Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
My real object being my personal history in relation to certain facts and events, I must, in order to restrain myself from that discursiveness the impulse to which is an urging of the historical as well as the artistic Satan, even run the risk of appearing to have been blind to many things going on around me which must have claimed a large place had I been writing an autobiography instead of a distinct portion of one.
I set out with my manuscript in my portmanteau, and a few pounds in my pocket, determined to cost my uncle as little as I could.
I well remember the dreariness of London, as I entered it on the top of a coach, in the closing darkness of a late Autumn afternoon. The shops were not yet all lighted, and a drizzly rain was falling. But these outer influences hardly got beyond my mental skin, for I had written to Charley, and hoped to find him waiting for me at the coach-office. Nor was I disappointed, and in a moment all discomfort was forgotten. He took me to his chambers in the New Inn.
I found him looking better, and apparently, for him, in good spirits. It was soon arranged, at his entreaty, that for the present I should share his sitting-room, and have a bed put up for me in a closet he did not want. The next day I called upon certain publishers and left with them my manuscript. Its fate is of no consequence here, and I did not then wait to know it, but at once began to fly my feather at lower game, writing short papers and tales for the magazines. I had a little success from the first; and although the surroundings of my new abode were dreary enough, although, now and then, especially when the Winter sun shone bright into the court, I longed for one peep into space across the field that now itself lay far in the distance, I soon settled to my work, and found the life an enjoyable one. To work beside Charley the most of the day, and go with him in the evening to some place of amusement, or to visit some of the men in chambers about us, was for the time a satisfactory mode of existence.
I soon told him the story of my little passage with Clara. During the narrative he looked uncomfortable, and indeed troubled, but as soon as he found I had given up the affair, his countenance brightened.
'I'm very glad you've got over it so well,' he said.
'I think I've had a good deliverance,' I returned.
He made no reply. Neither did his face reveal his thoughts, for I could not read the confused expression it bore.
That he should not fall in with my judgment would never have surprised me, for he always hung back from condemnation, partly, I presume, from being even morbidly conscious of his own imperfections, and partly that his prolific suggestion supplied endless possibilities to explain or else perplex everything. I had been often even annoyed by his use of the most refined invention to excuse, as I thought, behaviour the most palpably wrong. I believe now it was rather to account for it than to excuse it.
'Well, Charley,' I would say in such a case, 'I am sure you would never have done such a thing.'
'I cannot guarantee my own conduct for a moment,' he would answer; or, taking the other tack, would reply: 'Just for that reason I cannot believe the man would have done it.'
But the oddity in the present case was that he said nothing. I should, however, have forgotten all about it, but that after some time I began to observe that as often as I alluded to Clara--which was not often--he contrived to turn the remark aside, and always without saying a syllable about her. The conclusion I came to was that, while he shrunk from condemnation, he was at the same time unwilling to disturb the present serenity of my mind by defending her conduct.
Early in the Spring, an unpleasant event occurred, of which I might have foreseen the possibility. One morning I was alone, working busily, when the door opened.
'Why, Charley--back already!' I exclaimed, going on to finish my sentence.
Receiving no answer, I looked up from my paper, and started to my feet. Mr Osborne stood before me, scrutinizing me with severe grey eyes. I think he knew me from the first, but I was sufficiently altered to make it doubtful.
'I beg your pardon,' he said coldly--'I thought these were Charles Osborne's chambers.' And he turned to leave the room.
'They are his chambers, Mr Osborne,' I replied, recovering myself with an effort, and looking him in the face.
'My son had not informed me that he shared them with another.'
'We are very old friends, Mr Osborne.'
He made no answer, but stood regarding me fixedly.
'You do not remember me, sir,' I said. 'I am Wilfrid Cumbermede.'
'I have cause to remember you.'
'Will you not sit down, sir? Charley will be home in less than an hour--I quite expect.'
Again he turned his back as if about to leave me.
'If my presence is disagreeable to you,' I said, annoyed at his rudeness, 'I will go.'
'As you please,' he answered.
I left my papers, caught up my hat, and went out of the room and the house. I said good morning, but he made no return.
Not until nearly eight o'clock did I re-enter. I had of course made up my mind that Charley and I must part. When I opened the door, I thought at first there was no one there. There were no lights, and the fire had burned low.
'Is that you, Wilfrid?' said Charley.
He was lying on the sofa.
'Yes, Charley,' I returned.
'Come in, old fellow. The avenger of blood is not behind me,' he said, in a mocking tone, as he rose and came to meet me. 'I've been having such a dose of damnation--all for your sake!'
'I'm very sorry, Charley. But I think we are both to blame. Your father ought to have been told. You see day after day went by, and--somehow--'
'Tut, tut! never mind. What does it matter--except that it's a disgrace to be dependent on such a man? I wish I had the courage to starve.'
'He's your father, Charley. Nothing can alter that.'
'That's the misery of it. And then to tell people God is their father! If he's like mine, he's done us a mighty favour in creating us! I can't say I feel grateful for it. I must turn out to-morrow.'
'No, Charley. The place has no attraction for me without you, and it was yours first. Besides, I can't afford to pay so much. I will find another to-morrow. But we shall see each other often, and perhaps get through more work apart. I hope he didn't insist on your never seeing me.'
'He did try it on; but there I stuck fast, threatening to vanish and scramble for my living as I best might. I told him you were a far better man than I, and did me nothing but good. But that only made the. matter worse, proving your influence over me. Let's drop it. It's no use. Let's go to the Olympic.'
The next day I looked for a lodging in Camden Town, attracted by the probable cheapness, and by the grass in the Regent's Park; and having found a decent place, took my things away while Charley was out. I had not got them, few as they were, in order in my new quarters before he made his appearance; and as long as I was there few days passed on which we did not meet.
One evening he walked in, accompanied by a fine-looking young fellow, whom I thought I must know, and presently recognized as Home, our old school-fellow, with whom I had fought in Switzerland. We had become good friends before we parted, and Charley and he had met repeatedly since.
'What are you doing now, Home?' I asked him.
'I've just taken deacon's orders,' he answered. 'A friend of my father's has promised me a living. I've been hanging-about quite long enough now. A fellow ought to do something for his existence.'
'I can't think how a strong fellow like you can take to mumbling prayers and reading sermons,' said Charley.
'It ain't nice,' said Home, 'but it's a very respectable profession. There are viscounts in it, and lots of honourables.'
'I dare say,' returned Charley, with drought. 'But a nerveless creature like me, who can't even hit straight from the shoulder, would be good enough for that. A giant like you, Home!'
'Ah! by-the-by, Osborne,' said Home, not in love with the prospect, and willing to turn the conversation, 'I thought you were a church-calf yourself.'
'Honestly, Home, I don't know whether it isn't the biggest of all big humbugs.'
'Oh, but--Osborne!--it ain't the thing, you know, to talk like that of a profession adopted by so many great men fit to honour any profession,' returned Home, who was not one of the brightest of mortals, and was jealous for the profession just in as much as it was destined for his own.
'Either the profession honours the men, or the men dishonour themselves,' said Charley. 'I believe it claims to have been founded by a man called Jesus Christ, if such a man ever existed except in the fancy of his priesthood.'
'Well, really,' expostulated Home, looking, I must say, considerably shocked, 'I shouldn't have expected that from the son of a clergyman!'
'I couldn't help my father. I wasn't consulted,' said Charley, with an uncomfortable grin. 'But, at any rate, my father fancies he believes all the story. I fancy I don't.'
'Then you're an infidel, Osborne.'
'Perhaps. Do you think that so very horrible?'
'Yes, I do. Tom Paine, and all the rest of them, you know!'
'Well, Home, I'll tell you one thing I think worse than being an infidel.'
'What is that?'
'Taking to the Church for a living.'
'I don't see that.'
'Either the so-called truths it advocates are things to live and die for, or they are the veriest old wives' fables going. Do you know who was the first to do what you are about now?'
'No. I can't say. I'm not up in Church history yet.'
'It was Judas.'
I am not sure that Charley was right, but that is what he said. I was taking no part in the conversation, but listening eagerly, with a strong suspicion that Charley had been leading Home to this very point.
'A man must live,' said Home.
'That's precisely what I take it Judas said: for my part I don't see it.'
'Don't see what?'
'That a man must live. It would be a far more incontrovertible assertion that a man must die--and a more comfortable one, too.'
'Upon my word, I don't understand you, Osborne! You make a fellow feel deuced queer with your remarks.'
'At all events, you will allow that the first of them--they call them apostles, don't they?--didn't take to preaching the gospel for the sake of a living. What a satire on the whole kit of them that word living, so constantly in all their mouths, is! It seems to me that Messrs Peter and Paul and Matthew, and all the rest of them, forsook their livings for a good chance of something rather the contrary.'
'Then it was true--what they said about you at Forest's?'
'I don't know what they said,' returned Charley; 'but before I would pretend to believe what I didn't--'
'But I do believe it, Osborne.'
'May I ask on what grounds?'
'That would be no reason, even if it were a fact, which it is not. You believe it, or rather, choose to think you believe it, because you've been told it. Sooner than pretend to teach what I have never learned, and be looked up to as a pattern of godliness, I would 'list in the ranks. There, at least, a man might earn an honest living.'
'By Jove! You do make a fellow feel uncomfortable!' repeated Home. 'You've got such a--such an uncompromising way of saying things--to use a mild expression.'
'I think it's a sneaking thing to do, and unworthy of a gentleman.'
'I don't see what right you've got to bully me in that way,' said Home, getting angry.
It was time to interfere.
'Charley is so afraid of being dishonest, Home,' I said, 'that he is rude.--You are rude now, Charley.'
'I beg your pardon, Home,' exclaimed Charley at once.
'Oh, never mind!' returned Home with gloomy good-nature.
'You ought to make allowance, Charley,' I pursued. 'When a man has been accustomed all his life to hear things spoken of in a certain way, he cannot help having certain notions to start with.'
'If I thought as Osborne does,' said Home, 'I would sooner 'list than go into the Church.'
'I confess,' I rejoined, 'I do not see how any one can take orders, unless he not only loves God with all his heart, but receives the story of the New Testament as a revelation of him, precious beyond utterance. To the man who accepts it so, the calling is the noblest in the world.'
The others were silent, and the conversation turned away. From whatever cause, Home did not go into the Church, but died fighting in India.
He soon left us--Charley remaining behind.
'What a hypocrite I am!' he exclaimed;--'following a profession in which I must often, if I have any practice at all, defend what I know to be wrong, and seek to turn justice from its natural course.'
'But you can't always know that your judgment is right, even if it should be against your client. I heard an eminent barrister say once that he had come out of the court convinced by the arguments of the opposite counsel.'
'And having gained the case?'
'That I don't know.'
'He went in believing his own side anyhow, and that made it all right for him.'
'I don't know that either. His private judgment was altered, but whether it was for or against his client, I do not remember. The fact, however, shows that one might do a great wrong by refusing a client whom he judged in the wrong.'
'On the contrary, to refuse a brief on such grounds would be best for all concerned. Not believing in it, you could not do your best, and might be preventing one who would believe in it from taking it up.'
'The man might not get anybody to take it up.'
'Then there would be little reason to expect that a jury charged under ordinary circumstances would give a verdict in his favour.'
'But it would be for the barristers to constitute themselves the judges.'
'Yes--of their own conduct--only that. There I am again! The finest ideas about the right thing--and going on all the same, with open eyes running my head straight into the noose! Wilfrid, I'm one of the weakest animals in creation. What if you found at last that I had been deceiving you! What would you say?'
'Nothing, Charley--to any one else.'
'What would you say to yourself, then?'
'I don't know. I know what I should do.'
'Try to account for it, and find as many reasons as I could to justify you. That is, I would do just as you do for every one but yourself.'
He was silent--plainly from emotion, which I attributed to his pleasure at the assurance of the strength of my friendship.
'Suppose you could find none?' he said, recovering himself a little.
'I should still believe there were such. Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner, you know.'
He brightened at this.
'You are a friend, Wilfrid! What a strange condition mine is!--for ever feeling I could do this and that difficult thing, were it to fall in my way, and yet constantly failing in the simplest duties--even to that of common politeness. I behaved like a brute to Home. He's a fine fellow, and only wants to see a thing to do it. I see it well enough, and don't do it. Wilfrid, I shall come to a bad end. When it comes, mind I told you so, and blame nobody but myself. I mean what I say.
'Nonsense, Charley! It's only that you haven't active work enough, and get morbid with brooding over the germs of things.'
'Oh, Wilfrid, how beautiful a life might be! Just look at that one in the New Testament! Why shouldn't I be like that? I don't know why. I feel as if I could. But I'm not, you see--and never shall be. I'm selfish, and ill-tempered, and--'
'Charley! Charley! There never was a less selfish or better-tempered fellow in the world.'
'Don't make me believe that, Wilfrid, or I shall hate the world as well as myself. It's all my hypocrisy makes you think so. Because I am ashamed of what I am, and manage to hide it pretty well, you think me a saint. That is heaping damnation on me.'
'Take a pipe, Charley, and shut up. That's rubbish!' I said. I doubt much if it was what I ought to have said, but I was alarmed for the consequences of such brooding. 'I wonder what the world would be like if every one considered himself acting up to his own ideal!'
'If he was acting so, then it would do the world no harm that he knew it.'
'But his ideal must then be a low one, and that would do himself and everybody the worst kind of harm. The greatest men have always thought the least of themselves.'
'Yes, but that was because they were the greatest. A man may think little of himself just for the reason that he is little, and can't help knowing it.'
'Then it's a mercy he does know it! for most small people think much of themselves.'
'But to know it--and to feel all the time you ought to be and could be something very different, and yet never get a step nearer it! That is to be miserable. Still it is a mercy to know it. There is always a last help.'
I mistook what he meant, and thought it well to say no more. After smoking a pipe or two, he was quieter, and left me with a merry remark. One lovely evening in Spring, I looked from my bed-room window, and saw the red sunset burning in the thin branches of the solitary poplar that graced the few feet of garden behind the house. It drew me out to the park, where the trees were all in young leaf, each with its shadow stretching away from its foot, like its longing to reach its kind across dividing space. The grass was like my own grass at home, and I went wandering over it in all the joy of the new Spring, which comes every year to our hearts as well as to their picture outside. The workmen were at that time busy about the unfinished botanical gardens, and I wandered thitherward, lingering about, and pondering and inventing, until the sun was long withdrawn, and the shades of night had grown very brown.
I was at length sauntering slowly home to put a few finishing touches to a paper I had been at work upon all day, when something about a young couple in front of me attracted my attention. They were walking arm in arm, talking eagerly, but so low that I heard only a murmur. I did not quicken my pace, yet was gradually gaining upon them, when suddenly the conviction started up in my mind that the gentleman was Charley. I could not mistake his back, or the stoop of his shoulders as he bent towards his companion. I was so certain of him that I turned at once from the road, and wandered away across the grass: if he did not choose to tell me about the lady, I had no right to know. But I confess to a strange trouble that he had left me out. I comforted myself, however, with the thought that perhaps when we next met he would explain, or at least break, the silence.
After about an hour, he entered, in an excited mood, merry but uncomfortable. I tried to behave as if I knew nothing, but could not help feeling much disappointed when he left me without a word of his having had a second reason for being in the neighbourhood.
What effect the occurrence might have had, whether the cobweb veil of which I was now aware between us would have thickened to opacity or not, I cannot tell. I dare not imagine that it might. I rather hope that by degrees my love would have got the victory, and melted it away. But now came a cloud which swallowed every other in my firmament. The next morning brought a letter from my aunt, telling me that my uncle had had a stroke, as she called it, and at that moment was lying insensible. I put my affairs in order at once, and Charley saw me away by the afternoon coach.
It was a dreary journey. I loved my uncle with perfect confidence and profound veneration, a result of the faithful and open simplicity with which he had always behaved towards me. If he were taken away, and already he might be gone, I should be lonely indeed, for on whom besides could I depend with anything like the trust which I reposed in him? For, conceitedly or not, I had always felt that Charley rather depended on me--that I had rather to take care of him than to look for counsel from him.
The weary miles rolled away. Early in the morning we reached Minstercombe. There I got a carriage, and at once continued my journey.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.