Great Men in Little Worlds/Our Learned Fellow-Townsman

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From The English Illustrated, Vol 15, 1896


IT was the title that, for some fifteen years, had been tacked to the name of Percy Marfleet whenever he was mentioned in the local newspapers. Not undeservedly, for in his knowledge of books he much surpassed the leading men of the town, and his life was entirely devoted to study. Miss Cloud, the borough member's daughter, who had been at Girton, herself the marvel of womanhood in this not altogether benighted region, spoke of Mr. Marfleet with respect; indeed, for the last twelvemonth or so it had been generally surmised that the friendship between these distinguished persons would end in closer alliance—a most interesting and delightful prospect. The lady had entered upon her twenty-seventh year; Marfleet drew towards forty, but preserved the complexion and the carriage of youth. For him, such a union would in every way be advantageous, as, from his way of living, he evidently possessed but a modest competence, while Miss Cloud shone as the sole heiress of her father's fortune.

For a man of parts and ambition, raised above the necessity of exerting himself to earn a livelihood, it is dangerous, after academic success, to return to his native country-town and settle there with the purpose of productive study. As a rule, men have no such temptation; Percy Marfleet, whose bent of mind was all towards homeliness, and who shrank from the tumult of the great world, even while crediting himself with power to win distinction, decided after a very brief trial of London that he could not do better than go back to the scenes of his youth, where kindly notice would inspire him, where his health would be at its best, and where a modest income would, he imagined, assure him a much better status than among strangers. His family had a good name in the town; since the death of his parents and the marriage of his sister, upon him alone lay the duty of keeping the name in honourable prominence. Moreover, he owned the house in which he had been born, where the days of his boyhood had been passed. With infinite contentment he read the newspaper paragraph which made known that "Mr. Percy Marfleet, the son of our late honoured townsman, having completed a distinguished career at the University of Cambridge," had returned to the town, and intended to make it his permanent abode.

From his earliest school-prize to the final honours at Cambridge, each step of Percy's progress had been chronicled by the local paper. No special brilliance appeared in the successive achievements: he had done well, nothing more; but local pride made much of his academic record. He was understood to be great in "history"; to historic study his life would be dedicated; if he ran up to London or to Cambridge, the newspaper announced that he was gone for the purpose of "consulting original documents." At first, he declined to take any part in the affairs of the town, for which he had absolutely no leisure; but little by little certain honours were thrust upon him, and the satisfaction of making little speeches, carefully prepared and no less carefully reported, lured his mind from exclusive occupation with the past. At length he could be depended upon for an annual lecture at the Literary Society, for an address here or there, for the active patronage of any enlightened movement—unconnected with politics. From strictly municipal business he succeeded in holding aloof, his true reason being fear of expense; but, this prudence notwithstanding, the esteem he enjoyed necessarily cost him something in coin of the realm, and such demands upon his pocket grew heavier and more frequent with the progress of time. The day came when Percy had seriously to consider his financial position. Seeing no immediate way out of the difficulty, and feeling so comfortable in his daily life that a complete change could hardly be thought of, he insensibly drifted into carelessness of the future. And so it came about that, in his thirty-eighth year, having long lived upon capital, with steady growth of expenditure from Christmas to Christmas, he saw before him an inevitable crisis. Income he no longer possessed; merely a sum of money which, even with parsimonious management, could last him only a short time, and at the present rate of living would dissolve with awful rapidity.

In the way of literary production he had done nothing. Years ago he made no secret of his undertaking: the work of his life was to be a continuation of Macaulay; latterly he very seldom spoke on this subject, or even distantly alluded to it. Since his thirtieth year scarcely a jotting had been added to the notes and rough sketches previously accumulated. Nowadays he only read, and for the most part his reading had no connection with historic research. A large library, collected at no small outlay, gathered dust upon the shelves. Expensive publications still reached him, simply because he lacked the courage to discontinue his subscriptions, and so to confess that his one object in life had melted away, together with his money. He spent the wonted number of hours locked in his study, but more often than not a day dragged through in sluggish mooning or in the tortures of anxiety. As usual, he pottered about the garden; as usual, he paid and received visits, attended meetings, made little speeches, helped to get up little entertainments of an intellectual cast. And no fellow-townsman marked the slightest change in him.

One hope remained; yet it could hardly be called a hope: rather, a troubled imagination of something that might have fallen to his lot in happier circumstances. Until of late no thoughts of marriage had lured or perturbed him; he cared but moderately for the society of women, and, like most men of his temper, kept very clearly in view the sacrifices and perils attaching to wedlock; his pleasant, roomy house, always quiet and fragrant under the rule of an excellent domestic, would undergo such changes if a mistress entered into possession. For all that, there was one woman who often occupied his thoughts, and in some degree had power over his emotions; in part because of her social rank, partly because of her education, and, last but not least, by virtue of her personal charm. Certainly he liked Eveline Cloud; he was flattered by the deference she paid him, and felt something very attractive in the modesty with which she spoke of her own attainments. By slow degrees their intimacy had grown and ripened. At first he was slightly afraid of her; the smile ever lurking about her lips seemed to threaten criticism of an unfamiliar keenness: who could say what equipment of modern views these young ladies brought with them from Girton? Gradually he perceived that Eveline's position in the town was somewhat like his own—that her prestige rested upon vague report rather than on present evidence of learning and ability. He judged her intelligent, but certainly not profound. Nor did she make parade of erudition; her tastes seemed decidedly simple; if he mistook not, she preferred the companionship of her provincial friends to the society she met when with her father in London. Her interest in local concerns became more pronounced; she was fervent in orthodoxy, and, as years went on, accepted with decision her place as leading lady in social or charitable organisations. Personally, Miss Cloud no longer overawed him, for he felt that he understood her. Her behaviour to him was of such frank friendliness that no wonder their acquaintances observed them with a genial smile. Marfleet sometimes came away from the house brooding. But for his incredible folly, which had brought him within sight of disaster he saw no means of repairing, might he not reasonably have aspired to a marriage which would at once exalt his position and promote his happiness? What possibility of it now? The secret, of which no one had a suspicion, weighed but the more heavily upon his own mind.

In conversation one day with Miss Cloud, he chanced to speak of some political incident in the reign of Queen Anne, a point which it seemed to him the historians had misunderstood.

"Have you reached that in your book?" asked Eveline, with a glance of interest.

His eyes dropped; he was uncomfortably aware of that lurking smile about the fresh-coloured lips.

"In the first rough draft," he constrained himself to answer. And Eveline's eyes reassured him, so friendly were they, so devoid of troublesome curiosity.

"Have you never thought, Mr. Marfleet, of publishing portions of your work in the periodicals—as some writers do?"

Yes, he had thought of it, and very lately. To be sure, no portion of his work was written, but might it not be possible to shape out of his notes a few interesting chapters, which the reviews would print and pay for. Miss Cloud's happy suggestion had a strong effect upon him; it revived his energies, and for the next few weeks he actually engaged in literary composition. He wrote a chapter of some length, and dispatched it to the editor of an important monthly. What was more, so sanguine had he become in consequence of his effort, that he revealed the matter to Miss Cloud.

"I am delighted!" was her exclamation—and she really looked it. "When do you think it will appear?"

"Oh," he faltered, "impossible to say. Perhaps—it might not strike the editor as worth much."

"What? the result of years and years of study! That's impossible." And Eveline added: "I have noticed, Mr. Marfleet, that you seem rather despondent of late."

The were alone on one of the garden terraces, and Eveline's voice had an intonation of peculiar gentleness. A more ardent admirer or less scrupulous man would have used the opportunity; Marfleet merely grew confused.

"It's nothing. I wasn't aware of its——"

"I'm afraid you work too hard," sounded in the soft, kindly accents.

"Oh dear no!" He laughed. "I feel perfectly well—perfectly."

And, indeed, there was little amiss in his appearance. He had a pleasant colour, a clear eye, the excellent teeth of a healthy man who did not smoke. For years he had gone to bed at eleven o'clock and risen only at nine; he had never fallen short in exercise, ate heartily, and found plenty of amusement. It would take a long time before mental distress such as he was now suffering wrote itself upon his countenance. No one thought it unnatural for Miss Cloud to take an interest in Mr. Marfleet; decidedly he was a presentable man, well set up, well featured, and always carefully dressed. Eveline for her part, could not be called handsome; but for her position, suitors would hardly have singled her from a group of amiable-looking young women. Yet the good blood in her veins, the kindly, intelligent light of her eyes, and that lurking smile, wrought durable bonds for the heart of any man once thoroughly subdued to their charm.

Not long after his conversation Miss Cloud went with her father to town, where she remained for more than three months. For nearly the same period Percy Marfleet lived in uncertainty as to the fate of his historical essay, and the time passed drearily enough. When Eveline's return grew near he resolved to make inquiries of the silent editor, and a speedy reply put an end to his suspense. The editor regretted that he could not make use of Mr. Marfleet's interesting paper, which he now sent back. It was a blow to Marfleet, and after a few days spent in recovering from dizziness, the poor fellow took a dark resolve.

While he still had a little money left he would go to London, and there, as a literary man at anyone's disposal, face the struggle for existence.

No need to make known his intention to the old friends. His departure should be explained as a temporary removal to London for purposes of study. In a month or so he could write that circumstances obliged him to stay in town for an indefinite period; his library should be sent up as if for use, but really for sale; and the house there would be no difficulty in letting for some fifty pounds a year—just enough, if the worst came to the worst, to save him from destitution. Of course, he must break the habits and the connections of a lifetime; unless he were so fortunate as to establish himself in a decent literary career, of which he had painfully little hope. The probability was that he would come to be thankful for hack work at the British Museum, such as he himself had occasionally employed a poor devil to do, ere yet the day of evil dawned on his life.

The resolve taken, he bore up manfully. All he had to do before actually leaving the town was to go through his papers, destroying and packing, and meanwhile to wear the accustomed face. Not a soul suspected him. He even took the chair at the annual meeting of the Literary Society, and made a speech which was considered brilliant. Not the faintest hint that he might be obliged to sever his connection with this and other local organisations. Two days later "our learned fellow-townsman" was reported as usual in the borough press, with wonted encomium; and Marfleet smiled dolefully as he glanced at the familiar column.

He knew the day of Miss Cloud's return; the day before would see his departure. To meet her, and answer questions about his historical essay, was a humiliation he could not endure. Doubtless, she had mentioned the matter to other people, and this disaster alone would have been all but sufficient to drive him into exile. How foolish to have spoken of his attempt! But it was all one, now. On the last day he sat hour after hour in his study, totally unoccupied, his mind a miserable blank; he sat till late at night, and on going to bed had but snatches of unrefreshing sleep. Early next morning, when only the humbler classes of the townsfolk were about, a cab conveyed him to the station. His servants understood that he would be away for two or three weeks—nothing more. When the moment came for breaking up the establishment, he must rely upon his sister, or her husband, resident a few miles out of the town, to transact the necessary business for him. Before mid-day he arrived in London, and went first of all to an hotel where he was known; but before nightfall he had searched for and settled upon a lodging; modest, as befitted his humble prospects. The address, however, was not such as would excite surprise when communicated to his friends.

Oddly enough, the next day brought him an access of cheerful, even sanguine spirits. Though late in December, the weather was remarkably bright; he walked about the streets with a revival of bodily vigour, and saw his position from quite a changed point of view. After all, was not this supposed calamity the very best thing that could have befallen him? Down yonder he was merely rusting, sinking into premature old age; here, "in streaming London's central roar," his energies would rise to the demand upon them. Pooh! as if such a man as he could not make a place for himself in literary life! There were at least two or three old college friends with whom he might renew intimacy—men pretty well to the front in various callings, and more likely than not able to be of use to him. He had done most unwisely in neglecting those early acquaintances. Nay—he saw it now—he ought never to have matte his home in that dull little country town, where ignorant flattery and facile triumphs fostered all the weaknesses of his temperament. Heaven be thanked, he was not yet forty, and his resources would last till he had got an independent footing. Ho, ho! How many a poor devil would be glad to exchange positions with him!

This mood lasted for about a week; a long time, considering that Marfleet lived alone in lodgings, and permitted his landlady to supply him with meals. But he was sustained by the renewal of acquaintance with two of those old friends of his, who really seemed quite glad to meet him again, and asked him to dinner, and talked as men do whom the world has provided with store of goods. To these men he by no means revealed the truth, but fell into their complacent tone, and spoke for the most part as if all were well with him. The second week saw him meditative, and inclined to solitude—which he had so little difficulty in securing. He now reproved himself for having struck a false note with his genial friends; it would be doubly hard to ask their advice or assistance. The weather, too, had turned to normal wretchedness, and his rooms were cold, dark, depressing. He began to suffer from indigestion, the natural result of his landlady's meals. Then a bilious headache and a severe catarrh simultaneously seized upon him; he could not go out, and just as little could think of inviting anyone to come and see him in his dreary durance.

Recovered from these transitory ills, he saw the solid features of his situation in a gloomier light than ever. It was folly to postpone the decisive step; he must dismiss his servants, sell his library, let the dear old home as soon as possible. He tried to write the fateful letter, but his hand dropped. There came a moment when, as he sat by the alien fireside, bitter thoughts were too much for him, and his eyes filled with despairing tears. Percy Marfleet lived thus for a month. Day by day home-sickness ate into his heart; day by day the great, roaring, fog-choked city crushed his soul and became unutterably hateful. In imagination he visited the beloved house, sat in his library, walked about his garden; heard the voices of companionable men and women, above all, the voice of Eveline Cloud; took the chair at the Literary Institute, listened to friendly proposals that he should stand for this or that ward at the next municipal elections. What a Christmas he had passed! And how delightful it always was, the Christmas of old times! And so it came to pass that, on a day, he found himself at the railway station; in one hand a travelling-bag, clasped in the other a ticket for his native town. Why he was going back, he knew not; enough that he was booked and would see his home again this very night.

He reached it at nine o'clock. He rang a merry peal at the front door, and, when the door opened, had much ado not to embrace his honest, smiling housekeeper.

"No, no, Mrs. Robinson; it's all right. I didn't send notice—had to come unexpectedly. And how are you, eh? Cold night—ah, but how good the air tastes! Fire in the study, is there? Splendid! Something to eat—hungry—ha, ha, ha!"

Mrs. Robinson felt a strange suspicion. She had never known her master to exceed becoming limits in the matter of strong drink; but really—— And he had such an unaccountable look; dark eyes; sunken cheeks: utterly unlike himself. At his supper, too, he drank a great deal of bottled beer; after it he called joyously for whisky. And there he sat until long after midnight, singing to himself snatches of old songs.

The next morning—it was frosty and bright—he went forth, walked through the town, greeted cheerily such friends as he chanced to encounter. As though bent on a country walk, he crossed the bridge and passed at his usual brisk pace through the suburb of mean little houses; from the highway beyond he struck into a field path, and by way of a great semicircle drew towards the point he had in mind, which he might have reached in a quarter of the time by starting on another route. He was going to call upon Miss Cloud. With what purpose, he did not try to make clear to himself; he must see Eveline; that was the immediate necessity of a life which had lost all conscious self-direction.

Mr. Cloud's residence, built but a few years ago, stood amid a young plantation, and at this time of the year had a chilly aspect. As he walked up the shrub-bordered drive, Marfleet felt a misgiving, and when his hand was on the bell he asked himself abruptly why he had come; but the speedy opening of the door gave him no time to answer the question. Miss Cloud, as he knew, was at present living alone, unless there happened to be some female relative in the house, for her father had gone to London again after the Parliamentary recess. As a matter of course he was straightway led to the drawing-room, and in a moment Eveline joined him.

"How delightful, Mr. Marfleet! I was just wishing that I could see you, but had no idea you were back again. Will you come into the library? There's a bit of crabbed old law-Latin I can't understand at all——"

For some time Eveline had been making a study of the antiquities of the town, and in her last conversation with Marfleet she had laughingly suggested that they should collaborate on a local history. By good luck (he trembled with apprehension) the man of learning was able to solve this present difficulty, and the feat exhilarated him: his countenance became that of one who had not a care in the world.

"You have been a long time in London," said Eveline, with one of her shy glances. Alone with Marfleet, she always looked rather shy, however spirited her talk.

"Yes—a month or so. And I think I must go back again. In fact, Miss Cloud, I have all but made up my mind to live there altogether."

The announcement startled her so much that she looked at him in silence—looked at him for a moment fixedly. Marfleet was swaying on his feet and twisting his hands together behind him; he talked on with nervous rapidity and vigour.

"The truth is, I'm not getting on so well with my work as I ought to be. For a long time—it 's a shameful confession—I have been shockingly idle. Do you think our climate is just a trifle relaxing? I'm afraid I must take a decided step; really, I'm afraid I must. After all, London is the place for work; don't you think so? In the country one has so many temptations to indolence. I mean——"

He grew confused, and began to swallow his words.

"I can quite understand," said Eveline in a low voice as she stood before him with head bent, "that you feel the need of—of more intellectual society. You must find us very dull."

"No, no, no!" he exclaimed in agitation. "I meant nothing of the kind. The society is delightful. I was thinking of the—the libraries and that kind of thing—the general atmosphere of——"

"I quite understand." Eveline was eager to justify him. "For a serious student the advantages of London are very great. Of course, I am very sorry but——"

A crisis of nervous torture drove the man to plain speech.

"Miss Cloud, the matter is more serious than you could suspect. you remember the paper I wrote—for the review? It was rejected."

The word seemed to echo from every surface of the room, Eveline stood motionless, and durst not raise her eyes.

"You can imagine how that affected me," he rushed on, with hot checks. "It made me aware of my culpable folly. Miss Cloud, you say that I must feel the society of your town dull. Oh, if you will believe me, how gladly I would live here for the rest of my days! This is my home; I love it. London will always be a miserable exile. If you knew how I felt last night on coming back! If I could but stay here, and lead the same quiet, happy life——"

His voice grew thick, and he had to pause. Eveline looked at him with gentle surprise, and her breath came quickly as she spoke.

"You feel it a duty to use your great gifts——"

"I will tell you the whole wretched truth. I cannot stay here. I have been living like a simpleton—spending twice my income. I must go to London to earn a living. There, now, that is what I came this morning to tell you."

And he laughed as if it were an excellent joke.

"Mr. Marfleet——"

Even on those lips his name had never sounded so pleasantly. He gazed at her and waited.

"Don't you think," she proceeded, with diffidence yet with courage, "that it's a great pity for towns like ours to lose all their most capable men? Wouldn't it be much better if—such a man as yourself were to stay, and use his talents in the service of the place he loves and the people he cares for? We are so much in want of a higher type of mind——"

"Ah, if it were possible! I regret bitterly that I did not enter into the life of the town in earnest, years and years ago."

Eveline's smile came from its lurking-place, and made sunny all her sweet countenance.

"You would have been mayor by now. And think bow much better for all of us!"

"I would give years of my life," exclaimed Marfleet, "if that could be!"

"Is it really impossible?"

Their eyes met. Eveline, sister to the rose, trembled as if on the verge of happy laughter. Marfleet, his face radiant yet ashamed, tried vainly to speak.

"Who knows of your difficulties?" she asked softly.

"Not a soul but you."

She did not laugh, but again seemed scarce able to help it. Marfleet's hand stole forth, and was met half-way,

"We will write the history of our town!" broke joyously from his lips.