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- The Recreations of A Country Parson - 6/63 -


keep dropping away. I feel for the poor barn-actor, who discovers, on his first entrance upon his rude stage, that the magnates of the district, who promised to be present at the performance, have not come. You have gone to see a panorama, or to hear a lecture on phrenology. Did you not feel for the poor fellow, the lecturer or exhibitor, when ne came in ten minutes past the hour, and found little but empty benches? Did you not see what a chill fell upon him: how stupified he seemed: in short, how much disappointed he was? And if the money he had hoped to earn that evening was to pay the lodgings in which he and his wife were staying, you may be sure there was a heart sickness about his disappointment far beyond the mortification of mere self-love. When a rainy day stops a pic-nic, or mars the enjoyment of it, although the disappointment is hardly a serious one, still it is sure to cause so much real suffering, that only rancorous old ladies will rejoice in the fact. It is curious how men who have known disappointment themselves, and who describe it well, seem to like to paint lives which in the meantime are all hope and success. There is Mr. Thackeray. With what sympathy, with what enjoyment, he shows us the healthy, wealthy, hopeful youths, like Clive Newcome, or young Pendennis, when it was all sunshine around the young prince! And yet how sad a picture of life he gives us in The Newcomes. It would not have done to make it otherwise: it is true, though sad: that history of the good and gallant gentleman, whose life was a long disappointment, a long failure in all on which he had set his heart; in his early love, in his ambitious plans for his son, even in his hopes for his son's happiness, in his own schemes of fortune, till that life of honour ended in the almshouse at last. How the reader wishes that the author would make brighter days dawn upon his hero! But the author cannot: he must hold on unflinchingly as fate. In such a story as his, truth can no more be sacrificed to our wishes than in real life we know it to be. Well, all disappointment is discipline; and received in a right spirit, it may prepare us for better things elsewhere. It has been said that heaven is a place for those who failed on earth. The greatest hero is perhaps the man who does his very best, and signally fails, and still is not embittered by the failure. And looking at the fashion in which an unseen Power permits wealth and rank and influence to go sometimes in this world, we are possibly justified in concluding that in His judgment the prizes of this Vanity Fair are held as of no great account. A life here, in which you fail of every end you seek, yet which disciplines you for a better, is assuredly not a failure.

What a blessing it would be, if men's ambition were in every case made to keep pace with their ability. Very much disappointment arises from a man's having an absurd over-estimate of his own powers, which leads him, to use an expressive Scotticism, to even himself to some position for which he is utterly unfit, and which he has no chance at all of reaching. A lad comes to the university who has been regarded in his own family as a great genius, and who has even distinguished himself at some little country school. What a rude shock to the poor fellow's estimate of himself; what a smashing of the hopes of those at home, is sure to come when he measures his length with his superiors; and is compelled, as is frequently the case, to take a third or fourth-rate position. If you ever read the lives of actors (and every one ought, for they show you a new and curious phase of life), you must have smiled to see the ill-spelled, ungrarnmatical letters in which some poor fellow writes to a London manager for an engagement, and declares that he feels within him the makings of a greater actor than Garrick or Kean. How many young men who go into the Church fancy that they are to surpass Melvill or Chalmers! No doubt, reader, you have sometimes come out of a church, where you had heard a preacher aiming at the most ambitious eloquence, who evidently had not the slightest vocation that way; and you have thought it would be well if no man ever wished to be eloquent who had it not in him to be so. Would that the principle were universally true! Who has not sometimes been amused iff passing along the fashionable street of a great city, to see a little vulgar snob dressed out within an inch of his life, walking along, evidently fancying that he looks like a gentleman, and that he is the admired of all admirers? Sometimes, in a certain street which I might name, I have witnessed such a spectacle, sometimes with amusement, oftener with sorrow and pity, as I thought of the fearful, dark surmises which must often cross the poor snob's mind, that he is failing in his anxious endeavours. Occasionally, too, I have beheld a man bestriding a horse in that peculiar fashion which may be described as his being on the outside of the animal, slipping away over the hot stones, possibly at a trot, and fancying ivthough with many suspicions to the contrary; that he is witching the world with noble horsemanship. What a pity that such poor fellows will persist in aiming at what they cannot achieve! What mortification and disappointment they must often know! The horse backs on to the pavement, into a plate-glass window, just as Maria, for whose sake the poor screw was hired, is passing by. The boys halloo in derision; and some ostler, helpful, but not complimentary, extricates the rider, and says, 'I see you have never been on 'ossback before; you should not have pulled the curb-bit that way!' And when the vulgar dandy, strutting along, with his Brummagem jewellery, his choking collar, and his awfully tight boots which cause him agony, meets the true gentleman; how it rushes upon him that he himself is only a humbug! How the poor fellow's heart sinks!

Turning from such inferior fields of ambition as these, I think how often it happens that men come to some sphere in life with a flourish of trumpets, as destined to do great things, and then fail. There is a modest, quiet self-confidence, without which you will hardly get on in this world; but I believe, as a general rule, that the men who have attained to very great success have started with very moderate expectations. Their first aim was lowly; and the way gradually opened before them. Their ambition, like their success, went on step by step; they did not go at the top of the tree at once. It would be easy to mention instances in which those who started with high pretensions have been taught by stern fact to moderate them; in which the man who came over from the Irish bar intending to lead the Queen's Bench, and become a Chief Justice, was glad, after thirty years of disappointment, to get made a County Court judge. Not that this is always so; sometimes pretension, if big enough, secures success. A man setting up as a silk-mercer in a strange town, is much likelier to succeed if he opens a huge shop, painted in flaring colours and puffed by enormous bills and vast advertising vans, than if he set up in a modest way, in something like proportion to his means. And if he succeeds, well; if he fails, his creditors bear the loss. A great field has been opened for the disappointment of men who start with the flourish of trumpets already mentioned, by the growing system of competitive examinations. By these, your own opinion of yourself, and the home opinion of you, are brought to a severe test. I think with sympathy of the disappointment of poor lads who hang on week after week, hoping to hear that they have succeeded in gaining the coveted appointment, and then learn that they have failed. I think with sympathy of their poor parents. Even when the prize lost is not substantial pudding, but only airy praise, it is a bitter thing to lose it, after running the winner close. It must be a supremely irritating and mortifying thing to be second wrangler. Look at the rows of young fellows, sitting with their papers before them at a Civil Service Examination, and think what interest and what hopes are centred on every one of them. Think how many count on great success, kept up to do so by the estimation in which they are held at home. Their sisters and their mothers think them equal to anything. Sometimes justly; sometimes the fact justifies the anticipation. When Baron Alderson went to Cambridge, he tells us that he would have spurned the offer of being second man of his year; and sure enough, he was out of sight the first. But for one man of whom the home estimation is no more than just, there are ten thousand in whose case, to strangers, it appears simply preposterous.

There is one sense in which all after-life may be said to be a disappointment. It is far different from that which it was pictured by early anticipations and hopes. The very greatest material success still leaves the case thus. And no doubt it seems strange to many to look back on the fancies of youth, which experience has sobered down. When you go back, my reader, to the village where you were brought up, don't you remember how you used to fancy that when you were a man you would come to it in your carriage and four? This, it is unnecessary to add, you have not yet done. You thought likewise that when you came back you would be arrayed in a scarlet coat, possibly in a cuirass of steel; whereas in fact you have come to the little inn where nobody knows you to spend the night, and you are wandering along the bank of the river (how little changed!) in a shooting-jacket of shepherd's plaid. You intended to marry the village grocer's pretty daughter; and for that intention probably you were somewhat hastily dismissed to a school a hundred miles off; but this evening as you passed the shop you discovered her, a plump matron, calling to her children in a voice rather shrill than sweet; and you discovered from the altered sign above the door that her father is dead, and that she has married the shopman, your hated rival of former years. And yet how happily the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb! You are not the least mortified. You are much amused that your youthful fancies have been blighted. It would have been fearful to have married that excellent individual; the shooting-jacket is greatly more comfortable than the coat of mail; and as for the carriage and four, why, even if you could afford them, you would seldom choose to drive four horses. And it is so with the more substantial anticipations of maturer years. The man who, as already mentioned, intended to be a Chief Justice, is quite happy when he is made a County Court judge. The man who intended to eclipse Mr. Dickens in the arts of popular authorship is content and proud to be the great writer of the London Journal. The clergyman who would have liked a grand cathedral like York Minster is perfectly pleased with his little country church, ivy-green and grey. We come, if we are sensible folk, to be content with what we can get, though we have not what we could wish.

Still, there are certain cases in which this can hardly be so. A man of sense can bear cheerfully the frustration of the romantic fancies of childhood and youth; but not many are so philosophical in regard to the comparatively reasonable anticipations of more reasonable years. When you got married at five-and-forty, your hopes were not extravagant. You knew quite well you were not winning the loveliest of her sex, and indeed you felt you had no right to expect to do so. You were well aware that in wisdom, knowledge, accomplishment, amiability, you could not reasonably look for more than the average of the race. But you thought you might reasonably look for that: and now, alas, alas! you find you have not got it. How have I pitied a worthy and sensible man, listening to his wife making a fool of herself before a large company of people! How have I pitied such a one, when I heard his wife talking the most idiotical nonsense; or when I saw her flirting scandalously with a notorious scapegrace; or learned of the large parties which she gave in his absence, to the discredit of her own character and the squandering of his hard-earned gains! No habit, no philosophy, will ever reconcile a human being of right feeling to such a disappointment as that. And even a sadder thing than this--one of the saddest things in life--is when a man begins to feel that his whole life is a failure; not merely a failure as compared with the vain fancies of youth, but a failure as compared with his sobered convictions of what he ought to have been and what he might have been. Probably, in a desponding mood, we have all known the feeling; and even when we half knew it was morbid and transient, it was a very painful


The Recreations of A Country Parson - 6/63

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