BY RICHARD LE GALLIENNE
WITH A LITHOGRAPHED PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR BY R. WILSON STEER
LONDON ELKIN MATHEWS & JOHN LANE G.P. PUTNAM'S SONS NEW YORK 1894
TO MY DEAR WIFE MY PROSE FOR HER POETRY IN MEMORY OF TWO HAPPY YEARS OCTOBER 22, 1891 DECEMBER 6 1893
A SPRING MORNING A CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE LIFE IN INVERTED COMMAS FRACTIONAL HUMANITY THE WOMAN'S HALF-PROFITS GOOD BISHOP VALENTINE IRRELEVANT PEOPLE THE DEVILS ON THE NEEDLE POETS AND PUBLISHERS APOLLO'S MARKET THE 'GENIUS' SUPERSTITION A BORROWED SOVEREIGN ANARCHY IN A LIBRARY THE PHILOSOPHY OF 'LIMITED EDITIONS' A PLEA FOR THE OLD PLAYGOER THE MEASURE OF A MAN THE BLESSEDNESS OF WOMAN VIRAGOES OF THE BRAIN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER TRANSFERABLE LIVES THE APPARITION OF YOUTH THE PATHETIC FLOURISH A TAVERN NIGHT SANDRA BELLONI'S PINEWOOD WHITE SOUL
The reader will, doubtless, feel the greater confidence in the following essays, from the fact that they have already passed their first and second readings through the hands of the editors and subscribers of The Speaker, The Star, The Illustrated London News, and The Sketch. To the several editors of these papers I am indebted for their kind permission to reprint, and I take this opportunity of expressing my thanks to Mr. CLEMENT SHORTER for many other kindnesses. I venture also particularly to thank my friend Mr. T.P. GILL—but for whose kind incitement many of the following 'Fancies' had not been written at all.
A SPRING MORNING
Spring puts the old pipe to his lips and blows a note or two. At the sound, little thrills pass across the wintry meadows. The bushes are dotted with innumerable tiny sparks of green, that will soon set fire to the whole hedgerow; here and there they have gone so far as those little tufts which the children call 'bread and cheese.' A gentle change is coming over the grim avenue of the elms yonder. They won't relent so far as to admit buds, but there is an unmistakable bloom upon them, like the promise of a smile. The rooks have known it for some weeks, and already their Jews' market is in full caw. The more complaisant chestnut dandles its sticky knobs. Soon they will be brussels-sprouts, and then they will shake open their fairy umbrellas. So says a child of my acquaintance. The water-lilies already poke their green scrolls above the surface of the pond; a few buttercups venture into the meadows, but daisies are still precious as asparagus. The air is warm as your love's cheek, golden as canary. It is all a-clink and a-glitter, it trills and chirps on every hand. Somewhere close by, but unseen, a young man is whistling at his work; and, putting your ear to the ground, you shall hear how the earth beneath is alive with a million little beating hearts. C'est l'heure exquise.
Presently along the road comes slowly, and at times erratically, a charming procession. Following the fashion, or even setting it, three weeks since yon old sow budded. From her side, recalling the Trojan horse, sprang suddenly a little company of black-and-tan piglets, fully legged and snouted for the battle of life. She is taking them with her to put them to school at a farm two or three miles away. So I understand her. They surround her in a compact body, ever moving and poking and squeaking, yet all keeping together. As they advance slowly, she towering above her tiny bodyguard, one thinks of Gulliver moving through Lilliput; and there is a touch of solemnity in the procession which recalls a mighty Indian idol being carried through the streets, with people thronging about its feet. How delicately she steps, lest she hurt one of the little limbs! And, meanwhile, mark the driver—for though the old pig pretends to ignore any such coercion, as men believe in free-will, yet there is a fate, a driver, to this idyllic domestic company. But how gentle is he too! He never lets it be seen that he is driving them. He carries a little switch, rather, it would appear, for form's sake; for he seldom does more with it than tickle the gravely striding posteriors of the quaint little people. He is wise as he is kind, for he knows that he is driving quicksilver. The least undue coercion, the least sudden start, and they will be off like spilled marbles, in eleven different directions. Sometimes occasion arises for prompt action: when the poet of the family dreams he discerns the promised land through the bottom of a gate, and is bent on squeezing his way under, and the demoralisation of the whole eleven seems imminent. Then, unconsciously applying the wisdom of Solomon, the driver deals a smart flick to the old mother. Seeing her move on, and reflecting that she carries all the provisions of the party, her children think better of their romance, and gambol after her, taking a gamesome pull at her teats from high spirits.
The man never seems to get angry with them. He is smiling gently to himself all the time, as he softly and leisurely walks behind them. Indeed, wherever this moving nursery of young life passes, it awakens tenderness. The man who drove the gig so rapidly a little way off suddenly slows down, and, with a sympathetic word, walks his horse gingerly by. Every pedestrian stops and smiles, and on every face comes a transforming tenderness, a touch of almost motherly sweetness. So dear is young life to the eye and heart of man.
A few weeks hence these same pedestrians will pass these same pigs with no emotion, beyond, possibly, that produced by the sweet savour of frying ham. Their naivete, their charming baby quaintness, will have departed for ever. Their features, as yet but roguishly indicated, will have become set and hidebound; their soft little snouts will be ringed, and hard as a fifth hoof; their dainty little ears—veritable silk purses—will have grown long and bristly: in short, they will have lost that ineffable tender bloom of young life which makes them quite a touching sight to-day. Strange that loss of charm which comes with development in us all, pigs included. A tendency to pigginess, as in these youngsters, a tendency to manhood in the prattling and crowing babe, are both hailed as charming: but the full-grown pig! the full-grown man! Alas! in each case the charm seems to flee with the advent of bristles.
But let us return to the driver.
Under his arm he carries a basket, from which now and again proceed suppressed squeaks and grunts. It is 'the rickling,' the weakling, of the family. It will probably find an early death, and be embalmed in sage and onions. The man has already had an offer for it—from 'Mr. Lamb.' Mr. Lamb! Yes, Mr. Lamb at Six-Elm Farm. 'Oh! I see.' But was it not a startling coincidence?
It has taken half an hour to come from the old bridge to the cross-roads, barely half a mile. And now, good-bye, funny little silken-coated piglets; good-bye, grave old mother. Ge-whoop! Good-bye, gentle driver. As you move behind your charge with that tender smile, with that burden safely pressed beneath your arm, I seem to have had a vision of the Good Shepherd.
Down by the river there is, as yet, little sign of spring. Its bed is all choked with last year's reeds, trampled about like a manger. Yet its running seems to have caught a happier note, and here and there along its banks flash silvery wands of palm. Right down among the shabby burnt-out underwood moves the sordid figure of a man. He seems the very genius loci. His clothes are torn and soiled, as though he had slept on the ground. The white lining of one arm gleams out like the slashing in a doublet. His hat is battered, and he wears no collar. I don't like staring at his face, for he has been unfortunate. Yet a glimpse tells me that he is far down the hill of life, old and drink-corroded at fifty. He is miserably gathering sticks—perhaps a little job for the farm close by. He probably slept in the barn there last night, turned out drunk from the public-house. He will probably do and be done by likewise to-night. How many faggots to the dram? one wonders. What is he thinking as he rustles about disconsolately among the bushes? Of what is he dreaming? What does he make of the lark up there? But I notice he never looks at it. Perhaps he cannot bear to. For who knows what is in the heart beneath that poor soiled coat? If you have hopes, he may have memories. Some day your hopes will be memories too—birds that have flown away, flowers long since withered.
A short way further along I come across a boy gathering palm. He is a town boy, and has come all the way from Whitechapel thus early. He has already gathered a great bundle—worth five shillings to him, he says. This same palm will to-morrow be distributed over London, and those who buy sprigs of it by the Bank will know nothing of the blue-eyed boy who gathered it, and the murmuring river by which it grew. And the lad, once more lost in some squalid court, will be a sort of Sir John Mandeville to his companions—a Sir John Mandeville of the fields, with their water-rats, their birds' eggs, and many other wonders. And one can imagine him saying, 'And the sparrows there fly right up into the sun, and sing like angels!' But he won't get his comrades to believe that.
Spring has a wonderful way of bringing out hidden traits of character. Through my window I look out upon a tiny farm. It is kept by a tall, hard-looking, rough-bearded fellow, whom I have watched striding about his fields all winter, with but little sympathy. Yet it would seem I have been doing him wrong. For this morning, as he passed along the outside of the railing wherein his two sheep were grazing, suddenly they came bounding towards him with every manifestation of delight, literally recalling the lambkins which Wordsworth saw bound 'as to the tabor's sound.' They followed as far as the railing permitted, pushing their noses through at him; nay, when at last he moved out of reach, they were evidently so much in love that they leaped the fence and made after him. And he, instead of turning brutally on them, as I had expected, smiled and played with them awhile. Indeed, he had some difficulty in disengaging himself from their persistent affection. So, evidently, they knew him better than I.
A CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE
Why do we go on talking? It is a serious question, one on which the happiness of thousands depends. For there is no more wearing social demand than that of compulsory conversation. All day long we must either talk, or—dread alternative—listen. Now, that were very well if we had something to say, or our fellow-sufferer something to tell, or, best of all, if either of us possessed the gift of clothing the old commonplaces with charm. But men with that great gift are not to be met with in every railway-carriage, or at every dinner. The man we actually meet is one whose joke, though we have signalled it a mile off, we are powerless to stop, whose opinions come out with a whirr as of clockwork. Besides, it always happens in life that the man—or woman—with whom we would like to talk is at the next table. Those who really have something to say to each other so seldom have a chance of saying it.
Why, oh why, do we go on talking? We ask the question in all seriousness, not merely in the hope of making some cheap paradoxical fun out of the answer. It is a cry from the deeps of ineffable boredom.
Is it to impart information? At the best it is a dreary ideal. But, at any rate, it is a mistaken use of the tongue, for there is no information we can impart which has not been far more accurately stated in book-form. Even if it should happen to be a quite new fact, an accident happily rare as the transit of Venus—a new fact about the North Pole, for instance—well, a book, not a conversation, is the place for it. To talk book, past, present, or to come, is not to converse.
To converse, as with every other art, is out of three platitudes to make not a fourth platitude—'but a star.' Newness of information is no necessity of conversation: else were the Central News Agency the best of talkers. Indeed, the oldest information is perhaps the best material for the artist as talker: though, truly, as with every other artist, material matters little. There are just two or three men of letters left to us, who provide us examples of that inspired soliloquy, those conversations of one, which are our nearest approach to the talk of other days. How good it is to listen to one of these!—for it is the great charm of their talk that we remember nothing. There were no prickly bits of information to stick on one's mind like burrs. Their talk had no regular features, but, like a sunrise, was all music and glory.
The friend who talks the night through with his friend, till the dawn climbs in like a pallid rose at the window; the lovers who, while the sun is setting, sit in the greenwood and say, 'Is it thou? It is I!' in awestruck antiphony, till the stars appear; and, holiest converse of all, the mystic prattle of mother and babe: why are all these such wonderful talk if not because we remember no word of them—only the glory? They leave us nothing, in image worthy of the time, to 'pigeon-hole,' nothing to store with our vouchers in the 'pigeon-holes' of memory.
Pigeon-holes of memory! Think of the degradation. And memory was once a honeycomb, a hive of all the wonderful words of poets, of all the marvellous moods of lovers. Once it was a shell that listened tremulously upon Olympus, and caught the accents of the Gods; now it is a phonograph catching every word that falleth from the mouths of the board of guardians. Once a muse, now a servile drudge 'twixt man and man.
And this 'pigeon-hole' memory—once an impressionist of divine moments, now the miser of all unimportant, trivial detail—is our tyrant, the muse of modern talk. Men talk now not what they feel or think, but what they remember, with their bad good memories. If they remembered the poets, or their first love, or the spring, or the stars, it were well enough: but no! they remember but what the poets ate and wore, the last divorce case, the state of the crops, the last trivial detail about Mars. The man with the muck-rake would have made a great reputation as a talker had he lived to-day: for, as our modern speech has it, a Great Man simply means a Great Memory, and a Great Memory is simply a prosperous marine-store.
What, in fact, do we talk about? Mainly about our business, our food, or our diseases. All three themes more or less centre in that of food. How we revel in the brutal digestive details, and call it gastronomy! How our host plumes himself on his wine, as though it were a personal virtue, and not the merely obvious accessory of a man with ten thousand a year! Strange, is it not, how we pat and stroke our possessions as though they belonged to us, instead of to our money—our grandfather's money?
There is, some hope and believe, an imminent Return to Simplicity—Socialism the unwise it call. If it be really true, what good news for the grave humorous man, who hates talking to anything but trees and children! For, if that Return to Simplicity means anything, it must mean the sweeping away of immemorial rookeries of talk—such crannied hives of gossip as the professions, with all their garrulous heritage of trivial witty ana: literary, dramatic, legal, aristocratic, ecclesiastical, commercial. How good to dip them all deep in the great ocean of oblivion, and watch the bookworms, diarists, 'raconteurs,' and all the old-clothesmen of life, scurrying out of their holes, as when in summer-time Mary Anne submerges the cockroach trap within the pail! And oh, let there be no Noah to that flood! Let none survive to tell another tale; for, only when the chronicler of small-beer is dead shall we be able to know men as men, heroes as heroes, poets as poets—instead of mere centres of gossip, an inch of text to a yard of footnote. Then only may we begin to talk of something worth the talking: not merely of how the great man creased his trousers, and call it 'the study of character,' but of how he was great, and whether it is possible to climb after him.
Talk, too, is so definite, so limited. The people we meet might seem so wonderful, might mean such quaint and charming meanings sometimes, if they would not talk. Like some delightfully bound old volume in a foreign tongue, that looks like one of the Sibylline books, till a friend translates the title and explains that it is a sixteenth-century law dictionary: so are the men and women we meet. How interesting they might be if they would not persist in telling us what they are about!
That, indeed, is the abiding charm of Nature. No sensible man can envy Asylas, to whom the language of birds was as familiar as French argot to our young decadents. Think how terrible it would be if Nature could all of a sudden learn English! That exquisite mirror of all our shifting moods would be broken for ever. No longer might we coin the woodland into metaphors of our own joys and sorrows. The birds would no longer flute to us of lost loves, but of found worms; we should realise how terribly selfish they are; we could never more quote 'Hark, hark, the lark at heaven's gate sings,' or poetise with Mr. Patmore of 'the heavenly-minded thrush.' And what awful voices some of those great red roses would have! Yes, Nature is so sympathetic because she is so silent; because, when she does talk, she talks in a language which we cannot understand, but only guess at; and her silence allows us to hear her eternal meanings, which her gossiping would drown.
Happy monks of La Trappe! One has heard the foolish chattering world take pity upon you. An hour of talk to a year of silence! O heavenly proportion! And I can well imagine that when that hour has come, it seems but a trivial toy you have forgotten how to play with. Were I a Trappist, I would use my hour to evangelise converts to silence, would break the long year's quiet but to whisper, 'How good is silence!' Let us inaugurate a secular La Trappe, let us plot a conspiracy of silence, let us send the world to Coventry. Or, if we must talk, let it be in Latin, or in the 'Volapuek' of myriad-meaning music; and let no man joke save in Greek—that all may laugh. But, best of all, let us leave off talking altogether, and listen to the morning stars.
LIFE IN INVERTED COMMAS
As I waited for an omnibus at the corner of Fleet Street the other day, I was the spectator of a curious occurrence. Suddenly there was a scuffle hard by me, and, turning round, I saw a powerful gentlemanly man wrestling with two others in livery, who were evidently intent on arresting him. These men, I at once perceived, belonged to the detective force of the Incorporated Society of Authors, and were engaged in the capture of a notorious plagiarist. I knew the prisoner well. He had, in fact, pillaged from my own writings; but I was none the less sorry for his plight, to which, I would assure the reader, I was no party. Yet he was, I admit, an egregiously bad case, and my pity is doubtless misplaced sentiment. Like many another, he had begun his career as a quotation and ended as a plagiarism, daring even, in one instance, to imitate that shadow in the fairy-tale which rose up on a sudden one day and declared himself to be the substance and the substance his shadow. Indeed, he had so far succeeded as to make many people question whether or not he was the original and the other man the plagiarism. However, there was no longer to be any doubt of it, for his captors had him fast this time; and, presently, we saw him taken off in a hansom, well secured between strong inverted commas.
This curious circumstance set me reflecting, and, as we trundled along towards Charing Cross, my mind gave birth to sundry sententious reflections.
After all, I thought, that unlucky plagiarist is no worse than most of us: for is it not true that few of us live as conscientiously as we should within our inverted commas? We are far more inclined to live in that author, not ourselves, who makes for originality. It is, of course, difficult, even with the best intentions, to make proper acknowledgment of all our 'authorities'—to attach, so to say, the true 'del. et sculp.' to all our little bits of art. There is so much in our lives that we honestly don't know how we came by.
As I reflected in this wise, I was drawn to notice my companions in the omnibus, and lo! there was not an original person amongst us. Yet I looked in vain to see if they wore their inverted commas. Not one of them, believe me, had had the honesty to bring them. Each looked at me unblushingly, as though he were really original, and not a cheap German print of originals I had seen in books and pictures since I could read. I really think that they must have been unaware of their imposture. They could hardly have pretended so successfully.
There was the young dandy just let loose from his band-box, wearing exactly the same face, the same smile, the same neck-tie, holding his stick in exactly the same fashion, talking exactly the same words, with precisely the same accent, as his neighbour, another dandy, and as all the other dandies between the Bank and Hyde Park Corner. Yet he seemed persuaded of his own originality. He evidently felt that there was something individual about him, and apparently relied with confidence on his friend not addressing a third dandy by mistake for him. I hope he had his name safe in his hat.
Looking at these three examples of Nature's love of repeating herself, I said to myself: Somewhere in heaven stands a great stencil, and at each sweep of the cosmic brush a million dandies are born, each one alike as a box of collars. Indeed, I felt that this stencil process had been employed in the manufacture of every single person in that omnibus: two middle-aged matrons, each of whom seemed to think that having given birth to six children was an indisputable claim to originality; two elderly business men to correspond; a young miss carrying music and wearing eye-glasses; and a clergyman discussing stocks with one of the business men; I alone in my corner being, of course, the one occupant for whom Nature had been at the expense of casting a special mould, and at the extravagance of breaking it.
Presently a matron and a business man alighted, and two dainty young women, evidently of artistic tendencies, joined the Hammersmith pilgrims. One saw at a glance that they were very sure of their originality. There were no inverted commas around their pretty young heads, bless them! But then Queen Anne houses are as much on a pattern as more commonplace structures, and Bedford Parkians are already being manufactured by celestial stencil. What I specially noticed about them was their plagiarised voices—curious, yearning things, evidently intended to suggest depths of infinite passion, controlled by many a wild and weary past,
'Infinite passion, and the pain Of finite souls that yearn'—
the kind of voice, you know, in which Socialist actresses yearn out passages from 'The Cenci,' feeling that they do a fearful thing. The voice began, I believe, with Miss Ellen Terry. With her, though, it is charming, for it is, we feel, the voice of real emotion. There are real tears in it. It is her own. But with these ladies, who were discussing the last 'Independent' play, it was so evidently a stop pulled out by affectation—the vox inhumana, one might say, for it is a voice unlike anything else to be found in the four elements. It has its counterpart in the imitators of Mr. Beerbohm Tree—young actors who likewise endeavour to make up for the lack of anything like dramatic passion by pretending to control it: the control being feigned by a set jaw or a hard, throaty, uncadenced voice of preternatural solemnity. These ladies, too, wore plagiarised gowns of the most 'original' style, plagiarised hats, glittering plagiarised smiles; and yet they so evidently looked down on every one else in the omnibus, whom, perhaps, after all, it had been kinder of me to describe as the hackneyed quotations of humanity, who had probably thought it unnecessary to wear their inverted commas, as they were so well known.
At last I grew impatient of them, and, leaving the omnibus, finished my journey home by the Underground. What was my surprise when I reached it to find our little house wearing inverted commas—two on the chimney, and two on the gate! My wife, too! and the words of endearing salutation with which I greeted her, why, they also to my diseased fancy seemed to leave my lips between quotation marks. There is nothing in which we fancy ourselves so original as in our terms of endearment, nothing in which we are so like all the world; for, alas! there is no euphuism of affection which lovers have not prattled together in springtides long before the Christian era. If you call your wife 'a chuck,' so did Othello; and, whatever dainty diminutive you may hit on, Catullus, with his warbling Latin, 'makes mouths at our speech.'
I grew so haunted with this oppressive thought, that my wife could not but notice my trouble. But how could I tell her of the spectral inverted commas that dodged every move of her dear head?—tell her that our own original firstborn, just beginning to talk as never baby talked, was an unblushing plagiarism of his great-great-great-grandfather, that our love was nothing but the expansion of a line of Keats, and that our whole life was one hideous mockery of originality? 'Woman,' I felt inclined to shriek, 'be yourself, and not your great-grandmother. A man may not marry his great-grandmother. For God's sake let us all be ourselves, and not ghastly mimicries of our ancestors, or our neighbours. Let us shake ourselves free from this evil dream of imitation. Merciful Heaven, it is killing me!' But surely that was a quotation too, and, accidentally catching sight of the back of my hand, suddenly the tears sprang to my eyes, for it was just so the big soft veins used to be on the hands of my father, when a little boy I prayed between his knees. He was gone, but here was his hand—his hand, not mine!
Then an idea possessed me. There was but one way. I could die. There was a little phial of laudanum in the medicine-cupboard that always leered at me from among the other bottles like a serpent's eye. Thrice happy thought! Who would miss such a poor imitation? Even the mere soap-vending tradesmen bid us 'beware of imitations.' Dark wine of forgetfulness.... No, that was a quotation. However, here was the phial. I drew the cork, inhaled for a moment the hard dry odour of poppies, and prepared to drink. But just at that moment I seemed to hear a horrid little laugh coming out of the bottle, and a voice chuckled at my ear: 'You ass, do you call that original?' It was so absurd that I burst out into hysterical laughter. Here had I been about to do the most 'banal' thing of all. Was there anything in the world quite so commonplace as suicide?
And with the good spirits of laughter came peace. Nay, why worry to be 'original'? Why such haste to be unlike the rest of the world, when the best things of life were manifestly those which all men had in common? Was love less sweet because my next-door neighbour knew it as well? Would the same reason make death less bitter? And were not those tender diminutives all the more precious, because their vowels had been rounded for us by the sweet lips of lovers dead and gone?—sainted jewels, still warm from the beat of tragic bosoms, flowers which their kisses had freighted with immortal meanings.
And then I bethought me how the meadow-daisies were one as the other, and how, when the pearly shells of the dog rose settled on the hedge like a flight of butterflies, one was as the other; how the birds sang alike, how star was twin with star, and in peas is no distinction. My rhetoric stopped as I was about to say 'as wife is to wife'—for I thought I would first kiss her and see: and lo! I was once more perplexed, for as I looked down into her eyes, simple and blue and deep, as the sky is simple and blue and deep, I declared her to be the only woman in the world—which was obviously not exact. But it was true, for all that.
Mankind, in its heavy fashion, has chosen to mock the tailor with the fact—the indubitable fact—that he is but the ninth part of a man. Yet, after all, at this time of day, it seems more of a compliment than a gibe. To be a whole ninth of a man! Few of us, when we ponder it, can boast so much. Take, for instance, that other proverbial case of the fractional-part-of-a-pin-maker. It takes nine persons to make a pin, we were taught in our catechism. Actually that means that it takes nine persons to make one whole pin-maker, which leaves the question still to be solved as to how many whole pin-makers it takes to make a man. What is the relation of one pin-maker to the whole social economy? That discovered, a multiplication by nine will give us the exact fractional part of manhood which belongs to the ninth-of-a-pin-maker. Obviously he is a much more microscopic creature than the immemorially despised tailor, and, alas! his case is nearest that of most of us. And it is curious to notice how we rejoice in, rather than lament, this inevitable result of that great law of differentiation, which one may figure as a terrible machine hour after hour chopping up mankind into more and more infinitesimal fragments. We feel a pride in being spoken of as 'specialists'—and yet what is a specialist? The nine-hundred-and-ninety-ninth part of a man. Call me not an entomologist, call me a lepidopterist, if you will—though, really, that is too broad a term for a man who is not so much taken up with moths generally as with the third ring of the antennae of the great oak-eggar.
If one is troubled with a gift for symbolism, it is hard to treat any man one meets as though he were really a whole man: to treat a lawyer as though he were anything but a deed of assignment, or a surgeon as if he were anything more than an operation. As the metropolitan trains load and unload in a morning, what does one see? Gross upon gross of steel pens, a few quills, whole carriages full of bricklayers' trowels, and how strange it seems to watch all the bank-books sorting themselves out from the motley, and arranging themselves in the first classes, just as we see them on the shelf in the bank! It is a curious sight. The little shop-girl there, what is she but a roll of pink ribbon?—nay, she is but half-a-yard. And the poor infinitesimal porters and guards, how pathetically small seems their share in the great monosyllable Man, animalcules in that great social system which, again, is but an animalcule in the blood of Time. Still more infinitesimal seems the man who is a subdivision, not of a form of work even, but merely of a form of taste; the man who collects foreign stamps, say, or book-plates, or arrow-heads, the connoisseur of a tiny section of one of the lesser schools of Italian painting, the coral-insect who has devoted his life to a participle, first-edition men, and all those various bookworms who, without impropriety be it spoken, are the maggots that breed in the dung of the great. A certain friend of mine always appears to me in the similitude of a first edition of one of Mr. Hardy's novels. I have the greatest difficulty at times to prevent myself forcibly setting him upon my shelf to complete my set; for, oddly enough, he is the one bit of Hardyana I lack. In which confession I let the reader into the secret of my own petty limitations. To have one's horizon bounded by a book-plate, to have no hope, no wish in life, beyond a first edition! The workers, however sectional, have some place in the text of the great book of life, but such mere testers and tasters of existence have hardly a place even in the gloss, though it be printed in the most microscopic diamond.
And every moment, as we said, we are being turned out smaller and smaller from the mill of Time. You ask your little boy what he would like to be when he grows up. To your consternation he answers, 'A man!' You hide your face: you cannot tell him how impossible it is now to be that. Poor little chap! He is born centuries too late. You cannot promise even that he shall be a tailor, for by the time he is old enough to be apprenticed, how do you know how that ancient profession may be divided up? May you not have sadly to tell him: 'My poor boy, it is impossible to make you that—for there are no longer any whole-tailors. You may, if you like, be a thread-waxer or a needle-threader; you may be one of the thirty men it takes to make a buttonhole, but a complete tailor—alas! it is impossible.'
Who will save us from this remorseless law of eternal subdivision? To make one complete man out of all this vast collection of snips and snippets of humanity. To piece all the trades, professions, and fads together, like a puzzle, till one saw the honest face of a genuine man round and whole once more. To take these dry bones of the Valley of Commerce, and powerfully breathe into them the unifying breath of life, that once more they stand up, not as fractional bones of the wrist or the ankle of manhood, but mighty, full-blooded men as of old. Ah! we must wait for a new creation for that.
The mystics have a suggestive fancy that all our vast complex life once existed as a peaceful unit in the mind of God. But as God, brooding in the abyss, meditated upon Himself, various thoughts separated themselves and revolved within the atmosphere of His mind, at first unconscious of themselves or each other. Presently, desire of separate existence awoke in these shadowy things, a lust of corporeality grew upon them, and hence at last the fall into physical life, the realisation in concrete form of their diaphanous individualities. And that original cause of man's separation from deity, this desire of subdivision, how it has gone on operating, more and more! We call it differentiation, but the mystic would describe it as dividing ourselves more and more from God, the primeval unity in which alone is blessedness. Blake in one of his prophetic books sings man's 'fall into Division and his resurrection into Unity.' And when we look about us and consider but the common use of words, how do we find the mystic's apparently wild fancy illustrated in every section of our commonplace lives. What do we mean when we speak of 'division' of interests, 'division' of families, when we say that 'union' is strength, or how good it is to dwell together in 'unity,' or speak of lives 'made one'? Are we not unwittingly expressing the unconscious yearning of the fractions to merge once more in the sweet kinship of the unit, of the ninths and the nine-hundred-and-ninety-ninths of humanity to merge their differences in the mighty generalisation Man, of man to merge his finite existence in the mysterious infinite, the undivided, indivisible One, to 'be made one,' as theology phrases it, 'with God'? How the complex life of our time longs to return to its first happy state of simplicity, we feel on every hand. What is Socialism but a vast throb of man's desire after unity? We are overbred. The simple old type of manhood is lost long since in endless orchidaceous variation. Oh to be simple shepherds, simple sailors, simple delvers of the soil, to be something complete on our own account, to be relative to nothing save God and His stars!
THE WOMAN'S HALF-PROFITS
O ma pauvre Muse! est-ce toi?
Fame in Athens and Florence took the form of laurel; in London it is represented by 'Romeikes.' Hyacinth Rondel, the very latest new poet, sat one evening not long ago in his elegant new chambers, with a cloud of those pleasant witnesses about him, as charmed by 'the rustle' of their 'loved Apollian leaves' as though they had been veritable laurel or veritable bank-notes. His rooms were provided with all those distinguished comforts and elegancies proper to a success that may any moment be interviewed. Needless to say, the walls had been decorated by Mr. Whistler, and there was not a piece of furniture in the room that had not belonged to this or that poet deceased. Priceless autograph portraits of all the leading actors and actresses littered the mantelshelf with a reckless prodigality; the two or three choice etchings were, of course, no less conspicuously inscribed to their illustrious confrere by the artists—naturally, the very latest hatched in Paris. There was hardly a volume in the elegant Chippendale bookcases not similarly inscribed. Mr. Rondel would as soon have thought of buying a book as of paying for a stall. To the eye of imagination, therefore, there was not an article in the room which did not carry a little trumpet to the distinguished poet's honour and glory. Hidden from view in his buhl cabinet, but none the less vivid to his sensitive egoism, were those tenderer trophies of his power, spoils of the chase, which the adoring feminine had offered up at his shrine: all his love-letters sorted in periods, neatly ribboned and snugly ensconced in various sandalwood niches—much as urns are ranged at the Crematorium, Woking—with locks of hair of many hues. He loved most to think of those letters in which the women had gladly sought a spiritual suttee, and begged him to cement the stones of his temple of fame with the blood of their devoted hearts. To have had a share in building so distinguished a life—that was enough for them! They asked no such inconvenient reward as marriage: indeed, one or two of them had already obtained that boon from others. To serve their purpose, and then, if it must be, to be forgotten, or—wild hope—to be embalmed in a sonnet sequence: that was reward enough.
In the midst of this silent and yet so eloquent orchestra, which from morn to night was continually crying 'Glory, glory, glory' in the ear of the self-enamoured poet, Hyacinth Rondel was sitting one evening. The last post had brought him the above-mentioned leaves of the Romeike laurel, and he sat in his easiest chair by the bright fire, adjusting them, metaphorically, upon his high brow, a decanter at his right-hand and cigarette smoke curling up from his left. At last he had drained all the honey from the last paragraph, and, with rustling shining head, he turned a sweeping triumphant gaze around his room. But, to his surprise, he found himself no longer alone. Was it the Muse in dainty modern costume and delicately tinted cheek? Yes! it was one of those discarded Muses who sometimes remain upon the poet's hands as Fates.
When she raised her veil she certainly looked more of a Fate than a Muse. Her expression was not agreeable. The poet, afterwards describing the incident and remembering his Dante, spoke of her in an allegorical sonnet as 'lady of terrible aspect,' and symbolised her as Nemesis.
He now addressed her as 'Annette,' and in his voice were four notes of exclamation. She came closer to him, and very quietly, but with an accent that was the very quintessence of Ibsenism, made the somewhat mercantile statement: 'I have come for my half-profits!'
'Half-profits! What do you mean? Are you mad?'
'Not in the least! I want my share in the profits of all this pretty poetry,' and she contemptuously ran her fingers over the several slim volumes on the poet's shelves which represented his own contribution to English literature.
Rondel began to comprehend, but he was as yet too surprised to answer.
'Don't you understand?' she went on. 'It takes two to make poetry like yours—
"They steal their song the lips that sing From lips that only kiss and cling."
Do you remember? Have I quoted correctly? Yes, here it is!' taking down a volume entitled Liber Amoris, the passionate confession which had first brought the poet his fame. As a matter of fact, several ladies had 'stood' for this series, but the poet had artfully generalised them into one supreme Madonna, whom Annette believed to be herself. Indeed, she had furnished the warmest and the most tragic colouring. Rondel, however, had for some time kept his address a secret from Annette. But the candle set upon a hill cannot be hid: fame has its disadvantages. To a man with creditors or any other form of 'a past,' it is no little dangerous to have his portrait in the Review of Reviews. A well-known publisher is an ever-present danger. By some such means Annette had found her poet. The papers could not be decorated with reviews of his verse, and she not come across some of them. Indeed, she had, with burning cheek and stormy bosom, recognised herself in many an intimate confession. It was her hair, her face, all her beauty, he sang, though the poems were dedicated to another.
She turned to another passage as she stood there—'How pretty it sounds in poetry!' she said, and began to read:—
'"There in the odorous meadowsweet afternoon, With the lark like the dream of a song in the dreamy blue, All the air abeat with the wing and buzz of June, We met—she and I, I and she," [You and I, I and you.] "And there, while the wild rose and woodbine deliciousness blended, We kissed and we kissed and we kissed, till the afternoon ended...."'
Here Rondel at last interrupted—
'Woman!' he said, 'are your cheeks so painted that you have lost all sense of shame?' But she had her answer—
'Man! are you so great that you have lost the sense of pity? And which is the greater shame: to publish your sins in large paper and take royalties for them, or to speak of them, just you and I together, you and I, as "there in the odorous meadowsweet afternoon"?'
'Look you,' she continued, 'an artist pays his model at least a shilling an hour, and it is only her body he paints: but you use body and soul, and offer her nothing. Your blues and reds are the colours you have stolen from her eyes and her heart—stolen, I say, for the painter pays so much a tube for his colours, so much an hour for his model, but you—'
'I give you immortality. Poor fly, I give you amber,' modestly suggested the poet.
But Annette repeated the word 'Immortality!' with a scorn that almost shook the poet's conceit, and thereupon produced an account, which ran as follows:—
'Mr. Hyacinth Rondel Dr. to Miss Annette Jones, For moiety of the following royalties:— Moonshine and Meadowsweet, 500 copies. Coral and Bells, 750 copies. Liber Amoris, 3 editions, 3,000 copies. Forbidden Fruit, 5 editions, 5,000 copies. ———- 9,250 copies at 1s. = L462, 10s. Moiety of same due to Miss Jones, L231, 5s.'
'I don't mind receipting it for two hundred and thirty,' she said, as she handed it to him.
Hyacinth was completely awakened by this: the joke was growing serious. So he at once roused up the bully in him, and ordered her out of his rooms. But she smiled at his threats, and still held out her account. At last he tried coaxing: he even had the insolence to beg her, by the memory of the past they had shared together, to spare him. He assured her that she had vastly overrated his profits, that fame meant far more cry than wool: that, in short, he was up to the neck in difficulties as it was, and really had nothing like that sum in his possession.
'Very well, then,' she replied at last, 'you must marry me instead. Either the money or the marriage. Personally, I prefer the money'—Rondel's egoism twinged like a hollow tooth—'and if you think you can escape me and do neither, look at this!' and she drew a revolver from her pocket.
'They are all loaded,' she added. 'Now, which is it to be?'
Rondel made a movement as if to snatch the weapon from her, but she sprang back and pointed it at his head.
'If you move, I fire.'
Now one would not need to be a minor poet to be a coward under such circumstances. Rondel could see that Annette meant what she said. She was clearly a desperate woman, with no great passion for life. To shoot him and then herself would be a little thing in the present state of her feelings. Like most poets, he was a prudent man—he hesitated, leaning with closed fist upon the table. She stood firm.
'Come,' she said at length, 'which is it to be—the revolver, marriage, or the money?' She ominously clicked the trigger, 'I give you five minutes.'
It was five minutes to eleven. The clock ticked on while the two still stood in their absurdly tragic attitudes—he still hesitating, she with her pistol in line with the brain that laid the golden verse. The clock whirred before striking the hour. Annette made a determined movement. Hyacinth looked up; he saw she meant it, all the more for the mocking indifference of her expression.
'Once more—death, marriage, or the money?'
The clock struck.
'The money,' gasped the poet.
* * * * *
But Annette still kept her weapon in line.
'Your cheque-book!' she said. Rondel obeyed.
'Pay Miss Annette Jones, or order, the sum of two hundred and thirty pounds. No, don't cross it!'
'Now, toss it over to me. You observe I still hold the pistol.'
Rondel once more obeyed. Then, still keeping him under cover of the ugly-looking tube, she backed towards the door.
'Good-bye,' she said. 'Be sure I shall look out for your next volume.'
Rondel, bewildered as one who had lived through a fairy-tale, sank into his chair. Did such ridiculous things happen? He turned to his cheque-book. Yes, there was the counterfoil, fresh as a new wound, from which indeed his bank account was profusely bleeding.
Then he turned to his laurels: but, behold, they were all withered.
So, after a while, he donned hat and coat, and went forth to seek a flatterer as a pick-me-up.
GOOD BISHOP VALENTINE
The reader will remember how Lamb imagines him as a rubicund priest of Hymen, and pictures him 'attended with thousands and ten thousands of little loves, and the air is
"Brush'd with the hiss of rustling wings."
Singing Cupids are thy choristers and thy precentors; and instead of the crozier, the mystical arrow is borne before thee.' Alas! who indeed would have expected the bitter historical truth, and have dreamed that poor Valentine, instead of being that rosy vision, was one of the Church's most unhappy martyrs? Tradition has but two pieces of information about him: that during the reign of Claudius II., probably in the year 270, he was 'first beaten with heavy clubs, and then beheaded'; and likewise that he was a man of exceptional chastity of character—a fact that may be considered no less paradoxical in regard to his genial reputation. He was certainly the last man to have been the patron saint of young blood, and if he has any cognisance of the frivolities done in his name, the knowledge must be more painful to him than all the clubs of Claudius. Unhappy saint! To have his good name murdered also! To be, through all time, the high-priest of that very 'paganism' which he died to repudiate: the one most potent survival throughout Christian times of the joyous old order he would fain supplant! Could anything be more characteristic of the whimsical humour of Time, which loves nothing better than to make a laughing-stock of human symbolism? The savage putting a stray dress-coat to solemn sacerdotal usage, or taking some blackguard of a Mulvaney for a very god, is not more absurd than mankind thus ignorantly bringing to this poor martyr throughout the years the very last offering he can have desired. Surely it must have filled his shade with a strange bewilderment to have watched us year by year bringing him garlands and the sweet incense of young love, to have seen this gay company approach his shrine with laughter and roses, a very bacchanal, where he had looked for sympathetic sackcloth and ashes—surely it must have all seemed a silly sacrilegious jest. However, he is long since slandered beyond all hope of restitution. So long as the spring moves in the blood, lovers will doubtless continue to take his name in vain, and feign his saintly sanction for their charming indiscretions. Indeed, he is fabled by the poets to be responsible for the billing and cooing of the whole creation. Everybody knows that the birds, too, pair on St. Valentine's Day. We have many a poet's word for it. Donne's charming lines, for instance—
'All the air is thy diocese, And all the chirping choristers And other birds are thy parishioners: Thou marriest every year The lyrique lark, and the grave whispering dove, The sparrow, that neglects his life for love, The household bird with the red stomacher; Thou mak'st the blackbird speed as soon As doth the goldfinch or the halcyon.'
In fact, it would appear that St. Valentine was, literally, a hedge-priest.
But do lovers, one wonders, still observe his ancient, though mistaken, rites? Do they still have a care whose pretty face they should first set eyes upon on Valentine's morning, like Mistress Pepys, who kept her eyes closed the whole forenoon lest they should portend a mesalliance with one of those tiresome 'paynters' at work on the gilding of the pictures and the chimney-piece? Or do they with throbbing hearts 'draw' for the fateful name, or, weighting little inscribed slips of paper with lead or breadcrumbs, and dropping them into a basin of water, breathlessly await the name that shall first float up to the surface? Do they still perform that terrible feat of digestion, which consisted of eating a hard-boiled egg, shell and all, to inspire the presaging dream, and pin five bay-leaves upon their pillows to make it the surer?
We are told they do, these happy superstitious lovers, though probably the practices obtain now mostly among a class of fair maids who have none of Mrs. Pepys' fears of 'paynters,' and who are not averse even from a bright young plumber. Indeed, it is to be feared that the one sturdy survival of St. Valentine is to be sought in the 'ugly valentine.' This is another of Time's jests: to degrade the beautiful and distinguished, and mock at old-time sanctities with coarse burlesque. We see it constantly in the fortunes of old streets and squares, once graced with the beau and the sedan-chair, the very cynosure of the polite and elegant world, but now vocal with the clamorous wrongs of the charwoman and the melancholy appeal of the coster. We see it, too, in the ups and downs of words once aristocratic or tender, words once the very signet of polite conversation, now tossed about amid the very offal of language. We see it when some noble house, an illustrious symbol of heroic honour, the ark of high traditions, finds its reductio ad absurdum in some hare-brained turf-lord, who defiles its memories as he sells its pictures. But no lapse could be more pitiful than the end of St. Valentine. Once the day on which great gentlemen and great ladies exchanged stately and, as Pepys frequently complained, costly compliments; when the ingenuity of love tortured itself for the sweetest conceit wherein to express the very sweetest thing; the May-day of the heart, when the very birds were Cupid's messengers, and all the world wore ribbons and made pretty speeches. What is it now? The festival of the servants' hall. It is the sacred day set apart for the cook to tell the housemaid, in vividly illustrated verse, that she need have no fear of the policeman thinking twice of her; for the housemaid to make ungenerous reflections on 'cookey's' complexion and weight, and to assure that 'queen of the larder' that it is not her, but her puddings, that attract the constabulary heart. It is the day when inoffensive little tailors receive anonymous letters beginning 'You silly snip,' when the baker is unpleasantly reminded of his immemorial sobriquet of 'Daddy Dough,' and coarse insult breaks the bricklayer's manly heart. Perhaps of all its symbols the most typical and popular are: a nursemaid, a perambulator enclosing twins, and a gigantic dragoon. In fact, we are faced by this curious development—that the day once sacred to universal compliment is now mainly dedicated to low and foolish insult Oh, that whirligig!
Do true lovers still remember the day to keep it holy, one wonders? Does Ophelia still sing beneath the window, and do the love-birds still carry on their celestial postage? One fears that all have gone with the sedan-chair, the stage-coach, and last year's snow. Will the true lovers go next? But, indeed, a florist told us that he had sold many flowers for 'valentines' this year, and that the prettier practice of sending flowers was, he thought, supplanting the tawdry and stereotyped offering of cards. Which reminds one of an old verse:
'The violet made haste to appear, To be her bosom guest, With first primrose that grew this year I purchas'd from her breast; To me, Gave she, Her golden lock for mine; My ring of jet For her bracelet, I gave my Valentine.
There are numberless people who are, doubtless, of much interest and charm—in their proper context. That context we feel, however, is not our society. We have no objection to their carrying on the business of human beings, so long as they allow us an uninterrupted trading of, say, a hundred miles. Within that charmed and charming circle they should not set foot, and we are quite willing in addition, for them, to gird themselves about with the circumference of another thousand. It is not that they are disagreeable or stupid, or in any way obviously objectionable. Bores are more frequently clever than dull, and the only all-round definition of a bore is—The Person We Don't Want. Few people are bores at all times and places, and indeed one might venture on the charitable axiom: that when people bore us we are pretty sure to be boring them at the same time. The bore, to attempt a further definition, is simply a fellow human being out of his element. It is said by travellers from distant lands that fishes will not live out of water. It is a no less familiar fact that certain dull metals need to be placed in oxygen to show off their brilliant parts. So is it with the bore: set him in the oxygen of his native admiration, and he will scintillate like a human St. Catherine wheel, though in your society he was not even a Chinese cracker. Every man needs his own stage and his own audience.
'Hath not love Made for all these their sweet particular air To shine in, their own beams and names to bear, Their ways to wander and their wards to keep, Till story and song and glory and all things sleep.'
Mr. Swinburne asked the question of lovers, but perhaps it is none the less applicable to the bore or irrelevant person. Yet a third definition of the latter here suggests itself. To be born for each other is, obviously, to be lovers. Well, not to be born for each other is to be bores. In future, let us not speak unkindly of the tame bore, let us say—'We were not born for each other.'
Relations do not, perhaps, invariably suggest the first line of 'Endymion'; indeed, they are, one fears, but infrequently celebrated in song. But the same word in the singular, how beautiful it is! Relation! In that little word is the whole secret of life. To get oneself placed in perfect harmony of relation with the world around us, to have nothing in our lives that we wouldn't buy, to possess nothing that is not sensitive to us, ready to ring a fairy chime of association at our slightest touch: no irrelevant book, picture, acquaintance, or activity—ah me! you may well say it is an ideal. Yes, it is what men have meant by El Dorado, The Promised Land, and all such shy haunts of the Beatific Vision. Probably the quest of the Philosopher's Stone is not more wild. Yet men still seek that precious substitute for Midas. Brave spirits! Unconquerable idealists! Salt of the earth!
But if it be admitted that the quest of the Perfect Relation (in two senses) is hopeless, yet there is no reason why we should not approach as near to it as we can.
We can at least begin by barring the irrelevant person—in other words, choosing our own acquaintance. Of course, we have no entire free-will in so important a matter. Free-will is like the proverbial policeman, never there when most wanted. There are two classes of more or less irrelevant persons that cannot be entirely avoided: our blood-relations, and our business-relations—both often so pathetically distinct from our heart-relations and our brain-relations. Well, our business-relations need not trouble us over much. They are not, as the vermin-killer advertisement has it, 'pests of the household.' They come out only during business hours. The curse of the blood-relation, however, is that he infests your leisure moments; and you must notice the pathos of that verbal distinction: man measures his toil by 'hours' (office-hours), his leisure by 'moments!'
But let not the reader mistake me for a Nero. The claims of a certain degree of blood-relationship I not only admit, but welcome as a sacred joy. Their experience is unhappy for whom the bonds of parentage, of sisterhood and brotherhood, will not always have a sort of involuntary religion. If a man should not exactly be tied to his mother's apron-string, he should all his life remain tied to her by that other mysterious cord which no knife can sever. Uncles and aunts may, under certain circumstances, be regarded as sacred, and meet for occasional burnt-offerings; but beyond them I hold that the knot of blood-relationship may be regarded as Gordian, and ruthlessly cut. Cousins have no claims. Indeed, the scale of the legacy duties, like few legalities, follows the natural law. The further removed, the greater tax should our blood-relations pay for our love, or our legacy; but the heart-relation, the brain-relation ('the stranger in blood'), he alone should go untaxed altogether! Alas, the Inland Revenue Commissioners would charge him more than any, which shows that their above-mentioned touch of nature was but a fluke, after all.
It is impossible to classify the multitude of remaining irrelevancies, who, were one to permit them, would fall upon our leisure like locusts; but possibly 'friends of the family,' 'friends from the country,' and 'casuals' would include the most able-bodied. Sentiment apart, old schoolfellows should, if possible, be avoided; and no one who merely knew us when we were babies (really a very limited elementary acquaintance) and has mistaken us ever since should be admitted within the gates—though we might introduce him to our own baby as the nearest match. The child is not father to the man. It was a merely verbal paradox, which shows Wordsworth's ignorance of humanity. Let me especially warn the reader, particularly the newly-married reader, against the type of friend from the country who, so soon as they learn you have set up house in London, suddenly discovers an interest in your fortunes which, like certain rivers, has run underground further than you can remember. They write and tell you that they are thinking of coming to town, and would like to spend a few days with you. They leave their London address vague. It has the look of a blank which you are expected to fill up. You shrewdly surmise that, so to say, they meditate paying a visit to Euston, and spending a fortnight with you on the way. But if you are wise and subtle and strong, you cut this acquaintance ruthlessly, as you lop a branch. Such are the dead wood of your life. Cut it away and cast it into the oven of oblivion. Don't fear to hurt it. These people care as little for you, as you for them. All they want is board and lodging, and if you give in to them, you may be an amateur hotel-keeper all your days.
Another 'word to the newly-married.' Be not over-solicitous of wedding-presents. They carry a terrible rate of interest. A silver toast-rack will never leave you a Bank Holiday secure, and a breakfast service means at least a fortnight's 'change' to one or more irrelevant persons twice a year. They have been known to stay a month on the strength of an egg-boiler. So, be warned, I pray you. Wedding-presents are but a form of loan, which you are expected to pay back, with compound interest at 50 per cent., in 'hospitality,' 'entertainment,' and your still more precious time. For the givers of wedding-presents there is no more profitable form of investment. But you, be wise, and buy your own.
There is a peculiar joy in snubbing irrelevant would-be country visitors. It is the sweetest exercise of the will. Especially, too, if they are conceited persons who made sure of invitation. It adds a yet deeper thrill to the pleasure if you are able to invite some other friends near at hand, of humbler mind and greater interest, whose (maybe) shy charms are not flauntingly revealed. 'Fancy So-and-So being invited! I shouldn't have thought they had anything in common.' How sweet is the imagination of that wounded whisper. It makes you feel like a (German) prince. You have the power of making happy and (even better in some cases) unhappy, at least, as Carlyle would say, 'to the extent of sixpence.'
You have tasted the sweets of choosing your own friends, and snubbing the others. You have gone so far towards the attainment of the harmonious environment, the Perfect Relation. Your friends shall be as carefully selected, shall mean as much to you as your books and flowers and pictures; and your leisure shall be a priest's garden, in which none but the chosen may walk.
Yet, in spite of my little burst of Neroics, I am far from advising a cruel treatment of the Irrelevant Person. Let us not forget what we said at the beginning, that he is probably an interesting person in the wrong place. He has taken the wrong turning—into your company. Do unto him as you would he might do unto you. Direct him aright—that is to say, out of it! Remember, we are all bores in certain uncongenial social climates: all stars in our own particular milky way. So, remember, don't be cruel—as a rule—to the Irrelevant Person; but just smile your best at him, and whisper: 'We were not born for each other.'
THE DEVILS ON THE NEEDLE
'... these things are life: And life, some say, is worthy of the muse.'
There is a famous query of the old schoolman at which we have all flung a jest in our time: How many angels can dance on the point of a needle? In a world with so many real troubles it seems, perhaps, a little idle to worry too long over the question. Yet in the mere question, putting any answer outside possibility, there is a wonderful suggestiveness, if it has happened to come to you illuminated by experience. It becomes a little clearer, perhaps, if we substitute devils for angels. A friend of mine used always to look at it thus inversely when he quarrelled with his wife. Forgive so many enigmas to start with, but it was this way. They never quarrelled more than three times a year, and it was always on the very smallest trifle, one particular trifle too. On the great things of life they were at one. It was but a tiny point, a needle's end of difference, on which they disagreed, and it was on that needle's end that the devils danced. All the devils of hell, you would have said. At any rate, you would have no longer wondered why the old philosopher put so odd a question, for you had only to see little Dora's face lit up with fury over that ridiculous trifle to have exclaimed: 'Is it possible that so many devils can dance on a point where there seems hardly footing for a frown?'
However, so it was, and when I tell you what the needle's end was, you will probably not think me worth a serious person's attention. That I shall, of course, regret, but it was simply this: Dora would write with a 'J' pen—for which it was William's idiosyncrasy to have an unconquerable aversion. She might, you will think, have given way to her husband on so absurd a point, a mere pen-point of disagreement. He was the tenderest of husbands in every other point. There is nothing that love can dream that he was not capable of doing for his wife's sake. But, on the other hand, it was equally true that there can be no other wife in the world more devoted than Dora; with her also there was nothing too hard for love's sake. Could he not waive so ridiculous a blemish? It was little enough for love to achieve, surely. Yes, strange as it seems, their love was equal to impossible heroisms: to have died for each other had been easy, but to surrender this pen-point was impossible. And, alas! as they always do, the devils found out this needle's end—and danced. For their purpose it was as good as a platform. It gave them joy indeed to think what stupendous powers of devilry they could concentrate on so tiny a stage.
It was a sad thing, too, that Dora and William were able to avoid the subject three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, but on that odd day it was sure to crop up. Perhaps they had been out late the night before, and their nerves were against them. The merest accident would bring it on. Dora would ask William to post a letter for her in town. Being out of sorts, and susceptible to the silliest irritation, he would not be able to resist criticising the addressing. If he didn't mention it, Dora would notice his 'expression.' That would be 'quite enough,' you may be sure. Half the tragedies of life depend on 'expression.'
'Well!' she would say.
'Well what?' he would answer, already beginning to tremble.
'You have one of your critical moods on again.'
'Not at all. What's the matter?'
'You have, I say.... Well, why do you look at the envelope in that way? I know what it is, well enough.'
'If you know, dear, why do you ask?'
'Don't try to be sarcastic, dear. It is so vulgar.'
'I hadn't the least intention of being so.'
'Yes, you had.... Give me that letter.'
'Yes, you admire every woman's writing but your wife's.'
'Don't be silly, dear. See, I don't feel very well this morning. I don't want to be angry.'
'Angry! Be angry; what does it matter to me? Be as angry as you like. I wish I had never seen you.'
'Somewhat of a non sequitur, is it not, my love?'
'Don't "my love" me. With your nasty cool sarcasm!'
'Isn't it better to try and keep cool rather than to fly into a temper about nothing? See, I know you are a little nervous this morning. Let us be friends before I go.'
'I have no wish to be friends.'
William would then lace his boots, and don his coat in silence, before making a final effort at reconciliation.
'Well, dear, good-bye. Perhaps you will love me again by the time I get home.'
'Perhaps I shan't be here when you come home.'
'For pity's sake, don't begin that silly nonsense, Dora.'
'It isn't silly nonsense. I say again—I mayn't be here when you come home, and I mean it.'
'Oh, all right then. Suppose I were to say that I won't come home?'
'I should be quite indifferent.'
'I would. I am weary of our continual quarrels. I can bear this life no longer.' (It was actually sunny as a summer sky.)
'Why, it was only last night you said how happy we were.'
'Yes, but I didn't mean it.'
'Didn't mean it! Don't talk like that, or I shall lose myself completely.'
'You will lose your train if you don't mind. Don't you think you had better go?'
'Can you really talk to me like that?—me?—O Dora, it is not you that is talking: it is some devil in you.'
Then suddenly irritated beyond all control by her silly little set face, he would blurt out a sudden, 'Oh, very well, then!' and before she was aware of it, the door would have banged. By the time William had reached the gate he would be half-way through with a deed of assignment in favour of his wife, who, now that he had really gone, would watch him covertly from the window with slowly thawing heart.
So the devils would begin their dance: for it was by no means ended. Of course, William would come home as usual; and yet, though the sound of his footstep was the one sound she had listened for all day, Dora would immediately begin to petrify again, and when he would approach her with open arms, asking her to forgive and forget the morning, she would demur just long enough to set him alight again. Heaven, how the devils would dance then! And the night would usually end with them lying sleepless in distant beds.
To attempt tragedy out of such absurd material is, you will say, merely stupid. Well, I'm sorry. I know no other way to make it save life's own, and I know that the tragedy of William's life hung upon a silly little ink-stained 'J' pen. I would pretend that it was made of much more grandiose material if I could. But the facts are as I shall tell you. And surely if you fulfil that definition of man which describes him as a reflective being, if you ever think on life at all, you must have noticed how even the great tragedies that go in purple in the great poets all turn on things no less trifling in themselves, all come of people pretending to care for some bauble more than they really do.
And you must have wondered, too, as you stood awestruck before the regal magnificence, the radiant power, the unearthly beauty, of those glorious and terrible angels of passion—that splendid creature of wrath, that sorrow wonderful as a starlit sky—you must have wondered that life has not given these noble elementals material worthier of their fiery operation than the paltry concerns of humanity; just as you may have wondered too, that so god-like a thing as fire should find nothing worthier of its divine fury than the ugly accumulations of man.
At any rate, I know that all the sorrow that saddens, sanctifies, and sometimes terrifies my friend, centres round that silly little 'J' pen. The difference is that the angels dance on its point now, instead of the devils; but it is too late.
A night of unhappiness had ended once more as I described. The long darkness had slowly passed, and morning, sunny with forgiveness, had come at length. William's heart yearned for his wife in the singing of the birds. He would first slip down into the garden and gather her some fresh flowers, then steal with them into the room and kiss her little sulky mouth till she awoke; and, before she remembered their sorrow, her eyes would see the flowers.
It was a lover's simple thought, sweeter even than the flowers he had soon gathered.
But then, reader, why tease you with transparent secrets? You know that Dora could not smell the flowers.
You know that Death had come to dance with the devils that night, and that Dora and William would quarrel about little 'J' pens no more for ever.
POETS AND PUBLISHERS
A serious theme demands serious treatment. Let us, therefore, begin with definitions. What is a poet? and what is a publisher? Popularly speaking, a poet is a fool, and a publisher is a knave. At least, I am hardly wrong in saying that such is the literal assumption of the Incorporated Society of Authors, a body well acquainted with both. Indeed, that may be said to be its working hypothesis, the very postulate of its existence.
Of course, there are other definitions of both. It is not so the maiden of seventeen defines a poet, as she looks up to him with brimming eyes in the summer sunset and calls him 'her Byron.' It is not so the embryo Chatterton defines him, chained to an office stool in some sooty provincial town, dreaming of Fleet Street as of a shining thoroughfare in the New Jerusalem, where move authors and poets, angelic beings, in 'solemn troops and sweet societies.' For, indeed, was that not the dream of all of us? For my part, I remember my first, most beautiful, delusion was that poets belonged only to the golden prime of the world, and that, like miracles, they had long ceased before the present age. And I very well recall my curious bewilderment when, one day in a bookseller's, a friendly schoolmaster took up a new volume of Mr. Swinburne's and told me that it was by the new great poet. How wonderful that little incident made the world for me! Real poets actually existing in this unromantic to-day! If you had told me of a mermaid, or a wood-nymph, or of the philosopher's stone as apprehensible wonders, I should not have marvelled more. While a single poet existed in the land, who could say that the kingdom of Romance was all let out in building lots, or that the steam whistle had quite 'frighted away the Dryads and the Fauns'?
Since then I have taken up the reviewing of minor verse as a part of my livelihood, and where I once saw the New Jerusalem I see now the New Journalism.
There are, doubtless, many who still cherish that boyish dream of the poet. He still stalks through the popular imagination with his Spanish hat and cloak, his amaranthine locks, his finely-frenzied eyes, and his Alastor-like forgetfulness of his meals. But only, it is to be feared, for a little time. For the latter-day poet is doing his best to dissipate that venerable tradition. Bitten by the modern passion for uniformity, he has French-cropped those locks, in which, as truly as with Samson, lay his strength, he has discarded his sombrero for a Lincoln and Bennett, he cultivates a silky moustache, a glossy boot, and has generally given himself into the hands of the West-End tailor. Stung beyond endurance by taunts of his unpracticality, he enters Parliament, edits papers, keeps accounts, and is in every way a better business man than his publisher.
This is all very well for a little time. The contrast amuses by its piquancy. To write of wild and whirling things in your books, but in public life to be associated with nothing more wild and whirling than a shirt-fronted eye-glassed hansom; to be at heart an Alastor, but in appearance a bank-clerk, delights an age of paradox.
But, though it may pay for a while, it will, I am sure, prove a disastrous policy in the long run. The poet unborn shall, I am certain, rue it. The next generation of poets (or, indeed, writers generally) will reap a sorrowful harvest from the gratuitous disillusionment with which the present generation is so eager to indulge the curiosity, and flatter the mediocrity, of the public. The public, like the big baby it is, is continually crying 'to see the wheels go round,' and for a time the exhibition of, so to say, the 'works' of poet and novelist is profitable. But a time will come when, with its curiosity sated, the public will turn upon the poet, and throw into his face, on his own authority, that he is but as they are, that his airs of inspiration and divine right are humbug. And in that day the poet will block his silk hat, will shave away the silken moustache, will get him a bottle of Mrs. Allen's Hair Restorer, and betake himself to the sombrero of his ancestors—but it will be all too late. The cat will have been irrecoverably let out of the bag, the mystery of the poet as exploded as the mysteries of Eleusis.
Tennyson knew better. To use the word in its mediaevalsense, he respected the 'mystery' of poetry. Instinctively, doubtless, but also, I should imagine, deliberately, he all his life lived up to the traditional type of the poet, and kept between him and his public a proper veil of Sinaitic mist. You remember Browning's picture of the mysterious poet 'you saw go up and down Valladolid,' and the awestruck rumours that were whispered about him—how, for instance—
'If you tracked him to his home, down lanes Beyond the Jewry, and as clean to pace, You found he ate his supper in a room Blazing with lights, four Titians on the wall, And twenty naked girls to change his plate!'
That is the kind of thing the public likes to hear of its poets. That is something like a poet. Inquisitive the public always will be, but it is a mistake to indulge rather than to pique its curiosity. Tennyson respected the wishes of his public in this matter, and, not only in his dress and his dramatic seclusion, but surely in his obstinate avoidance of prose-work of any kind we have a subtler expression of his carefulness for fame. It is a mistake for a poet to write prose, however good, for it is a charming illusion of the public that, comparatively speaking, any one can write prose. It is an earthly accomplishment, it is as walking is to flying—is it not stigmatised 'pedestrian'? Now, your true Bird of Paradise, which is the poet, must, metaphorically speaking, have no legs—as Adrian Harley said was the case with the women in Richard Feverel's poems. He must never be seen to walk in prose, for his part is, 'pinnacled dim in the intense inane,' to hang aloft and warble the unpremeditated lay, without erasure or blot. This is, I am sure, not fanciful, for two or three modern instances, which I am far too considerate to name, illustrate its truth. Unless you are a very great person indeed, the surest way to lose a reputation as poet is to gain one as critic. It is true that for a time one may help the other, and that if you are very fecund, and let your poetical issues keep pace with your critical, you may even avoid the catastrophe altogether; but it is an unmistakable risk, and if in the end you are not catalogued as a great critic, you will assuredly be set down as a minor poet: whereas if you had stuck to your last, there is no telling what fame might not have been yours. Limitation, not versatility, is the fashion to-day. The man with the one talent, not the five, is the hero of the hour.
Besides, this sudden change of his spots on the part of the poet is unfair to the publisher, who is thus apt to find himself surprised out of his just gain. For, at the present moment, I would back almost any poet of my acquaintance against any publisher in a matter of business. This is unfair, for the publisher is a being slow to move, slow to take in changed conditions, always two generations, at least, behind his authors. Consequently, this sudden development of capacity on the part of the poet is liable to take him unprepared, and the mere apparition of a poet who can add up a pounds shillings and pence column offhand might well induce apoplexy. Yet it is to be feared that that providence which arms every evil thing with its fang has so protected the publisher with an instinctive dread of verse in any form, and especially in manuscript, that he has, after all, little to fear from the poet's new gifts.
But, indeed, my image just now was both uncomplimentary and unjust: for, parallel with the change in the poet to which I have referred, a still more unnatural change is making itself apparent in the type of the publisher. It would almost seem as if the two are changing places. Instead of the poet humbly waiting, hat in hand, kicking his heels for half a day in the publisher's office, it is the publisher who seeks him, who writes for appointments at his private house, or invites him to dinner. Yet it behoves the poet to be on his guard. A publisher, like another personage, has many shapes of beguilement, and it is not unlikely that this flattering deference is but another wile to entrap the unwary. There is no way of circumventing the dreamer so subtle as to flatter his business qualities. We all like to be praised for the something we cannot do. It is for this reason that Mr. Stevenson interferes with Samoan politics, when he should be writing romances—just the desire of the dreamer to play the man of action.
But I am not going to weary you by indulging in the stale old diatribes against the publisher. For, to speak seriously the honest truth, I think they are in the main a very much abused race. Thackeray put the matter with a good deal of common-sense, in that scene in Pendennis where Pen and Warrington walk home together from the Fleet prison, after hearing Captain Shandon read that brilliant prospectus of the Pall Mall Gazette, which he had written for bookseller Bungay, and for which that gentleman disbursed him a L5 note on the spot. Pen, you will remember, was full of the oppressions of genius, of Apollo being tied down to such an Admetus as Bungay. Warrington, however, took a maturer view of the matter.
'A fiddlestick about men of genius!' he exclaimed, 'I deny that there are so many geniuses as people who whimper about the fate of men of letters assert there are. There are thousands of clever fellows in the world who could, if they would, turn verses, write articles, read books, and deliver a judgment upon them; the talk of professional critics and writers is not a whit more brilliant, or profound, or amusing than that of any other society of educated people. If a lawyer, or a soldier, or a parson outruns his income, and does not pay his bills, he must go to gaol; and an author must go too. If an author fuddles himself, I don't know why he should be let off a headache the next morning—if he orders a coat from the tailor's, why he shouldn't pay for it....'
Dr. Johnson, who had no great reason to be prejudiced in their favour, defined booksellers as 'the patrons of literature,' and M. Anatole France has recently said that 'a great publisher is a kind of Minister for belles-lettres.' Such definitions are, doubtless, prophecies of the ideal rather than descriptions of the actual. Yet, fairly dealt with, the history of publishing would show a much nearer living up to them on the part of publishers than the poets and their sentimental sympathisers are inclined to admit. We hear a great deal of Milton getting L10 for Paradise Lost, and the Tonsons riding in their carriage, but seldom of Cottle adventuring thirty guineas on Coleridge's early poems, or the Jacksons giving untried boys L10—or, according to some accounts, L20—for Poems by Two Brothers.
To open the case for the bookseller or the publisher. The poet, to start with, bases his familiar complaints on a wilful disregard of the relation which poetry bears to average humanity. You often hear him express indignant surprise that the sale of butcher's meat should be a more lucrative business than the sale of poetry. But, surely, to argue thus is to manifest a most absurd misapprehension of the facts of life. Wordsworth says that 'we live by admiration, joy, and love.' So doubtless we do: but we live far more by butcher's meat and Burton ale. Poetry is but a preparation of opium distilled by a minority for a minority. The poet may test the case by the relative amounts he pays his butcher and his bookseller. So far as I know, he pays as little for his poetry as possible, and never buys a volume by a brother-singer till he has vainly tried six different ways to get a presentation copy. The poet seems incapable of mastering the rudimentary truth that ethereals must be based on materials. 'No song, no supper' is the old saw. It is equally true reversed—no supper, no song. The empty-stomach theory of creation is a cruel fallacy, though undoubtedly hunger has sometimes been the spur which the clear soul doth raise.
The conditions of existence compel the publisher to be a tradesman on the same material basis as any other. Ideally, a poem, like any other beautiful thing, is beyond price; but, practically, its value depends on the number of individuals who can be prevailed upon to purchase it. In its ethereal—otherwise its unprinted—state, it is only subject to the laws of the celestial ether, one of which is that it yields no money; properly speaking, money is there an irrelevant condition. Byron, you remember, would not for a long time accept any money from Murray for his poems, successful as they were. He had a proper sense of the indignity of selling the children of his soul. The incongruity is much as though we might go to Portland Road and buy an angel, just as we buy a parrot. The transactions of poetry and of sale are on two different planes. But so soon as, shall we say, you debase poetry by bringing it down to the lower plane, it becomes subject to the laws of that plane. An unprinted poem is a spiritual thing, but a printed poem is subject to the laws of matter. In the heaven of the poet's imagination there are no printers and paper-makers, no binders, no discounts to the trade and thirteen to the dozen; but on earth, where alone, so far as we know, books exist, these terrestrial beings and conditions are of paramount importance, and cannot be ignored. It may be perfectly true that a certain poem is so fine that, in a properly constituted cosmogony, it ought to support you to the end of your days; but is the publisher to blame because, in spite of its manifest genius, he can sell no more than 500 copies?
Then, to take another point of view, it is, I think, quite demonstrable that, compared with the men of many other callings, a poet who can get his verses accepted is very well paid. Take a typical instance. You spend an absolutely beatific evening with Clarinda in the moonlit woodland. You go home and relieve your emotions in a sonnet, which, we will say, at a generous allowance, takes you half an hour to write. Next morning in that cold calculating mood for which no business man can match a poet, you copy it out fair and send it to a friendly editor. Perhaps out of Clarinda alone you beget a sonnet a week, which at L2, 2s. a week is L109, 4s. a year—not to speak of Phyllis and Dulcinea. At any rate, take that one sonnet. For an evening with Clarinda, for which alone you would have paid the sum, and for a beggarly half-hour's work, you receive as much as many a City clerk earns by six hard days' work, eight hours to the dreary day, with perhaps a family to keep and a railway contract to pay for. Half-an-hour's work, and if you can live on L2, 2s. a week, the rest of your time is free as air! Moreover, you have the option of going about with a feeling that you are a being vastly superior to your fellows, because forsooth you can string fourteen lines together in decent Petrarcan form, and they cannot. And to return for a moment to Clarinda: it seems to me that your publisher, with all his ill-gotten gains, compares favourably with you in your treatment of your partner in the production of that sonnet What about the woman's half-profits in the matter? For, remember, if the publisher depends on the brains of the poet, the poet is no less dependent on the heart of the woman. It is from woman, in nine cases out of ten, that the poets have drawn their inspiration. And how have they, in eight cases out of this nine, treated her? The story is but too familiar. Will it always seem so much worse to pick a man's brains than to break a woman's heart?
We touched just now on the arrogance of the poet. It is one of the most foolish and distasteful of his faults, and one which unfortunately the world has conspired from time immemorial to confirm. He has been too long the spoiled child, too long allowed to think that anything becomes him, too long allowed to ride rough-shod over the neck of the average man.
Mrs. Browning, in Aurora Leigh, while celebrating the poet, sneers at 'your common men' who 'lay telegraphs, gauge railroads, reign, reap, dine.' But why? All these—with, perhaps, the exception of reigning—are very proper and necessary things to be done, and any one of them, done in the true spirit of work, is every bit as dignified as the writing of poetry, and often, I am afraid, a great deal more so. This scorn of the common man is but another instance of the poet's ignorance of the facts of life and the relations of things. The hysterical bitterness with which certain sections of modern people of taste are constantly girding at the bourgeois—which, indeed, as Omar Khayyam says, heeds 'as the sea's self should heed a pebble-cast'—is one of the most melancholy of recent literary phenomena. It was not so the great masters treated the common man, nor any full-blooded age. But the torch of taste has for the moment fallen into the hands of little men, anaemic and atrabilious, with neither laughter nor pity in their hearts.
Besides, how easy it is to misjudge your so-called 'common man'! That fat, undistinguished-looking Briton in the corner of the omnibus is as likely as not Mr. So-and-So, the distinguished poet; and who but those with the divining-rod of a kind heart know what refined sensibility and nobility of character may lurk under an extremely bourgeois exterior?
We live in an age of every man his own priest and his own lawyer. At a pinch we can very well be every man his own poet. If the whole supercilious crew of modern men of letters, artists, and critics were wiped off the earth to-morrow, the world would be hardly conscious of the loss. Nay, if even the entire artistic accumulation of the past were to be suddenly swallowed up, it would be little worse off. For the world is more beautiful and wonderful than anything that has ever been written about it, and the most glorious picture is not so beautiful as the face of a spring morning.
The question is sometimes asked 'how poets sell.' One feels inclined idealistically to ask, 'Ought poets to sell?' What can poets want with money?—dear children of the rainbow, who from time immemorial
... on honeydew have fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Have you never felt a sort of absurdity in paying for a rose—especially if you paid in copper? To pay for a thing of beauty in coin of extreme ugliness! There is obviously no equality of exchange in the transaction. In fact, it is little short of an insult to the flower-girl to pretend that you thus satisfy the obligation. Far better let her give it you—for the love of beauty—as very likely, if you explained the incongruity, she would be glad to do: for flower-girls, no doubt, like every one else, can only have chosen their particular profession because of its being a joy for ever. There might be fitness in offering a kiss on account, though that, of course, would depend on the flower-girl. To buy other things with flowers were not so incongruous. I have often thought of trying my tobacconist with a tulip; and certainly an orchid—no very rare one either—should cover one's household expenses for a week, if not a fortnight.
Omar Khayyam used to wonder what the vintners buy 'one-half so precious as the stuff they sell.' It is surely natural to wonder in like manner of the poet. What have we to offer in exchange for his priceless manna? One feels that he should be paid on the mercantile principles of 'Goblin Market.' Said Laura:—
'Good folk, I have no coin; To take were to purloin; I have no copper in my purse, I have no silver either....'
Copper! silver even! The goblin-men were more artistic than that; they realised the absurdity of paying for immortal things in coin of mere mortality. So—
'You have much gold upon your head,' They answered all together: 'Buy from us with a golden curl.'
Yes, those are the ideal rates at which poetry should be paid. We should, of course, pay for fairy goods in fairy-gold.
One of the few such appropriate transactions I remember was Queen Elizabeth's buying a poem from Sir Philip Sidney, literally, with a lock of her 'gowden hair.' Poem and lock now lie together at Wilton, both untouched of time. Or was it that Sir Philip Sidney paid for the lock with his poem? However it was, the exchange was appropriate. The ratio between the thing sold and the price given was fairly equal. And, at all times, it is far less absurd for a poet to pay for the earthly thing with his poem (thus leaving us to keep the change), than that we should think to pay him for his incorruptible with our corruptible. There would, no doubt, be a subtle element of absurdity in a poet consenting to pay his tailor for a suit with a sonnet, while it would obviously be beyond all proportion monstrous for a tailor to think to buy a sonnet with a suit. Yet a poet might, perhaps, be brought to consider the transaction, if he chanced to be of a gentle disposition.