WAITING FOR DAYLIGHT
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BOOKS BY H. M. TOMLINSON
THE SEA AND THE JUNGLE OLD JUNK LONDON RIVER WAITING FOR DAYLIGHT
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THE FIRST PRINTING OF THIS BOOK CONSISTS OF TWENTY-ONE HUNDRED COPIES, OF WHICH TWO THOUSAND ARE FOR SALE.
THIS IS NUMBER
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WAITING FOR DAYLIGHT
By H. M. TOMLINSON
NEW YORK . ALFRED . A . KNOPF . MCMXXII
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COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY ALFRED A. KNOPF, Inc.
Published May, 1922
Set up, electrotyped and printed by the Vail-Ballou Co., Binghamton, N. Y. Paper furnished by Henry Lindenmeyr & Sons, New York, N. Y. Bound by the H. Wolff Estate, New York, N. Y.
MANUFACTURED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
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To MY WIFE
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I. IN YPRES 3
II. A RAID NIGHT 12
III. ISLANDS 24
IV. TRAVEL BOOKS 28
V. SIGNS OF SPRING 31
VI. PROSE WRITING 36
VII. THE MODERN MIND 40
VIII. MAGAZINES 44
IX. THE MARNE 49
X. CARLYLE 56
XI. HOLIDAY READING 58
XII. AN AUTUMN MORNING 65
XIII. NEWS FROM THE FRONT 74
XIV. AUTHORS AND SOLDIERS 80
XV. WAITING FOR DAYLIGHT 88
XVI. THE NOBODIES 96
XVII. BOOKWORMS 112
XVIII. SAILOR LANGUAGE 115
XIX. ILLUSIONS 120
XX. FIGURE-HEADS 127
XXI. ECONOMICS 133
XXII. OLD SUNLIGHT 135
XXIII. RUSKIN 140
XXIV. THE REWARD OF VIRTUE 147
XXV. GREAT STATESMEN 149
XXVI. JOY 152
XXVII. THE REAL THING 162
XXVIII. LITERARY CRITICS 170
XXIX. THE SOUTH DOWNS 175
XXX. KIPLING 182
XXXI. A DEVON ESTUARY 188
XXXII. BARBELLION 194
XXXIII. BREAKING THE SPELL 200
WAITING FOR DAYLIGHT
I. In Ypres
JULY, 1915. My mouth does not get so dry as once it did, I notice, when walking in from Suicide Corner to the Cloth Hall. There I was this summer day, in Ypres again, in a silence like a threat, amid ruins which might have been in Central Asia, and I, the last man on earth, contemplating them. There was something bumping somewhere, but it was not in Ypres, and no notice is taken in Flanders of what does not bump near you. So I sat on the disrupted pedestal of a forgotten building and smoked, and wondered why I was in the city of Ypres, and why there was a war, and why I was a fool.
It was a lovely day, and looking up at the sky over what used to be a school dedicated to the gentle Jesus, which is just by the place where one of the seventeen-inchers has blown a forty-foot hole, I saw a little round cloud shape in the blue, and then another, and then a cluster of them; the kind of soft little cloudlets on which Renaissance cherubs rest their chubby elbows and with fat faces inclined on their hands consider mortals from cemetery monuments. Then dull concussions arrived from heaven, and right overhead I made out two German 'planes. A shell-case banged the pave and went on to make a white scar on a wall. Some invisible things were whizzing about. One's own shrapnel can be tactless.
There was a cellar near and I got into it, and while the intruders were overhead I smoked and gazed at the contents of the cellar—the wreckage of a bicycle, a child's chemise, one old boot, a jam-pot, and a dead cat. Owing to an unsatisfactory smell of many things I climbed out as soon as possible and sat on the pedestal again.
A figure in khaki came straight at me across the Square, its boots sounding like the deliberate approach of Fate in solitude. It stopped and saluted, and said: "I shouldn't stay 'ere, sir. They gen'ally begin about now. Sure to drop some 'ere."
At that moment a mournful cry went over us, followed by a crash in Sinister Street. My way home! Some masonry fell in sympathy from the Cloth Hall.
"Better come with me till it blows over, sir. I've got a dug-out near."
We turned off into a part of the city unknown to me. There were some unsettling noises, worse, no doubt, because of the echoes behind us; but it is not dignified to hurry when one looks like an officer. One ought to fill a pipe. I did so, and stopped to light it. I paused while drawing at it, checked by the splitting open of the earth in the first turning to the right and the second to the left, or thereabouts.
"That's a big 'un, sir," said my soldier, taking half a cigarette from behind his ear and a light from my match; we then resumed our little promenade. By an old motor 'bus having boards for windows, and War Office neuter for its colour, but bearing for memory's sake on its brow the legend "Liverpool Street," my soldier hurried slightly, and was then swallowed up. I was alone. While looking about for possible openings I heard his voice under the road, and then saw a dark cavity, low in a broken wall, and crawled in. Feeling my way by knocking on the dark with my forehead and my shins, I descended to a lower smell of graves which was hollowed by a lighted candle in a bottle. And there was the soldier, who provided me with an empty box, and himself with another, and we had the candle between us. On the table were some official documents under a shell-nose, and a tin of condensed milk suffering from shock. Pictures of partly clad ladies began to appear on the walls through the gloom. Now and then the cellar trembled.
"Where's that old 'bus come from?" I asked.
"Ah! The pore old bitch, sir," said the soldier sadly.
"Yes, of course, but what's the matter with her?"
"She's done in, sir. But she's done her bit, she has," said my soldier, changing the crossing of his legs. "Ah! little did she think when I used to take 'er acrorse Ludget Circus what a 'ell of a time I'd 'ave to give 'er some day. She's a good ole thing. She's done 'er bit. She won't see Liverpool Street no more. If medals wasn't so cheap she ought to 'ave one, she ought."
The cellar had a fit of the palsy, and the candle-light shuddered and flattened.
"The ruddy swine are ruddy wild to-day. Suthin's upset 'em. 'Ow long will this ruddy war last, sir?" asked the soldier, slightly plaintive.
"I know," I said. "It's filthy. But what about your old 'bus?"
"Ah! what about 'er. She ain't 'arf 'ad a time. She's seen enough war to make a general want to go home and shell peas. What she knows about it would make them clever fellers in London who reckon they know all about it turn green if they heard a door slam. Learned it all in one jolly old day, too. Learned it sudden, like you gen'ally learn things you don't forget. And I reckon I 'adn't anything to find out, either, not after Antwerp. Don't tell me, sir, war teaches you a lot. It only shows fools what they didn't know but might 'ave guessed.
"You know Poperinghe? Well, my trip was between there an' Wipers, gen'ally. The stones on the road was enough to make 'er shed nuts and bolts by the pint. But it was a quiet journey, take it all round, and after a cup o' tea at Wipers I used to roll home to the park. It was easier than the Putney route. Wipers was full of civilians. Shops all open. Estaminets and nice young things. I used to like war better than a school-boy likes Sat'd'y afternoons. It wasn't work and it wasn't play. And there was no law you couldn't break if you 'ad sense enough to come to attention smart and answer quick. Yes, sir.
"I knew so little about war then that I'm sorry I never tried to be a military expert. But my education was neglected. I can only write picture postcards. It's a pity. Well, one day it wasn't like that. It dropped on Wipers, and it wasn't like that. It was bloody different. I wasn't frightened, but my little inside was.
"First thing was the gassed soldiers coming through. Their faces were green and blue, and their uniform a funny colour. I didn't know what was the matter with 'em, and that put the wind up, for I didn't want to look like that. We could hear a gaudy rumpus in the Salient. The civvies were frightened, but they stuck to their homes. Nothing was happening there then, and while nothing is happening it's hard to believe it's going to. After seeing a Zouave crawl by with his tongue hanging out, and his face the colour of a mottled cucumber, I said good-bye to the little girl where I was. It was time to see about it.
"And fact is, I didn't 'ave much time to think about it, what with gettin' men out and gettin' reinforcements in. Trip after trip.
"But I shall never have a night again like that one. Believe me, it was a howler. I steered the old 'bus, but it was done right by accident. It was certainly touch and go. I shouldn't 'ave thought a country town, even in war, could look like Wipers did that night.
"It was gettin' dark on my last trip, and we barged into all the world gettin' out. And the guns and reinforcements were comin' up behind me. There's no other road out or in, as you know. I forgot to tell you that night comin' on didn't matter much, because the place was alight. The sky was full of shrapnel, and the high-explosives were falling in the houses on fire, and spreading the red stuff like fireworks. The gun ahead of me went over a child, but only its mother and me saw that, and a house in flames ahead of the gun got a shell inside it, and fell on the crowd that was mixed up with the army traffic.
"When I got to a side turning I 'opped off to see how my little lady was getting on. A shell had got 'er estaminet. The curtains were flying in little flames through the place where the windows used to be. Inside, the counter was upside down, and she was laying with glass and bottles on the floor. I couldn't do anything for her. And further up the street my headquarters was a heap of bricks, and the houses on both sides of it on fire. No good looking there for any more orders.
"Being left to myself, I began to take notice. While you're on the job you just do it, and don't see much of anything else except out of the corner of the eye. I've never 'eard such a row—shells bursting, houses falling, and the place was foggy with smoke, and men you couldn't see were shouting, and the women and children, wherever they were, turning you cold to hear 'em.
"It was like the end of the world. Time for me to 'op it. I backed the old 'bus and turned 'er, and started off—shells in front and behind and overhead, and, thinks I, next time you're bound to get caught in this shower. Then I found my officer. 'E was smoking a cigarette, and 'e told me my job. 'E gave me my cargo. I just 'ad to take 'em out and dump 'em.
"'Where shall I take 'em, sir?'
"'Take 'em out of this,' says he. 'Take 'em anywhere, take 'em where you like, Jones, take 'em to hell, but take 'em away,' says he.
"So I loaded up. Wounded Tommies, gassed Arabs, some women and children, and a few lunatics, genuine cock-eyed loonies from the asylum. The shells chased us out. One biffed us over on to the two rear wheels, but we dropped back on four on the top speed. Several times I bumped over soft things in the road and felt rather sick. We got out o' the town with the shrapnel a bit in front all the way. Then the old 'bus jibbed for a bit. Every time a shell burst near us the lunatics screamed and laughed and clapped their hands, and trod on the wounded, but I got 'er goin' again. I got 'er to Poperinghe. Two soldiers died on the way, and a lunatic had fallen out somewhere, and a baby was born in the 'bus; and me with no conductor and no midwife.
"I met our chaplain and says he: 'Jones, you want a drink. Come with me and have a Scotch.' That was a good drink. I 'ad the best part of 'arf a bottle without water, and it done me no 'arm. Next morning I found I'd put in the night on the parson's bed in me boots, and 'e was asleep on the floor."
II. A Raid Night
SEPTEMBER 17, 1915. I had crossed from France to Fleet Street, and was thankful at first to have about me the things I had proved, with their suggestion of intimacy, their look of security; but I found the once familiar editorial rooms of that daily paper a little more than estranged. I thought them worse, if anything, than Ypres. Ypres is within the region where, when soldiers enter it, they abandon hope, because they have become sane at last, and their minds have a temperature a little below normal. In Ypres, whatever may have been their heroic and exalted dreams, they awake, see the world is mad, and surrender to the doom from which they know a world bereft will give them no reprieve.
There was a way in which the office of that daily paper was familiar. I had not expected it, and it came with a shock. Not only the compulsion, but the bewildering inconsequence of war was suggested by its activities. Reason was not there. It was ruled by a blind and fixed idea. The glaring artificial light, the headlong haste of the telegraph instruments, the wild litter on the floor, the rapt attention of the men scanning the news, their abrupt movements and speed when they had to cross the room, still with their gaze fixed, their expression that of those who dreaded something worse to happen; the suggestion of tension, as though the Last Trump were expected at any moment, filled me with vague alarm. The only place where that incipient panic is not usual is the front line, because there the enemy is within hail, and is known to be another unlucky fool. But I allayed my anxiety. I leaned over one of the still figures and scanned the fateful document which had given its reader the aspect of one who was staring at what the Moving Finger had done. Its message was no more than the excited whisper of a witness who had just left a keyhole. But I realized in that moment of surprise that this office was an essential feature of the War; without it, the War might become Peace. It provoked the emotions which assembled civilians in ecstatic support of the sacrifices, just as the staff of a corps headquarters, at some comfortable leagues behind the trenches, maintains its fighting men in the place where gas and shells tend to engender common sense and irresolution.
I left the glare of that office, its heat and half-hysterical activity, and went into the coolness and quiet of the darkened street, and there the dread left me that it could be a duty of mine to keep hot pace with patriots in full stampede. The stars were wonderful. It is such a tranquillizing surprise to discover there are stars over London. Until this War, when the street illuminations were doused, we never knew it. It strengthens one's faith to discover the Pleiades over London; it is not true that their delicate glimmer has been put out by the remarkable incandescent energy of our power stations. There they are still. As I crossed London Bridge the City was as silent as though it had come to the end of its days, and the shapes I could just make out under the stars were no more substantial than the shadows of its past. Even the Thames was a noiseless ghost. London at night gave me the illusion that I was really hidden from the monstrous trouble of Europe, and, at least for one sleep, had got out of the War. I felt that my suburban street, secluded in trees and unimportance, was as remote from the evil I knew of as though it were in Alaska. When I came to that street I could not see my neighbours' homes. It was with some doubt that I found my own. And there, with three hours to go to midnight, and a book, and some circumstances that certainly had not changed, I had retired thankfully into a fragment of that world I had feared we had completely lost.
"What a strange moaning the birds in the shrubbery are making!" my companion said once. I listened to it, and thought it was strange. There was a long silence, and then she looked up sharply. "What's that?" she asked. "Listen!"
I listened. My hearing is not good.
"Nothing!" I assured her.
"There it is again." She put down her book with decision, and rose, I thought, in some alarm.
"Trains," I suggested. "The gas bubbling. The dog next door. Your imagination." Then I listened to the dogs. It was curious, but they all seemed awake and excited.
"What is the noise like?" I asked, surrendering my book on the antiquity of man.
She twisted her mouth in a comical way most seriously, and tried to mimic a deep and solemn note.
"Guns," I said to myself, and went to the front door.
Beyond the vague opposite shadows of some elms lights twinkled in the sky, incontinent sparks, as though glow lamps on an invisible pattern of wires were being switched on and off by an idle child. That was shrapnel. I walked along the empty street a little to get a view between and beyond the villas. I turned to say something to my companion, and saw then my silent neighbours, shadowy groups about me, as though they had not approached but had materialized where they stood. We watched those infernal sparks. A shadow lit its pipe and offered me its match. I heard the guns easily enough now, but they were miles away.
A slender finger of brilliant light moved slowly across the sky, checked, and remained pointing, firmly accusatory, at something it had found in the heavens. A Zeppelin!
There it was, at first a wraith, a suggestion on the point of vanishing, and then illuminated and embodied, a celestial maggot stuck to the round of a cloud like a caterpillar to the edge of a leaf. We gazed at it silently, I cannot say for how long. The beam of light might have pinned the bright larva to the sky for the inspection of interested Londoners. Then somebody spoke. "I think it is coming our way."
I thought so too. I went indoors, calling out to the boy as I passed his room upstairs, and went to where the girls were asleep. Three miles, three minutes! It appears to be harder to waken children when a Zeppelin is coming your way. I got the elder girl awake, lifted her, and sat her on the bed, for she had become heavier, I noticed. Then I put her small sister over my shoulder, as limp and indifferent as a half-filled bag. By this time the elder one had snuggled into the foot of her bed, resigned to that place if the other end were disputed, and was asleep again. I think I became annoyed, and spoke sharply. We were in a hurry. The boy was waiting for us at the top of the stairs.
"What's up?" he asked with merry interest, hoisting his slacks.
"Come on down," I said.
We went into a central room, put coats round them, answering eager and innocent questions with inconsequence, had the cellar door and a light ready, and then went out to inspect affairs. There were more searchlights at work. Bright diagonals made a living network on the overhead dark. It was remarkable that those rigid beams should not rest on the roof of night, but that their ends should glide noiselessly about the invisible dome. The nearest of them was followed, when in the zenith, by a faint oval of light. Sometimes it discovered and broke on delicate films of high fair-weather clouds. The shells were still twinkling brilliantly, and the guns were making a rhythmless baying in the distance, like a number of alert and indignant hounds. But the Zeppelin had gone. The firing diminished and stopped.
They went to bed again, and as I had become acutely depressed, and the book now had no value, I turned in myself, assuring everyone, with the usual confidence of the military expert, that the affair was over for the night. But once in bed I found I could see there only the progress humanity had made in its movement heavenwards. That is the way with us; never to be concerned with the newest clever trick of our enterprising fellow-men till a sudden turn of affairs shows us, by the immediate threat to our own existence, that that cleverness has added to the peril of civilized society, whose house has been built on the verge of the pit. War now would be not only between soldiers. In future wars the place of honour would be occupied by the infants, in their cradles. For war is not murder. Starving children is war, and it is not murder. What treacherous lying is all the heroic poetry of battle! Men will now creep up after dark, ambushed in safety behind the celestial curtains, and drop bombs on sleepers beneath for the greater glory of some fine figment or other. It filled me, not with wrath at the work of Kaisers and Kings, for we know what is possible with them, but with dismay at the discovery that one's fellows are so docile and credulous that they will obey any order, however abominable. The very heavens had been fouled by this obscene and pallid worm, crawling over those eternal verities to which eyes had been lifted for light when night and trouble were over dark. God was dethroned by science. One looked startled at humanity, seeing not the accustomed countenance, but, for a moment, glimpsing instead the baleful lidless stare of the evil of the slime, the unmentionable of a nightmare....
A deafening crash brought us out of bed in one movement. I must have been dozing. Someone cried, "My children!" Another rending uproar interrupted my effort to shepherd the flock to a lower floor. There was a raucous avalanche of glass. We muddled down somehow—I forget how. I could not find the matches. Then in the dark we lost the youngest for some eternal seconds while yet another explosion shook the house. We got to the cellar stairs, and at last there they all were, their backs to the coals, sitting on lumber.
A candle was on the floor. There were more explosions, somewhat muffled. The candle-flame showed a little tremulous excitement, as if it were one of the party. It reached upwards curiously in a long intent flame, and then shrank flat with what it had learned. We were accompanied by grotesque shadows. They stood about us on the white and unfamiliar walls. We waited. Even the shadows seemed to listen with us; they hardly moved, except when the candle-flame was nervous. Then the shadows wavered slightly. We waited. I caught the boy's eye, and winked. He winked back. The youngest, still with sleepy eyes, was trembling, though not with cold, and this her sister noticed, and put her arms about her. His mother had her hand on her boy's shoulder.
There was no more noise outside. It was time, perhaps, to go up to see what had happened. I put a raincoat over my pyjamas, and went into the street. Some of my neighbours, who were special constables, hurried by. The enigmatic night, for a time, for five minutes, or five seconds (I do not know how long it was), was remarkably still and usual. It might have been pretending that we were all mistaken. It was as though we had been merely dreaming our recent excitements. Then, across a field, a villa began to blaze. Perhaps it had been stunned till then, and had suddenly jumped into a panic of flames. It was wholly involved in one roll of fire and smoke, a sudden furnace so consuming that, when it as suddenly ceased, giving one or two dying spasms, I had but an impression of flames rolling out of windows and doors to persuade me that what I had seen was real. The night engulfed what may have been an illusion, for till then I had never noticed a house at that point.
Whispers began to pass of tragedies that were incredible in their incidence and craziness. Three children were dead in the rubble of one near villa. The ambulance that was passing was taking their father to the hospital. A woman had been blown from her bed into the street. She was unhurt, but she was insane. A long row of humbler dwellings, over which the dust was still hanging in a faint mist, had been demolished, and one could only hope the stories about that place were far from true. We were turned away when we would have assisted; all the help that was wanted was there. A stranger offered me his tobacco pouch, and it was then I found my rainproof was a lady's, and therefore had no pipe in its pocket.
The sky was suspect, and we watched it, but saw only vacuity till one long beam shot into it, searching slowly and deliberately the whole mysterious ceiling, yet hesitating sometimes, and going back on its path as though intelligently suspicious of a matter which it had passed over too quickly. It peered into the immense caverns of a cloud to which it had returned, illuminating to us unsuspected and horrifying possibilities of hiding-places above us. We expected to see the discovered enemy boldly emerge then. Nothing came out. Other beams by now had joined the pioneer, and the night became bewildering with a dazzling mesh of light. Shells joined the wandering beams, those sparks of orange and red. A world of fantastic chimney-pots and black rounds of trees leaped into being between us and the sudden expansion of a fan of yellow flame. A bomb! We just felt, but hardly heard, the shock of it. A furious succession of such bursts of light followed, a convulsive opening and shutting of night. We saw that when midnight is cleft asunder it has a fiery inside.
The eruptions ceased. Idle and questioning, not knowing we had heard the last gun and bomb of the affair, a little stunned by the maniacal rapidity and violence of this attack, we found ourselves gazing at the familiar and shadowy peace of our suburb as we have always known it. It had returned to that aspect. But something had gone from it for ever. It was not, and never could be again, as once we had known it. The security of our own place had been based on the goodwill or indifference of our fellow-creatures everywhere. To-night, over that obscure and unimportant street, we had seen a celestial portent illuminate briefly a little of the future of mankind.
JANUARY 5, 1918. The editor of the Hibbert Journal betrays a secret and lawless passion for islands. They must be small sanctuaries, of course, far and isolated; for he shows quite rightly that places like the British Isles are not islands in any just and poetic sense. Our kingdom is earth, sour and worm-riddled earth, with all its aboriginal lustre trampled out. By islands he means those surprising landfalls, Kerguelen, the Antarctic Shetlands, Timor, Amboyna, the Carolines, the Marquesas, and the Galapagos. An island with a splendid name, which I am sure he would have mentioned had he thought of it, is Fernando de Noronha.
There must be a fair number of people to-day who cherish that ridiculous dream of an oceanic solitude. We remember that whenever a storyteller wishes to make enchantment seem thoroughly genuine, he begins upon an island. One might say, if in a hurry, that Defoe began it, but in leisure recall the fearful spell of islands in the Greek legends. It is easily understood. If you have watched at sea an island shape, and pass, forlorn in the waste, apparently lifeless, and with no movement to be seen but the silent fountains of the combers, then you know where the Sirens were born, and why awful shapes grew in the minds of the simple Greeks out of the wonders in Crete devised by the wise and mysterious Minoans, who took yearly the tribute of Greek youth—youth which never returned to tell.
How easily the picture of one's first island in foreign seas comes back! I had not expected mine, and was surprised one morning, when eastward-bound in the Mediterranean, to see a pallid mass of rock two miles to port, when I had imagined I knew the charts of that sea well enough. It was a frail ghost of land on that hard blue plain, and had a light of its own; but it looked arid and forbidding, a place of seamen's bones. Turning quickly to the mate I asked for its name. "Alboran," he said, very quietly, without looking at it, as though keeping something back. He said no more. But while that strange glimmer was on the sea I watched it; I have learned nothing since of Alboran; and so the memory of that brief sight of a strange rock is as though once I had blundered on a dreadful secret which the men who knew it preferred to keep.
But there is a West Indian Island which for me is the best in the seas, because the memory of it is but a reflection of my last glimpse of the tropics. That landfall in the Spanish Main was as soundless as a dream. It was but an apparition of land. It might have been no more than an unusually vivid recollection of a desire which had once stirred the imagination of a boy. Looking at it, I felt sceptical, quite unprepared to believe that what once was a dream could be coming true by any chance of my drift through the years. Yet there it remained, right in our course, on a floor of malachite which had stains of orange drift-weed. It could have been a mirage. It appeared diaphanous, something so frail that a wind could have stirred it. Did it belong to this earth? It grew higher, and the waves could be seen exploding against its lower rocks. It was a dream come true. Yet even now, as I shall not have that landfall again, I have a doubt that waters could be of the colours which were radiant about that island, that rocks could be of rose and white, that trees could be so green and aromatic, and light—except of the Hesperides, which are lost—so like the exhilarating life and breath of the prime. A doubt indeed! For every whisper one hears to-day deepens the loom of a gigantic German attack.
IV. Travel Books
JANUARY 19, 1918. What long hours at night we wait for sleep! Sleep will not come. A friend, who grows more like a sallow congestion of scorn than a comfortable companion, warned me yesterday, when I spoke of the end of the War, that it might have no end. He said that we could not escape our fate. Our star, I gathered, was to receive a celestial spring-cleaning. There would be bonfires of litter. We had become impeded with the rubbish of centuries of wise and experienced statecraft, and we had hardly more than begun to get rid of it. A renaissance with a vengeance! Youth was in revolt against the aged and the dead.
But what an idea to look at when waiting for sleep! I turned over with another sigh, and recalled that William James has advised us that a deleterious thought may be exorcised by willing another that is sunny. I tried to command a more enjoyable picture for eyes that were closed but intent. Yet you never know where the most promising image will transport you through some inconsequential association. I recalled a pleasing day in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that brought Eothen into my mind, by chance. And instantly, instead of seeing Sfax in Tunis, I was looking down from a window on a black-edged day of rain, watching an unending procession of moribund figures jolting over the pave of a street in Flanders, in every kind of conveyance, from the Yser. There I was, back at the War, at two in the morning, and all because I had read Eothen desperately in odd moments while waiting for the signs which would warn me that the enemy was about to enter that village.
No escape yet! I could hear the old clock slowly making its way towards another day. I heard a belated wayfarer going home, his feet muffled in snow. Anyhow, I never had much of an opinion of Eothen, a book over which the cymbals have been banged too loudly. Compare it, as a travel book, for substance and style, with A Week on the Concord; though that is a silly thing to ask, if no sillier than literary criticism usually is. But though all the lists the critics make of our best travel books invariably give Kinglake's a principal place, I have not once seen Thoreau's narrative included.
What is the test for such a book? I should ask it to be a trustworthy confidence of a kingdom where the marches may be foreign to our cheap and usual experience, though familiar enough to our dreams. It may not offer, but it must promise that Golden City which drew Raleigh to the Orinoco, Thoreau to Walden Pond, Doughty to Arabia, Livingstone to Tanganyika, and Hudson to the Arctic. The fountain of life is there. We hope to come to our own.
We never notice whether that country has good corn-land, or whether it is rich enough in minerals to arouse an interest in its future. But its prospects are lovely and of good report. It is always a surprise to find the earth can look so good, and behave so handsomely, on the quiet, to a vagabond traveller like Thoreau, who has no valid excuse for not being at honest work, as though it reserved its finest mornings to show to favoured children when really good people are not about. The Sphinx has a secret only for those who do not see her wink.
V. Signs of Spring
FEBRUARY 16, 1918. A catalogue of second-hand books was sent to me yesterday. A raid warning, news of the destruction of Parliament House, or a whisper of the authentic ascent of Mr. Lloyd George in a fiery chariot and of the flight of God, would do no more to us than another kick does to the dead. But that catalogue had to be handled to be believed. It was an incredible survival from the days before the light went out. Those minor gratifications have gone. I had even forgotten they were ever ours. Sometimes now one wakes to a morning when the window is a golden square, a fine greeting to a good earth, and the whistle of a starling in the apple tree just outside is as tenuous as a thread of silver; the smell of coffee brings one up blithe as a boy about to begin play again. Yet something we feel to be wrong—a foggy memory of an ugly dream—ah, yes; the War, the War. The damned remembrance of things as they are drops its pall. The morning paper, too, I see, has the information that our men are again cheerfully waiting for the spring offensive.
Cheerfully! But, of course, the editor knows. And the spring offensive! I have seen that kind of vernal gladness. What an advent! When you find the first blue egg in the shrubbery behind your billet in Artois; when the G. S. O. 2 comes into the mess with a violet in his fingers, and shows it to every doubter, then you know the time has come for the testing of the gas cylinders, and you wonder whether this is the last time you will be noteworthy because you had the earliest news of the chiffchaff. The spring offensive! Guns are now converging by leagues of roads to a new part of the Front, to try to do there what they failed to do elsewhere. The men, as all important editors know, are happily waiting for the great brutes to begin bellowing again in infernal concert. So there accumulates at breakfast in these spring days all that evidence which makes one proud to share with one's fellows the divine gift of reason, instead of a blind and miserable animal instinct. No wonder the cuckoo has a merry note!
That is the way we idle and hapless civilians now begin our day. I look up to the sky, and wonder whether this inopportune spell of fine weather means that some London children will be killed in bed to-night. As I pass the queues of women who have been waiting for hours for potatoes, and probably won't get any, though the earth doubtless is still abundant, if we had but the sense and opportunity to try it, I cannot help wondering whether it would not have been better for us to have refused the gift of reason from which could be devised the edifying wonders of civilization, and have remained in the treetops instead, so ignorant that we were unaware we were lucky.
Another grave statement by a great statesman, and, when we are fortunate, a field postcard, are to-day our full literary deserts. Is it surprising that catalogues of old books do not come our way? We do not deserve them. Hope faintly revives, when the postman cheers us with an overdue field postcard, of a morning to dawn when the abstraction we name the "average intelligence" and the "great heart of the public" and the "herd mind," will not only regret that it made a ruinous fool of itself the night before, but solemnly resolve to end all disruptive and dirty habits. This wild hope was born in me of such a postcard (all right so far!) coinciding with the arrival of the list of old books. It seemed at that moment that things could be different and better. Then, when closing the front door that morning—very gently—not slamming it on the run—I saw something else. The door noiselessly closed, an easy launch into a tranquil day, as though I had come down through the night with the natural process of the hours, and so had commenced the day at the right moment, I noticed the twig of a lilac bush had intruded into the porch. It directly indicated me with a black finger. What did it want? I looked intently, sure that an omen was here. Aha! So that was it! The twig was showing me that it had a green nail.
Four young officers of the Flying Corps passed me, going ahead briskly, and I thought that an elm under which they walked had kindling in it a suggestion of coloured light. But it was too delicate to be more than a hope. It must be confessed that the men who fight in the air were more distinct than that light. Then the four officers parted, two to either side, when marching past another figure. They went beyond it swiftly, taking no notice of it, turned into the future, and vanished. I drew near the bowed and leisurely being, which had a spade over its shoulder.
It stopped to light a pipe, and I caught up to it. The edge of the spade was like silver with use, and the big hand which grasped it was brown with dry earth. The lean neck of this figure was tinctured with many summers, and cross-hatched by the weather and mature maleness. I caught a smell of newly-turned earth. The figure moved as though time were nothing. It turned its face as I drew level, and said it was a good morning. The morning was better than good; and somehow this object in an old hat and clothes as rough as bark, with a face which probably had the same expression when William was momentous at Hastings, and when Pitt solemnly ordered the map of Europe to be rolled up, was in accord with the light in the elm, and the superior and convincing insolence of the blackbirds. They all suggested the tantalizing idea that solid ground is near us, in this unreasonable world of anxious change, if only we had intelligence enough to know where to look for it.
VI. Prose Writing
MARCH 16, 1918. A critic has been mourning because good prose is not being written to-day. This surprised him, and he asked why it was that when poetry, which he pictured as "primroses and violets," found abundance of nourishment even in the unlikely compost these latter days provide, yet prose, which he saw as "cabbages and potatoes," made but miserable growth.
It is hard to explain it, for I must own that the image of the potato confuses me. One has seen modern verse which was, florally, very spud-like. If those potatoes were meant for violets then they suggest more than anything else a simple penny guide-book for their gardeners. Here we see at least the danger of using flowers of speech, when violets and onions get muddled in the same posy, and how ill botany is likely to serve the writer who flies heedlessly to it for literary symbols. Figures of speech are pregnant with possibilities (I myself had better be very careful here), and those likely to show most distress over their progeny are the unlucky fathers. For the first thing expected of any literary expression is that it should be faithful to what is in the mind, and if for the idea of good prose writing the image of a potato is given, then it can but represent the features of the earthy lumps which are common to the stalls of the market-place. What is prose? Sodden and lumbering stuff, I suppose. And what is poetry? That fortunate lighting of an idea which delights us with the belief that we have surprised truth, and have seen that it is beautiful.
The difficulty with what the textbooks tell us is prose is that many of us make it, not naturally and unconsciously like the gentleman who discovered he had been doing it all his life, but professionally. Consider the immense output of novels—but no, do not let us consider anything so surprising and perplexing. The novel, that most exacting problem in the sublimation of the history of our kind, not to be solved with ease, it now appears may be handled by children as a profitable pastime. Children, of course, should be taught to express themselves in writing, and simply, lucidly, and with sincerity. Yet all editors know the delusion is common with beginners in journalism that the essay, a form in which perhaps only six writers have been successful in the history of English letters, is but a prelude to serious work, a holiday before the realities have begun. They all attempt it. Every editorial letter-box is loaded with essays every morning. Yet the love of learning, and wisdom and humour, are not usual, and the gods still more rarely give with these gifts the ability to express them in the written word; and how often may we count on learning, wisdom, and humour being not only reflected through a delightful and original character, but miraculously condensed into the controlled display of a bright and revealing beam? It is no wonder we have but six essayists!
There is no doubt about it. If we mean by prose much more than the sincere and lucid written expression of our desires and opinions, it is because beyond that simplicity we know the thrill which is sometimes given by a revelation of beauty and significance in common words and tidings. The best writing must come of a gift for making magic out of what are but commodities to us, and that gift is not distributed by the generous gods from barrows which go the round of the neighbourhoods where many babies are born, as are faith, hope, and credulity, those virtues that cause the enormous circulations of the picture papers, and form the ready material for the careers of statesmen and the glory of famous soldiers. It is more unusual. We see it as often as we do comets and signs in the heavens, a John in the Wilderness again, pastors who would die for their lambs, women who contemn the ritual and splendour of man-slaying, and a politician never moved by the enticements of a successful career. It is therefore likely that when we see great prose for the first time we may not know it, and may not enjoy it. It can be so disrespectful to what we think is good. It may be even brightly innocent of it. And as in addition our smaller minds will be overborne by the startling activity and cool power of the prose of such a writer as Swift, its superiority will only enhance our complaining grief.
VII. The Modern Mind
JULY 6, 1918. A Symphony in Verse has just come to me from America. The picture on its wrapper shows a man in green tights, and whose hair is blue, veiling his eyes before a lady in a flame-coloured robe who stares from a distance in a tessellated solitude. As London two days ago celebrated Independence Day like an American city, and displayed the Stars and Stripes so deliriously that the fact that George III was ever a British king was lost in a common acknowledgment that he was only another violent fool, this Boston book invited attention. For ladies in gowns of flame, with arms raised in appeal, may be supposed to want more than the vote; and American poets wearing emerald tights who find themselves in abandoned temples alone with such ladies, must clearly have left Whittier with the nursery biscuits. Longfellow could never grow blue locks. Even Whitman dressed in flannel and ate oranges in public. Nor did Poe at his best rise to assure us:
"This is the night for murder: give us knives: We have long sought for this."
Well, not all of us. The truth is some of us have not sought for knives with any zest, being paltry and early Victorian in our murders. Yet in this symphony in verse, The Jig of Forslin, by Mr. Conrad Aiken, there are such lines as these:
"When the skies are pale and stars are cold, Dew should rise from the grass in little bubbles, And tinkle in music amid green leaves. Something immortal lives in such air— We breathe, we change. Our bodies become as cold and bright as starlight. Our hearts grow young and strange. Let us extend ourselves as evening shadows And learn the nocturnal secrets of these meadows."
It is not all knives and murder. The Jig, in fact, dances us through a world of ice lighted by star gleams and Arctic streamers, where sometimes our chill loneliness is interrupted by a woman whose "mouth is a sly carnivorous flower"; where we escape the greenish light of a vampire's eyes to enter a tavern where men strike each other with bottles. Mermaids are there, and Peter and Paul, and when at last Mr. Aiken feels the reader may be released, it is as though we groped in the dark, bewildered and alarmed, for assurance that this was nothing but art.
One cannot help feeling, while reading this product of the modern mind, that we are all a little mad, and that the cleverest of us know it, and indulge the vagaries and instability of insanity. In an advertisement to Mr. Aiken's poetry we are told that it is based on the Freudian psychology. We are not seldom reminded to-day of that base to the New Art. We are even beginning to look on each other's simplest acts with a new and grave suspicion. It causes a man to wonder what obscure motive, probably hellish, prompted his wife to brush his clothes, though when he caught her at it she was doing it in apparent kindness. Instead of the truth making us free, its dread countenance, when we glimpse it, only startles us into a pallid mimicry of its sinister aspect. It is like the sardonic grin I have seen on the face of an intelligent soldier as he strode over filth and corpses towards shell-fire. Soldiers, when they are home again, delight in watching the faces and the ways of children. They want to play with the youngsters, eat buns in the street, and join the haymakers. They do not want the truth. Without knowing anything of Freud, they can add to their new and dreadful knowledge of this world all they want of the subconscious by reading the warlike speeches of the aged, one of the most obscene and shocking features of the War. The soldiers who are home on leave turn in revolt from that to hop-scotch. Yes, the truth about our own day will hardly bear looking at, whether it is reflected from common speech, or from the minds of artists like Mr. Conrad Aiken.
JULY 16, 1918. I was looking in a hurry for something to read. One magazine on the bookstall told me it was exactly what I wanted for a railway journey. It had a picture of a large gun to make its cover attractive. The next advertised its claims in another way. A girl's face was the decorative feature of its wrapper, and you could not imagine eyes and a simper more likely to make a man feel holier than Bernard of Cluny till your gaze wandered to the face of the girl smirking from the magazine beyond. Is it possible that nobody reads current English literature, as the magazines give it, except the sort of men who collect golf balls and eat green gooseberries? It seems like it. One wonders what the editors of those magazines read when they are on a railway journey. For it would be interesting to know whether this sort of thing is done purposely, like glass beads for Africa, or whether it is the gift of heaven, natural and unconscious, like chickweed.
One would be grateful for direction in this. The matter is of some importance, because either the producers or the readers are in a bad way; and it would be disheartening to suppose it is the readers, for probably there are more readers than editors, and so less chance of a cure. I do not want to believe it is the readers. It is more comforting to suppose those poor people must put up with what they can get in a hurry ten minutes before the train starts, only to find, as they might have guessed, that vacuity is behind the smirk of a girl with a face like that. They are forced to stuff their literature behind them, so that ownership of it shall not openly shame them before their fellow-passengers.
With several exceptions, the mass of English magazines and reviews may be dismissed in a few seconds. The exceptions usually are not out yet, or one has seen them. It used not to be so, and that is what makes me think it is the producers, and not the readers, who require skilled attention. It is startling to turn to the magazines of twenty or thirty years ago, and to compare them with what is thought good enough for us. I was looking through such a magazine recently, and found a poem by Swinburne, a prose-romance by William Morris, and much more work of a quality you would no more expect to find in a current magazine than you would palm trees in Whitechapel.
Of all the periodicals which reach the British front, the two for which there is most competition in any officers' mess are La Vie Parisienne and New York Life. The impudent periodical from Paris is universal on our front. The work of its artists decorates every dug-out. I should say almost every mess subscribes for it. It is true it is usual to account for this as being naughty chance. Youth has been separated from the sober influence of its English home, is away from the mild and tranquil light of Oxford Street feminity, is given to death, and therefore snatches in abandon at amusement which otherwise would not amuse. Do not believe it. La Vie Parisienne, it is true, is certainly not a paper for the English family. I should be embarrassed if my respected aunts found it on my table, pointed to its drawings, and asked me what I saw in them. What makes it popular with young Englishmen in France is not the audacity of its abbreviated underclothing, for there are English prints which specialize in those in a more leering way, and they are not widely popular like the French print. But La Vie is produced by intelligent men. It is not a heavy lump of stupid or snobbish photographs. It does not leer. There is nothing clownish and furtive about it. It is the gay and frank expression of artists whose humour is too broad for the general; but, as a rule, there is no doubt about the fine quality of their drawings and the deftness of their wit. That is what makes the French print so liked by our men.
New York Life proves that, it seems to me. The American periodical is very popular in France, and the demand for it has now reached London. The chemise is not its oriflamme. It properly recognizes much else in life. But its usual survey of the world's affairs has a merry expansiveness which would make the editorial mind common to London as giddy as grandma in an aeroplane. It is not written in a walled enclosure of ideas. It is not darkened and circumscribed by the dusty notions of the clubs. It does not draw poor people as sub-species of the human. It does not recognize class distinctions at all, except for comic purposes. It is brighter, better-informed, bolder, and more humane than anything on this side, and our men in France find its spirit in accord with theirs. One of the results of the War will be that they will want something like it when they come back, though I don't see how they are to get it unless it is imported, or unless they emigrate to a country where to feel that way about things is normal and not peculiar.
IX. The Marne
AUGUST 3, 1918. The holy angels were at Mons; British soldiers saw them there. A Russian army was in England in 1914; everybody knew someone who had seen it. And Joan of Arc, in shining armour, has returned to the aid of the French. These and even graver symptoms warn us that we may not be in that state of equanimity which is useful when examining evidence. Only this week, in the significant absence of the house-dog, a mysterious hand thrust through my letter-box a document which proved, as only propaganda may, that this war was thoroughly explored in the Book of Daniel. Why were we not told so before? Why was Lord Haldane reading Hegel when there was Daniel? What did we pay him for? And that very same night I stood at the outer gate with one who asked me why, when there were stacks of jam in our grocer's shop, we could not buy any because the Food Controller had omitted to put up the price. I had no time to reason this out, because at that moment we heard a loud buzzing in the sky. We gazed up into the velvet black night, that was like a skull-cap over the world. The buzzing continued. "Perhaps," said my companion, "what we can hear is our great big Bee."
That buzzing overhead did not develop. It merely waned and increased. It was remarkable but inconsequential. It alarmed while giving no good cause for alarm. In the invisible heavens there might have been One who was playing Bogie to frighten poor mortals for fun. I went in to continue my reading of Charles le Goffic's book, General Foch at the Marne. This was all in accord with the Book of Daniel, and the jam that was uneatable because it was not dear enough. My reading continued, as it were, the mysterious buzzing.
I can give, as a rule, but a slack attention to military history, and my interest in war itself is, fundamentally, the same as for cretinism and bad drains. I merely wonder why it is, and wish it were not. But the Marne, I regret to say, holds me in wonder still; for this there is nothing to say excepting that, from near Meaux, I heard the guns of the Marne. I saw some of its pomp and circumstance. I had been hearing the guns of the War for some weeks then, but the guns of the Marne were different. They who listened knew that those foreboding sounds were of the crisis, with all its import. If that thundering drew nearer....
The Marne holds me still, as would a ghost story which, by chance, had me within its weird. I want to know all that can be told of it. And if there is one subject of the War more than another which needs a careful sorting of the mixed straws in our beards, it is the Battle of the Marne. In the case of my own beard, one of the straws is the Russian myth. In France, as in England, everybody knew someone who had seen those Russians. One huge camp, I was told, was near Chartres, and in Paris I was shown Cossack caps which had come from there. That was on the day Manoury's soldiers went east in their historic sortie of taxicabs against von Kluck. I could not then go to Chartres to confirm that camp of Cossacks; nor—and this is my straw—could the German Intelligence Staff. I did not believe that the Russians were in France, but I could not prove they were not, nor could the German generals, who, naturally, had heard about those Russians. Now the rapid sweep of the German right wing under von Kluck had given the enemy a vulnerable flank which, in a certain situation, might admit disaster. The peril of his western flank must have made the enemy sensitive to the least draught coming from there.
It is on such frailties as this that the issue of battle depends, and the fate of empires. War, as a means of deciding our luck, is no more scientific than dicing for it. The first battle of the Marne holds a mystery which will intrigue historians, separate friends, cause hot debate, spawn learned treatises, help to fill the libraries, and assist in keeping not a few asylums occupied, for ages. If you would measure it as a cause for lunacy, read Belloc's convincing exposition of the battle, and compare that with le Goffic's story of the fighting of the Ninth Army, under General Foch, by Fere Champenoise and the Marshes of St. Gond. Le Goffic was there.
Why did fate tip the beam in the way we know? Why, for a wonder, did the sound of gunfire recede from Paris, and not approach still nearer? I myself at the time held to an unreasonable faith that the enemy would never enter Paris, in spite of what Kitchener thought and the French Government feared. Yet when challenged I could not explain why, for I was ill, and the days seemed to be biassed to the German side. To have heard the guns of the Marne was as though once one had listened to the high gods contending over our destiny.
Historians of the future will spell out le Goffic on the fighting round the Tower on the Marshes at Mondement. It was the key of the swamp of St. Gond, the French centre. The Tower was held by the French when, by every military rule, they should have given it up. At length they lost it. They won it again, but because of sheer unreason, so far as the evidence shows, for at the moment they regained it Mondement had ceased to be anything but a key to a door which had been burst wide open. Foch, by the books, was beaten. But Foch as we know was fond of quoting Joseph de Maistre: "A battle lost is a battle which one had expected to lose." In this faith, while his battalions were reduced to thin companies without officers, and the Prussian Guard and the Saxons were driving back his whole line, Foch, who had sent to borrow the 42nd Division from the general on his left, kept reporting to Headquarters: "The situation is excellent." But the 42nd had not yet arrived, and he continued to retire.
Contradicting Belloc and the usual explanations, M. le Goffic says that Foch was unaware of any gap in the German line. What he did was to thrust in a bleak venture the borrowed division against the flank of the advancing Prussians, who were in superior force. The Prussians retired. But had they not been preparing to retire? Yet for what reason? When all seemed lost, Foch won on the centre.
On the extreme French left, where Manoury was himself being outflanked by von Kluck, the fatigued and outnumbered French soldiers were resigned to the worst. They had done all that was possible, and it seemed of no avail. They did not know that at that time the locomotives in the rear of the German armies were reversed; were heading to the north. What happened in the minds of the directing German generals—for that is where the defeat began—is not clear; but the sudden and prolonged resistance of the French at the Marne may have disrupted with a violent doubt minds that had been taut with over-confidence. The fear to which the doubt increased when Manoury attacked and persisted, the baffling audacity in the centre of the defeated Foch, who did everything no well-bred militarist would expect from another gentleman, and the common fervour of the French soldiers who fought for a week like men possessed, at last caused something to give way in the brain of the enemy. He could not understand it. This was not according to his plan. He could not find it in his books. He did not know what more he could do, except to retire into safety and think it over afresh. The unexpected fury of the human spirit, outraged into desperation after it was assumed to be subdued, and bursting suddenly, and regardless of consequences, against the calm and haughty front of material science assured of its power, checked and deflected the processes of the German intelligence. I have seen an indignant rooster produce the same effect on a bull.
AUGUST 17, 1918. Having something on the mind may lead one to salvation, but it seems just as likely to lead one to the asylum. The Germans, who are necessarily in the power of an argument which shows them we are devils, are yet compelled to admit that Shakespeare is worth reasoned consideration, and so they avoid the implied difficulty by explaining that as Shakespeare was a genius therefore he was a German. What we should do if it could be proved a grandfather of the poet was a Prussian probably only our Home Secretary could tell us, after he had made quite sure he would not be overheard by a white and tense believer in the Hidden Hand. Thank God Heine was a Jew, though even so there are rumours that a London memorial to him is to be removed. And last night I heard it expounded very seriously, by a clever man of letters, that Carlyle's day is done. Few people read Carlyle to-day—and it may be supposed that as they read they hold his volumes with a Hidden Hand—and fewer still love him, for at heart he was a Prussian. He was, indeed, slain in our affections by Frederick the Great. His shrine at Chelsea is no longer visited. It is all for the best, because in any case he wrote only a gnarled and involved bastard stuff of partly Teutonic origin. While this appeal was being made to me, I watched the face of a cat, which got up and stretched itself during the discourse, with some hope; but that animal looked as though it were thinking of its drowned kittens. It was the last chance, and the cat did not laugh. On my way home, thinking of that grave man of letters and of his serious and attentive listeners, I noticed even the street lights were lowered or doused, and remembered that every wine-shop was shut. London is enough to break one's heart. If only by some carelessness one of the angels failed to smother his great laughter over us, and we heard it, we might, in awakening embarrassment, the first streak of dawn, put a stop to what had been until that moment an unconscious performance.
XI. Holiday Reading
AUGUST 31, 1918. I make the same mistake whenever the chance of a holiday broadens and brightens. A small library, reduced by a process of natural selection, helps to make weighty the bag. But I do not at once close the bag; a doubt keeps it open; I take out the books again and consider them. When the problem of carrying those volumes about faces me, it is a relief to discover how many of them lose their vital importance. Yet a depraved sense of duty, perhaps the residue of what such writers as Marcus Aurelius have done for me, refuses to allow every volume to be jettisoned. It imposes, as a hair shirt, several new and serious books which there has been no time to examine. They are books that require a close focus, a long and steady concentration, a silent immobility hardly distinguishable from sleep. This year for instance I notice Jung's Analytical Psychology confidently expecting to go for a holiday with me. I feel I ought to take some such stern reminder of mortality, and, in addition, out of a sentimental regard for the past, a few old books, for my faith is not dead that they may put a new light on the wonderful strangeness of these latter days. I take these, too.
And that is why I find them at the journey's end. But why did I bring them? For now they seem to be exactly what I would avoid—they look like toil. And work, as these years have taught the observant, is but for slaves and the conscripted. It is never admired, except with a distant and haughty sententiousness, by the best people.
Nor is it easy, by this west-country quay, to profit by a conscience which is willing to allow some shameless idleness. I began talking, before the books were even unpacked, with some old acquaintances by the water-side. Most disquieting souls! But I cannot blame them. They have been obliged to add gunnery to their knowledge of seamanship and navigation. They were silent, they shook their heads, following some thoughtless enquiries of mine after the wellbeing of other men I used to meet here. Worse than all, I was forced to listen to the quiet recitals of stranded cripples, once good craftsmen in the place, and these dimmed the blessed sun even where in other years it was unusually bright. That is what put holiday thoughts and literature away. I felt I had been very unfairly treated, especially as the mutilated, being young men, were unpleasantly noticeable in so small a village on fine mornings. It is not right that the calm of our well-earned leisure should be so savagely ruined. There was one morning on the quay when, watching the incoming tide, two of us were discussing Mametz Wood and some matters relating to it which will never be published, and the young man who was instructing me was approached by an older man, who beamed, and held in his hand a news-sheet. "Splendid news this morning," said the elderly man to the young soldier. He wanted the opinion of one who had fought on that ground, and I regret to say he got it. The soldier indifferently handed back the glorious news, without inspecting it, with words which youth should never address to age.
So how can I stay by the quay all the golden day long? I have not come here prepared to endure the sudden Arctic shadows which fall, even in summer, from such clouds. The society of our fellows was never so uncertain, so likely to be stormy, as in these days. And the opinions of none of our fellow-men can be so disturbing as those of the rebel from the trenches, who appears, too, to expect us to agree with him at once, as though he had a special claim on our sympathetic attention. While considering him and his views of society, of peace and war, I see what might come upon us as the logical consequence of such a philosophy, and the dread vision does not accord with the high serenity of this Atlantic coast, where the wind, like the hilarious vivacity of a luminous globe spinning through the blue, is mocking these very sheets as I write them, and is trying to blow them, a little before their time, into vacuity.
It is not easy, and perhaps this summer it would not be right, to find the exact mood for a holiday. In the frame of mind which is more usual with us, I put Ecclesiastes—forsaken by a previous visitor, and used to lengthen a short leg of the dressing-table—in my pocket, and leave the quay to its harsh new thoughts, and to the devices by which it gets a bare sustenance out of the tides, the seasons, and the winds, complicated now with high explosives in cunning ambush; and go out to the headland, where wild goats among the rocks which litter the steep are the only life to blatter critical comment to high heaven. I left that holiday quay and its folk, and took with me a prayer which might go far to brace me to support the blattering of goats, if that, too, should be my luck even when in solitude. I passed at the hill-top the last whitewashed wall of the village, where the open Atlantic is sighted, and stopped to glance at the latest official poster on the wall. That explained to me, while the west wind blew, what the penalties are for young men who are in the wrong because they are young, not having attained the middle-age which brings with it immunity for the holding of heroic notions. Yet how if those young men are not bellicose like their wise seniors? Why should they get the evil which their elders, who will it, take so much care to avoid?
The dust of official lorries in a hurry no longer made the wayside hedges appear aged. The wind was newly arrived from mid-ocean. I met it coming ashore. It knew nothing about us, so far. In the distance, the village with its shipping was a faint blur, already a faded impress on earth, as though more than half forgotten in spite of its important problems. It was hardly more than a discoloration, and suggested nothing of consequence. The sun on the grey rocks was giving a hint that, should ever it be required, there was heat enough left to begin things anew. I realized in alarm that such a morning of re-birth might be beautiful; for I might not be there to sing Laus Deo. I might miss that fine morning. There was a suggestion of leisure in the pattern of the lichen on the granite; it gave the idea of prolonged yet still merely tentative efforts at design. The lichen seemed to have complete assurance that there was time enough for new work. The tough stems of the heather, into which I put my hand, felt like the sinews of a body that was as ancient as the other stars, but still so young that it was tranquilly fixed in the joy of its first awakening, knowing very little yet, guessing nothing of its beginning nor of its end; still infantile, with all life before it, its voice merely the tiny shrilling of a grasshopper. The rocks were poised so precariously above the quivering plain of the sea that they appeared to tremble in mid-air, being things of no weight, in the rush of the planet. The distant headlands and moors dilated under the generating sun. It was then that I pulled Ecclesiastes out of my pocket, leaned against the granite, and began:
"Vanity of vanities..."
I looked up again. There was a voice above me. An old goat, the venerable image of all-knowledge, of sneering and bearded sin, was contemplating me. It was a critical comment of his that I had heard. Embarrassed, I put away my book.
XII. An Autumn Morning
SEPTEMBER 28, 1918. The way to my suburban station and the morning train admonishes me sadly with its stream of season-ticket holders carrying dispatch-cases, and all of them anxious, their resolute pace makes it evident, for work. This morning two aeroplanes were over us in the blue, in mimic combat; they were, of course, getting into trim for the raid to-night, because the barometer is beautifully high and steady. But the people on their way to the 9.30 did not look up at the flight. Life is real, life is earnest. When I doubt that humanity knows what it is doing, I get comfort from watching our local brigadiers and Whitehall ladies on their way these tranquil Autumn mornings to give our planet another good shove towards the millennium. Progress, progress! I hear their feet overtaking me, brisk and resolute, as though a revelation had come to them overnight, and so now they know what to do, undiverted by any doubt. There is a brief glimpse of a downcast face looking as though it had just chanted the Dies Irae through the mouthfuls of a hurried breakfast; and once more this laggard is passed in the day's race towards the higher peak. The reproof goes home. It justly humiliates. But the weather is only a little west of south for one of the last fair days of the year; and the gloom of the yew in the churchyard—which stands over the obscure headstone of a man named Puplett—that yew which seems the residue of the dark past, has its antiquity full of little smouldering embers of new life again; and so a lazy man has reasons to doubt whether the millennium is worth all this hurry. As it is, we seem to have as much trouble as there is time to classify before supper; by which time, from the look of the weather, there will be more. Then why hurry over it? The tombstone says Puplett was a "thrifty and industrious parent," and I can see what happened to him in 1727. What would I not give, I ask myself, as I pause by the yew, and listen to the aeroplanes overhead, for a few words from this Puplett on thrift, industry, and progress! Does he now know more than brigadiers?
It may be that what Europe is suffering from in our time is the consequence of having worked too hard, since that unlucky day when Watt gave too much thought to a boiling kettle. We have worked too hard without knowing why we were doing it, or what our work would do with us. We were never wise enough to loaf properly, to stop and glance casually around for our bearings. We went blindly on. Consider the newspapers, as they are now! A casual inspection of the mixture of their hard and congested sentences is enough to show that what is wanted by our writers famous for their virility, their power of "graphic description" as their outpour is called by their disciples, and their knowledge of what everybody ought to be doing, is perhaps no more than an occasional bromide. They would feel better for a long sleep. This direction by them of our destiny is an intoxicating pursuit, but it is as exhausting as would be any other indulgence. We might do quite well if they would only leave it to us. But they will never believe it. Ah! the Great Men of Action! What the world has suffered from their inspired efforts to shepherd humanity into worried flocks hurrying nobody knew whither, every schoolboy reads; and our strong men to-day, without whose names and portraits no periodical is considered attractive, would surely have been of greater benefit to us if they had remained absorbed in their earlier skittles. If the famous magician, who, with several others, is winning the war by suggestion, and that true soldier, General FitzChutney, and that earnest and eloquent publicist, Mr. Blufflerlow, had been persuaded to stick to marbles, what misleading excitement and unprofitable anxiety would have been spared to the commonweal! Boys should be warned against and protected from Great Careers. Better still if embryologists could discover something which would enable midwives unfailingly to recognize Strong Men at birth. It would be easy then to issue to those ladies secret but specific instructions.
There is a street which turns abruptly from my straight road to the station. It goes like a sudden resolution to get out of this daily hurry and excitement. It is a pre-war street. It is an ancient thoroughfare of ours, a rambling and unfrequented by-way. It is more than four years since it was a habit of mine to loiter through it, with a man with whom I shall do no more pleasant idling. We enjoyed its old and ruinous shops and its stalls, where all things could be bought at second-hand, excepting young doves, ferrets, and dogs. I saw it again this morning, and felt, somehow, that it was the first time I had noticed it since the world suddenly changed. Where had it been in the meantime? It was empty this morning, it was still, it was luminous. It might have been waiting, a place that was, for the return of what can never return. Its sunlight was different from the glare in the hurrying road to the station. It was the apparition of a light which has gone out. I stopped, and was a little fearful. Was that street really there? I thought its illumination might be a ghostly sunlight haunting an avenue leading only to the nowhere of the memory. Did the others who were passing see that by-way? I do not think so. They never paused. They did not glance sideways in surprise, stare in an expectancy which changed almost at once into regret for what was good, but is not.
Who would not retire into the near past, and stay there, if it were possible? (What a weakness!) Retrospection was once a way of escape for those who had not the vitality to face their own fine day with its exacting demands. Yet who now can look squarely at the present, except officials, armament shareholders, and those in perambulators? This side-turning offered me a chance to dodge the calendar and enter the light of day not ours. The morning train of the day I saw in that street went before the War. I decided to lose it, and visit the shop at the top of the street, where once you could buy anything from a toddy glass to an emu's egg having a cameo on it of a ship in full sail. It was also a second-hand bookshop. Most lovers of such books would have despised it. It was of little use to go there for valuable editions, or even for such works as Sowerby's Botany. But when last the other man and myself rummaged in it we found the first volume of the Boy's Own Paper, and an excellent lens for our landscape camera. An alligator, sadly in need of upholstering, stood at the door, holding old umbrellas and walking-sticks in its arms. The proprietor, with a sombre nature and a black beard so like the established shadows of his lumbered premises that he could have been overlooked for part of the unsalable stock, read Swedenborg, Plato, Plutarch, and Young's Night Thoughts—the latter an edition of the eighteenth century in which an Edinburgh parson had made frail marginal comments, yellow and barely discernible, such as: "How True!" This dealer in lumber read through large goggles, and when he had decided to admit he knew you were in his shop he bent his head, and questioned you steadily but without a word over the top of his spectacles. If you showed no real interest in what you proposed to buy he would refuse to sell it.
There I found him again, still reading—Swedenborg this time—with most of the old things about him, including the Duck-billed Platypus; for nobody, apparently, had shown sufficient interest in them. The shop, therefore, was as I have always known it. There was a spark of a summer's day of 1914 still burning in the heart of a necromancer's crystal ball on the upper shelf by the window.
The curio there which was really animated put down his book after I had been in the shop for some minutes, regarded me deliberately as though looking to see what change had come to me in four such years, and then glanced up and nodded to the soothsayer's crystal. "It's a pity," he said, "that those things won't really work." He asked no questions. He did not inquire after my friend. He did not refer to those problems which the crowds in the morning trains were eagerly discussing at that moment. He sat on a heap of forgotten magazines, and remained apart with Swedenborg. I loafed in the fertile dust and quiet among old prints, geological specimens, antlers, pewter, bed-warmers, amphorae, and books. The proprietor presided over the dim litter of his world, bowed, pensive, and silent, suggesting in his aloofness not indifference but a retired sadness for those for whom the mysteries could be made plain, but who are wilful in their blindness, and so cannot be helped.
I came upon a copy of Walden, in its earliest Camelot dress (price sixpence), and remembered that one who was not there had once said he was looking for it in that edition. I turned to the last page and read: "Only that day dawns to which we are awake..."
I reserved the book for him at once, though knowing I could not give it to him. But what is the good of cold reason? Are we awake in such dawns as we now witness? Or has there been no dawn yet because we are only restless in our sleep? It might be either way, and in such a perplexity reason cannot help us. I thought that perhaps I might now be stirring, on the point of actually rousing. There, in any case, was the evidence of that fugitive spark of the early summer of 1914 still imprisoned in its crystal, proof that the world had experienced a dawn or two. An entirely unreasonable serenity possessed me—perhaps because I was not fully roused—because of the indestructibility of those few voiceless hopes we cherish that seem as fugitive as the glint in the crystal ball, hopes without which our existence would have no meaning, for if we lost them we should know the universe was a witless jest, with nobody to laugh at it.
"I want this book," I said to the shopman.
"I know," he answered, without looking up. "I've kept it for you."
XIII. News from the Front
OCTOBER 12, 1918. My remembrance of the man, when I got his letter from France—and it was approved, apparently, by one of his regimental officers, for a censorial signature, was upon its envelope—was a regrettable and embarrassing check to my impulse to cry Victory. I found it hard, nevertheless, in the moment when victory was near, to forgive the curious lapse that letter betrayed in a fellow who did not try for exemption but volunteered for the infantry, and afterwards declined a post which would have saved him from the trenches. He was the sort of curious soldier that we civilians will never understand. He aided the enemy he was fighting. His platoon officer reported that fact as characteristic and admirable. He had gone out under fire to hold up a wounded German and give him water. He did not die then, but soon after, on the Hindenburg Line, because, chosen as a good man who was expert in killing others with a deadly mechanism, he was leading in an attack. This last letter of his, which arrived after the telegram warning us, in effect, that there could be no more correspondence with him, alluded in contempt to his noble profession and task, and ended with a quotation from Drum Taps which he prayed I would understand.
His prayer was in vain. I did not understand. I read that quotation at breakfast, just after finishing my fierce and terrible Daily Dustpan, and the quotation, therefore, was at once repugnant and unfortunate. For clearly the leader-writer of the Dustpan was a bolder and more martial man. It is but fair to assume, however, that as that journalist in the normal routine of a day devoted to his country had not had the good fortune to run up against the machine guns of the Hindenburg trenches, naturally he was better able to speak than a soldier who was idly swinging in the wire there. The quotation, strange for a Guardsman to make, is worth examining as an example of the baleful influence war has upon those who must do the fighting which journalists have the hard fate merely to indicate is the duty of others. The verse actually is called Reconciliation. After a partial recovery from the shame of the revelation of my correspondent's unsoldierly spirit, a shame which was a little softened by the thought that anyhow he was dead, I went to Leaves of Grass for the first time for some years, to see whether Drum Taps accorded with war as we know it.
And now I am forced to confess that we may no longer accuse the Americans of coming late into the War. They appear to have been in it, if the date of Drum Taps is ignored, longer even than Fleet Street. I cannot see that we have contributed anything out of our experiences of battle which can compare with Whitman's poems. He appears to have known of war in essential episodes and incidents, as well as from a high vision of it, in a measure which the literature of our own tragedy does not compass.
A minor poet told me once that he could not read Whitman. He declared it was like chewing glass. When we criticize others, the instant penalty is that we unwittingly confess what we are ourselves. We know the reception of Leaves of Grass was of the kind which not seldom greets the appearance of an exceptional book, though Emerson recognized its worth. So when occasionally we admit, shyly and apologetically, as is our habit (in the way we confess that once we enjoyed sugar candy), that long ago we used to read Emerson, it would do our superior culture no harm to remember that Emerson was at least the first of the world of letters to tell the new poet that his Leaves was "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet produced." Nothing in all his writing proves the quality of Emerson's mind so well as his instant and full knowledge of Whitman, when others felt that what Whitman was really inviting was laughter and abuse. I suppose what the young poet meant when he said reading Whitman was like a mouthful of glass was that Whitman has no music, and so cannot be read aloud. There is always a fair quantity of any poet's work which would do much to make this world a cold and unfriendly place if we persevered in reading it aloud. In some circumstances even Shakespeare might cause blasphemy. Perhaps he has. And Whitman, like summer-time, and all of us, is not always at his best. But I think it is possible that many people to-day will know the music and the solace of the great dirge beginning "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd." And again, if capturing with words those surmises which intermittently and faintly show in the darkness of our speculations and are at once gone, if the making of a fixed star of such wayward glints is the mark of a poet, then Whitman gave us "On the beach at night."