LORE OF PROSERPINE
"Thus go the fairy kind, Whither Fate driveth; not as we Who fight with it, and deem us free Therefore, and after pine, or strain Against our prison bars in vain; For to them Fate is Lord of Life And Death, and idle is a strife With such a master ..."
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
NEW YORK : : : : 1913
COPYRIGHT, 1913, BY
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
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FROM WHOM, TO WHOM
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I hope nobody will ask me whether the things in this book are true, for it will then be my humiliating duty to reply that I don't know. They seem to be so to me writing them; they seemed to be so when they occurred, and one of them occurred only two or three years ago. That sort of answer satisfies me, and is the only one I can make. As I grow older it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish one kind of appearance from another, and to say, that is real, and again, that is illusion. Honestly, I meet in my daily walks innumerable beings, to all sensible signs male and female. Some of them I can touch, some smell, some speak with, some see, some discern otherwise than by sight. But if you cannot trust your eyes, why should you trust your nose or your fingers? There's my difficulty in talking about reality.
There's another way of getting at the truth after all. If a thing is not sensibly true it may be morally so. If it is not phenomenally true it may be so substantially. And it is possible that one may see substance in the idiom, so to speak, of the senses. That, I take it, is how the Greeks saw thunder-storms and other huge convulsions; that is how they saw meadow, grove and stream—in terms of their own fair humanity. They saw such natural phenomena as shadows of spiritual conflict or of spiritual calm, and within the appearance apprehended the truth. So it may be that I have done. Some such may be the explanation of all fairy experience. Let it be so. It is a fact, I believe, that there is nothing revealed in this book which will not bear a spiritual, and a moral, interpretation; and I venture to say of some of it that the moral implications involved are exceedingly momentous, and timely too. I need not refer to such matters any further. If they don't speak for themselves they will get no help from a preface.
The book assumes up to a certain point an autobiographical cast. This is not because I deem my actual life of any interest to any one but myself, but because things do occur to one "in time," and the chronological sequence is as good as another, and much the most easy of any. I had intended, but my heart failed me, to pursue experience to the end. There was to have been a section, to be called "Despoina," dealing with my later life. But my heart failed me. The time is not yet, though it is coming. I don't deny that there are some things here which I learned from the being called Despoina and could have learned from nobody else. There are some such things, but there is not very much, and won't be any more just yet. Some of it there will never be for the sorry reason that our race won't bear to be told fundamental facts about itself, still less about other orders of creation which are sufficiently like our own to bring self-consciousness into play. To write of the sexes in English you must either be sentimental or a satirist. You must set the emotions to work; otherwise you must be quiet. Now the emotions have no business with knowledge; and there's a reason why we have no fairy lore, because we can't keep our feelings in hand. The Greeks had a mythology, the highest form of Art, and we have none. Why is that? Because we can neither expound without wishing to convert the soul, nor understand without self-experiment. We don't want to know things, we want to feel them—and are ashamed of our need. Mythology, therefore, we English must make for ourselves as we can; and if we are wise we shall keep it to ourselves. It is a pity, because since we alone of created things are not self-sufficient, anything that seems to break down the walls of being behind which we agonise would be a comfort to us; but there's a worse thing than being in prison, and that is quarrelling with our own nature.
I shall have explained myself very badly if my reader leaves me with the impression that I have been writing down marvels. The fact that a thing occurs in nature takes it out of the portentous. There's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. With that I end.
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A BOY IN THE WOOD
THE GODS IN THE SCHOOLHOUSE
THE SOUL AT THE WINDOW
THE SECRET COMMONWEALTH
THE FAIRY WIFE
A SUMMARY CHAPTER
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LORE OF PROSERPINE
You will remember that Socrates considers every soul of us to be at least three persons. He says, in a fine figure, that we are two horses and a charioteer. "The right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only. The other is a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes of blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur." I need not go on to examine with the philosopher the acts of this pair under the whip and spur of love, because I am not going to talk about love. For my present purpose I shall suggest another dichotomy. I will liken the soul itself of man to a house, divided according to the modern fashion into three flats or apartments. Of these the second floor is occupied by the landlord, who wishes to be quiet, and is not, it seems, afraid of fire; the ground-floor by a business man who would like to marry, but doubts if he can afford it, goes to the city every day, looks in at his club of an afternoon, dines out a good deal, and spends at least a month of the year at Dieppe, Harrogate, or one of the German spas. He is a pleasant-faced man, as I see him, neatly dressed, brushed, anointed, polished at the extremities—for his boots vie with his hair in this particular. If he has a fault it is that of jingling half-crowns in his trouser-pocket; but he works hard for them, pays his rent with them, and gives one occasionally to a nephew. That youth, at any rate, likes the cheerful sound. He is rather fond, too, of monopolising the front of the fire in company, and thinks more of what he is going to eat, some time before he eats it, than a man should. But really I can't accuse him of anything worse than such little weaknesses. The first floor is occupied by a person of whom very little is known, who goes out chiefly at night and is hardly ever seen during the day. Tradesmen, and the crossing-sweeper at the corner, have caught a glimpse on rare occasions of a white face at the window, the startled face of a queer creature, who blinks and wrings at his nails with his teeth; who peers at you, jerks and grins; who seems uncertain what to do; who sometimes shoots out his hands as if he would drive them through the glass: altogether a mischancy, unaccountable apparition, probably mad. Nobody knows how long he has been here; for the landlord found him in possession when he bought the lease, and the ground-floor, who was here also, fancies that they came together, but can't be sure. There he is, anyhow, and without an open scandal one doesn't like to give him notice. A curious thing about the man is that neither landlord nor ground-floor will admit acquaintance with him to each other, although, if the truth were known, each of them knows something—for each of them has been through his door; and I will answer for one of them, at least, that he has accompanied the Undesirable upon more than one midnight excursion, and has enjoyed himself enormously. If you could get either of these two alone in a confidential mood you might learn some curious particulars of their coy neighbour; and not the least curious would be the effect of his changing the glass of the first floor windows. It seems that he had that done directly he got into his rooms, saying that it was impossible to see out of such windows, and that a man must have light. Where he got his glass from, by whom it was fitted, I can't tell you, but the effect of it is most extraordinary. The only summary account I feel able to give of it at the moment is that it transforms the world upon which it opens. You look out upon a new earth, literally that. The trees are not trees at all, but slim grey persons, young men, young women, who stand there quivering with life, like a row of Caryatides—on duty, but tiptoe for a flight, as Keats says. You see life, as it were, rippling up their limbs; for though they appear to be clothed, their clothing is of so thin a texture, and clings so closely that they might as well not be clothed at all. They are eyed, they see intensely; they look at each other so closely that you know what they would be doing. You can see them love each other as you watch. As for the people in the street, the real men and real women, as we say, I hardly know how to tell you what they look like through the first floor's windows. They are changed of everything but one thing. They occupy the places, fill the standing-room of our neighbours and friends; there is a something about them all by which you recognise them—a trick of the hand, a motion of the body, a set of the head (God knows what it is, how little and how much); but for all that—a new creature! A thing like nothing that lives by bread! Now just look at that policeman at the corner, for instance; not only is he stark naked—everybody is like that—but he's perfectly different from the sturdy, good-humoured, red-faced, puzzled man you and I know. He is thin, woefully thin, and his ears are long and perpetually twitching. He pricks them up at the least thing; or lays them suddenly back, and we see them trembling. His eyes look all ways and sometimes nothing but the white is to be seen. He has a tail, too, long and leathery, which is always curling about to get hold of something. Now it will be the lamp-post, now the square railings, now one of those breathing trees; but mostly it is one of his own legs. Yet if you consider him carefully you will agree with me that his tail is a more expressive remnant of the man you have always seen there than any other part of him. You may say, and truly, that it is the only recognisable thing left. What do you think of his feet and hands? They startled me at first; they are so long and narrow, so bony and pointed, covered with fine short hair which shines like satin. That way he has of arching his feet and driving his toes into the pavement delights me. And see, too, that his hands are undistinguishable from feet: they are just as long and satiny. He is fond of smoothing his face with them; he brings them both up to his ears and works them forward like slow fans. Transformation indeed. I defy you to recognise him for the same man—except for a faint reminiscence about his tail.
But all's of a piece. The crossing-sweeper now has shaggy legs which end in hoofs. His way of looking at young people is very unpleasant;—and one had always thought him such a kindly old man. The butcher's boy—what a torso!—is walking with his arm round the waist of the young lady in Number seven. These are lovers, you see; but it's mostly on her side. He tilts up her chin and gives her a kiss before he goes; and she stands looking after him with shining eyes, hoping that he will turn round before he gets to the corner. But he doesn't.
Wait, now, wait, wait—who is this lovely, straining, beating creature darting here and there about the square, bruising herself, poor beautiful thing, against the railings? A sylph, a caught fairy? Surely, surely, I know somebody—is it?—It can't be. That careworn lady? God in Heaven, is it she? Enough! Show me no more. I will show you no more, my dear sir, if it agitates you; but I confess that I have come to regard it as one of the most interesting spectacles in London. The mere information—to say nothing of the amusement—which I have derived from it would fill a volume; but if it did, I may add, I myself should undoubtedly fill a cell in Holloway. I will therefore spare you what I know about the Doctor's wife, and what happens to Lieutenant-Colonel Storter when I see him through these windows—I could never have believed it unless I had seen it. These things are not done, I know; but observed in this medium they seem quite ordinary. Lastly—for I can't go through the catalogue—I will speak of the air as I see it from here. My dear sir, the air is alive, thronged with life. Spirits, forms, lovely immaterial diaphanous shapes, are weaving endless patterns over the face of the day. They shine like salmon at a weir, or they darken the sky as redwings in the autumn fields; they circle, shrieking as they flash, like swallows at evening; they battle and wrangle together; or they join hands and whirl about the square in an endless chain. Of their beauty, their grace of form and movement, of the shifting filmy colour, hue blending in hue, of their swiftness, their glancing eyes, their exuberant joy or grief I cannot now speak. Beside them one man may well seem rat, and another goat. Beside them, indeed, you look for nothing else. And if I go on to hint that the owner of these windows is of them, though imprisoned in my house; that he does at times join them in their streaming flights beyond the housetops, and does at times carry with him his half-bewildered, half-shocked and wholly delighted fellow lodgers, I have come to the end of my tether and your credulity, and, for the time at least, have flowered myself to death. The figure is as good as Plato's though my Pegasus will never stable in his stall.
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We may believe ourselves to be two persons, at least, in one, and I fancy that one at least of them is a constant. So far as my own pair is concerned, either one of them has never grown up at all, or he was born whole and in a flash, as the fairies are. Such as he was, at any rate, when I was ten years old, such he is now when I am heavily more than ten; and the other of us, very conscious of the flight of time and of other things with it, is free to confess that he has little more hold of his fellow with all this authority behind him than he had when we commenced partnership. He has some, and thinks himself lucky, since the bond between the pair is of such a nature as to involve a real partnership—a partnership full of perplexity to the working member of it, the ordinary forensic creature of senses, passions, ambitions, and self-indulgences, the eating, sleeping, vainglorious, assertive male of common experience—and it is not to be denied that it has been fruitful, nor again that by some freak of fate or fortune the house has kept a decent front to the world at large. It is still solvent, still favourably regarded by the police. It is not, it never will be, a mere cage of demons; its walls have not been fretted to transparency; no passing eye can detect revelry behind its decent stucco; no passing ear thrill to cries out of the dark. No, no. Troubles we may have; but we keep up appearances. The heart knoweth its own bitterness, and if it be a wise one, keepeth it to itself. I am not going to be so foolish as to deny divergences of opinion, even of practice, between the pair in me; but I flatter myself that I have not allowed them to become a common nuisance, a cause of scandal, a stumbling-block, a rock of offence, or anything of that kind. Uneasy tenant, wayward partner as my recondite may be, he has had a relationship with my forensic which at times has touched cordiality. Influential he has not been, for his colleague has always had the upper hand and been in the public eye. He may have instigated to mischief, but has not often been allowed to complete his purpose. If I am a respectable person it is not his fault. He seeks no man's respect. If he has occasionally lent himself to moral ends, it has been without enthusiasm, for he has no morals of his own, and never did have any. On the other hand, he is by nature too indifferent to temporal circumstances to go about to corrupt his partner. His main desire has ever been to be let alone. Anything which tended to tighten the bonds which held him to his co-tenant would have been a thing to avoid. He desires liberty, and nothing less will content him. This he will only have by inaction, by mewing his sempiternal youth in his cage and on his perch.
But the tie uniting the pair of us is of such a nature that neither can be uninfluenced by the other. It is just that you should hear both sides of the case. My forensic, eating and arguing self has bullied my other into hypocrisy over and over again. He has starved him, deprived him of his holidays, ignored him, ridiculed him, snubbed him mercilessly. This is severe treatment, you'll allow, and it's worse even than it seems. For the unconscionable fellow, owing to this coheirship which he pretends to disesteem, has been made privy to experiences which must not only have been extraordinary to so plain and humdrum a person, but which have been, as I happen to know, of great importance to him, and which—to put the thing at its highest—have lifted him, dull dog as he is, into regions where the very dogs have wings. Out upon it! But he has been in and out with his victim over leagues of space where not one man in ten thousand has been privileged to fare. He has been familiar all his life with scenes, with folk, with deeds undreamed of by thirty-nine and three-quarters out of forty millions of people, and by that quarter-million only known as nursery tales. Not only so, but he has been awakened to the significance of common things, having at hand an interpreter, and been enabled to be precise where Wordsworth was vague. He has known Zeus in the thunder, in the lightning beheld the shaking of the dread AEgis. In the river source he has seen the breasted nymph; he has seen the Oreads stream over the bare hillside. There are men who see these things and don't believe them, others who believe but don't see. He has both seen and believed. The painted, figured universe has for him a new shape; whispering winds and falling rain speak plainly to his understanding. He has seen trees as men walking. His helot has unlocked the world behind appearance and made him free of the Spirits of Natural Fact who abide there. If he is not the debtor of his comrade—and he protests the debt—he should be. But the rascal laps it all up, as a cat porridge, without so much as a wag of the tail for Thank-you. Such are the exorbitant overlords in mortal men, who pass for reputable persons, with a chief seat at feasts.
Such things, you may say, read incredibly, but, mutatis mutandis, I believe them to be common, though unrecorded, experience. I deprecate in advance questions designed to test the accuracy of my eyesight or the ingenuous habit of my pen. I have already declared that the windows of my first-floor lodger are of such properties that they show you, in Xenophon's phrase, [Greek: ta onta te os onta, kai ta me onta os ouk onta]. Now consider it from his side. If I were to tell the owner of those windows that I saw the policeman at the corner, a helmeted, blue-tunicked, chin-scratching, ponderous man, some six foot in his boots, how would he take it? Would he not mock me? What, that rat? Ridiculous! And what on earth could I reply? I tell you, the whole affair is one of windows, or, sometimes, of personally-conducted travel; and who is Guide and who Guided, is one of those nice questions in psychology which perhaps we are not yet ready to handle. Of the many speculations as to the nature of the subliminal Self I have never found one to be that he may be a fairy prisoner, occasionally on parole. But I think that not at all unlikely. May not metempsychosis be a scourge of two worlds? If the soul of my grandam might fitly inhabit a bird, might not a Fairy ruefully inhabit the person of my grandam? If Fairy Godmothers, perchance, were Fairy Grandmothers! I have some evidence to place before the reader which may induce him to consider this hypothesis. Who can doubt, at least, that Shelley's was not a case where the not-human was a prisoner in the human? Who can doubt that of Blake's? And what was the result, forensically? Shelley was treated as a scoundrel and Blake as a madman. Shelley, it was said, broke the moral law, and Blake transcended common sense; but the first, I reply, was in the guidance of a being to whom the laws of this world and the accidents of it meant nothing at all; and to the second a wisdom stood revealed which to human eyes was foolishness. Windows! In either case there was a martyrdom, and human exasperation appeased by much broken glass. Let us not, however, condemn the wreckers of windows. Who is to judge even them? Who is to say even of their harsh and cruel reprisals that they were not excusable? May not they too have been ridden by some wild spirit within them, which goaded them to their beastly work? But if the acceptance of the doctrine of multiple personality is going to involve me in the reconsideration of criminal jurisprudence, I must close this essay.
I will close it with the sentence of another philosopher who has considered deeply of these questions. "It is to be observed," he says, "that the laws of human conduct are precisely made for the conduct of this world of Men, in which we live, breed, and pay rent. They do not affect the Kingdom of the Dogs, nor that of the Fishes; by a parity of reasoning they need not be supposed to obtain in the Kingdom of Heaven, in which the schoolmen discovered the citizens dwelling in nine spheres, apart from the blessed immigrants, whose privileges did not extend so near to the Heart of the Presence. How many realms there may be between mankind's and that ultimate object of pure desire cannot at present be known, but it may be affirmed with confidence that any denizen of any one of them, brought into relation with human beings, would act, and reasonably act, in ways which to men might seem harsh and unconscionable, without sanction or convenience. Such a being might murder one of the ratepayers of London, compound a felony, or enter into a conspiracy to depose the King himself, and, being detected, very properly be put under restraint, or visited with chastisement, either deterrent or vindictive, or both. But the true inference from the premises would be that although duress or banishment from the kingdom might be essential, yet punishment, so-called, ought not to be visited upon the offender. For he or she could not be nostri juris, and that which were abominable to us might well be reasonable to him or her, and indeed a fulfilment of the law of his being. Punishment, therefore, could not be exemplary, since the person punished exemplified nothing to Mankind; and if vindictive, then would be shocking, since that which is vindicated, in the mind of the victim either did not exist, or ought not. The Ancient Greek who withheld from the sacrifice to Showery Zeus because a thunder-bolt destroyed his hayrick, or the Egyptian who manumitted his slaves because a God took the life of his eldest son, was neither a pious, nor a reasonable person."
There is much debatable matter in this considered opinion.
A BOY IN THE WOOD
I had many bad qualities as a child, of which I need mention only three. I was moody, irresolute, and hatefully reserved. Fate had already placed me the eldest by three years of a large family. Add to the eminence thus attained intentions which varied from hour to hour, a will so little in accordance with desire that I had rather give up a cherished plan than fight for it, and a secretive faculty equalled only by the magpie, and you will not wonder when I affirm that I lived alone in a household of a dozen friendly persons. As a set-off and consolation to myself I had very strongly the power of impersonation. I could be within my own little entity a dozen different people in a day, and live a life thronged with these companions or rivals; and yet this set me more solitary than ever, for I could never appear in any one of my characters to anybody else. But alone and apart, what worlds I inhabited! Worlds of fact and worlds of fiction. At nine years old I knew Nelson's ardour and Wellesley's phlegm; I had Napoleon's egotism, Galahad's purity, Lancelot's passion, Tristram's melancholy. I reasoned like Socrates and made Phaedo weep; I persuaded like Saint Paul and saw the throng on Mars' Hill sway to my words. I was by turns Don Juan and Don Quixote, Tom Jones and Mr. Allworthy, Hamlet and his uncle, young Shandy and his. You will gather that I was a reader. I was, and the people of my books stepped out of their pages and inhabited me. Or, to change the figure, I found in every book an open door, and went in and dwelt in its world. Thus I lived a thronged and busy life, a secret life, full of terror, triumph, wonder, frantic enterprise, a noble and gallant figure among my peers, while to my parents, brothers and sisters I was an incalculable, fitful creature, often lethargic and often in the sulks. They saw me mooning in idleness and were revolted; or I walked dully the way I was bid and they despaired of my parts. I could not explain myself to them, still less justify, having that miserable veil of reserve close over my mouth, like a yashmak. To my father I could not speak, to my mother I did not; the others, being my juniors all, hardly existed. Who is to declare the motives of a child's mind? What was the nature of this reticence? Was it that my real habit was reverie? Was it, as I suspect, that constitutional timidity made me diffident? I was a coward, I am very sure, for I was always highly imaginative. Was it, finally, that I was dimly conscious of matters which I despaired of putting clearly? Who can say? And who can tell me now whether I was cursed or blessed? Certainly, if it had been possible to any person my senior to share with me my daily adventures, I might have conquered the cowardice from which I suffered such terrible reverses. But it was not. I was the eldest of a large family, and apparently the easiest to deal with of any of it. I was what they call a tractable child, being, in fact, too little interested in the world as it was to resent any duties cast upon me. It was not so with the others. They were high-spirited little creatures, as often in mischief as not, and demanded much more pains then I ever did. What they demanded they got, what I did not demand I got not: "Lo, here is alle! What shold I more seye?"
How it was that, taking no interest in my actual surroundings, I became aware of unusual things behind them I cannot understand. It is very difficult to differentiate between what I imagined and what I actually perceived. It was a favourite string of my poor father's plaintive lyre that I had no eyes. He was a great walker, a poet, and a student of nature. Every Sunday of his life he took me and my brother for a long tramp over the country, the intense spiritual fatigue of which exercise I should never be able to describe. I have a sinking of the heart, even now, when I recall our setting out. Intolerable labour! I saw nothing and said nothing. I did nothing but plug one dull foot after the other. I felt like some chained slave going to the hulks, and can well imagine that my companions must have been very much aware of it. My brother, whose nature was much happier than mine, who dreamed much less and observed much more, was the life of these woeful excursions. Without him I don't think that my father could have endured them. At any rate, he never did. I amazed, irritated, and confounded him at most times, but in nothing more than my apathy to what enchanted him. The birds, the flowers, the trees, the waters did not exist for me in my youth. The world for me was uninhabited, a great empty cage. People passed us, or stood at their doorways watching us, but I never saw them. If by chance I descried somebody coming whom it would be necessary to salute, or to whom I might have to speak, I turned aside to avoid them. I was not only shy to a fault, as a diffident child must be, but the world of sense either did not exist for me or was thrust upon me to my discomfort. And yet all the while, as I moved or sat, I was surrounded by a stream of being, of infinite constituents, aware of them to this extent that I could converse with them without sight or speech. I knew they were there, I knew them singing, whispering, screaming. They filled my understanding not my senses. I did not see them but I felt them. I knew not what they said or sang, but had always the general sense of their thronging neighbourhood.
[Footnote 1: And me also when I was enabled at a later day to perceive them. I am thankful to remember and record for my own comfort that that day came not too late for my enchantment to overtake his and proceed in company.]
I enlarge upon this because I think it justifies me in adding that, observing so little, what I did observe with my bodily eyes must almost certainly have been observable. But now let the reader judge.
The first time I ever saw a creature which was really outside ordinary experience was in the late autumn of my twelfth year. My brother, next in age to me, was nine, my eldest sister eight. We three had been out walking with our mother, and were now returning at dusk to our tea through a wood which covered the top of a chalk down. I remember vividly the scene. The carpet of drenched leaves under bare branches, the thin spear-like shafts of the underwood, the grey lights between, the pale frosty sky overhead with the sickle moon low down in it. I remember, too, various sensations, such as the sudden chill which affected me as the crimson globe of the sun disappeared; and again how, when we emerged from the wood, I was enheartened by the sight of the village shrouded under chimney smoke and by the one or two twinkling lights dotted here and there about the dim wolds.
In the wood it was already twilight and very damp. Perhaps I had been tired, more likely bored—as I always was when I was not being somebody else. I remember that I had found the path interminable. I had been silent, as I mostly was, while the other two had chattered and played about our mother; and when presently I stayed behind for a purpose I remember that I made no effort to catch them up. I knew the way perfectly, of course, and had no fear of the dark. Oddly enough I had no fear of that. I was far less imaginative in the night than in the day. Besides that, by the time I was ready to go after them I had much else to think of.
I must have been looking at him for some time before I made out that he was there. So you may peer into a thicket a hundred times and see nothing, and then a trick of the light or a flutter of the mood and you see creatures where you had been sure was nothing. As children will, I had stayed longer than I need, looking and wondering into the wood, not observing but yet absorbing the effects of the lights and shades. The trees were sapling chestnuts if I am not mistaken, Spanish chestnuts, and used for hop-poles in those parts. Their leaves decay gradually, the fleshy part, so to speak, dropping away from the articulation till at last bleached skeleton leaves remain and flicker at every sigh of the wind. The ground was densely carpeted with other leaves in the same state, or about to become so. The silver grey was cross-hatched by the purple lines of the serried stems, and as the view receded this dipped into blue and there lost itself. It was very quiet—a windless fall of the light. To-day I should find it most beautiful; and even then, I suspect, I felt its beauty without knowing it to be so. Looking into it all without realising it, I presently and gradually did realise something else: a shape, a creature, a thing of form and pressure—not a wraith, not, I am quite certain, a trick of the senses.
It was under a clump of the chestnut stems, kneeling and sitting on its heels, and it was watching me with the bright, quick eyes of a mouse. If I were to say that my first thought was of some peering and waiting animal, I should go on to qualify the thought by reference to the creature's eyes. They were eyes which, like all animals', could only express one thing at a time. They expressed now attention, the closest: not fear, not surprise, not apprehension of anything that I might be meditating against their peace, but simply minute attention. The absence of fear, no doubt, marked their owner off from the animals of common acquaintance; but the fact that they did not at the same time express the being itself showed him to be different from our human breed. For whatever else the human pair of eyes may reveal, it reveals the looker.
The eyes of this creature revealed nothing of itself except that it was watching me narrowly. I could not even be sure of its sex, though I believe it to have been a male, and shall hereafter treat of it as such. I could see that he was young; I thought about my own age. He was very pale, without being at all sickly—indeed, health and vigour and extreme vivacity were implicit in every line and expressed in every act; he was clear-skinned, but almost colourless. The shadow under his chin, I remember, was bluish. His eyes were round, when not narrowed by that closeness of his scrutiny of me, and though probably brown, showed to be all black, with pupil indistinguishable from iris. The effect upon me was of black, vivid black, unintelligent eyes—which see intensely but cannot translate. His hair was dense and rather long. It covered his ears and touched his shoulders. It was pushed from his forehead sideways in a thick, in a solid fold, as if it had been the corner of a frieze cape thrown back. It was dark hair, but not black; his neck was very thin. I don't know how he was dressed—I never noticed such things; but in colour he must have been inconspicuous, since I had been looking at him for a good time without seeing him at all. A sleeveless tunic, I think, which may have been brown, or grey, or silver-white. I don't know. But his knees were bare—that I remember; and his arms were bare from the shoulder.
I standing, he squatting on his heels, the pair of us looked full at one another. I was not frightened, no more was he. I was excited, and full of interest; so, I think, was he. My heart beat double time. Then I saw, with a curious excitement, that between his knees he held a rabbit, and that with his left hand he had it by the throat. Now, what is extraordinary to me about this discovery is that there was nothing shocking in it.
I saw the rabbit's wild and panic-blown eye, I saw the bright white rim of it, and recognised its little added terror of me even in the midst of its anguish. That must have been the conventional fright of a beast of chase, an instinct to fear rather than an emotion; for of emotions the poor thing must have been having its fill. It was not till I saw its mouth horribly open, its lips curled back to show its shelving teeth that I could have guessed at what it was suffering. But gradually I apprehended what was being done. Its captor was squeezing its throat. I saw what I had never seen before, and have never seen since, I saw its tongue like a pale pink petal of a flower dart out as the pressure drove it. Revolting sight as that would have been to me, witnessed in the world, here, in this dark wood, in this outland presence, it was nothing but curious. Now, as I watched and wondered, the being, following my eyes' direction, looked down at the huddled thing between his thighs, and just as children squeeze a snap-dragon flower to make it open and shut its mouth, so precisely did he, pressing or releasing the windpipe, cause that poor beast to throw back its lips and dart its dry tongue. He did this many times while he watched it; and when he looked up at me again, and while he continued to look at me, I saw that his cruel fingers, as by habit, continued the torture, and that in some way he derived pleasure from the performance—as if it gratified him to be sure that effect was following on cause inevitably.
I have never, I believe, been cruel to an animal in my life. I hated cruelty then as I hate it now. I have always shirked the sight of anything in pain from my childhood onwards. Yet the fact is that not only did I nothing to interfere in what I saw going on, but that I was deeply interested and absorbed in it. I can only explain that to myself now, by supposing that I knew then, that the creature in front of me was not of my own kind, and was not, in fact, outraging any law of its own being. Is not that possible? May I not have collected unawares so much out of created nature? I am unable to say: all I am clear about is that here was a thing in the semblance of a boy doing what I had never observed a boy do, and what if I ever had observed a boy do, would have flung me into a transport of rage and grief. Here, therefore, was a thing in the semblance of a boy who was no boy at all. So much must have been as certain to me then as it is indisputable now.
One doesn't, at that age, reason things out; one knows them, and is dumb, though unconvinced, before powerful syllogisms to the contrary. All children are so, confronted by strange phenomena. And yet I had facts to go upon if, child as I was, I had been capable of inference. I need only mention one. If this creature had been human, upon seeing that I was conscious of its behaviour to the rabbit, it would either have stopped the moment it perceived that I did not approve or was not amused, or it would have continued deliberately out of bravado. But it neither stopped nor hardily continued. It watched its experiment with interest for a little, then, finding me more interesting, did not discontinue it, but ceased to watch it. He went on with it mechanically, dreamingly, as if to the excitation of some other sense than sight, that of feeling, for instance. He went on lasciviously, for the sake of the pleasure so to be had. In other words, being without self-consciousness and ignorant of shame, he must have been non-human.
After all, too, it must be owned that I cannot have been confronted by the appearance for more than a few minutes. Allow me three to have been spent before I was aware of him, three more will be the outside I can have passed gazing at him. But I speak of "minutes," of course, referring to my ostensible self, that inert, apathetic child who followed its mother, that purblind creature through whose muddy lenses the pent immortal had been forced to see his familiar in the wood, and perchance to dress in form and body what, for him, needed neither to be visible. It was this outward self which was now driven by circumstances to resume command—the command which for "three minutes" by his reckoning he had relinquished. Both of us, no doubt, had been much longer there had we not been interrupted. A woodman, homing from his work, came heavily up the path, and like a guilty detected rogue I turned to run and took my incorruptible with me. Not until I had passed the man did I think to look back. The partner of my secret was not then to be seen. Out of sight out of mind is the way of children. Out of mind, then, withdrew my incorruptible. I hurried on, ran, and overtook my party half-way down the bare hillside. I still remember the feeling of relief with which I swept into the light, felt the cold air on my cheeks, and saw the intimacy of the village open out below me. I am almost sure that my eyes held tears at the assurance of the sweet, familiar things which I knew and could love. There, literally, were my own people: that which I had left behind must be unlawful because it was so strange. In the warmth and plenty of the lighted house, by the schoolroom table, before the cosily covered teapot, amid the high talk, the hot toast and the jam, my experience in the dusky wood seemed unreal, lawless, almost too terrible to be remembered—never, never to be named. It haunted me for many days, and gave rise to curious wonderings now and then. As I passed the patient, humble beasts of common experience—a carter's team nodding, jingling its brasses, a donkey, patient, humble, hobbled in a paddock, dogs sniffing each other, a cat tucked into a cottage window, I mused doubtfully and often whether we had touched the threshold of the heart of their mystery. But for the most part, being constitutionally timid, I was resolute to put the experience out of mind. When next I chanced to go through the wood there is no doubt I peered askance to right and left among the trees; but I took good care not to desert my companions. That which I had seen was unaccountable, therefore out of bounds. But though I never saw him there again I have never forgotten him.
I may have been a precocious child, but I cannot tell within a year or two how soon it was that I attained manhood. There must have been a moment of time when I clothed myself in skins, like Adam; when I knew what this world calls good and evil—by which this world means nothing more nor less than men and women, and chiefly women, I think. Savage peoples initiate their young and teach them the taboos of society by stripes. We allow our issue to gash themselves. By stripes, then, upon my young flesh, I scored up this lesson for myself. Certain things were never to be spoken of, certain things never to be looked at in certain ways, certain things never to be done consciously, or for the pleasure to be got out of them. One stepped out of childish conventions into mannish conventions, and did so, certainly, without any instruction from outside. I remember, for instance, that, as children, it was a rigid part of our belief that our father was the handsomest man in the world—handsome was the word. In the same way our mother was by prerogative the most beautiful woman. If some hero flashed upon our scene—Garibaldi, Lancelot of the Lake, or another—the greatest praise we could possibly have given him for beauty, excellence, courage, or manly worth would have put him second to our father. So also Helen of Sparta and Beatrice of Florence gave way. That was the law of the nursery, rigid and never to be questioned until unconsciously I grew out of it, and becoming a man, put upon me the panoply of manly eyes. I now accepted it that to kiss my sister was nothing, but that to kiss her friend would be very wicked. I discovered that there were two ways of looking at a young woman, and two ways of thinking about her. I discovered that it was lawful to have some kinds of appetite, and to take pleasure in food, exercise, sleep, warmth, cold water, hot water, the smell of flowers, and quite unlawful so much as to think of, or to admit to myself the existence of other kinds of appetite. I discovered, in fact, that love was a shameful thing, that if one was in love one concealed it from the world, and, above all the world, from the object of one's love. The conviction was probably instinctive, for one is not the descendant of puritans for nothing; but the discovery of it is another matter. Attendance at school and the continuous reading of romance were partly responsible for that; physical development clinched the affair, I was in all respects mature at thirteen, though my courage (to use the word in Chaucer's sense) was not equal to my ability. I had more than usual diffidence against me, more than usual reserve; and self-consciousness, from which I have only lately escaped, grew upon me hand in hand with experience.
But being now become a day-scholar at the Grammar School, and thrown whether I would or not among other boys of my own age, I sank my recondite self deeply under the folds of my quickened senses. I became aware of a world which was not his world at all. I watched, I heard, I judged, I studied intently my comrades; and while in secret I shared their own hardy lives, I was more than content to appear a cipher among them. I had no friends and made none. All my comradeship with my school-mates took place in my head, for however salient in mood or inclination I may have been I was a laggard in action. In company I was lower than the least of them; in my solitude, at their head I captured the universe. Daily, to and fro, for two or three years I journeyed between my home and this school, with a couple of two-mile walks and a couple of train journeys to be got through in all weathers and all conditions of light. I saw little or nothing of my school-fellows out of hours, and lived all my play-time, if you can so call it, intensely alone with the people of my imagination—to whose number I could now add gleanings from the Grammar School.
I don't claim objective reality for any of these; I am sure that they were of my own making. Though unseen beings throng round us all, though as a child I had been conscious of them, though I had actually seen one, in these first school years of mine the machinery I had for seeing the usually unseen was eclipsed; my recondite self was fast in his cachot—and I didn't know that he was there! But one may imagine fairies enough out of one's reading, and going beyond that, using it as a spring-board, advance in the work of creation from realising to begetting. So it was with me. The Faerie Queen was as familiar as the Latin Primer ought to have been. I had much of Mallory by heart—a book full of magic. Forth of his pages stepped men-at-arms and damsels the moment I was alone, and held me company for as long as I would. The persons of Homer's music came next to them. I was Hector and held Andromache to my heart. I kissed her farewell when I went forth to school, and hurried home at night from the station, impatient for her arms. I was never Paris, and had only awe of Helen. Even then I dimly guessed her divinity, that godhead which the supremest beauty really is. But I was often Odysseus the much-enduring, and very well acquainted with the wiles of Calypso. Next in power of enchantment came certainly Don Quixote, in whose lank bones I was often encased. Dulcinea's charm was very real to me. I revelled in her honeyed name. I was Don Juan too, and I was Tom Jones; but my most natural impersonation in those years was Tristram. The luxury of that champion's sorrows had a swooning sweetness of their own of which I never tired. Iseult meant nothing. I cared nothing for her. I was enamoured of the hero, and saw myself drenched in his passion. Like Narcissus in the fable, I loved myself, and saw myself, in Tristram's form, the most beautiful and the most beloved of beings.
Chivalry and Romance chained me at that time and not the supernatural. The fairy adventures of the heroes of my love swept by me untouched. Morgan le Fay, Britomart, Vivien, Nimue, Merlin did not convince me; they were picturesque conventions whose decorative quality I felt, while so far as I was concerned they were garniture or apparatus. And yet the fruitful meadows through which I took my daily way were as forests to me; the grass-stems spired up to my fired fancy like great trees. Among them I used to minish myself to the size of an ant and become a pioneer hewing out a pathway through virgin thickets. I had my ears alert for the sound of a horn, of a galloping horse, of the Questing Beast and hounds in full cry. But I never looked to encounter a fairy in these most fairy solitudes. Beleaguered ladies, knights-errant, dwarfs, churls, fiends of hell, leaping like flames out of pits in the ground: all these, but no fairies. It's very odd that having seen the reality and devoured the fictitious, I should have had zest for neither, but so it is.
As for my school-mates, though I had very little to say to them, or they to me, I used to watch them very closely, and, as I have said, came to weave them into my dreams. Some figured as heroes, some as magnanimous allies, some as malignant enemies, some who struck me as beautiful received of me the kind of idolatry, the insensate self-surrender which creatures of my sort have always offered up to beauty of any sort. I remember T——e, a very shapely and distinguished youth. I worshipped him as a god, and have seen him since—alas! I remember B—— also, a tall, lean, loose-limbed young man. He was a great cricketer, a good-natured, sleepy giant, perfectly stupid (I am sure) but with marks of breed about him which I could not possibly mistake. Him, too, I enthroned upon my temple-frieze; he would have figured there as Meleager had I been a few years older. As it was, he rode a blazoned charger, all black, and feutred his lance with the Knights of King Arthur's court. Then there was H——n, a good-looking, good-natured boy, and T——r, another. Many and many a day did they ride forth with me adventuring—that is, spiritually they did so; physically speaking, I had no scot or lot with them. We were in plate armour, visored and beplumed. We slung our storied shields behind us; we had our spears at rest; we laughed, told tales, sang as we went through the glades of the forest, down the rutted charcoal-burner's track, and came to the black mere, where there lay a barge with oars among the reeds. I can see, now, H——n throw up his head, bared to the sky and slanting sun. He had thick and dark curly hair and a very white neck. His name of chivalry was Sagramor. T——r was of stouter build and less salient humour. He was Bors, a brother of Lancelot's. I, who was moody, here as in waking life, was Tristram, more often Tramtris.
Of other more sinister figures I remember two. R——s, who bullied me until I was provoked at last into facing him; a greedy, pale, lecherous boy, graceless, a liar, but extremely clever. I had a horror of him which endures now. If he, as I have, had a dweller in the deeps of him, his must have been a satyr. I cannot doubt it now. Disastrous ally for mortal man! Vice sat upon his face like a grease; vice made his fingers quick. He had a lickorous tongue and a taste for sweet things which even then made me sick. So repulsive was he to me, so impressed upon my fancy, that it was curious he did not haunt my inner life. But I never met him there. No shape of his ever encountered me in the wilds and solitary places. In the manifest world he afflicted me to an extent which the rogue-fairy in the wood could never have approached. Perhaps it was that all my being was forearmed against him, and that I fought him off. At any rate he never trespassed in my preserves.
The other was R——d, a bleared and diseased creature, a thing of pity and terror to the wholesome, one of those outcasts of the world which every school has to know and reckon with. A furtive, nail-bitten, pick-nose wretch with an unholy hunger for ink, earth-worms and the like. What terrible tenant do the likes of these carry about with them! He, too, haunted me, but not fearfully; but he, too, I now understand too well, was haunted and ridden to doom. I pitied him, tried to be kind to him, tried to treat him as the human thing which in some sort he was. I discovered that when he was interested he forgot his loathsome cravings, and became almost lovable. I went home with him once, to a mean house in ——. He took me into the backyard and showed me his treasury—half a dozen rabbits, as many guinea-pigs, and a raven with a bald head. He was all kindness to these prisoners, fondled them with hands and voice, spoke a kind of inarticulate baby language to them, and gave them pet names. He forgot his misery, his poverty—I remember that he never had a handkerchief and always wanted one, that his jacket-sleeves were near his elbow, and that his wrist bones were red and broken. But now there shone a clear light in his eye; he could face the world as he spoke to me of the habits of his friends. We got upon some sort of terms by these means, and I always had a kind of affection for poor R——d. In a sense we were both outcasts, and might have warmed the world for each other. If I had not been so entirely absorbed in my private life as to grudge any moment of it unnecessarily spent I should have asked him home. But boys are exorbitant in their own affairs, and I had no time to spare him.
I was a year at —— before I got so far with any schoolfellow of mine there; but just about the time of my visit to R——d I fell in with another boy, called Harkness, who, for some reason of his own, desired my closer acquaintance and got as much of it as I was able to give to anybody, and a good deal more than he deserved or I was the better of. He, too, was a day-boy, whose people lived in a suburb of the town which lay upon my road. We scraped acquaintance by occasionally travelling together so much of the way as he had to traverse; from this point onward all the advances were his. I had no liking for him, and, in fact, some of his customs shocked me. But he was older than I, very friendly, and very interesting. He evidently liked me; he asked me to tea with him; he used to wait for me, going and returning. I had no means of refusing his acquaintance, and did not; but I got no good out of him.
As he was older, so he was much more competent. Not so much vicious as curious and enterprising, he knew a great many things which I only guessed at, and could do much—or said that he could—which I only dreamed about. He put a good deal of heart into my instruction, and left me finally with my lesson learned. I never saw nor heard of him after I left the school. We did not correspond, and he left no mark upon me of any kind. The lesson learned, I used the knowledge certainly; but it did not take me into the region which he knew best. His grove of philosophy was close to the school, in K—— Park, which is a fine enclosure of forest trees, glades, brake-fern and deer. Here, in complete solitude, for we never saw a soul, my sentimental education was begun by this self-appointed professor. As I remember, he was a good-looking lad enough, with a round and merry face, high colour, bright eyes, a moist and laughing mouth. Had he known the way in he would have been at home in the Garden of Priapus, where perhaps he is now. He was hardy in address, a ready speaker, rather eloquent upon the theme that he loved, and I dare say he may have been as fortunate as he said, or very nearly. Certainly what he had to tell me of love and women opened my understanding. I believe that I envied him his ease of attainment more than what he said he had attained. I might have been stimulated by his adventures to be adventurous on my own account, but I never was, neither at that time nor at any other. I am quite certain that never in my life have I gone forth conquering and to conquer in affairs of the heart. You need to be a Casanova—which Harkness was in his little way—and I have had no aptitude for the part. But as I said just now I absorbed his teachings and made use of them. So far as he gave me food for reflection I ate it, and assimilated it in my own manner. Neither by him nor by any person far more considerable than himself has my imagination been moved in the direction of the mover of it. Let great poet, great musician, great painter stir me ever so deeply, I have never been able to follow him an inch. I was excited by pictures to see new pictures of my own, by poems to make poems—of my own, not of theirs. In these, no doubt, were elements of theirs; there was a borrowed something, a quality, an accent, a spirit of attack. But the forms were mine, and the setting always so. All my life I have used other men's art and wisdom as a spring-board. I suppose every poet can say the same. This was to be the use to me of the lessons of the precocious, affectionate, and philoprogenitive Harkness.
I remember very well one golden summer evening when he and I lay talking under a great oak—he expounding and I plucking at the grass as I listened, or let my mind go free—how, quite suddenly, the mesh he was weaving about my groping mind parted in the midst and showed me for an appreciable moment a possibility of something—it was no more—which he could never have seen.
From the dense shade in which we lay there stretched out an avenue of timber trees, whereunder the bracken, breast high, had been cut to make a ride. Upon this bracken, and upon this smooth channel in the midst the late sun streamed toward us, a soft wash of gold. Behind all this the sky, pale to whiteness immediately overhead, deepened to the splendid orange of the sunset. Each tree cast his shadow upon his neighbour, so that only the topmost branches burned in the light. Over and above us floated the drowsy hum of the insect world; rarely we heard the moaning of a wood-dove, more rarely still the stirring of deer hidden in the thicket shade. This was a magical evening, primed with wonders, in the glamour of which Master Harkness could find nothing better for him to rehearse than the progress of his amours with his mother's housemaid. Yet something of the evening glow, something of the opulence of summer smouldered in his words. He painted his mistress with the colour of the sunset, he borrowed of it burnt gold to deck her clay. He hymned the whiteness of her neck, her slender waist, her whispers, the kisses of her mouth. The scamp was luxuriating in his own imaginings or reminiscences, much less of a lover and far more of a rhapsodist than he suspected. As such his paean of precocious love stirred my senses and fired my imagination, but not in the direction of his own. For the glow which he cast upon his affair was a borrowed one. He had dipped without knowing into the languid glory of the evening, which like a pool of wealth lay ready to my hand also. I gave him faint attention from the first. After he had started my thoughts he might sing rapture after rapture of his young and ardent sense. For me the spirit of a world not his whispered, "A te convien tenere altro viaggio," and little as I knew it, in my vague exploration of that scene of beauty, of those scarcely stirring, stilly burning trees, of that shimmering-fronded fern, of that misty splendour, I was hunting for the soul of it all, for the informing spirit of it all. Harkness's erotics gave ardour to my search, but no clew. I lost him, left him behind, and never found him again. He fell into the Garden of Priapus, I doubt. As for me, I believed that I was now looking upon a Dryad. I was looking certainly at a spirit informed. A being, irradiate and quivering with life and joy of life, stood dipt to the breast in the brake; stood so, bathing in the light; stood so, preening herself like a pigeon on the roof-edge, and saw me and took no heed.
She had appeared, or had been manifest to me, quite suddenly. At one moment I saw the avenue of lit green, at another she was dipt in it. I could describe her now, at this distance of time—a radiant young female thing, fiercely favoured, smiling with a fierce joy, with a gleam of fierce light in her narrowed eyes. Upon her body and face was the hue of the sun's red beam; her hair, loose and fanned out behind her head, was of the colour of natural silk, but diaphanous as well as burnished, so that while the surfaces glittered like spun glass the deeps of it were translucent and showed the fire behind. Her garment was thin and grey, and it clung to her like a bark, seemed to grow upon her as a creeping stone-weed grows. Harkness would have admired the audacity of her shape, as I did; but I found nothing provocative in it. As well might a boy have enamoured himself of a slim tree as of that unearthly shaft of beauty.
I said that she preened herself; the word is inexact. She rather stood bathing in the light, motionless but for the lifting of her face into it that she might dip, or for the bending of her head that the warmth behind her might strike upon the nape of her neck. Those were all her movements, slowly rehearsed, and again and again rehearsed. With each of them she thrilled anew; she thrilled and glowed responsive to the play of the light. I don't know whether she saw me, though it seemed to me that our looks had encountered. If her eyes had taken me in I should have known it, I think; and if I had known it I should have quailed and looked at her no more. So shamefaced was I, so self-conscious, that I can be positive about that; for far from avoiding her I watched her intently, studied her in all her parts, and found out some curious things.
Looking at her beside the oaks, for instance, whence she must have emanated, I could judge why it was that I had not seen her come out. Her colouring was precisely that of her background. Her garment, smock or frock or vest as you will, was grey-green like the oak stems, her whites were those of the sky-gleams, her roses those of the sun's rays. The maze of her hair could hardly be told from the photosphere. I tested this simply and summarily. Shutting my eyes for a second, when I opened them she was gone. Shutting them again and opening, there she was, sunning herself, breathing deep and long, watching her own beauties as the light played with them. I tried this many times and it did not fail me. I could, with her assistance, bring her upon my retina or take her off it, as if I had worked a shutter across my eyes. But as I watched her so I got very excited. Her business was so mysterious, her pleasure in it so absorbing; she was visible and yet secret; I was visible, and yet she could be ignorant of it. I got the same throbbing sort of interest out of her as many and many a time I have got since out of watching other wild creatures at their affairs, crouching hidden where they could not discern me by any of their senses. Few things enthral me more than that—and here I had my first taste of it. I remember that my heart beat, I remember that I trembled. Nothing could have torn me from the spot but what precisely did, an alien intervention. The besotted Harkness stopped short in his recital and asked me what I was staring at.
That was the end of it. I had rather have died than tell him. Perhaps I was afraid of his mockery, perhaps I dared not risk his unbelief, perhaps I felt ashamed that I had been prying, perhaps I grudged him the sight of her moulded beauty and keen wild face. "What am I staring at? Why, nothing," I said. I got up and put the strap of my school satchel over my head. I never looked for her again before I walked away. Whether she left when I left, whether she was really there or a projection of my mind, whether my inner self, my prisoner, had seen her, or my schoolboy self through his agency, whether it was a trick of the senses, a dream, or the like I can't tell you. I only know that I have now recalled exactly what I seemed to see, and that I have seen her since—her or her co-mate—once or twice.
I can account for her now easily enough. I can assure myself that she was really there, that she, or the like of her, pervades, haunts, indwells all such places; but it seems that there must be a right relation between the seer and the object before the unseen can become the seen. Put it like this, that form is a necessary convention of our being, a mode of consciousness just as space is, just as time, just as rhythm are; then it is clear enough that the spirits of natural fact must take on form and sensible body before we can apprehend them. They take on such form for us or such body through our means; that is what I mean by a right relation between them and ourselves. Now some persons have the faculty of discerning spirits, that is, of clothing them in bodily form, and others have not; but of those who have it all do not discern them in the same form, or clothe them in the same body. The form will be rhythmical to some, to other some audible, to others yet again odorous, "aromatic pain," or bliss. These modes are no matter, they are accidents of our state. They cause the form to be relative, just as the conception of God is; but the substance is constant. I have seen innumerable spirits, but always in bodily form. I have never perceived them by means of any other sense, such as hearing, though sight has occasionally been assisted by hearing. If during an orchestral symphony you look steadily enough at one musician or another you can always hear his instrument above the rest and follow his part in the symphony. In the same way when I look at fairy throngs I can hear them sing. If I single out one of them for observation I hear him or her sing—not words, never words; they have none. I saw once, like a driven cloud, the spirits of the North-west wind sweep down the sky over the bare ridge of a chalk down, winged and shrouded, eager creatures, embattled like a host. They were grey and dun-coloured, pale in the face. Their hair swept forward, not back; for it seemed as if the wind in gusts went faster than themselves, and was driving them faster than they could go. Another might well have heard these beings like a terrible, rushing music, as cries of havoc or desolation, wild peals of laughter, fury and exultation. But to me they were inaudible. I heard the volleying of the wind, but them I saw. So in the still ecstasy of that Dryad bathing in light I saw, beyond doubt, what the Greeks called by that name, what some of them saw; and I saw it in their mode, although at the time of seeing I knew nothing of them or their modes, because it happened to be also my mode. But so far I did not more than see her, for though I haunted the place where she had been she never came there again, nor never showed herself. It became to me sacred ground, where with awed breath I could say, "Here indeed she stood and bathed herself. Here I really saw her, and she me;" and I encompassed it with a fantastic cult of my own invention. It may have been very comic, or very foolish, but I don't myself think it was either, because it was so sincere, and because the impulse to do it came so naturally. I used to bare my head; I made a point of saving some of my luncheon (which I took with me to school) that I might leave it there. It was real sacrifice that, because I had a fine appetite, and it was pure worship. In my solitary hours, which were many, I walked with her of course, talked and played with her. But that was another thing, imagination, or fancy, and I don't remember anything of what we said or did. It needs to be carefully distinguished from the first apparition with which imagination, having nothing whatever to proceed upon, had nothing whatever to do. One thing, however, I do remember, that our relations were entirely sexless; and, as I write, another comes into mind. I saw no affinity between her and the creature of my first discovery. It never occurred to me to connect the two either positively, as being inhabitants of a world of their own, or negatively, as not being of my world. I was not a reflective boy, but my mind proceeded upon flashes, by leaps of intuition. When I was moved I could conceive anything, everything; when I was unmoved I was as dull as a clod. It was idle to tell me to think. I could only think when I was moved from within to think. That made me the despair of my father and the vessel of my schoolmaster's wrath. So here I saw no relationship whatsoever between the two appearances. Now, of course, I do. I see now that both were fairies, informed spirits of certain times or places. For time has a spirit as well as space. But more of this in due season. I am not synthesising now but recording. One had been merely curious, the other for a time enthralled me. The first had been made when I was too young to be interested. The second found me more prepared, and seeded in my brain for many a day. Gradually, however, it too faded as fancy began to develop within me. I took to writing, I began to fall in love; and at fifteen I went to a boarding-school. Farewell, then, to rewards and fairies!
THE GODS IN THE SCHOOLHOUSE
Who am I to treat of the private affairs of my betters, to evoke your fragrant names, Felicite, Perpetua, loves of my tender youth? Shall I forget thee, Emilia, thy slow smile and peering brown eyes of mischief or appeal? Rosy Lauretta, or thee, whom I wooed desperately from afar, lured by thy buxom wellbeing, thy meek and schooled replies? And if I forget you not, how shall I explore you as maladies, trace out the stages of your conquest as if you were spores? Never, never. Worship went up from me to you, and worship is religion, and religion is sacred. So, my dears, were you, each of you in your turn, sacred in your shrines. Before each of you in turn I fell down, suddenly, "Come corpo morto cadde." And to each of you in turn I devoted those waking hours which fancy had hitherto claimed of me. Yet this I do feel free to say, by leave of you ladies, that calf-love has not the educative value of the genuine passion. It is blind worship by instinct; it is a sign of awakening sense, but it is not its awakener. It is a lovely thing as all quick or burning growth is, but it has little relation to the soul, and our Northern state is the more gracious that consummation of it is not feasible. Apart from the very obvious drawbacks there is one not quite so obvious: I mean the early exhaustion of imaginative sympathy. Love, indeed, is an affair of maturity. I don't believe that a man, in this country, can love before forty or a woman before thirty-five. They may marry before that and have children; and they will love their children, but very rarely each other. I am thinking now of love at its highest rating, as that passion which is able to lift a man to the highest flight of which the soul is capable here on earth—a flight, mind you, which it may take without love, as the poet's takes it, or the musician's, but which the ordinary man's can only take by means of love. Calf-love is wholly a sex matter, perfectly natural, mostly harmless, and nearly always a beautiful thing, to be treated tenderly by the wise parent.
In my own case my mother treated it so, with a tact and a reverential handling which only good women know, and I had it as I had mumps and measles, badly, with a high temperature and some delirium but with no aggravation from outside. It ran its course or its courses and left me sane. One of its effects upon me was that it diverted the mind of my forensic self from the proceedings or aptitudes of my recondite. I neither knew nor cared what my wayward tenant might be doing; indeed, so much was my natural force concerned in the heart-affair of the moment that the other wretch within me lay as it were bound in a dungeon. He never saw the light. The sun to him was dark and silent was the moon. There, in fact, he remained for some five or six years, while sex pricked its way into me intent upon the making of a man. He, maybe, was to have something to say to that, something to do with it—but not yet.
So much for calf-love; but now for a more important matter. I left the Grammar School at S——, at the age when boys usually go to their Harrow and Winchester, as well equipped, I daresay, as most boys of my years; for with the rudiments I had been fairly diligent, and with some of them even had become expert. I was well grounded in Latin and French grammar, and in English literature was far ahead of boys much older than myself. Looking back now upon the drilling I had at S——, I consider it was well done; but I have to set against the benefits I got from the system the fact that I had much privacy and all the chance which that gives a boy to educate himself withal. My school hours limited my intercourse with the school world. Before and after them I could develop at my own pace and in my own way—and I did. I believe that when I went to my great school I had the makings of an interesting lad in me; but I declare upon my conscience that it was that place only which checked the promise for ten years or more, and might have withered it altogether.
My father was an idealist of 1851; he showed the enthusiasm and nursed in his bosom the hopes and beliefs of the promoters of the International Exhibition of that year. There was a plentiful planting of foreign stock in England after that, and one of its weedy saplings was an International Education Company, which out of a magniloquent prospectus and some too-confident shareholders bore one fruit, the London International College at Spring Grove. It never came to maturity, and is now dropped and returned to the ground of all such schemes. I suppose it had been on the stalk some fifteen years when I went to feed of it.
The scheme, in fact, sprang out of enthusiasm and had no bottom in experience. It may be true that all men are brothers, but it is not logical to infer from that that all brothers are the better for each other's society. The raw Brazilians, Chilians, Nicaraguans and what not who were drawn from their native forests and plunged into the company of blockish Yorkshire lads, or sharp-faced London boys, were only scared into rebellion and to demonstration after their manner. They used the knife sometimes; they hardly ever assimilated; and they taught us nothing that we were the better of knowing. Quite the contrary. We taught them football, I think, and I remember a negro from Bermuda, a giant of a fellow who raged over the ground like a goaded bull when that game was being played, to the consternation of his opponents. He had a younger brother with inordinately long arms, like a great lax ape, a cheerful, grinning, harmless creature as I remember him. He was a football player too; his hug was that of an octopus which swallowed you all. As for the English, in return for their football lore they received the gift of tobacco. I learned to smoke at fifteen from a Chilian called Perez, a wizened, preternaturally wise, old youth. Nobody in the world could have been wise as he looked, and nobody else in the school as dull as he really was. Over this motley assembly was set as house-master a ferocious Scotchman of great parts, but no discretion; and there were assistants, too, of scholarship and refinement, who, if they had had the genius for education, without which these things are nothing, might have put humanity into some of us. When it was past the time I discovered this, and one of them became my friend and helper. I then discovered the tragedy of our system from the other side. For the pain is a two-edged sword, and imbrues the breast of the pedagogue even while it bleeds the pupil to inanition. That poor man, scholar, gentleman, humourist, poet, as he was, held boys in terror. He misdoubted them; they made him self-conscious, betrayed him into strange hidden acts of violence, rendered him incapable of instruction except of the most conventional kind. All his finer nature, his humanism, was paralysed. We thought him a poor fool, and got a crude entertainment out of his antics. Actually he was tormenting in a flame; and we thought his contortions ridiculous. God help us all, how are we to get at each other, caged creatures as we are! But this is indeed a tragic business, and I don't want you to tear your hair.
I remained at Spring Grove, I think, four or five years, a barren, profitless time. I remember scarcely one gleam of interest which pierced for more than a few moments the thick gloom of it. The cruel, dull, false gods of English convention (for thought it is not) held me fast; masters and pupils alike were jailers to me. I ate and drank of their provision and can recall still with nausea the sour, stale taste, and still choke with the memory of the chaff and grit of its quality. Accursed, perverse generation! God forbid that any child of mine should suffer as I suffered, starve as I starved, stray where I was driven to stray. The English boarding-school system is that of the straw-yard where colts are broken by routine, and again of the farmyard where pups are walked. Drill in school, laissez-faire out of it. It is at once too dull and too indolent to recognise character or even to look for it; it recks nothing of early development or late; it measures young humanity for its class-rooms like a tailor, with the yard measure. The discipline of boy over boy is, as might be expected, brutal or bestial. The school-yard is taken for the world in small, and so allowed to be. There is no thought taken, or at least betrayed, that it is nothing more than a preparation for the world at large. There is no reason, however, to suppose that the International College was worse than any other large boarding-school. I fancy, indeed, that it was in all points like the rest. There were no traces in my time of the Brotherhood of Man about it. A few Portuguese, a negro or two were there, and a multitude of Jews. But I fancy I should have found the same sort of thing at Eton.
I was not in any sense suited to such a place as this; if I had been sent to travel it had been better for me. I was "difficult," not because I was stiff but because I was lax. I resisted nothing except by inertia. If my parents did not know me—and how should they?—if I did not know myself, and I did not, my masters, for their part, made no attempt to know me nor even inquired whether there might be anything to know. I was unpopular, as might have been expected, made no friends, did no good. My brother, on the other hand, was an ideal schoolboy, diligent, brisk, lovable, abounding in friendships, good at his work and excellent at his play. His career at Spring Grove was one long happy triumph, and he deserved it. He has a charming nature, and is one of the few naturally holy persons I know. Wholesome, thank God, we all are, or could be; pious we nearly all are; but holiness is a rare quality.
If I were to try and set down here the really happy memories which I have of Spring Grove they would be three. The first was the revelation of Greece which was afforded me by Homer and Plato. The surging music and tremendous themes of the poet, the sweet persuasion of the sophist were a wonder and delight. I remember even now the thrill with which I heard my form-master translate for us the prayer with which the Phaedrus closes: "Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place...." Beloved Pan! My knowledge of Pan was of the vaguest, and yet more than once or twice did I utter that prayer wandering alone the playing field, or watching the evening mist roll down the Thames Valley and blot up the elm trees, thick and white, clinging to the day like a fleece. The third Iliad again I have never forgotten, nor the twenty-fourth; nor the picture of the two gods, like vulture birds, watching the battle from the dead tree. Nor, again, do I ever fail to recapture the beat of the heart with which I apprehended some of Homer's phrases: "Sandy Pylos," Argos "the pasture land of horses," or "clear-seen" Ithaca. These things happened upon by chance in the dusty class-room, in the close air of that terrible hour from two to three, were as the opening of shutters to the soul, revealing blue distances, dim fields, or the snowy peaks of mountains in the sun. One seemed to lift, one could forget. It lasted but an instant; but time is of no account to the inner soul, of no more account than it is to God. I have never forgotten these moments of escape; nor can I leave Homer without confessing that his books became my Bible. I accepted his theology implicitly; I swallowed it whole. The Godhead of the Olympians, the lesser divinity of Thetis and Alpheios and Xanthos were indisputable. They were infinitely more real to me than the deities of my own land; and though I have found room for these later on in life, it has not been by displacing the others. Nor is there any need for that, so far as I see. I say that out of Homer I took his Gods; I add that I took them instantly. I seemed to breathe the air of their breath; they appealed to my reason; I knew that they had existed and did still exist. I was not shocked or shaken in my faith, either, by anything I read about them. Young as I was and insipient, I was prepared for what is called the burlesque Olympus of the Iliad, so grievous to Professor Murray. I think I recognised then, what seems perfectly plain to me now, that you might as well think meanly of a God of Africa because the natives make him of a cocoanut on a stick, as of Zeus and Hera because Homer says that they played peccant husband and jealous wife. If Homer halted it is rash to assume that Hephaistos did. The pathetic fallacy has crept in here. Mythology was one of the few subjects I diligently read at school, and all I got out of it was pure profit—for I realised that the Gods' world was not ours, and that when their natures came in conflict with ours some such interpretation must always be put upon their victory. We have a moral law for our mutual wellbeing which they have not. We translate their deeds in terms of that law of ours, and it certainly appears like a standing fact of Nature that when the beings of one order come into commerce with those of another the result will be tragic. There is only a harmony in acquiescence, and the way to that is one of blood and tears.
Brooding over all this I discerned dimly, even in that dusty, brawling place, and time showed me more and more clearly, that I had always been aware of the Gods and conscious of their omnipresence. It seemed plain to me that Zeus, whose haunt is dark Dodona, lorded it over the English skies and was to be heard in the thunder crashing over the elms of Middlesex. I knew Athene in the shrill wind which battled through the vanes and chimneys of our schoolhouse. Artemis was Lady of my country. By Apollo's light might I too come to be led. Poseidon of the dark locks girdled my native seas. I had had good reason to know the awfulness of Pan, and guessed that some day I should couch with Kore the pale Queen. I called them by these names, since these names expressed to me their essence: you may call them what you will, and so might I, for I had not then reasoned with myself about names. By their names I knew them. The Gods were there, indeed, ignorantly worshipped by all and sundry. Then the Dryad of my earlier experience came up again, and I saw that she stood in such a relation to the Gods as I did, perhaps, to the Queen of England; that she, no less than they, was part of a wonderful order, and the visible expression of the spirit of some Natural Fact. But whether above all the Gods and nations of men and beasts there were one God and Father of us all, whether all Nature were one vast synthesis of Spirit having innumerable appearance but one soul, I did not then stay to inquire, and am not now prepared to say. I don't mean by that at all that I don't believe it. I do believe it, but by an act of religion; for there are states of the individual mind, states of impersonal soul in which this belief is a positive truth, in the which one exults madly, or by it is humbled to the dust. Religion, to my mind, is the result of this consciousness of kinship with the principle of Life; all the emotion and moral uplifting involved in this tremendous certainty, and all the lore gathered and massed about it—this is Religion. Young as I was at the time I now speak of, ignorant and dumb as I was, I had my moments of exultation and humility,—moments so wild that I was transported out of myself. I left my body supine in its narrow bed and soared above the stars. At such times, in an aether so deep that the blue of it looked like water, I seemed to see the Gods themselves, a shining row of them, upon the battlements of Heaven. I called Heaven Olympus, and conceived of Olympus as a towered city upon a white hill. Looming up out of the deep blue arch, it was vast and covered the whole plateau: I saw the walls of it run up and down the ridges, in and out of the gorges which cut into the mass. It had gates, but I never saw forms of any who entered or left it. It was full of light, and had the look of habitancy about it; but I saw no folk. Only at rare moments of time while I hovered afar off looking at the wonder and radiance of it, the Gods appeared above the battlements in a shining row—still and awful, each of them ten feet high.
These were fine dreams for a boy of sixteen in a schoolhouse dormitory. They were mine, though: but I dreamed them awake. I awoke before they began, always, and used to sit up trembling and wait for them.
An apologue, if you please. On the sacred road from Athens to Eleusis, about midway of its course, and just beyond the pass, there is a fork in it, and a stony path branches off and leads up into the hills. There, in the rock, is a shallow cave, and before that, where once was an altar of Aphrodite, the ruins of her shrine and precinct may be seen. As I was going to Eleusis the other day, I stopped the carriage to visit the place. Now, beside the cave is a niche, cut square in the face of the rock, for offerings; and in that niche I found a fresh bunch of field flowers, put there by I know not what dusty-foot wayfarer. That was no longer ago than last May, and the man who did the piety was a Christian, I suppose. So do I avow myself, without derogation, I hope, to the profession; for no more than Mr. Robert Kirk, a minister of religion in Scotland in the seventeenth century, do I consider that a knowledge of the Gods is incompatible with belief in God. There is a fine distinction for you: I believe that God exists; I infer him by reason stimulated by desire. But I know that the Gods exist by other means than those. If I could be as sure of God as I am of the Gods, I might perhaps be a better Christian, but I should not believe any less in the Gods.
* * * * *
I found religion through Homer: I found poetry through Milton, whose Comus we had to read for examination by some learned Board. If any one thing definitely committed me to poesy it was that poem; and as has nearly always happened to me, the crisis of discovery came in a flash. We were all there ranked at our inky desks on some drowsy afternoon. The books lay open before us, the lesson, I suppose, prepared. But what followed had not been prepared—that some one began to read:
"The star that bids the shepherd fold Now the top of Heav'n doth hold; And the gilded car of day His glowing axle doth allay In the steep Atlantic stream"—
and immediately, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, it was changed—for me—from verse to poetry; that is, from a jingle to a significant fact. It was more than it appeared; it was transfigured; its implication was manifest. That's all I can say—except this, that, untried as I was, I jumped into the poetic skin of the thing, and felt as if I had written it. I knew all about it, "e'l chi, e'l quale"; I was privy to its intricacy; I caught without instruction the alternating beat in the second line, and savoured all the good words, gilded car, glowing axle, Star that bids the shepherd fold. Allay ravished me, young as I was. I knew why he had called the Atlantic stream steep, and remembered Homer's "[Greek: Stugos hudatos aipa rheethra]." Good soul, our pedagogue suggested deep! I remember to this hour the sinking of the heart with which I heard him. But the flash passed and darkness again gathered about me, the normal darkness of those hateful days. "Sabrina fair" lifted it; my sky showed me an amber shaft. I am recording moments, the reader will remember, the few gleams which visited me in youth. I was far from the time when I could connect them, see that poetry was the vesture of religion, the woven garment whereby we see God. Love had to teach me that. I was not born until I loved.
My third happy memory is of a brief and idyllic attachment, very fervent, very romantic, entirely my own, and as I remember it, now, entirely beautiful. Nothing remains but the fragrance of it, and its dream-like quality, the sense I have of straying with the beloved through a fair country. Such things assure me that I was not wholly dead during those crushing years of servitude.
But those are, as I say, gleams out of the dark. They comfort me with the thought that the better part of me was not dead, but buried here with the worse. They point also to the truth, as I take it to be, that the lack of privacy is one of the most serious detriments of public-school life. I don't say that privacy is good for all boys, or that it is good for any unless they are provided with a pursuit. It is true that many boys seek to be private that they may be vicious, and that the having the opportunity for privacy leads to vice. But that is nearly always the fault of the masters. Vice is due to the need for mental or material excitement; it is a crude substitute for romance. If a boy is debarred from good romance, because he doesn't feel it or hasn't been taught to feel it, he will take to bad. It is nothing else at all: he is bored. And remembering that a boy can only think of one thing at a time, the single aim of the master should be to give every boy in his charge some sane interest which he can pursue to the death, as a terrier chases a smell, in and out, up and down, every nerve bent and quivering. There is a problem of the teaching art which the College at Spring Grove made no attempt to solve while I was there. You either played football and cricket or you were negligible. I was bad at both, was negligible, and neglected.
I suspect that my experiences are very much those of other people, and that is why I have taken the trouble to articulate them, and perhaps to make them out more coherent than they were. We don't feel in images or think in words. The images are about us, the words may be at hand; but it may well be that we are better without them. This world is a tight fit, and life in it, as the Duke said of one day of his own life, is "a devilish close-run thing." If the blessed Gods and the legions of the half-gods in their habit as they live, were to be as clear to us as our neighbour Tom or our chief at the office, what might be the lot of Tom's wife, or what the security of our high stool at the desk? As things are, our blank misgivings are put down to nerves, our yearning for wings to original sin. The policeman at the street corner sees to it, for our good, that we put out of sight these things, and so we grow rich and make a good appearance. It is only when we are well on in years that we can afford to be precise and, looking back, to remember the celestial light, the glory and the freshness of the dream in which we walked and bathed ourselves.
THE SOUL AT THE WINDOW
When I had been in London a year or two, and the place with its hordes was become less strange and less formidable to me, I began to discover it for myself. Gradually the towering cliffs resolved themselves into houses, and the houses into shrouded holds, each with character and each hiding a mystery. They now stood solitary which had before been an agglutinated mass. Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.... I knew one from the other by sight, and had for each a specific sensation of attraction or repulsion, of affection or terror. I read through the shut doors, I saw through the blank windows; not a house upon my daily road but held a drama or promised a tragedy. I had no sense for comedy in those days; life to me, waking life, was always a dreadful thing. And sometimes my bodily eyes had glimpses which confirmed my fancy—unexpected, sudden and vivid flashes behind curtained windows. I once saw two men fighting, shadowed black upon a white blind. I once looked out of a window at the Army and Navy Stores into a mean bedroom across the way. There was a maidservant in there, making beds, emptying slops, tidying this and that. Quite suddenly she threw her head up with a real despair, and next moment she was on her knees by the bed. Praying! I never saw prayer like that in this country. The soul went streaming from her mouth like blown smoke. And again, one night, very late, I was going to bed, and leaned out of my window for air. Before me, across back yards, leafless trees, and a litter of packing-cases and straw, rose up a dark rampart of houses, in the midst of it a lit window. I saw a poorly furnished sitting-room—a table with a sewing machine, a paraffin lamp, a chair with an antimacassar. A man in his shirt sleeves sat there by the table, smoking a pipe. Then the door opened and a tall, slim woman came in, all in white, with loose dark hair floating about her shoulders. She stood between door and table and rested her hand upon the edge of the table. The man, after a while of continuing to read, quite suddenly looked up and saw her. They looked at each other motionless. He cast down his paper, sprang up and went to her. He fell to his knees before her and clasped hers. She looked across, gravely considering, then laid her hand upon his head. That was all. I saw no more. Husband and wife? Mother and son? Sinner and Saviour? What do I know?