"Bones and I"/Chapter 1

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WHY are these things so? I exclaim, plumping down again into my seat. "Why have the times been out of joint ever since Hamlet's first appearance on the stage, with black tights and rosettes in his shoes? Why is the whole world still at sixes and sevens? What is the object of it all? Cui bono? cui bono? cui bono? Is there the slightest appearance of a result? any tendency towards a goal? Shall we ever get anywhere, or are we travelling perpetually in a circle, like squirrels in n cage, convicted pickpockets on the treadmill? By the way, who convicted the pickpockets, and sentenced them? The sitting magistrate, of course; and do the awards of that worthy functionary produce any definite result in the direction of good order and morality, or must his daily incubation too be wasted upon addled eggs? Do you remember the story of the man who cut his throat because he was so tired of dressing and undressing every day? Don't shake your head—I beg pardon, your skull—you told it me yourself. I can appreciate his prejudices, but how did he know there might not be buttons and buttonholes where he was going? That is, supposing he went anywhere—if he didn't, he was wasted altogether. If he did, perhaps he was of no use when he got there. Wasted again—only a human life after all. Not much when you think of it amongst the millions that cling about this old globe of ours, rising, swarming, disappearing like the maggots on a dead horse, but of no light importance to the bearer when you remember its weight of sorrows, anxieties, disappointments, and responsibilities, not to mention the Black Care sitting heavily at the top to keep the whole burden in its place. Life is a bubble, they say. Very well—but is it blown from a soap-dish by a schoolboy, rising heavenward, tinted with rainbow hues, to burst only when at its most beautiful and its best? or is it not rather a bubble gurgling to the surface from the agonized lungs of some struggling wretch drowning far below in the dark, pitiless water,

'Unknell'd, uncoffin'd, and unknown?'

—Wasted, too, unless the fish eat him, and then who knows? none of us perhaps may ever eat the fish.

"Listen to me. I won't make your flesh creep, for unanswerable reasons. I don't even think I shall freeze the marrow in your bones. I could tell you some strange stories, but I dare say your own experiences are more remarkable than mine. I will only ask you to reflect on the amount of suffering that came under our daily notice when we lived in the world, and say whether every pang of mind or body, every tear shed or swallowed down, every groan indulged or repressed, were anything but sheer waste? Can you not recall a hundred instances of strength sapped by drink, of intellect warped by madness, of beauty fading under neglect, or withered by disappointment? Here a pair of lives are wasted because they must needs run out their course in different grooves—there two more are utterly thrown away, because, encompassed in a golden link, they can by no means shake themselves free. The fairest of all, it may be, and the most promising, never blooms into perfection for want of its congenial comrade (wasted too, perhaps, at the antipodes), and failing thus to reach maturity, dwindles, dwarfed and unmated, to the grave. Think of Beauty wasted on the Beast—the Beast, too, utterly out of his element, that he must roll on the garden sward rather than labour in the teeming furrow. Look at Hercules spell-bound in the lap of Omphale, broad-fronted Antony enervated by black-browed Cleopatra. Consider the many Messrs. Caudle who lavish as much good-humour as would set up a dozen households on their legal nightmares, and do not forget poor Miss Prettyman pining in lonely spinsterhood over the way. See the mother training up her child, impressing on him, far more forcibly than she feels them for herself, lessons of honour, truth, probity, and the unspeakable blessing of faith—praying her heart out for that wilful little urchin, night and morning on her knees. A good Christian with humble hopes of heaven, does she know that, far more lavishly than those heathen termagants in hell, she is pouring water in a sieve? Does she know she may live to see that smooth, soft, wondering brow scored deep with sorrow, or lowering black with sin—that round rosy cheek hollowed by depravity, or bloated with excess? Worst of all, the merry, guileless heart embittered by falsehood, and hardened with ill-usage till it has ceased to feel for others, even for itself! Great Heaven! have we not seen them—these simple, honest, manly hearts, taken by some soft-eyed demon with loving ways, and sweet, angelic smile, to be kept carefully, to be watched jealously, till their fabric has been thoroughly studied, then broken deftly and delicately, yet with such nice art that they can never mend again, and so, politely 'Returned, with thanks?'

"Forgive me: on such anatomical outrages I have no right to expect you should feel so warmly as myself.

"Millions of creatures, beautiful exceedingly, scour over the desert plains of explored Africa; in its unknown regions, millions more may be supposed to feed, and gambol, and die. What is the use of them? If you come to that, what was the use of the Emperor Theodore, or the King of the Cannibal Islands, or any other potentate who remains utterly unimpressed when we threaten 'to break off diplomatic relations?'

"Myriads of insects wheel about us in the sun's declining rays every summer's evening. Again, what is the use of them? What is the use of the dragon-fly, the bumble-bee, the speckled toad, the blue-nosed monkey, the unicorn, the wild elephant,—or, ineeed, the Ojibbeway Indians?"

Here, contrary to his custom, "Bones" interrupted me in full career.

"One moment," said he, with his courteous grin. Allow me to point out that yours is inadmissible, as being simply an argumentum ad absurdum. It would hold equally good with Léotard, Mr. Beales, or any other public exhibitor—nay, you might advance it for suppression of the Lord Mayor or the Archbishop of Canterbury."

He bowed reverentially while he mentioned the last-named dignitary; and I confess I was inclined to admit the truth of his remark.

"Then I waive the question," I replied, "as regards the brute creation, though I think I could find something to say, too, about the weasel sucking rabbits, the heron gobbling fish, the hawk striking its quarry, or the hounds running into their fox. But we will suppose that the whole animal world, from the angler's lob-worm to the costermonger's donkey, is enjoying its paradise here, and return to our own kind, their sorrows, their sufferings, and natural consequence of sorrow and suffering, their sins."

He shook his skull gently, and muttered something in his spinal vertebrae about "a cart" and "a horse," but I took no notice, and proceeded with dignity

"I have learnt my Latin Grammar, and almost the only one of its precepts I have not forgotten impresses on me that—

'Spades turn up wealth, the stimulant of crime.'

I suppose you will not dispute that the root of all evil is money?"

"Most emphatically," he exclaimed, and his articulations rattled with startling vehemence. "Most emphatically I deny the position. A man may roll in wealth and be none the worse for it. On the contrary, poverty, but for the unremitting labour it demands, would be far more conducive to crime than a sufficiency, or even a superfluity of means. No; the real enemy with whom every man has to contend confronts him in the morning at his glass, and sticks persistently to him throughout the day. The source of most unhappiness, the cause of all ill-doing, the universal origin of evil, is not money, but self——"

"You mean selfishness," I retorted; "and I am surprised to hear a man of the world—I mean of the other world, or, indeed, of any world whatever—assert so obvious a fallacy. Just as the liver, and not the heart, is the seat of our real well-being, so maintain that self-indulgence, and not self-sacrifice, is the origin, the main-spring, the motive power of all effort, progress, improvement, moral, social, and physical, Researches of science, triumphs of art, master-pieces of genius,—what are these but results of the same instinct that directs the bee to the flower-garden, the vulture to the carcase? To eat is the first necessity of man. He labours that he may live. Grant this, as you cannot but concede the position to be unassailable, and you talk to me in vain of sentiment, philanthropy, benevolence, all the loathsome affectations of sympathy with which the earth-worm tries to impose upon its kind. A man begins by being honest. Why? Because without honesty, down the particular groove in which he spins, he cannot earn his daily bread. When he has enough of this and to spare, he turns his attention to decent apparel, a commodious house, a general appearance of respectability; that is, he aims at being respectable—in other words, at imposing on those who have been less successful in the universal scramble than himself. Soon he buys a warming-pan, a Dutch oven, china ornaments for his chimneypiece, and the History of the Prodigal to hang about his walls. By degrees, as wealth increases, he moves into a larger residence, he rolls upon wheels, he replaces the china ornaments with a French clock; the Prodigal Son with modern oil-paintings, and hides the warming-pan in the housemaid's closet upstairs. About this period he begins to subscribe to charitable institutions, to give away what he does not want, to throw little pellets of bread at the monster who is always famished and always roaring out of doors, lest it should come in, and snatch the roast beef off his table. Some day a team of black horses with nodding plumes, and a red-nosed driver, come to take him away, 'very much respected,' and, forgive the personality, there is an end of him, as far as we are concerned. Will you tell me that man's life has not been a continual concession to self?—waste, waste, utter waste, from the pap-boat that preserved his infancy, to the brass-nailed coffin that protects his putridity from contact with the earth to which he returns? Why his very virtues, as he called them, were but payments, so to speak, keeping up the insurance for his own benefit, which he persuaded himself he had effected on the other world.

"Now, supposing the pap-boat had been withheld, or the nurse had tucked him into his cradle upside down, or—thus saving some harmless woman a deal of inconvenience and trouble—supposing he had never been born at all, would he have been missed, or wanted? Would not the world have gone on just as well without him? Has not his whole existence been a mistake? The food he ate, the clothes he wore, the house he lived in—were not these simply wasted? His efforts were waste, his wear-and-tear of body and mind were waste, above all, his sorrows and his sufferings were sheer, unpardonable waste. Yes, here I take my stand. I leave you every enjoyment to be found in creation, physical, moral, and intellectual. I make you a present of the elephant wallowing in his mud-bath, and the midge wheeling in the sun; I give you Juliet at her window, and Archimedes in his study; but I reserve the whale in her death-flurry, and the worm on its hook. I appeal to Jephthah sorrowing for his darling, and Rachel weeping for her children. I repeat, if that self-care, which indeed constitutes our very identity, be the object of existence, then all those tearful eyes that blur the light of every rising sun—all those aching hearts that long only for night to be eternal—are but so many witnesses to the predominance in creation of a lavish and unaccountable waste."

Like many thoughtful and deliberate natures, I am persuaded that in early life "Bones" must have been a snuff-taker. He affects a trick of holding his fleshless finger and thumb pressed together and suspended in air, before he delivers himself of an opinion, that can only have originated in a practice he has since been compelled, for obvious reasons, to forego. Pausing during several seconds in this favourite attitude, he sank gravely back in his chair, and replied—

"False logic, my good friend. False premises, and a false conclusion. I deny them all; but the weather, even in my light attire, feels somewhat too close for wordy warfare. Besides, I hold with you, that an ounce of illustration is worth a pound of argument. I will ask you, therefore, as I know you have been in Cheshire, High Leicestershire, and other cattle-feeding-countries, whether you ever watched a dairymaid making a cheese? If so, you must have observed how strong and pitiless a pressure is required to wring the moisture out of its very core. My friend, the human heart is like a cheese! To be good for anything, the black drop must be wrung out of it, however tight the squeeze required, however exquisite the pain. Therefore it is, that we so often see the parable of the poor man's ewe lamb enacted in daily life. One, having everything the world can bestow, is nevertheless further endowed with that which his needy brother would give all the rest of the world to possess. For the first, the pressure has not yet been put on, though his time, too, may come by-and-by For the second, that one darling hope, it may be, represents the little black drop left, and so it must be wrung out, though the heart be crushed into agony in the process. You talk of suffering being pure waste; I tell you it is all pure gain. You talk of self as the motive to exertion; I tell you it is the abnegation of self which has wrought out all that is noble, all that is good, all that is useful, nearly all that is ornamental in the world. Shut the house-door on him, and the man must needs go forth to work in the fields. It is not the dreamer wrapped in his fancied bliss, from whom you are to expect heroic efforts, either of mind or body. You must dig your goad into the ox to make him use his latent strength; you must drive your spurs into the horse to get out of him his utmost speed. Wake the dreamer roughly—drive spurs and goad into his heart. He will wince and writhe, and roll and gnash his teeth, but I defy him to lie still. He must up and be doing, from sheer torture. flying to one remedy after another till he gets to work, and so finds distraction, solace, presently comfort, and, after a while, looking yet higher, hope, happiness, and reward.

"Self, indeed! He is fain to forget self, because that therewith is bound up so much, it would drive him mad to remember; and thus sorrow-taught, he merges his own identity in the community of which he is but an atom, taking his first step, though at a humble and immeasurable distance, in the sacred track of self-sacrifice, on which, after more than eighteen hundred years, the foot-prints are still fresh, still ineffaceable. Waste, forsooth! Let him weep his heart out if he will! I tell you that the deeper the furrows are scored, the heavier shall be the harvest, the richer the garnered grain. I tell you, not a tear falls but it fertilizes some barren spot, from which hereafter shall come up the fresh verdure of an eternal spring in that region

'Where there's fruit in the gardens of heaven, from the hope that on earth was betrayed;
Where there's rest for the soul, life-wearied, that hath striven, and suffered, and prayed.'

"I'm rather tired. I won't discuss the question any further. I'll go back into my cupboard, if you please. Good-night!"