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   Chapter 28 No.28

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 14397

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

Lord Dymchurch went down into Somerset. His younger sister was in a worse state of health than he had been led to suppose; there could be no thought of removing her from home. A day or two later, her malady took a hopeless turn, and by the end of the week she was dead.

A month after this, the surviving daughter of the house, seeking solace in the ancient faith to which she had long inclined, joined a religious community. Dymchurch was left alone.

Since his abrupt departure from Rivenoak, he had lived a silent life, spending the greater part of every day in solitude. Grief was not sufficient to account for the heaviness and muteness which had fallen upon him, or for the sudden change by which his youthful-looking countenance had become that of a middle-aged man. He seemed to shrink before eyes that regarded him, however kind their expression; one might have thought that some secret shame was harassing his mind. He himself, indeed, would have used no other word to describe the ill under which he suffered. Looking back on that strange episode of his life which began with his introduction to Mrs. Toplady and ended in the park at Rivenoak, he was stung almost beyond endurance by a sense of ignominious folly. On his lonely walks, and in the silence of sleepless nights, he often gesticulated and groaned like a man in pain. His nerves became so shaken that at times he could hardly raise a glass or cup to his lips without spilling the contents. Poverty and loneliness he had known, and had learnt to bear them with equanimity; for the first time he was tasting humiliation.

Incessantly be reviewed the stages of his foolishness and, as he deemed it, of his dishonour. But he had lost the power to understand that phantasm of himself which pranked so grotesquely in the retrospect. Was it true that he had reasoned and taken deliberate step after step in the wooing of Lady Ogram's niece? Might he not urge in his excuse, to cloak him from his own and the world's contempt, some unsuspected calenture, for which, had he known, he ought to have taken medical advice? When, in self-chastisement, he tried to summon before his mind's eye the image of May Tomalin, he found it quite impossible; the face no longer existed for him; the voice was as utterly forgotten as any he might have chanced to hear for a few minutes on that fatal evening in Pont Street. And this was what he had seen as an object of romantic tenderness-this vaporous nothing, this glimmer in a dazed eye!

Calm moments brought a saner self-reproach. "I simply yielded to the common man's common temptation. I am poor, and it was wealth that dazzled and lured me. Pride would explain more subtly; that is but a new ground of shame. I felt a prey to the vulgarest and basest passion; better to burn that truth into my mind, and to make the brand a lifelong warning. I shall the sooner lift up my head again."

He seemed to palliate his act by remembering that he wished to benefit his sisters. Neither of them-the poor dead girl, and she who lived only for self-forgetfulness-would have been happier at the cost of his disgrace. How well it was, indeed, that he had been saved from that debasement in their eyes.

He lived on in the silent house, quite alone and desiring no companionship. Few letters came for him, and he rarely saw a newspaper. After a while he was able to forget himself in the reading of books which tranquillised his thought, and held him far from the noises of the passing world. So sequestered was the grey old house that he could go forth when he chose into lanes and meadows without fear of encountering anyone who would disturb his meditation and his enjoyment of nature's beauty. Through the mellow days of the declining summer, he lived amid trees and flowers, slowly recovering health and peace in places where a bird's note, or the ripple of a stream, or the sighing of the wind, were the only sounds under the ever-changing sky.

His thoughts were often of death, but not on that account gloomy. Reading in his Marcus Aurelius, he said to himself that the Stoic Emperor must, after all, have regarded death with some fear: else, why speak of it so persistently, and with such marshalling of arguments to prove it no matter for dread? Dymchurch never wished to shorten his life, yet, without other logic than that of a quiet heart, came to think more than resignedly of the end towards which he moved. He was the last of his family, and no child would ever bear his name. Without bitterness, he approved this extinction of a line which seemed to have outlived its natural energies. He, at all events, would bear no responsibility for suffering or wrongdoing in the days to come.

The things which had so much occupied him during the last year or two, the state of the time, its perils and its needs, were now but seldom in his mind: he felt himself ripening to that "wise passiveness," which, through all his intellectual disquiet, he had regarded as the unattainable ideal. When, as a very young man, he exercised himself in versifying, the model he more or less consciously kept in view was Matthew Arnold; it amused him now to recall certain of the compositions he had once been rather proud of, and to recognise how closely he had trodden in Arnold's footprints; at the same time, he felt glad that the aspiration of his youth seemed likely to become the settled principle of his maturity. Nowadays he gave much of his thought to Wordsworth, content to study without the desire of imitating. Whether he could do anything, whether he could bear witness in any open way to what he held the truth, must still remain uncertain; sure it was that a profound distrust of himself in every practical direction, a very humble sense of follies committed and dangers barely escaped, would for a long time make him a silent and solitary man. He hoped that some way might be shown him, some modest yet clear way, by following which he would live not wholly to himself; but he had done for ever with schemes of social regeneration, with political theories, with all high-sounding words and phrases. It might well prove that the work appointed him was simply to live as an honest man. Was that so easy, or such a little thing?

Walking one day a mile or two from home, in one of those high-bowered Somerset lanes which are unsurpassed for rural loveliness, he came within sight of a little cottage, which stood apart from a hamlet hidden beyond a near turning of the road. Before it moved a man, white-headed, back-bent, so crippled by some ailment that he tottered slowly and painfully with the aid of two sticks. Just as Dymchurch drew near, the old fellow accidentally let fall his pipe, which he had been smoking as he hobbled along. For him this incident was a disaster; he stared down helplessly at the pipe and the little curl of smoke which rose from it, utterly unable to stoop for its recovery. Dymchurch, seeing the state of things, at once stepped to his assistance.

"I thank you, sir, I thank you," said the hobbler, with pleasant frankness. "A man isn't much use when he can't even keep his pipe in his mouth, to say nothing of picking it up when it drops; what

do you think, sir?"

Dymchurch talked with him. The man had spent his life as a gardener, and now for a couple of years, invalided by age and rheumatism, had lived in this cottage on a pension. His daughter, a widow, dwelt with him, but was away working nearly the whole of the day. He got along very well, but one thing there was that grieved him, the state of his little garden. Through the early summer he had been able to look after it as usual, pottering among the flowers and the vegetables for an hour or two each day; but there came rainy weather, and with it one of his attacks, and the garden was now so overgrown with weeds that it "hurt his eyes," it really did, to look that way. The daughter dug potatoes and gathered beans as they were wanted, but she had neither time nor strength to do more.

Interested in a difficulty such as he had never imagined, Dymchurch went up to the garden-wall, and viewed the state of things. Indeed, it was deplorable. Thistles, docks, nettles, wild growths innumerable, were choking the flowers in which the old man so delighted. But the garden was such a small one that little trouble and time would be needed to put it in order.

"Will you let me do it for you?" he asked, good-naturedly. "It's just the kind of job I should like."

"You, sir!" cried the old fellow, all but again losing his pipe in astonishment. "Ho, ho! That's a joke indeed!"

Without another word, Dymchurch opened the wicket, flung off his coat, and got to work. He laboured for more than an hour, the old man leaning on the wall and regarding him with half-ashamed, half-amused countenance. They did not talk much, but, when he had begun to perspire freely, Dymchurch looked at his companion, and said:

"Now here's a thing I never thought of. Neglect your garden for a few weeks, and it becomes a wilderness; nature conquers it back again. Think what that means; how all the cultivated places of the earth are kept for men only by ceaseless fighting with nature, year in, year out."

"And that's true, sir, that's true. I've thought of it sometimes, but then I'm a gardener, you see, and it's my business, as you may say, to have such thoughts."

"It's every man's business," returned Dymchurch, supporting himself on his hoe, and viewing the uprooted weeds. "I never realised as in this half-hour at the cost of what incessant labour the earth is kept at man's service. If I have done you a good turn, you have done me a better."

And he hoed vigorously at a root of dandelion.

Not for years had he felt so well in body and mind as during his walk home. There, there was the thought for which he had been obscurely groping! What were volumes of metaphysics and of sociology to the man who had heard this one little truth whispered from the upturned mould? Henceforth he knew why he was living, and how it behooved him to live. Let theories and poesies follow if they would: for him, the prime duty was that nearest to him, to strive his best that the little corner of earth which he called his own should yield food for man. At this moment there lay upon his table letters informing him of the unsatisfactory state of his Kentish farm; the tenant was doing badly in every sense of the word, and would willingly escape from his lease if opportunity were given. Very well; the man should go.

"I will live there myself. I will get some practical man to live with me, until I understand farming. For profit, I don't care; all will be well if I keep myself alive and furnish food for a certain number of other mortals. This is the work ready to my hand. No preaching, no theorising, no trying to prove that the earth should be parcelled out and every man turn delver. I will cultivate this ground because it is mine, and because no other way offers of living as a man should-taking some part, however humble, in the eternal strife with nature."

The idea had before now suggested itself to him, but not as the result of a living conviction. If he had then turned to farming, it would have been as an experiment in life; more or less vague reflections on the needs of the time would have seemed to justify him. Now he was indifferent to all "questions" save that prime solicitude of the human race, how to hold its own against the hostile forces everywhere leagued against it. Life was a perpetual struggle, and, let dreamers say what they might, could never be anything else; he, for one, perceived no right that he had to claim exemption from the doom of labour. Had he felt an impulse to any other kind of work, well and good, he would have turned to it; but nothing whatever called to him with imperative voice save this task of tilling his own acres. It might not always satisfy him; he took no vow of one sole vocation; he had no desire to let his mind rust whilst his hands grew horny. Enough that for the present he had an aim which he saw as a reality.

On his return home, he found a London letter awaiting him. It was with a nervous shrug that he saw the writing of Mrs. Toplady. Addressing him at his club, she invited him to dine on an evening a fortnight hence, if he chanced to be in town.

"You heard, of course," she added, "of the defeat of Mr. Lashmar at Hollingford. It seems to have been inevitable."

So Lashmar had been defeated. The Hollingford election interested Dymchurch so little that he had never inquired as to its result; in truth, he had forgotten all about it.

"I fear Mr. Lashmar is rather disappointing. Rumour says that the philosophical theory of life and government which he put before us as original was taken word for word from a French book which he took for granted no one would have read. I hope this is not true; it has a very unpleasant sound."

Quite as unpleasant, thought Dymchurch, was Mrs. Toplady's zeal in spreading the rumour. He found no difficulty in crediting it. The bio-sociological theory had occupied his thoughts for a time, and, in reflecting upon it now, he found it as plausible as any other; but it had no more power to interest him. Lashmar, perhaps, was mere sophist, charlatan, an unscrupulous journalist who talked instead of writing. Words, words! How sick he was of the universal babble! The time had taken for its motto that counsel of Mephisto: Vor allem haltet euch an Worte! And how many of these loud talkers believed the words they uttered, or had found them in their own minds?

And how many preachers of Socialism-in this, that or the other form, had in truth the socialistic spirit? Lashmar, with his emphasis on the obligation of social service-was he not simply an ambitious struggler and intriguer, careless of everything but his own advancement? Probably enough. And, on the whole, was there ever an age so rank with individualism as this of ours, which chatters ceaselessly of self-subdual to the common cause?

"I, too," thus he thought, "am as much an individualist as the others. If I said that I cared a rap for mankind at large, I should be phrase-making. Only, thank heaven! I don't care to advertise myself, I don't care to make money. I ask only to be left alone, and to satisfy in quiet my sense of self-respect."

On the morrow, he was gone.

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