"Bones and I"/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI.

SHADOWS.

"COMING events cast their shadows before," says a favourite adage of that proverbial philosophy which is often so quaint and truthful, sometimes so contradictory and far-fetched. In the present instance the maxim, I think, is contradicted by our individual convictions and general experience. For my own part I protest I am no believer in presentiments. That is a beautiful fiction of poetry, completely unsubstantiated by the prosaic events of life, which represents the predestined sufferer as one who


"Still treads the shadow of his foe,"


while the arm of the avenger, uplifted though unseen, intercepts the light of heaven ere yet its blow descends. Poets, no doubt, lay their foundations on a basis of truth, but, as befits their profession, do not scruple to raise a superstructure in magnificent disproportion to the limits of their ground-plan. I will appeal to nine people out of every ten whose lot it has been to sustain severe affliction—and I think that is nearly nine-tenths of the human race—whether they have not found themselves staggered or prostrated by blows as sudden as they were overwhelming; whether the dagger has not always been a more deadly weapon than the sword, the marksman behind the hedge a more fatal enemy than the battery on its eminence, the hidden reef a worse disaster than the adverse gale, and whether their hopes, their happiness, or their fortunes, have not failed them at the very moment when the false waves smiled serenely at the calm skies overhead—


"Like ships that on a summer sea
Have gone down sailing tranquilly."


No; these forthcoming shadows need not disturb our repose. They owe their origin neither to heart nor brain, but proceed from liver, and I should think must be quite unknown to him who "lives on sixpence a day and earns it!"

What a life we should lead if we could look an inch before our noses! Of all curses to humanity the bitterest would be the gift of foresight. I often think a man's progress towards his grave is like that of a sculler labouring up-stream, we will say from Richmond to Teddington Lock. By taking the established and conventional course he avoids collision with his kind and proceeds in comparative safety By certain side-glances and general knowledge of the river, which we may compare to the warnings of experience and the reasonings of analogy, he obtains an inkling, far removed from certainty, of much approaching trouble to which his back is turned. By observing the track of his own boat rippling the surface many a yard astern, he learns to guide his course, just as he would correct his conduct by the lessons of the past. Now the stream runs hard against him, and he must work his way foot by foot with honest, unremitting toil. Now he shoots along through slack water, much to his own content and self-approval, but under no circumstances, however formidable, must he completely relax his efforts, for the current would soon float him back to the place from whence he came. Many a scene of beauty, many a lovely nook, and sunny lawn, and fairy palace glides by him as he goes—fading, vanishing, shut out by the intervening point, to leave but a memory of their attractions, dispelled in turn by ever-recurring beauties of meadow, wood, and water.

So he plods steadily on, accepting the labour, enjoying the pleasures of his trip, and nearing with every stroke the haven he is to reach at last.

However healthy and invigorating the toil, however varied and delightful the passage, I think he will not be sorry to arrive at Teddington Lock, there to ship his oars, moor his boat under the willows, and so, lulled by the murmur of the ever-flowing waters, with folded arms, up-turned face, and eyes wandering drowsily heavenwards, fall peacefully asleep.

But the shadows which cross our path to our greatest deception and detriment are those for which we so willingly abandon the substances whereof they are but the fading phantoms, as the dog in the fable dropped a piece of meat out of his jaws to snatch a like morsel from the other dog he saw reflected in the water. Every day men grasp at clouds as did Ixion, bartering eagerly for that which they know to be illusive the solid joys and advantages of life. How many people in the possession of sufficient incomes deprive themselves of common comfort in an attempt to appear richer and more liberal than they really are! How many forego the society of friends in which they find honest pleasure for that of mere acquaintances with whom they have scarce a thought in common, because the latter, perhaps themselves sacrificed to the same illusion, move in a higher and more ostentatious class of society! With one the shadow is a reputation for wealth, with another for taste. Here it is a, house in Belgravia, there a villa on the Thames; sometimes a position in the county, a seat in parliament, or a peerage long dormant in a race of squires.

Whatever it may be the pursuer follows it at the best speed he can command, finding, usually, that the faster he goes the faster it flies before him; and when he comes up with it at last to enfold the phantom in his longing embrace, behold! it crumbles away to disappointment in his very arms.

I have seen Cerito dancing her famous shadow-dance; I have watched a child following its own retreating figure, lengthened to gigantic proportions in an afternoon sun, with shouts of wonder and delight; I once observed, perhaps the prettiest sight of the three, a thorough-bred foal gallop up to some park-palings, to wince and scour away from the distorted representation of a race-horse it met there, in the wild, graceful freedom of a yet unbridled youth; and I have thought of the many shadows that lure us all, between the cradle and the grave, only to impose on us in their fullest signification the different sentiments of disbelief, dis-illusion, and disgust. When Peter Schlemihl made his ill-advised bargain with the devil, that shrewd purchaser quietly rolled up his victim's shadow and put it in his own pocket. When Michael Scott, in the completion of his education at Padua, had mastered certain intricacies of the black art, his fellow-students observed to their consternation that while they walked in the college gardens with the wise north countryman,


"His form no darkening shadow cast
Athwart the sunny wall."


The first step in supernatural, learning, the first condition for the attainment of superhuman power, seems to have been the dismissal of so inconvenient and unmeaning an appurtenance as a shadow.

How many people have I known, and these not the least endearing and capable of their kind, over whose whole lives the shadow of a memory, though growing fainter day by day, has yet been dark enough to throw a gloom that the warmest rays of friendship and affection were powerless to dispel! Sometimes, indeed, that darkness seems dearer to them than the glories of the outer world; sometimes, and this is the hardest fate of all, they cling to it the closer that they feel the illusion has been to them a more reliable possession than the reality. There is a world of tender longing, bitter experience, and sad, suggestive pathos in Owen Meredith's lament—


"How many a night 'neath her window have I walked in the wind and the rain,
Only to look on her shadow fleet over the lighted pane!
Alas! 'twas the shadow that rested—'twas herself that fleeted, you see—
And now I am dying—I know—it! Dying—and where is she?"

 

The shadow he had worshipped so fondly was not more fleeting than the dream on which he had anchored a man's honest hopes, and wasted a man's generous, unsuspecting heart.

Then we see our shadows at points of view so peculiar to ourselves, in lights that so distort and disguise their proportions, it is no wonder if for us they become phantoms of formidable magnitude and overpowering aspect. The demon of the Hartz Mountains is said to be nothing more than the reflection or shadow of the traveller's own person, as seen under certain abnormal conditions of refraction against a morning or evening sky. Such demons most of us keep of our own, and we take care never to look at them but at the angle which magnifies them out of all reasonable proportions. When you see mine and I yours, each of us is surprised at the importance attached to his spectral illusion by the other. Yours seems to me a diminutive and contemptible little devil enough; and doubtless, although you never may have entertained a high opinion of my mental powers or moral force of character, both are fallen fifty per cent, in your estimation since you have been brought face to face with the bugbear by which they are overridden and kept down. If we could but change shadows we should both of us get back into the sun. Alas! that all the magic art of Michael Scott himself would fail to effect such a trick of legerdemain. Alas! that we must bear as best we can, each for himself, the gloomy presence that makes us so dull of cheer, so sad of countenance, and so cold about the heart.

Men adopt a great many different methods to get rid of their respective shadows, approximating more or less to the conclusive plan of Peter Schlemihl aforesaid, who sold his outright to the devil. Some try to lose it amongst a crowd of fellow-creatures, all with the same familiar attendants of their own; others struggle with it in solitude, and find themselves halting and maimed after the conflict, like him who wrestled of old with the angel at Penuel "until the breaking of the day." One thinks to stifle his tormentor in business, another to lull him with pleasure, a third to drown him in wine. None of these remedies seem to answer the purpose desired. Blue-books, bankers' books, betting-books are unable to break the spell; over the pages of each he throws the all-pervading gloom. Neither is he to be worsted by the gleam of many candles flashing only less brightly than the sparkle of Beauty's jewels and the lustre of her soft eyes in "halls of dazzling light." On the contrary, it is here that, may be from the force of contrast, he asserts his power with the greatest determination, coming out, as is but natural, under the vivid glare thrown on him in a stronger and more uncompromising relief. To steep him in wine is often but to increase his dimensions out of all reasonable proportions, and at best only gets rid of him for a night that he may return in the morning refreshed and invigorated to vindicate his sovereignty over the enfeebled rebel he controls. There are means of dispelling the darkness, no doubt, but I fear they are not to be found in the resources of study, certainly not in the distractions of dissipation nor the feverish delirium of vice. It must be a warm, genial, and unusually generous disposition which is not warped and dwarfed by a shadow cast upon it in youth, or indeed at any period of life; but for animate as for inanimate nature there are black frosts as well as white. The latter evaporate with the morning sun in light wreaths of vapour and perhaps a few tears sparkling like diamonds, to be succeeded by brilliant sunshine, unclouded till the close of its short winter's day; the former, grim, grey, and lowering, parch and wither up the life of every green thing, drawing her shroud, as it were, over the cold, dead face of earth ere she is buried in the darkness of approaching night.

It is hard upon youth to see its rosy morning overcast by the shadow; but it has many hours yet to look forward to before noon, and can afford to wait for brighter weather. Far more cruelly does age feel the withdrawal of that light it had trusted in to cheer its declining day; a light it can never hope to welcome again, because long ere the shadow shall be withdrawn from the chilled and weary frame, its sun will have gone down for ever into the ocean of eternity.

People talk a great deal about that physical impossibility which they are pleased to term "a broken heart;" and the sufferer who claims their sympathy under such an abnormal affliction is invariably a young person of the gentler sex. I have no doubt in my own mind, nevertheless, that a severe blow to the fortunes, the self-esteem, the health, or the affections, is far more severely felt after forty than before thirty; and yet who ever heard of an elderly gentleman breaking his heart? Anything else you please, his word, his head, his waistcoat-strings, or even his neck, but his heart! Why, the assumption is ludicrous. If you consult the statistics of suicide, however, you will be suprised to find in how many instances this most reckless of crimes is committed by persons of mature age, though it is strange that those whose span in the course of nature is likely to be so short should think it worth while to curtail it with their own hand. There is another shadow, too, which, apart from all finer feelings of the heart or intellect, has a pernicious effect on our interests and welfare. It is cast by our own opaque substances when we persist in an inconvenient attitude, commonly called "standing in our own light." Parents and guardians, those who have the care of young people, generally are well aware of its irritating persistency and disagreeable consequences. It is provoking to find all your efforts thwarted by the very person on whose behalf they are made. After much trouble, and the eating of more dirt than you can digest in comfort, you obtain for a lad a high stool in a counting-house, an appointment to the Indian army, or a berth in a Chinese merchantman, fondly hoping that in one way or another he is provided for, and off your hands at last. But after a while behold him back again, like a consignment of damaged goods! He has been too fast for the clerkship, too idle for the army, not sober enough for the sea. With a fine chance and everything in his favour, he "stood in his own light," and must abide by the gloom he has himself made. Or perhaps, though this is a rarer case, because women's perceptions of their own interest are usually very keen, it is your Blanche, or your Rose, or your Violet who thus disappoints the magnificent expectations you have founded on her beauty, her youth, her eyes, her figure, and her general fascinations. The peer with his unencumbered estate and his own personal advantages would have proposed to a certainty, was only waiting for an opportunity—he told his sister so—when that last ten minutes at croquet with Tom, those half-dozen extra rounds in the cotillon with Harry, scared this shy bird from the decoy, and he went off to Melton in disgust. Rose, Blanche, or Violet "stood in her own light," and must be content for the rest of her career to burn tallow instead of wax.

The shadows, however, which ladies preserve for their own private annoyance cast surprisingly little gloom over their pretty persons while they are before the world. A new dress, a coming ball, a race-meeting, or a picnic, are sufficient to dispel them at a moment's notice; and though doubtless when these palliatives are exhausted, when they put their candles out at night, the darkness gathers all the thicker for its lucid interval of distraction, it is always something to have got rid of it even for an hour.

That women feel very keenly, nobody who knows anything about them can doubt. That they feel very deeply is a different question altogether. In some rare instances they may indeed be found, when the light they love is quenched, to sit by preference in darkness for evermore; but general rule the feminine organization is thoroughly appreciative of the present, somewhat forgetful of the past, and exceedingly reckless of the future.

For both sexes, however, there must in their course through life be shadows deep in proportion to the brilliancy of the sunshine in which they bask. "Shall we receive good at the hand of God," says Job, "and shall we not receive evil?" thereby condensing into one pithy sentence perhaps the profoundest system of philosophy ever yet submitted to mankind. The evil always seems to us greater than the good, the shadows more universal than the sunshine; but with how little reason we need only reflect for a moment to satisfy ourselves. There is a gleam in which we often fondly hope to dispel our shadows, delusive as the "will-o'-the-wisp," a light "that never yet was seen on sea or shore," which is cruelly apt to lure us on reefs and quicksands, to guide us only to eventual shipwreck; but there is also a glimmer, faint and feeble here, yet capable of dispelling the darkest shadows that ever cross our path, which if we will only follow it truthfully and persistently for a very brief journey, shall cheer us heartily and guide us steadfastly till it widens and brightens into the glory of eternal day.