MR. PAYN ON THE "BACKWATER OF LIFE."
WE have not the pleasure of personal acquaintance with Mr. James Payn, but his closest friends could scarcely be more touched than we have been with his short description, in the Cornhill, of the mental attitude to which he has been reduced by a severe illness. It is a piece of the finest literary
art, revealing as much of its author as is revealed in all his novels, though in them much of the charm they have, which is a real charm, though not of the highest kind, is due to the glimpses they afford of their author's personality. No one not possessed of breezy good humour, high spirits, and a habit of regarding life with humorous yet not satirical eyes could have written those numerous stories, and to reveal in the compass of five pages the same man, with all those qualities subdued and mellowed by an exquisite and incurable sadness, is a feat of literary power such as we hitherto have not had the insight or the justice to expect from Mr. Payn. We should, in truth, have expected it as little as we should have expected from him prose which when read aloud has in it melody and a ring of high poetic feeling. Take this paragraph, for example :—
" To kindly Nature,' as she is called by those who have ex- perienced only her good offices, we have, to tell the honest truth, but little to be thankful for ; it is to men and women that our feebly beating hearts go forth in unspeakable gratitude. There is one—one—consolation in our miserable lot, that it has brought us face to face with the immeasurable goodness of Humanity. Let the divines say what they will of those who have been made after the image of their Creator ; let them heap upon them all the faults of their fallen nature ; let the cynics aver that what seems good in them is only another form of selfishness : we on the Backwater have good cause to know that these traducers lie. Oh, Love that cherishes its object when all that makes it lovely has departed, that prefers to possess it useless as a broken toy rather than to lose it, that slaves for it and sacrifices its all to give it daily comfort, that holds all menial offices as gracious opportunities for mitigation of discomfort and pain ; we know you now as we have never known you before. Oh, Friendship, whose smile has been always dear to us, but of the greatness of whose fond and faithful heart we have never guessed, forgive us for our former ignorance. If even there be no heaven hereafter, there are angels here. Alas I though our gratitude can be told, it can never be shown. There are two words that ring in our ears far more sorrowfully than the warning of the weir : Too late ! Too late ! ' We are as dead men, though (thanks to these angelic visitors) not out of mind.' We think, if a miracle were worked and we could get about again,' that we should spend the re- mainder of our lives in striving to repay them, in doing the like kind offices we have received from them to others in the same sad case as ourselves. There is no harm in having such thoughts, and, alas! no good."
We feel the impression of those touching words the more strongly, perhaps—though they will appeal to thousands of readers—because we cannot believe that the effects of grave illness are for the majority those which Mr. Payn depicts.
He finds himself driven by such illness—in his case, we fear, a touch of paralysis, which is not, however, so incurable an infliction as he evidently thinks—into what he calls a "Back- water of Life," a place on the shallower water which is separated from the ocean or the great stream by a dyke which intercepts the waves, but not the sight of them. There sitting, he looks through the osiers on the passenger-vessels and the pleasure-boats, and without grudge or envy, but with exquisite pain meditates on his own separation from the fullness of the
stream, from love and laughter and bustle, all the business of the world, and laments, without anathematising, the hardship of Nature:— "There has been a deal of nonsense written, chiefly by doctors who have their reasons for being upon good terms with her, about kindly Nature.' Nature, like many other folk, can, when in good humour, be kind enough ; but she is also capable of great cruelties, which she inflicts with no enjoyment to herself indeed, but with the most absolute indifference to the sufferings of humanity. Her character, for all her smiles and superficial attraction, is that of the genial tavern brawler who, after grievously ill-using his boon companion, takes him home and tends him, whereat all the neighbours exclaim : How tender are his ministrations I.. but they forget that it was he who caused the patient to be in want .of healing. She does but pick you up—and not always that— after she has knocked you down. To speak of her in this fashion will doubtless appear shocking to most people, but on the Back- water we speak as we find. It is one of the peculiarities—I do not say the advantages—of our position that things seem as they are, and not as they look to be, and very, very far, alas ! from what we wish them to be. That Nature should be 'so careful of the Type' is no doubt a reflection consolatory to the philosophic mind, but we cannot all be philosophers, and it must be owned she is strangely reckless of the Compositor. If one has owed her something in the past, we of the Backwater are by this time quits with her."
The pun is curiously characteristic of Mr. Payn. It is a blot alike on the humour and the pathos of his description, but the opportunity to make it was there, and was to the inveterate punster irresistible. Friends visit Mr. Payn and console him, .and reveal to him in unexpected extent the goodness of humanity, but in their kindness is pain, for "they are un-
aware—as, indeed, how could it be otherwise P—that their lightest remarks sometimes distress M. They forget when they praise the weather that we shall never more feel the 'sunshine, nor breathe the fresh air, nor put foot to the tground again. Again, in their wish to cheer us, they profess to see some improvement in our condition, which, in fact, never takes place. The best that happens is that the change for the worse, which is continuous, is imperceptible. Ordinary
invalids have their good days.' With us on the Back- water it is not so; there are only days that are less bad than the others. What is worse than all, some good folks think to raise our spirits by the reflection that we may live for months, and even years, longer. Because they are in love with life themselves, they think that, though in some
less degree perhaps, it is dear to us also; they cannot con- ceive a state of existence in which one's chief hope and con- stant prayer are to get it ended. Others, from equally kind motives, find another ground of congratulation in the fact
that, though the nearness of the Weir is evident, we are
not moved by it. They do not understand that one of the saddest conditions to which the human mind can be reduced—not from faith, but from pain and weariness— is no longer to fear the Shadow feared of man." That this is an accurate description of the condition of many who, declining in years, are also invalided, we do not doubt, for how else could it touch us so deeply P but that it is as general as Mr. Payn imagines we are compelled to disbelieve. It is the descrip-
tion only of a class, and there are many classes, the description in fact being true only of those to whom the bristle of active life, its "frictions which are not intimacies," its ceaseless changes of mental scenery, are part of the very constituents of happiness. There are men of other tempers than that, to whom, for example, the loss of the great Fear is a source, not -of sadness, but of calm, who, so long as direct pain is absent —Heine, remember, was always in pain—find in distance from the great stream, in the absence of the bustle of life, in the
sense that they are only onlookers, and therefore detached, -compensation for most, or even all, of the sadness which those
who are in the Backwater must necessarily endure. There is pleasure, even keen pleasure, in watching Life without sharing it; in looking on, as at a stage, and feeling that we can judge better than the actors; in sympathising without being carried away by sympathy ; in enjoying with smiles and not laughter; and in lamenting tearlessly. The e,ntrancingness of life, of which Mr. Payn is so vividly conscious, that even on a sick- bed it is his strongest perception, is unfelt by many, perhaps by a majority; and to them to be aware that life can entrance them no more, that their fears and hopes and immersements are all changed, as mercury is changed when it is frozen yet remains the same, is the source, if not of pleasure, at least
of a quiescent calm in which there is no pain, of the tranquillity which men spend their lives in seeking, yet till they reach the Backwater so seldom find. If it were not so, the lot of the aged would be wretched indeed, for they remain longest on the Backwater, and are most conscious, far more conscious than invalids, that for them there is no return to the broad stream. Yet they are often happy, and lie in their motionless boats "looking through the osiers" on the brilliant panorama as it passes, not only without envy, but with something of an intellectual delight, which, if they could themselves use the oars, would be wholly wanting. Exertion is happiness only at one period of life; and the old in their quiet and their reflective- ness are not without their pleasures, one of them, at least, being the sympathy with each other which pages like Mr. Payn's are so calculated to provoke. Invalidism, even of the most serious physical kind, when we can hear, so to speak, the sound of the Falls which must one day suck us down, is, if only direct pain is absent, very like old age, except perhaps in this, that probably no invalid in the world was ever quite sure that his malaise would not pass away. There is the same sense of detachment, the same longing for peace, the same intense consciousness of the lovingness, when there is love, of those around. We Europeans all exaggerate, as it is well we should exaggerate, the pleasure-giving qualities of health, and forget that with full health tranquillity is not, and that tranquillity is at least one of the ideals. We- have seen among the sick those who never were happier in their lives.
There are, in fact, at least three great classes among those who are seriously sick, yet who, like Mr. Payn, retain their mental faculties to the full. One class, much more numerous than is supposed, because it includes few of the intellectual, display the great animal instinct, the desire for solitude, an impatience to be let alone, which is often set down unjustly to dourness or irritability. They desire like Hezekiah to "turn their faces to the wall," to commune with themselves alone, and to use what force they have in manning themselves to endure in silence whatever may befall. They regard con- dolence as useless, the offices of friendship as officious, pity as a feeble display of unnecessary feeling, and await the last enemy, as most animals do, in silent determination, broken sometimes, as we see also in animals, by some half- reluctant signs of affection for some one person. These men do not look on the stream, and do not therefore feel any of the emotions which Mr. Payn thinks must be felt in the "Backwater of Life." And there are those in whom such sickness, especially if their stay in the "Backwater of Life" is long, develops a wonderful and beautiful patience, which to the onlookers often seems to be a separate quality hardly existing in themselves. The very souls of the sick seem flooded with patience, which is not endurance, and not even expectancy, though expectancy enters into it, but what the Christian means when he talks of resignation. It has its source, we fancy, in detachment as much as in anything, but in some instances when the patient knows that how- ever long the illness may last it can have but one end, the patience has an almost awe-inspiring effect, as if it were no product, as doubtless it often is not, of merely earthly causes. Such men "look through the osiers" truly, but without regret or longing to be once more taking up oars or sailing in the middle of the stream. To them it is given to "tarry the Lord's leisure," or Fate's leisure, accord- ing to their opinions, with a courage which, strange to say, is often given to those who in active life have been timid, or have even suffered, as so many suffer in silence, the dreadful mental trouble known to doctors and clergymen by the technical name of " timor mortis." That fear passes, the experienced say, from those who are long in the Backwater, and they do not feel, as Mr. Payn says most of the dwellers in that region feel, that its passing is "one of the saddest conditions to which the human mind can be reduced." And, lastly, there is the vast class who enter the Backwater, whether of old age or invalidism, with scarcely any consciousness that it is Backwater ; who think of the dyke as an island in the stream, and never realise till the end that they are out of it They are not "looking through the osiers," either in tranquillity or irritation, but only standing aside for a bit till, if they are invalids, they have regained their strength, or if they are old, until the opportunity of making themselves felt shall once again recur. The "Backwater of Life" is for them part of the fall stream of life ; and they do not regret their distance from it because they are unconscious of the interval. These are the three classes we have noticed moat, and although there must be many more, still among them, the class which Mr. Payn has risen out of himself to describe with such literary pathos, is but one.