THE PLEASURES OF IGNORANCE
BY ROBERT LYND
GRANT RICHARDS LTD.
ST MARTIN'S STREET
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY THE RIVERSIDE PRESS LIMITED
TO JAMES WINDER GOOD
I. THE PLEASURES OF IGNORANCE 11
II. THE HERRING FLEET 19
III. THE BETTING MAN 29
IV. THE HUM OF INSECTS 40
V. CATS 51
VI. MAY 61
VII. NEW YEAR PROPHECIES 70
VIII. ON KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE 82
IX. THE INTELLECTUAL SIDE OF HORSE-RACING 91
X. WHY WE HATE INSECTS 102
XI. VIRTUE 114
XII. JUNE 123
XIII. ON FEELING GAY 132
XIV. IN THE TRAIN 141
XV. THE MOST CURIOUS ANIMAL 149
XVI. THE OLD INDIFFERENCE 158
XVII. EGGS: AN EASTER HOMILY 167
XVIII. ENTER THE SPRING 176
XIX. THE DAREDEVIL BARBER 186
XX. WEEDS: AN APPRECIATION 195
XXI. A JUROR IN WAITING 205
XXII. THE THREE-HALFPENNY BIT 215
XXIII. THE MORALS OF BEANS 224
XXIV. ON SEEING A JOKE 233
XXV. GOING TO THE DERBY 243
XXVI. THIS BLASTED WORLD 253
Acknowledgments are due to "The New Statesman," in which all but one of these essays appeared. "Going to the Derby" appeared in "The Daily News."—R.L.
THE PLEASURES OF IGNORANCE
It is impossible to take a walk in the country with an average townsman—especially, perhaps, in April or May—without being amazed at the vast continent of his ignorance. It is impossible to take a walk in the country oneself without being amazed at the vast continent of one's own ignorance. Thousands of men and women live and die without knowing the difference between a beech and an elm, between the song of a thrush and the song of a blackbird. Probably in a modern city the man who can distinguish between a thrush's and a blackbird's song is the exception. It is not that we have not seen the birds. It is simply that we have not noticed them. We have been surrounded by birds all our lives, yet so feeble is our observation that many of us could not tell whether or not the chaffinch sings, or the colour of the cuckoo. We argue like small boys as to whether the cuckoo always sings as he flies or sometimes in the branches of a tree—whether Chapman drew on his fancy or his knowledge of nature in the lines:
When in the oak's green arms the cuckoo sings, And first delights men in the lovely springs.
This ignorance, however, is not altogether miserable. Out of it we get the constant pleasure of discovery. Every fact of nature comes to us each spring, if only we are sufficiently ignorant, with the dew still on it. If we have lived half a lifetime without having ever even seen a cuckoo, and know it only as a wandering voice, we are all the more delighted at the spectacle of its runaway flight as it hurries from wood to wood conscious of its crimes, and at the way in which it halts hawk-like in the wind, its long tail quivering, before it dares descend on a hill-side of fir-trees where avenging presences may lurk. It would be absurd to pretend that the naturalist does not also find pleasure in observing the life of the birds, but his is a steady pleasure, almost a sober and plodding occupation, compared to the morning enthusiasm of the man who sees a cuckoo for the first time, and, behold, the world is made new.
And, as to that, the happiness even of the naturalist depends in some measure upon his ignorance, which still leaves him new worlds of this kind to conquer. He may have reached the very Z of knowledge in the books, but he still feels half ignorant until he has confirmed each bright particular with his eyes. He wishes with his own eyes to see the female cuckoo—rare spectacle!—as she lays her egg on the ground and takes it in her bill to the nest in which it is destined to breed infanticide. He would sit day after day with a field-glass against his eyes in order personally to endorse or refute the evidence suggesting that the cuckoo does lay on the ground and not in a nest. And, if he is so far fortunate as to discover this most secretive of birds in the very act of laying, there still remain for him other fields to conquer in a multitude of such disputed questions as whether the cuckoo's egg is always of the same colour as the other eggs in the nest in which she abandons it. Assuredly the men of science have no reason as yet to weep over their lost ignorance. If they seem to know everything, it is only because you and I know almost nothing. There will always be a fortune of ignorance waiting for them under every fact they turn up. They will never know what song the Sirens sang to Ulysses any more than Sir Thomas Browne did.
If I have called in the cuckoo to illustrate the ordinary man's ignorance, it is not because I can speak with authority on that bird. It is simply because, passing the spring in a parish that seemed to have been invaded by all the cuckoos of Africa, I realised how exceedingly little I, or anybody else I met, knew about them. But your and my ignorance is not confined to cuckoos. It dabbles in all created things, from the sun and moon down to the names of the flowers. I once heard a clever lady asking whether the new moon always appears on the same day of the week. She added that perhaps it is better not to know, because, if one does not know when or in what part of the sky to expect it, its appearance is always a pleasant surprise. I fancy, however, the new moon always comes as a surprise even to those who are familiar with her time-tables. And it is the same with the coming in of spring and the waves of the flowers. We are not the less delighted to find an early primrose because we are sufficiently learned in the services of the year to look for it in March or April rather than in October. We know, again, that the blossom precedes and not succeeds the fruit of the apple-tree, but this does not lessen our amazement at the beautiful holiday of a May orchard.
At the same time there is, perhaps, a special pleasure in re-learning the names of many of the flowers every spring. It is like re-reading a book that one has almost forgotten. Montaigne tells us that he had so bad a memory that he could always read an old book as though he had never read it before. I have myself a capricious and leaking memory. I can read Hamlet itself and The Pickwick Papers as though they were the work of new authors and had come wet from the press, so much of them fades between one reading and another. There are occasions on which a memory of this kind is an affliction, especially if one has a passion for accuracy. But this is only when life has an object beyond entertainment. In respect of mere luxury, it may be doubted whether there is not as much to be said for a bad memory as for a good one. With a bad memory one can go on reading Plutarch and The Arabian Nights all one's life. Little shreds and tags, it is probable, will stick even in the worst memory, just as a succession of sheep cannot leap through a gap in a hedge without leaving a few wisps of wool on the thorns. But the sheep themselves escape, and the great authors leap in the same way out of an idle memory and leave little enough behind.
And, if we can forget books, it is as easy to forget the months and what they showed us, when once they are gone. Just for the moment I tell myself that I know May like the multiplication table and could pass an examination on its flowers, their appearance and their order. To-day I can affirm confidently that the buttercup has five petals. (Or is it six? I knew for certain last week.) But next year I shall probably have forgotten my arithmetic, and may have to learn once more not to confuse the buttercup with the celandine. Once more I shall see the world as a garden through the eyes of a stranger, my breath taken away with surprise by the painted fields. I shall find myself wondering whether it is science or ignorance which affirms that the swift (that black exaggeration of the swallow and yet a kinsman of the humming-bird) never settles even on a nest, but disappears at night into the heights of the air. I shall learn with fresh astonishment that it is the male, and not the female, cuckoo that sings. I may have to learn again not to call the campion a wild geranium, and to rediscover whether the ash comes early or late in the etiquette of the trees. A contemporary English novelist was once asked by a foreigner what was the most important crop in England. He answered without a moment's hesitation: "Rye." Ignorance so complete as this seems to me to be touched with magnificence; but the ignorance even of illiterate persons is enormous. The average man who uses a telephone could not explain how a telephone works. He takes for granted the telephone, the railway train, the linotype, the aeroplane, as our grandfathers took for granted the miracles of the gospels. He neither questions nor understands them. It is as though each of us investigated and made his own only a tiny circle of facts. Knowledge outside the day's work is regarded by most men as a gewgaw. Still we are constantly in reaction against our ignorance. We rouse ourselves at intervals and speculate. We revel in speculations about anything at all—about life after death or about such questions as that which is said to have puzzled Aristotle, "why sneezing from noon to midnight was good, but from night to noon unlucky." One of the greatest joys known to man is to take such a flight into ignorance in search of knowledge. The great pleasure of ignorance is, after all, the pleasure of asking questions. The man who has lost this pleasure or exchanged it for the pleasure of dogma, which is the pleasure of answering, is already beginning to stiffen. One envies so inquisitive a man as Jowett, who sat down to the study of physiology in his sixties. Most of us have lost the sense of our ignorance long before that age. We even become vain of our squirrel's hoard of knowledge and regard increasing age itself as a school of omniscience. We forget that Socrates was famed for wisdom not because he was omniscient but because he realised at the age of seventy that he still knew nothing.
THE HERRING FLEET
The last spectacle of which Christian men are likely to grow tired is a harbour. Centuries hence there may be jumping-off places for the stars, and our children's children's and so forth children may regard a ship as a creeping thing scarcely more adventurous than a worm. Meanwhile, every harbour gives us a sense of being in touch, if not with the ends of the universe, with the ends of the earth. This, more than the entrance to a wood or the source of a river or the top of a bald hill, is the beginning of infinity. Even the dirtiest coal-boat that lies beached in the harbour, a mere hulk of utilities that are taken away by dirty men in dirty carts, will in a day or two lift itself from the mud on a full tide and float away like a spirit into the sunset or curtsy to the image of the North Star. Mystery lies over the sea. Every ship is bound for Thule. That, perhaps, is why men are content day after day to stand on the pier-head and to gaze at the water and the ships and sailors running up and down the decks and pulling the ropes of sails.
We may have no reason for pretending to ourselves that the fishing-boats are ships of dreams setting out on infinite voyages. But, none the less, even in a fishing village there is always a congregation of watching men and women on the pier. Every day the crowd collects to see the harbour awake into life with the bustle of men about to set out among the nations of the fishes. By day the boats lie side by side in the harbour—stand side by side, rather, like horses in a stable. There are two rows of them, making a camp of masts on the shallow water. In other parts of the harbour white gigs are bottomed on the sand in companies of two and three. As the tide slowly rises, the masts which have been lying over on one side in a sleepy stillness begin to stir, then to sway, until with each new impulse of the sea all the boats are dancing, and soon the whole harbour is awake and merry as if every mast were a steeple with a peal of bells. It is not long till the fishermen arrive. One meets them in every cobbled lane. How magnificent the noise made by a man in sea-boots on the stones! Surely, he strikes sparks from the road. He thumps the ground as with a hammer. The earth rings. One has seen those boots in the morning hanging outside the door of his house while he slept. They have been oiled, and left there to dry. They have kept the shape of his limb and the crook of his knee in an uncanny way. They look as though he had taken off his legs before going into the house and hung them on the wall. But the fisherman is a hero not only in his boots. His sea-coat is no less magnificent. This may be of oil-skin yellow or of maroon or of stained white or of blue, with a blue jersey showing under it, and, perhaps, a red woollen muffler or a scarf with green spots on a red ground round his throat. He has not learned to be timid of colour. Even out of the mouths of his boots you may see the ends of red knitted leggings protruding. His yellow or black sou'-wester roofing the back of his neck, he comes down to harbour, as splendid as a figure at a fair. And always, when he arrives, he is smoking a pipe. As one watches him, one wonders if anybody except a fisherman, as he looks out over the harbour, knows how to smoke. He has made tobacco part of himself, like breathing.
If the tide is already full the fishermen are taken off in small rowing-boats, most of them standing, and the place is busy with a criss-cross of travelling crews till the fishing-boats are all manned. If the water is not yet deep, however, most of the men walk to their boats, lumbering through the waves, and occasionally jumping like a wading girl as a larger wave threatens the tops of their boots. Many of them carry their supper in a basket or a handkerchief. The first of the boats begins to move out of its stall. It is tugged into the clear water, and the fishermen put out long oars and row it laboriously to the mouth of the harbour and the wind. It is followed by a motor-boat, and another, and another. There are forty putting up their sails like one. The harbour moves. One has a sense as of things liberated. It is as though a flock of birds were being loosed into the air—as though pigeon after pigeon were being set free out of a basket for home. Lug-sail after lugsail, brown as the underside of a mushroom, hurries out among the waves. A green little tub of a steamboat follows with insolent smoke. The motor-boats hasten out like scenting dogs. Every sort of craft—motor-boat, gig, lugger and steamboat—makes for sea, higgledy-piggledy in a long line, an irregular procession of black and blue and green and white and brown. Here, as in the men's clothes, the paint-pots have been spilled.
There is nothing more sociable than a fishing-fleet. The boats overtake each other, like horses in a race. They gallop in rivalry. But for the most part they keep together, and move like a travelling town over the sea. As likely as not they will have to come back out of the storm into the shelter of the bay, and they will ride there till nightfall, when every boat becomes a lamp and every sail a shadow. In the darkness they hang like a constellation on the oily water. They become a company of dancing stars. Every now and then a boat moves off on a quest of its own. It is as though the firmament were shaken. One hears the kick-kick-kick of the motor, and a star has become a will-o'-the-wisp. These lights can no more keep still than a playground of children. They always make a pattern on the water, but they never make the same pattern. Sometimes they lengthen themselves against the sandy shore on the far side of the bay into a golden river. Sometimes they huddle together into a little procession of monks carrying tapers....
One goes down to the harbour after breakfast the next morning to see what has been the result of the night's fishing. One does not really need to go down. One can see it afar off. There is movement as at the building of a city. On every boat men are busy emptying the nets, disentangling the fish that have been caught by the gills, tumbling them in a liquid mass into the bottom of the boat. One can hardly see the fish separately. They flow into one another. They are a pool of quick-silver. One is amazed, as the disciples must have been amazed at the miraculous draught. Everything is covered with their scales. The fishermen are spotted as if with confetti. Their hands, their brown coats, their boots are a mass of white-and-blue spots. The labourers with the gurries—great blue boxes that are carried like Sedan-chairs between two pairs of handles—come up alongside, and the fish are ladled into the gurries from tin pans. As each gurry is filled the men hasten off with it to where the auctioneer is standing. With the help of a small notebook and a lead pencil he auctions it before an outsider can wink, and the gurry is taken a few yards further, where women are pouring herrings into barrels. They, too, are covered with fish-scales from head to foot. They are dabbled like a painter's palette. So great is the haul that every cart in the country-side has come down to lend a hand. The fish are poured into the carts over the sides of the boats like water. Old fishermen stand aside and look on with a sense of having wasted their youth. They recall the time when they went fishing in the North Sea and had to be content to sell their catch at a shilling and sixpence a cran—a cran being equal to four gurries, or about a thousand herrings. Who is there now who would sell even a hundred herrings for one and sixpence? Who is there who would sell a hundred herrings for ten and sixpence? Yet one gig alone this morning has brought in fourteen thousand herrings. No wonder that there is an atmosphere of excitement in the harbour. No wonder that the carts almost run over you as they make journey after journey between boat and barrel. No wonder that three different sorts of sea-gulls—the herring gull, the lesser black-headed gull, and the black-backed gull—have gathered about us in screaming multitudes and fill the air like a snowstorm. Every child in the town seems to be making for home with its finger in a fish's mouth, or in two fishes' mouths, or in three fishes' mouths. Artists have hurried down to the harbour, and have set up their easels on every spot that is not already occupied by a fish barrel or an auctioneer or a man with a knife in his teeth preparing to gut a dogfish. The town has lost its head. It has become Midas for the day. Every time it opens its mouth a herring comes out. A doom of herrings has come upon us. The smell rises to heaven. It is as though we were breathing fish-scales. Even the pretty blue overalls of the children have become spotted. Everywhere barrels and boxes have been piled high. We are hoisting them on to carts—farm carts, grocers' carts, coal carts, any sort of carts. We must get rid of the stuff at all costs. Anything to get it up the hill to the railway station. The very horses are frenzied. They stick their toes into the hill and groan. The drivers, excited with cupidity as they think of all the journeys they will be able to make before evening, bully them and beat them with the end of the reins. Their eyes are excited, their gestures impatient. They fill the town with clamour and smell. It is an occasion on which, as the vulgar say, they wouldn't call the Queen their aunt....
This, I fancy, is where all the romance of the sea began—in the story of a greedy man and a fresh herring. The ship was a symbol of man's questing stomach long before it was a symbol of his questing soul. He was a hungry man, not a poet, when he built the first harbour. Luckily, the harbour made a poet of him. Sails gave him wings. He learned to traffic for wonders. He became a traveller. He told tales. He discovered the illusion of horizons. Perhaps, however, it is less the sailor than the ship that attracts our imagination. The ship seems to convey to us more than anything else a sense at once of perfect freedom and perfect adventure.
That is why we are content to stand on the harbour stones all day and watch anything with sails. We ourselves want to live in some such freedom and adventure as this. We are feeding our appetite for liberty as we gaze hungrily after the ships making their way out of harbour into the sea.
THE BETTING MAN
If The Panther wins the Derby,[He didn't] as most people apparently expect him to do, his victory will carry more weight among frequenters of race-courses as an argument for Socialism than any that has yet been invented. For The Panther is a Government-bred horse, born and brought up in defiance of the laissez-faire principles of Mr Harold Cox. He will therefore carry the colours of a great principle at Epsom as well as those of his present lessee. Who would have thought five years ago that the Derby favourite of 1919 would start under so grave a responsibility?
Not that racing men have much time to spare for thoughts about social problems, even when these are related to a horse. Theirs is a busy life. They enjoy little of the leisure that falls to the lot of statesmen and haberdashers.
Their anxieties are a serial story continued from one edition of the day's papers to another Nor does the last edition of the evening paper make an end of their anxieties. It is not an epilogue to one day so much as a prologue to the next. The programme of races for the following day suggests more problems than the Peace Conference itself could settle in a month. The racing man, having studied the names of the horses entered, goes out to buy some tobacco. As he takes his change from the tobacconist, he asks: "Have you heard anything for to-morrow?" The tobacconist says: "I heard Green Cloak for the first race," The racing man nods. "You didn't hear anything for the big race?" he asks. "No. Somebody was saying Holy Saint." "I heard Oily Hair," says the racing man gravely. "Good-night." And he goes out. His brow becomes knitted with thought as he moves off along the pavement. He tells himself that Holy Saint certainly does offer difficulties. Holy Saint is a notoriously bad starter. If he could be trusted to get away, he would be one of the finest horses of his year in long-distance races. But he is continually being left at the post. To back him would be pure gambling. He could win if he liked, but would he like? On the whole, Oily Hair is a safer horse to back. He has already beaten Holy Saint in the Chiswick Cup, and only lost the Scotch Plate to Disaster by a neck. As the racing man allows his memory to dwell on the achievements of Oily Hair his confidence rises. "I see nothing to beat him," he says to himself. He has just decided to put "a fiver" on him when he meets an acquaintance, who suggests a drink. As they drink, the talk turns on horses. "What are you backing in the big race to-morrow?" "Have you heard anything?" "I heard Oily Hair." "I think not. I'll tell you why. Tommy Fitzgibbon's youngest sister is at school with two sisters of Willie Soames, who's going to ride Peace on Earth to-morrow, and one of them told her that Willie had written to her to put every halfpenny she has on Peace on Earth." "I'm sick, sore and tired of backing Peace on Earth. He's a cantankerous beast that seems to take a positive pleasure in losing races." "Well, remember what I told you...."
On arriving home our sportsman goes to his shelves and takes down the last annual volume of M'Call's Racing Chronicle and Pocket Turf Calendar, and looks up Peace on Earth in the index. He turns up the record of one race after another, and finds that the horse has a better past than he had remembered. He cannot make up his mind what to do. He looks over several weekly papers to see if any of them can throw light on his difficulties. Each of them names a different winner for the big race. When he puts on his pyjamas that night, all he knows is that he has decided to decide nothing till the next day.
Next day he once more reads the names of the horses entered for the various races, and glances down the list of winners selected by the racing prophet in the morning paper. Having breakfasted late, he finds he has only about an hour to waste before catching a train for the races, and he resolves to pay a call at the "Bird of Paradise," where a friend of his who has an unusual gift for picking up information is usually to be found about noon. He learns from the landlord that his friend has been in and gone away, but the landlord tells him that he hears Pudding is a certainty.
"Have you any reason for thinking so?"
"Well, there was a man in here who has a son a policeman close by Jobson's stables, and he tells me that everybody in the neighbourhood has been backing Pudding down to their last spoon. That looks as if word had been passed round that it was going to win." The racing man passes out and looks in at the "Pink Elephant" to see if his friend is there. He is seated at a little table in an upstairs parlour with four others, all drinking whisky and exchanging tips. They belong to the most credulous race of men alive. They are all believers in what is called information, and information is simply the betting man's name for gossip. The friend is speaking in a low but excited voice to his companions, who crouch over towards him in order to catch information not meant for the rest of the room. He tells how he had just been in to buy a paper at his newsagent's, and how his newsagent had been calling on his solicitor that morning, and the solicitor told him that the caller who had just left as he came in was Gordon, the owner of Cutandrun, and Gordon said that Cutandrun was the biggest thing that had ever come into his hands. The buzz-buzz of talk in the smoke-filled room and the clatter of passing carts makes it difficult to hear him, but the others lean over the table with red, intent faces, like men among whom an apostle has come. They do not stay long over their drinks, as they have not much time for social pleasures. They swallow their whisky with a quick gesture look at their watches, stand up hurriedly and part with handshakes.
Then comes a drive to the railway station where race-cards are being sold. The racing-man buys a "card" and several papers. He looks down the lists of the horses again in the train, and tries to make up his mind whether to take the tobacconist's tip and back Green Cloak for the first race. He believes greatly in breeding, and by far the best-bred horse in the race is Liberal, who has three Derby winners in his pedigree. Then there is Red Rose, who created a sensation a month ago by winning two races in a day. He decides to do nothing till he sees the horses themselves. He pays thirty shillings at the turnstile of the race-course and is admitted to the grand stand. Already one or two bookmakers are shouting from their stands, and some of them have chalked up on blackboards the odds they are willing to give in the big race. He looks at the board and sees that he can get twenties against Cutandrun. A five-pound note might bring him a hundred pounds. On the other hand, if Oily Hair was going to win, he wouldn't like to miss it. The bookmakers are offering fives against it. Holy Saint is hot favourite at two to one. That alone makes him impatient of it, for he dislikes backing favourites. He prefers the big risks, with great scoops if he wins. However, he will make up his mind later. Meanwhile, he will go to the paddock and have a look at the horses for the first race. Half-a-dozen horses are already out, and men with numbers on their arms are walking them round and round in a ring. He consults his card and sees that No. 7 is Brighton Beauty, and No. 2 (a slender, glossy, black beast with a white star in his forehead) Green Cloak. Liberal has not appeared. The numbers of the starters, with the names of the jockeys, are now being hoisted. He makes a pencil-mark opposite the name of each starter on his racing-card, and jots down the name of the jockey. Raff, he sees, is riding Green Cloak. That is in its favour.
When he gets back to the betting-ring, the bookmakers are shouting hoarsely against each other. Liberal is a very hot favourite. They are shouting: "I'll take two to one. I'll take two to one. Five to one bar one. A hundred to eight Green Cloak." He feels almost sure Liberal will win, but Green Cloak—he wishes he had asked the tobacconist where he got his information from. Anyhow, half-a-sovereign doesn't matter much. He goes up to a bookmaker, and says: "Ten shillings Green Cloak." The bookmaker turns to his clerk and says: "Six pound five to ten shillings Green Cloak," gives a red-white-and-blue card with his name and a number on it; the other takes the card, writes on the back of it the name of the horse and the amount of the bet, and makes for the stand to see the race. The horses have now come out, and are off one after another to the starting-post. Green Cloak would be hard to miss because of his jockey's colours—old gold, scarlet sleeves, and green and black quartered cap. The bell has hardly rung to announce that the race has begun when men in the crowd begin to dogmatise about the result. One man keeps saying: "Green Cloak wins this race. Green Cloak wins this race." Another says: "Liberal leads." Another says: "No; that's Jumping Frog." To the unaccustomed eye the horses seem as close to each other as a swarm of bees. Suddenly, however, a bay horse springs forward and seems to put a length between itself and the others at every stride. The people in the stand shout: "Liberal! Liberal!" It wins by about ten lengths. Green Cloak is second, but a bad second. The crowd begins to pour down from the stand again. Those who have won wait near the bookmakers till the winner has been to the unsaddling enclosure and the announcement "All right" is made. Then the bookmakers begin to pay out, and the crowd moves off to the paddock again to see the horses for the next race.
Friends stop each other and exchange information in low voices. Others do their best to listen in the hope of overhearing information: "I hear Tomsk," "Johnnie says lay your last penny on Glasgow Pet," "I'm going to back Submarine." And the parade of the horses, the hoisting of the names of the starters and jockeys, the laying of the bets, and the climbing of the grand stand are all gone through over and over again. The betting man has no time even for a drink. To the casual onlooker a day's horse-racing has the appearance of a day's holiday. But the racing man knows better. He is collecting information, coming to decisions, wandering among the bookies in the hope of getting a good price, climbing into the grand stand and descending from it, studying the points of the horses all the time with as little chance of leisure as though he were a stockbroker during a financial crisis or a sailor on a sinking ship.
Perhaps, in the train on the way home from the races, he may relax a little. Certainly, if he has backed Cutandrun, he will. For Cutandrun won at ten to one, and his pocket is full of five-pound notes. He feels quite jocular now that the strain is over. He makes puns on the names of the defeated horses. "Lie Low lay low all right," he announces to the compartment, indifferent to the scowls of the man in the corner who had backed it. "Hopscotch didn't hop quite fast enough." Were he tipsy, he could not jest more fluently. His jokes are small, but be not too severe on him. The man has had a hard day. Wait but an hour, and care will descend on him again. He will not have sat down to dinner in his hotel for three minutes till someone will be saying to him: "Have you heard anything for the Cup to-morrow?" There is no six-hours day for the betting man. He is the drudge of chance for every waking hour. He is enviable only for one thing. He knows what to talk about to barbers.
THE HUM OF INSECTS
It makes all the difference whether you hear an insect in the bedroom or in the garden. In the garden the voice of the insect soothes; in the bedroom it irritates. In the garden it is the hum of spring; in the bedroom it seems to belong to the same school of music as the bizz of the dentist's drill or the saw-mill. It may be that it is not the right sort of insect that invades the bedroom. Even in the garden we wave away a mosquito. Either its note is in itself offensive or we dislike it as the voice of an unscrupulous enemy. By an unscrupulous enemy I mean an enemy that attacks without waiting to be attacked. The mosquito is a beast of prey; it is out for blood, whether one is as gentle as Tom Pinch or uses violence. The bee and the wasp are in comparison noble creatures. They will, so it is said, never injure a human being unless a human being has injured them. The worst of it is they do not discriminate between one human being and another, and the bee that floats over the wall into our garden may turn out to have been exasperated by the behaviour of a retired policeman five miles away who struck at it with a spade and roused in it a blind passion for reprisals. That or something like it is, probably, the explanation of the stings perfectly innocent persons receive from an insect that is said never to touch you if you leave it alone. As a matter of fact, when a bee loses its head, it does not even wait for a human being in order to relieve its feelings, I have seen a dog racing round a field in terror as a result of a sting from an angry bee. I have seen a turkey racing round a farmyard in terror as a result of the same thing. All the trouble arose from a human being's having very properly removed a large quantity of honey from a row of hives. I do not admit that the bee would have been justified in stinging even the human being—who, after all, is master on this partially civilised planet. It had certainly no right to sting the dog or the turkey, which had as little to do with stealing the honey as the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Yet in spite of such things, and of the fact that some breeds of bees are notorious for their crossness, especially when there is thunder in the air, the bee is morally far higher in the scale than the mosquito. Not only does it give you honey instead of malaria, and help your apples and strawberries to multiply, but it aims at living a quiet, inoffensive life, at peace with everybody, except when it is annoyed. The mosquito does what it does in cold blood. That is why it is so unwelcome a bedroom visitor.
But even a bee or a wasp, I fancy, would seem tedious company at two in the morning, especially if it came and buzzed near the pillow. It is not so much that you would be frightened: if the wasp alighted on your cheek, you could always lie still and hold your breath till it had finished trying to sting—that is an infallible preventive. But there is a limit to the amount of your night's rest that you are willing to sacrifice in this way. You cannot hold your breath while you are asleep, and yet you dare not cease holding your breath while a wasp is walking over your face. Besides, it might crawl into your ear, and what would you do then? Luckily, the question does not often arise in practice owing to the fact that the wasp and the bee are more like human beings than mosquitoes and have more or less the same habits of nocturnal rest. As we sit in the garden, however, the mind is bound to speculate, and to revolve such questions as whether this hum of insects that delights us is in itself delightful, whether its delightfulness depends on its surroundings, or whether it depends on its associations with past springs.
Certainly in a garden the noise of insects seems as essentially beautiful a thing as the noise of birds or the noise of the sea. Even these have been criticised, especially by persons who suffer from sleeplessness, but their beauty is affirmed by the general voice of mankind. These three noises appear to have an infinite capacity for giving us pleasure—a capacity, probably, beyond that of any music of instruments. It may be that on hearing them we become a part of some universal music, and that the rhythm of wave, bird and insect echoes in some way the rhythm of our own breath and blood. Man is in love with life and these are the millionfold chorus of life—the magnified echo of his own pleasure in being alive. At the same time, our pleasure in the hum of insects is also, I think, a pleasure of reminiscence. It reminds us of other springs and summers in other gardens. It reminds us of the infinite peace of childhood when on a fine day the world hardly existed beyond the garden-gate. We can smell moss-roses—how we loved them as children!—as a bee swings by. Insect after insect dances through the air, each dying away like a note of music, and we see again the border of pinks and the strawberries, and the garden paths edged with box, and the old dilapidated wooden seat under the tree, and an apple-tree in the long grass, and a stream beyond the apple-tree, and all those things that made us infinitely happy as children when we were in the country—happier than we were ever made by toys, for we do not remember any toys so intensely as we remember the garden and the farm. We had the illusion in those days that it was going to last for ever. There was no past or future. There was nothing real except the present in which we lived—a present in which all the human beings were kind, in which a dim-sighted grandfather sang songs (especially a song in which the chorus began "Free and easy"), in which aunts brought us animal biscuits out of town, in which there was neither man-servant nor maid-servant, neither ox nor ass, that did not seem to go about with a bright face. It was a present that overflowed with kindness, though everybody except the ox and the ass believed that it was only by the skin of our teeth that any of us would escape being burnt alive for eternity. Perhaps we thought little enough about it except on Sundays or at prayers. Certainly no one was gloomy about it before children. William John McNabb, the huge labourer who looked after the horses, greeted us all as cheerfully as if we had been saved and ready for paradise.
It would be unfair to human beings, however, to suggest that they are less lavish with their smiles than they were thirty years or so ago. Everybody—or almost everybody—still smiles. We can hardly stop to talk to a man in the street without a duet of smiles. The Prince of Wales smiles across the world from left to right, and the Crown Prince of Japan smiles across the world from right to left. We cannot open an illustrated paper without seeing smiling statesmen, cricketers, jockeys, oarsmen, bridegrooms, clergymen, actresses and undergraduates. Yet somehow we are no longer made happy by a smile. We no longer take it, as we used to take it, as evidence that the person smiling is either happy or kind. It then seemed to come from the heart. It now seems a formula. It is, we may admit, a pleasant and useful formula. But a man might easily be a burglar or a murderer or a Cabinet Minister and smile. Some people are supposed to smile merely in order to show what good teeth they have. William John McNabb, I am sure, never did that.
We need not grumble at our contemporaries, however, for not being so fine as William John McNabb. To children, for all we know, the world may still seem to be full of people who laugh because they are happy and smile because they are kind. The world will always remain to a child the chief of toys, and the hum of insects as enchanting as the hum of a musical top. Even those of us who are grown up can recover this enchantment, not only through the pleasures of memory but through the endless pleasures of watching the things that inhabit the earth. The world is always waiting to be discovered in full, and yet no life is long enough to discover the whole of a single county, or even the whole of a single parish. Who alive, for instance, knows all the moles of Sussex? I confess I got my first sight of one a few days ago, and, though I had seen dead moles hanging from trees and had read descriptions of moles, the living creature was as unexpected as if one had come on it silent upon a peak in Darien. I had never expected it to look so black and glossy in the midday sun or to have that little pink snout that made me think of it as a small underground pig. I had always been told, too, that the sound of a footstep would frighten a mole, but this mole only began to show fright at the sound of voices. Then it began to tear its way into the undergrowth with paws and snout ever trying to overtake each other. Mr Blunden has described how
The lost mole tries to pierce the mattocked clay In agony and terror of the sun.
I got much the same impression of agony and terror as this poor creature dug its way into the grass and ferns and, coming out at the far end of the clump, bolted under a tree like a frightened pig. And yet, they say, this poor little coward is a fierce animal enough. He is, we are told, impelled by so cruel a hunger that he would die of it were it to go unsatisfied for even twenty-four hours. If he can find nothing else to eat, he will kill and eat a fellow-mole. So the authorities tell us, but I wonder how many of the authorities have even seen a mole in the very act of cannibalism. How many of them have followed him on his long journeys through the bowels of the earth? He certainly looked no South Sea monster on the Sunday morning on which for a few seconds I watched him. Nor would John Clare have written affectionately about him had he been entirely bloody-minded.
Then there was the hedgehog. The charm of hedgehogs is that we do not see them every day—that their appearance is a secret and an accident. They are a part of the busy life that goes on all about us as mysteriously as the movements of spirits. Consequently, when I was looking over a sloping field the other evening and, hearing a crackling as of sticks being trodden on, turned my eyes and saw a living creature making its way out of a wood into the grass, I was delighted to find that it was a hedgehog and not a man or a rat. I could see it only dimly in the twilight, and it was difficult to believe that so small an animal had made so great a noise. The pleasure of recognition, unfortunately, was not mutual. No sooner did the hedgehog hear a foot pressing on the road than it gave up all thoughts of its supper of insects and hobbled back into the thicket. I regretted only that I had not made a greater noise, and scared it into rolling itself into a ball, as everybody says it does when alarmed. But it is perhaps just as well that the hedgehog did not merely repeat itself in this way. We like a certain variety of behaviour in animals—some element of the unexpected that always keeps our curiosity alive and looking forward.
But we must not exaggerate the pleasure to be got from moles and hedgehogs. They make a part of our being happy, but they do not delight the whole of our being, as a child is delighted by the world every spring. It is probably the child in us that responds most wholeheartedly to such pleasures. They, like the hum of insects, help to restore the illusion of a world that is perfectly happy because it is such a Noah's Ark of a spectacle and everybody is kind. But, even as we submit to the illusion in the garden, we become restive in our deck-chairs and remember the telephone or the daily paper or a letter that has to be written. And reality weighs on us, like a hand laid on a top, making an end of the spinning, making an end of the music. The world is no longer a toy dancing round and round. It is a problem, a run-down machine, a stuffy room full of little stabbing creatures that make an irritating noise.
The Champion Cat Show has been held at the Crystal Palace, but the champion cat was not there. One could not possibly allow him to appear in public. He is for show, but not in a cage. He does not compete, because he is above competition. You know this as well as I. Probably you possess him. I certainly do. That is the supreme test of a cat's excellence—the test of possession. One does not say: "You should see Brailsford's cat" or "You should see Adcock's cat" or "You should see Sharp's cat," but "You should see our cat." There is nothing we are more egoistic about—not even children—than about cats. I have heard a man, for lack of anything better to boast about, boasting that his cat eats cheese. In anyone else's cat it would have seemed an inferior habit and only worth mentioning to the servant as a warning. But because the cat happens to be his cat, this man talks about its vice excitedly among women as though it were an accomplishment. It is seldom that we hear a cat publicly reproached with guilt by anyone above a cook. He is not permitted to steal from our own larder. But if he visits the next-door house by stealth and returns over the wall with a Dover sole in his jaws, we really cannot help laughing. We are a little nervous at first, and our mirth is tinged with pity at the thought of the probably elderly and dyspeptic gentleman who has had his luncheon filched away almost from under his nose. If we were quite sure that it was from No. 14, and not from No. 9 or No. 11, that the fish had been stolen, we might—conceivably—call round and offer to pay for it. But with a cat one is never quite sure. And we cannot call round on all the neighbours and make a general announcement that our cat is a thief. In any case the next move lies with the wronged neighbour. As day follows day, and there is no sign of his irate and murder-bent figure advancing up the path, we recover our mental balance and begin to see the cat's exploit in a new light. We do not yet extol it on moral grounds, but undoubtedly, the more we think of it, the deeper becomes our admiration. Of the two great heroes of the Greeks we admire one for his valour and one for his cunning. The epic of the cat is the epic of Odysseus. The old gentleman with the Dover sole gradually assumes the aspect of a Polyphemus outwitted—outwitted and humiliated to the point of not even being able to throw things after his tormentor. Clever cat! Nobody else's cat could have done such a thing. We should like to celebrate the Rape of the Dover Sole in Latin verse.
As for the Achillean sort of prowess, we do not demand it of a cat, but we are proud of it when it exists. There is a pleasure in seeing strange cats fly at his approach, either in single file over the wall or in the scattered aimlessness of a bursting bomb. Theoretically, we hate him to fight, but, if he does fight and comes home with a torn ear, we have to summon up all the resources of our finer nature in order not to rejoice on noticing that the cat next door looks as though it had been through a railway accident. I am sorry for the cat next door. I hate him so, and it must be horrible to be hated. But he should not sit on my wall and look at me with yellow eyes. If his eyes were any other colour—even the blue that is now said to be the mark of the runaway husband—I feel certain I could just manage to endure him. But they are the sort of yellow eyes that you expect to see looking out at you from a hole in the panelling in a novel by Mr Sax Rohmer. The only reason why I am not frightened of them is that the cat is so obviously frightened of me. I never did him any injury unless to hate is to injure. But he lowers his head when I appear as though he expected to be guillotined. He does not run away: he merely crouches like a guilty thing. Perhaps he remembers how often he has stepped delicately over my seed-beds, but not so delicately as to leave no mark of ruin among the infant lettuces and the less-than-infant autumn-sprouting broccoli. These things I could forgive him, but it is not easy to forgive him the look in his eyes when he watches a bird at its song. They are ablaze with evil. He becomes a sort of Jack the Ripper at the opera. People tell us that we should not blame cats for this sort of thing—that it is their nature and so forth. They even suggest that a cat is no more cruel in eating robin than we are cruel ourselves in eating chicken. This seems to me to be quibbling. In the first place, there is an immense difference between a robin and a chicken. In the second place, we are willing to share our chicken with the cat—at least, we are willing to share the skin and such of the bones as are not required for soup. Besides, a cat has not the same need of delicacies as a human being. It can eat, and even digest, anything. It can eat the black skin of filleted plaice. It can eat the bits of gristle that people leave on the side of their plates. It can eat boiled cod. It can eat New Zealand mutton. There is no reason why an animal with so undiscriminating a palate should demand song-birds for its food, when even human beings, who are fairly unscrupulous eaters, have agreed in some measure to abstain from them. On reflection, however, I doubt if it is his appetite for birds that makes the cat with the yellow eyes feel guilty. If you were able to talk to him in his own language, and formulate your accusations against him as a bird-eater, he would probably be merely puzzled and look on you as a crank. If you pursued the argument and compelled him to moralise his position, he would, I fancy, explain that the birds were very wicked creatures and that their cruelties to the worms and the insects were more than flesh and blood could stand. He would work himself up into a generous idealisation of himself as the guardian of law and order amid the bloody strife of the cabbage-patch—the preserver of the balance of nature. If cats were as clever as we, they would compile an atrocities blue-book about worms. Alas, poor thrush, with how bedraggled a reputation you would come through such an exposure! With how Hunnish a tread you would be depicted treading the lawn, sparing neither age nor sex, seizing the infant worm as it puts out its head to take its first bewildered peep at the rolling sun! Cats could write sonnets on such a theme.... Then there is that other beautiful potential poem, The Cry of the Snail.... How tender-hearted cats are! Their sympathy seems to be all but universal, always on the look out for an object, ready to extend itself anywhere where it is needed, except, as is but human, to their victims. Yellow eyes or not, I begin to be persuaded that the cat next door is a noble fellow. It may well be that his look as I pass is a look not of fear but of repulsion. He has seen me going out among the worms with a sharp—no, not a very sharp—spade, and regards me as no better than an ogre. If I could only explain to him! But I shall never be able to do so. He could no more appreciate my point of view about worms than I can appreciate his about robins. Luckily, we both eat chicken. This may ultimately help us to understand one another.
On the other hand, part of the fascination of cats may be due to the fact that it is so difficult to come to an understanding with them. A man talks to a horse or a dog as to an equal. To a cat he has to be deferential as though it had some Sphinx-like quality that baffled him. He cannot order a cat about with the certainty of being obeyed. He cannot be sure that, if he speaks to it, it will even raise its eyes. If it is perfectly comfortable, it will not. A cat is obedient only when it is hungry or when it takes the fancy. It may be a parasite, but it is never a servant. The dog does your bidding, but you do the cat's. At the same time, the contrast between the cat and the dog has often been exaggerated by dog-lovers. They tell you stories of dogs that remained with their dead masters, as though there were no fidelity in cats. It was only the other day, however, that the newspapers gave an account of a cat that remained with the body of its murdered mistress in the most faithful tradition of the dogs. I know, again, of cats that will go out for a walk with a human fellow-creature, as dogs do. I have frequently seen a lady walking across Hampstead Heath with a cat in train. When you go for a walk with a dog, however, the dog protects you: when you go for a walk with a cat, you feel that you are protecting the cat. It is strange that the cat should have imposed the myth of its helplessness on us. It is an animal with an almost boundless capacity for self-help. It can jump up walls. It can climb trees. It can run, as the proverb says, like "greased lightning." It is armed like an African chief. Yet it has contrived to make itself a pampered pet, so that we are alarmed if it attempts to follow us out of the gate into a world of dogs, and only feel happy when it is purring—rolling on its back and purring as we rub its Adam's apple—by the fireside. There is nothing that gives a greater sense of comfort than the purring of a cat. It is the most flattering music in nature. One feels, as one listens, like a humble lover in a bad novel, who says: "You do, then, like me—a little—after all?" The fact that a cat is not utterly miserable in our presence always comes with the freshness and delight of a surprise. The happiness of a crowing baby, newly introduced to us, may be still more flattering, but a cat will get round people who cannot tolerate babies.
It is all the more to be wondered at that a cat, which is such a master of this conversational sort of music, should ever attempt any other. There never was an animal less fit to be a singer. Someone—was it Cowper?—-has said that there are no really ugly voices in nature, and that he could imagine that there was something to be said even for the donkey's bray. I should have thought that the beautiful voices in nature were few, and that most of them could be defended only on the ground of some pleasant association. Humanity, at least, has been unanimous in its condemnation of the cat as part of nature's chorus. Poems have been written in praise of the corncrake as a singer, but never of the cat. All the associations we have with cats have not accustomed us to that discordant howl. It converts love itself into a torment such as can be found only in the pages of a twentieth-century novel. In it we hear the jungle decadent—the beast in dissolution, but not yet civilised. When it rises at night outside the window, we always explain to visitors: "No; that's not Peter. That's the cat next door with the yellow eyes." The man who will not defend the honour of his cat cannot be trusted to defend anything.
May is chiefly remarkable for being the only month in which one does not like cats. June, too, perhaps; but, after that, one does not mind if the garden is full of cats. One likes to have a wild beast whose movements, lazy as those of Satan, will terrify the childish birds out of the gooseberry bushes and the raspberries and strawberries. He will not, we know, have much chance of catching them as late as that. They will be as cunning as he, and the robin will wind his alarum-clock, the starling in the plum-tree will cry out like a hysterical drake, and the blackbird will make as much noise as a farmyard. The cat can but blink at the clamour of such a host of cunning sentinels and, pretending that he had come out only to take the air, return majestically to his dinner of leavings in the kitchen. In May and June, however, one does not wish the birds to be frightened. One would like one's garden to be an Alsatia for all their wings and all their songs. There is no hope of this in a garden full of cats. Even a Tetrazzini would cease to be able to produce her best trills if every time she opened her mouth, a tiger padded in her direction down a path of currant bushes. There are, it may be admitted, heroic exceptions. The chaffinch sits in the plum and blusters out his music, cat or no cat. To be sure, he only sings, a flush of all the colours, in order to distract our attention. He is not an artist but a watchman. If you look into the buddleia-tree beside him, you will see his hen moving about in silence, creeping, dancing, fluttering, as she gorges herself with insects. She is a fly-catcher at this season, leaping into the air and pirouetting as she seizes her prey and returns to the bough. She is restless and is not content with the spoil of a single tree. She flings herself gracefully, like a ballet-dancer, into the plum, and takes up a caterpillar in her beak. She does not eat it at once, but stands still, eyeing you as though awaiting your applause. Her husband, sitting on the topmost spray, goes on singing his version of The Roast Beef of Old England. She does not even now eat the caterpillar, but hurries along the paths of the branches with the obvious purpose of finding a tasty insect to eat long with it. It may be that there are insects that play the part of mustard or Worcestershire sauce in the chaffinch world. What a meal she is making in any case before she hurries back to her nest! It seems that among the chaffinches the male is the more spiritual of the sexes. But then he has so little to do compared with the female. He is still in that state of savagery in which the male dresses finely and idles.
The thrush cannot carry on with the same indifference to cats. He is the most nervous of parents, and spends half his time calling on his children to be careful. The young thrush hopping about on the lawn knows nothing of cats and refuses to believe that they are dangerous. He is not afraid even of human beings. His parent becomes argumentative to the point of tears, but the young one stays where he is and looks at you with a sideways jerk of his head as much as to say: "Listen to the old 'un." You, too, begin to be alarmed at such boldness. You know, like the pitiful parent, that the world is a very dangerous place, and that your neighbour's cat goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. It has been contended by some men of science that all birds are born fearless after the manner of the young thrush, and that fear is a lesson that has to be taught to each new generation by the more experienced parents. Fear, they say, is not an inherited instinct, but a racial tradition that has to be communicated like the morality of civilised people. The young thrush on the lawn is certainly a witness on behalf of this theory. He hops towards you instead of away from you. He moves his gaping beak as though he were trying to say something. If there were no cats in the world, you would encourage his confidences, but you feel that, much as you would like to make friends with him, you must, for his own sake, give him his first lesson in fear. You try to give yourself the appearance of a grim giant: it has no effect on him. You make a quick movement to chase him away: he runs a few yards and then stops and looks round at you as though you were playing a game. It is too much to expect of you that you will actually throw stones at a bird for its good, and so you give up his education as a bad job. Alas, in two days, your worst fears are justified. His dead body is found, torn and ruffled, among the bushes. Some cat has murdered him—murdered him, evidently, not in hunger, but just for fun. Two indignant children, one gold, one brown, discover the dead body and bring in the tale. They prepare the funeral rites of one whose only sin was his innocence. This is not the first burial in the garden. There is already a cemetery marked with half-a-dozen crosses and heaped with flowers under the pear-tree on the south wall. Here is where the mouse was buried; here where the starling; and here the rabbit's skull. They all lie there under the earth in boxes, as you and I will lie, expecting the Last Trump. The robins are not kinder to the "friendless bodies of unburied men" than are children to the bodies of mice and birds. Here the ghost of no creature haunts reproaching us with the absence of a tomb, as the dead sailor washed up on an alien shore reproaches us so often in the pages of The Greek Anthology. There is a procession to the grave and all due ceremony. There is even a funeral service. Over the starling, perhaps, it lacked something in appropriateness. The buriers meant well however. Their favourite in verse at the time was Lars Porsena of Clusium, and they gave the starling the best they knew—gave it to him from beginning to end. What he made of it, there is no telling: he is, it is said an impressionable bird, though something of a satirist. Someone, overhearing them, recommended a briefer and more fitting service for the future. The young thrush had the benefit of the advice. He was laid to his last rest with the recitation of that noblest of valedictories: "Fear no more the heat o' the sun," over his tomb. He is now gone where there is no cat or parent to disturb. The priests who buried him declare that he has been turned into a golden nightingale, and that there must be no noise or romping in the garden for three days, as not till then will he have arrived safely at the Appleiades. That is the name they give to the Pleiades—the seven golden islands whither pass the souls of dead mice and birds and dolls and where Scarlatti lives and where you, too, may expect to go if you please them. Even the black cat will probably go there—one's own black cat. But not the neighbour's cat—the reddish-brown one—thief, murderer and beast. It is the neighbour's cat that makes one believe there is a hell.
Short is the memory of man, however. Shorter the memory of children. There is no gloom that can withstand May pouring itself out in the deep blue of anchusa and the paler blue of lupin, gushing out in the yellow of laburnum, tossing like the tides in the wind. One is gloomy, perhaps, when one looks at the lettuces and sees how slow is their growth. Watching a plant grow is like watching a kettle boil. It seems to take ons. The patience of gardeners always astonishes me. Were gardening my profession, I should spend half my time inventing schemes for making plants grow up in a night like Jonah's gourd. I should not mind about parsnips. A parsnip might mature as slowly as an oak and live as long for all I care. There is something, it may be, to be said for parsnips, as there is something, it may be, to be said for Mr Bonar Law. But I do not know it. They do not even tempt the slugs and the leather-jackets away from the lettuces. There is nothing that puzzles one more in a friend than if he confesses to a taste for parsnips. Immediately, a gulf yawns deeper than could be caused by any confession of religious or moral eccentricity. One's sympathies instinctively close up like a sea-anemone touched by a child's finger. Yet people eat them. All that you and I know about them is that kind words do not butter them; but, if you go to Covent Garden at the right time of the year, you will undoubtedly find them being sold for food. Why should they make one gloomy, however, seeing that one has successfully excluded them from one's garden? Perhaps one is gloomy because of the reflection that there must be many other gardens in which they are growing. Gloom of this kind, however, is mere philanthropy. Turn your eyes, instead, to the strawberry-flowers and think of June. Consider the broad beans and the young peas safe amid their tall stakes. Consider even the spring onions. Is it any wonder that the chaffinch sings and the wren is operatic on the thither side of the garden wall? High in the air the swifts scream, as they rush here and there after their prey, like polo teams galloping, pulling up, scrimmaging, turning, and off on the gallop again. The swift is an evil-looking bird, but playful. He has none of the grace of the swallow, for he cannot fold his wings, and he is black as a devil-worshipper. Still, he knows more of sport than most of the birds. I suspect that those rushing companions are not merely bent on food but have chosen out one individual insect for their pursuit like a ball in a game. Otherwise, why such excitement? There are billions of insects to be had for the mere asking. The fly-catcher knows this. He can spend an hour at a meal without ever flying more than ten yards from his bough. Still, one rejoices in the energy of the swift. One wishes the greenfinch had a little of it. The yellow splashes on his wings are undoubtedly delightful, but why will he perch so long in the acacia wailing like a sick cricket? And why did Wordsworth write a poem in praise of him? Probably he mistook some other bird for him. Poets are like that. Or perhaps he liked a noise like the voice of a sick cricket. One can never tell with Wordsworth. He had a cuckoo-clock.
NEW YEAR PROPHECIES
Some people are surprised at the daring with which compilers of prophetic almanacs forecast the details of the future. The most astonishing thing of all is that nearly everybody still regards the future as a mystery. As a matter of fact, we know a great deal about the future. We know that next year will contain 365 days. We know—and this is rather a tribute to our cleverness—that the year 1924 will contain 366 days, and even the exact point at which the extra day will slip in. Ask a savage to point you out the extra day in Leap Year, and he will be more hopelessly at a loss than a man looking for a needle in a haystack, but even the most ignorant Christian will pick it out at the right end of February as neatly and inevitably as a love-bird on a barrel-organ picking out a fortune. The art of prophecy has grown with civilisation. Prophets were regarded as almost divine persons in the old days, but now every man is his own Isaiah. I am the most modest of the prophets, but even I venture to foretell that there will be an annular eclipse of the sun in the coming year on the 8th of April, that it will begin at twenty-two minutes to 8 A.M. at Liverpool, and that it will be visible at Greenwich. What clairvoyant could go further? Test my mantic gifts at any other point and I doubt not I can satisfy you. Do you want to know at what time there will be high water at Aberdeen on the afternoon of the 21th January? The answer is: "Thirteen minutes past one." Do you want to know when partridge shooting will begin? I do not even need to reflect before giving the answer: "The 1st of September." And so I could go on, almost ad infinitum, filling in the details of the year in advance. On the 1st of March, for instance, being St David's Day, there will be a banquet at which Mr Lloyd George will make a reference to hills, mists, God, and a country called Wales. On the 28th of March, being Easter Monday, there will be a Bank Holiday. On the 24th of May, being Empire Day, the majority of shops in Regent Street will hang out Union Jacks, and school children will salute the flag at Abinger Hammer, Communists in various parts of London gnashing their teeth the while. On the 15th of June the anniversary of Magna Charta will fall and will pass without any disturbance. On the 12th of July Orangemen will dress im in sashes and listen to orators whose speeches will prove the hollowness of the old adage that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. On the same day, Lord Birkenhead will celebrate his forty-ninth birthday, showing that Gallopers are born not made. Need I continue, however? The year is obviously going to be a crowded one. It will, as I have said, contain 365 days and will come to an end at 12 P.M. on St Silvester's Day at the time of the new moon.
I have said enough, I think, to prove that one knows a great deal more about the future than is generally realised. There may be sceptics who doubt the virtue of my prophecies. If there be such, all I ask is that they should mark them well and verify each of them as its fulfilment falls due. The expense will be small. The most serious item will be the journey to Aberdeen to see the tide coming in on the 24th of January; but, by taking up a collection in Aberdeen, it should be possible to reduce one's net outlay by the better part of a shilling. On the whole, there never were prophecies easier to verify. I confidently challenge comparison between them and any prophecy made by any Cabinet Minister during the last five years. I even challenge comparison with the much more respectable prophecies contained in Raphael's Prophetic Messenger. Raphael at times strains our credulity. When he tells us, for instance, that on the 27th of April it is going to be "cold and frosty" and that on the 29th of April we shall see "high winds, storms and thunder," we feel that he is giving a free rein to his imagination and treating prophecy not as a science but as an art. That the 30th of April will be "showery" I agree, but how does he know that there will be "high wind and lightning" on the 21st of December? I am also somewhat puzzled as to the means by which he arrives at the conclusions set forth in his "every-day" guide for each day in the year. I can myself prophesy what you will do on each day, but I cannot, as he does, prophesy what you ought to do. This introduces an ethical element which is beyond my scope or horoscope. We need not quarrel with him when he dismisses the 1st of January as "an unimportant day," but when he bids us on the 2nd of January "court, marry, and deal with females," we may reasonably ask: "Why?" His advice for the 3rd is more acceptable. "Be careful," he says, "until 1 P.M. then seek work and push thy business." That is about the time of day one prefers to begin to "seek work"; would there were more days in the calendar like the 3rd of January. Some saint must have it in his keeping. On the 7th, however, it will be safer to abstain from work altogether. Raphael says: "A very unfortunate P.M. and evening for most purposes. Court and deal with females." Sunday, the 9th, is better. "Ask favours," he says, "in the P.M., and court." Though January is less than half gone, I confess I am getting a little breathless with so much courting. Raphael probably recognises this, and a note of caution creeps into his advice on the 13th, on which he bids us "court and marry in the morning, then be careful." By the 18th, however, he is his old self again. "Court," he says cheerfully, "marry and ask favours and push ahead." Then come one rather careful day and two unfortunate ones, till on the 22nd, in a burst of exuberance, he offers us the day of our lives. "Deal with others," he exhorts us, "and push thy business, seek work, travel, court, marry, buy and speculate." I doubt if all this can be crowded into twenty-four hours outside The Arabian Nights. Besides, as a result of following Raphael's advice, we are already bigamists several times over, and have become sick of the sight of a Registry Office. By the end of the month even Raphael shows signs of being a little weary of his scarcely veiled incitements to Bluebeardism. For the 29th he advises: "Avoid females and be very careful," and for the 30th, which is a Sunday: "Avoid females and superiors." I should just about think so.
We need not follow Raphael through the rest of the year. It is enough to say that he keeps us busy courting, marrying, seeking work, being careful, travelling, speculating, pushing ahead, and avoiding females right down till the end of December. He occasionally varies his formula, as when on the 6th of April he bids us: "Do not quarrel. Be quiet," and when, on the 23rd of June, he advises: "Ask favours of females, and travel." On the whole however, his recommendations leave us with a sense of the desperate monotony of human existence. It is no wonder the novelists find it so difficult to invent an original plot. Nothing seems to happen—even in the future—except the same old thing. It is all as monotonous as North, South, East and West. We turn with relief to the page on which Raphael tells us what are the best days on which to hire maidservants and to set turkeys. Our interest redoubles when we come on his advice to those about to kill pigs. "Do this," he says, "between eight and ten in the morning, and between the first quarter and full of the Moon; the pigs will weigh more, and the flavour of the pork be improved." Then there are "Legal and Commercial Notes," one of which—"A bailiff must not break into a house, but he may enter by the chimney "—suggests a subject for a drawing by Mr George Morrow. The medical notes are equally worthy of consideration. On one page we are given a list of herbal remedies, and we are told how one disease can be cured by pouring boiling water on hay (upland hay being better than meadow hay) and applying it to the stomach. But Raphael is no crank, as we see in his suggestion for the treatment of influenza:
"If you think you have got an attack of influenza slip off to bed at once and take the whisky or brandy bottle with you, and don't be afraid of it, for alcohol is the best medicine you can take as it kills the germs in the blood. Do not wait until you are half dead—remember that a stitch in time saves nine, even with health."
Even on the subject of the care of children's teeth he makes it clear that, whoever may have come under the blight of Pussyfoot, it is not he:
"I believe a Committee is to be appointed to inquire into the failing eyesight and decaying teeth in children. I think I have already stated that these troubles were due to the excessive amount of sugar or sweetstuffs consumed. All sweet things cause an excessive exudation of saliva from the gums, which affect and impair both the teeth and the eyesight for, despite of what dentist and doctor may say, there is an intimate relation between the two. Dr Sims Wallace, the eminent lecturer on Dental Surgery, recommends Beer or dry Champagne as an excellent mouth wash. They are also pleasant to the throat and stomach!"
The reader is now in a position to estimate for himself the extent to which he can rely on Raphael's judgment, and to decide how far he will accept the horoscope Raphael has cast for Mr Lloyd George. On this he writes:
"This gentleman has figured so prominently in our national affairs for the last few years, that it may not be out of place if I give a few remarks on his horoscope. The time of his birth is stated to have been January 17th, 1863, 8h. 55m. A.M., but neither myself, nor other Astrologers, are satisfied with this hour. I think he was born some minutes sooner. At his birth the Sun was in exact Square to Jupiter, and also in Square to Mars, and Mars was in Opposition to Jupiter. These are very ominous and important aspects. The former denotes great extravagance, and waste of money, and the latter gives impetuosity, and danger to the person."
He then proceeds to give a "brief analysis" of Mr Lloyd George's horoscope:
"The Sun near Ascendant—self-praise, egotism, self-satisfaction, fondness for publicity and notoriety.
"Venus and Mercury on Ascendant—fluency in speech, agreeableness, desire to please, fondness for Music, Arts, and Sciences.
"Mars in 2nd, in Opposition to Jupiter, unfavourable for financial undertakings, extravagance, carelessness, and losses in speculation.
"Uranus in 4th, trouble at end of life.
"Jupiter in the 8th, benefit or help from marriage partner.
"Moon near cusp of the 11th, many friends, especially females.
"The Aspects denote—Sun Square Jupiter and Mars, recklessness in expenditure, public disapprobation, and an unfavourable and sudden ending to life.
"Venus in Trine to Saturn, and Moon in Sextile to Jupiter—domestic relations of the happiest description, and the wife a great help."
I frankly doubt if any man can foretell the future of Mr Lloyd George. No one knows what he will say or do to-morrow. We know what phrases he will use, but we do not know on what side he will use them, or what he will mean by them. All we know is that Sir William Sutherland will say ditto.
Let us, then, return to safer fields of prophecy. What, really, is going to happen in 1921? I think I know. Human beings will behave like bewildered sheep. They will be chiefly notable for their lack of moral courage. Good men will apologise for the deeds of bad men, and bad men will do very much as they please. Cruel and selfish faces will be seen in every railway carriage and in every omnibus, but readers of the respectable Press will refuse to believe that there are any cruel people outside Germany and Russia. Not one but all the Ten Commandments will be broken, and turkeys will be eaten on Christmas Day. Men will die of disease, violence, famine and old age, and others will be born to take their place. Intellectuals will be pretentious—mules solemnly trying to look like Derby winners. There will be a considerable amount of lying, injustice, and self-righteousness. Dogs will be fairly decent, but some of them will bite. Above all, the human conscience will survive. It will survive. It will continue to be the old still, small voice we know—as still and as small as it is possible to be without disappearing into silence and nothingness. And some of us will get a certain amusement out of it all, and will prefer life rather than death. We shall also go on puzzling ourselves as to what under the sun it all means. Not even a murderer will be without a friend or a pet dog or cat or bird. That is what 1921 will be like. That, at least, is as certain as the time of the high tide at Aberdeen on the 24th of January.
ON KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE
It was only the other day that I came upon a full-grown man reading with something like rapture a little book—Ships and Seafaring Shown to Children. His rapture was modified however, by the bitter reflection that he had already passed so great a part of his life without knowing the difference between a ship and a barque; and, as for sloops, yawls, cutters, ketches, and brigantines, they were simply the Russian alphabet to him. I sympathise with his regret. It was a noble day in one's childhood when one had learned the names of sailing-vessels, and, walking to the point of the harbour beyond the bathing-boxes, could correct the ignorance of a friend: "That's not a ship. That's a brig." To the boy from an inland town every vessel that sails is a ship. He feels he is being shown a new and bewildering world when he is told that the only ship that has the right to be called a ship is a vessel with three masts (at least), all of them square-rigged. When once he has learned his lesson, he finds an unaccustomed delight in wandering along the dirtiest coal-quay, and recognising the barques by the fact that only two of their three masts are square-rigged, and the brigs by the fact that they are square-rigged throughout—a sort of two-masted ships. Vessels have suddenly become as real to him in their differences as the different sorts of common birds. As for his feelings on the day on which he can tell for certain the upper fore topsail from the upper fore top-gallant sail, and either of these from the fore skysail, the crossjack, or the mizzen-royal, they are those of a man who has mastered a language and discovers himself, to his surprise, talking it fluently. The world of shipping has become articulate poetry to him instead of a monotonous abracadabra.
It is as though we can know nothing of a thing until we know its name. Can we be said to know what a pigeon is unless we know that it is a pigeon? We may have seen it again and again, with its bottle-shoulders and shining neck, sitting on the edge of a chimney-pot, and noted it as a bird with a full bosom and swift wings. But if we are not able to name it except vaguely as a "bird," we seem to be separated from it by an immense distance of ignorance. Learn that it is a pigeon however, and immediately it rushes towards us across the distance, like something seen through a telescope. No doubt to the pigeon-fancier this would seem but the first lisping of knowledge, and he would not think much of our acquaintance with pigeons if we could not tell a carrier from a pouter. That is the charm of knowledge—it is merely a door into another sort of ignorance. There are always new differences to be discovered, new names to be learned, new individualities to be known, new classifications to be made. The world is so full of a number of things that no man with a grain of either poetry or the scientific spirit in him has any right to be bored, though he lived for a thousand years. Terror or tragedy may overwhelm him, but boredom never. The infinity of things forbids it. I once heard of a tipsy young artist who, on his way home on a beautiful night, had his attention called by a maudlin friend to the stars, where they twinkled like a million larks. He raised his eyes to the heavens, then shook his head. "There are too many of them," he complained wearily. It should be remembered, however, that he was drunk, and that he did not know astronomy. There could be too many stars only if they were all turned out on the same pattern, and made the same pattern on the sky. Fortunately, the universe is the creation not of a manufacturer but of an artist.
There is scarcely a subject that does not contain sufficient Asias of differences to keep an explorer happy for a lifetime. It would be easy to do nothing but chase butterflies all one's days. It is said that thirteen thousand species of butterflies have been already discovered, and it is suggested that there may be nearly twice as many that have so far escaped the naturalists. After so monstrous a figure, we are not surprised to learn that there are sixty-eight species of butterflies in Great Britain and Ireland. We should be astonished, however, had we not already expended our astonishment on the larger number. How many of us are there who could name even half-a-dozen varieties? We all know the tortoiseshell and the white and the blue—the little blue butterflies that flutter over the gold and red of the cornfields. But the average man does not even know by name such varieties as the Camberwell Beauty, the Dingy Skipper, the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, and the White-letter Hairstreak. As for the moth, are there not as many sorts of moths as there are words in a dictionary? Many men give all the pleasant hours of their lives to learning how to know the difference between one of them and another. One used to see these moth-hunters on windless nights in a Hampstead lane pursuing their quarry fantastically with nets in the light of the lamps. In pursuing moths, they pursue knowledge. This, they feel, is life at its most exciting, its most intense. They regard a man who does not know and is not interested in the difference between one moth and another as a man not yet thoroughly awakened from his pre-natal sleep. And, indeed, one could not conceive a more appalling sort of blank idiocy than the condition of a man who could not tell one thing from another in any department of life whatever. We would rather change lives with a jelly-fish than with such a man. This luxury of variety was not meant to be ignored. We throw ourselves into it with exhilaration as a swimmer plunges into the sea. There are few forms of happiness I know which are more enviable than that of those who have eyes for birds and flowers. How they rejoice on learning that, according to one theory, there are a hundred and three different species of brambles to be found in these islands! They would not have them fewer by a single one. It is extraordinarily pleasant even for one who is mainly ignorant of the flowers and their families to come on two or three varieties of one flower in the course of a country walk. As a boy, he is excited by the difference between the pin-headed and the thrum-headed primrose. As he grows older, he scans the roadside for little peeping things that to a lazy eye seem as like each other as two peas—the dove's foot geranium, the round-leaved geranium and the lesser wild geranium. "As like each other as two peas," we have said: but are two peas like each other? Who knows whether the peas have not the same differences of feature among themselves that Englishmen have? Half the similarities we notice are only the results of our ignorance and idleness. The townsman passing a field of sheep finds it difficult to believe that the shepherd can distinguish between one and another of them with as much certainty as if they were his children. And do not most of us think of foreigners as beings who are all turned out as if on a pattern, like sheep? The further removed the foreigners are from us in race the more they seem to us to be like each other. When we speak of negroes, we think of millions of people most of whom look exactly alike. We feel much the same about Chinamen and even Turks. Probably to a Chinaman all English children look exactly alike, and it may be that all Europeans seem to him to be as indistinguishable as sticks of barley-sugar. How many people think of Jews in this way! I have heard an Englishman expressing his wonder that Jewish parents should be able to pick out their own children in a crowd of Jewish boys and girls.