HomeCharles DickensThe Battle of Life

The Battle of Life. Charles Dickens

Britain, who had been paying the profoundest and most melancholy attention to each speaker in his turn, seemed suddenly to decide in favour of the same preference, if a deep sepulchral sound that escaped him might be construed into a demonstration of risibility. His face, however, was so perfectly unaffected by it, both before and afterwards, that although one or two of the breakfast party looked round as being startled by a mysterious noise, nobody connected the offender with it.

Except his partner in attendance, Clemency Newcome; who rousing him with one of those favourite joints, her elbows, inquired, in a reproachful whisper, what he laughed at.

′Not you!′ said Britain.

′Who then?′

′Humanity,′ said Britain. ′That′s the joke!′

′What between master and them lawyers, he′s getting more and more addle-headed every day!′ cried Clemency, giving him a lunge with the other elbow, as a mental stimulant. ′Do you know where you are? Do you want to get warning?′

′I don′t know anything,′ said Britain, with a leaden eye and an immovable visage. ′I don′t care for anything. I don′t make out anything. I don′t believe anything. And I don′t want anything.′

Although this forlorn summary of his general condition may have been overcharged in an access of despondency, Benjamin Britain - sometimes called Little Britain, to distinguish him from Great; as we might say Young England, to express Old England with a decided difference - had defined his real state more accurately than might be supposed. For, serving as a sort of man Miles to the Doctor′s Friar Bacon, and listening day after day to innumerable orations addressed by the Doctor to various people, all tending to show that his very existence was at best a mistake and an absurdity, this unfortunate servitor had fallen, by degrees, into such an abyss of confused and contradictory suggestions from within and without, that Truth at the bottom of her well, was on the level surface as compared with Britain in the depths of his mystification. The only point he clearly comprehended, was, that the new element usually brought into these discussions by Snitchey and Craggs, never served to make them clearer, and always seemed to give the Doctor a species of advantage and confirmation. Therefore, he looked upon the Firm as one of the proximate causes of his state of mind, and held them in abhorrence accordingly.

′But, this is not our business, Alfred,′ said the Doctor. ′Ceasing to be my ward (as you have said) to-day; and leaving us full to the brim of such learning as the Grammar School down here was able to give you, and your studies in London could add to that, and such practical knowledge as a dull old country Doctor like myself could graft upon both; you are away, now, into the world. The first term of probation appointed by your poor father, being over, away you go now, your own master, to fulfil his second desire. And long before your three years′ tour among the foreign schools of medicine is finished, you′ll have forgotten us. Lord, you′ll forget us easily in six months!′

′If I do - But you know better; why should I speak to you!′ said Alfred, laughing.

′I don′t know anything of the sort,′ returned the Doctor. ′What do you say, Marion?′

Marion, trifling with her teacup, seemed to say - but she didn′t say it - that he was welcome to forget, if he could. Grace pressed the blooming face against her cheek, and smiled.

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