, suggested an attitude of devotion and gained for her the reputation of saying grace before meat. But her own diet was strictly limited to morsels of bread and biscuit, which she received with indifference, and apparently without gratitude. It may be that she dined in the night-time, as Amina did with the ghoul. If so, I hope she selected more desirable company.
She had one other peculiarity. I cannot p. 109call it an accomplishment, though it found her a number of admirers. After studying you intently with eyes that looked you through and through, as though she were appraising carefully your capacity for friendship, she would raise a delicate fur-capped paw, and lay it gently upon your nose—never anywhere else. It was a favour accorded to no stranger, never indeed till she had known you for months. For it was an oath of allegiance, emblematic as the solemn transfusion of blood, and renewable on occasion, if you cared to elicit it by staring her well out of countenance. Yet it was trying to be reminded of the fact when you were kneeling at prayers in full view of the servants, simply because Judy regarded your attitude and surroundings as a ceremonial specially designed for the re-enactment of her vow.
Being a good friend, Judy was, by consequence, an equally good nurse. The attributes of the two are indeed strangely akin, if the latter be not a natural development of the former. For in sickness, as in sorrow, there are times when a sympathetic silence is a better restorative than more obtrusive remedies. Her master found it so when Judy p. 110nursed him for four months at a stretch, sacrificing without a whine the most brilliant summer on record. Cleverer than many a nurse or doctor, she inferred his condition from certain changes of face and expression, unappreciable by their less intuitive faculties. Satisfied by a careful inspection that he was for the moment improving, she would fall back on the pillow with a sigh of satisfaction, till he was restless again, or till the time came—she knew it as well as did the nurse—when he had to be roused for his medicine.
Judy was sorry, I fancy, on her own account when the days of her nursing were ended by her master’s recovery. For she never disguised her real sentiments, whether creditable or the reverse, differing therein from the race of men, at whose feelings and motives one can only hazard a bewildered guess.
Judy taught her master many things: among them how to win the love of her community. Jealousy, it seems, is the family failing. It is idle, she told him, to imagine that a few scraps of half-hearted affection can claim the devotion of a life. Careless, casual attentions may gratify an unexacting dog; p. 111they can never win his heart’s love. It is not for pity’s sake, as some will tell you, that the mongrel of the streets is attracted by preference to the vagabond and outcast, who is as lonely as himself; rather, because he feels that here at any rate is a field unoccupied, a mine of sympathy that will royally repay for working.
But let the master of his affection form other and more engrossing ties, and the love that he has given he will infallibly withdraw—not hastily, capriciously, or for the moment, but slowly, deliberately, and for ever—at what cost to himself is happily not ours to fathom.
“They sin who tell as love can die.”
Retrieved by Judy from a life of shame, her master had become a respectable character, and the year afterwards found work as a carpenter in an adjoining town, which compelled him to migrate from our village.
How to dispose of his dog was the question. His lodgings were situated in a crowded street, p. 112through which a continuous stream of the vehicles most dreaded by Judy, bicycles included, was passing literally by night and day. Garden he had none—only a small paved court-yard, tenanted in the main by children and cats, Judy’s natural enemies, while the nearest field was two miles off. It was clearly impossible to transfer her to such surroundings. Her future was settled thus. She was left in his old rooms under special charge of the landlady, and every evening when his day’s work was done, wet or fine, winter or summer, her master walked out to console her for the long hours of his absence.
Such affection might have satisfied a reasonable dog. But Judy was distinctly unreasonable. She remembered—none better—how in former times she was with him all the day, and sometimes, when she willed to have it so, all the night as well. Now she was left to her own devices, and only caught a hurried glimpse of him in the evening when she was too sleepy to enjoy it. Besides, when he left her at the garden gate, she was strictly enjoined not to follow him—a prohibition which, while it whetted her curiosity, was also regarded as a direct insult, viewed in the p. 113light of former days, and the unrestricted licence that had been accorded to her then.
So Judy put on her considering cap. “He can’t go far,” she said, “else he could never leave me so late and get home in time for bed. And I’m sure he doesn’t drive or travel by train, else his boots would never be so muddy when he comes here at seven. So it’s clear that he walks. And, in that case, a dog of the feeblest intelligence can follow in his track.”
Accordingly, on a wet and windy evening, when bicyclists were not likely to be abroad, a little wistful-eyed face peered out into the road, growing bolder and bolder as her master receded from view, but ever and again hurriedly withdrawn whenever he turned upon her with a threatening hand. Then he vanished behind a hill, and Judy felt that her opportunity was come. But a mob of children ran by with sticks in their hands, and Judy slunk back in alarm. As soon as these had passed, she made another attempt. But horror of horrors! a bicyclist scorched by, and back she shrank again into the friendly shade. At last the road was empty and silent. The most careful inspection to the p. 114right hand and to the left could find no sign of life, and the keenest ears with which ever dog was gifted failed to detect a sound.
“Now or never,” said Judy, and with tail erect, and her tiny snub nose well to ground on the scent, she rushed out into the night.
* * * * *
An hour later a man was sitting down to his supper in the adjoining town, cursing the noise of the street in which he lived, with its wrangling women and screaming children, and cabs and drays coming home for the night, when a little dog whined and scraped at his door, and Judy rushed in, mud-stained and panting and panic-stricken with fear.
It was probably the fright that killed her; it may have been some injury. Her master never knew.
Only a brief friendship, measured by the standard of time. But perhaps what Southey says is true, and “love is indestructible”—even the love that bound these two.
No: he was no Professor in the recognised sense of the term; not a bit of it. Neither can I tell you how he acquired the title, unless it were in recognition of his original wit. He was simply my factotum or Man Friday, ready for shooting, fishing, game-keeping, or gardening, as the emergency of the moment required. He could neither read nor write. But what are trifling details like these in comparison with ’cuteness. Institute a Tripos for originality and native wit, and Matthew would even now, at the age of seventy, pass with high honours. But the examination must be strictly viva voce, and not allowed to wander into the region of conventional knowledge.
“Matthew,” I said, “this isn’t work,” as I bestowed a kick upon an object that lay prone upon the lawn, when it ought to have been digging at our garden border.
“No, sir; but it’s preparin’ for it,” was the prompt reply. For myself, I was knocked p. 118out of time, though I felt I was clearly within my rights. Fancy a man, roused from a peaceful siesta, being ready with a retort of such preternatural smartness!
Unhappily Matthew had two failings, by which his career was handicapped. He was always lazy, and sometimes inebriate. Of the former he never repented so long as I knew him; the latter he was always repenting of and always repeating. And the stage of repentance was the more acute and the more grievous, at any rate to his neighbours. After a bout of drinking he would wander through the house with his hands on the pit of his stomach—as if the seat of his iniquity lay there—moaning in a dreary, exasperating way, “The Lord forgie I; I’ll never be drunk agin.” “How can you expect him to?” said his wife, in a tone of the bitterest sarcasm.
Every time he repented he took the pledge anew. The consequence was, his bosom was garnished with blue ribbons—his “decorations” he called them—for he never cast off one when he assumed another, but regarded them as an old soldier does his medals, traces of many a scar and many a conflict, in which, unhappily, he always fell.
p. 119“Decorations!” said his wife, “fine decorations! Call ’em rather sign-posts along the road to perdition. If you stick to ’em all when you’re buried, they’ll have no trouble in fixing your whereabouts.”
Sometimes, when he was particularly exasperating, she would take the law in her own hands. “My head’s swimmin’ like a tee-total,” Matthew would say pathetically. “The very last thing it ought to swim like,” retorted his wife, a woman with a ready wit, “but I’ll soon make it do so.” And with that she would take him in her strong arms and give him a twist, as boys do when they give its first impetus to a top, after which she would wait patiently for the result. The result was, of course, collapse as soon as the primary impulse had run down; whereupon she would catch him up when he was on the point of falling, and bear him off to repentance and bed.
Matthew’s dialect was unique. I question whether a specialist could have reproduced it in its integrity, if only because it never reached finality, but was always in process of development. For myself, I had studied it for years, and could never get any nearer towards the discovery of its principles. Every day he was p. 120startling you with some new combination, as a rule strictly ungrammatical, but often a reversion to some lost or more accurate phraseology. For example: “Let I go,” “Would you like I to do it”?—the latter a reproduction, as near as may be, of the Latin formula visne ego faciam? A still more perplexing characteristic in his speech was that he used many of his words in a variety of senses.
“Cuss they nigglin’ weeds,” he’d say, and “Cuss my nigglin’ toothache”—phrases in which the adjective (or participle) carried an appreciable meaning, even when he didn’t add the word “darn’d” as an explanatory gloss. But when he transferred the phrase a minute afterwards to a splendid crop of potatoes, in which my inexperienced eye could detect no possible fault, I was all at sea again, and had to ask him to explain himself.
“I means they’m small,” he answered, with a contemptuous sniff at my ignorance.
“But, Matthew, you told me just now that ‘nigglin’’ meant ‘darn’d.’”
“And so it do—darn’d small;” looking at me as if he thought the epithet suited me as much as the potatoes.
“What time, Matthew, do ’en begin to turn?” they said.
“At seven o’clock, ezzactly,” whispered the inveterate old humorist. And it was not till the next morning they discovered that he had defrauded them of one whole hour of pleasant anticipation.
In his sober moments Matthew was a brilliant story-teller (in both senses, I fear); though his brilliancy now is limited to occasional flashes of wit. The following is one of his best reminiscences. I have selected it out of many because I have since discovered that it was founded on fact. Not only was it authenticated by a clergyman in whose neighbourhood it was enacted, but it was told and re-told by one of the actors in the tragedy, though he had passed to a land from which no testimony is available long before I heard the story at second-hand from Matthew.
“’Twas in December, 1824, that it happened. So Joseph told I.” (This, at any rate, was Matthew’s recognised formula.) “’Tis true p. 122he were a great liar, and I didn’t take no count o’ the main o’ his tales; for he’d tell you most anything, he would; ’specially if he see’d the price of a glass of fourpenny for tellin’ it. But, in proof ’tis true, they’d tell it to the childer at night time, when they was obstrepulous and wouldn’t go to bed—just for a joke like, to fright ’em to sleep.
“’Twas in December, 1824; and not likely he were to forget it. For ’twas the year of the great gale (the ‘Outrage’ they calls it hereabouts), when the sea broke clean over Rudge and washed away th’ old church, all but the chancel. Joseph never took kindly-like to the new church they built for ’en higher up i’ the valley, out o’ reach o’ the sea. ’Twas too spick and span, he said, to suit he—all white and glitterin’ like chalk—though ’twere built of the best Portland stone, and a sight prettier to my thinkin’ than the tumble down old barn that’s all that’s left o’ th’ old un. But the visitors and gentry, they takes after Joseph, and for one what goes to see the new church there’s hundreds ’ll bring their vittles and sit and peant th’ old ’un—studyin’ all the tombstones, and what’s writ on ’em—mostly shipwrecks it be, for I doubt if there’s half-a-dozen p. 123stones in th’ old grave-yard but what tells of someone or t’other who was drownded at sea. In that one gale of ’24 ’twas thousands that perished, and all that was found on ’em Joseph buried there, when the sea gived back her dead, and he could get at his grave-yard. Though, to be sure, nought was left but the chancel, so you could scarce say as how, poor souls, they got a decent buryin’.
“Anyhow ’twas in that very month, just arter the ‘Outrage,’ that one Price—a farmer he called hisself—was livin’ high up yonder among they hills that you can see faint-like in the distance, nigh agin they ricks. A bleak and dreary place it were at the best o’ times, and a job to get at it at all when a strong so’wester were blowin’. And most every November it do blow cruel strong along they high downs, wi’ no cover to speak on’t ’cept scraps of fuz and heather, and a small thorn tree, may be, now and agin, wi’ ’is branches all leanin’ to the nor’-east, as though ’twas an old man a holdin’ out his arms for shelter. And the road to Price’s farm were no better nor a sheep run. A godless man Price were, as you’d expect wi’ a man who lived so far from all we decent folks. And he never com’d p. 124nigh no church. Passon, he said, didn’t suit he, and he weren’t a goin’ to trapeze over hill and dale—not he—when chance ’twas he’d find no passon and no service at t’other end. And if passon went to he—as he did now and agin—he’d find the door shut in his face. And for vittles—not a bite nor a sup of anything did he offer ’en, though passon was a rare ’un at that kind of work. Sunday after Sunday he’d look in reg’lar nigh about dinner time, and savour by his nose, he would, where there was a chance for ’en of summat enticin’. Not but what ’twere bad for the childer where he did settle hisself, for ’twas little of the pudden was left for they when he’d a’ had his turn on’t.
“Howsomever, ’twas there Price lived, wi’ hisself for his company. So no wonder strange tales got abroad about ’m. ’Twas said, though Joseph never gived no heed to ’t, that three wives had entered his doors, and never one of ’em had come out agin—no, not for buryin’. And Joseph must have known on’t if so be they had, seein’ he were clerk and sexton and grave-digger, let alone the head o’ the choir. ’Twas thought that he’d buried ’em in another parish, more nigher to the house p. 125he lived in, and wi’ a better road ’long which to carry ’em. But, Lord save us! tweren’t nothin’ of the kind.
“One morning, early in December, ’twas nine o’ the clock, may be, or thereabouts—for Joseph had just been out to pen the sheep in the church-yard—a tall fine old genelman called at the door, and he knowed by his dress ’twere the Bishop. Not that he’d cast eyes on ’en before, for our youngsters are confirmed a way off; there baint enough of them to claim a Bishop for theirselves. But he knowed ’twere the Bishop, what wi’ his gaiters, fittin’ as though they’d grow’d to his legs, and his broad hat as shiny as if you’d smoothed it wi’ a flat iron.
“‘Good morning to you,’ says he, as pleasant as anyone could say it. ‘You be clerk of the parish, baint you?’ ‘True, your wusshup,’ he replied. ‘And sexton too’ says he. ‘Right you be; and grave-digger and choir leader as well,’ for he thought it no sin to make the most to ’m of his preferments. ‘Well,’ says he, ‘I want you for a buryin’—this night at eight o’clock.’ ‘A buryin’, your wusshup,’ says he, ‘and at night?’ ‘Yes, and three on ’em,’ says he, ‘all in one grave.’ ‘Well, it do sound p. 126mortial strange, your wusshup, but ’tis you that says it, and not I.’ ‘You’d better go at once,’ he says, ‘and begin the grave, for you won’t have none too much time to spare on’t, ’specially as I want it done on the quiet, so to speak, and you mustn’t take no hand to help you, and meet me punctually as ever is at eight o’clock at Farmer Price’s, up along the hill, and bring a lantern and the parish hand-bier ’long wi’ ’e.’
“He hadn’t much time to ponder on it, as you may suppose, with that grave to dig, and no one to gi’ ’m a helpin’ hand. And mortial hard work he found it, too, for the frost set in early that year, and the ground that hard that, young and lusty as he were, he found it a job to get the pick-axe into ’en.
“Howsomever he did get ’en done, and at eight o’clock he was at Farmer Price’s door, and ’twas opened to ’en by the Bishop hisself. And so, hand in hand as you may say, he and the Bishop, they went into the kitchen. And there right facin’ ’em—packed up agin the wall like so many old grandfeyther clocks—stood three coffins, with a piece of glass let in ’em to show the face, and a dead woman in each!
p. 127“Close handy they were to ’m when he took his meals, or smoked his pipe; and when he felt a bit lonesome (so he told Joseph) he’d go up to ’em and ask ’em how they did, and if they felt comferable. And fresh as peant they were, too: only a bit shrivelled, like as ’twere an apple in April. Perhaps ’twas the heat of the kitchen, or may be some stuff he’d put in along wi’ ’em; anyhow you could see their faces right enough and tell they was women.
“‘Take ’em down,’ says the Bishop; ‘Farmer Price’ll lend ’e a helpin’ hand: and we’ve none too much time to get ’em back to the churchyard and bury ’em.’ Joseph hisself could scarce do nought but stare at ’em. To think that that godless man had kep’ ’em there—one on ’em for nigh on ten years—never thinkin’, not he, that he was keepin’ ’em tied hand and foot to this world, with never no chance of a resurrection till he took it into his wicked head to let ’em go. And there they’d a’ been for ten years longer—for just so long he lived—if Bishop hisself hadn’t got wind on’t and come down right away to bury ’em.
“Anyhow they did get decent burial—the p. 128three on ’em—at last. For they had Bishop, and Joseph and Farmer Price; though I don’t take no count o’ he, ’cept that he helped to lower ’em and fill in the grave.
“But Joseph were right glad, he were—and so he told I—to see the rare tug he had in draggin’ they three dead women up hill and down hill ’cross to the church-yard. For Joseph never gived ’en no helpin’ hand—you may take your oath on’t—though he did make a show of pushin’ at the bier whensomever the Bishop looked his way.
“Didn’t no one never hear on’t? Yes, they did. But they didn’t take no count on’t. Our people baint over wise about religion, and things were done in those days that’d make a rare potheration now. Besides, you see, Bishop were there, and he made a sight o’ difference. ’Twas a rare fine buryin’, people thought, wi’ a Bishop to put you unnerground; though ’tis true he hadn’t his fine gran’ toggery on, and his girt white sleeves.”
The actors in our humble drama are dead and gone. The Bishop and Price and Joseph have, each in his turn, been followed to the grave, only with less eccentric rites. But the p. 129story of the farmer’s “Happy Family” still lingers in the village, and is told and re-told round many a cottage hearth under the quaint but significant title of “Price’s Menagerie.”
P.S. The “Professor” himself came round to-day—“for a pipe of baccy, Sir, if you have such a thing about you”—so I have utilised him to correct his own proof sheets. “There baint nothin’ wrong in ’em, Master Fred (this to a man of sixty!), so fur as I sees. Only you says ‘gived’ where I says ‘gi’ed.’ But taint no odds. Like enough they’ll guess what you means whatsomever you writes down.” Thanks, Matthew, for your tribute to my clearness of expression.
It was a touch of the old wilfulness in Ronald, which cost him dear, and saddened all his future life.
A windy storm-swept sky, though the wind was only playing with the sea as yet. Still, it met us, as we went down to the shore, with a drift of sand that stung the face like pin-pricks—trying, one might easily fancy, to warn us back from our foolhardy enterprise.
A painter would have needed only his blends of grey to paint the scene, till we came upon it, and added, I suppose, a patch of colour. Wiser people than ourselves kept quietly indoors; and the sand, the sea, the gulls, and the hurrying scud could all have been rendered in varying shades of grey. It is, to me, the most fascinating hue that the changeful sea can wear. One great artist, whose sketches are the glory of Girton College, knew it well. p. 134With an unerring eye for this sad unity of tone, she admits no faintest touch of colour into her cold grey wastes of sea and sky.
It was a risky and foolhardy attempt on the part of Ronald, and one that he has bitterly repented of, to launch a boat that afternoon. I can never quite forgive him for the sorrow it was to bring on us. But his wife would have it so. It was her greatest enjoyment to put out to sea on such a day. A calm aimless drift, in life or on the sea, was out of harmony with her bright and nerve-wrought soul.
Where Ronald was still more at fault was in the choice of our third hand. True, we had a fair amount of experience between us. But, with a strong south-wester to fight against, weight and strength are the two things needed, and will often win through a gale when experience is powerless. Ronald, however, was in one of his obstinate moods. He would take Oswald or no one, and his wife said ditto. Now Oswald was a lad of eighteen: a good seaman, I grant, but quite unequal to the work we had in view. However, he was the son of Ronald’s favourite gardener, and had been his wife’s pet scholar at her Sunday school, since which time he had been her p. 135devoted slave, making himself useful about the house, and looking after her specialities in the garden and conservatory.
“Isn’t that boat too big for us, Oswald? Remember, there are only two of us to handle it, for Ronald’s ill, and can’t be reckoned on for much. Unless I’m mistaken, it intends to blow harder than this before it’s done.”
“Yes, sir. You’re right in a way. But we’ve got the winch to lower and haul her up with. And once at sea she’ll be a deal safer and stauncher than that one,” pointing to a lean, wall-sided thing that was our only alternative. “Besides, we’ll set very little canvas; indeed, to all appearance we shan’t want much.”
What a sail we had that afternoon! I think that I, who had countenanced it least, enjoyed it most. For Ronald was only just recovering from influenza, and certainly not up to a rough and tumble experience of this sort. And Oswald, too, for a lad of his spirits, was strangely depressed. “Never felt like it before,” he said, “and I shall be thankful when we’re safe on shore again. Our old people at home would say that I was walking over my grave, or some folly of the kind. p. 136But that can’t be out here,” he added, with a poor attempt to laugh it off.
First of all we took her along under the lee of the shore, where we were able to carry a fair amount of sail, and when we had worked her well round the bay we put her head straight for the south-east, and, with the wind on our beam, raced out into the open sea.
It was a longer and heavier business to work her back again, with the wind right in our teeth, and freshening steadily as the evening wore on. Fortunately for us it had only blown fitfully, and without much weight in it till now. It was still “making up its mind,” as sailors say, whether it would blow or not. But as we were beaching her in a deep sandy cove it had finished apparently with indecision, and began to blow in earnest.
Just as we had landed, and Oswald was preparing to follow us, a terrific squall burst full upon the boat, which lay beam on to it. Relieved of her last weight, as Oswald stepped on shore, she yielded to the pressure, and, heeling over on her side, pinned him to the ground. In a moment the horror of it broke upon us. What could we do, the two of us, even if Ronald hadn’t been shorn of half his p. 137strength? It would have taken ten men to pull her over in the face of the gale that was blowing. And the tide was rising rapidly. It was idle to look for help. We had beached her in a quiet sequestered cove, used only by ourselves. But it was closer to Thorpe Hill than the regular landing stage, and, after a hard day’s work, saved us a tedious beat along the coast when the wind was blowing from its present quarter. The high land above us was private property, with no right of way, and on a day like this, for it was beginning to rain, would be lonely as a desert.
Our first thought was of the winch. We had had one fitted up under the cliff in order to save labour in launching and beaching the boat. But, even if it were possible, we had no time nor knowledge how to alter the gear so as to utilise the leverage for righting her. No doubt the incoming tide would help us later on, but its help, when it did come, would come too late. Yet to do anything was better than to do nothing. So we took the balers out of the boat, and, kneeling down beside Oswald, attempted the hopeless task of freeing him by scooping out the sand on p. 138either side, till he begged us to desist, as the boat only fell over more heavily, and imprisoned him still deeper in the yielding sand.
And all the time that we were working, Kingsley’s “cruel, crawling foam” beat persistently upon my brain, maddening me with its ghastly congruity. And yet “cruel and crawling” it was not. Quicker it could scarcely have been, and its quickest was (I saw) its kindliest. Already it was playing with the lad’s hair, though his mistress, careless of the risk she ran, knelt down beside him and supported his head in her arms.
“Pray for me,” he said.
She whispered the words in his ear, though if she had shouted them with all her strength they would not have reached us on the other side of the boat, where, with a hope that was hopeless now, we were straining ourselves to no purpose in the attempt to right her.
But Oswald was satisfied. A look of repose and even comfort settled upon his face before the last words came.
She bent down and kissed his forehead.
“And now—cover my face.”
“And the stars—they shall fall, and the Angels go weeping,
Ere I cease to love her, my Queen, my Queen.”
“Our Queen” she was to me and Ronald, ever since we first met her at Broadwater, and Ronald had dared to love her. And now that she is gone from us there is little fear that her title will ever be questioned. Neither he nor I need any coarser picture of her than that engraved by memory. But for others—for those who knew her little, or less well—let me try to call her back in clearer and less shadowy outline.
A woman this, to whom you gave your confidence with your first greeting, and never afterwards withdrew it.
Not the face to tempt an artist by its regularity of feature or beauty of colouring. Madonna-like some would call it, and so it was in sweet and loving trustfulness, but far too mobile and human, too full of interest p. 144and human sympathy to suggest the reposeful placidity of conventional art. Instinct, rather, with the life and animation that inspires the best work of Gainsborough and Reynolds, and frank with a simplicity that is careless of its surroundings, and therefore conquers them. The centre of her interest was home; thence it radiated outwards. From her family to her friends, from friends to neighbours, her influence passed in ever widening circles like a ripple that, stirred in the centre of some pool, travels to the extremest edge.
Nature creates not many such. Happy the man who has known and honoured one.
Over and over again I have tried to unravel the secret of her inexplicable charm. Seating myself in some sequestered nook, where Ronald himself would find it hard to discover me, it has been my pleasure, through a long evening’s entertainment, to watch her in every graceful word and greeting that she exchanged with her friends. It was a satisfaction even to see her walk across the room—a lost art (they tell us) in these hurried and inartistic days. I tried to learn the mystery from her conversation. The words told nothing, but the tone was less secretive; and, after all, how much more the p. 145tone always does tell of the spirit of the speaker than the conventional coinage we have devised in words.
“And how’s that sweet little bairn of yours, Mrs. Macpherson?” (She was half Scotch by birth, and now and again her descent betrayed itself in a pretty mannerism of word and accent.) “I lost my heart to her, I did, when I met her yesterday on the Parade with her nurse.” A greeting old as time can make it, but new, entirely new, in the sympathy she threw into it right from the depths of her heart. No one could hear her and not believe; and Mrs. Macpherson was won. Sometimes, almost awestruck, I asked myself, Is there, can there be a human nature so nearly approximating to the divine as to possess the verity of universal sympathy? And, knowing this woman so nearly and so closely as I knew her, it was impossible, I found, to answer the question with a negative.
“If you are in doubt, play trumps” used to be the rule in whist, and “If you are in doubt, wear black” would be my advice to a lady in difficulty about her dress. And Ronald’s wife suggested it.
To-night she was looking her best—in p. 146black, and silver and diamonds. She and Ronald were giving their largest ball of the season, due regularly at this period of the year, and every family of standing for miles round had sent its representative. For a wonder I hadn’t been watching her that evening, and was surprised to feel her gentle touch on my arm.
“Come with me, Fred,” she said, “I want you for a few minutes upstairs. Poor old nurse is dying. We’ve been expecting it, you know, at any moment for some weeks past. But I wish it hadn’t come to-night. It looks so heartless to have all these people about us; and yet I know she wouldn’t have had the ball put off. She was the last person ever to think of self. Still it does look unfeeling to go to her straight from all this light and merriment. Yet I feel it less than most would. Life and death seem to me so closely mixed, that wherever one is there you may expect the other.”
“Of course I’ll come. But oughtn’t Ronald to be there too?”
“Yes; but, you see, we cannot both be spared. He must be here to make excuses for me if I am missed. I don’t want to spoil p. 147the pleasure of all these young things during their one great evening of the year.”
“But you’ll change your dress?” I said aghast.
“No, I think not. If death is always so very near to us, it hardly seems worth while to change one’s dress to meet him. Besides, I have a special reason in this case. All her life long dear old nurse has liked to see me in my ball-room dress, and I’m sure she will to-night. She said it gave her an idea of what the angels were like better than did her Bible. And if it could give her one comforting thought to help her, I’d have dressed on purpose as I am.”
There was little need for Ronald to make excuses for our absence. The old woman was dying when they called us. But her eyes opened and brightened as she saw her mistress.
“What! an angel?” she cried. “No, but my own dear mistress, the best angel of them all, and dressed as I would have her—not yet in her robe of white—not yet.” And, with her mistress’ face pressed close to hers, and the diamonds and silver rippling and shimmering about her pillow, our old nurse died as she would have chosen. Half-an-hour later “Our p. 148Queen” was back in the ball-room: bright, and, to all appearance, cheerful as the rest. None that saw her would have guessed the scene from which she had come back to them. “Heartless” they would have said, and will say so still. But Ronald and I knew better. Her heart was in the nursery up stairs.
She wears her white robe now. But, in reverence be it written, I would fain see her come to welcome me, clothed, as she was clothed that night, in black and silver and diamonds.
When her own time came, as it did soon after, she met death with the same fearless, friendly courage. Her thoughts were wholly for those who were to stay, and she was even playful in urging upon me never to leave Ronald and the children, but learn to “take her place.” I own I was troubled at times by what seemed almost levity in the face of death, till I began by degrees to realise her point of view.
“I think it will be a very short distance,” she said, “perhaps into another room, perhaps not even so far as that; and the time (to me, at any rate) will certainly seem short—no p. 149longer than the night of sleep which separates us from our loved ones till the morning.” And of the future she had no fear. “Nothing,” she said, “could persuade me that the light which has been fanned and quickened here will be extinguished for ever by the incident we call death. The jest would be too horribly, inconceivably malicious. Yet our choice lies between this and the crowning impossibility of a self-created world.”
Not thoughtlessly, but in the hope of finding a standing ground for myself, I would ask her sometimes if she had no misgivings regarding the re-existence of the body, and mutual recognition, and the endless difficulties that centre round the subject.
“None,” she answered, “none. Why should I? Look at the natural world. I know that space must be either limited or limitless; but can I form a conception of either alternative? Yet the problem may be simplicity itself to some larger mind than ours. So why trouble myself about difficulties which may be easier of solution still to those who hold the key? And you think it hard, I know—you have often said so—that many should die, as we know they must, without a friend on earth to p. 150whom they can look forward for a welcome when they reach the further shore. To me, I confess, it seems quite the contrary. Surely the burst of welcome will be greater in their ears than in ours, who have lived surrounded by friends, and never known the dearth of sympathy.”
And every difficulty, as I raised it, she met with the same calm, unquestioning certainty.
She died, as she had lived, in ministering to others. Oswald’s death was the first blow. From the exposure and the physical effects she soon recovered—sooner than we expected, considering her frail and uncertain hold on life. But the horror of it was always with her, especially the feeling that it was she who had suggested the fatal experiment. Ever and again, as the subject was referred to, I could see her shuddering at the reminiscence, blaming herself with what was surely the only reproach that can have harassed her bright and blameless conscience. And the remembrance was still upon her when her two children sickened with the scarlet fever. Considering her weak state, and consequent liability to infection, the doctor had strictly forbidden her to enter their room. “I can make no p. 151promises,” she said; “if they want me I must go. Till then I will obey your orders. We are told to give up father and mother, and perhaps oneself for one’s husband, but our children, I think, have a prior claim to all.” And so she watched and waited at their door, stealing along the corridor in her robe of white at all hours of the night, listening and listening to hear if a summons came.
One night, unhappily, it came—a summons she was powerless to resist. The elder child was delirious, and she heard it moaning piteously, “Mother, mother, why don’t you come to me?” Without a moment’s hesitation she had entered the room, signing her own death-warrant in the act.
She did not linger long in dying; lingering was little in her way. On a grey morning in October, just ten days after she was taken ill, the gun which welcomes sunrise from the signal-station on the pier echoed like a call. She opened her eyes to greet us, and with the diamonds flickering again about her head—only they were sunbeams now—she passed to that “larger life” of which she, if anyone, held the key.
“Lest we forget.”
The last notes of “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!”—sung as no other boy on earth could sing it—had just died away in a storm of applause. Now and again the surge of voices reached the green-room in a muffled roar, where Eric was protesting to the Manager that nothing would induce him to sing another note that night. “They’ve had four songs,” he said, “what on earth do they want more? As it is, I shall break my voice some day in that confounded hall. It was never meant for a boy to sing in—all wood and iron and glass—with nothing to help you or carry the voice. No! I won’t sing, that’s flat; tell them I’m ill, or my mother’s come for me, or anything you like. Sing again, I won’t.” “Yes, I’ll tell them your mother’s come for you,” said the Manager with a laugh, “but, remember, they’ll be clamouring for ‘A boy’s best friend is his mother’ if I do.”
p. 156As if to confirm Eric in his determination there came a knock at the door, and a boyish face peeped in. “Sorry, Hudson, if I’ve interrupted business, but they told me the show was over, and I want Eric for supper. By the way, you can come too, if you like. Andrews and Thorne are there already, and have finished supper by this time, I expect. But there’ll be some champagne and lobster-salad left for us.”
“Thanks, Lord Eastonville, I’ll come with pleasure, but I must first go and quiet these lunatics. They’re roaring for Eric like a lioness robbed of her cub.”
Ten minutes later the three were entering a room in Hope Square, so rich in its decorations of china, tapestries, and antique bronzes that it might have been transported by a slave of the lamp direct from Aladdin’s palace, or have done duty for a catalogue of Roman luxury: “The merchandise of gold and silver and precious stones and of pearls and fine linen and silk and scarlet and all manner of vessels of most precious wood and of brass and iron and marble and frankincense, and souls of men.”
By the fire (for it was early in May) stood an oval table, covered with old glass and silver p. 157in pleasant confusion. The fruit—a distinctive feature—piled artistically in a ribbed basket of the Queen Anne period, not disposed at the rate of four apples here, flanked by four oranges there, after the fashion dear to the soul of the British householder when he calls his neighbours to a feast.
The three new comers were greeted with a round of applause as hearty in spirit as the cheer which had followed them from the hall.
“Why, Bindo, you’ve the very boy we’ve been longing for. We’ve finished supper and used up our talk, and it’s too late for a theatre and too early for bed. Singing will just fill the interval before cards.”
“Not a note from me, Thorne, till I’ve had some supper. I must clear my throat from the dust of the hall with champagne first. Why you’re as bad as the audience, who think that songs can be pumped out of one as easily as you can get squeaks out of a gutta-percha doll.”
While Eric is better employed we can introduce the party.
Lord Eastonville, who owns the rooms, is a thorough gentleman of the well-bred English p. 158type, with brains enough to carry him safely through life—good-looking, generous, easy-going to a fault, and twenty-five. Too fond, it may be, of taking his ease, as all well-to-do Englishmen are now-a-days, but a man who could fight for his country, as in the old Crimean times, when war galvanised our lethargy into life. War is no unmixed evil; it carries with it a blessing in disguise. It is the scare and shadow of war that is the curse without the blessing.
Thorne, as a minute in his company would prove to you, is a hard-headed journalist; witty, and an excellent talker; facile, of course, with his pen, and ready to turn out a new theology as easily as he could write an article on the last discovered butterfly or grub.
Andrews is a graduate of London University, spending with Eastonville the remnant of a holiday. Fairly humorous and incorrigibly deaf—never more so (his friends say) than when a subject bores him—he is himself a trifle of a bore to-night. In his latest translation of Vergil “ploughed with a team” has become in the hands of the printers “ploughed with steam,” an anachronism that pleases him mightily.
p. 159He is also sorely exercised over the term “Prolegomena,” used in connexion with our classical editions. “Either the word’s bad Greek,” he says, “or else it’s rank nonsense. ‘Things that are being said before’ means just nothing at all. What they want is a Perfect, ‘things that have been said beforehand,’ which is not only more grammatical, but also (he adds with a chuckle) much more descriptive of prefaces in general.”
“Well, I don’t understand Greek and Latin,” said Thorne, “so suppose we talk English. I have been studying you carefully, Bindo, and have come to the conclusion that you look highly picturesque among all that fruit and flowers. I wonder what made you so good looking; was your father particularly lovely?”
“Neither my father nor my mother, Thorne, though she has contrived to marry again; and the consequence is I’m not so well looked after as I ought to have been, else I shouldn’t be here to-night. Fate, I think, must have made a judicious blend of the best points in his face with the best features of hers. And the result is me.”
“Anything else to ask, old man? You seem to be in an inquisitive mood to-night.”
“Yes; who taught you to sing?”
“Le bon Dieu, I suppose, as Patti said. I had only the training of a country choir boy. By the by, my master’s name was Thorne, a matter full of interest to you. I believe I sang by intuition.”
“A Hamiltonian philosopher,” muttered Andrews, “only he has developed theory into practice.”
“Anyhow, when your voice goes I shall put on mourning,” said Eastonville, “not black, for I don’t believe in it. Purple’s the farthest I can go.”
“You may put on white or canary yellow, like a heathen Chinee, for all I care.”
“Don’t lose your temper, Bindo.”
And Eric, alias Bindo, how shall I describe him? A fair boy, delicate looking, but with lungs that can fill the biggest concert room in London, with wavy golden hair flung back on his forehead, and the long dreamy eyes so dear to the soul of Raphael. In fact, it was Raphael’s picture of Bindo Altoviti (long p. 161supposed to be a portrait of the painter) that had won him his name. Framed in the cabin window of a Bournemouth steamer (excursion boats in these days do not condescend to port holes), his arms resting on the sill, the resemblance had struck me irresistibly. From that day he became “Bindo” to all of us, and would scarcely have recognised an appeal to him as “Eric,” if we had lighted on the name by accident. His hair perhaps was one of his most telling points. It reflected under strong lights brilliant flakes of gold, isolated like the motes that are suspended in certain liqueurs.
But after all it was his manner that took so much with all his friends. He had the timid deprecating caress of a half-tamed animal, like Hawthorne’s Donatello before he had won himself a soul. Alas! poor Bindo was hardly allowed time to win it.
“And what was the show like to-night, Bindo?” asked Eastonville.
“Oh, the same old game. Nothing would suit them out of sixty songs but ‘Jerusalem,’ ‘Rags and Tatters,’ and ‘Home, sweet Home.’ They don’t mind ‘A boy’s best friend’ for an encore when they are in a strictly domestic p. 162mood. But anything really worth singing they won’t look at.”
“Well, we’ll follow their better mood and have ‘Jerusalem.’ You’ve got back your voice by now, old chap, and we’ve been waiting for you patiently this last half-hour or more.”
Once again that night the glorious voice rang out into the thin air, startling the silent square. Windows were hastily flung up, and the word “Bindo” was passed from sill to sill. Even a drowsy canary was stimulated to try a note or two in emulation of a method more attractive than its own. And through the open window came, for an accompaniment, the voice of London, soft as the murmur of a far-off sea.
With the end of the song a sharp rattle of applause ran round the square, marked by distinctive intervals, like the volley at a soldier’s funeral.
“Bravo, Bindo,” said Eastonville, “it would pay you to send the hat round to-night. Here’s a fiver, young ’un, to open the bank with, though why I should give it you passes my comprehension. A boy who can earn ten pounds a night at sixteen is a sight better off p. 163than I am. If you lose it, you’ll have to try the others. I’m pretty well cleared out. After all you’re detestable, Bindo. Just when we want you most, your voice will be gone, and you’ll have spoiled us for all other singing, precisely as the great Sarah has spoiled us for any acting but her own. If we could only forget and start fresh with each week, how nice and pleasant everything would be. I believe Nelly is right in ‘Cometh up,’ when she says that memory is often a cruel gift. No one would choose to remember a feeble show, or to spoil his enjoyment of average singing by a recollection of the best. Why are ‘Jack Sheppard’ and ‘Geneviève de Brabant’ practically withdrawn from the London stage? Because elderly playgoers cannot forget the days when Mrs. Keeley played ‘Jack,’ or when Emily Soldene and the Dolaro drew all Mayfair to Islington by the witchery of a serenade. But now for ‘A boy’s best friend’—we’re all in a domestic mood to-night—and then cards.”
Bindo was very docile as a rule, especially in the hands of those who loved and cared for him. But on some points he was obdurate as p. 164steel. For instance, I could never persuade him, try what I would, to invest his salary, nor could anything induce him to learn a profession against the day when his voice should fail him. Singing, he said, had come naturally to him; a good voice, a good ear, and a little training had done the trick; and he thought, or pretended to think, that the evil day, when it did come, would bring with it its own resource. “Sufficient unto the day is the good thereof” was Bindo’s motto throughout.
And it was impossible to teach him the value of money. He spent it royally on others, lavishly on himself. “Where have you been, Bindo?” I said to him one Monday, when he hadn’t turned up as usual on the previous afternoon. “Oh, I took Harry out of town. He’s been seedy, you know, and wanted change. So we went to Brighton.” “And you travelled first-class, and put up at the Bedford, and lost money to him at cards in the evening?” “You have hit it exactly, old man,” was the reply.
I believe that most of his money went on Quixotic kindnesses of this sort. One night when I was with him at the Queen’s Hall (he p. 165liked to run round to me between his “turns” and criticise the show from the front) his salary for two nights went before it was earned to the first violin, a blind little snuff-powdered man, but Bindo’s very particular friend, because he had stumbled in getting down from the stage and damaged his instrument.
When the end did come, it came suddenly. His voice cracked on an upper G—sudden and short like the string of a violin—in the very hall he had so emphatically abused for its acoustic deficiencies. Of course he came to me, if it can be said that he came to me, when he had always been with me for most of his time. But the life bored him. I had my own work to do in the evenings, and couldn’t go with him to restaurants, theatres, and concerts, the excitement of which had become a second nature to Bindo. And so we drifted, little by little, but still very surely, farther and farther apart.
It was about this time that his friend Harry, the same whom he had entertained so royally at Brighton, fell ill. Bindo had been anxious about him for a long while, and never passed a day without seeing him. But it was only quite lately that the doctors had begun to p. 166suspect a rapid form of consumption. Bindo was full of trouble. I think he liked Harry best of all his friends, perhaps excepting me.
One day he burst into my room, with something more akin to tears in his eyes than I had ever seen in them before. “What is to be done, Charlie? They’ve given Harry the sack at his office because he’s too ill to do his work properly. They won’t even keep it open for him for a week or two on the chance. What brutes they are! And, poor old chap, he’s got nothing. If it were only this time last year, and I had my voice again, we could do famously. I wish I’d taken your advice, old man, and saved my pile while I had the chance. By the way: happy thought! I have a heap of rings and pins and watches at home that the swells gave me last year for singing at their matinees and concerts—enough of them to stock a pawnshop. By Jove! they shall help to stock Attenborough’s; and we’ll live on the proceeds, at any rate till things look more rosy.” He was off then and there, and for the next six months, till Harry died, I scarcely saw him. One excitement in his case had cast out the others, and while Harry lived he hardly cared to be outside his room. p. 167Brother and nurse in one he was to him—with him night and day—and, whatever money or love could do, Bindo did for him.
Afterwards he came back to me, looking a trifle older, a trifle more depressed; but improved, or so it seemed to me, by the experience he had undergone. I forgot that there are natures receptive of vigorous and even intense impressions, but absolutely incapable of retaining them. So soon as one predominant idea has passed from the brain, its place must be occupied by another, for good or else for evil. Which of the two it may be, seems almost a matter of indifference; it is the law, so to speak, of their being that it should be indifferent.
I almost wished in those days that I could fall ill myself. Five or six months of nursing under Bindo’s hand would have been a lazy delight to me, and (selfish as it may seem) better far for him than the life he was leading. Unhappily I never felt fitter, much too fit and too self-occupied to be interesting to Bindo, and so he left me for others, more at liberty and likely to be more amusing.
All this time he was (to quote his own words) “looking about for something”—the p. 168Micawber-like expression that does duty for an idle life. Whatever Bindo’s interpretation may have been, I know it made him very late in coming home of an evening. Yet he never asked me for money. His resources seemed boundless, and the stock of rings and watches inexhaustible. But, portable and useful property as they are, you must have a good supply of them in hand to live upon it for a year in the style Bindo was doing. Besides, it occurred to me as strange that I had never had a sight of them; in old days I had always had the first view of any present that was made him. On another point, too, he was inflexible as ever. Advice and help towards securing permanent employment he absolutely and positively refused. “Better that, old boy,” he said, “than do what most people do—bother their friends all round for an opinion when they’ve decided all along to follow their own.”
Your practical and steady-going individual—the one, for example, who can “see nothing” in Alice in Wonderland—never admits into his reckoning the influence of excitement. It disturbs and disarranges his equilibrium of life. Yet, disparage it as you may, it is one p. 169of the most important factors in shaping life and character, and perhaps the very strongest lever that operates for the development of vice. Fortunately, a fair number of mankind can do with a small and weak modicum of this dangerous stimulant. Individuals like Bindo, who ask for more, are classed among the eccentricities of nature, for whom it is impossible to prescribe. Yet, think what it means for a boy of sixteen, without discipline or experience to steady him, to drop, literally in a moment, from notoriety to neglect, activity to stagnation; almost from life to death.
No wonder Bindo pined and drooped. I knew the alternative that lay before him: life and death—not in metaphor this time, but in sober earnest. Yet I let him go, for he had taught me himself, if I had wanted the knowledge, that no man can cage a human will. So from the very moment I had become more hopeful about him, the gulf widened between us. But only in companionship; never in spirit—
“For, till the thunder in the trumpet be,
Soul may divide from body, but not we,
One from the other.”
Meanwhile he had retained all his old friends—no one who had known Bindo was p. 170in a hurry to part company with him—but he had made other and less reputable ones. The strange and (to me) disquieting element in the situation was that he never, even now, seemed to be in want of money. Yet Harry’s illness alone must have cost him a fortune. All his old luxuries were resumed. Dinners to his friends, at which Bindo was always paymaster, with periodical trips to Brighton and Bournemouth for change, succeeded one another with the same regularity as when the boy was earning £10 a night. “Where does the money come from?” I asked myself again and again. Alas! the knowledge was to come soon.
Late one evening, as I was finishing an article for the editor who employed me, Thorne and Eastonville called at my rooms. That they had come on no pleasant errand was written on their faces. “Charlie,” said Thorne, “we are here on a disagreeable business. I hope it may prove less disagreeable than it looks. The fact is we’ve been losing a lot of things for some time past; at least we’ve tried our level best to think we’ve lost them. But it won’t do. The thing is far too systematic to be accidental. Sometimes it has p. 171been money—a sovereign or two at a time; then it was a diamond ring of Eastonville’s that went, and then some valuable scarf-pins of mine. So the thing must be stopped. But who has done it? I may as well out with it at once, though it burns my throat to tell it. We can’t help fancying it’s Bindo. No one but he has had access to our rooms at all hours, and you know how suspicious he has made us all by the pile of money he’s been spending.”
“Yes: it is Bindo, Thorne.”
What was the good of attempting to deny it, when it flashed across me in a moment where all his jewellery had come from? No, not all perhaps. Probably—for I never asked him—he had started with articles that were legitimately his own, and then, when these had failed him, had been tempted to supplement them less creditably in the time of Harry’s need.
Of course we found the things, as I anticipated, at Attenborough’s; all of them, that is, but one. Bindo was not the boy to try and hide his work, as an expert would have done, by distributing the articles at different shops, or even by signing under an assumed p. 172name. On the contrary, there was a contemptuous candour in his method of dealing that actually surprised and puzzled us for a moment at starting.
I would allow no one but myself to liquidate on behalf of Bindo. But I as steadily refused to be the bearer to him of the discovery we had made. None of the others volunteered for the office, or showed the faintest ambition to be the one selected for the murder of a friendship. So we cast lots for the office, whose it should be, in true melodramatic style, and the lot fell upon me.
“Cheer up, old fellow,” said Eastonville. “Bindo’s a deal fonder of you than he is of the rest of us, and won’t take it so hardly if it comes through you. The fact is we’ve spoiled him; all of us, that is, but you. And he knew it too, and I believe he liked the preaching you gave him better than all my five-pound notes; not that he showed any objection to the notes, I’m bound to say. Now, don’t look so savage, old man. I’m bound to try and laugh over it, because, if I didn’t, I feel sure I should do the other thing. And after all this business may be the making of Bindo.”
p. 173But he didn’t know Bindo as I did. The boy came to me with outstretched hand, and with the old frank look in his eyes. But I could not trust myself to return it. What I did, must, I felt, be done quickly. If I waited for words in which to break the news to him; above all, if I gave him the chance of speaking first, I knew it was all up with me. So I just put the things on the table in front of him—how I hated the sight of them!—and said, “These things have come into my hands, no matter by what means.” He looked at them, and the faintest flush imaginable crept over his face. “Before you leave me to-night we will do them up for the post, and you will address them to the respective owners and leave them in my hands.” I did not dare to look at him, but turned away to another table, making up the parcels one by one and handing them to him where he stood behind my back. He addressed each parcel as he received it, never betraying by a word or sign what I knew the effort must have cost him.
“And now, Eric, you and I part company.” I saw him wince at the name; almost as if he had received a blow. No doubt it implied to him, far more plainly than I had intended, p. 174that the Bindo of the past was lost beyond recall. It was not said in heedlessness, still less in heartlessness; it was simply loss of self-control. The old familiar name could not be forced past my lips. In a moment I saw what I had done, and would have given worlds to repair it. “Bindo,” I cried impulsively, “come back.” But it was too late; the mischief was done. I had lost my last chance by that one word.
“Good-bye,” he answered, and was gone.
The characters we meet with in this world are composite, all of them—not saint or sinner; not this or else that, but something betwixt and between; the good in them not permanent, the bad in them not hopeless; and Bindo’s short life had exemplified the fact with startling clearness.
From that day forward my influence over him was gone. He must have kept studiously out of my path—an easy thing for him to do, as he knew all my habits and places of resort. I used to try and persuade myself that I was guiltless of the result, whatever it might be; p. 175that “unstable as water” his character was past all guidance, and would in any case have drifted to the end that seemed to be in view. Yet it was hard to feel all the while that a strong, kind word from me that night might have nerved him to fresh energy.
“And what about Bindo?” I asked of Eastonville one day.
“Going to the dogs, and pretty rapidly, too, I’m afraid. The last time I saw him, he was with Hutchinson and all that crew. You know what comes of mixing with loafers like that. He wouldn’t look at me, though I tried hard to get a talk with him. He’d had more to drink, too, than a boy of seventeen can carry. The pity of it all. What a voice he had, and what a good fellow, too, at heart! How he nursed poor Harry! Few Samaritans of the present day would have given up six months of their time to spend them in a sick room. But I’m afraid it’s all up with him.”
“Can’t Thorne do anything?”
“No; Bindo fights shy of us all, and no wonder either. I am sure I should do the same in his place. If you could only have got hold of him, and made him feel that we were rather glad than otherwise that our useless p. 176belongings had gone towards nursing Harry, he’d have got back his self-respect and been less shy of us. But our last hope went when you failed. What the plague made you call him Eric instead of Bindo?”
“Heaven only knows,” I answered, “or its Antipodes.”
I told Thorne one day of Eastonville’s report, and asked him what he thought of it.
“Just nothing at all,” he said. “He knows no more of what Bindo’s doing than all the rest of us. For myself, I believe he’s got work of some kind. I grant he’s seen sometimes at shady music halls with shady companions; and that’s what Eastonville means. But, after all, a fellow must have some one to speak to in the evening, especially if he’s at work all day; and if he’s lost his old friends he must fill up their places with the best he can. Besides, it’s quite possible that Bindo has grown wise enough by this time to make sure they do him no harm.”
A few months later Thorne dropped in again. “Now you’ll be happy, I suppose; at least I am. Bindo starts to-morrow for Brazil in the Magdalena. We came across him to-day. He’s had work on hand all the year, p. 177though he kept it quietly to himself; and now he’ll be quit of all his old associations and be able to make another, and, I hope, a better start.”
I made up my mind, of course, that I must see him before he sailed. But how to do it? Fortunately I knew the name of the boat he was to travel by, unless he had wilfully put Thorne off the scent. But it was too late to get a train that night, and, as the boat I knew sailed at two o’clock, it gave me none too much time to hunt him up at Southampton.
When a letter came to me next morning by the early post, requiring an article at once for the afternoon papers, it was only what I expected. Fate had come between me and Bindo every time I had wished to help him, and she was at her old games again. So I sat down and wrote off my article—doggedly rather than savagely—in the spirit of one who gives up the game against chance, yet knowing, all the time I was writing, that I was losing my train, and that it was doubtful whether the next one would catch the Magdalena at all. The official at the Dock entrance told me that she was already throwing off from the quay wall, and it would be quite p. 178impossible to get on board. “Far and away your best chance,” he added, “is to run round this way to the Dock gates. You’ll be there before she is, for it takes a lot of time to back and turn her. Then if you want to say good-bye to anyone very particularly (and he smiled), you’ll get a word with her perhaps. For the vessel’s loaded deep, and her portholes won’t stand very high above the quay wall. Besides, she’ll only creep through the gates, but you’ve no time to lose.”
I hardly stopped to thank him then. On my way back he got, not only thanks, but, to his great astonishment, a five-shilling piece. “Well; he must have wanted to see her badly,” I heard him whisper to his mate.
The preliminaries of throwing off, backing, warping, were all over by the time I reached the gates, and the big vessel was beginning to make a move under her own steam. I looked eagerly for Bindo among the passengers. Fate had been kind to me, and given me yet another chance. What if I missed it like the last? But she favoured me this time. He was leaning over the deck-rail, watching the leave-takings as the great vessel swept slowly past the wall. His cap was thrown back and p. 179his hair blown off his forehead. What a boy he looked to be starting a new life in a new world, without a friend and with worse than failure for the past!
Just then he caught sight of me. For a moment he hesitated—I could see him hesitate; then he left the deck and re-appeared at a port-hole in the aft part of the ship, framed once more (and it was my last picture of him) as the very Bindo of old. “Good-bye,” he said, “old man; it was good of you to come, after the way I’ve treated you. Thanks again, most faithful of friends, and good-bye. Forgive and forget. This time, believe me, I’ll go straight. By the way,” he added, “just give this parcel for me to Fred—naming one of his chums—I had intended it for the pilot, but it will be safer in your hands.”
A wave of the hand, as the ship headed for the open water, was the last I saw of Bindo. But a load was off my mind as I walked back to the station. I could look forward hopefully now and patiently to our next meeting.
Glancing at the parcel he had given me, I found it was addressed to myself. It contained a small diamond ring without word or p. 180comment. At the time when we found the jewellery at Attenborough’s, this ring had been missing, and, as it belonged to me, I had said nothing to the others about it. I might easily have lost it, and at any rate I gladly gave Bindo the benefit of the doubt. He had pledged it apparently at a different shop; perhaps because it was mine, and he did not wish it to be discovered with the rest; perhaps to remind him more vividly of the task he had set himself during the year to come. Till this ring could be redeemed, he must wait and work in London, and though all his hopes were centred in life abroad, it must not be thought of till this one act of reparation had been done. I never saw or heard from him directly again.
Two years later he died of yellow fever in hospital at Rio; and his last act, while he still had strength to hold a pen, was to write me a loving letter of farewell, enclosing a cheque that covered the sums I had expended on his account. The letter was forwarded to me by the nurse who attended him.
“Is it well with the lad? It is well.”
p. 183“Read and rejected” would be a more satisfying formula. But the Oracle is discreetly vague, and condescends not to particulars. Editorial reticence is surely a queer anomaly in these days when a reason is required for everything. When my own effusions have come back to me with the trite ascription, I could have welcomed enthusiastically the scantiest information, the liveliest abuse, in exchange for that exasperating commonplace.
Sometimes even this amount of formal recognition was deferred. At first I augured hopefully from the delay, till experience taught me otherwise. Once, when an editor had kept my MS kicking about in this way, I actually wrote him my mind in free and unorthodox language. “Unwise, most unwise,” you will say. “Yes, but oh! so satisfactory.” p. 184Add to which, my letter effected its purpose. He made up his mind then and there on the merits of my article and “declined it with thanks.” (The italics are his own.)
But the mystery remains a mystery. He did not reveal it to me, in spite of his gratitude for my contribution, and I still hold to my opinion that such delay is discourteous to a male contributor, and ungallant to a lady. Besides, what is the reason? Is it that the editor waits to see what space he has got left at the finish, and then accepts an article, not for its merits, but for its length, on much the same principle as a lady will ask you at breakfast for just the amount of bread that will suit a remnant of butter, or vice versa? If so, Aristophanes had anticipated the process, or one very nearly resembling it—“Man, man,” he says, “they are weighing my tragedy as if it were a pound of beef!”
By the way, why shouldn’t the editorial chair be thrown open to competition? It is thus we elect our Professors, or some of them, at Cambridge. Let a candidate for the office be required to compose an “Exercise”—say a complete story for the magazine he aspires to conduct. So should we respect an editor p. 185more, or (possibly) fear him less. At any rate, no order of men, least of all one which examines others, should be debarred now-a-days from the privilege of being examined in its turn.
The fear is that, if my suggestion were acted upon, it would empty the Universities of their Professors. Who could resist the attraction of a post which limits the bulk of its correspondence to one conventional formula? Besides, to a tired Tripos examiner, the duty of looking over a few hundred magazine articles per month would be a frolic—a light and airy holiday task. But he’d think the rules of the competition a trifle rough on the candidates, and might be tempted to violate decorum by an occasional word of encouragement and help.
Apart from the suspense they inflicted upon me, due no doubt to the care they bestowed on the investigation, I think the editors were not far out in their judgment of my work. It always looked so heavy, even to a partial critic like myself, on the morning after I had written it. Once, in despair, I showed an article to a great novelist, who is happily also a great friend. “What is the p. 186reason,” I asked him, “that it always looks so lumpy and devoid of wit and smartness?”
I wonder he had patience to read it through. Perhaps it was my presence that inspired him. Then he said, “Not so bad in sense, but, as you say, terribly cumbrous in form. Let’s see what’s the matter with it. Why, it’s description, description, description, instead of action, action, action, as Demosthenes recommended in a kindred art. It’s an essay—good enough so far as the matter goes—but wearisome and heavy almost beyond my endurance.”
“Well, what’s to be done with it?”
“Break it up,” was the reply, “and make them talk. See, here’s a man called Fred. Make him talk to the first woman he meets—Susan, I see, you’ve called her—let him ask her how she is, and where she’s going, and whether it’s a fine day. Do this with every proper name you can find, and you’ll soon see the mass disintegrate and look promising for the printer’s hands.”
I followed his advice, and (triumph of triumphs) the article was accepted. But I felt unhappy and disquieted even in my hour of success. The fact is, the plot of my story p. 187was a dream. Yes; it came straight to me at midnight from the god Oneiros himself, complete to the very smallest detail, and where was I to look for another? I very seldom dream at all, and never, before or afterwards, a complete story; and, as I can never originate a plot, my chances for the future are the reverse of promising. Yet I labour on with a persistency beyond all praise, and always during the night—a detrimental practice, involving great expenditure of candles and tissue. By daylight my ideas entirely evaporate, and I have abandoned the attempt as hopeless. The sight, too, of a fair blank sheet of paper makes my thoughts take wing on the instant. They can only be arrested on scraps of waste paper or (best of all) on the pages of a novel.
It is said that the criticisms on Corelli are literally “given to the dogs.” But my revenge upon a dull novel is, I flatter myself, more recondite still. I punish a poor story by using it as the palimpsest for a poorer one. Hence the highest tribute I can pay to my heroes in literature is an unspoken (I mean an unwritten) one. I leave their pages immaculate. My mind might be teeming at p. 188midnight with the noblest of thoughts, yet I could not bring myself to record them, even in thought, upon the pages of “Quentin Durward,” “Esmond,” “Silas Marner,” the “Return of the Native,” or “Wuthering Heights.”
Judging it for power alone—power that never flags from the first page to the last—I know of nothing that approaches “Wuthering Heights,” except the preface Charlotte Bronte wrote for it. Yet I never read the book without compassionating the authoress. The creation of a character like Heathcliff must have been one long struggle against herself, to be faced without flinching, as one of the penalties of genius. What her own choice would have been is shown by the relief with which she flings behind her the nightmare of the past to picture the hope and happiness of Earnshaw’s love. Her second book, if she had lived to write it, would certainly have been more genial; it could scarcely have been so great.