A Word for Silent Partners
— Plaintively inquires Sir Thomas Browne, in a passage almost too threadbare for quotation, “ Who knows whether the best of men be known, or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot than any that stand remembered in the known account of time ? ” Now, inclining to adopt the theory that “ history is but a fable agreed upon,” I do not so much grieve for the neglected great of far antiquity as for the worthies of our current life, on whose virtues — to quote Sir Thomas again — “ the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy.” I have long wished that some one would speak a glowing word in praise of silent partners ; not that these are in need of verbal panegyric (for their reward is from within), but that we are all made better by generously acknowledging what has been done for us by those whose service otherwise remains unrecognized by the world. An imperial writer was not above this act of gracious justice, as they know who are familiar with that noblest piece of self-communing, The Thoughts of Antoninus, where are mentioned by name not less than sixteen persons, whom the writer gratefully remembers either for direct counsel or for the potential example afforded in their conduct. Would it not be of lively interest if all authors thus set forth their obligations in a proem of thanks?
Sentimental statisticians are fond of telling us that the great man was great because of remarkable qualities derived from his mother, or because of her influence exerted over his tender years. Such arguers are not to be quarreled with, for they have truth on their side ; but they might as well go further, and assert that all good men, illustrious or obscure, owe to their mothers the same insolvable debt. Here we find the first and faithfulest of all silent partners.
If the precious thing we call genius, and are prone to regard as we would the “ sole Arabian bird,” — as unrelated and unsupported, — would only come forward and frankly testify of the upholding hands, the opulent hearts, the shrewd contriving brains, that have contributed to staying, cheering, and shielding its
existence, what valuable revelations would in this way be obtained! Who helps our eloquent divine up-stairs to write his sermon, by adroitly detaining below the unwelcome visitor ? Who covers our poet’s footprints up Parnassus with a Mercury-like ingenuity, so that Black Care shall not overtake the sublime traveler ? Silent partners. Sometimes, in this quiescent business, it is a whole family that have invested time and toil (and how much of love!) to offset the intellectual fund brought by some one of its members, — the partner that eventually carries off for himself, or for herself, all golden opinions. I wish it were possible to endow these silent partners with a modicum of self-glorification, even so much as that they should commit to heart Qui facit per alium facit per se. But no ; the nature of the silent partner is incurably self-suppressing and unexacting !
Were a personal confession required of me, I should own that, beside a certain number of silent partners who are so (Heaven knows why !) for pure love, I have others who are completely indifferent to me, who indeed do not know me at all; others still, it may be, who are not indifferent, but averse or even hostile. Of the second class, whose cheerfulness in adversity is a factor working to my spiritual advantage, is the blind man, who daily goes about the village streets alone, and who in my hearing once dropped words like these : “ Ah yes, we all of us live on hope,” — spoken with a slight uplift of the sightless eyes. Of the same class is the rosy - cheeked German washerwoman, who brings her laundered linen a long distance in the freezing weather, and, receiving her money, hurries back lighthearted to her brood of broad-faced children. Nor should I forget to mention another, — the whistling lame boy, whose delicious mimicry of “ wood-notes wild,” discoursing brown thrush, whippoorwill, and oriole makes me quite forget that he is a child of misfortune. Speaking of’ the third class of silent partners brings me back to the pensive author of New Burial, who mournfully observes that “ Thersites is like to live as long as Agamemnon.” Now, it strikes me that Thersites must have been useful in the Greek camp as a censor of conduct. If it were otherwise, it was not his fault. His scurrilous expertness in taking off idiosyncrasies of character and behavior ought to have afforded the honey-tongued Nestor a timely hint as to the latter’s garrulity and long-windedness ; Ulysses should have grown out of conceit with his own disposition towards finesse; while Achilles should have learned to modify his violent temper, through having the mirror so frequently and unsparingly held up to nature. Our opposers, inasmuch as they treat our faults with no loving tenderness, but help us to see them in their unattractive reality, should be counted among the forwarders of our life’s scheme.
Idle or busy, I not infrequently look up at my bookshelves, and bless my silent partners there ; and I do not forget how a fugitive verse, learned in childhood, may ring a watchword far down the years. Other unassuming, voiceless helpers outside our human fraternity are not to be ignored. How many a soul Nature’s so-called soulless creatures in the out-door world have strengthened by their unconscious arguments for industry, courage, freedom, good hope ! If a favorite story of our youth be no fable, it was a persistent little spider, succeeding in bridging a gap at the tenth effort, that by force of her example helped a despondent hero to knit together the rent web of his fortunes. In one of his genial essays, John Burroughs speaks of a rabbit that had her domicile under the floor of his rustic study. Her soft footfalls, heard at all times of the day, he fancied expressed good-will and amity toward himself. I would like to pay a tribute of thanks to my chief silent partner in Nature’s domain; but his utter selfreliance and his tranquil indifference to admiration frustrate the intention of encomium. I would thus address
MY SILENT PARTNER.
Or thou couldst words from human lips divine!
For if I knew thy speech, or thou knew mine,
I’d tell thee, guardian of my roof and eaves,
What influence from thee my life receives,
When wave in green those sinewy arms of thine,
When stripped thou standest at the Shearer’s sign,
Or when the stealthy night - frost’s chisel cleaves.
Thy wordless counsel makes me glad and strong:
Thou showest, howe’er wild the winters be,
That they can do a rooted power no wrong ;
And thou in summer’s pleasance teachest me
To make my heart the covert for a throng
Of singing-birds, — as thou dost, joyous Tree !