“We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.”—ROM. viii. 28
Talking of music reminds me of a little passage that took place between Ernest and Miss Skinner, Dr Skinner’s eldest daughter, not so very long ago. Dr Skinner had long left Roughborough, and had become Dean of a Cathedral in one of our Midland counties—a position which exactly suited him. Finding himself once in the neighbourhood Ernest called, for old acquaintance sake, and was hospitably entertained at lunch.
Thirty years had whitened the Doctor’s bushy eyebrows—his hair they could not whiten. I believe that but for that wig he would have been made a bishop.
His voice and manner were unchanged, and when Ernest remarking upon a plan of Rome which hung in the hall, spoke inadvertently of the Quirinal, he replied with all his wonted pomp: “Yes, the QuirInal—or as I myself prefer to call it, the QuirInal.” After this triumph he inhaled a long breath through the corners of his mouth, and flung it back again into the face of Heaven, as in his finest form during his head-mastership. At lunch he did indeed once say, “next to impossible to think of anything else,” but he immediately corrected himself and substituted the words, “next to impossible to entertain irrelevant ideas,” after which he seemed to feel a good deal more comfortable. Ernest saw the familiar volumes of Dr Skinner’s works upon the bookshelves in the Deanery dining-room, but he saw no copy of “Rome or the Bible—Which?”
“And are you still as fond of music as ever, Mr Pontifex?” said Miss Skinner to Ernest during the course of lunch.
“Of some kinds of music, yes, Miss Skinner, but you know I never did like modern music.”
“Isn’t that rather dreadful?—Don’t you think you rather”—she was going to have added, “ought to?” but she left it unsaid, feeling doubtless that she had sufficiently conveyed her meaning.
“I would like modern music, if I could; I have been trying all my life to like it, but I succeed less and less the older I grow.”
“And pray, where do you consider modern music to begin?”
“With Sebastian Bach.”
“And don’t you like Beethoven?”
“No, I used to think I did, when I was younger, but I know now that I never really liked him.”
“Ah! how can you say so? You cannot understand him, you never could say this if you understood him. For me a simple chord of Beethoven is enough. This is happiness.”
Ernest was amused at her strong family likeness to her father—a likeness which had grown upon her as she had become older, and which extended even to voice and manner of speaking. He remembered how he had heard me describe the game of chess I had played with the doctor in days gone by, and with his mind’s ear seemed to hear Miss Skinner saying, as though it were an epitaph:—
I may presently take
A simple chord of Beethoven,
Or a small semiquaver
From one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words.”
After luncheon when Ernest was left alone for half an hour or so with the Dean he plied him so well with compliments that the old gentleman was pleased and flattered beyond his wont. He rose and bowed. “These expressions,” he said, voce suâ, “are very valuable to me.” “They are but a small part, Sir,” rejoined Ernest, “of what anyone of your old pupils must feel towards you,” and the pair danced as it were a minuet at the end of the dining-room table in front of the old bay window that looked upon the smooth shaven lawn. On this Ernest departed; but a few days afterwards, the Doctor wrote him a letter and told him that his critics were a σκληροι και αντιτυποι, and at the same time ανεκπληκτοι. Ernest remembered σκληροι, and knew that the other words were something of like nature, so it was all right. A month or two afterwards, Dr Skinner was gathered to his fathers.
“He was an old fool, Ernest,” said I, “and you should not relent towards him.”
“I could not help it,” he replied, “he was so old that it was almost like playing with a child.”
Sometimes, like all whose minds are active, Ernest overworks himself, and then occasionally he has fierce and reproachful encounters with Dr Skinner or Theobald in his sleep—but beyond this neither of these two worthies can now molest him further.
To myself he has been a son and more than a son; at times I am half afraid—as for example when I talk to him about his books—that I may have been to him more like a father than I ought; if I have, I trust he has forgiven me. His books are the only bone of contention between us. I want him to write like other people, and not to offend so many of his readers; he says he can no more change his manner of writing than the colour of his hair, and that he must write as he does or not at all.
With the public generally he is not a favourite. He is admitted to have talent, but it is considered generally to be of a queer unpractical kind, and no matter how serious he is, he is always accused of being in jest. His first book was a success for reasons which I have already explained, but none of his others have been more than creditable failures. He is one of those unfortunate men, each one of whose books is sneered at by literary critics as soon as it comes out, but becomes “excellent reading” as soon as it has been followed by a later work which may in its turn be condemned.
He never asked a reviewer to dinner in his life. I have told him over and over again that this is madness, and find that this is the only thing I can say to him which makes him angry with me.
“What can it matter to me,” he says, “whether people read my books or not? It may matter to them—but I have too much money to want more, and if the books have any stuff in them it will work by-and-by. I do not know nor greatly care whether they are good or not. What opinion can any sane man form about his own work? Some people must write stupid books just as there must be junior ops and third class poll men. Why should I complain of being among the mediocrities? If a man is not absolutely below mediocrity let him be thankful—besides, the books will have to stand by themselves some day, so the sooner they begin the better.”
I spoke to his publisher about him not long since. “Mr Pontifex,” he said, “is a homo unius libri, but it doesn’t do to tell him so.”
I could see the publisher, who ought to know, had lost all faith in Ernest’s literary position, and looked upon him as a man whose failure was all the more hopeless for the fact of his having once made a coup. “He is in a very solitary position, Mr Overton,” continued the publisher. “He has formed no alliances, and has made enemies not only of the religious world but of the literary and scientific brotherhood as well. This will not do nowadays. If a man wishes to get on he must belong to a set, and Mr Pontifex belongs to no set—not even to a club.”
I replied, “Mr Pontifex is the exact likeness of Othello, but with a difference—he hates not wisely but too well. He would dislike the literary and scientific swells if he were to come to know them and they him; there is no natural solidarity between him and them, and if he were brought into contact with them his last state would be worse than his first. His instinct tells him this, so he keeps clear of them, and attacks them whenever he thinks they deserve it—in the hope, perhaps, that a younger generation will listen to him more willingly than the present.”
“Can anything,”’ said the publisher, “be conceived more impracticable and imprudent?”
To all this Ernest replies with one word only—“Wait.”
Such is my friend’s latest development. He would not, it is true, run much chance at present of trying to found a College of Spiritual Pathology, but I must leave the reader to determine whether there is not a strong family likeness between the Ernest of the College of Spiritual Pathology and the Ernest who will insist on addressing the next generation rather than his own. He says he trusts that there is not, and takes the sacrament duly once a year as a sop to Nemesis lest he should again feel strongly upon any subject. It rather fatigues him, but “no man’s opinions,” he sometimes says, “can be worth holding unless he knows how to deny them easily and gracefully upon occasion in the cause of charity.” In politics he is a Conservative so far as his vote and interest are concerned. In all other respects he is an advanced Radical. His father and grandfather could probably no more understand his state of mind than they could understand Chinese, but those who know him intimately do not know that they wish him greatly different from what he actually is.
From: Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh