Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

us laugh at such caricatures when we are in public company or two or three together, I cannot suppose that many of us would laugh at them if we studied them alone and by ourselves. The young man might snigger, but he must be a very poor sort of young man, with the cub in him inextinguishable. The young woman-yes, with her it is different: there is no denying it. The fresh young lass, rejoicing in the comeliness of which she was unaware till yesterday, and newly awakened to the competitions of womanhood, she will laugh her little laugh of scornful triumph, and we must forgive it. Time passes. After a while she will learn that the old maid was once as young and fresh and fair as herself, just as brilliant, and just as joyful in the belief that all the world was her own; and if my young lass is a good girl she will understand all this before long, whether her own fate is likely to be more fortunate than the old maid's or otherwise.

Meanwhile, the young lady might be none the worse if she were apprised by some warning intuition that her present triumph and her scorn are a survival of the sheerest barbarism. It cannot well be explained to her in detail; but we can supply her with a counterpart to her sentiments from the foibles of our own sex, and perchance she may understand from that whether there is anything ignoble in them or not. Youth and strength are the most ancient glory of men, as youth and beauty are the glory of women. And in the heroic ages it seems to have been quite the natural thing for the young warrior to mock at the decaying strength of his elders, and make sport of their stiffening limbs. Not that we need go back to the beginning of civilisation for examples of what we mean. No matter what his recorded prowess, the athlete of our own day, as soon as he has passed the age of thirty, has to hang his head before the Coming Youth and the Coming Youth's companions, who jeer at him as 'stale.' Stale is the very word. Now what does Youth and Beauty think of that? Is it handsome? Was it ever generous ? Is there no mark upon it of the brutish beginnings of us all ? Brutal it ever was and is; but of course very natural too, just as is the young maid's amusement at the wall-flower's patient humiliations. Her, however, we do excuse. Being so young, she is still so natural; but she will learn, and she may share. As to the rest of us, we have no excuse in committing her unkindly fault; and when

; next the public caricaturist goes about to make fun of old maids (some of whom may indeed be ridiculous, though I have never met with one who was so because of her condition), I hope he will remember how much pain his mockery may give to many a shrinking inoffensive woman, whose loneliness may have secrets more worthy of regard than anything in his art.

I know it may be said that, in modern times at any rate, no one ever does make sport of old maids as old maids. What excites ridicule is the persistent assumption of youthful charm where no such

a

charm can be ; the beaming smiles forced from faded eyes; the conquering airs and graces flaunted from a bag of bones, the ribbons and laces of fifteen spread as a net from a skeleton figure of fifty. And the allegation further runs to this effect: that these things are truly ridiculous in the nature of them; that it is not forbidden to laugh at anything truly ridiculous, and that it is even meritorious to laugh it down altogether. For whomsoever this is a sufficing answer let it suffice. But when all's said that can be said in that strain, I shall believe that it is better to let the poor ladies alone. Be it remembered that these are the weak ones. These are the childishly conscious ones, who haven't it in them to live in the serene content of their more sensible sisters. To be sure, the joke against them partly rests on the assertion that they are so absurdly unconscious. But the ridicule which the mere absurdities of one kind of old-maidism excites is both stupid and cruel. The absurdities are always pathetic, the ridicule always inhumane; and it is one of many signs that this age is more gentle than the one that preceded it, that there seems to be a growing understanding to that effect.

In my walks I sometimes encounter an ancient dandy whose name—though I infer that it must be a lofty one-is to me unknown. An ancient dandy he is, but not of the old school or marked by any remnant of the manners that adorned the Regency. He rather represents himself as the stiff, reserved, impassive buck of forty years since. Once he was very beautiful; and though the restorations of which he has been the subject have completely superseded the original fabric, it is evident that every detail has been followed with a loving fidelity. Nothing has been neglected that could sustain the brilliance of those haughty dark eyes, or trim the arches above them. The Corinthian tournure of the wig (coalblack) repeats the flowing grace with which nature crowned his brow. The whisker and moustache which he caresses as he goes are those that Mr. Leech copied from him thirty years since, only they are a little more purple now; and the lines of his gentlemanly chest are as full, and yet as elegant, as when not a single ounce of padding lurked within his waistcoat. Thus rebuilt, and so redecorated (how easy it is to be humorous on this theme !) he moves with precisely the gait that might be expected of one of Madame Tussaud's figures, could it step from its pedestal and show itself for nothing. The same deportment of cold hauteur, the same straight-staring, frigid, and moveless eye, the same mechanical planting of the feet—now a totter, then a totter—and (alas !) the same internal terrors that we know the figure would feel, lest one false step bring all to the ground and all to pieces. If it is ever permitted to laugh at the poor little infirmities of which this gentleman is the victim at seventy, he might well be laughed at, especially when he settles himself under the gaze of some pretty housemaid at a window or prepares his haughty charms

[ocr errors]

at the approach of a file of young ladies. But the eye of pity looks
into that padded breast, sees what the old thing suffers even when
the morning's make-up has been most happy, sees him at the morn-
ing's work itself, accompanies his own first glance into the looking-
glass before he begins, and finds nothing to laugh at at all. A little
scorn, perhaps, but none that is lofty enough to be worth cherishing ;
and what there is, tempered by the reflection that this poor old boy's
wigs and washes are but an ignoble rendering of the melancholy that
weighs more and more upon the world, growing with the growth of
thought in all mankind. (* Change and decay in all around I see!')
And he is a man. If forbearance with him seems the better thing,
forbearance to the extent of letting him alone at any rate—how much
more of gentleness is due to the restless, witless women who, in
like manner,
make of themselves ridiculous old maids'? This

may be accorded without any denial of respect to those who know how to take the downward way in quiet acceptation of the sad inevitable course of things appointed for us all.

Change and decay in all around I see.' This is the burden of the melancholy which oppresses the later generations of mankind more than any of their predecessors; and science has been so busy, and the Church so idle, that not so many of us are able to look beyond for consolation in unwavering confidence. Not that even with the most sceptical of men is it as it might be with the falling leaves if they were conscious. From this we are preserved by something in the very fibre of us, something grafted in the very tissues of this corporal body; which is saying more than to speak of spirit and reason. And yet if the leaves of the forest, as they hung upon the bough or fluttered to the ground, were conscious of the little life that was theirs, and which they were leaving for no other; if they knew of the leafy multitudes that had lived before in ten thousand summers, and that were to come again and again under the blessed sunshine when they themselves were all to mire, they would not feel a greater sadness than here and there a psalmist or a poet has breathed, and that now is a common oppression. It is a common oppression for reasons which have all to do with this life, and little or nothing with any life to come, or any question of a life to come. I said above, repeating what has often been said before, that the melancholy that weighs more and more upon the world grows with the growth of thought; but that is not a true or at any rate not a full account of it. There may be thought in abundance; thought of the highest; thought addressed to this very theme of life and after-life (as, for instance, in the immortal chapter that records the death of Socrates), and yet no such melancholy as that which we are speaking of. This sentiment, if it is fathered by thought, is mothered by a keener and more general sensibility to the beauty of this earth where we do not remain, and nourished by a wider, finer,

a

more appealing sense of community as shadows streaming through the brightness of this lovely world from dark to dark. The man of genius, the man of strong endeavour, has his own grounds of sadness in the mocking insufficiency of the time of ripening or of strength; but that accounts for comparatively little. These are but a small number of the men and women who come under the melancholy of the later generations, and their repinings are not the same thing as the sadness of these others. For that we should rather look to a deepening extending sense of the beauty of the world we live in, of closer communion with it, of a fuller part in it or of it in us; and therewith a keener apprehension of what will one day be lost to us and go on without us, whatever may be the yet unknown and incon

, ceivable gain somewhere beyond. One great gain may come out of it even in this world, and may be thought perceptible already; I mean the extension of fellow-feeling, of common kindness. Time was,

and that only the other day, when we were much more apt than now we are to discover the ridiculous in infirmity, and to smile at the grotesqueries of change and decay. This is an amelioration to

' be observed not only amongst persons of refinement, but amongst the ruder sort; and that clean down to the lowest. There, perhaps, the weaknesses of my old buck would meet with little tenderness; but in Whitechapel itself they do not laugh as readily as they used to do at a man with two wooden legs, or find as much entertainment in the cry of an animal in pain. To be sure, in Whitechapel there is very little of the sort of sentiment that elsewhere assists to extinguish mirth of a scarcely nobler sort. But other things are at work to widen the embrace of common kindness, and perhaps in the course of our wool-gatherings we may light upon some of them.

[ocr errors]
[merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][subsumed][merged small][ocr errors][subsumed]
[ocr errors]

life

of 1,

NOTICEABLE BOOKS.

1.

THE CRITICAL PERIOD OF AMERICAN HISTORY.1

a

It would be a curious test of what is called culture to find out how many members of the two Houses of Parliament, or how many Masters of Arts of the two old Universities, could have given a clear account of the events a hundred years ago which were commemorated in New York last April. Everybody knows in a general way that 1789 was the opening of the French Revolution ; few people know in

; what sense the same year marks the close of the Revolution in North America. The American colonists declared their independence of the mother-country in 1776. The declaration became a diplomatic reality, and a definitive treaty of peace between America and Great Britain was executed in 1783. The times that tried men's souls,' said Tom Paine in that year, are now over.' The author of the present short volume, however, starts from the proposition that the most trying time of all was just beginning. “It is not too much to say that the period of five years following the peace of 1783 was the most critical moment in all the history of the American people. The dangers from which we were saved in 1788 were even greater than the dangers from which we were saved in 1865. This proposition Mr. Fiske makes abundantly good, and he has turned it into a text for one of the most interesting chapters of history that has been written for many a day. We have all been reading that masterly account of the American Commonwealth with which our literature has just been enriched; but Mr. Bryce's task was to describe the constitution of the United States as it is, and he showed good judgment in not encumbering his book with the history and origins of the fabric before him. The events of the five years of crisis which ended in the foundation of the constitution are best understood when taken by themselves, apart from the War of Independence which went before, and apart from the long and steady march to prosperity which came after.

Mr. Fiske is a most competent guide. His two short

· The Critical Period of American History. By John Fiske. London: Macmillan & Co.

« ForrigeFortsett »