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- The Recreations of A Country Parson - 30/63 -


I learn a lesson, as I close my essay, from the old woman of eighty, and the little girl of five. Let us seek to reconcile our minds both to possessing screws, and (harder still) to being screws. Let us make the best of our imperfect possessions, and of our imperfect selves. Let us remember that a great deal of good can be done by means which fall very far short of perfection; that our moderate abilities, honestly and wisely husbanded and directed, may serve valuable ends in this world before we quit it,--ends which may remain after we are gone. I do not suppose that judicious critics, in pointing out an author's faults, mean that he ought to stop writing altogether. There are hopeless cases in which he certainly ought: cases in which the steed passes being a screw, and is fit only for the hounds. But in most instances the critic would be quite wrong, if he argued what because his author has many flaws and defects, he should write no more. With all its errors, what he writes may be much better than nothing; as the serviceable screw is better than no horse at all. And if the critic's purpose is merely to show the author that the author is a screw,--why, if the author have any sense at all, he knows that already. He does not claim to be wiser than other men; and still less to be better: yet he may try to do his best. With many defects and errors, still fair work may be turned off. I will not forget the lame horses that took the coach so well to Inverary. And I remember certain words in which one who is all but the greatest English poet declared that under the heavy visitation of God he would do his utmost still. Here is the resolution of a noble screw:--

I argue not Against Heaven's hand or will, nor bate a jot Of heart or hope; but still bear up and steer Right onward!

CHAPTER VII.

CONCERNING SOLITARY DAYS.

Let me look back, this New Year's time, over nine years. Let me try to revive again the pervading atmosphere of the days when I used to live entirely alone. All days crush up into very little in the perspective. The months and years which were long as they passed over, are but a hand-breadth in remembrance. Five or ten years may be packed away into a very little corner in your mind; and in the case of a man brought up from childhood in a large family, who spends no more than three or four years alone before he again sees a household beginning to surround him, I think those lonely years seem especially short in the retrospect. Yet possibly in these he may have done some of the best work of his life; and possibly none, of all the years he has seen, have produced so great an impression on his character and on his temperament. And the impression left may be most diverse in nature. I have known a man remarkably gentle, kind, and sympathetic; always anxious to say a pleasant and encouraging word; discerning by a wonderful intuition whenever he had presented a view or made a remark that had caused pain to the most sensitive, and eager to efface the painful feeling; and I have thought that in all this I could trace the result of his having lived entirely alone for many years. I have known a man insufferably arrogant, conceited, and self-opinionated; another morbidly suspicious and ever nervously anxious; another conspicuously devoid of common Eense; and in each of these I have thought I could trace the result of a lonely life. But indeed it depends so entirely on the nature of the material subjected to the mill what the result turned off shall be, that it is hard to say of any human being what shall be the effect produced upon his character by almost any discipline you can think of. And a solitary life may make a man either thoughtful or vacant, either humble or conceited, either sympathetic or selfish, either frank or shrinkingly shy.

Great numbers of educated people in this country live solitary lives. And by a solitary life I do not mean a life in a remote district of country with hardly a neighbour near, but with your house well filled and noisy with, children's voices. By a solitary life I mean a life in which, day after day and week after week, you rise in the morning in a silent dwelling, in which, save servants, there are none but yourself; in which you sit down to breakfast by yourself, perhaps set yourself to your day's work all alone, then dine by yourself, and spend the evening by yourself. Barristers living in chambers in some cases do this; young lads living in lodgings, young clergymen in country parsonages, old bachelors in handsome town houses and beautiful country mansions, old maids in quiet streets of country towns, old ladies once the centre of cheerful families, but whose husband and children are gone--even dukes in palaces and castles, amid a lonely splendour which must, one would think, seem dreary and ghastly. But you know, my reader, we sympathize the most completely with that which we have ourselves experienced. And when I hear people talk of a solitary life, the picture called up before me is that of a young man who has always lived as one of a household considerable in numbers, who gets a living in the Church, and who, having no sister to keep house for him, goes to it to live quite alone. How many of my friends have done precisely that! Was it not a curious mode of life? A thing is not made commonplace to your own feeling by the fact that hundreds or thousands of human beings have experienced the very same. And although fifty Smiths have done it (all very clever fellows), and fifty Robinsons have done it (all very commonplace and ordinary fellows), one does not feel a bit the less interest in recurring to that experience which, hackneyed as it may be, is to you of greater interest than all other experience, in that it is your own. Draw up a thousand men in a row, all dressed in the same dark-green uniform of the riflemen; and I do not think that their number, or their likeness to one another, will cause any but the most unthinking to forget that each is an individual man as much as if he stood alone in the desert; that each has his own ties, cares, and character, and that possibly each, like to all the rest as he may appear to others, is to several hearts, or perhaps to one only, the one man of all mankind.

Most clergymen whom I have known divide their day very much in the same fashion. After breakfast they go into their study and write their sermon for two or three hours; then they go out and visit their sick or make other calls of duty for several hours. If they have a large parish, they probably came to it with the resolution that before dinner they should always have an hour's smart walk at least; but they soon find that duty encroaches on that hour, and finally eats it entirely up, and their duty calls are continued till it is time to return home to dinner. Don't you remember, my friend, how short a time that lonely meal lasted, and how very far from jovial the feast was? As for me, that I might rest my eyes from reading between dinner and tea (a thing much to be desired in the case of every scholar), I hardly ever, failed, save for a few weeks of midwinter, to go out in the twilight and have a walk--a solitary and very slow walk. My hours, you see, were highly unfashionable. I walked from half-past five to half-past six: that was my after-dinner walk. It was always the same. It looks somewhat dismal to recall. Do you ever find, in looking back at some great trial or mortification you have passed through, that you are pitying yourself as if you were another person? I do not mean to say that those walks were a trial. On the contrary, they were always an enjoyment--a subdued quiet enjoyment, as are the enjoyments of solitary folk. Still, now looking back, it seems to me as if I were watching some one else going out in the cold February twilight, and walking from half-past five to half-past six. I think I see a human being, wearing a very thick and rough great-coat, got for these walks, and never worn on any other occasion, walking very slowly, bearing an extremely thick oak walking-stick (I have it yet) by the shore of the bleak gray sea. Only on the beach did I ever bear that stick; and by many touches of the sand it gradually wore down till it became too short for use. I see the human being issuing from the door of a little parsonage (not the one where there are magnificent beeches and rich evergreens and climbing roses), and always waiting at the door for him there was a friendly dog, a terrier, with very short legs and a very long back, and shaggy to that degree that at a cursory glance it was difficult to decide which was his head and which his tail. Ah, poor old dog, you are grown very stiff and lazy now, and time has not mellowed your temper. Even then it was somewhat doubtful. Not that you ever offered to bite me; but it was most unlucky, and it looked most invidious, that occasion when you rushed out of the gate and severely tore the garments of the dissenting minister! But he was a worthy man: and I trust that he never supposed that upon that day you acted by my instigation. You were very active then; and so few faces did you see (though a considerable town was within a few hundred yards), that the appearance of one made you rush about and bark tremendously. Cross a field, pass through a hedgerow of very scrubby and stunted trees, cross a railway by a path on the level, go on by a dirty track on its further side; and you come upon the sea-shore. It is a level, sandy beach; and for a mile or two inland the ground is level, and the soil ungenial. There are sandy downs, thinly covered with coarse grass. Trees will hardly grow; the few trees there are, are cut down by the salt winds from the Atlantic. The land view, in a raw twilight of early spring, is dreary beyond description; but looking across the sea, there is a magnificent view of mountain peaks. And if you turn in another direction, and look along the shore, you will see a fine hill rising from the sea and running inland, at whose base there flows a beautiful river, which pilgrims come hundreds of miles to visit. How often, O sandy beach, have these feet walked slowly along you! And in these years of such walks, I did not meet or see in all six human beings. A good many years have passed since I saw that dismal beach last; I dare say it would look very strange now. The only excitement of those walks consisted in sending the dog into the sea, and in making him run after stones. How tremendously he ran; what tiger-like bounds he made, as he overtook the missile! Just such walks, my friends, many of you have taken. Homines estis. And then you have walked into your dwelling again, walked into your study, had tea in solitude, spent the evening alone in reading and writing. You have got on in life, let it be hoped; but you remember well the aspect and arrangement of the room; you remember where stood tables, chairs, candles; you remember the pattern of the grate, often vacantly studied. I think every one must look back with great interest upon such days. Life was in great measure before you, what you might do with it. For anything you knew then, you might be a great genius; whereas if the world, even ten years later, has not yet recognized you as a great genius, it is all but certain that it never will recognize you as such at all. And through those long winter evenings, often prolonged far into the night, not only did you muse on many problems, social, philosophical, and religious, but you pictured out, I dare say, your future life, and thought of many things which you hoped to do and to be.

A very subdued mood of thought and feeling, I think, creeps gradually over a man living such a solitary life. I mean a man who has been accustomed to a house with many inmates. There is something odd in the look of an apartment in which hardly a word is ever spoken. If


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