by Wilkie Collins
SAVE ME FROM MY FRIENDS.
A FEW days ago, I was walking in a street at the western part of London, and I encountered a mendicant individual of an almost extinct species. Some years since, the oratorical beggar, who addressed himself to the public on each side of the way, in a neat speech spoken from the middle of the road, was almost as constant and regular in his appearances as the postman himself. Of late, however, this well-known figure--this cadger Cicero of modern days--has all but disappeared; the easy public ear having probably grown rather deaf, in course of time, to the persuasive power of orators with only two subjects to illustrate-- their moral virtues and their physical destitution. With these thoughts in my mind, I stopped to look at the rare and wretched object for charity whom I had met by chance, and to listen to the address which he was delivering for the benefit of the street population and the street passengers on both sides of the pavement. He was a tall, sturdy, self-satisfied, healthy-looking vagabond, with a face which would have been almost handsome if it had not been disfigured by the expression which Nature sets, like a brand, on the countenance of a common impostor. As for his style of oratory, I will not do him the injustice of merely describing it. Here is a specimen, faithfully reported for the public, from the original speech:
"Good Christian people, will you be so obliging as to leave off your various occupations for a few minutes only, and listen to the harrowing statement of a father of a family, who is reduced to acknowledge his misfortunes in the public streets? Work, honest work, is all I ask for; and I cannot get it. Why?--I ask, most respectfully, why? Good Christian people, I think it is because I have no friends. Alas! indeed I have no friends. My wife and seven babes are, I am shocked to tell you, without food. Yes, without food. Oh yes, without food. Because we have no friends; I assure you I am right in saying, because we have no friends. Why am I and my wife and my seven babes starving in a land of plenty? Why have I no share in the wholesome necessaries of life, which I see, with my hungry eyes, in butchers' and bakers' shops on each side of me? Can anybody give me a reason for this? I think, Good Christian people, nobody can. Must I perish in a land of plenty because I have no work and because I have no friends? I cannot perish in a land of plenty. No, I cannot perish in a land of plenty. Oh no, I cannot perish in a land of plenty. Bear with my importunity, if you please, and listen to my harrowing statement. I am the father of a starving family, and I have got no friends."
With this neat return to the introductory passage of his speech, the mendicant individual paused; collected the pecuniary tokens of public approval; and walked forward, with a funereal slowness of step, to deliver a second edition of his address in another part of the street.
While I had been looking at this man, I had also been insensibly led to compare myself, as I stood on the pavement, with my oratorical vagrant, as he stood in the roadway. In some important respects, I found, to my own astonishment, that the result of the comparison was not by any means flattering on my side. I might certainly assume, without paying myself any extraordinary compliment, that I was the honester man of the two; also that I was better educated, and a little better clad. But here my superiority ceased. The beggar was far in advance of me in all the outward and visible signs of inward mental comfort which combine to form the appearance of a healthily-constituted man. After perplexing myself for some time in the attempt to discover the reason for the enviably prosperous and contented aspect of this vagabond--which appeared palpably to any sharp observer, through his assumed expression of suffering and despair--I came to the singular conclusion that the secret of his personal advantages over me lay in the very circumstance on which he chiefly relied for awakening the sympathies of the charitable public--the circumstance of his having no friends.
"No friends!" I repeated to myself, as I walked away. "Happily situated vagrant! there is the true cause of your superiority over me--you have no friends! But can the marvelous assertion be true? Can this enviable man really go home and touch up his speech for tomorrow, with the certainty of not being interrupted? I am going home to finish an article, without knowing whether I shall have a clear five minutes to myself all the time I am at work. Can he take his money back to his drawer in broad daylight, and meet nobody by the way who will say to him, 'Remember our old friendship, and lend me a trifle?' I have money waiting for me at my publisher's, and I dare not go and fetch it, except under cover of the night. Is that spoiled child of fortune, from whom I have just separated myself, really and truly never asked to parties and obliged to go to them? He has a button on his coat--I am positively certain I saw it--and is there no human finger and thumb to lay hold of it, and no human tongue to worry him the while? He does not live in the times of the pillory, and he has his ears--the lucky wretch. Have those organs actually enjoyed the indescribable blessedness of freedom from the intrusion of 'well-meant advice'? Can he write--and has he got no letters to answer? Can he read--and has he no dear friend's book to get through, whether he likes it or not? No wonder that he looks prosperous and healthy, though he lives in a dingy slum, and that I look peevish and pale, though I reside on gravel, in an airy neighborhood. Good heavens! does he dare to speak of his misfortunes, when he has no calls to make? Irrational Sybarite! what does he want next, I wonder?"
These are crabbed sentiments. But, perhaps, as it is the fashion, nowadays, to take an invete-rately genial view of society in general, my present outbreak of misanthropy may be pardoned, in consideration of its involving a certain accidental originality of expression in relation to social subjects. It is a dreadful thing to say; but it is the sad truth that I have never yet been able to appreciate the advantage of having a large circle of acquaintances, and that I could positively dispense with a great many of my dearest friends.
There is my Boisterous Friend, for instance--an excellent creature, who has been intimate with me from childhood, and who loves me as his brother. I always know when he calls, though my study is at the top of the house. I hear him in the passage the moment the door is opened-- he is so hearty; and, like other hearty people, he has such a loud voice. I have told my servant to say that I am engaged, which means simply that I am hard at work. "Dear old boy!" I hear my Boisterous Friend exclaim, with a genial roar, "writing away just as usual--eh, Susan? Lord bless you! he knows me--he knows I don't want to interrupt him. Upstairs, of course? I know my way. Just for a minute, Susan--just for a minute." The voice stops, and heavily-shod feet (all boisterous men wear thick boots) ascend the stairs, two at a time. My door is burst open, as if with a battering-ram (no boisterous man ever knocks), and my friend rushes in like a mad bull. "Ha, ha, ha! I've caught you," says the associate of my childhood. "Don't stop for me, dear old boy; I'm not going to interrupt you (bless my soul, what a lot of writing!)--and you are all right, eh? That's all I wanted to know. By George, it's quite refreshing to see you here forming the public mind! No! I won't sit down; I won't stop another instant. So glad to have seen you, dear fellow--good-by." By this time his affectionate voice has made the room ring again; he has squeezed my hand, in his brotherly way, till my fingers are too sore to hold the pen; and he has put to flight, for the rest of the day, every idea that I had when I sat down to work. And yet (as he would tell me himself) he has not been in the room more than a minute--though he. might well have stopped for hours without doing any additional harm. Could I really dispense with him? I don't deny that he has known me from the time when I was in short frocks, and that he loves me like a brother. Nevertheless, I could dispense--yes, I could dispense--oh, yes, I could dispense--with my Boisterous Friend.
Again, there is my Domestic Friend, whose time for calling on me is late in the afternoon, when I have wrought through my day's task; and when a quiet restorative half-hour by myself, over the fire, is precious to me beyond all power of expression. There is my Domestic Friend, who comes to me at such times, and who has no subject of conversation but the maladies of his wife and children. No efforts that I can make to change the subject can get me out of the range of the family sick-room. If I start the weather, I lead to a harrowing narrative of its effect on Mrs. Ricketts, or the Master and Misses Ricketts. If I try politics or literature, my friend apologizes for knowing nothing about any recent events in which ministers or writers are concerned, by telling me how his time has been taken up by illness at home. If I attempt to protect myself by asking him to meet a large party, where the conversation must surely be on general topics, he brings his wife with him (though he told me, when I invited her, that she was unable to stir from her bed), and publicly asks her how she feels at certain intervals; wafting that affectionate question across the table as easily as if he was handing the salt-cellar or passing the bottle. I have given up defending myself against him of late, in sheer despair. I am resigned to my fate. Though not a family man, I know (through the vast array of facts in connection with the subject with which my friend has favored me) as much about the maladies of young mothers and their children as the doctor himself. Does any other unmedical man know when half a pint of raw brandy may be poured down the throat of a delicate and sensitive woman, without producing the slightest effect on her, except of the restorative kind? I know when it may be done--when it must be done--when, I give you my sacred word of honor, the exhibition of alcohol in large quantities may be the saving of one precious life--ay, sir, and perhaps of two! Possibly it may yet prove a useful addition to my stores of information to know what I know now on such interesting subjects as these. It may be so; but, good Christian people, it is not the less true that I could also dispense with my Domestic Friend.
My Country Friends--I must not forget them--and least of all, my hospitable hostess, Lady Jinkinson, who is in certain respects the type and symbol of my whole circle of rural acquaintance. Lady Jinkinson is the widow of a gallant general officer. She has a charming place in the country. She has also sons who are splendid fellows, and daughters who are charming girls. She has a cultivated taste for literature--so have the charming girls--so have not the splendid fellows. She thinks a little attention to literary men is very becoming in persons of distinction; and she is good enough to ask me to come and stay at her country house, where a room shall be specially reserved for me, and where I can write my "fine things" in perfect quiet, away from London noises and London interruptions. I go to the country house with my work in my portmanteau--work which must be done by a certain time. I find a charming little room made ready for me, opening into my bedroom, and looking out on the lovely garden terrace, and the noble trees in the park beyond. I come down to breakfast in the morning; and after the second cup of tea I get up to return to my writing-room. A chorus of family remonstrances rises instantly. Oh, surely I am not going to begin writing on the very first day. Look at the sun, listen to the birds, feel the sweet air. A drive in the country, after the London smoke, is absolutely necessary--a drive to Shockley Bottom, and a picnic luncheon (so nice!), and back by Grimshawe's Folly (such a view from the top!), and a call on the way home, at the Abbey, that lovely old house, where the dear Squire has had my last book read aloud to him (only think of that! the very last thing in the world that I could possibly have expected!) by darling Emily and Matilda, who are both dying to know me. Possessed by a (printer's) devil, I gruffly break through this string of temptations to be idle, and resolutely make my escape.
"Lunch at half-past one," says Lady Jinkinson, as I retire.
"Pray don't wait for me," I answer.
"Lunch at half-past one," persists Lady Jinkinson, as if she thought I had not heard her.
"And cigars in the billiard-room," adds one of the splendid fellows.
"And in the greenhouse, too," continues one of the charming girls, "where your horrid smoking is really of some use."
I shut the door desperately. The last words I hear are from Lady Jinkinson. "Lunch at half-past one."
I get into my writing-room, and take the following inventory of the contents:
Table of rare inlaid woods, on which a drop of ink would be downright ruin; silver inkstand of enormous size, holding about a thimbleful of ink; clarified pens in scented papier-mache box; blotting-book lined with crimson watered-silk, full of violet and rose-colored note-paper with the Jinkinson crest stamped in silver at the top of each leaf; penwiper, of glossy new cloth, all ablaze with beads; tortoise-shell paper-knife; also paperweight, exhibiting a view of the Colosseum in rare mosaic; also light-green taper, in ebony candlestick; wax in scented box; matches in scented box; pencil-tray made of fine gold, with a torquoise eruption breaking out all over it: upon the whole, about two hundred pounds' worth of valuable property, as working materials for me to write with.
I remove every portable article carefully from the inlaid table, look about me for the most worthless thing I can discover to throw over it, in case of ink-splashes; find nothing worthless in the room, except my own summer paletot; take that, accordingly, and make a cloth of it, pull out my battered old writing-case, with my provision of cheap paper, and my inky steel pen in my twopenny holder.
With these materials before me on my paletot (price one guinea), I endeavor to persuade myself, by carefully abstaining from looking about the room, that I am immersed in my customary squalor, and upheld by my natural untidiness.
After a little while, I succeed in the effort, and begin to work.
Birds. The poets are all fond of birds. Can they write, I wonder, when their favorites are singing in chorus close outside their window? I, who only produce prose, find birds a nuisance. Cows also. Has that one particular cow who bellows so very regularly a bereavement to mourn? I think we shall have veal for dinner to-day; I do think we shall have nice veal and stuffing. But this is not the train of thought I ought to be engaged in. Let me be deaf to these pastoral noises (including the sharpening of the gardener's scythe on the lawn), and get on with my work.
Tum-dum-tiddy-hidy-dum--tom-tom-tiddy-hiddy-tom--ti-too-tidy-hidy-ti--ti-ti-ti-tum. Yes, yes, that famous tenor bit in the "Trovatore," played with prodigious fire on the piano in the room below, by one of the charming girls. I like the "Trovatore" (not being, fortunately for myself, a musical critic). Let me lean back in my chair on this balmy morning--writing being now clearly out of the question--and float away placidly on the stream of melody. Brava! Brava! Bravissima! She is going through the whole opera, now in one part of it, and now in another. No, she stops, after only an hour's practice. A voice calls to her--I hear her ringing laugh in answer; no more piano--silence. Work, work, you must be done! Oh, my ideas, my only stock in trade, mercifully come back to me--or, like the famous Roman, I have lost a day.
Let me see; where was I when the "Trovatore" began? At the following passage apparently, for the sentence is left unfinished:
"The further we enter into this interesting subject, the more light--" What had I got to say about light when the "Trovatore" began? Was it, "flows in upon us"? No; nothing so commonplace as that. I had surely a good long metaphor, and a fine round close to the sentence. "The more light"--shines? beams? bursts? dawns? floods? bathes? quivers? Oh, me! what was the precious next word I had in my head when the "Trovatore" took possession of my poor crazy brains? It is useless to search for it. Strike out "the more light," and try something else.
"The further we enter into this interesting subject, the more prodigally we find scattered before us the gems of truth which--so seldom ride over to see us now."
"So seldom ride over to see us now?" Mercy on me, what am I about? Ending my unfortunate sentence by mechanically taking down a few polite words spoken by the melodious voice of one of the charming girls on the garden terrace under my window. What do I hear in a man's voice? "Regret being so long an absentee, but my schools and my poor--" Oh, a young clerical visitor; I know him by his way of talking. All young clergymen speak alike--who teaches them, I wonder? Let me peep out of window.
I am right. It is a young clergyman--no whiskers, apostolic hair, sickly smile, long frock-coat, a wisp of muslin round his neck, and a canonical black waistcoat with no gap in it for the display of profane linen. The charming girl is respectfully devouring him with her eyes. Are they going to have their morning chat under my window? Evidently they are. This is pleasant. Every word of their small, fluent, ceaseless, sentimental gabble comes into my room. If I ask them to get out of hearing, I am rude. If I go to the window, and announce my presence by a cough, I confuse the charming girl. No help for it but to lay the pen down again, and wait. This is a change for the worse, with a vengeance. The "Trovatore" was something pleasant to listen to; but the reverend gentleman's opinions on the terrace flowers which he has come to admire, on the last volume of modern poetry which he has borrowed from the charming girl, on the merits of the church system in the Ages of Faith, and on the difficulties he has had to contend with in his Infant-school, are, upon the whole, rather wearisome to listen to. And this is the house that I entered, in the full belief that it would offer me the luxury of perfect quiet to work in! And downstairs sits Lady Jinkinson, firmly believing that she has given me such an opportunity of distinguishing myself with my pen as I have never before enjoyed in all my life! Patience, patience.
Half an hour; three-quarters of an hour. Do I hear him taking his leave? Yes, at last. Pen again; paper again. Where was I?
"The further we enter into this interesting subject, the more prodigally do we find scattered before us the gems of truth, which--"
What was I going to say the gems of truth did, when the young clergyman and the charming girl began their sentimental interview on the terrace? Gone--utterly gone. Strike out the gems of truth, and try another way.
"The further we enter into this interesting subject, the more its vast capabilities--" A knock at the door.
"Her ladyship wishes me to say, sir, that luncheon is ready."
"The further we enter into this interesting subject, the more clearly its vast capabilities display themselves to our view. The mind, indeed, can hardly be pronounced competent--"
A knock at the door.
"Her ladyship wishes me to remind you, sir, that luncheon is ready."
"Pray beg Lady Jinkinson not to wait for me."
"The mind, indeed, can hardly be pronounced competent to survey the extended field of observation--"
A knock at the door.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but her ladyship desires me to say that a friar's omelet has just come up, which she very much wishes you to taste. And she is afraid it will get cold, unless you will be so good as to come downstairs at once."
"Say I will come directly."
"The mind, indeed, can hardly be pronounced competent to survey the extended field of observation, which"--which?--which?--Gone again! What else could I expect? A nice chance literature has in this house against luncheon.
I descend to the dining-room, and am politely told that I look as if I had just achieved a wonderful morning's work. "I dare say you have not written in such perfect quiet as this for months past?" says Lady Jinkinson, helping me to the friar's omelet. I begin with that dainty; where I end is more than my recollection enables me to say. Everybody feeds me, under the impression that I am exhausted with writing. All the splendid fellows will drink wine with me, "to set me going again." Nobody believes my rueful assertion that I have done nothing, which they ascribe to excessive modesty. When we rise from table (a process which is performed with extreme difficulty, speaking for myself), I am told that the carriage will be ready in an hour. Lady Jinkinson will not hear of any objections. "No! No!" she says. "I have not asked you here to overwork yourself. I really can't allow that."
I get back to my room with an extraordinary tightness in my waistcoat, and with slight symptoms of a determination of sherry to the head. Under these circumstances, returning to work immediately is not to be thought of. Returning to bed is by far the wiser proceeding. I lie down to arrange my ideas. Having none to arrange, I yield to nature, and go to sleep.
When I wake, my head is clear again. I see my way now to the end of that bit about "the extended field of observation," and make for my table in high spirits. Just as I sit down comes another knock at the door. The carriage is ready. The carriage! I had forgotten all about it. There is no way of escape, however. Hours must give way to me when I am at home; I must give way to hours when I am at Lady Jinkinson's. My papers are soon shuffled together in my case, and I am once more united with the hospitable party downstairs. "More bright ideas?" cry the ladies, interrogatively, as I take my place in the carriage. "Not the dimmest vestige of one," I answer. Lady Jinkinson shakes her parasol reproachfully at me. "My dear friend, you were always absurdly modest when speaking of yourself; and, do you know, I think it grows on you."
We get back in time to dress for dinner. After dinner there is the social evening and more "Trovatore." After that, cigars with the splendid fellows in the billiard-room. I look over my day's work, with the calmness of despair, when I get to bed at last. It amounts to four sentences and a half, every line of which is perfectly worthless as a literary composition.
The next morning I rise before the rest of the family are up, leave a note of apology on my table, and take the early train for London. This is very ungrateful behavior to people who have treated me with extreme kindness. But here, again, I must confess the hard truth. The demands of my business in life are imperative; and, sad to say, they absolutely oblige me to dispense with Lady Jinkinson.
I have now been confessing my misanthropical sentiments at some length, but I have not by any means done yet with the number of my dear friends whom I could dispense with. To say nothing of my friend who borrows money of me (an obvious nuisance), there is my self-satisfied friend, who can talk of nothing but himself, and his successes in life; there is my inattentive friend, who is perpetually asking me irrelevant questions, and who has no power of listening to my answers; there is my accidental friend, whom I always meet when I go out; there is my hospitable friend, who is continually telling me that he wants so much to ask me to dinner, and who never does really ask me by any chance. All these intimate associates of mine are persons of fundamentally irreproachable characters, and of well-defined positions in the world; and yet so unhappily is my nature constituted, that I am not exaggerating when I acknowledge that I could positively dispense with every one of them. To proceed a little further, now that I have begun to unburden my mind--
A double knock at the street door stops my pen suddenly. I make no complaint, for I have been, to my own amazement, filling these pages for the last three hours, in my parlor after dinner, without interruption. A well known voice in the passage smites my ear, inquiring for me on very particular business, and asking the servant to take in the name. The servant appears at my door, and I make up my mind to send these leaves to the printer, unfinished as they are. No necessity, Susan, to mention the name; I have recognized the voice. This is my friend who does not at all like the state of my health. He comes, I know beforehand, with the address of a new doctor, or the recipe of a new remedy; and he will stay for hours, persuading me that I am in a bad way. No escaping from him, as I know by experience. Well, well, I have made my confession, and eased my mind. Let my friend who doesn't like the state of my health end the list, for the present, of the dear friends whom I could dispense with. Show him in, Susan--show him in.