George Smith.

The Cornhill magazine, v. 1-16. -- online

. (page 29 of 91)
Online LibraryGeorge SmithThe Cornhill magazine, v. 1-16. -- → online text (page 29 of 91)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

tive, few people can calmly sit down and enjoy a prospect, whether of
fields, or houses, or mountains, or live for long upon the a&ial sus-
tenance afforded by contemplating the beautifuL We — speaking {or the
aven^ of mankind — require some figures in the foreground, whether
substantial or derived from our own thoughts. There is a famous stoiy,
still administered, I believe, to the infantile mind, about '* Eyes and
No-eyes." Eyes during a country walk finds (if I remember rightly)
a water-rat, and a Roman camp, and a fossil, and other objects, calculated
to enlarge the human mind upon intelligent reflection. ' Poor No-eyes, of
course, flees nothing at all but« straight road with dinner at the end of
it. As usual, one rather sympathises with the bad boy in the Utde
apologue. He may, it is true, have been thinking of nothing, like the
rustic enduring a sermon. But lie may also have been in di<eamland,
humming over the Lat/ of the Last Mvnstrelf or puzzling his little brain
with some fragment of infantile metaphysics. Indifference to water-rats
is not necessarily the sign of a corrupt heart, and may show tiie eariy
development of philosophic or imaginative tendencies. The perceptive
faculties should not oust all reflection from its proper place. I enjoy
my dinner ; but I prefer to make believe that it is an incidental accom-
paniment to pleasant talk. I try to take my food as it were by inadver-
tence and as giving time for my neighbour's effort at a happy r^Mirtee
— ^to treat it as a superfluous, though sufficiently agreeable, adjunct to
the main purpose of a social meeting. And so I take scenery to be, like the
music at a state feast, a mere secondary accompaniment to the main pur-
pose of the day. It, and the thoughts which it dimly suggests, should be
indirectly preserved, whilst my chief energy is given to talks with a
friend, or even to talks with the most sympathetic of all companions —

In fact, I find that walking, and especially walking in London,
is a most admirable promoter of thought. It has a kind of lubri-
cating effect upon the rusty machinery of my mind. Some great
philosophers can sit down, like Newton, and meditate for hours with one
leg clothed and the other bare upon the edge of their beds. Peiiiaps, if
I could do that, I could be a Newton also ; but I can no more nail my
mind down to a particular line of thought under such ciroumstanoes

Digitized by



than I can hold out a hundredweight at arm's length for two seconds to-
gether. My mind, if I may call it so, begins to flicker and tremble. It
makes sadden dashes down irrelevant avenues; it catches hold of a
thought by the wrong end, and drops it before it can discover its iante
name ; it drops from serious reflection to consider the proceedings of a
sparrow or the condition of a bookbinding. When " thinking," I feel
like a drunken man with a lantern hunting for a lost sixpence; the light
dances wildly round and round, and if, at some moment^ a chance ray
is reflected £rom the object of search, in the next moment it has flashed
into a distant comer. The obvious remedy, and one doubtless efficacious
for a Newton, is the remedy of solitude. But for feebler inteUects there
are imps who haunt the study as persistently as the market-place. The
distractions come not from without, but within — ^from the innumerable
irrelevant associations with which every idea siurounds itself, and
which are always tempting one into devious tracks. The pure intellect is
Burronnded by a multitude of subsidiary faculties which seem to take a
malicious delight in tripping it up. And therefore I flnd that the
streets are my best study. There these worrying faculties, which torment
one when not employed, have enough occupation to keep them quiet. My
eyes are taken up in the monotonous duty of steering my course, and work
automatically without openly appealing to my consciousness, instead of
constantly asking questions like curious children upon every new object
that happens to strike them ; my ears are satisfied with the continuous
ham, and do not give a sudden jerk to the brain whenever a coal falls
from the fire ; my legs and arms are not accumulating a vague rest-
lessness which when unsatisfied tells upon the whole mental equilibrium.
Undisturbed by these minor affluents, the main stream of thought can.
flow on with comparative tranquillity. I keep any diflicult points that
occur in my study or in business to browse upon in my daOy peregrina-
tions. At such times I have succeeded in keeping a single point in my
field of view at least whilst I was crossing a street, or sometimes along
the whole length of Pall Mall. My senses have enough to do, I suppose,
in taking care of my body, and hitherto they have not brought me into
contact with an omnibus ; and, leaving that object to their attentions, my
mind can work with comparative ease and clearness, and feels like one
who has shaken off a troublesome companion who has interrupted him
by impertinent questions.

This desirable end may be partly achieved in the country. Pounding
along a highroad or across ploughed fields will certainly provide suffi-
cient emplojrment for one's lower self — for that feeding, breathing, and
local apparatus which the soul is forced to carry about with it. But
this, it must be added, is not enough. The soul cannot get rid entirely
of its muddy vesture ; and the energies of the body react in subtle and
mysterious fi^^ions upon the intellectual processes of its exalted com-
panion. The barren monotony of a coimtry walk is depressing to the
meditative mind ; the same tone of sentiment lasts for miles ; one green


Digitized by



field is amazingly like another when you are plunged in a brown study ;
the same short simple melody seems to be running in your head for
miles ; you go on hammering at the same idea from the same point of
view ; you follow the same thread of thought and drop it at the same
knot to begin the weary process over again ; you feel that if the oountiy
parson ocoaaionally preaches a dull sermon he has a full license, not only
from the stolidity of his dodhopping congregation, but from the dreary
uniformity of the trees and cows which have been the deaf audience to
whom he probably addressed his rehearsal. For one does not always
argue with oneself when alone, but also with the half-seen bystanders
who are quite innocent of conscious participation. I have sometime6
wondered at the insensibility of the sleepy fellow-passenger to whom I
have silently addressed that brilliant invective against the writ^ of the
leading article in my newspaper, and who does not appreciate the
mingled wit and logic of the argument which, it is true, he has not
heard. One's best sayings, it is a fiamiliar remark, neVer occur to one at
the right moment ; and most of the best repartees that pass current aa
proofs of ready wit have no doubt been composed, as it were, in answer
to a later echo of the original remark. Now I find that I am un-
usually fertile in such smart sayings when I am plodding through
London streets. My mind, let us say, is occupied in a profound medita-
tion upon the Eastern Question or the balance of trade. These are not,
indeed, my favourite topics, but they may pass for purposes of illustra-
tion. My lower organism is meanwhile occupied with all the passing
objects of London scenery; it is guarding me against omnibuses, finding
its way past mud-heaps, plunging into some of those short cuts through
. queer labyrinths of back passages which reveal tokens of the mysterious
life of the Troglodytes of civilisation, emerging into a crowded tiiorough-
£axe and noting the strange vagaries of modem builders which are
making our streets an architectural museum, pausing perhaps at the
bookstalls, which are a standing memento m^ari to ambitious authors,
va^ely noting caricatures in a shop window, or taking in some strange
effect of light and shade, or glancing down some sudden vista when
crossing an open space or coming out upon the river, and dimly con-
scious of the various characteristics which give to one part of the
mighty metropolis a legal, to another a commercial, and to a third a
simply respectable or quite the reverse of a respectable odour.

Both sets of operations go on simultaneously ; one half of the biain,
perhaps, is working the limbs, whilst the other is devoting itself to the
solution of the intellectual difficulty. But the two halves are not so
separate but that one receives many suggestions from the other, or at
times is affected by a sub-conscious process of action and reaction. The
effect, so far as the higher faculty is concerned, is a curious stimulation —
a marked increase in the rapidity, vivacity, and versatility of the trains
of thought. The ideas seem to be suddenly shaken and change their
positions like colours in a kaleidoscope ; they are suddenly dashed into

Digitized by



new relatioiis; some indefinable element is intruded from the senses
which brings out unsuspected suggestions ; the idea is no longer a
simple thing, as it is in the country, but seems to have innumerable
&oet8 ; each spot flashes into brilliancy by turns ; instead of that painful
recurrence of the same mode of approaching the same problem which
-vexes one in the country, as it sometimes becomes overpowering on a
sleepless night, one's mind seems to be alert, capable of springing from
one point of view to another, and, without conscious effort, of
getting, according to the common phrase, new lights upon the subject.
If I wished to convert the world to my opinions upon the Eastern
Question — an end to which I fear that I am reprehensibly indifferent —
I should think it an excellent preparative to take a walk from the West
to the East of London. I should, without knowing it, assume the frame
of mind appropriate to every section. I should feel, rather than guess,
how my argument would look in the decorous regions of South Ken-
eington, how it was affected by the imaginary presence of the gorgeous
flunkeys who lounge round Belgravian doors, whether I was put out of
countenance by the gentlemen in club windows, stimulated to flights of
loud-tongued eloquence by the noisy inhabitants of Seven Dials or
Ck>vent Garden, made to feel foolish in the legal atmosphere, and dis-
gracefully sentimental in the regions impregnated by commerce. In
truth, there is nothing which mi^es one feel more keenly the absurdity
of trying to convert anybody to anything than addressing yourself in
imagination to ninety-nine out of the first hundred men you meet in a
liondon street, and thinking what a vast gulf intervenes between their
minds and your own, to be bridged only by an elaborate process of edu-
cation bestowed upon one party or the other. Without arriving, how-
ever, at this chimerical result, the mere process of airing an idea in the
many different worlds which may be discovered within half an hour's
walk through London is really to submit it to a whole series of tests,
which frequently lead to surprising modifications. Eeasoning is not so com-
pletely as philosophers fancy an abstract process carried on like multi-
plication and division, so as always to bring out the same results, but a
complex operation in wjbich the physical condition, and stiU more the
half-perceived^ relations of the reasoner, count for more than he knows.
Somebody has said that a whole region was once converted from a
gloomy to a cheerful form of religion by an effective system of drainage.
In this case, no doubt, the influence was } reduced by something more
tangible than mere change of scenery ; but that, too, would count for
something, and I have no doubt that, if si atistios could be collected, it
would appear that a man's philosophy was much affected by the oir-
comstanoes of his habitually looking upon a brick wall or a crowded

The higher £Mmlty repays some part of its debt to the lower. If
some accident, as is probable encmgh, startles the dreamer out of his
meditatiTe mood, he comes back to realities with a mind full of vivid

Digitized by



and various trains of thought. Whatever significance there may be in
the outward world has a better chance of finding him in a receptive
state. The sights and sounds which have already been tacitly tuning
his refiections suddenly spring into sharp impressiveness ; he is sensitive
to the tragic or sublime element» of the scenery. Many excellent
cockneys, it is true, have gone through life without being aware that
any such elements exist. A traveller, it is said, once walked throu^ a
hot summer day by the side of one of the great American lakes, and
almost died of thirst because he had forgotten that the waters of the
inland sea were fresh. So we, who daily tramp in and out of London, may
hunger and thirst for beauty, and it never occurs to us, because all our
popular teachers have told us the contrary, that we have only to open
our eyes to see it. But when the thought has once occurred, it is sur-
prising how often a sudden flash of grandeur will present itself. Even
the insensible Wordsworth was impressed by the view from Westminster
Bridge at sunrise, and many a cockney who has by some chance seen
London at that unseasonable hour, or found himself in the City on
Sunday, has discovered — simply because the unusual conditions roused
lus attention — that he has for years inhabited a city full of picturesque
and impressive views. But if our vision is once unsealed, we may be-
come sensitive to the grandeur of the monstrous town at any seaBon. Li
its mystic robe of fog or in the delicately tempered sunlight, by the rush-
ing river, gliding at its own savoury will, in the main throng of men,
in its singular oases of solitude (haunted by nomad tribes of outcasts) on
the outskirts, where it is seen slowly engulfing the country, in sight
of the grand dome of St. Paul's or of the towers of Westminster, or
that queer region near Clapham which seems to be an asylum for
lunatic railway trains, there are always sudden glimpses to be caught
of strange s3nnbols into which we may read such meaning as we please.
A man must be dull who cannot find in them the elements of terror and
admiration. We may leave it to the writers of guidebooks to describe
curiosities for the benefit of tourists ; but the true Londoner should learn
to regard his home as a vast book full of strange meanings, and often
most impressive in its apparently dull passages. .

Digitized by


Digitized by


Digitized by



WSI^ MmQB : % ^atj^img "^ommtt.


Secret Schemes.

HE delight with which
John of Skye heard that
his friend Dr. Suther-
land was coming back to
the yacht, and that we
were now setting out for
Ballahulish or Corpach
to meet him, found in-
stant and practical ex-
pression on this fine,
bi-eezy, sunlit morning.

"Hector," says he,
"we will put the gaff
topsail on her ! "

What did he care
though this squally breeze
came blowing down the
Sound in awkward

"It is a fine wind,
oral, as we slowly leave the green waters and
Lv, and get into the open and breezy channel.
i run the day. And I beg your pardon, mem,
to me that Mr. Sutherland himself is coming

' clever sailing, John : is that it ? "
ut a yat as any chentleman I will ever see,
> get a good breeze for him this time, mem —

) a day of calm weather, at all events. Tide

away swiftly from the little harbour behind

i lona over there all asleep ; or are there some

I watching the White Dove bearing away to

the south % We wave our handkerchiefs on chance. We take a last

look at the gabled ruins over the sea ; at the green corn-fields ; and the

scattered houses ; and the beaches of silver sand. Good-by — good-by I

Digitized by



l%ie m&niac oiily langhs.

*' Luncheon ! " she says. " Lnnclieon in the middle of earth-
quakes ! "

But this sneer at the White Dove^ because she has no swinging table,
is ungenerous. Besides, is not our Friedrich d'or able to battle any
pitching with his ingeniously bolstered couch — so that bottles, glasses,
plates, and what not are as safe as they would be in a case in the British
Museum 1 A luncheon party on board the White Dove, when there is a
heavy Atlantic swell running, is not an imposing ceremony. It would
not look well as a coloured lithograph in the illustrated papers. The
figures crouching on the low stools to leeward ; the narrow cushion
bolstered up so that the most enterprising of dishes cannot slide ; the
table-cover plaited so as to afford receptacles for knives and spoons;
bottles and tumblers plunged into hollows and proi^)ed ; Master Fred,
balancing himself behind these stooping figures, bottle in hand, and ready
to replenish any cautiously proffered wine-glass. But it serves. And
Dr. Sutherland has assured us that, the heavier the sea, the more neoes-
sary is luncheon for the weaker vessels, who may be timid about the
effect of so much rolling and pitching. When we get on deck again,
who is afraid ? It is all a question as to what signal may be visible to
the white house of Carsaig — shining a&r there in the sunlight, among
the hanging woods, and under the soft purple of the hills. Behold I —
behold I — ^tiie flag run up to the top of the white pole ! Is it a message
to us, or only a summons to the Pioneer f For now, through the whirl
of wind and spray, we can make out the steamer that daily encircles
Mull, bringing with it white loaves, and newspapers, and other luxuries
of the mainland.

She comes nearer and nearer ; the throbbing of the paddles is heard
among the rush of the waves ; the people crowd to the side of the boat
to have a look at the passing yacht ; and one well-known figure — stand-
ing on the hurricane deck, raises his gilt-braided cap, for we happen to
have on board a gentle small creature who is a great friend of his. And
she waves her white handkerchief, of course ; and you should see vrh&t a
fluttering of similar tokens there is all along the steamer's decks, and on
the paddle boxes. Farewell ! — ^farewell ! — may you have a smooth land-
ing at Stafla, and a pleasant sail down the Sound, in the quiet of the
afternoon !

The day wears on, with pufb and squalls coming tearing over from
the high cliffs of southern Mull ; and still the gallant White Dave meets
and breasts those rolling waves, and sends the spray flying frx>m her
bows. We have passed Loch Buy ; Garveloch and the adjacent islands
are drawing nearer ; soon we shall have to bend our course northward,
when we have got by Eilean-straid-ean. And whether it is that Mary
Avon is secretly comforting herself with the notion that she will soon
see her friends in London again, or whethei* it is that she is proud of
being again promoted to the tiller, she has quite recovered her spirits.

Digitized by



We bear our singiiig-bird onoe more — ^though it is diffictdt, amid the
rash and swirl of the waters, to do more than catch chance phrases and
refrains. And then she is being very merry with the Laird, who is
hnmoroosly decrying England and the English, and proving to her that
it is the Scotch migration to the south that is the very saving of her
native country.

^ The Lord Chief Justice of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury,
the President of the Boyal Academy — ^the heads and leading men every-
where — all Scotch — all Scotch," says he.

<< But the weak point about the Scotch, sir,'' says this philosopher in
the ulster, who is clinging on to the tiller rope, '' is their modesty. They
are so distrustful of their own merits. And they are always running
down their own country."

"Ha, ha I — hoi hoi hoi" roars the Laird. "Verra good! verra
good ! I owe ye one for that I owe ye one. Herbert, have ye nothing
to say in defence of your native country 1 "

" You are speaking of Scotland, sir ? "


" That is not my native country, you know."

" It was your mother's, then."

Somehow, when by some accident — and it but rarely happened — ^the
Laird mentioned Howard Smith's mother, a brief silence fell on him. It
lasted but a second or two. Presently he was saying, with much cheer-
fulness —

" No, no, I am not one of those that would promote any rivalry
between Scotland and England. We are one country now. If the
Scotoh preserve the best leeterary English — ^the most pithy and character-
istio forms of tiie language — the English that is talked in the south is
the most generally received throughout the world. I have even gone
the length — ^I'm no ashamed to admit it — of hinting to Tom Qalbraith
that he should exheebit more in London : the influence of such work as
his should not be confined to Edinburgh. And jealous as they may be
in the south of the Scotdi school, they could not refuse to recognise its
excellence — eh ? No, no ; when Galln:aith likes to exheebit in London,
yell hear a stir, I'm thinking. The jealousy of English artists will have
no effisct on public opeenion. They may keep him out o' the Academy —
there's many a good artist has never been within the walls — but the
paUic is the judga I am told that when his picture of Stonebyres Falls
was exheebited in Edinburgh, a dealer came all the way from London to
look at it."

" Did he buy itt " asked Miss Avon, gently.

"Buy it I" the Laird said, with a contemptuous laugh. "There are
some of us about Glasgow who know better than to let a picture like
that get to London. I bought it maself. Yell see it when ye come to
Denny-mains. Ye have heard of it, no doubt f "

" N — no, I think not," she timidly answers.

Digitized by



" No matter — no matter. Ye'll see it when ye oome to Denny-

He seemed to take it for granted that she was going to pay a visit to
Denny-mains : had he not heard, then, of her intention of at onoe return-
ing to London f

Once well round into the Frith of Lorn, the wind that had borne
us down the Sound of lona was now right ahead ; and our progress was
but slow. As the evening wore on, it was proposed that we should run
into Loch Speliv for the night. Thwe waa no dissentient voice.

The sudden change from the plunging seas without to the quiet
waters of this solitary little loch was strange enough. And then, as we
slowly beat up against the northerly wind to the head of the loch — a
beautiful, quiet, sheltered little cup of a harbour among the hills -^ we
found before us, or rather over us, the splendours of a stormy sunset
among the moiintains above Glen More. It was a striking spectacle—
the vast and silent gloom of the valleys below, which were of a cold and
intense green in the shadow ; then above, among the great shoulders
and peaks of the hills, flashing gleams of golden light, and long swathes
of purple doud touched with scarlet along their edges, and mists of rain
that came along with the wind, blotting out here and there those splendid
colours. There was^an absolute silence in this overshadowed bay — ^but
for the cry of the startled wild-fowl. There was no sign of any haUta^
tion, except perhaps a trace of pale blue smoke rising from behind a
mass of trees* Away went the anchor with a short, shaip rattle ; we
were safe for the night.

We knew, however, what that trace of smoke indicated behind the
dark trees. By and by, as soon as the gig had got to the land, there was a
procession along the solitary shore — ^in the wan twilight — and up the
rough path — and through the scattered patches of birch and fir. And
were you startled. Madam, by the apparition of people who were so
inconsiderate as to knock at your door in the middle of dinner, and whose
eyes, grown accustomed to the shadows of the valleys of Mull, must have
looked bewildered enough on meeting the glare of the lamps i And what
did you think of a particular pair of eyes — very soft and gentle in their
dark lustre — appealing, timid, friendly eyes, that had nevertheless a quiet
happiness and humour in them ? It was at all events most kind of you
to tell the young lady that her notion of throwing up her holiday and
setting out for London was mere midsummer m n^ ^ nem . How could you
r any one else — guess at the origin of so strange a wish f

Digitized by



Online LibraryGeorge SmithThe Cornhill magazine, v. 1-16. -- → online text (page 29 of 91)