Montaigne and “Howel’s Letters” are my bedside books. If I wake at night, I have one or other of them to prattle me to sleep again. They talk about themselves for ever, and don’t weary me. I like to hear them tell their old stories over and over again. I read them in the dozy hours, and only half remember them. I am informed that both of them tell coarse stories. I don’t heed them. It was the custom of their time, as it is of Highlanders and Hottentots to dispense with a part of dress which we all wear in cities. But people can’t afford to be shocked either at Cape Town or at Inverness every time they meet an individual who wears his national airy raiment. I never knew the “Arabian Nights” was an improper book until I happened once to read it in a “family edition.” Well, qui s’excuse. . . . Who, pray, has accused me as yet? Here am I smothering dear good old Mrs. Grundy’s objections, before she has opened her mouth. I love, I say, and scarcely ever tire of hearing, the artless prattle of those two dear old friends, the Perigourdin gentleman and the priggish little Clerk of King Charles’s Council. Their egotism in nowise disgusts me. I hope I shall always like to hear men, in reason, talk about themselves. What subject does a man know better? If I stamp on a friend’s corn, his outcry is genuine — he confounds my clumsiness in the accents of truth. He is speaking about himself and expressing his emotion of grief or pain in a manner perfectly authentic and veracious. I have a story of my own, of a wrong done to me by somebody, as far back as the year 1838: whenever I think of it and have had a couple of glasses of wine, I CANNOT help telling it. The toe is stamped upon; the pain is just as keen as ever: I cry out, and perhaps utter imprecatory language. I told the story only last Wednesday at dinner:—
“Mr. Roundabout,” says a lady sitting by me, “how comes it that in your books there is a certain class (it may be of men, or it may be of women, but that is not the question in point)— how comes it, dear sir, there is a certain class of persons whom you always attack in your writings, and savagely rush at, goad, poke, toss up in the air, kick, and trample on?”
I couldn’t help myself. I knew I ought not to do it. I told her the whole story, between the entrees and the roast. The wound began to bleed again. The horrid pang was there, as keen and as fresh as ever. If I live half as long as Tithonus,7 that crack across my heart can never be cured. There are wrongs and griefs that CAN’T be mended. It is all very well of you, my dear Mrs. G., to say that this spirit is unchristian, and that we ought to forgive and forget, and so forth. How can I forget at will? How forgive? I can forgive the occasional waiter who broke my beautiful old decanter at that very dinner. I am not going to do him any injury. But all the powers on earth can’t make that claret-jug whole.
7 “Tithonus,” by Tennyson, had appeared in the preceding (the 2nd) number of the Cornhill Magazine.
So, you see, I told the lady the inevitable story. I was egotistical. I was selfish, no doubt; but I was natural, and was telling the truth. You say you are angry with a man for talking about himself. It is because you yourself are selfish, that that other person’s Self does not interest you. Be interested by other people and with their affairs. Let them prattle and talk to you, as I do my dear old egotists just mentioned. When you have had enough of them, and sudden hazes come over your eyes, lay down the volume; pop out the candle, and dormez bien. I should like to write a nightcap book — a book that you can muse over, that you can smile over, that you can yawn over — a book of which you can say, “Well, this man is so and so and so and so; but he has a friendly heart (although some wiseacres have painted him as black as bogey), and you may trust what he says.” I should like to touch you sometimes with a reminiscence that shall waken your sympathy, and make you say, Io anche have so thought, felt, smiled, suffered. Now, how is this to be done except by egotism? Linea recta brevissima. That right line “I” is the very shortest, simplest, straightforwardest means of communication between us, and stands for what it is worth and no more. Sometimes authors say, “The present writer has often remarked;” or “The undersigned has observed;” or “Mr. Roundabout presents his compliments to the gentle reader, and begs to state,” &c.: but “I” is better and straighter than all these grimaces of modesty: and although these are Roundabout Papers, and may wander who knows whither, I shall ask leave to maintain the upright and simple perpendicular. When this bundle of egotisms is bound up together, as they may be one day, if no accident prevents this tongue from wagging, or this ink from running, they will bore you very likely; so it would to read through “Howel’s Letters” from beginning to end, or to eat up the whole of a ham; but a slice on occasion may have a relish: a dip into the volume at random and so on for a page or two: and now and then a smile; and presently a gape; and the book drops out of your hand; and so, bon soir, and pleasant dreams to you. I have frequently seen men at clubs asleep over their humble servant’s works, and am always pleased. Even at a lecture I don’t mind, if they don’t snore. Only the other day when my friend A. said, “You’ve left off that Roundabout business, I see; very glad you have,” I joined in the general roar of laughter at the table. I don’t care a fig whether Archilochus likes the papers or no. You don’t like partridge, Archilochus, or porridge, or what not? Try some other dish. I am not going to force mine down your throat, or quarrel with you if you refuse it. Once in America a clever and candid woman said to me, at the close of a dinner, during which I had been sitting beside her, “Mr. Roundabout, I was told I should not like you; and I don’t.” “Well, ma’am,” says I, in a tone of the most unfeigned simplicity, “I don’t care.” And we became good friends immediately, and esteemed each other ever after.
So, my dear Archilochus, if you come upon this paper, and say, “Fudge!” and pass on to another, I for one shall not be in the least mortified. If you say, “What does he mean by calling this paper On Two Children in Black, when there’s nothing about people in black at all, unless the ladies he met (and evidently bored) at dinner, were black women? What is all this egotistical pother? A plague on his I’s!” My dear fellow, if you read “Montaigne’s Essays,” you must own that he might call almost any one by the name of any other, and that an essay on the Moon or an essay on Green Cheese would be as appropriate a title as one of his on Coaches, on the Art of Discoursing, or Experience, or what you will. Besides, if I HAVE a subject (and I have) I claim to approach it in a roundabout manner.
You remember Balzac’s tale of the Peau de Chagrin, and how every time the possessor used it for the accomplishment of some wish the fairy Peau shrank a little and the owner’s life correspondingly shortened? I have such a desire to be well with my public that I am actually giving up my favorite story. I am killing my goose, I know I am. I can’t tell my story of the children in black after this; after printing it, and sending it through the country. When they are gone to the printer’s these little things become public property. I take their hands. I bless them. I say, “Good-by, my little dears.” I am quite sorry to part with them: but the fact is, I have told all my friends about them already, and don’t dare to take them about with me any more.
Now every word is true of this little anecdote, and I submit that there lies in it a most curious and exciting little mystery. I am like a man who gives you the last bottle of his ‘25 claret. It is the pride of his cellar; he knows it, and he has a right to praise it. He takes up the bottle, fashioned so slenderly — takes it up tenderly, cants it with care, places it before his friends, declares how good it is, with honest pride, and wishes he had a hundred dozen bottles more of the same wine in his cellar. Si quid novisti, &c., I shall be very glad to hear from you. I protest and vow I am giving you the best I have.
Well, who those little boys in black were, I shall never probably know to my dying day. They were very pretty little men, with pale faces, and large, melancholy eyes; and they had beautiful little hands, and little boots, and the finest little shirts, and black paletots lined with the richest silk; and they had picture-books in several languages, English, and French, and German, I remember. Two more aristocratic-looking little men I never set eyes on. They were travelling with a very handsome, pale lady in mourning, and a maid-servant dressed in black, too; and on the lady’s face there was the deepest grief. The little boys clambered and played about the carriage, and she sat watching. It was a railway-carriage from Frankfort to Heidelberg.
I saw at once that she was the mother of those children, and going to part from them. Perhaps I have tried parting with my own, and not found the business very pleasant. Perhaps I recollect driving down (with a certain trunk and carpet-bag on the box) with my own mother to the end of the avenue, where we waited — only a few minutes — until the whirring wheels of that “Defiance” coach were heard rolling towards us as certain as death. Twang goes the horn; up goes the trunk; down come the steps. Bah! I see the autumn evening: I hear the wheels now: I smart the cruel smart again: and, boy or man, have never been able to bear the sight of people parting from their children.
I thought these little men might be going to school for the first time in their lives; and mamma might be taking them to the doctor, and would leave them with many fond charges, and little wistful secrets of love, bidding the elder to protect his younger brother, and the younger to be gentle, and to remember to pray to God always for his mother, who would pray for her boy too. Our party made friends with these young ones during the little journey; but the poor lady was too sad to talk except to the boys now and again, and sat in her corner, pale, and silently looking at them.
The next day, we saw the lady and her maid driving in the direction of the railway-station, WITHOUT THE BOYS. The parting had taken place, then. That night they would sleep among strangers. The little beds at home were vacant, and poor mother might go and look at them. Well, tears flow, and friends part, and mothers pray every night all over the world. I dare say we went to see Heidelberg Castle, and admired the vast shattered walls and quaint gables; and the Neckar running its bright course through that charming scene of peace and beauty; and ate our dinner, and drank our wine with relish. The poor mother would eat but little Abendessen that night; and, as for the children — that first night at school — hard bed, hard words, strange boys bullying, and laughing, and jarring you with their hateful merriment — as for the first night at a strange school, we most of us remember what THAT is. And the first is not the WORST, my boys, there’s the rub. But each man has his share of troubles, and, I suppose, you must have yours.
From Heidelberg we went to Baden-Baden: and, I dare say, saw Madame de Schlangenbad and Madame de la Cruchecassee, and Count Punter, and honest Captain Blackball. And whom should we see in the evening, but our two little boys, walking on each side of a fierce, yellow-faced, bearded man! We wanted to renew our acquaintance with them, and they were coming forward quite pleased to greet us. But the father pulled back one of the little men by his paletot, gave a grim scowl, and walked away. I can see the children now looking rather frightened away from us and up into the father’s face, or the cruel uncle’s — which was he? I think he was the father. So this was the end of them. Not school, as I at first had imagined. The mother was gone, who had given them the heaps of pretty books, and the pretty studs in the shirts, and the pretty silken clothes, and the tender — tender cares; and they were handed to this scowling practitioner of Trente et Quarante. Ah! this is worse than school. Poor little men! poor mother sitting by the vacant little beds! We saw the children once or twice after, always in Scowler’s company; but we did not dare to give each other any marks of recognition.
From Baden we went to Basle, and thence to Lucerne, and so over the St. Gothard into Italy. From Milan we went to Venice; and now comes the singular part of my story. In Venice there is a little court of which I forget the name: but in it is an apothecary’s shop, whither I went to buy some remedy for the bites of certain animals which abound in Venice. Crawling animals, skipping animals, and humming, flying animals; all three will have at you at once; and one night nearly drove me into a strait-waistcoat. Well, as I was coming out of the apothecary’s with the bottle of spirits of hartshorn in my hand (it really does do the bites a great deal of good), whom should I light upon but one of my little Heidelberg-Baden boys!
I have said how handsomely they were dressed as long as they were with their mother. When I saw the boy at Venice, who perfectly recognized me, his only garb was a wretched yellow cotton gown. His little feet, on which I had admired the little shiny boots, were WITHOUT SHOE OR STOCKING. He looked at me, ran to an old hag of a woman, who seized his hand; and with her he disappeared down one of the thronged lanes of the city.
From Venice we went to Trieste (the Vienna railway at that time was only opened as far as Laybach, and the magnificent Semmering Pass was not quite completed). At a station between Laybach and Graetz, one of my companions alighted for refreshment, and came back to the carriage saying:—
“There’s that horrible man from Baden, with the two little boys.”
Of course, we had talked about the appearance of the little boy at Venice, and his strange altered garb. My companion said they were pale, wretched-looking and DRESSED QUITE SHABBILY.
I got out at several stations, and looked at all the carriages. I could not see my little men. From that day to this I have never set eyes on them. That is all my story. Who were they? What could they be? How can you explain that mystery of the mother giving them up; of the remarkable splendor and elegance of their appearance while under her care; of their barefooted squalor in Venice, a month afterwards; of their shabby habiliments at Laybach? Had the father gambled away his money, and sold their clothes? How came they to have passed out of the hands of a refined lady (as she evidently was, with whom I first saw them) into the charge of quite a common woman like her with whom I saw one of the boys at Venice? Here is but one chapter of the story. Can any man write the next, or that preceding the strange one on which I happened to light? Who knows? the mystery may have some quite simple solution. I saw two children, attired like little princes, taken from their mother and consigned to other care; and a fortnight afterwards, one of them barefooted and like a beggar. Who will read this riddle of The Two Children in Black?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00