There are two classes of critics who still waste their vital forces in a futile attempt to reform feminine dress. The first class cherish artistic sensibilities which are grievously wounded by the caprices of fashion. They anathematize a civilization which tolerates ear-rings, or feathered hats, or artificial flowers. They appear to suffer vicarious torments from high-heeled shoes, spotted veils, and stays. They have occasional doubts as to the moral influence of ball-dresses. An unusually sanguine writer of this order has assured us, in the pages of the "Contemporary Review," that when women once assume their civic responsibilities, they will dress as austerely as men. The first fruits of the suffrage will be seen in sober and virtue-compelling gowns at the opera.
The second class of critics is made up of economists, who believe that too much of the world's earnings is spent upon clothes, and that this universal spirit of extravagance retards marriage, and blocks the progress of the race. It is in an ignoble effort to pacify these last censors that women writers undertake to tell their women readers, in the pages of women's periodicals, how to dress on sums of incredible insufficiency. Such misleading guides would be harmless, and even in their way amusing, if nobody believed them; but unhappily somebody always does believe them, and that somebody is too often a married man. There is no measure to the credulity of the average semi-educated man when confronted by a printed page (print carries such authority in his eyes), and with rows of figures, all showing conclusively that two and two make three, and that with economy and good management they can be reduced to one and a half. He has never mastered, and apparently never will master, the exact shade of difference between a statement and a fact.
Women are, under most circumstances, even more readily deceived; but, in the matter of dress, they have walked the thorny paths of experience. They know the cruel cost of everything they wear,—a cost which in this country is artificially maintained by a high protective tariff,—and they are not to be cajoled by that delusive word "simplicity," being too well aware that it is, when synonymous with good taste, the consummate success of artists, and the crowning achievement of wealth. Some years ago there appeared in one of the English magazines an article entitled, "How to Dress on Thirty Pounds a Year. As a Lady. By a Lady." Whereupon "Punch" offered the following light-minded amendment: "How to Dress on Nothing a Year. As a Kaffir. By a Kaffir." At least a practical proposition.
Mr. Henry James has written some charming paragraphs on the symbolic value of clothes, as illustrated by the costumes worn by the French actresses of the Comedie,—women to whose unerring taste dress affords an expression of fine dramatic quality. He describes with enthusiasm the appearance of Madame Nathalie, when playing the part of an elderly provincial bourgeoise in a curtain-lifter called "Le Village."
"It was the quiet felicity of the old lady's dress that used to charm me. She wore a large black silk mantilla of a peculiar cut, which looked as if she had just taken it tenderly out of some old wardrobe where it lay folded in lavender, and a large dark bonnet, adorned with handsome black silk loops and bows. The extreme suggestiveness, and yet the taste and temperateness of this costume, seemed to me inimitable. The bonnet alone, with its handsome, decent, virtuous bows, was worth coming to see."
If we compare this "quiet felicity" of the artist with the absurd travesties worn on our American stage, we can better understand the pleasure which filled Mr. James's heart. What, for example, would Madame Nathalie have thought of the modish gowns which Mrs. Fiske introduces into the middle-class Norwegian life of Ibsen's dramas? No plays can less well bear such inaccuracies, because they depend on their stage-setting to bring before our eyes their alien aspect, to make us feel an atmosphere with which we are wholly unfamiliar. The accessories are few, but of supreme importance; and it is inconceivable that a keenly intelligent actress like Mrs. Fiske should sacrifice vraisemblance to a meaningless refinement. In the second act of "Rosmersholm," to take a single instance, the text calls for a morning wrapper, a thing so manifestly careless and informal that the school-master, Kroll, is scandalized at seeing Rebecca in it, and says so plainly. But as Mrs. Fiske plays the scene in a tea-gown of elaborate elegance, in which she might with propriety have received the Archbishop of Canterbury, Kroll's studied apologies for intruding upon her before she has had time to dress, and the whole suggestion of undue intimacy between Rebecca and Rosmer, which Ibsen meant to convey, is irrevocably lost. And to weaken a situation for the sake of being prettily dressed would be impossible to a French actress, trained in the delicacies of her art.
If the feeling for clothes, the sense of their correspondence with time and place, with public enthusiasms and with private sensibilities, has always belonged to France, it was a no less dominant note in Italy during the two hundred years in which she eclipsed and bewildered the rest of Christendom; and it bore fruit in those great historic wardrobes which the Italian chroniclers describe with loving minuteness. We know all about Isabella d' Este's gowns, as if she had worn them yesterday. We know all about the jewels which were the assertion of her husband's pride in times of peace, and his security with the Lombard bankers in times of war. We know what costumes the young Beatrice d' Este carried with her on her mission to Venice, and how favourably they impressed the grave Venetian Senate. We can count the shifts in Lucretia Borgia's trousseau, when that much-slandered woman became Duchess of Ferrara, and we can reckon the cost of the gold fringe which hung from her linen sleeves. We are told which of her robes was wrought with fish scales, and which with interlacing leaves, and which with a hem of pure and flame-like gold. Ambassadors described in state papers her green velvet cap with its golden ornaments, and the emerald she wore on her forehead, and the black ribbon which tied her beautiful fair hair.
These vanities harmonized with character and circumstance. The joy of living was then expressing itself in an overwhelming sense of beauty, and in material splendour which, unlike the material splendour of to-day, never overstepped the standard set by the intellect. Taste had become a triumphant principle, and as women grew in dignity and importance, they set a higher and higher value on the compelling power of dress. They had no more doubt on this score than had wise Homer when he hung the necklaces around Aphrodite's tender neck before she was well out of the sea, winding them row after row in as many circles as there are stars clustering about the moon. No more doubt than had the fair and virtuous Countess of Salisbury, who, so Froissart tells us, chilled the lawless passion of Edward the Third by the simple expedient of wearing unbefitting clothes. Saint Lucy, under somewhat similar circumstances, felt it necessary to put out her beautiful eyes; but Katharine of Salisbury knew men better than the saint knew them. She shamed her loveliness by going to Edward's banquet looking like a rustic, and found herself in consequence very comfortably free from royal attentions.
In the wise old days when men outshone their consorts, we find their hearts set discerningly on one supreme extravagance. Lace, the most artistic fabric that taste and ingenuity have devised, "the fine web which feeds the pride of the world," was for centuries the delight of every well-dressed gentleman. We know not by what marital cajolery Mr. Pepys persuaded Mrs. Pepys to give him the lace from her best petticoat, "that she had when I married her"; but we do know that he used it to trim a new coat; and that he subsequently noted down in his diary one simple, serious, and heartfelt resolution, which we feel sure was faithfully kept: "Henceforth I am determined my chief expense shall be in lace bands." Charles the Second paid fifteen pounds apiece for his lace-trimmed night-caps; William the Third, five hundred pounds for a set of lace-trimmed night-shirts; and Cinq-Mars, the favourite of Louis the Thirteenth, who was beheaded when he was barely twenty-two, found time in his short life to acquire three hundred sets of lace ruffles. The lace collars of Van Dyck's portraits, the lace cravats which Grahame of Claverhouse and Montrose wear over their armour, are subtly suggestive of the strength that lies in delicacy. The fighting qualities of Claverhouse were not less effective because of those soft folds of lace and linen. The death of Montrose was no less noble because he went to the scaffold in scarlet and fine linen, with "stockings of incarnate silk, and roses on his shoon." Once Carlyle was disparaging Montrose, as (being in a denunciatory mood) he would have disparaged the Archangel Michael; and, finding his hearers disposed to disagree with him, asked bitterly: "What did Montrose do anyway?" Whereupon Irving retorted: "He put on a clean shirt to be hanged in, and that is more than you, Carlyle, would ever have done in his place."
It was the association of the scaffold with an ignoble victim which banished black satin from the London world. Because a foul-hearted murderess elected to be hanged in this material, Englishwomen refused for years to wear it, and many bales of black satin languished on the drapers' shelves,—a memorable instance of the significance which attaches itself to dress. The caprices of fashion do more than illustrate a woman's capacity or incapacity for selection. They mirror her inward refinements, and symbolize those feminine virtues and vanities which are so closely akin as to be occasionally undistinguishable.
[Footnote 2: Mrs. Manning.]
"A saint in crape is twice a saint in lawn,"
mocked Pope; and woman smiles at the satire, knowing more about the matter than Pope could ever have known, and seeing a little sparkle of truth glimmering beneath the gibe. Fashion fluctuates from one charming absurdity to another, and each in turn is welcomed and dismissed; through each in turn woman endeavours to reveal her own elusive personality. Poets no longer praise With Herrick the brave vibrations of her petticoats. Ambassadors no longer describe her caps and ribbons in their official documents. Novelists no longer devote twenty pages, as did the admirable Richardson, to the wedding finery of their heroines. Men have ceased to be vitally interested in dress, but none the less are they sensitive to its influence and enslaved by its results; while women, preserving through the centuries the great traditions of their sex, still rate at its utmost value the prize for which Eve sold her freehold in the Garden of Paradise.
"The Greatest of These is Charity"
Mrs. James Gordon Harrington Balderston to Mrs. Lapham Shepherd
MY DEAR MRS. SHEPHERD,
Will you pardon me for this base encroachment on your time? Busy women are the only ones who ever have any time, so the rest of the world is forced to steal from them. And then all that you organize is so successful that every one turns naturally to you for advice and assistance, as I am turning now. A really charming woman, a Miss Alexandrina Ramsay, who has lived for years in Italy, is anxious to give a series of lectures on Dante. I am sure they will be interesting, for she can put so much local colour into them, and I understand she is a fluent Italian scholar. Her uncle was the English Consul in Florence or Naples, I don't remember which, so she has had unusual opportunities for study; and her grandfather was Dr. Alexander Ramsay, who wrote a history of the Hebrides. Unfortunately her voice is not very strong, so she would be heard to the best advantage in a drawing-room. I am wondering whether you would consent to lend yours, which is so beautiful, or whether you could put Miss Ramsay in touch with the Century Club, or the Spalding School. You will find her attractive, I am sure. The Penhursts knew her well in Munich, and have given her a letter to me.
Pray allow me to congratulate you on your new honours as a grandmother. I trust that both your daughter and the baby are well.
Very sincerely yours, IRENE BALDERSTON.
I forgot to tell you that Miss Ramsay's lectures are on
Dante, the Lover. Dante, the Poet. Dante, the Patriot. Dante, the Reformer.
There was a fifth on Dante, the Prophet, but I persuaded her to leave it out of the course.
Mrs. Lapham Shepherd to Mrs. Wilfred Ward Hamilton
DEAR MRS. HAMILTON,—
Mrs. James Balderston has asked me to do what I can for a Miss Alexandrina Ramsay (granddaughter of the historian), who wants to give four lectures on Dante in Philadelphia. She has chopped him up into poet, prophet, lover, etc. I cannot have any lectures or readings in my house this winter. Jane is still far from strong, and we shall probably go South after Christmas. Please don't let me put any burden on your shoulders; but if Dr. Hamilton could persuade those nice Quakers at Swarthmore that there is nothing so educational as a course of Dante, it would be the best possible opening for Miss Ramsay. Mrs. Balderston seems to think her voice would not carry in a large room, but as students never listen to anybody, this would make very little difference. The Century Club has been suggested, but I fancy the classes there have been arranged for the season. There are preparatory schools, aren't there, at Swarthmore, which need to know about Dante? Or would there be any chance at all at Miss Irington's?
Miss Ramsay has been to see me, and I feel sorry for the girl. Her uncle was the English Consul at Milan, and the poor thing loved Italy (who doesn't!), and hated to leave it. I wish she could establish herself as a lecturer, though there is nothing I detest more ardently than lectures.
I missed you sorely at the meeting of the Aubrey Home house-committee yesterday. Harriet Maline and Mrs. Percy Brown had a battle royal over the laying of the new water-pipes, and over my prostrate body, which still aches from the contest. I wish Harriet would resign. She is the only creature I have ever known, except the Bate's parrot and my present cook, who is perpetually out of temper. If she were not my husband's stepmother's niece, I am sure I could stand up to her better.
Cordially yours, ALICE LEIGH SHEPHERD.
Mrs. Wilfred Ward Hamilton to Miss Violet Wray
You know Margaret Irington better than I do. Do you think she would like to have a course of Dante in her school this winter? A very clever and charming woman, a Miss Alexandrina Ramsay, has four lectures on the poet which she is anxious to give before schools, or clubs, or—if she can—in private houses. I have promised Mrs. Shepherd to do anything in my power to help her. It occurred to me that the Contemporary Club might like to have one of the lectures, and you are on the committee. That would be the making of Miss Ramsay, if only she could be heard in that huge Clover Room. I understand she has a pleasant cultivated voice, but is not accustomed to public speaking. There must be plenty of smaller clubs at Bryn Mawr, or Haverford, or Chestnut Hill, for which she would be just the thing. Her grandfather wrote a history of England, and I have a vague impression that I studied it at school. I should write to the Drexel Institute, but don't know anybody connected with it. Do you? It would be a real kindness to give Miss Ramsay a start, and I know you do not begrudge trouble in a good cause. You did such wonders for Fraulein Breitenbach last winter.
Love to your mother, Affectionately yours, HANNAH GALE HAMILTON.
Miss Violet Wray to Mrs. J. Lockwood Smith
I have been requested by Hannah Hamilton—may Heaven forgive her!—to find lecture engagements for a Miss Ramsay, Miss Alexandrina Ramsay, who wants to tell the American public what she knows about Dante. Why a Scotchwoman should be turned loose in the Inferno, I cannot say; but it seems her father or her grandfather wrote school-books, and she is carrying on the educational traditions of the family. Hannah made the unholy suggestion that she should speak at the Contemporary Club, and offered as an inducement the fact that she couldn't be heard in so large a room. But we are supposed to discuss topics of the day, and Dante happened some little while ago. He has no bearing upon aviation, or National Insurance Bills (that is our subject next Monday night); but he is brimming over with ethics, and it is the duty of your precious Ethical Society to grapple with him exhaustively. I always wondered what took you to that strange substitute for church; but now I see in it the hand of Providence pointing the way to Miss Ramsay's lecture field. Please persuade your fellow Ethicals that four lectures—or even one lecture—on Dante will be what Alice Hunt calls an "uplift." I feel that I must try and find an opening for Hannah's protegee, because she helped me with Fraulein Breitenbach's concert last winter,—a circumstance she does not lightly permit me to forget. Did I say, "May Heaven forgive her" for saddling me with this Scotch schoolmaster's daughter? Well, I take back that devout supplication. May jackals sit on her grandmother's grave! Meantime here is Miss Ramsay to be provided for. If your Ethicals (disregarding their duty) will have none of her, please think up somebody with a taste for serious study, and point out that Dante, elucidated by a Scotchwoman, will probably be as serious as anything that has visited Philadelphia since the yellow fever.
If you want one of Grisette's kittens, there are still two left. The handsomest of all has gone to live in regal splendour at the Bruntons, and I have promised another to our waitress who was married last month. Such are the vicissitudes of life.
Ever yours, VIOLET WRAY.
Mrs. J. Lockwood Smith to Mrs. James Gordon Harrington Balderston
DEAR MRS. BALDERSTON,—
I want to enlist your interest in a clever young Scotchwoman, a Miss Alexandrina Ramsay, who hopes to give four lectures on Dante in Philadelphia this winter. Her father was an eminent teacher in his day, and I understand she is thoroughly equipped for her work. Heaven knows I wish fewer lecturers would cross the sea to enlighten our ignorance, and so will you when you get this letter; but I remember with what enthusiasm you talked about Italy and Dante at Brown's Mills last spring, and I trust that your ardour has not waned. The Century Club seems to me the best possible field for Miss Ramsay. Do you know any one on the entertainment committee, and do you think it is not too late in the season to apply? Of course there are always the schools. Dear Mrs. Balderston, I should feel more shame in troubling you, did I not know how capable you are, and how much weight your word carries. Violet Wray and Mrs. Wilfred Hamilton are tremendously interested in Miss Ramsay. May I tell Violet to send her to you, so that you can see for yourself what she is like, and what chances she has of success? Please be quite frank in saying yes or no, and believe me always,
Yours very cordially, ANN HAZELTON SMITH.
The Customary Correspondent
"Letters warmly sealed and coldly opened."—RICHTER.
Why do so many ingenious theorists give fresh reasons every year for the decline of letter writing, and why do they assume, in derision of suffering humanity, that it has declined? They lament the lack of leisure, the lack of sentiment,—Mr. Lucas adds the lack of stamps,—which chill the ardour of the correspondent; and they fail to ascertain how chilled he is, or how far he sets at naught these justly restraining influences. They talk of telegrams, and telephones, and postal cards, as if any discovery of science, any device of civilization, could eradicate from the human heart that passion for self-expression which is the impelling force of letters. They also fail to note that, side by side with telephones and telegrams, comes the baleful reduction of postage rates, which lowers our last barrier of defence. Two cents an ounce leaves us naked at the mercy of the world.
It is on record that a Liverpool tradesman once wrote to Dickens, to express the pleasure he had derived from that great Englishman's immortal novels, and enclosed, by way of testimony, a cheque for five hundred pounds. This is a phenomenon which ought to be more widely known than it is, for there is no natural law to prevent its recurrence; and while the world will never hold another Dickens, there are many deserving novelists who may like to recall the incident when they open their morning's mail. It would be pleasant to associate our morning's mail with such fair illusions; and though writing to strangers is but a parlous pastime, the Liverpool gentleman threw a new and radiant light upon its possibilities. "The gratuitous contributor is, ex vi termini, an ass," said Christopher North sourly; but then he never knew, nor ever deserved to know, this particular kind of contribution.
Generally speaking, the unknown correspondent does not write to praise. His guiding principle is the diffusion of useless knowledge, and he demands or imparts it according to the exigencies of the hour. It is strange that a burning thirst for information should be combined with such reluctance to acquire it through ordinary channels. A man who wishes to write a paper on the botanical value of Shakespeare's plays does not dream of consulting a concordance and a botany, and then going to work. The bald simplicity of such a process offends his sense of magnitude. He writes to a distinguished scholar, asking a number of burdensome questions, and is apparently under the impression that the resources of the scholar's mind, the fruits of boundless industry, should be cheerfully placed at his disposal. A woman who meditates a "literary essay" upon domestic pets is not content to track her quarry through the long library shelves. She writes to some painstaking worker, enquiring what English poets have "sung the praises of the cat," and if Cowper was the only author who ever domesticated hares? One of Huxley's most amusing letters is written in reply to a gentleman who wished to compile an article on "Home Pets of Celebrities," and who unhesitatingly applied for particulars concerning the Hodeslea cat.
These are, of course, labour-saving devices, but economy of effort is not always the ambition of the correspondent. It would seem easier, on the whole, to open a dictionary of quotations than to compose an elaborately polite letter, requesting to know who said—
"Fate cannot harm me; I have dined to-day."
It is certainly easier, and far more agreeable, to read Charles Lamb's essays than to ask a stranger in which one of them he discovered the author's heterodox views on encyclopaedias. It involves no great fatigue to look up a poem of Herrick's, or a letter of Shelley's, or a novel of Peacock's (these things are accessible and repay enquiry), and it would be a rational and self-respecting thing to do, instead of endeavouring to extort information (like an intellectual footpad) from writers who are in no way called upon to furnish it.
One thing is sure. As long as there are people in this world whose guiding principle is the use of other people's brains, there can be no decline and fall of letter-writing. The correspondence which plagued our great-grandfathers a hundred years ago, plagues their descendants to-day. Readers of Lockhart's "Scott" will remember how an Edinburgh minister named Brunton, who wished to compile a hymnal, wrote to the poet Crabbe for a list of hymns; and how Crabbe (who, albeit a clergyman, knew probably as little about hymns as any man in England) wrote in turn to Scott, to please help him to help Brunton; and how Scott replied in desperation that he envied the hermit of Prague who never saw pen nor ink. How many of us have in our day thought longingly of that blessed anchorite! Surely Mr. Herbert Spencer must, consciously or unconsciously, have shared Scott's sentiments, when he wrote a letter to the public press, explaining with patient courtesy that, being old, and busy, and very tired, it was no longer possible for him to answer all the unknown correspondents who demanded information upon every variety of subject. He had tried to do this for many years, but the tax was too heavy for his strength, and he was compelled to take refuge in silence.
Ingenious authors and editors who ask for free copy form a class apart. They are not pursuing knowledge for their own needs, but offering themselves as channels through which we may gratuitously enlighten the world. Their questions, though intimate to the verge of indiscretion, are put in the name of humanity; and we are bidden to confide to the public how far we indulge in the use of stimulants, what is the nature of our belief in immortality, if—being women—we should prefer to be men, and what incident of our lives has most profoundly affected our careers. Reticence on our part is met by the assurance that eminent people all over the country are hastening to answer these queries, and that the "unique nature" of the discussion will make it of permanent value to mankind. We are also told in soothing accents that our replies need not exceed a few hundred words, as the editor is nobly resolved not to infringe upon our valuable time.
Less commercial, but quite as importunate, are the correspondents who belong to literary societies, and who have undertaken to read, before these select circles, papers upon every conceivable subject, from the Bride of the Canticle to the divorce laws of France. They regret their own ignorance—as well they may—and blandly ask for aid. There is no limit to demands of this character. The young Englishwoman who wrote to Tennyson, requesting some verses which she might read as her own at a picnic, was not more intrepid than the American school-girl who recently asked a man of letters to permit her to see an unpublished address, as she had heard that it dealt with the subject of her graduation paper, and hoped it might give her some points. It is hard to believe that the timidity natural to youth—or which we used to think natural to youth—could be so easily overcome; or that the routine of school work, which makes for honest if inefficient acquirements, could leave a student still begging or borrowing her way.
We must in justice admit, however, that the unknown correspondent is as ready to volunteer assistance as to demand it. He is ingenious in criticism, and fertile in suggestions. He has inspirations in the way of plots and topics,—like that amiable baronet, Sir John Sinclair, who wanted Scott to write a poem on the adventures and intrigues of a Caithness mermaiden, and who proffered him, by way of inducement, "all the information I possess." The correspondent's tone, when writing to humbler drudges in the field, is kind and patronizing. He admits that he likes your books, or at least—here is a veiled reproach—that he "has liked the earlier ones"; he assumes, unwarrantably, that you are familiar with his favourite authors; and he believes that it would be for you "an interesting and congenial task" to trace the "curious connection" between American fiction and the stock exchange. Sometimes, with thinly veiled sarcasm, he demands that you should "enlighten his dulness," and say why you gave your book its title. If he cannot find a French word you have used in his "excellent dictionary," he thinks it worth while to write and tell you so. He fears you do not "wholly understand or appreciate the minor poets of your native land"; and he protests, more in sorrow than in anger, against certain innocent phrases with which you have disfigured "your otherwise graceful pages."
Now it must be an impulse not easily resisted which prompts people to this gratuitous expression of their opinions. They take a world of trouble which they could so easily escape; they deem it their privilege to break down the barriers which civilization has taught us to respect; and if they ever find themselves repaid, it is assuredly by something remote from the gratitude of their correspondents. Take, for example, the case of Mr. Peter Bayne, journalist, and biographer of Martin Luther, who wrote to Tennyson,—with whom he was unacquainted,—protesting earnestly against a line in "Lady Clare":—
"'If I'm a beggar born,' she said."
It was Mr. Bayne's opinion that such an expression was not only exaggerated, inasmuch as the nurse was not, and never had been, a beggar; but, coming from a child to her mother, was harsh and unfilial. "The criticism of my heart," he wrote, "tells me that Lady Clare could never have said that."
Tennyson was perhaps the last man in Christendom to have accepted the testimony of Mr. Bayne's heart-throbs. He intimated with some asperity that he knew better than anyone else what Lady Clare did say, and he pointed out that she had just cause for resentment against a mother who had placed her in such an embarrassing position. The controversy is one of the drollest in literature; but what is hard to understand is the mental attitude of a man—and a reasonably busy man—who could attach so much importance to Lady Clare's remarks, and who could feel himself justified in correcting them.
Begging letters form a class apart. They represent a great and growing industry, and they are too purposeful to illustrate the abstract passion for correspondence. Yet marvellous things have been done in this field. There is an ingenuity, a freshness and fertility of device about the begging letter which lifts it often to the realms of genius. Experienced though we all are, it has surprises in store for every one of us. Seasoned though we are, we cannot read without appreciation of its more daring and fantastic flights. There was, for instance, a very imperative person who wrote to Dickens for a donkey, and who said he would call for it the next day, as though Dickens kept a herd of donkeys in Tavistock Square, and could always spare one for an emergency. There was a French gentleman who wrote to Moore, demanding a lock of Byron's hair for a young lady, who would—so he said—die if she did not get it. This was a very lamentable letter, and Moore was conjured, in the name of the young lady's distracted family, to send the lock, and save her from the grave. And there was a misanthrope who wrote to Peel that he was weary of the ways of men (as so, no doubt, was Peel), and who requested a hermitage in some nobleman's park, where he might live secluded from the world. The best begging-letter writers depend upon the element of surprise as a valuable means to their end. I knew a benevolent old lady who, in 1885, was asked to subscribe to a fund for the purchase of "moderate luxuries" for the French soldiers in Madagascar. "What did you do?" I asked, when informed of the incident. "I sent the money," was the placid reply. "I thought I might never again have an opportunity to send money to Madagascar."
It would be idle to deny that a word of praise, a word of thanks, sometimes a word of criticism, have been powerful factors in the lives of men of genius. We know how profoundly Lord Byron was affected by the letter of a consumptive girl, written simply and soberly, signed with initials only, seeking no notice and giving no address; but saying in a few candid words that the writer wished before she died to thank the poet for the rapture his poems had given her. "I look upon such a letter," wrote Byron to Moore, "as better than a diploma from Gottingen." We know, too, what a splendid impetus to Carlyle was that first letter from Goethe, a letter which he confessed seemed too wonderful to be real, and more "like a message from fairyland." It was but a brief note after all, tepid, sensible, and egotistical; but the magic sentence, "It may be I shall yet hear much of you," became for years an impelling force, the kind of prophecy which insured its own fulfilment.
Carlyle was susceptible to praise, though few readers had the temerity to offer it. We find him, after the publication of the "French Revolution," writing urbanely to a young and unknown admirer; "I do not blame your enthusiasm." But when a less happily-minded youth sent him some suggestions for the reformation of society, Carlyle, who could do all his own grumbling, returned his disciple's complaints with this laconic denial: "A pack of damned nonsense, you unfortunate fool." It sounds unkind; but we must remember that there were six posts a day in London, that "each post brought its batch of letters," and that nine tenths of these letters—so Carlyle says—were from strangers, demanding autographs, and seeking or proffering advice. One man wrote that he was distressingly ugly, and asked what should he do about it. "So profitable have my epistolary fellow creatures grown to me in these years," notes the historian in his journal, "that when the postman leaves nothing, it may well be felt as an escape."
The most patient correspondent known to fame was Sir Walter Scott, though Lord Byron surprises us at times by the fine quality of his good nature. His letters are often petulant,—especially when Murray has sent him tragedies instead of tooth-powder; but he is perhaps the only man on record who received with perfect equanimity the verses of an aspiring young poet, wrote him the cheerfullest of letters, and actually invited him to breakfast. The letter is still extant; but the verses were so little the precursor of fame that the youth's subsequent history is to this day unknown. It was with truth that Byron said of himself: "I am really a civil and polite person, and do hate pain when it can be avoided."
Scott was also civil and polite, and his heart beat kindly for every species of bore. As a consequence, the world bestowed its tediousness upon him, to the detriment of his happiness and health. Ingenious jokers translated his verses into Latin, and then wrote to accuse him of plagiarizing from Vida. Proprietors of patent medicines offered him fabulous sums to link his fame with theirs. Modest ladies proposed that he should publish their effusions as his own, and share the profits. Poets demanded that he should find publishers for their epics, and dramatists that he should find managers for their plays. Critics pointed out to him his anachronisms, and well-intentioned readers set him right on points of morality and law. When he was old, and ill, and ruined, there was yet no respite from the curse of correspondents. A year before his death he wrote dejectedly in his journal:—"A fleece of letters which must be answered, I suppose; all from persons—my zealous admirers, of course—who expect me to make up whatever losses have been their lot, raise them to a desirable rank, and stand their protector and patron. I must, they take it for granted, be astonished at having an address from a stranger. On the contrary, I should be astonished if one of these extravagant epistles came from anybody who had the least title to enter into correspondence."
And there are people who believe, or who pretend to believe, that fallen human nature can be purged and amended by half-rate telegrams, and a telephone ringing in the hall. Rather let us abandon illusions, and echo Carlyle's weary cry, when he heard the postman knocking at his door: "Just Heavens! Does literature lead to this!"
"He is a good man who can receive a gift well."—EMERSON.
There is a sacredness of humility in such an admission which wins pardon for all the unlovely things which Emerson has crowded into a few pages upon "Gifts." Recognizing that his own goodness stopped short of this exalted point, he pauses for a moment in his able and bitter self-defence to pay tribute to a generosity he is too honest to claim. After all, who but Charles Lamb ever did receive gifts well? Scott tried, to be sure. No man ever sinned less than he against the law of kindness. But Lamb did not need to try. He had it in his heart of gold to feel pleasure in the presents which his friends took pleasure in giving him. The character and quality of the gifts were not determining factors. We cannot analyze this disposition. We can only admire it from afar.
"I look upon it as a point of morality to be obliged to those who endeavour to oblige me," says Sterne; and the sentiment, like most of Sterne's sentiments, is remarkably graceful. It has all the freshness of a principle never fagged out by practice. The rugged fashion in which Emerson lived up to his burdensome ideals prompted him to less engaging utterances. "It is not the office of a man to receive gifts," he writes viciously. "How dare you give them? We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten."
Carlyle is almost as disquieting. He searches for, and consequently finds, unworthy feelings both in the man who gives, and holds himself to be a benefactor, and in the man who receives, and burdens himself with a sense of obligation. He professes a stern dislike for presents, fearing lest they should undermine his moral stability; but a man so up in morals must have been well aware that he ran no great risk of parting with his stock in trade. He probably hated getting what he did not want, and finding himself expected to be grateful for it. This is a sentiment common to lesser men than Carlyle, and as old as the oldest gift-bearer. It has furnished food for fables, inspiration for satirists, and cruel stories at which the light-hearted laugh. Mr. James Payn used to tell the tale of an advocate who unwisely saved a client from the gallows which he should have graced; and the man, inspired by the best of motives, sent his benefactor from the West Indies a case of pineapples in which a colony of centipedes had bred so generously that they routed every servant from the unfortunate lawyer's house, and dwelt hideously and permanently in his kitchen. "A purchase is cheaper than a gift," says a wily old Italian proverb, steeped in the wisdom of the centuries.
The principle which prompts the selection of gifts—since selected they all are by some one—is for the most part a mystery. I never but once heard any reasonable solution, and that was volunteered by an old lady who had been listening in silence to a conversation on the engrossing subject of Christmas presents. It was a conversation at once animated and depressing. The time was at hand when none of us could hope to escape these tokens of regard, and the elaborate and ingenious character of their unfitness was frankly and fairly discussed. What baffled us was the theory of choice. Suddenly the old lady flooded this dark problem with light by observing that she always purchased her presents at bazaars. She said she knew they were useless, and that nobody wanted them, but that she considered it her duty to help the bazaars. She had the air of one conscious of well-doing, and sure of her reward. It did not seem to occur to her that the reward should, in justice, be passed on with the purchases. The necessities of charitable organizations called for a sacrifice, and, rising to the emergency, she sacrificed her friends.
A good many years have passed over our heads since Thackeray launched his invectives at the Christmas tributes he held in heartiest hatred,—the books which every season brought in its train, and which were never meant to be read. Their mission was fulfilled when they were sent by aunt to niece, by uncle to nephew, by friend to hapless friend. They were "gift-books" in the exclusive sense of the word. Thackeray was wont to declare that these vapid, brightly bound volumes played havoc with the happy homes of England, just as the New Year bonbons played havoc with the homes of France. Perhaps, of the two countries, France suffered less. The candy soon disappeared, leaving only impaired digestions in its wake. The books remained to encumber shelves, and bore humanity afresh.
"Mol, je dis que les bonbons Valent mieux que la raison";
and they are at least less permanently oppressive. "When thou makest presents," said old John Fuller, "let them be of such things as will last long; to the end that they may be in some sort immortal, and may frequently refresh the memory of the receiver." But this excellent advice—excellent for the simple and spacious age in which it was written—presupposes the "immortal" presents to wear well. Theologians teach us that immortality is not necessarily a blessing.
A vast deal of ingenuity is wasted every year in evoking the undesirable, in the careful construction of objects which burden life. Frankenstein was a large rather than an isolated example. The civilized world so teems with elaborate and unlovely inutilities, with things which seem foreign to any reasonable conditions of existence, that we are sometimes disposed to envy the savage who wears all his simple wardrobe without being covered, and who sees all his simple possessions in a corner of his empty hut. What pleasant spaces meet the savage eye! What admirable vacancies soothe the savage soul! No embroidered bag is needed to hold his sponge or his slippers. No painted box is destined for his postal cards. No decorated tablet waits for his laundry list. No ornate wall-pocket yawns for his unpaid bills. He smokes without cigarette-cases. He dances without cotillion favours. He enjoys all rational diversions, unfretted by the superfluities with which we have weighted them. Life, notwithstanding its pleasures, remains endurable to him.
Above all, he does not undermine his own moral integrity by vicarious benevolence, by helping the needy at his friend's expense. The great principle of giving away what one does not want to keep is probably as familiar to the savage as to his civilized, or semi-civilized brother. That vivacious traveller, Pere Huc, tells us he has seen a Tartar chief at dinner gravely hand over to an underling a piece of gristle he found himself unable to masticate, and that the gift was received with every semblance of gratitude and delight. But there is a simple straightforwardness about an act like this which commends it to our understanding. The Tartar did not assume the gristle to be palatable. He did not veil his motives for parting with it. He did not expand with the emotions of a philanthropist. And he did not expect the Heavens to smile upon his deed.
One word must be said in behalf of the punctilious giver, of the man who repays a gift as scrupulously as he returns a blow. He wants to please, but he is baffled by not knowing, and by not being sympathetic enough to divine, what his inarticulate friend desires. And if he does know, he may still vacillate between his friend's sense of the becoming and his own. The "Spectator," in a mood of unwonted subtlety, tells us that there is a "mild treachery" in giving what we feel to be bad, because we are aware that the recipient will think it very good. If, for example, we hold garnets to be ugly and vulgar, we must not send them to a friend who considers them rich and splendid. "A gift should represent common ground."
This is so well said that it sounds like the easy thing it isn't. Which of us has not nobly striven, and ignobly failed, to preserve our honest purpose without challenging the taste of our friends? It is hard to tell what people really prize. Heine begged for a button from George Sand's trousers, and who shall say whether enthusiasm or malice prompted the request? Mr. Oscar Browning, who as Master at Eton must have known whereof he spoke, insisted that it was a mistake to give a boy a well-bound book if you expected him to read it. Yet binding plays a conspicuous part in the selection of Christmas and birthday presents. Dr. Johnson went a step farther, and said that nobody wanted to read any book which was given to him;—the mere fact that it was given, instead of being bought, borrowed, or ravished from a friend's shelves, militated against its readable qualities. Perhaps the Doctor was thinking of authors' copies. Otherwise the remark is the most discouraging one on record.
Yet when all the ungracious things have been said and forgotten, when the hard old proverbs have exhausted their unwelcome wisdom, and we have smiled wearily over the deeper cynicisms of Richelieu and Talleyrand, where shall we turn for relief but to Emerson, who has atoned in his own fashion for the harshness of his own words. It is not only that he recognizes the goodness of the man who receives a gift well; but he sees, and sees clearly, that there can be no question between friends of giving or receiving, no possible room for generosity or gratitude. "The gift to be true must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him. When the waters are at a level, then my goods pass to him, and his to me. All his are mine, all mine, his."
Critics have been disposed to think that this is an elevation too lofty for plain human beings to climb, an air too rarified for them to breathe; and that it ill befitted a man who churlishly resented the simple, stupid kindnesses of life, to take so sublime a tone, to claim so fine a virtue. We cannot hope to scale great moral heights by ignoring petty obligations.
Yet Emerson does not go a step beyond Plato in his conception of the "level waters" of friendship. He states his position lucidly, and with a rational understanding of all that it involves. His vision is wide enough to embrace its everlasting truth. Plato says the same thing in simpler language. He offers his truth as self-evident, and in no need of demonstration. When Lysis and Menexenus greet Socrates at the gymnasia, the philosopher asks which of the two youths is the elder.
"'That,' said Menexenus, 'is a matter of dispute between us.'
"'And which is the nobler? Is that also a matter of dispute?'
"'And another disputed point is which is the fairer?'
"The two boys laughed.
"'I shall not ask which is the richer, for you are friends, are you not?'
"'We are friends.'
"'And friends have all things in common, so that one of you can be no richer than the other, if you say truly that you are friends.'
"They assented, and at that moment Menexenus was called away by some one who came and said that the master of the gymnasia wanted him."
[Footnote 1: Lysis. Translated by Jowett.]
This is all. To Plato's way of thinking, the situation explained itself. The two boys could not share their beauty nor their strength, but money was a thing to pass from hand to hand. It was not, and it never could be, a matter for competition. The last lesson taught an Athenian youth was the duty of outstripping his neighbour in the hard race for wealth.
And where shall we turn for a practical illustration of friendship, as conceived by Emerson and Plato? Where shall we see the level waters, the "mine is thine" which we think too exalted for plain living? No need to search far, and no need to search amid the good and great. It is a pleasure to find what we seek in the annals of the flagrantly sinful, of that notorious Duke of Queensberry, "Old Q," who has been so liberally and justly censured by Wordsworth and Burns, by Leigh Hunt and Sir George Trevelyan, and who was, in truth, gamester, roue,—and friend. In the last capacity he was called upon to listen to the woes of George Selwyn, who, having lost at Newmarket more money than he could possibly hope to pay, saw ruin staring him in the face. There is in Selwyn's letter a note of eloquent misery. He was, save when lulled to sleep in Parliament, a man of many words. There is in the letter of Lord March (he had not yet succeeded to the Queensberry title and estates) nothing but a quiet exposition of Plato's theory of friendship. Selwyn's debts and his friend's money are intercommunicable. The amount required has been placed that morning at the banker's. "I depend more," writes Lord March, "upon the continuance of our friendship than upon anything else in the world, because I have so many reasons to know you, and I am sure I know myself. There will be no bankruptcy without we are bankrupt together."
Here are the waters flowing on a level, flowing between two men of the world; one of them great enough to give, without deeming himself a benefactor, and the other good enough to receive a gift well.
The Condescension of Borrowers
"Il n'est si riche qui quelquefois ne doibve. Il n'est si pauvre de qui quelquefois on ne puisse emprunter."—Pantagruel.
"I lent my umbrella," said my friend, "to my cousin, Maria. I was compelled to lend it to her because she could not, or would not, leave my house in the rain without it. I had need of that umbrella, and I tried to make it as plain as the amenities of language permitted that I expected to have it returned. Maria said superciliously that she hated to see other people's umbrellas littering the house, which gave me a gleam of hope. Two months later I found my property in the hands of her ten-year-old son, who was being marshalled with his brothers and sisters to dancing-school. In the first joyful flash of recognition I cried, 'Oswald, that is my umbrella you are carrying!' whereupon Maria said still more superciliously than before, 'Oh, yes, don't you remember?' (as if reproaching me for my forgetfulness)—'you gave it to me that Saturday I lunched with you, and it rained so heavily. The boys carry it to school. Where there are children, you can't have too many old umbrellas at hand. They lose them so fast.' She spoke," continued my friend impressively, "as if she were harbouring my umbrella from pure kindness, and because she did not like to wound my feelings by sending it back to me. She made a virtue of giving it shelter."
This is the arrogance which places the borrower, as Charles Lamb discovered long ago, among the great ones of the earth, among those whom their brethren serve. Lamb loved to contrast the "instinctive sovereignty," the frank and open bearing of the man who borrows with the "lean and suspicious" aspect of the man who lends. He stood lost in admiration before the great borrowers of the world,—Alcibiades, Falstaff, Steele, and Sheridan; an incomparable quartette, to which might be added the shining names of William Godwin and Leigh Hunt. All the characteristic qualities of the class were united, indeed, in Leigh Hunt, as in no other single representative. Sheridan was an unrivalled companion,—could talk seven hours without making even Byron yawn. Steele was the most lovable of spendthrifts. Lending to these men was but a form of investment. They paid in a coinage of their own. But Leigh Hunt combined in the happiest manner a readiness to extract favours with a confirmed habit of never acknowledging the smallest obligation for them. He is a perfect example of the condescending borrower, of the man who permits his friends, as a pleasure to themselves, to relieve his necessities, and who knows nothing of gratitude or loyalty.
It would be interesting to calculate the amount of money which Hunt's friends and acquaintances contributed to his support in life. Shelley gave him at one time fourteen hundred pounds, an amount which the poet could ill spare; and, when he had no more to give, wrote in misery of spirit to Byron, begging a loan for his friend, and promising to repay it, as he feels tolerably sure that Hunt never will. Byron, generous at first, wearied after a time of his position in Hunt's commissariat (it was like pulling a man out of a river, he wrote to Moore, only to see him jump in again), and coldly withdrew. His withdrawal occasioned inconvenience, and has been sharply criticised. Hunt, says Sir Leslie Stephen, loved a cheerful giver, and Byron's obvious reluctance struck him as being in bad taste. His biographers, one and all, have sympathized with this point of view. Even Mr. Frederick Locker, from whom one would have expected a different verdict, has recorded his conviction that Hunt had probably been "sorely tried" by Byron.
It is characteristic of the preordained borrower, of the man who simply fulfils his destiny in life, that not his obligations only, but his anxieties and mortifications are shouldered by other men. Hunt was care-free and light-hearted; but there is a note akin to anguish in Shelley's petition to Byron, and in his shamefaced admission that he is himself too poor to relieve his friend's necessities. The correspondence of William Godwin's eminent contemporaries teem with projects to alleviate Godwin's needs. His debts were everybody's affair but his own. Sir James Mackintosh wrote to Rogers in the autumn of 1815, suggesting that Byron might be the proper person to pay them. Rogers, enchanted with the idea, wrote to Byron, proposing that the purchase money of "The Siege of Corinth" be devoted to this good purpose. Byron, with less enthusiasm, but resigned, wrote to Murray, directing him to forward the six hundred pounds to Godwin; and Murray, having always the courage of his convictions, wrote back, flatly refusing to do anything of the kind. In the end, Byron used the money to pay his own debts, thereby disgusting everybody but his creditors.
Six years later, however, we find him contributing to a fund which tireless philanthropists were raising for Godwin's relief. On this occasion all men of letters, poor as well as rich, were pressed into active service. Even Lamb, who had nothing of his own, wrote to the painter, Haydon, who had not a penny in the world, and begged him to beg Mrs. Coutts to pay Godwin's rent. He also confessed that he had sent "a very respectful letter"—on behalf of the rent—to Sir Walter Scott; and he explained naively that Godwin did not concern himself personally in the matter, because he "left all to his Committee,"—a peaceful thing to do.
But how did Godwin come to have a "committee" to raise money for him, when other poor devils had to raise it for themselves, or do without? He was not well-beloved. On the contrary, he bored all whom he did not affront. He was not grateful. On the contrary, he held gratitude to be a vice, as tending to make men "grossly partial" to those who have befriended them. His condescension kept pace with his demands. After his daughter's flight with Shelley, he expressed his just resentment by refusing to accept Shelley's cheque for a thousand pounds unless it were made payable to a third party, unless he could have the money without the formality of an acceptance. Like the great lords of Picardy, who had the "right of credit" from their loyal subjects, Godwin claimed his dues from every chance acquaintance. Crabb Robinson introduced him one evening to a gentleman named Rough. The next day both Godwin and Rough called upon their host, each man expressing his regard for the other, and each asking Robinson if he thought the other would be a likely person to lend him fifty pounds.
There are critics who hold that Haydon excelled all other borrowers known to fame; but his is not a career upon which an admirer of the art can look with pleasure. Haydon's debts hunted him like hounds, and if he pursued borrowing as a means of livelihood,—more lucrative than painting pictures which nobody would buy,—it was only because no third avocation presented itself as a possibility. He is not to be compared for a moment with a true expert like Sheridan, who borrowed for borrowing's sake, and without any sordid motive connected with rents or butchers' bills. Haydon would, indeed, part with his money as readily as if it belonged to him. He would hear an "inward voice" in church, urging him to give his last sovereign; and, having obeyed this voice "with as pure a feeling as ever animated a human heart," he had no resource but immediately to borrow another. It would have been well for him if he could have followed on such occasions the memorable example of Lady Cook, who was so impressed by a begging sermon that she borrowed a sovereign from Sydney Smith to put into the offertory; and—the gold once between her fingers—found herself equally unable to give it or to return it, so went home, a pound richer for her charitable impulse.
Haydon, too, would rob Peter to pay Paul, and rob Paul without paying Peter; but it was all after an intricate and troubled fashion of his own. On one occasion he borrowed ten pounds from Webb. Seven pounds he used to satisfy another creditor, from whom, on the strength of this payment, he borrowed ten pounds more to meet an impending bill. It sounds like a particularly confusing game; but it was a game played in dead earnest, and without the humorous touch which makes the charm of Lady Cook's, or of Sheridan's methods. Haydon would have been deeply grateful to his benefactors, had he not always stood in need of favours to come. Sheridan might perchance have been grateful, could he have remembered who his benefactors were. He laid the world under tribute; and because he had an aversion to opening his mail,—an aversion with which it is impossible not to sympathize,—he frequently made no use of the tribute when it was paid. Moore tells us that James Wesley once saw among a pile of papers on Sheridan's desk an unopened letter of his own, containing a ten-pound note, which he had lent Sheridan some weeks before. Wesley quietly took possession of the letter and the money, thereby raising a delicate, and as yet unsettled, question of morality. Had he a right to those ten pounds because they had once been his, or were they not rather Sheridan's property, destined in the natural and proper order of things never to be returned.
Yet men, even men of letters, have been known to pay their debts, and to restore borrowed property. Moore paid Lord Lansdowne every penny of the generous sum advanced by that nobleman after the defalcation of Moore's deputy in Bermuda. Dr. Johnson paid back ten pounds after a lapse of twenty years,—a pleasant shock to the lender,—and on his death-bed (having fewer sins than most of us to recall) begged Sir Joshua Reynolds to forgive him a trifling loan. It was the too honest return of a pair of borrowed sheets (unwashed) which first chilled Pope's friendship for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. That excellent gossip, Miss Letitia Matilda Hawkins, who stands responsible for this anecdote, lamented all her life that her father, Sir John Hawkins, could never remember which of the friends borrowed and which lent the offending sheets; but it is a point easily settled in our minds. Pope was probably the last man in Christendom to have been guilty of such a misdemeanour, and Lady Mary was certainly the last woman in Christendom to have been affronted by it. Like Dr. Johnson, she had "no passion for clean linen."
Coleridge, though he went through life leaning his inert weight on other men's shoulders, did remember in some mysterious fashion to return the books he borrowed, enriched often, as Lamb proudly records, with marginal notes which tripled their value. His conduct in this regard was all the more praiseworthy inasmuch as the cobweb statutes which define books as personal property have never met with literal acceptance. Lamb's theory that books belong with the highest propriety to those who understand them best (a theory often advanced in defence of depredations which Lamb would have scorned to commit), was popular before the lamentable invention of printing. The library of Lucullus was, we are told, "open to all," and it would be interesting to know how many precious manuscripts remained ultimately in the great patrician's villa.
Richard Heber, that most princely of collectors, so well understood the perils of his position that he met them bravely by buying three copies of every book,—one for show, one for use, and one for the service of his friends. The position of the show-book seems rather melancholy, but perhaps, in time, it replaced the borrowed volume. Heber's generosity has been nobly praised by Scott, who contrasts the hard-heartedness of other bibliophiles, those "gripple niggards" who preferred holding on to their treasures, with his friend's careless liberality.
"Thy volumes, open as thy heart, Delight, amusement, science, art, To every ear and eye impart. Yet who, of all who thus employ them, Can, like the owner's self, enjoy them?"
The "gripple niggards" might have pleaded feebly in their own behalf that they could not all afford to spend, like Heber, a hundred thousand pounds in the purchase of books; and that an occasional reluctance to part with some hard-earned, hard-won volume might be pardonable in one who could not hope to replace it. Lamb's books were the shabbiest in Christendom; yet how keen was his pang when Charles Kemble carried off the letters of "that princely woman, the thrice noble Margaret Newcastle," an "illustrious folio" which he well knew Kemble would never read. How bitterly he bewailed his rashness in extolling the beauties of Sir Thomas Browne's "Urn Burial" to a guest who was so moved by this eloquence that he promptly borrowed the volume. "But so," sighed Lamb, "have I known a foolish lover to praise his mistress in the presence of a rival more qualified to carry her off than himself."
Johnson cherished a dim conviction that because he read, and Garrick did not, the proper place for Garrick's books was on his—Johnson's—bookshelves; a point which could never be settled between the two friends, and which came near to wrecking their friendship. Garrick loved books with the chilly yet imperative love of the collector. Johnson loved them as he loved his soul. Garrick took pride in their sumptuousness, in their immaculate, virginal splendour. Johnson gathered them to his heart with scant regard for outward magnificence, for the glories of calf and vellum. Garrick bought books. Johnson borrowed them. Each considered that he had a prior right to the objects of his legitimate affection. We, looking back with softened hearts, are fain to think that we should have held our volumes doubly dear if they had lain for a time by Johnson's humble hearth, if he had pored over them at three o'clock in the morning, and had left sundry tokens—grease-spots and spatterings of snuff—upon many a spotless page. But it is hardly fair to censure Garrick for not dilating with these emotions.
Johnson's habit of flinging the volumes which displeased him into remote and dusty corners of the room was ill calculated to inspire confidence, and his powers of procrastination were never more marked than in the matter of restoring borrowed books. We know from Cradock's "Memoirs" how that gentleman, having induced Lord Harborough to lend him a superb volume of manuscripts, containing the poems of James the First, proceeded to re-lend this priceless treasure to Johnson. When it was not returned—as of course it was not—he wrote an urgent letter, and heard to his dismay that Johnson was not only unable to find the book, but that he could not remember having ever received it. The despairing Cradock applied to all his friends for help; and George Steevens, who had a useful habit of looking about him, suggested that a sealed packet, which he had several times observed lying under Johnson's ponderous inkstand, might possibly contain the lost manuscript. Even with this ray of hope for guidance, it never seemed to occur to any one to storm Johnson's fortress, and rescue the imprisoned volume; but after the Doctor's death, two years later, Cradock made a formal application to the executors; and Lord Harborough's property was discovered under the inkstand, unopened, unread, and consequently, as by a happy miracle, uninjured.
Such an incident must needs win pardon for Garrick's churlishness in defending his possessions. "The history of book-collecting," says a caustic critic, "is a history relieved but rarely by acts of pure and undiluted unselfishness." This is true, but are there not virtues so heroic that plain human nature can ill aspire to compass them?
There is something piteous in the futile efforts of reluctant lenders to save their property from depredation. They place their reliance upon artless devices which never yet were known to stay the marauder's hand. They have their names and addresses engraved on foolish little plates, which, riveted to their umbrellas, will, they think, suffice to insure the safety of these useful articles. As well might the border farmer have engraved his name and address on the collars of his grazing herds, in the hope that the riever would respect this symbol of authority. The history of book-plates is largely the history of borrower versus lender. The orderly mind is wont to believe that a distinctive mark, irrevocably attached to every volume, will insure permanent possession. Mr. Gosse, for example, has expressed a touching faith in the efficacy of the book-plate. He has but to explain that he "makes it a rule" never to lend a volume thus decorated, and the would-be borrower bows to this rule as to a decree of fate. "To have a book-plate," he joyfully observes, "gives a collector great serenity and confidence."
Is it possible that the world has grown virtuous without our observing it? Can it be that the old stalwart race of book-borrowers, those "spoilers of the symmetry of shelves," are foiled by so childish an expedient? Imagine Dr. Johnson daunted by a scrap of pasted paper! Or Coleridge, who seldom went through the formality of asking leave, but borrowed armfuls of books in the absence of their legitimate owners! How are we to account for the presence of book-plates—quite a pretty collection at times—on the shelves of men who possess no such toys of their own? When I was a girl I had access to a small and well-chosen library (not greatly exceeding Montaigne's fourscore volumes), each book enriched with an appropriate device of scaly dragon guarding the apples of Hesperides. Beneath the dragon was the motto (Johnsonian in form if not in substance), "Honour and Obligation demand the prompt return of borrowed Books." These words ate into my innocent soul, and lent a pang to the sweetness of possession. Doubts as to the exact nature of "prompt return" made me painfully uncertain as to whether a month, a week, or a day were the limit which Honour and Obligation had set for me. But other and older borrowers were less sensitive, and I have reason to believe that—books being a rarity in that little Southern town—most of the volumes were eventually absorbed by the gaping shelves of neighbours. Perhaps even now (their generous owner long since dead) these worn copies of Boswell, of Elia, of Herrick, and Moore, may still stand forgotten in dark and dusty corners, like gems that magpies hide.
It is vain to struggle with fate, with the elements, and with the borrower; it is folly to claim immunity from a fundamental law, to boast of our brief exemption from the common lot. "Lend therefore cheerfully, O man ordained to lend. When thou seest the proper authority coming, meet it smilingly, as it were halfway." Resistance to an appointed force is but a futile waste of strength.
The Grocer's Cat
"Of all animals, the cat alone attains to the Contemplative Life."—ANDREW LANG.
The grocer's window is not one of those gay and glittering enclosures which display only the luxuries of the table, and which give us the impression that there are favoured classes subsisting exclusively upon Malaga raisins, Russian chocolates, and Nuremberg gingerbread. It is an unassuming window, filled with canned goods and breakfast foods, wrinkled prunes devoid of succulence, and boxes of starch and candles. Its only ornament is the cat, and his beauty is more apparent to the artist than to the fancier. His splendid stripes, black and grey and tawny, are too wide for noble lineage. He has a broad benignant brow, like Benjamin Franklin's; but his brooding eyes, golden, unfathomable, deny benignancy. He is large and sleek,—the grocery mice must be many, and of an appetizing fatness,—and I presume he devotes his nights to the pleasures of the chase. His days are spent in contemplation, in a serene and wonderful stillness, which isolates him from the bustling vulgarities of the street.
Past the window streams the fretful crowd; in and out of the shop step loud-voiced customers. The cat is as remote as if he were drowsing by the waters of the Nile. Pedestrians pause to admire him, and many of them endeavour, with well-meant but futile familiarity, to win some notice in return. They tap on the window pane, and say, "Halloo, Pussy!" He does not turn his head, nor lift his lustrous eyes. They tap harder, and with more ostentatious friendliness. The stone cat of Thebes could not pay less attention. It is difficult for human beings to believe that their regard can be otherwise than flattering to an animal; but I did see one man intelligent enough to receive this impression. He was a decent and a good-tempered young person, and he had beaten a prolonged tattoo on the glass with the handle of his umbrella, murmuring at the same time vague words of cajolery. Then, as the cat remained motionless, absorbed in revery, and seemingly unconscious of his unwarranted attentions, he turned to me, a new light dawning in his eyes. "Thinks itself some," he said, and I nodded acquiescence. As well try to patronize the Sphinx as to patronize a grocer's cat.
Now, surely this attitude on the part of a small and helpless beast, dependent upon our bounty for food and shelter, and upon our sense of equity for the right to live, is worthy of note, and, to the generous mind, is worthy of respect. Yet there are people who most ungenerously resent it. They say the cat is treacherous and ungrateful, by which they mean that she does not relish unsolicited fondling, and that, like Mr. Chesterton, she will not recognize imaginary obligations. If we keep a cat because there are mice in our kitchen or rats in our cellar, what claim have we to gratitude? If we keep a cat for the sake of her beauty, and because our hearth is but a poor affair without her, she repays her debt with interest when she dozes by our fire. She is the most decorative creature the domestic world can show. She harmonizes with the kitchen's homely comfort, and with the austere seclusion of the library. She gratifies our sense of fitness and our sense of distinction, if we chance to possess these qualities. Did not Isabella d' Este, Marchioness of Mantua, and the finest exponent of distinction in her lordly age, send far and wide for cats to grace her palace? Did she not instruct her agents to make especial search through the Venetian convents, where might be found the deep-furred pussies of Syria and Thibet? Alas for the poor nuns, whose cherished pets were snatched away to gratify the caprice of a great and grasping lady, who habitually coveted all that was beautiful in the world.
The cat seldom invites affection, and still more seldom responds to it. A well-bred tolerance is her nearest approach to demonstration. The dog strives with pathetic insistence to break down the barriers between his intelligence and his master's, to understand and to be understood. The wise cat cherishes her isolation, and permits us to play but a secondary part in her solitary and meditative life. Her intelligence, less facile than the dog's, and far less highly differentiated, owes little to our tutelage; her character has not been moulded by our hands. The changing centuries have left no mark upon her; and, from a past inconceivably remote, she has come down to us, a creature self-absorbed and self-communing, undisturbed by our feverish activity, a dreamer of dreams, a lover of the mysteries of night.
And yet a friend. No one who knows anything about the cat will deny her capacity for friendship. Rationally, without enthusiasm, without illusions, she offers us companionship on terms of equality. She will not come when she is summoned,—unless the summons be for dinner,—but she will come of her own sweet will, and bear us company for hours, sleeping contentedly in her armchair, or watching with half-shut eyes the quiet progress of our work. A lover of routine, she expects to find us in the same place at the same hour every day; and when her expectations are fulfilled (cats have some secret method of their own for telling time), she purrs approval of our punctuality. What she detests are noise, confusion, people who bustle in and out of rooms, and the unpardonable intrusions of the housemaid. On those unhappy days when I am driven from my desk by the iron determination of this maid to "clean up," my cat is as comfortless as I am. Companions in exile, we wander aimlessly to and fro, lamenting our lost hours. I cannot explain to Lux that the fault is none of mine, and I am sure that she holds me to blame.
There is something indescribably sweet in the quiet, self-respecting friendliness of my cat, in her marked predilection for my society. The absence of exuberance on her part, and the restraint I put upon myself, lend an element of dignity to our intercourse. Assured that I will not presume too far on her good nature, that I will not indulge in any of those gross familiarities, those boisterous gambols which delight the heart of a dog, Lux yields herself more and more passively to my persuasions. She will permit an occasional caress, and acknowledge it with a perfunctory purr. She will manifest a patronizing interest in my work, stepping sedately among my papers, and now and then putting her paw with infinite deliberation on the page I am writing, as though the smear thus contributed spelt, "Lux, her mark," and was a reward of merit. But she never curls herself upon my desk, never usurps the place sacred to the memory of a far dearer cat. Some invisible influence restrains her. When her tour of inspection is ended, she returns to her chair by my side, stretching herself luxuriously on her cushions, and watching with steady, sombre stare the inhibited spot, and the little grey phantom which haunts my lonely hours by right of my inalienable love.
Lux is a lazy cat, wedded to a contemplative life. She cares little for play, and nothing for work,—the appointed work of cats. The notion that she has a duty to perform, that she owes service to the home which shelters her, that only those who toil are worthy of their keep, has never entered her head. She is content to drink the cream of idleness, and she does this in a spirit of condescension, wonderful to behold. The dignified distaste with which she surveys a dinner not wholly to her liking, carries confusion to the hearts of her servitors. It is as though Lucullus, having ordered Neapolitan peacock, finds himself put off with nightingales' tongues.
For my own part, I like to think that my beautiful and urbane companion is not a midnight assassin. Her profound and soulless indifference to mice pleases me better than it pleases my household. From an economic point of view, Lux is not worth her salt. Huxley's cat, be it remembered, was never known to attack anything larger and fiercer than a butterfly. "I doubt whether he has the heart to kill a mouse," wrote the proud possessor of this prodigy; "but I saw him catch and eat the first butterfly of the season, and I trust that the germ of courage thus manifested may develop with years into efficient mousing."
Even Huxley was disposed to take a utilitarian view of cathood. Even Cowper, who owed to the frolics of his kitten a few hours' respite from melancholy, had no conception that his adult cat could do better service than slay rats. "I have a kitten, my dear," he wrote to Lady Hesketh, "the drollest of all creatures that ever wore a cat's skin. Her gambols are incredible, and not to be described. She tumbles head over heels several times together. She lays her cheek to the ground, and humps her back at you with an air of most supreme disdain. From this posture she rises to dance on her hind feet, an exercise which she performs with all the grace imaginable; and she closes these various exhibitions with a loud smack of her lips, which, for want of greater propriety of expression, we call spitting. But, though all cats spit, no cat ever produced such a sound as she does. In point of size, she is likely to be a kitten always, being extremely small for her age; but time, that spoils all things, will, I suppose, make her also a cat. You will see her, I hope, before that melancholy period shall arrive; for no wisdom that she may gain by experience and reflection hereafter will compensate for the loss of her present hilarity. She is dressed in a tortoiseshell suit, and I know that you will delight in her."
Had Cowper been permitted to live more with kittens, and less with evangelical clergymen, his hours of gayety might have outnumbered his hours of gloom. Cats have been known to retain in extreme old age the "hilarity" which the sad poet prized. Nature has thoughtfully provided them with one permanent plaything; and Mr. Frederick Locker vouches for a light-hearted old Tom who, at the close of a long and ill-spent life, actually squandered his last breath in the pursuit of his own elusive tail. But there are few of us who would care to see the monumental calm of our fireside sphinx degenerate into senile sportiveness. Better far the measured slowness of her pace, the superb immobility of her repose. To watch an ordinary cat move imperceptibly and with a rhythmic waving of her tail through a doorway (while we are patiently holding open the door), is like looking at a procession. With just such deliberate dignity, in just such solemn state, the priests of Ra filed between the endless rows of pillars into the sunlit temple court.
The cat is a freebooter. She draws no nice distinctions between a mouse in the wainscot, and a canary swinging in its gilded cage. Her traducers, indeed, have been wont to intimate that her preference is for the forbidden quarry; but this is one of many libellous accusations. The cat, though she has little sympathy with our vapid sentiment, can be taught that a canary is a privileged nuisance, immune from molestation. The bird's shrill notes jar her sensitive nerves. She abhors noise, and a canary's pipe is the most piercing and persistent of noises, welcome to that large majority of mankind which prefers sound of any kind to silence. Moreover, a cage presents just the degree of hindrance to tempt a cat's agility. That Puss habitually refrains from ridding the household of canaries is proof of her innate reasonableness, of her readiness to submit her finer judgment and more delicate instincts to the common caprices of humanity.
As for wild birds, the robins and wrens and thrushes which are predestined prey, there is only one way to save them, the way which Archibald Douglas took to save the honour of Scotland,—"bell the cat." A good-sized sleigh-bell, if she be strong enough to bear it, a bunch of little bells, if she be small and slight,—and the pleasures of the chase are over. One little bell is of no avail, for she learns to move with such infinite precaution that it does not ring until she springs, and then it rings too late. There is an element of cruelty in depriving the cat of sport, but from the bird's point of view the scheme works to perfection. Of course rats and mice are as safe as birds from the claws of a belled cat, but, if we are really humane, we will not regret their immunity.
The boasted benevolence of man is, however, a purely superficial emotion. What am I to think of a friend who anathematizes the family cat for devouring a nest of young robins, and then tells me exultingly that the same cat has killed twelve moles in a fortnight. To a pitiful heart, the life of a little mole is as sacred as the life of a little robin. To an artistic eye, the mole in his velvet coat is handsomer than the robin, which is at best a bouncing, bourgeois sort of bird, a true suburbanite, with all the defects of his class. But my friend has no mercy on the mole because he destroys her garden,—her garden which she despoils every morning, gathering its fairest blossoms to droop and wither in her crowded rooms. To wax compassionate over a bird, and remain hard as flint to a beast, is possible only to humanity. The cat, following her predatory instincts, is at once more logical and less ruthless, because the question of property does not distort her vision. She has none of the vices of civilization.
"Cats I scorn, who, sleek and fat, Shiver at a Norway rat. Rough and hardy, bold and free, Be the cat that's made for me; He whose nervous paw can take My lady's lapdog by the neck, With furious hiss attack the hen, And snatch a chicken from the pen."
So sang Dr. Erasmus Darwin's intrepid pussy (a better poet than her master) to the cat of Miss Anna Seward, surely the last lady in all England to have encouraged such lawlessness on the part of a—presumably—domestic animal.
For the cat's domesticity is at best only a presumption. It is one of life's ironical adjustments that the creature who fits so harmoniously into the family group should be alien to its influences, and independent of its cramping conditions. She seems made for the fireside she adorns, and where she has played her part for centuries. Lamb, delightedly recording his "observations on cats," sees only their homely qualities. "Put 'em on a rug before the fire, they wink their eyes up, and listen to the kettle, and then purr, which is their music." The hymns which Shelley loved were sung by the roaring wind, the hissing kettle, and the kittens purring by his hearth. Heine's cat, curled close to the glowing embers, purred a soft accompaniment to the rhythms pulsing in his brain; but he at least, being a German, was not deceived by this specious show of impeccability. He knew that when the night called, his cat obeyed the summons, abandoning the warm fire for the hard-frozen snow, and the innocent companionship of a poet for the dancing of witches on the hill-tops.
The same grace of understanding—more common in the sixteenth than in the nineteenth century—made the famous Milanese physician, Jerome Cardan, abandon his students at the University of Pavia, in obedience to the decision of his cat. "In the year 1552," he writes with becoming gravity, "having left in the house a little cat of placid and domestic habits, she jumped upon my table, and tore at my public lectures; yet my Book of Fate she touched not, though it was the more exposed to her attacks. I gave up my chair, nor returned to it for eight years." Oh, wise physician, to discern so clearly that "placid and domestic habits" were but a cloak for mysteries too deep to fathom, for warnings too pregnant to be disregarded.
The vanity of man revolts from the serene indifference of the cat. He is forever lauding the dog, not only for its fidelity, which is a beautiful thing, but for its attitude of humility and abasement. A distinguished American prelate has written some verses on his dog, in which he assumes that, to the animal's eyes, he is as God,—a being whose word is law, and from whose sovereign hand flow all life's countless benefactions. Another complacent enthusiast describes his dog as sitting motionless in his presence, "at once tranquil and attentive, as a saint should be in the presence of God. He is happy with the happiness which we perhaps shall never know, since it springs from the smile and the approval of a life incomparably higher than his own."
Of course, if we are going to wallow in idolatry like this, we do well to choose the dog, and not the cat, to play the worshipper's part. I am not without a suspicion that the dog is far from feeling the rapture and the reverence which we so delightedly ascribe to him. What is there about any one of us to awaken such sentiments in the breast of an intelligent animal? We have taught him our vices, and he fools us to the top of our bent. The cat, however, is equally free from illusions and from hypocrisy. If we aspire to a petty omnipotence, she, for one, will pay no homage at our shrine. Therefore has her latest and greatest defamer, Maeterlinck, branded her as ungrateful and perfidious. The cat of "The Blue Bird" fawns and flatters, which is something no real cat was ever known to do. When and where did M. Maeterlinck encounter an obsequious cat? That the wise little beast should resent Tyltyl's intrusion into the ancient realms of night, is conceivable, and that, unlike the dog, she should see nothing godlike in a masterful human boy, is hardly a matter for regret; but the most subtle of dramatists should better understand the most subtle of animals, and forbear to rank her as man's enemy because she will not be man's dupe. Rather let us turn back and learn our lesson from Montaigne, serenely playing with his cat as friend to friend, for thus, and thus only, shall we enjoy the sweets of her companionship. If we want an animal to prance on its hind legs, and, with the over-faithful Tylo, cry out, "little god, little god," at every blundering step we take; if we are so constituted that we feel the need of being worshipped by something or somebody, we must feed our vanity as best we can with the society of dogs and men. The grocer's cat, enthroned on the grocer's starch-box, is no fitting friend for us.