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It was a gray, windy noon in the beginning of autumn. The sky and the sea were almost of the same color, and that not a beautiful one. The edge of the horizon where they met was an edge no more, but a bar thick and blurred, across which from the unseen came troops of waves that broke into white crests, the flying manes of speed, as they rushed at, rather than ran towards the shore: in their eagerness came out once more the old enmity between moist and dry. The trees and the smoke were greatly troubled, the former because they would fain stand still, the latter because it would fain ascend, while the wind kept tossing the former and beating down the latter. Not one of the hundreds of fishing boats belonging to the coast was to be seen; not a sail even was visible; not the smoke of a solitary steamer ploughing its own miserable path through the rain-fog to London or Aberdeen. It was sad weather and depressing to not a few of the thousands come to Burcliff to enjoy a holiday which, whether of days or of weeks, had looked short to the labor weary when first they came, and was growing shorter and shorter, while the days that composed it grew longer and longer by the frightful vitality of dreariness. Especially to those of them who hated work, a day like this, wrapping them in a blanket of fog, whence the water was every now and then squeezed down upon them in the wettest of all rains, seemed a huge bite snatched by that vague enemy against whom the grumbling of the world is continually directed out of the cake that by every right and reason belonged to them. For were they not born to be happy, and how was human being to fulfill his destiny in such circumstances?
There are men and women who can be happy in any--even in such circumstances and worse, but they are rare, and not a little better worth knowing than the common class of mortals--alas that they will be common! content to be common they are not and cannot be. Among these exceptional mortals I do not count such as, having secured the corner of a couch within the radius of a good fire, forget the world around them by help of the magic lantern of a novel that interests them: such may not be in the least worth knowing for their disposition or moral attainment--not even although the noise of the waves on the sands, or the storm in the chimney, or the rain on the windows but serves to deepen the calm of their spirits. Take the novel away, give the fire a black heart; let the smells born in a lodging-house kitchen invade the sitting-room, and the person, man or woman, who can then, on such a day, be patient with a patience pleasant to other people, is, I repeat, one worth knowing--and such there are, though not many. Mrs. Raymount, half the head and more than half the heart of a certain family in a certain lodging house in the forefront of Burcliff, was one of such.
It was not a large family, yet contained perhaps as many varieties of character and temper as some larger ones, with as many several ways of fronting such a misfortune--for that is what poor creatures, the slaves of the elements, count it--as rainy weather in a season concerning which all men agree that it ought to be fine, and that something is out of order, giving ground of complaint, if it be not fine. The father met it with tolerably good humor; but he was so busy writing a paper for one of the monthly reviews, that he would have kept the house had the day been as fine as both the church going visitors, and the mammon-worshipping residents with income depending on the reputation of their weather, would have made it if they could, nor once said by your leave; therefore he had no credit, and his temper must pass as not proven. But if you had taken from the mother her piece of work--she was busy embroidering a lady's pinafore in a design for which she had taken colors and arrangement from a peacock's feather, but was disposing them in the form of a sun which with its rays covered the stomacher, the deeper tints making the shadow between the golden arrows--had you taken from her this piece of work, I say, and given her nothing to do instead, she would yet have looked and been as peaceful as she now looked, for she was not like Doctor Doddridge's dog that did not know who made him.
A longish lad stood in the bow window, leaning his head on the shutter, in a mood of smouldering rebellion against the order of things. He was such a mere creature of moods, that individual judgments of his character might well have proved irreconcilable. He had not yet begun by the use of his will--constantly indeed mistaking impulse for will--to blend the conflicting elements of his nature into one. He was therefore a man much as the mass of flour and raisins, etc., when first put into the bag, is a plum-pudding; and had to pass through something analogous to boiling to give him a chance of becoming worthy of the name he would have arrogated. But in his own estimate of himself he claimed always the virtues of whose presence he was conscious in his good moods letting the bad ones slide, nor taking any account of what was in them. He substituted forgetfulness for repudiation, a return of good humor for repentance, and at best a joke for apology.
Mark, a pale, handsome boy of ten, and Josephine, a rosy girl of seven, sat on the opposite side of the fire, amusing themselves with a puzzle. The gusts of wind, and the great splashes of rain on the glass, only made them feel the cosier and more satisfied.
"Beastly weather!" remarked Cornelius, as with an effort half wriggle, half spring, he raised himself perpendicular, and turned towards the room rather than the persons in it.
"I'm sorry you don't like it, Cornie," said his elder sister, who sat beside her mother trimming what promised to be a pretty bonnet. A concentrated effort to draw her needle through an accumulation of silken folds seemed to take something off the bloom of the smile with which she spoke.
"Oh, it's all very well for girls!" returned Cornelius. "You don't do anything worth doing; and besides you've got so many things you like doing, and so much time to do them in, that it's all one to you whether you go out or stay at home. But when a fellow has but a miserable three weeks and then back to a rot of work he cares no more for than a felon for the treadmill, then it is rather hard to have such a hole made in it! Day after day, as sure as the sun rises--if he does rise--of weather as abominable as rain and wind can make it!"
"My dear boy!" said his mother without looking up.
"Oh, yes, mother! I know! You're so good you would have had Job himself take it coolly. But I'm not like you. Only you needn't think me so very--what you call it! It's only a breach in the laws of nature I'm grumbling at. I don't mean anything to offend you."
"Perhaps you mean more than you think," answered his mother with a deep-drawn breath, which, if not a sigh, was very nearly one. "I should be far more miserable than any weather could make me, not to be able to join in the song of the three holy children."
"I've heard you say that before, mother," said the youth, in a tone that roused his sister's anger; for much that the mother let pass was by the daughter for her sake resented. "But you see," he went on, "the three holy children, as you call them, hadn't much weather of any sort where they sung their song. Precious tired one gets of it before the choir's through with it!"
"They would have been glad enough of some of the weather you call beastly," said Hester, again pulling through a stiff needle, this time without any smile, for sometimes that brother was more than she could bear.
"Oh, I dare say! But then, you see, they knew, when they got out, they wouldn't have to go back to a beastly bank, where notes and gold all day went flying about like bats--nothing but the sight and the figures of it coming their way!"
The mother's face grew very sad as it bent over her work. The youth saw her trouble.
"Mother, don't be vexed with a fellow," he said more gently. "I wasn't made good like you."
"I think you were right about the holy children," she said quietly.
"What!" exclaimed Cornelius. "Mother, I never once before heard you say I was right about any mortal thing! Come, this is pleasant! I begin to think strong ale of myself! I don't understand it, though."
"Shall I tell you? Would you care to know what I mean?"
"Oh, yes, mother! if you want to tell me."
"I think you were right when you implied it was the furnace that made them sing about the world outside of it: one can fancy the idea of the frost and the snow and the ice being particularly pleasant to them. And I am afraid, Cornelius, my dear son, you need the furnace to teach you that the will of God, even in weather, is a thing for rejoicing in, not for abusing. But I dread the fire for your sake, my boy!"
"I should have thought this weather and the bank behind it furnace enough, mother!" he answered, trying to laugh off her words.
"It does not seem to be," she said, with some displeasure. "But then," she added with a sigh, "you have not the same companion that the three holy children had."
"Who was that?" rejoined Cornelius, for he had partly forgotten the story he knew well enough in childhood.
"We will not talk about him now," answered his mother. "He has been knocking at your chamber-door for some time: when he comes to the furnace-door, perhaps you will open that to him."
Cornelius returned no answer; he felt his mother's seriousness awkward, and said to himself she was unkind; why couldn't she make some allowance for a fellow? He meant no harm!
He was still less patient with his mother's not very frequent admonitions, since going into the bank, for, much as he disliked it, he considered himself quite a man of the world in consequence. But he was almost as little capable of slipping like a pebble among other pebbles, the peculiar faculty of the man of the world, as he was of perceiving the kind of thing his mother cared about--and that not from moral lack alone, but from dullness and want of imagination as well. He was like the child so sure he can run alone that he snatches his hand from his mother's and sets off through dirt and puddles, so to act the part of the great personage he would consider himself.
With all her peace of soul, the heart of the mother was very anxious about her son, but she said no more to him now: she knew that the shower bath is not the readiest mode of making a child friendly with cold water.
Just then broke out the sun. The wind had at last blown a hole in the clouds, and through that at once, as is his wont, and the wont of a greater light than the sun, he shone.
"Come! there's something almost like sunshine!" said Cornelius, having for a few moments watched the light on the sands. "Before it goes in again, as it's sure to do in five minutes at the farthest, get on your bonnet, Hester, and let's have an attempt at a walk."
Before Hester could answer came a sudden spatter of rain on the window.
"There! I told you so! That's always the way! Just my luck! For me to set my heart on a thing is all one with being disappointed of it."
"But if the thing was not worth setting your heart on?" said Hester, speaking with forced gentleness.
"What does that signify? The thing is that your heart is set on it. What you think nothing other people may yet be bold enough to take for something."
"Well, at least, if I had to be disappointed, I should like it to be in something that would be worth having."
"Would you now?" returned Cornelius spitefully. "I hope you may have what you want. For my part I don't desire to be better than my neighbor. I think it downright selfish."
"Do you want to be as good as your neighbor, Cornie?" said his mother, looking up through a film of tears. "But there is a more important question than that," she went on, having waited a moment in vain for an answer, "and that is, whether you are content with being as good as yourself, or want to be better."
"To tell you the truth, mother, I don't trouble my head about such things. Philosophers are agreed that self consciousness is the bane of the present age: I mean to avoid it. If you had let me go into the army, I might have had some leisure for what you call thought, but that horrible bank takes everything out of a fellow. The only thing it leaves is a burning desire to forget it at any cost till the time comes when you must endure it again. If I hadn't some amusement in between, I should cut my throat, or take to opium or brandy. I wonder how the governor would like to be in my place!"
Hester rose and left the room, indignant with him for speaking so of his father.
"If your father were in your place, Cornelius," said his mother with dignity, "he would perform the duties of it without grumbling, however irksome they might be."
"How do you know that, mother? He was never tried."
"I know it because I know him," she answered.
Cornelius gave a grunt.
"If you think it hard," his mother resumed, "that you have to follow a way of life not of your own choosing, you must remember that you never could be got to express a preference for one way over another, and that your father had to strain every nerve to send you to college--to the disadvantage, for a time at least, of others of the family. I am sorry to have to remind you also that you did not make it any easier for him by your mode of living while there."
"I didn't run up a single bill!" cried Cornelius with indignation; "and my father knows it!"
"He does; but he knows also that your cousin Robert did not spend above two-thirds of what you did, and made more of his time too."
"He was in rather a different set," sneered the youth.
"And you know," his mother went on, "that his main design in placing you in your uncle's bank was that you might gain such a knowledge of business as will be necessary to the proper management of the money he will leave behind him. When you have gained that knowledge, there will be time to look farther, for you are young yet."
Now his father's money was the continuous occasion of annoyance to Cornelius, for it was no secret from his family how he meant to dispose of it. He intended, namely, to leave it under trustees, of whom he wished his son to be one until he married, when it was to be divided equally among his children.
This arrangement was not agreeable to Cornelius, who could not see, he said, what advantage in that case he had from being the eldest of the family.
He broke out in a tone of expostulation, ready to swell into indignant complaint.
"Now, mother," he said "do you think it fair that I should have to look after the whole family as if they were my own?"
This was by no means his real cause of complaint, but he chose to use it as his grievance for the present.
"You will have the other trustees to advise with," said his mother. "It need not weigh on you very heavily."
"Well, of course, I could do better with it than anybody out of the family."
"If you have your father's love of fair play, Cornelius, you will. What you can do to that end now is to make yourself thoroughly acquainted with business."
"A bank's not the place to get the knowledge of business necessary for that sort of thing."
"Your father has reasons for preferring a general to any special knowledge. The fitness resulting will depend upon yourself. And when you marry you will, as you know, be rid of the responsibility. So far your father and you are of one mind; he does not think it fair that a married man should be burdened with any family but his own."
"What if I should marry before my father's death?"
"I hope, indeed, you will, Cornelius. The arrangements your father has made is one of provision against the unlikely. When you are married, I don't doubt he will make another, to meet the new circumstances."
"Now," said Cornelius to himself, "I do believe if I was to marry money--as why shouldn't I?--my father would divide my share amongst the rest, and not give me a farthing!"
Full of the injury of the idea, he rose and left the room. His mother, poor woman, wept as he vanished. She dared not allow herself to ask why she wept--dared not allow to herself that her first-born was not a lovely thought to her--dared not ask where he could have got such a mean nature--so mean that he did not know he was mean.
Although the ill-humor in which he had been ever since he came was by himself attributed to the weather, and had been expended on the cooking, on the couches, on the beds, and twenty different things that displeased him, he had nevertheless brought it with him; and her experience gave her the sad doubt that the cause of it might lie in his own conduct--for the consciousness may be rendered uneasy without much rousing of the conscience proper.
He had always been fitful and wayward, but had never before behaved so unpleasantly. Certainly his world had not improved him for his home. Yet amongst his companions he bore the character of the best-natured fellow in the world. To them he never showed any of the peevishness arising from mental discomfort, but kept it for those who loved him a thousand times better, and would have cheerfully parted with their own happiness for his. He was but one of a large herd of youths, possessing no will of their own, yet enjoying the reputation of a strong one; for moved by liking or any foolish notion, his pettiness made a principle of, he would be obstinate; and the common philosophy always takes obstinacy for strength of will, even when it springs from utter inability to will against liking.
Mr. Raymount knew little of the real nature of his son. The youth was afraid of his father--none the less that he spoke of him with so little respect. Before him he dared not show his true nature. He knew and dreaded the scorn which the least disclosure of his feeling about the intended division of his father's money would rouse in him. He knew also that his mother would not betray him--he would have counted it betrayal--to his father; nor would any one who had ever heard Mr. Raymount give vent to his judgment of any conduct he despised, have wondered at the reticence of either of them.
Whether in his youth he would have done as well in a position like his son's as his worshipping wife believed, may be doubtful; but that he would have done better than his son must seem more than probable.
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