Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 126.djvu/335

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From The New Quarterly Review.



We have been instructed this year by an eloquent essay on the conditions of "Life at High Pressure;" and it seems to have been taken generally for granted that by "Life at High Pressure" is meant our own mode of existence in 1875, and by "Life at Low Pressure" that of our fathers and grandfathers, let us say in 1775, or 1800, or 1825. The difference, however, scarcely seems to be one of chronology so much as of geography; and the mistake reads like that of the hasty students who assume that the Stone Age came to an end all over the world before the Bronze and Iron Ages had commenced. There are many tribes of savages in the Stone Period now, and there are thousands of Englishmen, tens of thousands of Englishwomen, whose lives at this hour are passed, not merely at low pressure, but at a petite vitesse little beyond stoppage. Locality more than date determines the speed; and all that railways have really effected to make rural life trot faster is so much less than what they, and the telegraphs and penny-posts between them, have done to make town life gallop, that the difference of pace between the two is perhaps even more obvious than before, when the country walked and the town ambled. Formerly the squire (like Mr. Black's delightful King of Thule) always flattered himself, and complained to his wife and daughters that he "lived in a vortex," when he happened to see three strangers in a week, and had attended petty sessions and a board of poor-law-guardians. Now he can scarcely escape a sense (having very important moral consequences) that he lies stranded like an old boat just outside the current which is eddying fiercely a little distance away.

Whether it is best to live quickly or slowly; whether, after all, the "twenty years of Europe" are better than the "cycle of Cathay;" and what is to be said on behalf of each of the two modes of existence, supposing us to have the choice between them, seems to be a question not unworthy of a little consideration. It is quite possible that the common impulse to desire to be "in among the throngs of men," and to cram a month's series of ideas and sensations into a day, may be the truest guide to happiness; and indeed it is rather sorrowful to doubt that it should be so, considering how every successive census shows the growth of the urban over the rural populations, and how clearly the magnets of the great cities seem destined in future years to draw into them all the loose attractable human matter in each country. Nevertheless, it must be admitted to be also possible that, like the taste for tobacco or alcohol or opium, the taste for town life may be an appetite the indulgence of which is deleterious, and that our gains of enjoyment thereby obtained may be practically outbalanced by the loss of pleasures which slip away meanwhile unperceived. It would be satisfactory, once for all, to feel assured that in choosing either town or country life (when we have the choice), we not only follow immediate inclination, but make deliberate selection of what must necessarily be the higher and happier kind of life, on which we shall lookback, when the time comes for saying good-night, without the miserable regret that we have permitted the nobler duties and the sweeter joys to escape us, while we have spent our years in grasping at shadows and vanities. The dog with the bone in his mouth, who drops it to catch the bone in the water, is a terrible warning to all mankind. But which is the real bone, and which is only the reflection? The question is not easily answered.

Let us premise that it is of English country life and town life alone I mean to speak. Foreigners — Frenchmen, for example — who live in the country, seem always to do so under protest, and to wish to convey to the traveller that, like the patriarch, they are only strangers and sojourners in the rural districts, seeking a better country, even a Parisian. Molière's Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, who had been six weeks in the capital once in her life, and who indignantly asks her visitor, "Me prenez vous pour une provinciale,