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Chapter 22

MY SECOND DINNER-PARTY.


For I judged that I might now give another little dinner: I thought, that, as Percivale had been doing so well lately, he might afford, with his knowing brother's help, to provide, for his part of the entertainment, what might be good enough to offer even to Mr. Morley; and I now knew Lady Bernard sufficiently well to know also that she would willingly accept an invitation from me, and would be pleased to meet Miss Clare, or, indeed, would more likely bring her with her.

I proposed the dinner, and Percivale consented to it. My main object being the glorification of Miss Clare, who had more engagements of one kind and another than anybody I knew, I first invited her, asking her to fix her own day, at some considerable remove. Next I invited Mr. and Mrs. Morley, and next Lady Bernard, who went out very little. Then I invited Mr. Blackstone, and last of all Roger--though I was almost as much interested in his meeting Miss Clare as in any thing else connected with the gathering. For he had been absent from London for some time on a visit to an artist friend at the Hague, and had never seen Miss Clare since the evening on which he and I quarrelled--or rather, to be honest, I quarrelled with him. All accepted, and I looked forward to the day with some triumph.

I had better calm the dread of my wifely reader by at once assuring her that I shall not harrow her feelings with any account of culinary blunders. The moon was in the beginning of her second quarter, and my cook's brain tolerably undisturbed. Lady Bernard offered me her cook for the occasion; but I convinced her that my wisdom would be to decline the offer, seeing such external influence would probably tend to disintegration. I went over with her every item of every dish and every sauce many times,--without any resulting sense of security, I confess; but I had found, that, odd as it may seem, she always did better the more she had to do. I believe that her love of approbation, excited by the difficulty before her, in its turn excited her intellect, which then arose to meet the necessities of the case.

Roger arrived first, then Mr. Blackstone; Lady Bernard brought Miss Clare; and Mr. and Mrs. Morley came last. There were several introductions to be gone through,--a ceremony in which Percivale, being awkward, would give me no assistance; whence I failed to observe how the presence of Miss Clare affected Mr. and Mrs. Morley; but my husband told me that Judy turned red, and that Mr. Morley bowed to her with studied politeness. I took care that Mr. Blackstone should take her down to dinner, which was served in the study as before.

The conversation was broken and desultory at first, as is generally the case at a dinner-party--and perhaps ought to be; but one after another began to listen to what was passing between Lady Bernard and my husband at the foot of the table, until by degrees every one became interested, and took a greater or less part in the discussion. The first of it I heard was as next follows.

"Then you do believe," my husband was saying, "in the importance of what some of the Devonshire people call havage?"

"Allow me to ask what they mean by the word," Lady Bernard returned.

"Birth, descent,--the people you come of," he answered.

"Of course I believe that descent involves very important considerations."

"No one," interposed Mr. Morley, "can have a better right than your ladyship to believe that."

"One cannot nave a better right than another to believe a fact, Mr. Morley," she answered with a smile. "It is but a fact that you start better or worse according to the position of your starting-point."

"Undeniably," said Mr. Morley. "And for all that is feared from the growth of levelling notions in this country, it will be many generations before a profound respect for birth is eradicated from the feelings of the English people."

He drew in his chin with a jerk, and devoted himself again to his plate, with the air of a "Dixi." He was not permitted to eat in peace, however.

"If you allow," said Mr. Blackstone, "that the feeling can wear out, and is wearing out, it matters little how long it may take to prove itself of a false, because corruptible nature. No growth of notions will blot love, honesty, kindness, out of the human heart."

"Then," said Lady Bernard archly, "am I to understand, Mr. Blackstone, that you don't believe it of the least importance to come of decent people?"

"Your ladyship puts it well," said Mr. Morley, laughing mildly, "and with authority. The longer the descent"--

"The more doubtful," interrupted Lady Bernard, laughing. "One can hardly have come of decent people all through, you know. Let us only hope, without inquiring too closely, that their number preponderates in our own individual cases."

Mr. Morley stared for a moment, and then tried to laugh, but unable to determine whereabout he was in respect of the question, betook himself to his glass of sherry.

Mr. Blackstone considered it the best policy in general not to explain any remark he had made, but to say the right thing better next time instead. I suppose he believed, with another friend of mine, that "when explanations become necessary, they become impossible," a paradox well worth the consideration of those who write letters to newspapers. But Lady Bernard understood him well enough, and was only unwinding the clew of her idea.

"On the contrary, it must be a most serious fact," he rejoined, "to any one who like myself believes that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children."

"Mr. Blackstone," objected Roger, "I can't imagine you believing such a manifest injustice."

"It has been believed in all ages by the best of people," he returned.

"To whom possibly the injustice of it never suggested itself. For my part, I must either disbelieve that, or disbelieve in a God."

"But, my dear fellow, don't you see it is a fact? Don't you see children born with the sins of their parents nestling in their very bodies? You see on which horn of your own dilemma you would impale yourself."

"Wouldn't you rather not believe in a God than believe in an unjust one?"

"An unjust god," said Mr. Blackstone, with the honest evasion of one who will not answer an awful question hastily, "must be a false god, that is, no god. Therefore I presume there is some higher truth involved in every fact that appears unjust, the perception of which would nullify the appearance."

"I see none in the present case," said Roger.

"I will go farther than assert the mere opposite," returned Mr. Blackstone. "I will assert that it is an honor to us to have the sins of our fathers laid upon us. For thus it is given into our power to put a stop to them, so that they shall descend no farther. If I thought my father had committed any sins for which I might suffer, I should be unspeakably glad to suffer for them, and so have the privilege of taking a share in his burden, and some of the weight of it off his mind. You see the whole idea is that of a family, in which we are so grandly bound together, that we must suffer with and for each other. Destroy this consequence, and you destroy the lovely idea itself, with all its thousand fold results of loveliness."

"You anticipate what I was going to say, Mr. Blackstone," said Lady Bernard. "I would differ from you only in one thing. The chain of descent is linked after such a complicated pattern, that the non-conducting condition of one link, or of many links even, cannot break the transmission of qualities. I may inherit from my great-great-grandfather or mother, or some one ever so much farther back. That which was active wrong in some one or other of my ancestors, may appear in me as an impulse to that same wrong, which of course I have to overcome; and if I succeed, then it is so far checked. But it may have passed, or may yet pass, to others of his descendants, who have, or will have, to do the same--for who knows how many generations to come?--before it shall cease. Married people, you see, Mrs. Percivale, have an awful responsibility in regard of the future of the world. You cannot tell to how many millions you may transmit your failures or your victories."

"If I understand you right, Lady Bernard," said Roger, "it is the personal character of your ancestors, and not their social position, you regard as of importance."

"It was of their personal character alone I was thinking. But of course I do not pretend to believe that there are not many valuable gifts more likely to show themselves in what is called a long descent; for doubtless a continuity of education does much to develop the race."

"But if it is personal character you chiefly regard, we may say we are all equally far descended," I remarked; "for we have each had about the same number of ancestors with a character of some sort or other, whose faults and virtues have to do with ours, and for both of which we are, according to Mr. Blackstone, in a most real and important sense accountable."

"Certainly," returned Lady Bernard; "and it is impossible to say in whose descent the good or the bad may predominate. I cannot tell, for instance, how much of the property I inherit has been honestly come by, or is the spoil of rapacity and injustice."

"You are doing the best you can to atone for such a possible fact, then, by its redistribution," said my husband.

"I confess," she answered, "the doubt has had some share in determining my feeling with regard to the management of my property. I have no right to throw up my stewardship, for that was none of my seeking, and I do not know any one who has a better claim to it; but I count it only a stewardship. I am not at liberty to throw my orchard open, for that would result not only in its destruction, but in a renewal of the fight of centuries ago for its possession; but I will try to distribute my apples properly. That is, I have not the same right to give away foolishly that I have to keep wisely."

"Then," resumed Roger, who had evidently been pondering what Lady Bernard had previously said, "you would consider what is called kleptomania as the impulse to steal transmitted by a thief-ancestor?"

"Nothing seems to me more likely. I know a nobleman whose servant has to search his pockets for spoons or forks every night as soon as he is in bed."

"I should find it very hard to define the difference between that and stealing," said Miss Clare, now first taking a part in the conversation. "I have sometimes wondered whether kleptomania was not merely the fashionable name for stealing."

"The distinction is a difficult one, and no doubt the word is occasionally misapplied. But I think there is a difference. The nobleman to whom I referred makes no objection to being thus deprived of his booty; which, for one thing, appears to show that the temptation is intermittent, and partakes at least of the character of a disease."

"But are there not diseases which are only so much the worse diseases that they are not intermittent?" said Miss Clare. "Is it not hard that the privileges of kleptomania should be confined to the rich? You never hear the word applied to a poor child, even if his father was, habit and repute, a thief. Surely, when hunger and cold aggravate the attacks of inherited temptation, they cannot at the same time aggravate the culpability of yielding to them?"

"On the contrary," said Roger, "one would naturally suppose they added immeasurable excuse."

"Only," said Mr. Blackstone, "there comes in our ignorance, and consequent inability to judge. The very fact of the presence of motives of a most powerful kind renders it impossible to be certain of the presence of the disease; whereas other motives being apparently absent, we presume disease as the readiest way of accounting for the propensity; I do not therefore think it is the only way. I believe there are cases in which it comes of pure greed, and is of the same kind as any other injustice the capability of exercising which is more generally distributed. Why should a thief be unknown in a class, a proportion of the members of which is capable of wrong, chicanery, oppression, indeed any form of absolute selfishness?"

"At all events," said Lady Bernard, "so long as we do our best to help them to grow better, we cannot make too much allowance for such as have not only been born with evil impulses, but have had every animal necessity to urge them in the same direction; while, on the other hand, they have not had one of those restraining influences which a good home and education would have afforded. Such must, so far as development goes, be but a little above the beasts."

"You open a very difficult question," said Mr. Morley: "What are we to do with them? Supposing they are wild beasts, we can't shoot them; though that would, no doubt, be the readiest way to put an end to the breed."

"Even that would not suffice," said Lady Bernard. "There would always be a deposit from the higher classes sufficient to keep up the breed. But, Mr. Morley, I did not say wild beasts: I only said beasts. There is a great difference between a tiger and a sheep-dog."

"There is nearly as much between a Seven-Dialsrough and a sheep-dog."

"In moral attainment, I grant you," said Mr. Blackstone; "but in moral capacity, no. Besides, you must remember, both what a descent the sheep-dog has, and what pains have been taken with his individual education, as well as that of his ancestors."

"Granted all that," said Mr. Morley, "there the fact remains. For my part, I confess I don't see what is to be done. The class to which you refer goes on increasing. There's this garrotting now. I spent a winter at Algiers lately, and found even the suburbs of that city immeasurably safer than any part of London is now, to judge from the police-reports. Yet I am accused of inhumanity and selfishness if I decline to write a check for every shabby fellow who calls upon me pretending to be a clergyman, and to represent this or that charity in the East End!"

"Things are bad enough in the West End, within a few hundred yards of Portland Place, for instance," murmured Miss Clare.

"It seems to me highly unreasonable," Mr. Morley went on. "Why should I spend my money to perpetuate such a condition of things?"

"That would in all likelihood be the tendency of your subscription," said Mr. Blackstone.

"Then why should I?" repeated Mr. Morley with a smile of triumph.

"But," said Miss Clare, in an apologetic tone, "it seems to me you make a mistake in regarding the poor as if their poverty were the only distinction by which they could be classified. The poor are not all thieves and garroters, nor even all unthankful and unholy. There are just as strong and as delicate distinctions too, in that stratum of social existence as in the upper strata. I should imagine Mr. Morley knows a few, belonging to the same social grade with himself, with whom, however, he would be sorry to be on any terms of intimacy."

"Not a few," responded Mr. Morley with a righteous frown.

"Then I, who know the poor as well at least as you can know the rich, having lived amongst them almost from childhood, assert that I am acquainted with not a few, who, in all the essentials of human life and character, would be an honor to any circle."

"I should be sorry to seem to imply that there may not be very worthy people amongst them, Miss Clare; but it is not such who draw our attention to the class."

"Not such who force themselves upon your attention certainly," said Miss Clare; "but the existence of such may be an additional reason for bestowing some attention on the class to which they belong. Is there not such a mighty fact as the body of Christ? Is there no connection between the head and the feet?"

"I had not the slightest purpose of disputing the matter with you, Miss Clare," said Mr. Morley--I thought rudely, for who would use the word disputing at a dinner-table? "On the contrary, being a practical man, I want to know what is to be done. It is doubtless a great misfortune to the community that there should be such sinks in our cities; but who is to blame for it?--that is the question."

"Every man who says, Am I my brother's keeper? Why, just consider, Mr. Morley: suppose in a family there were one less gifted than the others, and that in consequence they all withdrew from him, and took no interest in his affairs: what would become of him? Must he not sink?"

"Difference of rank is a divine appointment,--you must allow that. If there were not a variety of grades, the social machine would soon come to a stand-still."

"A strong argument for taking care of the smallest wheel, for all the parts are interdependent. That there should be different classes is undoubtedly a divine intention, and not to be turned aside. But suppose the less-gifted boy is fit for some manual labor; suppose he takes to carpentering, and works well, and keeps the house tidy, and every thing in good repair, while his brothers pursue their studies and prepare for professions beyond his reach: is the inferior boy degraded by doing the best he can? Is there any reason in the nature of things why he should sink? But he will most likely sink, sooner or later, if his brothers take no interest in his work, and treat him as a being of nature inferior to their own."

"I beg your pardon," said Mr. Morley, "but is he not on the very supposition inferior to them?"

"Intellectually, yes; morally, no; for he is doing his work, possibly better than they, and therefore taking a higher place in the eternal scale. But granting all kinds of inferiority, his nature remains the same with their own; and the question is, whether they treat him as one to be helped up, or one to be kept down; as one unworthy of sympathy, or one to be honored for filling his part: in a word, as one belonging to them, or one whom they put up with only because his work is necessary to them."

"What do you mean by being 'helped up'?" asked Mr. Morley.

"I do not mean helped out of his trade, but helped to make the best of it, and of the intellect that finds its development in that way."

"Very good. But yet I don't see how you apply your supposition."

"For an instance of application, then: How many respectable people know or care a jot about their servants, except as creatures necessary to their comfort?"

"Well, Miss Clare," said Judy, addressing her for the first time, "if you had had the half to do with servants I have had, you would alter your opinion of them."

"I have expressed no opinion," returned Miss Clare. "I have only said that masters and mistresses know and care next to nothing about them."

"They are a very ungrateful class, do what you will for them."

"I am afraid they are at present growing more and more corrupt as a class," rejoined Miss Clare; "but gratitude is a high virtue, therefore in any case I don't see how you could look for much of it from the common sort of them. And yet while some mistresses do not get so much of it as they deserve, I fear most mistresses expect far more of it than they have any right to."

"You can't get them to speak the truth."

"That I am afraid is a fact."

"I have never known one on whose word I could depend," insisted Judy.

"My father says he has known one," I interjected.

"A sad confirmation of Mrs. Morley," said Miss Clare. "But for my part I know very few persons in any rank on whose representation of things I could absolutely depend. Truth is the highest virtue, and seldom grows wild. It is difficult to speak the truth, and those who have tried it longest best know how difficult it is. Servants need to be taught that as well as everybody else."

"There is nothing they resent so much as being taught," said Judy.

"Perhaps: they are very far from docile; and I believe it is of little use to attempt giving them direct lessons."

"How, then, are you to teach them?"

"By making it very plain to them, but without calling their attention to it, that you speak the truth. In the course of a few years they may come to tell a lie or two the less for that."

"Not a very hopeful prospect," said Judy.

"Not a very rapid improvement," said her husband.

"I look for no rapid improvement, so early in a history as the supposition implies," said Miss Clare.

"But would you not tell them how wicked it is?" I asked.

"They know already that it is wicked to tell lies; but they do not feel that they are wicked in making the assertions they do. The less said about the abstract truth, and the more shown of practical truth, the better for those whom any one would teach to forsake lying. So, at least, it appears to me. I despair of teaching others, except by learning myself."

"If you do no more than that, you will hardly produce an appreciable effect in a lifetime."

"Why should it be appreciated?" rejoined Miss Clare.

"I should have said, on the contrary," interposed Mr. Blackstone, addressing Mr. Morley, "if you do less--for more you cannot do--you will produce no effect whatever."

"We have no right to make it a condition of our obedience, that we shall see its reflex in the obedience of others," said Miss Clare. "We have to pull out the beam, not the mote."

"Are you not, then, to pull the mote out of your brother's eye?" said Judy.

"In no case and on no pretence, until you have pulled the beam out of your own eye," said Mr. Blackstone; "which I fancy will make the duty of finding fault with one's neighbor a rare one; for who will venture to say he has qualified himself for the task?"

It was no wonder that a silence followed upon this; for the talk had got to be very serious for a dinner-table. Lady Bernard was the first to speak. It was easier to take up the dropped thread of the conversation than to begin a new reel.

"It cannot be denied," she said, "whoever may be to blame for it, that the separation between the rich and the poor has either been greatly widened of late, or, which involves the same practical necessity, we have become more aware of the breadth and depth of a gulf which, however it may distinguish their circumstances, ought not to divide them from each other. Certainly the rich withdraw themselves from the poor. Instead, for instance, of helping them to bear their burdens, they leave the still struggling poor of whole parishes to sink into hopeless want, under the weight of those who have already sunk beyond recovery. I am not sure that to shoot them would not involve less injustice. At all events, he that hates his brother is a murderer."

"But there is no question of hating here," objected Mr. Morley.

"I am not certain that absolute indifference to one's neighbor is not as bad. It came pretty nearly to the same thing in the case of the priest and the Levite, who passed by on the other side," said Mr. Blackstone.

"Still," said Mr. Morley, in all the self-importance of one who prided himself on the practical, "I do not see that Miss Clare has proposed any remedy for the state of things concerning the evil of which we are all agreed. What is to be done? What can I do now? Come, Miss Clare."

Miss Clare was silent.

"Marion, my child," said Lady Bernard, turning to her, "will you answer Mr. Morley?"

"Not, certainly, as to what he can do: that question I dare not undertake to answer. I can only speak of what principles I may seem to have discovered. But until a man begins to behave to those with whom he comes into personal contact as partakers of the same nature, to recognize, for instance, between himself and his trades-people a bond superior to that of supply and demand, I cannot imagine how he is to do any thing towards the drawing together of the edges of the gaping wound in the social body."

"But," persisted Mr. Morley, who, I began to think, showed some real desire to come at a practical conclusion, "suppose a man finds himself incapable of that sort of thing--for it seems to me to want some rare qualification or other to be able to converse with an uneducated person"--

"There are many such, especially amongst those who follow handicrafts," interposed Mr. Blackstone, "who think a great deal more than most of the so-called educated. There is a truer education to be got in the pursuit of a handicraft than in the life of a mere scholar. But I beg your pardon, Mr. Morley."

"Suppose," resumed Mr. Morley, accepting the apology without disclaimer,--"Suppose I find I can do nothing of that sort; is there nothing of any sort I can do?"

"Nothing of the best sort, I firmly believe," answered Miss Clare; "for the genuine recognition of the human relationship can alone give value to whatever else you may do, and indeed can alone guide you to what ought to be done. I had a rather painful illustration of this the other day. A gentleman of wealth and position offered me the use of his grounds for some of my poor friends, whom I wanted to take out for a half-holiday. In the neighborhood of London, that is a great boon. But unfortunately, whether from his mistake or mine, I was left with the impression that he would provide some little entertainment for them; I am certain that at least milk was mentioned. It was a lovely day; every thing looked beautiful; and although they were in no great spirits, poor things, no doubt the shade and the grass and the green trees wrought some good in them. Unhappily, two of the men had got drunk on the way; and, fearful of giving offence, I had to take them back to the station.--for their poor helpless wives could only cry,--and send them home by train. I should have done better to risk the offence, and take them into the grounds, where they might soon have slept it off under a tree. I had some distance to go, and some difficulty in getting them along; and when I got back I found things in an unhappy condition, for nothing had been given them to eat or drink,--indeed, no attention, had been paid them whatever. There was company at dinner in the house, and I could not find any one with authority. I hurried into the neighboring village, and bought the contents of two bakers' shops, with which I returned in time to give each a piece of bread before the company came out to look at them. A gayly-dressed group, they stood by themselves languidly regarding the equally languid but rather indignant groups of ill-clad and hungry men and women upon the lawn. They made no attempt to mingle with them, or arrive at a notion of what was moving in any of their minds. The nearest approach to communion I saw was a poke or two given to a child with the point of a parasol. Were my poor friends likely to return to their dingy homes with any great feeling of regard for the givers of such cold welcome?"

"But that was an exceptional case," said Mr. Morley.

"Chiefly in this," returned Miss Clare, "that it was a case at all--that they were thus presented with a little more room on the face of the earth for a few hours."

"But you think the fresh air may have done them good?"

"Yes; but we were speaking, I thought, of what might serve towards the filling up of the gulf between the classes."

"Well, will not all kindness shown to the poor by persons in a superior station tend in that direction?"

"I maintain that you can do nothing for them in the way of kindness that shall not result in more harm than good, except you do it from and with genuine charity of soul; with some of that love, in short, which is the heart of religion. Except what is done for them is so done as to draw out their trust and affection, and so raise them consciously in the human scale, it can only tend either to hurt their feelings and generate indignation, or to encourage fawning and beggary. But"--

"I am entirely of your mind," said Mr. Blackstone. "But do go on."

"I was going to add," said Miss Clare, "that while no other charity than this can touch the sore, a good deal might yet be effected by bare justice. It seems to me high time that we dropped talking about charity, and took up the cry of justice. There, now, is a ground on which a man of your influence, Mr. Morley, might do much."

"I don't know what you mean, Miss Clare. So long as I pay the market value for the labor I employ, I do not see how more can be demanded of me--as a right, that is."

"We will not enter on that question, Marion, if you please," said Lady Bernard.

Miss Clare nodded, and went on.

"Is it just in the nation," she said, "to abandon those who can do nothing to help themselves, to be preyed upon by bad landlords, railway-companies, and dishonest trades-people with their false weights, balances, and measures, and adulterations to boot,--from all of whom their more wealthy brethren are comparatively safe? Does not a nation exist for the protection of its parts? Have these no claims on the nation? Would you call it just in a family to abandon its less gifted to any moral or physical spoiler who might be bred within it? To say a citizen must take care of himself may be just where he can take care of himself, but cannot be just where that is impossible. A thousand causes, originating mainly in the neglect of their neighbors, have combined to sink the poor into a state of moral paralysis: are we to say the paralyzed may be run over in our streets with impunity? Must they take care of themselves? Have we not to awake them to the very sense that life is worth caring for? I cannot but feel that the bond between such a neglected class, and any nation in which it is to be found, is very little stronger than, if indeed as strong as, that between slaves and their masters. Who could preach to them their duty to the nation, except on grounds which such a nation acknowledges only with the lips?"

"You have to prove, Miss Clare," said Mr. Morley, in a tone that seemed intended to imply that he was not in the least affected by mistimed eloquence, "that the relation is that of a family."

"I believe," she returned, "that it is closer than the mere human relation of the parts of any family. But, at all events, until we are their friends it is worse than useless to pretend to be such, and until they feel that we are their friends it is worse than useless to talk to them about God and religion. They will none of it from our lips."

"Will they from any lips? Are they not already too far sunk towards the brutes to be capable of receiving any such rousing influence?" suggested Mr. Blackstone with a smile, evidently wishing to draw Miss Clare out yet further.

"You turn me aside, Mr. Blackstone. I wanted to urge Mr. Morley to go into parliament as spiritual member for the poor of our large towns. Besides, I know you don't think as your question would imply. As far as my experience guides me, I am bound to believe that there is a spot of soil in every heart sufficient for the growth of a gospel seed. And I believe, moreover, that not only is he a fellow-worker with God who sows that seed, but that he also is one who opens a way for that seed to enter the soil. If such preparation were not necessary, the Saviour would have come the moment Adam and Eve fell, and would have required no Baptist to precede him."

A good deal followed which I would gladly record, enabled as I now am to assist my memory by a more thorough acquaintance with the views of Miss Clare. But I fear I have already given too much conversation at once.


George MacDonald