"Bones and I"/Chapter 5

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"The African Magician never minded all their scoffs and holloaings, or all they could say to him, but still cry'd Who'll change old Lamps for new ones? which he repeated so often about the Princess Badroulbondour's Palace, that that Princess, who was then in the Hall with the four-and-twenty Windows, hearing a Man cry something, and not being able to distinguish his Words, by reason of the holloaing of the Mob about him, sent one of her Women Slaves down to know what he cry'd.

"The Slave was not long before she return'd, and ran into the Hall, laughing so heartily, that the Princess could not forbear herself. 'Well, Gigler,' said the Princess, 'will you tell me what you laugh at?' 'Alas! Madam,' answered the Slave, laughing still, 'who can forbear laughing to see a Fool with a Basket on his Arm, full of fine new Lamps, ask to change them for old ones, which makes the Children and Mob make such a Noise about him?'"

WHAT a fool they thought him, and no wonder. Yet surely a magician need not come all the way from Africa to teach the public this strange rate of exchange. In Europe, Asia, and America too, as far as it has yet been colonized, such one-sided bargains are made every day

Old lamps for new, kicks for halfpence—"Heads I win. Tails you lose"—such are the laws of equity by which man deals with his neighbour, and so the contest goes on, if, indeed, as Juvenal says, that can be called a contest—

"Ubi tu pulsas, ego vapulo tantum." [1]

The slave of the princess with the long name had passed more of her life in the palace than the streets, or she would not have found the magician's cry so strange: would have felt uncomfortably conscious that the day might come when she, too, would barter new lamps for old, perhaps humbly on her knees, entreating permission to make the unequal exchange. In all the relations of life, but chiefly in those with which the affections are concerned, we constantly see gold for silver offered with both hands.

That "it is better to give than to receive" we have Scriptural warrant for asserting. That—

"Sure the pleasure is as great
In being cheated as to cheat,"

we learn from Butler's quaint and philosophical couplets. I am not going to assert that the man who puts down sovereigns and takes up shillings has really the worst of it; I only maintain that the more freely he "parts" with the former, the more sparing will he find the latter doled out to him in return.

Perhaps the strongest case in point is that of parent and child.

In the animal world I know few arrangements of Nature more beautiful than the absolute devotion of maternity to its offspring, so long, though only so long, as its assistance is required. A bird feeding her young, a tigress licking her cubs, a mare wheeling round her foal—each of these affords an example of loving care and tenderness, essentially feminine in its utter forgetfulness of self. Each of these squanders such gold as it possesses, the treasure of its deep instinctive affection, on ingratitude and neglect. The nestlings gape with hungry little beaks, when they hear the flap of wings, not to greet the coming provider, but that they may eat and be filled. The cubs huddle themselves up to their mother's side, for warmth and comfort, not for her cruel beauty nor her fierce protecting love. The foal, when it gets on its long legs, will follow your horse or mine as readily as its dam. They take all, to give back nothing in exchange. And no sooner can the bird use its wings, the beast its limbs, than it abandons at once and for ever the parent whose sustaining care is no longer necessary to its existence.

With the human race, although I am far from affirming that, even in this age of bronze, filial piety has fled with other virtues from the earth, something of the same unequal barter holds good in the relationship of parent and child. The former gives gold, the latter does not always return silver. Do not deceive yourself You love your children more than your children love you. I can prove it in three words. They are dearer to you than your own parents. And this inequality of affection is but one more of the beautiful arrangements made by that Providence which bestows good so liberally in proportion to evil. Under the common law of Nature, you are likely to die first, and the aggregate amount of suffering is, therefore, much less than it would be did the course of domestic affection flow the other way. So you toil, and slave, and scheme for the child's benefit, forgiving its errors, repairing its follies, re-establishing its fortunes, just as, long ago, you used to rebuild with loving patience those houses of cards the urchin blew down with such delight. But, as of all human affections, this, if not the strongest, is certainly the deepest and most abiding, so when wounded, does it inflict on our moral being the sharpest and most enduring pain. "Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?" says poor King Lear, forced, against his own instincts, to acknowledge the venomed bite of that "serpent's tooth" with which elsewhere he compares a "thankless child." I have known men, and women, too, accept "with courage every sample of misfortune and disgrace—in the language of the prize-ring, "come up smiling" after every kind of knock-down blow—but I cannot remember an instance in which the ingratitude of children has not produced wrinkles and grey hairs, in the proportion of ten to one, for every other sorrow of any description whatever.

There is no prospect of alleviation to amuse his fancy—no leavening of pique to arouse his pride. Hurt to the death, the sufferer has scarce manhood enough left to conceal his wounds.

In that conflict between man and woman which is perpetually going on, and without which the world, if more comfortable, would undoubtedly be less populous, gold is invariably given for silver with a lavish extravagance, akin to the absurdity of the whole thing.

Why is love like the handle of a teapot?—Because it is all on one side. The game has yet to be invented in which both players can win; and perhaps were it not for the discomfort, anxiety, worry, sorrow, and suffering entailed by the unequal pastime, it would cease to be so popular. As it exists at present, there is nothing to complain of on the score of flagging interest. At first, indeed, before the cards are cut, the adversaries sit down calmly and pleasantly enough. An hour hangs heavy on their hands, and they think thus to drive it agreeably away—beginning simply for "distraction," as the French call it, though ending in the English acceptation of that uncomfortable word. Ere the first tricks are turned, however, the game grows exciting. "I propose." "How many?" "Hearts are trumps." "I mark the king." The stakes increase rapidly in value, and presently gold comes pouring lavishly out of one player's pocket, against silver dribbling unwillingly from the other's. The winner, too, like all gamblers, seldom cares to keep the fruit of his good fortune, but loses it again at another table to some stronger adversary, who is beggared in turn elsewhere.

Yet still in all places, and under all circumstances, wherever this game is played there is the same inequality in the stakes. "Gold for silver." Such are the terms; and the old players, to do them justice, those who have lost and won many a heavy wager, are generally careful to begin at least by venturing the commoner metal. But even of these the discretion is not to be trusted as the game goes on. Touched by the magic rod, maddened by the spell against which Wisdom is often less proof than Folly, the sternest and the sagest will throw their gold about as recklessly as if every piece were not stamped with the impress of their honour-and their happiness, precious as the very drops of life-blood at their heart.

Perhaps it is wiser to stick to any other pursuit in the world than the one in question; but if you must needs sit down to this "beggar-my-neighbour" kind of amusement, is it better to lose or to win? to give or accept the gold for silver passing so freely from hand to hand? Will you have the satisfaction hereafter of standing on the higher ground? of feeling you have nothing to reproach yourself with, nothing to be ashamed of? or will you take comfort in reflecting that while the storm raged above your head you had been careful to shelter cunningly from the blast? Will you exult in your forethought, your philosophy, the accurate knowledge of human nature, that has preserved you scatheless through the combat? or will you take pride in your generosity, your magnanimity, and the self-devoted courage that bids you accept the stab of ingratitude in addition to the pain of neglect? It depends entirely on character and temperament.

Men and women vary so much in this, as in every other phase of feeling. The latter, when they do take the more generous view of their position—when they can bring themselves to choose "the better part," accept it, I think, with a more complete abandonment of pique than the former. Perhaps their pride is of a nobler order: no doubt their vanity is less egotistical than our own. With us, except in the highest natures—and these, as has been well remarked, have ever a leavening of the feminine element in their organization—there is always something of irritation left after a wound of the affections has healed up—something that stings and rankles, and looks to reprisals of one kind or another for relief. I have read an old tale of chivalry so thoroughly exemplifying this state of feeling, and affording so natural an example of the changes and counterchanges with which gold and silver are staked against each other in the dangerous game, that I cannot forbear quoting it here.

"A certain knight had long loved a damsel at the court of the King of France; but she, albeit, accepting the service of none other, treated him with such coldness and duresse, that he at length obtained the title of the 'Patient Knight,' and she of the 'Scornful Ladye.' In vain he sat at her feet in hall; in vain wore her colours in the lists; in vain added to his cognizance the motto 'Sans espérance,' above the representation of a dungeon-grate, to signify the hopelessness of his captivity. She looked upon him coldly as the winter moon looks on a frozen lake: she turned from him pitilessly as the bending poplar turns from the south wind, whispering its longing and its sorrows, wooing her even with its tears.

"So minstrels sang in their lays of his constancy, and knights marvelled at his subjection, and ladies pitied—it may be despised him also a little for his long-suffering: but still the 'Patient Knight' struck hard and shouted high for the renown of her he loved; and still the 'Scornful Ladye' accepted his homage, and took credit for his deeds-of-arms with scant courtesy, and cruel neglect, and high imperious disdain.

"So the King bade his knights and nobles to a feast; and because there was to be a solemn passage-of-arms held on the morrow, he entertained them with a fight of wild beasts in the Carrousel, whereon lords and ladies looked down in safety from the galleries above. But many a soft cheek grew pale none the less, when a lion and a tiger were let loose to battle for their lives.

"Now even while they glared on each other ere they closed, the 'Scornful Ladye' dropped her glove between the beasts of prey Quoth she, with a mocking smile, ''An I had a bachelor here who loved me well, he would fetch me back this glove that the wind hath blown from my hand.'

"Then the 'Patient Knight' made no more ado, but drew his good sword and leapt lightly down into the Carrousel, where he picked the glove from the earth, and returning scatheless to his place, laid it in silence at her feet.

"Then the 'Scornful Ladye' wept sweet and happy tears; for his great love had conquered at last, and she would follow him meekly now to the end of the world.

"But she shed bitter tears on the morrow, when he rode into the lists with another's sleeve in his helmet, another's colours on his housings, and his shield blazoned with the fresh device of a broken fetter and the motto, 'Tout lasse—tout casse—tout passe!" "

So, you see, these adversaries changed places at last; and you will probably be of opinion that the Knight had the best of it in the end.

Perhaps it "served her right." And yet to me it seems that there may come a time when to have given gold for silver in every relation of life shall be the one consoling reflection that enables us to quit it without misgivings for the future, without regret for the past,—a time perhaps of hushed voices, stealthy footsteps, and a darkened room, growing yet strangely darker with every breath we draw. Or a time of eager comrades, trampling squadrons, short sharp words of command, a bugle sounding the Advance, a cocked-hat glancing through the smoke; a numb sick helplessness that glues the cheek into the dust where it has fallen, and a roll of musketry, feebler, farther, fainter, and more confused, till its warlike echoes die out in the hush of another world. Or a time of earth-stained garments, and bespattered friends proffering silver hunting-flasks in sheer dismay, and a favourite horse brought back with flying stirrups, dangling-rein, and its mane full of mud, while the dull grey sky wheels above, and the dank, tufted grass heaves below, nor in the intervals of a pain, becoming every moment less keen, can we stifle the helpless consciousness that before our crushed frame shall be lifted from its wet, slippery resting-place, it will be time to die.

At such moments as these, I say, to have given gold for silver, while we could, can surely be no matter of regret.

I recollect a quaint old tombstone—I beg your pardon for the allusion—on which I once read the following inscription:—

"What I spent I had—what I saved I lost—what I gave I have."

Surely this sentiment will bear analysing.

"What I spent I had." I enjoyed it, wasted it, got rid of it: derive from it now as much enjoyment as can ever be extracted from past pleasures of which self-indulgence was the motive—that is to say, none at all! "What I saved I lost." Undoubtedly. Mortgages, Consols, building-leases, railway scrip—it was locked up in securities that I could by no means bring with me here. It has been an error of judgment, a bad speculation, a foolish venture, a dead loss. "But what I gave I have." Ah! There I did good business: took the turn of the market; invested my capital in a bank that pays me cent, per cent., even now; and this, not only for the dross we call money, but for the real treasures of the heart—affection, kindliness, charity, help to the needy, sympathy with the sorrowful, protection to the weak, and encouragement to the forlorn. The silver I had in return has been left long ago on earth: perhaps there was barely enough to make a plate for my coffin; but the gold I gave is in my own possession still, and has been beaten into a crown for me in heaven.

Yes. "It is better to give than to receive." With few exceptions the great benefactors of mankind have been in this world defrauded of their wages. Columbus died perhaps the poorest man in the whole kingdom he had spent his life-time to enrich. Socrates sold the treasures of his intellect—the deductions of the greatest mind in antiquity—for a draught of hemlock on a prison floor. The fable of Prometheus has been enacted over and over again. Those who scale the heavens that they may bring down fire to enlighten and comfort their fellow-men, must not hope to escape the vulture and the rock. I have always thought that wondrous story the deepest and the most suggestive in the whole heathen mythology. Its hero was the first discoverer, the first free-thinker, the first reformer. He was even proof against the seductions of woman, and detected in Pandora's box the multiplicity of evils that secured the presence of Hope within its compass, and prevented her flying back to the heaven whence she came. The only Olympian deity he would condescend to worship was the Goddess of Wisdom; and she it was who taught her votary to outwit Jupiter, the great principle of what may be termed physical nature. By science man baffles the elements, or renders them subservient to his purpose. He was a herbalist, a doctor, a meteorologist, and universal referee for gods and men. He taught the latter all the arts necessary to extort a livelihood from the earth; showed them how to yoke their oxen and bridle their steeds. He was wise, laborious, provident, and paternal—the first philosopher, the great benefactor of his time, and—his reward was to lie in chains on Mount Ætna with a vulture sheathing her beak in his heart.

Can we not see in this heathen parable some glimmering of the Great Hope which was never entirely obscured to the ancient world?—some faint foresight of, some vague longing after, the great Example which has since taught its holy lesson of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice? It is not for me to enlarge on a topic so sacred and so sublime. Enough for us and such as we are, if by lavishing gold for silver freely on our brother, we can cast but one humble mite into the treasury of our God.

There is much talk in the world about ingratitude. People who do good to others at cost or inconvenience to themselves are apt to expect a great flow of thanks, a great gush of sentiment in return. They are generally disappointed. Those natures which feel benefits the most deeply are often the least capable of expressing their feelings, and a speechless tongue is with them the result of a full heart. Besides, you are sure to be repaid for a good action at some time or another. Like seed sown in the Nile, "the bread cast upon the waters," it may not come back to you for many days, but come back at last it most certainly will. Would you like your change in silver or in gold? Will you have it in a few graceful, well-chosen expressions, or in the sterling coin of silent love with its daily thoughts and nightly prayers; or, better still even than these, will you waive your claim to it down here, and have it carried to your account above? I am supposing yours is not one of those natures which have arrived at the highest, the noblest type of benevolence, and give their gold neither for silver nor for copper, but freely without return at all. To these I can offer no encouragement, no advice. Their grapes are ripened, their harvest is yellow, the light is already shining on them from the golden hills of heaven.

  1. "If that's a fight indeed,
    Where you strike hard, and I stand still and bleed."