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MR Society

Extract from the Autobiography of Mark Rutherford

However, existence like that which I had been leading was intolerable, and change it I must. I accordingly resigned, and with ten pounds in my pocket, which was all that remained after paying my bills, I came to London, thinking that until I could settle what to do, I would try and teach in a school. I called on an agent somewhere near the Strand, and after a little negotiation, was engaged by a gentleman who kept a private establishment at Stoke Newington.

Thither I accordingly went one Monday afternoon in January, about two days before the term commenced. When I got there, I was shown into a long schoolroom, which had been built out from the main building. It was dark, save for one candle, and was warmed by a stove. The walls were partly covered with maps, and at one end of the room hung a diagram representing a globe, on which an immense amount of wasted ingenuity had been spent to produce the illusion of solidity. The master, I was told, was out, and in this room with one candle I remained till nine o'clock. At that time a servant brought me some bread and cheese on a small tray, with half-a-pint of beer. I asked for water, which was given me, and she then retired. The tray was set down on the master's raised desk, and sitting there I ate my supper in silence, looking down upon the dimly-lighted forms, and forward into the almost absolute gloom.

At ten o'clock a man, who seemed as if he were the knife and boot- cleaner, came and said he would show me where I was to sleep. We passed through the schoolroom into a kind of court, where there was a ladder standing against a trap-door. He told me that my bedroom was up there, and that when I got up I could leave the ladder down, or pull it up after me, just as I pleased.

I ascended and found a little chamber, duly furnished with a chest of drawers, bed, and washhand-stand. It was tolerably clean and decent; but who shall describe what I felt! I went to the window and looked out. There were scattered lights here and there, marking roads, but as they crossed one another, and now and then stopped where building had ceased, the effect they produced was that of bewilderment with no clue to it. Further off was the great light of London, like some unnatural dawn, or the illumination from a fire which could not itself be seen. I was overcome with the most dreadful sense of loneliness. I suppose it is the very essence of passion, using the word in its literal sense, that no account can be given of it by the reason.

Reflecting on what I suffered, then, I cannot find any solid ground for it, and yet there are not half-a-dozen days or nights of my life which remain with me like that one. I was beside myself with a kind of terror, which I cannot further explain. It is possible for another person to understand grief for the death of a friend, bodily suffering, or any emotion which has a distinct cause, but how shall he understand the worst of all calamities, the nameless dread, the efflux of all vitality, the ghostly, haunting horror which is so nearly akin to madness?

It is many years ago since that evening, but while I write I am at the window still, and the yellow flare of the city is still in my eyes. I remember the thought of all the happy homes which lay around me, in which dwelt men who had found a position, an occupation, and, above all things, affection. I know the causelessness of a good deal of all those panic fears and all that suffering, but I tremble to think how thin is the floor on which we stand which separates us from the bottomless abyss.

The next morning I went down into the schoolroom, and after I had been there for some little time, the proprietor of the school made his appearance. He was not a bad man, nor even unkind in his way, but he was utterly uninteresting, and as commonplace as might be expected after having for many years done nothing but fight a very uphill battle in boarding the sons of tradesfolk, and teaching them, at very moderate rates, the elements of Latin, and the various branches of learning which constitute what is called a commercial education. He said that he expected some of the boys back that day; that when they came, he should wish me to take my meals with them, but that meanwhile he would be glad if I would breakfast with him and his wife. This accordingly I did. What his wife was like I have almost entirely forgotten, and I only saw her once again. After breakfast he said I could go for a walk, and for a walk I went; wandering about the dreary, intermingled chaos of fields with damaged hedges, and new roads divided into building plots.

Meanwhile one or two of the boys had made their appearance, and I therefore had my dinner with them. After dinner, as there was nothing particular to do, I was again dismissed with them for a walk just as the light of the winter afternoon was fading. My companions were dejected, and so was I! The wind was south-easterly, cold, and raw, and the smoke came up from the region about the river and shrouded all the building plots in fog. I was now something more than depressed. It was absolutely impossible to endure such a state of things any longer, and I determined that, come what might, I would not stop. I considered whether I should leave without saying a word--that is to say, whether I should escape, but I feared pursuit and some unknown legal proceedings.

When I got home, therefore, I sought the principal, and informed him that I felt so unwell that I was afraid I must throw up my engagement at once. He naturally observed that this was a serious business for him; that my decision was very hasty--what was the matter with me? I might get better; but he concluded, after my reiterated asseverations that I must go, with a permission to resign, only on one condition, that I should obtain an equally efficient substitute at the same salary. I was more agitated than ever. With my natural tendency to believe the worst, I had not the least expectation of finding anybody who would release me.

The next morning I departed on my errand. I knew a poor student who had been at college with me, and who had nothing to do, and to him I betook myself. I strove--as even now I firmly believe--not to make the situation seem any better than it was, and he consented to take it. I have no clear recollection of anything that happened till the following day, excepting that I remember with all the vividness of actual and present sensuous perception lugging my box down the ladder and sending for a cab. I was in a fever lest anything should arrest me, but the cab came, and I departed. When I had got fairly clear of the gates, I literally cried tears of joy--the first and the last of my life. I am constrained now, however, to admit that my trouble was but a bubble blown of air, and I doubt whether I have done any good by dwelling upon it.

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