"Bones and I"/Chapter 3

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

Chapter titles decoration--Bones and I.png


CHAPTER III.

GOURDS.

SO Jonah was exceeding glad of the Gourd. I can understand his feelings perfectly. Does it not happen to most of us, at least once in a lifetime, thus to be "exceeding glad of the Gourd," and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred with the same result?" Nil violentum est perpetuum. So surely as it comes up in a night, so surely must it wither in a day You have been in a hot climate? I don't intend any disagreeable allusion, I mean the tropics, I give you my honour! Do you not remember the delight of getting out of your tent, or "booth" as we still call them at our village merry-makings, to sit under anything like a tree or shrub, where, shaded from the sun, you could catch the welcome breath of every breeze that blew? The French officers in the Crimea used to build for themselves trellised out-houses of branches interlaced, swearing volubly the while, and appearing to derive from these bowers no small comfort and refreshment. I can imagine the astonishment of "mon lieutenant" when, on waking in his tent, he should have discovered, like "Jack and the Bean-stalk," that one of these had sprung up for him, unsolicited, in a night. How he would have stared, and shrugged, and gesticulated, and cursed his star with less asperity, and been "exceeding glad of the Gourd!"

They are of many kinds, these excrescences that grow up with such marvellous celerity to afford us an intense and illusive delight; but they all resemble their prototype at Nineveh, in so far that, ere the seed has yet germinated, the worm is already prepared which shall smite the gourd, and cause it to wither away. There were hundreds of them shot to gigantic dimensions and exploded with the South Sea bubble of the last century Thousands owed their birth and disappearance to the railway fever of five-and-twenty years ago. Not a few were called into existence by a blockade of the Southern ports, during the late war of opinion in the United States, and destroyed by its suspension at the peace. It seems to be a law in the moral as in the physical world that the endurance of things must be in proportion to the length of time required to bring them to maturity The oak is said to be three hundred years in arriving at its prime, and that its vigour is still unimpaired after a thousand changes of foliage we have ocular demonstration in many parts of England; while the mustard-and-cress, which can be raised in twenty minutes on a square of flannel dipped in hot water, wastes and withers away in an hour.

The same in the animal creation. Like Minerva from the brain of Jove, the butterfly springs into its sunny existence, winged, armed, and clothed in gorgeous apparel, all at once; but when the night-breeze shakes the perfume from your garden-flowers, and the evening-bank of clouds is coming up from the west, you look for that ephemeral masterpiece in vain. Now the elephant only attains his majority, so to speak, when between forty and fifty years of age; therefore he has hardly become an "old rogue" at two hundred, and the identical proboscis that saluted Clyde, or curled round the crushed remains of Tippoo Sahib's victims is to-day lowered in honour of our own jeunesse dorée, with whom a run through British India is considered little more of an expedition than a jaunt into Welsh Wales.

Cornaro, if I remember right, fixes the normal duration of life, in the Mammalia, at a term of five times the number of years required to reach their prime. Thus a dog, he says, comes to maturity at two, and lives till ten; a horse at five, and lives till five-and-twenty; and arguing by analogy, a man, who only attains his full strength at twenty-three or four, should not, therefore, if he led a natural and rational life, succumb till he had arrived at a hundred and fifteen or twenty years.

Forbid it, Atropos! for their sakes as well as ours. Think of the old fogies, now sufficiently numerous, who would overflow the clubs! Think, when it came to our own turn, of the numbers of Gourds we should have raised, outlived, buried, but, alas! not forgotten.

"A fine old man, sir!" said one of the best judges of human nature that ever fathered a proverb. "There's no such thing. If his head or his heart had been worth anything, they would have worn him out years ago!"

"You have got off the subject as usual," objected Bones, "and are trenching on a topic of which you are far less qualified to speak than myself What do you know about the duration of life, the ceaseless wear-and-tear, the gradual decay, the last flickers of the candle, leaping up, time after time, with delusive strength, until it goes out once for all? You can tell where Noah was, but do you know where the candle went to when it left the great sea-captain in the dark? Not you! Never mind, don't fret, you will find out some day sure enough, and be as wise as 'Tullus, Ancus, good Eneas,' and the rest of us! In the meantime stick to your text. The morbid spirit possesses you, and well I know it will only come out of the man with much talking. If it does you any good, never mind me—fire away ! Tell us something more about the Gourd, and the worm that smote it. That is what you are driving at, I feel sure."

"'Morbid!'" I repeated, somewhat indignantly "And why morbid, I should like to know? A man takes his stand, as you and I do, outside of, and apart from, the circling, shifting mass of his fellow-creatures, and makes his own observations, uninfluenced by their clamour, their customs, their ridiculous prejudices and opinions, confiding those observations unreservedly to one who should, ex-officio indeed, be entirely free from the earthly trammels that cumber liberal discussion in general society, and he is to be called morbid, forsooth! It was only one of your ghastly jests, was it? Enough! I am satisfied. There can be no bone of contention—I mean no subject of dispute—between you and me—we have not the ghost of a reason—I mean the shadow of a cause—for disagreement. I confess my weakness: I own to a fatal tendency to digression. One thought leads to another, and they follow in a string, like wild geese, or heirs of entail, 'velut unda supervenit undam!' By the way, this very subject, the association of ideas, opens up a boundless field for speculation. But I refrain—I return to my Gourd—I am back in Nineveh with the prophet once more. Nineveh, in its imperial splendour, gorgeous in Eastern colouring, sublime with Eastern magnificence, glittering with Eastern decorations—solemn, gloomy, and gigantic; grand in the massive dignity of size, winged bulls hewn from the solid rock guard the long perspective of a thousand avenues, leading to palaces that rise, tier upon tier, into the glowing sky. Lavish profusion—marble, and bronze, and gold—gleams and dazzles and flashes in the streets. The palm-tree bends her graceful head earthward; the aloe aims her angry spikes at heaven, the camel, with meek appealing eyes, seems to protest against the bales of costly merchandize with which its back is piled; the white elephant in scarlet trappings, stolid and sagacious, stands patient, waiting for its lord; throngs of dusky, half-naked Asiatics pass to and fro along the baking causeways; loud bleatings of sheep, lowings of oxen, cries of parched, thirsty animals resound in the suburbs; while over all a Southern sun blazes down with scorching fury, and an east wind off the Desert comes blustering in, hot and stifling, like a blast from hell.

"So the prophet is 'exceeding glad of his Gourd.' He will rest in its shade; he will look pitifully on the broiling passers-by; he will hug himself in that sense of comfort which human nature, alas! is too apt to experience from the very fact that others are in a worse condition than its own; but even while he thus rejoices, the worm has done its work—the Gourd is withered up, the sirocco suffocates his lungs, the sun beats on his head, and, like the rest of us when we lose that which we choose to consider the one thing essential to our happiness, he shows the white feather on the spot, and says, 'It is better for me to die than to live.'

"Death never seems to come for those who wish it—though perhaps if the Great Liberator felt bound to appear every time he was invoked, the cry might not be raised quite so often. Who is there that has not bowed his head in misery, and wondered whether he could be so wretched anywhere else as here, in the mocking sunlight, with his Gourd withered before his face? It is gone—gone. See! There is the very spot on which it stood but yesterday, so green,so fresh, so full of life, so rich in promise! And to-day—a blank! It seems impossible! Ay, that is perhaps the worst of the suffering—that numbed, stupefied state, which refuses for a time to grasp the extent of its affliction—that perverse and cowardly instinct which clings to a thread that it yet knows is wholly severed—-which turns even Hope to a curse, because it makes her a bar to resignation. Few of us can boast more courage than Jonah when the Gourd is fairly withered away

"For one it has been riches, perhaps, comprising luxury, position, variety—all the advantages that spring from an abundance of worldly goods. Some fine morning, Fortune, 'ludem insolentem ludere pertinax,' gives her wings a shake, spreads them, and flits away; leaving in her place haggard Want, gaunt Ruin, bailiffs in the drawing-room, furniture ticketed for sale up-stairs. The children's rocking-horse, the wife's pianoforte, all the well-known trflies of daily use and ornament, must be cast into the chasm, as the Romans threw their effects into that awkward rent in the Forum. And the master of the household is fortunate if he be not compelled, like Curtius, to leap in after his goods. His friends are astonished, and bless themselves. His relations had predicted the catastrophe long ago. These, of course, turn their backs on him, incontinently, from motives of self-respect, no doubt, but a few of the former, such as had professed to love him least, lend a helping hand. Nevertheless, the Gourd is withered, and the man, faint and sick unto death, only wishes his hour was come and he might lie down to be at rest.

"Or it has been a child—God forbid it should have been an only one! Some golden-headed darling that used to patter downstairs with you every morning to breakfast, and stand at your elbow every night after dinner. Whose dancing eyes never met your own but with the merry, saucy, confiding glances that seldom outlast a fifth birthday, and to whom you could no more have said an unkind word than you could cut off your right hand. Yesterday it was chasing butterflies across the lawn, and you carried it yourself with laughing triumph, rosy, happy, and hungry, in to tea. But the worm had begun, its work, even then. This morning you missed the glad little voice at breakfast, and looking at the jam on the table a sad misgiving, stifled as soon as born, shot through you like a knife. It was pitiful to watch all day, in the nursery, by the little bed,—to see the golden head lying so listless, the chubby hands so waxen and still, the heavy lids drooping so wearily over the blue eyes that yet shone with a light you never saw in them before. There rose a mist to dim your own when the patient little voice asked, gently, 'Is that papa?'—and noticing two or three neglected playthings on the counterpane, you walked to the window and wept.

"So the afternoon wore on, and the doctor came, and there was cruel hope and torturing suspense, and a wrench that so stupefied you, it is difficult to remember anything clearly afterwards, though you have a dim perception of a pair of scissors severing some golden curls, while nurse went down on her knees to pray.

"And at sundown you walk out into your garden along the very path that brought you both home yesterday, but you walk like a man in a dream, for ringing in your ears is the wail that was heard of old in Ramah, and you know your darling is with the angels, wondering feebly why that knowledge cannot console you more.

"Or perhaps your Grourd was 'only a woman's love!'—not a growth, certainly, however exuberant, on which a wise man should place so much dependence as on lignum vitæ, for instance, or heart-of-oak. But, so far as I can see, either wise men do not fall in love, or they allow wisdom to slip out of their grasp in the very act of making that fatal stumble. So, in defiance of all theory, warning, and practical experience, you may have congratulated yourself with insane vehemence on the upspringing of this delicate exotic, and looked forward to the passing of many happy hours under its shade. You shut your eyes wilfully, of course, to the obvious fact that you never are happy, even when in full accomplishment of your wishes you stretch your lazy length at the feet of your Gourd. There is sure to be an insect that stings, or a sunbeam that dazzles, or a cold wind in the nape of your neck. Nevertheless, the vegetable, so long as it exists, is not only the delight of your heart, but the very sustenance of your brain. That is the fatal part of the disease. Your Gourd connects itself with everything you think, or do, or say, spreading her roots, as it were, over every foot of land you possess, shutting out earth's horizon with her slender stem, and, worse than all, poking her dainty head between you and heaven.

"Then, when she withers up—a disappointment which, to do her justice, she is capable of inflicting in the loveliest weather and at the shortest notice—you find to your dismay that, with her, all the fair side of creation has withered too. There is no more freshness in the meadows, no more promise in the smile of spring The scent is gone from the garden-flowers, the music from the song of birds. Summer's vivid glow has faded, and the russet of autumn is no longer edged with gold. Hope's rosy hues have ceased to tinge the morning, and the glory has departed from noonday.

"Like Jonah, you 'do well to be angry!' and it is well for you if you can be very angry indeed. That stimulant will do more to heal your wound over than any other remedy I can think of, except the planting of a fresh seedling to await another failure; but God help you if yours is a nature less susceptible of wrath than of sorrow! If you are brave, generous, forgiving, confiding, 'Je vous en fais mon compliment!' There is no more to be said. Where your Gourd grew, nothing green will ever spring up again! What say you, Bones? I think you and I are well out of the whole thing!"

He waved his fleshless hand gently with the gesture of one who puts from him some dim and distant recollection.

"There is a bitter flavour," said he, "about that remark which I should hardly have expected, and which is by no means to my taste. You and I can surely afford to look at these things from a comprehensive, philosophical, and indulgent point of view. No more Gourds are likely to grow for either of us; and although your style of figure is, perhaps, less entitled to defy the worm than mine, yet I think you have but little to fear from the kind which caused such an outbreak of temper in the disgusted prophet. The whole story of the Gourd, I need not point out to you, is a lesson. It was intended as a lesson for Jonah, it is intended as a lesson for ourselves. Forgive me for observing that you seem to have entirely lost the point of it, and, as usual in our discussions, you have sacrificed argument to declamation. It is weak, of course, to be too much delighted with the Gourd, it is cowardly to be too much afraid of the worm, but—"

"There is one kind of worm I am horribly afraid of," I interrupted, for I admit I was a little nettled and out of temper.

"And that?" he asked, with the courtesy which distinguishes his manner under all circumstances.

"Is the borer-worm!" I replied, brutally enough; and I am afraid he was a little hurt, for he rose at once and went into his cupboard, while I walked off moodily to bed.