On Nothing & Kindred Subjects
by Hilaire Belloc
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_King's Land,

December the 13th, 1907

My dear Maurice,

It was in Normandy, you will remember, and in the heat of the year, when the birds were silent in the trees and the apples nearly ripe, with the sun above us already of a stronger kind, and a somnolence within and without, that it was determined among us (the jolly company!) that I should write upon Nothing, and upon all that is cognate to Nothing, a task not yet attempted since the Beginning of the World.

Now when the matter was begun and the subject nearly approached, I saw more clearly that this writing upon Nothing might be very grave, and as I looked at it in every way the difficulties of my adventure appalled me, nor am I certain that I have overcome them all. But I had promised you that I would proceed, and so I did, in spite of my doubts and terrors.

For first I perceived that in writing upon this matter I was in peril of offending the privilege of others, and of those especially who are powerful to-day, since I would be discussing things very dear and domestic to my fellow-men, such as The Honour of Politicians, The Tact of Great Ladies, The Wealth of Journalists, The Enthusiasm of Gentlemen, and the Wit of Bankers. All that is most intimate and dearest to the men that make our time, all that they would most defend from the vulgar gaze,—this it was proposed to make the theme of a common book.

In spite of such natural fear and of interests so powerful to detain me, I have completed my task, and I will confess that as it grew it enthralled me. There is in Nothing something so majestic and so high that it is a fascination and spell to regard it. Is it not that which Mankind, after the great effort of life, at last attains, and that which alone can satisfy Mankind's desire? Is it not that which is the end of so many generations of analysis, the final word of Philosophy, and the goal of the search for reality? Is it not the very matter of our modern creed in which the great spirits of our time repose, and is it not, as it were, the culmination of their intelligence? It is indeed the sum and meaning of all around!

How well has the world perceived it and how powerfully do its legends illustrate what Nothing is to men!

You know that once in Lombardy Alfred and Charlemagne and the Kaliph Haroun-al-Raschid met to make trial of their swords. The sword of Alfred was a simple sword: its name was Hewer. And the sword of Charlemagne was a French sword, and its name was Joyeuse. But the sword of Haroun was of the finest steel, forged in Toledo, tempered at Cordova, blessed in Mecca, damascened (as one might imagine) in Damascus, sharpened upon Jacob's Stone, and so wrought that when one struck it it sounded like a bell. And as for its name, By Allah! that was very subtle—-for it had no name at all.

Well then, upon that day in Lombardy Alfred and Charlemagne and the Kaliph were met to take a trial of their blades. Alfred took a pig of lead which he had brought from the Mendip Hills, and swiping the air once or twice in the Western fashion, he cut through that lead and girded the edge of his sword upon the rock beneath, making a little dent.

Then Charlemagne, taking in both hands his sword Joyeuse, and aiming at the dent, with a laugh swung down and cut the stone itself right through, so that it fell into two pieces, one on either side, and there they lie today near by Piacenza in a field.

Now that it had come to the Kaliph's turn, one would have said there was nothing left for him to do, for Hewer had manfully hewn lead, and Joyeuse had joyfully cleft stone.

But the Kaliph, with an Arabian look, picked out of his pocket a gossamer scarf from Cashmir, so light that when it was tossed into the air it would hardly fall to the ground, but floated downwards slowly like a mist. This, with a light pass, he severed, and immediately received the prize. For it was deemed more difficult by far to divide such a veil in mid-air, than to cleave lead or even stone.

I knew a man once, Maurice, who was at Oxford for three years, and after that went down with no degree. At College, while his friends were seeking for Truth in funny brown German Philosophies, Sham Religions, stinking bottles and identical equations, he was lying on his back in Eynsham meadows thinking of Nothing, and got the Truth by this parallel road of his much more quickly than did they by theirs; for the asses are still seeking, mildly disputing, and, in a cultivated manner, following the gleam, so that they have become in their Donnish middleage a nuisance and a pest; while he—that other—with the Truth very fast and firm at the end of a leather thong is dragging her sliding, whining and crouching on her four feet, dragging her reluctant through the world, even into the broad daylight where Truth most hates to be.

He it was who became my master in this creed. For once as we lay under a hedge at the corner of a road near Bagley Wood we heard far off the notes of military music and the distant marching of a column; these notes and that tramp grew louder, till there swung round the turning with a blaze of sound five hundred men in order. They passed, and we were full of the scene and of the memories of the world, when he said to me: "Do you know what is in your heart? It is the music. And do you know the cause and Mover of that music? It is the Nothingness inside the bugle; it is the hollow Nothingness inside the Drum."

Then I thought of the poem where it says of the Army of the Republic:

The thunder of the limber and the rumble of a hundred of the guns. And there hums as she comes the roll of her innumerable drums.

I knew him to be right.

From this first moment I determined to consider and to meditate upon Nothing.

Many things have I discovered about Nothing, which have proved it—to me at least—to be the warp or ground of all that is holiest. It is of such fine gossamer that loveliness was spun, the mists under the hills on an autumn morning are but gross reflections of it; moonshine on lovers is earthy compared with it; song sung most charmingly and stirring the dearest recollections is but a failure in the human attempt to reach its embrace and be dissolved in it. It is out of Nothing that are woven those fine poems of which we carry but vague rhythms in the head:—and that Woman who is a shade, the Insaisissable, whom several have enshrined in melody—well, her Christian name, her maiden name, and, as I personally believe, her married name as well, is Nothing. I never see a gallery of pictures now but I know how the use of empty spaces makes a scheme, nor do I ever go to a play but I see how silence is half the merit of acting and hope some day for absence and darkness as well upon the stage. What do you think the fairy Melisende said to Fulk-Nerra when he had lost his soul for her and he met her in the Marshes after twenty years? Why, Nothing—what else could she have said? Nothing is the reward of good men who alone can pretend to taste it in long easy sleep, it is the meditation of the wise and the charm of happy dreamers. So excellent and final is it that I would here and now declare to you that Nothing was the gate of eternity, that by passing through Nothing we reached our every object as passionate and happy beings—were it not for the Council of Toledo that restrains my pen. Yet ... indeed, indeed when I think what an Elixir is this Nothing I am for putting up a statue nowhere, on a pedestal that shall not exist, and for inscribing on it in letters that shall never be written:



So I began to write my book, Maurice: and as I wrote it the dignity of what I had to do rose continually before me, as does the dignity of a mountain range which first seemed a vague part of the sky, but at last stands out august and fixed before the traveller; or as the sky at night may seem to a man released from a dungeon who sees it but gradually, first bewildered by the former constraint of his narrow room but now gradually enlarging to drink in its immensity. Indeed this Nothing is too great for any man who has once embraced it to leave it alone thenceforward for ever; and finally, the dignity of Nothing is sufficiently exalted in this: that Nothing is the tenuous stuff from which the world was made.

For when the Elohim set out to make the world, first they debated among themselves the Idea, and one suggested this and another suggested that, till they had threshed out between them a very pretty picture of it all. There were to be hills beyond hills, good grass and trees, and the broadness of rivers, animals of all kinds, both comic and terrible, and savours and colours, and all around the ceaseless streaming of the sea.

Now when they had got that far, and debated the Idea in detail, and with amendment and resolve, it very greatly concerned them of what so admirable a compost should be mixed. Some said of this, and some said of that, but in the long run it was decided by the narrow majority of eight in a full house that Nothing was the only proper material out of which to make this World of theirs, and out of Nothing they made it: as it says in the Ballade:

Dear, tenuous stuff, of which the world was made.

And again in the Envoi:

Prince, draw this sovereign draught in your despair, That when your riot in that rest is laid, You shall be merged with an Essential Air:— Dear, tenuous stuff, of which the world was made!

Out of Nothing then did they proceed to make the world, this sweet world, always excepting Man the Marplot. Man was made in a muddier fashion, as you shall hear.

For when the world seemed ready finished and, as it were, presentable for use, and was full of ducks, tigers, mastodons, waddling hippopotamuses, lilting deer, strong-smelling herbs, angry lions, frowsy snakes, cracked glaciers, regular waterfalls, coloured sunsets, and the rest, it suddenly came into the head of the youngest of these strong Makers of the World (the youngest, who had been sat upon and snubbed all the while the thing was doing, and hardly been allowed to look on, let alone to touch), it suddenly came into his little head, I say, that he would make a Man.

Then the Elder Elohim said, some of them, "Oh, leave well alone! send him to bed!" And others said sleepily (for they were tired), "No! no! let him play his little trick and have done with it, and then we shall have some rest." Little did they know!... And others again, who were still broad awake, looked on with amusement and applauded, saying: "Go on, little one! Let us see what you can do." But when these last stooped to help the child, they found that all the Nothing had been used up (and that is why there is none of it about to-day). So the little fellow began to cry, but they, to comfort him, said: "Tut, lad! tut! do not cry; do your best with this bit of mud. It will always serve to fashion something."

So the jolly little fellow took the dirty lump of mud and pushed it this way and that, jabbing with his thumb and scraping with his nail, until at last he had made Picanthropos, who lived in Java and was a fool; who begat Eoanthropos, who begat Meioanthropos, who begat Pleioanthropos, who begat Pleistoanthropos, who is often mixed up with his father, and a great warning against keeping the same names in one family; who begat Paleoanthropos, who begat Neoanthropos, who begat the three Anthropoids, great mumblers and murmurers with their mouths; and the eldest of these begat Him whose son was He, from whom we are all descended.

He was indeed halting and patchy, ill-lettered, passionate and rude; bald of one cheek and blind of one eye, and his legs were of different sizes, nevertheless by process of ascent have we, his descendants, manfully continued to develop and to progress, and to swell in everything, until from Homer we came to Euripides, and from Euripides to Seneca, and from Seneca to Boethius and his peers; and from these to Duns Scotus, and so upwards through James I of England and the fifth, sixth or seventh of Scotland (for it is impossible to remember these things) and on, on, to my Lord Macaulay, and in the very last reached YOU, the great summits of the human race and last perfection of the ages READERS OF THIS BOOK, and you also Maurice, to whom it is dedicated, and myself, who have written it for gain.




Among the sadder and smaller pleasures of this world I count this pleasure: the pleasure of taking up one's pen.

It has been said by very many people that there is a tangible pleasure in the mere act of writing: in choosing and arranging words. It has been denied by many. It is affirmed and denied in the life of Doctor Johnson, and for my part I would say that it is very true in some rare moods and wholly false in most others. However, of writing and the pleasure in it I am not writing here (with pleasure), but of the pleasure of taking up one's pen, which is quite another matter.

Note what the action means. You are alone. Even if the room is crowded (as was the smoking-room in the G.W.R. Hotel, at Paddington, only the other day, when I wrote my "Statistical Abstract of Christendom"), even if the room is crowded, you must have made yourself alone to be able to write at all. You must have built up some kind of wall and isolated your mind. You are alone, then; and that is the beginning.

If you consider at what pains men are to be alone: how they climb mountains, enter prisons, profess monastic vows, put on eccentric daily habits, and seclude themselves in the garrets of a great town, you will see that this moment of taking up the pen is not least happy in the fact that then, by a mere association of ideas, the writer is alone.

So much for that. Now not only are you alone, but you are going to "create".

When people say "create" they flatter themselves. No man can create anything. I knew a man once who drew a horse on a bit of paper to amuse the company and covered it all over with many parallel streaks as he drew. When he had done this, an aged priest (present upon that occasion) said, "You are pleased to draw a zebra." When the priest said this the man began to curse and to swear, and to protest that he had never seen or heard of a zebra. He said it was all done out of his own head, and he called heaven to witness, and his patron saint (for he was of the Old English Territorial Catholic Families—his patron saint was Aethelstan), and the salvation of his immortal soul he also staked, that he was as innocent of zebras as the babe unborn. But there! He persuaded no one, and the priest scored. It was most evident that the Territorial was crammed full of zebraical knowledge.

All this, then, is a digression, and it must be admitted that there is no such thing as a man's "creating". But anyhow, when you take up your pen you do something devilish pleasing: there is a prospect before you. You are going to develop a germ: I don't know what it is, and I promise you I won't call it creation—but possibly a god is creating through you, and at least you are making believe at creation. Anyhow, it is a sense of mastery and of origin, and you know that when you have done, something will be added to the world, and little destroyed. For what will you have destroyed or wasted? A certain amount of white paper at a farthing a square yard (and I am not certain it is not pleasanter all diversified and variegated with black wriggles)—a certain amount of ink meant to be spread and dried: made for no other purpose. A certain infinitesimal amount of quill—torn from the silly goose for no purpose whatsoever but to minister to the high needs of Man.

Here you cry "Affectation! Affectation! How do I know that the fellow writes with a quill? A most unlikely habit!" To that I answer you are right. Less assertion, please, and more humility. I will tell you frankly with what I am writing. I am writing with a Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen. The nib is of pure gold, as was the throne of Charlemagne, in the "Song of Roland." That throne (I need hardly tell you) was borne into Spain across the cold and awful passes of the Pyrenees by no less than a hundred and twenty mules, and all the Western world adored it, and trembled before it when it was set up at every halt under pine trees, on the upland grasses. For he sat upon it, dreadful and commanding: there weighed upon him two centuries of age; his brows were level with justice and experience, and his beard was so tangled and full, that he was called "bramble-bearded Charlemagne." You have read how, when he stretched out his hand at evening, the sun stood still till he had found the body of Roland? No? You must read about these things.

Well then, the pen is of pure gold, a pen that runs straight away like a willing horse, or a jolly little ship; indeed, it is a pen so excellent that it reminds me of my subject: the pleasure of taking up one's pen.

God bless you, pen! When I was a boy, and they told me work was honourable, useful, cleanly, sanitary, wholesome, and necessary to the mind of man, I paid no more attention to them than if they had told me that public men were usually honest, or that pigs could fly. It seemed to me that they were merely saying silly things they had been told to say. Nor do I doubt to this day that those who told me these things at school were but preaching a dull and careless round. But now I know that the things they told me were true. God bless you, pen of work, pen of drudgery, pen of letters, pen of posings, pen rabid, pen ridiculous, pen glorified. Pray, little pen, be worthy of the love I bear you, and consider how noble I shall make you some day, when you shall live in a glass case with a crowd of tourists round you every day from 10 to 4; pen of justice, pen of the saeva indignatio, pen of majesty and of light. I will write with you some day a considerable poem; it is a compact between you and me. If I cannot make one of my own, then I will write out some other man's; but you, pen, come what may, shall write out a good poem before you die, if it is only the Allegro.

* * * * *

The pleasure of taking up one's pen has also this, peculiar among all pleasures, that you have the freedom to lay it down when you will. Not so with love. Not so with victory. Not so with glory.

Had I begun the other way round, I would have called this Work, "The Pleasure of laying down one's Pen." But I began it where I began it, and I am going on to end it just where it is going to end.

What other occupation, avocation, dissertation, or intellectual recreation can you cease at will? Not bridge—you go on playing to win. Not public speaking—they ring a bell. Not mere converse—you have to answer everything the other insufficient person says. Not life, for it is wrong to kill one's self; and as for the natural end of living, that does not come by one's choice; on the contrary, it is the most capricious of all accidents.

But the pen you lay down when you will. At any moment: without remorse, without anxiety, without dishonour, you are free to do this dignified and final thing (I am just going to do it).... You lay it down.


To begin at the beginning is, next to ending at the end, the whole art of writing; as for the middle you may fill it in with any rubble that you choose. But the beginning and the end, like the strong stone outer walls of mediaeval buildings, contain and define the whole.

And there is more than this: since writing is a human and a living art, the beginning being the motive and the end the object of the work, each inspires it; each runs through organically, and the two between them give life to what you do.

So I will begin at the beginning and I will lay down this first principle, that religion and the full meaning of things has nowhere more disappeared from the modern world than in the department of Guide Books.

For a Guide Book will tell you always what are the principal and most vulgar sights of a town; what mountains are most difficult to climb, and, invariably, the exact distances between one place and another. But these things do not serve the End of Man. The end of man is Happiness, and how much happier are you with such a knowledge? Now there are some Guide Books which do make little excursions now and then into the important things, which tell you (for instance) what kind of cooking you will find in what places, what kind of wine in countries where this beverage is publicly known, and even a few, more daring than the rest, will give a hint or two upon hiring mules, and upon the way that a bargain should be conducted, or how to fight.

But with all this even the best of them do not go to the moral heart of the matter. They do not give you a hint or an idea of that which is surely the basis of all happiness in travel. I mean, the art of gaining respect in the places where you stay. Unless that respect is paid you you are more miserable by far than if you had stayed at home, and I would ask anyone who reads this whether he can remember one single journey of his which was not marred by the evident contempt which the servants and the owners of taverns showed for him wherever he went?

It is therefore of the first importance, much more important than any question of price or distance, to know something of this art; it is not difficult to learn, moreover it is so little exploited that if you will but learn it you will have a sense of privilege and of upstanding among your fellows worth all the holidays which were ever taken in the world.

Of this Respect which we seek, out of so many human pleasures, a facile, and a very false, interpretation is that it is the privilege of the rich, and I even knew one poor fellow who forged a cheque and went to gaol in his desire to impress the host of the "Spotted Dog," near Barnard Castle. It was an error in him, as it is in all who so imagine. The rich in their degree fall under this contempt as heavily as any, and there is no wealth that can purchase the true awe which it should be your aim to receive from waiters, serving-wenches, boot-blacks, and publicans.

I knew a man once who set out walking from Oxford to Stow-in-the-Wold, from Stow-in-the-Wold to Cheltenham, from Cheltenham to Ledbury, from Ledbury to Hereford, from Hereford to New Rhayader (where the Cobbler lives), and from New Rhayader to the end of the world which lies a little west and north of that place, and all the way he slept rough under hedges and in stacks, or by day in open fields, so terrified was he at the thought of the contempt that awaited him should he pay for a bed. And I knew another man who walked from York to Thirsk, and from Thirsk to Darlington, and from Darlington to Durham, and so on up to the border and over it, and all the way he pretended to be extremely poor so that he might be certain the contempt he received was due to nothing of his own, but to his clothes only: but this was an indifferent way of escaping, for it got him into many fights with miners, and he was arrested by the police in Lanchester; and at Jedburgh, where his money did really fail him, he had to walk all through the night, finding that no one would take in such a tatterdemalion. The thing could be done much more cheaply than that, and much more respectably, and you can acquire with but little practice one of many ways of achieving the full respect of the whole house, even of that proud woman who sits behind glass in front of an enormous ledger; and the first way is this:—

As you come into the place go straight for the smoking-room, and begin talking of the local sport: and do not talk humbly and tentatively as so many do, but in a loud authoritative tone. You shall insist and lay down the law and fly into a passion if you are contradicted. There is here an objection which will arise in the mind of every niggler and boggler who has in the past very properly been covered with ridicule and become the butt of the waiters and stable-yard, which is, that if one is ignorant of the local sport, there is an end to the business. The objection is ridiculous. Do you suppose that the people whom you hear talking around you are more learned than yourself in the matter? And if they are do you suppose that they are acquainted with your ignorance? Remember that most of them have read far less than you, and that you can draw upon an experience of travel of which they can know nothing; do but make the plunge, practising first in the villages of the Midlands, I will warrant you that in a very little while bold assertion of this kind will carry you through any tap-room or bar-parlour in Britain.

I remember once in the holy and secluded village of Washington under the Downs, there came in upon us as we sat in the inn there a man whom I recognised though he did not know me—for a journalist—incapable of understanding the driving of a cow, let alone horses: a prophet, a socialist, a man who knew the trend of things and so forth: a man who had never been outside a town except upon a motor bicycle, upon which snorting beast indeed had he come to this inn. But if he was less than us in so many things he was greater than us in this art of gaining respect in Inns and Hotels. For he sat down, and when they had barely had time to say good day to him he gave us in minutest detail a great run after a fox, a run that never took place. We were fifteen men in the room; none of us were anything like rich enough to hunt, and the lie went through them like an express. This fellow "found" (whatever that may mean) at Gumber Corner, ran right through the combe (which, by the way, is one of those bits of land which have been stolen bodily from the English people), cut down the Sutton Road, across the railway at Coates (and there he showed the cloven hoof, for your liar always takes his hounds across the railway), then all over Egdean, and killed in a field near Wisborough. All this he told, and there was not even a man there to ask him whether all those little dogs and horses swam the Rother or jumped it. He was treated like a god; they tried to make him stop but he would not. He was off to Worthing, where I have no doubt he told some further lies upon the growing of tomatoes under glass, which is the main sport of that district. Similarly, I have no doubt, such a man would talk about boats at King's Lynn, murder with violence at Croydon, duck shooting at Ely, and racing anywhere.

Then also if you are in any doubt as to what they want of you, you can always change the scene. Thus fishing is dangerous for even the poor can fish, and the chances are you do not know the names of the animals, and you may be putting salt-water fish into the stream of Lambourne, or talking of salmon upon the Upper Thames. But what is to prevent you putting on a look of distance and marvel, and conjuring up the North Atlantic for them? Hold them with the cold and the fog of the Newfoundland seas, and terrify their simple minds with whales.

A second way to attain respect, if you are by nature a silent man, and one which I think is always successful, is to write before you go to bed and leave upon the table a great number of envelopes which you should address to members of the Cabinet, and Jewish money-lenders, dukes, and in general any of the great. It is but slight labour, and for the contents you cannot do better than put into each envelope one of those advertisements which you will find lying about. Then next morning you should gather them up and ask where the post is: but you need not post them, and you need not fear for your bill. Your bill will stand much the same, and your reputation will swell like a sponge.

And a third way is to go to the telephone, since there are telephones nowadays, and ring up whoever in the neighbourhood is of the greatest importance. There is no law against it, and when you have the number you have but to ask the servant at the other end whether it is not somebody else's house. But in the meanwhile your night in the place is secure.

And a fourth way is to tell them to call you extremely early, and then to get up extremely late. Now why this should have the effect it has I confess I cannot tell. I lay down the rule empirically and from long observation, but I may suggest that perhaps it is the combination of the energy you show in early rising, and of the luxury you show in late rising: for energy and luxury are the two qualities which menials most admire in that governing class to which you flatter yourself you belong. Moreover the strength of will with which you sweep aside their inconvenience, ordering one thing and doing another, is not without its effect, and the stir you have created is of use to you.

And the fifth way is to be Strong, to Dominate and to Lead. To be one of the Makers of this world, one of the Builders. To have the more Powerful Will. To arouse in all around you by mere Force of Personality a feeling that they must Obey. But I do not know how this is done.


There is not anything that can so suddenly flood the mind with shame as the conviction of ignorance, yet we are all ignorant of nearly everything there is to be known. Is it not wonderful, then, that we should be so sensitive upon the discovery of a fault which must of necessity be common to all, and that in its highest degree? The conviction of ignorance would not shame us thus if it were not for the public appreciation of our failure.

If a man proves us ignorant of German or the complicated order of English titles, or the rules of Bridge, or any other matter, we do not care for his proofs, so that we are alone with him: first because we can easily deny them all, and continue to wallow in our ignorance without fear, and secondly, because we can always counter with something we know, and that he knows nothing of, such as the Creed, or the history of Little Bukleton, or some favourite book. Then, again, if one is alone with one's opponent, it is quite easy to pretend that the subject on which one has shown ignorance is unimportant, peculiar, pedantic, hole in the corner, and this can be brazened out even about Greek or Latin. Or, again, one can turn the laugh against him, saying that he has just been cramming up the matter, and that he is airing his knowledge; or one can begin making jokes about him till he grows angry, and so forth. There is no necessity to be ashamed.

But if there be others present? Ah! Hoc est aliud rem, that is another matter, for then the biting shame of ignorance suddenly displayed conquers and bewilders us. We have no defence left. We are at the mercy of the discoverer, we own and confess, and become insignificant: we slink away.

Note that all this depends upon what the audience conceive ignorance to be. It is very certain that if a man should betray in some cheap club that he did not know how to ride a horse, he would be broken down and lost, and similarly, if you are in a country house among the rich you are shipwrecked unless you can show acquaintance with the Press, and among the poor you must be very careful, not only to wear good cloth and to talk gently as though you owned them, but also to know all about the rich. Among very young men to seem ignorant of vice is the ruin of you, and you had better not have been born than appear doubtful of the effects of strong drink when you are in the company of Patriots. There was a man who died of shame this very year in a village of Savoy because he did not know the name of the King reigning over France to-day, and it is a common thing to see men utterly cast down in the bar-rooms off the Strand because they cannot correctly recite the opening words of "Boys of the Empire." There are schoolgirls who fall ill and pine away because they are shown to have misplaced the name of Dagobert III in the list of Merovingian Monarchs, and quite fearless men will blush if they are found ignoring the family name of some peer. Indeed, there is nothing so contemptible or insignificant but that in some society or other it is required to be known, and that the ignorance of it may not at any moment cover one with confusion. Nevertheless we should not on that account attempt to learn everything there is to know (for that is manifestly impossible), nor even to learn everything that is known, for that would soon prove a tedious and heart-breaking task; we should rather study the means to be employed for warding off those sudden and public convictions of Ignorance which are the ruin of so many.

These methods of defence are very numerous and are for the most part easy of acquirement. The most powerful of them by far (but the most dangerous) is to fly into a passion and marvel how anyone can be such a fool as to pay attention to wretched trifles. "Powerful," because it appeals to that strongest of all passions in men by which they are predisposed to cringe before what they think to be a superior station in society. "Dangerous," because if it fail in its objects this method does not save you from pain, and secures you in addition a bad quarrel, and perhaps a heavy beating. Still it has many votaries, and is more often carried off than any other. Thus, if in Bedfordshire, someone catches you erring on a matter of crops, you profess that in London such things are thought mere rubbish and despised; or again, in the society of professors at the Universities, an ignorance of letters can easily be turned by an allusion to that vapid life of the rich, where letters grow insignificant; so at sea, if you slip on common terms, speak a little of your luxurious occupations on land and you will usually be safe.

There are other and better defences. One of these is to turn the attack by showing great knowledge on a cognate point, or by remembering that the knowledge your opponent boasts has been somewhere contradicted by an authority. Thus, if some day a friend should say, as continually happens in a London club:

"Come, let us hear you decline [Greek: tetummenos on]," you can answer carelessly:

"You know as well as I do that the form is purely Paradigmatic: it is never found."

Or again, if you put the Wrekin by an error into Staffordshire, you can say, "I was thinking of the Jurassic formation which is the basis of the formation of——" etc. Or, "Well, Shrewsbury ... Staffordshire?... Oh! I had got my mind mixed up with the graves of the Staffords." Very few people will dispute this, none will follow it. There is indeed this difficulty attached to such a method, that it needs the knowledge of a good many things, and a ready imagination and a stiff face: but it is a good way.

Yet another way is to cover your retreat with buffoonery, pretending to be ignorant of the most ordinary things, so as to seem to have been playing the fool only when you made your first error. There is a special form of this method which has always seemed to me the most excellent by far of all known ways of escape. It is to show a steady and crass ignorance of very nearly everything that can be mentioned, and with all this to keep a steady mouth, a determined eye, and (this is essential) to show by a hundred allusions that you have on your own ground an excellent store of knowledge.

This is the true offensive-defensive in this kind of assault, and therefore the perfection of tactics.

Thus if one should say:

"Well, it was the old story. [Greek: Anankae]."

It might happen to anyone to answer: "I never read the play."

This you will think perhaps an irremediable fall, but it is not, as will appear from this dialogue, in which the method is developed:

SAPIENS. But, Good Heavens, it isn't a play!

IGNORAMUS. Of course not. I know that as well as you, but the character of [Greek: Anankae] dominates the play. You won't deny that?

SAPIENS. You don't seem to have much acquaintance with Liddell and Scott.

IGNORAMUS. I didn't know there was anyone called Liddell in it, but I knew Scott intimately, both before and after he succeeded to the estate.

SAPIENS. But I mean the dictionary.

IGNORAMUS. I'm quite certain that his father wouldn't let him write a dictionary. Why, the library at Bynton hasn't been opened for years.

If, after five minutes of that, Ignoramus cannot get Sapiens floundering about in a world he knows nothing of, it is his own fault.

But if Sapiens is over-tenacious there is a final method which may not be the most perfect, but which I have often tried myself, and usually with very considerable success:

SAPIENS. Nonsense, man. The Dictionary. The Greek dictionary.

IGNORAMUS. What has Ananti to do with Greek?

SAPIENS. I said [Greek: Anankae].

IGNORAMUS. Oh! h——h! you said [Greek: anankae], did you? I thought you said Ananti. Of course, Scott didn't call the play Ananti, but Ananti was the principal character, and one always calls it that in the family. It is very well written. If he hadn't that shyness about publishing ... and so forth.

Lastly, or rather Penultimately, there is the method of upsetting the plates and dishes, breaking your chair, setting fire to the house, shooting yourself, or otherwise swallowing all the memory of your shame in a great catastrophe.

But that is a method for cowards; the brave man goes out into the hall, comes back with a stick, and says firmly, "You have just deliberately and cruelly exposed my ignorance before this company; I shall, therefore, beat you soundly with this stick in the presence of them all."

This you then do to him or he to you, mutatis mutandis, ceteris paribus; and that is all I have to say on Ignorance.


Harmonides of Ephesus says in one of his treatises upon method (I forget which, but I think the fifth) that a matter is very often more clearly presented by way of example than in the form of a direct statement and analysis. I have determined to follow the advice of this great though pagan authority in what you will now read or not read, according to your inclination.

As I was sitting one of these sunny mornings in my little Park, reading an article upon vivisection in the Tablet newspaper, a Domestic [Be seated, be seated, I pray you!] brought me a letter upon a Silver Salver [Be covered!]

Which reminds me, why do people say that silver is the only perfect spondee in the English language? Salver is a perfectly good spondee; so is North-Cape; so is great-coat; so is High-Mass; so is Wenchthorpe; so is forewarp, which is the rope you throw out from the stem to the little man in the boat who comes to moor you along the west gully in the Ramsgate Harbour; so is Longnose, the name of a buoy, and of a reef of rocks just north of the North Foreland; so are a great many other words. But I digress. I only put in these words to show you in case you had any dissolving doubts remaining upon the matter, that the kind of stuff you read is very often all nonsense, and that you must not take things for granted merely because they are printed. I have watched you doing it from time to time, and have been torn between pity and anger. But all that is neither here nor there. This habit of parenthesis is the ruin of good prose. As I was saying, example clearly put down without comment is very often more powerful than analysis for the purpose of conviction.

The Domestic brought me a letter upon a Silver Salver. I took it and carefully examined the outside.

They err who will maintain through thick and thin upon a mere theory and without any true experience of the world, that it matters not what the outside of a letter may be so long as the contents provoke terror or amusement. The outside of a letter should appeal to one. When one gets a letter with a halfpenny stamp and with the flap of the letter stuck inside, and with the address on the outside typewritten, one is very apt to throw it away. I believe that there is no recorded case of such a letter containing a cheque, a summons, or an invitation to eat good food, and as for demand notes, what are they? Then again those long envelopes which come with the notice, "Paid in bulk," outside instead of a stamp—no man can be moved by them. They are very nearly always advertisements of cheap wine.

Do not misunderstand me: cheap wine is by no means to be despised. There are some sorts of wine the less you pay for them the better they are—within reason; and if a Gentleman has bought up a bankrupt stock of wine from a fellow to whom he has been lending money, why on earth should he not sell it again at a reasonable profit, yet quite cheap? It seems to be pure benefit to the world. But I perceive that all this is leading me from my subject.

I took up the letter, I say, and carefully examined the outside. It was written in the hand of an educated man. It was almost illegible, and had all the appearance of what an honest citizen of some culture might write to one hurriedly about some personal matter. I noticed that it had come from the eastern central district, but when you consider what an enormous number of people live there during the day, that did not prejudice me against it.

Now, when I opened this letter, I found it written a little more carefully, but still, written, not printed, or typewritten, or manifolded, or lithographed, or anything else of that kind. It was written.

The art of writing ... but Patience! Patience!...

It was written. It was very cordial, and it appealed directly, only the style was otiose, but in matters of the first importance style is a hindrance.

_Telephone No. 666.

The Mercury,

15th Nishan 5567.

Dear Sir,—Many people wonder, especially in your profession, [what is It?] why a certain Taedium Vitae seizes them towards five o'clock in the afternoon. The stress and hurry of modern life have forced so many of Us to draw upon Our nervous energy that We imagine that [Look at that 'that'! The whole Elizabethan tradition chucked away!] We are exceeding our powers, and when this depression comes over Us, we think it necessary to take a rest, and Let up from working. This is an erroneous supposition. What it means is that Our body has received insufficient nutriment during the last twenty-four hours, and that Nature is craving for more sustenance.

We shall be very happy to offer you, through the medium of this paper, a special offer of our Essence of The Ox. This offer will only remain open until Derby Day, during which period a box of our Essence of The Ox will be sent to you Free, if you will enclose the following form, and send it to Us in the stamped envelope, which accompanies this letter.

Very faithfully yours,_


It seemed to me a most extraordinary thing. I had never written for Ullmo and his Mercury, and I could do them no good in the world, either here or in Johannesburg. I was never likely to write for him at all. He is not very pleasant; He is by no means rich; He is ill-informed. He has no character at all, apart from rather unsuccessful money-grubbing, and from a habit of defending with some virulence, but with no capacity, his fellow money-grubbers throughout the world. However, I thought no more about it, and went on reading about "Vivisection."

Two days later I got a letter upon thick paper, so grained as to imitate oak, and having at the top a coat-of-arms of the most complicated kind. This coat-of-arms had a little lamb on it, suspended by a girdle, as though it were being slung on board ship; there were also three little sheaves of wheat, a sword, three panthers, some gules, and a mullet. Above it was a helmet, and there were two supporters: one was a man with a club, and the other was another man without a club, both naked. Underneath was the motto, "Tout a Toi." This second letter was very short.

Dear Sir,—Can you tell me why you have not answered Our letter re the Essence of the Ox? Derby Day is approaching, and the remaining time is very short. We made the offer specially to you, and we had at least expected the courtesy of an acknowledgment. You will understand that the business of a great newspaper leaves but little time for private charity, but we are willing to let the offer remain open for three days longer, after which date—

How easy it would be to criticise this English! To continue:

—after which date the price will inevitably be raised to One Shilling.—We remain, etc.

I had this letter framed with the other, and I waited to see what would happen, keeping back from the bank for fear of frightening the fish, and hardly breathing.

What happened was, after four or five days, a very sad letter which said that Ullmo expected better things from me, but that He knew what the stress of modern life was, and how often correspondence fell into arrears. He sent me a smaller specimen box of the Essence of The Ox. I have it still.

And there it is. There is no moral; there is no conclusion or application. The world is not quite infinite—but it is astonishingly full. All sorts of things happen in it. There are all sorts of different men and different ways of action, and different goals to which life may be directed. Why, in a little wood near home, not a hundred yards long, there will soon burst, in the spring (I wish I were there!), hundreds of thousands of leaves, and no one leaf exactly like another. At least, so the parish priest used to say, and though I have never had the leisure to put the thing to the proof, I am willing to believe that he was right, for he spoke with authority.


I appeal loudly to the Muse of History (whose name I forget and you never knew) to help me in the description of this house, for—

The Muse of Tragedy would overstrain herself on it;

The Muse of Comedy would be impertinent upon it;

The Muse of Music never heard of it;

The Muse of Fine Arts disapproved of it;

The Muse of Public Instruction ... (Tut, tut! There I was nearly making a tenth Muse! I was thinking of the French Ministry.)

The Muse of Epic Poetry did not understand it;

The Muse of Lyric Poetry still less so;

The Muse of Astronomy is thinking of other things;

The Muse Polyhymnia (or Polymnia, who, according to Smith's Dictionary of Antiquities, is commonly represented in a pensive attitude) has no attribute and does no work.

And as for little Terpsichore whose feet are like the small waves in summer time, she would laugh in a peal if I asked her to write, think of, describe, or dance in this house (and that makes eleven Muses. No matter; better more than less).

Yet it was a house worthy of description and careful inventory, and for that reason I have appealed to the Muse of History whose business it is to set down everything in order as it happens, judging between good and evil, selecting facts, condensing narratives, admitting picturesque touches, and showing her further knowledge by the allusive method or use of the dependent clause. Well then, inspired, I will tell you exactly how that house was disposed. First, there ran up the middle of it a staircase which, had Horace seen it (and heaven knows he was the kind of man to live in such a house), he would have called in his original and striking way "Res Angusta Domi," for it was a narrow thing. Narrow do I call it? Yes—and yet not so narrow. It was narrow enough to avoid all appearance of comfort or majesty, yet not so narrow as to be quaint or snug. It was so designed that two people could walk exactly abreast, for it was necessary that upon great occasions the ladies should be taken down from the drawing-room by the gentlemen to the dining-room, yet it would have been a sin and a shame to make it wider than that, and the house was not built in the days of crinolines. Upon these occasions it was customary for the couples to go down in order and in stately fashion, and the hostess went last; but do not imagine that there was any order of precedence. Oh, no! Far from it, they went as they were directed.

This staircase filled up a kind of Chimney or Funnel, or rather Parallelepiped, in the house: half-way between each floor was a landing where it turned right round on itself, and on each floor a larger landing flanked by two doors on either side, which made four altogether. This staircase was covered with Brussels carpet (and let me tell you in passing that no better covering for stairs was ever yet invented; it wears well and can be turned, and when the uppers are worn you can move the whole thing down one file and put the steps where the uppers were. None of your cocoanut stuff or gimcracks for the honest house: when there is money you should have Brussels, when you have none linoleum—but I digress). The stair-rods were of brass and beautifully polished, the banisters of iron painted to look like mahogany; and this staircase, which I may take to be the emblem of a good life lived for duty, went up one pair, and two pair, and three pair—all in the same way, and did not stop till it got to the top. But just as a good life has beneath it a human basis so this (heaven forgive me!) somewhat commonplace staircase changed its character when it passed the hall door, and as it ran down to the basement had no landing, ornament, carpet or other paraphernalia, but a sound flight of stone steps with a cold rim of unpainted metal for the hand.

The hall that led to these steps was oblong and little furnished. There was a hat-rack, a fireplace (in which a fire was not lit) and two pictures; one a photograph of the poor men to whom the owner paid weekly wages at his Works, all set out in a phalanx, or rather fan, with the Owner of the House (and them) in the middle, the other a steel engraving entitled "The Monarch of the Forest," from a painting by Sir Edwin Landseer. It represented a stag and was very ugly.

On the ground floor of the House (which is a libel, for it was some feet above the ground, and was led up to by several steps, as the porch could show) there were four rooms—the Dining-room, the Smoking-room, the Downstairs-room and the Back-room. The Dining-room was so called because all meals were held in it; the Smoking-room because it was customary to smoke all over the house (except the Drawing-room); the Back-room because it was at the back, and the Downstairs-room because it was downstairs. Upon my soul, I would give you a better reason if I had one, but I have none. Only I may say that the Smoking-room was remarkable for two stuffed birds, the Downstairs-room from the fact that the Owner lived in it and felt at ease there, the Back-room from the fact that no one ever went into it (and quite right too), while the Dining-room—but the Dining-room stands separate.

The Dining-room was well carpeted; it had in its midst a large mahogany table so made that it could get still larger by the addition of leaves inside; there were even flaps as well. It had eleven chairs, and these in off-times stood ranged round the wall thinking of nothing, but at meal times were (according to the number wanted) put round the table. It is a theory among those who believe that a spirit nourishes all things from within, that there was some competition amongst these chairs as to which should be used at table, so dull, forlorn and purposeless was their life against the wall. Seven pictures hung on that wall; not because it was a mystic number, but because it filled up all the required space; two on each side of the looking-glass and three large ones on the opposite wall. They were all of them engravings, and one of them at least was that of a prominent statesman (Lord Beaconsfield), while the rest had to do with historical subjects, such as the visit of Prince Albert to the Exhibition of 1851, and I really forget what else. There was a Chiffonier at the end of the room in which the wines and spirits were kept, and which also had a looking-glass above it; also a white cloth on the top for no reason on earth. An arm-chair (in which the Owner sat) commonly stood at the head of the table; this remained there even between meals, and was a symbol that he was master of the house. Four meals were held here. Breakfast at eight, dinner at one, tea at six, and a kind of supper (when the children had gone to bed) at nine or so. But what am I saying—quo Musa Historiae tendis?—dear! dear! I thought I was back again in the old times! a thousand pardons. At the time my story opens—and closes also for that matter (for I deal of the Owner and the House in articulo mortis so to speak; on the very edge of death)—it was far otherwise. Breakfast was when you like (for him, however, always at the same old hour, and there he would sit alone, his wife dead, his son asleep—trying to read his newspaper, but staring out from time to time through the window and feeling very companion-less). Dinner was no longer dinner; there was "luncheon" to which nobody came except on Saturdays. Then there was another thing (called by the old name of dinner) at half-past seven, and what had happened to supper no one ever made out. Some people said it had gone to Prince's, but certainly the Owner never followed it there.

On the next floor was the Drawing-room, noted for its cabinet of curiosities, its small aquarium, its large sofa, its piano and its inlaid table. The back of the drawing-room was another room beyond folding doors. This would have been convenient if a dance had ever been given in the house. On the other side were the best bedroom and a dressing-room. Each in its way what might be expected, save that at the head of the best bed were two little pockets as in the time of our grandfathers; also there was a Chevalier looking-glass and on the dressing-table a pin-cushion with pins arranged in a pattern. The fire-place and the mantelpiece were of white marble and had on them two white vases picked out in bright green, a clock with a bronze upon it representing a waiter dressed up partly in fifteenth-century plate and partly in twelfth-century mail, and on the wall were two Jewish texts, each translated into Jacobean English and illuminated with a Victorian illumination. One said: "He hath prevented all my ways." The other said: "Wisdom is better than Rubies." But the gothic "u" was ill made and it looked like "Rabies." There was also in the room a good wardrobe of a kind now difficult to get, made out of cedar and very reasonable in arrangement. There was, moreover (now it occurs to me), a little table for writing on; there was writing paper with "Wood Thorpe" on it, but there were no stamps, and the ink was dry in the bottles (for there were two bottles).

Well, now, shall I be at the pains of telling you what there was upstairs? Not I! I am tired enough as it is of detailing all these things. I will speak generally. There were four bedrooms. They were used by the family, and above there was an attic which belonged to the servants. The decoration of the wall was everywhere much the same, save that it got a little meaner as one rose, till at last, in the top rooms of all, there was nothing but little photographs of sweethearts or pictures out of illustrated papers stuck against the walls. The wall-paper, that had cost 3s. 3d. a piece in the hall and dining-room, and 7s. 6d. in the drawing-room, suddenly began to cost 1s. 4d. in the upper story and the attic was merely whitewashed.

One thing more there was, a little wooden gate. It had been put there when the children were little, and had remained ever since at the top of the stairs. Why? It may have been mere routine. It may have been romance. The Owner was a practical man, and the little gate was in the way; it was true he never had to shut and open it on his way to bed, and but rarely even saw it. Did he leave it there from a weak sentiment or from a culpable neglect? He was not a sentimental man; on the other hand, he was not negligent. There is a great deal to be said on both sides, and it is too late to discuss that now.

Heaven send us such a house, or a house of some kind; but Heaven send us also the liberty to furnish it as we choose. For this it was that made the Owner's joy: he had done what he liked in his own surroundings, and I very much doubt whether the people who live in Queen Anne houses or go in for timber fronts can say the same.


The other day I noticed that my Muse, who had long been ailing, silent and morose, was showing signs of actual illness.

Now, though it is by no means one of my habits to coddle the dogs, cats and other familiars of my household, yet my Muse had so pitiful an appearance that I determined to send for the doctor, but not before I had seen her to bed with a hot bottle, a good supper, and such other comforts as the Muses are accustomed to value. All that could be done for the poor girl was done thoroughly; a fine fire was lit in her bedroom, and a great number of newspapers such as she is given to reading for her recreation were bought at a neighbouring shop. When she had drunk her wine and read in their entirety the Daily Telegraph, the Morning Post, the Standard, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Times, the Daily News, and even the Advertiser, I was glad to see her sink into a profound slumber.

I will confess that the jealousy which is easily aroused among servants when one of their number is treated with any special courtesy gave me some concern, and I was at the pains of explaining to the household not only the grave indisposition from which the Muse suffered, but also the obligation I was under to her on account of her virtues: which were, her long and faithful service, her willingness, and the excess of work which she had recently been compelled to perform. Her fellow-servants, to my astonishment and pleasure, entered at once into the spirit of my apology: the still-room maid offered to sit up with her all night, or at least until the trained nurse should arrive, and the groom of the chambers, with a good will that I confess was truly surprising in one of his proud nature, volunteered to go himself and order straw for the street from a neighbouring stable.

The cause of this affection which the Muse had aroused in the whole household I subsequently discovered to lie in her own amiable and unselfish temper. She had upon two occasions inspired the knife-boy to verses which had subsequently appeared in the Spectator, and with weekly regularity she would lend her aid to the cook in the composition of those technical reviews by which (as it seemed) that domestic increased her ample wages.

The Muse had slept for a full six hours when the doctor arrived—a specialist in these matters and one who has before now been called in (I am proud to say) by such great persons as Mr. Hichens, Mr. Churchill, and Mr. Roosevelt when their Muses have been out of sorts. Indeed, he is that doctor who operated for aphasia upon the Muse of the late Mr. Rossetti just before his demise. His fees are high, but I was willing enough to pay, and certainly would never have consented—as have, I regret to say, so many of my unworthy contemporaries—to employ a veterinary surgeon upon such an occasion.

The great specialist approached with a determined air the couch where the patient lay, awoke her according to the ancient formula, and proceeded to question her upon her symptoms. He soon discovered their gravity, and I could see by his manner that he was anxious to an extreme. The Muse had grown so weak as to be unable to dictate even a little blank verse, and the indisposition had so far affected her mind that she had no memory of Parnassus, but deliriously maintained that she had been born in the home counties—nay, in the neighbourhood of Uxbridge. Her every phrase was a deplorable commonplace, and, on the physician applying a stethoscope and begging her to attempt some verse, she could give us nothing better than a sonnet upon the expansion of the Empire. Her weakness was such that she could do no more than awake, and that feebly, while she professed herself totally unable to arise, to expand, to soar, to haunt, or to perform any of those exercises which are proper to her profession.

When his examination was concluded the doctor took me aside and asked me upon what letters the patient had recently fed. I told him upon the daily Press, some of the reviews, the telegrams from the latest seat of war, and occasionally a debate in Parliament. At this he shook his head and asked whether too much had not recently been asked of her. I admitted that she had done a very considerable amount of work for so young a Muse in the past year, though its quality was doubtful, and I hastened to add that I was the less to blame as she had wasted not a little of her powers upon others without asking my leave; notably upon the knife-boy and the cook.

The doctor was then good enough to write out a prescription in Latin and to add such general recommendations as are commonly of more value than physic. She was to keep her bed, to be allowed no modern literature of any kind, unless Milton and Swift may be admitted as moderns, and even these authors and their predecessors were to be admitted in very sparing quantities. If any signs of inversion, archaism, or neologistic tendencies appeared he was to be summoned at once; but of these (he added) he had little fear. He did not doubt that in a few weeks we should have her up and about again, but he warned me against letting her begin work too soon.

"I would not," he said, "permit her to undertake any effort until she can inspire within one day of twelve hours at least eighteen quatrains, and those lucid, grammatical, and moving. As for single lines, tags, fine phrases, and the rest, they are no sign whatever of returning health, if anything of the contrary."

He also begged that she might not be allowed any Greek or Latin for ten days, but I reassured him upon the matter by telling him that she was totally unacquainted with those languages—at which he expressed some pleasure but even more astonishment.

At last he told me that he was compelled to be gone; the season had been very hard, nor had he known so general a breakdown among the Muses of his various clients.

I thought it polite as I took him to the door to ask after some of his more distinguished patients; he was glad to say that the Archbishop of Armagh's was very vigorous indeed, in spite of the age of her illustrious master. He had rarely known a more inventive or courageous female, but when, as I handed him into his carriage, I asked after that of Mr. Kipling, his face became suddenly grave; and he asked me, "Have you not heard?"

"No," said I; but I had a fatal presentiment of what was to follow, and indeed I was almost prepared for it when he answered in solemn tones:

"She is dead."


There lives in the middle of the Weald upon the northern edge of a small wood where a steep brow of orchard pasture goes down to a little river, a Recluse who is of middle age and possessed of all the ordinary accomplishments; that is, French and English literature are familiar to him, he can himself compose, he has read his classical Latin and can easily decipher such Greek as he has been taught in youth. He is unmarried, he is by birth a gentleman, he enjoys an income sufficient to give him food and wine, and has for companion a dog who, by the standard of dogs, is somewhat more elderly than himself.

This dog is called Argus, not that he has a hundred eyes nor even two, indeed he has but one; for the other, or right eye, he lost the sight of long ago from luxury and lack of exercise. This dog Argus is neither small nor large; he is brown in colour and covered—though now but partially—with curly hair. In this he resembles many other dogs, but he differs from most of his breed in a further character, which is that by long association with a Recluse he has acquired a human manner that is unholy. He is fond of affected poses. When he sleeps it is with that abandonment of fatigue only naturally to be found in mankind. He watches sunsets and listens mournfully to music. Cooked food is dearer to him than raw, and he will eat nuts—a monstrous thing in a dog and proof of corruption.

Nevertheless, or, rather, on account of all this, the dog Argus is exceedingly dear to his master, and of both I had the other day a singular revelation when I set out at evening to call upon my friend.

The sun had set, but the air was still clear and it was light enough to have shot a bat (had there been bats about and had one had a gun) when I knocked at the cottage door and opened it. Right within, one comes to the first of the three rooms which the Recluse possesses, and there I found him tenderly nursing the dog Argus, who lay groaning in the arm-chair and putting on all the airs of a Christian man at the point of death.

The Recluse did not even greet me, but asked me only in a hurried way how I thought the dog Argus looked. I answered gravely and in a low tone so as not to disturb the sufferer, that as I had not seen him since Tuesday, when he was, for an elderly dog, in the best of health, he certainly presented a sad contrast, but that perhaps he was better than he had been some few hours before, and that the Recluse himself would be the best judge of that.

My friend was greatly relieved at what I said, and told me that he thought the dog was better, compared at least with that same morning; then, whether you believe it or not, he took him by the left leg just above the paw and held it for a little time as though he were feeling a pulse, and said, "He came back less than twenty-four hours ago!" It seemed that the dog Argus, for the first time in fourteen years, had run away, and that for the first time in perhaps twenty or thirty years the emotion of loss had entered into the life of the Recluse, and that he had felt something outside books and outside the contemplation of the landscape about his hermitage.

In a short time the dog fell into a slumber, as was shown by a number of grunts and yaps which proved his sleep, for the dog Argus is of that kind which hunts in dreams. His master covered him reverently rather than gently with an Indian cloth and, still leaving him in the armchair, sat down upon a common wooden chair close by and gazed pitifully at the fire. For my part I stood up and wondered at them both, and wondered also at that in man by which he must attach himself to something, even if it be but a dog, a politician, or an ungrateful child.

When he had gazed at the fire a little while the Recluse began to talk, and I listened to him talking:

"Even if they had not dug up so much earth to prove it I should have known," said he, "that the Odyssey was written not at the beginning of a civilisation nor in the splendour of it, but towards its close. I do not say this from the evening light that shines across its pages, for that is common to all profound work, but I say it because of the animals, and especially because of the dog, who was the only one to know his master when that master came home a beggar to his own land, before his youth was restored to him, and before he got back his women and his kingship by the bending of his bow, and before he hanged the housemaids and killed all those who had despised him."

"But how," said I (for I am younger than he), "can the animals in the poem show you that the poem belongs to a decline?"

"Why," said he, "because at the end of a great civilisation the air gets empty, the light goes out of the sky, the gods depart, and men in their loneliness put out a groping hand, catching at the friendship of, and trying to understand, whatever lives and suffers as they do. You will find it never fail that where a passionate regard for the animals about us, or even a great tenderness for them, is to be found there is also to be found decay in the State."

"I hope not," said I. "Moreover, it cannot be true, for in the Thirteenth Century, which was certainly the healthiest time we ever had, animals were understood; and I will prove it to you in several carvings."

He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, saying, "In the rough and in general it is true; and the reason is the reason I have given you, that when decay begins, whether of a man or of a State, there comes with it an appalling and a torturing loneliness in which our energies decline into a strong affection for whatever is constantly our companion and for whatever is certainly present upon earth. For we have lost the sky."

"Then if the senses are so powerful in a decline of the State there should come at the same time," said I, "a quick forgetfulness of the human dead and an easy change of human friendship?"

"There does," he answered, and to that there was no more to be said.

"I know it by my own experience," he continued. "When, yesterday, at sunset, I looked for my dog Argus and could not find him, I went out into the wood and called him: the darkness came and I found no trace of him. I did not hear him barking far off as I have heard him before when he was younger and went hunting for a while, and three times that night I came back out of the wild into the warmth of my house, making sure he would have returned, but he was never there. The third time I had gone a mile out to the gamekeeper's to give him money if Argus should be found, and I asked him as many questions and as foolish as a woman would ask. Then I sat up right into the night, thinking that every movement of the wind outside or of the drip of water was the little pad of his step coming up the flagstones to the door. I was even in the mood when men see unreal things, and twice I thought I saw him passing quickly between my chair and the passage to the further room. But these things are proper to the night and the strongest thing I suffered for him was in the morning.

"It was, as you know, very bitterly cold for several days. They found things dead in the hedgerows, and there was perhaps no running water between here and the Downs. There was no shelter from the snow. There was no cover for my friend at all. And when I was up at dawn with the faint light about, a driving wind full of sleet filled all the air. Then I made certain that the dog Argus was dead, and what was worse that I should not find his body: that the old dog had got caught in some snare or that his strength had failed him through the cold, as it fails us human beings also upon such nights, striking at the heart.

"Though I was certain that I would not see him again yet I went on foolishly and aimlessly enough, plunging through the snow from one spinney to another and hoping that I might hear a whine. I heard none: and if the little trail he had made in his departure might have been seen in the evening, long before that morning the drift would have covered it.

"I had eaten nothing and yet it was near noon when I returned, pushing forward to the cottage against the pressure of the storm, when I found there, miserably crouched, trembling, half dead, in the lee of a little thick yew beside my door, the dog Argus; and as I came his tail just wagged and he just moved his ears, but he had not the strength to come near me, his master."

[Greek: ourae men rh ho g esaene kai ouata kabbalen ampho, asson d ouket epeita dunaesato oio anaktos elthemen.]

"I carried him in and put him here, feeding him by force, and I have restored him."

All this the Recluse said to me with as deep and as restrained emotion as though he had been speaking of the most sacred things, as indeed, for him, these things were sacred.

It was therefore a mere inadvertence in me, and an untrained habit of thinking aloud, which made me say:

"Good Heavens, what will you do when the dog Argus dies?"

At once I wished I had not said it, for I could see that the Recluse could not bear the words. I looked therefore a little awkwardly beyond him and was pleased to see the dog Argus lazily opening his one eye and surveying me with torpor and with contempt. He was certainly less moved than his master.

Then in my heart I prayed that of these two (unless The God would make them both immortal and catch them up into whatever place is better than the Weald, or unless he would grant them one death together upon one day) that the dog Argus might survive my friend, and that the Recluse might be the first to dissolve that long companionship. For of this I am certain, that the dog would suffer less; for men love their dependents much more than do their dependents them; and this is especially true of brutes; for men are nearer to the gods.


When I was a boy—

What a phrase! What memories! O! Noctes Coenasque Deum! Why, then, is there something in man that wholly perishes? It is against sound religion to believe it, but the world would lead one to imagine it. The Hills are there. I see them as I write. They are the cloud or wall that dignified my sixteenth year. And the river is there, and flows by that same meadow beyond my door; from above Coldwatham the same vast horizon opens westward in waves of receding crests more changeable and more immense than is even our sea. The same sunsets at times bring it all in splendour, for whatever herds the western clouds together in our stormy evenings is as stable and as vigorous as the County itself. If, therefore, there is something gone, it is I that have lost it.

Certainly something is diminished (the Priests and the tradition of the West forbid me to say that the soul can perish), certainly something is diminished—what? Well, I do not know its name, nor has anyone known it face to face or apprehended it in this life, but the sense and influence—alas! especially the memory of It, lies in the words "When I was a boy," and if I write those words again in any document whatsoever, even in a lawyer's letter, without admitting at once a full-blooded and galloping parenthesis, may the Seven Devils of Sense take away the last remnant of the joy they lend me.

When I was a boy there was nothing all about the village or the woods that had not its living god, and all these gods were good. Oh! How the County and its Air shone from within; what meaning lay in unexpected glimpses of far horizons; what a friend one was with the clouds!

Well, all I can say to the Theologians is this:

"I will grant you that the Soul does not decay: you know more of such flimsy things than I do. But you, on your side, must grant me that there is Something which does not enter into your systems. That has perished, and I mean to mourn it all the days of my life. Pray do not interfere with that peculiar ritual."

When I was a boy I knew Nature as a child knows its nurse, and Tea I denounced for a drug. I found to support this fine instinct many arguments, all of which are still sound, though not one of them would prevent me now from drinking my twentieth cup. It was introduced late and during a corrupt period. It was an exotic. It was a sham exhilarant to which fatal reactions could not but attach. It was no part of the Diet of the Natural Man. The two nations that alone consume it—the English and the Chinese—are become, by its baneful influence on the imagination, the most easily deceived in the world. Their politics are a mass of bombastic illusions. Also it dries their skins. It tans the liver, hardens the coats of the stomach, makes the brain feverishly active, rots the nerve-springs; all that is still true. Nevertheless I now drink it, and shall drink it; for of all the effects of Age none is more profound than this: that it leads men to the worship of some one spirit less erect than the Angels. A care, an egotism, an irritability with regard to details, an anxious craving, a consummate satisfaction in the performance of the due rites, an ecstasy of habit, all proclaim the senile heresy, the material Religion. I confess to Tea.

All is arranged in this Cult with the precision of an ancient creed. The matter of the Sacrifice must come from China. He that would drink Indian Tea would smoke hay. The Pot must be of metal, and the metal must be a white metal, not gold or iron. Who has not known the acidity and paucity of Tea from a silver-gilt or golden spout? The Pot must first be warmed by pouring in a little boiling water (the word boiling should always be underlined); then the water is poured away and a few words are said. Then the Tea is put in and unrolls and spreads in the steam. Then, in due order, on these expanding leaves Boiling Water is largely poured and the god arises, worthy of continual but evil praise and of the thanks of the vicious, a Deity for the moment deceitfully kindly to men. Under his influence the whole mind receives a sharp vision of power. It is a phantasm and a cheat. Men can do wonders through wine; through Tea they only think themselves great and clear—but that is enough if one has bound oneself to that strange idol and learnt the magic phrase on His Pedestal, [Greek: ARISTON MEN TI], for of all the illusions and dreams men cherish none is so grandiose as the illusion of conscious power within.

* * * * *

Well, then, it fades.... I begin to see that this cannot continue ... of Tea it came, inconsecutive and empty; with the influence of Tea dissolving, let these words also dissolve.... I could wish it had been Opium, or Haschisch, or even Gin; you would have had something more soaring for your money.... In vino Veritas. In Aqua satietas. In ... What is the Latin for Tea? What! Is there no Latin word for Tea? Upon my soul, if I had known that I would have let the vulgar stuff alone.


I do not like Them. It is no good asking me why, though I have plenty of reasons. I do not like Them. There would be no particular point in saying I do not like Them if it were not that so many people doted on Them, and when one hears Them praised, it goads one to expressing one's hatred and fear of Them.

I know very well that They can do one harm, and that They have occult powers. All the world has known that for a hundred thousand years, more or less, and every attempt has been made to propitiate Them. James I. would drown Their mistress or burn her, but They were spared. Men would mummify Them in Egypt, and worship the mummies; men would carve Them in stone in Cyprus, and Crete and Asia Minor, or (more remarkable still) artists, especially in the Western Empire, would leave Them out altogether; so much was Their influence dreaded. Well, I yield so far as not to print Their name, and only to call Them "They", but I hate Them, and I'm not afraid to say so.

If you will take a little list of the chief crimes that living beings can commit you will find that They commit them all. And They are cruel; cruelty is even in Their tread and expression. They are hatefully cruel. I saw one of Them catch a mouse the other day (the cat is now out of the bag), and it was a very much more sickening sight, I fancy, than ordinary murder. You may imagine that They catch mice to eat them. It is not so. They catch mice to torture them. And what is worse, They will teach this to Their children—Their children who are naturally innocent and fat, and full of goodness, are deliberately and systematically corrupted by Them; there is diabolism in it.

Other beings (I include mankind) will be gluttonous, but gluttonous spasmodically, or with a method, or shamefacedly, or, in some way or another that qualifies the vice; not so They. They are gluttonous always and upon all occasions, and in every place and for ever. It was only last Vigil of All Fools' Day when, myself fasting, I filled up the saucer seven times with milk and seven times it was emptied, and there went up the most peevish, querulous, vicious complaint and demand for an eighth. They will eat some part of the food of all that are in the house. Now even a child, the most gluttonous one would think of all living creatures, would not do that. It makes a selection, They do not. They will drink beer. This is not a theory; I know it; I have seen it with my own eyes. They will eat special foods; They will even eat dry bread. Here again I have personal evidence of the fact; They will eat the dog's biscuits, but never upon any occasion will They eat anything that has been poisoned, so utterly lacking are They in simplicity and humility, and so abominably well filled with cunning by whatever demon first brought their race into existence.

They also, alone of all creation, love hateful noises. Some beings indeed (and I count Man among them) cannot help the voice with which they have been endowed, but they know that it is offensive, and are at pains to make it better; others (such as the peacock or the elephant) also know that their cry is unpleasant. They therefore use it sparingly. Others again, the dove, the nightingale, the thrush, know that their voices are very pleasant, and entertain us with them all day and all night long; but They know that Their voices are the most hideous of all the sounds in the world, and, knowing this, They perpetually insist upon thrusting those voices upon us, saying, as it were, "I am giving myself pain, but I am giving you more pain, and therefore I shall go on." And They choose for the place where this pain shall be given, exact and elevated situations, very close to our ears. Is there any need for me to point out that in every city they will begin their wicked jar just at the time when its inhabitants must sleep? In London you will not hear it till after midnight; in the county towns it begins at ten; in remote villages as early as nine.

Their Master also protects them. They have a charmed life. I have seen one thrown from a great height into a London street, which when It reached it It walked quietly away with the dignity of the Lost World to which It belonged.

If one had the time one could watch Them day after day, and never see Them do a single kind or good thing, or be moved by a single virtuous impulse. They have no gesture for the expression of admiration, love, reverence or ecstasy. They have but one method of expressing content, and They reserve that for moments of physical repletion. The tail, which is in all other animals the signal for joy or for defence, or for mere usefulness, or for a noble anger, is with Them agitated only to express a sullen discontent.

All that They do is venomous, and all that They think is evil, and when I take mine away (as I mean to do next week—in a basket), I shall first read in a book of statistics what is the wickedest part of London, and I shall leave It there, for I know of no one even among my neighbours quite so vile as to deserve such a gift.


Railways have changed the arrangement and distribution of crowds and solitude, but have done nothing to disturb the essential contrast between them.

The more behindhand of my friends, among whom I count the weary men of the towns, are ceaselessly bewailing the effect of railways and the spoiling of the country; nor do I fail, when I hear such complaints, to point out their error, courteously to hint at their sheep-like qualities, and with all the delicacy imaginable to let them understand they are no better than machines repeating worn-out formulae through the nose. The railways and those slow lumbering things the steamboats have not spoilt our solitudes, on the contrary they have intensified the quiet of the older haunts, they have created new sanctuaries, and (crowning blessing) they make it easy for us to reach our refuges.

For in the first place you will notice that new lines of travel are like canals cut through the stagnant marsh of an old civilisation, draining it of populace and worry, and concentrating upon themselves the odious pressure of humanity.

You know (to adopt the easy or conversational style) that you and I belong to a happy minority. We are the sons of the hunters and the wandering singers, and from our boyhood nothing ever gave us greater pleasure than to stand under lonely skies in forest clearings, or to find a beach looking westward at evening over unfrequented seas. But the great mass of men love companionship so much that nothing seems of any worth compared with it. Human communion is their meat and drink, and so they use the railways to make bigger and bigger hives for themselves.

Now take the true modern citizen, the usurer. How does the usurer suck the extremest pleasure out of his holiday? He takes the train preferably at a very central station near the Strand, and (if he can choose his time) on a foggy and dirty day; he picks out an express that will take him with the greatest speed through the Garden of Eden, nor does he begin to feel the full savour of relaxation till a row of abominable villas' appears on the southern slope of what were once the downs; these villas stand like the skirmishers of a foul army deployed: he is immediately whirled into Brighton and is at peace. There he has his wish for three days; there he can never see anything but houses, or, if he has to walk along the sea, he can rest his eye on herds of unhappy people and huge advertisements, and he can hear the newspaper boys telling lies (perhaps special lies he has paid for) at the top of their voices; he can note as evening draws on the pleasant glare of gas upon the street mud and there pass him the familiar surroundings of servility, abject poverty, drunkenness, misery, and vice. He has his music-hall on the Saturday evening with the sharp, peculiar finish of the London accent in the patriotic song, he has the London paper on Sunday to tell him that his nastiest little Colonial War was a crusade, and on Monday morning he has the familiar feeling that follows his excesses of the previous day.... Are you not glad that such men and their lower-fellows swarm by hundreds of thousands into the "resorts"? Do you not bless the railways that take them so quickly from one Hell to another.

Never let me hear you say that the railways spoil a countryside; they do, it is true, spoil this or that particular place—as, for example, Crewe, Brighton, Stratford-on-Avon—but for this disadvantage they give us I know not how many delights. What is more English than the country railway station? I defy the eighteenth century to produce anything more English, more full of home and rest and the nature of the country, than my junction. Twenty-seven trains a day stop at it or start from it; it serves even the expresses. Smith's monopoly has a bookstall there; you can get cheap Kipling and Harmsworth to any extent, and yet it is a theme for English idylls. The one-eyed porter whom I have known from childhood; the station-master who ranges us all in ranks, beginning with the Duke and ending with a sad, frayed and literary man; the little chaise in which the two old ladies from Barlton drive up to get their paper of an evening, the servant from the inn, the newsboy whose mother keeps a sweetshop—they are all my village friends. The glorious Sussex accent, whose only vowel is the broad "a", grows but more rich and emphatic from the necessity of impressing itself upon foreign intruders. The smoke also of the train as it skirts the Downs is part and parcel of what has become (thanks to the trains) our encloistered country life; the smoke of the trains is a little smudge of human activity which permits us to match our incomparable seclusion with the hurly-burly from which we have fled. Upon my soul, when I climb up the Beacon to read my book on the warm turf, the sight of an engine coming through the cutting is an emphasis of my selfish enjoyment. I say "There goes the Brighton train", but the image of Brighton, with its Anglo-Saxons and its Vision of Empire, does not oppress me; it is a far-off thing; its life ebbs and flows along that belt of iron to distances that do not regard me.

Consider this also with regard to my railway: it brings me what I want in order to be perfect in my isolation. Those books discussing Problems: whether or not there is such an idea as right; the inconvenience of being married; the worry of being Atheist and yet living upon a clerical endowment,—these fine discussions come from a library in a box by train and I can torture myself for a shilling, whereas, before the railways, I should have had to fall back on the Gentleman's Magazine and the County History. In the way of newspapers it provides me with just the companionship necessary to a hermitage. Often and often, after getting through one paper, I stroll down to the junction and buy fifteen others, and so enjoy the fruits of many minds.

Thanks to my railway I can sit in the garden of an evening and read my paper as I smoke my pipe, and say, "Ah! That's Buggin's work. I remember him well; he worked for Rhodes.... Hullo! Here's Simpson at it again; since when did they buy him?..." And so forth. I lead my pastoral life, happy in the general world about me, and I serve, as sauce to such healthy meat, the piquant wickedness of the town; nor do I ever note a cowardice, a lie, a bribery, or a breach of trust, a surrender in the field, or a new Peerage, but I remember that my newspaper could not add these refining influences to my life but for the railway which I set out to praise at the beginning of this and intend to praise manfully to the end.

Yet another good we owe to railways occurs to me. They keep the small towns going.

Don't pester me with "economics" on that point; I know more economics than you, and I say that but for the railways the small towns would have gone to pieces. There never yet was a civilisation growing richer and improving its high roads in which the small towns did not dwindle. The village supplied the local market with bodily necessaries; the intellectual life, the civic necessities had to go into the large towns. It happened in the second and third centuries in Italy; it happened in France between Henri IV and the Revolution; it was happening here before 1830.

Take those little paradises Ludlow and Leominster; consider Arundel, and please your memory with the admirable slopes of Whitchurch; grow contented in a vision of Ledbury, of Rye, or of Abingdon, or of Beccles with its big church over the river, or of Newport in the Isle of Wight, or of King's Lynn, or of Lymington—you would not have any of these but for the railway, and there are 1800 such in England—one for every tolerable man.

Valognes in the Cotentin, Bourg-d'Oysan down in the Dauphine in its vast theatre of upright hills, St. Julien in the Limousin, Aubusson-in-the-hole, Puy (who does not connect beauty with the word?), Mansle in the Charente country—they had all been half dead for over a century when the railway came to them and made them jolly, little, trim, decent, self-contained, worthy, satisfactory, genial, comforting and human [Greek: politeiae], with clergy, upper class, middle class, poor, soldiers, yesterday's news, a college, anti-Congo men, fools, strong riders, old maids, and all that makes a state. In England the railway brought in that beneficent class, the gentlemen; in France, that still more beneficent class, the Haute Bourgeoisie.

I know what you are going to say; you are going to say that there were squires before the railways in England. Pray have you considered how many squires there were to go round? About half a dozen squires to every town, that is (say) four gentlemen, and of those four gentlemen let us say two took some interest in the place. It wasn't good enough ... and heaven help the country towns now if they had to depend on the great houses! There would be a smart dog-cart once a day with a small (vicious and servile) groom in it, an actor, a foreign money-lender, a popular novelist, or a newspaper owner jumping out to make his purchases and driving back again to his host's within the hour. No, no; what makes the country town is the Army, the Navy, the Church, and the Law—especially the retired ones.

Then think of the way in which the railways keep a good man's influence in a place and a bad man's out of it. Your good man loves a country town, but he must think, and read, and meet people, so in the last century he regretfully took a town house and had his little house in the country as well. Now he lives in the country and runs up to town when he likes.

He is always a permanent influence in the little city—especially if he has but L400 a year, which is the normal income of a retired gentleman (yes, it is so, and if you think it is too small an estimate, come with me some day and make an inquisitorial tour of my town). As for the vulgar and cowardly man, he hates small towns (fancy a South African financier in a small town!), well, the railway takes him away. Of old he might have had to stay there or starve, now he goes to London and runs a rag, or goes into Parliament, or goes to dances dressed up in imitation of a soldier; or he goes to Texas and gets hanged—it's all one to me. He's out of my town.

And as the railways have increased the local refinement and virtue, so they have ennobled and given body to the local dignitary. What would the Bishop of Caen (he calls himself Bishop of Lisieux and Bayeux, but that is archaeological pedantry); what, I say, would the Bishop of Caen be without his railway? A Phantom or a Paris magnate. What the Mayor of High Wycombe? Ah! what indeed! But I cannot waste any more of this time of mine in discussing one aspect of the railway; what further I have to say on the subject shall be presented in due course in my book on The Small Town of Christendom [Footnote: The Small Town of Christendom: an Analytical Study. With an Introduction by Joseph Reinach. Ulmo et Cie. L25 nett.] I will close this series of observations with a little list of benefits the railway gives you, many of which would not have occurred to you but for my ingenuity, some of which you may have thought of at some moment or other, and yet would never have retained but for my patient labour in this.

The railway gives you seclusion. If you are in an express alone you are in the only spot in Western Europe where you can be certain of two or three hours to yourself. At home in the dead of night you may be wakened by a policeman or a sleep-walker or a dog. The heaths are populous. You cannot climb to the very top of Helvellyn to read your own poetry to yourself without the fear of a tourist. But in the corner of a third-class going north or west you can be sure of your own company; the best, the most sympathetic, the most brilliant in the world.

The railway gives you sharp change. And what we need in change is surely keenness. For instance, if one wanted to go sailing in the old days, one left London, had a bleak drive in the country, got nearer and nearer the sea, felt the cold and wet and discomfort growing on one, and after half a day or a day's gradual introduction to the thing, one would at last have got on deck, wet and wretched, and half the fun over. Nowadays what happens? Why, the other day, a rich man was sitting in London with a poor friend; they were discussing what to do in three spare days they had. They said "let us sail." They left London in a nice warm, comfortable, rich-padded, swelly carriage at four, and before dark they were letting everything go, putting on the oilies, driving through the open in front of it under a treble-reefed storm jib, praying hard for their lives in last Monday's gale, and wishing to God they had stayed at home—all in the four hours. That is what you may call piquant, it braces and refreshes a man.

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