George du Marier et al
Part 2 out of 6
Portuguese Jew, with a dash of colored blood in his veins besides, it
was said; and, indeed, this remote African strain still showed itself in
Uncle Ibbetson's thick lips, wide open nostrils, and big black eyes with
yellow whites--and especially in his long, splay, lark-heeled feet,
which gave both himself and the best bootmaker in London a great deal
Otherwise, and in spite of his ugly face, he was not without a certain
soldier-like air of distinction, being very tall and powerfully built.
He wore stays, and an excellent wig, for he was prematurely bald; and he
carried his hat on one side, which (in my untutored eyes) made him look
very much like a "_swell_," but not quite like a _gentleman_.
To wear your hat jauntily cocked over one eye, and yet "look like a
It can be done, I am told; and has been, and is even still! It is not,
perhaps, a very lofty achievement--but such as it is, it requires a
somewhat rare combination of social and physical gifts in the wearer;
and the possession of either Semitic or African blood does not seem to
be one of these.
[Illustration: "PORTRAIT CHARMANT, PORTRAIT DE MON AMIE ..."]
Colonel Ibbetson could do a little of everything--sketch (especially a
steam-boat on a smooth sea, with beautiful thick smoke reflected in the
water), play the guitar, sing chansonnettes and canzonets, write society
verses, quote De Musset--
_"Avez-vous vu dans Barcelone
Une Andalouse au sein bruni?"_
He would speak French whenever he could, even to an English ostler, and
then recollect himself suddenly, and apologize for his thoughtlessness;
and even when he spoke English, he would embroider it with little
two-penny French tags and idioms: "Pour tout potage"; "Nous avons changé
tout cela"; "Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?" etc.; or
Italian, "Chi lo sa?" "Pazienza!" "Ahimè!" or even Latin, "Eheu
fugaces," and "Vidi tantum!" for he had been an Eton boy. It must have
been very cheap Latin, for I could always understand it myself! He drew
the line at German and Greek; fortunately, for so do I. He was a
bachelor, and his domestic arrangements had been irregular, and I will
not dwell upon them; but his house, as far as it went, seemed to promise
His architect, Mr. Lintot, an extraordinary little man, full of genius
and quite self-made, became my friend and taught me to smoke, and drink
gin and water.
He did his work well; but of an evening he used to drink more than was
good for him, and rave about Shelley, his only poet. He would recite
"The Skylark" (his only poem) with uncertain _h_'s, and a rather
"'_Ail to thee blythe sperrit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from 'eaven, or near it
Po'rest thy full 'eart
In profuse strains of hunpremeditated hart_."
As the evening wore on his recitations became "low comic," and quite
admirable for accent and humour. He could imitate all the actors in
London (none of which I had seen) so well as to transport me with
delight and wonder; and all this with nobody but me for an audience, as
we sat smoking and drinking together in his room at the "Ibbetson Arms."
I felt grateful to adoration.
Later still, he would become sentimental again; and dilate to me on the
joys of his wedded life, on the extraordinary of intellect and beauty of
Mrs. Lintot. First he would describe to me the beauties of her mind, and
compare her to "L.E.L." and Felicia Hemans. Then he would fall back on
her physical perfections; there was nobody worthy to be compared to her
in these--but I draw the veil.
He was very egotistical. Whatever he did, whatever he liked, whatever
belonged to him, was better than anything else in world; and he was
cleverer than any one else, except Mrs. Lintot, to whom he yielded the
palm; and then he would cheer up and become funny again.
In fact his self-satisfaction was quite extraordinary; and what is more
extraordinary still, it was not a bit offensive--at least, to me;
perhaps because he was such a tiny little man; or because much of this
vanity of his seemed to have no very solid foundation, for it was not of
the gifts I most admired in him that he was vainest; or because it came
out most when he was most tipsy, and genial tipsiness redeems so much;
or else because he was most vain about things I should never have been
vain about myself; and the most unpardonable vanity in others is that
which is secretly our own, whether we are conscious of it or not.
[Illustration: "I FELT GRATEFUL TO ADORATION."]
And then he was the first funny man I had ever met. What a gift it is!
He was always funny when he tried to be, whether one laughed with him or
at him, and I loved him for it. Nothing on earth is more pathetically
pitiable than the funny man when he still tries and succeeds no longer.
The moment Lintot's vein was exhausted, he had the sense to leave off
and begin to cry, which was still funny; and then I would jump out of
his clothes and into his bed and be asleep in a second, with the tears
still trickling down his little nose--and even that was funny!
But next morning he was stern and alert and indefatiguable, as though
gin and poetry and conjugal love had never been, and fun were a
Uncle Ibbetson thought highly of him as an architect, but not otherwise;
he simply made use of him.
"He's a terrible little snob, of course, and hasn't got an _h_ in his
head" (as if _that_ were a capital crime); "but he's very clever--look
at that campanile--and then he's cheap, my boy, cheap."
There were several fine houses in fine parks not very far from Ibbetson
Hall; but although Uncle Ibbetson appeared in name and wealth and social
position to be on a par with their owners, he was not on terms of
intimacy with any of them, or even of acquaintance, as far as I know,
and spoke of them with contempt, as barbarians--people with whom he had
nothing in common. Perhaps they, too, had found out this
incompatibility, especially the ladies; for, school-boy as I was, I was
not long in discovering that his manner towards those of the other sex
was not always such as to please either of them or their husbands or
fathers or brothers. The way he looked at them was enough. Indeed, most
of his lady-friends and acquaintances through life had belonged to the
_corps de ballet_, the _demi-monde_, etc.--not, I should imagine, the
best school of manners in the world.
On the other hand, he was very friendly with some families in the town;
the doctor's, the rector's, his own agent's (a broken-down brother
officer and bosom friend, who had ceased to love him since he received
his pay); and he used to take Mr. Lintot and me to parties there; and he
was the life of those parties.
He sang little French songs, with no voice, but quite a good French
accent, and told little anecdotes with no particular point, but in
French and Italian (so that the point was never missed); and we all
laughed and admired without quite knowing why, except that he was the
lord of the manor.
On these festive occasions poor Lintot's confidence and power of amusing
seemed to desert him altogether; he sat glum in a corner.
Though a radical and a sceptic, and a peace-at-any-price man, he was
much impressed by the social status of the army and the church.
Of the doctor, a very clever and accomplished person, and the best
educated man for miles around, he thought little; but the rector, the
colonel, the poor captain, even, now a mere land-steward, seemed to fill
him with respectful awe. And for his pains he was cruelly snubbed by
Mrs. Captain and Mrs. Rector and their plain daughters, who little
guessed what talents he concealed, and thought him quite a common little
man, hardly fit to turn over the leaves of their music.
It soon became pretty evident that Ibbetson was very much smitten with
a Mrs. Deane, the widow of a brewer, a very handsome woman indeed, in
her own estimation and mine, and everybody else's, except Mr. Lintot's,
who said, "Pooh, you should see my wife!"
Her mother, Mrs. Glyn, excelled us all in her admiration of Colonel
For instance, Mrs. Deane would play some common little waltz of the
cheap kind that is never either remembered or forgotten, and Mrs. Glyn
would exclaim, "_Is_ not that _lovely_?"
And Ibbetson would say: "Charming! charming! Whose is it? Rossini's?
"Why, no, my dear colonel. Don't you remember? _It's your own_!"
"Ah, so it is! I had quite forgotten." And general laughter and applause
would burst forth at such a natural mistake on the part of our
Well, I could neither play nor sing, and found it far easier by this
time to speak English than French, especially to English people who were
ignorant of any language but their own. Yet sometimes Colonel Ibbetson
would seem quite proud of me.
"Deux mètres, bien sonnés!" he would say, alluding to my stature, "et le
profil d'Antinoüs!" which he would pronounce without the two little dots
on the _u_.
And afterwards, if he had felt his evening a pleasant one, if he had
sung all he knew, if Mrs. Deane had been more than usually loving and
self-surrendering, and I had distinguished myself by skilfully turning
over the leaves when her mother had played the piano, he would tell me,
as we walked home together, that I "did credit to his name, and that I
would make an excellent figure in the world as soon as I had _décrassé_
myself; that I must get another dress-suit from his tailor, just an
eighth of an inch longer in the tails; that I should have a commission
in his old regiment (the Eleventeenth Royal Bounders), a deuced crack
cavalry regiment; and see the world and break a few hearts (it is not
for nothing that our friends have pretty wives and sisters); and finally
marry some beautiful young heiress of title, and make a home for him
when he was a poor solitary old fellow. Very little would do for him: a
crust of bread, a glass of wine and water, and a clean napkin, a couple
of rooms, and an old piano and a few good books. For, of course,
Ibbetson Hall would be mine and every penny he possessed in the world."
All this in confidential French--lest the very clouds should hear
us--and with the familiar thee and thou of blood-relationship, which I
did not care to return.
It did not seem to bode very serious intentions towards Mrs. Deane, and
would scarcely have pleased her mother.
Or else, if something had crossed him, and Mrs. Deane had flirted
outrageously with somebody else, and he had not been asked to sing (or
somebody else had), he would assure me in good round English that I was
the most infernal lout that ever disgraced a drawing-room, or ate a man
out of house and home, and that he was sick and ashamed of me. "Why
can't you sing, you d--d French milksop? The d--d roulade-monger of a
father of yours could sing fast enough, if he could do nothing else,
confound him! Why can't you talk French, you infernal British booby? Why
can't you hand round the tea and muffins, confound you! Why, twice Mrs.
Glyn dropped her pocket-handkerchief and had to pick it up herself!
What, 'at the other end of the room,' were you? Well, you should have
skipped _across_ the room, and picked it up, and handed it to her with a
pretty speech, like a gentleman! When I was your age I was _always_ on
the lookout for ladies' pocket-handkerchiefs to drop--or their fans! I
never missed _one_!"
Then he would take me out to shoot with him (for it was quite essential
that an English gentleman should be a sportsman)--a terrible ordeal to
both of us.
A snipe that I did not want to kill in the least would sometimes rise
and fly right and left like a flash of lightning, and I would miss
it--always; and he would d--n me for a son of a confounded French
Micawber, and miss the next himself, and get into a rage and thrash his
dog, a pointer that I was very fond of. Once he thrashed her so cruelly
that I saw scarlet, and nearly yielded to the impulse of emptying both
my barrels in his broad back. If I had done so it would have passed for
a mere mishap, after all, and saved many future complications.
* * * * *
One day he pointed out to me a small bird pecking in a field--an
extremely pretty bird--I think it was a skylark--and whispered to me in
his most sarcastic manner--
"Look here, you Peter without any salt, do you think, if you were to
kneel down and rest your gun comfortably on this gate without making a
noise, and take a careful aim, you could manage to shoot that bird
_sitting_? I've heard of some Frenchmen who would be equal to _that_!"
I said I would try, and, resting my gun as he told me, I carefully aimed
a couple of yards above the bird's head, and mentally ejaculating,
"'_All to thee blythe sperrit_!"
I fired both barrels (for fear of any after-mishap to Ibbetson), and the
bird naturally flew away.
After this he never took me out shooting with him again; and, indeed, I
had discovered to my discomfiture that I, the friend and admirer and
would-be emulator of Natty Bumppo the Deerslayer, I, the familiar of the
last of the Mohicans and his scalp-lifting father, could not bear the
sight of blood--least of all, of blood shed by myself, and for my own
The only beast that ever fell to my gun during those shootings with
Uncle Ibbetson was a young rabbit, and that more by accident than
design, although I did not tell Uncle Ibbetson so.
As I picked it off the ground, and felt its poor little warm narrow
chest, and the last beats of its heart under its weak ribs, and saw the
blood on its fur, I was smitten with pity, shame, and remorse; and
settled with myself that I would find some other road to English
gentlemanhood than the slaying of innocent wild things whose happy life
seems so well worth living.
[Illustration: "'AIL TO THEE BLYTHE SPERRIT!"]
I must eat them, I suppose, but I would never shoot them any more; my
hands, at least, should be clean of blood henceforward.
Alas, the irony of fate!
The upshot of all this was that he confided to Mrs. Deane the task of
licking his cub of a nephew into shape. She took me in hand with right
good-will, began by teaching me how to dance, that I might dance with
her at the coming hunt ball; and I did so nearly all night, to my
infinite joy and triumph, and to the disgust of Colonel Ibbetson, who
could dance much better than I--to the disgust, indeed, of many smart
men in red coats and black, for she was considered the belle of
[Illustration: THE DANCING LESSON.]
Of course I fell, or fancied I fell, in love with her. To her mother's
extreme distress, she gave me every encouragement, partly for fun,
partly to annoy Colonel Ibbetson, whom she had apparently grown to hate.
And, indeed, from the way he spoke of her to me (this trainer of English
gentlemen), he well deserved that she should hate him. He never had the
slightest intention of marrying her--that is certain; and yet he had
made her the talk of the place.
And here I may state that Ibbetson was one of those singular men who go
through life afflicted with the mania that they are fatally
irresistible to women.
He was never weary of pursuing them--not through any special love of
gallantry for its own sake, I believe, but from the mere wish to appear
as a Don Giovanni in the eyes of others. Nothing made him happier than
to be seen whispering mysteriously in corners with the prettiest woman
in the room. He did not seem to perceive that for one woman silly or
vain or vulgar enough to be flattered by his idiotic persecution, a
dozen would loathe the very sight of him, and show it plainly enough.
This vanity had increased with years and assumed a very dangerous form.
He became indiscreet, and, more disastrous still, he told lies! The very
dead--the honored and irreproachable dead--were not even safe in their
graves. It was his revenge for unforgotten slights.
He who kisses and tells, he who tells even though he has not
kissed--what can be said for him, what should be done to him?
Ibbetson one day expiated this miserable craze with his life, and the
man who took it--more by accident than design, it is true--has not yet
found it in his heart to feel either compunction or regret.
* * * * *
So there was a great row between Ibbetson and myself. He d----d and
confounded and abused me in every way, and my father before me, and
finally struck me; and I had sufficient self-command not to strike him
back, but left him then and there with as much dignity as I
Thus unsuccessfully ended my brief experience of English country life--a
little hunting and shooting and fishing, a little dancing and flirting;
just enough of each to show me I was unfit for all.
A bitter-sweet remembrance, full of humiliation, but not altogether
without charm. There was the beauty of sea and open sky and changing
country weather; and the beauty of Mrs. Deane, who made a fool of me to
revenge herself on Colonel Ibbetson for trying to make a fool of her,
whereby he became the laughing-stock of the neighborhood for at least
And I revenged myself on both--heroically, as I thought; though where
the heroism comes in, and where the revenge, does not appear
For I ran away to London, and enlisted in her Majesty's Household
Cavalry, where I remained a twelvemonth, and was happy enough, and
learned a great deal more good than harm.
* * * * *
Then I was bought out and articled to Mr. Lintot, architect and
surveyor: a conclave of my relatives agreeing to allow me ninety pounds
a year for three years; then all hands were to be washed of me
[Footnote A: _Note_.--I have thought it better to leave out, in its
entirety, my cousin's account of his short career as a private soldier.
It consists principally of personal descriptions that are not altogether
unprejudiced; he seems never to have quite liked those who were placed
in authority above him, either at school or in the army. MADGE PLUNKET.]
* * * * *
So I took a small lodging in Pentonville, to be near Mr. Lintot, and
worked hard at my new profession for three years, during which nothing
of importance occurred in my outer life. After this Lintot employed me
as a salaried clerk, and I do not think he had any reason to complain of
me, nor did he make any complaint. I was worth my hire, I think, and
something over; which I never got and never asked for.
Nor did I complain of him; for with all his little foibles of vanity,
irascibility, and egotism, and a certain close-fistedness, he was a good
fellow and a very clever one.
His paragon of a wife was by no means the beautiful person he had made
her out to be, nor did anybody but he seem to think her so.
She was a little older than himself; very large and massive, with stern
but not irregular features, and a very high forehead; she had a slight
tendency to baldness, and colorless hair that she wore in an austere
curl on each side of her face, and a menacing little topknot on her
occiput. She had been a Unitarian and a governess, was fond of good long
words, like Dr. Johnson, and very censorious.
But one of my husband's intimate friends, General----, who was cornet in
the Life Guards in my poor cousin's time, writes me that "he remembers
him well, as far and away the tallest and handsomest lad in the whole
regiment, of immense physical strength, unimpeachable good conduct, and
a thorough gentleman from top to toe."
Her husband's occasional derelictions in the matter of grammar and
accent must have been very trying to her!
She knew her own mind about everything under the sun, and expected that
other people should know it, too, and be of the same mind as herself.
And yet she was not proud; indeed, she was a very dragon of humility,
and had raised injured meekness to the rank of a militant virtue. And
well she knew how to be master and mistress in her own house!
But with all this she was an excellent wife to Mr. Lintot and a devoted
mother to his children, who were very plain and subdued (and adored
their father); so that Lintot, who thought her Venus and Diana and
Minerva in one, was the happiest man in all Pentonville.
And, on the whole, she was kind and considerate to me, and I always did
my best to please her.
Moreover (a gift for which I could never be too grateful), she presented
me with an old square piano, which had belonged to her mother, and had
done duty in her school-room, till Lintot gave her a new one (for she
was a highly cultivated musician of the severest classical type). It
became the principal ornament of my small sitting-room, which it nearly
filled, and on it I tried to learn my notes, and would pick out with one
finger the old beloved melodies my father used to sing, and my mother
play on the harp.
To sing myself was, it seems, out of the question; my voice (which I
trust was not too disagreeable when I was content merely to speak)
became as that of a bull-frog under a blanket whenever I strove to
express myself in song; my larynx refused to produce the notes I held so
accurately in my mind, and the result was disaster.
On the other hand, in my mind I could sing most beautifully. Once on a
rainy day, inside an Islington omnibus, I mentally sang "Adelaida" with
the voice of Mr. Sims Reeves--an unpardonable liberty to take; and
although it is not for me to say so, I sang it even better than he, for
I made myself shed tears--so much so that a kind old gentleman sitting
opposite seemed to feel for me very much.
I also had the faculty of remembering any tune I once heard, and would
whistle it correctly ever after--even one of Uncle Ibbetson's waltzes!
As an instance of this, worth recalling, one night I found myself in
Guildford Street, walking in the same direction as another belated
individual (only on the other side of the road), who, just as the moon
came out of a cloud, was moved to whistle.
He whistled exquisitely, and, what was more, he whistled quite the most
beautiful tune I had ever heard. I felt all its changes and modulations,
its majors and minors, just as if a whole band had been there to play
the accompaniment, so cunning and expressive a whistler was he.
And so entranced was I that I made up my mind to cross over and ask him
what it was--"Your melody or your life!" But he suddenly stopped at No.
48, and let himself in with his key before I could prefer my
Well, I went whistling that tune all next day, and for many days after,
without ever finding out what it was; till one evening, happening to be
at the Lintots. I asked Mrs. Lintot (who happened to be at the piano) if
she knew it, and began to whistle it once more. To my delight and
surprise she straightway accompanied it all through (a wonderful
condescension in so severe a purist), and I did not make a single
"Yes," said Mrs. Lintot, "it's a pretty, catchy little tune--of a kind
to achieve immediate popularity."
Now, I apologize humbly to the reader for this digression; but if he be
musical he will forgive me, for that tune was the "Serenade" of
Schubert, and I had never even heard Schubert's name!
And having thus duly apologized, I will venture to transgress and
digress anew, and mention here a kind of melodic malady, a singular
obsession to which I am subject, and which I will call unconscious
I am never without some tune running in my head--never for a moment; not
that I am always aware of it; existence would be insupportable if I
were. What part of my brain sings it, or rather in what part of my brain
it sings itself, I cannot imagine--probably in some useless corner full
of cobwebs and lumber that is fit for nothing else.
But it never leaves off; now it is one tune, now another; now a song
_without_ words, now _with_; sometimes it is near the surface, so to
speak, and I am vaguely conscious of it as I read or work, or talk or
think; sometimes to make sure it is there I have to dive for it deep
into myself, and I never fail to find it after a while, and bring it up
to the top. It is the "Carnival of Venice," let us say; then I let it
sink again, and it changes without my knowing; so that when I take
another dive the "Carnival of Venice" has become "Il Mio Tesoro," or the
"Marseillaise," or "Pretty Little Polly Perkins of Paddington Green."
And Heaven knows what tunes, unheard and unperceived, this internal
barrel-organ has been grinding meanwhile.
Sometimes it intrudes itself so persistently as to become a nuisance,
and the only way to get rid of it is to whistle or sing myself. For
instance, I may be mentally reciting for my solace and delectation some
beloved lyric like "The Waterfowl," or "Tears, Idle Tears," or "Break,
Break, Break"; and all the while, between the lines, this fiend of a
subcerebral vocalist, like a wandering minstrel in a distant square,
insists on singing, "Cheer, Boys, Cheer," or, "Tommy, make room for
your uncle" (tunes I cannot abide), with words, accompaniment, and all,
complete, and not quite so refined an accent as I could wish; so that I
have to leave off my recitation and whistle "J'ai du Bon Tabac" in quite
a different key to exorcise it.
But this, at least, I will say for this never still small voice of mine:
its intonation is always perfect; it keeps ideal time, and its quality,
though rather thin and somewhat nasal and quite peculiar, is not
unsympathetic. Sometimes, indeed (as in that Islington omnibus), I can
compel it to imitate, _à s'y méprendre_, the tones of some singer I have
recently heard, and thus make for myself a ghostly music which is not to
Occasionally, too, and quite unbidden, it would warble little impromptu
inward melodies of my own composition, which often seemed to me
extremely pretty, old-fashioned, and quaint; but one is not a fair judge
of one's own productions, especially during the heat of inspiration; and
I had not the means of recording them, as I had never learned the
musical notes. What the world has lost!
Now whose this small voice was I did not find out till many years later,
_for it was not mine_!
* * * * *
In spite of such rare accomplishments and resources within myself, I was
not a happy or contented young man; nor had my discontent in it anything
of the divine.
I disliked my profession, for which I felt no particular aptitude, and
would fain have followed another--poetry, science, literature, music,
painting, sculpture; for all of which I most unblushingly thought myself
better fitted by the gift of nature.
I disliked Pentonville, which, although clean, virtuous, and
respectable, left much to be desired on the score of shape, color,
romantic tradition, and local charm; and I would sooner have lived
anywhere else: in the Champs-Élysées, let us say--yes, indeed, even on
the fifth branch of the third tree on the left-hand side as you leave
the Arc de Triomphe, like one of those classical heroes in Henri
Murger's _Vie de Bohème_.
I disliked my brother apprentices, and did not get on well with them,
especially a certain very clever but vicious and deformed youth called
Judkins, who seemed to have conceived an aversion for me from the first;
he is now an associate of the Royal Academy. They thought I gave myself
airs because I did not share in their dissipations; such dissipations as
I could have afforded would have been cheap and nasty indeed.
Yet such pothouse dissipation seemed to satisfy them, since they took
not only a pleasure in it, but a pride.
They even took a pride in a sick headache, and liked it, if it were the
result of a debauch on the previous night; and were as pompously
mock-modest about a black eye, got in a squabble at the Argyll Rooms, as
if it had been the Victoria Cross. To pass the night in a police cell
was such glory that it was worth while pretending they had done so when
it was untrue.
They looked upon me as a muff, a milksop, and a prig, and felt the
greatest contempt for me; and if they did not openly show it, it was
only because they were not quite so fond of black eyes as they made out.
So I left them to their inexpensive joys, and betook myself to pursuits
of my own, among others to the cultivation of my body, after methods I
had learned in the Life Guards. I belonged to a gymnastic and fencing
and boxing club, of which I was a most assiduous frequenter; a more
persevering dumb-beller and Indian-clubber never was, and I became in
time an all-round athlete, as wiry and lean as a greyhound, just under
fifteen stone, and four inches over six feet in height, which was
considered very tall thirty years ago; especially in Pentonville, where
the distinction often brought me more contumely than respect.
Altogether a most formidable person; but that I was of a timid nature,
afraid to hurt, and the peacefulest creature in the world.
My old love for slums revived, and I found out and haunted the worst in
London. They were very good slums, but they were not the slums of
Paris--they manage these things better in France.
Even Cow Cross (where the Metropolitan Railway now runs between King's
Cross and Farringdon Street)--Cow Cross, that whilom labyrinth of
slaughter-houses, gin-shops, and thieves' dens, with the famous Fleet
Ditch running underneath it all the while, lacked the fascination and
mystery of mediaeval romance. There were no memories of such charming
people as Le roi des Truands and Gringoire and Esmeralda; with a sigh
one had to fall back on visions of Fagin and Bill Sykes and Nancy.
And as to the actual denizens! One gazed with a dull, wondering pity at
the poor, pale, rickety children; the slatternly, coarse women who never
smiled (except when drunk); the dull, morose, miserable men. How they
lacked the grace of French deformity, the ease and lightness of French
depravity, the sympathetic distinction of French grotesqueness. How
unterrible they were, who preferred the fist to the noiseless and
insidious knife! who fought with their hands instead of their feet,
quite loyally; and reserved the kicks of their hobnailed boots for their
And then there was no Morgue; one missed one's Morgue badly.
And Smithfield! It would split me truly to the heart (as M. le Major
used to say) to watch the poor beasts that came on certain days to make
a short station in that hideous cattle-market, on their way to the
What bludgeons have I seen descend on beautiful, bewildered, dazed, meek
eyes, so thickly fringed against the country sun; on soft, moist, tender
nostrils that clouded the poisonous reek with a fragrance of the far-off
fields! What torture of silly sheep and genially cynical pigs!
The very dogs seemed demoralized, and brutal as their masters. And there
one day I had an adventure, a dirty bout at fisticuffs, most humiliating
in the end for me and which showed that chivalry is often its own
reward, like virtue, even when the chivalrous are young and big and
strong, and have learned to box.
A brutal young drover wantonly kicked a sheep, and, as I thought, broke
her hind-leg, and in my indignation I took him by the ear and flung him
round onto a heap of mud and filth. He rose and squared at me in a most
plucky fashion; he hardly came up to my chin, and I refused to fight
him. A crowd collected round us, and as I tried to explain to the
by-standers the cause of our quarrel, he managed to hit me in the face
with a very muddy fist.
"Bravo, little 'un!" shouted the crowd, and he squared up again. I felt
wretchedly ashamed and warded off all his blows, telling him that I
could not hit him or I should kill him.
"Yah!" shouted the crowd again; "go it, little un! Let 'im 'ave it! The
long un's showing the white feather," etc., and finally I gave him a
slight backhander that made his nose bleed and seemed to demoralize him
completely. "Yah!" shouted the crowd; "'it one yer own size!"
I looked round in despair and rage, and picking out the biggest man I
could see, said, "Are _you_ big enough?" The crowd roared with laughter.
"Well, guv'ner, I dessay I might do at a pinch," he replied; and I tried
to slap his face, but missed it, and received such a tremendous box on
the ear that I was giddy for a second or two, and when I recovered I
found him still grinning at me. I tried to hit him again and again, but
always missed; and at last, without doing me any particular damage, he
laid me flat three times running onto the very heap where I had flung
the drover, the crowd applauding madly. Dazed, hatless, and panting, and
covered with filth, I stared at him in hopeless impotence. He put out
his hand, and said, "You're all right, ain't yer, guv'ner? I 'ope I
'aven't 'urt yer! My name's Tom Sayers. If you'd a 'it me, I should 'a'
gone down like a ninepin, and I ain't so sure as I should ever 'ave got
He was to become the most famous fighting-man in England!
I wrung his hand and thanked him, and offered him a sovereign, which he
refused; and then he led me into a room in a public-house close by,
where he washed and brushed me down, and insisted on treating me to a
glass of brandy-and-water.
I have had a fondness for fighting-men ever since, and a respect for the
noble science I had never felt before. He was many inches shorter than
I, and did not look at all the Hercules he was.
He told me I was the strongest built man for a youngster that he had
ever seen, barring that I was "rather leggy." I do not know if he was
sincere or not, but no possible compliment could have pleased me more.
Such is the vanity of youth.
And here, although it savors somewhat of vaingloriousness, I cannot
resist the temptation of relating another adventure of the same kind,
but in which I showed to greater advantage.
It was on a boxing-day (oddly enough), and I was returning with Lintot
and one of his boys from a walk in the Highgate Fields. As we plodded our
dirty way homeward through the Caledonian Road we were stopped by a
crowd outside a public-house. A gigantic drayman (they always seem
bigger than they really are) was squaring up to a poor drunken lout of a
navvy not half his size, who had been put up to fight him, and who was
quite incapable of even an attempt it self-defence; he could scarcely
lift his arms, I thought at first it was only horse-play; and as little
Joe Lintot wanted to see, I put him up on my shoulder, just as the
drayman, who had been drinking, but was not drunk, and had a most
fiendishly brutal face, struck the poor tipsy wretch with all his might
between the eyes, and felled him (it was like pole-axing a bullock), to
the delight of the crowd.
Little Joe, a very gentle and sensitive boy, began to cry; and his
father, who had the pluck of a bull-terrier, wanted to interfere, in
spite of his diminutive stature. I was also beside myself with
indignation, and pulling off my coat and hat, which I gave to Lintot,
made my way to the drayman, who was offering to fight any three men in
the crowd, an offer that met with no response.
"Now, then, you cowardly skunk!" I said, tucking up my shirt-sleeves;
"stand up, and I will knock every tooth down your ugly throat."
His face went the colors of a mottled Stilton cheese, and he asked what
I meddled with him for. A ring formed itself, and I felt the sympathy of
the crowd _with_ me this time--a very agreeable sensation!
"Now, then, up with your arms! I'm going to kill you!"
"I ain't going to fight you, mister; I ain't going to fight _nobody_.
Just you let me alone!"
"Oh yes, you are, or you're going on your marrow-bones to be pardon for
being a brutal, cowardly skunk"; and I gave him a slap on the face that
rang like a pistol-shot--a most finished, satisfactory, and successful
slap this time. My finger-tips tingle at the bare remembrance.
He tried to escape, but was held opposite to me. He began to snivel and
whimper, and said he had never meddled with me, and asked what should I
meddle with him for?
"Then down on your knees--quick--this instant!" and I made as if I were
going to begin serious business at once, and no mistake.
So down he plumped on his knees, and there he actually fainted from
sheer excess of emotion.
As I was helped on with my coat, I tasted, for once in my life the
sweets of popularity, and knew what it was to be the idol of a mob.
Little Joey Lintot and his brothers and sisters, who had never held me
in any particular regard before that I knew of, worshipped me from that
And I should be insincere if I did not confess that on that one occasion
I was rather pleased with myself, although the very moment I stood
opposite the huge, hulking, beer-sodden brute (who had looked so
formidable from afar) I felt, with a not unpleasant sense of relief,
that he did not stand a chance. He was only big, and even at that I
The real honors of the day belonged to Lintot, who, I am convinced, was
ready to act the David to that Goliath. He had the real stomach for
fighting, which I lacked, as very tall men are often said to do.
And that, perhaps, is why I have made so much of my not very wonderful
prowess on that occasion; not, indeed, that I am physically a coward--at
least, I do not think so. If I thought I were I should avow it with no
more shame than I should avow that I had a bad digestion, or a weak
heart, which makes cowards of us all.
It is that I hate a row, and violence, and bloodshed, even from a
nose--any nose, either my own or my neighbor's.
* * * * *
There are slums at the east end of London that many fashionable people
know something of by this time; I got to know them by heart. In addition
to the charm of the mere slum, there was the eternal fascination of the
seafaring element; of Jack ashore--a lovable creature who touches
nothing but what he adorns it in his own peculiar fashion.
I constantly haunted the docks, where the smell of tar and the sight of
ropes and masts filled me with unutterable longings for the sea--for
distant lands--for anywhere but where it was my fate to be.
I talked to ship captains and mates and sailors, and heard many
marvellous tales, as the reader may well believe, and framed for myself
visions of cloudless skies, and sapphire seas, and coral reefs, and
groves of spice, and dusky youths in painted plumage roving, and
friendly isles where a lovely half-clad, barefooted Neuha would wave her
torch, and lead me, her Torquil, by the hand through caverns of bliss!
Especially did I haunt a wharf by London Bridge, from whence two
steamers--the _Seine_ and the _Dolphin_, I believe--started on alternate
days for Boulogne-sur-Mer.
I used to watch the happy passengers bound for France, some of them, in
their holiday spirits, already fraternizing together on the sunny deck,
and fussing with camp-stools and magazines and novels and bottles
of bitter beer, or retiring before the funnel to smoke the pipe of
[Illustration: THE BOULOGNE STEAMER.]
The sound of the boiler getting up steam--what delicious music it was!
Would it ever get up steam for me? The very smell of the cabin, the very
feel of the brass gangway and the brass-bound, oil-clothed steps were
delightful; and down-stairs, on the snowy cloth, were the cold beef and
ham, the beautiful fresh mustard, the bottles of pale ale and stout. Oh,
happy travellers, who could afford all this, and France into
Soon would a large white awning make the after-deck a paradise, from
which, by-and-by, to watch the quickly gliding panorama of the Thames.
The bell would sound for non-passengers like me to go ashore--"Que
diable allait-il faire dans cette galère!" as Uncle Ibbetson would have
said. The steamer, disengaging itself from the wharf with a pleasant
yoho-ing of manly throats and a slow, intermittent plashing of the
paddle-wheels, would carefully pick its sunny, eastward way among the
small craft of the river, while a few handkerchiefs were waved in a
friendly, make-believe farewell--_auf wiedersehen_!
Oh, to stand by that unseasonably sou'-westered man at the wheel, and
watch St. Paul's and London Bridge and the Tower of London fade out of
sight--never, never to see them again. No _auf wiedersehen_ for me!
Sometimes I would turn my footsteps westward and fill my hungry, jealous
eyes with a sight of the gay summer procession in Hyde Park, or listen
to the band in Kensington Gardens, and see beautiful, welldressed
women, and hear their sweet, refined voices and happy laughter; and a
longing would come into my heart more passionate than my longing for the
sea and France and distant lands, and quite as unutterable. I would even
forget Neuha and her torch.
After this it was a dreary downfall to go and dine for tenpence all by
myself, and finish up with a book at my solitary lodgings in
Pentonville. The book would not let itself be read; it sulked and had to
be laid down, for "beautiful woman! beautiful girl!" spelled themselves
between me and the printed page. Translate me those words into French, O
ye who can even render Shakespeare into French Alexandrines--"Belle
femme? Belle fille?" Ha! ha!
If you want to get as near it as you can, you will have to write, "Belle
Anglaise," or "Belle Américaine;" only then will you be understood, even
Ah! elle était bien belle, Madame Seraskier!
At other times, more happily inspired, I would slake my thirst for
nature by long walks into the country. Hampstead was my Passy--the
Leg-of-Mutton Pond my Mare d'Auteuil; Richmond was my St. Cloud, with
Kew Gardens for a Bois de Boulogne; and Hampton Court made a very fair
Versailles--how incomparably fairer, even a pupil of Lintot's
And after such healthy fatigue and fragrant impressions the tenpenny
dinner had a better taste, the little front parlor in Pentonville was
more like a home, the book more like a friend.
For I read all I could get in English or French.
Novels, travels, history, poetry, science--everything came as grist to
that most melancholy mill, my mind.
I tried to write; I tried to draw; I tried to make myself an inner life
apart from the sordid, commonplace ugliness of my outer one--a private
oasis of my own; and to raise myself a little, if only mentally, above
the circumstances in which it had pleased the Fates to place me.[A]
[Footnote A: _Note_--It Is with great reluctance that I now come to my
cousin's account of deplorable opinions he held, at that period of his
life, on the most important subject that can ever engross the mind of
man. I have left out _much_, but I feel that in suppressing it
altogether, I should rob his sad story of all its moral significance;
for it cannot be doubted that most of his unhappiness is attributable to
the defective religious training of his childhood, and that his parents
(otherwise the best and kindest people I have ever known) incurred a
terrible responsibility when they determined to leave him "unbiased," as
he calls it, at that tender and susceptible age when the mind is
"Wax to receive, marble to retain."
* * * * *
It goes without saying that, like many thoughtful youths of a melancholy
temperament, impecunious and discontented with their lot, and much given
to the smoking of strong tobacco (on an empty stomach), I continuously
brooded on the problems of existence--free-will and determinism, the
whence and why and whither of man, the origin of evil, the immortality
of the soul, the futility of life, etc., and made myself very miserable
over such questions.
Often the inquisitive passer-by, had he peeped through the blinds of
No.--Wharton Street, Pentonville, late at night, would have been
rewarded by the touching spectacle of a huge, rawboned ex-private in her
Majesty's Life Guards, with his head bowed over the black and yellow
key-board of a venerable square piano-forte (on which he could not
play), dropping the bitter tear of loneliness and _Weltschmertz_ combined.
It never once occurred to me to seek relief in the bosom of any Church.
Some types are born and not made. I was a born "infidel;" if ever there
was a congenital agnostic, one agnostically constituted from his very
birth, it was I. Not that I had ever heard such an expression as
agnosticism; it is an invention of late years....
"_J'avais fait de la prose toute ma vie sans le savoir!_"
But almost the first conscious dislike I can remember was for the black
figure of the priest, and there were several of these figures in Passy.
Monsieur le Major called them _maîtres corbeaux_, and seemed to hold
them in light esteem. Dr. Seraskier hated them; his gentle Catholic wife
had grown to distrust them. My loving, heretic mother loved them not; my
father, a Catholic born and bred, had an equal aversion. They had
persecuted his gods--the thinkers, philosophers, and scientific
discoverers--Galileo, Bruno, Copernicus; and brought to his mind the
cruelties of the Holy Inquisition, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew; and
I always pictured them as burning little heretics alive if they had
their will--Eton jackets, white chimney-pot hats, and all!
I have no doubt they were in reality the best and kindest of men.
The parson (and parsons were not lacking in Pentonville) was not so
insidiously repellent as the blue-cheeked, blue-chinned Passy priest;
but he was by no means to me a picturesque or sympathetic apparition,
with his weddedness, his whiskers, his black trousers, his frock-coat,
his tall hat, his little white tie, his consciousness of being a
"gentleman" by profession. Most unattractive, also, were the cheap,
brand-new churches wherein he spoke the word to his dreary-looking,
Sunday-clad flock, with scarcely one of whom his wife would have sat
down to dinner--especially if she had been chosen from among them.
[Illustration: SUNDAY IN PENTONVILLE.]
To watch that flock pouring in of a Sunday morning, or afternoon, or
evening, at the summons of those bells, and pouring out again after the
long service, and banal, perfunctory sermon, was depressing. Weekdays,
in Pentonville, were depressing enough; but Sundays were depressing
beyond words, though nobody seemed to think so but myself. Early
training had acclimatized them.
I have outlived those physical antipathies of my salad days; even the
sight of an Anglican bishop is no longer displeasing to me, on the
contrary; and I could absolutely rejoice in the beauty of a cardinal.
Indeed, I am now friends with both a parson and a priest, and do not
know which of the two I love and respect the most. They ought to hate
me, but they do not; they pity me too much, I suppose. I am too negative
to rouse in either the deep theological hate; and all the little hate
that the practice of love and charity has left in their kind hearts is
reserved for each other--an unquenchable hate in which they seem to
glory, and which rages all the more that it has to be concealed. It
saddens me to think that I am a bone of contention between them.
And yet, for all my unbelief, the Bible was my favorite book, and the
Psalms my adoration; and most truly can I affirm that my mental attitude
has ever been one of reverence and humility.
But every argument that has ever been advanced against Christianity (and
I think I know them all by this time) had risen spontaneously and
unprompted within me, and they have all seemed to me unanswerable, and
indeed, as yet, unanswered. Nor had any creed of which I ever heard
appeared to me either credible or attractive or even sensible, but for
the central figure of the Deity--a Deity that in no case could ever
The awe-inspiring and unalterable conception that had wrought itself
into my consciousness, whether I would or no, was that of a Being
infinitely more abstract, remote, and inaccessible than any the genius
of mankind has ever evolved after its own image and out of the needs of
its own heart--inscrutable, unthinkable, unspeakable; above all human
passions, beyond the reach of any human appeal; One upon whose
attributes it was futile to speculate--One whose name was _It_,
The thought of total annihilation was uncongenial, but had no terror.
Even as a child I had shrewdly suspected that hell was no more than a
vulgar threat for naughty little boys and girls, and heaven than a
vulgar bribe, from the casual way in which either was meted out to me as
my probable portion, by servants and such people, according to the way I
behaved. Such things were never mentioned to me by either my father or
mother, or M. le Major, or the Seraskiers--the only people in whom
But for the bias against the priest, I was left unbiassed at that tender
and susceptible age. I had learned my catechism and read my Bible, and
used to say the Lord's Prayer as I went to bed, and "God bless papa and
mamma" and the rest, in the usual perfunctory manner.
Never a word against religion was said in my hearing by those few on
whom I had pinned my childish faith; on the other hand, no such
importance was attached to it, apparently, as was attached to the
virtues of truthfulness, courage, generosity, self-denial, politeness,
and especially consideration for others, high or low, human and
I imagine that my parents must have compromised the matter between them,
and settled that I should work out all the graver problems of existence
for myself, when I came to a thinking age, out of my own conscience,
and such knowledge of life as I should acquire, and such help as they
would no doubt have given me, according to their lights, had
I did so, and made myself a code of morals to live by, in which religion
had but a small part.
For me there was but one sin, and that was cruelty, because I hated it;
though Nature, for inscrutable purposes of her own, almost teaches it as
a virtue. All sins that did not include cruelty were merely sins against
health, or taste, or common-sense, or public expediency.
Free-will was impossible. We could only _seem_ to will freely, and that
only within the limits of a small triangle, whose sides were heredity,
education, and circumstance--a little geometrical arrangement of my own,
of which I felt not a little proud, although it does not quite go on
all-fours--perhaps because it is only a triangle.
That is, we could will fast enough--_too_ fast; but could not will _how_
to will--fortunately, for we were not fit as yet, and for a long time to
come, to be trusted, constituted as we are!
Even the characters of a novel must act according to the nature,
training, and motives their creator the novelist has supplied them with,
or we put the novel down and read something else; for human nature must
be consistent with itself in fiction as well as in fact. Even in its
madness there must be a method, so how could the will be free?
To pray for any personal boon or remission of evil--to bend the knee, or
lift one's voice in praise or thanksgiving for any earthly good that had
befallen one, either through inheritance, or chance, or one's own
successful endeavor--was in my eyes simply futile; but, putting its
futility aside, it was an act of servile presumption, of wheedling
impertinence, not without suspicion of a lively sense of favors to come.
It seemed to me as though the Jews--a superstitious and business-like
people, who know what they want and do not care how they get it--must
have taught us to pray like that.
It was not the sweet, simple child innocently beseeching that to-morrow
might be fine for its holiday, or that Santa Claus would be generous; it
was the cunning trader, fawning, flattering, propitiating, bribing with
fulsome, sycophantic praise (an insult in itself), as well as
burnt-offerings, working for his own success here and hereafter, and his
It was the grovelling of the dog, without the dog's single-hearted love,
stronger than even its fear or its sense of self-interest.
What an attitude for one whom God had made after His own image--even
towards his Maker!
* * * * *
The only permissible prayer was a prayer for courage or resignation; for
that was a prayer turned inward, an appeal to what is best in
ourselves--our honor, our stoicism, our self-respect.
And for a small detail, grace before and after meals seemed to me
especially self-complacent and iniquitous, when there were so many with
scarcely ever a meal to say grace for. The only decent and proper grace
was to give half of one's meal away--not, indeed, that I was in the
habit of doing so! But at least I had the grace to reproach myself for
my want of charity, and that was my only grace.
* * * * *
Fortunately, since we had no free-will of our own, the tendency that
impelled us was upward, like the sparks, and bore us with it
willy-nilly--the good and the bad, and the worst and the best.
By seeing this clearly, and laying it well to heart, the motive was
supplied to us for doing all we could in furtherance of that upward
tendency--_pour aider le bon Dieu_--that we might rise the faster and
reach Him the sooner, if He were! And when once the human will has been
set going, like a rocket or a clock or a steam-engine, and in the right
direction, what can it not achieve?
We should in time control circumstance instead of being controlled
thereby; education would day by day become more adapted to one
consistent end; and, finally, conscience-stricken, we should guide
heredity with our own hands instead of leaving it to blind chance;
unless, indeed, a well-instructed paternal government wisely took the
reins, and only sanctioned the union of people who were thoroughly in
love with each other, after due and careful elimination of the unfit.
Thus, cruelty should at least be put into harness, and none of its
valuable energy wasted on wanton experiments, as it is by Nature.
And thus, as the boy is father to the man, should the human race one
day be father to--what?
That is just where my speculations would arrest themselves; that was the
X of a sum in rule of three, not to be worked out by Peter Ibbetson,
Architect and Surveyor, Wharton Street, Pentonville.
As the orang-outang is to Shakespeare, so is Shakespeare to ... X?
As the female chimpanzee is to the Venus of Milo, so is the Venus of
Milo to ... X?
Finally, multiply these two X's by each other, and try to conceive the
* * * * *
Such was, crudely, the simple creed I held at this time; and, such as it
was, I had worked it all out for myself, with no help from outside--a
poor thing, but mine own; or, as I expressed it in the words of De
Musset, "Mon verre n'est pas grand--mais je bois dans mon verre."
For though such ideas were in the air, like wholesome clouds, they had
not yet condensed themselves into printed words for the million. People
did not dare to write about these things, as they do at present, in
popular novels and cheap magazines, that all who run may read, and learn
to think a little for themselves, and honestly say what they think,
without having to dread a howl of execration, clerical and lay.
And it was not only that I thought like this and could not think
otherwise; it was that I felt like this and could not feel otherwise;
and I should have appeared to myself as wicked, weak, and base had I
ever even _desired_ to think or feel otherwise, however personally
despairing of this life--a traitor to what I jealously guarded as my
And yet to me the faith of others, if but unaggressive, humble, and
sincere, had often seemed touching and pathetic, and sometimes even
beautiful, as childish things seem sometimes beautiful, even in those
who are no longer children, and should have put them away. It had caused
many heroic lives, and rendered many obscure lives blameless and happy;
and then its fervor and passion seemed to burn with a lasting flame.
At brief moments now and then, and especially in the young, unfaith can
be as fervent and as passionate as faith, and just as narrow and
unreasonable, as _I_ found; but alas! its flame was intermittent, and
its light was not a kindly light.
It had no food for babes; it could not comfort the sick or sorry, nor
resolve into submissive harmony the inner discords of the soul; nor
compensate us for our own failures and shortcomings, nor make up to us
in any way for the success and prosperity of others who did not choose
to think as we did.
It was without balm for wounded pride, or stay for weak despondency, or
consolation for bereavement; its steep and rugged thoroughfares led to
no promised land of beatitude, and there were no soft resting-places
by the way.
Its only weapon was steadfastness; its only shield, endurance; its
earthly hope, the common weal; its earthly prize, the opening of all
roads to knowledge, and the release from a craven inheritance of fear;
its final guerdon--sleep? Who knows?
Sleep was not bad.
So that simple, sincere, humble, devout, earnest, fervent, passionate,
and over-conscientious young unbelievers like myself had to be very
strong and brave and self-reliant (which I was not), and very much in
love with what they conceived to be the naked Truth (a figure of
doubtful personal attractions at first sight), to tread the ways of life
with that unvarying cheerfulness, confidence, and serenity which the
believer claims as his own special and particular appanage.
So much for my profession of unfaith, shared (had I but known it) by
many much older and wiser and better educated than I, and only reached
by them after great sacrifice of long-cherished illusions, and terrible
pangs of soul-questioning--a struggle and a wrench that I was spared
through my kind parents' thoughtfulness when I was a little boy.
* * * * *
It thus behooved me to make the most of this life; since, for all I
knew, or believed, or even hoped to the contrary, to-morrow we must die.
Not, indeed, that I might eat and drink and be merry; heredity and
education had not inclined me that way, I suppose, and circumstances did
not allow it; but that I might try and live up to the best ideal I could
frame out of my own conscience and the past teaching of mankind. And
man, whose conception of the Infinite and divine has been so inadequate,
has furnished us with such human examples (ancient and modern, Hebrew,
Pagan, Buddhist, Christian, Agnostic, and what not) as the best of us
can only hope to follow at a distance.
I would sometimes go to my morning's work, my heart elate with lofty
hope and high resolve.
How easy and simple it seemed to lead a life without fear, or reproach,
or self-seeking, or any sordid hope of personal reward, either here or
hereafter!--a life of stoical endurance, invincible patience and
meekness, indomitable cheerfulness and self-denial!
After all, it was only for another forty or fifty years at the most, and
what was that? And after that--_que sçais-je?_
The thought was inspiring indeed!
By luncheon-time (and luncheon consisted of an Abernethy biscuit and a
glass of water, and several pipes of shag tobacco, cheap and rank) some
subtle change would come over the spirit of my dream.
Other people did not have high resolves. Some people had very bad
tempers, and rubbed one very much the wrong way.
What a hideous place was Pentonville to slave away one's life in! ...
What a grind it was to be forever making designs for little new shops in
Rosoman Street, and not making them well, it seemed! ...
Why should a squinting, pock-marked, bowlegged, hunch-backed little
Judkins (a sight to make a recruiting-sergeant shudder) forever taunt
one with having enlisted as a private soldier? ...
And then why should one be sneeringly told to "hit a fellow one's own
size," merely because, provoked beyond endurance, one just grabbed him
by the slack of his trousers and gently shook him out of them onto the
floor, terrified but quite unhurt? ...
And so on, and so on; constant little pin-pricks, sordid humiliations,
ugliness, meannesses, and dirt, that called forth in resistance all that
was lowest and least commendable in one's self.
One has attuned one's nerves to the leading of a forlorn hope, and a
gnat gets into one's eye, or a little cinder grit, and there it sticks;
and there is no question of leading any forlorn hope, after all, and
never will be; all _that_ was in the imagination only: it is always
gnats and cinder grits, gnats and cinder grits.
By the evening I had ignominiously broken down, and was plunged in the
depths of an exasperated pessimism too deep even for tears, and would
have believed myself the meanest and most miserable of mankind, but that
everybody else, without exception, was even meaner and miserabler
They could still eat and drink and be merry. I could not, and did not
even want to.
* * * * *
And so on, day after day, week after week, for months and years....
Thus I grew weary in time of my palling individuality, ever the same
through all these uncontrollable variations of mood.
Oh, that alternate ebb and flow of the spirits! It is a disease, and,
what is most distressing, it is no real change; it is more sickeningly
monotonous than absolute stagnation itself. And from that dreary seesaw
I could never escape, except through the gates of dreamless sleep, the
death in life; for even in our dreams we are still ourselves. There
was no rest!
I loathed the very sight of myself in the shop-windows as I went by; and
yet I always looked for it there, in the forlorn hope of at least
finding some alteration, even for the worse. I passionately longed to be
somebody else; and yet I never met anybody else I could have borne to be
for a moment.
And then the loneliness of us!
Each separate unit of our helpless race is inexorably bounded by the
inner surface of his own mental periphery, a jointless armor in which
there is no weak place, never a fault, never a single gap of egress for
ourselves, of ingress for the nearest and dearest of our fellow-units.
At only five points can we just touch each other, and all that is--and
that only by the function of our poor senses--from the outside. In vain
we rack them that we may get a little closer to the best beloved and
most implicitly trusted; ever in vain, from the cradle to the grave.
Why should so fantastic a thought have persecuted me so cruelly? I knew
nobody with whom I should have felt such a transfusion of soul even
tolerable for a second. I cannot tell! But it was like a gadfly which
drove me to fatigue my body that I should have by day the stolid peace
of mind that comes of healthy physical exhaustion; that I should sleep
at night the dreamless sleep--the death in life!
"Of such materials wretched men are made!" Especially wretched young
men; and the wretcheder one is, the more one smokes; and the more one
smokes, the wretcheder one gets--a vicious circle!
Such was my case. I grew to long for the hour of my release (as I
expressed it pathetically to myself), and caressed the idea of suicide.
I even composed for myself a little rhymed epitaph in French which I
thought very neat--
Je n'étais point. Je fus.
Je ne suis plus.
* * * * *
Oh, to perish in some noble cause--to die saving another's life, even
another's worthless life, to which he clung!
I remember formulating this wish, in all sincerity, one moonlit night as
I walked up Frith Street, Soho. I came upon a little group of excited
people gathered together at the foot of a house built over a shop. From
a broken window-pane on the second floor an ominous cloud of smoke rose
like a column into the windless sky. An ordinary ladder was placed
against the house, which, they said, was densely inhabited; but no
fire-engine or fire-escape had arrived as yet, and it appeared useless
to try and rouse the inmates by kicking and beating at the door
A brave man was wanted--a very brave man, who would climb the ladder,
and make his way into the house through the broken window. Here was a
forlorn hope to lead at last!
Such a man was found. To my lasting shame and contrition, it was not I.
He was short and thick and middle-aged, and had a very jolly red face
and immense whiskers--quite a common sort of man, who seemed by no means
tired of life.
His heroism was wasted, as it happened; for the house was an empty one,
as we all heard, to our immense relief, before he had managed to force a
passage into the burning room. His whiskers were not even singed!
Nevertheless, I slunk home, and gave up all thoughts of
self-destruction--even in a noble cause; and there, in penance, I
somewhat hastily committed to flame the plodding labor of many
midnights--an elaborate copy in pen and ink, line for line, of Retel's
immortal wood-engraving "Der Tod als Freund," which Mrs. Lintot had been
kind enough to lend me--and under which I had written, in beautiful
black Gothic letters and red capitals (and without the slightest sense
of either humor or irreverence), the following poem, which had cost me
_F, i, fi--n, i, ni!
Bon dieu Père, j'ai fini...
Vous qui m'avez lant puni,
Dans ma triste vie,
Pour tant d'horribles forfaits
Que je ne commis jamais
Laissez-moi jouir en paix
De mon agonie!_
_Les faveurs que je Vous dois,
Je les compte sur mes doigts:_
_Tout infirme que je sois,
Ça se fait bien vite!
Prenez patience, et comptez
Tous mes maux--puis computez
Toutes Vos sévérités--
Vous me tiendrez quitte!_
_Né pour souffrir, et souffrant--
Bas, honni, bête, ignorant,
Vieux, laid, chétif--et mourant
Dans mon trou sans plainte,
Je suis aussi sans désir
Autre que d'en bien finir--
Sans regret, sans repentir--
Sans espoir ni crainte!_
_Père inflexible et jaloux,
Votre Fils est mort pour nous!
Aussi, je reste envers Vous
Si bien sans rancune,
Que je voudrais, sans façon,
Faire, au seuil de ma prison,
Quelque petite oraison ...
Je n'en sais pas une!_
_J'entends sonner l'Angélus
Qui rassemble Vos Elus:
Pour moi, du bercail exclus.
C'est la mort qui sonne!
Prier ne profite rien ...
Pardonner est le seul bien:_
_C'est le Vôtre, et c'est le mien:
Moi, je Vous pardonne!_
_Soyez d'un égard pareil!
S'il est quelque vrai sommeil
Sans ni rêve, ni réveil,
Ouvrez-m'en la porte--
Faites que l'immense Oubli
Couvre, sous un dernier pli,
Dans mon corps enséveli,
Ma conscience morte!_
Oh me duffer! What a hopeless failure was I in all things, little and
I had no friends but the Lintots and their friends. "Les amis de nos
amis sont nos amis!"
My cousin Alfred had gone into the army, like his father before him. My
cousin Charlie had gone into the Church, and we had drifted completely
apart. My grandmother was dead. My Aunt Plunket, a great invalid, lived
in Florence. Her daughter, Madge, was in India, happily married to a
young soldier who is now a most distinguished general.
The Lintots held their heads high as representatives of a liberal
profession, and an old Pentonville family. People were generally
exclusive in those days--an exclusiveness that was chiefly kept up by
the ladies. There were charmed circles even in Pentonville.
Among the most exclusive were the Lintots. Let us hope, in common
justice, that those they excluded were at least able to exclude others.
I have eaten their bread and salt, and it would ill become me to deny
that their circle was charming as well as charmed. But I had no gift for
making friends, although I was often attracted by people the very
opposite of myself; especially by little, clever, quick, but not too
familiar men; but even if they were disposed to make advances, a
miserable shyness and stiffness of manner on my part, that I could not
help, would raise a barrier of ice between us.
They were most hospitable people, these good Lintots, and had many
friends, and gave many parties, which my miserable shyness prevented me
from enjoying to the full. They were both too stiff and too free.
In the drawing-room, Mrs. Lintot and one or two other ladies, severely
dressed, would play the severest music in a manner that did not mitigate
its severity. They were merciless! It was nearly always Bach, or Hummel,
or Scarlatti, each of whom, they would say, could write both like an
artist and a gentleman--a very rare but indispensable combination,
Other ladies, young and middle-aged, and a few dumb-struck youths like
myself, would be suffered to listen, but never to retaliate--never to
play or sing back again.
If one ventured to ask for a song without words by Mendelssohn--or a
song with words, even by Schubert, even with German words--one was
rebuked and made to blush for the crime of musical frivolity.
Meanwhile, in Lintot's office (built by himself in the back garden),
grave men and true, pending the supper hour, would smoke and sip
spirits-and-water, and talk shop; formally at first, and with much
politeness. But gradually, feeling their way, as it were, they would
relax into social unbuttonment, and drop the "Mister" before each
other's names (to be resumed next morning), and indulge in lively
professional chaff, which would soon become personal and free and
boisterous--a good-humored kind of warfare in which I did not shine, for
lack of quickness and repartee. For instance, they would ask one whether
one would rather be a bigger fool than one looked, or look a bigger fool
than one was; and whichever way one answered the question, the retort
would be that "that was impossible!" amid roars of laughter from all
So that I would take a middle course, and spend most of the evening on
the stairs and in the hall, and study (with an absorbing interest much
too well feigned to look natural) the photographs of famous cathedrals
and public buildings till supper came; when, by assiduously attending on
the ladies, I would cause my miserable existence to be remembered, and
forgiven; and soon forgotten again, I fear.
I hope I shall not be considered an overweening coxcomb for saying that,
on the whole, I found more favor with the ladies than with the
gentlemen; especially at supper-time.
After supper there would be a change--for the better, some thought.
Lintot, emboldened by good-cheer and good-fellowship, would become
unduly, immensely, uproariously funny, in spite of his wife. He had a
genuine gift of buffoonery. His friends would whisper to each other
that Lintot was "on," and encourage him. Bach and Hummel and Scarlatti
were put on the shelf, and the young people would have a good time.
There were comic songs and negro melodies, with a chorus all round.
Lintot would sing "Vilikins and his Dinah," in the manner of Mr. Robson,
so well that even Mrs. Lintot's stern mask would relax into indulgent
smiles. It was irresistible. And when the party broke up, we could all
(thanks to our host) honestly thank our hostess "for a very pleasant
evening," and cheerfully, yet almost regretfully, wish her good-night.
It is good to laugh sometimes--wisely if one can; if not, _quocumque
modo_! There are seasons when even "the crackling of thorns under a pot"
has its uses. It seems to warm the pot--all the pots--and all the
emptiness thereof, if they be empty.
* * * * *
Once, indeed, I actually made a friend, but he did not last me very
It happened thus: Mrs. Lintot gave a grander party than usual. One of
the invited was Mr. Moses Lyon, the great picture-dealer--a client of
Lintot's; and he brought with him young Raphael Merridew, the already
famous painter, the most attractive youth I had ever seen. Small and
slight, but beautifully made, and dressed in the extreme of fashion,
with a handsome face, bright and polite manners, and an irresistible
voice, he became his laurels well; he would have been sufficiently
dazzling without them. Never had those hospitable doors in Myddelton
Square been opened to so brilliant a guest.
I was introduced to him, and he discovered that the bridge of my nose
was just suited for the face of the sun-god in his picture of "The
Sun-god and the Dawn-maiden," and begged I would favor him with a
sitting or two.
Proud indeed was I to accede to such a request, and I gave him many
sittings. I used to rise at dawn to sit, before my work at Lintot's
began; and to sit again as soon as I could be spared.
It seems I not only had the nose and brow of a sun-god (who is not
supposed to be a very intellectual person), but also his arms and his
torso; and sat for these, too. I have been vain of myself ever since.
During these sittings, which he made delightful, I grew to love him as
David loved Jonathan.
We settled that we would go to the Derby together in a hansom. I engaged
the smartest hansom in London days beforehand. On the great Wednesday
morning I was punctual with it at his door in Charlotte Street. There
was another hansom there already--a smarter hansom still than mine, for
it was a private one--and he came down and told me he had altered his
mind, and was going with Lyon, who had asked him the evening before.
"One of the first picture-dealers in London, my dear fellow. Hang it
all, you know, I couldn't refuse--awfully sorry!"
So I drove to the Derby in solitary splendor, but the bright weather,
the humors of the road, all the gay scenes were thrown away upon me,
such was the bitterness of my heart.
In the early afternoon I saw Merridew lunching on the top of a drag,
among some men of smart and aristocratic appearance. He seemed to be the
life of the party, and gave me a good-humored nod as I passed. I soon
found Lyon sitting disconsolate in his hansom, scowling and solitary; he
invited me to lunch with him, and disembosomed himself of a load of
bitterness as intense as mine (which I kept to myself). The shrewd
Hebrew tradesman was sunk in the warm-hearted, injured friend. Merridew
had left Lyon for the Earl of Chiselhurst, just as he had left me
That was a dull Derby for us both!
A few days later I met Merridew, radiant as ever. All he said was:
"Awful shame of me to drop old Lyon for Chiselhurst, eh? But an earl, my
dear fellow! Hang it all, you know! Poor old Mo had to get back in his
hansom all by himself, but he's bought the 'Sun-god' all the same."
Merridew soon dropped me altogether, to my great sorrow, for I forgave
him his Derby desertion as quickly as Lyon did, and would have forgiven
him anything. He was one of those for whom allowances are always being
made, and with a good grace.
He died before he was thirty, poor boy! but his fame will never die. The
"Sun-god" (even with the bridge of that nose which had been so wofully
put out of joint) is enough by itself to place him among the immortals.
Lyon sold it to Lord Chiselhurst for three thousand pounds--it had cost
him five hundred. It is now in the National Gallery.
Poetical justice was satisfied!
* * * * *
Nor was I more fortunate in love than in friendship.
All the exclusiveness in the world cannot exclude good and beautiful
maidens, and these were not lacking, even in Pentonville.
There is always one maiden much more beautiful and good than all the
others--like Esmeralda among the ladies of the Hôtel de Gondelaurier.
There was such a maiden in Pentonville, or rather Clerkenwell, close by.
But her station was so humble (like Esmeralda's) that even the least
exclusive would have drawn the line at _her!_ She was one of a large
family, and they sold tripe and pig's feet, and food for cats and dogs,
in a very small shop opposite the western wall of the Middlesex House of
Detention. She was the eldest, and the busy, responsible one at this
poor counter. She was one of Nature's ladies, one of Nature's
goddesses--a queen! Of that I felt sure every time I passed her shop,
and shyly met her kind, frank, uncoquettish gaze. A time was approaching
when I should have to overcome my shyness, and tell her that she of all
women was the woman for me, and that it was indispensable, absolutely
indispensable, that we two should be made one--immediately! at
But before I could bring myself to this she married somebody else, and
we had never exchanged a single word!
If she is alive now she is an old woman--a good and beautiful old woman,
I feel sure, wherever she is, and whatever her rank in life. If she
should read this book, which is not very likely, may she accept this
small tribute from an unknown admirer; for whom, so many years ago, she
beautified and made poetical the hideous street that still bounds the
Middlesex House of Detention on its western side; and may she try to
think not the less of it because since then its writer has been on the
wrong side of that long, blank wall, of that dreary portal where the
agonized stone face looks down on the desolate slum:
"_Per me si va tra la perduta gente_ ...!"
After this disappointment I got myself a big dog (like Byron, Bismarck,
and Wagner), but not in the spirit of emulation. Indeed, I had never
heard of either Bismarck or Wagner in those days, or their dogs, and I
had lost my passion for Byron and any wish to emulate him in any way; it
was simply for the want of something to be fond of, and that would be
sure to love me back again.
He was not a big dog when I bought him, but just a little ball of
orange-tawny fluff that I could carry with one arm. He cost me all the
money I had saved up for a holiday trip to Passy. I had seen his father,
a champion St. Bernard, at a dog-show, and felt that life would be well
worth living with such a companion; but _his_ price was five hundred
guineas. When I saw the irresistible son, just six weeks old, and heard
that he was only one-fiftieth of his sire's value, I felt Passy must
wait, and became his possessor.
[Illustration: PORTHOS AND HIS ATTENDANT SQUIRE.]
I gave him of the best that money could buy--real milk at fivepence a
quart, three quarts a day, I combed his fluff every morning, and washed
him three times a week, and killed all his fleas one by one--a labour of
love. I weighed him every Saturday, and found he increased at the rate
of six to nine weekly; and his power of affection increased as the
square of his weight. I christened him Porthos, because he was so big
and fat and jolly; but in his noble puppy face and his beautiful
pathetic eyes I already foresaw for his middle age that distinguished
and melancholy grandeur which characterized the sublime Athos, Comte
de la Fère.
He was a joy. It was good to go to sleep at night and know he would be
there in the morning. Whenever we took our walks abroad, everybody
turned round to look at him and admire, and to ask if he was
good-tempered, and what his particular breed was, and what I fed him on.
He became a monster in size--a beautiful, playful, gracefully
galumphing, and most affectionate monster, and I, his happy
Frankenstein, congratulated myself on the possession of a treasure that
would last twelve years at least, or even fourteen, with the care I
meant to take of him. But he died of distemper when he was eleven
I do not know if little dogs cause as large griefs when they die as big
ones; but I settled there should be no more dogs--big or little--for me.
* * * * *
After this I took to writing verses and sending them to magazines, where
they never appeared. They were generally about my being reminded, by a
tune, of things that had happened a long time ago: my poetic, like my
artistic vein, was limited.
Here are the last I made, thirty years back. My only excuse for giving
them is that they are so _singularly prophetic_.
The reminding tune (an old French chime which my father used to sing)
is very simple and touching; and the old French words run thus:
Notre Dame de Cléry!
Quel chagrin, quel ennui
De compter toute la nuit
Les heures--Les heures!"_
That is all. They are supposed to be sung by a mediaeval prisoner who
cannot sleep; and who, to beguile the tediousness of his insomnia, sets
any words that come into his head to the tune of the chime which marks
the hours from a neighboring belfry. I tried to fancy that his name was
Pasquier de la Marière, and that he was my ancestor.
_There is an old French air,
A little song of loneliness and grief--
Simple as nature, sweet beyond compare--
And sad--past all belief!
Nameless is he that wrote
The melody--but this I opine:
Whoever made the words was some remote
French ancestor of mine.
I know the dungeion deep
Where long he lay--and why he lay therein;
And all his anguish, that he could not sleep
For conscience of a sin._
I see his cold, hard bed;
I hear the chimes that jingled in his ears
As he pressed nightly, with that wakeful head,
A pillow wet with tears.
Oh, restless little chime!
It never changed--but rang its roundelay
For each dark hour of that unhappy time
That sighed itself away.
And ever, more and more,
Its burden grew of his lost self a part--
And mingled with his memories, and wore
Its way into his heart.
And there it wove the name
Of many a town he loved, for one dear sake,
Into its web of music; thus he came
His little song to make.
Of all that ever heard
And loved it for its sweetness, none but I
Divined the clew that, as a hidden word,
The notes doth underlie.
That wail from lips long dead
Has found its echo in this breast alone!
Only to me, by blood-remembrance led,
Is that wild story known!
And though 'tis mine, by right
Of treasure-trove, to rifle and lay bare--
A heritage of sorrow and delight
The world would gladly share--
Yet must I not unfold
For evermore, nor whisper late or soon,
The secret that a few slight bars thus hold
Imprisoned in a tune.
For when that little song
Goes ringing in my head, I know that he,
My luckless lone forefather, dust so long,
Relives his life in me!
I sent them to ----'s Magazine, with the six French lines on at the
which they were founded at the top. ----'s _Magazine_ published only the
six French lines--the only lines in my handwriting that ever got into
print. And they date from the fifteenth century!
Thus was my little song lost to the world, and for a time to me. But
long, long afterwards, I found it again, where Mr. Longfellow once found
a song of _his_: "in the heart of a friend"--surely the sweetest bourne
that can ever be for any song!
Little did I foresee that a day was not far off when real blood
remembrance would carry me--but that is to come.
* * * * *
Poetry, friendship and love having failed, I sought for consolation in
art, and frequented the National Gallery, Marlborough House (where the
Vernon collection was), the British Museum, the Royal Academy, and other
I prostrated myself before Titian, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Veronese, Da
Vinci, Botticelli, Signorelli--the older the better; and tried my best
to honestly feel the greatness I knew and know to be there; but for
want of proper training I was unable to reach those heights, and, like
most outsiders, admired them for the wrong things, for the very beauties
they lack--such transcendent, ineffable beauties of feature, form, and
expression as an outsider always looks for in an old master, and often
persuades himself he finds there--and oftener still, _pretends_ he does!
I was far more sincerely moved (although I did not dare to say so) by
some works of our own time--for instance, by the "Vale of Rest," the
"Autumn Leaves," "The Huguenot" of young Mr. Millais--just as I found
such poems as _Maud_ and _In Memoriam_, by Mr. Alfred Tennyson,
infinitely more precious and dear to me than Milton's _Paradise Lost_
and Spenser's _Faerie Queene_.
Indeed, I was hopelessly modern in those days--quite an every-day young
man; the names I held in the warmest and deepest regard were those of
then living men and women. Darwin, Browning, and George Eliot did not,
it is true, exist for me as yet; but Tennyson, Thackeray, Dickens,
Millais, John Leech, George Sand, Balzac, the old Dumas, Victor Hugo,
and Alfred de Musset!
I have never beheld them in the flesh; but, like all the world, I know
their outer aspect well, and could stand a pretty stiff examination in
most they have ever written, drawn, or painted.
Other stars of magnitude have risen since, but of the old galaxy four at
least still shine out of the past with their ancient lustre undimmed in
my eyes--Thackeray; dear John Leech, who still has power to make me
laugh as I like to laugh; and for the two others it is plain that the
Queen, the world, and I are of a like mind as to their deserts, for one
of them is now an ornament to the British peerage, the other a baronet
and a millionaire; only I would have made dukes of them straight off,
with precedence over the Archbishop of Canterbury, if they would care to
have it so.
It is with a full but humble heart that I thus venture to record my long
indebtedness, and pay this poor tribute, still fresh from the days of my
unquestioning hero-worship. It will serve, at least, to show my reader
(should I ever have one sufficiently interested to care) in what mental
latitudes and longitudes I dwelt, who was destined to such singular
experience--a kind of reference, so to speak--that he may be able to
place me at a glance, according to the estimation in which he holds
these famous and perhaps deathless names.
It will be admitted, at least, that my tastes were normal, and shared by
a large majority--the tastes of an every-day young man at that
particular period of the nineteenth century--one much given to athletics
and cold tubs, and light reading and cheap tobacco, and endowed with the
usual discontent; the last person for whom or from whom or by whom to
expect anything out of the common.
* * * * *
But the splendor of the Elgin Marbles! I understood that at
once--perhaps because there is not so much to understand. Mere
physically beautiful people appeal to us all, whether they be in flesh
By some strange intuition, or natural instinct, I _knew_ that people
ought to be built like that, before I had ever seen a single statue in
that wondrous room. I had divined them--so completely did they realize
an aesthetic ideal I had always felt.
I had often, as I walked the London streets, peopled an imaginary world
of my own with a few hundreds of such beings, made flesh and blood, and
pictured them as a kind of beneficent aristocracy seven feet high, with
minds and manners to match their physique, and set above the rest of the
world for its good; for I found it necessary (so that my dream should
have a point) to provide them with a foil in the shape of millions of
such people as we meet every day. I was egotistic and self-seeking
enough, it is true, to enroll myself among the former, and had chosen
for my particular use and wear just such a frame as that of the Theseus,
with, of course, the nose and hands and feet (of which time has bereft
him) restored, and all mutilations made good.
And for my mistress and companion I had duly selected no less a person
than the Venus of Milo (no longer armless), of which Lintot possessed a
plaster-cast, and whose beauties I had foreseen before I ever beheld
them with the bodily eye.
"Monsieur n'est pas dégoûté!" as Ibbetson would have remarked.
But most of all did I pant for the music which is divine.
Alas, that concerts and operas and oratorios should not be as free to
the impecunious as the National Gallery and the British Museum--a
privilege which is not abused!
Impecunious as I was, I sometimes had pence enough to satisfy this
craving, and discovered in time such realms of joy as I had never
dreamed of; such monarchs as Mozart, Handel, and Beethoven, and others,
of whom my father knew apparently so little; and yet they were more
potent enchanters than Grétry, Hérold, and Boieldieu, whose music he
sang so well.
I discovered, moreover, that they could do more than charm--they could
drive my weary self out of my weary soul, and for a space fill that
weary soul with courage, resignation, and hope. No Titian, no
Shakespeare, no Phidias could ever accomplish that--not even Mr. William
Makepeace Thackeray or Mr. Alfred Tennyson.
My sweetest recollections of this period of my life (indeed, the only
sweet recollections) are of the music I heard, and the places where I
heard it; it was an enchantment! With what vividness I can recall it
all! The eager anticipation for days; the careful selection, beforehand,
from such an _embarras de richesses_ as was duly advertised; then the
long waiting in the street, at the doors reserved for those whose
portion is to be the gallery. The hard-won seat aloft is reached at
last, after a selfish but good-humored struggle up the long stone
staircase (one is sorry for the weak, but a famished ear has no
conscience). The gay and splendid house is crammed; the huge chandelier
is a golden blaze; the delight of expectation is in the air, and also
the scent of gas, and peppermint, and orange-peel, and music-loving
humanity, whom I have discovered to be of sweeter fragrance than the
The orchestra fills, one by one; instruments tune up--a familiar
cacophony, sweet with seductive promise. The conductor takes his
seat--applause--a hush--three taps--the baton waves once, twice,
thrice--the eternal fountain of magic is let loose, and at the
very first jet
"_The cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away_."
Then lo! the curtain rises, and straightway we are in Seville--Seville,
after Pentonville! Count Alma-viva, lordly, gallant, and gay beneath his
disguise, twangs his guitar, and what sounds issue from it! For every
instrument that was ever invented is in that guitar--the whole
"_Ecco ridente il cielo_....," so sings he (with the most beautiful male
voice of his time) under Rosina's balcony; and soon Rosina's voice (the
most beautiful female voice of hers) is heard behind her curtains--so
girlish, so innocent, so young and light-hearted, that the eyes fill
with involuntary tears.
Thus encouraged, he warbles that his name is Lindoro, that he would fain
espouse her; that he is not rich in the goods of this world, but gifted
with an inordinate, inexhaustible capacity for love (just like Peter
Ibbetson); and vows that he will always warble to her, in this wise,
from dawn till when daylight sinks behind the mountain. But what matter
"Go on, my love, go on, _like this_!" warbles back Rosina--and no
wonder--till the dull, despondent, commonplace heart of Peter Ibbetson
has room for nothing else but sunny hope and love and joy! And yet it is
all mere sound--impossible, unnatural, unreal nonsense!
Or else, in a square building, decent and well-lighted enough, but not
otherwise remarkable--the very chapel of music--four business-like
gentlemen, in modern attire and spectacles, take their places on an
unpretentious platform amid refined applause; and soon the still air
vibrates to the trembling of sixteen strings--only that and
But in that is all Beethoven, or Schubert, or Schumann has got to say to
us for the moment, and what a say it is! And with what consummate
precision and perfection it is said--with what a mathematical certainty,
and yet with what suavity, dignity, grace, and distinction!
They are the four greatest players in the world, perhaps; but they
forget themselves, and we forget them (as it is their wish we should),
in the master whose work they interpret so reverently, that we may yearn
with his mighty desire and thrill with his rapture and triumph, or ache
with his heavenly pain and submit with his divine resignation.
Not all the words in all the tongues that ever were--dovetail them,
rhyme them, alliterate them, torture them as you will--can ever pierce
to the uttermost depths of the soul of man, and let in a glimpse of the
Infinite, as do the inarticulate tremblings of those sixteen strings.
Ah, songs without words are the best!
Then a gypsy-like little individual, wiry and unkempt, who looks as if
he had spent his life listening to the voices of the night in Heaven
knows what Lithuanian forests, with wolves and wild-boars for his
familiars, and the wind in the trees for his teacher, seats himself at
the great brass-bound oaken Broadwood piano-forte. And under his
phenomenal fingers, a haunting, tender, world-sorrow, full of
questionings--a dark mystery of moonless, starlit nature--exhales itself
in nocturnes, in impromptus, in preludes--in mere waltzes and mazourkas
even! But waltzes and mazourkas such as the most frivolous would never
dream of dancing to. A capricious, charming sorrow--not too deep for
tears, if one be at all inclined to shed them--so delicate, so fresh,
and yet so distinguished, so ethereally civilized and worldly and
well-bred that it has crystallized itself into a drawing-room ecstasy,
to last forever. It seems as though what was death (or rather
euthanasia) to him who felt it, is play for us--surely an immortal
sorrow whose recital will never, never pall--the sorrow of Chopin.
Though why Chopin should have been so sorry we cannot even guess; for
mere sorrow's sake, perhaps; the very luxury of woe--the real sorrow
which has no real cause (like mine in those days); and that is the best
and cheapest kind of sorrow to make music of, after all!
And this great little gypsy pianist, who plays his Chopin so well;
evidently he has not spent his life in Lithuanian forests, but hard at
the key-board, night and day; and he has had a better master than the
wind in the trees--namely, Chopin himself (for it is printed in the
programme). It was his father and mother before him, and theirs, who
heard the voices of the night; but he remembers it all, and puts it all
into his master's music, and makes us remember it, too.
Or else behold the chorus, rising tier upon tier, and culminating in the
giant organ. But their thunder is just hushed.
Some Liliputian figure, male or female, as the case may be, rises on its
little legs amid the great Liliputian throng, and through the sacred
stillness there peals forth a perfect voice (by no means Liliputian). It
bids us "Rest in the Lord," or else it tells us that "He was despised
and rejected of men"; but, again, what matter the words? They are almost
a hinderance, beautiful though they be.
The hardened soul melts at the tones of the singer, at the unspeakable
pathos of the sounds that cannot lie; one almost believes--one believes
at least in the belief of others. At last one understands, and is purged
of intolerance and cynical contempt, and would kneel with the rest, in
sheer human sympathy!
Oh, wretched outsider that one is (if it all be true)--one whose
heart, so hopelessly impervious to the written word, so helplessly
callous to the spoken message, can be reached only by the organized
vibrations of a trained larynx, a metal pipe, a reed, a
fiddle-string--by invisible, impalpable, incomprehensible little
air-waves in mathematical combination, that beat against a tiny drum at
the back of one's ear. And these mathematical combinations and the laws
that govern them have existed forever, before Moses, before Pan, long
before either a larynx or a tympanum had been evolved. They
Oh, mystery of mysteries!
Euterpe, Muse of Muses, what a personage hast thou become since first
thou sattest for thy likeness (with that ridiculous lyre in thy untaught
hands) to some Greek who could carve so much better than thou
Four strings; but not the fingerable strings of Stradivarius. Nay, I beg
thy pardon--five; for thy scale was pentatonic, I believe. Orpheus
himself had no better, it is true. It was with just such an instrument
that he all but charmed his Eurydice out of Hades. But, alas, she went
back; on second thoughts, she liked Hades best!
Couldst thou fire and madden and wring the heart, and then melt and
console and charm it into the peace that passeth all understanding, with
those poor five rudimentary notes, and naught between?
Couldst thou, out of those five sounds of fixed, unalterable pitch,
make, not a sixth sound, but a star?
What were they, those five sounds? "Do, re, mi, fa, sol?" What must thy
songs without words have been, if thou didst ever make any?
Thou wast in very deed a bread-and-butter miss in those days, Euterpe,
for all that thy eight twin sisters were already grown up, and out; and
now thou toppest them all by half a head, at least. "Tu leur mangerais
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