OVER THE FIRESIDE
WITH SILENT FRIENDS
BY RICHARD KING
WITH A "FOREWORD" BY
SIR ARTHUR PEARSON, BART., G.B.E.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
WITH SILENT FRIENDS THE SECOND BOOK OF SILENT FRIENDS PASSION AND POT-POURRI
LONDON: JOHN LANE, THE BODLEY HEAD
NEW YORK: JOHN LANE COMPANY
Many of the following Essays appear by kind permission of the Editor of "The Tatler."
Fifty per cent. of the author's profit on the sale of this book will be handed over to the National Library of the Blind, Tufton Street, Westminster, S.W.
THIS LITTLE BOOK TO THOSE V.A.D.'S WHO, THOUGH THE WAR IS OVER, STILL "CARRY ON" AND TO THOSE OTHER MEN AND WOMEN WHO, LIVING IN FREEDOM, HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN THE MEN WHO FOUGHT OR DIED FOR IT
BY SIR ARTHUR PEARSON, BART., G.B.E.
Those who buy "Over the Fireside" will purchase for themselves the real joy of mentally absorbing the delightful thoughts which Mr. Richard King so charmingly clothes in words. And they will purchase, too, a large share of an even greater pleasure—the pleasure of giving pleasure to others—for the author tells me that he has arranged to give half of the profits arising from the sale of this book to the National Library for the Blind, thus enabling that beneficent Institution to widen and extend its sphere of usefulness.
You will never, perhaps, have heard of the National Library for the Blind, and even if it so happens that you are vaguely aware of its existence, you will in no true degree realise all that it means to those who are compelled to lead lives, which however full and interesting, must inevitably be far more limited in scope than your own. Let me try to make you understand what reading means to the intelligent blind man or woman.
Our lives are necessarily narrow. Blind people, however keen their understanding, and however clearly and sympathetically those around them may by description make up for their lack of perception, must, perforce, lead lives which lack the vivid actuality of the lives of others. To those of them who have always been blind the world, outside the reach of their hands, is a mystery which can only be solved by description. And where shall they turn for more potent description than to the pages in which those gifted with the mastery of language have set down their impressions of the world around them?
And for people whose sight has left them after the world and much that is in it has become familiar to them, reading must mean more than it does to any but the most studious of those who can see. Some are so fortunate as to be able to enlist or command the services of an intelligent reader, but this is not given to any but a small minority, and even to these the ability to read at will, without the necessity of calling in the aid of another, is a matter of real moment, helping as it does to do away with that feeling of dependence which is the greatest disadvantage of blindness.
All this Mr. Richard King knows nearly as well as I do, for he has been a splendidly helpful friend to the men who were blinded in the War, and none know better than he how greatly they have gained by learning to read anew, making the fingers as they travel over the dotted characters replace the eyes of which they have been despoilt.
Disaster sometimes leads to good fortune, and the disaster which befell the blinded soldier has given to the service of the blind world generally the affection and sympathy which Mr. Richard King so abundantly possesses. Your reading of this book—and if you have only borrowed it I hope that these words may induce you to buy a copy—will help to enable more blind folk to read than would otherwise have been the case, and thus you will have added to the happiness of the world, just as the perusal of "Over the Fireside" will have added to your own happiness.
BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
Draw your chair up nearer to the fireside.
It is the hour of twilight. Soon, so very soon, another of Life's little days will have silently crept behind us into the long dim limbo of half-forgotten years.
We are alone—you and I. Yet between us—unseen, but very real—are Memories linking us to one another and to the generation who, like ourselves, is growing old. How still the world outside seems to have grown! The shadows are lengthening, minute by minute, and presently, the garden, so brightly beautiful such a little time ago in all the colour of its September beauty, will be lost to us in the magic mystery of Night. Who knows? if in the darkest shadows Angels are not standing, and God, returning in this twilight hour, will stay with us until the coming of the Dawn!
Inside the room the fire burns brightly, for the September evenings are very chilly. Its dancing flames illumine us as if pixies were shaking their tiny lanterns in our faces.
DON'T you love the Twilight Hour, when heart seems to speak to heart, and Time seems as if it had ceased for a moment to pursue its Deathless course, lingering in the shadows for a while!
It is the hour when old friends meet to talk of "cabbages and kings," and Life and Love and all those unimportant things which happened long ago in the Dead Yesterdays. Or perhaps, we both sit silent for a space. We do not speak, yet each seems to divine the other's thought. That is the wonder of real Friendship, even the silence speaks, telling to those who understand the thoughts we have never dared to utter.
So we sit quietly, dreaming over the dying embers. We make no effort, we do not strive to "entertain." We simply speak of Men and Matters and how they influenced us and were woven unconsciously into the pattern of our inner lives.
So the long hour of twilight passes—passes. . . . . .
And each hour is no less precious because there will be so many hours "over the fireside" for both of us, now that we are growing old.
But we would not become young again, merely to grow old again.
Age, after all, has MEMORIES, and each Memory is as a story that is told.
Do you know those lovely lines by John Masefield—
"I take the bank and gather to the fire, Turning old yellow leaves; minute by minute The clock ticks to my heart. A withered wire, Moves a thin ghost of music in the spinet. I cannot sail your seas, I cannot wander Your cornfield, nor your hill-land, nor your valleys Ever again, nor share the battle yonder Where the young knight the broken squadron rallies. Only stay quiet while my mind remembers The beauty of fire from the beauty of embers."
And so I hope that a few of the embers in this little book will help to warm some unknown human heart.
And that is all I ask!
Books and the Blind The Blind Man's Problem Dreams How to Help On Getting Away from Yourself Travel Work Farewells! The "Butters" Age that Dyes Women in Love Pompous Pride in Literary "Lions" Seaside Piers Visitors The Unimpassioned English Relations Polite Conversation Awful Warnings It's oh, to be out of England—now that Spring is here Bad-tempered People Polite Masks The Might-have-been Autumn Sowing What You Really Reap Autumn Determination Two Lives Backward and Forward When? The Futile Thought The London Season Christmas The New Year February Tub-thumpers I Wonder If . . . Types of Tub-thumpers If Age only Practised what it Preached! Beginnings Unlucky in Little Things Wallpapers Our Irritating Habits Away—Far Away! "Family Skeletons" The Dreariness of One Line of Conduct The Happy Discontent Book-borrowing Nearly Always Means Book-stealing Other People's Books The Road to Calvary Mountain Paths The Unholy Fear The Need to Remember Humanity Responsibility The Government of the Future The Question The Two Passions Our "Secret Escapes" My Escape and Some Others Over the Fireside Faith Reached through Bitterness and Loss Aristocracy and Democracy Duty Sweeping Assertions from Particular Instances How I came to make "History" The Glut of the Ornamental On Going "to the Dogs" A School for Wives The Neglected Art of Eating Gracefully Modern Clothes A Sense of Universal Pity The Few The Great and the Really Great Love "Mush" Wives Children One of the Minor Tragedies The "Glorious Dead" Always the Personal Note Clergymen Their Failure Work In the East-end Mysticism and the Practical Man Abraham Lincoln Reconstruction Education The Inane and Unimaginative Great Adventure Travel The Enthralling Out-of-Reach The Things which are not Dreamed of in Our Philosophy Faith Spiritualism On Reality in People Life Dreams and Reality Love of God The Will to Faith
OVER THE FIRESIDE
Books and the Blind
Strange as the confession may appear coming from one who, week in, week out, writes about books, I am not a great book-lover! I infinitely prefer to watch and think, think and watch, and listen. All the same, I would not be without books for anything in this world. They are a means of getting away, of forgetting, of losing oneself, the past, the present, and the future, in the story, in the lives, and in the thoughts of other men and women, in the thrill and excitement of extraneous people and things. One of the delights of winter—and in this country winter is of such interminable length and dreariness that we hug any delight which belongs to it alone as fervently as we hug love to our bosoms when we have reached the winter of our lives!—is to snuggle down into a comfy easy-chair before a big fire and, book in hand, travel hither and thither as the author wills—hate, love, despair, or mock as the author inveigles or moves us. I don't think that most of us pay half enough respectful attention to books seeing how greatly we depend upon them for some of the quietest pleasures of our lives. But that is the way of human nature, isn't it? We rarely value anything until we lose it; we sigh most ardently for the thing which is beyond our reach, we count our happiest days those across the record of which we now must scrawl, "Too late!" That is why I always feel so infinitely sorry for the blind. The blind can so rarely get away from themselves, and, when they do, only with that effort which in you and me would demand some bigger result than merely to lose remembrance of our minor worries. When we are in trouble, when we are in pain, when our heart weeps silently and alone, its sorrow unsuspected by even our nearest and dearest, we, I say, can ofttimes deaden the sad ache of the everyday by going out into the world, seeking change of scene, change of environment, something to divert, for the nonce, the unhappy tenor of our lives. But the blind, alas! can do none of these things. Wherever they go, to whatever change of scene they flee for variety, the same haunting darkness follows them unendingly.
The Blind Man's Problem
It is so difficult for them to get away from themselves, to seek that change and novelty which, in our hours of dread and suspense, are our most urgent need. All the time, day in, day out, their perpetual darkness thrusts them back upon themselves. They cannot get away from it. Nothing—or perhaps, so very, very few things—can take them out of themselves, allow them to lose their own unhappiness in living their lives for something, someone outside themselves. Their own needs, their own loss, their own loneliness, are perpetually with them. So their emotions go round and round in a vicious circle, from which there is no possible escape. Never, never can they give. They have so little to offer but love and gratitude. But, although gratitude is so beautiful and so rare, it is not an emotion that we yearn to feel always and always. We want to give, to be thanked ourselves, to cheer, to succour, to do some little good ourselves while yet we may. There is a joy in giving generously, just as there is in receiving generously. Yet, there are many moments in each man's life when no gift can numb the dull ache of the inevitable, when nothing, except getting away—somewhere, somehow, and immediately—can stifle the unspoken pain which comes to all of us and which in not every instance can we so easily cast off. Some men travel; some men go out into the world to lose their own trouble in administering to the trouble of other people; some find forgetfulness in work—hard, strenuous labour; most of us—especially when our trouble be not overwhelming—find solace in art, or music, and especially in books. For books take one suddenly into another world, among other men and women; and sometimes in the problem of their lives we may find a solution of our own trials, and be helped, encouraged, restarted on our way by them. I thought of these things the other day when I was asked to visit the National Library for the Blind in Tufton Street, Westminster. It is hidden away in a side street, but the good work it does is spread all over the world. And, as I wandered round this large building and examined the thousands of books—classic as well as quite recent works—I thought to myself, "How the blind must appreciate this blessing!" And from that I began to realise once more how those who cannot see depend so greatly on books—that means of "forgetting" which you and I pass by so casually. For we can seek diversion in a score of ways, but they, the blind, have so few, so very few means of escape. Wherever they go, they never find a change of scene—merely the sounds alter, that is all. But in books they can suddenly find a new world—a world which they can see.
I can remember talking once to a blinded soldier about dreams. I have often wondered what kind of dreams blind people—those who have been blind from birth, I mean—dream, what kind of scenes their vision pictures, how their friends, and those they love, look who people this world of sleeping fancy. I have never had the courage to ask those blind people whom I know, but this soldier to whom I talked, told me that every night when he goes to bed he prays that he may dream—because in his dreams he is not blind, in his dreams he can see, and he is once more happy. I could have sobbed aloud when he told me, but to sob over the inevitable is useless—better make happier the world which is a fact. But I realised that this dream-sight gave him inestimable comfort. It gave him something to think about in the darkness of the day. It was a change from always thinking about the past—the past when he could laugh and shout, run wild and enjoy himself as other boys enjoy their lives. And this blinded soldier used to be reading—always reading. I used to chaff him about it, calling him a book-worm, urging him to go to theatres, tea-parties, long walks. He laughed, but shook his head. Then he told me that, although he never used to care much for reading, books were now one of the comforts of his life. "When I feel blind," he said—"and we don't always feel blind, you know, when we are in the right company among people who know how to treat us as if we were not children, and as if we were not deaf—I pick up a book, and, if I stick to it and concentrate, I begin to lose remembrance and to live in the story I am reading and among the people of the tale. And—it is more like seeing the world than anything else I do!"
How to Help
I must confess, his remark gave me an additional respect for those huge volumes of books written in Braille which he always carried about with him than I had ever felt before. When you and I are "fed up" with life and everybody surrounding us—and we all have these moods—we can escape open grousing by taking a long walk, or by seeing fresh people and fresh places, watching, thinking, and amusing ourselves in a new fashion. But the blind have only books—they alone are the only handy means by which they can get away from the present and lose themselves amid surroundings new and strange. All the more need, then, for us to help along the good work done by the National Library for the Blind. It needs more helpers, and it needs more money. Working with the absolute minimum of staff and outside expenses, it is achieving the maximum amount of good. As a library, I have only to tell you that it contains 6,600 separate works in 56,000 volumes, supplemented by 4,000 pieces of music in 8,000 volumes—a total of 64,000 items, which number is being added to every week as books are asked for by the various blind readers. And in helping this great and good work, I realise now that, to a certain extent, you are helping blind people to see. For books do take you out of yourself, don't they? They do help you to lose cognizance of your present surroundings, even if you be surrounded perpetually by darkness, they do transplant you for a while into another world—a world which you can see, and among men and women whom, should the author be great enough, you seem to know as well. Books are a blessing to all of us—but they are something more than a blessing to the blind, they are a deliverance from their darkness. And we can all give them this blessing, if we will—thank Heaven, and the women who give their lives to the work of the National Library for the Blind!—this blessing, which is not often heard of, is a work which will grow so soon as it is known, a work the greatness and goodness of which are worthy of all help.
On Getting Away from Yourself
I always feel so sorry for the blind, because it seems to me they can never get away from themselves by wandering in pastures new. It is trite to say that the glory of the golden sunsets, the glory of the mountains and the valleys, the coming of spring, the radiance of summer—all these things are denied them. They are. But their great deprivation is that none of these things can help them to get away from themselves, from the torments of their own souls, the haunting dreadfulness of their own secret worries. We, the more fortunate, not only can fill our souls with beauty by the contemplation of beautiful things, but, when the tale of our inner-life possesses the torments of Hell, we can turn to them in our despair because we know that their glory will ease our pain, will help us to forget awhile, will give us renewed courage to go on fighting until the end. But where all is blackness, those inner-torments must assume gigantic proportions. Nothing can take them away—except time and the weariness of a soul too utterly weary to care any longer. But time works so slowly, and the utter weariness of the soul is often so prolonged before, as it were, the spirit snaps and the blessed numbness of indifference settles down upon our hearts. People who can see have the whole of the wonder of Nature working for them in their woe. It is hard to feel utterly crushed and broken before a wide expanse of mountain, moorland, or sea. Something in their strength and vastness seems to bring renewed vigour to our heart and soul. It is as if God spoke words of encouragement to you through the wonder which is His world. But blind—one can have none of these consolations. All is darkness—darkness which seems to thrust you back once more towards the terror of your own heart-break. Sometimes I wonder that the blind do not go mad. To them there is only music and love to bring renewed courage to a heart weary of its own conflict. To get away from yourself—and not to be able to do it—oh, that must be Hell indeed! Verily sometimes the human need of pity is positively terrifying.
We know what it would be were we never for a single instant able to get away from the too-familiar scenes and people who, unconsciously, because of their very familiarity, drive us back upon ourselves. In each life there are a series of soul crises, when the spirit has to battle against some great pain, some great trouble, some overwhelming disillusion—to win, or be for ever beaten. But few, very few souls are strong enough to win that battle unaided. A friend may do it—though friends to whom you would tell the secret sorrows of your life are rare! But a complete change of scene and environment works wonders. Nature, travel, work—all these things can help you in your struggle towards indifference and the superficially normal. But where Nature and travel are useless, and work—well, work has to be something all-absorbing to help us in our conflict—is the only thing left, I wonder how men and women survive, unless, with sightlessness, some greater strength is added to the soul, some greater numbness to the imagination and the heart. But this I so greatly doubt. Truthfully, as I said before, the need for pity seems sometimes overwhelming, surpassing all imagining. I am sure that I myself would assuredly have gone mad had I not been able to lose myself a little in travel and change of scene. When the heart is tormented by some great pain, the spirit seems too utterly spiritless to do anything but despair. But life teaches us, among other things, some of the panaceas of pain. It teaches us that the mind finds it difficult to realise two great emotions at once, and that, where an emotion helps to take us out of ourselves, by exactly the strength of that emotion, as it were, is the other one robbed of its bitterness and its pain. Some people seek this soul-ease one way and some people by other means, but seek it we all must one day or another, and it seems to me that one of the wonders of the natural world, the sunlight and the stars, is that they are always there, magnificent and waiting, for the weary and the sorrowing to find some small solace in their woe.
Work and Travel, Travel and Work—and by Work I mean some labour so absorbing as to drug all thought; and by Travel I mean Nature, and books, and art, and music, since these are, after all, but dream-voyages in other men's minds—they alone are for me the panacea of pain. Not the cackle of the human tongue—that for ever leaves me cold; not the sympathy which talks and reproves, or turns on the tap of help and courage by the usual trite source—that never helps me to forget. But Work, and Travel, and (for me) Loneliness—these are the three things by which I flee from haunting terrors towards numbness and indifference. Each one, of course, has his own weapons—these are mine. Years ago, when I was young and timid, I dreaded to leave the little rut down which I wandered. Now experience has given me the knowledge that Life is very little after all, and that it is for the most part worthless where there is no happiness, no forgetfulness of pain, no inner peace. The opinion of other people, beyond the few who love me, leaves me cold. The praise or approbation of the world—what is it worth at best, while it is boring nearly always? Each year as it passes seems to me, not so much a mere passing of time and distance, but a further peak attained towards some world, some inner vision, which I but half comprehend. Each peak is lonelier, but, as I reach it and prepare to ascend the next, there comes into my soul a wider vision of what life, and love, and renunciation really mean, until at last I seem to see—what? I cannot really say, but I see, as it were, the early radiance of some Great Dawn where everything will be made clear and, at last and at length, the soul will find comfort, and happiness, and peace. And the things which drag you away from this inner-vision—they are the things which hurt, which age you before your time, which rob you of joy and contentment. As a syren they seem to beckon you into the valleys where all is sunshine and liveliness, and if you go . . . if you go, alas! it is not long before once more you must set your face, a lonelier and a sadder man, towards the mountain peaks. That seems to me to be the story of—oh, so many lives! That seems to me to be the one big theme in a tale which superficially is all jollity and laughter.
When Youth bids "Good-bye" to anything, it is usually to some very tremendous thing—or at least, it seems to be tremendous in the eyes of Youth. But Age—although few people ever suspect—is always saying Farewell, not to some tremendous thing, because Age knows alas! that very few things are tremendous, but to little everyday pleasures which Youth, in the full pride of its few years, smiles at complaisantly, or ignores—for will they not repeat themselves again and again, tomorrow perhaps, certainly next year? But the "I Will" of Youth has become the "I may" of Old Age. That is why Old Age is continually saying "Farewell" secretly in its heart. Nobody hears it bid "Adieu" to the things which pass; it says "Addio" under its breath so quietly that no one ever knows: and Old Age is very, very proud. And Youth, seeing the smile by which Old Age so often hides its tears, imagines that Age can have no sadness beyond the fact of growing old. Youth is so strong, so free, so contemptuous of all restraint, so secretly uncomprehending face to face with the tears which are hastily wiped away. "For, what has Age to weep over?" it cries. "After all, it has lived its life; it has had its due share of existence. How stupid—to quarrel with the shadows when they fall!" But Old Age hearing that cry, says nothing. Youth would not understand it were it to speak a modicum of its thoughts. Besides, Old Age is fearful of ridicule; and Youth so often mistakes that fear for envy—whereas, Old Age envies Youth so little, so very, very little! Would Old Age be young again? Yes, yes, a thousand times Yes! But would Age be young again merely to grow old again? No! A hundred thousand times No! Old Age is too difficult a lesson to learn ever to repeat the process. Resignation is such a hard-won victory that there remains no strength of will, no desire to fight the battle all over again. And resignation is a victory—a victory which nothing on earth can rob us. And because it is a victory, and because the winning of it cost us so many unseen tears, so many pangs, so much unsuspected courage, it is for Age one of the most precious memories of its inner-life. No; Age envies Youth for its innocence, its vigour and its strength; for its well-nigh unshakable belief in itself, in the reality of happiness and of love: but Age envies it so little—the mere fact of being young. It knows what lies ahead of Youth, and, in that knowledge, there can be no room for envy. The Dawn has its beauty; so too has the Twilight. And night comes at length to wrap in darkness and in mystery the brightest day.
Of all the human species—preserve, oh! preserve me from the monstrous family of the Goats. I don't mean the people who go off mountain climbing, nor those old gentlemen who allow the hair round their lower jaw to grow so long that it resembles a dirty halo which has somehow slipped down over their noses; nor do I mean the sheepish individuals, nor those whom, in our more vulgar moments, we crossly designate as "Goats." No; the people I really mean are the people who can never utter a favourable opinion without butting a "but" into the middle of it; people who, as it were, give you a bunch of flowers with one hand and throw a bucket of cabbage-water over you with the other. People, in fact, who talk like this: "Yes, she's a very nice woman, but what a pity she's so fat!" or, "Yes, she's pretty, but, of course, she's not so young as she was!" Nothing is ever perfect in the minds of these people, nor any person either. For one nice thing they have to say concerning men, women, and affairs, they have a hundred nasty things to utter. They are never completely satisfied by anything nor anybody, and they cannot bear that the world should remain in ignorance of the causes of their dissatisfaction.
It isn't that they know there is often a fly in the amber so much as that they perceive the fly too clearly, and that amber, even at its best, always looks to them like a piece of toffee after all. How anybody ever manages to live with these kind of people perpetually about the house I do not know. And the worst of it is there seems no cure for the "Goats," and, unlike real Goats, nothing will ever drive them into the wilderness for ever. Even if you do occasionally drive them forth, they will return to you anon to inform you that the wilderness, to which you have never been, is a hundred times nicer than the cultivated garden which it is your fate to inhabit. The most beautiful places on this earth are, according to them, just those places which you have never visited, nor is there any likelihood of you ever being fortunate enough to do so. If you tell them that the most lovely spot you have ever seen is Beaulieu in May, when the visitors have gone, they will immediately tell you that it isn't half so lovely as Timbuctoo—even when the visitors are there. Should you talk to them of charming people, they will describe to you the people they know, people whom you really would fall violently in love with—only there is no chance of you ever meeting them, because they have just gone to Jamaica. They "butt" their "but" into all your little pleasures, and even when you really are enjoying yourself, and the "but" would have to be a bomb to upset your equanimity, they will throw cold water upon your ardour by gently hinting that you had better enjoy yourself while you can, because you won't be young much longer. Ough! Even when one is dead, I suppose, these "Goats" will stand round you and say: "It's very sad . . . But we all have to die some time." And if they do, I hope I shall come back suddenly to life to butt in with my own "but" . . . "But I hope I shan't meet YOU in Heaven."
But I suppose these "butters" enjoy themselves, even though other people don't enjoy them. They love to take you by the hand, as it were, and lead you from the sunshine into the shady side of every garden. Not their delight is it to work the limelight. Rather they prefer to cast a shadow—when they can't turn out the lights altogether. And, strangely enough, these people are the very people whose life is passed in the pleasantest places. It may be that, metaphorically speaking, they have been so long used to the Powers of existence that they delight in treasuring the weeds. Well, I, for one, wish that they could live among these weeds for just so long a time as to become quite sick of them—when, doubtless, they would return to us only too anxious to see nothing but the simple flowers, and each simple flower an exquisite joy in itself—although it fades!
Age that Dyes
So many women seem to imagine that when they dip their heads in henna twenty years suddenly slips from off them into the mess. As a matter of fact, they invariably pick up an additional ten years with the dye every time. After all, the hair, even at its dullest and greyest, shows fewer of the painful signs of Anno Domini than almost any part of the body. The eyes and the hands, and, above all, the mind—these tell the tale of the passing years far more vividly for those who pause to read. But then, so very many women make the mistake of imagining that if their hair is fully-coloured and their skin fairly smooth the world will be deceived into taking them for twenty-nine. As a matter of fact, the world is far too lynx-eyed ever to be taken in by any such apparent camouflage. On the contrary, it adds yet another ten years to the real age, and classes the dyed one among the "poor old things" for evermore. No, the truth of the matter is that, to keep and preserve the illusion of youthfulness long after youth has slipped away into the dead years behind us, is a far more difficult and complicated matter than merely painting the face, turning brown hair red, and being divorced. Perhaps one of the most rejuvenating effects is to show the world, while trying to believe it yourself, that you don't honestly really care tuppence about growing old. To show that you do care, and care horribly, is to look every second of your proper age, with the additional effect of a dreary antiquity into the bargain. It isn't sufficient to be strictly economical with your smiles for fear lest deep lines should appear on your face (deep lines will come in spite of your imitation of a mask), or to dye your hair a kind of lifeless golden, or to draw your waist in, dress as youthfully as your own daughter, and generally try to skip about as giddily as your own grandchildren. No, if you want to seem youthful—and where is the woman who doesn't?—you must think youthfully all the time. This doesn't mean that you must act youthfully as well. Oh, dear me, no! Old mutton skipping about like a super-animated young lamb—that, indeed, gives an impression of old age which approaches to the antiquity of a curio. No, you must keep your intelligence alert, your sympathies awake; you must never rust or get into a "rut"; above all, you must keep in touch with the aims of youth, without necessarily merely imitating its antics—then a woman will always possess that interest and that charm which never stales, and which will carry her through the years with the same triumph as her youth once did, or her beauty—if she ever possessed any. And if she must use the artificial deceptions of chemists, which deceive nobody, let her do it so artfully that, metaphorically speaking, she preserves the lovely mellow atmosphere of an "old picture," not the blatant colouring of a lodging-house daub.
But, of course, one of the hardest problems of a woman's life is to realise just when she must acknowlege that her youthful prime is past. Some women never seem able to solve it. They either hang on to the burlesque semblance of twenty-five, or else go all to pieces, and take unto themselves "views" as violent as they are sour. When they cannot command the uncritical admiration of the gaping crowd, they descend from their thrones to shy brickbats at everyone who doesn't look at them twice. A wise woman realises that although at forty she cannot be the centre of attraction for her youthfulness alone, she can yet command a circle of true friends, which, though smaller in number, is more deeply devoted in intention. But she will never be able to keep even these unless her sympathies are wide, her heart full of understanding, unless she keeps herself mentally alert and her sense of humour perpetually bright. Should she do so, hers will be the triumph of real charm; and, providing that she grows older not only gracefully but also cheerfully, not by plastering herself over with chemical imitations of her own daughter's youth, but by shading becomingly, as it were, the inevitable ravages of time, which nothing on earth will ever hide; by dressing not more than five years younger than she really is—then her attractiveness will continue until she is an old, old woman. And I would back her in the race for real devotion against all the flappers who ever flapped their crepe de chine wings to dazzle the eyes of that cheapest of feminine prey—the elderly married man.
Women in Love
Have you noticed how a woman displays much more "sang froid" in love than a man? Her heart may be aflame, but there always seems to be a tiny lump of ice which keeps her head cool. Only when a woman is not quite sure of her captor does she begin to lose her feminine "un-dismay." So long as she is being chased she can always remain calm and collected, perhaps because she knows that, however hot her lover may be in pursuit, the race began by giving her a long start, and, being well ahead, she can listen in camouflaged amusement to the man's protestations of her "divinity" as he "galollups" madly after her. When you come across lovers in that state of oblivion to staring eyes—as you do come across them so often during these beautiful warm evenings—it is always the man who looks supremely sheepish; the woman doesn't "turn a hair." She simply stares at the intruder as if she wanted him to see for himself how very attractive she is. The man, on the other hand, never meets the stranger's eyes. His expression invariably shows that he is wishing for the earth to open—which, in parenthesis, it never does when you most want it to. But the girl is quite unembarrassed. Even when it is she who is making love, a staring and smiling crowd will not force her to desist. She just goes on stroking her lover's face and kissing him. But the man looks a perfect fool, and, I am sure, feels it. It seems indeed, as if he would cry to the onlookers, "Don't blame me. It's human nature. I shall get over it quite soon!" But the girl seems to say: "By all means—watch us! This, for me, is 'Der Tag'!" No, you can't disconcert a woman in love—it makes her quite vain-glorious.
I wonder why love always seems such a splendid "joke" to those who are out of it, when it was a paralysing reality while they were in it. And yet, as one looks back upon one's love affairs one invariably refers to the incident as the time when "I made a fool of myself." And yet love is no laughing matter. Considering that ninety-nine per cent. of our novels and plays are about nothing else; considering that our songs and our poetry, and the scandal we like to hear, all centre around this one theme, we really ought to take it more seriously. But if we see two lovers making love to each other we laugh outright. It is very strange! I suppose it is that everybody else's love affairs are ridiculous; only our own possess the splendour of a Greek tragedy. Perhaps we share with Nature her sense of humour, which makes love one of the biggest practical jokes in life. So we jeer at love in order to hide our own "soreness," just as we laugh at the man who sits down suddenly in Piccadilly because his foot stepped on a banana skin—we laugh at him because it wasn't we who sat down. Altogether love is a conundrum, and we laugh at the answer Fate gives us because we dare not show the world we want to cry. Laughter is the one armour which only the gods can pierce. Lovers never laugh—at least, they never laugh at love—that is why we can turn them into such glorious figures of fun.
But I always wonder why a woman of a "thousand loves" assumes a kind of "halo," when a man of equal passion only gets called a "libertine," if not worse things. I suppose we think it must have been so clever of her. We speak of her as inspiring love, though a man who inspires the same wholesale affection isn't considered nice for young women to know. It is, apparently because we realise that a woman very rarely loses her head in love. She may have had a thousand lovers, but only made herself look a "silly idiot" over one. But a man looks a "silly idiot" every time. We know he must have uttered the usual eternal protestations on each occasion. But a woman only has to listen, and can always hear "the tale" without losing her dignity. She merely begins to talk when a man comes "down to earth." While his "soul" had soared verbally she enjoyed him as she enjoys a "ballad concert," those love songs which say so much and mean so very little.
Pompous Pride in Literary "Lions"
I always think that the author who places his own photograph as an illustrated frontispiece to his own book must be either an exceedingly brave man or an exceedingly misguided one. At any rate, he runs a terrible risk, amounting almost to certain calamity, in regard to his literary admirers. I have never yet known an author—and this applies to authoresses as well—whose face, if you liked his work, was not an acute disappointment the moment you clapped eyes upon it. For example, I am a devoted admirer of "Amiel's Journal", but it is years since I have torn Amiel's photograph from the covers of his book. I could not bear to think that such lovely, such poetical thoughts, should issue from a man who, in his portrait, anyway, looks like nothing so much as a melancholy Methodist minister, the most cheerful characteristic of whom is "Bright's disease."
In the days of my extreme youth I admired a well-known authoress—in public, be it understood, as is the way of youth. The world was given to understand that in her seductive heroines she really drew her own portrait. This same world lived long in blissful ignorance that what was stated to be a fact was only the very small portion of a half-truth. For years this famous lady refused to have her photo published. She even went so far as to tell the world so in every "interview" which journalists obtained from her—either regarding her views on "How best to obtain an extra sugar-allowance in war-time," or concerning "Queen Mary's noble example to English women to wear always the same-sort-of-looking hat." This extreme modesty piqued the curiosity of her ten million readers enormously. The ten million, of which I was a member, imagined that she must be too beautiful and too elegant to possess brains, unless she were a positive miracle. We pictured her as tall and graceful, with a lovely willowy figure and an expression all sad tenderness when it wasn't all sweet smiles.
Then one fatal day the famous authoress decided—too late, I'm afraid, by more than twenty years—to show her face to the ten million worshippers who demanded so greatly to see it. The irrevocable step being taken, disillusion jumped to our eyes, as the French say, and nearly blinded us. Instead of the goddess we had anticipated, all we saw was, gazing at us out of the pages of an illustrated newspaper, an over-plump, middle-aged "party" with no figure and a fuzzy fringe, who stood smiling in an open French window, and herself completely filling it! The shock to our worship was so intense that it made most of us think several times before spending 7s. on her new love story, were it ever so romantic. And so that was the net result of that!
Wiser far is the other well-known authoress, who apparently had her last photograph taken somewhere back in the early nineties, and still sends it forth to the press as her "latest portrait study," which, perhaps, if she be as wise as she is witty, it will for ever be.
No, I think that authors who insist upon their own photographs appearing in their own books are either very foolish or puffed out with pompous pride. Nobody really wants to look at them a second time; or, even if they do, nine times out of ten those who stay to look remain to wish they hadn't. I have never yet known an author's face which compared in charm and interest with the books he writes. Taking literature as a professional example, it cannot truthfully be said that beauty often follows brains. In the case of authors, as in so many other cases, to leave everything to the imagination is by far the better policy in the long run. But there is this consolation, anyway—we are what we are, after all, and our faces are very often libels on our "souls."
Granting this, the theory of the resurrection of the body always leaves me inordinately cold. As far as I, myself, am concerned, the worms can have my body—and welcome. May I prove extremely indigestible, that's all! Preferably, I want to "cease upon the midnight without pain," in the middle of a dynamite explosion. I want, as it were, to return to the dust from which I came in one big bang! And if I must have a Christian burial, then I hope that all of me which remains for my more or less sorrowing relatives to bury, decently and in order, will, at most, be one—old boot! Of course, if I do die in the middle of an explosion, I grant that, if the resurrection of the body really be a fact, then I shall find it extremely tiresome to hunt everywhere for my spare parts. It will be such a colossal bore having to worry all the other people, also busy collecting themselves, who went up with me in the "bang," by keeping on demanding of them the information, "Excuse me, but have you by any chance seen anything of a big-toe nail knocking about?" I always feel so sorry for those Egyptian princesses whose teeth and hair, whose jewels and old bones, proved such an irresistible attraction to the New Zealand and Australian soldiers when they were in camp near Cairo, that they stole out at night to rob their tombs, and sent the plunder thus obtained "way back home to the old shack" as souvenirs of the Great War. It will be so perfectly aggravating for these royal ladies to resurrect in a tomb which, in parenthesis, they had purposely constructed to last them until the Day of Judgment—to resurrect therein, only to discover that some of their necessary parts are either in Auckland, or in Sydney, or in Melbourne, or, perhaps, in all three cities. It will be but poor consolation to learn that the rest of them may, perhaps, be discovered among the sands of the desert—that is to say, if they scratch about long enough looking for them. Personally, if I get the chance, I shall immediately go about purloining other people's physical perfections, so that, when at last I am ready for the next move onward, I shall consist of one part Hercules and three-parts Owen Nares! I shall indeed look lovely, shan't I? In the meanwhile, I realise that, physically speaking, I am far better imagined than understood. Not that I am very much worse than the average? on the other hand, I am certainly not much better—so who would be the happier for gazing at my photograph? No, indeed, it cannot be for their beauty that authors insert their own photographs—sometimes, even, on the outside covers of their own books! For what beauty they do possess has usually been lost somewhere on the original negative. If they still yearn to let themselves be seen, as well as read, I would suggest that the frontispiece be the one page in the book to be uncut, so that their readers, should they wish to peep at the author's physiognomy for curiosity's sake, may—if that curiosity prove its own punishment—leave those first pages uncut until the book falls to pieces on the bookshelf. For myself, I hate to read some beautifully written thought, only to have the author's distinctly unbeautiful face always protruding between me and my delight—like some utterance of the commonplace in the middle of a discussion on "souls."
I suppose it is that authors—like everybody else—cannot understand that how they look to themselves and to those who love them, and so are used to them, they will not necessarily look to other people, who merely want to gaze upon their photograph because they cannot look upon their waxwork. We all get so used to our own blemishes by seeing them every morning when we brush our hair that we have long since ceased to regard them seriously. But ten to one a stranger will notice nothing else. That is always the way of a stranger's regard. But, after all, to fail to impress someone who knows you and loves you is nothing at all; to fail, however, to impress someone who yearns to become acquainted with you, is very often to lose a possible friend. Better a thousand times that an adoring reader should keep yearning to know what her favourite author looks like than, having at last satisfied her curiosity, she should exclaim disappointedly, "Gosh! To think that he could look like that!!"
If an author feels that indeed he must show the world what he looks like, let him issue to the public merely a "vague impression" of himself—a Cubist one for preference. A Cubist portrait can look like anything . . . but to look like anything is infinitely preferable to looking like nothing on this earth, isn't it?
The only real excitement I can ever perceive about a Seaside Pier is when the sea washes half of it away. To me, Seaside Piers are the most deadly things. You pay tuppence to go on them, and you generally stay on them until you can stay no longer because—well, because you have paid tuppence. Having walked along the dreary length of the tail-end which joins the shore, there seems really nothing to do at the end of your journey except to spit over the side. Of course, there are always those derelict kind of amusements such as putting a penny in a slot and being sprayed with some vile scent; or putting a ha'penny in another slot and seeing a lead ball being shot into any hole except the one in which, had it disappeared therein, you would have got your money back. For the rest, I am sure that half the people remain on them for the simple reason that tuppence is tuppence in these days or any other days. Of course, there is generally a band which plays twice, sometimes three times, a day; but it is not a band which ever does much more than blast its way through a selection from "Carmen," or a fantasia on "Faust." Of course, if you like crowds—well, a pier is for you another name for Paradise. Nobody uses the tail-part except to walk to the end, or from it, on the side which is protected from the wind. But the end of a pier—where it swells and the band plays—is a kind of receptacle which receives the human debouch. There you have the spectacle of what human beings would look like if they were put into a bowl, like goldfish, and had nothing to do but swim round and round.
I suppose there is an amusement in such a picture—because, look at the women who come there every morning and bring their knitting! And the "flappers" and the "knuts"—they seem never to tire of seeing each other pass and re-pass for a solid hour on end! Why do they go there? It cannot be to see clothes, because the most you see, as a rule, is a white skirt and blouse and a brown neck all peeling with the heat! They must go there, then, because to go on the pier is all part and parcel of the seaside habit—and an English seaside, anyway, is one big bunch of habits, from the three-mile promenade of unsympathetic asphalt, with its backing of houses in the Graeco-Surbiton style, to the railway station at the back of the town, where antiquated "flies" won't take anybody anywhere under half-a-crown. It belongs, I suppose, to that strain of fidelity which runs through the British "soul"—a fidelity which finds expression in facing death sooner than forego roast beef on Sunday, and will applaud an old operatic favourite until her front teeth drop out. It is all very laudable, but it has its "trying" side. One becomes rather tired of the average seaside resort, which is built and designed rather as if the "authorities" believed that God made Blackpool on the Seventh Day, and it was their religious duty to erect replicas of His handiwork up and down the coast. And under this delusion piers, I suppose, were born.
Well, certainly they are convenient to throw yourself off the end of them. Happily—or unhappily, whichever way you look at it—the town council never seem to know quite what to do with them. Beside the penny fair and the brass band, they only seem to be the haven of rest for fifth-rate theatrical touring companies, who manage to pay for their summer outing in the theatre erected at the end. Otherwise their importance consists chiefly in being a convenient place for the "flapper" to "meet mother," and to carry on a violent flirtation, without the slightest danger, with any Gay Lothario in lavender socks who kind o' tickles them with his eyes and makes them giggle. But for myself, who have no mamma to meet, nor any desire to flop about with "flappers," piers are deadly things. Their great excitement is when the sea washes half of them away at a moment when, apparently, five thousand people living in boarding-houses had only just vacated them. And sometimes even that miraculous escape seems a pity! What do you think?
I always think that visitors are charming "interruptions." They are delightful when they arrive; they are equally delightful—perhaps more so—when they go. Only on the third day of their visit are they tiresome, and their qualities distinctly below the par we expected. Almost anybody can put up with almost anybody for three days. There is the delight of showing him over the house, bringing out all our treasures and listening the while our visitor shows us his envy (or his hypocrisy) by his compliments; there is the pleasure of taking him round the garden and pointing out our own pet plants and bulbs. Even the servants can keep smiling through three days of extra work. But the second night begins to see us becoming exhausted. We have said everything we wanted to say. We have taken him up to the attic and to the farthest ends of the pig sty, we have laid down the law concerning our own pet enthusiasms and tolerated him while he told us about his own. But a sense of boredom begins to creep into our hearts at the end of the second evening, which, if there were not the pleasure of bidding him "Good-bye" on the morrow to keep our spirits up, would end in exasperation to be fought down and a yawn to be suppressed. The man who invented "long visits" ought to be made to spend them for the rest of his life as a punishment. There is only one thing longer—though it sounds rather like a paradox to say so—and that is a "long day." To "spend a long day" with anyone sees both you and your hostess "sold up" long before the evening. Happily, that infliction is a country form of entertainment, and is reserved principally for relations and family friends who might otherwise expect us to ask them for a month.
You see, most of us are creatures possessing habits as well as a liver. Visitors are a fearful strain on both—after forty-eight hours. The strain of appearing at our most hospitable and best—from the breakfast egg in the morning to the "nightcap" at night—is one which only those who are given a bed-sitting-room and a door with a key in it can come through triumphantly. Visitors usually have nothing to do, while we have our own work—and the two can rarely mate for long. Of course, there are visitors who seem born with a gift for visiting; they give us of their brightest and best for forty-eight hours and have "letters to write" up in their bedroom during most of the subsequent days of their sojourn. Also there are hostesses who seem born with the "smile of cordiality" fixed on to their mouths. They also give of their best and brightest for forty-eight hours and then, metaphorically, give their guests a latch-key and a time-table of meals, and wash their hands of them until they meet again on the door-step of "farewell." But the majority of visitors seem incapable of leading their own lives in any house except their own. They follow you about and wait for you at odd corners, until you are either driven to committing murder or going out to the post-office to send a telegram to yourself killing off a great aunt and giving an early date for her funeral. Also there are some hostesses who cannot let their guests alone; who must always be asking them "What are they going to do to-day," or telling them not to forget that Lady Sploshykins is coming to tea especially to meet them! Frantic for our entertainment, they invite all the dull people of the neighbourhood to meals, and drag us along with them to the dull people's houses on the exchange visit. They are always terrified that we are "feeling it dull," whereas the dulness really comes of our not being allowed to stupefy in peace.
"Never outstay your welcome" is one of the social adages I would impress upon all young people; and "Be extremely modest concerning the length to which that welcome would be likely to extend" is an addenda to it. Failing any other calculation, forty-eight hours of being a "fixture" and twelve hours of packing up are generally the safe limit. Following that advice, you will generally enjoy the dullest visit and will want to come again; following that advice, also, your hostess will enjoy seeing you and hope you will. Not to follow it is to risk losing a friend. Everybody hates the visitor who comes whenever he is asked and stays far too long when he arrives.
The Unimpassioned English
I have just been to see the latest musical comedy. Of course, I feel in love with the heroine. Could I help myself? Even women have fallen in love with her—so what chance has a mere male, and one at the dangerous age at that? But what struck me almost as much as the youthful charm and cleverness of the new American "star" and the invigoratingly "catchy" music, was the way in which all the young men on the stage put both their hands into their trouser pockets the moment they put on evening clothes! They didn't do it in their glad day-rags . . . or, at least, only one hand at a time, anyway. But immediately they appeared en grande tenue, both their hands disappeared as if by magic! C'etait bien drole, j'vous assure! Perhaps . . . who knows? . . . they were but counting their "moneys." . . . For the chorus ladies are certainly rather attractive, and even a svelte figure has been known to hold a big dinner! But the fact still remains . . . if one night some wicked dresser takes it into his evil head to stitch up their trouser pockets, every one of the young men will have to come on and do physical "jerks," or go outside and cut his own arms off!
But then, most Englishmen seem at a loss to know what to do with their limbs when they are not using them for anything very special at the moment. Have you ever sat and watched the "niggly" things which people—especially Englishmen—do with their hands when they don't know what to do with them otherwise? It is very instructive, I assure you. I suppose our language does not lend itself to anything except being spoken out of our mouths. Unlike Frenchmen, we have not learnt to talk also with our hands. We consider it "bad form" . . . like scratching in public where you itch! Well, perhaps our decision in this respect has added to the general fun of existence. In life's everyday, one doesn't notice these things, maybe. One has become so habituated to "Father" drumming "Colonel Bogey" on the chair-arm; or "Little Willee" playing "shakes" with two ha'pennies and a pen-knife—that one has ceased to pay any attention to these minor irritations. And, when we are among strangers, we are so busy watching that people don't put their hands into our pockets, that we generally put our own hands into them for safety. . . . Which, perhaps, accounts for the Englishman's habit . . . who knows?
But on the stage, this custom is an almost mesmeric one to watch. We certainly do see other people at a disadvantage when they are strutting the Boards of Illusion . . . men especially. But to a foreigner, who is not used to seeing a man's hands disappear the moment he is asked to stand up, the sight must come with something of a shock. For my own part, I think his amazement is justified. Surely God gave a man two hands for other needs than to pick things up with or hide them?
Personally, I always think that it is a thousand pities that men are not expected to knit. They grew up to be idle in the drawing-room, I suppose, in times when every other woman was a "Sister Susie." But the "Sister Susie" species is nowadays almost extinct. It requires a German offensive to drive the modern woman towards her darning needles.
In a recent literary competition in EVE, the subject was "Bores, and how to make the best of them." Well, personally, I could suffer them—if not more gladly, at least with a greater resignation—if I were allowed to recite, "Two plain; one purl" so long as their infliction lasted. As it is, I am left with nothing else to do except furtively to watch the clock, and secretly to ring up "OO Heaven" to send down a bombing party to deliver me.
Men of the Latin races are far more wise in this respect. If you tied the hands of a Frenchman, or an Italian, or even a Spaniard, up behind his back, the odds are he would be struck dumb! But we Englishmen—we only seem able to become eloquent when, as it were, we have voluntarily placed our own hands into the handcuffs of our own trouser pockets. Even Englishwomen are singularly un-self-revealing with anything except their tongues. You have only to watch an Englishwoman singing to realise how extremely limited are her powers of expression. She places both hands over her heart to represent "Love," and opens them wide to illustrate every other emotion.
And this self-restriction—especially when you can't hear what she is singing about, which is not seldom—leads more quickly to the wrinkles of perplexity than even does the problem of how to circumvent the culinary soarings of Mrs. Beaton, and yet obtain the same results . . . with eggs at the price they are! If some producing genius had not conceived the idea of ending off nearly every musical-comedy song with a dance, and yet another genius of equally enviable parts had not created the beauty chorus, I don't know how many a prima donna of the lighter stage would ever be able to get through her own numbers. For, to dance at the end of her little ditty, and to have the chorus girls relieve her of further action at the end of the first verse, brings as great a relief to her as well as to the audience, as do his trouser pockets to the young man who makes-believe to love her for ever and for ever . . . and then some, on the stage.
And, because we have taken the well-dressed "poker" as our ideal of masculine "good form" in society, English men and women always seem to exude an atmosphere of "slouching" indifference to everything except their God—and football. It has such a very chilling effect upon exuberant foreigners when they run up against it. Emotionally, I am sure we are as developed as any other nation . . . look at our poetry, for example! But we have so long denied the right to express it, that we have forgotten how it should be done.
"I shall love you on and on . . . throughout life; after death; until the end of eternity . . . !" declares the impassioned Englishman, the while he carelessly shakes the dead-end off his cigarette on to somebody else's carpet.
"And for you, Egbert, the world will be only too well lost. I will willingly die with you . . . at any time most convenient to yourself," answers his equally-impassioned mistress, gently replacing an errant kiss-curl behind her left ear.
Well, I suppose it does take another Englishman to realise that these two are preparing for a crime passionel. But a simple foreigner, more used to the violence of the "movies" in everyday life than we are, might be excused if he merely believed them to be protesting a preference for prawns in aspic over prawns without.
Not, however, that it really matters . . . so long as the lovers, like Maisie, "get right there" at the finish. For, after all, does not passion mostly end in the same kind of old "tripe" . . . either here in England or . . . well, let us say . . . the tropics?
Our Relations are a race apart. They are not often our friends; rarer still are they our enemies. They are just "relations"—men and women who treat our endeavours towards righteousness with all the outspoken hostility of those who dislike us, whom yet we do not want to quarrel with because then there may be nobody left except the village doctor to bury us.
Relations always seem to know us too little, and too well. The good in us is continually warped by the bad in us—which, in parenthesis, is the only one of our secrets relatives ever seem able to keep. To tell the world of our faults would be like throwing mud at the family tree. Moreover, relations always seem born with long memories. There is no one in this world who remembers quite so far back, nor quite so vividly, as a mother-in-law. And one's relations-in-law are but one's own relations in a concentrated and more virulent form. And yet everybody is somebody's relation. You consider that remark trite, perhaps? Well, "trite" it undoubtedly is, and yet it is extremely difficult to realise. The middle-aged woman whom you find so charming, so sympathetic, so very "understanding," may send her nephews and nieces fleeing in all directions the moment she appears among them. The man you look upon as being an insufferable bore may still be Miss Somebody-or-other's best beloved Uncle John. It is so hard to explain. It is almost as hard to explain as the charm of the man your closest woman-friend marries. What she can see in him you cannot for the life of you perceive, while he, on his part, secretly wonders why the woman he loves ever sought friendship with such a pompous, dull ass as you are. Love is blind, so they say. Well, so is friendship—so are relations—blind to everything except your faults.
Another odd thing about relations is that only very rarely can you ever make friends with them. At best, your intimacy amounts to nothing more than a truce. You are extremely lucky if it isn't open warfare. They know at once too little about you and too much. They never by any chance acknowledge that you have changed, that you are a better man than once you were. What you have once been, in their opinion, you will always be—so help-them-heaven-to-hide-the-wine-cellar-key! You may change your friends as you "grow out" of them, or they "grow out" of you; but your relations are for ever immutable. The friends of your youth you have sometimes nothing in common with later on, except "memories"; and except for these "memories" there is little or no tie between you. But the "memories" of friends centre around pleasant things, whereas the "memories" of relations seem to specialise at all times in the disagreeable. Moreover, relations will never acknowledge that you have ever really grown up. This is one of their most tiresome characteristics. To them you will always be the little boy who forgot to write profusive thanks for the half-a-crown they gave you when you first went to school. You can always tell the man or woman who live among their relatives. They possess no individuality, no "vision"; they are narrow, self-centred, pompous, clannish—with that clannishness which means only complete self-satisfaction with the clan. They take their mental and moral "cue" from the oldest generation among them. The younger members are, metaphorically speaking, patted on the head and told to believe in grandpapa as they believe in God.
No, the great benefit of having relations is to come back to them. To visit them is like stirring up once more the memories of your lost youth, which time and distance have rendered faint. And to return once more to one's youth is good for every man. It makes him realise himself, and the "thread" which has been running through his life linking all the incidents together. And, as I said before, relations are agreeable adjuncts at your own funeral, since you may always depend upon them saying nice things about you when it's too late for you to hear them. Friends will never do that. They don't need to. They carry your epitaph with them written on their own hearts. The "nice" things have been said—they have been said to YOU.
A man may live to be a hundred; he may have learnt to speak twelve different languages—all badly; he may know, in fact, everything a man ought to know, and have done everything a man ought to have done; but one thing he probably won't have learnt—or, if he has done so, then he ought to be counted among the Twelve Apostles and other "wonders"—and that is the fact that, what interests him enormously to talk about won't necessarily be anything but a bore for other people to listen to. Most people talk a great deal and tell you absolutely nothing you want particularly to know. The man or woman who can talk impersonally is as rare as a psychic phenomenon when you want to see it but won't pay for a manifestation! Most people can talk of nothing but themselves because nothing else really interests them. I don't mean to say that they boast, but, what they talk about is purely their own personal affair—ranging from golf to grandchildren. That is what makes dogs the most sympathetic listeners in the world. Could they speak, I fear me they would only tell us about their puppies, or of their new bone, or of the rat they worried to death the last time they scampered through the wood. Cats are far more egotistical, and consequently far more human. They can't talk, it is true; neither can they listen. By their manner we know exactly what interests them at the moment, and if they appear to sympathise with us, it is only because what we want at the moment fits in admirably with their own desires. And so many people are just like cats in this. They invite us to their houses, presumably because they desire our company, but, in reality, in order that they may relate to us at length the incidents, big or small, which have marked the calendar of their recent very everyday existence.
But we, on our side, are not without our means of revenge. We invite them back again, under protestations of friendship, and, when we have got them, and, as it were, chained them down with the fetters of politeness, we relate to them in our turn everything which has happened to us and ours. We never ask ourselves if our children, or our cook, or our new hat, or our next summer holiday can interest anybody outside the radius of their influence. We demand another human being to smile when we smile, show anger when we show anger, echo our own admiration for our new hat, and generally retrace with us our life in retrospect and journey with us into the problematical future. For, as I said before, the wisdom which realises that the incidents of our own life need not—very probably do not, although they may be too polite to show it—interest other people, is the rarest wisdom of all. Most people will never, never learn it. And the more people love their own affairs, the more they seek the world for listeners whom, as it were, they may devour. They usually have hundreds of intimates, and boast at Christmas of having sent off a thousand cards! As a matter of fact, they very probably have not one real friend. But that does not trouble them. They don't require friendship. They only need, as it were, a perpetual pair of ears into which to pour the trivialities of their daily life. Personally, I get so tired of listening to stories of children I have never seen; golfing "yarns" which I have heard before; servants—all as bad as each other; Lloyd George; new clothes; ailments; what Aunt Emily intends to do with last year's frock, and of little Flora's cough. I wish it were the fashion for people to ask their friends to do something, instead of securing their society, with nothing to do with it when they've got it, except to offer hours for conversation with literally nothing to say on either side. I should like to read a book in company, it is nice to work in company; a visit to a theatre with a congenial companion is delightful—and this, of course, applies to concerts, lectures, picture galleries, even shopping. But the usual form of friendly entertainment is a deadly thing. Only a cook, who at the same time is an artist, can make them possible. For you can endure hours of little other than the personal note in conversation with the compensation of a culinary chef' d'oeuvre in front of you. That is why you so often hear of a "perfectly charming woman with a simply wonderful cook." It's the cook, I fancy, who is the real charmer.
Old Age is bad enough, but a dyspeptic Old Age—that surely is fate hitting us below the belt! For with advancing years the love of adventure leaves us; the "Love of a Lifetime" becomes to us of more real consequence than our pet armchair—but the love of a good dinner, that, at least, can make the everyday of an octogenarian well worth living. Young people little realise the awful prophecy implied in that irritating remark—"Don't gobble!" There is another one, almost equally irritating to youth—"Go and change your socks!" But, if the truth must be told, you regret the "No" you said to Edwin when he asked you to "fly with him"; the louis you failed to place en plein on thirty-six, which you felt was coming up, infinitely less than that you still persisted to "gobble" when you were warned not to, and you failed to change your socks while there was yet time. Now it is too late, alas! How true it is, the saying—"If Youth knew how, and Age only could." The trouble is that, when elderly people would warn youth, they rarely ever give concrete examples. They always imply some moral loss which will happen to young people if they do not follow their elders' advice. But youth would be far more impressed if age drew a vivid picture of their own physical and digestive decrepitude. But, of course, age won't do that. Why should it? No one likes to think that their "every movement tells a story."
Personally, I can foresee a new profession open to those elderly people who are the victims of their own early indiscretions. Why should they not tour the country as a collection of awful warnings! Fancy the joy there would be in the hearts of all those who, as it were, stand bawling at the cross-roads that the "narrow path" is the broader one in the long run, if they woke up and saw on the hoardings some such announcement as this:—
Coming! Coming!! Coming!!!
FOR ONE WEEK ONLY!
The Awful End of the Man who Gobbled his Food!
Mary of the Hooked Figure; or, the Girl who Wouldn't Change her Wet Socks!
A Picture of Living Vermin; or, the Man who Never Washed!
The End of the Girl who Would Take the Wrong Turning!
Parents, Free. Children, One Penny. Schools and Large Parties by Arrangement.
It would ease the burden of parenthood enormously. It might even "Save the Children." Maybe they would thank their mother from the bottom of their hearts because she took them to see these living examples of youthful folly instead of lugging them to a dull lecture on hygiene. For half the silly things we do, we do because we don't realise the consequences. The man who knows everything would gladly give up all his knowledge if he could turn back the hands of the clock, and, instead of studying the origin of Arabic, learn to recognise a pair of damp sheets when he got in between them; while a Woman of a Thousand Love Affairs would forego the memory of nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine of these if she could return to the early days and drink a glass of hot water between every meal! For, as I said before, Love leaves us and enthusiasms die; but Old Age which can sit down to a good dinner and thoroughly enjoy it without having to have a medical bulletin stuck up outside its bedroom door for days afterwards, is an Old Age which no one can call really unhappy. To eat is, at last, about the only joy which is left to us. The "romantic" will shudder at my philosophy, I know; but the "romantic" have generally such a lot to live for beside their meals. Old Age hasn't. That is why elderly people who can begin to look forward to their dinner—say at five o'clock in the afternoon—can be said to have reached the "ripe old age" of the Scriptures. If they can't?—well, over-ripe to rottenness is the only description.
It's oh, to be out of England—now that spring is here!
I don't know if you, fair reader, find that in the spring your fancy turns to thoughts of love—I know mine doesn't! On the contrary, it turns to thoughts of sulphur tablets and camomile tea and other sickly or disagreeable circumventions of the "creakiness" of the human body. For among the things I could teach Nature is that, when she made man, she did not permit him to "flower" in the spring and start each year with something at least resembling his pristine vigour—if he ever had any. But, whereas the spring gives a new glory to birds, and trees, and plants, she only gives to us—built in the image of God—spots, a disordered liver, and a muddy complexion. It seems a piece of gross mismanagement, doesn't it? It would be so delightful if, once a year, we were filled with extra energy; if our hair sprouted once more in the colour with which we were born; if the old skin shed itself and a new one came on so beautiful as to ruin the business of all the "Mrs. Pomeroys" of this world. But Nature seems, once having made us, to leave us severely alone; to let us wither on our stalks, as it were, until we drop off them and are swept away into the dustbin of the worms and weeds. The mind is a far kinder ally. Oh, no; say what you will in the praise of spring, to all those who, as it were, have commenced the "bulge" of anno domini, it is a very trying season. Besides—here in England anyway—it is as uncertain as a flirt. Sometimes it suddenly comes upon us in the early days of March or lets mid-winter pay us a visit in the lengthening days of May. One never quite knows what spring is going to do. One never knows what kind of clothes to wear to please it. So often one sallies forth arrayed in winter underwear, because the morning awoke so coldly, only to spend the rest of the day eating ices to keep the body calm and cool. Or, again, the spring morning greets us with the warmth of an August day; we jump up gaily, deck ourselves out in muslin, sally forth, take a sudden "chill," and spend the rest of the week in bed!
One is always either too hot or too cold. It is the season of the unaccountable draught. True, it often turns the fancy towards sweet thoughts of love—but the fancy usually ends with an influenza cold through indulging in sentimental dalliance upon the grass. On the whole, I always think that spring in England is nicer to sing about than experience. It is delightful as a season of "promise"—but, like humanity, it often treats its promises like pie-crusts. Still, it is spring, and—although the body rarely recognises the fact except to ruin by biliousness the romance which is surging in its heart—summer is, as it were, knocking at the door. And from June to mid-July—that surely is the glory of the year! After July, summer becomes a little dusty at the hem. Still, dusty, or even dirty, it makes life worth living. Nevertheless, I only wish that it were greedier and stole three months away from winter. For winter is too long, and spring is too uncertain, and autumn too full of "Farewell."
But summer never palls. And we have five summers to make up for, haven't we? For no one could really enjoy anything during the war except the war news—when it was favourable. But now we can—well, if not enjoy ourselves, at least lie back, just whispering to ourselves that, when the sun shines the world is a lovely place, and, so far as England is concerned, there is at any rate a kind of camouflaged peace. And so we have to be very very old if we cannot feel in our hearts a breath of youth and spring. After all, when the sun shines, we are, or feel we are, of any age—or of no age whatever. And if we cannot burst into flower like the roses, we can at least enjoy the beauty of the rose when it blooms—which other roses cannot do. Thus, with a few small mercies, life is very good when the sun shines, isn't it?
I would sooner live with an immoral man or woman than a bad-tempered one. An immoral person can often be a very charming companion, quite easy to live with—if you take the various excuses for sudden absences at their face value, and don't probe too deeply into the business; in fact, if you are not in love with the absentee. A bad-tempered person in the house may have the morality of the angels—but life with him is a daily "hell," like always living with strangers, or a mad dog, or in a room full of those ornaments which belong, almost exclusively, to lodging-houses everywhere. Briefly, he is always there—ready to burst into flames at any moment, ready to misunderstand everything anybody does or says, a perpetual bugbear; and not even the emotional repentances, which are often the only partially saving grace of bad-tempered people, can atone for the atmosphere of disturbance which they always inflict. And the man or woman who loses his temper whenever anything goes in the slightest bit wrong—well, from them may the Lord deliver me for ever, Amen! They carry their ill-nature about with them all day and under all circumstances. Sometimes they seem to imagine that their spirit of disagreeableness is a sign of the super-man, or of that dominating personality of which Caesar and Napoleon are historical examples. They frequent restaurants and harry the already over-harried waiters. It is such a very easy victory—the victory over a paid servant. But the conquerors stamp themselves for ever and for ever among Nature's "cads" nevertheless. Anybody who is rude enough can give a quelling performance of "God Almighty" before menials. Some people delight to do so, apparently. They possess everything except an instinctive respect for a man and woman, however lowly, who are earning their own living. And the lack of it places them among the inglorious army of the "bounders" for all time. When there is no "inferior" upon whom to vent the outbursts of their own supreme egoism, they find their wives extremely useful. In the days when the divorce laws are "sensible," freedom will be granted for perpetual bad temper sooner than for occasional unfaithfulness.
Of course, we all have our days when we are like nothing so much as gunpowder looking for a match. We can't be perfect and serene all the time. And if ever, as I have just hinted, we do wake up in the morning feeling as if we could get up and quarrel with a bee because it buzzes, a Beecham pill will probably soon put us in a regular "click" of a humour. ("Mr. Carter" never offered me anything; nor did Sir Thomas Beecham. But being fond of grand opera, I mention the pills "worth a guinea a box" for preference. Besides, they tell us a "Beecham at night makes you sing with delight!" So there!) That is one of the reasons why I always advocate a "silence room" in every household which otherwise is large enough to put the biggest room aside to play billiards in. I would have it quite small, and decorated in restful, neutral tints, with the finest view from the window thereof that the house could supply. I would also have a little window cut out of the door, through which food could be pushed in to the sufferer without him having to tell the domestic that it is a fine day and that he hopes her bunion's better. This little room would be devoted to those inmates of the house who got up on the wrong side of the bed because both sides were "wrong sides" that morning. There he, or she, would stay until the world seemed to be bright again. And they would come forth in their new and serener state of mind, blessing the idea with all their hearts. For if, as they have to do now, they had come downstairs in the mood in which they woke up, the whole house would have known of it to curse it, and most of its members would not be on polite speaking terms for days afterwards. Of course, the idea could be recommended also for those people whose temper is always in a state of uproar. The only difficulty, however, would be, then—they might live in the silence room all their lives and die there—beloved, because unseen. But that is the only thing to do with an habitually disagreeable person—lock him up, and, if you be wise, take away the key of the dungeon with you!
You never really know anybody—until you have either lived with them, travelled with them, or drunk a glass of port with them quietly over the fireside. In almost every other instance, what you become acquainted with is one of a variety of masks! And everyone has a fine assortment of these, haven't they? For the most part you don them unconsciously—or rather, you have got so used to assuming them suddenly that you have lost all consciousness of effort. But they are masks, nevertheless—and a mask always hides the truth, doesn't it? Not that I am one of those, however, who dislike camouflage because it is camouflage. In fact, most of the time I thank Heaven for it—my own and other people's! The "assumed" is so often so much more agreeable than the natural, and nine times out of ten all you require of men and women is that they should at least look pleasant. You've got to get through this life day after day somehow, and time passes ever so much quicker for everyone if the hypocrite be a smiling hypocrite at all times. At every moment of the everyday—preserve me from the sour-visaged saint.
After all, only love and friendship and the law demand the truth and nothing but the truth. Among acquaintances, among all the many thousands you meet through life only to discuss the weather and your own influenza symptoms—all you ask of them is that they should bring out their smiling mask as readily as you struggle to assume your own. Only, as I said before, in love and friendship and the courts of law is the mask an insult, a tragic disillusion and a sham. In every other circumstance it is usually a blessing. Without it society, as a social entertainment, would become impossible. For society is but a collection of men and women wearing masks, each one vying with the others to make his mask the most attractive, and, at the same time, the most concealing. But the worst of wearing masks is, that we become tired at last of holding them in front of our features. This makes the entertainment of watching the truth peering through the camouflage one of the most amusing among the many unpremeditated amusements of the social world. After all, as I said before, so long as your lover and your friend, and the witnesses you have subpoenaed on behalf of your own case, show you truth—all you ask of the others is the most agreeable mask they can put on for the occasion. But even lovers and friends may deceive you, while some witnesses' idea of the truth in the law courts hasn't that semblance of reality possessed by the Medium's description of life in the world beyond. That is what makes matrimony often such a gamble with loaded dice, and holidays so often more tedious than work. To be in the company of one's lover for one ecstatic hour tells one nothing of what he will be when, day after day, one has to live with him in deadly intimacy until death doth part us both.
Neither do you really know how much, or how little, your friend means to you, until you have been with her on a cold railway station for hours, when fate has done its best to make you both lose your tempers and your luggage. Only a very real love can survive smiling through that period when, from almost maudlin appreciation, a husband gradually sinks into the commonplace mood of taking his soul's mate "for granted." Only real friendship can live through the disillusionment of irritable temper, lack of imagination, and boredom so often revealed while travelling in the company of friends. More than half the mutual life of lovers and friends is spent behind masks—for masks are sometimes necessary to keep love and friendship great and true. But one must, nevertheless, know something of the real man and woman behind the mask—even though that which lies behind it may prove disappointing—before you can prove that your love is real love, that your friendship is real friendship, that you love your lover or your friend, not only for what they are, but also in spite of what they are not.