The Story of a Lie, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter II— A Letter to the Papers

OLD Mr. Naseby had the sturdy, untutored nature of the upper middle class. The universe seemed plain to him. ‘The thing’s right,’ he would say, or ‘the thing’s wrong’; and there was an end of it. There was a contained, prophetic energy in his utterances, even on the slightest affairs; he SAW the damned thing; if you did not, it must be from perversity of will; and this sent the blood to his head. Apart from this, which made him an exacting companion, he was one of the most upright, hot-tempered, hot-headed old gentlemen in England. Florid, with white hair, the face of an old Jupiter, and the figure of an old fox-hunter, he enlivened the vale of Thyme from end to end on his big, cantering chestnut.

He had a hearty respect for Dick as a lad of parts. Dick had a respect for his father as the best of men, tempered by the politic revolt of a youth who has to see to his own independence. Whenever the pair argued, they came to an open rupture; and arguments were frequent, for they were both positive, and both loved the work of the intelligence. It was a treat to hear Mr. Naseby defending the Church of England in a volley of oaths, or supporting ascetic morals with an enthusiasm not entirely innocent of port wine. Dick used to wax indignant, and none the less so because, as his father was a skilful disputant, he found himself not seldom in the wrong. On these occasions, he would redouble in energy, and declare that black was white, and blue yellow, with much conviction and heat of manner; but in the morning such a licence of debate weighed upon him like a crime, and he would seek out his father, where he walked before breakfast on a terrace overlooking all the vale of Thyme.

‘I have to apologise, sir, for last night — ‘ he would begin.

‘Of course you have,’ the old gentleman would cut in cheerfully. ‘You spoke like a fool. Say no more about it.’

‘You do not understand me, sir. I refer to a particular point. I confess there is much force in your argument from the doctrine of possibilities.’

‘Of course there is,’ returned his father. ‘Come down and look at the stables. Only,’ he would add, ‘bear this in mind, and do remember that a man of my age and experience knows more about what he is saying than a raw boy.’

He would utter the word ‘boy’ even more offensively than the average of fathers, and the light way in which he accepted these apologies cut Richard to the heart. The latter drew slighting comparisons, and remembered that he was the only one who ever apologised. This gave him a high station in his own esteem, and thus contributed indirectly to his better behaviour; for he was scrupulous as well as high-spirited, and prided himself on nothing more than on a just submission.

So things went on until the famous occasion when Mr. Naseby, becoming engrossed in securing the election of a sound party candidate to Parliament, wrote a flaming letter to the papers. The letter had about every demerit of party letters in general; it was expressed with the energy of a believer; it was personal; it was a little more than half unfair, and about a quarter untrue. The old man did not mean to say what was untrue, you may be sure; but he had rashly picked up gossip, as his prejudice suggested, and now rashly launched it on the public with the sanction of his name.

‘The Liberal candidate,’ he concluded, ‘is thus a public turncoat. Is that the sort of man we want? He has been given the lie, and has swallowed the insult. Is that the sort of man we want? I answer No! With all the force of my conviction, I answer, NO!’

And then he signed and dated the letter with an amateur’s pride, and looked to be famous by the morrow.

Dick, who had heard nothing of the matter, was up first on that inauspicious day, and took the journal to an arbour in the garden. He found his father’s manifesto in one column; and in another a leading article. ‘No one that we are aware of,’ ran the article, ‘had consulted Mr. Naseby on the subject, but if he had been appealed to by the whole body of electors, his letter would be none the less ungenerous and unjust to Mr. Dalton. We do not choose to give the lie to Mr. Naseby, for we are too well aware of the consequences; but we shall venture instead to print the facts of both cases referred to by this red-hot partisan in another portion of our issue. Mr. Naseby is of course a large proprietor in our neighbourhood; but fidelity to facts, decent feeling, and English grammar, are all of them qualities more important than the possession of land. Mr. — is doubtless a great man; in his large gardens and that half-mile of greenhouses, where he has probably ripened his intellect and temper, he may say what he will to his hired vassals, but (as the Scotch say) —

here He mauna think to domineer.

‘Liberalism,’ continued the anonymous journalist, ‘is of too free and sound a growth,’ etc.

Richard Naseby read the whole thing from beginning to end; and a crushing shame fell upon his spirit. His father had played the fool; he had gone out noisily to war, and come back with confusion. The moment that his trumpets sounded, he had been disgracefully unhorsed. There was no question as to the facts; they were one and all against the Squire. Richard would have given his ears to have suppressed the issue; but as that could not be done, he had his horse saddled, and furnishing himself with a convenient staff, rode off at once to Thymebury.

The editor was at breakfast in a large, sad apartment. The absence of furniture, the extreme meanness of the meal, and the haggard, bright-eyed, consumptive look of the culprit, unmanned our hero; but he clung to his stick, and was stout and warlike.

‘You wrote the article in this morning’s paper?’ he demanded.

‘You are young Mr. Naseby? I PUBLISHED it,’ replied the editor, rising.

‘My father is an old man,’ said Richard; and then with an outburst, ‘And a damned sight finer fellow than either you or Dalton!’ He stopped and swallowed; he was determined that all should go with regularity. ‘I have but one question to put to you, sir,’ he resumed. ‘Granted that my father was misinformed, would it not have been more decent to withhold the letter and communicate with him in private?’

‘Believe me,’ returned the editor, ‘that alternative was not open to me. Mr. Naseby told me in a note that he had sent his letter to three other journals, and in fact threatened me with what he called exposure if I kept it back from mine. I am really concerned at what has happened; I sympathise and approve of your emotion, young gentleman; but the attack on Mr. Dalton was gross, very gross, and I had no choice but to offer him my columns to reply. Party has its duties, sir,’ added the scribe, kindling, as one who should propose a sentiment; ‘and the attack was gross.’

Richard stood for half a minute digesting the answer; and then the god of fair play came upper-most in his heart, and murmuring ‘Good morning,’ he made his escape into the street.

His horse was not hurried on the way home, and he was late for breakfast. The Squire was standing with his back to the fire in a state bordering on apoplexy, his fingers violently knitted under his coat tails. As Richard came in, he opened and shut his mouth like a cod-fish, and his eyes protruded.

‘Have you seen that, sir?’ he cried, nodding towards the paper.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Richard.

‘Oh, you’ve read it, have you?’

‘Yes, I have read it,’ replied Richard, looking at his foot.

‘Well,’ demanded the old gentleman, ‘and what have you to say to it, sir?’

‘You seem to have been misinformed,’ said Dick.

‘Well? What then? Is your mind so sterile, sir? Have you not a word of comment? no proposal?’

‘I fear, sir, you must apologise to Mr. Dalton. It would be more handsome, indeed it would be only just, and a free acknowledgment would go far — ‘ Richard paused, no language appearing delicate enough to suit the case.

‘That is a suggestion which should have come from me, sir,’ roared the father. ‘It is out of place upon your lips. It is not the thought of a loyal son. Why, sir, if my father had been plunged in such deplorable circumstances, I should have thrashed the editor of that vile sheet within an inch of his life. I should have thrashed the man, sir. It would have been the action of an ass; but it would have shown that I had the blood and the natural affections of a man. Son? You are no son, no son of mine, sir!’

‘Sir!’ said Dick.

‘I’ll tell you what you are, sir,’ pursued the Squire. ‘You’re a Benthamite. I disown you. Your mother would have died for shame; there was no modern cant about your mother; she thought — she said to me, sir — I’m glad she’s in her grave, Dick Naseby. Misinformed! Misinformed, sir? Have you no loyalty, no spring, no natural affections? Are you clockwork, hey? Away! This is no place for you. Away!’ (waving his hands in the air). ‘Go away! Leave me!’

At this moment Dick beat a retreat in a disarray of nerves, a whistling and clamour of his own arteries, and in short in such a final bodily disorder as made him alike incapable of speech or hearing. And in the midst of all this turmoil, a sense of unpardonable injustice remained graven in his memory.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30