Not That it Matters by A. A. Milne
The Pleasure of Writing Acacia Road My Library The Chase Superstition The Charm of Golf Goldfish Saturday to Monday The Pond A Seventeenth-century Story Our Learned Friends A Word for Autumn A Christmas Number No Flowers by Request The Unfairness of Things Daffodils A Household Book Lunch The Friend of Man The Diary Habit Midsummer Day At the Bookstall "Who's Who" A Day at Lord's By the Sea Golden Fruit Signs of Character Intellectual Snobbery A Question of Form A Slice of Fiction The Label The Profession Smoking as a Fine Art The Path to Glory A Problem in Ethics The Happiest Half-hours of Life Natural Science On Going Dry A Misjudged Game A Doubtful Character Thoughts on Thermometers For a Wet Afternoon Declined with Thanks On Going into a House The Ideal Author
Not That it Matters
The Pleasure of Writing
Sometimes when the printer is waiting for an article which really should have been sent to him the day before, I sit at my desk and wonder if there is any possible subject in the whole world upon which I can possibly find anything to say. On one such occasion I left it to Fate, which decided, by means of a dictionary opened at random, that I should deliver myself of a few thoughts about goldfish. (You will find this article later on in the book.) But to-day I do not need to bother about a subject. To-day I am without a care. Nothing less has happened than that I have a new nib in my pen.
In the ordinary way, when Shakespeare writes a tragedy, or Mr. Blank gives you one of his charming little essays, a certain amount of thought goes on before pen is put to paper. One cannot write "Scene I. An Open Place. Thunder and Lightning. Enter Three Witches," or "As I look up from my window, the nodding daffodils beckon to me to take the morning," one cannot give of one's best in this way on the spur of the moment. At least, others cannot. But when I have a new nib in my pen, then I can go straight from my breakfast to the blotting-paper, and a new sheet of foolscap fills itself magically with a stream of blue-black words. When poets and idiots talk of the pleasure of writing, they mean the pleasure of giving a piece of their minds to the public; with an old nib a tedious business. They do not mean (as I do) the pleasure of the artist in seeing beautifully shaped "k's" and sinuous "s's" grow beneath his steel. Anybody else writing this article might wonder "Will my readers like it?" I only tell myself "How the compositors will love it!"
But perhaps they will not love it. Maybe I am a little above their heads. I remember on one First of January receiving an anonymous postcard wishing me a happy New Year, and suggesting that I should give the compositors a happy New Year also by writing more generously. In those days I got a thousand words upon one sheet 8 in. by 5 in. I adopted the suggestion, but it was a wrench; as it would be for a painter of miniatures forced to spend the rest of his life painting the Town Council of Boffington in the manner of Herkomer. My canvases are bigger now, but they are still impressionistic. "Pretty, but what is it?" remains the obvious comment; one steps back a pace and saws the air with the hand; "You see it better from here, my love," one says to one's wife. But if there be one compositor not carried away by the mad rush of life, who in a leisurely hour (the luncheon one, for instance) looks at the beautiful words with the eye of an artist, not of a wage-earner, he, I think, will be satisfied; he will be as glad as I am of my new nib. Does it matter, then, what you who see only the printed word think of it?
A woman, who had studied what she called the science of calligraphy, once offered to tell my character from my handwriting. I prepared a special sample for her; it was full of sentences like "To be good is to be happy," "Faith is the lode- star of life," "We should always be kind to animals," and so on. I wanted her to do her best. She gave the morning to it, and told me at lunch that I was "synthetic." Probably you think that the compositor has failed me here and printed "synthetic" when I wrote "sympathetic." In just this way I misunderstood my calligraphist at first, and I looked as sympathetic as I could. However, she repeated "synthetic," so that there could be no mistake. I begged her to tell me more, for I had thought that every letter would reveal a secret, but all she would add was "and not analytic." I went about for the rest of the day saying proudly to myself "I am synthetic! I am synthetic! I am synthetic!" and then I would add regretfully, "Alas, I am not analytic!" I had no idea what it meant.
And how do you think she had deduced my syntheticness? Simply from the fact that, to save time, I join some of my words together. That isn't being synthetic, it is being in a hurry. What she should have said was, "You are a busy man; your life is one constant whirl; and probably you are of excellent moral character and kind to animals." Then one would feel that one did not write in vain.
My pen is getting tired; it has lost its first fair youth. However, I can still go on. I was at school with a boy whose uncle made nibs. If you detect traces of erudition in this article, of which any decent man might be expected to be innocent, I owe it to that boy. He once told me how many nibs his uncle made in a year; luckily I have forgotten. Thousands, probably. Every term that boy came back with a hundred of them; one expected him to be very busy. After all, if you haven't the brains or the inclination to work, it is something to have the nibs. These nibs, however, were put to better uses. There is a game you can play with them; you flick your nib against the other boy's nib, and if a lucky shot puts the head of yours under his, then a sharp tap capsizes him, and you have a hundred and one in your collection. There is a good deal of strategy in the game (whose finer points I have now forgotten), and I have no doubt that they play it at the Admiralty in the off season. Another game was to put a clean nib in your pen, place it lightly against the cheek of a boy whose head was turned away from you, and then call him suddenly. As Kipling says, we are the only really humorous race. This boy's uncle died a year or two later and left about 80,000, but none of it to his nephew. Of course, he had had the nibs every term. One mustn't forget that.
The nib I write this with is called the "Canadian Quill"; made, I suppose, from some steel goose which flourishes across the seas, and which Canadian housewives have to explain to their husbands every Michaelmas. Well, it has seen me to the end of what I wanted to say—if indeed I wanted to say anything. For it was enough for me this morning just to write; with spring coming in through the open windows and my good Canadian quill in my hand, I could have copied out a directory. That is the real pleasure of writing.
Of course there are disadvantages of suburban life. In the fourth act of the play there may be a moment when the fate of the erring wife hangs in the balance, and utterly regardless of this the last train starts from Victoria at 11.15. It must be annoying to have to leave her at such a crisis; it must be annoying too to have to preface the curtailed pleasures of the play with a meat tea and a hasty dressing in the afternoon. But, after all, one cannot judge life from its facilities for playgoing. It would be absurd to condemn the suburbs because of the 11.15.
There is a road eight miles from London up which I have walked sometimes on my way to golf. I think it is called Acacia Road; some pretty name like that. It may rain in Acacia Road, but never when I am there. The sun shines on Laburnum Lodge with its pink may tree, on the Cedars with its two clean limes, it casts its shadow on the ivy of Holly House, and upon the whole road there rests a pleasant afternoon peace. I cannot walk along Acacia Road without feeling that life could be very happy in it—when the sun is shining. It must be jolly, for instance, to live in Laburnum Lodge with its pink may tree. Sometimes I fancy that a suburban home is the true home after all.
When I pass Laburnum Lodge I think of Him saying good-bye to Her at the gate, as he takes the air each morning on his way to the station. What if the train is crowded? He has his newspaper. That will see him safely to the City. And then how interesting will be everything which happens to him there, since he has Her to tell it to when he comes home. The most ordinary street accident becomes exciting if a story has to be made of it. Happy the man who can say of each little incident, "I must remember to tell Her when I get home." And it is only in the suburbs that one "gets home." One does not "get home" to Grosvenor Square; one is simply "in" or "out."
But the master of Laburnum Lodge may have something better to tell his wife than the incident of the runaway horse; he may have heard a new funny story at lunch. The joke may have been all over the City, but it is unlikely that his wife in the suburbs will have heard it. Put it on the credit side of marriage that you can treasure up your jokes for some one else. And perhaps She has something for him too; some backward plant, it may be, has burst suddenly into flower; at least he will walk more eagerly up Acacia Road for wondering. So it will be a happy meeting under the pink may tree of Laburnum Lodge when these two are restored safely to each other after the excitements of the day. Possibly they will even do a little gardening together in the still glowing evening.
If life has anything more to offer than this it will be found at Holly House, where there are babies. Babies give an added excitement to the master's homecoming, for almost anything may have happened to them while he has been away. Dorothy perhaps has cut a new tooth and Anne may have said something really clever about the baker's man. In the morning, too, Anne will walk with him to the end of the road; it is perfectly safe, for in Acacia Road nothing untoward could occur. Even the dogs are quiet and friendly. I like to think of the master of Holly House saying good-bye to Anne at the end of the road and knowing that she will be alive when he comes back in the evening. That ought to make the day's work go quickly.
But it is the Cedars which gives us the secret of the happiness of the suburbs. The Cedars you observe is a grander house altogether; there is a tennis lawn at the back. And there are grown-up sons and daughters at the Cedars. In such houses in Acacia Road the delightful business of love-making is in full swing. Marriages are not "arranged" in the suburbs; they grow naturally out of the pleasant intercourse between the Cedars, the Elms, and Rose Bank. I see Tom walking over to the Elms, racket in hand, to play tennis with Miss Muriel. He is hoping for an invitation to remain to supper, and indeed I think he will get it. Anyhow he is going to ask Miss Muriel to come across to lunch to-morrow; his mother has so much to talk to her about. But it will be Tom who will do most of the talking.
I am sure that the marriages made in Acacia Road are happy. That is why I have no fears for Holly House and Laburnum Lodge. Of course they didn't make love in this Acacia Road; they are come from the Acacia Road of some other suburb, wisely deciding that they will be better away from their people. But they met each other in the same way as Tom and Muriel are meeting; He has seen Her in Her own home, in His home, at the tennis club, surrounded by the young bounders (confound them!) of Turret Court and the Wilderness; She has heard of him falling off his bicycle or quarrelling with his father. Bless you, they know all about each other; they are going to be happy enough together.
And now I think of it, why of course there is a local theatre where they can do their play- going, if they are as keen on it as that. For ten shillings they can spread from the stage box an air of luxury and refinement over the house; and they can nod in an easy manner across the stalls to the Cedars in the opposite box— in the deep recesses of which Tom and Muriel, you may be sure, are holding hands.
When I moved into a new house a few weeks ago, my books, as was natural, moved with me. Strong, perspiring men shovelled them into packing-cases, and staggered with them to the van, cursing Caxton as they went. On arrival at this end, they staggered with them into the room selected for my library, heaved off the lids of the cases, and awaited orders. The immediate need was for an emptier room. Together we hurried the books into the new white shelves which awaited them, the order in which they stood being of no matter so long as they were off the floor. Armful after armful was hastily stacked, the only pause being when (in the curious way in which these things happen) my own name suddenly caught the eye of the foreman. "Did you write this one, sir?" he asked. I admitted it. "H'm," he said noncommittally. He glanced along the names of every armful after that, and appeared a little surprised at the number of books which I hadn't written. An easy-going profession, evidently.
So we got the books up at last, and there they are still. I told myself that when a wet afternoon came along I would arrange them properly. When the wet afternoon came, I told myself that I would arrange them one of these fine mornings. As they are now, I have to look along every shelf in the search for the book which I want. To come to Keats is no guarantee that we are on the road to Shelley. Shelley, if he did not drop out on the way, is probably next to How to Be a Golfer Though Middle-aged.
Having written as far as this, I had to get up and see where Shelley really was. It is worse than I thought. He is between Geometrical Optics and Studies in New Zealand Scenery. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, whom I find myself to be entertaining unawares, sits beside Anarchy or Order, which was apparently "sent in the hope that you will become a member of the Duty and Discipline Movement"—a vain hope, it would seem, for I have not yet paid my subscription. What I Found Out, by an English Governess, shares a corner with The Recreations of a Country Parson; they are followed by Villette and Baedeker's Switzerland. Something will have to be done about it. But I am wondering what is to be done. If I gave you the impression that my books were precisely arranged in their old shelves, I misled you. They were arranged in the order known as "all anyhow." Possibly they were a little less "anyhow" than they are now, in that the volumes of any particular work were at least together, but that is all that can be claimed for them. For years I put off the business of tidying them up, just as I am putting it off now. It is not laziness; it is simply that I don't know how to begin.
Let us suppose that we decide to have all the poetry together. It sounds reasonable. But then Byron is eleven inches high (my tallest poet), and Beattie (my shortest) is just over four inches. How foolish they will look standing side by side. Perhaps you don't know Beattie, but I assure you that he was a poet. He wrote those majestic lines:—
"The shepherd-swain of whom I mention made On Scotia's mountains fed his little flock; The sickle, scythe or plough he never swayed— An honest heart was almost all his stock."
Of course, one would hardly expect a shepherd to sway a plough in the ordinary way, but Beattie was quite right to remind us that Edwin didn't either. Edwin was the name of the shepherd- swain. "And yet poor Edwin was no vulgar boy," we are told a little further on in a line that should live. Well, having satisfied you that Beattie was really a poet, I can now return to my argument that an eleven-inch Byron cannot stand next to a four-inch Beattie, and be followed by an eight-inch Cowper, without making the shelf look silly. Yet how can I discard Beattie— Beattie who wrote:—
"And now the downy cheek and deepened voice Gave dignity to Edwin's blooming prime."
You see the difficulty. If you arrange your books according to their contents you are sure to get an untidy shelf. If you arrange your books according to their size and colour you get an effective wall, but the poetically inclined visitor may lose sight of Beattie altogether. Before, then, we decide what to do about it, we must ask ourselves that very awkward question, "Why do we have books on our shelves at all?" It is a most embarrassing question to answer.
Of course, you think that the proper answer (in your own case) is an indignant protest that you bought them in order to read them, and that yon put them on your shelves in order that you could refer to them when necessary. A little reflection will show you what a stupid answer that is. If you only want to read them, why are some of them bound in morocco and half-calf and other expensive coverings? Why did you buy a first edition when a hundredth edition was so much cheaper? Why have you got half a dozen copies of The Rubaiyat? What is the particular value of this other book that you treasure it so carefully? Why, the fact that its pages are uncut. If you cut the pages and read it, the value would go.
So, then, your library is not just for reference. You know as well as I do that it furnishes your room; that it furnishes it more effectively than does paint or mahogany or china. Of course, it is nice to have the books there, so that one can refer to them when one wishes. One may be writing an article on sea-bathing, for instance, and have come to the sentence which begins: "In the well-remembered words of Coleridge, perhaps almost too familiar to be quoted"—and then one may have to look them up. On these occasions a library is not only ornamental but useful. But do not let us be ashamed that we find it ornamental. Indeed, the more I survey it, the more I feel that my library is sufficiently ornamental as it stands. Any reassembling of the books might spoil the colour-scheme. Baedeker's Switzerland and Villette are both in red, a colour which is neatly caught up again, after an interlude in blue, by a volume of Browning and Jevons' Elementary Logic. We had a woman here only yesterday who said, "How pretty your books look," and I am inclined to think that that is good enough. There is a careless rapture about them which I should lose if I started to arrange them methodically.
But perhaps I might risk this to the extent of getting all their heads the same way up. Yes, on one of these fine days (or wet nights) I shall take my library seriously in hand. There are still one or two books which are the wrong way round. I shall put them the right way round.
The fact, as revealed in a recent lawsuit, that there is a gentleman in this country who spends 10,000 a year upon his butterfly collection would have disturbed me more in the early nineties than it does to-day. I can bear it calmly now, but twenty-five years ago the knowledge would have spoilt my pride in my own collection, upon which I was already spending the best part of threepence a week pocket-money. Perhaps, though, I should have consoled myself with the thought that I was the truer enthusiast of the two; for when my rival hears of a rare butterfly in Brazil, he sends a man out to Brazil to capture it, whereas I, when I heard that there was a Clouded Yellow in the garden, took good care that nobody but myself encompassed its death. Our aims also were different. I purposely left Brazil out of it.
Whether butterfly-hunting is good or bad for the character I cannot undertake to decide. No doubt it can be justified as clearly as fox- hunting. If the fox eats chickens, the butterfly's child eats vegetables; if fox-hunting improves the breed of horses, butterfly-hunting improves the health of boys. But at least, we never told ourselves that butterflies liked being pursued, as (I understand) foxes like being hunted. We were moderately honest about it. And we comforted ourselves in the end with the assurance of many eminent naturalists that "insects don't feel pain."
I have often wondered how naturalists dare to speak with such authority. Do they never have dreams at night of an after-life in some other world, wherein they are pursued by giant insects eager to increase their "naturalist collection"—insects who assure each other carelessly that "naturalists don't feel pain"? Perhaps they do so dream. But we, at any rate, slept well, for we had never dogmatized about a butterfly's feelings. We only quoted the wise men.
But if there might be doubt about the sensitiveness of a butterfly, there could be no doubt about his distinguishing marks. It was amazing to us how many grown-up and (presumably) educated men and women did not know that a butterfly had knobs on the end of his antennae, and that the moth had none. Where had they been all these years to be so ignorant? Well-meaning but misguided aunts, with mysterious promises of a new butterfly for our collection, would produce some common Yellow Underwing from an envelope, innocent (for which they may be forgiven) that only a personal capture had any value to us, but unforgivably ignorant that a Yellow Underwing was a moth. We did not collect moths; there were too many of them. And moths are nocturnal creatures. A hunter whose bed-time depends upon the whim of another is handicapped for the night-chase.
But butterflies come out when the sun comes out, which is just when little boys should be out; and there are not too many butterflies in England. I knew them all by name once, and could have recognized any that I saw—yes, even Hampstead's Albion Eye (or was it Albion's Hampstead Eye?), of which only one specimen had ever been caught in this country; presumably by Hampstead—or Albion. In my day-dreams the second specimen was caught by me. Yet he was an insignificant-looking fellow, and perhaps I should have been better pleased with a Camberwell Beauty, a Purple Emperor, or a Swallowtail. Unhappily the Purple Emperor (so the book told us) haunted the tops of trees, which was to take an unfair advantage of a boy small for his age, and the Swallowtail haunted Norfolk, which was equally inconsiderate of a family which kept holiday in the south. The Camberwell Beauty sounded more hopeful, but I suppose the trams disheartened him. I doubt if he ever haunted Camberwell in my time.
With threepence a week one has to be careful. It was necessary to buy killing-boxes and setting-boards, but butterfly-nets could be made at home. A stick, a piece of copper wire, and some muslin were all that were necessary. One liked the muslin to be green, for there was a feeling that this deceived the butterfly in some way; he thought that Birnam Wood was merely coming to Dunsinane when he saw it approaching, arid that the queer- looking thing behind was some local efflorescence. So he resumed his dalliance with the herbaceous border, and was never more surprised in his life than when it turned out to be a boy and a butterfly-net. Green muslin, then, but a plain piece of cane for the stick. None of your collapsible fishing-rods—"suitable for a Purple Emperor." Leave those to the millionaire's sons.
It comes back to me now that I am doing this afternoon what I did more than twenty-five years ago; I am writing an article upon the way to make a butterfly-net. For my first contribution to the press was upon this subject. I sent it to the editor of some boys' paper, and his failure to print it puzzled me a good deal, since every word in it (I was sure) was correctly spelt. Of course, I see now that you want more in an article than that. But besides being puzzled I was extremely disappointed, for I wanted badly the money that it should have brought in. I wanted it in order to buy a butterfly-net; the stick and the copper wire and the green muslin being (in my hands, at any rate) more suited to an article.
I have just read a serious column on the prospects for next year. This article consisted of contributions from experts in the various branches of industry (including one from a meteorological expert who, I need hardly tell you, forecasted a wet summer) and ended with a general summing up of the year by Old Moore or one of the minor prophets. Old Moore, I am sorry to say, left me cold.
I should like to believe in astrology, but I cannot. I should like to believe that the heavenly bodies sort themselves into certain positions in order that Zadkiel may be kept in touch with the future; the idea of a star whizzing a million miles out of its path by way of indicating a "sensational divorce case in high life" is extraordinarily massive. But, candidly, I do not believe the stars bother. What the stars are for, what they are like when you get there, I do not know; but a starry night would not be so beautiful if it were simply meant as a warning to some unpleasant financier that Kaffirs were going up. The ordinary man looks at the heavens and thinks what an insignificant atom he is beneath them; the believer in astrology looks up and realizes afresh his overwhelming importance. Perhaps, after all, I am glad I do not believe.
Life must be a very tricky thing for the superstitious. At dinner a night or two ago I happened to say that I had never been in danger of drowning. I am not sure now that it was true, but I still think that it was harmless. However, before I had time to elaborate my theme (whatever it was) I was peremptorily ordered to touch wood. I protested that both my feet were on the polished oak and both my elbows on the polished mahogany (one always knew that some good instinct inspired the pleasant habit of elbows on the table) and that anyhow I did not see the need. However, because one must not argue at dinner I tapped the table two or three times... and now I suppose I am immune. At the same time I should like to know exactly whom I have appeased.
For this must be the idea of the wood-touching superstition, that a malignant spirit dogs one's conversational footsteps, listening eagerly for the complacent word. "I have never had the mumps," you say airily. "Ha, ha!" says the spirit, "haven't you? Just you wait till next Tuesday, my boy." Unconsciously we are crediting Fate with our own human weaknesses. If a man standing on the edge of a pond said aloud, "I have never fallen into a pond in my life," and we happened to be just behind him, the temptation to push him in would be irresistible. Irresistible, that is by us; but it is charitable to assume that Providence can control itself by now.
Of course, nobody really thinks that our good or evil spirits have any particular feeling about wood, that they like it stroked; nobody, I suppose, not even the most superstitious, really thinks that Fate is especially touchy in the matter of salt and ladders. Equally, of course, many people who throw spilt salt over their left shoulders are not superstitious in the least, and are only concerned to display that readiness in the face of any social emergency which is said to be the mark of good manners. But there are certainly many who feel that it is the part of a wise man to propitiate the unknown, to bend before the forces which work for harm; and they pay tribute to Fate by means of these little customs in the hope that they will secure in return an immunity from evil. The tribute is nominal, but it is an acknowledgment all the same.
A proper sense of proportion leaves no room for superstition. A man says, "I have never been in a shipwreck," and becoming nervous touches wood. Why is he nervous? He has this paragraph before his eyes: "Among the deceased was Mr. ——. By a remarkable coincidence this gentleman had been saying only a few days before that he had never been in a shipwreck. Little did he think that his next voyage would falsify his words so tragically." It occurs to him that he has read paragraphs like that again and again. Perhaps he has. Certainly he has never read a paragraph like this: "Among the deceased was Mr. ——. By a remarkable coincidence this gentleman had never made the remark that he had not yet been in a shipwreck." Yet that paragraph could have been written truthfully thousands of times. A sense of proportion would tell you that, if only one side of a case is ever recorded, that side acquires an undue importance. The truth is that Fate does not go out of its way to be dramatic. If you or I had the power of life and death in our hands, we should no doubt arrange some remarkably bright and telling effects. A man who spilt the salt callously would be drowned next week in the Dead Sea, and a couple who married in May would expire simultaneously in the May following. But Fate cannot worry to think out all the clever things that we should think out. It goes about its business solidly and unromantically, and by the ordinary laws of chance it achieves every now and then something startling and romantic. Superstition thrives on the fact that only the accidental dramas are reported.
But there are charms to secure happiness as well as charms to avert evil. In these I am a firm believer. I do not mean that I believe that a horseshoe hung up in the house will bring me good luck; I mean that if anybody does believe this, then the hanging up of his horseshoe will probably bring him good luck. For if you believe that you are going to be lucky, you go about your business with a smile, you take disaster with a smile, you start afresh with a smile. And to do that is to be in the way of happiness.
The Charm of Golf
When he reads of the notable doings of famous golfers, the eighteen-handicap man has no envy in his heart. For by this time he has discovered the great secret of golf. Before he began to play he wondered wherein lay the fascination of it; now he knows. Golf is so popular simply because it is the best game in the world at which to be bad.
Consider what it is to be bad at cricket. You have bought a new bat, perfect in balance; a new pair of pads, white as driven snow; gloves of the very latest design. Do they let you use them? No. After one ball, in the negotiation of which neither your bat, nor your pads, nor your gloves came into play, they send you back into the pavilion to spend the rest of the afternoon listening to fatuous stories of some old gentleman who knew Fuller Pilch. And when your side takes the field, where are you? Probably at long leg both ends, exposed to the public gaze as the worst fieldsman in London. How devastating are your emotions. Remorse, anger, mortification, fill your heart; above all, envy—envy of the lucky immortals who disport themselves on the green level of Lord's.
Consider what it is to be bad at lawn tennis. True, you are allowed to hold on to your new racket all through the game, but how often are you allowed to employ it usefully? How often does your partner cry "Mine!" and bundle you out of the way? Is there pleasure in playing football badly? You may spend the full eighty minutes in your new boots, but your relations with the ball will be distant. They do not give you a ball to yourself at football.
But how different a game is golf. At golf it is the bad player who gets the most strokes. However good his opponent, the bad player has the right to play out each hole to the end; he will get more than his share of the game. He need have no fears that his new driver will not be employed. He will have as many swings with it as the scratch man; more, if he misses the ball altogether upon one or two tees. If he buys a new niblick he is certain to get fun out of it on the very first day.
And, above all, there is this to be said for golfing mediocrity— the bad player can make the strokes of the good player. The poor cricketer has perhaps never made fifty in his life; as soon as he stands at the wickets he knows that he is not going to make fifty to-day. But the eighteen-handicap man has some time or other played every hole on the course to perfection. He has driven a ball 250 yards; he has made superb approaches; he has run down the long putt. Any of these things may suddenly happen to him again. And therefore it is not his fate to have to sit in the club smoking- room after his second round and listen to the wonderful deeds of others. He can join in too. He can say with perfect truth, "I once carried the ditch at the fourth with my second," or "I remember when I drove into the bunker guarding the eighth green," or even "I did a three at the eleventh this afternoon"—bogey being five. But if the bad cricketer says, "I remember when I took a century in forty minutes off Lockwood and Richardson," he is nothing but a liar.
For these and other reasons golf is the best game in the world for the bad player. And sometimes I am tempted to go further and say that it is a better game for the bad player than for the good player. The joy of driving a ball straight after a week of slicing, the joy of putting a mashie shot dead, the joy of even a moderate stroke with a brassie; best of all, the joy of the perfect cleek shot—these things the good player will never know. Every stroke we bad players make we make in hope. It is never so bad but it might have been worse; it is never so bad but we are confident of doing better next time. And if the next stroke is good, what happiness fills our soul. How eagerly we tell ourselves that in a little while all our strokes will be as good.
What does Vardon know of this? If he does a five hole in four he blames himself that he did not do it in three; if he does it in five he is miserable. He will never experience that happy surprise with which we hail our best strokes. Only his bad strokes surprise him, and then we may suppose that he is not happy. His length and accuracy are mechanical; they are not the result, as so often in our case, of some suddenly applied maxim or some suddenly discovered innovation. The only thing which can vary in his game is his putting, and putting is not golf but croquet.
But of course we, too, are going to be as good as Vardon one day. We are only postponing the day because meanwhile it is so pleasant to be bad. And it is part of the charm of being bad at golf that in a moment, in a single night, we may become good. If the bad cricketer said to a good cricketer, "What am I doing wrong?" the only possible answer would be, "Nothing particular, except that you can't play cricket." But if you or I were to say to our scratch friend, "What am I doing wrong?" he would reply at once, "Moving the head" or "Dropping the right knee" or "Not getting the wrists in soon enough," and by to-morrow we should be different players. Upon such a little depends, or seems to the eighteen-handicap to depend, excellence in golf.
And so, perfectly happy in our present badness and perfectly confident of our future goodness, we long-handicap men remain. Perhaps it would be pleasanter to be a little more certain of getting the ball safely off the first tee; perhaps at the fourteenth hole, where there is a right of way and the public encroach, we should like to feel that we have done with topping; perhaps—-
Well, perhaps we might get our handicap down to fifteen this summer. But no lower; certainly no lower.
Let us talk about—well, anything you will. Goldfish, for instance.
Goldfish are a symbol of old-world tranquillity or mid-Victorian futility according to their position in the home. Outside the home, in that wild state from which civilization has dragged them, they may have stood for dare-devil courage or constancy or devotion; I cannot tell. I may only speak of them now as I find them, which is in the garden or in the drawing-room. In their lily-leaved pool, sunk deep in the old flagged terrace, upon whose borders the blackbird whistles his early-morning song, they remind me of sundials and lavender and old delightful things. But in their cheap glass bowl upon the three- legged table, above which the cloth-covered canary maintains a stolid silence, they remind me of antimacassars and horsehair sofas and all that is depressing. It is hard that the goldfish himself should have so little choice in the matter. Goldfish look pretty in the terrace pond, yet I doubt if it was the need for prettiness which brought them there. Rather the need for some thing to throw things to. No one of the initiate can sit in front of Nature's most wonderful effect, the sea, without wishing to throw stones into it, the physical pleasure of the effort and the aesthetic pleasure of the splash combining to produce perfect contentment. So by the margin of the pool the same desires stir within one, and because ants' eggs do not splash, and look untidy on the surface of the water, there must be a gleam of gold and silver to put the crown upon one's pleasure.
Perhaps when you have been feeding the goldfish you have not thought of it like that. But at least you must have wondered why, of all diets, they should prefer ants' eggs. Ants' eggs are, I should say, the very last thing which one would take to without argument. It must be an acquired taste, and, this being so, one naturally asks oneself how goldfish came to acquire it.
I suppose (but I am lamentably ignorant on these as on all other matters) that there was a time when goldfish lived a wild free life of their own. They roamed the sea or the river, or whatever it was, fighting for existence, and Nature showed them, as she always does, the food which suited them. Now I have often come across ants' nests in my travels, but never when swimming. In seas and rivers, pools and lakes, I have wandered, but Nature has never put ants' eggs in my way. No doubt—it would be only right- -the goldfish has a keener eye than I have for these things, but if they had been there, should I have missed them so completely? I think not, for if they had been there, they must have been there in great quantities. I can imagine a goldfish slowly acquiring the taste for them through the centuries, but only if other food were denied to him, only if, wherever he went, ants' eggs, ants' eggs, ants' eggs drifted down the stream to him.
Yet, since it would seem that he has acquired the taste, it can only be that the taste has come to him with captivity—has been forced upon him, I should have said. The old wild goldfish (this is my theory) was a more terrible beast than we think. Given his proper diet, he could not have been kept within the limits of the terrace pool. He would have been unsuited to domestic life; he would have dragged in the shrieking child as she leant to feed him. As the result of many experiments ants' eggs were given him to keep him thin (you can see for yourself what a bloodless diet it is), ants' eggs were given him to quell his spirit; and just as a man, if he has sufficient colds, can get up a passion even for ammoniated quinine, so the goldfish has grown in captivity to welcome the once-hated omelette.
Let us consider now the case of the goldfish in the house. His diet is the same, but how different his surroundings! If his bowl is placed on a table in the middle of the floor, he has but to flash his tail once and he has been all round the drawing-room. The drawing-room may not seem much to you, but to him this impressionist picture through the curved glass must be amazing. Let not the outdoor goldfish boast of his freedom. What does he, in his little world of water-lily roots, know of the vista upon vista which opens to his more happy brother as he passes jauntily from china dog to ottoman and from ottoman to Henry's father? Ah, here is life! It may be that in the course of years he will get used to it, even bored by it; indeed, for that reason I always advocate giving him a glance at the dining-room or the bedrooms on Wednesdays and Saturdays; but his first day in the bowl must be the opening of an undreamt of heaven to him.
Again, what an adventurous life is his. At any moment a cat may climb up and fetch him out, a child may upset him, grown-ups may neglect to feed him or to change his water. The temptation to take him up and massage him must be irresistible to outsiders. All these dangers the goldfish in the pond avoids; he lives a sheltered and unexciting life, and when he wants to die he dies unnoticed, unregretted, but for his brother the tears and the solemn funeral.
Yes; now that I have thought it out, I can see that I was wrong in calling the indoor goldfish a symbol of mid-Victorian futility. An article of this sort is no good if it does not teach the writer something as well as his readers. I recognize him now as the symbol of enterprise and endurance, of restlessness and Post-Impressionism. He is not mid-Victorian, he is Fifth Georgian.
Which is all I want to say about goldfish.
Saturday to Monday
The happy man would have happy faces round him; a sad face is a reproach to him for his happiness. So when I escape by the 2.10 on Saturday I distribute largesse with a liberal hand. The cabman, feeling that an effort is required of him, mentions that I am the first gentleman he has met that day; he penetrates my mufti and calls me captain, leaving it open whether he regards me as a Salvation Army captain or the captain of a barge. The porters hasten to the door of my cab; there is a little struggle between them as to who shall have the honour of waiting upon me. ...
Inside the station things go on as happily. The booking-office clerk gives me a pleasant smile; he seems to approve of the station I am taking. "Some do go to Brighton," he implies, "but for a gentleman like you—" He pauses to point out that with this ticket I can come back on the Tuesday if I like (as, between ourselves, I hope to do). In exchange for his courtesies I push him my paper through the pigeon hole. A dirty little boy thrust it into my cab; I didn't want it, but as we are all being happy to- day he had his penny.
I follow my porter to the platform. "On the left," says the ticket collector. He has said it mechanically to a hundred persons, but he becomes human and kindly as he says it to me. I feel that he really wishes me to get into the right train, to have a pleasant journey down, to be welcomed heartily by my friends when I arrive. It is not as to one of a mob but to an individual that he speaks.
The porter has found me an empty carriage. He is full of ideas for my comfort; he tells me which way the train will start, where we stop, and when we may be expected to arrive. Am I sure I wouldn't like my bag in the van? Can he get me any papers? No; no, thanks. I don't want to read. I give him sixpence, and there is another one of us happy.
Presently the guard. He also seems pleased that I have selected this one particular station from among so many. Pleased, but not astonished; he expected it of me. It is a very good run down in his train, and he shouldn't be surprised if we had a fine week- end. ...
I stand at the door of ray carriage feeling very happy. It is good to get out of London. Come to think of it, we are all getting out of London, and none of us is going to do any work to- morrow. How jolly! Oh, but what about my porter? Bother! I wish now I'd given him more than sixpence. Still, he may have a sweetheart and be happy that way.
We are off. I have nothing to read, but then I want to think. It is the ideal place in which to think, a railway carriage; the ideal place in which to be happy. I wonder if I shall be in good form this week-end at cricket and tennis, and croquet and billiards, and all the other jolly games I mean to play. Look at those children trying to play cricket in that dirty backyard. Poor little beggars! Fancy living in one of those horrible squalid houses. But you cannot spoil to- day for me, little backyards. On Tuesday perhaps, when I am coming again to the ugly town, your misery will make me miserable; I shall ask myself hopelessly what it all means; but just now I am too happy for pity. After all, why should I assume that you envy me, you two children swinging on a gate and waving to me? You are happy, aren't you? Of course; we are all happy to-day. See, I am waving back to you.
My eyes wander round the carriage and rest on my bag. Have I put everything in? Of course I have. Then why this uneasy feeling that I have left something very important out? Well, I can soon settle the question. Let's start with to-night. Evening clothes— they're in, I know. Shirts, collars ...
I go through the whole programme for the week-end, allotting myself in my mind suitable clothes for each occasion. Yes; I seem to have brought everything that I can possibly want. But what a very jolly programme I am drawing up for myself! Will it really be as delightful as that? Well, it was last time, and the time before; that is why I am so happy.
The train draws up at its only halt in the glow of a September mid-afternoon. There is a little pleasant bustle; nice people get out and nice people meet them; everybody seems very cheery and contented. Then we are off again ... and now the next station is mine.
We are there. A porter takes my things with a kindly smile and a "Nice day." I see Brant outside with the wagonette, not the trap; then I am not the only guest coming by this train. Who are the others, I wonder. Anybody I know? ... Why, yes, it's Bob and Mrs. Bob, and—hallo!—Cynthia! And isn't that old Anderby? How splendid! I must get that shilling back from Bob that I lost to him at billiards last time. And if Cynthia really thinks that she can play croquet ...
We greet each other happily and climb into the wagonette. Never has the country looked so lovely. "No; no rain at all," says Brant, "and the glass is going up." The porter puts our luggage in the cart and comes round with a smile. It is a rotten life being a porter, and I do so want everybody to enjoy this afternoon. Besides, I haven't any coppers.
I slip half a crown into his palm. Now we are all very, very happy.
My friend Aldenham's pond stands at a convenient distance from the house, and is reached by a well-drained gravel path; so that in any weather one may walk, alone or in company, dry shod to its brink, and estimate roughly how many inches of rain have fallen in the night. The ribald call it the hippopotamus pond, tracing a resemblance between it and the bath of the hippopotamus at the Zoo, beneath the waters of which, if you particularly desire to point the hippopotamus out to somebody, he always lies hidden. To the rest of us it is known simply as "the pond"—a designation which ignores the existence of several neighbouring ponds, the gifts of nature, and gives the whole credit to the handiwork of man. For "the pond" is just a small artificial affair of cement, entirely unpretentious.
There are seven steps to the bottom of the pond, and each step is 10 in. high. Thus the steps help to make the pond a convenient rain- gauge; for obviously when only three steps are left uncovered, as was the case last Monday, you know that there have been 40 in. of rain since last month, when the pond began to fill. To strangers this may seem surprising, and it is only fair to tell them the great secret, which is that much of the surrounding land drains secretly into the pond too. This seems to me to give a much fairer indication of the rain that has fallen than do the official figures in the newspapers. For when your whole day's cricket has been spoilt, it is perfectly absurd to be told that .026 of an inch of rain has done the damage; the soul yearns for something more startling than that The record of the pond, that there has been another 5 in., soothes us, where the record of the ordinary pedantic rain-gauge would leave us infuriated. It speaks much for my friend Aldenham's breadth of view that he understood this, and planned the pond accordingly.
A most necessary thing in a country house is that there should be a recognized meeting-place, where the people who have been writing a few letters after breakfast may, when they have finished, meet those who have no intention of writing any, and arrange plans with them for the morning. I am one of those who cannot write letters in another man's house, and when my pipe is well alight I say to Miss Robinson—or whoever it may be—"Let's go and look at the pond." "Right oh," she says willingly enough, having spent the last quarter of an hour with The Times Financial Supplement, all of the paper that is left to the women in the first rush for the cricket news. We wander down to the pond together, and perhaps find Brown and Miss Smith there. "A lot of rain in the night," says Brown. "It was only just over the third step after lunch yesterday." We have a little argument about it, Miss Robinson being convinced that she stood on the second step after breakfast, and Miss Smith repeating that it looks exactly the same to her this morning. By and by two or three others stroll up, and we all make measurements together. The general opinion is that there has been a lot of rain in the night, and that 43 in. in three weeks must be a record. But, anyhow, it is fairly fine now, and what about a little lawn tennis? Or golf? Or croquet? Or—-? And so the arrangements for the morning are made.
And they can be made more readily out of doors; for—supposing it is fine—the fresh air calls you to be doing something, and the sight of the newly marked tennis lawn fills you with thoughts of revenge for your accidental defeat the evening before. But indoors it is so easy to drop into a sofa after breakfast, and, once there with all the papers, to be disinclined to leave it till lunch-time. A man or woman as lazy as this must not be rushed. Say to such a one, "Come and play," and the invitation will be declined. Say, "Come and look at the pond," and the worst sluggard will not refuse such gentle exercise. And once he is out he is out.
All this for those delightful summer days when there are fine intervals; but consider the advantages of the pond when the rain streams down in torrents from morning till night. How tired we get of being indoors on these days, even with the best of books, the pleasantest of companions, the easiest of billiard tables. Yet if our hostess were to see us marching out with an umbrella, how odd she would think us. "Where are you off to?" she would ask, and we could only answer lamely, "Er—I was just going to— er—walk about a bit." But now we tell her brightly, "I'm going to see the pond. It must be nearly full. Won't you come too?" And with any luck she comes. And you know, it even reconciles us a little to these streaming days to reflect that it all goes to fill the pond. For there is ever before our minds that great moment in the future when the pond is at last full. What will happen then? Aldenham may know, but we his guests do not. Some think there will be merely a flood over the surrounding paths and the kitchen garden, but for myself I believe that we are promised something much bigger than that. A man with such a broad and friendly outlook towards rain-gauges will be sure to arrange something striking when the great moment arrives. Some sort of fete will help to celebrate it, I have no doubt; with an open-air play, tank drama, or what not. At any rate we have every hope that he will empty the pond as speedily as possible so that we may watch it fill again.
I must say that he has been a little lucky in his choice of a year for inaugurating the pond. But, all the same, there are now 45 in. of rain in it, 45 in. of rain have fallen in the last three weeks, and I think that something ought to be done about it.
A Seventeenth-Century Story
There is a story in every name in that first column of The Times- -Births, Marriages, and Deaths—down which we glance each morning, but, unless the name is known to us, we do not bother about the stories of other people. They are those not very interesting people, our contemporaries. But in a country churchyard a name on an old tombstone will set us wondering a little. What sort of life came to an end there a hundred years ago?
In the parish register we shall find the whole history of them; when they were born, when they were married, how many children they had, when they died—a skeleton of their lives which we can clothe with our fancies and make living again. Simple lives, we make them, in that pleasant countryside; "Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath"; that is all. Simple work, simple pleasures, and a simple death.
Of course we are wrong. There were passions and pains in those lives; tragedies perhaps. The tombstones and the registers say nothing of them; or, if they say it, it is in a cypher to which we have not the key. Yet sometimes the key is almost in our hands. Here is a story from the register of a village church— four entries only, but they hide a tragedy which with a little imagination we can almost piece together for ourselves.
The first entry is a marriage. John Meadowes of Littlehaw Manor, bachelor, took Mary Field to wife (both of this parish) on 7th November 1681.
There were no children of the marriage. Indeed, it only lasted a year. A year later, on l2th November 1682, John died and was buried.
Poor Mary Meadowes was now alone at the Manor. We picture her sitting there in her loneliness, broken-hearted, refusing to be comforted. ...
Until we come to the third entry. John has only been in his grave a month, but here is the third entry, telling us that on l2th December 1682, Robert Cliff, bachelor, was married to Mary Meadowes, widow. It spoils our picture of her. ...
And then the fourth entry. It is the fourth entry which reveals the tragedy, which makes us wonder what is the story hidden away in the parish register of Littlehaw—the mystery of Littlehaw Manor. For here is another death, the death of Mary Cliff, and Mary Cliff died on ... l3th December 1682.
And she was buried in unconsecrated ground. For Mary Cliff (we must suppose) had killed herself. She had killed herself on the day after her marriage to her second husband.
Well, what is the story? We shall have to make it up for ourselves. Here is my rendering of it. I have no means of finding out if it is the correct one, but it seems to fit itself within the facts as we know them.
Mary Field was the daughter of well-to-do parents, an only child, and the most desirable bride, from the worldly point of view, in the village. No wonder, then, that her parents' choice of a husband for her fell upon the most desirable bridegroom of the village—John Meadowes. The Fields' land adjoined Littlehaw Manor; one day the child of John and Mary would own it all. Let a marriage, then, be arranged.
But Mary loved Robert Cliff whole-heartedly —Robert, a man of no standing at all. A ridiculous notion, said her parents, but the silly girl would grow out of it. She was taken by a handsome face. Once she was safely wedded to John, she would forget her foolishness. John might not be handsome, but he was a solid, steady fellow; which was more—much more, as it turned out—than could be said for Robert.
So John and Mary married. But she still loved Robert. ...
Did she kill her husband? Did she and Robert kill him together? Or did she only hasten his death by her neglect of him in some illness? Did she dare him to ride some devil of a horse which she knew he could not master; did she taunt him into some foolhardy feat; or did she deliberately kill him—with or without her lover's aid? I cannot guess, but of this I am certain. His death was on her conscience. Directly or indirectly she was responsible for it —or, at any rate, felt herself responsible for it. But she would not think of it too closely; she had room for only one thought in her mind. She was mistress of Littlehaw Manor now, and free to marry whom she wished. Free, at last, to marry Robert. Whatever had been done had been worth doing for that.
So she married him. And then—so I read the story—she discovered the truth. Robert had never loved her. He had wanted to marry the rich Miss Field, that was all. Still more, he had wanted to marry the rich Mrs. Meadowes. He was quite callous about it. She might as well know the truth now as later. It would save trouble in the future, if she knew.
So Mary killed herself. She had murdered John for nothing. Whatever her responsibility for John's death, in the bitterness of that discovery she would call it murder. She had a murder on her conscience for love's sake—and there was no love. What else to do but follow John? ...
Is that the story? I wonder.
Our Learned Friends
I do not know why the Bar has always seemed the most respectable of the professions, a profession which the hero of almost any novel could adopt without losing caste. But so it is. A schoolmaster can be referred to contemptuously as an usher; a doctor is regarded humorously as a licensed murderer; a solicitor is always retiring to gaol for making away with trust funds, and, in any case, is merely an attorney; while a civil servant sleeps from ten to four every day, and is only waked up at sixty in order to be given a pension. But there is no humorous comment to be made upon the barrister—unless it is to call him "my learned friend." He has much more right than the actor to claim to be a member of the profession. I don't know why. Perhaps it is because he walks about the Temple in a top-hat.
So many of one's acquaintances at some time or other have "eaten dinners" that one hardly dares to say anything against the profession. Besides, one never knows when one may not want to be defended. However, I shall take the risk, and put the barrister in the dock. "Gentlemen of the jury, observe this well-dressed gentleman before you. What shall we say about him?"
Let us begin by asking ourselves what we expect from a profession. In the first place, certainly, we expect a living, but I think we want something more than that. If we were offered a thousand a year to walk from Charing Cross to Barnet every day, reasons of poverty might compel us to accept the offer, but we should hardly be proud of our new profession. We should prefer to earn a thousand a year by doing some more useful work. Indeed, to a man of any fine feeling the profession of Barnet walking would only be tolerable if he could persuade himself that by his exertions he was helping to revive the neglected art of pedestrianism, or to make more popular the neglected beauties of Barnet; if he could hope that, after his three- hundredth journey, inquisitive people would begin to follow him, wondering what he was after, and so come suddenly upon the old Norman church at the cross-roads, or, if they missed this, at any rate upon a much better appetite for their dinner. That is to say, he would have to persuade himself that he was walking, not only for himself, but also for the community.
It seems to me, then, that a profession is a noble or an ignoble one, according as it offers or denies to him who practises it the opportunity of working for some other end than his own advancement. A doctor collects fees from his patients, but he is aiming at something more than pounds, shillings, and pence; he is out to put an end to suffering. A schoolmaster earns a living by teaching, but he does not feel that he is fighting only for himself; he is a crusader on behalf of education. The artist, whatever his medium, is giving a message to the world, expressing the truth as he sees it; for his own profit, perhaps, but not for that alone. All these and a thousand other ways of living have something of nobility in them. We enter them full of high resolves. We tell ourselves that we will follow the light as it has been revealed to us; that our ideals shall never be lowered; that we will refuse to sacrifice our principles to our interests. We fail, of course. The painter finds that "Mother's Darling" brings in the stuff, and he turns out Mother's Darlings mechanically. The doctor neglects research and cultivates instead a bedside manner. The schoolmaster drops all his theories of education and conforms hastily to those of his employers. We fail, but it is not because the profession is an ignoble one; we had our chances. Indeed, the light is still there for those who look. It beckons to us.
Now what of the Bar? Is the barrister after anything other than his own advancement? He follows what gleam? What are his ideals? Never mind whether he fails more often or less often than others to attain them; I am not bothering about that. I only want to know what it is that he is after. In the quiet hours when we are alone with ourselves and there is nobody to tell us what fine fellows we are, we come sometimes upon a weak moment in which we wonder, not how much money we are earning, nor how famous we are becoming, but what good we are doing. If a barrister ever has such a moment, what is his consolation? It can only be that he is helping Justice to be administered. If he is to be proud of his profession, and in that lonely moment tolerant of himself, he must feel that he is taking a noble part in the vindication of legal right, the punishment of legal wrong. But he must do more than this. Just as the doctor, with increased knowledge and experience, becomes a better fighter against disease, advancing himself, no doubt, but advancing also medical science; just as the schoolmaster, having learnt new and better ways of teaching, can now give a better education to his boys, increasing thereby the sum of knowledge; so the barrister must be able to tell himself that the more expert he becomes as an advocate, the better will he be able to help in the administration of this Justice which is his ideal.
Can he tell himself this? I do not see how he can. His increased expertness will be of increased service to himself, of increased service to his clients, but no ideal will be the better served by reason of it. Let us take a case—Smith v. Jones. Counsel is briefed for Smith. After examining the case he tells himself in effect this: "As far as I can see, the Law is all on the other side. Luckily, however, sentiment is on our side. Given an impressionable jury, there's just a chance that we might pull it off. It's worth trying." He tries, and if he is sufficiently expert he pulls it off. A triumph for himself, but what has happened to the ideal? Did he even think, "Of course I'm bound to do the best for my client, but he's in the wrong, and I hope we lose?" I imagine not. The whole teaching of the Bar is that he must not bother about justice, but only about his own victory. What ultimately, then, is he after? What does the Bar offer its devotees—beyond material success?
I asked just now what were a barrister's ideals. Suppose we ask instead, What is the ideal barrister? If one spoke loosely of an ideal doctor, one would not necessarily mean a titled gentleman in Harley Street. An ideal schoolmaster is not synonymous with the Headmaster of Eton or the owner of the most profitable preparatory school. But can there be an ideal barrister other than a successful barrister? The eager young writer, just beginning a literary career, might fix his eyes upon Francis Thompson rather than upon Sir Hall Caine; the eager young clergyman might dream dreams over the Life of Father Damien more often than over the Life of the Archbishop of Canterbury; but to what star can the eager young barrister hitch his wagon, save to the star of material success? If he does not see himself as Sir Edward Carson, it is only because he thinks that perhaps after all Sir John Simon's manner is the more effective.
There may be other answers to the questions I have asked than the answers I have given, but it is no answer to ask me how the law can be administered without barristers. I do not know; nor do I know how the roads can be swept without getting somebody to sweep them. But that would not disqualify me from saying that road- sweeping was an unattractive profession. So also I am entitled to my opinion about the Bar, which is this. That because it offers material victories only and never spiritual ones, that because there can be no standard by which its disciples are judged save the earthly standard, that because there is no place within its ranks for the altruist or the idealist—for these reasons the Bar is not one of the noble professions.
A Word for Autumn
Last night the waiter put the celery on with the cheese, and I knew that summer was indeed dead. Other signs of autumn there may be—the reddening leaf, the chill in the early-morning air, the misty evenings—but none of these comes home to me so truly. There may be cool mornings in July; in a year of drought the leaves may change before their time; it is only with the first celery that summer is over.
I knew all along that it would not last. Even in April I was saying that winter would soon be here. Yet somehow it had begun to seem possible lately that a miracle might happen, that summer might drift on and on through the months—a final upheaval to crown a wonderful year. The celery settled that. Last night with the celery autumn came into its own.
There is a crispness about celery that is of the essence of October. It is as fresh and clean as a rainy day after a spell of heat. It crackles pleasantly in the mouth. Moreover it is excellent, I am told, for the complexion. One is always hearing of things which are good for the complexion, but there is no doubt that celery stands high on the list. After the burns and freckles of summer one is in need of something. How good that celery should be there at one's elbow.
A week ago—("A little more cheese, waiter") —a week ago I grieved for the dying summer. I wondered how I could possibly bear the waiting —the eight long months till May. In vain to comfort myself with the thought that I could get through more work in the winter undistracted by thoughts of cricket grounds and country houses. In vain, equally, to tell myself that I could stay in bed later in the mornings. Even the thought of after- breakfast pipes in front of the fire left me cold. But now, suddenly, I am reconciled to autumn. I see quite clearly that all good things must come to an end. The summer has been splendid, but it has lasted long enough. This morning I welcomed the chill in the air; this morning I viewed the falling leaves with cheerfulness; and this morning I said to myself, "Why, of course, I'll have celery for lunch." ("More bread, waiter.") "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," said Keats, not actually picking out celery in so many words, but plainly including it in the general blessings of the autumn. Yet what an opportunity he missed by not concentrating on that precious root. Apples, grapes, nuts, and vegetable marrows he mentions specially—and how poor a selection! For apples and grapes are not typical of any month, so ubiquitous are they, vegetable marrows are vegetables pour rire and have no place in any serious consideration of the seasons, while as for nuts, have we not a national song which asserts distinctly, "Here we go gathering nuts in May"? Season of mists and mellow celery, then let it be. A pat of butter underneath the bough, a wedge of cheese, a loaf of bread and—Thou.
How delicate are the tender shoots unfolded layer by layer. Of what, a whiteness is the last baby one of all, of what a sweetness his flavour. It is well that this should be the last rite of the meal—finis coronat opus—so that we may go straight on to the business of the pipe. Celery demands a pipe rather than a cigar, and it can be eaten better in an inn or a London tavern than in the home. Yes, and it should be eaten alone, for it is the only food which one really wants to hear oneself eat. Besides, in company one may have to consider the wants of others. Celery is not a thing to share with any man. Alone in your country inn you may call for the celery; but if you are wise you will see that no other traveller wanders into the room. Take warning from one who has learnt a lesson. One day I lunched alone at an inn, finishing with cheese and celery. Another traveller came in and lunched too. We did not speak—I was busy with my celery. From the other end of the table he reached across for the cheese. That was all right; it was the public cheese. But he also reached across for the celery—my private celery for which I owed. Foolishly—you know how one does—I had left the sweetest and crispest shoots till the last, tantalizing myself pleasantly with the thought of them. Horror! to see them snatched from me by a stranger. He realized later what he had done and apologized, but of what good is an apology in such circumstances? Yet at least the tragedy was not without its value. Now one remembers to lock the door.
Yes, I can face the winter with calm. I suppose I had forgotten what it was really like. I had been thinking of the winter as a horrid wet, dreary time fit only for professional football. Now I can see other things—crisp and sparkling days, long pleasant evenings, cheery fires. Good work shall be done this winter. Life shall be lived well. The end of the summer is not the end of the world. Here's to October—and, waiter, some more celery.
A Christmas Number
The common joke against the Christmas number is that it is planned in July and made up in September. This enables it to be published in the middle of November and circulated in New Zealand by Christmas. If it were published in England at Christmas, New Zealand wouldn't get it till February. Apparently it is more important that the colonies should have it punctually than that we should.
Anyway, whenever it is made up, all journalists hate the Christmas number. But they only hate it for one reason—this being that the ordinary weekly number has to be made up at the same time. As a journalist I should like to devote the autumn exclusively to the Christmas number, and as a member of the public I should adore it when it came out. Not having been asked to produce such a number on my own I can amuse myself here by sketching out a plan for it. I follow the fine old tradition. First let us get the stories settled. Story No. 1 deals with the escaped convict. The heroine is driving back from the country- house ball, where she has had two or three proposals, when suddenly, in the most lonely part of the snow-swept moor, a figure springs out of the ditch and covers the coachman with a pistol. Alarms and confusions. "Oh, sir," says the heroine, "spare my aunt and I will give you all my jewels." The convict, for such it is, staggers back. "Lucy!" he cries. "Harold!" she gasps. The aunt says nothing, for she has swooned. At this point the story stops to explain how Harold came to be in knickerbockers. He had either been falsely accused or else he had been a solicitor. Anyhow, he had by this time more than paid for his folly, and Lucy still loved him. "Get in," she says, and drives him home. Next day he leaves for New Zealand in an ordinary lounge suit. Need I say that Lucy joins him later? No; that shall be left for your imagination. The End.
So much for the first story. The second is an "i'-faith-and-stap- me" story of the good old days. It is not seasonable, for most of the action takes place in my lord's garden amid the scent of roses; but it brings back to us the old romantic days when fighting and swearing were more picturesque than they are now, and when women loved and worked samplers. This sort of story can be read best in front of the Christmas log; it is of the past, and comes naturally into a Christmas number. I shall not describe its plot, for that is unimportant; it is the "stap me's" and the "la, sirs," which matter. But I may say that she marries him all right in the end, and he goes off happily to the wars.
We want another story. What shall this one be about? It might be about the amateur burglar, or the little child who reconciled old Sir John to his daughter's marriage, or the ghost at Enderby Grange, or the millionaire's Christmas dinner, or the accident to the Scotch express. Personally, I do not care for any of these; my vote goes for the desert-island story. Proud Lady Julia has fallen off the deck of the liner, and Ronald, refused by her that morning, dives off the hurricane deck—or the bowsprit or wherever he happens to be—and seizes her as she is sinking for the third time. It is a foggy night and their absence is unnoticed. Dawn finds them together on a little coral reef. They are in no danger, for several liners are due to pass in a day or two and Ronald's pockets are full of biscuits and chocolate, but it is awkward for Lady Julia, who had hoped that they would never meet again. So they sit on the beach back to back (drawn by Dana Gibson) and throw sarcastic remarks over their shoulders at each other. In the end he tames her proud spirit—I think by hiding the turtles' eggs from her—and the next liner but one takes the happy couple back to civilization.
But it is time we had some poetry. I propose to give you one serious poem about robins, and one double-page humorous piece, well illustrated in colours. I think the humorous verses must deal with hunting. Hunting does not lend itself to humour, for there are only two hunting jokes —the joke of the horse which came down at the brook and the joke of the Cockney who overrode hounds; but there are traditions to keep up, and the artist always loves it. So far we have not considered the artist sufficiently. Let us give him four full pages. One of pretty girls hanging up mistletoe, one of the squire and his family going to church in the snow, one of a brokendown coach with highwaymen coming over the hill, and one of the postman bringing loads and loads of parcels. You have all Christmas in those four pictures. But there is room for another page—let it be a coloured page, of half a dozen sketches, the period and the lettering very early English. "Ye Baron de Marchebankes calleth for hys varlet." "Ye varlet cometh righte hastilie—-" You know the delightful kind of thing.
I confess that this is the sort of Christmas number which I love. You may say that you have seen it all before; I say that that is why I love it. The best of Christmas is that it reminds us of other Christmases; it should be the boast of Christmas numbers that they remind us of other Christmas numbers.
But though I doubt if I shall get quite what I want from any one number this year, yet there will surely be enough in all the numbers to bring Christmas very pleasantly before the eyes. In a dull November one likes to be reminded that Christmas is coming. It is perhaps as well that the demands of the colonies give us our Christmas numbers so early. At the same time it is difficult to see why New Zealand wants a Christmas number at all. As I glance above at the plan of my model paper I feel more than ever how adorable it would be—but not, oh not with the thermometer at a hundred in the shade.
No Flowers by Request
If a statement is untrue, it is not the more respectable because it has been said in Latin. We owe the war, directly, no doubt, to the Kaiser, but indirectly to the Roman idiot who said, "Si vis pacem, para bellum." Having mislaid my Dictionary of Quotations I cannot give you his name, but I have my money on him as the greatest murderer in history.
Yet there have always been people who would quote this classical lie as if it were at least as authoritative as anything said in the Sermon on the Mount. It was said a long time ago, and in a strange language—that was enough for them. In the same way they will say, "De mortuis nil nisi bonum." But I warn them solemnly that it will take a good deal more than this to stop me from saying what I want to say about the recently expired month of February.
I have waited purposely until February was dead. Cynics may say that this was only wisdom, in that a damnatory notice from me might have inspired that unhappy month to an unusually brilliant run, out of sheer wilfulness. I prefer to think that it was good manners which forbade me to be disrespectful to her very face. It is bad manners to speak the truth to the living, but February is dead. De mortuis nil nisi veritas.
The truth about poor February is that she is the worst month of the year. But let us be fair to her. She has never had a chance. We cannot say to her, "Look upon this picture and on this. This you might have been; this you are." There is no "might have been" for her, no ideal February. The perfect June we can imagine for ourselves. Personally I do not mind how hot it be, but there must be plenty of strawberries. The perfect April—ah, one dare not think of the perfect April. That can only happen in the next world. Yet April may always be striving for it, though she never reach it. But the perfect February—what is it? I know not. Let us pity February, then, even while we blame her.
For February comes just when we are sick of winter, and therefore she may not be wintry. Wishing to do her best, she ventures her spring costume, crocus and primrose and daffodil days; days when the first faint perfume of mint is blown down the breezes, and one begins to wonder how the lambs are shaping. Is that the ideal February? Ah no! For we cannot be deceived. We know that spring is not here; that March is to come with its frosts and perchance its snows, a worse March for the milder February, a plunge back into the winter which poor February tried to flatter us was over.
Such a February is a murderer—an accessory to the murders of March. She lays the ground-bait for the victims. Out pop the stupid little flowers, eager to be deceived (one could forgive the annuals, but the perennials ought to know better by now), and down comes March, a roaring lion, to gobble them up.
And how much lost fruit do we not owe to February! One feels—a layman like myself feels—that it should be enough to have a strawberry-bed, a peach-tree, a fig-tree. If these are not enough, then the addition of a gardener should make the thing a certainty. Yet how often will not a gardener refer one back to February as the real culprit. The tree blossomed too early; the late frosts killed it; in the annoyance of the moment one may reproach the gardener for allowing it to blossom so prematurely, but one cannot absolve February of all blame.
It is no good, then, for February to try to be spring; no hope for her to please us by prolonging winter. What is left to her? She cannot even give us the pleasure of the hairshirt. Did April follow her, she could make the joys of that wonderful month even keener for us by the contrast, but—she is followed by March. What can one do with March? One does not wear a hair-shirt merely to enjoy the pleasure of following it by one slightly less hairy.
Well, we may agree that February is no good. "Oh, to be out of England now that February's here," is what Browning should have said. One has no use for her in this country. Pope Gregory, or whoever it was that arranged the calendar, must have had influential relations in England who urged on him the need for making February the shortest month of the year. Let us be grateful to His Holiness that he was so persuaded. He was a little obstinate about Leap Year; a more imaginative pontiff would have given the extra day to April; but he was amenable enough for a man who only had his relations' word for it. Every first of March I raise my glass to Gregory. Even as a boy I used to drink one of his powders to him at about this time of the year.
February fill-dyke! Well, that's all that can be said for it.
The Unfairness of Things
The most interesting column in any paper (always excepting those which I write myself) is that entitled "The World's Press," wherein one may observe the world as it appears to a press of which one has for the most part never heard. It is in this column that I have just made the acquaintance of The Shoe Manufacturers' Monthly, the journal to which the elect turn eagerly upon each new moon. (Its one-time rival, The Footwear Fortnightly, has, I am told, quite lost its following.) The bon mot of the current number of The S.M.M. is a note to the effect that Kaffirs have a special fondness for boots which make a noise. I quote this simply as an excuse for referring to the old problem of the squeaky boots and the squeaky collar; the problem, in fact, of the unfairness of things.
The majors and clubmen who assist their country with columns of advice on clothes have often tried to explain why a collar squeaks, but have never done so to the satisfaction of any man of intelligence. They say that the collar is too large or too small, too dirty or too clean. They say that if you have your collars made for you (like a gentleman) you will be all right, but that if you buy the cheap, ready-made article, what can you expect? They say that a little soap on the outside of the shirt, or a little something on the inside of something else, that this, that, and the other will abate the nuisance. They are quite wrong.
The simple truth, and everybody knows it really, is that collars squeak for some people and not for others. A squeaky collar round the neck of a man is a comment, not upon the collar, but upon the man. That man is unlucky. Things are against him. Nature may have done all for him that she could, have given him a handsome outside and a noble inside, but the world of inanimate objects is against him.
We all know the man whom children or dogs love instinctively. It is a rare gift to be able to inspire this affection. The Fates have been kind to him. But to inspire the affection of inanimate things is something greater. The man to whom a collar or a window sash takes instinctively is a man who may truly be said to have luck on his side. Consider him for a moment. His collar never squeaks; his clothes take a delight in fitting him. At a dinner- party he walks as by instinct straight to his seat, what time you and I are dragging our partners round and round the table in search of our cards. The windows of taxicabs open to him easily. When he travels by train his luggage works its way to the front of the van and is the first to jump out at Paddington. String hastens to undo itself when he approaches; he is the only man who can make a decent impression with sealing-wax. If he is asked by the hostess in a crowded drawing-room to ring the bell, that bell comes out from behind the sofa where it hid from us and places itself in a convenient spot before his eyes. Asparagus stiffens itself at sight of him, macaroni winds itself round his fork.
You will observe that I am not describing just the ordinary lucky man. He may lose thousands on the Stock Exchange; he may be jilted; whenever he goes to the Oval to see Hobbs, Hobbs may be out first ball; he may invariably get mixed up in railway accidents. That is a kind of ill-luck which one can bear, not indeed without grumbling, but without rancour. The man who is unlucky to experience these things at least has the consolation of other people's sympathy; but the man who is the butt of inanimate things has no one's sympathy. We may be on a motor bus which overturns and nobody will say that it is our fault, but if our collar deliberately and maliciously squeaks, everybody will say that we ought to buy better collars; if our dinner cards hide from us, or the string of our parcel works itself into knots, we are called clumsy; our asparagus and macaroni give us a reputation for bad manners; our luggage gets us a name for dilatoriness.
I think we, we others, have a right to complain. However lucky we may be in other ways, if we have not this luck of inanimate things we have a right to complain. It is pleasant, I admit, to win 500 on the Stock Exchange by a stroke of sheer good fortune, but even in the blue of this there is a cloud, for the next 500 that we win by a stroke of shrewd business will certainly be put down to luck. Luck is given the credit of all our successes, but the other man is given the credit of all his luck. That is why we have a right to complain.
I do not know why things should conspire against a man. Perhaps there is some justice in it. It is possible—nay, probable—that the man whom things love is hated by animals and children—even by his fellow-men. Certainly he is hated by me. Indeed, the more I think of him, the more I see that he is not a nice man in any way. The gods have neglected him; he has no good qualities. He is a worm. No wonder, then, that this small compensation is doled out to him—the gift of getting on with inanimate things. This gives him (with the unthinking) a certain reputation for readiness and dexterity. If ever you meet a man with such a reputation, you will know what he really is.
Circumstances connected with the hour at which I rose this morning ordained that I should write this article in a dressing- gown. I shall now put on a collar. I hope it will squeak.
The confession-book, I suppose, has disappeared. It is twenty years since I have seen one. As a boy I told some inquisitive owner what was my favourite food (porridge, I fancy), my favourite hero in real life and in fiction, my favourite virtue in woman, and so forth. I was a boy, and it didn't really matter what were my likes and dislikes then, for I was bound to outgrow them. But Heaven help the journalist of those days who had to sign his name to opinions so definite! For when a writer has said in print (as I am going to say directly) that the daffodil is his favourite flower, simply because, looking round his room for inspiration, he has seen a bowl of daffodils on his table and thought it beautiful, it would be hard on him if some confession- album-owner were to expose him in the following issue as already committed on oath to the violet. Imaginative art would become impossible. Fortunately I have no commitments, and I may affirm that the daffodil is, and always has been, my favourite flower. Many people will put their money on the rose, but it is impossible that the rose can give them the pleasure which the daffodil gives them, just as it is impossible that a thousand pounds can give Rockefeller the pleasure which it gives you or me. For the daffodil comes, not only before the swallow comes— which is a matter of indifference, as nobody thinks any the worse of the swallow in consequence—but before all the many flowers of summer; it comes on the heels of a flowerless winter. Whereby it is as superior to the rose as an oasis in the Sahara is to champagne at a wedding.