A Rolling Stone Vol. II
‘O world, thy slipp'ry turns!
Fallen on evil days and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round
Randall was left alone after this—very much alone. He had no friends in the town, and no occupation beyond that most wearying one of seeking for work, and the yet more dispiriting one of sitting down in his narrow little room at night to consider the question of ways and means. A very serious question for him just then. Though he watched jealously over every coin, his little wealth was slipping from him too fast.
Those were hard times. There was little work and less money in the town. The results of overtrading and extravagance, the wise ones said. It was only a transitory depression; it would soon pass over. Just as there were periods of bad seasons and of sun-spots, so must one expect these recurring commercial panics; these days of an overstocked labour-market and exhausted capital. It was an ingenious theory which traced a connection between commotions in the sun and bad harvests, and again page 170 between these and increased activity of the Bankruptcy Court. It was diverting to study these things, and to propose remedies for such of them as admitted of a remedy. But while political economists reason about labour and capital, and the laws of supply and demand, the people very frequently starve.
Let those who have known it tell how heart-sickening it is to wait from day to day for the chance which at last falls to another; to pace the wildering streets up and down; to watch the advertisements with eager eye; to answer them, only to be met with cold disapproval, or the news that some one has been before you. To wander through a city, and feel yourself homeless in the midst of homes; to watch the ships sailing out into the pale, glittering sea, and, with a fierce envy of those on board, to wish that they might bear you away also; to look down on the river flowing onward, and to think (for in such a time temptation finds its way to the heart) of the cold stealing wave of silence and of rest. And how it is with those who endure all this, and how in all cities, their cry is always going up, cither to the brilliant sky of day, or to the changeless stars at night, no one can know or tell.
Part of this bitter lesson Randall was learning now. It was not at the worst with him yet: he had not lost all hope, though he had had many rebuffs. When he applied for a situation and found himself too late, it did not console him to know that fifty page 171 others, many of them, perhaps, better fitted for the place than himself, had also been turned away. It was rather disheartening than otherwise: it showed him how hard it would be to make way in the face of such competition. Who could hire all those who stood daily waiting in the streets, who answered every advertisement in crowds, who besieged the doors of those who had places in their gift, and who may be excused for growing importunate, when we consider that for long ages no raiment nor shoes have been known which do not wax old, and no manna, alas! has fallen from the skies.
However, Randall continued to abide at Mrs. Sherlock's, and regularly went forth in search of employment, not allowing himself to despair. The other lodgers wondered what work he had which seemed to harass him so much, and from which he came back at night looking so pale and depressed. Mrs. Sherlock praised the regularity of his habits, and also liked the manner in which he agreed with her observations (absent-mindedly though it was), and ate of what she gave him, not seeming to care what it was, or how it had been cooked. An invaluable quality this in a lodger, who ought to have the digestion of an ostrich. Other people were given to complaining whenever there was a failure in the cookery. Mr. Borage especially made her miserable with his dyspeptic fancies. She began to pay great attention to Randall, which made Mr. Borage jealous. She began to be curious about her new lodger.page 172
‘I wonder what he does all day,’ she said. ‘James, do you know?’
‘I don't think he does anything,’ said her son.
‘Not anything! How can he live?’
‘Well, I've seen him, and so have others, in all kinds of places about the town, as if he wanted to explore it, and at times when, if he had any work, he wouldn't be walking about. He walks on the wharf sometimes, and he often goes to the library to read.’
‘He may have enough to keep him,’ conjectured Mrs. Sherlock; ‘but he always looks so fagged when he comes in, as if he'd been working hard all day.’
‘Perhaps he's like Borage, tired of doing nothing,’ said James.
The thin, elongated figure of Mr. Borage had just cast a shadow on the blind. He was walking on the verandah and smoking: it was the only place where he was allowed to smoke. So far as he was concerned, the whole house seemed to be full of restrictions. Mrs. Sherlock regulated every action of his daily life, and would not allow him to turn to the right or the left from the way she laid down. Since Randall had come he had been worse used than ever. He accounted for this by concluding that Mrs. Sherlock could only behave well to one person at a time. However, he liked the new lodger himself: he could talk to him, even about his ailments, without being snubbed or laughed at, as he often was by the others. He got into the habit of talking with page 173 Randall every evening, and an odd kind of fellowship sprang up between them, as sometimes will between persons who have nothing in common, but are so much thrown together that they must needs be friends.
Mr. Borage watched for Randall that evening, and greeted him with the remark that he had been very unwell all day.
‘I have had a splitting headache,’ he said, ‘and Mrs. Sherlock is so inconsiderate; the house has been noisier than ever, though I begged them not to slam the doors and—Gallop up and down the stairs.’
Mr. Borage always spoke in a weak, tremulous voice, and occasionally his breath would fail him in the middle of a sentence. The next word after the pause, however, would be brought out with such emphasis as may best be represented by a capital letter. He continued the recital of his afflictions to Randall when they were seated at the dinner-table. Generally speaking, the whole household dined together; it was more sociable and homelike, Mrs. Sherlock said. Lodgers who desired private meals were not in favour with that excellent woman, and her scale of charges testified to this fact. While Mr. Borage talked of his ailments, therefore, Sherlock talked politics—a subject he professed to understand—James talked of a debating class he attended, and two or three boarders who were in the commercial way exchanged quotations from trade journals, and remarked on the last great failures, the reported page 174 shakiness of certain well-known firms, and other thrilling news of the day.
‘It isn't only the loss of sleep,’ Mr. Borage said, appealing to any one who might be able to hear him, ‘it's the strange sensation I often have as if something was—Wrong here’—touching his forehead. ‘Something like—Buzzing and bubbling in the head, and a—Dizziness, and a feeling as if I could lie down and—die at once.’
‘It's your ideas bubbling up,’ said James. Mrs. Sherlock gave a little sniff of contempt, and murmured, Indigestion.’
‘Do you ever feel like that?’ plaintively inquired Mr. Borage of Randall. ‘Never? Every one tells me so. Mine must be a peculiar case. It can't be indigestion, you know, for I've tried every kind of diet, and it's always the same. I've lived on a vegetable, a farinaceous, and a—Milk diet in turns, and it never alters; the—Buzzing in my head, and the want of strength, and the loss of sleep, and no—Appetite. I never have any. I've none now. Thank you, Mrs. Sherlock, that beefsteak pie looks so nice, and is so—Wholesome, I think I could take a little, a very little.’
‘It might have something to do with that buzzing and bubbling you complain of,’ said Mrs. Sherlock, helping him to a piece which could only be called a little one in a Pickwickian sense.
‘I'm astonished at the perfidy of the government!’ cried Mr. Sherlock. ‘If I was young like you, James, page 175 or perhaps that's rather too young—about your age, Mr. Randall, I'd offer myself to some constitooency. They want new men in the House; they're worn out, a used-up lot of politicians. They go on feathering their own nests, and laying on taxes till we're ground down with them. And we've a queer lot in the Ministry now, as queer as could be scraped together.’
‘I don't think it matters who's in or out,’ said Mrs. Sherlock. ‘They're all alike, ready to promise great things when they're out, but it's for themselves they do them when they get in.’
‘True enough, for this Government,’ assented Sherlock. ‘There's the Premier, now. If he has a conscience he ought to remember how he was promising and promising away at this time last year. Doesn't it strike you, Mr. Randall, that there's a mighty difference between what he's promised and what he's done?’
‘I thought there was always a great difference between promise and performance in politics,’ said Randall.
‘They say he's ill now,’ continued Sherlock, ‘and no wonder. Sitting up all night, bothering with meetings, deputations, caucuses, and such like; speechifying, argeying, and exciting himself for three months at a time must make a man rather weakly.’
‘Nothing like loss of sleep for doing harm to the constitution,’ observed Mr. Borage, taking advantage of a gap in the conversation. ‘I wouldn't mind about other things if I could only—Sleep. Oh, Mrs. page 176 Sherlock! what would I not give for it? We don't half value that precious gift as we ought.’
‘One would think so indeed,’ said the lady, ‘by the way people lie in bed in the morning. One would think it was precious to them.’
‘If you mean me, Mrs. Sherlock,’ said Borage, raising his voice a little, ‘I've often told you I never do get any sleep till about the time other people wake. To force me to rise early would deprive me of that little rest, and would end in destroying my—Reason. I would give all I have, if I could only—Sleep as you do.’
‘As I do, Mr. Borage! My patience! What with sitting up late to finish work, and getting up at the peep of day to begin it again, I can tell you I don't get much sleep. Sherlock there and James May.’
‘Oh, come now, don't turn on us,’ said James.
‘I'm sure, Martha, we get up pretty early,’ said Sherlock meekly.
‘You have no experience in these things?’ inquired Mr. Borage of Randall.
‘I am happy to say that I haven't,’ said Randall. ‘I don't suffer from buzzing and bubbling in the head, nor from want of appetite, nor am I unable to sleep at night.’
‘You are to be—Envied,’ said Mr. Borage very faintly. He subsided into silence after this, his mind being occupied with the composition of a letter. Writing and composition fatigued and depressed Mr. page 177 Borage very much, and yet, being a dutiful son, he wrote home by almost every mail, and laboured over his fortnightly or monthly budget of news with praiseworthy industry. This evening he wrote his letter in Randall's room, because he had fallen into the habit of spending much of his time with him, and also because he was weak in spelling, and wanted assistance very often. He had formerly depended on James for such aid, and through that person's treachery, his letters had been masterpieces in the way of phonetic spelling. He had soon found, however, that James was not a safe guide, and had trusted to the dictionary until the coming of Randall, whom he had hailed with delight as a much more convenient instructor than a big and heavy volume, in consulting which, moreover, he was almost sure to be overtaken by a complete forgetfulness of the right sequence of the letters of the alphabet.
‘You're certain there's a double r in irretrievable?’ he asked, slowly plodding on in the schoolboy's big round hand which was still the only one that flowed easily from his pen. ‘Whatever did I use such a long word for? it covers half the line. How do you manage to write so small? Dear me! I've dated it the 18th, and it's only the 8th; perhaps it doesn't matter, though. Am I in your way here? do I—Bore you?’
This was a question which Mr. Borage's fellow-lodgers had long ago decided by averring that he must bore Randall ‘frightfully.’ However, Randall page 178 answered truthfully when he said, ‘Bore me? Not at all. I am glad of your company.’
‘I'm glad you say so,’ went on Mr. Borage, as he signed his name with a queer little flourish, ‘for I should like to be your—Friend.’
‘My friend!’ Randall was startled into smiling at the naiveté of his companion, and then touched at the thought of one who had asked for his friendship in almost the same words. ‘There is nothing to be gained, and no pleasure in being my friend,’ he added, with some bitterness.
‘Oh; but one doesn't think of that,’ said Mr. Borage, with mild reproach that Randall felt was deserved. ‘It is so pleasant to talk with you; you are not like the others; they don't care to listen to a word from me.’
Randall felt yet more ashamed of himself at this, recollecting how half the time he had not listened to poor Borage at all.
‘I want to ask you,’ said Mr. Borage, coming to the point, as such simple souls will, with marvellous directness, ‘what it is that troubles you. You oughtn't to look so wretched.’
‘Am I so wretched?’ said Randall, with a laugh that sounded rather forced.
‘Oh, you talk and laugh like the rest; you laugh at me now; but I've noticed—I do notice things sometimes, though I've been called stupid and dull ever since I can remember. You don't look happy when you sit alone, thinking by yourself, and often page 179 I see your face change all at once as if something that vexed you had come into your mind; and you're restless—you can't stay long in one place. I know you're troubled about something. I wonder how you can keep it to yourself; I never could when anything was wrong. Now, if you would tell me, perhaps I could—Do something,’ concluded Mr. Borage, quite out of breath, and with his eyes so well employed in watching Randall's face that it was impossible for him to see what ruin had been wrought with his yet unblotted letter by his coat cuff.
‘I don't think you're either stupid or dull, whatever people may call you. I call you a good, kind-hearted fellow.’ Poor Mr. Borage was so unused to praise that he actually coloured with pleasure. ‘And I think you've been very clever to have made such discoveries—quicker in taking notice of a mere acquaintance than I should have been, I'm afraid.’
‘Well, you needn't deny it, you know,’ said Mr. Borage, ‘for I don't want to ask about anything you don't want to tell, or meddle with your—Business. Only I know it is so, and I should like to be of some use; I'm tired of doing nothing.’
‘You are very good; but I've nothing to tell you—nothing worth telling, at least. I have no troubles that I can talk about.’
Mr. Borage looked frightened at this; but he was reassured by a glance at Randall's face, which did not seem unfriendly. ‘Have you tried at Mr. Wainright's?’ he timidly whispered rather than spoke page 180 ‘He is a relative of mine, and I know he wants some one. If you went there to-morrow, and if I wrote to him—’
Mr. Borage did not finish the sentence; he got out of the room in a hurry, afraid lest he should be thanked.
Randall went to Mr. Wainright's the next day. It was a fruitless errand. Here, as well as in other places, he felt as if some evil whisper had preceded him. He saw, or fancied he saw—it was much the same to the poor fellow—the countenance of each person to whom he applied change as soon as he pronounced his name. What was it they knew of him? who had told them? Had some secret league been formed to prevent him from ever again filling a position of trust? However it might be, those whom he called upon seemed to be divided into two classes—those who for various reasons assigned would none of him, and those who, as evil fortune ordained, had just suited themselves with some one else.
At last he was ashamed to ask—beg, he fiercely called it to himself—of them any longer. He was so overpowered by a nervous fear of being turned away—a fear which was always realised—that it was torture to him to make an application. He sickened of pacing the streets, and going in and out of the stores and offices on the same old and useless errand. He even became so unlike his own self that he shrunk away from meeting men who might page 181 know him; it seemed to him that they all knew some ill of him; that he was indeed now and for ever a castaway.
The days wound their long length along. The summer was passing away, a summer that he would have felt to be a glorious succession of brilliant days and starlit peaceful nights, had he been in the country. In the pent-up town it was a misery of dust and heat and glare, with unwholesome vaporous darkness after the fiery sun had withdrawn itself. But, he told himself, it was nearly over. What might become of him he did not know; but he could not remain where he was any longer. He said goodbye to Mrs. Sherlock, thanking her for her special acts of kindness, which had not been a few. Sherlock regretted the loss of a person to whom he could talk politics, and Mr. Borage was so distressed that he really had no appetite, and lost all his sleep for one night.
His vanished friend found a humbler lodging before that night—a little room in a more obscure part of the town than that in which Mrs. Sherlock's house had its place. All he wanted was a shelter for the night: the surroundings were such that his first effort after the appearance of daylight was to get away from them. He was supposed by the slatternly woman who let him the room to provide himself with meals in some other quarter. Sometimes he did; sometimes he went without them.
It has often been remarked that a man can live on page 182 very little when he tries. Some benevolent persons, chiefly of the kind who have much time and little work on their hands, have experimented on themselves in this matter for the instruction of the race, and have attained to a surprising height in the bleak regions of abstinence and self-denial; but they have seldom done themselves much harm by their experiments. There have been people who have fasted most devoutly, and thereby have brought themselves into a thin and meagre habit of mind as well as body; and there have been some who have found their long-continued fastings very profitable, and who may really, if it does not sound too paradoxical, have starved for a sustenance. But, as a rule, mankind show a decided preference for feasts over fasts, and instances of deliberate starvation are generally resolved, when examined, into deliberate shams. There is this difference, moreover, between voluntary and compulsory starvation, that the former can always be ended at the pleasure of the silly person who is trying it, while the latter may be prolonged just a little too far. Death has an inconvenient way of stepping in, and cutting short these attempts to live on air, before the appetite is sufficiently well-educated.
It was not long before Randall had experimented sufficiently in this direction to show him that he could not go much farther. Afterwards he wondered how he had lived during the time. He was sometimes startled by a sight of his haggard face; page 183 he was miserable enough now, both in feelings and appearance, to have satisfied the sourest of disciplinarians. Very often he walked out of the town to a place where there were trees and shady paths amongst them, where he could aimlessly wander about unobserved. He was driven away from this retreat by meeting others who were in much worse case than himself. Some of them, poor wretches, were denizens of the place; they slept there in little huts, rude as those of savages, which they built for themselves under the trees, and starved quietly in the shade during the day that they might not offend the eyes of respectability, or be hunted about by the police, who are especially vigilant in such cases. Sharp as was his own distress, he could not endure the sight of theirs, knowing that he was unable to relieve it. Oh, you who shut up your hearts so tightly, and make your hoards for yourselves alone, if you only knew how the poor suffer because they have nothing to give but their pity!
He had his violin yet. Fortunately he had brought it away with him when he left Palmer's, and so it had been saved from the fire. It was his solace now. Often, when he was playing it in some quiet spot away from the town, he forgot everything in its music—his misfortunes, his want, and the dark future towards which, in spite of all his efforts, he seemed to be hurrying. Sometimes, all unknown to himself, he had an audience. One day it was a band of school-children who quietly stole round page 184 him to listen, and spoke in whispers, afraid lest he should break off before the tune was finished. He played for them a long while after he had found out they were near him: he could not help being pleased by their shy, unfeigned approbation; better pleased perhaps than he would have been by the praise of grown men and women, very capable of judging, and very conscious of their own capability.
Another time he was surprised by a picnic party who kindly pressed him to make himself their friend for the day, and when it was over seemed unwilling to part from him, they had been so surprised and charmed by his playing. One of the party, a mild-looking old gentleman, quiet in manner and slow of speech, was almost affectionate to Randall. He praised his playing, thanked him warmly for the pleasure it had been to him, and asked to look at the violin. He held it for a moment in silence—a kind of silent ecstasy—and returned it to Randall without a word. But in that moment he had made a vow that he would have it for his own. No matter how many virtues he had had before, they were all obscured by the gigantic growth of one vice, that of covetousness. Collectors and connoisseurs of things lovely, quaint, or rare, that they delight in, cannot well help being covetous; indeed, most of them have the malady in a chronic form. This old gentleman, who for years had longed to have just such an old violin as Randall's, was really a very honest, good-natured sort of person, and in the page 185 ordinary affairs of life would not have wronged his greatest enemy. But this was not an ordinary affair; it was something decidedly uncommon, and therefore he was prepared to strain a point. It is wonderful how virtuous we are in common things, and how easily a new-fangled temptation trips us up, just as a man of weak principle may conscientiously refrain from stealing pence, but not hesitate to abscond with a bag of sovereigns.
The old gentleman, however, had no thought of such a vulgar thing as theft. He intended to buy the violin, and to buy it cheaply. He took some pains to find out where Randall lodged, and at the same time discovered that he was poor and out of employment. Then he harassed and importuned him almost every day.
‘Name your price,’ he said, after, on three several occasions, he had offered five, fifteen, and twenty pounds, and had been refused.
‘It has no price,’ said Randall.
‘Do you mean to say you won't part with it?’
‘If I could have parted with it I shouldn't have it now.’
‘Come! I know your circumstances,’ said the gentleman brusquely. ‘It may be a matter of sentiment with you, but hard cash would be more useful in your present condition. Far better take a fair price than be obliged to borrow on it; perhaps pledge and lose it for a few shillings.’
‘Borrow on it!’ exclaimed Randall, almost page 186 fiercely. Then he checked himself, and asked, with apparent calmness, ‘What do you call a fair price?’
‘What do you say to thirty pounds?’ returned the other, flattering himself that there was now some hope of a bargain.
‘Do you think I don't know its value?’ said Randall, with a short laugh. ‘Try to buy a violin by this maker for thirty pounds in London, or in any city of Europe.’
‘We are not in Europe, and that makes all the difference. My good fellow, it's not worth thirty shillings in this market. Try to sell it: not one man in a hundred would bid for it. You might wait years for such an offer as mine.’
‘Let me ask you, sir,’ returned the owner of the violin, laying his hand upon it, ‘if this were yours; if it had been your father's, and for a century had been handed down in your family from father to son; and if also it had been your companion for years,—all that you had to call your own, and had been set aside always as a thing that must be kept, whatever else might go,—could you sell it?’
‘If I were as hard-pushed as you seem to be, I should,’ said the elderly gentleman. ‘I suppose’—he was losing, his temper—‘you're one of the “unemployed,” who write pathetic letters to the papers about their sufferings. Why, man, that ring of yours would be better sold to buy you meat and drink. You're starving yourself, can't I see it in your face? and here you sit with a hundred guinea ring on your page 187 finger, and a violin by you worth five or six times—’ He ceased; he was really too incautious.
‘If my violin is worth five or six hundred, why do you offer me thirty pounds as a fair price? What has it to do with you—with any one—if I choose to starve myself rather than sell or pawn all the inheritance I had from my father?’
‘Well, I don't want to be hard. Take fifty. I have the money with me.’
‘No! Not for fifty times fifty. I have been in difficulties before, but I kept it through them all, and I'll keep it now.’
‘Very well,’ said the other, in a tone of resignation. ‘You may be brought to your senses. The money shall be yours whenever you like to bring the violin to me.’
He went; but the thoughts he had suggested did not take their departure also. That innocent violin had a voice now that spoke plainly at intervals, Fifty pounds—fifty pounds. Good heavens! what was not fifty pounds? Wealth, plenty, a fortune to the man who sat and thought, because he had nothing else to do, and looked from one to the other of the two things which represented his personal property A violin and a ring. One morning he took the ring, and went out into the street. He walked some distance, then suddenly turned back, as if a gulf had opened between him and the shop he was about to enter. What had stopped him? Only a vision, which he saw as distinctly as the people who jostled page 188 past him saw the dusty crowded thoroughfare and the lines of buildings. A face, something like his own, but white and cold, and a hand on which a ring shone brightly. He remembered how, in the silence round a death-bed, his mother had put that ring upon his own hand. He could not pawn it.
Hurriedly he returned to his lodgings, and packed up the violin and the ring also as carefully as he could. It was the day of the week on which country-people brought their farm produce into town. After some search he found a settler who lived near to Mr. Bailey, and who readily promised to leave the package containing the violin at the latter person's house, and to tell him that it was to remain there until the owner should call or send for it. Randall saw it placed in the settler's heavy clattering dray, and felt relieved; he had put one temptation beyond him. He was almost light-hearted, and yet, as surely as man has ever done, he had burnt his ships. Now indeed he was alone with Want, or Famine he might call that haggard-eyed creature whose arm was linked in his.
The violin could hardly have reached its destined place of refuge when a letter came from the man who coveted it so ardently, making an offer for it of a hundred pounds. Randall burnt the letter, but he thought he saw the three figures of the price, written in white flame, long after the other characters had vanished.
Later in the day he went out again, to look for page 189 what he had been so often disappointed of that he would have been surprised if he had found it. It was the same everywhere—no one wanted him, or anything that he could do. But, on his way through the streets, he noticed a window in which some water-colour drawings, poor and washy in colour, and by no means faultless in outline, were exhibited for sale. They were marked at three guineas each, which, if execution were considered, was quite enough. ‘Three guineas!’ he thought, with a smile, as he could not but observe the blotchiness of the paint, and the slovenly manner in which it has been dabbed on, the scraggy trees, with puny stems smaller than their branches, the muddy water, and the sky not of cerulean hue. ‘In one day I have painted a better finished picture than that. I have most of mine yet, whatever else has gone. Still, seeing them here is no proof that they are saleable. The artist may be like me, a man whose work no one will buy.’
He went into the shop and asked if any pictures had been sold by the artist who had painted those in the window. The dealer answered that he had sold numberless pictures for the same gentleman, and another artist who was in the shop volunteered extra information about him. He was an artist of repute, he declared; every one admired, many imitated his paintings. To be sure, they were not in the common showy style that caught the eye of people who, like children, admired bright colouring; but they appealed page 190 to the sympathies of those who worshipped art in its purest form.
‘But they are not like the places,’ said Randall; which objection caused the gentleman to smile pityingly upon him.
‘Certainly not,’ he said. ‘In an artist we look for something more than a mere copyist. Any man with a camera can be that.’
‘Then why put on the picture, “A view of such and such a place,”’ said Randall. ‘Why not tell the truth, and say, “An imaginary landscape,” or a “Sketch from Nature, slightly altered by myself?”’
Mr. Rollo—so the dealer addressed him—looked shocked at Randall's audacity; but he proceeded to say, ‘An artist sees a place differently from the ordinary class of people. He recognises a thousand beautiful tints in the sea, the sky, the luxuriant foliage and verdure of this country, which are never noticed by the purblind gaze of the uneducated eye.’
Randall did not presume to answer this extra-ordinary speech; but he wondered why the artist under discussion, if he could see those thousand tints, had not put them in, since his picture was an arrangement in faded blue and the sickliest of ‘æsthetic’ greens.
‘Are you a painter?’ asked Mr. Rollo, jumping to the conclusion that the pale and worn appearance of the stranger must have resulted from excessive devotion to the brush and easel.
‘I have painted a little,’ said Randall.page 191
‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,’ said Mr. Rollo conclusively. He went out, after ordering a frame for a painting he had nearly finished: a square yard of landscape that defied nature, and also defied man in some representations of the human form divine which had been inserted in the foreground.
Randall brought some of his paintings to the shop, and the dealer was complaisant enough to put one of them in the window amongst the works of the artist whom Mr. Rollo had so warmly praised. How long it remained in that window, or whether it ever got out of it again, cannot be said, for the reason that no one except the picture-dealer, or perhaps Mr. Rollo, ever knew what became of it. When Randall called to inquire into its fate he was informed that Mr. Rollo had been in several times—the fact was, he almost lived in the shop, when he was not dabbling in paint at home. He had complained each time that his eyes were pained by the sight of Randall's picture. There was a vulgar reality about it which no artist could endure; it was too commonplace. He had the presumption, this young artist, to daub in his own manner, instead of following the time-honoured traditions which had regulated Mr. Rollo's daubing ever since the happy day on which he had first handled the brush. Mr. Rollo, had finally warned his friend, the dealer, against encouraging bad art by displaying specimens of it in his window. A man could not gaze on a picture, page 192 and go his way, and be the same as he was before. That was impossible. Had not Ruskin, whom Mr. Rollo worshipped from afar, and over whose books he beat his poor brains into a state of bewilderment—had not Ruskin said that it was unadvisable, nay, dangerous to look at bad pictures? There was enough in that little square of fifteen inches to lower the taste of any one who might incautiously stop to look at it, and to utterly destroy artistic feeling in him who was lost enough to buy it, bear it away to his own home, and hang it up in his room.
No; it would not sell, so Randall left it altogether to the tender mercies of the dealer and Mr. Rollo. Neither would anything else sell. He received this announcement in an apathetic sort of way. His only thought now was to be out of the throng and ceaseless noise of the town. He took the way that led him through the place which has been mentioned before—the lurking-place of miserable outcasts, to whom hunger was a common thing, who perhaps had forgotten what happiness was like, they had not known it for so long, and yet who lived on, in some awful manner, from day to day; how, one cannot even imagine.
One of these met him in a turning of the path, where it was dark under the trees, and grasped his arm so tightly that Randall felt the chill of his bony hand through his coat sleeve. ‘What! you need not rob me,’ he said, with a smile, the strangeness of which on a white, set face appalled the man more page 193 then a desperate resistance would have done. ‘take it,’ and he gave him a coin — it was his last. The man held in his palm for a moment, looking at it, and then, shivering in his rags, faint, half mad with hunger, he burst into tears. ‘No, not from you,’ the poor wretch sobbed, ‘for the Lird knows you're bad enough yourself. I didn't see at first, or I wouldn't have touched you, I swear I wouldn't! No, no, I can do awhile yet; I'm better used to this than you.'
‘Keep it,’ the other replied laconically, and went on his way.
He walked on asn on, until the roads was hemmed in by green fields, and the soft fresh breezes of the open country blew in his face. It grew late; but there was o need for him to hasten back again. No one waiting for him in the distant town; no home from which he would be missed. Why would the picuture of a long-lost home, fair and pleasant among the English lanes, rise before him? why would scenes in that old time pass before him so quickly? And what was that?—only a hot tear which fell upon his hand. He need not have been so much ashamed of it after all.
How delicious was the evening stillness here! There was no one else on the lonely road, which, he knew, after many miles of windings. led to the renges where the dark forest towered, and the clear streams rushed from the heifhts. Seldom was there any sound there but the murmuring of water gliding downwards, or falling into pools among the black page 194 rocks, under arches and canopies of ferns. There were places in those ravines where the sun could not have shone for ages. How dark there in the night-time; how gloomy and profoundly still always!
It might have been that his restless feet would have borne him to one of those darksome recesses in the forest, had they had the power. But at sunset he came to a bridge across a wide creek into which the tide was sluggishly flowing, and here he stopped to lean against the parapet, feeling dizzy and faint. The air seemed filled with the melancholy cries of the sea-birds feeding on the wide mud flats. Now and then a flock of curlew passed over his head, or a harsh-voiced cormorant flying low. These were his only companions in a solitary place, while he looked downwards at the black water that swirled through the openings of the bridge.
There was a footstep on the bridge. A hand touched him—a hand that felt cold and clammy on his wrist. He looked up, and saw Godfrey Palmer.
‘Aha! well met,’ was his greeting.
Randall turned partly away from him, and Mr. Godfrey Palmer's hand slipped off his arm like a limp mass of jelly rather than a thing of bone and muscle.
‘You have walked a long way to see a sluggish creek and its mud banks,’ he said, looking closely into Randall's face.
‘Yes, it is a long way, but one need not go back page 195 again,’ said Randall, answering his thought as much as the other's words.
‘And do you lodge with the birds of the air, then? They are flying away now, as the night and the tide are coming in together. Listen how it rushes under the bridge. This is an ugly place at night. I hate it, but something, I don't know what, brought me here. I have not been here since I came this way to John's. You were with him to the last?’
‘We are on the same level now. He didn't do anything for you, and he quite forgot me.’
‘No, not so. He spoke of you on the last day he lived. Almost his last words were of you.’
‘But what did he do for me? Of course I know he's told Everard to look after me—he would be sure to do that—but did he expect me to go there and ask for a maintenance? I never could get on with Everard, amiable as he is, and I don't think his brotherly affection is of a very ardent nature. You and I, old comrade, belong to those who are not particularly prized by thier relatives.’
‘Do you class yourself with me?’
‘Ay, that I do, though you may draw yourself away so haughtily. What's the difference between us? Do you think you have some little shred of reputation left yet, some atom of self-respect? Others don't believe in it. What's the use of merit or honesty no one believes in? What's the good of page 196 anything which is not marketable? Pooh, don't you know that in this world it's those who seem to be what they are not who get on, that hypocrites flourish while saints starve? Yes! we are poor creatures,’ he continued, laughing as if the idea were mirthful, ‘we who were such prodigies of talent in our youth. Did they tell you?—they told me—that there was a brilliant future for that talent. Were you praised as I was, were you encouraged as I was, were you set in places, only to let yourself drop out of them? What have we now, we the clever ones, who passed our dull plodding school fellows so quickly? We are grovelling here—yes, we! I will class myself with you yet—while the dull fellows we despised have risen high above us.’
He stopped, and there was silence for several minutes. ‘It is strange that I should talk to you like this,’ he resumed, in an altered tone, ‘and that we should stand here together, looking down into the stream. There's a fascination in that; have you ever felt it? Some have stood in such places, and looked and looked, till, as if a hand had beckoned to them, they have flung themselves into the water. Don't look like that, though it seems so cool and still down there, doesn't it?’
There was no assent from the one who listened, but he still leaned on the parapet of the bridge, and his eyes were downcast.
‘Ah,’ said the other one, and his voice—which, however false and evil its words might be, was page 197 always singularly musical in its tones—stole like the whisper of a tempter on the ear, ‘and they call that wicked, the respectable people, taking matters into one's own hands, and ending all this coil with one plunge. They only know one side of life: they never see the black depths such unfortunates as ourselves look into every day. And others call it cowardly; but there are many who have done it, there are many who will. We did not choose to live, may we not choose to die? Are there not those who long for death, and dig for it as for hidden treasures? I have read those words or heard them somewhere; they are very true. And it does not come. It takes others, though; do you not know? It takes all those you would keep; for those who are good, and would have done you good, always die young.
There was some response from his companion this time, though only a muttered word.
‘I wonder,’ went on the low voice that was so clear and distinct, pursuing the same fearful thought, ‘I wonder how it would be. We can never know from those who have tried it. Would one go down at once without a struggle, without a cry? or would the chill of the water creeping round one—ugly black water like this—rouse one to make some effort to try to save oneself? But it couldn't last long, and then there would be silence down there, and forgetfulness, and an end of everything.’
‘But afterwards?’ suddenly spoke the other, raising his head.page 198
‘Is it the Day after Death you mean?’ said Godfrey Palmer. ‘What if there be no day after death?’—and his voice sank to a whisper. ‘What then is the worth of existence such as this?’
‘It was never promised us that we should be happy, I suppose.’
‘True, but we are fools enough to expect it. But perhaps,’ and his tone changed, ‘life is so pleasant that you love it. It is so easy, so cheering and prosperous that you would be loath to part from it. How men love life! how patiently they cling to it through all kinds of wretchedness, hoping for something it never brings!’
‘Were you sent here to torment me?’ passionately exclaimed the other, who had listened so long out of utter exhaustion and weariness. ‘Why do you whisper your horrible thoughts into my ear? Keep off!’ Mr. Godfrey Palmer recoiled; his companion looked dangerous. ‘What you speak of is cowardly—cowardly enough. What does it mean but that a man is afraid of the future because of a few troubles and disappointments he has had? Why, even one who like you believed in nothing might at least have courage enough to try to change what could be altered, and to bear with what he couldn't help. Perhaps there is no imaginable misfortune or suffering which some one has not borne with to the end. Are you content to be outdone by others? I am not. What another has endured, I can.’
‘Don't waste your strength in haranguing me page 199 responded Mr. Godfrey Palmer. ‘I admire your spirit, though; there's more left in you than I thought. I really hope you may get through.’
‘I shall get through!’ said the other, still excited. ‘It will not always be like this.’
‘A sanguine temperament is a great blessing. You may live on it in an emergency. Good-night. You shall have your wish, and be left to yourself in a place where I would not care to stand alone after nightfall, when strange thoughts come with the darkness into one's mind.’
He turned and went across the bridge. In the oppressive stillness the regular tramp of his feet sounded loud, even from the road on the other side of the creek. The night came on, with its misty darkness and its myriad stars. Slowly the tide flowed in till all the marshy flats were covered. From the east the clouds rolled back, like a heavy purple curtain raised before the moon. Into the clear space she rose, higher and higher, to thread her path across the dome of the sky. There was her image in the stream; there also was the tremulous glimmer of a star reflected from above. Stiller now—lonelier than ever on the bridge. From the wind not a whisper; on the water scarce a ripple. Silence breathless and profound falls on the darkened landscape: it is the time of rest for half a world. Oh, mild and calm and gracious hour! whose solemn beauty rebukes the passions and strivings of the day; in whose stillness unknown page 200 voices speak to strengthen and console; in whose deep repose misery forgets itself, and eyes worn with weeping are healed with the balm of sleep.
‘O holy Night! from thee I learn to bear
What man has borne before:
Thou lay'st they finger on the lips of Care,
And they complain no more.’