Arbuthnot Describes Himself
From: When The World Shook
I suppose that I, Humphrey Arbuthnot, should begin this history in
which Destiny has caused me to play so prominent a part, with some short
account of myself and of my circumstances.
I was born forty years ago in this very Devonshire village in which I
write, but not in the same house. Now I live in the Priory, an ancient
place and a fine one in its way, with its panelled rooms, its beautiful
gardens where, in this mild climate, in addition to our own, flourish
so many plants which one would only expect to find in countries that
lie nearer to the sun, and its green, undulating park studded with great
timber trees. The view, too, is perfect; behind and around the rich
Devonshire landscape with its hills and valleys and its scarped faces
of red sandstone, and at a distance in front, the sea. There are little
towns quite near too, that live for the most part on visitors, but these
are so hidden away by the contours of the ground that from the Priory
one cannot see them. Such is Fulcombe where I live, though for obvious
reasons I do not give it its real name.
Many years ago my father, the Rev. Humphrey Arbuthnot, whose only child
I am, after whom also I am named Humphrey, was the vicar of this place
with which our family is said to have some rather vague hereditary
connection. If so, it was severed in the Carolian times because my
ancestors fought on the side of Parliament.
My father was a recluse, and a widower, for my mother, a Scotswoman,
died at or shortly after my birth. Being very High Church for those
days he was not popular with the family that owned the Priory before me.
Indeed its head, a somewhat vulgar person of the name of Enfield who had
made money in trade, almost persecuted him, as he was in a position to
do, being the local magnate and the owner of the rectorial tithes.
I mention this fact because owing to it as a boy I made up my mind that
one day I would buy that place and sit in his seat, a wild enough idea
at the time. Yet it became engrained in me, as do such aspirations of
our youth, and when the opportunity arose in after years I carried
it out. Poor old Enfield! He fell on evil fortunes, for in trying to
bolster up a favourite son who was a gambler, a spendthrift, and an
ungrateful scamp, in the end he was practically ruined and when the
bad times came, was forced to sell the Fulcombe estate. I think of him
kindly now, for after all he was good to me and gave me many a day's
shooting and leave to fish for trout in the river.
By the poor people, however, of all the district round, for the parish
itself is very small, my father was much beloved, although he did
practise confession, wear vestments and set lighted candles on the
altar, and was even said to have openly expressed the wish, to which
however he never attained, that he could see a censer swinging in the
chancel. Indeed the church which, as monks built it, is very large and
fine, was always full on Sundays, though many of the worshippers came
from far away, some of them doubtless out of curiosity because of its
papistical repute, also because, in a learned fashion, my father's
preaching was very good indeed.
For my part I feel that I owe much to these High-Church views. They
opened certain doors to me and taught me something of the mysteries
which lie at the back of all religions and therefore have their home
in the inspired soul of man whence religions are born. Only the pity
is that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he never discovers, never
even guesses at that entombed aspiration, never sinks a shaft down on to
this secret but most precious vein of ore.
I have said that my father was learned; but this is a mild description,
for never did I know anyone quite so learned. He was one of those
men who is so good all round that he became pre-eminent in nothing. A
classic of the first water, a very respectable mathematician, an expert
in theology, a student of sundry foreign languages and literature in
his lighter moments, an inquirer into sociology, a theoretical musician
though his playing of the organ excruciated most people because it was
too correct, a really first-class authority upon flint instruments and
the best grower of garden vegetables in the county, also of apples--such
were some of his attainments. That was what made his sermons so popular,
since at times one or the other of these subjects would break out into
them, his theory being that God spoke to us through all of these things.
But if I began to drift into an analysis of my father's abilities, I
should never stop. It would take a book to describe them. And yet mark
this, with them all his name is as dead to the world to-day as though he
had never been. Light reflected from a hundred facets dissipates itself
in space and is lost; that concentrated in one tremendous ray pierces to
Now I am going to be frank about myself, for without frankness what
is the value of such a record as this? Then it becomes simply another
convention, or rather conventional method of expressing the octoroon
kind of truths with which the highly civilised races feed themselves,
as fastidious ladies eat cakes and bread from which all but the smallest
particle of nourishment has been extracted.
The fact is, therefore, that I inherited most of my father's abilities,
except his love for flint instruments which always bored me to
distraction, because although they are by association really the most
human of things, somehow to me they never convey any idea of humanity.
In addition I have a practical side which he lacked; had he possessed it
surely he must have become an archbishop instead of dying the vicar of
an unknown parish. Also I have a spiritual sense, mayhap mystical would
be a better term, which with all this religion was missing from my
For I think that notwithstanding his charity and devotion he never quite
got away from the shell of things, never cracked it and set his teeth in
the kernel which alone can feed our souls. His keen intellect, to take
an example, recognised every one of the difficulties of our faith and
flashed hither and thither in the darkness, seeking explanation, seeking
light, trying to reconcile, to explain. He was not great enough to
put all this aside and go straight to the informing Soul beneath that
strives to express itself everywhere, even through those husks which are
called the World, the Flesh and the Devil, and as yet does not always
It is this boggling over exteriors, this peering into pitfalls, this
desire to prove that what such senses as we have tell us is impossible,
is in fact possible, which causes the overthrow of many an earnest,
seeking heart and renders its work, conducted on false lines, quite
nugatory. These will trust to themselves and their own intelligence and
not be content to spring from the cliffs of human experience into the
everlasting arms of that Infinite which are stretched out to receive
them and to give them rest and the keys of knowledge. When will man
learn what was taught to him of old, that faith is the only plank
wherewith he can float upon this sea and that his miserable works avail
him nothing; also that it is a plank made of many sorts of wood, perhaps
to suit our different weights?
So to be honest, in a sense I believe myself to be my father's superior,
and I know that he agreed with me. Perhaps this is owing to the blood
of my Scotch mother which mixed well with his own; perhaps because the
essential spirit given to me, though cast in his mould, was in fact
quite different--or of another alloy. Do we, I wonder, really understand
that there are millions and billions of these alloys, so many indeed
that Nature, or whatever is behind Nature, never uses the same twice
over? That is why no two human beings are or ever will be quite
identical. Their flesh, the body of their humiliation, is identical in
all, any chemist will prove it to you, but that which animates the
flesh is distinct and different because it comes from the home of that
infinite variety which is necessary to the ultimate evolution of the
good and bad that we symbolise as heaven and hell.
Further, I had and to a certain extent still have another advantage
over my father, which certainly came to me from my mother, who was, as
I judge from all descriptions and such likenesses as remain of her, an
extremely handsome woman. I was born much better looking. He was small
and dark, a little man with deep-set eyes and beetling brows. I am also
dark, but tall above the average, and well made. I do not know that I
need say more about my personal appearance, to me not a very attractive
subject, but the fact remains that they called me "handsome Humphrey"
at the University, and I was the captain of my college boat and won many
prizes at athletic sports when I had time to train for them.
Until I went up to Oxford my father educated me, partly because he knew
that he could do it better than anyone else, and partly to save school
expenses. The experiment was very successful, as my love of all outdoor
sports and of any small hazardous adventure that came to my hand, also
of associating with fisherfolk whom the dangers of the deep make men
among men, saved me from becoming a milksop. For the rest I learned more
from my father, whom I always desired to please because I loved him,
than I should have done at the best and most costly of schools. This was
shown when at last I went to college with a scholarship, for there I did
very well indeed, as search would still reveal.
Here I had better set out some of my shortcomings, which in their sum
have made a failure of me. Yes, a failure in the highest sense, though
I trust what Stevenson calls "a faithful failure." These have their root
in fastidiousness and that lack of perseverance, which really means a
lack of faith, again using the word in its higher and wider sense. For
if one had real faith one would always persevere, knowing that in every
work undertaken with high aim, there is an element of nobility, however
humble and unrecognised that work may seem to be. God after all is the
God of Work, it is written large upon the face of the Universe. I will
not expand upon the thought; it would lead me too far afield, but those
who have understanding will know what I mean.
As regards what I interpret as fastidiousness, this is not very easy
to express. Perhaps a definition will help. I am like a man with an
over-developed sense of smell, who when walking through a foreign city,
however clean and well kept, can always catch the evil savours that
are inseparable from such cities. More, his keen perception of them
interferes with all other perceptions and spoils his walks. The result
is that in after years, whenever he thinks of that beautiful city,
he remembers, not its historic buildings or its wide boulevards, or
whatever it has to boast, but rather its ancient, fish-like smell. At
least he remembers that first owing to this defect in his temperament.
So it is with everything. A lovely woman is spoiled for such a one
because she eats too much or has too high a voice; he does not care for
his shooting because the scenery is flat, or for his fishing because
the gnats bite as well as the trout. In short he is out of tune with
the world as it is. Moreover, this is a quality which, where it exists,
cannot be overcome; it affects day-labourers as well as gentlemen at
large. It is bred in the bone.
Probably the second failure-breeding fault, lack of perseverance, has
its roots in the first, at any rate in my case. At least on leaving
college with some reputation, I was called to the Bar where, owing to
certain solicitor and other connections, I had a good opening. Also,
owing to the excellence of my memory and powers of work, I began very
well, making money even during my first year. Then, as it happened, a
certain case came my way and, my leader falling ill suddenly after it
was opened, was left in my hands. The man whose cause I was pleading
was, I think, one of the biggest scoundrels it is possible to conceive.
It was a will case and if he won, the effect would be to beggar two most
estimable middle-aged women who were justly entitled to the property,
to which end personally I am convinced he had committed forgery; the
perjury that accompanied it I do not even mention.
Well, he did win, thanks to me, and the estimable middle-aged ladies
were beggared, and as I heard afterwards, driven to such extremities
that one of them died of her misery and the other became a lodging-house
keeper. The details do not matter, but I may explain that these ladies
were unattractive in appearance and manner and broke down beneath my
cross-examination which made them appear to be telling falsehoods,
whereas they were only completely confused. Further, I invented an
ingenious theory of the facts which, although the judge regarded it with
suspicion, convinced an unusually stupid jury who gave me their verdict.
Everybody congratulated me and at the time I was triumphant, especially
as my leader had declared that our case was impossible. Afterwards,
however, my conscience smote me sorely, so much so that arguing from
the false premise of this business, I came to the conclusion that the
practice of the Law was not suited to an honest man. I did not take the
large view that such matters average themselves up and that if I had
done harm in this instance, I might live to do good in many others, and
perhaps become a just judge, even a great judge. Here I may mention that
in after years, when I grew rich, I rescued that surviving old lady from
her lodging-house, although to this day she does not know the name of
her anonymous friend. So by degrees, without saying anything, for I kept
on my chambers, I slipped out of practice, to the great disappointment
of everybody connected with me, and took to authorship.
A marvel came to pass, my first book was an enormous success. The whole
world talked of it. A leading journal, delighted to have discovered
someone, wrote it up; other journals followed suit to be in the
movement. One of them, I remember, which had already dismissed it with
three or four sneering lines, came out with a second and two-column
notice. It sold like wildfire and I suppose had some merits, for it is
still read, though few know that I wrote it, since fortunately it was
published under a pseudonym.
Again I was much elated and set to work to write another and, as I
believe, a much better book. But jealousies had been excited by this
leaping into fame of a totally unknown person, which were, moreover,
accentuated through a foolish article that I published in answer to some
criticisms, wherein I spoke my mind with an insane freedom and biting
sarcasm. Indeed I was even mad enough to quote names and to give the
example of the very powerful journal which at first carped at my work
and then gushed over it when it became the fashion. All of this made me
many bitter enemies, as I found out when my next book appeared.
It was torn to shreds, it was reviled as subversive of morality
and religion, good arrows in those days. It was called puerile,
half-educated stuff--I half-educated! More, an utterly false charge of
plagiarism was cooked up against me and so well and venomously run that
vast numbers of people concluded that I was a thief of the lowest order.
Lastly, my father, from whom the secret could no longer be kept, sternly
disapproved of both these books which I admit were written from a very
radical and somewhat anti-church point of view. The result was our first
quarrel and before it was made up, he died suddenly.
Now again fastidiousness and my lack of perseverance did their work, and
solemnly I swore that I would never write another book, an oath which I
have kept till this moment, at least so far as publication is concerned,
and now break only because I consider it my duty so to do and am not
animated by any pecuniary object.
Thus came to an end my second attempt at carving out a career. By now
I had grown savage and cynical, rather revengeful also, I fear. Knowing
myself to possess considerable abilities in sundry directions, I sat
down, as it were, to think things over and digest my past experiences.
Then it was that the truth of a very ancient adage struck upon my mind,
namely, that money is power. Had I sufficient money I could laugh at
unjust critics for example; indeed they or their papers would scarcely
dare to criticise me for fear lest it should be in my power to do them
a bad turn. Again I could follow my own ideas in life and perhaps work
good in the world, and live in such surroundings as commended themselves
to me. It was as clear as daylight, but--how to make the money?
I had some capital as the result of my father's death, about L8,000 in
all, plus a little more that my two books had brought in. In what way
could I employ it to the best advantage? I remembered that a cousin of
my father and therefore my own, was a successful stock-broker, also
that there had been some affection between them. I went to him, he was
a good, easy-natured man who was frankly glad to see me, and offered to
put L5,000 into his business, for I was not minded to risk every thing I
had, if he would give me a share in the profits. He laughed heartily at
"Why, my boy," he said, "being totally inexperienced at this game, you
might lose us more than that in a month. But I like your courage, I like
your courage, and the truth is that I do want help. I will think it over
and write to you."
He thought it over and in the end offered to try me for a year at a
fixed salary with a promise of some kind of a partnership if I suited
him. Meanwhile my L5,000 remained in my pocket.
I accepted, not without reluctance since with the impatience of youth
I wanted everything at once. I worked hard in that office and soon
mastered the business, for my knowledge of figures--I had taken a
first-class mathematical degree at college--came to my aid, as in a way
did my acquaintance with Law and Literature. Moreover I had a certain
aptitude for what is called high finance. Further, Fortune, as usual,
showed me a favourable face.
In one year I got the partnership with a small share in the large
profits of the business. In two the partner above me retired, and I took
his place with a third share of the firm. In three my cousin, satisfied
that it was in able hands, began to cease his attendance at the office
and betook himself to gardening which was his hobby. In four I paid him
out altogether, although to do this I had to borrow money on our credit,
for by agreement the title of the firm was continued. Then came that
extraordinary time of boom which many will remember to their cost. I
made a bold stroke and won. On a certain Saturday when the books were
made up, I found that after discharging all liabilities, I should not
be worth more than L20,000. On the following Saturday but two when the
books were made up, I was worth L153,000! L'appetit vient en mangeant.
It seemed nothing to me when so many were worth millions.
For the next year I worked as few have done, and when I struck a balance
at the end of it, I found that on the most conservative estimate I was
the owner of a million and a half in hard cash, or its equivalent. I was
so tired out that I remember this discovery did not excite me at all. I
felt utterly weary of all wealth-hunting and of the City and its ways.
Moreover my old fastidiousness and lack of perseverance re-asserted
themselves. I reflected, rather late in the day perhaps, on the
ruin that this speculation was bringing to thousands, of which some
lamentable instances had recently come to my notice, and once more
considered whether it were a suitable career for an upright man. I had
wealth; why should I not take it and enjoy life?
Also--and here my business acumen came in, I was sure that these times
could not last. It is easy to make money on a rising market, but when
it is falling the matter is very different. In five minutes I made up
my mind. I sent for my junior partners, for I had taken in two, and told
them that I intended to retire at once. They were dismayed both at my
loss, for really I was the firm, and because, as they pointed out, if
I withdrew all my capital, there would not be sufficient left to enable
them to carry on.
One of them, a blunt and honest man, said to my face that it would be
dishonourable of me to do so. I was inclined to answer him sharply, then
remembered that his words were true.
"Very well," I said, "I will leave you L600,000 on which you shall pay
me five per cent interest, but no share of the profits."
On these terms we dissolved the partnership and in a year they had
lost the L600,000, for the slump came with a vengeance. It saved them,
however, and to-day they are earning a reasonable income. But I have
never asked them for that L600,000.
Next: Bastin And Bickley
Previous: The Last Fight