"Bones and I"/Chapter 2

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

Chapter titles decoration--Bones and I.png


CHAPTER II.

THROUGH THE MILL.

MOST people are ashamed of their skeletons, hiding them up in their respective cupboards as though the very ownership were a degradation—alluding to them, perhaps, occasionally in the domestic circle, but ignoring them utterly before the world—a world that knows all about them the while,—that has weighed their skulls, counted their ribs, and can tell the very recesses in which they are kept. Now, in my opinion, to take your skeleton out and air him on occasion, is very good for both of you. It brings him to his proper dimensions, which are apt to become gigantic if he is hidden too scrupulously in the dark, and it affords opportunities for comparison with other specimens of the same nature entertained by rival proprietors in the line. If I kept mine, as some do, in close confinement, I should be in a continual fidget about his safety; above all, I should dread his breaking out at untoward seasons, when he was least expected, and least desired. But "Bones and I" have no cause to be ashamed of each other. There is no disgrace nor discomfort attached to either of us in our cheerful companionship. He is good enough to express satisfaction with his present lodging, and even affirms that he finds it airy and commodious, as compared with his last; while it is a real pleasure to me, living as I do so much alone, to have a quiet, intelligent companion, with whom I can discuss the different phases of existence, speculative and real,—the sower who never reaps—the fools who are full of bread, roses for one, thorns for another; here over-ripe fruit, there grapes sour, though by no means out of reach; successful bows drawn at a venture, well-aimed shafts that never attain the mark, impossible hopes, unavailing regrets—the baseless mirage of the Future, and the barren reality of the Past.

It was colder last night. The wind was getting up in those fitful howls which denote the commencement of a two-days' gale; veering besides from east by north to east north east. So we made fast the shutters, stirred the fire, and drew our chairs in for a comfortable chat. Something in the sound of that waking blusterer out of doors recalled to me, I know not why, the image of a good ship, many long years ago, beating on the wide Atlantic against a headwind, that seemed to baffle her the more for every plunge she made. No steam had she to help her struggle against the elements; tough hemp, patched canvas, and spars as yet unsprung, were all her reliance; and these strained, flapped, and creaked to some purpose while she battled foot by foot to lie her course. Again I seemed to watch the dark wave race by our quarter, with its leaping crest of foam, the trickling deck, the battened hold, the diving bowsprit, the dripping spars, the soaking canvas, with its row of reef-points like the notes on a music-score. And the grey, sullen curtain of mist and rain, walking on the waters, nearer, nearer, till it dashed its needle-pointed drops into my face. Again I looked admiringly on the men at the wheel, with their pea-jackets, glazed hats, sea-going mits, keen, wary glances, and minute wrinkles about the eyes. Again I heard the pleasant voice of the bravest, cheeriest skipper that ever stood five feet two, and weighed fifteen stone, while he accosted me with his "Dirty weather, sir, and looks sulky to windward still. Makes her drive piles, as we say, and speak Spanish about the bows; but she behaves beautifully! Bless you, she likes it! Yes, I expect we shall have it hotter and heavier too, after sundown. A head-wind, no doubt. I've just been jotting off the reckoning; you'll find the chart below, in my cabin. We've made a longer leg than common on the starboard tack. I've left a pencil-mark at the exact spot where we went about. Steady, men (this to the glazed hats)! Luff, and be d——d to you! Can't ye see it coming?"

So I went below and conned the captain's chart thoughtfully enough, comparing our great expenditure of energy with the small results attained, and wondering how we were ever to make our port at last.

The scene thus conjured up awoke its corresponding fancies.

"Have you never reflected," said I, "on the utter fallacy of that French proverb which affirms, 'Ce n'est que le premier pas qui coûte?' Unless indeed it refers to immorality, the downward career of which beats the rolling stone of Sisyphus in a canter. But on all other journeys through life, it seems to me that not only the first steps, but the first leagues, are intensely laborious and unsatisfactory. Disappointment lies in wait at every milestone, and the traveller feels tired already ere he has reached the crest of the first hill. All crowns, I grant you, like those of the Isthmian Games, are mere parsley at best; but in these days no competitor ever wins that worthless headdress till he is so bald that common decency demands a covering. Where are the heaven-born statesmen now, to rule the destinies of continents at twenty-six? the generals and admirals, who became world-wide heroes within ten years of corporal punishment at school? the poets full-fledged in immortality before their whiskers were grown? Where, in short, will you point me out a single instance of any individual attaining fame until his zest for it has passed away—winning his pedestal till his poor legs are too tired to stand straight thereon—making his fortune till he is too old to enjoy it; or, indeed, getting anything he wants when he wants it? Lazarus has no dinner—Dives has no appetite—Struggler, who thinks he has both, is sure to be kept waiting that extra half-hour, which sickens him, and finds he can't eat his soup when it comes!

"What up-hill work it is, that beginning of the pilgrimage. And how confidently we start in the glorious ignorance of youth, heads erect, backs straightened, footsteps springing like a deer, with an utter disregard of warning, a sovereign contempt for advice. Like myself, I doubt not you have scaled many a hill, even when you carried more flesh than you do now. Don't you remember, in the clear, pure mountain air, how near the top looked from the valley down below? Don't you remember how, about noonday, still full of strength and spirit, though having done a stalwart spell of work, you spied the ridge that you were convinced must be your goal, and strained on, panting, heated, labouring, yet exultant, because success was so nearly within your grasp? A few more strides—hurrah! your chin is level with the ridge, and lo! there is another precisely similar to be surmounted at about the same angle and the same distance. Not yet discouraged, only a little startled and annoyed, till another and another have been gained, and so surprise becomes disappointment, vexation, misgiving, discomfiture, and lastly, but to the strongest natures, despair! Even with these, when the real summit has been at length attained, all their long-looked-for enjoyment resolves itself into the negative satisfaction of rest; and for one who thus arrives exhausted at his destination, think how many a footsore, quivering, way-wearied wanderer must lie out all night shelterless, on the barren, wind-swept hill.

"It seems that the process, termed at Newmarket, 'putting a race-horse through the mill,' is practised with the human subject till he has learned the disheartening lesson that labour pushed to exhaustion borders on pain—that heartbreaking efforts, while they lower the tone of our whole system, are apt to destroy the very efficiency they are intended to enhance. I have heard good judges affirm that even at Newmarket they are apt to over-train their horses. Do you not think that we, too, should run the race of life on better terms were we not put so pitilessly 'through the mill?'"

Here my companion allowed himself a mild gesture of dissent, clasping his bony lingers over his knotted knees, as if prepared to go into the subject at length. "You are one of those people," said he, "who seem to think the world is intended for a place of uninterrupted rest and enjoyment—a sort of 'Fiddler's Green,' as sailors term their paradise, where it is to be 'beer and skittles' every day and all day long. You would have no 'small end to the horn,' as my friends over the water say; and what sort of music do you think you could blow out of it? You would have food without hunger, rest without labour, energy without effort. You would be always going downhill, instead of up. And think where your journey would end at last! You object to the mill, you say, and yet it is that same process of grinding which converts the grain into flour fit for bread. Look at the untried man, the youth embarking on his career, vain, ignorant, sanguine, over-confident, prejudiced. How is he to learn his own powers, his capabilities of endurance, his energy under difficulties, above all, his readiness of resource, save by repeated disappointment and reverse? You have alluded to statesmen, commanders, and poets, who, in seven-leagued boots as it were, reached the top of the hill at one stride. But Pitt's was an abnormal temperament—a grey head upon green shoulders—an old man's heart beating its regular pulsations within the slender compass of a young man's waistcoat. Nelson's chivalrous and romantic disposition preserved him from the overweening vanity and self-esteem that might have been looked for as the result of such brilliant achievements at so early an age. His mad, absorbing passion, too, may have scored many a furrow in the hero's heart, while his young brow remained smooth and fair as marble. 'On vieillit bientôt sur le champ de bataille!' and the first Napoleon's aphorism holds good no surer on the field of honour than in the lists of love. Shelley's fate was scarcely an enviable one; and did you like Byron any better after you had read his letters and learned the demoralizing effects, even on such genius as his, of temples crowned by an immortal Fame, ere yet the beard had sprouted on his chin?

"Alexander of Macedon, indeed, conquered the world before he was thirty, and—drank himself to death ere he had reached his prime!

"The fact that he does not care one straw about it, is the very antidote to preserve a man from the subtle poison of success. He who has been long climbing the ladder finds that when he looks over the parapet all sense of elevation and consequent giddiness is gone. Whatever others may think, to his own perceptions he is on a level with the rest of his kind—can judge of them, and for them, from the same point of view; and, more important still, experiences no misgivings that he may topple down and break his neck. Ambition is a glorious lure, no doubt, tempting the climber to noble efforts, skilful, vigorous, and well-sustained. But when he has reached the fancied resting-place so ardently desired, what does he find? A keener air, a scantier foothold, a sentry-box instead of a feather-bed, a stern necessity for farther exertion, where he expected indulgence and enjoyment and repose.

"Duty is a cold-eyed monitress, reserved, inflexible, severe; Ambition, a high-born lady, haughty, capricious, unfeeling, like those dainty dames of old patrician Rome,

'Who in Corinthian mirrors their own proud smiles behold;
Who breathe of Capuan odours, and shine in Spanish gold;'

Pleasure, a laughing, lavish courtezan, gay, gaudy, thoughtless, slave to the impression of the hour. This last you may buy at your will for a handful of silver, or, at most, a talent of gold; and there are few, alas! who have not learned how soon her false smile palls upon the fancy, her painted cheek grows irksome to the eye. The second you must woo, with many a stealthy footstep, many a cringing bow, offering at her shrine truth, honour, self-respect, to find, if you are so fortunate as not to be discarded like a pair of worn-out gloves, that you have only gathered a nut without a kernel, after all. For the first, you must serve as Jacob served, through long years of labour, patience, and self-denial; but when you have won your Rachel at last, she discloses for you all her glorious, unfading beauty, cleaving to you, true and constant through good and evil, the warmth and comfort of your hearth, the light of your happy home.

"When the courtezan has been paid off and dismissed in early youth, the haughty lady wooed through long years of manhood, and won, to be despised, in middle life, this is the goddess you claim to be your bride, and once wedded, you will never leave her till you die.

"The Isthmian crown was indeed woven from humble parsley, but do you think it could have borne a higher value had every leaf consisted of beaten gold? Which would you rather wear, the bronze Victoria Cross, or the Star and Ribbon of the Garter?

Depend upon it, that to the young champion of the games, flushed, exulting, treading upon air, that vegetable coronal represented everything most desirable and precious in earth or heaven. No; it is the old experienced athlete, the winner of a thousand prizes, who has learned the intrinsic value of the article, and who knows that its worth consists not in itself, nor even in the victory it represents, but in the strength of frame, the speed of foot attained by training for its pursuit. From many a long summer's day of toil and abstinence, from panting lungs and aching muscles, from brows covered with sweaty and feet with dust, he has wrested the endurance of the camel, the strength of the ox, and the footfall of the deer. Does he grudge his past labour? Not he, thankful that he has been 'through the mill.'

"I grant you the process is not entirely pleasant; I grant you that effort is with many men a sensation of discomfort almost amounting to pain; that self-denial is very difficult to most, disappointment simply disgusting to all. When the body feels weary, the brain overtasked, we are apt to think the meal is being bolted too fine, the grinding becoming unnecessarily severe; above all, when that pitiless millstone comes crushing down upon the heart, and pounds it to powder, we cry aloud in our agony, and protest that no sorrow was ever so unbearable as ours. What mole working underground is so blind as humanity to its own good? Why, that same grinding to powder is the only means by which the daintiest flour can be obtained. The finest nature, like the truest steel, must be tempered in the hottest furnace; so much caloric would be thrown away on an inferior metal. Capacity for suffering infers also capacity for achievement; and who would grudge the pain about his brows, when it reminded him he was wearing an imperial crown?

"Sooner or later the process must be undergone by all. With some it goes on through a lifetime; others get the worst of it over in a few years. One man may have done with it altogether before his strength of mind or body has failed with declining age—

'Dum nova canities—dum prima et recta senectus.'

"His neighbour may have one foot in the grave before the grain has been thoroughly purged and sifted, and refined to its purest quality, but through the mill he must pass. It is just as much a necessity of humanity as hunger or thirst, or sorrow or decay. There is no escape. However long protracted, it is inexorable, unavoidable, and effectual, for

'Though the mills of God grind slowly,
Yet they grind exceeding small.'"