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A Friend of My Childhood by H. R.

 

I suppose I must have pulled the bell very hard that day, for otherwise I don't think she would have kept me waiting twenty minutes, as she did. She was only my mother's servant-woman, whose duty was to wait upon the dinner-table and the door, the latter function being the more onerous one. Looking back at my conduct over the lapse of eighteen years, I am disposed to acknowledge that she was right in the abstract in punishing the inconsiderate impatience which made me keep the door-bell upon a continuous ring till I was let in. But how wrong did the event prove her! Scarcely was I warmed up to my work, when, turning my head, I saw a tall gentleman with broad shoulders and a round face, whose look, at first one of inquiry, and perhaps bewilderment as he tried to distinguish the house he was in search of from among a dozen, all characterized by that unity of design which in Philadelphia strikes forcibly the intelligent foreigner, suddenly changed to one of amusement, not, I thought then, unmixed with approval, as he caught sight of me at my reprehensible employment. And as I rang with a persistency which nothing can now call from me, he stood on the bottom step (for it was my mother whom he had come to see) with that expression in which I found so little discouragement, still looking forth from those great eyes of his, which had pierced deeply and sternly so many of the false and hollow things of this world, and which now, not, I am sure, for the first time, were bent kindly down upon a rude boy and his ruder pranks. How little did the latter know about the tall gentleman, and how little too would he have cared even if he had known all there was to know about him:—known that then the age was beginning to recognize its philosopher, whose lessons, sharp and bitter enough at first, were to make it better and truer and purer, if such a thing were possible of accomplishment.

But that he was tall I did know, and my standard of eminence was a purely physical one. Five feet eight I did not despise, but six feet alone commanded absolute and genuine respect; and he, I believe, stood six feet one. The presumption which could keep such a height of perfection waiting at the front door shocked me beyond expression. No, not beyond expression, for the triumphant yell with which the hapless servant-girl was greeted when at last she admitted me, and I burst in exclaiming, "You have kept the tall gentleman waiting half an hour!" must have given, I think, some adequate idea of my feelings. To that incident may I not justly look back with satisfaction? Am I not right in taking pride to myself for having amused for so long a time one whose momentary attention the witty and the wise have thought it no slight thing to have gained? And—who knows?—perhaps he himself did not altogether forget it, and with the two sturdy Buben on the Rhine-boat, and those little men he used to meet at Eton or on the play-ground of the Charterhouse, may not the American boy also have found a place in his kindly memory? But I wish it clearly understood that I did not force myself upon his acquaintance: no lion-hunting can be laid to my charge. On the contrary, after giving him a glance of approbation for proving such an effectual weapon to me in subduing my enemy in the gate—or rather the enemy whose offence was that she was anywhere but in the gate—I did not, I can truly say, bestow another thought upon him till I was sent for to afford him, at his own special request, the honor of knowing me. Were there no servants in the kitchen to be tormented? No cats in the back yard to be chased with wild halloo? No rowdy boys in the alley with whom to fraternize over pies of communistic mud? No little sister up stairs much nicer than any tall gentleman, even though he might have come from across the ocean and be thought a great deal of by the grown-up people, that I should go out of my way to see him, and abandon my cherished pursuits to listen to him talking of what I did not understand, and did not believe was worth understanding? No: my position was a high one, and I kept to it, for, though I gave up my occupations a little while and went down to the parlor, it was simply because politeness and filial obedience were the ruling motives of my conduct. Of the first formal introduction to my friend I have but a shadowy recollection. He said, I think, that he wanted to know the impetuous little boy he had met outside; but nothing more which I can recall. My own share in the conversation has entirely faded from my memory: it is probable indeed that I had no share in it at all, being less at my ease in the conventional sphere of a drawing-room than in the more unconstrained atmosphere of a back alley. Yet in hours of depression, when, in spite of the most sincere desire to think favorably of mankind, I cannot fail to notice that I am not appreciated as I should be by the undiscerning world, and my soul seeks consolation and forgetfulness from higher sources, I half believe that when he went back to his own country, and spoke there, as I have heard he did very often, of the pleasant people he had met here, of the American friends he valued so much, it was perhaps not without an arrière-pensée of his noisy acquaintance of the doorstep in Locust street.

The intercourse so tempestuously begun was threatened with an early extinction, for my newly acquired friend returned soon after this to his home, where were the two little girls whom he was fond of describing while saying that he would not dare to bring them to this country, lest they should come to despise the simple muslin gowns with which they were then quite content; home to the toil of the hard-worked brain, the steady labor of the untiring pen, which was to give us before it rested for ever nothing indeed like his earlier works, but much which we shall not willingly let die; home to England, in truth, but only that, having written the story of certain of its kings, as he had before written the worthier history of some of its unsceptred monarchs, whose sovereign sway is over our spirits still, he might come again across the ocean to greet all who should wish to hear him tell of the Britain of a century past, when our own history had as yet scarcely seen the conclusion of its opening chapter; giving as he did, so minute, life-like details relating to the great men of that time, whose familiar names were to most of his hearers not much more than names, but which, thanks in great part to him, are now as household words. And so we met, and being two years older, I was accorded the honor of becoming one of his auditors, going with my mother to hear each of his lectures. We sat in a box on one side of the stage in Concert Hall, and at this moment I recall the tall, dignified figure standing before the desk on which were placed his notes, and the crowded room full of indistinguishable attentive faces. I sometimes fancy too that I cannot have forgotten what are now favorite passages from those lectures—passages read and re-read, and then read again, till they are known almost by heart. I cannot acknowledge to myself that I do not remember his voice and look, and the tribute of listening silence which waited upon him while he spoke.

One at least of these evenings is well remembered. Its distinguishing feature was my being tipped. My mother and I had gone on this occasion quite early to our places—half an hour or three-quarters before the time when the lecture should begin—and we found the lecturer already at his post. He, with head thrown back, had been walking with long strides up and down the little waiting-room, and talking in bright spirits to my mother, when a sudden thought seemed to strike him, and diving into one of his pockets he brought out a sovereign—perhaps it was a five-dollar gold piece—and insisted upon giving it to me; but the proposal produced at once a most severe parental resistance, while I disinterestedly looked on—a resistance apparently quite unlooked for by "my illustrious friend," who had much trouble in explaining that this species of beneficence was a thing of course in England. But American pride was silenced at last, though not convinced, as will be seen, for it planned on the spot a compromise which should reconcile the differences of national feeling, though I was induced to suppose that the sovereign was as far out of my reach as ever; and being then, as I said before, above or below such things, I turned all my attention to the lecture, which began soon afterward, and whose subject, the royal bugbear of patriotic schoolboys of that time, I imagined I knew all about. It was therefore with astonished awe that I heard the peroration, when the speaker said, appealing directly to us all: "O brothers speaking the same dear mother-tongue! O comrades! enemies no more, let us take a mournful hand together as we stand by this royal corpse and call a truce to battle! Low he lies to whom the proudest used to kneel once, and who was cast lower than the poorest—dead whom millions prayed for in vain. Driven off his throne, buffeted by rude hands, with his children in revolt, the darling of his old age killed before him untimely—our Lear hangs over her breathless lips and cries, Cordelia! Cordelia! stay a little!

Vex not his ghost: oh, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

Hush, strife and quarrel, over the solemn grave! Sound, trumpets, a mournful march. Fall, dark curtain, upon his pageant, his pride, his grief, his awful tragedy." This view of the subject was altogether new.

The compromise just spoken of—and I must bring to an end my story, already too long—consisted in the expenditure of the five-dollar piece in two of the books written by the bestower of that inflammatory coin. I open the volumes of Pendennis and Vanity Fair which have been lying at my elbow, and across the title-page of each I see written, in curiously small and delicate hand, "—— ——, with W. M. Thackeray's kind regards. April, 1856." These were the books.

H. R.