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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Silent Isle - Chapter 4
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The Silent Isle - Chapter 4 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2738

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV

Such a perfect day: the sky cloudless; sunlight like pale gold or amber; soft mists in the distance; a delicate air, gently stirred, fresh, with no poisonous nip in it. I knew last night it would be fine, for the gale had blown itself out, and when I came in at sunset the chimneys and shoulders of the Hall stood out dark against the orange glow. The beloved house seemed to welcome me back, and as I came across the footpath, through the pasture, I saw in the brightly-lighted kitchen the hands of some one whose face I could not see, in the golden circle of lamplight, deftly moving, preparing something, for my use perhaps.

Yet for all that I am ill at ease; and as I walked to-day, far and fast in the sun-warmed lanes, my thoughts came yapping and growling round me like a pack of curs--undignified, troublesome, vexatious thoughts; I chase them away for a moment, and next moment they are snapping at my heels. Experiences of a tragic quality, however depressing they may be, have a vaguely sustaining power about them, when they close in, as the fat bulls of Bashan closed in upon the Psalmist. There is no escape then, and the matter is in the hands of God; but when many dogs have come about one, one feels that one must try to deal with the situation oneself; and that is just what one does not want to do.

What sort of dogs are they? Well, to-day they are things like this--an angry letter from an old friend to whom something which I said about him was repeated by a busybody. The thing was true enough, and it was not wrong for me to say it; but that it should be repeated with a deft and offensive twist to the man himself is the mischief. I cannot deny that I said it, and I can only affirm its truth. Was it friendly to say it? says my correspondent. Well, I don't think it was unfriendly as I said it. It is the turn given to it that makes it seem injurious; and yet I cannot deny that what has been repeated is substantially what I said. Why did I not say it to him? he asks, instead of saying it to an acquaintance. It might, he goes on, have been conceivably of some use if I had said it to him, but it can be of no use for me to have said it to a third person. I have no reply to this; it is perfectly true. But I do not go in for pointing out my friends' faults to them, unless they ask me to do so: and the remark in question was just one of those hasty, unconsidered, sweeping little judgments that one does pass in conversation about the action of a friend. One cannot--at least I cannot--so order my conversation that if a casual criticism is repeated without qualification to the person who is the subject of it, he may not be pained by it. The repetition of it in all its nakedness makes it seem deliberate, when it is not deliberate at all. I say in my reply frankly that I admire, esteem, and love my friend, but that I do not therefore admire his faults. I add that I do not myself mind my friends criticising me, so long as they do not do it to my face. But I am aware that, for all my frankness, I cut a poor figure in the matter. I foresee a tiresome, useless correspondence, and a certain inevitable coldness. Then, too, I must write a disagreeable letter to the man who has repeated my criticism; and he will reply, quite fairly, that I ought not to have said it if I did not mean it, and if I was not prepared to stand by it. And he will be annoyed too, because he will not see that he has done anything that he ought not to have done. I shall say that I shall have for the future to be careful what I say to him, and he will reply that he quite approves of my decision, and that it is a pity I have not always acted on the same principle; and he will have a detestable species of justice on his side.

Then there are other things as well. There is some troublesome legal business, arising out of a quarrel between two relations of mine on a question of some property. Whatever I decide, someone will be vexed. I do not want to take any part in the matter at all, and the only reason I do it is because I have been appealed to, and there does not seem to be anyone else who will do it. This will entail a quantity of correspondence and some visits to town, because of the passion that people have for interviews, and because lawyers love delay, since it is a profitable source of income to them. In this case the parties in the dispute are women, and one cannot treat their requests with the same bluntness that one treats the requests of men. "I should feel so much more happy," one of them says, "if you could just run up and discuss the matter with me; it is so much more satisfactory than a letter," This will be troublesome, it will take up time, it will be expensive, and, as I say, I shall only succeed in vexing one of the claimants, and possibly both.

Then, again, the widow of an old friend, lately dead, asks my advice about publishing a book which her husband has left unfinished, I do not think it is a very good book, and certainly not worth publishing on its merits. But the widow feels it a sacred duty to give it to the world; she seems, too, to regard it as a sacred duty for me, as a loyal friend, to edit the book, fill up the gaps, and see it through the press. Then I shall be held responsible for its publication, and the reviewers will say that it is not worth the paper it is printed on--an opinion I cannot honestly contest.

Another trial is that a young man, whom I do not know, but whose father was a friend of mine in old days, writes to me to use my influence that he should obtain an appointment. He says that he is just as well qualified as a number of other applicants, and all that is needed is that I should write a letter to an eminent man whom I know, which will give him his chance, I hate to do this; I hate to use private friendship in order that I may do jobs for my friends. If I do not write the required letter, the young man will think me forgetful of the old ties; if he does not obtain the appointment, he will blame me for not acting energetically enough. If he does obtain it on my recommendation, it may of course turn out all right; but if he does not show himself fit for the post, I shall be rightly blamed for recommending him on insufficient grounds; and in any case my eminent friend will think me an importunate person.

I am busy just now on a book of my own, but all these things force me to put my work aside, day after day. Even when I have some leisure hours which I might devote to my own work, I cannot attain the requisite serenity for doing it--cannot get these vexatious matters out of my head; and there are other matters, too, of the same kind which I need not further particularise.

Of course, it may be said that the knot is best cut by refusing to have anything to do with any of these things. I suppose that if one was strong-minded and resolute one would behave like Gallio, who drove the disputants from his judgment-seat. But I have a tenderness for these people, and a certain conscience in the matter, so that I do not feel it would be right to refuse. Yet I do not quite know upon what basis I feel that there is a duty about it. I do not undertake these tasks as a Christian. The only precedent that I can find in the Gospel which bears on the matter would seem to justify my refusing to have anything to do with it all. When the two men came to Christ about a question of an inheritance, he would not do what they asked him. He said, "Man, who made me a judge or a divider between you?" Again, I do not do it as a gentleman, because there is no question of personal honour involved. I only do it, I think, because I do hot like refusing to do what I am asked to do, because I wish to please people--a muddled sort of kindliness.

But the whole question goes deeper than that. I suppose that tasks such as these fall in the way of all human beings, whatever their motives for undertaking them may be. How can one do them, and yet not let them disturb one's tranquillity? The ordinary moralist says, "Do what you think to be right, and never mind what people say or think." But unfortunately I do mind very much. I hate coldnesses and misunderstandings. They leave me with a sore and sensitive feeling about my heart, which no amount of ingenious argument can take away. I suppose that one ought to conclude that these things are somehow or other good for one, that they train one in patience and wisdom. But when, as is the case with all these episodes, the original dispute ought never to have occurred; when the questions at issue are mean, pitiful, and sordid; when, if the people concerned were only themselves wise, patient, and kind, the situation would never have occurred, what then? If my acquaintance, in the first case, had not taken a mean pleasure in tale-bearing and causing pain, if in the second case my two relatives had not been grasping and selfish, if in the third case my friend's widow had not allowed her own sense of affection to supersede her judgment, if in the fourth case my friend had been content to let his merits speak for themselves instead of relying upon personal influences, these little crises would never have occurred; it seems unfair that the pain and discomfort of these paltry situations should be transferred to the shoulders of one who has no particular personal interest in the matter. Besides, I cannot honestly trace in my own case the beneficial results of the process. These rubs only make me resolve that in the future I will not have anything to do with such matters at all. It is true that I shall not keep my resolution; but that does not mend matters appreciably.

Moreover, instead of giving me a wholesome sense of hopefulness and confidence, it only makes me feel acutely the dreary and sordid elements which seem inextricably intermingled with life, which might otherwise be calm, serene, and beautiful. I do not see that any of the people concerned are the better for any of the incidents which have occurred--indeed, I think that they are all the worse for them. It is not encouraging or inspiring to have the meanness and pettiness of human nature brought before one, and to feel conscious of one's own weakness and feebleness as well. Some sorrows and losses purge, brace, and strengthen. Such trials as these stain, perplex, enfeeble.

The immediate result of it all is that the work which I can do and desire to do, and which, if anything, I seem to have been sent into the world to do, is delayed and hindered. No good can come out of the things which I am going to spend the hours in trying to mend. Neither will any of the people concerned profit by my example in the matter, because they will only have their confidence in my judgment and amiability diminished.

And so I walk, as I say, along the sandy lanes, with the fresh air and the still sunlight all about me, kept by my own unquiet heart from the peace that seems to be all about me within the reach of my hand. The sense of God's compassion for his feeble creatures does not help me; how can he compassionate the littleness for which he is himself responsible? It is at such moments that God seems remote, careless, indifferent, occupied in his own designs; strong in his ineffable strength, leaving the frail and sensitive creatures whom he has made, to whom he has given hopes and dreams too large for their feeble nerves and brains, to stumble onwards over vale and hill without a comforting smile or a sustaining hand. Would that I could feel otherwise! He gives us the power of framing an ideal of hopefulness, peace, sweetness, and strength; and then he mocks at our attempts to reach them. I do not ask to see every step of the road plainly; I only long to know that we are going forwards, and not backwards, I must submit, I know; but I cannot believe that he only demands a tame and sullen submission; rather he must desire that I should face him bravely and fearlessly, in hope and confidence, as a loving and beloved son.

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