Poor Binns was not physically cast in an heroic mould. He was small and pimply. His hair did not fall in that graceful waviness that Art teaches us to believe is natural. His brow was not broad nor white, nor were his eyes in the faintest degree unfathomable. He was a very ordinary-looking young man indeed. But beneath his outer husk, Nature—perverse as usual—had given him a soul leagues above buttons. He was not handsome, or even clever, but he had a good heart and a warm imagination.
To achieve success in this world, one of two things is absolutely necessary,—a good heart, or a good head. By a good heart I do not mean that preposterous good-natured efflorescence of vanity which tends to make a man that curse to society—“nobody’s enemy but his own,”—but I mean that quickness of sympathy which leads one human being to understand the likes and dislikes of another. One must either lead or drive mankind. Either win them by kindness and quickness of sympathy, or conquer them by the force of intellect. The former is the more pleasant, but it is the more dangerous; the latter is the more difficult, but it is the more effectual. Dacre and Cyril might be taken as types of the Intellectual party; Binns and Bland as types of the Sympathetic. Intellect was in the ascendant.
Dacre was a power in his own world, and Cyril had made whatever reputation he had obtained by his own abilities. Both were absolutely unscrupulous,—both intellectually egotistical. Poor Bland had made a sad failure in his vital speculation. He lent small sums of his “talent” of warm feeling and good nature to any needy friend who came upon the specious pretence of starvation and misery to ask for it, and the needy friend not repaying him (needy friends never do), the poor fellow was wellnigh reduced to beggary. Binns had not done much better. He was famous after a fashion, but the ungrammatical plaudits of half-washed working men was not the fame he dreamt of. His sympathies had entangled him in a love affair which rendered him utterly miserable, and made him agonise to write poetry, to the neglect of the more solid comforts to be derived from the prospective partnership in a thriving grocer’s shop. Heart was at the bottom of the tree, and Head at the top; but Head—as we know—was perhaps after all in a worse case than Heart.
The heart of Binns was attesting its presence with great vehemence. He was becoming a prey to devouring anxiety. Being young, I have no doubt that had he seen Carry frequently, his love for her would have worn out. But absence strengthened his attachment, and the discovery of Cyril’s unkindness made him more ferociously in love than ever. He was continually hovering about St. John’s Wood, and drinking the midnight (to the detriment of his lungs) in order to watch the house where his mistress lay. He would come into Bland’s room and insist upon dragging the good-natured fellow out into the street to walk with him. Bland grumbled a little, but went.
I do not know if I can make you understand the life that these two led together. They were great cronies. Binns respected Bland; and Bland liked Binns. The day was prosaic—hum-drum—material—vulgar; the night was glorious—poetical—imaginative. In the day, Bland was the shabby, ill-paid reporter, whose only object in life appeared to be the scribbling of law reports upon flimsy paper, and was looked upon as a harmless, stupid old fogy, by the smart young fellows who “did” the law courts for the cheap papers.
In the day, Binns was the aproned assistant, greasy, pimply, and base, who wrapt up butter and weighed sugar and kept accounts. But as soon as benignant Night descended, all was changed. At night, Binns was the orator, the secretary, the poet; Bland, the essayist, the Mentor, the raconteur.
They would go out together and wander about the gaslit streets, talking and observing. Binns would give vent to his impassioned soul, in tirades against wealth and tyranny—would pour out his hopes and loves into his companion’s ear until some opposing force, in the shape of an on-coming foot passenger, would scatter the “winged words upon the heedless air.”
Poor fellows! They both belonged to a class, which is surely of all classes cursed the heaviest. They were both cursed with the curse of conscious mediocrity.
Gifted with the faculty of appreciation and imitation, malignant fate had denied to them the power of originality. They saw the goal, but could not reach it. The very attributes that urged them to compete with others in the race for fame, condemned them to the torture of knowing that they would never emerge from the ruck of fourth-rate intellects. Bland had gone through the fire, and had settled down to vegetate. He lived, and was (tolerably) content. But Binns had not yet fully awakened to the hideous consciousness of his doom. He had written and read, and read and written, and the effort to evolve his finer thoughts had pleased him, but when the very power which enabled him to imitate showed him the inferiority of the imitation, his heart grew sick.
In vain did he strive to follow Bland’s advice—given on that memorable evening when he had promised to protect the woman whom his boyish heart had picked out for an idol,—to make himself a name and place. All his efforts were useless, and he was beginning to confess to himself, with bitter agony of spirit, that upon him, too, had fallen the curse of mediocrity. He would seek consolation from Bland, who was always willing to give it, and would comfort himself with the belief that he had not yet found his metier.
Binns’ ambition was to be a poet, and he would quote to Bland for hours. The kind-hearted reporter had not always the heart to show him his plagiarisms, and so the soul of the poor boy was comforted; and he would stray away to other topics—to the power of the working man, to the elevation of the masses, and to the glory of labour and the dignity of toil.
It was during one of these conversations that the footsteps of the pair had wandered towards the usual spot—St. John’s Wood. Poor Bland never remonstrated at the distance, but plodded on patiently. On this particular evening Binns noticed a cab at the door of the little cottage. All his heart cried out.
“Look there, Bland! Do you see? A cab. I shall wait.”
“Nonsense!” says Bland. “Come along. What do you want to wait for?”
“I want to see who comes out of that house.”
“But, my dear Robert, it is nearly two o’clock in the morning!”
Just then the door opened, and Binns, pushing forward, recognised, in the muffled figure that sprang into the vehicle, his old enemy and present patron—Mr. Rupert Dacre. He started forward, and would have spoken, but the cab dashed on.
“I thought so!” he cried, as soon as he could gather breath. “I thought so! That villain has been there again!”
Bland was silent this time. The evidence was certainly strong enough, for he believed Cyril to be still in Loamshire.
“What is to be done?” asked Binns, with savage eyes.
They looked up at the house. The lights went out.
“It is no use doing anything now,” said Bland. “Let us go home.”
“I shall go and see that villain to-morrow,” cries Binns. “I’ll kill him; d—n him, I’ll kill him!”
“I think that the best thing to do is for me to speak to her mother,” said Bland.
“You may speak to her mother, but I’ll speak to that scoundrel. I’ll write to her husband, too. Her husband! Oh, my God!”
And he began to groan, of course.
Not being acquainted with the fact that private secretaries to ministers are not always attending to their duties at ten o’clock in the morning, Binns called too early. Determined in his purpose, however, he had called again, and marched into Dacre’s room eager for combat.