by Charles S. Brooks.
Illustrated with wood-cuts
by Fritz Endell.
New Haven: Yale University Press.
London: Humphrey Milford: Oxford University Press
Copyright, 1919, by Yale University Press.
First published, 1919. Second printing, 1920.
The Yale University Press makes grateful acknowledgment to the Editors of the Unpopular Review and The Century Magazine for permission to include in the present volume, essays of which they were the original publishers.
* * * * *
To Minerva, my Wife.
* * * * *
I. The Chimney-Pots 11
II. The Quest of the Lost Digamma 19
III. On a Rainy Morning 35
IV. "1917" 43
V. On Going Afoot 47
VI. On Livelihoods 68
VII. The Tread of the Friendly Giants 79
VIII. On Spending a Holiday 89
IX. Runaway Studies 109
X. On Turning into Forty 117
XI. On the Difference between Wit and Humor 128
XII. On Going to a Party 136
XIII. On a Pair of Leather Suspenders 146
XIV. Boots for Runaways 159
XV. On Hanging a Stocking at Christmas 169
* * * * *
My windows look across the roofs of the crowded city and my thoughts often take their suggestion from the life that is manifest at my neighbors' windows and on these roofs.
Across the way, one story lower than our own, there dwells "with his subsidiary parents" a little lad who has been ill for several weeks. After his household is up and dressed I regularly discover him in bed, with his books and toys piled about him. Sometimes his knees are raised to form a snowy mountain, and he leads his paper soldiers up the slope. Sometimes his kitten romps across the coverlet and pounces on his wriggling toes; and again sleeps on the sunny window-sill. His book, by his rapt attention, must deal with far-off islands and with waving cocoanut trees. Lately I have observed that a yellow drink is brought to him in the afternoon—a delicious blend of eggs and milk—and by the zest with which he licks the remainder from his lips, it is a prime favorite of his. In these last few days, however, I have seen the lad's nose flat and eager on the window, and I know that he is convalescent.
At another set of windows—now that the days are growing short and there is need of lights—I see in shadowgraph against the curtains an occasional domestic drama. Tonight, by the appearance of hurry and the shifting of garments, I surmise that there is preparation for a party. Presently, when the upstairs lights have disappeared, I shall see these folk below, issuing from their door in glossy raiment. My dear sir and madame, I wish you an agreeable dinner and—if your tooth resembles mine—ice-cream for dessert.
The window of a kitchen, also, is opposite, and I often look on savory messes as they ripen on the fire—a stirring with a long iron spoon. This spoon is of such unusual length that even if one supped with the devil (surely the fearful adage cannot apply to our quiet street) he might lift his food in safety from the common pot.
A good many stories lower there is a bit of roof that is set with wicker furniture and a row of gay plants along the gutter. Here every afternoon exactly at six—the roof being then in shadow—a man appears and reads his evening paper. Later his wife joins him and they eat their supper from a tray. They are sunk almost in a well of buildings which, like the hedge of a fairy garden, shuts them from all contact with the world. And here they sit when the tray has been removed. The twilight falls early at their level and, like cottagers in a valley, they watch the daylight that still gilds the peaks above them.
There is another of these out-of-door rooms above me on a higher building. From my lower level I can see the bright canvas and the side of the trellis that supports it. Here, doubtless, in the cool breeze of these summer evenings, honest folk sip their coffee and watch the lights start across the city.
Thus, all around, I have glimpses of my neighbors—a form against the curtains—a group, in the season, around the fire—the week's darning in a rocker—an early nose sniffing at the open window the morning airs.
But it is these roofs themselves that are the general prospect.
Close at hand are graveled surfaces with spouts and whirling vents and chimneys. Here are posts and lines for washing, and a scuttle from which once a week a laundress pops her head. Although her coming is timed to the very hour—almost to the minute—yet when the scuttle stirs it is with an appearance of mystery, as if one of the forty thieves were below, boosting at the rocks that guard his cave. But the laundress is of so unromantic and jouncing a figure that I abandon the fancy when no more than her shoulders are above the scuttle. She is, however, an amiable creature and, if the wind is right, I hear her singing at her task. When clothespins fill her mouth, she experiments with popular tunes. One of these wooden bipeds once slipped inside and nearly strangled her.
In the distance, on the taller buildings, water tanks are lifted against the sky. They are perched aloft on three fingers, as it were, as if the buildings were just won to prohibition and held up their water cups in the first excitement of a novice to pledge the cause. Let hard liquor crouch and tremble in its rathskeller below the sidewalk! In the basement let musty kegs roll and gurgle with hopeless fear! Der Tag! The roof, the triumphant roof, has gone dry.
This range of buildings with water tanks and towers stops my gaze to the North. There is a crowded world beyond—rolling valleys of humanity—the heights of Harlem—but although my windows stand on tiptoe, they may not discover these distant scenes.
On summer days these roofs burn in the sun and spirals of heat arise. Tar flows from the joints in the tin. Tar and the adder—is it not a bright day that brings them forth? Now washing hangs limp upon the line. There is no frisk in undergarments. These stockings that hang shriveled and anaemic—can it be possible that they once trotted to a lively tune, or that a lifted skirt upon a crosswalk drew the eye? The very spouts and chimneys droop in the heavy sunlight. All the spinning vents are still. On these roofs, as on a steaming altar, August celebrates its hot midsummer rites.
But in winter, when the wind is up, the roofs show another aspect. The storm, in frayed and cloudy garment, now plunges across the city. It snaps its boisterous fingers. It pipes a song to summon rowdy companions off the sea. The whirling vents hum shrilly to the tune. And the tempests are roused, and the windy creatures of the hills make answer. The towers—even the nearer buildings—are obscured. The sky is gray with rain. Smoke is torn from the chimneys. Down below let a fire be snug upon the hearth and let warm folk sit and toast their feet! Let shadows romp upon the walls! Let the andirons wink at the sleepy cat! Cream or lemon, two lumps or one. Here aloft is brisker business. There is storm upon the roof. The tempest holds a carnival. And the winds pounce upon the smoke as it issues from the chimney-pots and wring it by the neck as they bear it off.
And sometimes it seems that these roofs represent youth, and its purpose, its ambition and adventure. For, from of old, have not poets lived in garrets? And are not all poets young even if their beards are white? Round and round the poet climbs, up these bare creaking flights to the very top. There is a stove to be lighted—unless the woodbox fails—a sloping ceiling and a window huddled to the floor. The poet's fingers may be numb. Although the inkpot be full, his stomach may be empty. And yet from this window, lately, a poem was cast upward to the moon. And youth and truth still rhyme in these upper rooms. Linda's voice is still the music of a sonnet. Still do the roses fade, and love is always like the constant stars. And once, this!—surely from a garret:
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face, Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, And think that I may never live to trace Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance—
Poor starved wretches are we who live softly in the lower stories, although we are fat of body.
If a mighty pair of shears were to clip the city somewhere below these windy gutters would there not be a dearth of poems in the spring? Who then would be left to note the changing colors of the twilight and the peaceful transit of the stars? Would gray beech trees in the winter find a voice? Would there still be a song of water and of wind? Who would catch the rhythm of the waves and the wheat fields in the breeze? What lilts and melodies would vanish from the world! How stale and flat the city without its roofs!
But it is at night that these roofs show best. Then, as below a philosopher in his tower, the city spreads its web of streets, and its lights gleam in answer to the lights above. Galileo in his tower—Teufelsdroeckh at his far-seeing attic window—saw this glistening pageantry and had thoughts unutterable.
In this darkness these roofs are the true suburb of the world—the outpost—the pleasant edge of our human earth turned up toward the barren moon. Chimneys stand as sentinels on the border of the sky. Pointed towers mark the passage of the stars. Great buildings are the cliffs on the shores of night. A skylight shows as a pleasant signal to guide the wandering skipper of the moon.
The Quest of the Lost Digamma.
Many years ago there was a club of college undergraduates which called itself the Lost Digamma. The digamma, I am informed, is a letter that was lost in prehistoric times from the Greek alphabet. A prudent alphabet would have offered a reward at once and would have beaten up the bushes all about, but evidently these remedies were neglected. As the years went on the other letters gradually assumed its duties. The philological chores, so to speak, night and morning, that had once fallen to the digamma, they took upon themselves, until the very name of the letter was all but lost.
Those who are practiced in such matters—humped men who blink with learning—claim to discover evidence of the letter now and then in their reading. Perhaps the missing letter still gives a false quantity to a vowel or shifts an accent. It is remembered, as it were, by its vacant chair. Or rather, like a ghost it haunts a word, rattling a warning lest we disarrange a syllable. Its absence, however, in the flesh, despite the lapse of time—for it went off long ago when the mastodon still wandered on the pleasant upland—its continued absence vexes the learned. They scan ancient texts for an improper syllable and mark the time upon their brown old fingers, if possibly a jolting measure may offer them a clue. Although it must appear that the digamma—if it yet rambles alive somewhere beneath the moon—has by this time grown a beard and is lost beyond recognition, still old gentlemen meet weekly and read papers to one another on the progress of the search. Like the old woman of the story they still keep a light burning in their study windows against the wanderer's return.
Now it happened once that a group of undergraduates, stirred to sympathy beyond the common usage of the classroom, formed themselves into a club to aid in the search. It is not recorded that they were the deepest students in the class, yet mark their zeal! On a rumor arising from the chairman that the presence of the lost digamma was suspected the group rushed together of an evening, for there was an instinct that the digamma, like the raccoon, was easiest trapped at night. To stay their stomachs against a protracted search, for their colloquies sat late, they ordered a plentiful dinner to be placed before them. Also, on the happy chance that success might crown the night, a row of stout Tobies was set upon the board. If the prodigal lurked without and his vagrant nose were seen at last upon the window, then musty liquor, from a Toby's three-cornered hat, would be a fitting pledge for his return.
I do not know to a certainty the place of these meetings, but I choose to fancy that it was an upper room in a modest restaurant that went by the name of Mory's—not the modern Mory's that affects the manners of a club, but the original Temple Bar, remembered justly for its brown ale and golden bucks.
There was, of course, a choice of places where the Lost Digamma might have pushed its search. Waiving Billy's and the meaner joints conferred on freshmen, there was, to be sure, the scholastic murk of Traeger's—one room especially at the rear with steins around the walls. There was Heublein's, also. Even the Tontine might rouse a student. But I choose to consider that Mory's was the place.
Never elsewhere has cheese sputtered on toast with such hot delight. Never have such fair round eggs perched upon the top. The hen who laid the golden egg—for it could be none other than she who worked the miracle at Mory's—must have clucked like a braggart when the smoking dish came in. The dullest nose, even if it had drowsed like a Stoic through the day, perked and quivered when the breath came off the kitchen. Ears that before had never wiggled to the loudest noise came flapping forward when the door was opened. Or maybe in those days your wealth, huddled closely through the week, stretched on Saturday night to a mutton chop with bacon on the side. This chop, named of the southern downs, was so big that it curled like an anchovy to get upon the plate. The sheep that bore it across the grassy moors must have out-topped the horse. The hills must have shaken beneath his tread. With what eagerness you squared your lean elbows for the feast, with knife and fork turned upwards in your fists!
But chops in these modern days are retrograde. Sheep have fallen to a decadent race. Cheese has lost its cunning. Someone, alas, as the story says, has killed the hen that laid the golden egg. Mory's is sunk and gone. Its faded prints of the Old Brick Row, its tables carved with students' names, its brown Tobies in their three-cornered hats, the brasses of the tiny bar, the rickety rooms themselves—these rise from the past like genial ghosts and beckon us toward pleasant memories.
Such was the zeal in those older days which the members of the Lost Digamma spent upon their quest that belated pedestrians—if the legend of the district be believed—have stopped upon the curb and have inquired the meaning of the glad shouts that issued from the upper windows, and they have gone off marveling at the enthusiasm attendant on this high endeavor. It is rumored that once when the excitement of the chase had gone to an unusual height and the students were beating their Tobies on the table, one of them, a fellow of uncommon ardor, lunging forward from his chair, got salt upon the creature's tail. The exploit overturned the table and so rocked the house that Louis, who was the guardian of the place, put his nose above the stairs and cooled the meeting. Had it not been for his interference—he was a good-natured fellow but unacquainted with the frenzy that marks the scholar—the lost digamma might have been trapped, to the lasting glory of the college.
As to the further progress of the club I am not informed. Doubtless it ran an honorable course and passed on from class to class the tradition of its high ambition, but never again was the lost digamma so nearly in its grasp. If it still meets upon its midnight labors, a toothless member boasts of that night of its topmost glory, and those who have gathered to his words rap their stale unprofitable mugs upon the table.
It would be unjust to assume that you are so poor a student as myself. Doubtless you are a scholar and can discourse deeply of the older centuries. You know the ancient works of Tweedledum and can distinguish to a hair's breadth 'twixt him and Tweedledee. Learning is candy on your tooth. Perhaps you stroke your sagacious beard and give a nimble reason for the lightning. To you the hills have whispered how they came, and the streams their purpose and ambition. You have studied the first shrinkage of the earth when the plains wrinkled and broke into mountain peaks. The mystery of the stars is to you as familiar as your garter. If such depth is yours, I am content to sit before you like a bucket below a tap.
At your banquet I sit as a poor relation. If the viands hold, I fork a cold morsel from your dish....
But modesty must not gag me. I do myself somewhat lean towards knowledge. I run to a dictionary on a disputed word, and I point my inquiring nose upon the page like a careful schoolman. On a spurt I pry into an uncertain date, but I lack the perseverance and the wakefulness for sustained endeavor. To repair my infirmity, I frequently go among those of steadier application, if haply their devotion may prove contagious. It was but lately that I dined with a group of the Cognoscenti. There were light words at first, as when a juggler carelessly tosses up a ball or two just to try his hand before he displays his genius—a jest or two, into which I entered as an equal. In these shallow moments we waded through our soup. But we had hardly got beyond the fish when the company plunged into greater depth. I soon discovered that I was among persons skilled in those economic and social studies that now most stir us. My neighbor on the left offered to gossip with me on the latest evaluations and eventuations—for such were her pleasing words—in the department of knowledge dearest to her. While I was still fumbling for a response, my neighbor on the right, abandoning her meat, informed me of the progress of a survey of charitable organizations that was then under way. By mischance, however, while flipping up the salad on my fork, I dropped a morsel on the cloth, and I was so intent in manoeuvring my plates and spoons to cover up the speck, that I lost a good part of her improving discourse.
I was still, however, making a tolerable pretense of attention, when a learned person across the table was sharp enough to see that I was a novice in the gathering. For my improvement, therefore, he fixed his great round glasses in my direction. In my confusion they seemed burning lenses hotly focused on me. Under such a glare, he thought, my tender sprouts of knowledge must spring up to full blossom.
When he had my attention, he proceeded to lay out the dinner into calories, which I now discovered to be a kind of heat or nutritive unit. He cast his appraisal on the meat and vegetables, and turned an ear toward the pantry door if by chance he might catch a hint of the dessert for his estimate, but by this time, being overwrought, I gave up all pretense, and put my coarse attention on my plate.
Sometimes I fall on better luck. It was but yesterday that I sat waiting for a book in the Public Library, when a young woman came and sat beside me on the common bench. Immediately she opened a monstrous note-book, and fell to studying it. I had myself been reading, but I had held my book at a stingy angle against the spying of my neighbors. As the young woman was of a more open nature, she laid hers out flat. It is my weakness to pry upon another's book. Especially if it is old and worn—a musty history or an essay from the past—I squirm and edge myself until I can follow the reader's thumb.
At the top of each page she had written the title of a book, with a space below for comment, now well filled. There were a hundred of these titles, and all of them concerned John Paul Jones. She busied herself scratching and amending her notes. The whole was thrown into such a snarl of interlineation, was so disfigured with revision, and the writing so started up the margins to get breath at the top, that I wondered how she could possibly bring a straight narrative out of the confusion. Yet here was a book growing up beneath my very nose. If in a year's time—or perhaps in a six-month, if the manuscript is not hawked too long among publishers—if when again the nights are raw, a new biography of John Paul Jones appears, and you cut its leaves while your legs are stretched upon the hearth, I bid you to recognize as its author my companion on the bench. Although she did not have beauty to rouse a bachelor, yet she had an agreeable face and, if a soft white collar of pleasing fashion be evidence, she put more than a scholar's care upon her dress.
I am not entirely a novice in a library. Once I gained admittance to the Reading Room of the British Museum—no light task even before the war. This was the manner of it. First, I went among the policemen who frequent the outer corridors, and inquired for a certain office which I had been told controlled its affairs. The third policeman had heard of it and sent me off with directions. Presently I went through an obscure doorway, traversed a mean hall with a dirty gas-jet at the turn and came before a wicket. A dark man with the blood of a Spanish inquisitor asked my business. I told him I was a poor student, without taint or heresy, who sought knowledge. He stroked his chin as though it were a monstrous improbability. He looked me up and down, but this might have been merely a secular inquiry on the chance that I carried explosives. He then dipped his pen in an ancient well (it was from such a dusty fount that the warrant for Saint Bartholomew went forth), then bidding me be careful in my answers, he cocked his head and shut his less suspicious eye lest it yield to mercy.
He asked my name in full, middle name and all—as though villainy might lurk in an initial—my hotel, my length of stay in London, my residence in America, my occupation, the titles of the books I sought. When he had done, I offered him my age and my weakness for French pastry, in order that material for a monograph might be at hand if at last I came to fame, but he silenced me with his cold eye. He now thrust a pamphlet in my hands, and told me to sit alongside and read it. It contained the rules that govern the use of the Reading Room. It was eight pages long, and intolerably dry, and towards the end I nodded. Awaking with a start, I was about to hold up my hands for the adjustment of the thumb screws—for I had fallen on a nightmare—when he softened. The Imperial Government was now pleased to admit me to the Reading Room for such knowledge as might lie in my capacity.
The Reading Room is used chiefly by authors, gray fellows mostly, dried and wrinkled scholars who come here to pilfer innocently from antiquity. Among these musty memorial shelves, if anywhere, it would seem that the dusty padding feet of the lost digamma might be heard. In this room, perhaps, Christian Mentzelius was at work when he heard the book-worm flap its wings.
Here sit the scholars at great desks with ingenious shelves and racks, and they write all day and copy excerpts from the older authors. If one of them hesitates and seems to chew upon his pencil, it is but indecision whether Hume or Buckle will weigh heavier on his page. Or if one of them looks up from his desk in a blurred near-sighted manner, it is because his eyes have been so stretched upon the distant centuries, that they can hardly focus on a room. If a scholar chances to sneeze because of the infection, let it be his consolation that the dust arises from the most ancient and respected authors! Pages move silently about with tall dingy tomes in their arms. Other tomes, whose use is past, they bear off to the shades below.
I am told that once in a long time a student of fresher complexion gets in—a novitiate with the first scholastic down upon his cheek—a tender stripling on his first high quest—a broth of a boy barely off his primer—but no sooner is he set than he feels unpleasantly conspicuous among his elders. Most of these youth bolt, offering to the doorman as a pretext some neglect—a forgotten mission at a book-stall—an errand with a tailor. Even those few who remain because of the greater passion for their studies, find it to their comfort to break their condition. Either they put on glasses or they affect a limp. I know one persistent youth who was so consumed with desire for history, yet so modest against exposure, that he bargained with a beggar for his crutch. It was, however, the rascal's only livelihood. This crutch and his piteous whimper had worked so profitably on the crowd that, in consequence, its price fell beyond the student's purse. My friend, therefore, practiced a palsy until, being perfect in the part, he could take his seat without notice or embarrassment. Alas, the need of these pretenses is short. Such is the contagion of the place—a breath from Egypt comes up from the lower stacks—that a youth's appearance, like a dyer's hand, is soon subdued to what it works in. In a month or so a general dust has settled on him. Too often learning is a Rip Van Winkle's flagon.
On a rare occasion I have myself been a student, and have plied my book with diligence. Not long ago I spent a week of agreeable days reading the many versions of Shakespeare that were played from the Restoration through the eighteenth century. They are well known to scholars, but the general reader is perhaps unfamiliar how Shakespeare was perverted. From this material I thought that I might lay out an instructive paper; how, for example, the whirling passion of Lear was once wrought to soft and pleasant uses for a holiday. Cordelia is rescued from the villains by the hero Kent, who cries out in a transport, "Come to my arms, thou loveliest, best of women!" The scene is laid in the woods, but as night comes on, Cordelia's old nurse appears. A scandal is averted. Whereupon Kent marries Cordelia, and they reign happily ever afterward. As for Lear, he advances into a gentle convalescence. Before the week is out he will be sunning himself on the bench beneath his pear tree and babbling of his early days.
There were extra witches in Macbeth. Romeo and Juliet lived and the quarreling families were united. Desdemona remained un-smothered to the end. There was one stout author—but here I trust to memory—who even attempted to rescue Hamlet and to substitute for the distant rolling of the drum of Fortinbras, the pipes and timbrels of his happy wedding. There is yet to be made a lively paper of these Shakespeare tinkers of the eighteenth century.
And then John Timbs was to have been my text, who was an antiquary of the nineteenth century. I had come frequently on his books. They are seldom found in first-hand shops. More appropriately they are offered where the older books are sold—where there are racks before the door for the rakings of the place, and inside an ancient smell of leather. If there are barrels in the basement, stocked and overflowing, it is sure that a volume of Timbs is upon the premises.
I visited the Public Library and asked a sharp-nosed person how I might best learn about John Timbs. I followed the direction of his wagging thumb. The accounts of the encyclopedias are meager, a date of birth and of death, a few facts of residence, the titles of his hundred and fifty books, and little more. Some neglect him entirely; skipping lightly from Timbrel to Timbuctoo. Indeed, Timbuctoo turned up so often that even against my intention I came to a knowledge of the place. It lies against the desert and exports ostrich feathers, gums, salts and kola-nuts. Nor are timbrels to be scorned. They were used—I quote precisely—"by David when he danced before the ark." Surely not Noah's ark! I must brush up on David.
Timbs is matter for an engaging paper. His passion was London. He had a fling at other subjects—a dozen books or so—but his graver hours were given to the study of London. There is hardly a park or square or street, palace, theatre or tavern that did not yield its secret to him. Here and there an upstart building, too new for legend, may have had no gossip for him, but all others John Timbs knew, and the personages who lived in them. And he knew whether they were of sour temper, whether they were rich or poor, and if poor, what shifts and pretenses they practiced. He knew the windows of the town where the beaux commonly ogled the passing beauties. He knew the chatter of the theatres and of society. He traced the walls of the old city, and explored the lanes. Unless I am much mistaken, there is not a fellow of the Dunciad to whom he has not assigned a house. Nor is any man of deeper knowledge of the clubs and coffee-houses and taverns. One would say that he had sat at Will's with Dryden, and that he had gone to Button's arm in arm with Addison. Did Goldsmith journey to his tailor for a plum-colored suit, you may be sure that Timbs tagged him at the elbow. If Sam Johnson sat at the Mitre or Marlowe caroused in Deptford, Timbs was of the company. There has scarcely been a play acted in London since the days of Burbage which Timbs did not chronicle.
But presently I gave up the study of John Timbs. Although I had accumulated interesting facts about him, and had got so far as to lay out several amusing paragraphs, still I could not fit them together to an agreeable result. It was as though I could blow a melodious C upon a horn, and lower down, after preparation, a dulcet G, but failed to make a tune of them.
But although my studies so far have been unsuccessful, doubtless I shall persist. Even now I have several topics in mind that may yet serve for pleasant papers. If I fail, it will be my comfort that others far better than myself achieve but a half success. Although the digamma escapes our salt, somewhere he lurks on the lonely mountains. And often when our lamps burn late, we fancy that we catch a waving of his tail and hear him padding across the night. But although we lash ourselves upon the chase and strain forward in the dark, the timid beast runs on swifter feet and scampers off.
On a Rainy Morning.
A northeaster blew up last night and this morning we are lashed by wind and rain. M—— foretold the change yesterday when we rode upon a 'bus top at nightfall. It was then pleasant enough and to my eye all was right aloft. I am not, however, weather-wise. I must feel the first patter of the storm before I hazard a judgment. To learn even the quarter of a breeze—unless there is a trail of smoke to guide me—I must hold up a wet finger. In my ignorance clouds sail across the heavens on a whim. Like white sheep they wander here and there for forage, and my suspicion of bad weather comes only when the tempest has whipped them to a gallop. Even a band around the moon—which I am told is primary instruction on the coming of a storm—stirs me chiefly by its deeper mystery, as if astrology, come in from the distant stars, lifts here a warning finger. But M—— was brought up beside the sea, and she has a sailor's instinct for the weather. At the first preliminary shifting of the heavens, too slight for my coarser senses, she will tilt her nose and look around, then pronounce the coming of a storm. To her, therefore, I leave all questions of umbrellas and raincoats, and on her decision we go abroad.
Last night when I awoke I knew that her prophecy was right again, for the rain was blowing in my face and slashing on the upper window. The wind, too, was whistling along the roofs, with a try at chimney-pots and spouts. It was the wolf in the fairy story who said he'd huff and he'd puff, and he'd blow in the house where the little pig lived; yet tonight his humor was less savage. Down below I heard ash-cans toppling over all along the street and rolling to the gutters. It lacks a few nights of Hallowe'en, but doubtless the wind's calendar is awry and he is out already with his mischief. When a window rattles at this season, it is the tick-tack of his roguish finger. If a chimney is overthrown, it is his jest. Tomorrow we shall find a broken shutter as his rowdy celebration of the night.
This morning is by general agreement a nasty day. I am not sure that I assent. If I were the old woman at the corner who sells newspapers from a stand, I would not like the weather, for the pent roof drops water on her stock. Scarcely is the peppermint safe beyond the splatter. Nor is it, I fancy, a profitable day for a street-organ man, who requires a sunny morning with open windows for a rush of business. Nor is there any good reason why a house-painter should be delighted with this blustering sky, unless he is an idle fellow who seeks an excuse to lie in bed. But except in sympathy, why is our elevator boy so fiercely disposed against the weather? His cage is snug as long as the skylight holds. And why should the warm dry noses of the city, pressed against ten thousand windows up and down the streets, be flat and sour this morning with disapproval?
It may savor of bravado to find pleasure in what is so commonly condemned. Here is a smart fellow, you may say, who sets up a paradox—a conceited braggart who professes a difference to mankind. Or worse, it may appear that I try my hand at writing in a "happy vein." God forbid that I should be such a villain! For I once knew a man who, by reading these happy books, fell into pessimism and a sharp decline. He had wasted to a peevish shadow and had taken to his bed before his physician discovered the seat of his anaemia. It was only by cutting the evil dose, chapter by chapter, that he finally restored him to his friends. Yet neither supposition of my case is true. We who enjoy wet and windy days are of a considerable number, and if our voices are seldom heard in public dispute, it is because we are overcome by the growling majority. You may know us, however, by our stout boots, the kind of battered hats we wear, and our disregard of puddles. To our eyes alone, the rain swirls along the pavements like the mad rush of sixteenth notes upon a music staff. And to our ears alone, the wind sings the rattling tune recorded.
Certainly there is more comedy on the streets on a wet and windy day than there is under a fair sky. Thin folk hold on at corners. Fat folk waddle before the wind, their racing elbows wing and wing. Hats are whisked off and sail down the gutters on excited purposes of their own. It was only this morning that I saw an artistocratic silk hat bobbing along the pavement in familiar company with a stranger bonnet—surely a misalliance, for the bonnet was a shabby one. But in the wind, despite the difference of social station, an instant affinity had been established and an elopement was under way.
Persons with umbrellas clamp them down close upon their heads and proceed blindly like the larger and more reckless crabs that you see in aquariums. Nor can we know until now what spirit for adventure resides in an umbrella. Hitherto it has stood in a Chinese vase beneath the stairs and has seemed a listless creature. But when a November wind is up it is a cousin of the balloon, with an equal zest to explore the wider precincts of the earth and to alight upon the moon. Only persons of heavier ballast—such as have been fed on sweets—plump pancake persons—can hold now an umbrella to the ground. A long stowage of muffins and sugar is the only anchor.
At this moment beneath my window there is a dear little girl who brings home a package from the grocer's. She is tugged and blown by her umbrella, and at every puff of wind she goes up on tiptoe. If I were writing a fairy tale I would make her the Princess of my plot, and I would transport her underneath her umbrella in this whisking wind to her far adventures, just as Davy sailed off to the land of Goblins inside his grandfather's clock. She would be carried over seas, until she could sniff the spice winds of the south. Then she would be set down in the orchard of the Golden Prince, who presently would spy her from his window—a mite of a pretty girl, all mussed and blown about. And then I would spin out the tale to its true and happy end, and they would live together ever after. How she labors at the turn, hugging her paper bag and holding her flying skirts against her knees! An umbrella, however, usually turns inside out before it gets you off the pavement, and then it looks like a wrecked Zeppelin. You put it in the first ash-can, and walk off in an attempt not to be conspicuous.
Although the man who pursues his hat is, in some sort, conscious that he plays a comic part, and although there is a pleasing relish on the curb at his discomfort, yet it must not be assumed that all the humor on the street rises from misadventure. Rather, it arises from a general acceptance of the day and a feeling of common partnership in the storm. The policeman in his rubber coat exchanges banter with a cab-driver. If there is a tangle in the traffic, it comes nearer to a jest than on a fairer day. A teamster sitting dry inside his hood, whistles so cheerily that he can be heard at the farther sidewalk. Good-naturedly he sets his tune as a rival to the wind.
It must be that only good-tempered persons are abroad—those whose humor endures and likes the storm—and that when the swift dark clouds drove across the world, all sullen folk scurried for a roof. And is it not wise, now and then, that folk be thus parceled with their kind? Must we wait for Gabriel's Trump for our division? I have been told—but the story seems incredible—that that seemingly cursed thing, the Customs' Wharf, was established not so much for our nation's profit as in acceptance of some such general theory—in a word, that all sour persons might be housed together for their employment and society be rid of them. It is by an extension of this obscure but beneficent division that only those of better nature go abroad on these blustering November days.
There are many persons, of course, who like summer rains and boast of their liking. This is nothing. One might as well boast of his appetite for toasted cheese. Does one pin himself with badges if he plies an enthusiastic spoon in an ice-cream dish? Or was the love of sack ever a virtue, and has Falstaff become a saint? If he now sing in the Upper Choir, the bench must sag. But persons of this turn of argument make a point of their willingness to walk out in a June rain. They think it a merit to go tripping across the damp grass to inspect their gardens. Toasted cheese! Of course they like it. Who could help it? This is no proof of merit. Such folk, at best, are but sisters in the brotherhood.
And yet a November rain is but an August rain that has grown a beard and taken on the stalwart manners of the world. And the November wind, which piped madrigals in June and lazy melodies all the summer, has done no more than learn brisker braver tunes to befit the coming winter. If the wind tugs at your coat-tails, it only seeks a companion for its games. It goes forth whistling for honest celebration, and who shall begrudge it here and there a chimney if it topple it in sport?
Despite this, rainy weather has a bad name. So general is its evil reputation that from of old one of the lowest circles of Hell has been plagued with raw winds and covered thick with ooze—a testament to our northern March—and in this villains were set shivering to their chins. But the beginning of the distaste for rainy weather may be traced to Noah. Certain it is that toward the end of his cruise, when the passengers were already chafing with the animals—the kangaroos, in particular, it is said, played leap-frog in the hold and disturbed the skipper's sleep—certain it is while the heavens were still overcast that Noah each morning put his head anxiously up through the forward hatch for a change of sky. There was rejoicing from stem to stern—so runs the legend—when at last his old white beard, shifting from west to east, gave promise of a clearing wind. But from that day to this, as is natural, there has persisted a stout prejudice against wind and rain.
But this is not just. If a rainy day lacks sunshine, it has vigor for a substitute. The wind whistles briskly among the chimney tops. There is so much life on wet and windy days. Yesterday Nature yawned, but today she is wide awake. Yesterday the earth seemed lolling idly in the heavens. It was a time of celestial vacation and all the suns and moons were vacant of their usual purpose. But today the earth whirls and spins through space. Her gray cloud cap is pulled down across her nose and she leans in her hurry against the storm. The heavens have piped the planets to their work.
Yesterday the smoke of chimneys drifted up with tired content from lazy roofs, but today the smoke is stretched and torn like a triumphant banner of the storm.
I dreamed last night a fearful dream and this morning even the familiar contact of the subway has been unable to shake it from me.
I know of few things that are so momentarily tragical as awakening from a frightful dream. Even if you know with returning consciousness that it was a dream, it seems as if a part of it must have a basis in fact. The death that was recorded—is it true or not? And in your mind you grope among the familiar landmarks of your recollection to discover where the true and the fictitious join.
But this dream of last night was so vivid that this morning I cannot shake it from me.
I dreamed—ridiculously enough—that the whole world was at war, and that big and little nations were fighting.
In my dream the round earth hung before me against the background of the night, and red flames shot from every part.
I heard cries of anguish—men blinded by gases and crazed by suffering. I saw women dressed in black—a long procession stretching hideously from mist to mist—walking with erect heads, dry-eyed, for grief had starved them of tears. I saw ships sinking and a thousand arms raised for a moment above the waves. I saw children lying dead among their toys.
And I saw boys throw down their books and tools and go off with glad cries, and men I saw, grown gray with despair, staggering under heavy weights.
There were millions of dead upon the earth that hung before me, and I smelled the battlefield.
And I beheld one man—one hundred men—secure in an outlawed country—who looked from far windows—men bitter with disappointment—men who blasphemed of God, while their victims rotted in Flanders.
And in my dream it seemed that I did not have a sword, but that I, too, looked upon the battle from a place where there were no flames. I ran little errands for the war.
* * * * *
There is the familiar window—that dull outline across the room. Here is the accustomed door. The bed is set between. It was but a dream after all. And yet how it has shaken me!
Of course the dream was absurd. No man—no nation certainly—could be so mad. The whole whirling earth could not burn with fire. Until the final trumpet, no such calamity is possible. Thank God, it was but a dream, and I can continue today my peaceful occupation.
Calico, I'm told, is going up. I must protect our contracts.
On Going Afoot.
There is a tale that somewhere in the world there is a merry river that dances as often as it hears sweet music. The tale is not precise whether this river is neighbor to us or is a stream of the older world. "It dances at the noise of musick," so runs the legend, "for with musick it bubbles, dances and grows sandy." This tale may be the conceit of one of those older poets whose verses celebrate the morning and the freshness of the earth—Thomas Heywood could have written it or even the least of those poets who sat their evenings at the Mermaid—or the tale may arise more remotely from an old worship of the god Pan, who is said to have piped along the streams. I offer my credence to the earlier origin as the more pleasing. And therefore on a country walk I observe the streams if by chance any of them shall fit the tale. Not yet have I seen Pan puffing his cheeks with melody on a streamside bank—by ill luck I squint short-sightedly—but I often hear melodies of such woodsy composition that surely they must issue from his pipe. The stream leaps gaily across the shallows that glitter with sunlight, and I am tempted to the agreeable suspicion that I have hit upon the very stream of the legend and that the god Pan sits hard by in the thicket and beats his shaggy hoof in rhythm. It is his song that the wind sings in the trees. If a bird sings in the meadow its tune is pitched to Pan's reedy obligato.
Whether or not this is true, I confess to a love of a stream. This may be merely an anaemic love of beauty, such as is commonly bred in townsfolk on a holiday, or it may descend from braver ancestors who once were anglers and played truant with hook and line. You may recall that the milk-women of Kent told Piscator when he came at the end of his day's fishing to beg a cup of red cow's milk, that anglers were "honest, civil, quiet men." I have, also, a habit of contemplation, which I am told is proper to an angler. I can lean longer than most across the railing of a country bridge if the water runs noisily on the stones. If I chance to come off a dusty road—unless hunger stirs me to an inn—I can listen for an hour, for of all sounds it is the most musical. When earth and air and water play in concert, which are the master musicians this side of the moon, surely their harmony rises above the music of the stars.
In a more familiar mood I throw stepping stones in the water to hear them splash, or I cram them in a dam to thwart the purpose of the stream, laying ever a higher stone when the water laps the top. I scoop out the sand and stones as if a mighty shipping begged for passage. Or I rest from this prodigious engineering upon my back and watch the white traffic of the clouds across the summer sky. The roots of an antique oak peep upon the flood as in the golden days of Arden. Apple blossoms fall upon the water like the snow of a more kindly winter. A gay leaf puts out upon the channel like a painted galleon for far adventure. A twig sails off freighted with my drowsy thoughts. A branch of a willow dips in the stream and writes an endless trail of words in the running water. In these evil days when the whole fair world is trenched and bruised with war, what wisdom does it send to the valleys where men reside—what love and peace and gentleness—what promise of better days to come—that it makes this eternal stream its messenger!
And yet a stream is best if it is but an incident in travel—if it break the dusty afternoon and send one off refreshed. Rather than a place for fishing it invites one to bathe his feet. There are, indeed, persons so careful of their health as to assert that cold water endangers blisters. Theirs is a prudence to be neglected. Such persons had better leave their feet at home safely slippered on the fender. If one's feet go upon a holiday, is it fair that for fear of consequence they be kept housed in their shoes? Shall the toes sit inside their battered caravans while the legs and arms frisk outside? Is there such torture in a blister—even if the prevention be sure—to outweigh the pleasure of cold water running across the ankles?
It was but lately that I followed a road that lay off the general travel through a pleasant country of hills and streams. As the road was not a thoroughfare and journeyed no farther than the near-by town where I was to get my supper, it went at a lazy winding pace. If a dog barked it was in sleepy fashion. He yelped merely to check his loneliness. There could be no venom on his drowsy tooth. The very cows that fed along its fences were of a slower breed and more contemplative whisk of tail than are found upon the thoroughfares. Sheep patched the fields with gray and followed their sleepy banquet across the hills.
The country was laid out with farms—orchards and soft fields of grain that waved like a golden lake—but there were few farmhouses. In all the afternoon I passed but one person, a deaf man who asked for direction. When I cried out that I was a stranger, he held his hand to his ear, but his mouth fell open as if my words, denied by deafness from a proper portal, were offered here a service entrance. I spread my map before him and he put an ample thumb upon it. Then inquiring whether I had crossed a road with a red house upon it where his friend resided, he thanked me and walked off with such speed as his years had left him. Birds sang delightfully on the fences and in the field, yet I knew not their names. Shall one not enjoy a symphony without precise knowledge of the instrument that gives the tune? If an oboe sound a melody, must one bestow a special praise, with a knowledge of its function in the concert? Or if a trombone please, must one know the brassy creature by its name? Rather, whether I listen to horns or birds, in my ignorance I bestow loosely a general approbation; yet is the song sweet.
All afternoon I walked with the sound of wind and water in my ears, and at night, when I had gained my journey's end and lay in bed, I heard beneath my window in the garden the music of a little runnel that was like a faint and pleasant echo of my hillside walk. I fell asleep to its soothing sound and its trickle made a pattern across my dreams.
But perhaps you yourself, my dear sir, are addicted to these country walks, either for an afternoon or for a week's duration with a rucksack strapped across your back. If denied the longer outing, I hope that at least it is your custom to go forth upon a holiday to look upon the larger earth. Where the road most winds and dips and the distance is of the finer purple, let that direction be your choice! Seek out the region of the hills! Outposts and valleys here, with smoke of suppers rising. Trains are so small that a child might draw them with a string. Far-off hills are tumbled and in confusion, as if a giant were roused and had flung his rumpled cloak upon the plain.
Or if a road and a stream seem close companions, tag along with them! Like three cronies you may work the countryside together! There are old mills with dams and mossy water wheels, and rumbling covered bridges.
But chiefly I beg that you wander out at random without too precise knowledge of where you go or where you shall get your supper. If you are of a cautious nature, as springs from a delicate stomach or too sheltered life, you may stuff a bar of chocolate in your pocket. Or an apple—if you shift your other ballast—will not sag you beyond locomotion. I have known persons who prize a tomato as offering both food and drink, yet it is too likely to be damaged and squirt inside the pocket if you rub against a tree. Instead, the cucumber is to be commended for its coolness, and a pickle is a sour refreshment that should be nibbled in turn against the chocolate.
Food oftentimes is to be got upon the way. There is a kind of cocoanut bar, flat and corrugated, that may be had at most crossroads. I no longer consider these a delicacy, but in my memory I see a boy bargaining for them at the counter. They are counted into his dirty palm. He stuffs a whole one in his mouth, from ear to ear. His bicycle leans against the trough outside. He mounts, wabbling from side to side to reach the pedals. Before him lie the mountains of the world.
Nor shall I complain if you hold roughly in your mind, subject to a whim's reversal, an evening destination to check your hunger. But do not bend your circuit back to the noisy city! Let your march end at the inn of a country town! If it is but a station on your journey and you continue on the morrow, let there be an ample porch and a rail to rest your feet! Here you may sit in the comfortable twilight when crammed with food and observe the town's small traffic. Country folk come about, if you are of easy address, and engage you on their crops. The village prophet strokes his wise beard at your request and, squinting at the sky, foretells a storm. Or if the night is cold, a fire is laid inside and a wrinkled board for the conduct of the war debates upon the hearth. But so far as your infirmity permits, go forth at random with a spirit for adventure! If the prospect pleases you as the train slows down for the platform, cast a penny on your knee and abide its fall!
Or if on principle you abhor a choice that is made wickedly on the falling of a coin, let an irrelevant circumstance direct your destination! I once walked outside of London, making my start at Dorking for no other reason except that Sam Weller's mother-in-law had once lived there. You will recall how the elder Mr. Weller in the hour of his affliction discoursed on widows in the taproom of the Marquis of Granby when the funeral was done, and how later, being pestered with the Reverend Mr. Stiggins, he immersed him in the horse-trough to ease his grief. All through the town I looked for red-nosed men who might be descended from the reverend shepherd, and once when I passed a horse-trough of uncommon size I asked the merchant at the corner if it might not be the very place. I was met, however, by such a vacant stare—for the fellow was unlettered—that to rouse him I bought a cucumber from an open crate against the time of lunch, and I followed my pursuit further in the town. The cucumber was of monstrous length and thin. All about the town its end stuck out of my pocket inquisitively, as though it were a fellow traveler down from London to see the sights. But although I inquired for the Weller family, it seems that they were dead and gone. Even the Marquis of Granby had disappeared, with its room behind the bar where Mr. Stiggins drank pineapple rum with water, luke, from the kettle on the hob.
We left Dorking and walked all afternoon through a pleasant sunny country, up hill and down, to the town of Guildford. At four o'clock, to break the journey, we laid out our lunch of bread and cheese and cucumber, and rested for an hour. The place was a grassy bank along a road above a fertile valley where men were pitching hay. Their shouts were carried across the fields with an agreeable softness. Today, doubtless, women work in those fields.
On another occasion we walked from Maidstone to Rochester on pilgrimage to the inn where Alfred Jingle borrowed Mr. Winkle's coat to attend the Assembly, when he made love to the buxom widow. War had just been declared between Britain and Germany, and soldiers guarded the roads above the town. At a tea-room in the outskirts army officers ate at a neighboring table. Later, it is likely, they were in the retreat from Mons: for the expeditionary force crossed the channel within a week. Yet so does farce march along with tragedy that our chief concern in Rochester was the old inn where the ball was held.
A surly woman who sat behind the cashier's wicket fixed me with her eye. "Might we visit the ballroom?" I inquired. Evidently not, unless we were stopping at the house. "Madame," I said, "perhaps you are unaware that the immortal Mr. Pickwick once sojourned beneath your roof." There was no response. "The celebrated Mr. Pickwick, G. C. M. P. C.," I continued, "who was the discoverer of the sources of the Hampstead Ponds." At this—for my manner was impressive—she fumbled through the last few pages of her register and admitted that he might have been once a patron of the house, but that he had now paid his bill and gone.
I was about to question her about the poet Augustus Snodgrass, who had been with Mr. Pickwick on his travels, when a waiter, a humorous fellow with a vision of a sixpence, offered to be our guide. We climbed the stairs and came upon the ballroom. It was a small room. Three quadrilles must have stuffed it to the edge—a dingy place with bare windows on a deserted innyard. At one end was a balcony that would hold not more than three musicians. The candles of its former brightness have long since burned to socket. Vanished are "Sir Thomas Clubber, Lady Clubber and the Miss Clubbers!" Gone is the Honorable Wilmot Snipe and all the notables that once crowded it! Vanished is the punchbowl where the amorous Tracy Tupman drank too many cups of negus on that memorable night. I gave the dirty waiter a sixpence and came away.
I discourage the usual literary pilgrimage. Indeed, if there is a rumor that Milton died in a neighboring town, or a treaty of consequence was signed close by, choose another path! Let neither Oliver Cromwell nor the Magna Carta deflect your course! One of my finest walks was on no better advice than the avoidance of a celebrated shrine. I was led along the swift waters of a river, through several pretty towns, and witnessed the building of a lofty bridge. For lunch I had some memorable griddlecakes. Finally I rode on top of a rattling stage with a gossip for a driver, whose long finger pointed out the sights upon the road.
But for the liveliest truancy, keep an eye out for red-haired and freckled lads, and make them your counselors! Lads so spotted and colored, I have found, are of unusual enterprise in knowing the best woodland paths and the loftiest views. A yellow-haired boy, being of paler wit, will suck his thumb upon a question. A touzled black exhibits a sulky absorption in his work. An indifferent brown, at best, runs for an answer to the kitchen. But red-haired and freckled lads are alive at once. Whether or not their roving spirit, which is the basis of their deeper and quicker knowledge, proceeds from the magic of the pigment, the fact yet remains that such boys are surer than a signpost to direct one to adventure. This truth is so general that I have read the lives of the voyagers—Robinson Crusoe, Captain Kidd and the worthies out of Hakluyt—if perhaps a hint might drop that they too in their younger days were freckled and red-haired. Sir Walter Raleigh—I choose at random—was doubtless called "Carrots" by his playmates. But on making inquiry of a red-haired lad, one must have a clear head in the tumult of his direction. I was once lost for several hours on the side of Anthony's Nose above the Hudson because I jumbled such advice. And although I made the acquaintance of a hermit who dwelt on the mountain with a dog and a scarecrow for his garden—a fellow so like him in garment and in feature that he seemed his younger and cleaner brother—still I did not find the top or see the clear sweep of the Hudson as was promised.
If it is your habit to inquire of distance upon the road, do not quarrel with conflicting opinion! Judge the answer by the source! Persons of stalwart limb commonly underestimate a distance, whereas those of broken wind and stride stretch it greater than it is. But it is best to take all answers lightly. I have heard of a man who spent his rainy evenings on a walking trip in going among the soda clerks and small merchants of the village, not for information, but to contrast their ignorance. Aladdin's wicked uncle, when he inquired direction to the mountain of the genii's cave, could not have been so misdirected. Shoemakers, candy-men and peddlers of tinware—if such modest merchants existed also on the curb in those magic days—must have been of nicer knowledge or old Kazrac would never have found the lamp. In my friend's case, on inquiry, a certain hotel at which we aimed was both good and bad, open and shut, burned and unburned.
There is a legend of the Catholic Church about a certain holy chapel that once leaped across the Alps. It seems gross superstition, yet although I belong to a protesting church, I assert its likelihood. For I solemnly affirm that on a hot afternoon I chased a whole village that skipped quite as miraculously before me across the country. It was a village of stout leg and wind and, as often as I inquired, it still kept seven miles ahead. Once only I gained, by trotting on a descent. Not until night when the village lay down to rest beside a quiet river did I finally overtake it. And the next morning I arose early in order to be off first upon my travels, and so keep the lively rascal in the rear.
In my country walks I usually carry a book in the pocket opposite to my lunch. I seldom read it, but it is a comfort to have it handy. I am told that at one of the colleges, students of smaller application, in order that they may truthfully answer as to the length of time they have spent upon their books, do therefore literally sit upon a pile of them, as on a stool, while they engage in pleasanter and more secular reading. I do not examine this story closely, which rises, doubtless, from the jealousy of a rival college. Rather, I think that these students perch upon the books which presently they must read, on a wise instinct that this preliminary contact starts their knowledge. And therefore a favorite volume, even if unopened in the pocket, does nevertheless by its proximity color and enhance the enjoyment of the day. I have carried Howell, who wrote the "Familiar Letters," unread along the countryside. A small volume of Boswell has grown dingy in my pocket. I have gone about with a copy of Addison with long S's, but I read it chiefly at home when my feet are on the fender.
I had by me once as I crossed the Devon moors a volume of "Richard Feverel." For fifteen miles I had struck across the upland where there is scarcely a house in sight—nothing but grazing sheep and wild ponies that ran at my approach. Sometimes a marshy stream flowed down a shallow valley, with a curl of smoke from a house that stood in the hollow. At the edge of this moorland, I came into a shady valley that proceeded to the ocean. My feet were pinched and tired when I heard the sound of water below the road. I pushed aside the bushes and saw a stream trickling on the rocks. I thrust my head into a pool until the water ran into my ears, and then sat with my bare feet upon the cool stones where the runnel lapped them, and read "Richard Feverel." To this day, at the mention of the title, I can hear the pleasant brawl of water and the stirring of the branches in the wind that wandered down the valley.
Hazlitt tells us in a famous passage with what relish he once read "The New Eloise" on a walking trip. "It was on the 10th of April, 1798," he writes, "that I sat down to a volume of the New Eloise, at the inn at Llangollen, over a bottle of sherry and a cold chicken." I am quite unfamiliar with the book, yet as often as I read the essay—which is the best of Hazlitt—I have been teased to buy it. Perhaps this springs in part from my own recollection of Llangollen, where I once stopped on a walking trip through Wales. The town lies on the river Dee at the foot of fertile hills patched with fences, on whose top there stand the ruins of Dinas Bran, a fortress of forgotten history, although it looks grimly towards the English marches as if its enemies came thence. Thrown across the river there is a peaked bridge of gray stone, many centuries old, on which the village folk gather at the end of day. I dined on ale and mutton of such excellence that, for myself, a cold volume of the census—if I had fallen so low—must have remained agreeably in memory. I recall that a street-organ stopped beneath the window and played a merry tune—or perhaps the wicked ale was mounting—and I paused in my onslaught against the mutton to toss the musician a coin.
I applaud those who, on a walking trip, arise and begin their journey in the dawn, but although I am eager at night to make an early start, yet I blink and growl when the morning comes. I marvel at the poet who was abroad so early that he was able to write of the fresh twilight on the world—"Where the sandalled Dawn like a Greek god takes the hurdles of the hills"—but for my own part I would have slept and missed the sight. But an early hour is best, despite us lazybones, and to be on the road before the dew is gone and while yet a mist arises from the hollows is to know the journey's finest pleasure.
Persons of early hours assert that they feel a fine exaltation. I am myself inclined to think, however, that this is not so much an exaltation that arises from the beauty of the hour, as from a feeling of superiority over their sleeping and inferior comrades. It is akin to the displeasing vanity of those persons who walk upon a boat with easy stomach while their companions lie below. I would discourage, therefore, persons that lean toward conceit from putting a foot out of bed until the second call. On the other hand, those who are of a self-depreciative nature should get up with the worm and bird. A man of my own acquaintance who was sunk in self-abasement for many years, was roused to a salutary conceit by no other tonic.
And it is certain that to be off upon a journey with a rucksack strapped upon you at an hour when the butcher boy takes down his shutters is a high pleasure. Off you go through the village with swinging arms. Off you go across the country. A farmer is up before you and you hear his reaper across the field, and the neighing of his horses at the turn. Where the hill falls sharp against the sky, there he stands outlined, to wipe the sweat. And as your nature is, swift or sluggish thoughts go through your brain—plots and vagrant fancies, which later your pencil will not catch. It is in these earliest hours while the dew still glistens that little lyric sentences leap into your mind. Then, if at all, are windmills giants.
There are cool retreats where you may rest at noon, but Stevenson has written of these. "You come," he writes, "to a milestone on a hill, or some place where deep ways meet under trees; and off goes the knapsack, and down you sit to smoke a pipe in the shade. You sink into yourself, and the birds come round and look at you; and your smoke dissipates upon the afternoon under the blue dome of heaven; and the sun lies warm upon your feet, and the cool air visits your neck and turns aside your open shirt. If you are not happy, you must have an evil conscience."
And yet a good inn at night holds even a more tranquil joy. M—— and I, who frequently walk upon a holiday, traversed recently a mountain road to the north of West Point. During the afternoon we had scrambled up Storm King to a bare rock above the Hudson. It was just such an outlook as Rip found before he met the outlandish Dutchmen with their ninepins and flagon. We lay here above a green world that was rimmed with mountains, and watched the lagging sails and puffs of smoke upon the river. It was late afternoon when we descended to the mountain road that runs to West Point. During all the day there had been distant rumbling of thunder, as though a storm mustered in a far-off valley,—or perhaps the Dutchmen of the legend still lingered at their game,—but now as the twilight fell the storm came near. It was six o'clock when a sign-board informed us that we had seven miles to go, and already the thunder sounded with earnest purpose. Far below in the dusk we saw the lights of West Point. On a sudden, while I was still fumbling for my poncho which was rolled inside my rucksack, the storm burst upon us. We put up the umbrella and held the poncho against the wind and driving rain. But the wind so whisked it about and the rain was so eager to find the openings that presently we were drenched. In an hour we came to West Point. Luckily the cook was up, and she served us a hot dinner in our rooms with the washstand for a table. When we started there was a piece of soap in the dish, but I think we ate it in our hunger. I recall that there was one course that foamed up like custard and was not upon the bill. It was a plain room with meager furniture, yet we fell asleep with a satisfaction beyond the Cecils in their lordly beds. I stirred once when there was a clamor in the hall of guests returning from a hop at the Academy—a prattle of girls' voices—then slept until the sun was up.
But my preference in lodgings is the low sagging half-timbered building that one finds in the country towns of England. It has leaned against the street and dispensed hospitality for three hundred years. It is as old a citizen as the castle on the hill. It is an inn where Tom Jones might have spent the night, or any of the rascals out of Smollett. Behind the wicket there sits a shrewish female with a cold eye towards your defects, and behind her there is a row of bells which jangle when water is wanted in the rooms. Having been assigned a room and asked the hour of dinner, you mount a staircase that rises with a squeak. There is a mustiness about the place, which although it is unpleasant in itself, is yet agreeable in its circumstance. A long hall runs off to the back of the house, with odd steps here and there to throw you. Your room looks out upon a coach-yard, and as you wash you overhear a love-passage down below.
In the evening you go forth to see the town. If it lies on the ocean, you walk upon the mole and watch the fisher folk winding up their nets, or sitting with tranquil pipes before their doors. Maybe a booth has been set up on the parade that runs along the ocean, and a husky fellow bids you lay out a sixpence for the show, which is the very same, he bawls, as was played before the King and the Royal Family. This speech is followed by a fellow with a trombone, who blows himself very red in the face.
But rather I choose to fancy that it is an inland town, and that there is a quieter traffic on the streets. Here for an hour after dinner, while darkness settles, you wander from shop to shop and put your nose upon the glass, or you engage the lamplighter as he goes his rounds, for any bit of news.
Once in such a town when the night brought rain, for want of other employment, I debated divinity with a rigid parson, and until a late hour sat in the thick curtain of his attack. It was at an inn of one of the midland counties of England, a fine old weathered building, called "The King's Arms." In the tap—for I thrust my thirsty head inside—was an array of old pewter upon the walls, and two or three prints of prize fighters of former days. But it was in the parlor the parson engaged me. In the corner of the room there was a timid fire—of the kind usually met in English inns—imprisoned behind a grill that had been set up stoutly to confine a larger and rowdier fire. My antagonist was a tall lank man of pinched ascetic face and dark complexion, with clothes brushed to shininess, and he belonged to a brotherhood that lived in one of the poorer parts of London along the wharves. His sojourn at the inn was forced. For two weeks in the year, he explained, each member was cast out of the conventual buildings upon the world. This was done in penance, as the members of more rigid orders in the past were flagellants for a season. So here for a whole week had he been sitting, for the most part in rainy weather, busied with the books that the inn afforded—advertising booklets of the beauties of the Alps—diagrams of steamships—and peeking out of doors for a change of sky.
It was a matter of course that he should engage me in conversation. He was as lonesome for a chance to bark as a country dog. Presently when I dissented from some point in his creed, he called me a heretic, and I with gentlest satire asked him if the word yet lived. But he was not angry, and he told me of his brotherhood. It had a branch in America, and he bade me, if ever I met any of its priests, to convey to them his warm regards. As for America, it was, he said, too coldly ethical, and needed most a spiritual understanding; to which judgment I assented. I wonder now whether the war will bring that understanding. Maybe, unless blind hatred smothers it.
This priest was a mixture of stern and gentle qualities, and seemed to be descended from those earlier friars that came to England in cord and gown, and went barefoot through the cities to minister comfort and salvation to the poor and wretched. When the evening was at last spent, by common consent we took our candles on the landing, where, after he inculcated a final doctrine of his church with waving finger, he bade me good night, with a wish of luck for my journey on the morrow, and sought his room.
My own room lay down a creaking hallway. When undressed, I opened my window and looked upon the street. All lights were out. At last the rain had ceased, and now above the housetops across the way, through a broken patch of cloud, a star appeared with a promise of a fair tomorrow.
Somewhere in his letters, I think, Stevenson pronounces street paving to be his favorite occupation. I fancy, indeed,—and I have ransacked his life,—that he never applied himself to its practice for an actual livelihood. That was not necessary. Rather, he looked on at the curb in a careless whistling mood, hands deep in the pockets of his breeks, in a lazy interval between plot and essay. The sunny morning had dropped its golden invitation through his study windows, and he has wandered forth to see the world. Let my heroes—for thus I interpret him at his desk as the sunlight beckoned—let my heroes kick their heels in patience! Let villains fret inside the inkpot! Down, sirs, down, into the glossy magic pool, until I dip you up! Pirates—for surely such miscreants lurked among his papers—let pirates, he cries, save their red oaths until tomorrow! My hat! My stick!
It was thus, then, as an amateur that Stevenson looked on street paving—the even rows of cobbles, the nice tapping to fit the stones against the curb, the neat joint around the drain. And yet, unpardonably, he neglects the tarpot; and this seems the very soul of the business, the finishing touch—almost culinary, as when a cook pours on a chocolate sauce.
I remember pleasantly when our own street was paved. There had been laid a waterpipe, deep down where the earth was yellow—surely gold was near—and several of us young rascals climbed in and out in the twilight when work was stopped. By fits we were both mountaineers and miners. There was an agreeable gassy smell as if we neared the lower regions. Here was a playground better than the building of a barn, even with its dizzy ladders and the scaffolding around the chimney. Or we hid in the great iron pipes that lay along the gutters, and followed our leader through them home from school. But when the pipes were lowered into place and the surface was cobbled but not yet sanded, then the tarpot yielded gum for chewing. At any time after supper a half dozen of us—blacker daubs against the darkness—might have been seen squatting on the stones, scratching at the tar. Blackjack, bought at the corner, had not so full a flavor. But one had to chew forward in the mouth—lightly, lest the tar adhere forever to the teeth.
And yet I am not entirely in accord with Stevenson in his preference.
And how is it, really, that people fall into their livelihoods? What circumstance or necessity drives them? Does choice, after all, always yield to a contrary wind and run for any port? Is hunger always the helmsman? How many of us, after due appraisal of ourselves, really choose our own parts in the mighty drama?—first citizen or second, with our shrill voices for a moment above the crowd—first citizen or second—brief choristers, except for vanity, against a painted scene. How runs the rhyme?—rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief; doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief! And a robustious fellow with great voice, and lace and sword, strutting forward near the lights.
Meditating thus, I frequently poke about the city in the end of afternoon "when the mind of your man of letters requires some relaxation." I peer into shop windows, not so much for the wares displayed as for glimpses of the men and women engaged in their disposal. I watch laborers trudging home with the tired clink of their implements and pails. I gaze into cellarways where tailor and cobbler sit bent upon their work—needle and peg, their world—and through fouled windows into workrooms, to learn which livelihoods yield the truest happiness. For it is, on the whole, a whistling rather than a grieving world, and like little shouts among the hills is laughter echoed in the heart.
I can well understand how one can become a baker or even a small grocer with a pencil behind his ear. I could myself honestly recommend an apple—an astrachan for sauces—or, in the season, offer asparagus with something akin to enthusiasm. Cranberries, too, must be an agreeable consort of the autumn months when the air turns frosty. I would own a cat with a dusty nose to rub along the barrels and sleep beneath the stove. I would carry dried meats in stock were it only for the electric slicing machine. And whole cheeses! Or to a man of romantic mind an old brass shop may have its lure. To one of musty turn, who would sit apart, there is something to be said for the repair of violins and 'cellos. At the least he sweetens discord into melody.
But I would not willingly keep a second-hand bookshop. It is too cluttered a business. There is too free a democracy between good and bad. It was Dean Swift who declared that collections of books made him melancholy, "where the best author is as much squeezed and as obscure as a porter at a coronation." Nor is it altogether reassuring for one who is himself by way of being an author to view the certain neglect that awaits him when attics are cleared at last. There is too leathery a smell upon the premises, a thick deposit of mortality. I draw a deep breath when I issue on the street, grateful for the sunlight and the wind. However, I frequently put my head in at Pratt's around the corner, sometimes by chance when the family are assembled for their supper in one of the book alcoves. They have swept back a litter of historians to make room for the tray of dishes. To cut them from the shop they have drawn a curtain in front of their nook, but I can hear the teapot bubbling on the counter. There is, also, a not unsavory smell which, if my old nose retains its cunning, is potato stew, fetched up from the kitchen. If you seek Gibbon now, Pratt's face will show like a withered moon between the curtains and will request you to call later when the dishes have been cleared.
No one works in cleaner produce than carpenters. They are for the most part a fatherly whiskered tribe and they eat their lunches neatly from a pail, their backs against the wall, their broad toes upturned. I look suspiciously on painters, however, who present themselves for work like slopped and shoddy harlequins, and although I have myself passed a delightful afternoon painting a wooden fence at the foot of the garden—and been scraped afterwards—I would not wish to be of their craft.
But perhaps one is of restless habit and a peripatetic occupation may be recommended. For a bachelor of small expense, at a hazard, a wandering fruit and candy cart offers the venture and chance of unfamiliar journeys. There is a breed of lollypop on a stick that shows a handsome profit when the children come from school. Also, at this minute, I hear below me on the street the flat bell of the scissors-grinder. I know not what skill is required, yet it needs a pretty eye and even foot. The ragman takes to an ancestral business and chants the ancient song of his fathers. When distance has somewhat muffled its nearer sharpness, the song bears a melody unparalleled among tradesmen's cries. Window glass, too, is hawked pleasantly from house to house and requires but a knife and putty. In the spring the vegetable vender, standing in his wagon, utters melodious sounds that bring the housewives to their windows. Once, also, by good luck, I fell into acquaintance with a fellow who peddled brooms and dustpans along the countryside. He was hung both front and back with cheap commodities—a necklace of scrubbing brushes—tins jangling against his knees. A very kitchen had become biped. A pantry had gone on pilgrimage. Except for dogs, which seemed maddened by his strange appearance, it was, he informed me, an engaging livelihood for a man who chafed indoors. Or for one of dreamy disposition the employment of a sandwich man, with billboards fore and aft, offers a profitable repose. Sometimes several of these philosophers journey together up the street in a crowded hour, one behind another with slow introspective step, as befits their high preoccupation.
Or one has an ear, and the street-organ commends itself. Observe the musician at the corner, hat in hand and smiling! Let but a curtain stir and his eye will catch it. He hears a falling penny as 'twere any nightingale. His tunes are the herald of the gaudy spring. His are the dancing measures of the sunlight. And is anyone a surer judge of human nature? He allows dyspeptics to slink along the fence. Those of bilious aspect may go their ways unchallenged. Spare me those, he says, who have not music in their souls: they are fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. It was with a flute that the poet Goldsmith starved his way through France. Yet the flute is a cold un-stirring instrument. He would have dined the oftener had he pitched upon a street-organ.
But in this Christmas season there is a man goes up and down among the shoppers blowing shrill tunes upon a pipe. A card upon his hat announces that it is music makes the home and that one of his marvelous implements may be bought for the trifling and altogether insignificant sum of ten cents. A reticule across his stomach bulges with his pipes. He seems to manipulate the stops with his fingers, but I fancy that he does no more than sing into the larger opening. Yet his gay tune sounds above the traffic.
I have wondered where such seasonal professions recruit themselves. The eyeglass man still stands at his corner with his tray. He is, moreover, too sodden a creature to play upon a pipe. Nor is there any dwindling of shoe-lace peddlers. The merchants of popcorn have not fallen off in number, and peanuts hold up strong. Rather, these Christmas musicians are of the tribe which at other festivals sell us little flags and bid us show our colors. They come from country fairs and circuses. All summer long they bid us gather for the fat man, or they cry up the beauties of a Turkish harem. If some valiant fellow in a painted tent is about to swallow glass, they are his horn and drum to draw the crowd. I once knew a side-show man who bent iron bars between his teeth and who summoned stout men from his audience to swing upon the bar, but I cannot believe that he has discharged the bawling rascal at his door. I rather choose to think that the piper was one of those self-same artists who, on lesser days, squeeze comic rubber faces in their fingers, or make the monkey climb its predestined stick.
Be this as it may, presently the piper hit on a persuasive tune and I abandoned all thought of the Noah's ark—my errand of the morning for my nephew—and joined the crowd that followed him. Hamelin Town was come again. But street violins I avoid. They suggest mortgages and unpaid rent.
But with the world before him why should a man turn dentist? He must have been a cruel fellow from his rattle. When did his malicious ambition first sprout up towards molars and bicuspids? Or who would scheme to be a plumber? He is a cellarer—alas, how shrunk from former days! Or consider the tailor! Perhaps you recall Elia's estimate. "Do you ever see him," he asks, "go whistling along the foot-path like a carman, or brush through a crowd like a baker, or go smiling to himself like a lover?"
Certainly I would not wish to be a bookkeeper and sit bent all day over another's wealth. I would not want to bring in on lifted fingers the meats which another eats. Nor would I choose to be a locksmith, which is a kind of squint-eyed business, up two dismal stairs and at the rear. A gas lamp flares at the turn. A dingy staircase mounts into a thicker gloom. The locksmith consorts with pawnbrokers, with cheap sign-makers and with disreputable doctors; yet he is not of them. For there adheres to him a sort of romance. He is a creature of another time, set in our midst by the merest chance. The domestic cat, descended from the jungle, is not more shrunk. Keys have fallen on evil days. Observe the mighty row of them hung discarded along his boxes! Each one is fit to unlock a castle. Warwick itself might yield to such a weight of metal—rusty now, disused, quite out of fashion, displaced by a race of dwarfs. In the old prints, see how the London 'prentice runs with his great key in the dawn to take down his master's shutter! In a musty play, observe the jailor at the dungeon door! Without massive keys jingling at the belt the older drama must have been a weakling. Only lovers, then, dared to laugh at locksmiths. But now locksmiths sit brooding on the past, shriveled to mean uses, ready for paltry kitchen jobs.
And the undertaker, what shall we say of him? That black coat with the flower! That mournful smile! That perfect grief! And yet, I am told, undertakers, after hours, go singing home to supper, and spend their evenings at the movies like us rougher folk. It was David Copperfield, you recall, who dined with an undertaker and his family—in the room, no doubt, next to the coffin storage—and he remarked at the time how cheerfully the joint went round. One of this sober cloth, moreover, has confided to me that they let themselves loose, above all professions, in their reunions and conventions. If an unusual riot issues from the door and a gay fellow goes walking on the table it is sure that either lawyers or undertakers sit inside.
For myself, if I were to become a merchant, I would choose a shop at a four-corners in the country, and I would stock from shoe-laces to plows. There is no virtue in keeping store in the city. It is merely by favor that customers show themselves. Candidly, your competitor can better supply their wants. This is not so at the four-corners. Nor is anyone a more influential citizen than a country merchant. He sets the style in calicoes. He judges between check and stripe. His decision against a high heel flattens the housewives by an inch. But if I kept such a country store, I would provide an open fire and, when the shadows lengthened, an easy chair or two for gossips.
I was meditating lately on these strange preferences in livelihoods and was gazing through the city windows for any clue when I was reminded of a tempting scheme that Wee Jessie—a delightful Scots-woman of my acquaintance—has planned for several of us.
We are to be traveling merchants for a season, with a horse and wagon or a motor. My own preference is a motor, and already I see a vehicle painted in bright colors and opening up behind as spacious as a waffle cart. There will be windows all around for the display of goods. It is not quite fixed what we shall sell. Wee Jessie leans toward bonnets and little millinery odds and ends. I am for kitchen tins. M—— inclines toward drygoods, serviceable fabrics. It is thought that we shall live on the roof while on tour, with a canvas to draw on wet nights. We shall possess a horn—on which Wee Jessie once practiced in her youth—to gather up the crowd when we enter a village.
Fancy us, therefore, my dear sir, as taking the road late this coming spring in time to spread the summer's fashions. And if you hear our horn at twilight in your village—a tune of more wind than melody, unless Jessie shall cure her imperfections—know that on the morrow, by the pump, we shall display our wares.
The Tread of the Friendly Giants.
When our Babe he goeth walking in his garden, Around his tinkling feet the sunbeams play.
It has been my fortune to pass a few days where there lives a dear little boy of less than three. My first knowledge of him every morning is the smothered scuffling through the partition as he reluctantly splashes in his bath. Here, unless he mend his caution, I fear he will never learn to play the porpoise at the Zoo. Then there is a wee tapping at my door. It is a fairy sound as though Mustard-seed were in the hall. Or it might be Pease-blossom rousing up Cobweb in the play, to repel the red-hipped humble-bee. It is so slight a tapping that if I sleep with even one ear inside the covers I will not hear it.
The little lad stands in the dim passage to greet me, fully dressed, to reproach me with my tardiness. He is a mite of a fellow, but he is as wide awake and shiny as though he were a part of the morning and had been wrought delicately out of the dawn's first ray. Indeed, I choose to fancy that the sun, being off hurriedly on broader business, has made him his agent for the premises. Particularly he assists in this passage at my bedroom door where the sleepy Night, which has not yet caught the summons, still stretches and nods beyond the turn. It is so dark here on a winter's morning when the nursery door is shut that even an adventuring sunlight, if it chanced to clamber through the window, would blink and falter in the hazard of these turns. But the sun has sent a substitute better than himself: for is there not a shaft of light along the floor? It can hardly fall from the window or anywhere from the outside world.
The little lad stands in the passage demanding that I get up. "Get up, lazybones!" he says. Pretty language to his elders! He speaks soberly, halting on each syllable of the long and difficult word. He is so solemn that the jest is doubled. And now he runs off, jouncing and stiff-legged to his nursery. I hear him dragging his animals from his ark, telling them all that they are lazybones, even his barking dog and roaring lion. Noah, when he saw on that first morning that his ark was grounded on Ararat, did not rouse his beasts so early to leave the ship.