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The Silent Isle - Chapter 43 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2422

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 43

CHAPTER XLIII

It must have been just about a year ago to-day that I received one morning a letter from an old acquaintance of mine, Henry Gregory by name, telling me that he was staying in my neighbourhood--might he come over to see me? I asked him to come to luncheon.

I do not remember how I first came to know Gregory, but I was instrumental in once getting him a little legal work to do, since when he has shown a dangerous disposition to require similar services of me, and even to confide in me. I am quite incapable--not on principle, but from a sort of feeble courtesy--of rejecting such overtures. It does more harm than good, because I am unable to help him in any way; and the result of our talks is only to send him away disappointed and annoyed, and to leave me both bored and compassionate, with that wholly ineffectual compassion which is a mere morbid sentiment. Judge between him and me! I will tell the whole story.

Gregory is a man of real ability, conscientious, clear-headed, accurate. He was one of a large family; his father a country solicitor, I think. He was at a public school and at the University; he has a small income of his own, perhaps L150 a year; and he drifted to the bar. I don't think he ever made friends with anyone in his life--he is constitutionally incapable of friendship. I have seen him in the company of one or two unaccountably dreary men, himself the dreariest of the party. He is long-winded, exact in statement, ponderous. He has no sort of imagination, and no touch of humour. He can be depended upon to give you a mass of detailed information on almost any point, and every subject that he touches turns to lead before your eyes. One has a sense of mental indigestion for a day or two after one has seen him, until one has forgotten his statements. If I desired to think ill of a writer, I should ask Gregory his opinion of him; he would extinguish once and for all my interest in the subject. He has been wholly unsuccessful at the bar; he lives in London lodgings, and I cannot conceive how he employs his time. There is a club I sometimes visit (I fear I should visit it oftener if Gregory were not a member), where he sits like a moulting condor in a corner, or wanders about seeking a receptacle for his information. I got him, as I have said, a piece of legal work; it was done, I believe, admirably; but the solicitor whom I referred to Gregory has since told me that he cannot employ him again. "I simply have not the time," he said; "our consultations took longer than I could have conceived possible; there was not a single contingency in heaven and earth that Gregory did not foresee and describe!"

This has gone on until Gregory has reached the mature age of fifty-five. He has no work and no friend. His relations cannot tolerate him. He is a deeply aggrieved man, bitterly conscious of his failure, and the worst of it is that it has never yet occurred to him that he may be himself to blame. He is so virtuous, so laborious, so just, so entirely free from faults of every kind, that he cannot possibly have even the grim satisfaction of self-censure. He has instinctively obeyed every copy-book maxim that was ever written; he is one of the very few men who cannot sincerely join in the Confession, because it is impossible for him to say that he has done those things that he ought not to have done; and yet, with all his powers and virtues, he is simply a tragic failure. No one has a word to say for him; he can get no work; he is an absolutely unnecessary person. Yet there are positions which he could have held with credit. He would have been an excellent clerk, and a competent official. But now he is simply a briefless barrister, without a friend in the world.

He arrived very punctually to luncheon. He is a small, sturdy man, with a big head, of a uniform, dull tint, as if it were carved out of a not very successfully boiled chicken. He is bald, and wears spectacles. He was rather primly dressed, and everything about him gave a sense of careful and virtuous economy, from the uncompromising hardness of his heavy grey suit to the emphatic solidity of his great boots. I had two rather lively young men staying with me, and they behaved with remarkable kindness. But Gregory put the garden-roller over us all in a very few minutes. One of my young friends asked a silly question about current politics. Gregory looked at him blankly, and said, "I am afraid that that question betrays a very superficial acquaintance with the elements of political economy. May I ask if you picked that up at Cambridge?" He gave a short mirthless laugh, and I understood that he was trying his hand at a little light social badinage. However, it flattened out my young friend, while Gregory ruthlessly told us the elements, and a good deal more than the elements, of that science. He was diverted from his lecture by the appearance of some ham. Gregory commented upon the inferiority of English hams, and described the process of curing hams in Westphalia, which, unfortunately for us, he had personally witnessed. So it went on. It was impossible to stop him or to divert him. When he ceased for a moment, to swallow a mouthful, I interjected a remark about the weather. Gregory replied, "Yes; and then they have a method of packing the hams which is said to have the effect of retaining their flavour in a remarkable degree. Imagine a strip of sacking revolving upon two metal objects somewhat resembling fishing-reels." So it continued; and it was delivered, moreover, in a tone of voice which it was somehow impossible to elude; it compelled a sort of agonised attention. After luncheon, while we were smoking, one of my young friends, who could bear passivity no longer, played a few chords of Wagner on a piano. Gregory poured into the gap like a great cascade, and we had a discourse on the origins of the Wagnerian librettos.

After it was over and we were trying to banish the subject from our minds, I sent the other two out for a walk--this had been agreed upon previously--and prepared to face the music alone. But they only just escaped, for Gregory followed them to the gate, determined that they should take a particular walk, to notice the geological formation of the country. We then went out for a stroll together, and Gregory said that he must talk business, and drew a strip of paper from his pocket. This contained a series of commissions for me to execute.

I was to get him some introductions to editors or Members of Parliament; I was to propose him at a club; I was to find him some pupils in law; I was to read a manuscript for him and place it. I raised feeble objections. "You seem to make a great number of unnecessary difficulties," said Gregory. "I don't think that any of my requests can be called unreasonable. You know enough of me to be able to say that I should discharge any duty I undertook thoroughly and competently." "Yes, I know," I said; "but one cannot force people's hands in these matters." "I don't ask you to force their hands," said Gregory; "I merely ask you to give me these introductions, and to write a perfectly truthful account of me." Perhaps I ought to have been more firm; but I could not find any adequate reason for objecting. I could not tell him that the all-embracing and all-sufficing reason against his possibility of success was that he was himself. When it came to placing his manuscript, I said that such things did not go by favour--and plucking up a desperate courage, said that we all had to make our own position in literature. I suggested that he must send his articles to editors like anyone else, and that they were only too anxious to secure the sort of things they wanted, "No," said Gregory; "there is an element of uncertainty about that which will not do for me. I have tried editor after editor, and have invariably had my articles returned. I will venture to say--and I do not think you will contradict me--that they are all thorough, sound, and accurate pieces of work, far more reliable than much of the stuff which appears every day; all I want is just the personal touch with an editor or two; but, of course, if you will not help me, I must try elsewhere--but I must confess that I am very much disappointed," He looked drearily at me, leaning on his stick. I do not think he had any idea where we were, nor had he seen any single object which we had passed; but at this moment he noticed a flower in the hedge, and looked tenderly at it. "Ha! there is _ailanthus vulgaris_," he said--"very unusual. Excuse my interrupting you, but botany is rather a passion of mine. It may interest you to hear..." and I had a few minutes' botany thrown in. "But we must return to our muttons," he said, after a short pause, with a convulsion of the jaw that was meant for a smile; and we did. He went over the whole ground again--and then suddenly came a human _cri du coeur which gave me one of those fruitless pangs which are the saddest things in the world. He was dusting the sleeve of his coat, and I could not help feeling with what unnecessary conscientiousness he was doing it. He turned to me, "Do help me, if you can. I really have done my best, but I can't get any work to do. I have not the position to which I may fairly say my abilities and diligence entitle me. I don't understand why it is--I can't see where I am to blame." Of course I promised to do what I could, and Gregory handed me a corresponding slip of paper to his own which he had prepared for me.

We drew near to the little wayside station where he was to catch a train. It was a summer day of extraordinary loveliness. The great green fen slept peacefully in the sun, and the low green hills beyond lay quivering in the haze. Gregory, lost in bitter musings, in his careful threadbare clothes, rather unpleasantly hot, hopelessly bewildered as to his place in the universe, conscious of virtue, equipped with information, desiring neither pity nor affection, but only work and due recognition, was a sad blot upon nature. The whole business of his creation and preservation seemed an ugly and a heartless one, and his redemption beyond the power of imagination. The train came in, and he got wearily in, shook hands, and immersed himself in a book. He said no more, made no sign, waved no hand of farewell. He did not feel any sentimental emotion; he had come on business, and he went away on business.

Of course it was of no use. I wrote a few letters, read Gregory's manuscript, and had to take a course of Sherlock Holmes in order to obliterate the nauseous memory of its dulness. Nothing came of it all, except a very offensive letter from Gregory about my ineffectiveness and general duplicity.

Why do I venture, it may be asked, to print this dreadful sketch of a man who may see it and recognise it? He will not see it, and for the best of sad reasons. But on reflection I do not know that the reason is a sad one. Gregory died rather suddenly in his lodgings a few months later, and so the curtain came down upon rather a dismal comedy, or a deplorable tragedy, according to one's taste in classification. The only marvel is why the sad drama was ever put on the stage, and why it was allowed to have so long a run. There is hope in this world for the Prodigal, who has a sharp and evil lesson, and comes crawling home to claim the love he had despised; but for the elder brother, with his blameless service and his chilly heart, what hope is there for him? He must content himself--and perhaps it is not so lean a benediction after all--with the tender words, "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine."

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