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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crown Of Life - Chapter 21
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The Crown Of Life - Chapter 21 Post by :BrandysVenture Category :Long Stories Author :George Gissing Date :May 2012 Read :3432

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The Crown Of Life - Chapter 21


The passionate temperament is necessarily sanguine. To desire with all one's being is the same thing as to hope. In Piers Otway's case, the temper which defies discouragement existed together with the intellect which ever tends to discourage, with the mind which probes appearances, makes war upon illusions. Hence his oft varying moods, as the one or the other part of him became ascendent. Hence his fervours of idealism, and the habit of destructive criticism which seemed inconsistent with them. Hence his ardent ambitions, and his appearance of plodding mediocrity in practical life.

Intensely self-conscious, he suffered much from a habit of comparing, contrasting himself with other men, with men who achieved things, who made their way, who played a part in the world. He could not read a newspaper without reflecting, sometimes bitterly, on the careers and position of men whose names were prominent in its columns. So often, he well knew, their success came only of accident--as one uses the word: of favouring circumstance, which had no relation to the man's powers and merits. Piers had no overweening self-esteem; he judged his abilities more accurately, and more severely, than any observer would have done; yet it was plain to him that he would be more than capable, so far as endowment went, of filling the high place occupied by this or the other far-shining personage. He frankly envied their success--always for one and the same reason.

Nothing so goaded his imagination as a report of the marriage of some leader in the world's game. He dwelt on these paragraphs, filled up the details, grew faint with realisation of the man's triumphant happiness. At another moment, his reason ridiculed this self-torment. He knew that in all probability such a marriage implied no sense of triumph, involved no high emotions, promised nothing but the commonest domestic satisfaction. Portraits of brides in an illustrated paper sometimes wrought him to intolerable agitation--the mood of his early manhood, as when he stood before the print shop in the Haymarket; now that he had lost Irene, the whole world of beautiful women called again to his senses and his soul. With the cooler moment came a reminder that these lovely faces were for the most part mere masks, tricking out a very ordinary woman, more likely than not unintelligent, unhelpful, as the ordinary human being of either sex is wont to be. What seemed to _him the crown of a man's career, was, in most cases, a mere incident, deriving its chief importance from social and pecuniary considerations. Even where a sweet countenance told truth about the life behind it, how seldom did the bridegroom appreciate what he had won! For the most part, men who have great good fortune, in marriage, or in anything else, are incapable of tasting their success. It is the imaginative being in the crowd below who marvels and is thrilled.

How was it with Arnold Jacks? Did he understand what had befallen him? If so, on what gleaming heights did he now live and move! What rapture of gratitude must possess the man! What humility! What arrogance!

Piers had not met him since the engagement was made known; he hoped not to meet him for a long time. Happily, in this holiday season, there was no fear of an invitation to Queen's Gate.

Yet the unexpected happened. Early in September, he received a note from John Jacks, asking him to dine. The writer said that he had been at the seaside, and was tired of it, and meant to spend a week or two quietly in London; he was quite alone, so Otway need not dress.

Reassured by the last sentence of the letter, Piers gladly went; for he liked to talk with John Jacks, and had a troubled pleasure in the thought that he might hear something about the approaching marriage. On his arrival, he was shown into the study, where his host lay on a sofa. The greeting was cordial, the voice cheery as ever, but as Mr. Jacks rose he had more of the appearance of old age than Piers had yet seen in him; he seemed to stand with some difficulty, his face betokening a body ill at ease.

"How pleasant London is in September!" he exclaimed, with a laugh. "I've been driving about, as one does in a town abroad, just to see the streets. Strange that one knows Paris and Rome a good deal better than London. Yet it's really very interesting--don't you think?"

The twinkling eye, the humorous accent, which had won Piers' affection, soon allayed his disquietude at being in this house. He spoke of his own recent excursion, confessing that he better appreciated London from a distance.

"Ay, ay! I know all about that," replied Mr. Jacks, his Yorkshire note sounding, as it did occasionally. "But you're young, you're young; what does it matter where you live? To be your age again, I'd live at St. Helens, or Widnes. You have hope, man, always hope. And you may live to see what the world is like half a century from now. It's strange to look at you, and think that!"

John Jacks' presence in London, and alone, at this time of the year had naturally another explanation than that he felt tired of the seaside. In truth, he had come up to see a medical specialist. Carefully he kept from his wife the knowledge of a disease which was taking hold upon him, which--as he had just learnt--threatened rapidly fatal results. From his son, also, he had concealed the serious state of his health, lest it should interfere with Arnold's happy mood in prospect of marriage. He was no coward, but a life hitherto untroubled by sickness had led him to hope that he might pass easily from the world, and a doom of extinction by torture perturbed his philosophy.

He liked to forget himself in contemplation of Piers Otway's youth and soundness. He had pleasure, too, in Piers' talk, which reminded him of Jerome Otway, some half-century ago.

Mrs. Jacks was staying with her own family, and from that house would pass to others, equally decorous, where John had promised to join her. Of course she was uneasy about him; that entered into her role of model spouse: but the excellent lady never suspected the true cause of that habit of sadness which had grown upon her husband during the last few years, a melancholy which anticipated his decline in health. John Jacks had made the mistake natural to such a man; wedding at nearly sixty a girl of much less than half his age, he found, of course, that his wife had nothing to give him but duty and respect, and before long he bitterly reproached himself with the sacrifice of which he was guilty.

"Soar on thy manhood clear of those
Whose toothless Winter claws at May,
And take her as the vein of rose
Athwart an evening grey."

These lines met his eye one day in a new volume which bore the name of George Meredith, and they touched him nearly; the poem they closed gave utterance to the manful resignation of one who has passed the age of love, yet is tempted by love's sweetness, and John Jacks took to heart the reproach it seemed to level at himself. Putting aside the point of years, he had not chosen with any discretion; he married a handsome face, a graceful figure, just as any raw boy might have done. His wife, he suspected, was not the woman to suffer greatly in her false position; she had very temperate blood, and a thoroughly English devotion to the proprieties; none the less he had done her wrong, for she belonged to a gentle family in mediocre circumstances, and his prospective "M.P.," his solid wealth, were sore temptations to put before such a girl. He had known--yes, he assuredly knew--that it was nothing but a socially sanctioned purchase. Beauty should have become to him but the "vein of rose," to be regarded with gentle admiration and with reverence, from afar. He yielded to an unworthy temptation, and, being a man of unusual sensitiveness, very soon paid the penalty in self-contempt.

He could not love his wife; he could scarce honour her--for she too must consciously have sinned against the highest law. Her irreproachable behaviour only saddened him. Now that he found himself under sentence of death, his solace was the thought that his widow would still be young enough to redeem her error--if she were capable of redeeming it.

Alone with his guest in the large dining-room, and compelled to make only pretence of eating and drinking, he talked of many things with the old spontaneity, the accustomed liberal kindliness, and dropped at length upon the subject Piers was waiting for.

"You know, I daresay, that Arnold is going to marry?"

"I have heard of it," Piers answered, with the best smile he could command.

"You can imagine it pleases me. I don't see how he could have been luckier. Dr. Derwent is one of the finest men I know, and his daughter is worthy of him."

"She is, I am sure," said Piers, in a balanced voice, which sounded mere civility.

And when silence had lasted rather too long, the host having fallen into reverie, he added:

"Will it take place soon?"

"Ah--the wedding? About Christmas, I think. Arnold is looking for a house. By the bye, you know young Derwent--Eustace?"

Piers answered that he had only the slightest acquaintance with the young man.

"Not brilliant, I think," said Mr. Jacks musingly. "But amiable, straight. I don't know that he'll do much at the Bar."

Again he lost himself for a little, his knitted brows seeming to indicate an anxious thought.

"Now you shall tell me anything you care to, about business," said the host, when they had seated themselves in the library. "And after that I have something to show you--something you'll like to see, I think."

Otway's curiosity was at a loss when presently he saw his host take from a drawer a little packet of papers.

"I had forgotten all about these," said Mr. Jacks. "They are manuscripts of your father; writings of various kinds which he sent me in the early fifties. Turning out my old papers, I came across them the other day, and thought I would give them to you."

He rustled the faded sheets, glancing over them with a sad smile.

"There's an amusing thing--called 'Historical Fragment.' I remember, oh I remember very well, how it pleased me when I first read it."

He read it aloud now, with many a chuckle, many a pause of sly emphasis.

"'The Story of the last war between the Asiatic kingdoms of Duroba and Kalaya, though it has reached us in a narrative far too concise, is one of the most interesting chapters in the history of ancient civilisation.

"'They were bordering states, peopled by races closely akin, whose languages, it appears, were mutually intelligible; each had developed its own polity, and had advanced to a high degree of refinement in public and private life. Wars between them had been frequent, but at the time with which we are concerned the spirit of hostility was all but forgotten in a happy peace of long duration. Each country was ruled by an aged monarch, beloved of the people, but, under the burden of years, grown of late somewhat less vigilant than was consistent with popular welfare. Thus it came to pass that power fell into the hands of unscrupulous statesmen, who, aided by singular circumstances, succeeded in reviving for a moment the old sanguinary jealousies.

"'We are told that a General in the army of Duroba, having a turn for experimental chemistry, had discovered a substance of terrible explosive power, which, by the exercise of further ingenuity, he had adapted for use in warfare. About the same time, a public official in Kalaya, whose duty it was to convey news to the community by means of a primitive system of manuscript placarding, hit upon a mechanical method whereby news-sheets could be multiplied very rapidly and be sold to readers all over the kingdom. Now the Duroban General felt eager to test his discovery in a campaign, and, happening to have a quarrel with a politician in the neighbouring state, did his utmost to excite hostile feeling against Kalaya. On the other hand, the Kalayan official, his cupidity excited by the profits already arising from his invention, desired nothing better than some stirring event which would lead to still greater demand for the news-sheets he distributed, and so he also was led to the idea of stirring up international strife. To be brief, these intrigues succeeded only too well; war was actually declared, the armies were mustered, and marched to the encounter.

"'They met at a point of the common frontier where only a little brook flowed between the two kingdoms. It was nightfall; each host encamped, to await the great engagement which on the morrow would decide between them.

"'It must be understood that the Durobans and the Kalayans differed markedly in national characteristics. The former people was distinguished by joyous vitality and a keen sense of humour; the latter, by a somewhat meditative disposition inclining to timidity; and doubtless these qualities had become more pronounced during the long peace which would naturally favour them. Now, when night had fallen on the camps, the common soldiers on each side began to discuss, over their evening meal, the position in which they found themselves. The men of Duroba, having drunk well, as their habit was, fell into an odd state of mind. "What!" they exclaimed to one another. "After all these years of tranquillity, are we really going to fight with the Kalayans, and to slaughter them and be ourselves slaughtered! Pray, what is it all about? Who can tell us?" Not a man could answer, save with the vaguest generalities. And so, the debate continuing, the wonder growing from moment to moment, at length, and all of a sudden, the Duroban camp echoed with huge peals of laughter. "Why, if we soldiers have no cause of quarrel, what are we doing here? Shall we be mangled and killed to please our General with the turn for chemistry? That were a joke, indeed!" And, as soon as mirth permitted, the army rose as one man, threw together their belongings, and with jovial songs trooped off to sleep comfortably in a town a couple of miles away.

"'The Kalayans, meanwhile, had been occupied with the very same question. They were anything but martial of mood, and the soldiery, ill at ease in their camp, grumbled and protested. "After all, why are we here?" cried one to the other. "Who wants to injure the Durobans? And what man among us desires to be blown to pieces by their new instruments of war? Pray, why should we fight? If the great officials are angry, as the news-sheets tell us, e'en let them do the fighting themselves." At this moment there sounded from the enemy's camp a stupendous roar; it was much like laughter; no doubt the Durobans were jubilant in anticipation of their victory. Fear seized the Kalayans; they rose like one man, and incontinently fled far into the sheltering night!

"'Thus ended the war--the last between these happy nations, who, not very long after, united to form a noble state under one ruler. It is interesting to note that the original instigators of hostility did not go without their deserts. The Duroban General, having been duly tried for a crime against his country, was imprisoned in a spacious building, the rooms of which were hung with great pictures representing every horror of battle with the ghastliest fidelity; here he was supplied with materials for chemical experiment, to occupy his leisure, and very shortly, by accident, blew himself to pieces. The Kalayan publicist was also convicted of treason against the state; they banished him to a desert island, where for many hours daily he had to multiply copies of his news-sheet--that issue which contained the declaration of war--and at evening to burn them all. He presently became imbecile, and so passed away.'"

Piers laughed with delight.

"Whether it ever got into print," said Mr. Jacks, "I don't know. Your father was often careless about his best things. I'm afraid he was never quite convinced that ideals of that kind influence the world. Yet they do, you know, though it's a slow business. It's thought that leads."

"The multitude following in its own fashion," said Piers drily. "Rousseau teaches liberty and fraternity; France learns the lesson and plunges into '93."

"With Nap to put things straight again. For all that a step was taken. We are better for Jean Jacques--a little better."

"And for Napoleon, too, I suppose. Napoleon--a wild beast with a genius for arithmetic."

John Jacks let his eyes rest upon the speaker, interested and amused.

"That's how you see him? Not a bad definition. I suppose the truth is, we know nothing about human history. The old view was good for working by--Jehovah holding his balance, smiting on one side, and rewarding on the other. It's our national view to this day. The English are an Old Testament people; they never cared about the New. Do you know that there's a sect who hold that the English are the Lost Tribes--the People of the Promise? I see a great deal to be said for that idea. No other nation has such profound sympathy with the history and the creeds of Israel. Did you ever think of it? That Old Testament religion suits us perfectly--our arrogance and our pugnaciousness; this accounts for its hold on the mind of the people; it couldn't be stronger if the bloodthirsty old Tribes were truly our ancestors. The English seized upon their spiritual inheritance as soon as a translation of the Bible put it before them. In Catholic days we fought because we enjoyed it, and made no pretences; since the Reformation we have fought for Jehovah."

"I suppose," said Piers, "the English are the least Christian of all so-called Christian peoples."

"Undoubtedly. They simply don't know the meaning of the prime Christian virtue--humility. But that's neither here nor there, in talking of progress. You remember Goldsmith--

'Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of human kind pass by.'

"Our pride has been a good thing, on the whole. Whether it will still be, now that it's so largely the pride of riches, let him say who is alive fifty years hence."

He paused and added gravely:

"I'm afraid the national character is degenerating. We were always too fond of liquor, and Heaven knows our responsibility for drunkenness all over the world; but worse than that is our gambling. You may drink and be a fine fellow; but every gambler is a sneak, and possibly a criminal. We're beginning, now, to gamble for slices of the world. We're getting base, too, in our grovelling before the millionaire--who as often as not has got his money vilely. This sort of thing won't do for 'the lords of human kind.' Our pride, if we don't look out, will turn to bluffing and bullying. I'm afraid we govern selfishly where we've conquered. We hear dark things of India, and worse of Africa. And hear the roaring of the Jingoes! Johnson defined Patriotism you know, as the last refuge of a scoundrel; it looks as if it might presently be the last refuge of a fool."

"Meanwhile," said Piers, "the real interests of England, real progress in national life, seem to be as good as lost sight of."

"Yes, more and more. They think that material prosperity is progress. So it is--up to a certain point, and who ever stops there? Look at Germany."

"Once the peaceful home of pure intellect, the land of Goethe."

"Once, yes. And my fear is that our brute, blustering Bismarck may be coming. But," he suddenly brightened, "croakers be hanged! The civilisers are at work too, and they have their way in the end. Think of a man like your father, who seemed to pass and be forgotten. Was it really so? I'll warrant that at this hour Jerome Otway's spirit is working in many of our best minds. There's no calculating the power of the man who speaks from his very heart. His words don't perish, though he himself may lose courage."

Listening, Piers felt a glow pass into all the currents of his life.

"If only," he exclaimed, in a voice that trembled, "I had as much strength as desire to carry on his work!"

"Why, who knows?" replied John Jacks, looking with encouragement wherein mingled something of affection.

"You have the power of sincerity, I see that. Speak always as you believe, and who knows what opportunity you may find for making yourself heard!"

John Jacks reflected deeply for a few moments.

"I'm going away in a day or two," he said at length, in a measured voice, "and my movements are uncertain--uncertain. But we shall meet again before the end of the year."

When he had left the house, Piers recalled the tone of this remark, and dwelt upon it with disquietude.

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CHAPTER XXVIrene passed a restless night. The snatches of unrefreshing sleep which she obtained as the hours dragged towards morning were crowded with tumultuous dreams; she seemed to be at strife with all manner of people, now defending herself vehemently against some formless accusation, now arraigning others with a violence strange to her nature. Worst of all, she was at odds with her father, about she knew not what; she saw his kind face turn cold and hard in reply to a passionate exclamation with which she had assailed him. The wan glimmer of a misty October dawn was very welcome

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The Crown Of Life - Chapter 20
CHAPTER XXOn the journey homeward, and for two or three days after, Piers held argument with his passions, trying to persuade himself that he had in truth lost nothing, inasmuch as his love had never been founded upon a reasonable hope. Irene Derwent was neither more nor less to him now than she had been ever since he first came to know her: a far ideal, the woman he would fain call wife, but only in a dream could think of winning. What audacity had speeded him on that wild expedition? It was well that he had been saved from declaring