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The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 2. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
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page: 270

CHAPTER IX.

I HAVE not yet spoken of Morton Cavanagh, for all that he had been for a long time my best and dearest friend. I became acquainted with him during the second year of my life in London, and we made friends on the spot. There was just this little strangeness in our sudden friendship, in that it was made as it were in spite of ourselves. We had been mutually prejudiced against each other by excessive praise. His friends had vaunted him to me so extravagantly that I had made myself sure he was nothing but an overrated and conceited puppy—a jack- jackdaw page: 271 daw pranked in peacock's feathers, and by no means the phœnix they had painted him. He on his side had come to an analogous conclusion about me. I was a pedant, a bookworm, a dusty, fusty, old-young prig; and my diligence was a red rag to him as violent and aggressive as was his brilliancy to me.

Hence, when we met, we met as secret enemies determined to hate each other to the death; and when we parted, we parted as mutual friends who knew that they would love each other for life. It was an odd little drama; but all life is full of these queer contradictions of intent and deed.

Cavanagh was one of the handsomest young fellows I have ever seen. He was bright, energetic, gallant; a creature whom all women loved, to whom all men wished well, and of whom there were as many hopes as there are stars in the sky. And he seemed certain to justify the brilliant pro- prophecies page: 272 phecies made in his favour. He had the ball at his foot, and the world's oyster was already half opened. He was an artist, and, so far as he had gone, a successful one. He had taken the Gold Medal, been publicly praised by Sir Charles Eastlake, and he had sold his first exhibited picture. All that was wanting now was diligence in work and industry in self-improvement.

For the first few years his sun shone in a cloudless sky. While I was making but a very moderate income by hard work, Cavanagh was coining money by labour as light as play. His gains were princely, all things considered; and he ought to have saved considerably. But no matter what he earned, he kept nothing. Generous, careless, pleasure-loving, extravagant, he had every quality which leads to expenditure and the melting-pot; and with all his gains he never had sixpence before him. Or, if he had, it was taken from him by some- someone page: 273 one who said he wanted it more than did he himself. Cavanagh had not yet learned how to refuse. ‘No’ was the hardest word in the language to him, and he would have borne any burden on his own shoulders rather than have given pain to another. As for his openhandedness, it did not matter, he used to say with a laugh. He had a reserve fund where that came from, and his bank was not broken. While he had health and strength he would float on the top of the waves; when he felt himself beginning to sink it would then be time enough to put together a raft and hang on to a buoy.

Although we were more like brothers than merely friends, Cavanagh and I had little mental life in common. He did not care a straw for politics; social questions were dry chaff to him; he never troubled his head about religion. He went to church when he visited his people in the country, because it was the proper thing to do and page: 274 they would have been hurt had he not gone; but he dropped the habit in London. Not because he did not believe what he heard from reading-desk or pulpit; but because it took up his time and bored him. He liked the sunshine and long rambles in the woods and fields and by the sea-shore better than the dim religious light; and, if remonstrated with, he used to say that Nature was his temple, and a lark singing in the sky was a more devout choir than one made up of any number of nice little boys in nice white stoles, singing antiphonies through their noses. But what was wanting in mental sympathy of the deepest kind was filled in by sympathy of a more generalized sort. We both loved art and nature, music, poetry and beauty. We both loathed vulgarity, and never confounded unconventionality with coarseness nor freedom with vice. And we both profited by the devotion, sincerity and affectionateness which inter- interpenetrated page: 275 penetrated and coloured the character of each.

For my own part, I had reason enough to both love and admire Morton Cavanagh. He was a charming companion; always ready to enjoy; bright, good-humoured; at once receptive and expansive, playful and sincere. He was entirely natural too—one of the least artificial or self-conscious of men. He was conscious enough of the splendour of life and of his own divine enjoyment therein—conscious of power and pleasure, of what he could do and what he could feel—but he was not conscious of his outer self. He scarcely knew that he was handsome—he, who was as beautiful as Antinous!—and he never calculated on the effect of his personality on others. Perfectly truthful, he did not offend the most susceptible, because what he said was said without either callousness or insolence. It was said simply because such page: 276 and such things were. Is it an offence to call the hedge wound-wort fetid? or flattery to say that the rose is sweet? This truthfulness was part of Cavanagh's very being. Subterfuge, lying, hypocrisy, all false seeming everywhere, were as far from him as was cruelty or vulgarity; and part of his very manliness was in his sincerity.

In person he was tall, slender, long-limbed. He had dark hair and dark eyes; his skin was dead white, and his whole appearance was un-English. But his beauty was neither French nor Italian, nor yet Spanish, nor again that of any nation with which I am acquainted. It was sui generis. He himself used to declare that he was half a Red Indian, because descended through his mother from the hapless Queen Pocohontas; and he certainly had a curiously long swift stride, and bore himself with a certain savage ease and grace as well as dignity and freedom, which justified his be- belief page: 277 lief. Only, one learns to be somewhat sceptical of these descendants of Pocohontas; they are a little too numerous. Be that, however, as it may, I have never seen anyone like Cavanagh—never one with so much native kingliness of manner mingled with the gallant gay good-humour of an artist and a Bohemian. For he was a Bohemian to his finger-tips—but not of the vicious type.

Such as he was, he was supreme in beauty, in talent, in nobleness, in brilliancy and power; and not the proudest of us all felt that he doffed his cap too low, or gave up his own rightful pretensions, when he made Morton Cavanagh the king of the circle whom all agreed to honour and none could fail to love.

When I went over to Paris, I naturally lost personal touch of my friend. We corresponded, of course; but letters are poor substitutes for daily intercourse, and when lives are apart interests diverge. Then page: 278 there comes of necessity a certain mildew about the intimacy—not in the affections, but in the mutual knowledge of events. And all events more or less mould and modify the character, until it finally sets in its inalterable shape; when it fossilizes and grows no more.

One day while I was in Paris I received a letter from Cavanagh telling me abruptly that he was married. He had married, he said, the daughter of a lodging-house keeper down at some place in Cornwall—I think it was Bude or Boscastle—where he had been spending the summer. He made no attempt to conceal the real position of his wife, nor to gild the homely russet of her circumstances. She was simply plain Mary, the daughter of a woman who took in lodgers for the summer season in a simple little Cornish village. But she was a good girl, he said, and as beautiful as an artist's wife should be. He was as happy as a king, he page: 279 went on to say, and he wanted only his dear Chris—his fidus Achates—to be as happy as an emperor.

It was a letter written in the wildest, maddest strain; and I was glad that he was so content. As for a lodging-house keeper's daughter—well! the name does not go for much; for there are daughters and daughters, as well as there are lodging-house keepers and lodging-house keepers. We sometimes find irreproachable ladies of good education and small means who pay their rent by letting their rooms. There is nothing necessarily degrading in this. A woman left poorly provided for, and with children to bring up, must do something to stretch that narrow margin. Why not this as well as anything else? Mary's mother was surely a lady of this kind; and Mary herself was none the worse for the fact that the drawing-rooms had to pay the rent, and that a six months' letting had to secure a page: 280 twelvemonths' tenement. She must be refined and well brought up. Morton Cavanagh could not have married anything else than a real, true, genuine, unapocryphal gentlewoman. With his fastidious tastes, how could he do otherwise? The only thing to disturb me in the matter was that he had not told me of his engagement, and that he had sprung his marriage on me so unexpectedly. But I loved my friend and respected freedom of action too much to allow this to rankle in my mind; and I made no stumbling-block where Cavanagh had placed none.

When I returned from Paris, Cavanagh came to meet me at the station. I saw him striding up the platform with his old swift silent step, his handsome face alight with pleasure, his bright eyes shining in the gas-light as in an instant he had, as he said, ‘spotted’ me. But when I stood face to face with him, at a glance I saw a certain change. page: 281 I could not explain it. I could not say where it was, nor in what special tract nor trait. But it was there. It was the same picture varnished with another colour; and the man I met was not the man I had left. He was stouter than when I had seen him last. The clear white of his skin was obscured and yellowed. His jet-black hair was longer, and the gloss had gone out of it. His dress was shabby, and he had a certain self-neglected look—a certain dash of raffishness which he had never had before; and as he spoke and laughed his welcome in more vociferous fashion than had been usual with him, his hot breath was heavy with the deadly reek of gin.

When I went to his lodgings I understood matters yet more clearly. A tawdry, ill-appointed young woman, with a by no means appetizing infant in her arms—a young woman with a face like a wax-doll, pink and blue and gold, round and page: 282 mindless, with nothing in it save youth and colour, and from which maternity had already taken the first bloom—a young woman, fine and slipshod, under-bred and pretentious, ill at ease and affected—this was the landlady's daughter whom my friend had made his wife, and vaunted as his fitting match and willing choice.

My poor Cavanagh! What had blinded him so fatally? Ah! it was the old old story whereby so many young men have been destroyed—a moment's weakness, and a life's sad ruin for expiation! That was the whole thing. When the momentary craze passed, my friend woke to find himself tied for life to an animated log, in no single particular admirable nor worthy of him. I do not mean to say she was actively bad, poor soul!—she was not that; but she was utterly common—not vicious, but unimprovable—not a savage, nor a fiend, nor yet even a mere animal, but just a human page: 283 doll, mindless, brainless, conscienceless, and worked by curious internal machinery. And she was the millstone round her husband's neck which sank him to the depths.

The sequel is soon told. Disgusted with himself, and not strong enough to bear with patient dignity the consequences of his own mistake nor yet able to remedy that mistake, Cavanagh took to drink, as many a poor fellow has done before him. Neither the claims of his wife and children nor the religion of honour and self-respect, touched him for more than a few days at a time. He had spasmodic fits of repentance, of self-loathing, of good resolve, of refuge in religion, but to no good. The demon of drink had him too tightly in his grasp; and, struggle as he would, my unhappy friend could never set himself free. His wife did not know how to take him. How should she, poor woman? Such a character and such conditions as his required nicer handling page: 284 than hers. She bullied him, rated, threatened, and publicly disgraced him yet more than he had already disgraced himself. She made his wretched squalid home more wretched by her not unnatural temper, and more squalid by her bad management and unthrift; and he left both her and it for that bitter forgetfulness which only made everything worse.

He grew quarrelsome, too, and suspicious; and it was as much as I or any of his friends could do to keep on fair terms with him, so madly determined was he to find us in the wrong. Poor Cavanagh! Having so much to condemn in himself, it would have been such a relief if he could have found that he was not the only one to blame, and that his griefs against others excused his high-treason against himself! But I never let him quarrel with me. And, painful as it was to go to that sordid home and see the wreck of all that I had once so loved, admired and be- believed page: 285 lieved in, I used to go continually—to at least ease my own conscience if I could not lighten his.

Suddenly the whole family disappeared out of London, and I lost sight of them. Cavanagh did not write to me, and his own people refused to give me his address. He had gone like a faded aurora—something that had been so glorious and that now had passed into the mists of night. No one of our common friends knew more than I; and I knew nothing. So it continued for some time, and of this man who had been to me more like a brother than a friend I knew absolutely nothing—not even whether he were living or dead, sane or mad. And I could not find out.

One night I had a singular dream. I thought that I was walking on the road which led to our old rectory when I stumbled over the body of Morton Cavanagh, lying half-dead and covered with mud by the way- wayside page: 286 side. I stopped, lifted him up in my arms, and cleansed him; then I led him home, hand-in-hand, to my father's house—waking as I passed through the garden gate.

This dream made a deep impression on me, for all that I am absolutely free from superstitious belief in, or reverence for, dreams. Still, it brought my dear friend's image so vividly before me that I could not free my mind from the thought of him. And I resolved at all costs to find out where he was, and in what condition of mind, body and estate.

After infinite trouble and queer, mole-like workings, I succeeded. I found him in a small four-roomed cottage, in a remote village in Essex—separated from his wife and children, and living with a policeman and his wife. His family had taken him in hand, and, as he was now an absolute pauper, they were masters of the situation. The wife and children were cared for se- separately page: 287 parately; and Cavanagh was, as I say, put under the charge of a policeman, with strict orders that he should be kept from drink. He had had delirium tremens more than once, and his brain was by now decidedly deteriorated.

When I knew his address, I went down that same day. I wanted to take him unawares, and thus to be able to judge more accurately than if he had time to prepare himself.

I shall never forget the sickening sensation of the moment when I first saw him in that wretched cottage, amid those gross and mean surroundings that made the reality to which his brilliant prospects had declined. Bloated, blotched—his once bright eyes lustreless, bloodshot, staring—his manner a strange mixture of swagger and shame—his manhood degraded—his whole being debased—and yet flashes of his old purer self traversing this deadly darkness—he was page: 288 more awful than a galvanized corpse, more pitiful than a ghost lingering mournfully among the living. What a change! what an awful fall it was!

At the first moment he did not seem to recognise me. Then, when he did, he laughed aloud with that false mirth which is more sad than tears. Then he became insolent, and challenged my motives for coming, and threatened me with tragic, half-insane and impotent bluster; and finally he broke down into hysterical weeping, which was a kind of waymark of his degradation. And then he was conquered; and a little of that deep crust of moral dirt was washed away, at least for the moment. I stayed with him the whole day, and we went out for a walk in the fields, where he got to be somewhat more like his old self. We talked of flowers and art, of pictures and people; but his brain was weak, and he could not take in much at a time, and I had to page: 289 treat him morally and intellectually as the famished are treated physically—with small spells of talk and long lapses of silence. But my presence seemed to soothe if not to strengthen him; and when I left he pressed me to go again, and often, and very soon; saying, as he stood on the platform, the policeman by his side:

‘You have done me good, Chris! God bless you, old fellow!’

I often went after this—generally once a week; but always by appointment. On the days when I was there he was at least safe from degradation; and, indeed, the woman of the house said they reckoned three good days for every visit. He was happy in my company. I recalled him to something of his former brightness, and for sake of the old times he made these pathetic little efforts to rise out of his ruin. But he could not. His brain had deteriorated, his will had been eaten page: 290 into, and his morale was paralyzed all through. The second day after I had been to see him, he broke out as bad as ever, and so he continued till the day before my next visit was to come off. Then he kept sober, for love's sake and mine.

How he got the means, or how he managed to get the drink at all, was a mystery. The only sure thing about it was, he did manage, and he did get it. He, once so honourable, so upright, so straight-forward and fearless in the truth, now condescended to the meanest falsehoods and subterfuges for that accursed poison which had ruined him.

At last the end came. He died quite suddenly, in a moment, as he sat there by the table. And when he died he was a mere shell—a mass of used and worn-out organs, all of which were diseased and destroyed. His death was a release from sorrow, shame, and suffering all round; and page: 291 I felt that I had gained him again, not lost him, through the purification of the grave. My poor Cavanagh! I never loved any man, save Edwin, so much as I loved him; but my dream was a lying vision:—I did not cleanse nor save him, nor did I lead him home to the Father's House!

I lost more than Morton Cavanagh about this time—the exact dates and precise order do not signify. My dear old father-friend Walter Savage Landor made the second great blunder of his life, and had to pay the penalty. The law is no respecter of persons; and those who vault unbidden into the seat of justice have to suffer by the sword they have wielded without authority.

Into the merits of this painful case I will not enter. All I know is the fatal result; and the only defence I make—and to my mind it is all-powerful—is, that age obscures the clearness of the mental vision as it does that of the physical, and that if to those page: 292 who love much much may be forgiven, those whose vigorous youth has been pure and flawless may hope for the reverent veiling of oblivion when they make an octogenarian mistake.

Mr. Landor left Bath, and went back to his own family and the old home he once loved so well at beautiful Florence; and I never saw him again.

But the lives which had been discordant in the years gone by were not likely to be harmonious now; and the love which had been too weak to keep the marriage soldered in the days of youth and maturity could scarcely bring together the jagged edges in old age, when habits had diverged as much as feelings were estranged. After a miserable spell of dissatisfaction, the fire, which had long been burning low, finally burnt itself out, and the old lion lay down never more to rise. There, under the blue sky of Italy, turned to his rest one of the grandest page: 293 literary figures and noblest men of his generation—one who, though his own worst enemy, was the friend and panegyrist of all things lofty, beautiful and good.

Too absolutely free from the faintest taint of vulgarity to be appreciated by the vulgar, the inner beauty of Landor's nature was not all men's possession—just as his literary work itself is only for the chosen few, and has never been what is called popular. Sonorous in its melody, but not laboured nor artificial; suggestive, but not sketchy; giving the impression of a reserve-fund unexhausted and of latent force unused, but never of want of finish nor of neglected opportunity; never cloying, but never disappointing, his works are among the best of our literature and language. Nowhere else do we find such a mixture of grace and strength, of tenderness and power, of artistic skill and natural simplicity. The figures page: 294 which leave his hands are like the purest Greek statues. There is no violence in their tragedy, no affectation in their elegance, no simper in their beauty, no self-consciousness in their grace. Beneath the smooth surface of the marble the living man lies hidden. His Aphrodites wring the salt wave from their dripping tresses, and know that they have risen to life in the upper air and are the beloved of gods and mortals; but they are large and free and noble, and art but reproduces what nature created. His Apollos stand secure in their strength, masters of the Chariot of the Sun, lords of life and beauty, who command and are obeyed. There is no posturizing, no effort; and it is this chastened self-restraint in the midst of his creative activity—this grand command, both over his own thoughts and his material, while infusing life into his dead symbols, which makes Landor so Greek. He sees all beauty page: 295 and manipulates it to his will; but he never exaggerates and never loses control of his idea. He is the Pygmalion of literature, but his Galateas have always the grave beauty of statues, even while they move and speak. In his intensest love he is free from all trace of licentiousness or coarseness. His Dionysos never changes attributes with Silenus; and his Aphrodite is the Sea-born but never the Pandemos.

For himself, time has dissolved away all the little surface weaknesses—all the thin crust and pellicles of temper which once grew about the outer man, and has left the pure core like shining gold, free from stain and rust. We judge him by what he did and was—by that Ideal which rises from the grave of the dead and is the true man—truer than was he whose brain was influenced by his blood, and his blood by all material things, and whose best self got sometimes lost, clouded and mislaid, like page: 296 diamonds fallen from their setting, or pearls discoloured by age.

Things had happened in my own history which made it impossible for me to go to my dear old friend in the beginning of this last sad drama at Bath. Had I been able, I knew that I should have prevented much that took place. My influence over Mr. Landor had grown of late years. It was that of a respectful son who has on his side the clearer vision and brisker energies of youth, while always absolutely deferential and obedient.

It was of no use, however, to lament over the inevitable. I could not go to him; and so those miserable Dry Sticks were Faggoted, and the brave life went out without my hand on the one or my love around the other.

I had one satisfaction in the years that came after. When Forster wrote his mean and unsatisfactory ‘Life of Landor,’ I page: 297 reviewed it. Two days after the review appeared, I was at a dinner given by dear Shirley Brooks. Lord Houghton was there.

‘Have you seen Kirkland's review of “Landor's Life” by Forster?’ he asked Lord Houghton. ‘It is the neatest thing I know. He has taken the skin off him so—so,’ he added, making a movement as if tearing strips along his arm.

Of Forster—‘de mortuis’ notwithstanding—I can never speak in sufficiently strong terms of contempt. He was bully and toady in excelsis; and the way in which he harnessed himself to the chariot of every manifest conqueror who drove into the literary arena was as degrading as it was loathsome. More loathsome still was his want of loyalty to the man, dead, whose feet he had kissed while living. Landor had been his friend and benefactor—had given him the copyright of his works, and had trusted page: 298 him with that most sacred deposit, the story of his life. Forster repaid his munificence by emphasizing the weaknesses and faintly depicting the grand qualities of his friend from whom no more was to be expected, and whose last act of generosity had been performed. In like manner his ‘Life of Dickens’ is simply a vehicle for his own self-laudation—dwarfing all other friendships to aggrandize and augment his own. All through his career his one ruling principle of action was egotism and self-advantage; and of the finer strains of honour he had not the faintest echo.

Another notable man died about this time—Dr. Elliotson—with whom also I had been brought into personal relations. I first knew him through the Maconochies, at the time when his income—so they told me—had dropped plumb from twelve to two thousand a year, as the tax levied on his belief in mesmerism. During his last page: 299 illness my own dear father had been brought up to London, and placed under Dr. Elliotson, whose prophylactic then was tar-water. Nothing, however, did or could arrest the progress of the deadly disease which was eating away my father's life; but the friendship which had then been begun, and had afterwards fallen into abeyance, was renewed in later years, between Dr. Elliotson and myself. He was then a Freethinker, so far as Christianity was concerned—a devout believer in God and the spiritual nature of man but not an orthodox Christian; and we had many long and interesting talks together, after the prescription had been written out and the state of the dear patient upstairs discussed between us in the room below. Years passed after my father's death before I met my friend again. When I did, he was old, broken, penniless and out of practice. A friend— page: 300 good be with him and all such!—had taken this wreck of former power and brilliancy, and cared for him as a son would care for a father. Among other changes which the years had worked was the old man's conversion to Christianity by spiritualism. I met him one night at Mrs. Milner Gibson's, and he came up to me as soon as he saw me enter the room. We talked together for some time, the burden of his speech being lamentations that he had ever said anything to strengthen my own want of orthodoxy, and beseechings to reconsider the question, and—as he had done—come over to Christianity by the way of spiritualism and messages from the dead. He died not very long after this; but his true self had died long before.

George Cruikshank too, was among the labourers on the ungrateful field of my mind. One evening we had been to Westland Marston's, and we walked home to- together page: 301 gether. On the way we passed a group of rowdy drunken men and women. Suddenly George stopped, and, taking hold of my arm, said solemnly:

You are responsible for those poor wretches.’

I answered that I did not exactly see this and disclaimed any share in their degradation. But he insisted on it; and hung those ruined souls like infernal bells about my neck, tinkling out my own damnation because at supper I had drunk a glass of champagne from which he had vainly tried to dissuade me.

He got heated and excited when I would not have what he called enough grace of conscience to recognise my responsibility in the drunkenness of these poor sinners. But we did not quarrel. Sincerity is far too valuable a quality to be resented, even when unduly aggressive; and the good old fellow had so many fine and sterling moral beau- beauties page: 302 ties, one could easily pardon a certain want of proportion in some and want of taste in others. If he had a horror of drunkenness, so had I; for, though never near to being under the curse myself, had I not seen the misery it had worked with one I had loved so well?

END OF VOL. II.

BILLING AND SONS PRINTERS, GUILDFORD. G., C. & Co.

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