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The book is unusually divided into four seasons instead of chapters and represents a semi-fictional autobiographical work by George Gissing in which the author casts himself as the editor of the diary of a deceased acquaintance, selecting essays for posthumous publication. Observing how suitable many of the reflections were to the month with which they were dated.
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The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2016
Copyright © 2016 Sovereign
All Rights Reserved.
The name of Henry Ryecroft never became familiar to what is called the reading public. A year ago obituary paragraphs in the literary papers gave such account of him as was thought needful: the date and place of his birth, the names of certain books he had written, an allusion to his work in the periodicals, the manner of his death. At the time it sufficed. Even those few who knew the man, and in a measure understood him, must have felt that his name called for no further celebration; like other mortals, he had lived and laboured; like other mortals, he had entered into his rest. To me, however, fell the duty of examining Ryecroft’s papers; and having, in the exercise of my discretion, decided to print this little volume, I feel that it requires a word or two of biographical complement, just so much personal detail as may point the significance of the self-revelation here made.
When first I knew him, Ryecroft had reached his fortieth year; for twenty years he had lived by the pen. He was a struggling man, beset by poverty and other circumstances very unpropitious to mental work. Many forms of literature had he tried; in none had he been conspicuously successful; yet now and then he had managed to earn a little more money than his actual needs demanded, and thus was enabled to see something of foreign countries. Naturally a man of independent and rather scornful outlook, he had suffered much from defeated ambition, from disillusions of many kinds, from subjection to grim necessity; the result of it, at the time of which I am speaking, was, certainly not a broken spirit, but a mind and temper so sternly disciplined, that, in ordinary intercourse with him, one did not know but that he led a calm, contented life. Only after several years of friendship was I able to form a just idea of what the man had gone through, or of his actual existence. Little by little Ryecroft had subdued himself to a modestly industrious routine. He did a great deal of mere hack-work; he reviewed, he translated, he wrote articles; at long intervals a volume appeared under his name. There were times, I have no doubt, when bitterness took hold upon him; not seldom he suffered in health, and probably as much from moral as from physical over-strain; but, on the whole, he earned his living very much as other men do, taking the day’s toil as a matter of course, and rarely grumbling over it.
Time went on; things happened; but Ryecroft was still laborious and poor. In moments of depression he spoke of his declining energies, and evidently suffered under a haunting fear of the future. The thought of dependence had always been intolerable to him; perhaps the only boast I at any time heard from his lips was that he had never incurred debt. It was a bitter thought that, after so long and hard a struggle with unkindly circumstance, he might end his life as one of the defeated.
A happier lot was in store for him. At the age of fifty, just when his health had begun to fail and his energies to show abatement, Ryecroft had the rare good fortune to find himself suddenly released from toil, and to enter upon a period of such tranquillity of mind and condition as he had never dared to hope. On the death of an acquaintance, more his friend than he imagined, the wayworn man of letters learnt with astonishment that there was bequeathed to him a life annuity of three hundred pounds. Having only himself to support (he had been a widower for several years, and his daughter, an only child, was married), Ryecroft saw in this income something more than a competency. In a few weeks he quitted the London suburb where of late he had been living, and, turning to the part of England which he loved best, he presently established himself in a cottage near Exeter, where, with a rustic housekeeper to look after him, he was soon thoroughly at home. Now and then some friend went down into Devon to see him; those who had that pleasure will not forget the plain little house amid its half-wild garden, the cosy book-room with its fine view across the valley of the Exe to Haldon, the host’s cordial, gleeful hospitality, rambles with him in lanes and meadows, long talks amid the stillness of the rural night. We hoped it would all last for many a year; it seemed, indeed, as though Ryecroft had only need of rest and calm to become a hale man. But already, though he did not know it, he was suffering from a disease of the heart, which cut short his life after little more than a lustrum of quiet contentment. It had always been his wish to die suddenly; he dreaded the thought of illness, chiefly because of the trouble it gave to others. On a summer evening, after a long walk in very hot weather, he lay down upon the sofa in his study, and there—as his calm face declared—passed from slumber into the great silence.
When he left London, Ryecroft bade farewell to authorship. He told me that he hoped never to write another line for publication. But, among the papers which I looked through after his death, I came upon three manuscript books which at first glance seemed to be a diary; a date on the opening page of one of them showed that it had been begun not very long after the writer’s settling in Devon. When I had read a little in these pages, I saw that they were no mere record of day-to-day life; evidently finding himself unable to forego altogether the use of the pen, the veteran had set down, as humour bade him, a thought, a reminiscence, a bit of reverie, a description of his state of mind, and so on, dating such passage merely with the month in which it was written. Sitting in the room where I had often been his companion, I turned page after page, and at moments it was as though my friend’s voice sounded to me once more. I saw his worn visage, grave or smiling; recalled his familiar pose or gesture. But in this written gossip he revealed himself more intimately than in our conversation of the days gone by. Ryecroft had never erred by lack of reticence; as was natural in a sensitive man who had suffered much, he inclined to gentle acquiescence, shrank from argument, from self-assertion. Here he spoke to me without restraint, and, when I had read it all through, I knew the man better than before.
Assuredly, this writing was not intended for the public, and yet, in many a passage, I seemed to perceive the literary purpose—something more than the turn of phrase, and so on, which results from long habit of composition. Certain of his reminiscences, in particular, Ryecroft could hardly have troubled to write down had he not, however vaguely, entertained the thought of putting them to some use. I suspect that, in his happy leisure, there grew upon him a desire to write one more book, a book which should be written merely for his own satisfaction. Plainly, it would have been the best he had it in him to do. But he seems never to have attempted the arrangement of these fragmentary pieces, and probably because he could not decide upon the form they should take. I imagine him shrinking from the thought of a first-person volume; he would feel it too pretentious; he would bid himself wait for the day of riper wisdom. And so the pen fell from his hand.
Conjecturing thus, I wondered whether the irregular diary might not have wider interest than at first appeared. To me, its personal appeal was very strong; might it not be possible to cull from it the substance of a small volume which, at least for its sincerity’s sake, would not be without value for those who read, not with the eye alone, but with the mind? I turned the pages again. Here was a man who, having his desire, and that a very modest one, not only felt satisfied, but enjoyed great happiness. He talked of many different things, saying exactly what he thought; he spoke of himself, and told the truth as far as mortal can tell it. It seemed to me that the thing had human interest. I decided to print.
The question of arrangement had to be considered; I did not like to offer a mere incondite miscellany. To supply each of the disconnected passages with a title, or even to group them under subject headings, would have interfered with the spontaneity which, above all, I wished to preserve. In reading through the matter I had selected, it struck me how often the aspects of nature were referred to, and how suitable many of the reflections were to the month with which they were dated. Ryecroft, I knew, had ever been much influenced by the mood of the sky, and by the procession of the year. So I hit upon the thought of dividing the little book into four chapters, named after the seasons. Like all classifications, it is imperfect, but ’twill serve.
For more than a week my pen has lain untouched. I have written nothing for seven whole days, not even a letter. Except during one or two bouts of illness, such a thing never happened in my life before. In my life; the life, that is, which had to be supported by anxious toil; the life which was not lived for living’s sake, as all life should be, but under the goad of fear. The earning of money should be a means to an end; for more than thirty years—I began to support myself at sixteen—I had to regard it as the end itself.
I could imagine that my old penholder feels reproachfully towards me. Has it not served me well? Why do I, in my happiness, let it lie there neglected, gathering dust? The same penholder that has lain against my forefinger day after day, for—how many years? Twenty, at least; I remember buying it at a shop in Tottenham Court Road. By the same token I bought that day a paper-weight, which cost me a whole shilling—an extravagance which made me tremble. The penholder shone with its new varnish, now it is plain brown wood from end to end. On my forefinger it has made a callosity.
Old companion, yet old enemy! How many a time have I taken it up, loathing the necessity, heavy in head and heart, my hand shaking, my eyes sick-dazzled! How I dreaded the white page I had to foul with ink! Above all, on days such as this, when the blue eyes of Spring laughed from between rosy clouds, when the sunlight shimmered upon my table and made me long, long all but to madness, for the scent of the flowering earth, for the green of hillside larches, for the singing of the skylark above the downs. There was a time—it seems further away than childhood—when I took up my pen with eagerness; if my hand trembled it was with hope. But a hope that fooled me, for never a page of my writing deserved to live. I can say that now without bitterness. It was youthful error, and only the force of circumstance prolonged it. The world has done me no injustice; thank Heaven I have grown wise enough not to rail at it for this! And why should any man who writes, even if he write things immortal, nurse anger at the world’s neglect? Who asked him to publish? Who promised him a hearing? Who has broken faith with him? If my shoemaker turn me out an excellent pair of boots, and I, in some mood of cantankerous unreason, throw them back upon his hands, the man has just cause of complaint. But your poem, your novel, who bargained with you for it? If it is honest journeywork, yet lacks purchasers, at most you may call yourself a hapless tradesman. If it come from on high, with what decency do you fret and fume because it is not paid for in heavy cash? For the work of man’s mind there is one test, and one alone, the judgment of generations yet unborn. If you have written a great book, the world to come will know of it. But you don’t care for posthumous glory. You want to enjoy fame in a comfortable armchair. Ah, that is quite another thing. Have the courage of your desire. Admit yourself a merchant, and protest to gods and men that the merchandise you offer is of better quality than much which sells for a high price. You may be right, and indeed it is hard upon you that Fashion does not turn to your stall.
The exquisite quiet of this room! I have been sitting in utter idleness, watching the sky, viewing the shape of golden sunlight upon the carpet, which changes as the minutes pass, letting my eye wander from one framed print to another, and along the ranks of my beloved books. Within the house nothing stirs. In the garden I can hear singing of birds, I can hear the rustle of their wings. And thus, if it please me, I may sit all day long, and into the profounder quiet of the night.
My house is perfect. By great good fortune I have found a housekeeper no less to my mind, a low-voiced, light-footed woman of discreet age, strong and deft enough to render me all the service I require, and not afraid of solitude. She rises very early. By my breakfast-time there remains little to be done under the roof save dressing of meals. Very rarely do I hear even a clink of crockery; never the closing of a door or window. Oh, blessed silence!
There is not the remotest possibility of any one’s calling upon me, and that I should call upon any one else is a thing undreamt of. I owe a letter to a friend; perhaps I shall write it before bedtime; perhaps I shall leave it till to-morrow morning. A letter of friendship should never be written save when the spirit prompts. I have not yet looked at the newspaper. Generally I leave it till I come back tired from my walk; it amuses me then to see what the noisy world is doing, what new self-torments men have discovered, what new forms of vain toil, what new occasions of peril and of strife. I grudge to give the first freshness of the morning mind to things so sad and foolish.
My house is perfect. Just large enough to allow the grace of order in domestic circumstance; just that superfluity of intramural space, to lack which is to be less than at one’s ease. The fabric is sound; the work in wood and plaster tells of a more leisurely and a more honest age than ours. The stairs do not creak under my step; I am waylaid by no unkindly draught; I can open or close a window without muscle-ache. As to such trifles as the tint and device of wall-paper, I confess my indifference; be the walls only unobtrusive, and I am satisfied. The first thing in one’s home is comfort; let beauty of detail be added if one has the means, the patience, the eye.
To me, this little book-room is beautiful, and chiefly because it is home. Through the greater part of life I was homeless. Many places have I inhabited, some which my soul loathed, and some which pleased me well; but never till now with that sense of security which makes a home. At any moment I might have been driven forth by evil hap, by nagging necessity. For all that time did I say within myself: Some day, perchance, I shall have a home; yet the “perchance” had more and more of emphasis as life went on, and at the moment when fate was secretly smiling on me, I had all but abandoned hope. I have my home at last. When I place a new volume on my shelves, I say: Stand there whilst I have eyes to see you; and a joyous tremor thrills me. This house is mine on a lease of a score of years. So long I certainly shall not live; but, if I did, even so long should I have the wherewithal to pay my rent and buy my food.
I think with compassion of the unhappy mortals for whom no such sun will ever rise. I should like to add to the Litany a new petition: “For all inhabitants of great towns, and especially for all such as dwell in lodgings, boarding-houses, flats, or any other sordid substitute for Home which need or foolishness may have contrived.”
In vain I have pondered the Stoic virtues. I know that it is folly to fret about the spot of one’s abode on this little earth.
All places that the eye of heaven visits
Are to the wise man ports and happy havens.
But I have always worshipped wisdom afar off. In the sonorous period of the philosopher, in the golden measure of the poet, I find it of all things lovely. To its possession I shall never attain. What will it serve me to pretend a virtue of which I am incapable? To me the place and manner of my abode is of supreme import; let it be confessed, and there an end of it. I am no cosmopolite. Were I to think that I should die away from England, the thought would be dreadful to me. And in England, this is the dwelling of my choice; this is my home.
I am no botanist, but I have long found pleasure in herb-gathering. I love to come upon a plant which is unknown to me, to identify it with the help of my book, to greet it by name when next it shines beside my path. If the plant be rare, its discovery gives me joy. Nature, the great Artist, makes her common flowers in the common view; no word in human language can express the marvel and the loveliness even of what we call the vulgarest weed, but these are fashioned under the gaze of every passer-by. The rare flower is shaped apart, in places secret, in the Artist’s subtler mood; to find it is to enjoy the sense of admission to a holier precinct. Even in my gladness I am awed.
To-day I have walked far, and at the end of my walk I found the little white-flowered wood-ruff. It grew in a copse of young ash. When I had looked long at the flower, I delighted myself with the grace of the slim trees about it—their shining smoothness, their olive hue. Hard by stood a bush of wych elm; its tettered bark, overlined as if with the character of some unknown tongue, made the young ashes yet more beautiful.
It matters not how long I wander. There is no task to bring me back; no one will be vexed or uneasy, linger I ever so late. Spring is shining upon these lanes and meadows; I feel as if I must follow every winding track that opens by my way. Spring has restored to me something of the long-forgotten vigour of youth; I walk without weariness; I sing to myself like a boy, and the song is one I knew in boyhood.
That reminds me of an incident. Near a hamlet, in a lonely spot by a woodside, I came upon a little lad of perhaps ten years old, who, his head hidden in his arms against a tree trunk, was crying bitterly. I asked him what was the matter, and, after a little trouble—he was better than a mere bumpkin—I learnt that, having been sent with sixpence to pay a debt, he had lost the money. The poor little fellow was in a state of mind which in a grave man would be called the anguish of despair; he must have been crying for a long time; every muscle in his face quivered as if under torture, his limbs shook; his eyes, his voice, uttered such misery as only the vilest criminal should be made to suffer. And it was because he had lost sixpence!
I could have shed tears with him—tears of pity and of rage at all this spectacle implied. On a day of indescribable glory, when earth and heaven shed benedictions upon the soul of man, a child, whose nature would have bidden him rejoice as only childhood may, wept his heart out because his hand had dropped a sixpenny piece! The loss was a very serious one, and he knew it; he was less afraid to face his parents, than overcome by misery at the thought of the harm he had done them. Sixpence dropped by the wayside, and a whole family made wretched! What are the due descriptive terms for a state of “civilization” in which such a thing as this is possible?
I put my hand into my pocket, and wrought sixpennyworth of miracle.
It took me half an hour to recover my quiet mind. After all, it is as idle to rage against man’s fatuity as to hope that he will ever be less a fool. For me, the great thing was my sixpenny miracle. Why, I have known the day when it would have been beyond my power altogether, or else would have cost me a meal. Wherefore, let me again be glad and thankful.
There was a time in my life when, if I had suddenly been set in the position I now enjoy, conscience would have lain in ambush for me. What! An income sufficient to support three or four working-class families—a house all to myself—things beautiful wherever I turn—and absolutely nothing to do for it all! I should have been hard put to it to defend myself. In those days I was feelingly reminded, hour by hour, with what a struggle the obscure multitudes manage to keep alive. Nobody knows better than I do quam parvo liceat producere vitam. I have hungered in the streets; I have laid my head in the poorest shelter; I know what it is to feel the heart burn with wrath and envy of “the privileged classes.” Yes, but all that time I was one of “the privileged” myself, and now I can accept a recognized standing among them without shadow of self-reproach.
It does not mean that my larger sympathies are blunted. By going to certain places, looking upon certain scenes, I could most effectually destroy all the calm that life has brought me. If I hold apart and purposely refuse to look that way, it is because I believe that the world is better, not worse, for having one more inhabitant who lives as becomes a civilized being. Let him whose soul prompts him to assail the iniquity of things, cry and spare not; let him who has the vocation go forth and combat. In me it would be to err from Nature’s guidance. I know, if I know anything, that I am made for the life of tranquillity and meditation. I know that only thus can such virtue as I possess find scope. More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness. Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all.
How well would the revenues of a country be expended, if, by mere pensioning, one-fifth of its population could be induced to live as I do!
“Sir,” said Johnson, “all the arguments which are brought to represent poverty as no evil, show it to be evidently a great evil. You never find people labouring to convince you that you may live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.”
He knew what he was talking of, that rugged old master of common sense. Poverty is of course a relative thing; the term has reference, above all, to one’s standing as an intellectual being. If I am to believe the newspapers, there are title-bearing men and women in England who, had they an assured income of five-and-twenty, shillings per week, would have no right to call themselves poor, for their intellectual needs are those of a stable-boy or scullery wench. Give me the same income and I can live, but I am poor indeed.
You tell me that money cannot buy the things most precious. Your commonplace proves that you have never known the lack of it. When I think of all the sorrow and the barrenness that has been wrought in my life by want of a few more pounds per annum than I was able to earn, I stand aghast at money’s significance. What kindly joys have I lost, those simple forms of happiness to which every heart has claim, because of poverty! Meetings with those I loved made impossible year after year; sadness, misunderstanding, nay, cruel alienation, arising from inability to do the things I wished, and which I might have done had a little money helped me; endless instances of homely pleasure and contentment curtailed or forbidden by narrow means. I have lost friends merely through the constraints of my position; friends I might have made have remained strangers to me; solitude of the bitter kind, the solitude which is enforced at times when mind or heart longs for companionship, often cursed my life solely because I was poor. I think it would scarce be an exaggeration to say that there is no moral good which has not to be paid for in coin of the realm.
“Poverty,” said Johnson again, “is so great an evil, and pregnant with so much temptation, so much misery, that I cannot but earnestly enjoin you to avoid it.”
For my own part, I needed no injunction to that effort of avoidance. Many a London garret knows how I struggled with the unwelcome chamber-fellow. I marvel she did not abide with me to the end; it is a sort of inconsequence in Nature, and sometimes makes me vaguely uneasy through nights of broken sleep.
How many more springs can I hope to see? A sanguine temper would say ten or twelve; let me dare to hope humbly for five or six. That is a great many. Five or six spring-times, welcomed joyously, lovingly watched from the first celandine to the budding of the rose; who shall dare to call it a stinted boon? Five or six times the miracle of earth reclad, the vision of splendour and loveliness which tongue has never yet described, set before my gazing. To think of it is to fear that I ask too much.
“Homo animal querulum cupide suis incumbens miseriis.” I wonder where that comes from. I found it once in Charron, quoted without reference, and it has often been in my mind—a dreary truth, well worded. At least, it was a truth for me during many a long year. Life, I fancy, would very often be insupportable, but for the luxury of self-compassion; in cases numberless, this it must be that saves from suicide. For some there is great relief in talking about their miseries, but such gossips lack the profound solace of misery nursed in silent brooding. Happily, the trick with me has never been retrospective; indeed, it was never, even with regard to instant suffering, a habit so deeply rooted as to become a mastering vice. I knew my own weakness when I yielded to it; I despised myself when it brought me comfort; I could laugh scornfully, even “cupide meis incumbens miseriis.” And now, thanks be to the unknown power which rules us, my past has buried its dead. More than that; I can accept with sober cheerfulness the necessity of all I lived through. So it was to be; so it was. For this did Nature shape me; with what purpose, I shall never know; but, in the sequence of things eternal, this was my place.
Could I have achieved so much philosophy if, as I ever feared, the closing years of my life had passed in helpless indigence? Should I not have sunk into lowest depths of querulous self-pity, grovelling there with eyes obstinately averted from the light above?
The early coming of spring in this happy Devon gladdens my heart. I think with chill discomfort of those parts of England where the primrose shivers beneath a sky of threat rather than of solace. Honest winter, snow-clad and with the frosted beard, I can welcome not uncordially; but that long deferment of the calendar’s promise, that weeping gloom of March and April, that bitter blast outraging the honour of May—how often has it robbed me of heart and hope. Here, scarce have I assured myself that the last leaf has fallen, scarce have I watched the glistening of hoar-frost upon the evergreens, when a breath from the west thrills me with anticipation of bud and bloom. Even under this grey-billowing sky, which tells that February is still in rule:—
Mild winds shake the elder brake,
And the wandering herdsmen know
That the whitethorn soon will blow.
I have been thinking of those early years of mine in London, when the seasons passed over me unobserved, when I seldom turned a glance towards the heavens, and felt no hardship in the imprisonment of boundless streets. It is strange now to remember that for some six or seven years I never looked upon a meadow, never travelled even so far as to the tree-bordered suburbs. I was battling for dear life; on most days I could not feel certain that in a week’s time I should have food and shelter. It would happen, to be sure, that in hot noons of August my thoughts wandered to the sea; but so impossible was the gratification of such desire that it never greatly troubled me. At times, indeed, I seem all but to have forgotten that people went away for holiday. In those poor parts of the town where I dwelt, season made no perceptible difference; there were no luggage-laden cabs to remind me of joyous journeys; the folk about me went daily to their toil as usual, and so did I. I remember afternoons of languor, when books were a weariness, and no thought could be squeezed out of the drowsy brain; then would I betake myself to one of the parks, and find refreshment without any enjoyable sense of change. Heavens, how I laboured in those days! And how far I was from thinking of myself as a subject for compassion! That came later, when my health had begun to suffer from excess of toil, from bad air, bad food and many miseries; then awoke the maddening desire for countryside and sea-beach—and for other things yet more remote. But in the years when I toiled hardest and underwent what now appear to me hideous privations, of a truth I could not be said to suffer at all. I did not suffer, for I had no sense of weakness. My health was proof against everything, and my energies defied all malice of circumstance. With however little encouragement, I had infinite hope. Sound sleep (often in places I now dread to think of) sent me fresh to the battle each morning, my breakfast, sometimes, no more than a slice of bread and a cup of water. As human happiness goes, I am not sure that I was not then happy.
Most men who go through a hard time in their youth are supported by companionship. London has no pays latin, but hungry beginners in literature have generally their suitable comrades, garreteers in the Tottenham Court Road district, or in unredeemed Chelsea; they make their little vie de Bohème, and are consciously proud of it. Of my position, the peculiarity was that I never belonged to any cluster; I shrank from casual acquaintance, and, through the grim years, had but one friend with whom I held converse. It was never my instinct to look for help, to seek favour for advancement; whatever step I gained was gained by my own strength. Even as I disregarded favour so did I scorn advice; no counsel would I ever take but that of my own brain and heart. More than once I was driven by necessity to beg from strangers the means of earning bread, and this of all my experiences was the bitterest; yet I think I should have found it worse still to incur a debt to some friend or comrade. The truth is that I have never learnt to regard myself as a “member of society.” For me, there have always been two entities—myself and the world, and the normal relation between these two has been hostile. Am I not still a lonely man, as far as ever from forming part of the social order?
This, of which I once was scornfully proud, seems to me now, if not a calamity, something I would not choose if life were to live again.
For more than six years I trod the pavement, never stepping once upon mother earth—for the parks are but pavement disguised with a growth of grass. Then the worst was over. Say I the worst? No, no; things far worse were to come; the struggle against starvation has its cheery side when one is young and vigorous. But at all events I had begun to earn a living; I held assurance of food and clothing for half a year at a time; granted health, I might hope to draw my not insufficient wages for many a twelvemonth. And they were the wages of work done independently, when and where I would. I thought with horror of lives spent in an office, with an employer to obey. The glory of the career of letters was its freedom, its dignity!
The fact of the matter was, of course, that I served, not one master, but a whole crowd of them. Independence, forsooth! If my writing failed to please editor, publisher, public, where was my daily bread? The greater my success, the more numerous my employers. I was the slave of a multitude. By heaven’s grace I had succeeded in pleasing (that is to say, in making myself a source of profit to) certain persons who represented this vague throng; for the time, they were gracious to me; but what justified me in the faith that I should hold the ground I had gained? Could the position of any toiling man be more precarious than mine? I tremble now as I think of it, tremble as I should in watching some one who walked carelessly on the edge of an abyss. I marvel at the recollection that for a good score of years this pen and a scrap of paper clothed and fed me and my household, kept me in physical comfort, held at bay all those hostile forces of the world ranged against one who has no resource save in his own right hand.
But I was thinking of the year which saw my first exodus from London. On an irresistible impulse, I suddenly made up my mind to go into Devon, a part of England I had never seen. At the end of March I escaped from my grim lodgings, and, before I had time to reflect on the details of my undertaking, I found myself sitting in sunshine at a spot very near to where I now dwell—before me the green valley of the broadening Exe and the pine-clad ridge of Haldon. That was one of the moments of my life when I have tasted exquisite joy. My state of mind was very strange. Though as boy and youth I had been familiar with the country, had seen much of England’s beauties, it was as though I found myself for the first time before a natural landscape. Those years of London had obscured all my earlier life; I was like a man town-born and bred, who scarce knows anything but street vistas. The light, the air, had for me something of the supernatural—affected me, indeed, only less than at a later time did the atmosphere of Italy. It was glorious spring weather; a few white clouds floated amid the blue, and the earth had an intoxicating fragrance. Then first did I know myself for a sun-worshipper. How had I lived so long without asking whether there was a sun in the heavens or not? Under that radiant firmament, I could have thrown myself upon my knees in adoration. As I walked, I found myself avoiding every strip of shadow; were it but that of a birch trunk, I felt as if it robbed me of the day’s delight. I went bare-headed, that the golden beams might shed upon me their unstinted blessing. That day I must have walked some thirty miles, yet I knew not fatigue. Could I but have once more the strength which then supported me!
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