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On A Child Who Died Post by :ralph_alan Category :Essays Author :Hilaire Belloc Date :April 2011 Read :3370

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On A Child Who Died

There was once a little Whig....

Ugh! The oiliness, the public theft, the cowardice, the welter of sin! One cannot conceive the product save under shelter and in the midst of an universal corruption.

Well, then, there was once a little Tory. But stay; that is not a pleasant thought....

Well, then there was once a little boy whose name was Joseph, and now I have launched him, I beg you to follow most precisely all that he said, did and was, for it contains a moral. But I would have you bear me witness that I have withdrawn all harsh terms, and have called him neither Whig nor Tory. Nevertheless I will not deny that had he grown to maturity he would inevitably have been a politician. As you will be delighted to find at the end of his short biography, he did not reach that goal. He never sat upon either of the front benches. He never went through the bitter business of choosing his party and then ratting when he found he had made a mistake. He never so much as got his hand into the public pocket. Nevertheless read his story and mark it well. It is of immense purport to the State.

* * * * *

When little Joseph was born, his father (who could sketch remarkably well and had rowed some years before in his College boat) was congratulated very warmly by his friends. One lady wrote to him: "_Your_ son cannot fail to add distinction to an already famous name"--for little Joseph's father's uncle had been an Under Secretary of State. Then another, the family doctor, said heartily, "Well, well, all doing excellently; another Duggleton" (for little Joseph's father's family were Duggletons) "and one that will keep the old flag flying."

Little Joseph's father's aunt whose husband had been the Under Secretary, wrote and said she was longing to see the _last Duggleton_, and hinted that a Duggleton the more was sheer gain to This England which Our Fathers Made. His father put his name down that very day for the Club and met there Baron Urscher, who promised every support "if God should spare him to the time when he might welcome another Duggleton to these old rooms." The baron then recalled the names of Charlie Fox and Beau Rimmel, that was to say, Brummel. He said an abusive word or two about Mr. Gladstone, who was then alive, and went away.

Little Joseph for many long weeks continued to seem much like others, and if he had then died (as some cousins hoped he would, and as, indeed, there seemed to be a good chance on the day that he swallowed the pebble at Bournemouth) I should have no more to write about. There would be an end of little Joseph so far as you and I are concerned; and as for the family of Duggleton, why any one but the man who does Society Notes in the _Evening Yankee_ should write about them I can't conceive.

Well, but little Joseph did not die--not just then, anyhow. He lived to learn to speak, and to talk, and to put out his tongue at visitors, let alone interrupting his parents with unpleasing remarks and telling lies. It was early observed that he did all these things with a _je-ne-scais-quoy_ and a _verve_ quite different from the manner of his little playmates. When one day he moulded out, flattened and unshaped the waxen nose of a doll of his, it was apparent to all that it had been very skilfully done, and showed a taste for modelling, and the admiration this excited was doubled when it was discovered that he had called the doll "Aunt Garry". He took also to drawing things with a pencil as early as eight years old, and for this talent his father's house was very suitable, for Mrs. Duggleton had nice Louis XV furniture, all white and gold, and a quaint new brown-paper medium on her walls. Colour, oddly enough, little Joseph could not pretend to; but he had a remarkably fine ear, and was often heard, before he was ten years old, singing some set of words or other over and over again very loudly upon the staircase to a few single notes.

It seems incredible, but it is certainly true, that he even composed _verses_ at the age of eleven, wherein "land" and "strand", "more" and "shore" would frequently recur, the latter being commonly associated with England, to which, his beloved country, the intelligent child would add the epithet "old".

He was, a short time after this, discovered playing upon words and would pun upon "rain" and "reign", as also upon "Wales" the country (or rather province, for no patriot would admit a Divided Crown) and "Whales"--the vast Oceanic or Thalassic mammals that swim in Arctic waters.

He asked questions that showed a surprising intelligence and at the same time betrayed a charming simplicity and purity of mind. Thus he would cross-examine upon their recent movements ladies who came to call, proving them very frequently to have lied, for he was puzzled like most children by the duplicity of the gay world. Or again, he would ask guests at the dinner table how old they were and whether they liked his father and mother, and this in a loud and shrill way that provoked at once the attention and amusement of the select coterie (for coterie it was) that gathered beneath his father's roof.

As is so often the case with highly strung natures, he was morbidly sensitive in his self-respect. Upon one occasion he had invented some boyish nickname or other for an elderly matron who was present in his mother's drawing-room, and when that lady most forcibly urged his parent to chastise him he fled to his room and wrote a short note in pencil forgiving his dear mamma her intimacy with his enemies and announcing his determination to put an end to his life. His mother on discovering this note pinned to her chair gave way to very natural alarm and rushed upstairs to her darling, with whom she remonstrated in terms deservedly severe, pointing out the folly and wickedness of self-destruction and urging that such thoughts were unfit for one of his tender years, for he was then barely thirteen.

This incident and many others I could quote made a profound impression upon the Honourable Mr. and Mrs. Duggleton, who, by the time of their son's adolescence, were convinced that Providence had entrusted them with a vessel of no ordinary fineness. They discussed the question of his schooling with the utmost care, and at the age of fifteen sent "little Joseph", as they still affectionately called him, to the care of the Rev. James Filbury, who kept a small but exceedingly expensive school upon the banks of the River Thames.

The three years that he spent at this establishment were among the happiest in the life of his father's private secretary, and are still remembered by many intimate friends of the family.

He was twice upon the point of securing the prize for Biblical studies and did indeed take that for French and arithmetic. Mr. Filbury assured his father that he had the very highest hopes of his career at the University. "Joseph," he wrote, "is a fine, highly tempered spirit, one to whom continual application is difficult, but who is capable of high flights of imagination not often reached by our sturdy English boyhood.... I regret that I cannot see my way to reducing the charge for meat at breakfast. Joseph's health is excellent, and his scholarship, though by no means ripe, shows promise of that ..." and so forth.

I have no space to give the letter in full; it betrays in every line the effect this gifted youth had produced upon one well acquainted with the marks of future greatness;--for Mr. Filbury had been the tutor and was still the friend of the Duke of Buxton, the sometime form-master of the present Bishop of Lewes and the cousin of the late Joshua Lambkin of Oxford.

Little Joseph's entry into college life abundantly fulfilled the expectations held of him. The head of his college wrote to his great-aunt (the wife of the Under Secretary of State) "... he has something in him of what men of Old called prophecy and we term genius ...", old Dr. Biddlecup the Dean asked the boy to dinner, and afterwards assured his father that little Joseph was the image of William Pitt, whom he falsely pretended to have seen in childhood, and to whom the Duggletons were related through Mrs. Duggleton's grandmother, whose sister had married the first cousin of the Saviour of Europe.

Dr. Biddlecup was an old man and may not have been accurate in his historical pretensions, but the main truth of what he said was certain, for Joseph resembled the great statesman at once in his physical appearance, for he was sallow and had a turned-up nose: in his gifts: in his oratory which was ever remarkable at the social clubs and wines--and alas! in his fondness for port.

Indeed, little Joseph had to pay the price of concentrating in himself the genius of three generations, he suffered more than one of the temptations that assault men of vigorous imagination. He kept late hours, drank--perhaps not always to excess but always over-frequently--and gambled, if not beyond his means, at least with a feverish energy that was ruinous to his health. He fell desperately ill in the fortnight before his schools, but he was granted an _aegrotat_, a degree equivalent in his case to a First Class in Honours, and he was asked by one or other of the Colleges to compete for a Fellowship; it was, however, given to another candidate.

After this failure he went home, and on his father's advice, attempted political work; but the hurry and noise of an election disgusted him, and it is feared that his cynical and highly epigrammatic speeches were another cause of his defeat.

Sir William Mackle, who had watched the boy with the tenderest interest and listened to his fancied experiences with a father's patience, ordered complete rest and change, and recommended the South of France; he was sent thither with a worthless friend or rather dependent, who permitted the lad to gamble and even to borrow money, and it was this friend to whom Sir William (in his letter to the Honourable Mr. Duggleton acknowledging receipt of his cheque) attributed the tragedy that followed.

"Had he not," wrote the distinguished physician, "permitted our poor Joseph to borrow money of him; had he resolutely refused to drink wine at dinner; had he locked Joseph up in his room every evening at the opening hour of the Casino, we should not have to deplore the loss of one of England's noblest." Nor did the false friend make things easier for the bereaved father by suggesting ere twelve short months had elapsed that the sums Joseph had borrowed of him should be repaid.

Joseph, one fatal night, somewhat heated by wine, had heard a Frenchman say to an Italian at his elbow certain very outrageous things about one Mazzini. The pair were discussing a local bookmaker, but the boy, whose passion for Italian unity is now well known, imagined that the Philosopher and Statesman was in question; he fell into such a passion and attacked these offensive foreigners with such violence as to bring on an attack from which he did not recover: his grave now whitens the hillside of the Monte Resorto (in French Mont-resort).

He left some fifty short poems in the manner of Shelley, Rossetti and Swinburne, and a few in an individual style that would surely have developed with age. These have since been gathered into a volume and go far to prove the truth of his father's despairing cry: "Joseph," the poor man sobbed as he knelt by the insanitary curtained bed on which the body lay, "Joseph would have done for the name of Duggleton in literature what my Uncle did for it in politics."

His portrait may be found in _Annals of the Rutlandshire Gentry_, a book recently published privately by subscriptions of two guineas, payable to the gentleman who produced that handsome volume.

(The end)
Hilaire Belloc's essay: On A Child Who Died

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