Long Odds

Chapter VIII

Mr. Septimus Bland

Marcus Clarke

WHEN Mr. Robert Binns heard of the marriage of his beloved and his enemy, he was both sorrowful and indignant. In his vulgar way he loved Miss Manton, and jealousy and love affect vulgar people quite as much as they do those of higher rank. The costermonger who curses in rich and copious Doric at the desertion of Molly Jones, is giving utterance to the same sentiments as those which Mr. Aubrey Vere de Vere pours forth when Lady Clara—prompted, perhaps, by a feeling of remorse for the death of the “peasant boy”—elopes with Auguste Chassemari, to the infinite grief of all her relatives. Othello and the deceived cat’s-meat man say very much the same things, only the Moor talks poetry, and the purveyor of horseflesh kabobs remarkably bad prose.

Binns, grocer’s assistant and poetaster, was as sore at heart as if he had been heir to a dukedom, and descended in a direct line from one of William the Conqueror’s desperadoes. He showed his sorrow in a different way though.

When Lord Lundyfoot was jilted by Miss O’More of Ballymore, his lordship followed his successful rival to Paris, and shot him through the lungs, with aristocratic disregard of the sixth commandment. When Hobbs (of Hobbs and Buffle, cheesemongers, of Fetter-lane) discovered that Miss Sophronia Gusset (of Laburnum Villas, Highgate), had thrown him over, in order to marry young Horace Tomkins of the Stock Exchange, he took to cold brandy-and-water and cigars—a course of treatment which eventually terminated in Whitecross-street; while MacHirdie, the civil engineer, brought an action for breach of promise against his treacherous ladye love, and soothed his wounded feelings by the application of “one farthing damages.”

Binns, however, did none of these things. He wrote poetry—sad stuff most of it was, too, principally about graves, and billows, and blighted hopes, and lonely isles—but it relieved Binns. The old woman whose duty it was to replenish the brown bottle that contained a stump of a quill pen and some black coagulated mud, presumed to be ink, was astonished at the quantity of that fluid consumed by the melancholy “assistant.” Binns was writing night and morning. He elaborated rhymes while he was packing up half-pounds of “moist,” and would rush away from the counter at intervals to commit to paper some more than usually brilliant image. Even when going round for orders, his grief would pursue him; and while taking his daily turn at the coffee-mill he would groan in the spirit and compare himself to Ixion, whose woes had been made known to him through a burlesque at the Strand Theatre and an odd volume of Smith’s Classical Dictionary.

In the elaboration of his laments, and the attempt to tear this rooted passion from his heart, he was assisted by a friend.

There were “rooms” over the shop, and in those rooms lived Mr. Septimus Bland, reporter for the Morning Mercury.

Bland was a tall thin man, with a wiry head of hair, that was always erect and “parting”-less. He was bony, and cadaverous, had a deep resonant voice, wrote shorthand to a miracle, quoted Shakspeare and the poets ad libitum, dressed in rusty black, carried his handkerchief in his hat, greasy packages of bread and meat in his coat-tail pockets, was very shortsighted, very unpractical, and the best-hearted, kindest, inoffensive creature that ever vegetated upon three pounds a week.

Poor Bland began life with a pretty Devonshire wife, and a large stock of English literature and inexperience. As a natural consequence, he went to the bad. He fell gradually from the writer in magazines to the reporter for Sunday papers, then to the picker up of odds and ends for the “dailies.” His style of magazine-writing was too old-fashioned for the present day—too much like the “Spectator,” or an odd page of the “Rambler.” Moreover his wife fell ill; and how could he write articles when his wife was dying? The publishers, however, did not care about his wife or anybody’s wife; they wanted matter, and if Bland could not supply it someone else could. By-and-bye his wife died, and then Bland lived anyhow. He hired a little room in a little street in Hammersmith—a room littered with books bought secondhand at stalls, and the walls covered with pictures from the Illustrated London News, pinned or pasted up. He managed for some time to make enough to pay the rent of this place, and when he did not succeed in dining with one of his former friends, would buy himself a chop or steak in some small tavern or eating-house in the city, where he would sit, after satisfying his hunger, and think of Johnson and Garrick, Boswell and Savage, and of the former race of tavern-haunters. Recollecting, perhaps, those happy days when he came home to his wife, and, after a cheerful dinner and chat, some play, or poem or novel would be read aloud by that tender voice that should read no more on earth now; thinking of these things, he would sit in melancholy meditation; until the greasy waiter, looking with unfriendly eyes upon the lanky man with the thin face and the rusty black clothes, who never gave him pence as did the other customers, would bustle about the table, sweep off imaginary crumbs, and otherwise hint that it was time for gentlemen who dined for ninepence to seek some other place to be miserable in.

So Bland would arise, and taking his camlet cloak about him—a cloak that, like its owner, had seen better days—would sally forth and trudge through the rain and mud to Hammersmith. On Sundays, he would—if summer—walk to Bushy Park and rejoice in the song of the birds, and in the sight of the green trees and sloping lawns.

After his appointment to the Mercury staff, he naturally became acquainted with many men of decent income and hospitable intentions, and these occasionally asked him to “take a cut of mutton.” These “cuts of mutton” were the only oäses in his dreary life; and he was unreasonably happy when he came across them in his pilgrimage. Poor soul, he was like a child—the moment was all in all to him. There was an instinctive refinement about the man that expanded under the influence of soft lights, glittering glass, and snowy cloth. Like many another poor Bohemian, he found the enforced companions of his poverty harder to bear than poverty itself.

The thousand and one little inconveniences and vulgarities which beset the path of a “poor gentleman” galled him to the quick. He could sip a cup of coffee contentedly enough, if such sipping took place in a well-lighted room, with gentlemen seated in it; but he could not drink it with comfort out of a cracked teacup, in a sordid garret, with a harsh-voiced landlady below stairs clamouring with her red-headed brood.

When dining for ninepence in a comfortable eating-house, he forgot his tattered garments, his ragged linen, and his lack of shoe-leather; but at home—where his window looked into a dirty court-yard, and where coarse sights, coarse words, and humanity with the seamy side outwards, surrounded him—he felt his burden heavy to bear. He was no Sybarite, but a man of unhappy sensitiveness, and his lot was cast in very unpleasant places.

When he came into his fortune of three pounds a week, he left his garret at Hammersmith and came nearer civilisation. The room over the grocer’s was to let, and as fortune willed it, Bland set up his tent there. He was quiet and unassuming, kind and good tempered, and an acquaintance—I had almost written, friendship had sprung up between the literary hack and the aspiring and love-lorn Binns.

Bland had heard the whole history of the Carry-cum-Chatteris affair, of course, and would sit for hours listening with sad amusement to the “assistant’s” rhapsodies.

Binns had lurked about Dym-street for a day or two after the ceremony, in the hope of seeing his lost love once again; and after two days’ prowling, had heard the tidings of Cyril’s flight. Bursting with the news, he hurried home and rushed into his friend’s chamber.

“Mr. Bland! Mr. Bland! he’s left her!”

“God bless me!—whom?” cries the astonished Bland, laying down his book.

“Carry. That scoundrel has deserted her. He went away the morning of the wedding, and has never come back.”

“Never come back!”

“No; and Mrs. Manton’s furious, and She’s crying fit to break her heart. God b-b-bless her!”

“Sit down, my dear Bob. Now, don’t go on like that. Bless the boy! Here, take some water.”

And poor Bland bustled about in an agony of soft-heartedness.

“It’s some plot—some cowardly plot to deceive her; I know it is. I knew no good would come of it. What did she want with a swell?” cries the rejected one, striking the table in his energy of love and despair.

“Perhaps it is a mistake.”

“Mistake! Not it; it’s no mistake. The coward! He’s left her; that’s what he’s done.”

“But why should he leave her? What is his reason?”

“They said something about a telegram come up from the Mercury office. Just a blind, I’ll be bound.”

“From the Mercury office! They would never telegraph from the office. Perhaps some of his friends want him.”

“Friends! He ain’t got no friends—I mean any friends. I believe he’s just a swindler and a scoundrel. He’s gone and deceived the poor girl. It serves that old cat right for plotting and contriving. Oh! I hate her, and him, and everyone. I am the most miserable wretch on earth.”

And Binns laid his head on the table, and gave vent to his vulgar sorrow.

“My dear Robert, calm yourself. You are very wrong to go on like this; you are indeed.”

“Oh! it’s all very fine for you, Mr. Bland; but when a fellow’s heart’s broken, it’s—boo-hoo—a hard thing to mend again.”

Bland looked down upon the squab figure of the poor lad with pitying face. After a pause, he laid his hand gently on his shoulder.

“Bob, listen to me a moment.”

Bob raised his touzled head.

“What made Miss Manton fall in love with Mr. Chatteris?”

“What! Why, his rings and chains, and scented handkerchiefs, and niminy-piminy ways, I suppose.”

“If you do suppose so, she is not worth thinking about.”

“No; it wasn’t that,” exclaims Binns, with sudden desperate energy of self-condemnation. “It was because he’s a gentleman, and I’m only a cad. He is clever—curse him—and I ain’t; I know that. Why should she love me, a lout that wears a white apron, and can’t talk English? She’s an angel, and I ain’t worthy to kiss her shoe leather; but I love her! Oh! Mr. Bland, I’d die to-morrow if I could save her a moment’s pain.”

“Then why not make yourself worthy of her?”

“Worthy of another man’s wife!”

“I do not speak of that. You say that you love a woman that is above you; that she despises you because you are less clever and less polished than the man she has married. She can never be anything to you now; but you have it in your power to make yourself worthy of her love for all that. I know Mr. Chatteris. He may be more refined—he can hardly help being so—but he has not half your natural talents”—Binns gasped—“and I am sure he has not got your good heart. I do not tell you this to flatter you, my boy, but because I want to see you make a name in that world where I have fought so long and failed so often.”

“Make a name! The name of Binns!”

“As good as many that shine bright in the list of England’s heroes. Your name is nothing; your person is nothing; it is your heart that the world wants to see. If you have noble thoughts, earnest aspirations, and honest faith, the world will not care a jot for your name or birth. No!” cries Bland, rising, his eyes dilating, and his sonorous voice ringing through the sordid chamber, “genius is of no nation, of no name, of no person! It is as the mighty wind that sweeps over the ocean, carrying good or evil on its wings, men know not whence it comes, but they bow before its breath. You are a man; speak out a man’s thoughts to men, and they will listen to you. The world is hollow, false, and selfish, but Genius comes with scorn in his clear eyes, power in his upraised hand, and heaven’s truth upon his lips; and the base world, like a hound that meets his master, crawls to his kingly feet in mute submission.”

There was silence for a moment after this outburst. Bland had dropped into his chair, and, with eyes fixed upon the fire, seemed to be thinking of days gone by, when, perhaps, he thought that the mantle of heaven’s messenger had fallen upon his shoulders, and when he had hoped that the world would crawl to his feet, now, alas! blistered and weary with tedious travel.

Binns sat meditative; his eyes were sparkling, his chest heaving; the earnest purpose in his face made one forget his scorbutic cheeks and his ill- fitting coat. Had Carry seen him then she might not have thought him so very “vulgar.”

At last he spoke.

“How am I to do it?” said he, in a low voice.

Bland roused himself.

“It is not an easy task,” said he sadly. “You have much to learn; much to forget. Fame is not won by dallying or repining. You must work for her, toil for her, bleed for her; and then, perhaps, just as she stretches forth the crown, the leaves crumble to dust beneath your trembling fingers, and the withered wreath drops upon a tomb.”

“But how to begin?”

“Work, boy, work. Give up writing, and read. Study men, study life, study nature. You are young, you have energies, and industry.”

“And these!” asked Binns, pointing to a mass of papers—his poems— that were piled upon a broken chair. “Shall I burn them?”

“No; but put them away and read them six months hence. Poetry is always the first outbreak of young minds; you were made to be a worker, not a dreamer. There is poetry in work, lad, if you can find it; ay, more than in a sonnet to a sunset or a flower. There will be plenty for men to do in the future. The people are finding out that they are men, not ‘masses,’ and they who would lead them must prove themselves to be worthy leaders of men. Go out to them and show them a man’s heart; there are not many such to be seen nowadays. You sit here with your grocer’s apron round your waist, and dream of glorious suns, burning skies, waving trees, and plashing streams. Turn away your eyes from the beauties of valley, field, and river, and look into the face of the careworn, sickly labourer who passes you in the streets. He is unpleasant to look upon; his coat is ragged, his hands dirty, his face pale and begrimed with the sweat and dust of his daily fight for bread; yet I tell you that his life is a poem worthier to write and hear than all the visions of your heated fancy. It is a poem that, if you can interpret to men correctly, they will hail you as a poet great as Æschylus. The poetry of the age is work and usefulness. It walks, runs, throbs beside and around you. Roll up your apron and go out and seek it; you will find it ready to your hand; no need to dream of palm islands, or groves of myrtles. We do not want a poet to teach us that there is glory in the star, or perfume in the flower; we want a man, with a man’s heart, who can show us the poetry in our own lives and our own nature. There, I have done. You have made me forget that I am, too, but a dreamer, though I might have done some service once.”

And Bland’s voice sank, and his head fell upon his breast.

The scrubby little grocer’s apprentice rose softly, and turned to quit the room. As he reached the door, his friend spoke again, in an altered tone.

“One word before you go. If, in the future, you make yourself a name and place, and you find that this man has deceived and abandoned the woman you love, will you protect and guard her?”

“I will, by ——!” said Binns.

Long Odds - Contents    |     Chapter IX - Making Inquiries

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