"Bones and I"/Chapter 6
A DAY THAT IS DEAD.
I HAVE been burning old letters to-night; their ashes are fluttering in the chimney even now; and, alas! while they consume, fleeting and perishable like the moments they record, "each dying ember" seems to have "wrought its ghost" upon my heart. Oh! that we could either completely remember or completely forget. Oh! that the image of Mnemosyne would remain close enough for us to detect the flaws in her imperishable marble, or that she would remove herself so far as to be altogether out of sight. It is the golden haze of "middle distance" that sheds on her this warm and tender light. She is all the more attractive that we see her through a double veil of retrospection and regret, none the less lovely because her beauty is dimmed and softened in a mist of tears.
Letter after letter, they have flared, and blackened, and shrivelled up. There is an end of them—they are gone. Not a line of those different handwritings shall I ever see again. The bold, familiar scrawl of the tried friend and more than brother; why does he come back to me so vividly to-night? The stout heart, the strong arm, the brave, kind face, the frank and manly voice. We shall never tread the stubble nor the heather side by side again; never more pull her up against the stream, nor float idly down in the hot summer noons to catch the light air off the water on our heated faces; to discourse, like David and Jonathan, of all and everything nearest our hearts. Old friend! old friend! wherever you are, if you have consciousness you must surely sometimes think of me; I have not forgotten you. I cannot believe you have forgotten me even there.
And the pains-taking, up-and-down-hill characters of the little child—the little child for whom the angels came so soon, yet found it ready to depart, whose fever-wasted lips formed none but words of confidence and affection, whose blue eyes turned their last dim, dying looks so fondly on the face it loved.
And there were letters harder to part with than these. Never mind, they are burnt and done with; letters of which even the superscription once made a kind heart leap with pleasure so intense it was almost pain; letters crossed and re-crossed in delicate, orderly lines, bearing the well-known cipher, breathing the well-known perfume, telling the old, false tale in the old, false phrases, so trite and worn-out, yet seeming always so fresh and new
The hand that formed them has other tasks to occupy it now; the heart from which they came is mute and cold. Hope withers, love dies—times are altered. What would you have? It is a world of change. Nevertheless this has been a disheartening job; it has put me in low spirits; I must call "Bones" out of his cupboard to come and sit with me.
"What is this charm?" I ask him, "that seems to belong so exclusively to the past?—this 'tender grace of a day that is dead?' and must I look after it down the gulf into which it has dropped with such irrepressible longing only because it will never come back to me? Is a man the greater or wiser that he lived a hundred years ago or a thousand? Are reputations, like wine, the mellower and the more precious for mere age, even though they have been hid away in a cellar all the time? Is a thing actually fairer and better because I have almost forgotten how it looked when present, and shall never set eyes on it again? I entertain the greatest aversion to Horace's laudator temporis acti, shall always set my face against the superstition that 'there were giants in those days;' and yet wherever I went in the world previous to my retirement here that I might live with you, I found the strange maxim predominate, that everything was very much better before it had been improved!
"If I entered a club and expressed my intention of going to the Opera, for instance, whatever small spark of enthusiasm I could kindle was submitted to a wet blanket on the spot. 'Good heavens!' would exclaim some venerable philosopher of the Cynic and Epicurean schools, 'there is no opera now, nor ballet neither. My good sir, the thing is done; it's over. We haven't an artist left. Ah! you should have seen Taglioni dance; you should have heard Grisi sing; you should have lived when Plancus was consul. In short, you should be as old as I am, and as disgusted, and as gouty, and as disagreeable!'
"Or I walked into the smoking-room of that same resort, full of some athletic gathering at Holland Park, some 'Varsity hurdle-race, some trial of strength or skill amongst those lively boys the subalterns of the Household Brigade; and ere I could articulate 'brandy and soda' I had Captain Barclay thrown body and bones in my face. Walk, sir! You talk of walking?' (I didn't, for there had been barely time to get a word in edgeways, or my parable would have exhausted itself concerning a running high leap.) 'But there is nothing like a real pedestrian left; they don't breed 'em, sir, in these days: can't grow them, and don't know how to train them if they could! Show me a fellow who would make a match with Barclay to-day. Barclay, sir, if he were alive, would walk all your best men down after he came in from shooting. Ask your young friends which of 'em would like to drive the mail from London to Edinburgh without a greatcoat! I don't know what's come to the present generation. It must be the smoking, or the light claret, perhaps. They're done, they're used up, they're washed out. Why, they go to covert by railway, and have their grouse driven to them on a hill! What would old Sir Tatton or Osbaldeston say to such doings as these? I was at Newmarket, I tell you, when the Squire rode his famous match—two hundred miles in less than nine hours! I saw him get off old Tranby, and I give you my honour the man looked fresher than the horse! Don't tell me. He was rubbed down by a couple of prize-fighters (there were real bruisers in those days, and the best man used to win), dressed, and came to dinner just as you would after a five-mile walk. Pocket Hercules, you call him—one in a thousand? There were hundreds of such men in my day. Why, I recollect in Tom Smith's time that I myself——'
"But at this point I used to make my escape, because there are two subjects on which nobody is so brilliant as not to be prolix, so dull as not to be enthusiastic—his doings in the saddle and his adventures with the fair. To honour either of these triumphs he blows a trumpet-note loud and long in proportion to the antiquity of the annals it records. Why must you never again become possessed of such a hunter as Tally-Ho? Did that abnormal animal really carry you as well as you think, neither failing when the ground was deep nor wavering when the fences were strong? Is it strictly true that no day was ever too long for him? that he was always in the same field with the hounds? And have not the rails he rose at, the ditches he covered so gallantly, increased annually in height and depth and general impossibility ever since that fatal morning when he broke his back, under the Coplow in a two-foot drain?
"You can't find such horses now? Perhaps you do not give them so liberal a chance of proving their courage, speed, and endurance.
"On the other topic it is natural enough, I dare say, for you to 'yarn' with all the more freedom that there is no one left to contradict. People used enormous coloured silk handkerchiefs in that remote period, when you threw yours with such Oriental complacency, and the odalisques who picked it up are probably to-day so old and stiff they could not bend their backs to save their lives. But were they really as fond, and fair, and faithful as they seem to you now? Had they no caprices to chill, no whims to worry, no rivals on hand, to drive you mad? Like the sea, those eyes that look so deep and blue at a distance, are green and turbid and full of specks when you come quite close. Was it all sunshine with Mary, all roses with Margaret, all summer with Jane? What figures the modern women make of themselves, you say. How they offend your eye, those bare cheek-bones, those clinging skirts, those hateful chignons! Ah! the cheeks no longer hang out a danger-signal when you approach; the skirts are no more lifted, ever such a little, to make room for you in the corner of the sofa next the fire; and though you might have had locks of hair enough once to have woven a parti-coloured chignon of your own, it would be hopeless now to beg as much as would make a finger-ring for Queen Mab. What is it, I say, that causes us to look with such deluded eyes on the past? Is it sorrow or malice, disappointment or regret? Are our teeth still on edge with the sour grapes we have eaten or forborne? Do we glower through the jaundiced eyes of malevolence, or is our sight failing; with the shades of a coming night?"
Bones seldom delivers himself of his opinion in a hurry "I think," he says very deliberately, "that this, like many other absurdities of human nature, originates in that desire for the unattainable which is, after all, the mainspring of effort, improvement, and approach towards perfection. Man longs for the impossible, and what is so impossible as the past? That which hath vanished becomes therefore valuable, that which is hidden attractive, that which is distant desirable. There is a strange lay still existing by an old Provençal troubadour, no small favourite with iron-handed, lion-hearted King Richard, of which the refrain, 'so far away' expresses very touchingly the longing for the absent, perhaps only because absent, that is so painful, so human, and so unwise. The whole story is wild and absurd to a degree, yet not without a saddened interest, owing to the mournful refrain quoted above. It is thus told in the notes to Warton's 'History of English Poetry:'—
" 'Jeffrey Rudell, a famous troubadour of Provence, who is also celebrated by Petrarch, had heard from the adventurers in the Crusades the beauty of a Countess of Tripoli highly extolled. He became enamoured from imagination, embarked for Tripoli, fell sick on the voyage through the fever of expectation, and was brought on shore at Tripoli, half-expiring. The countess, having received the news of the arrival of this gallant stranger, hastened to the shore and took him by the hand. He opened his eyes, and at once overpowered by his disease and her kindness, had just time to say inarticulately that having seen her he died satisfied. The countess made him a most splendid funeral and erected to his memory a tomb of porphyry inscribed with an epitaph in Arabian verse. She commanded his sonnets to be richly copied and illuminated with letters of gold, was seized with a profound melancholy, and turned nun. I will endeavour to translate one of the sonnets he made on his voyage, "Yret et dolent m'en partray," &c. It has some pathos and sentiment. "I should depart pensive but for this love of mine so far away, for I know not what difficulties I may have to encounter, my native land being so far away. Thou who hast made all things and who formed this love of mine so far away, give me strength of body, and then I may hope to see this love of mine so far away. Surely my love must be founded on true merit, as I love one so far away. If I am easy for a moment, yet I feel a thousand pains for her who is so far away. No other love ever touched my heart than this for her so far away. A fairer than she never touched any heart, either so near or so far away!" '
"It is utter nonsense, I grant you, and the doings of this love-sick idiot seem to have been in character with his stanzas, yet is there a mournful pathos about that wailing so far away which, well-worded, well-set, and well-performed, would make the success of a drawing-room song.
"If the Countess of Tripoli, who seems also to have owned a susceptible temperament, had been his cousin and lived next door, he would probably not have admired her the least, would certainly never have wooed her in such wild and pathetic verse; but he gave her credit for all the charms that constituted his own ideal of perfection, and sickened even to death for the possession of his distant treasure, simply and solely because it was so far away!
"What people all really love is a dream. The stronger the imagination the more vivid the phantom that fills it; but on the other hand, the waking is more sudden and more complete. If I were a woman instead of a—a—specimen, I should beware how I set my heart upon a man of imagination, a quality which the world is apt to call genius, with as much good sense as there would be in confounding the sparks from a blacksmith's anvil with the blacksmith himself. Such a man takes the first doll that flatters him, dresses her out in the fabrications of his own fancy falls down and worships, gets bored, and gets up, pulls the tinsel off as quick as he put it on; being his own he thinks he may do what he likes with it, and finds any other doll looks just as well in the same light and decked with the same trappings. Narcissus is not the only person who has fallen in love with the reflection, or what he believed to be the reflection, of himself. Some get off with a ducking, some are drowned in sad earnest for their pains.
"Nevertheless, as the French philosopher says, 'There is nothing so real as illusion.' The day that is dead has for men a more actual, a more tangible, a more vivid identity than the day that exists, nay, than the day as yet unborn. One of the most characteristic and inconvenient delusions of humanity is its incapacity for enjoyment of the present. Life is a journey in which people are either looking forward or looking back. Nobody has the wisdom to sit down for half an hour in the shade listening to the birds overhead, examining the flowers under foot. It is always 'How pleasant it was yesterday! What fun we shall have to-morrow!' Never 'How happy we are to-day!' And yet what is the past, when we think of it, but a dream vanished into darkness—the future but an uncertain glimmer that may never brighten into dawn.
"It is strange how much stronger in old age than in youth is the tendency to live in the hereafter. Not the real hereafter of another world, but the delusive hereafter of this. Tell a lad of eighteen that he must wait a year or two for anything he desires very eagerly, and he becomes utterly despondent of attaining his wish; but an old man of seventy is perfectly ready to make arrangements or submit to sacrifices for his personal benefit to be rewarded in ten years' time or so, when he persuades himself he will still be quite capable of enjoying life. The people who purchase annuities, who plant trees, who breed horses for their own riding, are all past middle age. Perhaps they have seen so many things brought about by waiting, more particularly when the deferred hope had caused the sick heart's desire to pass away, that they have resolved for them also must be 'a good time coming,' if only they will have patience and 'wait a little longer.' Perhaps they look forward because they cannot bear to look back. Perhaps in such vague anticipations they try to delude their own consciousness, and fancy that by ignoring and refusing to see it they can escape the inevitable change. After all, this is the healthiest and most invigorating practice of the two. Something of courage seems wanting in man or beast when either is continually looking back. To the philosopher 'a day that is dead' has no value but for the lesson it affords; to the rest of mankind it is inestimably precious for the unaccountable reason that it can never come again."
"Be it so," I answered; "let me vote in the majority. I think with the fools, I honestly confess, but I have also a theory of my own on this subject, which I am quite prepared to hear ridiculed and despised. My supposition is that ideas, feelings, delusions, name them how you will, recur in cycles, although events and tangible bodies, such as we term realities, must pass away I cannot remember in my life any experience that could properly be called a new sensation. When in a position of which I had certainly no former knowledge I have always felt a vague, dreamy consciousness that something of the same kind must have happened to me before. Can it be that my soul has existed previously, long ere it came to tenant this body that it is so soon about to quit? Can it be that its immortality stretches both ways, as into the future so into the past? May I not hope that in the infinity so fitly represented by a circle, the past may become the future as the future most certainly must become the past, and the day that is dead, to which I now look back so mournfully, may rise again newer, fresher, brighter than ever in the land of the morning beyond that narrow paltry gutter which we call the grave?" I waited anxiously for his answer. There are some things we would give anything to know, things on which certainty would so completely alter all our ideas, our arrangements, our hopes, and our regrets. Ignorant of the coast to which we are bound, its distance, its climate, and its necessities, how can we tell what to pack up and what to leave behind? To be sure, regarding things material, we are spared all trouble of selection; but there is yet room for much anxiety concerning the outfit of the soul. For the space of a minute he seemed to ponder, and when he did speak all he said was this—
"I know, but I must not tell," preserving thereafter an inflexible silence till it was time to go to bed.