Two Sketches

Two Sketches

By

Henry Harland

I—Mercedes

WHEN I was a child some one gave me a family of white
mice. I don't remember how old I was, I think about
ten or eleven ; but I remember very clearly the day I received
them. It must have been a Thursday, a half-holiday, for I had
come home from school rather early in the afternoon. Alexandre,
dear old ruddy round-faced Alexandre, who opened the door for
me, smiled in a way that seemed to announce, " There's a surprise
in store for you, sir." Then my mother smiled too, a smile, I
thought, of peculiar promise and interest. After I had kissed her
she said, " Come into the dining-room. There's something you
will like." Perhaps I concluded it would be something to eat.
Anyhow, all agog with curiosity, I followed her into the dining-
room—and Alexandre followed me, anxious to take part in the
rejoicing. In the window stood a big cage, enclosing the family
of white mice.

I remember it as a very big cage indeed ; no doubt I should
find it shrunken to quite moderate dimensions if I could see it
again. There were three generations of mice in it : a fat old
couple, the founders of the race, dozing phlegmatically on their

laurels

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Two Sketches

laurels in a corner ; then a dozen medium-sized, slender mice,
trim and youthful-looking, rushing irrelevantly hither and thither,
with funny inquisitive little faces ; and then a squirming mass of
pink things, like caterpillars, that were really infant mice, new
born. They didn't remain infants long, though. In a few days
they had put on virile togas of white fur, and were scrambling
about the cage and nibbling their food as independently as their
elders. The rapidity with which my mice multiplied and grew
to maturity was a constant source of astonishment to me. It
seemed as if every morning I found a new litter of young mice in
the cage—though how they had effected an entrance through the
wire gauze that lined it was a hopeless puzzle—and these would
have become responsible, self-supporting mice in no time.

My mother told me that somebody had sent me this soul-
stirring present from the country, and I dare say I was made to
sit down and write a letter of thanks. But I'm ashamed to own
I can't remember who the giver was. I have a vague notion that
it was a lady, an elderly maiden-lady—Mademoiselle ..... some
thing that began with P— who lived near Tours, and who used
to come to Paris once or twice a year, and always brought me a
box of prunes.

Alexandre carried the cage into my play-room, and set it up
against the wall. I stationed myself in front of it, and remained
there all the rest of the afternoon, gazing in, entranced. To watch
their antics, their comings and goings, their labours and amuse-
ments, to study their shrewd, alert physiognomies, to wonder
about their feelings, thoughts, intentions, to try to divine the
meaning of their busy twittering language—it was such keen,
deep delight. Of course I was an anthropomorphist, and read a
great deal of human nature into them ; otherwise it wouldn t have
been such fun. I dragged myself reluctantly away when I was

By Henry Harland

137
called to dinner. It was hard that evening to apply myself to
my school-books. Before I went to bed I paid them a parting
visit ; they were huddled together in their nest of cotton-wool,
sleeping soundly. And I was up at an unheard-of hour next
morning, to have a bout with them before going to school. I
found Alexandre, in his nightcap and long white apron, occupied
with the soins de propreté, as he said. He cleaned out the cage,
put in fresh food and water, and then, pointing to the fat old
couple, the grandparents, who stopped lazily abed, sitting up and
rubbing their noses together, whilst their juniors scampered merrily
about their affairs, " Tiens ! On dirait Monsieur et Madame
Denis," he cried. I felt the appositeness of his allusion ; and the
old couple were forthwith officially denominated Monsieur and
Madame Denis, for their resemblance to the hero and heroine of
the song—though which was Monsieur, and which Madame, I'm
not sure that I ever clearly knew.

It was a little after this that I was taken for the first time in
my life to the play. I fancy the theatre must have been the Porte
St. Martin ; at any rate, it was a theatre in the Boulevard, and
towards the East, for I remember the long drive we had to reach
it. And the piece was The Count of Monte Cristo. In my
memory the adventure shines, of course, as a vague blur of light
and joy ; a child s first visit to the play, and that play The Count
of Monte Cristo! It was all the breath-taking pleasantness of
romance made visible, audible, actual. A vague blur of light and
joy, from which only two details separate themselves. First, the
prison scene, and an aged man, with a long white beard, moving a
great stone from the wall ; then—the figure of Mercedes. I went
home terribly in love with Mercedes. Surely there are no such
grande passions in maturer life as those helpless, inarticulate ones
we burn in secret with before our teens ; surely we never love

again

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Two Sketches

again so violently, desperately, consumedly. Anyhow, I went
home terribly in love with Mercedes. And—do all children lack
humour ?—I picked out the prettiest young ladyish-looking mouse
in my collection, cut off her moustaches, adopted her as my
especial pet, and called her by the name of my dea certè,

All of my mice by this time had become quite tame. They
had plenty to eat and drink, and a comfortable home, and not a
care in the world ; and familiarity with their master had bred
assurance ; and so they had become quite tame and shamefully,
abominably lazy. Luxury, we are taught, was ever the mother of
sloth. I could put my hand in amongst them, and not one would
bestir himself the littlest bit to escape me. Mercedes and I were
inseparable. I used to take her to school with me every day ; she
could be more conveniently and privately transported than a lamb.
Each lycéen had a desk in front of his form, and she would spend
the school-hours in mine, I leaving the lid raised a little, that she
might have light and air. One day, the usher having left the
room for a moment, I put her down on the floor, thereby creating
a great excitement amongst my fellow-pupils, who got up from
their places and formed an eager circle round her. Then suddenly
the usher came back, and we all hurried to our seats, while he,
catching sight of Mercedes, cried out, " A mouse ! A white
mouse ! Who dares to bring a white mouse to the class ? " And
he made a dash for her. But she was too quick, too cute, for
"the likes of"Monsieur le Pion. She gave a jump, and in the
twinkling of an eye had disappeared up my leg, under my trousers.
The usher searched high and low for her, but she prudently
remained in her hiding-place ; and thus her life was saved, for
when he had abandoned his ineffectual chase, he announced, " I
should have wrung her neck." I turned pale to imagine the doom
she had escaped as by a hair's breadth. " It is useless to ask which

By Henry Harland

139
of you brought her here," he continued. " But mark my words :
if ever I find a mouse again in the class I will wring her neck! "
And yet, in private life, this bloodthirsty pion was a quite gentle,
kindly, underfed, underpaid, shabby, struggling fellow, with literary
aspirations, who would not have hurt a fly.

The secrets of a schoolboy's pocket! I once saw a boy
surreptitiously angling in Kensington Gardens, with a string and
a bent pin. Presently he landed a fish, a fish no bigger than your
thumb, perhaps, but still a fish. Alive and wet and flopping as
it was, he slipped it into his pocket. I used to carry Mercedes
about in mine. One evening, when I put in my hand to take her
out, I discovered to my bewilderment that she was not alone.
There were four little pink mites of infant mice clinging to her.

I had enjoyed my visit to the theatre so much that at the jour
de l'an my father included a toy-theatre among my presents. It
had a real curtain of green baize, that would roll up and down,
and beautiful coloured scenery that you could shift, and footlights,
and a trap-door in the middle ot the stage ; and indeed it would
have been altogether perfect, except for the Company. I have
since learned that this is not infrequently the case with theatres.
My company consisted of pasteboard men and women who, as
artists, struck me as eminently unsatisfactory. They couldn't
move their arms or legs, and they had such stolid, uninteresting
faces. I don t know how it first occurred to me to turn them all
off, and fill their places with my mice. Mercedes, of course, was
leading lady ; Monsieur and Madame Denis were the heavy
parents ; and a gentlemanlike young mouse named Leander was
jeune premier. Then, in my leisure, they used to act the most
tremendous plays. I was stage-manager, prompter, playwright,
chorus, and audience, placing the theatre before a looking-glass, so
that, though my duties kept me behind, I could peer round the

edge,

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Two Sketches

edge, and watch the spectacle as from the front. I would invent
the lines and deliver them, but, that my illusion might be the
more complete, I would change my voice for each personage
The lines tried hard to be verses ; no doubt they were vers libres.
At any rate, they were mouth-filling and sonorous. The first
play we attempted, I need hardly say, was Le Comte de Monte
Cristo, such version of it as I could reconstruct from memory.
That had rather a long run. Then I dramatised Aladdin and
the Wonderful Lamp, Paul et Virglnie, Quentin Durward, and
La Dame de Monwreau. Mercedes made a charming Diane,
Leander a brilliant and dashing Bussy; Monsieur Denis was cast
for the role of Fr񡙲re Gorenflot; and a long, thin, cadaverous-
looking mouse, Don Quichotte by name, somewhat inadequately
represented Chicot. We began, as you see, with melodrama ;
presently we descended to light comedy, playing Les M񡙳moires d'un
Ane, Jean qui rit, and other works of the immortal Madame de
S񡙳gur. And then at last we turned a new leaf, and became
naturalistic. We had never heard of the naturalist school,
though Monsieur Zola had already published some volumes of the
Rougon-Macquart ; but ideas are in the air ; and we, for our
selves, discovered the possibilities of naturalism simultaneously,
as it were, with the acknowledged apostle of that form of art.
We would impersonate the characters of our own world—our
schoolfellows and masters, our parents, servants, friends—and carry
them through experiences and situations derived from our impres-
sions of real life. Perhaps we rather led them a dance ; and I
dare say those we didn't like came in for a good deal of
retributive justice. It was a little universe, of which we were the
arch-arbiters, our will the final law.

I don't know whether all children lack humour ; but I'm sure
no grown-up author-manager can take his business more seriously

than

By Henry Harland

141
than I took mine. Oh, I enjoyed it hugely ; the hours I spent at
it were enraptured hours ; but it was grim, grim earnest. After a
while I began to long for a less subjective public, a more various
audience. I would summon the servants, range them in chairs at
one end of the room, conceal myself behind the theatre, and spout
the play with fervid solemnity. And they would giggle, and make
flippant commentaries, and at my most impassioned climaxes burst
into guffaws. My mice, as has been said, were overfed and
lazy, and I used to have to poke them through their parts with
sticks from the wings ; but this was a detail which a superior
imagination should have accepted as one of the conventions of the
art. It made the servants laugh, however ; and when I would
step to the front in person, and, with tears in my eyes, beseech
them to be sober, they would but laugh the louder. " Bless you, sir,
they're only mice—ce ne sont que des souris," the cook called out on one
such occasion. She meant it as an apology and a consolation, but
it was the unkindest cut of all. Only mice, indeed ! To me
they had been a young gentleman and lady lost in the Desert of
Sahara, near to die for the want of water, and about to be attacked,
captured, and sold into slavery, by a band of Bedouin Arabs. Ah,
well, the artist must steel himself to meet with indifference or
derision from the public, to be ignored, misunderstood, or jeered
at ; and to rely for his real, his legitimate, reward on the pleasure
he finds in his work.

And now there befell a great change in my life. Our home in
Paris was broken up, and we moved to St. Petersburg. It was
impossible to take my mice with us ; their cage would have hope
lessly complicated our impedimenta. So we gave them to the
children of our concierge, Mercedes, however, I was resolved I
would not part with, and I carried her all the way to the Russian
capital by hand. In my heart I was looking to her to found

another

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Two Sketches

another family she had so frequently become a mother in the
past. But month succeeded month, and she forever disappointed
me, and at last I abandoned hope. In solitude and exile Mercedes
degenerated sadly ; got monstrously fat ; too indolent to gnaw, let
her teeth grow to a preposterous length ; and in the end died of a
surfeit of smetana.

When I returned to Paris, at the age of twenty, tofaire mon droit
drolt in the Latin Quarter, I paid a visit to our old house, and
discovered the same old concierge in the loge. I asked her about
the mice, and she told me her children had found the care of them
such a bother that at first they had neglected them, and at last
allowed them to escape. "They took to the walls, and for a long
time afterwards, Monsieur, the mice of this neighbourhood were
pied. To this day they are of a paler hue than elsewhere."

II—A Broken Looking-Glass

HE climbed the three flights of stone stairs, and put his key
into the lock ; but before he turned it, he stopped—to rest,
to take breath. On the door his name was painted in big white
letters, Mr. Richard Dane. It is always silent in the Temple at
midnight ; to-night the silence was dense, like a fog. It was
Sunday night ; and on Sunday night, even within the hushed
precincts of the Temple, one is conscious of a deeper hush.

When he had lighted the lamp in his sitting-room, he let him
self drop into an arm-chair before the empty fireplace. He was
tired, he was exhausted. Yet nothing had happened to tire him.
He had dined, as he always dined on Sundays, with the Rodericks,
in Cheyne Walk; he had driven home in a hansom. There was

no

By Henry Harland

143
no reason why he should be tired. But he was tired. A deadly
lassitude penetrated his body and his spirit, like a fluid. He was
too tired to go to bed.

" I suppose I am getting old," he thought.

To a second person the matter would have appeared one not of
supposition but of certainty, not of progression but of accomplish
ment. Getting old indeed ? But he was old. It was an old
man, grey and wrinkled and wasted, who sat there, limp, sunken
upon himself, in his easy-chair. In years, to be sure, he was
under sixty ; but he looked like a man of seventy-five.

" I am getting old, I suppose I am getting old."

And vaguely, dully, he contemplated his life, spread out behind
him like a misty landscape, and thought what a failure it had been.
What had it come to ? What had it brought him ? What had
he done or won ? Nothing, nothing. It had brought him
nothing but old age, solitude, disappointment, and, to-night
especially, a sense of fatigue and apathy that weighed upon him
like a suffocating blanket. On a table, a yard or two away, stood
a decanter of whisky, with some soda-water bottles and tumblers ;
he looked at it with heavy eyes, and he knew that there was what
he needed. A little whisky would strengthen him, revive him,
and make it possible for him to bestir himself and undress and go
to bed. But when he thought of rising and moving to pour the
whisky out, he shrunk from that effort as from an Herculean
labour ; no—he was too tired. Then his mind went back to the
friends he had left in Chelsea half an hour ago ; it seemed an
indefinably long time ago, years and years ago ; they were like
blurred phantoms, dimly remembered from a remote past.

Yes, his life had been a failure ; total, miserable, abject. It had
come to nothing ; its harvest was a harvest of ashes, If it had
been a useful life, he could have accepted its unhappiness ; if it

The Yellow Book Vol.—I. I

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had been a happy life, he could have forgotten its uselessness ; but
it had been both useless and unhappy. He had done nothing for
others, he had won nothing for himself. Oh, but he had tried,
he had tried. When he had left Oxford people expected great
things of him ; he had expected great things of himself. He was
admitted to be clever, to be gifted ; he was ambitious, he was in
earnest. He wished to make a name, he wished to justify his
existence by fruitful work. And he had worked hard. He had
put all his knowledge, all his talent, all his energy, into his work ;
he had not spared himself; he had passed laborious days and
studious nights. And what remained to show for it ? Three or
four volumes upon Political Economy, that had been read in their
day a little, discussed a little, and then quite forgotten super
seded by the books of newer men. " Pulped, pulped," he reflected
bitterly. Except for a stray dozen of copies scattered here and
there—in the British Museum, in his College library, on his own
bookshelves his published writings had by this time (he could
not doubt) met with the common fate of unsuccessful literature,
and been " pulped."

" Pulped—pulped ; pulped —pulped." The hateful word beat
rhythmically again and again in his tired brain ; and for a little
while that was all he was conscious of.

So much for the work of his life. And for the rest ? The
play ? The living ? Oh, he had nothing to recall but failure.
It had sufficed that he should desire a thing, for him to miss it ;
that he should set his heart upon a thing, for it to be removed
beyond the sphere of his possible acquisition. It had been so
from the beginning ; it had been so always. He sat motionless as
a stone, and allowed his thoughts to drift listlessly hither and
thither in the current of memory. Everywhere they encountered
wreckage, derelicts : defeated aspirations, broken hopes. Languidly

ho

By Henry Harland

145
he envisaged these He was too tired to resent, to rebel. He
even found a certain sluggish satisfaction in recognising with what
unvarying harshness destiny had treated him, in resigning himself
to the unmerited.

He caught sight of his hand, lying flat and inert upon the
brown leather arm of his chair. His eyes rested on it, and for the
moment he forgot everything else in a sort of torpid study of it.
How white it was, how thin, how withered ; the nails were
parched into minute corrugations ; the veins stood out like dark
wires ; the skin hung loosely on it, and had a dry lustre : an old
man's hand. He gazed at it fixedly, till his eyes closed and his
head fell forward. But he was not sleepy, he was only tired and
weak.

He raised his head with a start, and changed his position. He
felt cold ; but to endure the cold was easier than to get up, and
put something on, or go to bed.

How silent the world was ; how empty his room. An immense
feeling of solitude, of isolation, fell upon him. He was quite cut
off from the rest of humanity here. If anything should happen
to him, if he should need help of any sort, what could he do ?
Call out ? But who would hear ? At nine in the morning the
porter's wife would come with his tea. But if anything should
happen to him in the meantime ? There would be npthing for it
but to wait till nine o clock.

Ah, if he had married, if he had had children, a wife, a home or
his own, instead of these desolate bachelor chambers !

If he had married, indeed ! It was his sorrow's crown of sorrow
that he had not married, that he had not been able to marry, that
the girl he had wished to marry wouldn't have him. Failure ?
Success ? He could have accounted failure in other things a trifle,
he could have laughed at what the world calls failure, if Elinor

Lynd

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Two Sketches

Lynd had been his wife. But that was the heart of his misfortune,
she wouldn't have him.

He had met her for the first time when he was a lad of twenty,
and she a girl of eighteen. He could see her palpable before him
now : her slender girlish figure, her bright eyes, her laughing
mouth, her warm brown hair curling round her forehead. Oh,
how he had loved her. For twelve years he had waited upon her,
wooed her, hoped to win her. But she had always said, " No—I
don't love you. I am very fond of you ; I love you as a friend f
we all love you that way—my mother, my father, my sisters.
But I can't marry you." However, she married no one else, she
loved no one else ; and for twelve years he was an ever-welcome
guest in her father's house ; and she would talk with him, play to
him, pity him ; and he could hope. Then she died. He called
one day, and they said she was ill. After that there came a blank
in his memory—a gulf, full of blackness and redness, anguish and
confusion ; and then a sort of dreadful sudden calm, when they
told him she was dead.

He remembered standing in her room, after the funeral, with
her father, her mother, her sister Elizabeth. He remembered the
pale daylight that filled it, and how orderly and cold and forsaken
it all looked. And there was her bed, the bed she had died in ;
and there her dressing-table, with her combs and brushes ; and
there her writing-desk, her bookcase. He remembered a row of
medicine bottles on the mantelpiece ; he remembered the fierce
anger, the hatred of them, as if they were animate, that had welled
up in his heart as he looked at them, because they had failed to do
their work.

" You will wish to have something that was hers, Richard,"
her mother said. " What would you like ? "

On her dressing-table there was a small looking-glass in an

ivory

By Henry Harland

147
ivory frame. He asked if he might have that, and carried it away
with him. She had looked into it a thousand times, no doubt ; she
had done her hair in it ; it had reflected her, enclosed her, contained
her. He could almost persuade himself that something of her
must remain in it. To own it was like owning something of
herself. He carried it home with him, hugging it to his side with
a kind of passion.

He had prized it, he prized it still, as his dearest treasure ; the
looking-glass in which her face had been reflected a thousand
times ; the glass that had contained her, known her ; in which
something of herself, he felt, must linger. To handle it, look at
it, into it, behind it, was like holding a mystic communion with
her ; it gave him an emotion that was infinitely sweet and bitter,
a pain that was dissolved in joy.

The glass lay now, folded in its ivory case, on the chimney-shelf
in front of him. That was its place ; he always kept it on his
chimney-shelf, so that he could see it whenever he glanced round
his room. He leaned back in his chair, and looked at it ; for
a long time his eyes remained fixed upon it. " If she had married
me, she wouldn t have died. My love, my care, would have healed
her. She could not have died." Monotonously, automatically,
the phrase repeated itself over and over again in his mind, while
his eyes remained fixed on the ivory case into which her looking-
glass was folded. It was an effect of his fatigue, no doubt, that
his eyes, once directed upon an object, were slow to leave it for
another ; that a phrase once pronounced in his thought had this
tendency to repeat itself over and over again.

But at last he roused himself a little, and leaning forward, put
his hand out and up, to take the glass from the shelf. He wished
to hold it, to touch it and look into it. As he lifted it towards
him, it fell open, the mirror proper being fastened to a leather

back,

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Two Sketches

back, which was glued to the ivory, and formed a hinge. It fell
open ; and his gasp had been insecure ; and the jerk as it opened
was enough. It slipped from his fingers, and dropped with a crash
upon the hearthstone.

The sound went through him like a physical pain. He sank
back into his chair, and closed his eyes. His heart was beating as
after a mighty physical exertion. He knew vaguely that a calamity
had befallen him ; he could vaguely imagine the splinters of
shattered glass at his feet. But his physical prostration was so
great as to obliterate, to neutralise, emotion. He felt very cold.
He felt that he was being hurried along with terrible speed through
darkness and cold air. There was the continuous roar of rapid
motion in his ears, a faint, dizzy bewilderment in his head. He
felt that he was trying to catch hold of things, to stop his progress,
but his hands closed upon emptiness ; that he was trying to call
out for help, but he could make no sound. On—on—on, he was
deing whirled through some immeasurable abyss of space.

******

"Ah, yes, he's dead, quite dead," the doctor said. " He has
been dead some hours. He must have passed away peacefully
sitting here in his chair."

" Poor gentleman," said the porter's wife. " And a broken
looking-glass beside him. Oh, it s a sure sign, a broken looking-
glass."





MLA citation: Harland, Henry. "Two Sketches." The Yellow Book 1 (Apr. 1894): 135-48. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2010. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV1_harland_twosketches.html