Conan Doyle, like that great historical writer Patrick O’Brian, is thoroughly steeped in his period and brings vividly to life the notions and morals of those distant times. I thought I would share one such insight with you because it has to do with the notion of the gentleman, which is a popular theme on this blog.
The young Nigel, not yet a knight - a mere squire – yet of noble birth and brought up in the old ways, is travelling to the wars with Aylward, a longbowman and Nigel’s own squire.
That night they slept in a sordid inn, overrun with rats and with fleas, one mile south of the hamlet of Mayfield. Aylward scratched vigorously and cursed with fervour. Nigel lay without movement or sound. To the man who had learned the old rule of chivalry there were no small ills in life. It was beneath the dignity of his soul to stoop to observe them. Cold and heat, hunger and thirst, such things did not exist for the gentleman. The armour of his soul was so complete that it was proof not only against the great ills of life but even against the small ones; so the flea-bitten Nigel lay grimly still while Aylward writhed upon his couch.
Conan Doyle does not expand upon the subject more than that. It is for those who are receptive to take note. How the insight rings true. How petty are most of our discomforts and complaints, and how we undermine the nobility of our spirits by dwelling on them.
Is this not a characteristic of the gentleman that he accepts hardships without complaint, that he accepts what he finds and adapts himself readily to it? His mind is focused on what is required of him as a gentleman, that is, what he must do for honour and for right and for those weaker than himself. And for these reasons he is a natural born leader and is considered of a finer essence by those who can only complain or dwell on petty things.
It is to be regretted if a party of people are together for a whole day without their conversation touching on what is right and wrong and if they take pleasure merely in shallow talk. Confucius
There is no such thing as being a gentleman at important moments; it is at unimportant moments that a man is a gentleman. At important moments he ought to be something better. G.K. Chesterton