Forester, by Maria Edgeworth

The Gardener.

The gardener who had struck Forester’s fancy, was a square, thick, obstinate-eyed, hard-working, ignorant, elderly man, whose soul was intent upon his petty daily gains, and whose honesty was of that “coarse-spun, vulgar sort6,” which alone can be expected from men of uncultivated minds. Mr. M’Evoy, for that was the gardener’s name, was both good-natured and selfish; his views and ideas all centered in his own family; and his affection was accumulated and reserved for two individuals, his son and his daughter. The son was not so industrious as the father; he was ambitious of seeing something of the world, and he consorted with all the young ‘prentices in Edinburgh, who would condescend to forget that he was a country boy, and to remember that he expected, when his father should die, to be rich. Mr. M’Evoy’s daughter was an ugly, cross-looking girl, who spent all the money that she could either earn or save upon ribands and fine gowns, with which she fancied she could supply all the defects of her person.

This powerful motive for her economy operated incessantly upon her mind, and she squeezed all that could possibly be squeezed for her private use from the frugal household. The boy, whose place Forester thought himself so fortunate to supply, had left the gardener, because he could not bear to work and be scolded without eating or drinking.

The gardener willingly complied with our hero’s first request; he gave him a spade, and he set him to work. Forester dug with all the energy of an enthusiast, and dined like a philosopher upon long kail; but long kail did not charm him so much the second day as it had done the first; and the third day it was yet less to his taste; besides, he began to notice the difference between oaten and wheaten bread. He, however, recollected that Cyrus lived, when he was a lad, upon water-cresses — the black broth of the Spartans he likewise remembered, and he would not complain. He thought, that he should soon accustom himself to his scanty, homely fare. A number of the disagreeable circumstances of poverty he had not estimated when he entered upon his new way of life; and though at Dr. Campbell’s table he had often said to himself, “I could do very well without all these things,” yet, till he had actually tried the experiment, he had not clear ideas upon the subject. He missed a number of little pleasures and conveniences, which he had scarcely noticed, whilst they had every day presented themselves as matters of course. The occupation of digging was laborious, but it afforded no exercise to his mind, and he felt most severely the want of Henry’s agreeable conversation; he had no one to whom he could now talk of the water-cresses of Cyrus, or the black broth of the Spartans; he had no one with whom he could dispute concerning the Stoic or the Epicurean doctrines, the mercantile or the agricultural system. Many objections to the agricultural system, which had escaped him, occurred now to his mind; and his compassion for the worms, whom he was obliged to cut in pieces continually with his spade, acted every hour more forcibly upon his benevolent heart. He once attempted to explain his feelings for the worms to the gardener, who stared at him with all the insolence of ignorance, and bade him mind his work, with a tone of authority which ill suited Forester’s feelings and love of independence.

“Is ignorance thus to command knowledge? Is reason thus to be silenced by boorish stupidity?” said Forester to himself, as he recollected the patience and candour with which Dr. Campbell and Henry used to converse with him. He began to think, that in cultivated society he had enjoyed more liberty of mind, more freedom of opinion, than he could taste in the company of an illiterate gardener. The gardener’s son, though his name was Colin, had no Arcadian simplicity, nothing which could please the classic taste of Forester, or which could recall to his mind the Eclogues of Virgil, or the golden age; the Gentle Shepherd, or the Ayrshire Ploughman. Colin’s favourite holiday’s diversion was playing at goff; this game, which is played with a bat loaded with lead, and with a ball, which is harder than a cricket-ball, requires much strength and dexterity. Forester used, sometimes, to accompany the gardener’s son to the Links,7 where numbers of people, of different descriptions are frequently seen practising this diversion. Our hero was ambitious of excelling at the game of goff; and, as he was not particularly adroit, he exposed himself, in his first attempts, to the derision of the spectators, and he likewise received several severe blows. Colin laughed at him without mercy; and Forester could not help comparing the rude expressions of his new companion’s untutored vanity with the unassuming manners and unaffected modesty of Henry Campbell. Forester soon took an aversion to the game of goff, and recollected Scotch reels with less contempt.

One evening, after having finished his task of digging (for digging was now become a task), he was going to take a walk to Duddingstone lake, when Colin, who was at the same instant setting out for the Links, roughly insisted upon Forester’s accompanying him. Our hero, who was never much disposed to yield to the taste of others, positively refused the gardener’s son, with some imprudent expressions of contempt. From this moment Colin became his enemy, and, by a thousand malicious devices, contrived to show his vulgar hatred.

Forester now, to his great surprise, discovered that hatred could exist in a cottage. Female vanity, he likewise presently perceived, was not confined to the precincts of a ball-room; he found that Miss M’Evoy spent every leisure moment in the contemplation of her own coarse image in a fractured looking-glass. He once ventured to express his dislike of a many-coloured plaid in which Miss M’Evoy had arrayed herself for a dance; and the fury of her looks, and the loud-toned vulgarity of her conceit, were strongly contrasted with the recollection of Flora Campbell’s gentle manners and sweetness of temper. The painted flower-pot was present to his imagination, and he turned from the lady who stood before him with an air of disgust, which he had neither the wish nor the power to conceal. The consequences of offending this high-spirited damsel our hero had not sufficiently considered: the brother and sister, who seldom agreed in any thing else, now agreed, though from different motives, in an eager desire to torment Forester. Whenever he entered the cottage, either to rest himself, or to partake of those “savoury messes, which the neat-handed Phillis dresses,” he was received with sullen silence, or with taunting reproach. The old gardener, stupid as he was, Forester thought an agreeable companion, compared with his insolent son and his vixen daughter. The happiest hours of the day, to our hero, were those which he spent at his work; his affections, repressed and disappointed, became a source of misery to him.

“Is there nothing in this world to which I can attach myself?” said Forester, as he one day leaned upon his spade in a melancholy mood. “Must I spend my life in the midst of absurd altercations? Is it for this that I have a heart and an understanding? No one here comprehends one word I say — I am an object of contempt and hatred, whilst my soul is formed for the most benevolent feelings, and capable of the most extensive views. And of what service am I to my fellow-creatures? Even this stupid gardener, even a common labourer, is as useful to society as I am. Compared with Henry Campbell, what am I? Oh, Henry! — Flora! — could you see me at this instant, you would pity me.”

But the fear of being an object of pity wakened Forester’s pride; and though he felt that he was unhappy, he could not bear to acknowledge that he had mistaken the road to happiness. His imaginary picture of rural felicity was not, to be sure, realized; but he resolved to bear his disappointment with fortitude, to fulfil his engagements with his master, the gardener, and then to seek some other more eligible situation. In the meantime, his benevolence tried to expand itself upon the only individual in this family who treated him tolerably well: he grew fond of the old gardener, because there was nothing else near him to which he could attach himself, not even a dog or a cat. The old man, whose temper was not quite so enthusiastical as Forester’s, looked upon him as an industrious simple young man, above the usual class of servants, and rather wished to keep him in his service, because he gave him less than the current wages. Forester, after his late reflections upon digging, began to think, that, by applying his understanding to the business of gardening, he might perhaps make some discoveries, which should excite his master’s everlasting gratitude, and immortalize his own name. He pledged a shirt and a pair of stockings at a poor bookseller’s stall, for some volumes upon gardening; and these, in spite of the ridicule of Colin and Miss M’Evoy, he studied usually at his meals. He at length met with an account of some experiments upon fruit-trees, which he thought would infallibly make the gardener’s fortune.

“Did you not tell me,” said Forester to the gardener, “that cherries were sometimes sold very high in Edinburgh?”

“Five a penny,” said the gardener; and he wished, from the bottom of his heart, that he had a thousand cherry-trees, but he possessed only one.

He was considerably alarmed, when Forester proposed to him, as the certain means of making his fortune, to strip the bark off this cherry-tree, assuring him, that a similar experiment had been tried and had succeeded; that his cherry-tree would bear twice as many cherries, if he would only strip the bark from it. “Let me try one branch for an experiment — I will try one branch!”

But the gardener peremptorily forbade all experiments, and, shutting Forester’s book, bade him leave such nonsense, and mind his business.

Provoked by this instance of tyrannical ignorance, Forester forgot his character of a servant boy, and at length called his master an obstinate fool.

No sooner were these words uttered, than the gardener emptied the remains of his watering-pot coolly in Forester’s face, and, first paying him his wages, dismissed him from his service.

Miss M’Evoy, who was at work, seated at the door, made room most joyfully for Forester to pass, and observed, that she had long since prophesied he would not do for them.

Forester was now convinced, that it was impossible to reform a positive old gardener, to make him try new experiments upon cherry-trees, or to interest him for the progress of science. He deplored the perversity of human nature, and he began, when he reflected upon the characters of Miss M’Evoy and her brother, to believe, that they were beings distinct from the rest of their species; he was, at all events, glad to have parted with such odious companions. On his road to Edinburgh he had time for various reflections.

“Thirty shillings, then, with hard bodily labour, I have earned for one month’s service!” said Forester to himself. “Well, I will keep to my resolution. I will live upon the money I earn, and upon that alone; I will not have recourse to my bank notes till the last extremity.” He took out his pocket-book, however, and looked at them, to see that they were safe. “How wretched,” thought he, “must be that being, who is obliged to purchase, in his utmost need, the assistance of his fellow-creatures with such vile trash as this! I have been unfortunate in my first experiment; but all men are not like this selfish gardener and his brutal son, incapable of disinterested friendship.”

Here Forester was interrupted in his meditations by a young man, who accosted him with —“Sir, if I don’t mistake, I believe I have a key of yours.”

Forester looked up at the young man’s face, and recollected him to be the person who had nearly lost his life in descending for his key into the brewing-vat.

“I knew you again, sir,” continued the brewer’s clerk, “by your twirling those scissors upon your finger, just as you were doing that day at the brewery.”

Forester was not conscious, till this moment, that he had a pair of scissors in his hand: whilst the gardener was paying him his wages, to relieve his mauvaise honte, our hero took up Miss M’Evoy’s scissors, which lay upon the table, and twirled them upon his fingers, as he used to do with a key. He was rather ashamed to perceive, that he had not yet cured himself of such a silly habit. “I thought the lesson I got at the brewery,” said he, “would have cured me for ever of this foolish trick; but the diminutive chains of habit8, as somebody says, are scarcely ever heavy enough to be felt, till they are too strong to be broken.”

Sir!” said the astonished clerk.

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” said our hero, who now perceived by his countenance that his observation on the peculiar nature of the chains of habit was utterly unintelligible to him; “pray, sir, can you tell me what o’clock it is?”

“Half after four — I am — sir,” said the clerk, producing his watch, with the air of a man who thought a watch a matter of some importance. “Hum! He can’t be a gentleman; he has no watch!” argued he with himself; and he looked at Forester’s rough apparel with astonishment. Forester had turned back, that he might return Miss M’Evoy her scissors. The brewer’s clerk was going in the same direction to collect some money for his master. As they walked on, the young man talked to our hero with good-nature, but with a species of familiarity, which was strikingly different from the respectful manner in which he formerly addressed Forester, when he had seen him in a better coat, and in the company of a young gentleman.

“You have left Dr. Campbell’s, then?” said he, looking with curiosity. Forester replied, that he had left Dr. Campbell’s, because he preferred earning his own bread to living an idle life among gentlemen and ladies.

The clerk, at this speech, looked earnestly in Forester’s face, and began to suspect that he was deranged in his mind.

As the gravity of our hero’s looks, and the sobriety of his demeanour, did not give any strong indications of insanity, the clerk, after a few minutes’ consideration, inclined to believe, that Forester concealed the truth from him; that probably he was some dependant of Dr. Campbell’s family; that he had displeased his friends, and had been discarded in disgrace. He was confirmed in these suppositions by Forester’s telling him, that he had just left the service of a gardener; that he did not know where to find a lodging for the night; and that he was in want of some employment, by which he might support himself independently.

The clerk, who remembered with gratitude the intrepidity with which Forester had hazarded his life to save him the morning that he was at the brewery, and who had also some compassion for a young gentleman reduced to poverty, told him that if he could write a good hand, knew any thing of accounts, and could get a character for punctuality (meaning to include honesty in this word) from any creditable people, he did not doubt that his master, who had large concerns, might find employment for him as an under-clerk. Forester’s pride was not agreeably soothed by the manner of this proposal, but he was glad to hear of a situation, to use the clerk’s genteel expression; and he moreover thought, that he should now have an opportunity of comparing the commercial and agricultural systems.

The clerk hinted, that he supposed Forester would choose to “make himself smart,” before he called to offer himself at the brewery, and advised him to call about six, as by that time in the evening his master was generally at leisure.

A dinner at a public-house (for our hero did not know where else to dine), and the further expense of a new pair of shoes, and some other articles of dress, almost exhausted his month’s wages: he was very unwilling to make any of these purchases, but the clerk assured him, that they were indispensable; and, indeed, at last, his appearance was scarcely upon a par with that of his friendly adviser.

6 Mrs. Barbauld’a Essay on the Inconsistency of Human Expectations.

7 A lea or common near Edinburgh.

8 Dr. Johnson’s Vision of Theodore.

Last updated Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 14:44