H. M. TOMLINSON
FOREWORD BY S. K. RATCLIFFE
NEW YORK ALFRED . A . KNOPF 1920
COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC. Second Printing August, 1920
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
C. H. G. H.
Who saw with me so much of what is in this book_
(Killed in action in Artois, August 27th, 1918)
These stories of travel and chance have been selected from writings published in various periodicals between January 1907 and April 1918, and are arranged in order of time.
The author of OLD JUNK has been called a legend. A colleague who during the later stages of the war visited the western front assured me that this was the right word by which to describe the memory left among officers and men, not so much by his work as a war correspondent, as by his original and fascinating character. A legend, too, he appears to be in the newspaper world of London: but there in a different sense, by reason of the singular contradiction between the human creature beloved of all his fellows and the remarkable productions of his pen.
The first thing to say about H. M. Tomlinson, the thing of which you become acutely aware on making his acquaintance, is that he is a Londoner. "Nearly a pure-blooded London Saxon" is his characterization of himself. And so it is. He could have sprung from no other stock. In person and speech, in the indefinable quality of the man, in the humour which continually tempers his tremendous seriousness, he belongs to London. Among the men of our time who have done creative writing I can think of no other about whom this can be so precisely stated.
It was in the opening years of the century that I first began to notice his work. His name was appearing in the columns of a London morning newspaper, since absorbed by the Daily News, over articles which, if my memory is not at fault, were mainly concerned with the life of Thames side. They were written with extraordinary care. The man who did them had, clearly, no competitor in Fleet Street. And he furnishes a striking illustration of the chances and misfits of the journalistic life. When, after some years of absence in the Far East, I was able to fit a person to the writing which had so long attracted me, I found H. M. Tomlinson on the regular reporting staff of a great London newspaper. A man born for the creation of beauty in words was doing daily turn along with the humble chronicler of metropolitan trivialities.
A year or two before the war the quality of his mind and of his style was revealed in THE SEA AND THE JUNGLE—a "narrative of the voyage of the tramp steamer Capella, from Swansea to Para in the Brazils, and thence two thousand miles along the forests of the Amazon and Madeira Rivers to the San Antonio Falls," returning by Barbados, Jamaica, and Tampa. Its author called it merely "an honest book of travel." It is that no doubt; but in a degree so eminent, one is tempted to say that an honest book of travel, when so conceived and executed, must surely count among the noblest works of the literary artist.
The great war provided almost unlimited work for men of letters, and not seldom work that was almost as far from their ordinary business as fighting itself. It carried Tomlinson into the guild of war correspondents. In the early months he represented the paper to which for some years he had been attached, the London Daily News. Later, under the co-operative scheme which emerged from the restrictive policy adopted by all the belligerent governments, his dispatches came to be shared among a partnership which included the London Times—as odd an arrangement for a man like Tomlinson as could well be imagined. It would be foolish to attempt an estimate of his correspondence from France. It was beautiful copy, but it was not war reporting. To those of us who knew him it remained a marvel how he could do it at all. But there was no marvel in the fact, attested by a notable variety of witnesses, of Tomlinson as an influence and a memory, persisting until the dispersal of the armies, as of one who was the friend of all, a sweet and fine spirit moving untouched amid the ruin and terror, expressing itself everywhere with perfect simplicity, and at times with a shattering candor.
From France he returned, midway in the war, to join the men who, under the Command of H. W. Massingham, make the editorial staff of the London Nation the most brilliant company of journalists in the world. His hand may be traced week by week in many columns and especially, in alternate issues, on the page given up to the literary causerie.
To the readers of books Tomlinson is known at present by THE SEA AND THE JUNGLE alone. The war, it may be, did something to retard its fame. But the time is coming when none will dispute its right to a place of exceptional honour among records of travel—alongside the very few which, during the two or three decades preceding the general overturn, had been added to the books of the great wayfaring companions. It is remarkably unlike all others, in its union of accurate chronicle with intimate self-revelation; and, although it is the sustained expression of a mood, it is extremely quotable. I choose as a single example this scene, from the description of the Capella's first day on the Para River.
There was seldom a sign of life but the infrequent snowy herons, and those curious brown fowl, the ciganas. The sun was flaming on the majestic assembly of the storm. The warm air, broken by our steamer, coiled over us in a lazy flux.... Sometimes we passed single habitations on the water side. Ephemeral huts of palm-leaves were forced down by the forest, which overhung them, to wade on frail stilts. A canoe would be tied to a toy jetty, and on the jetty a sad woman and several naked children would stand, with no show of emotion, to watch us go by. Behind them was the impenetrable foliage. I thought of the precarious tenure on earth of these brown folk with some sadness, especially as the day was going. The easy dominance of the wilderness, and man's intelligent morsel of life resisting it, was made plain when we came suddenly upon one of his little shacks secreted among the aqueous roots of a great tree, cowering, as it were, between two of the giant's toes. Those brown babies on the jetties never cheered us. They watched us, serious and forlorn. Alongside their primitive huts were a few rubber trees, which we knew by their scars. Late in the afternoon we came to a large cavern in the base of the forest, a shadowy place where at last we did see a gathering of the folk. A number of little wooden crosses peeped above the floor in the hollow. The sundering floods and the forest do not always keep these folk from congregation, and the comfort of the last communion.
If the reader is also a writer, he will feel the challenge of that passage—its spiritual quality, its rhythm, its images. And he will know what gifts of mind, and what toil, have gone to its making.
OLD JUNK is not, in the same organic sense, a book. The sketches and essays of which it is composed are of different years and, as a glance will show, of a wide diversity of theme. The lover of the great book will be at home with the perfect picture of the dunes, as well as with the two brilliantly contrasted voyages; while none who can feel the touch of the interpreter will miss the beauty of the pieces that may be less highly wrought.
As to Tomlinson's future I would not venture a prediction. Conceivably, when the horror has become a memory that can be lived with and transfused, he may write one of the living books enshrining the experience of these last five years. But, just as likely he may not. I subscribe, in ending this rough note, to a judgment recently delivered by a fellow worker that among all the men writing in England today there is none known to us whose work reveals a more indubitable sense of the harmonies of imaginative prose.
S. K. RATCLIFFE.
New York, Christmas, 1919.
FOREWORD BY S. K. RATCLIFFE 11
I. THE AFRICAN COAST 21
II. T HE CALL 47
III. OLD JUNK 58
IV. BED-BOOKS AND NIGHT-LIGHTS 65
V. TRANSFIGURATION 75
VI. THE PIT MOUTH 80
VII. INITIATION 86
VIII. THE ART OF WRITING 92
IX. A FIRST IMPRESSION 100
X. THE DERELICT 107
XI. THE VOYAGE OF THE Mona 118
XII. THE LASCAR'S WALKING-STICK 136
XIII. THE EXTRA HAND 144
XIV. THE SOU'-WESTER 152
XV. ON LEAVE 157
XVI. THE DUNES 165
XVII. BINDING A SPELL 174
XVIII. A DIVISION ON THE MARCH 179
XIX. HOLLY-HO! 185
XX. THE RUINS 195
XXI. LENT, 1918 201
I. The African Coast
She is the steamship Celestine, and she is but a little lady. The barometer has fallen, and the wind has risen to hunt the rain. I do not know where Celestine is going, and, what is better, do not care. This is December and this is Algiers, and I am tired of white glare and dust. The trees have slept all day. They have hardly turned a leaf. All day the sky was without a flaw, and the summer silence outside the town, where the dry road goes between hedges of arid prickly pears, was not reticence but vacuity. But I sail tonight, and so the barometer is falling, and I do not know where Celestine will take me. I do not care where I go with one whose godparents looked at her and called her that.
There is one place called Jidjelli we shall see, and there is another called Collo; and there are many others, whose names I shall never learn, tucked away in the folds of the North African hills where they come down to the sea between Algiers and Carthage. They will reveal themselves as I find my way to Tripoli of Barbary. I am bound for Tripoli, without any reason except that I like the name and admire Celestine, who is going part of the journey.
But the barometer, wherever I am, seems to know when I embark. It falls. When I went aboard the wind was howling through the shipping in the harbour of Algiers. And again, Celestine is French, and so we can do little more than smile at each other to make visible the friendship of our two great nations. A cable is clanking slowly, and sailors run and shout in great excitement, doing things I can see no reason for, because it is as dark and stormy as the forty days.
Algiers is a formless cluster of lower stars, and presently those stars begin to revolve about us as though the wind really had got the sky loose. The Celestine is turning her head for the sea. The stars then speed by our masts and funnel till the last is gone. Good-bye, Algiers!
Celestine begins to curtsy, and at last becomes somewhat hysterical. At night, in a high wind, she seems but a poor little body to be out alone, with me. Tripoli becomes more remote than I thought it to be in the early afternoon, when the French sailor talked to me in a cafe while he drank something so innocently pink that it could not account altogether for his vivacity and sudden open friendship for a shy alien. He wanted me to elope with Celestine. He wanted to show me his African shore, to see his true Mediterranean. I had travelled from Morocco to Algiers, and was tired of tourist trains, historic ruins, hotels, Arabs selling picture-postcards and worse, and girls dancing the dance of the Ouled-Nails to the privileged who had paid a few francs to see them do it. I had observed that tranquil sea; and in places, as at Oran, had seen in the distance terraces of coloured rock poised in enchantment between a blue ceiling and a floor of malachite.
That sea is now on our port beam. It goes before an inshore gale, and lifts us high, turns us giddy with a sudden betrayal and descent; and does it again, and again. Africa has vanished. Where Algiers probably was there are but several frail stars far away in the dark that soar in a hurry, and then collapse into the deep and are doused.
But here is le Capitaine. There is no need, of course, to be anxious for Celestine. If her master is not a sailor, then all the signs are wrong. He looks at me roguishly. Ah! His ship rolls. But the mistake, it is not his. What would I have? She was built in England. Voila!
He is a little dark man, with quick, questioning eyes, and hair like a clothesbrush. His short alert hair, his raised and querulous eyebrows, his taut moustaches, and a bit of beard that hangs like a dagger from his under lip, give him the appearance of constant surprise and fretfulness. When he is talking to me he is embarrassingly playful—but I shall show him presently, with fair luck, that my inelastic Saxon putty can transmute itself, can also volatilise in abandonment to sparkling nonsense; yet not tonight—not tonight, monsieur. He is so gay and friendly to me whenever he sees me. But when one of the staff does that which is not down in the book, I become alarmed. Monsieur bangs the table till the cruet-stoppers leap out, and his eyes are unpleasant. Yes, he is the master. He rises, and shakes his forefinger at the unfortunate till his hand is a quivering haze and his speech a blast. "Ou—e—e—eh!" cries the skipper at last, when the unfortunate is on the run.
He has an idea I cannot read the menu, so when an omelette is served he informs me, in case I should suppose it is a salad. He makes helpful farmyard noises. There is no mistaking eggs. There is no mistaking pork. But I think he has the wrong pantomime for the ship's beef, unless French horses have the same music as English cows. After the first dinner, I was indiscreet enough to refuse the cognac with the coffee. "Ah!" he chided, smiling with craft, and shaking a knowing finger at me. He could read my native weakness. I was discovered. "Viskee! You 'ave my viskee!" A dreadful doubt seized me, and I would have refused, but repressed my panic, and pretended he had found my heart.
He rose, and shouted a peremptory order. A little private cabinet was opened. A curious bottle was produced, having a deadly label in red, white, and green. "Viskee!" cried the captain in exultation. (My God!) "Aha!" said the reader of my hidden desire, pouring out the tipple for which he imagines I am perishing in stoic British silence. "Viskee!" I drain off, with simulated delight, my large dose of methylated spirit. Not for worlds would I undeceive the good fellow, not if this were train-oil. He laughs aloud at our secret insular weakness. He knows it. But he is our very good friend.
All is not finished with the whisky. Out comes the master's English Grammar, for he is wishful to know us better before I leave him. And he shall. To this Frenchman I determine to be nobler than I was made. I think I would teach him English all the way to Cochin-China. He writes in his notebook, very slowly, while his tongue comes out to look on, a sentence like this: "The nombres Francaise, they are most easy that the English language." Then I put him right; and then he rises, reaches his hands up to my shoulders, looks earnestly in my eyes, and la-las my National Anthem. It may please God not to let me look so foolish as I feel while I wait for the end of that tune; but I doubt that it does.
Early next morning we arrived at Bougie, to get an hour's peace with the arm of the harbour thrown about my poor Celestine. The deck of a Grimsby trawler discharging fish in the Humber on a wet December morning is no more desolating than was the look of Celestine under the mountains of Bougie; and Bougie, if you have a memory for the coloured posters, is in the blue Mediterranean. But do I grumble? I do not. With all the world but slops, cold iron, and squalls of sleet, I prefer Celestine to Algiers.
Most likely you have never heard of the black Mediterranean. It is usual to go there in winter, and write about it with a date-palm in every paragraph, till you have got all the health and enjoyment there is in the satisfaction of telling others that while they are choosing cough cures you are under a sunshade on the coral strand. The truth is, the Middle Sea in December can be as ugly as the Dogger Bank. There were some Arab deck passengers on our coaster. One of them sat looking at a deck rivet as motionless as a fakir, and his face had the complexion of a half-ripe watermelon. His fellow-sufferers were only heaps of wet and dirty linen dumped in the lee alley-way. It was bad enough in a bunk, where you could brace your knees against the side, and keep moderately still till you dozed off, when naturally you were shot out sprawling into the lost drainage wandering on the erratic floor. What those Arabs suffered on deck I cannot tell you. I never went up to find out. At Bougie they seemed to have left it all to Allah, with the usual result. It was clear, from a glance at those piles of rags, that the Arab is no more native to Algeria than the Esquimaux. I was much nearer home than the Arabs. That shining coast which occasionally I had surprised from Oran, which seemed afloat on the sea, was no longer a vision of magic, the unsubstantial work of Iris, an illusionary cloud of coral, amber, and amethyst. It was the bare bones of this old earth, as sombre and foreboding as any ruin of granite under the wrack of the bleak north.
As for Bougie, these African villages are built but for bright sunlight. They change to miserable and filthy ruins in the rain, their white walls blotched and scabrous, and their paths mud tracks between the styes. Their lissom and statuesque inhabitants become softened and bent, and pad dejectedly through the muck as though they were ashamed to live, but had to go on with it. The palms which look so well in sunny pictures are besoms up-ended in a drizzle. They have not that equality with the storm which makes the Sussex beech and oak, heavily based and strong-armed, stand with a look of might and roar at the charges of the Channel gale. By this you will see that Bougie must wait until I call that way again. From the look of the sky, too, there is no doubt we are in for a spell of the kind of weather I never expected to meet in Africa. I was a stranger there, but I knew the language of those squadrons of dark clouds driving into the bay.
The northern sky was full of their gloomy keels. There were intervals when the full expanse of Bougie Bay became visible, with its concourse of mountains crowded to the shore. At the base of the dark declivities the combers were bursting, and the spume towered on the gale like grey smoke. Out of the foam rose harsh rubble and screes to incline against broken precipices, and those stark walls were interrupted by mid-air slopes of grass which appeared ready to avalanche into the tumult below, but remained, livid areas of a dim mass which rose into dizzy pinnacles and domes, increasing the tumbling menace of the sky. A fleet of clouds of deep draught ran into Africa from the north; went aground on those crags, were wrecked and burst, their contents streaming from them and hiding the aerial reef on which they had struck. The land vanished, till only Bougie and its quay and the Celestine remained, with one last detached fragment of mountain high over us. That, too, dissolved. There was only our steamer and the quay at last.
I thought our master would not dare to put out from there, but he cared as little for the storm as for the steward. His last bales were no sooner in the lighters than he made for Jidjelli. But Jidjelli daunted even him. The nearer we got, the worse it looked. My own feeling was that the gathering seas had taken charge of our scallop, a cork in the surf, and were pitching her, helpless, towards terrible walls built of night out of a base of thunder and bursting waters. I gripped a rail, and saw a vague range of summits appear above the nearing walls and steadily develop towards distinction. Then the howling gale began to scream, the ceiling lowered and darkened, and merged with the rocks, reducing the world but to our Celestine in the midst of near flashes of white in an uproar. When presently a little daylight came into chaos to give it shape again, there was an inch of hail on our deck, and the mountains had been changed to white marble. We saw a red light burn low in the place where Jidjelli ought to be, a signal that it was impossible to enter. Our skipper put about.
That is all I know of Jidjelli, and all I wanted to know on such an evening. The sound of the surf on the rocks was better to hear when it was not so close. We followed that coast all night while I lay awake, shaking to the racing of the propeller; and I blessed the unknown engineers of the North Country who took forethought of nights of that kind when doing their best for Celestine; for, though bruised, I still loved her above Algiers and Timgad. She had character, she had set her course, and she was holding steadily to it, and did not pray the uncompassionate to change its face.
For more than a week we washed about in the surf of a high, dark coast towards Tunis. We might have been on the windward side of Ultima Thule. Supposing you could have been taken miraculously from your fogs and midday lamps of London, and put with me in the Celestine, and told that that sullen land looming through the murk could be yours, if you could guess its name, then you would have guessed nothing below the fortieth parallel.
No matter; when you were told, you would have laughed at your loss. Now you understood why it was called the Dark Continent. It looked the home of slavery, murder, rhinoceroses, the Congo, war, human sacrifices, and gorillas. It had the forefront of the world of skulls and horrors, ultimatums, mining concessions, chains, and development. Its rulers would be throned on bone-heaps. You will say (of course you will say) that I saw Africa like that because I was weary of the place. Not at all. I was merely looking at it. The feeling had been growing on me since first I saw Africa at Oran, where I landed. The longer I stay, the more depressed I get.
This has nothing to do with the storm. This African shadow does not chill you because you wish you were home, and home is far away. It does not come of your rare and lucky idleness, in which you have to do nothing but enjoy yourself; generally a sufficient reason for melancholy, though rarely so in my own case. No, Africa itself is the reason. There is an invisible emanation from its soil, the aura of evil in antiquity. You cannot see it, at first you are unaware it is there, and cannot know, therefore, what is the matter with you. This haunting premonition is different from mere wearying and boredom. It gets worse, the longer you stay; it goes deeper than sadness, it descends into a conviction of something that is without hope, that is bad in its nature, and unrepentant in its arrogant heart. When you have got so far down you have had time to discover what that is which has put you so low. The day may be radiant, the sky just what you had hoped to find in Africa, and the people in the market-place a lively and chromatic jangle; but the shadow of what we call inhumanity (when we are trying to persuade ourselves that humanity is something very different) chills and darkens the heart.
Yet the common sky of North Africa might be the heaven of the first morning, innocent of knowledge that night is to come. It is not a hard blue roof; your sight is lost in the atmosphere which is azure. The sun more than shines; his beams ring on the rocks, and glance in colours from the hills. From a distance the flowers on a hill slope will pour down to the sea in such a torrent of hues that you might think the arch of the rainbow you saw there had collapsed in the sun and was now rills and cascades. The grove of palms holding their plumes above a white village might be delicate pencillings on the yellow sheet of desert. The heat is a balm. The shadows are stains of indigo on the roads and pale walls.
One day we found Sfax. I went ashore at Sfax, interested in a name quite new to me. The guide-book did not even mention it; perhaps it was not worth while; no ruins, mummies, trams or hotels there, of course. Maybe it was only the name of a man, or a grass, or a sort of phosphate. Sfax! Well, anyhow, I had long wished for Africa, anywhere in Africa, and here I was, not eager to get home again, but not disinclined. What I had seen of it so far was a rather too frequented highway opposite the coast of Europe—a complementary establishment. Progress had macadamised it. Commerce and its wars had graded and uniformed and drilled its life. Its silent people marched in ranks, as it were, along mapped roads foredoomed, and its mills went round. Its life was expressed for export. It was on the way to Manchester and success. Of all the infernal uses to which a country can be put there is none like development. Let every good savage make incantation against it, or, if to some extent he has been developed, cross himself against the fructification of the evil. As for us whites, we are eternally damned, for we cannot escape the consequences of our past cleverness. The Devil has us on a complexity of strings, and some day will pull the whole lot tight. But Sfax! Had I escaped? Was there a chance?
I found a city wall, a huge battlement, ancient and weathered, like an unscalable cliff, and going through its gate was entering the shadows of a cave. Out of the glare of the sun I went into the gloom of deep, narrow, and mysterious passages. The sun was only on the parapets and casements, which leaned towards each other confidentially, and left only a ragged line of light above. These alley-ways were crowded with camels, asses, and strange men. An understanding and sneering camel in a narrow passage will force you to take what chance there is of escape in desecrating a mosque, while Moslems watch you as the only Christian there, or of going under its slobbering mouth and splay feet. It does not care which.
It was market-day for Sfax. There were little piles of vivid fruit beside white walls where a broad ray of sunlight found them. There were silversmiths at work, tent-makers, and the makers of camel harness. The tanners had laid skins for us to walk over. There were exotic smells. I went exploring the crooked turnings with an indifference which was studied. I was getting an interesting time, but was distinctly conscious of eyes, a ceaseless stream of eyes that floated by, watchful though making no sign. Several times I found myself jostled with some roughness. It occurred to me that I had heard on the ship that Sfax was the only town which had offered resistance to the French; its men have a fine reputation throughout Tunisia, which they do something now and then to maintain, in consequence. They certainly appeared a sturdy and virile lot. They were not listless, like the Arabs of Algeria, who have nothing to show for themselves but the haughty and aloof bearing of the proud but beaten.
Having discovered that the enemy was vulnerable though strong, the men of Sfax go through the day now with the directed activity of those who once had got the worst of it, but have a hope of doing better next time. They gave me a lively and adventurous scene. They moved with silent and stealthy quickness. Their eyes glanced sideways from under their cowls. Their hands were hidden under their jibbahs. A few of them stared with the hate of the bereft. It is not possible to face everybody in a press which moves in all directions, and I was the only European who was there.
Passing a mosque, where I noticed the Moslems had attempted, but had not completed, the obliteration of some representations of birds,—so the mosque was once, evidently, a place where other gods had been worshipped,—I hesitated, wishing to look closer into this curiosity, but recollected myself, and was passing on. An Arab in the turban of one who had been to Mecca was squatting cross-legged on the old marble pavement outside the mosque, and I just took in that he was a fine venerable fellow with an important beard, with a look of wisdom and experience in his steady glance from under the strong arches of his eyebrows that made me wish I knew Arabic, and could squat beside him, and gossip of the wide world. As I turned he said quietly, "Good day!"
Now I thought perhaps I was bewitched, but turned and looked at him. "How are you?" he asked. At that moment, when his eyes looking upward had a smile of understanding mischief, and in such an alien city as Sfax, I was prepared to declare there is but one God and Mahomet is His prophet. For that sort of thing comes easy to me; and would have been quite true, as far as it went. Then I went back to him, and fearing that after all I might be addressing but the parrot which had already exhausted its vocabulary, I tried it on him: "Shall I take my boots off here, father, or may I sit down with you?"
"Sit down," he said.
He was a man of medicine. He sold there prophylactics against small-pox, adultery, blindness, the evil eye, sterility, or any other trouble which you thought threatened you. If a man feared for the faithfulness of his spouse, it seems Father the Hadj could secure it with a charm, and so allow him to spend the night elsewhere in perfect enjoyment and content. That is what the quiet old cynic told me, and invited me to inspect his display of amulets and fetishes, coloured glass tablets with Arabic inscriptions, and a deal of stuff which looked unreasonable to me, articles the holy man either could not or would not resolve into sense.
His English, which he had learned as a shipping agent for the pilgrim traffic, soon reached its narrow limits, to my sorrow. When it left common objects and we wished to compare our world (for there is no doubt he was an experienced and understanding elder who knew to within a little what he might expect of his God and of his fellows), we were left smiling at each other, and had to guess the rest. Yet at least the bazaar could witness this good Moslem of age and admitted wisdom sitting opposite a dubious Christian in a companionable manner; and there was that testimony to my advantage. They even watched him draw his finger across his throat in serious and energetic pantomime, and saw me nod in grave appreciation, when he was trying to make me understand what was his sympathy for the Christian conquerors of Sfax.
I went outside the landward gate of the city, and looked out over the level of brilliant sand which stretched out from there to Lake Tchad. What a voyage! What a lure! Perhaps there is no more perilous journey on earth than that, and if a traveller would vanish into the past, into such Oriental countries as the voyagers of Hakluyt saw with wonder, then to leave Sfax, and go across country to the Niger, would equal what once came of fooling with the arcana of the Djinn. Though, after all, one would like to emerge again, to tell the tale to the children; and the whole dubiety of it is in that last difficulty. It is almost certain the magic would be too powerful.
About the bright yellow sea of the desert which came up to the high cliffs of the town, the squatting camels made dark hummocks. Strings of donkeys converged on the city gate bearing water-pots and baskets of charcoal. Sometimes a line of camels swayed outwards through the crowd, disappeared among the shrines, going south. Watching such a caravan go was the same as watching a ship leave port.
By the wayside was a huckster. He banged a tomtom till he had gathered a crowd from the loose concourse of men who had come long journeys with esparto grass, or gums and ostrich plumes, and much else from the secret region inland. He was selling cotton shirts, and was an entertaining villain. By the corners of his mouth his humour was leery. He did not laugh, but his grimaces were funny. The variegated crowd and that huckster was too enticing, and forgetting I had not seen one of my own kind since leaving the ship, and that my face among those black and brown masks was as loud as the tomtom, I mingled my outrageous tourist tweeds with the graceful folds of the robes. The huckster kept glancing at me, and from grave side-long glances that crowd of men went to the extraordinary length of grim smiles. Suddenly I recognized the trick of that Arab cheapjack. It may be seen at work in Poplar, my native parish to which the ships come, when a curious and innocent Chinaman joins the group about the fluent quack in the market place.
As soon as dignity permitted I passed on, and my dignity did not keep me waiting for any length of time.
Uncertain, and not a little nervous, I wandered among some plantations of olives and false peppers, where the domes of the tombs floated like white bubbles on the foliage. Here an Arab beckoned to me, and told me he had been watching me for some time—for he was an English medical missionary in disguise—and warned me that these gardens and shrines were quite the wrong place to wander in alone. It appears that only a few days since the flame of insurrection flashed down the bazaar, licked up a few French soldiers who happened to be there, and had almost got a hold before the garrison appeared and doused it. He took me to his house, with its windows heavily barred, for there his predecessor had been murdered. (If this could happen at the starting-place for Lake Tchad, then let the idea go.)
From the flat roof of the doctor's house I smelt the dung of ages, fought with legions of flies, and looked down on a large quadrangle of hay and stable muck, where camels had carefully folded themselves on the ground, and chewed reflectively, their eyes half closed; and large drowsy asses mechanically fanned their ears at the loathly swarms. The missionary surmised that the caravanserai below was the perfect reflection of one we had heard more about, which was once at Bethlehem. The square was enclosed with flat-roofed stables, and it being a busy time they were all occupied. The first one, immediately below us, was filled with a family of Kabyles, which consisted chiefly of a magnificent virago of a wife, tattooed, with a fine gold ring in her nostrils, who seemed to have a trying life with her mild and contemplative old husband. She had more children than one could count without giving the matter that close attention which might be misinterpreted. She cradled them in the manger every night. Loud as her voice was, though, I could almost hear the old man smile as he walked away from her. They had two contemptuous camels who never lifted an eyelid when she raised her voice to them, but chewed calmly on, with faces turned impassively towards the New Jerusalem of camels, where viragoes are not; and several resigned asses who appeared to have handed their souls back to their Maker, because souls are but extra trammels in this place of sorrow.
Next door to them was a regular tenant who bred goats, and fed them out of British biscuit-tins. Beyond them the stable was occupied by a party of swarthy ruffians who had arrived with a cargo of esparto grass. In the far corner, a family, crowded out, had been living for weeks under a structure of horrible rags. Smoke, issuing from a dozen seams, gave their home the look of a smouldering manure heap.
You probably know there are place-names which, when whispered privately, have the unreasonable power of translating the spirit east of the sun and west of the moon. They cannot be seen in print without a thrill. The names in the atlas which do that for me are a motley lot, and you, who see no magic in them, but have your own lunacy in another phase, would laugh at mine. Celebes, Acapulco, Para, Port Royal, Cartagena, the Marquesas, Panama, the Mackenzie River, Tripoli of Barbary. They are some of mine. Rome should be there, I know, and Athens, and Byzantium. But they are not, and that is all I can say about it.
Why give reasons for our preferences? How often have our preferences any reason? Maybe some old scoundrel of an ancestor who made a fortune (all lost since) as a thief on the Spanish main, whispers Panama to me when my mind is tired. Others may make magic with Ostend, Biarritz, or Ancoats; and they are just as lucky as the man who obtains the spell by looking at the Dry Tortugas on the map.
When I set out from Newport on this voyage, I did not expect to see Tripoli of Barbary. We have never considered the possibility that our favourite place-names really do stand for stones that have veritable shapes and smells under a sun which comes and goes daily. Nor was my steamer exactly the sort of craft which could, by the look of her, ever attain to the coast of Barbary. What would a steamer know about it? She would never fetch the landfall of a dream. I was not surprised, therefore, when she fetched Tripoli quite wrong; not the place at all for which I was looking on the southern horizon. But then, she was but taking crockery there, in crates; and crockery is less vulnerable, is rough freight, compared to a fancy. The crockery, however, got to its Tripoli quite safely.
We anchored; and there was Tripoli, standing round a little bay, with its buildings, variously coloured, crowded to the west, and slender minarets standing as masts over the flat decks of the houses. I landed at a narrow water-gate, and the Turkish officials regarded me as though I had come to remove the country. When I wished to embark again, these curious people in uniform were even more serious than when I arrived. After a long hesitation, permission was given me niggardly to leave Tripoli, and my ship's boatmen pointed out the urgent need to supply a certain rowboat in the bay with that morsel of paper. To lose that tiny document would have a shocking result, for a warship was in the bay to support the rowboat. We passed that warship. Some day a hilarious traveller will tear his document into fragments, and that warship will fire at him, and sink. The system here, a mere tabulation of fear and suspicion, those reflexes of evildoers who have the best of reasons to be jealous of their neighbours, is protective exclusiveness in its perfect flower, and perhaps it would be better to be really dead than to live under it as a warm, law-abiding corpse.
I should guess that, with a slight magnification to make the object plainer, there are three soldiers to each worker in North Africa. On from Oran the gaudy fellow in uniform has been very conspicuous, the most leisured and prosperous of the inhabitants, and one came unwillingly to the conclusion that it is more profitable to smoke cigarettes in a country than to grow corn in it. As for Tripoli, its uniformed protectors hide the protected; but perhaps its natives have learned how to live by killing one another. It is possible I have not divined the more subtle ways of God's providence.
Tripoli, like other towns oh these shores, looks as though it were sloughing away. Where stones fall, there they lie. In the centre of the town is a marble triumphal arch in honour of Marcus Aurelius. Age would account for much of its ruin, but not all; yet it still stands cold, haughty, austere, though decrepit, in Tripolitan mud, with mean stucco and plaster buildings about it. The arch itself is filled in, and is used as a dwelling. Its tenant is a greengrocer, and the monument to Marcus Aurelius has an odour of garlic; but it need not be supposed that that was specially repugnant to me. How could the white marble of Marcus, to say nothing of a warmer philosophy no less austere, be acceptable to our senses unless translated, with a familiar odour of garlic, by modern greengrocers? I shall think more of Tripoli of Barbary in future, when looking back at it through a middle-aged pipe, when the chains have got me at last.
II. The Call
When the train left me at Clayton Station, the only passenger to alight, its hurried retreat down the long straight of converging metals, a rapidly diminishing cube, seemed to be measuring for me the isolation of the place. Clayton appeared to be two railway platforms and a row of elms across an empty road. After the last rumble of the train, which had the note of a distant cry of derision, there closed in the quiet of a place where affairs had not even begun. It was raining, there was a little luggage, I did not know the distance to the village, and the porter had disappeared. A defective gutter-spout overhead was the leaking conduit for all the sounds and movement of the countryside.
Then I saw a boy humped into the shelter of a shrub which leaned over the station fence. He was reading. Before him was a hand-cart lettered "Humphrey Monk, Grocer and General Dealer, Clayton." The boy wore spectacles which, when he looked at me, magnified his eyes so that the lad seemed a luminous and disembodied stare. I saw only the projection of his enlarged gaze. He promised to take my luggage to Clayton. I walked through three miles of steady rain to the village, by a stretch of marshland so hushed by the nearness of the draining sky that the land might have been what it seemed at a little distance: merely a faint presentment of fields solvent in the wet. Its green melted into the outer grey at a short distance where rows of elms were smeared. There was nothing beyond.
This old village of Clayton is five miles inland from Clayton-on-Sea, that new and popular resort hardened with asphalt and concrete, to which city folk retire for a change in the summer. During the winter months many of the shops of the big town are closed till summer brings the holiday-makers again. The porticoes of the abandoned premises fill with street litter, old paper, and straws. The easterly winds cut the life out of the streets, the long ranks of automatic machines look out across the empty parade, and rust, and the lines of the pier-deck advance desolately far into the wind and grey sea, straight and uninterrupted. It is more than barren then, Clayton-on-Sea, for man has been there, builded busily and even ornately, loaded the town with structures for even his minor whims in idleness; and forsaken it all. So it will look on the Last Day. The advertisements clamour pills and hair-dye to a town which seems as if the Judgment Day has passed and left the husk of life. So I was driven to the original Clayton, the place which gave the name, the little inland village that did, when I found it, show some signs of welcome life. It was a clump of white cottages in a vague cloud of trees. It had some chimneys smoking, there was a man several fields away, and a dog sitting in a porch barked at me. Here was a little of the warmth of human contiguity.
When night came, and the village was but a few chance and unrelated lights, there was the choice between my bedroom and the taproom of the inn where I lodged. In the bedroom, crowning a chest of drawers, was a large Bible, and on the wall just above was a glass case of shabby sea-birds, their eyes so placed that they appeared to be looking up from Holy Writ with a look of such fatuous rapture that one's idea of immortality became associated with bodies dusty, stuffed, and wired. (Oh, the wind and the rain!) Yet there was left the bar-parlour; and there, usually, was a dim lamp showing but a table with assorted empty mugs, a bar with bottles and a mirror, but nobody to serve, and a picture of Queen Victoria in her coronation robes.
There was but one other light in Clayton which showed sanctuary after dark for the stranger. It was in Mr. Monk's shop. His shop at least had its strange interests in its revelation of the diverse needs of civilized homes, for Mr. Monk sold everything likely to be wanted urgently enough by his neighbours to make a journey to greater Clayton prohibitive. In one corner of his shop a young lady was caged, for it was also the post office. The interior of the store was confused with boxes, barrels, bags, and barricades of smaller tins and jars, with alleys for sidelong progress between them. I do not think any order ever embarrassed Mr. Monk. Without hesitation he would turn, sure of his intricate world, from babies' dummies to kerosene. There were cards hanging from the rafters bearing briar pipes, bottles of lotion for the hair of schoolchildren, samples of sauce, and stationery.
His shop had its own native smell. It was of coffee, spices, rock-oil, cheese, bundles of wood, biscuits, and jute bags, and yet was none of these things, for their separate flavours were so blended by old association that they made one indivisible smell, peculiar, but not unpleasant, when you were used to it. I found Mr. Monk's barrel of soda quite a cherishable seat on a dull night, for the grocer's lamp was then the centre of a very dark world. Around it and beyond was only the blackness and silence of vacuity. And the grocer himself, if not busy, would give me his casual and valuable advice on the minor frailties of the human, and they seemed as engaging and confusing in their directness as a child's; for Mr. Monk was large and bland, with a pale, puffy, and unsmiling face, and only betrayed his irony with a slow wink when he was sure you were not deceived. He knew much about the gentry around, those bored and weary youths in check coats, riding breeches, and large pipes, and the young ladies in pale homespun costumes who had rude and familiar words to all they judged were their equals, and were accompanied invariably by Aberdeen terriers.
One evening I spoke to Mr. Monk of his boy. The boy, I said, seemed a strange little fellow. Mr. Monk, in his soiled, white apron, turned on me, and said nothing at first, but tapped his bald head solemnly. "Can't make him out," he said. "I think this is where it is"—and pressed a fat thumb against his head again. "But you have to put up with any boy you can get here." He sighed. "The bright kids go. Clear out. There's nothing fer 'em here but farm labour an' the poor rate. I don't know how the farmers about here could make a do of it if we didn't pay rates to keep their labourers from dying off. My boys get fed up. Off they go, 'nd I doan' blame 'em. One of 'em's in a racin' stable now, doin' well. Another's got a potman's job London somewhere. Doin' well. But the kid I've got now, he'll stop. No ginger in that boy. Can't see anything five minutes off, either. Must be under his nose, and your finger shouting at it. He's got a cloudy mind. Yet he's clever, in his way. There's the door-mat of the shop. As soon as any one puts a foot on that mat, the clock in my kitchen strikes two. All his fake. But he does rile the customers. Silly young fool. If there's two parcels to deliver, it's the wrong one gets first chance."
In a land where discovery had not gone beyond the blacksmith's forge and the arable fields, a native boy who had turned a door-mat into a watchdog was an interesting possibility. There the boy was at that moment, stepping off his responsive mat, ill-clad, the red nose of his meagre face almost as evident as his magnified stare of surprised inquiry, and his mouth open. Mr. Monk chaffed him. I spoke with some seriousness to him, but he was shy, and gave no answer except some throat noises. Yet presently he ceased to rub a boot up and down one leg, and became articulate. He mumbled that he knew the telegraph instrument too. ("Oho!" said Mr. Monk, looking interested. "You do, do yer? What about learning not to leave Mrs. Brown's parcel at Mrs. Pipkin's?") Had I ever been to London, the boy asked, his big eyes full on my face. Had I ever seen a Marconi station? I talked to him, perhaps unwisely, of some of the greater affairs. He said nothing. His mouth remained open and his stare full-orbed.
There was one grey, still Sunday when it was not raining, the grey sky being exhausted, and I met the grocer's boy a little distance from the village, sitting on a fence, reading. The boy closed his book when he saw me, but not before I had noticed that the volume was open at a page showing one of those highly technical diagrams of involved machinery which only the elect may read. I took the book—it was a manual of civil engineering—and asked questions with some humility; for before the man who understands the manipulating of metals and can make living servants for himself out of pipes, wheels, and valves, I stand as would a primitive or an innocent and confiding girl before the magician who interprets for them oracles. With the confidence of long familiarity and the faint hauteur of shyness he explained some of the diagrams in which, at that moment, he was interested.
We talked of them, and of Clayton; for I wished to know how this grocer's boy, who went about masked with a mouth open a little fatuously, an insignificant face, goggles, and a hand-truck, himself of no account in a flat and unremarkable place aside from the press of life's affairs, had discovered there were hills to which he could lift his eyes after those humiliating interviews with Mr. Monk concerning the wrong delivery of cheese and bacon. I was aware of the means by which news of the outer world got to Clayton. It came in a popular halfpenny paper, and that outer world must therefore have seemed to Clayton to be all aeroplanes, musical-comedy girls, dog shows, and Mr. Lloyd George. The grocer's boy got his tongue free at last, and talked. He was halt and obscure, but I thought I saw a mind beating against the elms and stones of the village, and repelled by the concrete, asphalt, and lodging-houses of the seaside place. But I am impressionable, too. It may have been my fancy. What the boy finished with was: "There's no chance here. You never hear of anything."
You never heard of anything. That countryside really looked remote enough from the centre of affairs, from the place where men, undistracted by the news and pictures of the halfpenny illustrated Press, were getting work done. Clayton was deaf and dumb. Some miles away the smoke of the London train was streaming across the dim fields like a comet. We both stood watching that comet going sure and bright to its destiny, leaving Clayton behind, regardless of us, and as though all we there were nothing worth. We were outside the pull of life's spinning hub. Beyond and remote from us things would be happening; but no voice or pulse of life could vibrate us, merged as we were within the inelastic silence of Clayton.
We walked back to the village, and the boy said good-night, passing through a white gate to a cottage unseen at that late hour of the evening. Near midnight I left my stuffed birds, with their fixed and upturned gaze, and went into the open, where above the shapeless lumps of massive dark of Clayton the stars were detaching their arrows, for the night was clear and frosty at last. Sirius, pulsing and resplendent, seemed nearer and more vital than anything in the village.
I walked as far as the white gate of the cottage where I had left Mr. Monk's boy; and there he was again, to my surprise, at that hour. He came forward. At first he appeared to be agitated; but as he talked brokenly I saw he was exalted. He was no grocer's boy then. The lad half dragged me, finding I did not understand him, towards his home. We went round to the back of the sleeping cottage, and found a little shed. On a bench in that shed a candle was burning in a ginger-beer bottle. By the candle was a structure meaningless to me, having nothing of which I could make a guess. It was fragmentary and idle, the building which a child makes of household utensils, naming it anything to its fancy. There were old jam-pots, brass door-knobs, squares of india-rubber, an electric bell, glass rods, cotton reels, and thin wires which ran up to the roof out of sight.
"Listen!" said the grocer's boy imperatively, holding up a finger. I remained intent and suspicious, wondering. Nothing happened. I was turning to ask the lad why I should listen, for the shed was very still, and then I saw the hammer of the bell lift itself, as though alive. Some erratic and faint tinkling began. "That's my wireless," said the grocer's boy, his eyes extraordinarily bright. "I've only just finished it. Who is calling us?"
III. Old Junk
Business had brought the two of us to an inn on the West Coast, and all its windows opened on a wide harbour, hill-enclosed. Only small coasting craft were there, mostly ketches; but we had topsail schooners also and barquantines, those ascending and aerial rigs that would be flamboyant but for the transverse spars of the foremast, giving one who scans them the proper apprehension of stability and poise.
To come upon a craft rigged so, though at her moorings and with sails furled, her slender poles upspringing from the bright plane of a brimming harbour, is to me as rare and sensational a delight as the rediscovery, when idling with a book, of a favourite lyric. That when she is at anchor; but to see her, all canvas set for light summer airs, at exactly that distance where defects and harshness in her apparel dissolve, but not so far away but the white feathers at her throat are plain, is to exult in the knowledge that man once reached such greatness that he imagined and created a thing which was consonant with the stateliness of the slow ranging of great billows, and the soaring density of white cumulus clouds, and with the brightness and compelling mystery of the far horizon at sundown.
Some mornings, when breakfast-time came with the top of the tide, we could look down on the plan of a deck beneath, with its appurtenances and junk, casks, houses, pumps, and winches, rope and spare spars, binnacle and wheel, perhaps a boat, the regular deck seams curving and persisting under all. An old collier ketch she might be, with a name perhaps as romantic as the Mary Ann; for the owners of these little vessels delight to honour their lady relatives.
Away in mid-stream the Mary Ann would seem but a trivial affair, no match for the immensities about her, diminished by the vistas of shores and beaches, and the hills. But seen close under our window you understood why her men would match her, and think it no hardihood, with gales and the assaults of ponderous seas. Her many timbers, so well wrought as to appear, at a distance, a delicate and frail shape, are really heavy. Even in so small a craft as a ketch they are massive enough to surprise you into wondering at the cunning of shipwrights, those artists who take gross lumps of intractable timber and metal, and compel them to subtle mouldings and soft grace, to an image which we know means life that moves in rhythmic loveliness.
Talk of the art of book and picture making! There is an old fellow I met in this village who will take the ruins of a small forest, take pine boles, metal, cordage, and canvas, and without plans, but from the ideal in his eye, build you the kind of lithe and dainty schooner that, with the cadences of her sheer and moulding, and the soaring of her masts, would keep you by her side all day in harbour; build you the kind of girded, braced, and immaculate vessel, sound at every point, tuned and sweet to a precision that in a violin would make a musician flush with inspiration, a ship to ride, lissom and light, the uplifted western ocean, and to resist the violence of vaulting seas and the drive of hurricane. She will ride out of the storm afterwards, none to applaud her, over the mobile hills travelling express, the rags of her sails triumphant pennants in the gale, the beaten seas pouring from her deck.
He, that modest old man, can create such a being as that; and I have heard visitors to this village, leisured and cultured folk, whose own creative abilities amount to no more than the arranging of some decorative art in strata of merit, talk down to the old fellow who can think out a vessel like that after supper, and go out after breakfast to direct the laying of her keel—talk down to him, kindly enough, of course, and smilingly, as a "working man."
I told you there were two of us, at this inn. We met at meals. I think he was a commercial traveller. A tall young fellow, strongly built, a pleasure to look at; carefully dressed, intelligent, with hard and clear grey eyes. He had a ruddy but fastidious complexion, though he was, I noticed, a hearty and careless eater. He was energetic and swift in his movements, as though the world were easily read, and he could come to quick decisions and successful executions of his desires. He had no moments of laxity and hesitation, even after a breakfast, on a hot morning, too, of ham and eggs drenched in coffee. He made me feel an ineffective, delicate, and inferior being.
He would bang out to business, after breakfast and a breezy chat with me; and I lapsed, a lazy and shameless idler, into the window, to wonder among the models outside, the fascinating curves of ships and boats, as satisfying and as personal to me as music I know, as the lilt of ballads and all that minor rhythm which wheels within the enclosing harmonies and balance of stars and suns in their orbits. Those forms of ships and boats are as satisfying as the lines which make the strength and swiftness of salmon and dolphins, and the ease of the flight of birds with great pinions; and, in a new schooner which passed this window, on her first voyage to sea—a tall and slender ship, a being so radiant in the sun as to look an evanescent and immaterial vision—as inspiring and awful as the remoteness of a spiritual and lovely woman.
"I can't make out what you see in those craft," said my companion one morning. "They're mostly ancient tubs, and at the most they only muck about the coast. Now a P. & O. or a Cunarder! That's something to look at." He was looking down at me, and there was a trace of contempt in his smile.
He was right in a way. I felt rebuked and embarrassed, and could not explain to him. These were the common objects of the Channel after all, old and weather-broken, sea wagons from the Cowes point of view, source of alarm and wonder to passengers on fine liners when they sight them beating stubbornly against dirty winter weather, and hanging on to the storm. Why should they take my interest more than battleships and Cunarders? Yet I could potter about an ancient hooker or a tramp steamer all day, when I wouldn't cross a quay to a great battleship. I like the pungent smells of these old craft, just as I inhale the health and odour of fir woods. I love their men, those genuine mariners, the right diviners of sky, coast, and tides, who know exactly what their craft will do in any combination of circumstances as well as you know the pockets of your old coat; men who can handle a stiff and cranky lump of patched timbers and antique gear as artfully as others would the clever length of hollow steel with its powerful twin screws.
But when my slightly contemptuous companion spoke I had no answer, felt out of date and dull, a fogey and an idle man. I had no answer ready—none that would have satisfied this brisk young man, none that would not have seemed remote and trivial to him.
He left me. Some other visitor had left behind Stevenson's Ebb Tide, and trying to think out an excuse that would quiet the qualms I began to feel for this idle preference of mine for old junk, I began picking out the passages I liked. And then I came on these words of Attwater's (though Stevenson, for certain, is speaking for himself): "Junk ... only old junk!... Nothing so affecting as ships. The ruins of an empire would leave me frigid, when a bit of an old rail that an old shellback had leaned on in the middle watch would bring me up all standing."
IV. Bed-Books and Night-Lights
The rain flashed across the midnight window with a myriad feet. There was a groan in outer darkness, the voice of all nameless dreads. The nervous candle-flame shuddered by my bedside. The groaning rose to a shriek, and the little flame jumped in a panic, and nearly left its white column. Out of the corners of the room swarmed the released shadows. Black spectres danced in ecstasy over my bed. I love fresh air, but I cannot allow it to slay the shining and delicate body of my little friend the candle-flame, the comrade who ventures with me into the solitudes beyond midnight. I shut the window.
They talk of the candle-power of an electric bulb. What do they mean? It cannot have the faintest glimmer of the real power of my candle. It would be as right to express, in the same inverted and foolish comparison, the worth of "those delicate sisters, the Pleiades." That pinch of star dust, the Pleiades, exquisitely remote in deepest night, in the profound where light all but fails, has not the power of a sulphur match; yet, still apprehensive to the mind though tremulous on the limit of vision, and sometimes even vanishing, it brings into distinction those distant and difficult hints—hidden far behind all our verified thoughts—which we rarely properly view. I should like to know of any great arc-lamp which could do that. So the star-like candle for me. No other light follows so intimately an author's most ghostly suggestion. We sit, the candle and I, in the midst of the shades we are conquering, and sometimes look up from the lucent page to contemplate the dark hosts of the enemy with a smile before they overwhelm us; as they will, of course. Like me, the candle is mortal; it will burn out.
* * * * *
As the bed-book itself should be a sort of night-light, to assist its illumination, coarse lamps are useless. They would douse the book. The light for such a book must accord with it. It must be, like the book, a limited, personal, mellow, and companionable glow; the solitary taper beside the only worshipper in a sanctuary. That is why nothing can compare with the intimacy of candle-light for a bed-book. It is a living heart, bright and warm in central night, burning for us alone, holding the gaunt and towering shadows at bay. There the monstrous spectres stand in our midnight room, the advance guard of the darkness of the world, held off by our valiant little glim, but ready to flood instantly and founder us in original gloom.
The wind moans without; ancient evils are at large and wandering in torment. The rain shrieks across the window. For a moment, for just a moment, the sentinel candle is shaken, and burns blue with terror. The shadows leap out instantly. The little flame recovers, and merely looks at its foe the darkness, and back to its own place goes the old enemy of light and man. The candle for me, tiny, mortal, warm, and brave, a golden lily on a silver stem!
"Almost any book does for a bed-book," a woman once said to me. I nearly replied in a hurry that almost any woman would do for a wife; but that is not the way to bring people to conviction of sin. Her idea was that the bed-book is a soporific, and for that reason she even advocated the reading of political speeches. That would be a dissolute act. Certainly you would go to sleep; but in what a frame of mind! You would enter into sleep with your eyes shut. It would be like dying, not only unshriven, but in the act of guilt.
What book shall it shine upon? Think of Plato, or Dante, or Tolstoy, or a Blue Book for such an occasion! I cannot. They will not do—they are no good to me. I am not writing about you. I know those men I have named are transcendent, the greater lights. But I am bound to confess at times they bore me. Though their feet are clay and on earth, just as ours, their stellar brows are sometimes dim in remote clouds. For my part, they are too big for bedfellows. I cannot see myself, carrying my feeble and restricted glim, following (in pyjamas) the statuesque figure of the Florentine where it stalks, aloof in its garb of austere pity, the sonorous deeps of Hades. Hades! Not for me; not after midnight! Let those go who like it.
As for the Russian, vast and disquieting, I refuse to leave all, including the blankets and the pillow, to follow him into the gelid tranquillity of the upper air, where even the colours are prismatic spicules of ice, to brood upon the erratic orbit of the poor mud-ball below called earth. I know it is my world also; but I cannot help that. It is too late, after a busy day, and at that hour, to begin overtime on fashioning a new and better planet out of cosmic dust. By breakfast-time, nothing useful would have been accomplished. We should all be where we were the night before. The job is far too long, once the pillow is nicely set.
For the truth is, there are times when we are too weary to remain attentive and thankful under the improving eye, kindly but severe, of the seers. There are times when we do not wish to be any better than we are. We do not wish to be elevated and improved. At midnight, away with such books! As for the literary pundits, the high priests of the Temple of Letters, it is interesting and helpful occasionally for an acolyte to swinge them a good hard one with an incense-burner, and cut and run, for a change, to something outside the rubrics. Midnight is the time when one can recall, with ribald delight, the names of all the Great Works which every gentleman ought to have read, but which some of us have not. For there is almost as much clotted nonsense written about literature as there is about theology.
* * * * *
There are few books which go with midnight, solitude, and a candle. It is much easier to say what does not please us then than what is exactly right. The book must be, anyhow, something benedictory by a sinning fellow-man. Cleverness would be repellent at such an hour. Cleverness, anyhow, is the level of mediocrity today; we are all too infernally clever. The first witty and perverse paradox blows out the candle. Only the sick in mind crave cleverness, as a morbid body turns to drink. The late candle throws its beams a great distance; and its rays make transparent much that seemed massy and important. The mind at rest beside that light, when the house is asleep, and the consequential affairs of the urgent world have diminished to their right proportions because we see them distantly from another and a more tranquil place in the heavens where duty, honour, witty arguments, controversial logic on great questions, appear such as will leave hardly a trace of fossil in the indurated mud which presently will cover them—the mind then certainly smiles at cleverness.
For though at that hour the body may be dog-tired, the mind is white and lucid, like that of a man from whom a fever has abated. It is bare of illusions. It has a sharp focus, small and star-like, as a clear and lonely flame left burning by the altar of a shrine from which all have gone but one. A book which approaches that light in the privacy of that place must come, as it were, with honest and open pages.
* * * * *
I like Heine then, though. His mockery of the grave and great, in those sentences which are as brave as pennants in a breeze, is comfortable and sedative. One's own secret and awkward convictions, never expressed because not lawful and because it is hard to get words to bear them lightly, seem then to be heard aloud in the mild, easy, and confident diction of an immortal whose voice has the blitheness of one who has watched, amused and irreverent, the high gods in eager and secret debate on the best way to keep the gilt and trappings on the body of the evil they have created.
That first-rate explorer, Gulliver, is also fine in the light of the intimate candle. Have you read lately again his Voyage to the Houyhnhnms? Try it alone again in quiet. Swift knew all about our contemporary troubles. He has got it all down. Why was he called a misanthrope? Reading that last voyage of Gulliver in the select intimacy of midnight I am forced to wonder, not at Swift's hatred of mankind, not at his satire of his fellows, not at the strange and terrible nature of this genius who thought that much of us, but how it is that after such a wise and sorrowful revealing of the things we insist on doing, and our reasons for doing them, and what happens after we have done them, men do not change. It does seem impossible that society could remain unaltered, after the surprise its appearance should have caused it as it saw its face in that ruthless mirror. We point instead to the fact that Swift lost his mind in the end. Well, that is not a matter for surprise.
Such books, and France's Isle of Penguins, are not disturbing as bed-books. They resolve one's agitated and outraged soul, relieving it with some free expression for the accusing and questioning thoughts engendered by the day's affairs. But they do not rest immediately to hand in the bookshelf by the bed. They depend on the kind of day one has had. Sterne is closer. One would rather be transported as far as possible from all the disturbances of earth's envelope of clouds, and Tristram Shandy is sure to be found in the sun.
But best of all books for midnight are travel books. Once I was lost every night for months with Doughty in the Arabia Deserta. He is a craggy author. A long course of the ordinary facile stuff, such as one gets in the Press every day, thinking it is English, sends one thoughtless and headlong among the bitter herbs and stark boulders of Doughty's burning and spacious expanse; only to get bewildered, and the shins broken, and a great fatigue at first, in a strange land of fierce sun, hunger, glittering spar, ancient plutonic rock, and very Adam himself. But once you are acclimatized, and know the language—it takes time—there is no more London after dark, till, a wanderer returned from a forgotten land, you emerge from the interior of Arabia on the Red Sea coast again, feeling as though you had lost touch with the world you used to know. And if that doesn't mean good writing I know of no other test.
Because once there was a father whose habit it was to read with his boys nightly some chapters of the Bible—and cordially they hated that habit of his—I have that Book too; though I fear I have it for no reason that he, the rigid old faithful, would be pleased to hear about. He thought of the future when he read the Bible; I read it for the past. The familiar names, the familiar rhythm of its words, its wonderful well-remembered stories of things long past,—like that of Esther, one of the best in English,—the eloquent anger of the prophets for the people then who looked as though they were alive, but were really dead at heart, all is solace and home to me. And now I think of it, it is our home and solace that we want in a bed-book.
There it is, thirty miles wide between the horns of the land, a bay opening north-west upon the Atlantic, with a small island in the midst of the expanse, a heap of sundered granite lying upon the horizon like a faint sunken cloud, like the floating body of a whale, like an area of opalescent haze, like an inexplicable brightness at sea when no island can be seen. The apparition of that island depends upon the favour of the sun. The island is only a ghost there, sometimes invisible, sometimes but an alluring and immaterial fragment of the coast we see far over the sea in dreams; a vision of sanctuary, of the place we shall never reach, a frail mirage of land then, a roseous spot which is not set in the sea, but floats there only while the thought of a haven of peace and secure verities is still in the mind, and while the longing eye projects it on the horizon.
The sun sets behind the island. On a clear day, at sundown, the island behaves so much like a lump of separated earth, a piece of the black world we know, that I can believe it is land, something to be found on the map, a place where I could get ashore, after toil and adventures. At sundown a low yellow planet marks its hiding-place.
If the island in the bay is usually but a coloured thought in the mind, a phantom and an unattainable refuge by day, and a star by night, the real coast which stretches seaward to it, marching on either hand into the blue, confident and tall, is hardly more material, except by the stones of my outlook. The near rocks are of indubitable earth.
Beyond them the coloured fabric of the bay becomes diaphanous, and I can but wonder at the permanence of such a coast in this wind, for in it the delicate cliffs and the frail tinted fields inclined above them seem to tremble, as though they would presently collapse and tear from their places and stream inland as torn flimsies and gossamer.
It is the sublimation of earth. Our own shining globe floats with the others in a sea of light. Here in the bay on a September morning, if our world till then had been without life and voice, with this shine that is an impalpable dust of gold, the quickened air, and the seas moving as though joyous in the first dawn, Eros and Aurora would have known the moment, and a child would have been born.
None but the transcendent and mounting qualities of our elements, and the generative day which makes the surf dazzling, and draws the passionate azure of the bugloss from hot and arid sand, and makes the blobs of sea-jelly in the pools expand like flowers, and ripens the clouds, nothing but the indestructible essence of life, life uplifted and dominant, shows now in this world of the bay.
Below the high moors which enclose the bay, those distant sleepy uplands where the keels of the cumulus clouds are grounded, there are saline meadows, lush and warm, where ditches serpentine between barriers of meadowsweet, briers and fat grasses. Nearer to the sea the levels are of moist sand covered with a close matting of thyme, and herbage as close and resilient as moss, levels that are not green, like fields, but golden, and of a texture that reflects the light, so that these plains seem to have their own brightness.
The sea plains finish in the sandhills. In this desert you may press a hand into the body of earth, and feel its heat and pulse. The west wind pours among the dunes, a warm and heavy torrent. There is no need to make a miracle of the appearance of life on our earth. Life was at the happy incidence of the potent elements on such a strand as this. Aphrodite was no myth. Our mother here gave birth to her.
The sea is kept from the dunes by a high ridge of blue water-worn pebbles, and beyond the pebbles at low water is the wet strand over which she came wading to give the earth children in her own likeness. The Boy and Miss Muffet beside me are no surprise. They are proper to the place. The salt water and the sand are still on their brown limbs, and in the Boy's serious eyes and Miss Muffet's smile there is something outside my knowledge; but I know that in the depth of that mystery is security and content.
There is a fear I have, though, when they trip it over the solid and unquestionable stones, and leave the stones to fly off into the wind down that shining entrance to the deep. For the strand has no substance. Their feet move over a void in which far down I see another sky than ours. They go where I doubt that I can follow. I cannot leave my hold upon the rocks and enter the place to which their late and aerial spirits are native. It is plain the earth is not a solid body. As their bodies, moving over the bright vacuity, grow unsubstantial and elfin with distance, and they approach that line where the surf glimmers athwart the radiant void, I have a sudden fear that they may vanish quite, and only their laughter come at me mockingly from the near invisible air. They will have gone back to their own place.
VI. The Pit Mouth
There was Great Barr, idle, still, and quiet. Through the Birmingham suburbs, out into the raw, bleak winter roads between the hedges, quite beyond the big town smoking with its enterprising labours, one approached the village of calamity with some awe and diffidence. You felt you were intruding; that you were a mere gross interloper, coming through curiosity, that was not excused by the compunction you felt, to see the appearance of a place that had tragedy in nearly all its homes. Young men streamed by on bicycles in the same direction, groups were hurrying there on foot.
The road rose in a mound to let the railway under, and beyond the far dip was the village, an almost amorphous group of mean red dwellings stuck on ragged fields about the dominant colliery buildings. Three high, slim chimneys were leisurely pouring smoke from the grotesque black skeleton structures above the pits. The road ran by the boundary, and was packed with people, all gazing absorbed and quiet into the grounds of the colliery; they were stacked up the hedge banks, and the walls and trees were loaded with boys.
A few empty motor-cars of the colliery directors stood about. A carriage-horse champed its bit, and the still watchers turned at once to that intrusive sound. Around us, a lucid winter landscape (for it had been raining) ran to the distant encompassing hills which lifted like low ramparts of cobalt and amethyst to a sky of luminous saffron and ice-green, across which leaden clouds were moving. The country had that hard, coldly radiant appearance which always impresses a sad man as this world's frank expression of its alien disregard; this world not his, on which he has happened, and must endure with his trouble for a brief time.
As I went through the press of people to the colliery gates, the women in shawls turned to me, first with annoyance that their watching should be disturbed, and then with some dull interest. My assured claim to admittance probably made them think I was the bearer of new help outside their little knowledge; and they willingly made room for me to pass. I felt exactly like the interfering fraud I was. What would I not have given then to be made, for a brief hour, a nameless miracle-worker.
In the colliery itself was the same seeming apathy. There was nothing to show in that yard, black with soddened cinders and ash muck, where the new red-brick engine-houses stood, that somewhere half a mile beneath our feet were thirty men, their only exit to the outer world barred by a subterranean fire. Nothing showed of the fire but a whitish smoke from a ventilating shaft; and a stranger would not know what that signified. But the women did. Wet with the rain showers, they had been standing watching that smoke all night, and were watching it still, for its unceasing pour to diminish. Constant and unrelenting, it streamed steadily upward, as though it drew its volume from central fires that would never cease.
The doors of the office were thrown open, and three figures emerged. They broke into the listlessness of that dreary place, where nothing seemed to be going on, with a sudden real purpose, fast but unhurried, and moved towards the shaft. Three Yorkshire rescue experts—one of them to die later—with the Hamstead manager explaining the path they should follow below with eager seriousness. "Figures of fun"! They had muzzles on their mouths and noses, goggles on their eyes, fantastic helms, and queer cylinders and bags slung about them. As they went up the slope of wet ash, quick and full of purpose, their comical gear and coarse dress became suddenly transfigured; and the silent crowd cheered emotionally that little party of forlorn hope.
They entered the cage, and down they went. Still it was difficult for me to think that we were fronting tragedy, for no danger showed. An hour and more passed in nervous and dismal waiting. There was a signal. Some men ran to the pit-head carrying hot bricks and blankets. The doctors took off their coats, and arranged bottles and tinkling apparatus on chairs stuck in the mud. The air smelt of iodoform. A cloth was laid on the ground from the shaft to the engine-house, and stretchers were placed handy. The women, some carrying infants, broke rank. That quickly up-running rope was bringing the first news. The rope stopped running and the cage appeared. Only the rescue party came out, one carrying a moribund cat. They knew nothing; and the white-faced women, with hardly repressed hysteria, took again their places by the engine-house. So we passed that day, watching the place from which came nothing but disappointment. Occasionally a child, too young to know it was adding to its mother's grief, would wail querulously. There came a time when I and all there knew that to go down that shaft was to meet with death. The increasing exhaustion and pouring sweat of the returning rescue parties showed that. Yet the miners who were not selected to go down were angry; they violently abused the favouritism of the officials who would not let all risk their lives.
I have a new regard for my fellows since Great Barr. About you and me there are men like that. There is nothing to distinguish them. They show no signs of greatness. They have common talk. They have coarse ways. They walk with an ugly lurch. Their eyes are not eager. They are not polite. Their clothes are dirty. They live in cheap houses on cheap food. They call you "sir." They are the great unwashed, the mutable many, the common people. The common people! Greatness is as common as that. There are not enough honours and decorations to go round. Talk of the soldier! Vale to Welsby of Normanton! He was a common miner. He is dead. His fellows were in danger, their wives were white-faced and their children were crying, and he buckled on his harness and went to the assault with no more thought for self than great men have in a great cause; and he is dead. I saw him go to his death. I wish I could tell you of Welsby of Normanton.
I left that place where the star-shine was showing the grim skeleton of the shaft-work overhead in the night, and where men moved about below in the indeterminate dark like dismal gnomes. There was a woman whose cry, when Welsby died, was like a challenge.
Next morning, in Great Barr, some blinds were down, the street was empty. Children, who could see no reason about them why their fathers should not return as usual, were playing foot-ball by the tiny church. A group of women were still gazing at the grotesque ribs and legs of the pit-head staging as though it were a monster without ruth.
As to what the Boy will become, that is still with his stars; and though once we thought he was much impressed by the dignity of the man controlling a road roller, for it seemed it would be well to be that slow herald in front with a little red flag, he has shown but the faintest regard for the offices of policeman, engine-driver, and soldier. It is clear there is but one good thing left for his choice, and so the house is littered with drawings of ships. There has been some advance from that early affair of black angles which, without explanation, might have stood for anything, but was meant for a cutter. Now, in a manner which a careless visitor could think was the hauteur of an artist who is too sure of himself to care what you think of his work, but is really acute shyness, he will present you at short notice with a sketch in colours of a topsail schooner beating off a lee shore, if your variety of beard does not rouse his suspicion. As art, such paintings have their faults; but as delineations of that sort of ship they have technical exactitude not common even in the studios.
In fact, he has found an old manual of seamanship, and the illustrations get more attention than some people give to Biblical subjects. During vacant afternoons there is an uncanny calm in the house, a silence which makes people think they have forgotten something important; but it is only that the Boy is absent with the argonauts. He is in tow of Argo, as it were, one of its heroes, surging astern in a large easy-chair, viewing golden landfalls that are still under their early spell in seas that ships have never sailed. There are no such voyages in later life, none with quite that glamour, for we have tried and know. Lucky Boy, sailing the greatest voyage of his life! Occasionally, when a real ship is home again, and some one calls to see if we still live there, the Boy is allowed to go to bed late, and there he sits and fills his mind.
"And what," said this deponent one evening, "about taking His Nibs with me?" (There was some sea to be crossed.) Most certainly not! Well—! still—! Would he be all right? But as he got to hear about this it was hardly so certainly not as it seemed. There are times when he can concentrate on a subject with awful pertinacity, though the occasions are infrequent. This was one, however. He went. I knew he would go—when he heard about it.
A day came when we were at the railway station, and he was to cross the sea for the first time. He was quite collected. His quiet eye enumerated the baggage in one careless side-glance which detected there was a strap undone and that a walking-stick was missing. In all that crowded tumult converging on the stroke of the hour his seemed to be the only apart and impassive face, and I began to think he was indifferent; he merely looked at the cover of one magazine, and then turned to the window and observed the world leaping past with the detachment of a small immortal who was watching man's fleeting affairs. Nothing to do with him.
Once he caught my intent eye—for I thought he was a trifle pale—and then he passed a radiant wink, and one of his dangling legs began to swing as though that were the sole limb to be joyful. An hour later, his face still to the glass, he was shaking with internal mirth. I asked him to let me share it with him. "Did you see that old man at the station when the train was starting?" he whispered. "He couldn't find the carriage where his things were—he was running up and down without a hat. Perhaps he was left behind." What do man's misfortune's matter to the gods who live for ever?
* * * * *
Through sections of the quayside sheds he caught sight of near funnels, businesslike with smoke, and a row of ports. It was then I had to tell him there was plenty of time. "Two funnels," I heard him say in surprise, and there is no doubt at that moment some of the importance of the occasion was reflected on myself. That extra funnel told him, I hope, I was doing this business in no meagre spirit. None of your single-funnel ships for our affairs. At the quay end of the gangway he stopped me, interrupting the whole concourse to do so. "Where's that other bag?" he demanded severely. I was annoyed—like the people who were following us—but I had to admire him all the same. At his age no doubt it may be demanded that a ship be put about for a bag left behind. When this childish egoism is maintained well into life, large fortunes may be made. It is, perhaps, the only way. As soon as a man can relate his personal affairs to those of the world, and understands how unimportant he really is, from that moment he becomes a failure. Some men never do it, and thus succeed. Therefore I allowed the Boy to lead me aboard, and so secured a good berth at once, to the envy of those who were unaided by a child. Already I was informed that, after due inspection, the steamer had plenty of boats, "so it won't matter if we sink." In five minutes we had discovered the companions to everywhere on that ship, and were, I believe, the only passengers who could find our way about her before she left port.
But a glance seaward, and a word with an officer, gave me a thought or two, and I broke off the Boy's interesting conversation with a fatherly French quartermaster to take him where he could at least begin with some food. "What a lark if there's a storm," laughed His Nibs, removing a sandwich to say so. The fiddles were on the tables. We were off.
* * * * *
The ship gave a lurch, a ham leaped to the floor, some plates crashed, and then the row of ports alongside us were darkened by the run of a wave. The Boy made an exclamation partly stifled, and looked at me quickly. I did not look at him, but went on with the food. He stopped eating, and remained with his gaze fixed on the ports, gripping his chair whenever they went dark. He said nothing about it, but he must have been thinking pretty hard. "I suppose this is a strong ship, isn't it?" he questioned once.
As we were about to emerge into the open, the wet, deserted deck fell away, and a grey wave which looked as aged as death, its white hair streaming in the wind, suddenly reared over the ship's side, as though looking for us, and then fled phantom-like, with dire cries. The Boy shrank back for a moment, horrified, but then moved on. I think I heard him sigh. It was no summer sea. The dark bales of rain were speeding up from the south-west, low over waters which looked just what the sea really is.
I am glad he saw it like that. He hung on in a shelter with a needlessly tight grip, and there was something of consternation in his eye. But I enjoyed the cry of surprise he gave once when we were getting used to it. A schooner passed us, quite close, a midget which fairly danced over the running hills, lifting her bows and soaring upwards, light as a bird, and settling in the hollows amid a white cloud. "Isn't she brave!" said the Boy.
VIII. The Art of Writing
Whether I placed the writing-pad on my knees in a great chair, or on the table, or on the floor, nothing happened to it. I can only say that that morning the paper was full of vile hairs, which the pen kept getting into its mouth—enough to ruin the goodwill of any pen. Yet all the circumstances of the room seemed luckily placed for work to flow with ease; but there was some mysterious and inimical obstruction. The fire was bright and lively, the familiar objects about the table appeared to be in their right place. Again I examined the gods of the table to be sure one had not by mischance broken the magic circle and interrupted the current of favour for me. They were rightly orientated—that comic pebble paper-weight Miss Muffet found on the beach of a distant holiday, the chrysanthemums which were fresh from that very autumn morning, stuck in the blue vase which must have got its colour in the Gulf Stream; and the rusty machete blade from Peru, and the earthenware monkey squatting meekly in his shadowy niche, holding the time in his hands. The time was going on, too.
I tried all the tricks I knew for getting under way, but the pen continued to do nothing but draw idle faces and pick up hairs, which it held firmly in its teeth. Then the second telegram was brought to me. "What about Balkan article?" it asked, and finished with a studied insult, after the manner of the editor-kind, whose assurance that the function of the universe is only fulfilled when they have published the fact makes them behave as would Jove with a thick-headed immortal. "These Balkan atrocities will never cease," I said, dropping the telegram into the fire.
Had I possessed but one of those intelligent manuals which instruct the innocent in the art, not only of writing, but of writing so well that a very disappointed and world-weary editor rejoices when he sees the manuscript, puts his thumbs up and calls for wine, I would have consulted it. (I should be glad to hear if there is such a book, with a potent remedy for just common dulness—the usual opaque, gummous, slow, thick, or fat head.) As for me, I have nothing but a cheap dictionary, and that I could not find. I raised my voice, calling down the hollow, dusty, and unfurnished spaces of my mind, summoning my servants, my carefully chosen but lazy and wilful staff of words, to my immediate aid. But there was no answer; only the cobwebs moved there, though I thought I heard a faint buzzing, which might have been a blow-fly. No doubt my staff—small blame to them—were dreaming somewhere in the sun, dispersed over several seas and continents.
Well, a suburb of a big town, and such jobs as I find for them to do, are grey enough for them in winter. I have no doubt some were nooning it in Algiers, and others were prospecting the South Seas, flattering themselves, with gross vanity, how well they could serve me there, if only I would give them a chance with those coloured and lonely islands; and others were in the cabins of ships far from any land, gossiping about old times; and these last idle words, it is my experience, are the most stubborn of the lot, usually ignoring all my efforts to get them home again and to business. I could call and rage as I chose, or entreat them, showing them the urgency of my need. But only a useless and indefinite article came along, as he usually does, hours and hours before the arrival of a lusty word which could throw about the suggestions quicker than they may be picked up and examined.