The Yellow Book/Volume 2/The Gospel of Content

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The Gospel of Content



HOW it was that I, being so young a man and not a very tactful one, was sent on such an errand is more than I should be able to explain. But many years ago some one came to me with a request that I should go that evening to a certain street at King's Cross, where would be found a poor lady in great distress; that I should take a small sum of money which was given to me for the purpose in a little packet which disguised all appearance of coin, present it to her as a "parcel" which I had been desired to deliver, and ask if there were any particular service that could be done for her. For my own information I was told that she was a beautiful Russian whose husband had barely contrived to get her out of the country, with her child, before his own arrest for some deep political offence of which she was more than cognisant, and that now she was living in desperate ignorance of his fate. Moreover, she was penniless and companionless, though not quite without friends; for some there were who knew of her husband and had a little help for her, though they were almost as poor as herself. But none of these dare approach her, so fearful was she of the danger of their doing so, either to themselves or her husband or her child, and so ignorant of the perfect freedom that political exiles could count upon in England. "Then," said I, "what expectation is there that she will admit me, an absolute stranger to her, who may be employed by the police for anything she knows to the contrary?" The answer was: "Of course that has been thought of. But you have only to send up your name, which, in the certainty that you would have no objection, has been communicated to her already. Her own name, in England, is Madame Vernet."

It was a Saturday evening in November, the air thick with darkness and a drizzling rain, the streets black and shining where lamplight fell upon the mud on the paths and the pools in the roadway, when I found my way to King s Cross on this small errand of kindness. King's Cross is a most unlovely purlieu at its best, which must be in the first dawn of a summer day, when the innocence of morning smiles along its squalid streets, and the people of the place, who cannot be so wretched as they look, are shut within their poor and furtive homes. On a foul November night nothing can be more miserable, more melancholy. One or two great thoroughfares were crowded with foot-passengers who bustled here and there about their Saturday marketings, under the light that flared from the shops and the stalls that lined the roadway. Spreading on every hand from these thoroughfares, with their noisy trafficking so dreadfully eager and small, was a maze of streets built to be "respectable" but now run down into the forlorn poverty which is all for concealment without any rational hope of success. It was to one of these that I was directed—a narrow silent little street of three-storey houses, with two families at least in every one of them.

Arrived at No. 17, I was admitted by a child after long delay, and by her conducted to a room at the top of the house. No Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/21 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/22 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/23 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/24 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/25 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/26 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/27 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/28 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/29 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/30 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/31 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/32 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/33 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/34 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/35 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/36 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/37 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/38 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/39 Page:The Yellow Book - 02.djvu/40 ground they grow in. Ah, believe me! if a man had eloquence enough, fire enough, and that command of sympathy that your Gordon seems to have had (not to speak of a man like Mahomet or to touch on more sacred names), he might do wonders for mankind in a single generation by preaching to rich and poor the several doctrines of the Gospel of Content. A curse on the mean strivings, stealings, and hoardings that survive from our animal ancestry, and another curse (by your permission) on the gaudy vanities that we have set up for objects in life since we became reasoning creatures."

In effect, here the conversation ended. More was said, but nothing worth recalling. Drifting back to less serious talk, we gossiped till midnight, and then parted with the heartiest desire (I speak for myself) of meeting soon again. But on our way back to town Vernet recurred for a moment to the subject of his discourse, saying:

"I don't make out exactly what you think now of the prospect we were talking of."

My answer pleased him. "I incline to think," said I, "what I have long thought: that if there is any such future for us, and I believe there is, we of the older European nations will be nowhere when it comes. In existence—yes, perhaps; but gone down. You see we are becoming greybeards already; while you in Russia are boys, with every mark of boyhood on you. You, you are a new race—the only new race in the world; and it is plain that you swarm with ideas of precisely the kind that, when you come to maturity, may re-invigorate the world. But first, who knows what deadly wars?"

He pressed his hand upon my knee in a way that spoke a great deal. We parted, and two months afterwards the Vernet whose real name ended in "ieff" was "happed in lead."