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The Silent Isle - Chapter 39 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :3971

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 39


I have an acquaintance at Cambridge, John Meyrick by name, who visits me here at intervals, and is to me an object of curious interest. He is a Fellow and Lecturer of his College. He came up there on a scholarship from a small school. He worked hard; he was a moderate oar; he did not make many friends, but he was greatly respected for a sort of quiet directness and common-sense. He never put himself forward, but when it fell to him to do anything he did it with confidence and discretion. He had an excellent head for business, and was Secretary or Treasurer of most of the College institutions. After taking an excellent degree he was elected to a Fellowship. He took advantage of this to go abroad for a year to Germany, and returned a first-rate German scholar, with a considerable knowledge of German methods of education; and was shortly afterwards given a lectureship. I believe he is one of the best lecturers in the place; he knows his subject, and keeps abreast of it. He is extraordinarily clear, lucid, and decisive in statement, and though he is an advanced scholar, he is an extremely practical one. His men always do well. I made his acquaintance over a piece of business, and found him friendly and pleasant. He is fond of taking long, solitary walks on Sunday, as he seldom has time for exercise in the week; and I asked him to come over and see me; he walked from Cambridge one morning, arriving for luncheon, and I accompanied him part of the way back in the afternoon. Since that time he generally comes over once or twice a term. I do not quite know his object in doing this, because I always feel that he has a sort of polite contempt for my ways of life and habits of thought; but it makes a good goal for a long walk, and, moreover, he likes to know different types of people.

He is now about forty-five. In appearance he is trim and small, and gives the impression of being, so to speak, in first-rate training. He has a firm, pale face, of which the only distinction is that it has a look of quiet strength and self-confidence. He has rather thick dark hair, and a close-cropped beard, sprinkled with grey; strong, ugly hands, and serviceable feet. His dress is precise and deliberate, but in no particular fashion. He wears a rather stiff dark suit, low collars, a black tie, a soft black hat, and strong elastic-sided boots. If one met him in the road, one would think him a Board-School Master.

He is very considerate and polite; for instance, if he is coming over he always lets me know a few days before, so that I may get his post-card forwarded to me if I happen to be away. If the day is wet or if he is prevented from coming, he invariably wires in the morning to let me know that he will not appear.

He has one of the best-filled and most serviceable minds I know; though he is overwhelmed by business of all kinds--he is Secretary to two or three boards--he always seems to have read everything and to have a perfectly clear-cut idea about it. He does this by the most extraordinarily methodical use of his time. He rises early, disposes of his correspondence, never failing to answer a letter as briefly as possible the same day that he receives it; reads the paper; lectures and coaches all the morning; attends meetings in the afternoon; coaches again till dinner; and after dinner reads in his rooms till midnight. He seems to have perfect bodily health and vigour, and he has never been known to neglect or to defer anything that he undertakes. In fact, he is a perfectly useful, competent, admirable man.

His behaviour to every one is exactly the same; he treats everybody, his young men, his colleagues, his academical superiors, with the same dry politeness and respect. He is never shy or flustered; he found one day here, staying with me, a somewhat rare species of visitor, a man of high political distinction, who came down to get a quiet Sunday to talk over an important article which I happened to be entrusted with. Meyrick's behaviour was unexceptionable: he was neither abrupt nor deferential; he was simply his unaffected, self-confident self.

I like seeing Meyrick at intervals, because, though he is not really a typical Don at all, he is exactly the sort of figure which would be selected as typical nowadays. The days of the absent-minded, unkempt, slatternly, spectacled, owlish Don are over, and one has instead a brisk professional man, fond of business and ordered knowledge, who is not in the least a man of the world, but a curious variety of it, a man of a small and definite society who, on the strength of knowing a certain class, and of possessing a certain _savoir faire_, credits himself with a mundane position and enjoys his own self-respect.

But I should be very melancholy if I had to spend a long time in Meyrick's company. In the first place, his views on literature are directly opposed to mine. He has a kind of scheme in his head, and classifies writers into accurate groups. He seems to have no predilection and no admirations except for what he calls important writers. He has no personal interest in writers whatever. He can assign them their exact places in the development of English, but he never approaches an author with the reverential sense of drawing near to a mysterious and divine secret, but rather with a respect for technical accomplishment. In fact, his pleasure in dealing with an author is the pleasure of mastering him and classifying him. He puts a new book through its paces as a horse-dealer does with a horse; he observes his action, his strong and weak points, and then forms a business-like estimate of his worth.

It is the same with his treatment of people. He has a hard and shrewd judgment of character, and a polite contempt for weakness of every kind. He is a Radical by conviction, with a strong sense of equal rights. Socialism he thinks unpractical, and he is interested in movements rather than in men.

But he seldom or never lets one into his confidence about people. If he respects and values a man he says so frankly, but keeps silence about the people of whom he does not approve. On one of the few occasions in which I had a peep into the interior of his mind, I was surprised to find that he had a strong class-feeling. He had an obvious contempt for what may be called the upper class, and gave me to understand that he thought their sense of superiority a very false one. He thought of them simply as the people, so to speak, in possession, but entirely lacking in moral purpose and ideal. I said something about the agreeable, sympathetic courtesy of well-bred people, and he made it plain that he regarded it as a sort of expensive and useless product. He had, I found, a different kind of contempt for the lower classes, regarding them as thriftless and unenterprising. In fact, the professional middle class seemed to him to have a monopoly of the virtues--common-sense, simplicity, respectability.

Two things for which he has no kind of sympathy are art and music, which appear to him to be a kind of harmless and elegant trifling. I am afraid that what irritates me in his treatment of these subjects is his cool and sensible indifference to them. He never expresses the least opposition to them, but merely treats them as purely negligible things. He is not exactly complacent, because there is no touch of vanity or egotism about him; and then his attitude is impossible to assail, because there is no assumption whatever of superiority about it. He merely knows that he is right, and he has no interest whatever in convincing other people; when they know better, when they get rid of their emotional prejudices, they will feel, he is sure, as he does.

In discussing matters he is not at all a doctrinaire; he deals with any objections that one makes courteously and frankly, and even covers his opponent's retreat with a polite quoting of possible precedents. Without being a well-bred man, he is so entirely unpretentious that he could hold his own in any company. He would sit next a commercial traveller and talk to him pleasantly, just as he would sit next the King, if it fell to his lot to do so, and talk without any embarrassment.

I find it hard to say why it is that a man who is so admirable in his conduct of life and in his relations with others inspires me at times with so strange a mixture of anger and terror. I am angry because I feel that he takes no account of many of the best things in the world; I am frightened because he is so extraordinarily strong and complete. If he were to be given absolute and despotic power, he would arrange the government of a State on just and equable lines; the only tyranny that he would originate would be the tyranny of common-sense. The only thing which he would be hard on would be unreasonableness in any form. I am very fond of reasonableness myself; I think it a very fine and beautiful quality, and I think that it wins probably the best victories of the world. But I desire in the world a certain driving force, whereas to me Meyrick only represents an immensely strong regulating force. When I am away from him I think subordination and regulation are very fine things, but when I am with him I feel that my liberty is somehow strangely curtailed. I cannot be fanciful or extravagant in Meyrick's company; his polite laugh would be a disheartening rebuke; he would think my extravagance an agreeable conversational ornament, but he would put me down as a man unfit to be placed upon a syndicate. I do not feel that I am being consciously judged and condemned; I simply feel that I am being unconsciously estimated; which fills me with inexplicable rage.

I wrote this on Sunday evening, having spent an hour or two in his company, I can still see him as I stopped to say farewell to him on the long, straight road leading to Cambridge. "Going to turn back here? Well, I must be getting on--very good of you to give me luncheon--good-bye!" with a little brisk smile--he never shakes hands, I must add, on these occasions. I stood for an instant to watch him walk off at a good pace down the road. His boots rose and fell rhythmically, and he put his stick down at regular intervals. He never turned his head, but no doubt plunged into some definite train of thought. Indeed, I have little doubt that he had arranged beforehand exactly what he would think out when I left him alone.

So the little, trim, compact figure trudged away, like a spirit of law, decency, and order, with the long fields stretching to left and right with their distant clumps of trees. He seemed to me to be the embodiment of sensible civilisation, knowing his own mind perfectly, a drill-sergeant of humanity, with a strong sense of responsibility for, but no sympathy with, all lounging, fanciful, and irresolute persons. How useful, how competent, how good, how honourable he was! What a splendid guide, mentor, and guardian! and yet I felt helplessly that he possessed and desired none of the things that make humanity dear and the world beautiful. I often feel very impatient with the way in which writers, and particularly clerical writers, use the word spiritual; it often means, I feel, that they are only conscious of the entire inadequacy of the motives for conduct that they are themselves able to supply; but the moment that I set eyes upon Meyrick, I know what the word means, that it is the one great quality that, for all his virtue and strength, he misses. I do not know what the quality is exactly, but I do know that he is without it; and in the dry light of Meyrick's mind, I forgive all muddled and irresolute people their sins and foolishnesses, their aggravating incompetence, their practical inefficacy; because I know that they have somehow in a clumsy way got hold of the two great principles that "The end is not yet," and "It doth not yet appear what we shall be." For them the misty goal is not even in sight; the vale is bounded by huge pine-clad precipices, wreathed with snow and crowned with cloud; but to Meyrick it does appear quite definitely what we are, and as for the end, well, the avenue of the world seems to lead up to a neat classical building with pillars and a pediment, that is called the temple of reason and common-sense.

I do not know what Meyrick's religious views are; he attends his College chapel with a cool decorum. But I suspect him of being a quiet agnostic. I do not think he cares a straw whether his individuality endures, and he looks forward to a progress which can be tabulated and statistics about the decrease of crime and disease that can be verified; that, I am sure, is his idea of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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