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Literary Tours in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland

The following is from Literary Tours in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland by D. T. Holmes, B.A.:

Chapter VI--Commercial Travellers and Their Anecdotes

Trials of commercials--The two-est-faced knave--Mary, the maid of the inn--Anecdotes of the smoking-room: Sonnet to Raleigh--Peelin's below the tree--"She's away!"--A mean house--One of the director's wives--Temperance hotels--A memorial window--The blasted heath--The day for it--The converted drummer--A circular ticket--A compound possessive--Sixteen medals--"She's auld, and she's thin, and she'll keep"--The will o' the dead--Sorry for London--"Raither unceevil"--An unwelcome recitation--A word in season--A Nairn critic--A grand day for it--A pro-Boer--"Falls of Bruar, only, please!"--A bad case of nerves.

Trials of Commercials

The commercial traveller (that bustling and indispensable middleman) leads a life of mingled joy and pain. He is constantly on the move, and from meeting innumerable types of men, becomes very shrewd in judging character. Resource, readiness, abundance of glib phrases must in time become his. He must not, for fear of offence, show any marked bias in politics or religion. His temper must be well under control; he must have the patience of an angel; he must smile with those that are merry, be lugubrious with those that are in the dumps, and listen, with apparent interest, to the stock stories of hoary-headed prosers. It is not enough that he should book orders. Some shaky customers are only too ready to give these. It is his business to book orders only from those that are likely to pay. A big order delivered to a scoundrel who means to fail next week, is a horrible calamity, which, if it does not result in pains and penalties, means a sharp reprimand and a loss of prestige at headquarters, that may take years to redeem.

He has to sleep in many a different bed. It is lucky for him if a damp couch has not rheumatised his limbs. No one knows better than he that what seems a bell-pull has often, owing to former violence and broken wires, no connection with the bell. Here a chimney smokes, there the flue is blocked with birds' nests. In certain country inns, the flimsy gossamer of spiders makes an undesirable fretwork over the greenish knobs of the ill-puttied panes. Mice, rats, and "such small deer" scamper uncannily the live-long night along the worn waxcloths and unspeakable carpets. As he undresses by the light of a three-inch candle, he has his soul horrified by early Victorian prints, of Paul tumbling from his horse on the way to Damascus, of the gory relief of Lucknow, or of some towsy-headed clansman smiling out of perspective. He is by no means a tourist on pleasure bent. He must face gust and surge, for he cannot choose his time and weather. His duty is to cover as much ground as he can in a given week, fill his order-book with irreproachable orders, and get home to report, preparatory to another sally in another direction. Competition stings him into feverish activity. If he sells tea, he well knows that an army of rivals is scouring the whole country with samples as good, or perhaps a great deal better, than his own.

The Two-Est-Faced Knave

Nevertheless, the jovial facetiousness of these commercial gentlemen knows no limits, and hotel-waiters are, at all times, fair game for their stings and arrows. In one of the northern hotels, there used to be a portly and rubicund waiter who might have passed for the High Priest of the Goddess of Health. His face shone, if I may say so, with the radiance of perfect digestion. A pert commercial, one day, approached him with an affected look of deep concern and said, "Well, I hope you're keeping better," accompanying the remark with a dig in the waiter's stomach. The waiter, who had never known a minute's ill-health in his life, swore vividly for fifteen minutes without repeating himself, and among many references to the commercial's ancestry, called him the two-est-faced knave that had ever set foot on the Shetland Islands. Such a superlative was felt by all to be a masterpiece of language, and turned the laugh against the bagman. [27]

[27] As to language, one hears, especially in the Hebrides, phrases of amusing quaintness, due no doubt to the speaker handling a foreign tongue. The school in one of the Mull villages is very small, and I made a remark to that effect in the hearing of the hotel-porter. "Oh, no," said he, "it is a good deal bigger than you would wonder." The same waiter, who had a talent for confusing his language, said in reply to an irate visitor who had questioned his intelligence: "You need not talk like that; I am as good as you; I am as good as any other man put together."

Mary, the Maid of the Inn

I have a great deal of sympathy with hotel-porters and waiters, and think them unduly longsuffering at times. As to Mary, the exemplary maid of the hotel alluded to, she can hold her own in repartee with any of the visitors. She is a distinct character, and Molière could have made a "type" of her. She has no sinecure of a situation, and, after eleven at night, when the last supper is over, she has to polish the knives for the morrow's breakfast. She is young, slim, and active, and wears a string of red corals round her neck. The place is not frequented by plutocratic tourists, and so her tips are meagre. In spite of her long days and her slim perquisites, the girl is affable, smiling, and gay. She trips out and in, sylph-like, can carve fowls most dexterously by the light of nature, never spills the soup, and has a laughing and appropriate word for all. Mary, I hope, will get some decent fellow for husband, and be a stay and comfort to him all the days of his life. Meanwhile, however (to use the historic present), a nice old gentleman in the soft goods line, who hails from the flourishing village of Dundee, is paying her marked attentions. She will have none of him, for all his apostolic looks. He repeats to her, with a comically sentimental air, the lines of Omar:

"Here with a book of verse beneath the bough,
A loaf of bread, a cup of wine, and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness,
The wilderness were Paradise enow."

Mary looks in amazement at the old gentleman with the insinuating voice, anon bursts into a merry peal, and trips off with the remark, "There's nae fules like auld anes," which a listening Londoner takes to mean, "There's nothing fills like onions!"

Anecdotes of the Smoking-Room

Sonnet to Raleigh

The conversation of an intelligent commercial traveller is, as I said, of a facetious and entertaining turn. He speaks to so many people in the course of a day and hears so many anecdotes as he rushes about, that his sense of humour becomes very keen. Old Burton, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy, used to dissipate his sombre thoughts by listening to the coarse badinage of bargemen: a modern, afflicted with Burton's complaint, might well find a cure in the smoking-room of a hotel among a company of commercial travellers. One Saturday night, in a Shetland hotel, I listened to a crowd of these merry gentlemen communicating to each other their several collections of stories. Before doing so, they all sang with great fervour the well-known hymn The Sands of Time are Sinking, a whisky-traveller officiating at the harmonium. One of the number ostentatiously beat time with his pipe. It was a very affecting scene, and certain of the singers were moved to tears at their own melody.

The company then settled down, in a pleased frame of mind, to tell stories. I noted some of these, and as they were new to me, I cherish the hope that they may not be stale to others. The following preliminary sonnet to Sir Walter Raleigh seems to be apposite and new; it is needed to give atmosphere to the tales:

Raleigh! the benefactor of thy kind,
May azure undulations ever roll
As incense to thee from the glowing bowl,
Thy rapt disciples fume with placid mind
In easy chair, by ingle-nook reclined!
Next to the mage, Prometheus, who stole
From Heaven's court with philanthropic soul,
The wonder-working fire, thou art enshrined
In mortal bosoms as a friend, for thou
Did'st bring from sunset isles the magic leaf
That weaves enchantment's halo round the brow,
Alleviates the pang of every grief
And stirs the bard, exempt from fretting cares,
To wail the weird of pipeless millionaires.

And now for the stories.

"Peelin's Below the Tree"

A Sunday School teacher in the island of Luing was giving a lesson on the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into this world, and other ills. At the close of his harangue, which was rather above the heads of the children, he said, "Can any of you tell me how the Creator knew that Adam had eaten the apple?" There was silence for a time. At last one boy, with a glimmer of light in his eyes, shouted: "Please, sir, because He saw the peelin's below the tree."

"She's Away"

An Englishman staying in Oban, wished to visit the island of Coll, and discovered, on enquiry at Macbrayne's office, that the S.S. Fingal left for that outer isle at five in the morning. He accordingly gave serious instructions to the "boots" of his hotel to rap him up at 4.30 A.M., and to show him no mercy. At six o'clock, the tourist was awakened by a noise like that of a battering-ram at his door, and a stentorian voice sternly enquiring: "Are you the gentleman that's going with the early boat?" "Yes, yes, I am," said the tourist, leaping to his feet. "Well, she's away," said the boots. (This is a story that grows on one.)

A Mean House

Another hotel story: Feeling somewhat thirsty in the middle of his dinner and not judging that water was sufficiently slockening, a visitor rang the bell and asked the waiter to bring him a bottle of lager. This was done. "How much do you charge for this?" enquired the traveller. "Ninepence," replied the waiter. Anger, consternation, and incredulity were all depicted, by turns, on the visitor's cheek. "What!" he shouted, "ninepence. Why, I could buy a dozen bottles for half-a-crown. It's downright robbery to ask ninepence for one bottle. You've made a mistake." "I've made no mistake," said the waiter; "I was told to ask ninepence. But," (at this point he sidled up to the traveller and whispered, with terrible accents, in his ear) "it's a damp mean house this you're in, and I'm leaving mysel' the morn!"

One of the Director's Wives

A gentleman who loved tobacco exceedingly well, went into a first-class smoking compartment, filled his pipe, and settled down, with a newspaper in front of him, to enjoy the luxury of a long and undisturbed worship of the weed. He had a journey of fifty miles before him. Just as the train was moving off, a lady, who was panting and flustered, was pushed up into the compartment by a porter. It was soon evident that pipes and tobacco were not congenial to this dame. She began to sniff in a very haughty fashion, but the smoker, utterly indifferent to her presence, continued to roll out with deliberate relish his dense tobacco fumes. Soon she lost all patience, and said with extreme bitterness: "You there, behind that paper, you have no manners. You have no right to smoke before a lady. Do you know who I am? I am one of the directors' wives, sir." Down went the journal, and "Oh, indeed," said he, "you are one of the director's wives, are you? Well, let me tell you this, that even if you were the director's only wife, I do not intend to encourage you, by any compliance of mine, in the bad habit of rushing for trains and getting into the wrong compartment!"

Temperance Hotels

An English clergyman--a pronounced teetotaler and temperance worker--was being driven through the streets of a Scotch town in an open machine. Looking round, with expansive benevolence, on the streets and people, he was overjoyed to see such a large number of temperance hotels. "Driver," he exclaimed, "I am delighted to see, by the hotels, that total abstinence has got such a firm hold in this place." "Indeed, sir," said the driver, "don't be too sure of that. We have two kinds of temperance hotels here: the first kind would like the licence, but can't get it; the second kind have had the licence, and lost it through bad behaviour and disorderly conduct."

A Memorial Window

An inn-keeper in Ross-shire, with great enthusiasm, said to a visitor: "There's nobody I work for with more satisfaction than an English gentleman. Now, there's Sir Samuel Oatts, the wealthy Liverpool merchant that has the shootings near here. He is a fine gentleman, and so considerate. He is not very good at shooting, I must admit: he often misses the birds, and he goes through a good number of dogs. One day he shot the keeper in the right eye, and blinded it. But he gave the keeper a handsome present and a fine new glass eye. We call that eye 'Oatts' Memorial Window,' and the keeper can sleep during the sermon now without anybody knowing, provided he does not snore."

The Blasted Heath

Two English tourists--big, hearty fellows--were travelling in the same compartment with a communicative Scot, when the train stopped at Forres. "Gentlemen," said the Scot, "this is Forres, and I'm sure you've read about it; quite near Forres is the blasted heath where Macbeth was accosted by the witches." "How shocking," said one of the Englishmen; "how really shocking! Well, you see, we haven't read about that yet: we've been up North for some time, and we have'nt seen the pypers for ten dyes!"

The Day for It

The driver of the bus which goes through the delightful part of Argyllshire known as Hell's Glen, is often chaffed by the summer tourists rather unmercifully. One day, a nervous southern was criticising him on his furious and careless driving: "You shouldn't be on the box at all; I never saw such a wild driver." "Drive!" said Jehu, in a voice of thunder. "Why, man, once every year, I drive the mail-coach down that steep hill-side among the bracken. And this is the day for it!" So saying, the humorous fellow made as if to whip the horses down the cliff, and the terrified tourist shrieked aloud. "Seeing I've such a nervous passenger," said the driver, with a guffaw, "I had better break my own rules, and keep to the main road."

The Converted Drummer

A dilapidated Scot, with a strong odour of the accursed, staggered into a Salvation Army meeting one night, and was deeply impressed by the service. He became a changed man, professed conversion, and got a thorough moral overhaul. Like many others, he had great difficulty in keeping his good resolutions, but persevered, nobly and successfully. Latterly, he was admitted into the orchestra, and got command of the big drum. He was so anxious to show his zeal, that he beat far too vehemently, and drowned all the other instruments in his ecstatic rataplan. The captain mildly remonstrated with him, and requested him to beat a little more gently. "Gently!" shouted the reformed drummer, "that's impossible. Since I've got salvation, I feel so happy, that I could ding the whole slammed thing to bits!" (or rather "slim the whole danged thing to bits").

A Circular Ticket

Three commercials, travelling from Cork to Dublin, had a discussion on the illiteracy of the Irish railway employés. "Look here," said one of them, "the majority of the ticket collectors can't even read the tickets they are supposed to check." The other two refused to believe him, but he stoutly maintained his assertion. Taking out of his pocket the round ticket given him at the office of the Cork hotel, and containing the number of his bedroom, he said, "I intend to offer this, instead of my railway ticket, at the first station where tickets are punched." Shortly thereafter, the train stopped, and a porter came round the carriages to look at the tickets. There was silence deep as death when the commercial handed his bedroom ticket to the official. The latter looked long and carefully at the thing and muttered, "Bejabbers, I never saw one like that before!" "Don't keep the train waiting," said the commercial, in a pretended fury, "don't you see it's a circular ticket." "Oh, and in faith it's you that's right: it is a circular ticket," said the porter. So saying, he punched the hotel check and withdrew, leaving the three travellers to weep for joy all the way to Dublin.

A Compound Possessive

The following grammatical story will doubtless be new to most readers. A Sunday School jaunt had been arranged in an Ayrshire town, and the children were all ready to go in carts to a field, some miles away, for games and open-air junketing. Everyone was impatient to set out, but the piper was late, and the procession of carts could not start without music. The minister became impatient, and sent a youth to tell the piper to hurry up. The boy, on coming to the piper's house, saw a woman standing at the door, and addressed her in these words: "Are you the man-that-plays-the-pipes's wife?"

Sixteen Medals

Those who doubt the efficacy of self-lauding advertisement are refuted by this story. A commercial traveller, representing a whisky firm, craved an order from a small Highland innkeeper. "Come, Donald," he said, "you must give me an order this time." "You will be getting no order from me, for your whisky is no good whatever. Dewar of Perth has got sixteen medals for his whisky; it is so good to drink, and makes people drunk so nice and quiet. But your firm never got a single medal for filling folk fou." The granting of medals for quiet and comely intoxication is a brilliant, although droll, idea.

"She's Auld, and She's Thin, and She'll Keep"

In a lone isle of the West, funerals are functions that cannot be celebrated (at least in the way consecrated tradition prescribes) without ample dispensing of whisky among the mourners. As there is no pier on the island, the steamer very frequently may not be able to call for days, during the terrific gales of winter. The legitimate stores of insular whisky thus occasionally become exhausted, and should a death occur during the period of dearth, a very regrettable situation arises. In the epigrammatic style of King James I., who used to say "No bishop, no king," we might express the difficulty by saying No whisky, no funeral. While a gale of exceptional ferocity was raging some winters ago, an old woman passed away, and there was not enough whisky on the island to bury her with credit. Her son scanned the angry sky and sea daily, in the hope that the weather would show signs of clearing up. After a week's blighted hopes, he still refused to sanction interment, remarking, "She's auld, and she's thin, and she'll keep." Next day the sea was calm, the Dunara called, and the old lady got her munera pulveris.

The Will O' the Dead

The foregoing story suggested to one of the auditors the tale told in connection with the death of Lord Forglen, one of the Judges of the Court of Session, in 1727. After a long illness, in which he had endured the expert advice of several eminent physicians, Forglen, one morning, departed into the land of shadows. Not knowing of the fatal termination, one of the medical men, Dr. Clark, called as usual and asked David Reid, clerk to Forglen, how his master was. David's answer was: "I houp he's well,"--a gentle euphuism, indicating that all was over, and also a timid hope that Heaven had received a new inhabitant. The doctor was shown into a room where he saw two dozen of wine under the table. Other doctors arriving, David made them all take seats, while he detailed, with much pathos, the affecting incidents of his master's dying hours. As an antidote to their grief, the company took a glass or two, and thereafter the doctors rose to depart, but David detained them. "No, no, gentlemen; not so. It was the express will o' the dead that I should fill ye a' fou, and I maun fulfil the will o' the dead." All the time the tears were streaming down his cheeks. "And indeed," said Dr. Clark afterwards, when telling the story, "he did fulfil the will o' the dead, for before the end o't there was na ane of us able to bite his ain thoom."

Sorry For London

The following story is a good example of insular patriotism. Certain shooting tourists in the island of Mull, who hailed from London, and who were expecting important news from the capital, were greatly exasperated to find, on calling at the local post-office, that telegraphic communication with the mainland had broken down. Some very uncanonical language was indulged in, which the local postmaster deeply resented. One tourist after another, exclaimed with blank despair: "Alas, poor Mull will get no news from London to-day." "What will Mull do without the London news?" "No news from London, what a misfortune for Mull!" This harping on the forlornness of the island caused the blood of the postmaster to boil with indignation, and he shouted in ire: "It is not Mull I will be sorry for, at all, at all. Mull can do without the London news. But what will poor London do, when she finds she will not be able to get any news from Tobermory, or from Salen, or from Dervaig, or from Craignure, or from Lochdon, or from Lochbuie, or from Bunessan, the whole of this blessed day!"

"Raither Unceevil"

A well-known boat, The Stormy Petrel, had been to Ardrossan for coal, and was conveying the precious cargo to the romantic terminus of Cairndow at the head of Loch Fyne. At St. Catherine's a great thirst took possession of the crew, and they put in there for refreshments. The conversation was most animated, and extended itself over a wide tract of political and theological topics. On setting out for Cairndow early next morning, all the crew had wistful, lustreless eyes, confused thoughts, and bad consciences. He to whom the coal was being conveyed, was awaiting them. He rowed out to The Stormy Petrel in a small boat, and on coming near assailed them, in English and Gaelic, with all the most vituperative expressions he could remember. But the crew, each and all of them, knew they had been guilty of culpable delay, and uttered not a word, good or bad, as their assailant rowed round their boat and withered them with his invective. They had no fight left in them, and sat, with bowed heads, till the storm would subside. After enduring the agony for half an hour, one of the crew looked up and said, "Do you no' think, Mr. Sanderson, that you're raither unceevil so early in the morning?" This remark, uttered in a quiet, sad, reproachful way, staggered Mr. Sanderson far more than the most thunderous abuse would have done, and brought home to him the undoubted fact that he had been defective on the score of good taste.

An Unwelcome Recitation

One of the travellers, on being asked to contribute his item to the fund of anecdotes, said that instead of telling a tale, he would give a recitation. Before doing so, he sneezed artificially six times, and then recited a poem on

Influenza

Influenza has come like the wolf on the fold,
And the duke and the ditcher are down with the cold.
The doctor is smiling, for business is here,
And the chink of the guinea resounds in his ear.
No household is spared: both the villa and cot
Their quota of swollen-nosed patients have got.
The clerk of the weather is gloating on high
At the lords of creation that bed-ridden lie.
Each chamber resounds with the echo of sneezing,
With deep-laboured coughing and bronchial wheezing.
While, loading the table, the victim can spy
Lotions, tonics, and ointments confusedly lie.
The druggist (douce man) is thanking his stars
For this nice epidemic of paying catarrhs,
He's making his hay, though no sunshine is seen,
And his till gleams with silver where copper has been.

A Word in Season

This dismal piece of verse effectually cleared the smoking-room, and filled me with a great sorrow, since I had just recollected three or four stories of my own. I now take the liberty of laying these before the ingenuous reader. If he says they are dull, let me tell him (i.) that he has no perception of humour, and (ii.) that occasional dulness is the inalienable privilege of every free-born Briton. Many a spry wight thinks it his duty to be continuously funny and monotonously merry. Let a quiet and demure dulness be the foil of your side-splitting sallies. Learn to keep the peace, yea for hours at a time. If you are in a mixed company, cultivate the dictum of "give and take." Be not for ever doling out your scraps of mirth to the dyspeptic stomachs of your associates. A wise reciprocity and interplay of merriment is the best rule--a fair share among the entire party. Burns himself, sparkling talker as he was, is recorded to have been at times sunk in gloom and shadow. But anon emerging from his moodiness, he would utter such words as set the table in a roar. And now for these masterpieces of humour.

A Nairn Critic

Why is it that publishers, aye, and even booksellers, are so often out of sympathy with the poets? I spoke once to a bookseller in Nairn about a local poet's volume that was lying on the counter. "Do you personally know this bard?" I asked. "Ay, that I do," was the reply; "he's an eccentric wee chap. I've many a laugh at him as he goes along the street, muttering to himself and picking his teeth with a fountain-pen. Eccentric! bless my soul, how could a poet be anything but eccentric? Besides, he's bound to be a liar: for if he can't get the end of a line to come right with truth for a rhyme, he has got to make it clink with a whopper. Why, man, it's a great worry for an honest man like me to speak the truth in plain prose. If I were to send out my bills in metre to my customers, there would be a rise of temperature soon in the town of Nairn. No, no: the only thing that can be done with a poet's manuscript is to take it to the head of the garden, sprinkle it with paraffin, and apply a vesta."

"A Grand Day for It"

While one of the great six-day battles of the Eastern war was going on, a country doctor, by some mistake in delivery, did not get his Herald to breakfast one morning. Anxious to get the news, he bolted his meal and sallied forth to hear the latest from the seat of war. He saw a wrinkled old churl trimming the roadside hedge with a bill-hook, and humming a tune like the gravedigger in Hamlet, Act v. "Any news of the war?" gasped the doctor. "Eh?" said the old man, without discontinuing his work. "Are you not aware," said the doctor, "that there is a great battle raging in Manchuria?" "No," said the man, "I know nothing about it, and care less." "What!" shouted the doctor. "You care nothing about it? Why, man, the Russians and Japanese are at this moment fighting for the hegemony of all Eastern Asia." "Lord, do you say so?" replied the old cock, lopping unconcernedly at his hedge; "well, all I can say is, that they're gettin' a grand day for it."

A Pro-Boer

On one occasion, in the West Highlands, I availed myself of a lugsail ferry to cross an arm of the sea and so avoid a long détour by land. The boat was old, the sail was thick with big-stitched patches, and the ferryman was an elder. I had much edifying talk with him, and at last gliding from the Declaratory Act, of which he did not approve, I asked him if he had any family. "Yes," he replied, "I have two sons. One of them is a polissman in Glasgow, a nice lad, a very nice lad: he sends me ten shillings every month; oh! an excellent lad is he indeed. But my other son is a disgrace to me; he is bad, very bad. He is a drunkard and a card-player and a Sabbath-breaker, and what's a thousand times worse than all that, he's a Pro-Boer." This instance of patriotism in a remote Highland nook was very refreshing for me to hear, and I gave the anti-Krugerite elder a substantial fare for his trouble in ferrying me over the loch. He invoked the blessing of Heaven on me, and I hope his prayer will be answered.

"Falls Of Bruar, Only, Please!"

Some years ago, I had occasion to spend a day at Blair Athol, where I was dosed with nothing but kindness by a genial son of the famous Clan Macdonald. He put his trap and driver at my disposal, in order that I might, with comfort and expedition, go and view the Falls of Bruar, immortalised in one of Burns's cleverest poems. No sooner had we set off than the driver began to calumniate Burns in unmeasured language, and to throw withering scorn on the Falls, which, he declared, were utterly unworthy of being visited by any sane man. "If you want to see real falls," said he, "I'll take you to the Falls of Tummel, which could knock those of Bruar into a cocked hat!" (such was the curious metaphor he employed). I told him he could take me to both if there was time, but Bruar I must see. He landed me at the Tummel, and drove on recklessly himself a mile further to see his sweetheart. The desire to pay a visit to his Bonnie Jean was the sole cause of his gibes at the poet. Back he came in an hour, chanting merrily, and we drove to Bruar. I found the varlet had lied most expansively: the Falls are gloriously fine, and worth walking a good many miles to see. On the homeward road, I could see he was ill at ease: he was dreadfully afraid that his amorous flight would be discovered by his master. He said to me once every minute, "Falls of Bruar, only, please: keep your thumb on Tummel!" Latterly he set these words to a kind of rough music, and sang them continuously in my ear, winking the while and smiling roguishly. I obeyed him.

A Bad Case of Nerves

While I was sitting alone in the smoking-room of the hotel, a tall, thin, restless-eyed, aristocratic young fellow came quietly in. He went up to the sideboard, poured out half a tumbler of water, and carefully measured out about ten drops of phospherine therein. He swallowed the mixture, smacked his lips, and sighed. He then remarked that it was a nice evening and that he was very ill with a nervous complaint. "I suppose, now," he said, "you would actually tell me not to worry, to take everything easy, and, above all, to firmly believe there is nothing whatever the matter with me?" "Most certainly," I said, "you ought to consider yourself in perfectly good health; by and by you would come to be so in reality. The Christian Scientists say you might even learn to hold fire in your hand by thinking of the frosty Caucasus." "I suppose, too, you would recommend me to have a hobby, such as golf, or gardening, or amateur photography." "Yes, I believe a harmless hobby such as you mention would relieve the mental strain and take you out of yourself." "Well, I essayed golf, but, alas! I massacred a ram; I tried gardening, and tired of it before the flowers began to show; and as to photography, it only increased the number of my enemies." "What about cycling or horse-riding?" "These won't do--I can think at both of them. Now, I don't want to think: in fact, I mustn't." "Fishing? wouldn't that be a reposeful diversion?" "No, no," he said, "I could not stand the sight of an animal enduring pain." "Well, you surely might try a little light reading." "The strange thing about my reading is this," said he, "I look at a sentence and understand it, but I am aware of something, either at the back of my head or behind me, which says, 'All this is futile stuff and nonsense: give it up, it's not for you; you are condemned to everlasting emptiness, and your life will never know any more fulness or joy.'

"Immense vacuity of intellect!
I lift a volume, but a sentence tires;
Even a flimsy magazine requires
From me more concentration and direct
Volition than my vagrant wits elect
To give the pages. All my soul desires
Is to gaze without purpose on the fire's
Crackle of glowing cinders, and detect
Weird shapes of beasts and palaces and men
In the red mass of photographic coal;
Perchance my lazy mind may, now and then,
Without exertion, read as on a scroll
(While the glede sinks to ashes in the grate)
The dust and nothingness of mortal state."

"Well," I said, "your case is a queer one, and I am at a loss to suggest anything further." At this, the young man burst into a loud peal of laughter. He was supremely delighted at finding himself so unique, so singular. He took me by the hand, shook it most heartily, saying, "I haven't enjoyed myself so much for a long time. If I were oftener in the company of men like you, I might regain hope."

The improvement was, unfortunately, of very short duration. He continued his observations thus:

"And yet, and yet: Sunt lacrimae rerum. What is this world but a succession of fleeting images chasing each other across a background of joy or pain! Now we quaff the sour cup of misery, by and by we drink the intoxicating vintage of hope. Heaven alone stands firm, gemmed with the pitiless stars. The day breaks, rises to its glory in the shimmering height of noon, and dies away in the west: so does the utmost pride of man's career fade away to nothing, a harvest for Time's scythe. On all this growth and decay the stars gaze with their unpitying and eternal eyes. I think I'll have a little more phospherine."

Chapter VII--Legends and Literary Notabilia


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