The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft by George Gissing


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Page 1

Time went on; things happened; but Ryecroft was still laborious and poor.
In moments of depression he spoke of his declining energies, and
evidently suffered under a haunting fear of the future. The thought of
dependence had always been intolerable to him; perhaps the only boast I
at any time heard from his lips was that he had never incurred debt. It
was a bitter thought that, after so long and hard a struggle with
unkindly circumstance, he might end his life as one of the defeated.

A happier lot was in store for him. At the age of fifty, just when his
health had begun to fail and his energies to show abatement, Ryecroft had
the rare good fortune to find himself suddenly released from toil, and to
enter upon a period of such tranquillity of mind and condition as he had
never dared to hope. On the death of an acquaintance, more his friend
than he imagined, the wayworn man of letters learnt with astonishment
that there was bequeathed to him a life annuity of three hundred pounds.
Having only himself to support (he had been a widower for several years,
and his daughter, an only child, was married), Ryecroft saw in this
income something more than a competency. In a few weeks he quitted the
London suburb where of late he had been living, and, turning to the part
of England which he loved best, he presently established himself in a
cottage near Exeter, where, with a rustic housekeeper to look after him,
he was soon thoroughly at home. Now and then some friend went down into
Devon to see him; those who had that pleasure will not forget the plain
little house amid its half-wild garden, the cosy book-room with its fine
view across the valley of the Exe to Haldon, the host's cordial, gleeful
hospitality, rambles with him in lanes and meadows, long talks amid the
stillness of the rural night. We hoped it would all last for many a
year; it seemed, indeed, as though Ryecroft had only need of rest and
calm to become a hale man. But already, though he did not know it, he
was suffering from a disease of the heart, which cut short his life after
little more than a lustrum of quiet contentment. It had always been his
wish to die suddenly; he dreaded the thought of illness, chiefly because
of the trouble it gave to others. On a summer evening, after a long walk
in very hot weather, he lay down upon the sofa in his study, and there--as
his calm face declared--passed from slumber into the great silence.

When he left London, Ryecroft bade farewell to authorship. He told me
that he hoped never to write another line for publication. But, among
the papers which I looked through after his death, I came upon three
manuscript books which at first glance seemed to be a diary; a date on
the opening page of one of them showed that it had been begun not very
long after the writer's settling in Devon. When I had read a little in
these pages, I saw that they were no mere record of day-to-day life;
evidently finding himself unable to forego altogether the use of the pen,
the veteran had set down, as humour bade him, a thought, a reminiscence,
a bit of reverie, a description of his state of mind, and so on, dating
such passage merely with the month in which it was written. Sitting in
the room where I had often been his companion, I turned page after page,
and at moments it was as though my friend's voice sounded to me once
more. I saw his worn visage, grave or smiling; recalled his familiar
pose or gesture. But in this written gossip he revealed himself more
intimately than in our conversation of the days gone by. Ryecroft had
never erred by lack of reticence; as was natural in a sensitive man who
had suffered much, he inclined to gentle acquiescence, shrank from
argument, from self-assertion. Here he spoke to me without restraint,
and, when I had read it all through, I knew the man better than before.

Assuredly, this writing was not intended for the public, and yet, in many
a passage, I seemed to perceive the literary purpose--something more than
the turn of phrase, and so on, which results from long habit of
composition. Certain of his reminiscences, in particular, Ryecroft could
hardly have troubled to write down had he not, however vaguely,
entertained the thought of putting them to some use. I suspect that, in
his happy leisure, there grew upon him a desire to write one more book, a
book which should be written merely for his own satisfaction. Plainly,
it would have been the best he had it in him to do. But he seems never
to have attempted the arrangement of these fragmentary pieces, and
probably because he could not decide upon the form they should take. I
imagine him shrinking from the thought of a first-person volume; he would
feel it too pretentious; he would bid himself wait for the day of riper
wisdom. And so the pen fell from his hand.

Conjecturing thus, I wondered whether the irregular diary might not have
wider interest than at first appeared. To me, its personal appeal was
very strong; might it not be possible to cull from it the substance of a
small volume which, at least for its sincerity's sake, would not be
without value for those who read, not with the eye alone, but with the
mind? I turned the pages again. Here was a man who, having his desire,
and that a very modest one, not only felt satisfied, but enjoyed great
happiness. He talked of many different things, saying exactly what he
thought; he spoke of himself, and told the truth as far as mortal can
tell it. It seemed to me that the thing had human interest. I decided
to print.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 28th Feb 2020, 13:24