"Bones and I"/Chapter 7
THE FOUR-LEAVED SHAMROCK.
WE are all looking for it; shall we ever find it? Can it be cultivated in hothouses by Scotch head-gardeners with high wages and Doric accent? or shall we come upon it accidentally, peeping through green bulrushes, lurking in tangled woodlands, or perched high on the mountain's crest, far above the region of grouse and heather, where the ptarmigan folds her wings amongst the shilt and shingle in the clefts of the bare grey rock? We climb for it, we dive for it, we creep for it on our belly, like the serpent, eating dust to any amount in the process; but do we ever succeed in plucking such a specimen as, according to our natures, we can joyfully place in our hats for ostentation or hide under our waistcoats for true love?
Do you remember Sir Walter Scott's humorous poem called the "Search after Happiness?" Do you remember how that eastern monarch who strove to appropriate the shirt of a contented man visited every nation in turn till he came to Ireland, the native soil indeed of all the shamrock tribe; how his myrmidons incontinently assaulted one of the "bhoys" whose mirthful demeanour raised their highest hopes, and how
"Shelelagh, their plans was well-nigh after baulking.
Much less provocation will set it a-walking;
But the odds that foiled Hercules foiled Paddywhack.
They floored him, they seized him, they stripped him, alack!
Up, bubboo! He hadn't a shirt to his back!"
Mankind has been hunting the four-leaved shamrock from the very earliest times on record. I believe half the legends of mythology, half the exploits of history, half the discoveries of science, originate in the universal search. Jason was looking for it with his Argonauts when he stumbled on the Golden Fleece; Columbus sailed after it in the track of the setting sun, scanning that bare horizon of an endless ocean, day after day, with sinking heart, yet never-failing courage, till the land-weeds drifting round his prow, the land-birds perching on his spars, brought him their joyous welcome from the undiscovered shore; Alexander traversed Asia in his desire for it; Cæsar dashed through the Rubicon in its pursuit; Napoleon well-nigh grasped it after Austerlitz, but the frosts and fires of Moscow shrivelled it into nothing ere his hand could close upon the prize. To find it sages have ransacked their libraries, adepts exhausted their alembics, misers hoarded tip their gold. It is not twined with the poet's bay-leaves, nor is it concealed in the madman's hellebore. People have been for it to the Great Desert, the Blue Mountains, the Chinese capital, the interior of Africa, and returned empty-handed as they went. It abhors courts, camps, and cities; it strikes no root in palace nor in castle; and if more likely to turn up in a cottage-garden, who has yet discovered the humble plot of ground on which it grows?
Nevertheless, undeterred by warning, example, and the experience of repeated failures, human nature relaxes nothing of its persevering quest. I have seen a dog persist in chasing swallows as they skimmed along the lawn; but then the dog had once caught a wounded bird, and was therefore acting on an assured and tried experience of its own. If you or I had ever found one four-leaved shamrock, we should be justified in cherish- ing a vague hope that we might some day light upon another.
The Knights of the Round Table beheld with their own eyes that vision of the Holy Vessel, descending in their midst, which scattered those steel-clad heroes in all directions on the adventure of the Sangreal; but perhaps the very vows of chivalry they had registered, the very exploits they performed, originated with that restless longing they could not but acknowledge in common with all mankind for possession of the four-leaved shamrock.
"And better he loved, that monarch bold,
On venturous quest to ride
In mail and plate, by wood and wold.
Than with ermine trapped and cloth of gold.
In princely bower to bide.
The bursting crash of a foeman's spear,
As it shivered against his mail.
Was merrier music to his ear
Than courtier's whispered tale.
And the clash of Caliburn more dear,
When on hostile casque it rung,
Than all the lays to their monarch's praise
The harpers of Reged sung.
He loved better to bide by wood and river
Than in bower of his dame Queen Guenever;
For he left that lady, so lovely of cheer,
To follow adventures of danger and fear.
And little the frank-hearted monarch did wot
That she smiled in his absence on brave Launcelot."
Oh! those lilting stanzas of Sir Walter's, how merrily they ring on one's ear, like the clash of steel, the jingling of bridles, or the measured cadence of a good steed's stride! We can fancy ourselves spurring through the mêlée after the "selfless stainless" king, or galloping with him down the grassy glades of Lyonesse on one of his adventurous quests for danger, honour, renown—and—the four-leaved shamrock.
Obviously it did not grow in the tilt-yards at Caerleon or the palace gardens of Camelot; nay, he had failed to find it in the posy lovely Guenevere wore on her bosom. Alas! that even Launcelot, the flower of chivalry, the brave, the courteous, the gentle, the sorrowing and the sinful, must have sought for it there in vain.
Everybody begins life with, a four-leaved shamrock in view, an ideal of his own, that he follows up with considerable wrong-headedness to the end. Such fiction has a great deal to answer for in the way of disappointment, dissatisfaction, and disgust. Many natures find themselves completely soured and deteriorated before middle age, and why? Because, forsooth, they have been through the garden with no better luck than their neighbours. I started in business, we will say, with good connections, sufficient capital, and an ardent desire to make a fortune. Must I be a saddened, morose, world-wearied man because missing that unaccountable rise in muletwist, and taking the subsequent fall in grey shirtings too late, I have only realised a competency, while Bullion, who didn't want it, made at least twenty thou.? Or I wooed Fortune as a soldier, fond of the profession, careless of climate, prodigal of my person, ramming my head wherever there was a chance of having it knocked off, "sticking to it like a leech, sir; never missing a day's duty, by Jove! while other fellows were getting on the staff" shooting up the country, or going home on sick leave. So I remain nothing but an overworked field-officer, grim and grey, with an enlarged liver, and more red in my nose than my cheeks, while Dawdle is a major-general commanding in a healthy district, followed about by two aides-de-camp, enjoying a lucrative appointment with a fair chance of military distinction. Shall I therefore devote to the lowest pit of Acheron the Horse Guards, the War Office, H.R.H. the Commander-in-Chief, and the service of Her Majesty the Queen? How many briefless barristers must you multiply to obtain a Lord Chancellor, or even a Chief Baron? How many curates go to a bishop? How many village practitioners to a fashionable doctor in a London-built brougham? Success in every line, while it waits, to a certain extent, on perseverance and capacity, partakes thus much in the nature of a lottery, that for one prize there must be an incalculable number of blanks.
I will not go so far as to say that you should, abstain from the liberal professions of arts or arms, that you should refrain from faking your ticket in the lottery, or in any way rest idly in mid-stream, glad to
"Loose the sail, shift the oar, let her float down,
Fleeting and gliding by tower and town;
but I ask you to remember that the marshal's baton can only be in one conscript's knapsack out of half a million; that wigs and mitres, and fees every five minutes, fall only to one in ten thousand; that although, everybody has an equal chance in the lottery, that chance may be described as but half a degree better than the cipher which represents zero.
There is an aphorism in everybody's mouth about the man who goes to look for a straight stick in the wood. Hollies, elms, oaks, ashes, and alders he inspects, sapling after sapling, in vain. This one has a twist at the handle, that bends a little towards the point; some are too thick for pliancy, some too thin for strength. Several would do very well but for the abundant variety that affords a chance of finding something better. Presently he emerges at the farther fence, having traversed the covert from end to end, but his hands are still empty, and he shakes his head, thinking he may have been over-fastidious in his choice. A straight stick is no easier to find than would be a four-leaved shamrock.
The man who goes to buy a town house or rent a place in the country experiences the same difficulty. Upstairs and downstairs he travels, inspecting kitchen-ranges, sinks and sculleries, attics, bedrooms, boudoirs, and housemaids' closets, till his legs ache, his brain swims, and his temper entirely gives way. In London, if the situation is perfect, there is sure to be no servants' hall, or the accommodation below-stairs leaves nothing to be desired, but he cannot undertake to reside so far from his club. These difficulties overcome, he discovers the butler's pantry is so dark no servant of that fastidious order will consent to stay with him a week. In the country, if the place is pretty the neighbourhood may be objectionable: the rent is perhaps delightfully moderate, but he must keep up the grounds and pay the wages of four gardeners. Suitable in every other respect, he cannot get the shooting; or if no such drawbacks are to be alleged, there is surely a railway through the park, and no station within five miles. Plenty of shamrocks grow, you see, of the trefoil order, green, graceful, and perfectly symmetrical. It is that fourth leaf he looks for, which creates all his difficulties.
The same with the gentleman in search of a horse, the same with Cœlebs in search of a wife. If the former cannot be persuaded to put up with some little drawback of action, beauty, or temper, he will never know that most delightful of all partnerships, the sympathy existing between a good horseman and his steed. If the latter expects to find a perfection really exist, which he thinks he has discovered while dazzled by the glamour surrounding a man in love, he deserves to be disappointed, and he generally is. Rare, rare indeed are the four-leaved shamrocks in either sex; thrice happy those whom Fate permits to win and wear them even for a day!
What is it we expect to find? In this matter of marriage more than in any other our anticipations are so exorbitant that we cannot be surprised if our "come-down" is disheartening in proportion.
"Where is the maiden of mortal strain
That may match with the Baron of Triermain?
She must be lovely, constant, and kind,
Holy and pure, and humble of mind," &c.
(How Sir Walter runs in my head to-night.) Yes, she must be all this, and possess a thousand other good qualities, many more than are enumerated by Iago, so as never to descend for a moment from the pedestal on which her baron has set her up. Is this indulgent? is it even reasonable? Can he expect any human creature to be always dancing on the tight-rope? Why is Lady Triermain not to have her whims, her temper, her fits of ill-humour, like her lord? She must not indeed follow his example and relieve her mind by swearing "a good, round, mouth-filling oath," therefore she has the more excuse for feeling at times a little captious, a little irritable, what she herself calls a little cross. Did he expect she was an angel? Well, he often called her one, nay, she looks like it even now in that pretty dress, says my lord, and she smiles through her tears, putting her white arms round his neck so fondly that he really believes he has found what he wanted till they fall out again next time.
Men are very hard in the way of exaction on those they love. All "take " seems their motto, and as little "give" as possible. If they would but remember the golden rule and expect no more than should be expected from themselves, it might be a better world for everybody. I have sometimes wondered in my own mind whether women do not rather enjoy being coerced and kept down. I have seen them so false to a kind heart, and so fond of a cruel one. Are they slaves by nature, do you conceive, or only hypocrites by education? I suppose no wise man puzzles his head much on that subject. They are all incomprehensible and all alike!
"How unjust!" exclaims Bones, interrupting me with more vivacity than usual. "How unsupported an assertion, how sweeping an accusation, how unfair, how unreasonable, and how like a man! Yes, that is the way with every one of you; disappointed in a single instance, you take refuge from your own want of judgment, your own mismanagement, your own headlong stupidity, in the condemnation of half the world! You open a dozen oysters, and turn away disgusted because you have not found a pearl. You fall an easy prey to the first woman who flatters you, and plume yourself on having gained a victory without fighting a battle. The fortress so easily won is probably but weakly garrisoned, and capitulates ere long to a fresh assailant. When this has happened two or three times, you veil your discomfiture under an affectation of philosophy and vow that women are all alike, quoting perhaps a consolatory scrap from Catullus—
'Quid levins plumâ? pulvis. Quid pulvere? ventus.
Quid vento? mulier. Quid muliëre? nihil?'
But Roman proverbs and Roman philosophy are unworthy and delusive. There is a straight stick in the wood if you will be satisfied with it when found; there is a four-leaved shamrock amongst the herbage if you will only seek for it honestly on your knees. Should there be but one in a hundred women, nay, one in a thousand, on whom an honest heart is not thrown away, it is worth while to try and find her. At worst, better be deceived over and over again than sink into that deepest slough of depravity in which those struggle who, because their own trust has been outraged, declare there is no faith to be kept with others; because their own day has been darkened, deny the existence of light."
"You speak feelingly," I observe, conscious that such unusual earnestness denotes a conviction he will get the worst of the debate. "You have perhaps been more fortunate than the rest. Have you found her, then, this hundredth woman, this prize, this pearl, this black swan, glorious as the phoenix and rare as the dodo ? Forgive my argumentum ad hominem, if I may use the expression, and forgive my urging that such good fortune only furnishes one of those exceptions which, illogical people assert, prove the rule." There is a vibration of his teeth wanting only lips to become a sneer, while he replies—
"In my own case I was not so lucky, but I kept my heart up and went on with my search to the end."
"Exactly," I retort in triumph; "you, too, spent a lifetime looking for the four-leaved shamrock, and never found it after all. But I think women are far more unreasonable than ourselves in this desire for the unattainable, this disappointment when illusion fades into reality. Not only in their husbands do they expect perfection, and that too in defiance of daily experience, of obvious incompetency, but in their servants, their tradespeople, their carriages, their horses, their rooms, their houses, the dinners they eat, and the dresses they wear. With them an avowal of incapacity to reconcile impossibilities stands for wilful obstinacy, or sheer stupidity at best. They believe themselves the victims of peculiar ill-fortune if their coachman gets drunk, or their horses go lame; if milliners are careless or ribbons unbecoming; if chimneys smoke, parties fall through, or it rains when they want to put on a new bonnet. They never seem to understand that every 'if' has its 'but,' every pro its con. My old friend, Mr. Bishop, of Bond Street, the Democritus of his day (and may he live as long!), observed to me many years ago, when young people went mad about the polka, that the new measure was a type of everything else in life, 'What you gain in dancing you lose in turning round.' Is it not so with all our efforts, all our undertakings, all our noblest endeavours after triumph and success? In dynamics we must, be content to resign the maximum of one property that we may preserve the indispensable minimum of another, must allow for friction in velocity, must calculate the windage of a shot. In ethics we must accept fanaticism with sincerity, exaggeration with enthusiasm, over-caution, with unusual foresight, and a giddy brain with a warm, impulsive heart. What we take here we must give yonder; what we gain in dancing we must lose in turning round!
"But no woman can be brought to see this obvious necessity. For the feminine mind nothing is impracticable. Not a young lady eating bread and butter in the school-room but cherishes her own vision of the prince already riding through enchanted forests in her pursuit. The prince may turn out to be a curate, a cornet, or a count, a duke or a dairy-farmer, a baronet or a blacking-maker, that has nothing to do with it. Relying on her limitless heritage of the possible, she feels she has a prescriptive right to the title, the ten thousand a year the matrimonial prize, the four-leaved shamrock. Whatever else turns up, she considers herself an ill-used woman for life, unless all the qualities desirable in man are found united in the person and fortunes her husband; nay, he must even possess virtues that can scarce possibly coexist. He must be handsome and impenetrable, generous and economical, gay and domestic, manly but never from her side, wise yet deferring to her opinion in all things, quick-sighted, though blind to any drawbacks or shortcomings in herself. Above all, must he be superlatively content with his lot, and unable to discover that by any means in his matrimonial venture, 'what he gained in dancing he has lost in turning round.'
"I declare to you I think if Ursidius insists on marrying at all, that he had better select a widow; at least he runs at even weights against his predecessor, who, being a man, must needs have suffered from human weakness and human infirmities. The chances are that the dear departed went to sleep after dinner, hated an open carriage, made night hideous with his snores under the connubial counterpane, and all the rest of it. A successor can be no worse, may possibly appear better; but if he weds a maiden, he has to contend with the female ideal of what a man should be! and from such a contest what can accrue but unmitigated discomfiture and disgrace?
"Moreover, should he prove pre-eminent in those manly qualities women most appreciate, he will find that even in those they prefer to accept the shadow for the substance, consistently mistaking assertion for argument, volubility for eloquence, obstinacy for resolution, bluster for courage, fuss for energy, and haste for speed.
"On one of our greatest generals, remarkable for his gentle, winning manner in the drawing-room as for his cool daring in the field, before he had earned his well-merited honours, I myself heard this verdict pronounced by a jury of maids and matrons, 'Dear! he's such a quiet creature, I'm sure he wouldn't be much use in a battle!' No; give them Parolles going to recover his drum, and they have a champion and a hero exactly to their minds, but they would scarcely believe in Richard of the Lion-Heart if he held his peace and only set his teeth hard when he laid lance in rest.
"Therefore it is they tug so unmercifully at the slender thread that holds a captive, imagining it is by sheer strength the quiet creature must be coerced. Some day the pull is harder than usual, the thread breaks, and the wild bird soars away, free as the wind down which it sails, heedless of lure and whistle, never to return to bondage any more. Then who so aghast as the pretty, thoughtless fowler, longing and remorseful, with the broken string in her hand?
She fancied, no doubt, her prisoner was an abnormal creature, rejoicing in ill-usage; that because it was docile and generous it must therefore be poor in spirit, slavish in obedience, and possessing no will of its own. She thought she had found a four-leaved shamrock, and this is the result!
"But I may talk for ever and end where I began. Men you may convince by force of argument, if your logic is very clear and your examples or illustrations brought fairly under their noses; but with the other sex, born to be admired and not instructed, you might as well pour water into a sieve. Can you remember a single instance in which with these, while a word of entreaty gained your point forthwith, you might not have exhausted a folio of argument in vain?"
He thinks for a minute, and then answers deliberately, as if he had made up his mind—
"I never knew but one woman who could understand reason, and she wouldn't listen to it!"
- "Cogitat Ursidius, sibi dote jugare puellam,
Ut placeat domino, cogitat Ursidius."