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- A Knight Of The Nineteenth Century - 2/79 -
CHAPTER LIV ANOTHER KNIGHT APPEARS
A KNIGHT OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
BAD TRAINING FOR A KNIGHT
Egbert Haldane had an enemy who loved him very dearly, and he sincerely returned her affection, as he was in duty bound, since she was his mother. If, inspired by hate and malice, Mrs. Haldane had brooded over but one question at the cradle of her child, How can I most surely destroy this boy? she could scarcely have set about the task more skilfully and successfully.
But so far from having any such malign and unnatural intention, Mrs. Haldane idolized her son. To make the paradox more striking, she was actually seeking to give him a Christian training and character. As he leaned against her knee Bible tales were told him, not merely for the sake of the marvellous interest which they ever have for children, but in the hope, also, that the moral they carry with them might remain as germinating seed. At an early age the mother had commenced taking him to church, and often gave him an admonitory nudge as his restless eyes wandered from the venerable face in the pulpit. In brief, the apparent influences of his early life were similar to those existing in multitudes of Christian homes. On general principles, it might be hoped that the boy's future would be all that his friends could desire; nor did he himself in early youth promise so badly to superficial observers; and the son of the wealthy Mrs. Haldane was, on the part of the world, more the object of envy than of censure. But a close observer, who judged of characteristic tendencies and their results by the light of experience, might justly fear that the mother had unwittingly done her child irreparable wrong.
She had made him a tyrant and a relentless task-master even in his infancy. As his baby-will developed he found it supreme. His nurse was obliged to be a slave who must patiently humor every whim. He was petted and coaxed out of his frequent fits of passion, and beguiled from his obstinate and sulky moods by bribes. He was the eldest child and only son, and his little sisters were taught to yield to him, right or wrong, he lording it over them with the capricious lawlessness of an Eastern despot. Chivalric deference to woman, and a disposition to protect and honor her, is a necessary element of a manly character in our Western civilization; but young Haldane was as truly an Oriental as if he had been permitted to bluster around a Turkish harem; and those whom he should have learned to wait upon with delicacy and tact became subservient to his varying moods, developing that essential brutality which mars the nature of every man who looks upon woman as an inferior and a servant. He loved his mother, but he did not reverence and honor her. The thought ever uppermost in his mind was, "What ought she to do for me?" not, "What ought I to do for her?" and any effort to curb or guide on her part was met and thwarted by passionate or obstinate opposition from him. He loved his sisters after a fashion, because they were his sisters; but so far from learning to think of them as those whom it would be his natural task to cherish and protect, they were, in his estimation, "nothing but girls," and of no account whatever where his interests were concerned.
In the most receptive period of life the poison of selfishness and self-love was steadily instilled into his nature. Before he had left the nursery he had formed the habit of disregarding the wills and wishes of others, even when his childish conscience told him that he was decidedly in the wrong. When he snatched his sisters' playthings they cried in vain, and found no redress. The mother made peace by smoothing over matters, and promising the little girls something else.
Of course, the boy sought to carry into his school life the same tendencies and habits which he had learned at home, and he ever found a faithful ally in his blind, fond mother. She took his side against his teachers; she could not believe in his oppressions of his younger playmates; she was absurdly indignant and resentful when some sturdy boy stood up for his own rights, or championed another's, and sent the incipient bully back to her, crying, and with a bloody nose. When the pampered youth was a little indisposed, or imagined himself so, he was coddled at home, and had bonbons and fairy tales in the place of lessons.
Judicious friends shook their heads ominously, and some even ventured to counsel the mother to a wiser course; but she ever resented such advice. The son was the image of his lost father, and her one impulse was to lavish upon him everything that his heart craved.
As if all this were not enough, she placed in the boy's way another snare, which seldom fails of proving fatal. He had only to ask for money to obtain it, no knowledge of its value being imparted to him. Even when he took it from his mother's drawer without asking, her chidings were feeble and irresolute. He would silence and half satisfy her by saying:
"You can take anything of mine that you want. It's all in the family; what difference does it make?"
Thus every avenue of temptation in the city which could be entered by money was open to him, and he was not slow in choosing those naturally attractive to a boy.
But while his mother was blind to the evil traits and tendencies which she was fostering with such ominous success, there were certain overt acts naturally growing out of her indulgences which would shock her inexpressibly, and evoke even from her the strongest expressions of indignation and rebuke. She was pre-eminently respectable, and fond of respect. She was a member "in good and regular standing" not only of her church, but also of the best society in the small inland city where she resided, and few greater misfortunes in her estimation could occur than to lose this status. She never hesitated to humor any of her son's whims and wishes which did not threaten their respectability, but the quick-witted boy was not long in discovering that she would not tolerate any of those vices and associations which society condemns.
There could scarcely have been any other result save that which followed. She had never taught him self-restraint; his own inclinations furnished the laws of his action, and the wish to curb his desires because they were wrong scarcely ever crossed his mind. To avoid trouble with his mother, therefore, he began slyly and secretly to taste the forbidden fruits which her lavish supplies of money always kept within his reach. In this manner that most hopeless and vitiating of elements, deceitfulness, entered into his character. He denied to his mother, and sought to conceal from her, the truth that while still in his teens he was learning the gambler's infatuation and forming the inebriate's appetite. He tried to prevent her from knowing that many of his most intimate associates were such as he would not introduce to her or to his sisters.
He had received, however, a few counter-balancing advantages in his early life. With all her weaknesses, his mother was a lady, and order, refinement, and elegance characterized his home. Though not a gentleman at heart, on approaching manhood he habitually maintained the outward bearing that society demands. The report that he was a little fast was more than neutralized by the fact of his wealth. Indeed, society concluded that it had much more occasion to smile than to frown upon him, and his increasing fondness for society and its approval in some degree curbed his tendencies to dissipation.
It might also prove to his advantage that so much Christian and ethical truth had been lodged in his memory during early years. His mother had really taken pains to acquaint him with the Divine Man who "pleased not himself," even while she was practically teaching him to reverse this trait in his own character. Thus, while the youth's heart was sadly erratic, his head was tolerably orthodox, and he knew theoreticaly the chief principles of right action. Though his conscience had never been truly awakened, it often told him that his action was unmanly, to say the least; and that was as far as any self-censure could reach at this time. But it might prove a fortunate thing that although thorns and thistles had been planted chiefly, some good seed had been scattered also, and that he had received some idea of a life the reverse of that which he was leading.
But thus far it might be said with almost literal truth, that young Haldane's acquaintance with Christian ethics had had no more practical effect upon his habitual action and thought than his knowledge of algebra. When his mother permitted him to snatch his sisters' playthings and keep them, when she took him from the school where he had received well-merited punishment, when she enslaved herself and her household to him instead of teaching considerate and loyal devotion to her, she nullified all the Christian instruction that she or any one else had given.
The boy had one very marked trait, which might promise well for the future, or otherwise, according to circumstances, and that was a certain wilful persistence, which often degenerated into downright obstinacy. Frequently, when his mother thought that she had coaxed or wheedled him into giving up something of which she did not approve, he would quietly approach his object in some other way, and gain his point, or sulk till he did. When he set his heart upon anything he was not as "unstable as water." While but an indifferent and superficial student, who had habitually escaped lessons and skipped difficulties, he occasionally became nettled by a perplexing problem or task, and would work at it with a sort of vindictive, unrelenting earnestness, as if he were subduing an enemy. Having put his foot on the obstacle, and mastered the difficulty that piqued him, he would cast the book aside, indifferent to the study or science of which it formed but a small fraction.
After all, perhaps the best that could be said of him was that he possessed fair abilities, and was still subject to the good and generous impulses of youth. His traits and tendencies were, in the main, all wrong; but he had not as yet become confirmed and hardened in them. Contact with the world, which sooner or later tells a man the truth about himself, however unwelcome, might dissipate the illusion, gained from his mother's idolatry, that in some indefinite way he was remarkable in himself, and that he was destined to great things from a vague and innate superiority, which it had never occurred to him to analyze.
But as the young man approached his majority his growing habits of dissipation became so pronounced that even his willingly blind mother was compelled to recognize them. Rumor of his fast and foolish behavior took such definite shape as to penetrate the widow's aristocratic retirement, and to pass the barriers created by the reserve which she ever maintained in regard to personal and family matters. More than once her son came home in a condition so nearly resembling intoxication that she was compelled to recognize the cause, and she was greatly shocked and alarmed. Again and again she said to herself:
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