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The Silent Isle - Chapter 44 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :3001

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 44

CHAPTER XLIV

There has been staying with me for the last few days a perfectly delightful person; an old man--he is nearly eighty--who is exactly what an old man ought to be, and what one would desire to be if one were to grow old. Old people are not as a rule a very encouraging spectacle. One is apt to feel, after seeing old people, that it is rather a tragic thing when life outruns activity, and to hope that one may never have the misery of octogenarianism. Sometimes they are peevish and ill-at-ease, disagreeably afflicted and obviously broken; and even when they bear their affliction bravely and courageously, it is a melancholy business. It seems a sad kind of spitefulness in nature that persons should have so much trouble to bear when they are tired and faint-hearted and only wish for repose. One feels then that it ought to be somehow arranged that people should have their share of trouble in youth or manhood, when trouble is not wholly uninteresting, and when there is even a sort of grim pleasure in fighting it; but when it comes to having no distractions, to being obliged to sit still and suffer with no hope of alleviation; when affection dies down like an expiring flame, and the failing nature seems involved in a helpless sort of selfishness, planning for little comforts, enjoying tiny pleasures with a sort of childlike greediness, it is a very pitiful thing, I remember an old lady who lived with her son in a small parsonage full of boisterous children. They were very good to her, but she was sadly in the way. She herself had lost almost all interest in life; she was deaf and infirm and cross. She was condemned to eat the plainest of food; and I used to see her mumbling little slices of stale bread, and looking with malignant envy at the children eating big hunches of heavy cake. It was impossible to give her any pleasure, and she had no sort of intention of pleasing anyone else. It was so difficult to see what kind of effect this dismal purgatory was meant to have on any human soul. She was not improved by suffering--she grew daily more callous and spiteful before one's eyes. One of her few pleasures was to sit in the garden pretending to be asleep, when all the family were out, and tell tales of the gardener for neglecting his work, and of the maid-servants for picking the strawberries. Yet she had been a shrewd and kindly woman once, and had brought up her children well. If she had died a dozen years before she would have been truly and tearfully mourned, and now when everyone tacitly felt that she had outstayed her welcome, she lingered on. She had a bad illness at one time, and when I saw her, for the first time after her recovery, in the family circle, and said something commonplace about being glad to see her so well, "Yes," she said, looking round with an air of malicious triumph, "they can't get rid of me just yet--I know that is what they all feel, but they have to pretend to be glad I am better."

And then, too, there is another type of age which is hardly less painful, and that is the complacent and sententious old person, intolerably talkative and minutely confidential, who lays down the law about everything, and takes what he calls the privileges of age, a sort of professional patriarch, ruddy and snowy-haired and wide-awake, a terrible specimen of a well-made machine, which goes on working long after heart and brain alike are atrophied. I have known an old man of this kind. He insisted on everything being done for his convenience. He breakfasted very late, and would allow no one to have any food earlier, saying that it did young people good to wait; that he had always done work before breakfast, and that there was nothing like an empty stomach for keeping the head clear. He would not allow the morning paper to be opened till he came down; and he sate an intolerable time after breakfast reading extracts from it, often stopping in the middle of a sentence because some other paragraph had caught his eye. He had a horrible way of saying, "Guess what has happened to one of our friends; I will give you ten guesses each"; and he would insist on all kinds of conjectures being hazarded, while he chuckled over the absurdities suggested. He took a frank pleasure in the death of his contemporaries, and an even franker pleasure in the deaths of his juniors. Then he had one of his long-suffering daughters to write letters for him, and would dictate long, ungrammatical sentences to her; but he would permit of no erasures, and letter after letter would have to be torn up and re-written. He made all the party walk with him before luncheon, and at his pace, the same little walk every day. I think he mostly slept in the afternoon, or read his banking book; his talk was almost wholly about himself, his virtues, his astonishing health, his perspicacity; and he used to lecture comparative strangers about their duties with incredible insolence. The clergyman's life was made a burden to him, and the doctor's as well. Though he was the most luxurious and comfort-loving old wretch, his great text was the value of Spartan discipline for everyone else. If any dish was not exactly to his mind, he would allow no one to taste it, send it away, and complain bitterly that even his simple wants could not be supplied. Even when he got more infirm and took most of his food in seclusion, he ordered the meals for the rest of the household; he could not bear to think of their having anything to eat of which he did not himself approve. He used to make everyone go to bed before him, and would even look into their rooms to see that they were not reading in bed. It was all so virtuous and sensible that it was impossible to argue with him, and I used to suffer from an insane desire to pull his chair away from under him while he sate lecturing the company about the way to attain old age. Here, too, it was impossible to see the purpose with which the unhappy old man was being encouraged by nature and destiny to this hideous and tyrannical self-deception, this ruthless piling up of the materials for disillusionment in a higher sphere. It seemed as if he were being by his very vigour and virtue deliberately trained for ineradicable conceit and complacency. If his relations came to see him, they were lectured on their inefficiency; if they stayed away, they were reproached for their want of natural affection. It seemed absolutely impossible to bring any conception home to him, wrapped as he was in armour of impenetrable self-satisfaction.

But the old friend of whom I spoke is entirely removed from either of these shadows of age. He is infirm, but not ill; he is infinitely courteous and gracious, grateful for the smallest kindness, determined not to interfere with anyone's convenience. My servants simply adore him, welcome him like an angel, and see him depart with tears. He knows all about them, and keeps all the details of their families in his mind. He never talks of himself, but has a perfectly genuine and unaffected interest in other people. He is endlessly tolerant and sweet-tempered; and sometimes will drop a little sweet and mellow maxim, the ripest fruit of sunny experience. One feels in his presence that this is what life is meant to do for us all, if it were not for the strange admixture of irritabilities and selfishnesses, so natural and yet so ugly, which lie in wait for so many of us. One of the most beautiful things about him is his tenderness. He talks of his old friends who have taken their departure before him with a perfect simplicity, while I have seen the tears gather and suddenly overbrim his eyes. He seems to have no personal regrets or hopes; but to have transferred them all to other people. Yet he does not keep his friends in mind in a professional way as a matter of duty; his thoughts are simply full of them. He does no work, writes few letters, reads a little; he sometimes smilingly accuses himself of being lazy; and yet his presence and his unconscious sweetness are the most powerful influence for good I have ever seen. He makes it appear unreasonable and silly to fret or fuss or fume; and yet he is shrewd and humorous, and enjoys the display of human weaknesses. He is never shocked at anything, nor ashamed of anyone. He likes people to follow their bent and to do things in their own way. He never seems in the way; he loves to have children about him, and they talk to him as they talk to each other. One has no sense of rigid morality or righteousness in his presence; it only seems the most beautiful thing in the world to be good and kind, as well as the easiest. I do not think that he was always a very happy man; he had an anxious and rather sombre temperament. He said to me once, laughing, that the lines:


"There's not a joy the world can give
Like those it takes away,"


were, in his experience, quite untrue, and he added that his own old age had been like a pleasant holiday to him.

It is strange to reflect how seldom such a figure of gracious age has ever been represented in a book. I cannot recall a single instance. In Dickens the old are generally either malignant or hypocritical, or simply imbecile; in Thackeray they are either sentimental or of the wicked fairy type, full of indomitable relish for life. In Shakespeare they are shadowy and broken; in Wordsworth they relentlessly improve the occasion. What one desires to see depicted is some figure that has gained in gentleness and tolerance without losing, shrewdness and perception; who is as much interested as ever in seeing the game played, without being enviously desirous to take a hand. The thing is so perfectly beautiful when it occurs in real life that it is hard to see why it should not be represented.

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