Formation of Character
Some Studies in Treatment
THE PHILOSOPHER AT HOME
“He has such a temper, ma’am!”
And there, hot, flurried, and generally at her wits’ end, stood the poor nurse at the door of her mistress’s room. The terrific bellowing which filled the house was enough to account for the girl’s distress. Mrs Belmont looked worried. She went up wearily to what she well knew was a weary task. A quarter of an hour ago life had looked very bright—the sun shining, sparrows chirping, lilac and laburnum making a gay show in the suburban gardens about; she thought of her three nestlings in the nursery, and her heart was like a singing-bird giving out chirps of thanks and praise. But that was all changed. The outside world was a bright as ever, but she was under a cloud. She knew too well how those screams from the nursery would spoil her day.
There the boy lay, beating the ground with fists and feet; emitting one prodigious roar after another, features convulsed, eyes protruding, in the unrestrained rage of a wild creature, so transfigured by passion that even his mother doubted if the noble countenance and lovely smile of her son had any existence beyond her fond imagination. He eyed
his mother askance through his tumbled, yellow hair, but her presence seemed only to aggravate the demon in possession. The screams became more violent; the beating of the ground more than ever like a maniac’s rage.
“Get up, Guy.”
Renewed screams; more violent action of the limbs!
“Did you hear me, Guy?” in tones of enforced calmness.
The uproar subsided a little; but when Mrs Belmont laid her hand on his shoulder to raise him, the boy sprang to his feet, ran into her head-foremost like a young bull, kicked her, beat her with his fists, tore her dress with his teeth, and would no doubt have ended by overthrowing his delicate mother, but that Mr Belmont, no longer able to endure the disturbance, came up in time to disengage the raging child and carry him off to his mother’s room. Once in, the key was turned upon him, and Guy was left to “subside at his leisure,” said his father.
Breakfast was not a cheerful meal, either upstairs or down. Nurse was put out; snapped up little Flo, shook baby for being tiresome, until she had them both in tears. In the dining-room, Mr Belmont, read the Times with a frown which last night’s debate did not warrant; sharp words were at his tongue’s end, but, in turning the paper, he caught sight of his wife’s pale face and untasted breakfast. He said nothing, but she knew and suffered under his thoughts fully as much as if they had been uttered. Meantime, two closed doors and the wide space between the rooms hardly served to dull the ear-torturing sounds that came from the prisoner.
All at once there was a lull, a sudden and complete cessation of sound. Was the child in a fit?
“Excuse me a minute, Edward;” and Mrs Belmont flew upstairs, followed shortly by her husband. What was her surprise to see Guy with composed features contemplating himself in the glass! He held in his hand a proof of his own photograph which had just come from the photographers. The boy had been greatly interested in the process; and here was the picture arrived, and Guy was solemnly comparing it with that image of himself which the looking-glass presented.
Nothing more was said on the subject; Mr. Belmont went to the City, and his wife went about her household affairs with a lighter heart than she had expected to carry that day. Guy was released, and allowed to return to the nursery for his breakfast, which his mother found him eating in much content and with the sweetest face in the world; there was no more trace of passion than a June day bears when the sun comes out after a thunderstorm. Guy was, indeed, delightful; attentive and obedient to Harriet, full of charming play to amuse the two little ones, and very docile and sweet with his mother, saying from time to time the quaintest things. You would have thought he had been trying to make up for the morning’s fracas, had he not looked quite unconscious of wrong-doing.
This sort of thing had gone on since the child’s infancy. Now, a frantic outburst of passion, to be so instantly followed by a sweet April-day face and a sun-shiny temper that the resolutions his parents made about punishing or endeavouring to reform him passed away like hoar-frost before the child’s genial mood.
A sunshiny day followed this stormy morning; the next day passed in peace and gladness, but, the next, some hair astray, some crumpled rose-leaf under him, brought on another of Guy’s furious outbursts. Once again the same dreary routine was gone through; and, once again, the tempestuous morning was forgotten in the sunshine of the child’s day.
Not by the father, though: at last, Mr Belmont was roused to give his full attention to the mischief which had been going on under his eyes for nearly the five years of Guy’s short life. It dawned upon him—other people had seen if for years—that his wife’s nervous headaches and general want of tone might well be due to this constantly recurring distress. He was a man of reading and intelligence, in touch with the scientific thought of the day, and especially interested in what may be called the physical basis of character—the interaction which is ever taking place between the material brain and the immaterial thought and feeling of which it is the organ. He had even made little observations and experiments, declared to be valuable by his friend and ally, Dr Weissall, the head physician of the county hospital.
For a whole month he spread crumbs on the window-sill every morning at five minutes to eight; the birds gathered as punctually, and by eight o’clock the “table” was cleared and not a crumb remained. So far, the experiment was a great delight to the children, Guy and Flo, who were all agog to know how the birds knew the time.
After a month of free breakfasts: “You shall see now whether or no the birds come because they see the crumbs.” The prospect was delightful, but, alas!
this stage of the experiment was very much otherwise to the pitiful childish hearts.
“Oh, father, please let us put out crumbs for the poor little birds, they are so hungry!” a prayer seconded by Mrs Belmont, met with very ready acceptance. The best of us have our moments of weakness.
“Very interesting;” said the two savants; “nothing could show more clearly the readiness with which a habit is formed in even the less intelligent of the creatures.”
“Yes, and more than that, it shows the automatic nature of the action once the habit is formed. Observe, the birds came punctually and regularly when there were no longer crumbs for them. They did not come, look for their breakfast, and take sudden flight when it was not there, but they settled as before, stayed as long as before, and then flew off without any sign of disappointment. That is, they came, as we set one foot before another in walking, just out of habit, without any looking for crumbs, or conscious intention of any sort—a mere automatic or machine-like action with which conscious thought has nothing to do.”
Of another little experiment Mr Belmont was especially proud, because it brought down, as it were, two quarries at a stroke; touched heredity and automatic action in one little series of observations. Rover, the family dog, appeared in the first place as a miserable puppy saved from drowning. He was of no breed to speak of, but care and good living agreed with him. He developed a handsome shaggy white coat, a quiet well-featured face, and betrayed his low origin only by one inveterate habit; carts he took no notice of, but never a carriage, small or
great, appeared in sight but he ran yelping at the heels of the horses in an intolerable way, contriving at the same time to dodge the whip like any street Arab. Oddly enough, it came out through the milk-man that Rover came of a mother who met with her death through this very peccadillo.
Here was an opportunity. The point was, to prove not only that the barking was automatic, but that the most inveterate habit, even an inherited habit, is open to cure.
Mr Belmont devoted himself to the experiment: he gave orders that, for a month, Rover should go out with no one but himself. Two pairs of ears were on the alert for wheels; two, distinguished between carriage and cart. Now Rover was the master of an accomplishment of which he and the family were proud: he could carry a newspaper in his mouth. Wheels in the distance, then, “Hi! Rover!” and Rover trotted along, the proud bearer of the Times. This went on daily for a month, until at last the association between wheels and newspaper was established, and a distant rumble would bring him up—a demand in his eyes. Rover was cured. By-and-by the paper was unnecessary, and “To heel! good dog!” was enough when an ominous falling of the jaw threatened a return of the old habit.
It is extraordinary how wide is the gap between theory and practice in most of our lives. “The man who knows the power of habit has a key wherewith to regulate his own life and the lives of his household, down to that of the cat sitting at his hearth.” (Applause.) Thus, Mr Belmont at a scientific gathering. But only this morning did it dawn upon him that, with this key between his fingers, he was letting
his wife’s health, his child’s life, be ruined by a habit fatal alike to present peace, and to the hope of manly self-control in the future. Poor man! he had a bad half-hour that morning on his way Citywards. He was not given to introspection, but, when it was forced upon him, he dealt honestly.
“I must see Weissall to-night, and talk the whole thing out with him.”
. . . . . .
“Ah, so; the dear Guy! And how long is it, do you say, since the boy has thus out-broken?”
“All his life, for anything I know—certainly it began in his infancy.”
“And do you think, my good friend”—here the Doctor laid a hand on his friend’s arm, and peered at him with twinkling eyes and gravely set mouth—“do you think it possible that he has—er—inherited this little weakness? A grandfather, perhaps?”
“You mean me, I know: yes, it’s a fact. And I got it from my father, and he, from his. We’re not a good stock. I know I’m an irascible fellow, and it has stood in my way all through life.”
“Fair and softly, my dear fellow! go not so fast. I cannot let you say bad things of my best friend. But this I allow; there are thorns, bristles all over; and they come out at a touch. How much better for you and for Science had the father cured all that!”
“As I must for Guy! Yes, and how much happier for wife, children, and servants; how much pleasanter for friends. Well, Guy is the question now. What do you advise?”
The two sat far into the night discussing a problem on the solution of which depended the future of a noble boy, the happiness of a family. No wonder
they found the subject so profoundly interesting that ‘two’ by the church clock startled them into a hasty separation. Both Mrs Belmont and Mrs Weissall resented this dereliction on the part of their several lords; but these ladies would have been meeker than Sarah herself had they known that, not science, not politics, but the bringing up of the children, was the engrossing topic.
Breakfast-time three days later. Scene, the dining-room.
NURSE in presence of MASTER and MISTRESS.
“You have been a faithful servant and good friend, both to us and the children, Harriet, but we blame you a little for Guy’s passionate outbreaks. Do not be offended, we blame ourselves more. Your share of blame is that you have worshipped him from his baby-hood, and have allowed him to have his own way in everything. Now, your part of the cure is, to do exactly as we desire. At present, I shall only ask you to remember that, Prevention is better than cure. The thing for all of us is to take precautions against even one more of these outbreaks.
“Keep your eye upon Guy; if you notice—no matter what the cause—flushed cheeks, pouting lips, flashing eye, frowning forehead, with two little upright lines between the eyebrows, limbs held stiffly, hands, perhaps, closed, head thrown slightly back; if you notice any or all of these signs, the boy is on the verge of an outbreak. Do not stop to ask questions, or soothe him, or make peace, or threaten. Change his thoughts. That is the one hope. Say quite naturally and pleasantly, as if you saw nothing, ‘Your father wants you to garden with him,’ or, ‘for a game
of dominoes’; or, ‘Your mother wants you to help her in the store-room,’ or, ‘to tidy her work-box.’ Be ruled by the time of the day, and how you know we are employed. And be quite sure we do want the boy.”
“But, sir, please excuse me, is it any good to save him from breaking out when the passion is there in his heart?”
“Yes, Harriet, all the good in the world. Your master thinks that Guy’s passions have become a habit, and that the way to cure him is to keep him a long time, a month or two, without a single outbreak; if we can manage that, the trouble will be over. As for the passion in his heart, that comes with the outer signs, and both will be cured together. Do, Harriet, like a good woman, help us in this matter, and your master and I will always be grateful to you!”
“I’m sure, ma’am, with a sob (Harriet was a soft-hearted woman, and was very much touched to be taken thus into the confidence of her master and mistress), “I’m sure I’ll do my best, especially as I’ve had a hand in it; but I’m sure I never meant to, and, if I forget, I hope you’ll kindly forgive me.”
“No, Harriet, you must not forget any more than you’d forget to snatch a sharp knife from the baby. This is almost a matter of life and death.”
“Very well, sir, I’ll remember; and thank you for telling me.”
. . . . . .
Breakfast time was unlucky; the very morning after the above talk, Nurse had her opportunity. Flo, for some inscrutable reason, preferred to eat her porridge with her brother’s spoon. Behold, quick as a flash, flushed cheeks, puckered brow, rigid frame!
“Master Guy, dear,” in a quite easy, friendly tone (Harriet had mastered her lesson), “run down to your father; he wants you to help him in the garden.”
Instantly the flash in the eye became a sparkle of delight, the rigid limbs were all active and eager; out of his chair, out of the room, downstairs, by his father’s side, in less time that in takes to tell. And the face—joyous, sparkling, full of eager expectation—surely Nurse had been mistaken this time? But no; both parents knew how quickly Guy emerged from the shadow of a cloud, and they trusted Harriet’s discretion.
“Well, boy, so you’ve come to help me garden? But I’ve not done breakfast. Have you finished yours?”
“No, father,” with a dropping lip.
“Well, I’ll tell you what. You run up and eat your porridge and come down as soon as you’re ready; I shall make haste, too, and we shall get a good half-hour in the garden before I go out.”
Up again went Guy with hasty, willing feet.
“Nurse” (breathless hurry and importance), “I must make haste with my porridge. Father wants me directly to help him in the garden.”
Nurse winked hard at the fact that the porridge was gobbled. The happy little boy trotted off to one of the greatest treats he knew, and that day passed without calamity.
. . . . . .
“I can see it will answer, and life will be another thing without Guy’s passions; but do you think, Edward, it’s right to give the child pleasures when he’s naughty—in fact, to put a premium upon naughtiness, for it amounts to that?”
“You’re not quite right there. The child does not know he is naughty; the emotions of ‘naughtiness’ are there; he is in a physical tumult, but wilfulness has not set in; he does not yet mean to be naughty, and all is gained if we avert the set of the will towards wrong-doing. He has not had time to recognise that he is naughty, and his thoughts are changed so suddenly that he is not in the least aware of what was going on in him before. The new thing comes to him as naturally and graciously as do all the joys of the childish day. The question of desert does not occur.”
. . . . . .
For a week all went well. Nurse was on the alert, was quick to note the ruddy storm-signal in the fair little face; she never failed to despatch Guy instantly, and with a quiet unconscious manner, on some errand to father or mother; nay, she improved on her instructions; when father and mother were out of the way, she herself invented some pleasant errand to cook about the pudding for dinner; to get fresh water for Dickie, or to see if Rover had had his breakfast. Nurse was really clever in inventing expedients, in hitting instantly on something to be done novel and amusing enough to fill the child’s fancy. A mistake in this direction would, experience told her, be fatal; propose what was stale, and not only would Guy decline to give up the immediate gratification of a passionate outbreak—for it is gratification, that must be borne in mind—but he would begin to look suspiciously on the “something else” which so often came in the way of this gratification.
Security has its own risks. A morning came when Nurse was not on the alert. Baby was teething and
fractious, Nurse was overdone, and the nursery was not a cheerful place. Guy, very sensitive to the moral atmosphere about him, got, in Nurse’s phrase, out of sorts. He relieved himself by drumming on the table with a couple of ninepins, just as Nurse was getting baby off after a wakeful night.
“Stop that noise this minute, you naughty boy! Don’t you see your poor little brother is going to sleep?” in a loud whisper. The noise was redoubled, and assisted by kicks on chair-rungs and table-legs. Sleep vanished and baby broke into a piteous wail. This was too much; the Nurse laid down the child, seized the young culprit, chair and all, carried him to the farthest corner, and, desiring him not to move till she gave him leave, set him down with a vigorous shaking. There were days when Guy would stand this style of treatment cheerfully, but this was not one. Before Harriet had even noted the danger signals, the storm had broken out. For half an hour the nursery was a scene of frantic uproar, baby assisting, and even little Flo. Half and hour is nothing to speak of; in pleasant chat, over an amusing book, the thirty minutes fly like five; but half an hour in struggle with a raging child is a day and a night in length. Mr and Mrs Belmont were out, so Harriet had it all to herself, and it was contrary to orders that she should attempt to place the child in confinement; solitude and locked doors involved risks that the parents would, rightly, allow no one but themselves to run. At last the tempest subsided, spent, apparently, by its own force.
A child cannot bear estrangement, disapproval; he must needs live in the light of a countenance smiling upon him. His passion over, Guy set himself laboriously
to be good, keeping watch out of the corner of his eye to see how Nurse took it. She was too much vexed to respond in any way, even by a smile. But her heart was touched; and though, by-and-by when Mrs Belmont came in, she did say—“Master Guy has been in one of his worst tempers again, ma’am: screaming for better than half an hour”—yet she did not tell her tale with the empressement necessary to show what a very bad half-hour they had had. His mother looked with grave reproof at the delinquent, but she was not proof against his coaxing ways.
After dinner she remarked to her husband, “You will be sorry to hear that Guy has had one of his worst bouts again. Nurse said he screamed steadily for more than half an hour.”
“What did you do?”
“I was out at the time doing some shopping. But when I came back, after letting him know how grieved I was, I did as you say, changed his thoughts and did my best to give him a happy day.”
“How did you let him know you were grieved?”
“I looked at him in a way he quite understood, and you should have seen the deliciously coaxing, half-ashamed look he shot up at me. What eyes he has!”
“Yes, the little monkey! and no doubt he measured their effect on his mother; you must allow me to say that my theory certainly is not to give him a happy day after an outbreak of this sort.”
“Why, I thought your whole plan was to change his thoughts, to keep him so well occupied with pleasant things that he does not dwell on what agitated him.”
“Yes, but did you not tell me the passion was over when you found him?”
“Quite over; he was a good as gold.”
“Well, the thing we settled on was to avert a threatened outbreak by a pleasant change of thought; and to do so in order that, at last, the habit of these outbreaks may be broken. Don’t you see, that is a very different thing from pampering him with a pleasant day when he has already pampered himself with the full indulgence of his passion?”
“Pampered himself! Why, you surely don’t think those terrible scenes give the poor child any pleasure. I always thought he was a deal more to be pitied than we.”
“Indeed I do. Pleasure is perhaps hardly the word; but that the display of temper is a form of self indulgence, there is no doubt at all. You, my dear, are too amiable to know what a relief it is to us irritable people to have a good storm and clear the air.”
“Nonsense, Edward! But what should I have done? What is the best course after the child has given way?”
“I think we must, as you once suggested, consider how we ourselves are governed. Estrangement, isolation are the immediate consequences of sin, even of what may seem a small sin of harshness or selfishness.”
“Oh, but don’t you think that is our delusion? that God is loving us all the time, and it is we who estrange ourselves?”
“Without doubt; and we are aware of the love all the time, but, also, we are aware of a cloud between it and ourselves; we know we are out of favour.
We know, too, that there is only one way back, through the fire. It is common to speak of repentance as a light thing, rather pleasant than otherwise; but it is searching and bitter: so much so, that the Christian soul dreads to sin, even the sin of coldness, from an almost cowardly dread of the anguish of repentance, purging fire though it be.”
Mrs Belmont could not clear her throat to answer for a minute. She had never before had such a glimpse into her husband’s soul. Here were deeper things in the spiritual life than any of which she yet knew.
“Well then, dear, about Guy: must he feel this estrangement, go through this fire?”
“I think so, in his small degree; but he must never doubt our love. He must see and feel that it is always there, though under a cloud of sorrow which he only can break through.”
. . . . . .
Guy’s lapse prepared the way for further lapses. Not two days passed before he was again in a passion. The boy, his outbreak over, was ready at once to emerge into the sunshine. Not so his mother. His most bewitching arts met only with sad looks and silence.
He told his small scraps of nursery news, looking in vain for the customary answering smile and merry words. He sidled up to his mother, and stroked her cheek; that did not do, so he stroked her hand; then her gown; no answering touch, no smile, no word; nothing but sorrowful eyes when he ventured to raise his own. Poor little fellow! The iron was beginning to enter; he moved a step or two away from his mother, and raised to hers eyes full of
piteous doubt and pleading. He was love, which could not reach him, and sorrow, which he was just beginning to comprehend. But his mother could bear it no longer: she got up hastily and left the room. Then the little boy, keeping close to the wall, as if even that were something to interpose between him and this new sense of desolation, edged off to the farthest corner of the room, and sinking on the floor with a sad, new quietness, sobbed in his loneliness; Nurse had had her lesson, and although she too was crying for her boy, nobody went near him but Flo. A little arm was passed round his neck: a hot little cheek pressed against his curls:
“Don’t cry Guy!” two or three times, and when the sobs came all the thicker, there was nothing for it but that Flo must cry too; poor little outcasts!
At last bedtime came, and his mother; but her face had still that sad far-away look, and Guy could see she had been crying. How he longed to spring up and hug her and kiss her as he would have done yesterday. But somehow he dared not: and she never smiled nor spoke, and yet never before had Guy known how his mother loved him.
She sat in her accustomed chair by the little white bed, and beckoned the little boy in his nightgown to come and say his prayers. He knelt at his mother’s knee as usual, and then she laid her hands upon his.
“ ‘Our Father’—oh, mother, mo—o—ther, mother!” and a torrent of tears drowned the rest, and Guy was again in his mother’s arms, and she was raining kisses upon him, and crying with him.
Next morning his father received him with open arms.
“So my poor little boy had a bad day yesterday!”
Guy hung his head and said nothing.
“Would you like me to tell you how you may help ever having quite such another bad day?”
“Oh yes, please, father; I thought I couldn’t help.”
“Can you tell when the ‘Cross-man’ is coming?”
Guy hesitated. “Sometimes, I think. I get all hot.”
“Well, the minute you find he’s coming, even if you have begun to cry, say, ‘Please excuse me, Nurse,’ and run downstairs, and then four times round the paddock as fast as you can, without stopping to take breath!”
“What a good way! Shall I try it now?”
“Why, the ‘Cross-man’ isn’t there now. But I’ll tell you a secret: he always goes away if you begin to do something else as hard as you can; and if you can remember to run away from him round the garden, you’ll find he won’t run after you; at the very worst, he won’t run after you more than once round!”
“Oh, father, I’ll try! What fun! See if I don’t beat him! Won’t I just give Mr ‘Cross-man’ a race! He shall be quite out of breath before we get round the fourth time.”
The vivid imagination of the boy personified the foe, and the father jumped with his humour. Guy was eager for the fray; the parents had found an ally in their boy; the final victory was surely within appreciable distance.
. . . . . .
. . . . . .
His father was right. Opportunities to check him in mid-career occurred; and Guy answered to the rein. Mr Cross-man worked wonders. A record of outbreaks was kept; now a month intervened; two months; a year; two years; and at last his parents forgot their early troubles with their sweet-tempered, frank-natured boy.
 To state the case more accurately, certain cell connections appear to be established by habitual traffic in certain thoughts; but there is so much danger in over-stating or in localising mental operations, that perhaps it is safer to convey the practical outcome of this line of research in a more or less figurative way—as, the wearing of a field-path; the making of a bridge; a railway, etc.