"Bones and I"/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X.

WEIGHT CARRIERS.

FIFTY years ago, when the burning of a bishop at Smithfield would scarce have created more sensation in clerical circles than a Ritualistic Commission or a Pan-Anglican Synod, our divines took their share of secular pastime far more freely than at present. It was the parson who killed his thirty brace of partridges, and this, too, with a flint-and-steel gun, over dogs of his own breaking, on the broiling 1st of September. It was the parson who alone got to the end of that famous five-and-forty minutes from "The Church Spinneys," when a large field were beat off to a man, and the squire broke his horse's back. It was the parson who knew more about rearing pheasants, circumventing wild ducks, otter-hunting, fly-fishing, even rat-catching, than any one else in the parish; and it was the parson, too, who sometimes took the odds about a flyer at Newmarket, and landed a good stake by backing his own sound ecclesiastical opinion.

Concerning one of these racing divines I remember the following anecdote:—

Returning from afternoon service on a Sunday, he happened to witness a trial of speed between two of his school-children. Unequally matched in size, the big boy, as was natural, beat the little one, but only by a couple of yards. The parson stood still, watched them approvingly, and meditated.

"Come here," said he to the winner. "Go into my study, and fetch me my big Bible."

The urchin obeyed, and returned bearing a ponderous quarto volume, "Now," continued his reverence, "start fair, and run it over again."

The competitors wished no better fun, and finished this time with a dead heat.

"Good boys! Good boys!" said the parson, reflectively "Ah! I thought the weight would bring you together."

Yes; how surely the weight brings us together! How often have we not seen the universal handicap run out over the course of daily life? Some of us start so free, so lighthearted, so full of hope and confidence, expecting no less than to gallop in alone. Presently the weight begins to tell; the weight that we have voluntarily accepted, or the weight imposed on us by the wisdomof superior judgment. We labour, we struggle, we fail; we drop back to those whom we thought so meanly of as our competitors; they reach us, they pass us, and though punishment be not spared, they gain the post at last, perhaps many, many lengths ahead! And even if we escape the disgrace of having thus to succumb, even if our powers be equal to the tax imposed on them, we are not to expect an easy victory; there is no "winning in a canter" here. Every effort tells on mettle, nerve, and spirits; on heart, body, and brain. We want them all, we summon them, we use them freely, and then, it may be within one stride of victory, comes the cruel and irretrievable breakdown.

Men, like horses, must be content to carry weight. Like horses, too, though some are far more adapted than others to the purpose, all learn in time to accommodate themselves, so to speak, in pace and action to their inevitable burden. How they fight under it at first! How eager, and irritable, and self-willed it renders them; how violent and impetuous, as if in haste to get the whole thing over and done with. But in a year or two the back accustoms itself to the burden, the head is no longer borne so high, the proud neck bends to the curb, and though the stride be shortened, the dashing, bird-like buoyancy gone for ever, a gentle, docile temper has taken its place, with sufficient courage and endurance for all reasonable requirements left. Neither animal, indeed, is ever so brilliant again; but thus it is that both become steady, plodding, useful creatures, fit to perform honestly and quietly their respective duties in creation.

We think we know a great deal in England of athletics, pedestrianism, and the art of training in general. It may astonish us to learn how a Chinese postman gets himself into condition for the work he has to do. The Celestials, it would appear, like meaner mortals, are extremely particular, not to say fidgety, about the due transmission of their correspondence. Over that vast empire extend postal arrangements, conducted, I believe, as in our own country, by some mandarin of high rank, remarkable for their regularity and efficiency. The letters travel at a uniform rate of more than seven English miles an hour; and as they are conveyed by runners on foot, often through thinly-populated districts in which it is impossible to establish frequent relays, the pedestrian capabilities of these postmen are of the greatest importance. This is how a Chinaman prepares himself to accomplish his thirty miles in less than four hours.

He has a quantity of bags constructed, which he disposes over his whole person, like Queen Mab's pinches—


"Arms, legs, back, shoulders, sides, and shins."


Into these he dribbles handfuls of flour before he starts for walking exercise, increasing the quantity little by little every day till the bags are quite full, and he carries clinging to every part of his body several pounds of dead weight, nor considers himself fit for his situation till he can move under it with the freedom and elasticity of a naked man. He will then tell you that, on throwing off his self-imposed burden, he finds all his muscles so invigorated by their own separate labours, his strength so stimulated, his wind so clear, his condition so perfect, that he shoots away over the plains, mountains, and tea-gardens of the Flowery Land less like John Chinaman with a letter-bag than an arrow from a bow. What would our old friend Captain Barclay, of peripatetic memory, say to such a system as this?

I doubt if the Chinaman's theory of training be founded on sound principles; but I am quite sure that in bearing our moral burden we cannot dispose it over too extended a surface, or in too many separate parcels. I see fathers of families carrying surprising weights, such as make the bachelor's hair stand on end from sheer dismay, with a buoyancy of step and carelessness of demeanour only to be accounted for by an equal distribution of pressure over the entire victim. A man who has his own business to attend to, his domestic affairs to regulate, half a dozen hungry children to feed, and a couple of poor relations or so to assist with sympathy, counsel, and occasional aid, finds no time to dwell upon any one difficulty, no especial inconvenience from any one burden, because each has its fellow and its counterpoise elsewhere. It is not only in pharmacy that the principle of counter-irritation produces beneficial results. A man with two grievances never pities himself so much as a man with one; and a man with half a dozen treats them all with a good-humoured indifference little removed from positive satisfaction.

Some people even appear to glory in the multitude of their afflictions, as though the power to sustain so much ill-luck shed a certain reflected lustre on themselves. I recollect, long ago, meeting an old comrade hanging about the recruiting taverns in Westminster, The man was a clean, smart, active, efficient non-commissioned officer enough, with the average courage and endurance of the British dragoon. A year before I had parted with him, languid, unhappy, and depressed, longing only to return to England, but not yet under orders for home. Now he looked cheerful, contented, almost radiant. I stopped to inquire after his welfare.

"I landed a fortnight ago, sir," said he with something of triumph in his voice, "and a happy home I found waiting for me! I haven't a friend or a relation left in the world. My father's absconded, my mother's dead, my brother-in-law's ruined, and my sister gone into a madhouse!"

It sounded melancholy enough, yet I felt convinced the man reaped some unaccountable consolation from his pre-eminence in misfortune, admired his own endurance, and was proud of his power to carry so heavy a weight.

Custom, no doubt, in these as in all other inflictions, will do much to lighten the load. There is a training of the mind, as of the body, to bear and to endure. With wear and tear the heart gets hardened like the muscles, and the feelings become blunted by ill-usage, just as the skin grows callous on an oarsman's hands. There is some shadow of truth in the fallacious story of him who carried a calf every day till it became a cow. None of us know what we can do till we try; and there are few but would follow the example of the patient camel, and refuse to rise from, the sand, if they knew how heavy a weight is to be imposed on them ere they can reach the longed-for diamond of the desert, gushing and glittering amongst the palms! It is fortunate for us that the packages are not all piled up at once. Little by little we accustom ourselves to the labour as we plod sullenly on with the tinkling caravan, ignorant, till too late to turn back, of the coming hardships, the endless journey, or the many times that cruel mirage must disappoint our fainting, thirsting spirits ere we reach the welcome resting-place where the cool spring bubbles through its fringe of verdure—where we shall drink our fill of those life-bestowing waters, and stretch ourselves out at last for long, unbroken slumbers under the "shadow of a great rock in a weary land."

But the worst method of all in which to carry our load is to build it up on the pack-saddle so as to attract notice and commiseration from those who travel alongside. The Turkish hamals, indeed, may be seen staggering about Constantinople under enormous bales of merchandise, twice the height and apparently three times the weight of the herculean bearer; but a Turkish hamal, notwithstanding his profession, ignores the meaning of a sore back, moral or physical. Other jades may wince, but, under all circumstances, you may swear his withers are unwrung. To be sure, the first article of his creed is resignation. Fatalism lulls him like opium, though, kinder than that pernicious drug, it leaves no torment of reaction to succeed its soothing trance. Hard work, hard fare, hard bed, hard words, hard lines in general, a tropical sun and the atmosphere of a jungle, it is all in the day's work with him! Backcsheesh he will accept with a smile if he can get it, or he will do without, consoling himself that it is kismet, for "There is one God, and Mahomet is his prophet," With this philosopher, indeed, "a contented mind is a perpetual feast," otherwise how could he sustain his stalwart proportions on a morsel of black bread and a slice of water-melon? His dissipations, too, are mild as his daily meals. A screw of weak tobacco, folded in a paper cigarette, wraps him in a foretaste of his anticipated paradise; a mouthful of thick, black, bitter coffee stands him in lieu of beer, porter, half-and-half, early purl, blue ruin, and dog's-nose. Once a week, or maybe once a month, he goes to the bath for two hours of uninterrupted enjoyment, emerging healthy, happy, refreshed, and clean as a new pin.

Perhaps it is his frugal, temperate life, perhaps it is his calm, acquiescent disposition, that enables him thus to carry weight so complacently. He never fights under it, not he! Through the narrow lanes of Stamboul, across the vibrating wooden bridge of the Golden Horn, up the filthy stairs, not streets, of Pera, he swings along with regulated step and snorting groans, delivered in discordant cadence at each laborious footfall; but he carries his weight, that is the great point—he carries a great deal of it, and he carries it remarkably well—an example of humility and patience to the Christian who employs him, an object of comparison, not much in favour of the latter, between the votaries of the Crescent and the Cross.

When I protest, however, against making a display and a grievance of the load you have to bear, I am far from maintaining that you are to keep it a profound secret, and hide it away in unsuitable places under your clothes. A man can carry a hundred-weight on his shoulders with less inconvenience than a few pounds about his heart. If you doubt this, order cold plum-pudding for luncheon, and you will be convinced! A secret, too, is always a heavy substance to take abroad with you, and your own seems to incommode you more than another's, probably because you are less indifferent about letting it fall. As for attempting to dance lightly along with the jaunty air of an unweighted novice, be assured the effort is not only painful but ridiculous. No! Never be ashamed of your burden, not even though your own folly should have clapped an additional half-hundred on the top of it. Get your shoulders well under the heaviest part, walk as upright as you may, but do not try to swagger; and if you have a friend who likes you well enough to give his assistance, let him catch hold at one end, and so between you move on with it the best way you can.

Some packages grow all the lighter, like a contraband trunk at the Douane, for being weighed and examined, or, as our neighbours call it, "pierced and plumbed." Home again gather increased proportions when we enlarge upon them; but it is only those of which we dare not speak, those which no friend must seem to see, for which no brother must offer a hand, that sink our failing strength, that crush us down humbled and helpless in the mire. There is but one place for such burdens as these, and we never lay them there till we have tried everything else in vain; just as we offer the remnants of a life from which we expect no more pleasure, where we ought to have given all the promise and vigour of our youth, or take an aching, hopeless, worn-out heart back to our only friend, as the crying child runs to its parent with a broken toy


"The ox toils through the furrow,
Obedient to the goad;
The patient ass up flinty paths
Plods with its weary load,"


says Macaulay in his glorious "Lays of Ancient Rome," and something in the nature of both these animals fits them especially for the endurance of labour and the imposition of weight. It is well for a man when he has a little of the bovine repose of character, a good deal of the asinine thickness of skin and insensibility to hard usage. Such a disposition toils on contentedly enough, obedient indeed to the goad so far as moderately to increase the staid solemnity of his gait, taking the flinty path and the weary load as necessary conditions of life, with a serene equanimity for which he has the philosophical example of the ass! The ways are rough, you know, and the journey long. Depend upon it these animals arrive at its termination with less wear and tear, more safety, and even more despatch, than the sensitive, high-spirited, and courageous horse, wincing from the lash, springing to the voice, striving, panting, sweating, straining every muscle to get home.

In the parable of the "Ancient Mariner"—for is it not ndeed the wildest, dreamiest, and most poetical of parables?—you remember the hopelessness of the weight he carried when


"Instead of the cross the albatross
About his neck was hung."

 

It was not his misfortune, you see, but his crime that bore him down. Its consciousness lay far heavier on his spirit than did his after-punishment, when, weary and desolate, he wailed that he was


"Alone, alone, all, all alone.
Alone on a wide, wide sea,
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony."


The saints, indeed, might not have heard him; how do we know about that? but he was heard nevertheless, and thus he got rid of his burden to raise his head once more in the face of heaven.

He looked upon beauty, nature, animate life, the wonders of the deep, the creatures of his Maker, and "blessed them unaware!"

Enough. The hideous dream vanishes, the unholy spell is broken, and he cries exulting,

 

"That self-same moment I could pray,
And from my neck so free
The albatross fell off, and sunk
Like lead into the sea."


I sometimes think that women bear their burdens with less apparent struggle, less toil or complaint, than men; and this although they own more of the horse's anxious temperament than the sluggish nature of the ox and the ass. If they have less "nerve" than ourselves—less of the coolness which springs from constitutional insensibility to danger—they have more of that mettlesome spirit which is sometimes called "pluck," that indomitable courage which acknowledges no failure for defeat, which never sleeps upon its post, which can bear up bravely even against the sickness and depression of unremitting pain. It is proverbial that in all phases of mere bodily suffering they show twice the patience and twice the fortitude of the stronger sex; while who shall say how much of silent sorrow they can cherish and conceal in troubled hearts while they go about their daily business with smiles on their gentle faces, with a tranquil, staid demeanour seeming to chant in soft, harmonious cadence the watchword of All's Well!

Do you not think they, too, keep their favourite skeletons (far less perfect than yourself) hoarded, hidden away, locked up, but not to be buried or forgotten for the worth of kingdoms? Do you suppose they never bring them out to be hugged, and fondled, and worshipped, and wept over?—


"In the dead unhappy night, and when the rain is on the roof."


Bah! It is a world of shams. If a woman is not a hypocrite she must be a stone!

We should give them greater credit though could we learn more of the weights they have to carry. But their training is known only to themselves; their trials come off in secret; the saddles they wear are jealously locked up, and they take care to keep the key! I think the reason they run so kindly is that they apply themselves very frequently to the last resource of the Ancient Mariner when he saw no escape from his punishment, when he was over-weighted with his curse.

I know not: I only know that the quiet courage, the generous spirit, the untiring endurance with which they perform the journey of life is too generally ignored, unappreciated, and thrown away. How often have we not seen a thorough-bred horse ridden by a butcher? a being little lower than an angel submitting, gentle and patient, to a creature little higher than a brute.