PEBBLES ON THE SHORE
Alpha of the Plough
... collecting toys And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge; As children gathering pebbles on the shore
TO ALL WHO LOVE THE COTTAGE IN THE BEECHWOODS
These papers were begun as a part of a causerie in The Star, the other contributors to which—men whose names are household words in contemporary literature—wrote under the pen names of "Aldebaran," "Arcturus" and "Sirius." But the constellation, formed in the early days of the war, did not long survive the agitations of that event, and when "Arcturus" left for the battlefield it was finally dissolved and "Alpha of the Plough" alone remained to continue the causerie. This selection from his papers is a sort of informal diary of moods in a time of peril. They are pebbles gathered on the shore of a wild sea.
ON CHOOSING A NAME ON LETTER-WRITING ON READING IN BED ON CATS AND DOGS "W.G." ON SEEING VISIONS ON BLACK SHEEP THE VILLAGE AND THE WAR ON RUMOUR ON UMBRELLA MORALS ON TALKING TO ONE'S SELF ON BOSWELL AND HIS MIRACLE ON SEEING OURSELVES ON THE ENGLISH SPIRIT ON FALLING IN LOVE ON A BIT OF SEAWEED ON LIVING AGAIN TU-WHIT, TU-WHOO! ON POINTS OF VIEW ON BEER AND PORCELAIN ON A CASE OF CONSCIENCE ON THE GUINEA STAMP ON THE DISLIKE OF LAWYERS ON THE CHEERFULNESS OF THE BLIND ON TAXING VANITY ON THOUGHTS AT FIFTY THE ONE-EYED CAT ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF HATS ON SEEING LONDON ON CATCHING THE TRAIN IN PRAISE OF CHESS ON THE DOWNS ON SHORT LEGS AND LONG LEGS ON A PAINTED FACE ON WRITING AN ARTICLE ON A CITY THAT WAS ON PLEASANT SOUNDS ON SLACKENING THE BOW ON THE INTELLIGENT GOLF BALL ON A PRISONER OF WAR ON THE WORLD WE LIVE IN "I'M TELLING YOU" ON COURAGE ON SPENDTHRIFTS ON A TOP HAT ON LOSING ONE'S MEMORY ON WEARING A FUR-LINED COAT IN PRAISE OF WALKING ON REWARDS AND RICHES ON TASTE ON A HAWTHORN HEDGE
PEBBLES ON THE SHORE
ON CHOOSING A NAME
"As for your name, I offer you the whole firmament to choose from." In that prodigal spirit the editor of the Star invites me to join the constellation that he has summoned from the vasty deeps of Fleet Street. I am, he says, to shine punctually every Wednesday evening, wet or fine, on winter nights and summer eves, at home or abroad, until such time as he cries: "Hold, enough!" and applies the extinguisher that comes to all.
The invitation reaches me in a tiny village on a spur of a range of beech clad hills, whither I have fled for a breathing space from the nightmare of the war and the menacing gloom of the London streets at night. Here the darkness has no terrors. In the wide arch of the sky our lamps are lit nightly as the sun sinks down far over the great plain that stretches at our feet. None of the palpitations of Fleet Street disturb us, and the rumours of the war come to us like far-off echoes from another world. The only sensation of our day is when, just after darkness has fallen, the sound of a whistle in the tiny street of thatched cottages announces that the postman has called to collect letters.
In this solitude, where one is thrown entirely upon one's own resources, one discovers how dependent one is upon men and books for inspiration. It is hard even to find a name. Not that finding a name is easy in any circumstances. Every one who lives by his pen knows the difficulty of the task. I would rather write an article than find a title for it. The thousand words come easily (sometimes); but the five-words summary of the thousand, that is to flame at the top like a beacon light, is a gem that has to be sought in travail, almost in tears. I have written books, but I have never found a title for one that I have written. That has always come to me from a friend.
Even the men of genius suffer from this impoverishment. When Goldsmith had written the finest English comedy since Shakespeare he did not know what to call it, and had to leave Johnson to write the label. I like to think that Shakespeare himself suffered from this sterility—that he, too, sat biting the feather of his quill in that condition of despair that is so familiar to smaller men. Indeed, we have proof that it was so in the titles themselves. Is not the title, As You Like It, a confession that he had bitten his quill until he was tired of the vain search for a name? And what is Twelfth Night: or What You Will but an evidence that he could not hit upon any name that would fit the most joyous offspring of his genius?
What parent does not know the same agony? To name a child, to give him a sign that shall go with him to his grave, and that shall fit that mystery of the cradle which time and temptation and trial shall alone reveal—hoc opus, hic labor est. Many fail by starting from false grounds—fashion, ambition, or momentary interest. Perhaps the little stranger arrives with the news of a battle, or when a popular novel appears, or at a moment when you are under the influence of some austere or heroic name. And forgetful that it is the child that has to bear the burden of your momentary impulse, you call him Inkerman Jones, or Kitchener Smith, or Milton Spinks.
And so he is started on his journey, like a little historical memory, or challenging comparison with some hero of fact or fable. Perhaps Milton Spinks grows up bow-legged and commonplace—all Spinks and no Milton. As plain John he would pass through life happy and unnoticed, but the great name of Milton hangs about him like a jest from which he can never escape—no, not even in the grave, for it will be continued there until the lichen has covered the name on the headstone with stealthy and kindly oblivion.
It is a good rule, I think, to avoid the fanciful in names. So few of our children are going to be heroes or sages that we should be careful not to stamp them with the mark of greatness at the outset of the journey. Horatio was a happy stroke for Nelson, but how few Horatios win immortality, or deserve it! And how disastrous if Horatio turns out a knave and a coward! If young Spinks has any Miltonic fire within him, it will shine through plain John more naturally and lustrously than through any borrowed patronymic. You may be as humble as you like, and John will fit you: as illustrious as you like, and John will blaze as splendid as your deeds, linking you with that great order of nobility of which John Milton, John Hampden, and John Bright are types.
I had written thus far when it occurred to me that I had still my own name to choose and that soon the whistle of the postman would be heard in the street. I went out into the orchard to take counsel with the stars. The far horizon was still stained wine-red with the last embers of the day; northward over the shoulder of the hill the yellow moon was rising full-orbed into the night sky and the firmament glittered with a thousand lamps.
How near and familiar they seem to one in the solitude of the country! In the town our vision is limited to the street. We see only the lights of the pavement and hear only the rattle of the unceasing traffic. The stars seem infinitely removed from our life.
But here they are like old neighbours for whom we never look in vain, intimate though eternal, friendly and companionable though far off. There is Orion coming over the hill, and there the many-jewelled Pleiades, and across the great central dome of the sky the vast triangle formed by the Pole Star, golden Arcturus (not now visible), and ice-blue Vega. But these are not names for me. Better are those homely sounds that link the pageant of night with the immemorial life of the fields. Arcturus is Alpha of the Herdsman. Shall it be that?
And then my eye roves westward to where the Great Bear hangs head downwards as if to devour the earth. Great Bear, Charles's Wain, the Plough, the Dipper, the Chariot of David—with what fancies the human mind through all the ages has played with that glorious constellation! Let my fancy play with it too. There at the head of the Plough flames the great star that points to the pole. I will hitch my little waggon to that sublime image. I will be Alpha of the Plough.
Two soldiers, evidently brothers, stood at the door of the railway carriage—one inside the compartment, the other on the platform.
"Now, you won't forget to write, Bill," said the latter.
"No," said Bill. "I shall be back at—tonight, and I'll write all round to-morrow. But, lor, what a job. There's mother and the missus and Bob and Sarah and Aunt Jane and Uncle Jim, and—well, you know the lot. You've had to do it, Sam."
"Yes," said Sam, ruefully; "it's a fair teaser."
"And if you write to one and miss another they're offended," continued Bill. "But I always mention all of 'em. I say 'love to Sarah,' and 'hope Aunt Jane's cold's better,' and that sort of thing, and that fills out a page. But I'm blowed if I can find anything else to say. I just begin 'hoping this finds you well, as it leaves me at present,' and then I'm done. What else is there to say?"
"Nothing," said Sam, mournfully. "I just sit and scratch my head over the blessed paper, but nothing'll come. Seems as though my head's as empty as a drum."
"Same here. 'Tisn't like writing love-letters. When I was up to that game 'twas easy enough. When I got stuck I just put in half a page of crosses, and that filled up fine. But writing to mother and the missus and Sarah and Jim and the rest is different. You can't fill up with crosses. It would look ridiklus."
"It would," said Sam.
Then the train began to move, and the soldier in the train sank back on his seat, took out a cigarette, and began to smoke. I found he had been twice out at the front, and was now home on sick leave. He had been at the battle of Mons, through the retreat to the Marne, the advance to the Aisne, the first battle of Ypres, and the fighting at Festubert. In a word, he had seen some of the greatest events in the world's history, face to face, and yet he confessed that when he came to writing a letter, even to his wife, he could find nothing to say. He was in the position of the lady mentioned by Horace Walpole, whose letter to her husband began and ended thus: "I write to you because I have nothing to do: I finish because I have nothing to say."
I suppose there has never been so much letter-writing in the world as is going on to-day, and much of it is good writing, as the papers show. But the case of my companion in the train is the case of thousands and tens of thousands of young fellows who for the first time in their lives want to write and discover that they have no gift of self-expression. It is not that they are stupid. It is that somehow the act of writing paralyses them. They cannot condense the atmosphere in which they live to the concrete word. You have to draw them out. They need a friendly lead. When they have got that they can talk well enough, but without it they are dumb.
In the great sense letter-writing is no doubt a lost art. It was killed by the penny post and modern hurry. When Madame de Sevigny, Cowper, Horace Walpole, Byron, Lamb, and the Carlyles wrote their immortal letters the world was a leisurely place where there was time to indulge in the luxury of writing to your friends. And the cost of franking a letter made that letter a serious affair. If you could only send a letter once in a month or six months, and then at heavy expense, it became a matter of first-rate consequence. The poor, of course, couldn't enjoy the luxury of letter-writing at all. De Quincey tells us how the dalesmen of Lakeland a century ago used to dodge the postal charges. The letter that came by stage coach was received at the door by the poor mother, who glanced at the superscription, saw from a certain agreed sign on it that Tom or Jim was well, and handed it back to the carrier unopened. In those days a letter was an event.
Now when you can send a letter half round the globe for a penny, and when the postman calls half a dozen times a day, few of us take letter-writing seriously. Carlyle saw that the advent of the penny post would kill the letter by making it cheap. "I shall send a penny letter next time," he wrote to his mother when the cheap postage was about to come in, and he foretold that people would not bother to write good letters when they could send them for next to nothing. He was right, and the telegraph, the telephone, and the postcard have completed the destruction of the art of letter-writing. It is the difficulty or the scarcity of a thing that makes it treasured. If diamonds were as plentiful as pebbles we shouldn't stoop to pick them up.
But the case of Bill and Sam and thousands of their comrades to-day is different. They don't want to write literary letters, but they do want to tell the folks at home something about their life and the great things of which they are a part. But the great things are too great for them. They cannot put them into words. And they ought not to try, for the secret of letter-writing is intimate triviality. Bill could not have described the retreat from Mons; but he could have told, as he told me, about the blister he got on his heel, how he hungered for a smoke, how he marched and marched until he fell asleep marching, how he lost his pal at Le Cateau, and how his boot sole dropped off at Meaux. And through such trivialities he would have given a living picture of the great retreat.
In short, to write a good letter you must approach the job in the lightest and most casual way. You must be personal, not abstract. You must not say, "This is too small a thing to put down." You must say, "This is just the sort of small thing we talk about at home. If I tell them this they will see me, as it were, they'll hear my voice, they'll know what I'm about." That is the purpose of a letter. Keats expresses the idea very well in one of those voluminous letters which he wrote to his brother George and his wife in America and in which he poured out the wealth of family affection which was one of the most amiable features of his character. He has described how he had been to see his mother, how she had laughed at his bad jokes, how they went out to tea at Mrs. Millar's, and how in going they were struck with the light and shade through the gateway at the Horse Guards. And he goes on: "I intend to write you such volumes that it will be impossible for me to keep any order or method in what I write; that will come first which is uppermost in my mind, not that which is uppermost in my heart—besides I should wish to give you a picture of our lives here whenever by a touch I can do it; even as you must see by the last sentence our walk past Whitehall all in good health and spirits—this I am certain of because I felt so much pleasure from the simple idea of your playing a game of cricket."
There is the recipe by one of the masters of the craft. A letter written in this vein annihilates distance; it continues the personal gossip, the intimate communion, that has been interrupted by separation; it preserves one's presence in absence. It cannot be too simple, too commonplace, too colloquial. Its familiarity is not its weakness, but its supreme virtue. If it attempts to be orderly and stately and elaborate, it may be a good essay, but it will certainly be a bad letter.
ON READING IN BED
Among the few legacies that my father left me was a great talent for sleeping. I think I can say, without boasting, that in a sleeping match I could do as well as any man. I can sleep long, I can sleep often, and I can sleep sound. When I put my head on the pillow I pass into a fathomless peace where no dreams come, and about eight hours later I emerge to consciousness, as though I have come up from the deeps of infinity.
That is my normal way, but occasionally I have periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night. My sleep is then divided into two chapters, and between the chapters there is a slab of unmitigated dreariness. It is my hour of pessimism. The tide has ebbed, the water is dead-low, and there is a vista of endless mud. It is then that this tragi-comedy of life touches bottom, and I see the heavens all hung with black. I despair of humanity, I despair of the war, I despair of myself. There is not one gleam of light in all the sad landscape, and the abyss seems waiting at my feet to swallow me up with everything that I cherish. It is no use saying to this demon of the darkness that I know he is a humbug, a mere Dismal Jemmy of the brain, who sits there croaking like a night owl or a tenth-rate journalist. My Dismal Jemmy is not to be exorcised by argument. He can only be driven out by a little sane companionship.
So I turn on a light and call for one of my bedside friends. They stand there in noble comradeship, ready to talk, willing to remain silent, only asking to do my pleasure. Oh, blessed be the name of Gutenberg, the Master Printer. A German? I care not. Even if he had been a Prussian—which I rejoice to think he was not—I would still say: "Blessed be the name of Gutenberg," though Sir Richard Cooper, M.P., sent me to the Tower for it. For Gutenberg is the Prometheus not of legend but of history. He brought down the sacred flame and scattered the darkness that lay on the face of the waters. He gave us the Daily Owl, it is true, but he made us also freemen of time and thought, companions of the saints and the sages, sharers in the wisdom and the laughter of the ages. Thanks to him I can, for the expenditure of a few shillings, hear Homer sing and Socrates talk and Rabelais laugh; I can go chivvying the sheep with Don Quixote and roaming the hills with Borrow; I can carry the whole universe of Shakespeare in my pocket, and call up spirits to drive Dismal Jemmy from my pillow.
Who are these spirits? In choosing them it is necessary to avoid the deep-browed argumentative fellows. I do not want Plato or Gibbon or any of the learned brotherhood by my bedside, nor the poets, nor the novelists, nor the dramatists, nor even the professional humorists. These are all capital fellows in their way, but let them stay downstairs. To the intimacy of the bedside I admit only the kindly fellows who come in their dressing-gowns and slippers, so to speak, and sit down and just talk to you as though they had known you ever since you were a little nipper, and your father and your grandfather before you. Of course, there is old Montaigne. What a glorious gossip he is! What strange things he has to tell you, what a noble candour he shows! He turns out his mind as carelessly as a boy turns out his pockets, and gives you the run of his whole estate. You may wander everywhere, and never see a board warning you to keep off the grass or reminding you that you are a trespasser.
And Bozzy. Who could do without Bozzy by his bedside—dear, garrulous old Bozzy, most splendid of toadies, most miraculous of reporters? When Bozzy begins to talk to me, and the old Doctor growls "Sir," all the worries and anxieties of life fall magically away, and Dismal Jemmy vanishes like the ghost at cock-crow. I am no longer imprisoned in time and the flesh: I am of the company of the immortals. I share their triumphant aloofness from the play that fills our stage and see its place in the scheme of the unending drama of men.
That sly rogue Pepys, of course, is there—more thumb-stained than any of them except Bozzy. What a miracle is this man who lives more vividly in our eyes than any creature that ever walked the earth! What was the secret of his magic? Is it not this, that he succeeded in putting down on paper the real truth about himself? A small thing? Well, you try it. You will find it the hardest job you have ever tackled. No matter what secrecy you adopt you will discover that you cannot tell yourself the whole truth about yourself. Pepys did that. Benvenuto Cellini pretended to do that, but I refuse to believe the fellow. Benjamin Franklin tried to do it and very nearly succeeded. St. Augustine was frank enough about his early wickedness, but it was the overcharged frankness of the subsequent saint. No, Pepys is the man. He did the thing better than it has ever been done in this world.
I like to have the Paston Letters at my bedside, too. Then I go off to sleep again in the fifteenth century with the voice of old Agnes Paston sounding in my ears. Dead half a thousand years, yet across the gulf of time I hear the painful scratching of her quill as she sends "Goddis blyssyng" to her son in London, and tells him all her motherly gossip and makes the rough life of far-off Tudor England live for ever. Dear old Agnes! She little thought as she struggled with her spelling and her pen that she was writing something that was immortal. If she had known, I don't think she would have bothered. She was a very matter-of-fact old lady, and was too full of worries to have much room for vanities.
I should like to say more about my bedside friends—strapping George Borrow sitting with Petulengro's sister under the hedge or fighting the Flaming Tinman; the dear little Boston doctor who talks so chirpily over the Breakfast Table; the Compleat Angler that takes you out into an eternal May morning, and Sainte-Beuve whom I have found a first-rate bedside talker. But I must close.
There is one word, however, to be added. Your bedside friends should be dressed in soft leather and printed on thin paper. Then you can talk to them quite snugly. It is a great nuisance if you have to stick your arms out of bed and hold your hands rigid.
ON CATS AND DOGS
A friend of mine calling to see me the other day and observing my faithful Airedale—"Quilp" by name—whose tail was in a state of violent emotion at the prospect of a walk, remarked that when the new taxes came in I should have to pay a guinea for the privilege of keeping that dog. I said I hoped that Mr. McKenna would do nothing so foolish. In fact, I said, I am sure he will do nothing so foolish. I know him well, and I have always found him a sensible man. Let him, said I, tax us all fairly according to our incomes, but why should he interfere with the way in which we spend the money that he leaves us? Why should he deny the friendship of that most friendly animal the dog to a poor man and make it the exclusive possession of the well-to-do?
The emotion of Quilp's tail kept pace with the fervour of my remarks. He knew that he was the subject of the conversation, and his large brown eyes gleamed with intelligence, and his expressive eyebrows were eloquent of self-pity and appeal. He was satisfied that whatever the issue I was on his side, and at half a hint he would have given my friend a taste of the rough side of his tongue. But he is a well-mannered brute, and knows how to restrain his feelings in company.
What would be the result of your high tax? I continued with passion. It would be a blow at the democracy of dogs. It would reduce the whole of dogdom to a pampered class of degenerates. Is there anything more odious than the spectacle of a fat woman in furs nursing a lap dog in furs, too? It is as degrading to the noble family of dogs as a footman in gold buttons and gold braid is to the human family. But it is just these degenerates whom a high tax would protect. Honest fellows like Quilp here (more triumphant tail flourishes), dogs that love you like a brother, that will run for you, carry for you, bark for you, whose candour is so transparent and whose faithfulness has been the theme of countless poets—dogs like these would be taxed out of existence.
Now cats, I continued—(at the thrilling word Quilp became tense with excitement), cats are another affair. Personally I don't care two pence if Mr. McKenna taxes them a guinea a whisker. There is only one moment in the life of a cat that is tolerable, and that is when it is not a cat but a kitten. Who was the Frenchman who said that women ought to be born at seventeen and die at thirty? Cats ought to die when they cease to be kittens and become cats.
Cats, said my friend coldly, are the spiritual superiors of dogs. The dog is a flunkey, a serf, an underling, a creature that is eternally watching its master. Look at Quilp at this moment. What a spectacle of servility. You don't see cats making themselves the slaves of men. They like to be stroked, but they have no affection for the hand that strokes them. They are not parasites, but independent souls, going their own way, living their own lives, indifferent to applause, calling no man master. That is why the French consider them so superior to dogs.
I do not care what the French think, I said with warmth.
But they are our Allies, said my friend severely. The Germans, on the other hand, prefer dogs. I hope you are not a pro-German.
On the cat-and-dog issue I am, and I don't care who knows it, I said recklessly. And I hate these attempts to drag in prejudice. Moreover, I would beg you to observe that it was a great Frenchman, none other than Pascal, who paid the highest of all tributes to the dog. "The more I see of men," he said, "the better I like dogs." I challenge you to produce from any French source such an encomium on the cat.
No, I continued, the dog is a generous, warmhearted, chivalrous fellow, who will play with you, mourn for you, or die for you. Why, literature is full of his heroism. Who has climbed Helvellyn without being haunted by that shepherd's dog that inspired Scott and Byron? Or the Pass of St. Bernard without remembering the faithful hounds of the great monastery? But the cat is a secret and alien creature, selfish and mysterious, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. See her purring on the hearth-rug in front of the fire, and she seems the picture of innocence and guileless content. All a blind, my dear fellow, all a blind. Wait till night comes. Then where is demure Mistress Puss? Is she at home keeping vigil with the good dog Tray? No, the house may be in blazes or ransacked by burglars for all she cares. She is out on the tiles and in back gardens pursuing her unholy ritual—that strange ritual that seems so Oriental, so sinister, so full of devilish purpose. I can understand the old association of witchcraft with cats. The sight of cats almost makes me believe in witchcraft, in spite of myself. I can believe anything about a cat. She is heartless and mercenary. Her name has become the synonym of everything that is mean, spiteful, and vicious. "An old cat" is the unkindest thing you can say about a woman.
But the dog wears his heart on his sleeve. His life is as open as the day. He has his indecorums, but he has no secrets. You may see the worst of him at a glance, but the best of him is inexhaustible. A cat is as remote from your life as a lizard, but a dog is as intimate as your own thoughts or your own shadow, and his loyalty is one of the consolations of a disloyal world. You remember that remark of Charles Reade's: "He was only a man, but he was as faithful as a dog." It was the highest tribute he could pay to his hero—that he was as faithful as a dog. And think of his services—see him drawing his cart in Belgium, rounding up the sheep into the fold on the Yorkshire fells, tending the cattle by the highway, warning off the night prowler from the lonely homestead, always alert, always obedient, always the friend of man, be he never so friendless.... Shall we go for a walk?
At the joyous word Quilp leapt on me with a frenzied demonstration. "Good dog," I said. "If Mr. McKenna puts a guinea tax on you I'll never say a good word for him again."
The worst of spending week-ends in the country in these anxious days is the difficulty of getting news. About six o'clock on Saturday evening I am seized with a furious hunger. What has happened on the East front? What on the West? What in Serbia? Has Greece made up its heroic mind? Is Rumania still trembling on the brink? What does the French communique say? These and a hundred other questions descend on me with frightful insistence. Clearly I can't go to bed without having them answered. But there is not an evening paper to be got nearer than the little railway station in the valley two miles away, and there is no way of getting it except by Shanks' mare. And so, unable to resist the glamour of The Star, I start out across the fields for the station.
As I stood on the platform last Saturday evening devouring the latest war news under the dim oil lamp, a voice behind me said, in broad rural accent, "Bill, I say, W.G. is dead." At the word I turned hastily to another column and found the news that had stirred him. And even in the midst of world-shaking events it stirred me too. For a brief moment I forgot the war and was back in that cheerful world where we used to be happy, where we greeted the rising sun with light hearts and saw its setting without fear. In that cheerful world I can hardly recall a time when a big man with a black beard was not my King.
I first saw him in the 'seventies. I was a small boy then, and I did him the honour of playing truant—"playing wag" we called it. I felt that the occasion demanded it. To have the god of my idolatry in my own little town and not to pay him my devotions—why, the idea was almost like blasphemy. A half-dozen, or even a dozen, from my easily infuriated master would be a small price to pay. I should take the stripes as a homage to the hero. He would never know, but I should be proud to suffer in his honour. Unfortunately there was a canvas round the field where the hero played, and as the mark of the Mint was absent from my pockets I was on the wrong side of the canvas. But I knew a spot where by lying flat on your stomach and keeping your head very low you could see under the canvas and get a view of the wicket. It was not a comfortable position, but I saw the King. I think I was a little disappointed that there was nothing supernatural about his appearance and that there were no portents in the heavens to announce his coming. It didn't seem quite right somehow. In a general way I knew he was only a man, but I was quite prepared to see something tremendous happen, the sun to dance or the earth to heave, when he appeared. I never felt the indifference of Nature to the affairs of men so acutely.
I saw him many times afterwards, and I suppose I owe more undiluted happiness to him than to any man that ever lived. For he was the genial tyrant in a world that was all sunshine. There are other games, no doubt, which will give you as much exercise and pleasure in playing them as cricket, but there is no game that fills the mind with such memories and seems enveloped in such a gracious and kindly atmosphere. If you have once loved it and played it, you will find talk in it enough "for the wearing out of six fashions," as Falstaff says. I like a man who has cricket in his soul. I find I am prejudiced in his favour, and am disposed to disbelieve any ill about him. I think my affection for Jorkins began with the discovery that he, like myself, saw that astounding catch with which Ulyett dismissed Bonnor in the Australian match at Lord's in 1883—or was it 1884? And when to this mutual and immortal memory we added the discovery that we were both at the Oval at the memorable match when Crossland rattled Surrey out like ninepins and the crowd mobbed him, and Key and Roller miraculously pulled the game out of the fire, our friendship was sealed.
The fine thing about a wrangle on cricket is that there is no bitterness in it. When you talk about politicians you are always on the brink of bad temper. When you disagree about the relative merits of W.B. Yeats or Francis Thompson you are afflicted with scorn for the other's lack of perception. But you may quarrel about cricketers and love each other all the time. For example, I am prepared to stand up in a truly Christian spirit to the bowling of anybody in defence of my belief that—next to him of the black beard—Lohmann was the most naturally gifted all-round cricketer there has ever been. What grace of action he had, what an instinct for the weak spot of his opponent, what a sense for fitting the action to the moment, above all, what a gallant spirit he played the game in! And that, after all, is the real test of the great cricketer. It is the man who brings the spirit of adventure into the game that I want. Of the Quaifes and the Scottons and the Barlows I have nothing but dreary memories. They do not mean cricket to me. And even Shrewsbury and Hayward left me cold. They were too faultily faultless, too icily regular for my taste. They played cricket not as though it was a game, but as though it was a proposition in Euclid. And I don't like Euclid.
It was the hearty joyousness that "W.G." shed around him that made him so dear to us youngsters of all ages. I will admit, if you like, that Ranjitsinhji at his best was more of a magician with the bat, that Johnny Briggs made you laugh more with his wonderful antics, that A.P. Lucas had more finish, Palairet more grace, and so on. But it was the abundance of the old man with the black beard that was so wonderful. You never came to the end of him. He was like a generous roast of beef—you could cut and come again, and go on coming. Other men flitted across our sky like meteors, but he shone on like the sun in the heavens, and like the sun in the heavens he scattered largesse over the land. He did not seem so much a man as an institution, a symbol of summer and all its joys, a sort of Father Christmas clothed in flannels and sunshine. It did you good merely to look at him. It made you feel happy to see such a huge capacity for enjoyment, such mighty subtlety, such ponderous gaiety. It was as though Jove, or Vulcan, or some other god of antiquity had come down to play games with the mortals. You would not have been much surprised if, when the shadows lengthened across the greensward and the umpire signalled that the day's play was done, he had wrapped himself in a cloud of glory and floated away to Olympus.
And now he is gone indeed, and it seems as though a part, and that a very happy part, of my life has gone with him. When sanity returns to the earth, there will arise other deities of the cricket field, but not for me. Never again shall I recapture the careless rapture that came with the vision of the yellow cap flaming above the black beard, of the Herculean frame and the mighty bared arms, and all the godlike apparition of the master. As I turned out of the little station and passed through the fields and climbed the hill I felt that the darkness that has come upon the earth in these days had taken a deeper shade of gloom, for even the lights of the happy past were being quenched.
ON SEEING VISIONS
The postman (or rather the postwoman) brought me among other things this morning a little paper called The Superman, which I find is devoted to the stars, the lines of the hands, and similar mysteries. I gather from it that "Althea," a normal clairvoyant, and other seers, have visited the planets—in their astral bodies, of course—to make inquiries on various aspects of the war. Althea and "the other seers" seem to have had quite a busy time running about among the stars and talking to the inhabitants about the trouble in our particular orb. They seem really to have got to the bottom of things. It appears that there is a row going on between Lucifer and Arniel. "Lucifer is a fallen planetary god, whose lust for power has driven him from his seat of authority as ruler of Jupiter. He is the evil genius overshadowing the Kaiser and is striving to possess this world so that he may pass it on to Jupiter and eventually blot out the Solar Logos," etc., etc.
I do not know who sent me this paper or for what purpose; but let me say that it is sheer waste of postage stamps and material. I hope I am not intolerant of the opinions of others, but I confess that when people talk to me about reading the stars and the lines of the hand and things of that sort I shut up like an oyster. I do not speak of the humbugs who deliberately exploit the credulity of fools. I speak of the sincere believers—people like my dear old friend W.T. Stead, who was the most extraordinary combination of wisdom and moonshine I have ever known. He would startle you at one moment by his penetrating handling of the facts of a great situation, and the next moment would make you speechless with some staggering story of spirit visitors or starry conspiracies that seemed to him just as actual as the pavement on which he walked.
I am not at home in this atmosphere of mysteries. It is not that I do not share the feeling out of which it is born. I do. Thoreau said he would give all he possessed for "one true vision," and so long as we are spiritually alive we must all have some sense of expectancy that the curtain will lift, and that we shall look out with eyes of wonder on the hidden meaning of this strange adventure upon which we are embarked. For thousands of years we have been wandering in this wilderness of the world and speculating about why we are here, where we are going, and what it is all about. It can never have been a greater puzzle than now, when we are all busily engaged in killing each other. And at every stage there have been those who have cried, "Lo, here!" and "Lo, there!" and have called men to witness that they have read the riddle and have torn the secret from the heart of the great mystery.
And so long as men can feel and think, the quest will go on. We could not cease that quest if we would, and we would not if we could, for without it all the meaning would have gone out of life and we should be no more than the cattle in the fields. Nor is the quest in vain. We follow this trail and that, catch at this hint of a meaning and that gleam of vision, and though we find this path ends in a cul-de-sac, and that brings us back to the place from whence we started, we are learning all the time about the mysteries of our wilderness. And one day, perhaps—suddenly, it may be, as that vision of the great white mountains of the Oberland breaks upon the sight of the traveller—we shall see whither the long adventure leads. "Say not the struggle naught availeth," said a poet who was not given to cultivating illusions. And he went on:—
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking. Seem here no painful inch to gain, Far back, through creeks and inlets making. Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
But though I want to see a vision as much as anybody, I am out of touch with the company of the credulous. I am with Doubting Thomas. I have no capacity for believing the impossible, and have an entire distrust of dark rooms and magic. People with bees in their bonnets leave me wondering, but cold. I know a man—a most excellent man—whose life is a perfect debauch of visions and revelations. He seems to discover the philosopher's stone every other day. Sometimes it is brown bread that is the way to salvation. If you eat brown bread you will never die, or at any rate you will live until everybody is tired of you. Sometimes it is a new tax or a new sort of bath that is the secret key to the whole contraption. For one period he could talk of nothing but dried milk; for another, acetic acid was the thing. Rub yourself with acetic acid and you would be as invulnerable to the ills of the body as Achilles was after he had been dipped by Thetis in the waters of Styx. The stars tell him anything he wishes to believe, and he can conjure up spirits as easily as another man can order a cab. It is not that he is a fool. In practical affairs he is astonishingly astute. It is that he has an illimitable capacity for belief. He is always on the road to Damascus.
For my part I am content to wait. I am for Wordsworth's creed of "wise passiveness." I should as soon think of reading my destiny on the sole of my boot as in the palm of my hand. The one would be just as illuminating as the other. It would tell me what I chose to make it tell me. That and no more. And so with the stars. People who pretend to read the riddle of our affairs in the pageant of the stars are deceiving themselves or are trying to deceive others. They are giving their own little fancies the sanction of the universe. The butterfly that I see flitting about in the sunshine outside might as well read the European war as a comment on its aimless little life. The stars do not chatter about us, but they have a balm for us if we will be silent. The "huge and thoughtful night" speaks a language simple, august, universal.
It is one of the smaller consolations of the war that it has given us in London a chance of hearing that language. The lamps of the street are blotted out, and the lamps above are visible. Five nights of the week all the year round I take the last bus that goes northward from the City, and from the back seat on the top I watch the great procession of the stars. It is the most astonishing spectacle offered to men. Emerson said that if we only saw it once in a hundred years we should spend years in preparing for the vision. It is hung out for us every night, and we hardly give it a glance. And yet it is well worth glancing at. It is the best corrective for this agitated little mad-house in which we dwell and quarrel and fight and die. It gives us a new scale of measurement and a new order of ideas. Even the war seems only a local affair of some ill-governed asylum in the presence of this ordered march of illimitable worlds. I do not worry about the vision; I do not badger the stars to give me their views about the war. It is enough to see and feel and be silent.
And now I hope Althea will waste no more postage stamps in sending me her desecrating gibberish.
ON BLACK SHEEP
When I was in France a few weeks ago I heard much about the relative qualities of different classes of men as soldiers. And one of the most frequent themes was the excellence of the "black sheep." It was not merely that he was brave. That one might expect. It was not even that he was unselfish. That also did not arouse surprise. The pride in him, I found, was chiefly due to the fact that he was so good a soldier in the sense of discipline, enthusiasm, keenness, even intelligence. It is, I believe, a well-ascertained fact that an unusually high proportion of reformatory boys and other socially doubtful men have won rewards for exceptional deeds, and every one knows the case of the man with twenty-seven convictions against him who won the V.C. for one of the bravest acts of the war.
It must not be assumed from this that to be a successful soldier you must be a social failure. On the contrary, nothing has been so conclusively proved by this war as the widespread prevalence of the soldierly instinct. Heroes have sprung up from all ranks and all callings—from drapers' shops and furniture vans, from stools in the city and looms in Lancashire, from Durham pits and bishops' palaces. Whatever else the war has done, it has knocked on the head the idea that the cult of militarism is necessary to preserve the soul of courage and chivalry in a people. We, with a wholly civic tradition, have shown that in the hour of need we can draw upon an infinite reservoir of heroism, as splendid as anything in the annals of the human race.
But the case of the black sheep has a special significance for us. The war has discovered the good that is in him, and has released it for useful service. After all, the black sheep is often only black by the accident of circumstance, upbringing, or association. He is a misfit. In him, as in all of us, there is an infinite complexity—good and ill together. No one who has faithfully examined his own life can doubt how trifling a weight turns the scales for or against us. An accidental meeting, a casual friendship, a phrase in a book—and the current of life takes a definite direction this way or that. There are no doubt people in whom the elements are so perfectly adjusted that the balance is never in doubt. Their character is superior to circumstance. But they are rare. They are the stars that dwell apart from our human struggles. Most of us know what it is to be on the brink of the precipice—know, if we are quite honest with ourselves, how narrow a shave we have had from joining the black sheep. Perhaps, if we are still honest with ourselves, we shall admit that the thing that turned the balance for us was not a very creditable thing—that we were protected from ourselves not by any high virtue, but by something mean, a touch of cowardice, a paltry ambition, a consideration that we should be ashamed to confess.
We are so strangely compact that we do not ourselves know what the ordeal will discover in us. You have no doubt read that incident of the sergeant who, in a moment of panic, fled, was placed under arrest and sentenced to be shot. Before the sentence was ratified by the Commander-in-Chief, there came a moment of extreme peril to the line, when irretrievable disaster was imminent and every man who could fill a gap was needed. The condemned man was called out to face the enemy, and, even in the midst of brave men, fought with a bravery that singled him out for the Victoria Cross. Tell me—which was the true man? I saw the other day a letter from a famous doctor dealing with the question of the psychology of war. He was against shooting a man for cowardice, because cowardice was not necessarily a quality of character. It was often a temporary collapse due to physical fatigue, or a passing condition of mind. "Five times," he said, "I have been at work in circumstances in which my life was in imminent peril. On four occasions I worked with a curious sense of exaltation. On the fifth occasion I was seized with a sudden and unreasoning panic that paralysed me. Perhaps it was a failure of digestion, perhaps a want of sleep. Anyhow, at that moment I was a coward."
The truth is that, except for the aforesaid stars who dwell apart, we all have the potential saint and the potential sinner, the hero and the coward, the honest man and the dishonest man within us.
There is a fine poem in A Shropshire Lad that puts the case of the black sheep as pregnantly as it can be put:—
There sleeps in Shrewsbury gaol to-night, Or wakes, as may betide, A better lad if things went right Than most that sleep outside.
If things went right.... Do not, I pray you, think that in saying this I am holding the candle to that deadly doctrine of determinism, or that, like the tragic novelist, I see man only as a pitiful animal caught in the trap of blind circumstance. If I believed that I should say "Better dead." But what I do say is that we are so variously composed that circumstance does play a powerful part in giving rein to this or that element in us and making the scale go down for good or bad, and that often the best of us only miss the wrong turning by a hair's breadth. Dirt, it is said, is only matter in the wrong place. Put it in the right place, and it ceases to be dirt. Give that man with twenty-seven convictions against him a chance of revealing the better metal that is in him, and, lo! he is hailed as a hero and decorated with the V.C.
THE VILLAGE AND THE WAR
"Well, have you heard the news?"
It was the landlord of the Blue Boar who spoke. He stopped me in the village street—if you can call a straggling lane with a score of thatched cottages and half a dozen barns a street—evidently bursting with great tidings. He is an old soldier himself, and his views on the war are held in great esteem. I hadn't heard the news, but, whatever it was, I could see from the landlord's immense smile that there was nothing to fear.
"Jim has got a commission," said the landlord, and he said it in a tone that left no doubt that now things would begin to move. For Jim is his son, a sergeant-major in the artillery, who has been out at the front ever since Mons.
The news has created quite a sensation. But we are getting so used to sensations now that we are becoming blase. There has never been such a year of wonders in the memory of any one living. The other day thousands of soldiers from the great camp ten miles away descended on our "terrain"—I think that's the word—and had a tremendous two-days' battle in the hills about us. They broke through the hedges, and slept in the cornfields, and ravished the apple-trees in my orchard, and raided the cottagers for tea, and tramped to and fro in our street and gave us the time of our lives.
"I never seed such a sight in my life," said old Benjamin to me in the evening. "Man and boy, I've lived in that there bungalow for eighty-five year come Michaelmas, and I never seed the like o' this before.... Yes, eighty-five year come Michaelmas. And my father had that there land on a peppercorn rent, and the way he lost it was like this—"
Happily at this moment there was a sudden alarum among the soldiers, and I was able to dodge the familiar rehearsal of old Benjamin's grievance.
And who would ever have dreamed that we should live to hear French talked in our street as a familiar form of speech? But we have. In a little cottage at the other end of the village is a family of Belgians, a fragment of the flotsam thrown up by the great inundation of 1914. They have brought the story of "frightfulness" near to us, for they passed through the terror of Louvain, hiding in the cellars for nights and days, having two of their children killed, and escaping to the coast on foot.
Every Sunday night you will see them very busy carrying their few chairs and tables into a neighbouring barn, for on Monday mornings mass is celebrated there. The priest comes up in a country cart from ten miles away, and the refugees scattered for miles around assemble for worship, after which there is a tremendous pow-pow in French and Flemish, with much laughter and gaiety.
Old Benjamin "don't hold with they priests," and he has grave suspicions about all foreign tongues, but the Belgians have become quite a part of us, and their children are learning to lisp in English down at the school in the valley.
Much less agreeable is the frame of mind towards the occupants of the cottage next to the Blue Boar. They are the wife and children of a German who had worked in this country for many years and is now in America. The woman is English and amiable, but the proximity of anything so reminiscent of Germany is painful to the village, and especially to the landlord, whose views about Germans can hardly be put into words.
"I should hope there'll be no prisoners took after this," he says grimly whenever he hears of a new outrage. "Vermin—that's what they are," he says, "and they should be treated according-ly."
The Germans, in fact, have become the substitute for every term of execration, even with mild David the labourer. He came into the orchard last evening staggering under a 15-ft. ladder. We had decided that if we were going to have the pears before the wasps had spoiled them we must pick them at once.
"It's a wunnerful crop," said David. "I've knowed this pear-tree [looking up at one of them from the foot of his ladder] for twenty-five year, and I've never seen such a crop on it afore."
Then he mounted the ladder and began to pick the fruit.
"Well, I'm blowed," he said, "if they ain't been at 'em a'ready." And he flung down pear after pear scooped out by the wasps close to the stalk. "Reg'lar Germans—that's what they are," he said. "Look at 'em round that hive," he went on. "They'll hev all the honey and them bees will starve and git the Isle o' Wight—that's what they'll git.... Lor," he added, reflectively, "I dunno what wospses are made for—wospses and Germans. It gits over me."
I said it got over me too. And then from among the branches, while I hung on to the foot of the ladder to keep it firm, David unbosomed his disquiet to me about enlisting.
"Most o' the chaps round here has gone," he said, "an' I don't like staying be'ind. Seems as though you were hanging back like. 'Taint that I shouldn't like to go; but it's this way ... (Hullo, I got my hand on a wasp that time) ... There's such a lot o' women-folk dependent on me. There's my wife and there's my mother down the village and my aunt; and not a man to do anything for 'em but me. After my work on th' farm, I keeps all three gardens going and a patch of allotment down the valley as well."
"You're growing a lot of good food, and that's military work," I said.
He seemed cheered by the idea, and asked me if I'd like to see the potatoes he had dug up that evening—they were "a wunnerful fine lot," he said.
So after he had stripped the pear-tree he shouldered the ladder, and we went down the village to David's garden. There I saw his potatoes, some lying to dry where they had been dug up, others in sacks. Also his marrows and beans and cabbages and lettuces. A little apologetically, he offered me some of the largest potatoes—"just as a hobby," he said, meaning thereby that it was only a trifle he offered.
As I went away in the gathering dark, with my hands full of potatoes, I met the landlord of the Blue Boar, his shirt sleeves rolled up as usual above his brown, muscular arms.
"Bad news that about Mrs. Lummis," he said, looking towards the cottage on the other side of the road.
"What is that?" said I. "Her son?" There had been no news of him for two months.
"Yes, poor Jack. She's got news that he was killed near la Bassee in June. Nice feller—and her only son."
Then, more cheerfully, he added, "Jim's coming home to-morrow. Going to get his officer's rig out, you know, and have a rest—the first since he went out a year ago."
"You'll be glad to see him," said I.
"Not half," said he with a vast smile.
I was speaking the other day to a man of cautious mind on a subject of current rumour. "Well," he said, "if I had been asked whether I believed such evidence four months ago I should have said 'Certainly.' But after the great Russian myth I believe nothing that I can't prove. I believed in that army of ghosts that came from Archangel! There are people who say they didn't believe in it. Some of them believe they didn't believe in it. But I say defiantly that I did believe in it. And I say further that there was never a rumour in the world that seemed based upon more various or more convincing evidence. And it wasn't true.... Well, I find I'm a changed man. I find I am no longer a believer: I am a doubter."
This experience, I suppose, is not uncommon. The man who believes as easily to-day as he did six months ago is a man on whom lessons are thrown away. We have lived in a world of gigantic whispers, and most of them have been false whispers. Even the magic word "Official" leaves one cold. It is not what I am "officially" told that interests me: it is what I am "officially" not told that I want to know in order to arrive at the truth.
You remember that famous answer of the plaintiff in an action against a London paper years ago. "What did you tell him?" "I told him to tell the truth." "The whole truth?" "No, selected truths."
What we have to guard against in this matter of rumours is the natural tendency to believe what we want to believe. Take that case of the reported victory in Poland in November 1914. There is strong reason to believe that a large part of Hindenburg's army narrowly escaped being encircled, that had Rennenkampf come up to time the trick would have been done. But it wasn't done. Yet nearly every correspondent in Petrograd sent the most confident news of an overwhelming victory. The Morning Post correspondent spoke of it as something "terrible but sublime. There has been nothing like it since Napoleon left the bones of half a million men behind him in Russia." Even Lord Kitchener, in the House of Lords, said that Russia had accomplished the greatest achievement of the war. And so, just afterwards, with the equally empty rumour of Hindenburg's "victory," which sent Berlin into such a frenzy of rejoicing. It believed without evidence because it wanted to believe.
And another fruitful source of rumour is fear. The famous concrete emplacement at Maubeuge will serve as an instance. We had the most elaborate details of how the property was acquired by German agents, how in secret the concrete platform was laid down, and how the great 42-cm. howitzer shelled Maubeuge from it. And instantly we heard of concrete emplacements in this country—at Willesden, Edinburgh, and elsewhere. We began to suspect every one who had a garage or a machine shop with a concrete foundation of being a German agent. I confess that I shared these suspicions in regard to a certain factory overlooking London, and could not wholly argue myself out of them, though I hadn't an atom of evidence beyond the fact that the building had been owned by Germans and had a commanding position. I was under the hypnotism of Maubeuge and the fears to which it gave birth.
Yet there never was a concrete emplacement at Maubeuge, and no 42-cm. howitzer was used against that fortress. The property belonged, not to German agents, but to respectable Frenchmen, and the apology of the Matin for the libel upon them may be read by anybody who is interested in these myths of the war.
I refer to this subject to-day not to recall these historic fables, but to show what cruel wrong we may do to the innocent by accepting rumours about our neighbours without examining the facts. Was there ever a more pitiful story than that told at the inquest on an elderly woman at Henham in Suffolk? Her husband had been the village schoolmaster for twenty-eight years. The couple had a son whom they sent to Germany to learn the language. The average village schoolmaster has not much money for luxuries, and I can imagine the couple screwing and saving to give their boy a good start in life. When he had finished his training he set out to seek his fortune in South America, and there in far Guatemala he became a teacher of languages. When the war broke out he heard the call of the Motherland to her children and like thousands of others came back to fight.
But in the meantime the lying tongue of rumour had been busy with his name in his native village. It was said that he was an officer in the German Army, and on the strength of that rumour his parents were ordered by the Chief Constable to leave the village and not to dwell on the East Coast. It was a sentence of death on them. The order broke the old man's heart, and he committed suicide. The son arrived to find his father dead and his mother distracted by her bereavement. He took her away to the seaside for a rest, but on their return to the village she, too, committed suicide. And the jury did not say "Killed by Slander": they said "Suicide while of unsound mind." Oh, cautious jurymen!
How do rumours get abroad? There are many ways. Let me illustrate one of them. In his criticism of the war the other week Mr. Belloc said:
"The official German communique which appeared in print last Saturday is a very good example upon which to work. I quote it as it appeared in the Westminster Gazette (which has from the beginning of the war, and even before its outbreak, been remarkable for the volume of its German information), and as it was delivered through the Marconi channel."
Then follows the communique. Now, when I read this I smiled, for I love the subtleties of the ingenious Mr. Belloc. He quotes a document which appeared in every paper in the country, but he says he quotes it from the Westminster Gazette. Why, since it appeared everywhere, does he mention one paper? Obviously in order to make that parenthetical remark which I have italicised.
Now the reputation of the Westminster stands too high to be affected by the suggestion that it is "remarkable"—which it isn't—for its German information. But suppose you, a mere ordinary citizen, were alleged by some one to have special intercourse with Germany at this time. You might be as innocent as that Suffolk schoolmaster, but that would not save you from the suspicions of your neighbours and, perhaps, the attentions of the Chief Constable.
Let me give another little illustration. A friend of mine, who happens to be a Liberal journalist, went to a private dinner recently to meet M. Painleve, the French Academician, Senator Lafontaine, of Brussels, and two other French and Belgian deputies. The next morning he was stated in the Daily Express (edited by Mr. Blumenfeld) to have dined with "three or four foreigners" for the purpose of discussing peace. And in the next issue of the London Mail the question was asked, "Who were the foreigners with whom ——— dined?" You see the insinuation. You see how the idea grows. He did not reply, because there are some papers that one can afford to ignore, no matter what they say. But I mention the thing here to show how a legend is launched.
And the moral of all this? It is that of my friend whom I have quoted. Let us suspect all rumours whether about events or persons. When Napoleon's marshals told him they had won a victory, he said, "Show me your prisoners." When you are told a rumour do not swallow it like a hungry pike. Say "Show me your facts." And before you accept them be sure they are whole facts and not half facts.
ON UMBRELLA MORALS
A sharp shower came on as I walked along the Strand, but I did not put up my umbrella. The truth is I couldn't put up my umbrella. The frame would not work for one thing, and if it had worked, I would not have put the thing up, for I would no more be seen under such a travesty of an umbrella than Falstaff would be seen marching through Coventry with his regiment of ragamuffins. The fact is, the umbrella is not my umbrella at all. It is the umbrella of some person who I hope will read these lines. He has got my silk umbrella. I have got the cotton one he left in exchange. I imagine him flaunting along the Strand under my umbrella, and throwing a scornful glance at the fellow who was carrying his abomination and getting wet into the bargain. I daresay the rascal chuckled as he eyed the said abomination. "Ah," he said gaily to himself, "I did you in that time, old boy. I know that thing. It won't open for nuts. And it folds up like a sack. Now, this umbrella...."
But I leave him to his unrighteous communings. He is one of those people who have what I may call an umbrella conscience. You know the sort of person I mean. He would never put his hand in another's pocket, or forge a cheque or rob a till—not even if he had the chance. But he will swop umbrellas, or forget to return a book, or take a rise out of the railway company. In fact he is a thoroughly honest man who allows his honesty the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he takes your umbrella at random from the barber's stand. He knows he can't get a worse one than his own. He may get a better. He doesn't look at it very closely until he is well on his way. Then, "Dear me! I've taken the wrong umbrella," he says, with an air of surprise, for he likes really to feel that he has made a mistake. "Ah, well, it's no use going back now. He'd be gone. And I've left him mine!"
It is thus that we play hide-and-seek with our own conscience. It is not enough not to be found out by others; we refuse to be found out by ourselves. Quite impeccable people, people who ordinarily seem unspotted from the world, are afflicted with umbrella morals. It was a well-known preacher who was found dead in a first-class railway carriage with a third-class ticket in his pocket.
And as for books, who has any morals where they are concerned? I remember some years ago the library of a famous divine and literary critic, who had died, being sold. It was a splendid library of rare books, chiefly concerned with seventeenth-century writers, about whom he was a distinguished authority. Multitudes of the books had the marks of libraries all over the country. He had borrowed them and never found a convenient opportunity of returning them. They clung to him like precedents to law. Yet he was a holy man and preached admirable sermons, as I can bear witness. And, if you press me on the point, I shall have to own that it is hard to part with a book you have come to love.
Indeed, the only sound rule about books is that adopted by the man who was asked by a friend to lend him a certain volume. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I can't." "Haven't you got it?" asked the other. "Yes, I've got it," he said, "but I make it a rule never to lend books. You see, nobody ever returns them. I know it is so from my own experience. Here, come with me." And he led the way to his library. "There," said he, "four thousand volumes. Every—one—of—'em—borrowed." No, never lend books. You can't trust your dearest friend there. I know. Where is that Gil Blas gone? Eh? And that Silvio Pellico? And.... But why continue the list.... He knows. HE KNOWS.
And hats. There are people who will exchange hats. Now that is unpardonable. That goes outside that dim borderland of conscience where honesty and dishonesty dissemble. No one can put a strange hat on without being aware of the fact. Yet it is done. I once hung a silk hat up in the smoking-room of the House of Commons. When I wanted it, it was gone. And there was no silk hat left in its place. I had to go out bareheaded through Palace Yard and Whitehall to buy another. I have often wondered who was the gentleman who put my hat on and carried his own in his hand. Was he a Tory? Was he a Radical? It can't have been a Labour man, for no Labour man could put a silk hat on in a moment of abstraction. The thing would scorch his brow. Fancy Will Crooks in a silk hat! One would as soon dare to play with the fancy of the Archbishop of Canterbury in a bowler—a thought which seems almost impious. It is possible, of course, that the gentleman who took my silk umbrella did really make a mistake. Perhaps if he knew the owner he would return it with his compliments. The thing has been done. Let me give an illustration. I have myself exchanged umbrellas—often. I hope I have done it honestly, but one can never be quite sure. Indeed, now I come to think of it, that silk umbrella itself was not mine. It was one of a long series of exchanges in which I had sometimes gained and sometimes lost. My most memorable exchange was at a rich man's house where I had been invited to dine with some politicians. It was summer-time, and the weather being dry I had not occasion for some days afterwards to carry an umbrella. Then one day a sensation reigned in our household. There had been discovered in the umbrella-stand an umbrella with a gold band and a gold tassle, and the name of a certain statesman engraved upon it. There had never been such a super-umbrella in our house before. Before its golden splendours we were at once humbled and terrified—humbled by its magnificence, terrified by its presence. I felt as though I had been caught in the act of stealing the British Empire. I wrote a hasty letter to the owner, told him I admired his politics, but had never hoped to steal his umbrella; then hailed a cab, and took the umbrella and the note to the nearest dispatch office.
He was very nice about it, and in returning my own umbrella took all the blame on himself. "What," he said, "between the noble-looking gentleman who thrust a hat on my head, and the second noble-looking gentleman who handed me a coat, and the third noble-looking gentleman who put an umbrella in my hand, and the fourth noble-looking gentleman who flung me into a carriage, I hadn't the least idea what I was taking. I was too bewildered by all the noble flunkeys to refuse anything that was offered me."
Be it observed, it was the name on the umbrella that saved the situation in this case. That is the way to circumvent the man with an umbrella conscience. I see him eyeing his exchange with a secret joy; then he observes the name and address and his solemn conviction that he is an honest man does the rest. After my experience to-day, I think I will engrave my name on my umbrella. But not on that baggy thing standing in the corner. I do not care who relieves me of that. It is anybody's for the taking.
ON TALKING TO ONE'S SELF
I was at dinner at a well-known restaurant the other evening when I became aware that some one sitting alone at a table near by was engaged in an exciting conversation with himself. As he bent over his plate his face was contorted with emotion, apparently intense anger, and he talked with furious energy, only pausing briefly in the intervals of actual mastication. Many glances were turned covertly upon him, but he seemed wholly unconscious of them, and, so far as I could judge, he was unaware that he was doing anything abnormal. In repose his face was that of an ordinary business man, sane and self-controlled, and when he rose to go his agitation was over, and he looked like a man who had won his point.
It is probable that this habit of talking to one's self has a less sinister meaning than it superficially suggests. It may be due simply to the energy of one's thought and to a concentration of mind that completely shuts out the external world. In the case I have mentioned it was clear that the man was temporarily detached from all his surroundings, that he was so absorbed by his subject that his eyes had ceased to see and his ears to hear. He was alone with himself, or perhaps with his adversary, and he only came back to the present with the end of his dinner and the paying of his bill. He was like a man who had emerged from another state of consciousness, from a waking sleep filled with tumultuous dreams. Obviously he was unaware that he had been haranguing the room in quite an audible voice for half an hour, and I daresay that if he were told that he had the habit of talking to himself he would deny it as passionately as you (or I) would deny that you (or I) snore in our sleep. And he would deny it for precisely the same reason. He doesn't know.
And here a dreadful thought assails me. What if I talk to myself, too? What if, like this man, I get so absorbed in the drama of my own mind that I cannot hear my own tongue going nineteen to the dozen? It is a disquieting idea. A strong conviction to the contrary, I see, amounts to nothing. This man, doubtless, had a strong conviction to the contrary—probably expressed an amused interest in any one talking to himself as he passed him in the street. And the fact that my friends have never told me of the failing goes for nothing also. They may think I like to talk to myself. More probably, they may know that I do not like to hear of my failings. I must watch myself. But, no, that won't do. I might as well say I would watch my dreams and keep them in check. How can the conscious state keep an eye on the unconscious? If I do not know that I am talking how can I stop myself talking?
Ah, happy thought. I recall occasions when I have talked to myself, and have been quite conscious of the sound of my voice. They have been remarks I have made on the golf links, brief, emphatic remarks dealing with the perversity of golf clubs and the sullen intractability of golf balls. Those remarks I have heard distinctly, and at the sound of them I have come to myself with a shock, and have even looked round to see whether the lady in the red jacket playing at the next hole was likely to have heard me or (still worse) to have seen me.
I think this is evidence conclusive, for the man who talks to himself habitually never hears himself. His words are only the echo of his thoughts, and they correspond so perfectly that, like a chord in music, there is no dissonance. It was thus with the art student I saw copying a picture at the Tate Gallery. "Ah, a little more blue," he said, as he turned from the original to his own canvas, and a little later: "Yes, that line wants better drawing." Several people stood by watching his work and smiling at his uttered thoughts. He alone was unconscious that he had spoken.
There are, it is true, cases in which the conscious and unconscious states seem to mingle—in which the intentional word and the unintentional come out almost in the same breath. It was so with Thomas Landseer, the father of Sir Edwin. He was one day visiting an artist, and inspecting his work. "Ah, very nice, indeed!" he said to his friend. "Excellent colour; excellent!" Then, as if all around him had vanished, and he was alone with himself, he added: "Poor chap, he thinks he can paint!"
And this instance shows that whether the habit is a mental weakness or only a physical defect it is capable of extremely awkward consequences, as in the case of the banker who was ruined by unwittingly revealing his secrets while walking in the street. How is it possible to keep a secret or conduct a bargain if your tongue is uncontrollable? What is the use of Jones explaining to his wife that he has been kept late at the office if his tongue goes on to say, entirely without his knowledge or consent, that had he declared "no trumps" in that last hand he would have been in pocket by his evening at the club? I see horrible visions of domestic complications and public disaster arising from this not uncommon habit.
And yet might there not be gain also from a universal practice of uttering our thoughts aloud? Imagine a world in which nobody had any secrets from anybody—could have no secrets from anybody. I see the Kaiser, after consciously declaring that his only purpose is peace, unconsciously blurting out to the British Ambassador that the ultimatum to Serbia is a "plant"—that what Germany means is war, that she proposes to attack Belgium, and so on. And I see the British Ambassador, having explained that England is entirely free from commitments, adding dreamily, "But if there's a war we shall be in it." In the same way Jones, after making Smith a firm offer of L30 for his horse, would say, absentmindedly, "Of course it would be cheap at L50, and I might spring L55 if he is stiff about it."
It would be a world in which lies would have no value and deception would be a waste of time—a world in which truth would no longer be at the bottom of the well, but on the tip of every man's tongue. We should have all the rascals in prison and all the dishonest traders in the bankruptcy court. Secret diplomacy would no longer play with the lives of men, for there would be no secrets. Those little perverse concealments that wreck so many lives would vanish. You, sir, who find it so easy to nag at home and so difficult to say the kind thing that you know to be true, would be discovered to your great advantage and to the peace of your household.
Yes, I think the world would go very well if we all had tongues that told our true thoughts in spite of us. But what a lot of us would be found out. My own face crimsons at the thought. So, I think, does yours.
ON BOSWELL AND HIS MIRACLE
As I passed along Great Queen Street the other evening, I saw that Boswell's house, so long threatened, is at last falling a victim to the housebreaker. The fact is one of the by-products of the war. While the Huns are abroad in Belgium the Vandals are busy at home. You may see them at work on every hand. The few precious remains we have of the past are vanishing like snows before the south wind.
In the Strand there is a great heap of rubbish where, when the war began, stood two fine old houses of Charles II.'s London. Their disappearance would, in normal times, have set all the Press in revolt. But they have gone without a murmur, so preoccupied are we with more urgent matters. And so with the Elizabethan houses in Cloth Fair. They have been demolished without a word of protest. And what devastation is afoot in Lincoln's Inn among those fine reposeful dwellings, hardly one of which is without some historic or literary interest!
In the midst of all this vandalism it was too much perhaps to hope that Boswell's house would escape. Bozzy was not an Englishman; his residence in London was casual, and, what is more to the point, he has only a reflected greatness. Macaulay's judgment of him is now felt to be too harsh, but even his warmest advocate must admit that his picture of himself is not engaging. He was gross in his habits, full of little malevolences (observe the spitefulness of his references to Goldsmith), and his worship of Johnson was abject to the point of nausea.
He made himself a sort of doormat for his hero, and treasured the dirt that came from the great man's heavy boots. No insult levelled at him was too outrageous to be recorded with pride. "You were drunk last night, you dog," says Johnson to him one morning during the tour in the Hebrides, and down goes the remark as if he has received the most gracious of good mornings. "Have you no better manners?" says Johnson on another occasion. "There is your want." And Boswell goes home and writes down the snub together with his apologies. And so when he has been expressing his emotions on hearing music. "Sir," said Johnson, "I should never hear it if it made me such a fool."
Once indeed he rebelled. It was when they were dining with a company at Sir Joshua Reynolds's. Johnson attacked him, he says, with such rudeness that he kept away from him for a week. His story of the reconciliation is one of the most delightful things in that astonishing book:
"After dinner, when Mr. Langton was called out of the room and we were by ourselves, he drew his chair near to mine and said, in a tone of conciliatory courtesy, 'Well, how have you done?' Boswell: 'Sir, you have made me very uneasy by your behaviour to me when we were last at Sir Joshua Reynolds's. You know, my dear sir, no man has a greater respect or affection for you, or would sooner go to the end of the world to serve you. Now, to treat me so—' He insisted that I had interrupted him, which I assured him was not the case; and proceeded, 'But why treat me so before people who neither love you nor me?' Johnson: 'Well I am sorry for it. I'll make it up to you in twenty different ways, as you please.' Boswell: 'I said to-day to Sir Joshua, when he observed that you tossed me sometimes, I don't care how often or how high he tosses me when only friends are present, for then I fall upon soft ground; but I do not like falling upon stones, which is the case when enemies are present. I think this is a pretty good image, sir.' Johnson: 'Sir, it is one of the happiest I ever have heard.'"
Is there anything more delicious outside Falstaff and Bardolph, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? Indeed, Bardolph's immortal "Would I were with him wheresoe'er he be, whether in heaven or in hell," is in the very spirit of Boswell's devotion to his hero.
It was his failings as much as his talents that enabled him to work the miracle. His lack of self-respect and humour, his childish egotism, his love of gossip, his naive bathos, and his vulgarities contributed as much to the making of his immortal book as his industry, his wonderful verbal memory, and his doglike fidelity. I have said that his greatness is only reflected. But that is hardly just. It might even be more true to say that Johnson owes his immortality to Boswell. What of him would remain to-day but for the man who took his scourgings so humbly and repaid them by licking the boot that kicked him? Who now reads London, or The Vanity of Human Wishes, or The Rambler? I once read Rasselas, and found it pompous and dull. And I have read The Lives of the Poets, and though they are not pompous and dull, they are often singularly poor criticism, and the essay on Milton is, in some respects, as mean a piece of work as ever came out of Grub Street.
But The Life! What in all the world of books is there like it? I have been reading it off and on for more than thirty years, and still find it inexhaustible. It ripens with the years. It is so intimate that it seems to be a record of my own experiences. I have dined so often with Johnson at the Mitre and Sir Joshua's and Langton's and the rest that I know him far better than the shadows I meet in daily life. I seem to have been present when he was talking to the King, and when Goldsmith sulked because he had not shared the honour; when he met Wilkes, and when he insulted Sir Joshua and for once got silenced; when he "downed" Robertson, and when, for want of a lodging, he and Savage walked all night round St. James's Square, full of high spirits and patriotism, inveighing against the Minister and resolving that "they would stand by their country."
And at the end of it all I feel very much like Mr. Birrell, who, when asked what he would do when the Government went out of office, replied, "I shall retire to the country, and really read Boswell." Not "finish Boswell," you observe. No one could ever finish Boswell. No one would ever want to finish Boswell. Like a sensible man he will just go on reading him and reading him, and reading him until the light fails and there is no more reading to be done.
What an achievement for this uncouth Scotch lawyer to have accomplished! He knew he had done a great thing; but even he did not know how great a thing. Had he known he might have answered as proudly as Dryden answered when some one said to him that his Ode to St. Cecilia was the finest that had ever been written. "Or ever will be," said the poet. Dryden's ode has been eclipsed more than once since it was written; but Boswell's book has never been approached. It is not only the best thing of its sort in literature: there is nothing with which one can compare it.
Boswell's house is falling to dust. No matter! His memorial will last as long as the English speech is spoken and as long as men love the immortal things of which it is the vehicle.
ON SEEING OURSELVES
A friend of mine who is intimate enough with me to guess my secrets, said to me quizzingly the other day: "Do you know 'Alpha of the Plough?'"
"I have never seen the man," I said promptly and unblushingly. He laughed and I laughed.
"What, never?" he said.
"Never," I said. "What's more, I never shall see him."
"What, not in the looking-glass?" said he.
"That's not 'Alpha of the Plough,'" I answered. "That is only his counterfeit. It may be a good counterfeit, but it's not the man. The man I shall never see. I can see bits of him—his hands, his feet, his arms, and so on. By shutting one eye I can see something of the shape of his nose. By thrusting out the upper lip I can see that the fellow wears a moustache. But his face, as a whole, is hidden from me. I cannot tell you even with the help of the counterfeit what impression he makes on the beholder. Now," I continued, pausing and taking stock of my friend, "I know what you are like. I take you all in at one glance. You can take me in at a glance. The only person we can none of us take in at a glance is the person we should most like to see."
"It's a mercy," said he.
I am not sure that he was right. In this matter, as in most things in this perplexing world, there is much to be said on both sides. It is lucky for some of us undoubtedly that we are condemned to be eternal strangers to ourselves, and that not merely to our physical selves. We do not know even the sound of our own voices. Mr. Pemberton-Billing has never heard the most sepulchral voice in the House of Commons, and Lord Charles Beresford does not know how a foghorn sounds when it becomes articulate. I have no idea, and you have no idea, what sort of impression our manner makes on others. If we had, how stricken some of us would be! We should hardly survive the revelation. We should be sorry we had ever been born.
Imagine, for example, that eminent politician, Mr. Sutherland Bangs, M.P., meeting himself out at a dinner one evening. Mr. Sutherland Bangs cherishes a comfortable vision of himself as a handsome, engaging fellow, with a gift for talk, a breezy manner, a stylish presence, and an elegant accent. And seated beside himself at dinner he would discover that he was a pretentious bore, that his talk was windy commonplace, his breezy manner an offence, his fine accent an unpleasant affectation. He would say that he would never want to see that fellow again. And, realising that that was Mr. Sutherland Bangs as he appears to the world, he would return home as humble and abject as Mr. Tom Lofty in The Good-Natured Man was when his imposture was found out. "You ought to have your head stuck in a pillory," said Mr. Croaker. "Stick it where you will," said Mr. Lofty, "for by the lord, it cuts a poor figure where it sticks at present." Mr. Sutherland Bangs would feel like that.
But if making our own acquaintance would give some of us a good deal of surprise and even pain, it would also do most of us a useful turn as well. Burns put the case quite clearly in his familiar lines:
O wad some pow'r the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us: It wad frae monie a blunder free us An' foolish notion.
We should all make discoveries to our advantage as well as our discomfiture. You, sir, might find that the talent for argument on which you pride yourself is to me only irritating wrong-headedness, and I might find that the bright wit that I fancy I flash around makes you feel tired. Jones's eyeglass would drop out of his eye because he would know it only made him look foolish, Brown would see the ugliness of his cant, and Robinson would sorry that he had been born a bully and as prickly as a hedgehog. It would do us all good to get this objective view of ourselves.
It is not necessarily the right view or the complete view. You remember that ingenious fancy of Holmes' about John and Thomas. They are talking together and don't quite hit it off, and Holmes says it is no wonder since six persons are engaged in the conversation. "Six!" you say, lifting your eyebrows. Yes, six, says he. There is John's ideal John—that is, John as he appears to himself; Thomas's ideal John—that is, John as Thomas sees him; and the real John, known only to his Maker. And so with Thomas, there are three of him engaged in the talk also. Now John's ideal John is not a bit like Thomas's ideal John, and neither of them is like the real John, and so it comes about that John and Thomas—that is, you and I—get at cross purposes.
If I (John) could have your (Thomas's) glimpse of myself, my appearance, my manner, my conduct, and so on, it would serve as a valuable corrective. It would give that faculty of self-criticism which most of us lack. That faculty is simply the art of seeing ourselves objectively, as a stranger sees us who has no interest in us and no prejudice in our favour. Few of us can do that except in fleeting flashes of illumination. We cannot even do it in regard to the things we produce. If you paint a picture, or write an article, or make a joke, you are pretty sure to be a bad judge of its quality. You only see it subjectively as a part of yourself—that is, you don't see it at all. Put the thing away for a year, come on it suddenly as a stranger might, and you will perhaps understand why Thomas seemed so cool about it. It wasn't because he was jealous or unfriendly, as you supposed: it was because he saw it and you didn't.
Even great men have this blindness about their own work. How else can we account for a case like Wordsworth's? He was one of the three greatest poets this country has produced, and also an acute critic of poetry, yet he wrote more flat-footed commonplace than any man of his time. Apparently he didn't know when he was sublime and when he was merely drivelling. He didn't know because he never got outside the hypnotism of self.
I have sometimes felt angry with that phrase, "What do they know of England, who only England know?" It is the watchword of a shallow Imperialism. But I felt a certain truth in it once. I was alone in the Alps, in an immense solitude of peak and glacier, and as I waited for the return of my guide, who had gone on ahead to prospect, I looked, like Richard, "towards England." In that moment I seemed to see it imaginatively, comprehensively, as I had never, never seen it in all the years of my life in it. I saw its green pastures and moorlands, its mountains and its lakes, its cities and its people, its splendours and its squalors as if it was all a vision projected beyond the verge of the horizon. I saw it with a fresh eye and a new mind, seemed to understand it as I had never understood it before, certainly loved it as I had never loved it before. I found that I had left England to discover it.