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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsHugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 18. Personal Characteristics
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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 18. Personal Characteristics Post by :67834 Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :3798

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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 18. Personal Characteristics


Hugh was always youthful-looking for his age, light and quick in movement, intent but never deliberate, passing very rapidly from one thing to another, impatient of boredom and dullness, always desiring to do a thing that very minute. He was fair of complexion, with grey-blue eyes and a shock head of light hair, little brushed, and uncut often too long. He was careless of appearances, and wore clothes by preference of great shabbiness. He told me in 1909 that he had only bought one suit in the last five years. I have seen him, when gardening at Hare Street, wear a pair of shoes such as might have been picked up in a ditch after a tramp's encampment. At the same time he took a pleasure of a boyish kind in robes of state. He liked his Monsignor's purple, his red-edged cassock and crimson cincture, as a soldier likes his uniform. He was in no way ascetic; and though he could be and often seemed to be wholly indifferent to food, yet he was amused by culinary experiments, and collected simple savoury recipes for household use. He was by far the quickest eater I have ever seen. He was a great smoker of cheap cigarettes. They were a natural sedative for his highly strung temperament. I do not, think he realised how much he smoked, and he undoubtedly smoked too much for several years.

He was always quick, prompt, and decisive. He had an extraordinary presence of mind in the face of danger. My sister remembers how he was once strolling with her, in his cassock, in a lane near Tremans, when a motor came down the road at a great pace, and Roddy, the collie, trotted out in front of it, with his back turned to the car, unconscious of danger. Hugh took a leap, ran up hill, snatched Roddy up just in front of the wheels, and fell with him against the hedge on the opposite side of the road.

He liked a degree of comfort, and took great pleasure in having beautiful things about him. "I do not believe that lovely things should be stamped upon," he once wrote to a friend who was urging the dangers of a strong sense of beauty; adding, "should they not rather be led in chains?" Yet his taste was not at all severe, and he valued things for their associations and interest as much as he did for their beauty. He had a great accumulation of curious, pretty, and interesting things at Hare Street, and took a real pleasure in possession. At the same time he was not in the least dependent on such things, and could be perfectly happy in bare and ugly rooms. There was no touch of luxuriousness about him, and the adornment of his house was one of the games that he played. One of his latest amusements was to equip and catalogue his library. He was never very much of a reader, except for a specific purpose. He read the books that came in his way, but he had no technical knowledge of English literature. There were many English classics which he never looked into, and he made no attempt to follow modern developments. But he read books so quickly that he was acquainted more or less with a wide range of authors. At the same time he never wasted any time in reading books which did not interest him, and he knew by a sort of intuition the kind of books he cared about.

He was of late years one of the liveliest and most refreshing of talkers. As a boy and a young man he was rather silent than otherwise in the family circle, but latterly it was just the opposite. He talked about anything that was in his mind, but at the same time he did not wish to keep the talk in his own hands, and had an eager and delighted recognition of his companion's thoughts and ideas.

His sense of humour was unfailing, and when he laughed, he laughed with the whole of himself, loudly and contagiously, abandoning himself with tears in his eyes to helpless paroxysms of mirth. There was never the smallest touch of affectation or priggishness about his attitude, and he had none of the cautious and uneasy reverence which is apt to overshadow men of piety. He was intensely amused by the humorous side of the people and the institutions which he loved. Here are two slight illustrations which come back to my mind. He told me these two stories in one day at Tremans. One was that of a well-known Anglican Bishop who attended a gathering of clergy, and in his valedictory speech said that they would expect him to make some allusion to the fact that one who had attended their last meeting was no longer of the Anglican communion, having joined the Church of Rome. They would all, he said, regret the step which he had thought fit to take; but they must not forget the serious fall their poor friend had had from his bicycle not long before, which had undoubtedly affected gravely his mental powers. Then he told me of an unsatisfactory novice in a religious house who had been expelled from the community for serious faults. His own account of it was that the reason why he was expelled was that he used to fall asleep at meditation, and snore so loud that he awoke the elder brethren.

Though Hugh held things sacred, he did not hold them inconveniently sacred, and it did not affect their sacredness if they had also a humorous side to them. He had no temptation to be easily shocked, and though he hated all impure suggestiveness, he could be amused by what may be called broad humour. I always felt him to be totally free from prudishness, and it seemed to me that he drew the line in exactly the right place between things that might be funny and unrefined, and things which were merely coarse and gross. The fact was that he had a perfectly simple manliness about him, and an infallible tact, which was wholly unaffected, as to the limits of decorum. The result was that one could talk to him with the utmost plainness and directness. His was not a cloistered and secluded temperament. He knew the world, and had no fear of it or shrinking from it.

He dearly loved an argument, and could be both provoking and incisive. He was vehement, and hated dogmatic statements with which he did not agree. When he argued, he used a good deal of gesture, waving his hands as though to clear the air, emphasising what he said with little sweeps and openings of his hands, sometimes covering his face and leaning forwards, as if to gain time for the onset. His arguments were not so much clear as ingenious, and I never knew anyone who could defend a poor case so vigorously. When he was strained and tired, he would argue more tenaciously, and employ fantastic illustrations with great skill; but it always blew over very quickly, and as a rule he was good-tempered and reasonable enough. But he liked best a rapid and various interchange of talk. He was bored by slow-moving and solemn minds, but could extract a secret joy from pompous utterances, while nothing delighted him more than a full description of the exact talk and behaviour of affected and absurd people.

His little stammer was a very characteristic part of his manner. It was much more marked when he was a boy and a young man, and it varied much with his bodily health. I believe that it never affected him when preaching or speaking in public, though he was occasionally nervous about its doing so. It was not, so to speak, a long and leisurely stammer, as was the case with my uncle, Henry Sidgwick, the little toss of whose head as he disengaged a troublesome word, after long dallying with a difficult consonant, added a touch of _friandise to his talk. Hugh's stammer was rather like a vain attempt to leap over an obstacle, and showed itself as a simple hesitation rather than as a repetition. He used, after a slight pause, to bring out a word with a deliberate emphasis, but it never appeared to suspend the thread of his talk. I remember an occasion, as a young man, when he took sherry, contrary to his wont, through some dinner-party; and when asked why he had done this, he said that it happened to be the only liquid the name of which he was able to pronounce on that evening. He used to feel humiliated by it, and I have heard him say, "I'm sorry--I'm stammering badly to-night!" but it would never have been very noticeable, if he had not attended to it. It is clear, however, from some of his letters that he felt it to be a real disability in talk, and even fancied that it made him absurd, though as a matter of fact the little outward dart of his head, as he forced the recalcitrant word out, was a gesture which his friends both knew and loved.

He learned to adapt himself to persons of very various natures, and indeed was so eager to meet people on their own ground that it seems to me he was to a certain extent misapprehended. I have seen a good many things said about him since his death which seem to me to be entire misinterpretations of him, arising from the simple fact that they were reflections of his companion's mood mirrored in his own sympathetic mind. Further, I am sure that what was something very like patient and courteous boredom in him, when he was confronted with some sentimental and egotistical character, was interpretated as a sad and remote unworldliness. Someone writing of him spoke of his abstracted and far-off mood, with his eyes indwelling in a rapture of hallowed thought. This seems to me wholly unlike Hugh. He was far more likely to have been considering how he could get away to something which interested him more.

Hugh's was really a very fresh and sparkling nature, never insipid, intent from morning to night on a vital enjoyment of life in all its aspects. I do not mean that he was always wanting to be amused--it was very far from that. Amusement was the spring of his social mood; but he had a passion too for silence and solitude. His devotions were eagerly and rapturously practised; then he turned to his work. "Writing seems to me now the only thing worth doing in the world," he says in one of his letters when he was deep in a book. Then he flung himself into gardening and handicraft, back again to his writings, or his correspondence, and again to his prayers.

But it is impossible to select one of his moods, and to say that his true life lay there. His life lay in all of them. If work was tedious to him, he comforted himself with the thought that it would soon be done. He was an excellent man of affairs, never "slothful in business," but with great practical ability. He made careful bargains for his books, and looked after his financial interests tenaciously and diligently, with a definite purpose always in his mind. He lived, I am sure, always looking forward and anticipating. I do not believe he dwelt at all upon the past. It was life in which he was interested. As I walked with my mother about the beautiful garden, after his funeral, I said to her: "It seems almost too pathetic to be borne that Hugh should just have completed all this." "Yes," she said, "but I am sure we ought to think only that it meant to him seven years of very great happiness." That was perfectly true! If he had been called upon to leave Hare Street to take up some important work elsewhere, he would certainly not have dwelt on the pathetic side of it himself. He would have had a pang, as when he kissed the doorposts of his room at Mirfield on departing. But he would have gone forward, and he would have thought of it no more. He had a supreme power of casting things behind him, and he was far too intent on the present to have indulged in sentimental reveries of what had been.

It is clear to me, from what the doctors said after his death, that if the pneumonia which supervened upon great exhaustion had been averted, he would have had to give up much of his work for a long time, and devote himself to rest and deliberate idleness. I cannot conceive how he would have borne it. He came once to be my companion for a few days, when I was suffering from a long period of depression and overwork. I could do nothing except answer a few letters. I could neither write nor read, and spent much of my time in the open air, and more in drowsing in misery over an unread book. Hugh, after observing me for a little, advised me to work quite deliberately, and to divide up my time among various occupations. It would have been useless to attempt it, for Nature was at work recuperating in her own way by an enforced listlessness and dreariness. But I have often since then thought how impossible it would have been for him to have endured such a condition. He had nothing passive about him; and I feel that he had every right to live his life on his own lines, to neglect warnings, to refuse advice. A man must find out his own method, and take the risks which it may involve. And though I would have done and given anything to have kept him with us, and though his loss is one which I feel daily and constantly, yet I would not have it otherwise. He put into his life an energy of activity and enjoyment such as I have rarely seen. He gave his best lavishly and ungrudgingly. Even the dreadful and tragical things which he had to face he took with a relish of adventure. He has told me of situations in which he found himself, from which he only saved himself by entire coolness and decisiveness, the retrospect of which he actually enjoyed. "It was truly awful!" he would say, with a shiver of pleasing horror. But it was all worked into a rich and glowing tapestry, which he wove with all his might, and the fineness of his life seems to me to consist in this, that he made his own choices, found out the channels in which his powers could best move, and let the stream gush forth. He did not shelter himself fastidiously, or creep away out of the glare and noise. He took up the staff and scrip of pilgrimage, and, while he kept his eyes on the Celestial City, he enjoyed every inch of the way, as well the assaults and shadows and the toils as the houses of kindly entertainment, with all their curious contents, the talk of fellow-pilgrims, the arbours of refreshment, until his feet touched the brink of the river, and even there he went fearlessly forward.

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