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The Papers of Basil Fillimer

By H. D. Traill

MY name is Johnson, just plain John Johnson—nothing more
subtle than that ; and my individuality is, as they say, “in a
concatenation accordingly.” In other words, the character of my
intellect is exactly what you would expect in a man of my name.
This was well known to my old friend, schoolmate, and fellow-
student at Oxford, the late Basil Fillimer ; a man of the very
subtlest mind that I should think has ever housed itself in human
body since the brain of the last mediæval schoolman ceased to
“distinguish.” Yet Basil Fillimer must needs appoint me—me of
all men in the world—his literary executor, and charge me with
the duty of making a selection from his papers and preparing them
for publication. They include a series of ” Analytic Studies,” a
diary extending over several years, and a three-volume novel
turning on the question whether the hero before marrying the
heroine was or was not bound to communicate to her the fact
that he had once unjustly suspected her mother of circulating
reports injurious to the reputation of his aunt.

Basil knew, I say—he must have known—that I was quite
unable to follow him in these refined speculations. Hence I can
only suppose that at the time when his will was drawn he had not
yet discovered my psychological incompetence, and that after he


The Yellow Book—Vol. V. B

                        20 The Papers of Basil Fillimer

had made that discovery his somewhat sudden death prevented
him from appointing some one of keener analytical acumen in my

It would not be fair to the novel, in case it should ever be
published, to give any specimens of it here ; it might discount the
reader’s interest in the development of the plot. But this is the
sort of thing the diary consists of:

June 15.—Went yesterday to call on my aunt Catherine and
found her more troubled than ever about the foundations of her
faith. It is a singular phenomenon this awakening of doubt in
an elderly mind—this ‘St. Martin’s summer’ of scepticism if I
may so call it ; an intensely curious and at the same time a
painful study. For me it has so potent a fascination, that I
never say or do anything, even in what at the time seems to me
perfect good faith, to invite a continuance of my aunt’s con-
fidences, without afterwards suspecting my own motives. My
first inclination was to divert her mind to other subjects. Why,
I asked myself, should an old lady of seventy-two who has all her
life accepted the conventional religion without question be
encouraged to what the French call faire son âme at this
extremely late hour of the day ? Still you can’t very well tell any
old lady, even though she is your aunt, that you think she is too
old to begin bothering herself with these high matters. You
have to put it just the other way, and suggest that she has
probably many years of life before her, and will have plenty of
time for such speculations later on. But the first sentence I tried
to frame in this sense reminded me so ludicrously of Mrs.
Quickly’s consolations of the dying Falstaff, that I had to stop
for fear of laughing, and allow her to go on. For reply I put her
off at the time with commonplaces, but she has since renewed the
conversation so often that I feel I shall be obliged to disclose


                        By H. D. Traill 21

some of my own opinions, which are of course of a much
more advanced scepticism than hers. I have considered the
question of disguising or qualifying them, and have come
without doubt—or I think without much doubt—to the con-
clusion that I am not justified in doing so. I have never believed
in the morality of—

Leave thou thy sister, when she prays,
    Her early Heaven, her happy views ;
    Nor thou with shadowed hint confuse
A life that leads melodious days.

“Besides, there is no interpretation clause at the end of In
to say that the term ‘sister’ shall include ‘maiden aunt.’
Moreover, I have every reason to suspect that my aunt Catherine
has ceased to pray, and I am sure her days are anything but
‘melodious’ just now, poor old soul. It is all very well to respect
other people’s religious illusions as long as they remain undisturbed
in the minds of those who harbour them. So long the maxim
Wen Gott betrügt ist wohl betrogen undoubtedly applies. But what
if the Divine Deceiver begins to lose his power of deceiving ? Is
it the business of any of his creatures to come to his assistance ?

June 20.—I have just returned from an hour’s interview with
my aunt, who almost immediately opened out on the question of
her doubts. She spoke of them in tones of profound, indeed of
almost tragic agitation ; and I could not bring myself to say any-
thing which would increase her mental anguish, as I thought might
happen if I confessed to sharing them. I accordingly found
myself reverting after all to the old commonplaces,—that ‘these
things were mysteries’ and so forth (which of course is exactly the
trouble), and the rest of the ‘vacant chaff well meant for grain.’
It had a soothing effect at the time, and I returned home well


                        22 The Papers of Basil Fillimer

pleased with my own wise humanity, as I thought it. But now
that I look back upon it and examine my mixed motives, I am
forced to admit that there was more of cowardice than compassion
in the amalgam. I was not even quite sincere, I now find, in
pleading to myself my aunt’s distress of mind as an excuse for the
concealment, or rather the misrepresentation, of my opinions. I
knew at the time that she had had a bad night and that she is suf-
fering severely just now from suppressed gout. In other words, I
was secretly conscious at the back of my mind that the abnormal
excess of her momentary sufferings was due to physical and not
mental causes, and would yield readily enough to colchicum or
salicylic acid, which no one has ever ranked among Christian
apologetics. Yet I persuaded myself for the moment that it was
this quite exceptional and transitory state of my aunt’s feelings
which compelled me to keep silence.

June 23.—To-day I have had what seems—or seemed to me, for
I have not yet had time for a thorough analysis—a clear indication
of my only rational and legitimate course. My aunt Catherine said
plainly to me this afternoon that as she had gathered from our
conversations that my views were strictly orthodox, she would not
pain me in future by any further disclosures of her own doubts.
At the same time, she added, it was only right to tell me that my
pious advice had done her no good, but, on the contrary, harm, since
there was to her mind nothing so calculated to confirm scepticism
as the sight of a man of good understanding thus firmly wedded
to certain received opinions of which nevertheless he was unable to
offer any reasonable defence or even intelligible explanation whatso-
ever. Upon this hint I of course spoke. It was clear that if my
silence only increased my aunt’s trouble, and that if, further, it
threatened to convict me unjustly of stupidity, I was clearly
entitled, as well on altruistic as on self-regarding grounds, to reveal


                        By H. D. Traill 23

my true opinions. In fact, I thought at the time that I had never
acted under the influence of a motive so clearly visible along its
whole course from Thought to Will, and so manifestly free from
any the smallest fibre of impulse having its origin in the subliminal
consciousness. Yet now I am beginning to doubt.

June 24.—On a closer examination I feel that my motive was
not, as I then thought, compounded equally of a legitimate desire
to vindicate my own intelligence and of a praiseworthy anxiety not
to add to my aunt’s spiritual perplexities, but that it was subtly
tainted with an illegitimate longing to continue my study of her
curious case. Consequently, I cannot now assure myself that if I
had not known that further concealment of my opinions would
arrest my aunt’s confidences and thus deprive me of a keen
psychological pleasure (which I have no right to enjoy at her
expense) the legitimate inducements to candour that were
presented to me would of themselves have prevailed.”

There is much more of the same kind ; but I will cut it short
at this point, not only to escape a headache, but to ask any
impartial reader into whose hands this apology may fall, whether,
I—who as I said before am not only John Johnson by name but
by nature—am a fit and proper person to edit the posthumous
papers of Basil Fillimer.

I come now, however, to what I consider my strongest justifi-
cation for declining this literary trust. Though I had, and
indeed still retain, the highest admiration for Basil Fillimer’s
intellectual subtlety, and though, confessing myself absolutely
unable to follow him into his refinements of analysis, I hazard
this opinion with diffidence, I do not think that, except in their
curiosity as infinitely delicate and minute mental processes, his
speculations are of any value to the world. I have formed this
opinion in my rough-and-ready way from a variety of circum-

                                                 stances ;

                        24 The Papers of Basil Fillimer

stances ; but in support of it I rely mainly upon an incident
which occurred within a few months of my lamented friend’s
death, and which formed to the best of my knowledge the sole
passage of sentiment in his intensely speculative career.

To say that he fell in love would be to employ a metaphor of
quite inappropriate violence. He “shaded off” from a colourless
indifference to a certain young woman of his acquaintance
through various neutral tints of regard into a sort of pale sunset
glow of affection for her. Eleanor Selden was a first cousin of
my own. We had seen much of each other from childhood
upwards, and I knew—or thought I knew—her well. She was a
lively, good-natured, commonplace girl, without a spark of
romance about her, and all a woman’s eye to the main chance. I
don’t mean by this that she was more mercenary than most girls.
She merely took that practical view of life and its material
requirements which has always seemed to me (only I am not a
psychologist) to be so much more common among young people
of what is supposed to be the sentimental sex, than of the other.
I daresay she was not incapable of love—among appropriate
surroundings. Unlike some women, she was not constitutionally
unfitted to appear with success in the matrimonial drama ; but
she was particular about the mise-en-scène. “Act I., A Cottage,”
would not have suited her at all. She would have played the
wife’s part with no spirit, I feel convinced. As to “Act V., A
Cottage,” with an “interval of twenty years supposed to elapse”
between that and the preceding act, I doubt whether she would
ever have reached it at all.

I imparted these views of mine as delicately as I could to my
accomplished friend, but they produced no impression on him.
He told me kindly but firmly that I was altogether mistaken.
He had, he said, made a particularly careful study of Eleanor’s


                        By H. D. Traill 25

character and had arrived at the confident conclusion that absolute
unselfishness formed its most distinctive feature. Nor was he at
all shaken in this opinion by the fact that when a little later on
he informed her of the nature of his sentiments towards her, he
found that she agreed with him in thinking that his then income
was not enough to marry upon, and that they had better wait
until the death of an uncle of his from whom he had expectations.
I felt rather curious to know what passed at the interview between
them, and questioned him on the subject.

“As to this objection on the ground of the insufficiency of
your income, did it come from you,” I asked, “or from her ?”

“What a question,” said Basil, contemptuously. “From me
of course.”

“But at once?”

“How do you mean, at once ?”

“Well, was there any interval between your telling her you
loved her and your adding that you did not think you were well
enough off to marry just at present ?”

” Any interval ? No, of course not. It would have been
obviously unfair and ungenerous on my part to have made her a
declaration of love without at the same time adding that I could
not ask her to share my present poverty and—”

“Oh,” I interrupted, “you said that at the same time, did you ?
Then she had nothing to do but to agree ?”

“Well, no, of course not,” said Basil. “But, my dear fellow,”
he continued, with his usual half-pitying smile, “you don’t see the
point. The point is, that she agreed reluctantly—indeed with quite
obvious reluctance.”

” Did she press you to reconsider your decision ? ‘

” Well, no, she could hardly do that, you know. It would not
be quite consistent with maidenly reserve and so forth. But


                        26 The Papers of Basil Fillimer

she again and again declared her perfect readiness to share my
present fortunes.”

” Ah ! she did that, did she ? ”

” Yes, and even after she must have seen that my decision was

” Oh ! even after that : but not before ? Thank you, I think I

And I thought I did, as also did Basil. But I fancy our read-
ing of the incident was not the same.

A closer intimacy now followed between the two. They were
not engaged ; Basil had been beforehand in insisting that her future
freedom of choice should not be fettered, and she again ” reluctantly,
—indeed with quite obvious reluctance,” had agreed. They were
much in each other’s company, and Basil, who used to read her
some of the most intricate psychological chapters in his novel, in
which she showed the greatest interest, conceived a very high idea
of her intellectual gifts. “She has,” he said, “by far the subtlest
mind for a woman that I ever came in contact with.”

” Do you ever talk to her about your uncle ? ” I asked him one day.

” Oh yes, sometimes,” he replied. ” And, by the way,” he
added, suddenly, ” that reminds me. To show you how unjust is
the view you take of your cousin’s motives, as no doubt you do of
human nature generally like most superficial students of it (excuse
an old friend’s frankness), I may tell you that although there have
been many occasions when she might have put the question with
perfect naturalness and propriety, she has never once inquired the
amount of my uncle’s means.”

” It is very much to her credit,” said I.

” It is true,” he added, after a moment’s reflection and with a
half-laugh, ” I could not have told her if she had. His money is
all in personalty, and he is a close old chap.”


                        By H. D. Traill 27

” Oh,” I said, ” have you ever by chance mentioned that to

” Eh ? What ? ” answered Basil, absently, for, as his manner
was, he was drifting away on some underground stream of his own
thoughts. ” Mentioned it ? I don’t recollect. I daresay I have.
Probably I must have done. Why do you ask ? ”

“Well,” said I, ” because if she knew you could not answer the
question that might account for her not asking it.”

But he was already lost in reverie, and I did not feel justified in
rousing him from it for no worthier purpose than that of hinting
suspicion of the disinterestedness of a blood relation.

In due time—or at least in what the survivors considered due
time, though I don’t suppose the poor old gentleman so regarded
it—Basil’s uncle died, and the nephew found himself the heir to a
snug little fortune of about £,900 a year. As soon as he was in
possession of it he wrote to Eleanor, acquainting her with the
change in his circumstances, and renewing his declaration of love,
accompanied this time with a proposal of immediate marriage. I
happened to look in upon him at his chambers on the evening of
the day on which the letter had been despatched, and he told me
what he had done.

” Ah ! ” said I, ” now, then, we shall see which of us is right.
But no,” I added, on a moment’s reflection, “after all, it won’t
prove anything ; for I suppose we both agree that she is likely to
accept you now, and I can’t deny that she can do so with perfect

Basil looked at me as from a great height, a Gulliver conversing
with a Lilliputian.

” Dear old Jack,” he said, after a few moments of obviously
amused silence, ” you are really most interesting. What makes
you think she will say Yes ? ”

                                                ” What ! ”

                        28 The Papers of Basil Fillimer

” What ! ” I exclaimed in astonishment. ” Don’t you think
so yourself ? ”

” On the contrary,” replied Basil, with that sad patient smile of
his, ” I am perfectly convinced that she will say No.”

I did not pursue the conversation, for my surprise at his opinion
had by this time disappeared. It occurred to me that after all it
was not unnatural in a man who had conceived so exalted an
estimate of Eleanor’s character. No doubt he thought her too
proud to incur the suspicion which might attach to her motives in
accepting him after this accession to his fortunes. I felt sure,
however, that he was mistaken, and it was therefore with
renewed and much increased surprise that I read the letter which
he placed in my hand with quiet triumph a few days after-

It was a refusal. Eleanor thanked him for his renewal of his
proposal, said she should always feel proud of having won the
affection of so accomplished a man, but that having carefully
examined her own heart, she felt that she did not love him enough
to marry him.

Basil, I feel sure, was as fond of my cousin as it was in his
nature to be of anybody ; but he was evidently much less dis-
appointed by her rejection than pleased with the verification of his
forecast. I confess I was puzzled at its success.

” How did you know she would refuse you ? ” I asked. ” I
must say that I thought her sufficiently alive to her own interests
to accept you.”

Basil gently shook his head.

“But I suppose you thought that she would reject you for fear
of being considered mercenary.”

Basil still continued to shake his head, but now with a pro-
vokingly enigmatic smile.

                                                ” No ?

                        By H. D. Traill 29

” No ? But confound it,” I cried, out of patience, ” there are
only these two alternatives in every case of this kind.”

” My dear Jack,” said Basil, after a few moments’ contemplation
of me, ” you have confounded it yourself. You are confusing act
with motive. It is true there are only two possible replies to the
question I asked Miss Selden ; but the series af alternating motives
for either answer is infinite.”

” Infinite ? ” echoed I, aghast.

“Yes,” said Basil, dreamily. ” It is obviously infinite, though
the human faculties in their present stage of development can only
follow a few steps of it. Would you really care to know,” he con-
tinued kindly, after a pause, ” the way in which I arrived at my
conclusion ? ”

” I should like it of all things,” I said.

” Then you had better just take a pencil and a sheet of paper,”
said Basil. “You will excuse the suggestion, but to any one un-
familiar with these trains of thought some aid of the kind is posi-
tively necessary. Now, then, let us begin with the simplest case,
that of a girl of selfish instincts and blunt sensibilities, who
looks out for as good a match, from the pecuniary point of view,
as she can make, and doesn’t very much care to conceal the

(” Eleanor down to the ground,” I thought to myself.)

” She would have said Yes to my question, wouldn’t she ? ”

” No doubt.”

” Very well, then, kindly mark that Case A.”

I did so.

” Next, we come to a girl of a somewhat higher type, not per-
haps indifferent to pecuniary considerations, but still too proud to
endure the suspicion of having acted upon them in the matter of
marriage. She would answer No, wouldn’t she ? ”


                        30 The Papers of Basil Fillimer

” Yes,” said I, eagerly. ” And surely that is the way in which
you must explain Eleanor’s refusal.”

“Pardon me,” said Basil, raising a deprecating hand, “it is not
quite so simple as that. But have you got that down? If so,
please mark it Case B. Thirdly, we get a woman of a nobler
nature who would have too much faith in her lover s generosity to
believe him capable of suspecting her motives, and who would wel-
come the opportunity of showing that faith. Have you got that
down ? ”

“Yes, every word,” said I. “But, my dear fellow, that is a
woman whose answer would be Yes.”

“Exactly,” replied Basil, imperturbably. “Mark it Case C.
And now,” he continued, lighting a cigarette, ” have the goodness
to favour me with your particular attention to this. There is a
woman of moral sensibilities yet more refined who would fear lest
her lover should suspect her of being actuated by motives really
mercenary, but veiled under the pretence of a desire to demonstrate
her reliance on his faith in her disinterestedness, and who would
consequently answer No. Do you follow that ? ”

” No, I’ll be damned if I do ! ” I cried, throwing down the

” Ah,” said Basil, sadly, ” I was afraid so. Nevertheless, for
convenience of reference, mark it Case D. There are of course
numberless others ; the series, as I have said, is infinite. There
is Case E, that of the woman who rises superior to this last-men-
tioned fear, and says Yes ; and there is Case F, that of the
woman who fears to be suspected of only feigning such superiority,
and says No. But it is probably unnecessary to carry the analysis
further. You believe that Miss Selden’s refusal of me comes under
Case B ; I, on the other hand, from my experience of the singular
subtlety and delicacy of her intellectual operations, am persuaded


                        By H. D. Traill 31

that it belongs to the D category. Her alleged excuse is, of course,
purely conventional. Her plea that she is unable to love me,” he
added with an indescribable smile, ” is, for instance, absurd. I will
let a couple of months or so elapse, and shall then take steps to
ascertain from her whether it was the motive of Case B or that of
Case D by which she has been really actuated.”

The couple of months, alas ! were not destined to go by in
Basil’s lifetime. Three weeks later my poor friend was carried off
by an attack of pneumonia, and I was left with this unsolved pro-
blem of conduct on my mind.

I was, however, determined to seek the solution of it, and the
first time I met Eleanor I referred it to herself. I had taken the
precaution to bring my written notes with me so as to be sure
that the question was correctly stated.

” Nelly,” said I, for, as I have already said, we were not only
cousins, but had been brought up together from childhood, ” I
want you to tell me, your oldest chum, why you refused Basil
Fillimer. Was it because you were too proud to endure the
suspicion of having married for money, or was it—now for
goodness’ sake don’t interrupt me just here,” for I saw Nelly’s
smiling lips opening to speak ; “or was it,” I continued, carefully
reading from my paper, ” because you feared lest he should suspect
you of being actuated by motives really mercenary but veiled
under the pretence of a desire to demonstrate your reliance on his
faith in your disinterestedness ? ”

The smile broke into a ringing laugh.

“Why, you stupid Jack,” cried Eleanor, “what nonsense of
poor dear old Basil’s have you got into your head ? Why did I
refuse him ? You who have known me all my life to ask such a
question ! Now did you—did you think I was the sort of girl to
marry a man with only nine hundred a year ? ”


                        32 The Papers of Basil Fillimer

Candidly, I did not. But poor Basil did. And that, as I said
before, is one and perhaps the strongest among many reasons why
I think that his studies of human character and analyses of human
motive, though intellectually interesting, would not be likely to
prove of much practical value to the world.

MLA citation:

Traill, H. D. “The Papers of Basil Fillimer.” The Yellow Book, vol. 5 , April 1895, pp. 19-32. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.