During dinner, Bascombe had the talk mostly to himself, and rattled well, occasionally rebuked by his aunt for some remark which might to a clergyman appear objectionable; nor as a partisan was she altogether satisfied with the curate that he did not seem inclined to take clerical exception. He ate his dinner, quietly responding to Bascombe's sallies--which had usually more of vivacity than keenness, more of good spirits than wit--with a curious flickering smile, or a single word of agreement. It might have seemed that he was humouring a younger man, but the truth was, the curate had not yet seen cause for opposing him.
How any friend could have come to send Helen poetry I cannot imagine, but that very morning she had received by post a small volume of verse, which, although just out, and by an unknown author, had already been talked of in what are called literary circles. Wingfold had read some extracts from the book that same morning, and was therefore not quite unprepared when Helen asked him if he had seen it. He suggested that the poems, if the few lines he had seen made a fair sample, were rather of the wailful order.
"If there is one thing I despise more than another," said Bascombe, "it is to hear a man, a fellow with legs and arms, pour out his griefs into the bosom of that most discreet of confidantes, Society, bewailing his hard fate, and calling upon youths and maidens to fill their watering-pots with tears, and with him water the sorrowful pansies and undying rue of the race. I believe I am quoting."
"I think you must be, George," said Helen. "I never knew you venture so near the edge of poetry before."
"Ah, that is all you know of me, Miss Lingard!" returned Bascombe. "--And then," he resumed, turning again to Wingfold, "what is it they complain of? That some girls preferred a better man perhaps, or that a penny paper once told the truth of their poetry."
"Or it may be only that it is their humour to be sad," said Wingfold. "But don't you think," he continued, "it is hardly worth while to be indignant with them? Their verses are a relief to them, and do nobody any harm."
"They do all the boys and girls harm that read them, and themselves who write them more harm than anybody, confirming them in tearful habits, and teaching eyes unused to weep. I quote again, I believe, but from whom I am innocent. If I ever had a grief, I should have along with it the decency to keep it to myself."
"I don't doubt you would, George," said his cousin, who seemed more playfully inclined than usual. "But," she added, with a smile, "would your silence be voluntary, or enforced?"
"What!" returned Bascombe, "you think I could not plain my woes to the moon? Why not I as well as another? I could roar you as 'twere any nightingale."
"You have had your sorrows, then, George?"
"Never anything worse yet than a tailor's bill, Helen, and I hope you won't provide me with any. I am not in love with decay. I remember a fellow at Trinity, the merriest of all our set at a wine-party, who, alone with his ink-pot, was for ever enacting the part of the unheeded poet, complaining of the hard hearts and tuneless ears of his generation. I went into his room once, and found him with the tears running down his face, a pot of stout half empty on the table, and his den all but opaque with tobacco-smoke, reciting, with sobs--I had repeated the lines so often before they ceased to amuse me, that I can never forget them--
'Heard'st thou a quiver and clang?
In thy sleep did it make thee start? 'Twas a chord in twain that sprang-- But the lyre-shell was my heart.'
He took a pull at the stout, laid his head on the table, and sobbed like a locomotive."
"But it's not very bad--not bad at all, so far as I see," said Helen, who had a woman's weakness for the side attacked, in addition to a human partiality for fair play.
"No, not bad at all--for absolute nonsense," said Bascombe.
"He had been reading Heine," said Wingfold.
"And burlesquing him," returned Bascombe. "Fancy hearing one of the fellow's heart-strings crack, and taking it for a string of his fiddle in the press! By the way, what are the heart-strings? Have they any anatomical synonym? But I have no doubt it was good poetry."
"Do you think poetry and common sense necessarily opposed to each other?" asked Wingfold.
"I confess a leaning to that opinion," replied Bascombe, with a half-conscious smile.
"What do you say of Horace, now?" suggested Wingfold.
"Unfortunately for me, you have mentioned the one poet for whom I have any respect. But what I like in him is just his common sense. He never cries over spilt milk, even if the jug be broken to the bargain. But common sense would be just as good in prose as in verse."
"Possibly; but what we have of it in Horace would never have reached us but for the forms into which he has cast it. How much more enticing acorns in the cup are! I was watching two children picking them up to-day."
"That may be; there have always been more children than grown men," returned Bascombe. "For my part, I would sweep away all illusions, and get at the heart of the affair."
"But," said Wingfold, with the look of one who, as he tries to say it, is seeing a thing for the first time, "does not the acorn-cup belong to the acorn? May not some of what you call illusions, be the finer, or at least more ethereal qualities of the thing itself? You do not object to music in church, for instance?"
Bascombe was on the point of saying he objected to it nowhere except in church, but for his aunt's sake, or rather for his own sake in his aunt's eyes, he restrained himself, and uttered his feelings only in a peculiar smile, of import so mingled, that its meaning was illegible ere it had quivered along his lip and vanished.
"I am no metaphysician," he said, and Wingfold accepted the dismissal of the subject.
Little passed between the two men over their wine; and as neither of them cared to drink more than a couple of glasses, they soon rejoined the ladies in the drawing-room.
Mrs. Ramshorn was taking her usual forty winks in her arm-chair, and their entrance did not disturb her. Helen was turning over some music.
"I am looking for a song for you, George," she said. "I want Mr. Wingfold to hear you sing, lest he should take you for a man of stone and lime."
"Never mind looking," returned her cousin. "I will sing one you have never heard."
And seating himself at the piano, he sang the following verses. They were his own, a fact he would probably have allowed to creep out, had they met with more sympathy. His voice was a full bass one, full of tone.
"Each man has his lampful, his lampful of oil;
He may dull its glimmer with sorrow and toil; He may leave it unlit, and let it dry, Or wave it aloft, and hold it high: For mine, it shall burn with a fearless flame In the front of the darkness that has no name.
"Sunshine and Wind?--are ye there? Ho! ho!
Are ye comrades or lords, as ye shine and blow? I care not, I! I will lift my head Till ye shine and blow on my grassy bed. See, brother Sun, I am shining too! Wind, I am living as well as you!
"Though the sun go out like a vagrant spark,
And his daughter planets are left in the dark, I care not, I! For why should I care? I shall be hurtless, nor here nor there. Sun and Wind, let us shine and shout, For the day draws nigh when we all go out!"
"I don't like the song," said Helen, wrinkling her brows a little. "It sounds--well, heathenish."
She would, I fear, have said nothing of the sort, being used to that kind of sound from her cousin, had not a clergyman been present. Yet she said it from no hypocrisy, but simple regard to his professional feelings,
"I sung it for Mr. Wingfold," returned Bascombe. "It would have been a song after Horace's own heart."
"Don't you think," rejoined the curate, "the defiant tone of your song would have been strange to him? I confess that what I find chiefly attractive in Horace is his sad submission to the inevitable."
"Sad?" echoed Bascombe.
"Don't you think so?"
"No. He makes the best of it, and as merrily as he can."