Till I gave myself the task of making a little selection from what I had written since last I formed a book of essays, I had no notion that I had put, as it were, my eggs into so many baskets—The Saturday Review, The New Quarterly, The New Liberal Review, Vanity Fair, The Daily Mail, Literature, The Traveller, The Pall Mall Magazine, The May Book, The Souvenir Book of Charing Cross Hospital Bazaar, The Cornhill Magazine, Harper's Magazine, and The Anglo-Saxon Review...Ouf! But the sigh of relief that I heave at the end of the list is accompanied by a smile of thanks to the various authorities for letting me use here what they were so good as to require.
THE FIRE SEEING PEOPLE OFF A MEMORY OF A MIDNIGHT EXPRESS PORRO UNUM... A CLUB IN RUINS '273' A STUDY IN DEJECTION A PATHETIC IMPOSTURE THE DECLINE OF THE GRACES WHISTLER'S WRITING ICHABOD GENERAL ELECTIONS A PARALLEL A MORRIS FOR MAY-DAY THE HOUSE OF COMMONS MANNER THE NAMING OF STREETS ON SHAKESPEARE'S BIRTHDAY A HOME-COMING 'THE RAGGED REGIMENT' THE HUMOUR OF THE PUBLIC DULCEDO JUDICIORUM
WORDS FOR PICTURES
'HARLEQUIN' 'THE GARDEN OF LOVE' 'ARIANE ET DIONYSE' 'PETER THE DOMINICAN' 'L' OISEAU BLEU' 'MACBETH AND THE WITCHES' 'CARLOTTA GRISI' 'HO-TEI' 'THE VISIT'
If I were 'seeing over' a house, and found in every room an iron cage let into the wall, and were told by the caretaker that these cages were for me to keep lions in, I think I should open my eyes rather wide. Yet nothing seems to me more natural than a fire in the grate.
Doubtless, when I began to walk, one of my first excursions was to the fender, that I might gaze more nearly at the live thing roaring and raging behind it; and I dare say I dimly wondered by what blessed dispensation this creature was allowed in a domain so peaceful as my nursery. I do not think I ever needed to be warned against scaling the fender. I knew by instinct that the creature within it was dangerous—fiercer still than the cat which had once strayed into the room and scratched me for my advances. As I grew older, I ceased to wonder at the creature's presence and learned to call it 'the fire,' quite lightly. There are so many queer things in the world that we have no time to go on wondering at the queerness of the things we see habitually. It is not that these things are in themselves less queer than they at first seemed to us. It is that our vision of them has been dimmed. We are lucky when by some chance we see again, for a fleeting moment, this thing or that as we saw it when it first came within our ken. We are in the habit of saying that 'first impressions are best,' and that we must approach every question 'with an open mind'; but we shirk the logical conclusion that we were wiser in our infancy than we are now. 'Make yourself even as a little child' we often say, but recommending the process on moral rather than on intellectual grounds, and inwardly preening ourselves all the while on having 'put away childish things,' as though clarity of vision were not one of them.
I look around the room I am writing in—a pleasant room, and my own, yet how irresponsive, how smug and lifeless! The pattern of the wallpaper blamelessly repeats itself from wainscote to cornice; and the pictures are immobile and changeless within their glazed frames—faint, flat mimicries of life. The chairs and tables are just as their carpenter fashioned them, and stand with stiff obedience just where they have been posted. On one side of the room, encased in coverings of cloth and leather, are myriads of words, which to some people, but not to me, are a fair substitute for human company. All around me, in fact, are the products of modern civilisation. But in the whole room there are but three things living: myself, my dog, and the fire in my grate. And of these lives the third is very much the most intensely vivid. My dog is descended, doubtless, from prehistoric wolves; but you could hardly decipher his pedigree on his mild, domesticated face. My dog is as tame as his master (in whose veins flows the blood of the old cavemen). But time has not tamed fire. Fire is as wild a thing as when Prometheus snatched it from the empyrean. Fire in my grate is as fierce and terrible a thing as when it was lit by my ancestors, night after night, at the mouths of their caves, to scare away the ancestors of my dog. And my dog regards it with the old wonder and misgiving. Even in his sleep he opens ever and again one eye to see that we are in no danger. And the fire glowers and roars through its bars at him with the scorn that a wild beast must needs have for a tame one. 'You are free,' it rages, 'and yet you do not spring at that man's throat and tear him limb from limb and make a meal of him! 'and, gazing at me, it licks its red lips; and I, laughing good-humouredly, rise and give the monster a shovelful of its proper food, which it leaps at and noisily devours.
Fire is the only one of the elements that inspires awe. We breathe air, tread earth, bathe in water. Fire alone we approach with deference. And it is the only one of the elements that is always alert, always good to watch. We do not see the air we breathe—except sometimes in London, and who shall say that the sight is pleasant? We do not see the earth revolving; and the trees and other vegetables that are put forth by it come up so slowly that there is no fun in watching them. One is apt to lose patience with the good earth, and to hanker after a sight of those multitudinous fires whereover it is, after all, but a thin and comparatively recent crust. Water, when we get it in the form of a river, is pleasant to watch for a minute or so, after which period the regularity of its movement becomes as tedious as stagnation. It is only a whole seaful of water that can rival fire in variety and in loveliness. But even the spectacle of sea at its very best—say in an Atlantic storm—is less thrilling than the spectacle of one building ablaze. And for the rest, the sea has its hours of dulness and monotony, even when it is not wholly calm. Whereas in the grate even a quite little fire never ceases to be amusing and inspiring until you let it out. As much fire as would correspond with a handful of earth or a tumblerful of water is yet a joy to the eyes, and a lively suggestion of grandeur. The other elements, even as presented in huge samples, impress us as less august than fire. Fire alone, according to the legend, was brought down from Heaven: the rest were here from the dim outset. When we call a thing earthy we impute cloddishness; by 'watery' we imply insipidness; 'airy' is for something trivial. 'Fiery' has always a noble significance. It denotes such things as faith, courage, genius. Earth lies heavy, and air is void, and water flows down; but flames aspire, flying back towards the heaven they came from. They typify for us the spirit of man, as apart from aught that is gross in him. They are the symbol of purity, of triumph over corruption. Water, air, earth, can all harbour corruption; but where flames are, or have been, there is innocence. Our love of fire comes partly, doubtless, from our natural love of destruction for destruction's sake. Fire is savage, and so, even after all these centuries, are we, at heart. Our civilisation is but as the aforesaid crust that encloses the old planetary flames. To destroy is still the strongest instinct of our nature. Nature is still 'red in tooth and claw,' though she has begun to make fine flourishes with tooth-brush and nail-scissors. Even the mild dog on my hearth-rug has been known to behave like a wolf to his own species. Scratch his master and you will find the caveman. But the scratch must be a sharp one: I am thickly veneered. Outwardly, I am as gentle as you, gentle reader. And one reason for our delight in fire is that there is no humbug about flames: they are frankly, primaevally savage. But this is not, I am glad to say, the sole reason. We have a sense of good and evil. I do not pretend that it carries us very far. It is but the tooth-brush and nail-scissors that we flourish. Our innate instincts, not this acquired sense, are what the world really hinges on. But this acquired sense is an integral part of our minds. And we revere fire because we have come to regard it as especially the foe of evil—as a means for destroying weeds, not flowers; a destroyer of wicked cities, not of good ones.
The idea of hell, as inculcated in the books given to me when I was a child, never really frightened me at all. I conceived the possibility of a hell in which were eternal flames to destroy every one who had not been good. But a hell whose flames were eternally impotent to destroy these people, a hell where evil was to go on writhing yet thriving for ever and ever, seemed to me, even at that age, too patently absurd to be appalling. Nor indeed do I think that to the more credulous children in England can the idea of eternal burning have ever been quite so forbidding as their nurses meant it to be. Credulity is but a form of incaution. I, as I have said, never had any wish to play with fire; but most English children are strongly attracted, and are much less afraid of fire than of the dark. Eternal darkness, with a biting east-wind, were to the English fancy a far more fearful prospect than eternal flames. The notion of these flames arose in Italy, where heat is no luxury, and shadows are lurked in, and breezes prayed for. In England the sun, even at its strongest, is a weak vessel. True, we grumble whenever its radiance is a trifle less watery than usual. But that is precisely because we are a people whose nature the sun has not mellowed—a dour people, like all northerners, ever ready to make the worst of things. Inwardly, we love the sun, and long for it to come nearer to us, and to come more often. And it is partly because this craving is unsatisfied that we cower so fondly over our open hearths. Our fires are makeshifts for sunshine. Autumn after autumn, 'we see the swallows gathering in the sky, and in the osier-isle we hear their noise,' and our hearts sink. Happy, selfish little birds, gathering so lightly to fly whither we cannot follow you, will you not, this once, forgo the lands of your desire? 'Shall not the grief of the old time follow?' Do winter with us, this once! We will strew all England, every morning, with bread-crumbs for you, will you but stay and help us to play at summer! But the delicate cruel rogues pay no heed to us, skimming sharplier than ever in pursuit of gnats, as the hour draws near for their long flight over gnatless seas.
Only one swallow have I ever known to relent. It had built its nest under the eaves of a cottage that belonged to a friend of mine, a man who loved birds. He had a power of making birds trust him. They would come at his call, circling round him, perching on his shoulders, eating from his hand. One of the swallows would come too, from his nest under the eaves. As the summer wore on, he grew quite tame. And when summer waned, and the other swallows flew away, this one lingered, day after day, fluttering dubiously over the threshold of the cottage. Presently, as the air grew chilly, he built a new nest for himself, under the mantelpiece in my friend's study. And every morning, so soon as the fire burned brightly, he would flutter down to perch on the fender and bask in the light and warmth of the coals. But after a few weeks he began to ail; possibly because the study was a small one, and he could not get in it the exercise that he needed; more probably because of the draughts. My friend's wife, who was very clever with her needle, made for the swallow a little jacket of red flannel, and sought to divert his mind by teaching him to perform a few simple tricks. For a while he seemed to regain his spirits. But presently he moped more than ever, crouching nearer than ever to the fire, and, sidelong, blinking dim weak reproaches at his disappointed master and mistress. One swallow, as the adage truly says, does not make a summer. So this one's mistress hurriedly made for him a little overcoat of sealskin, wearing which, in a muffled cage, he was personally conducted by his master straight through to Sicily. There he was nursed back to health, and liberated on a sunny plain. He never returned to his English home; but the nest he built under the mantelpiece is still preserved in case he should come at last.
When the sun's rays slant down upon your grate, then the fire blanches and blenches, cowers, crumbles, and collapses. It cannot compete with its archetype. It cannot suffice a sun-steeped swallow, or ripen a plum, or parch the carpet. Yet, in its modest way, it is to your room what the sun is to the world; and where, during the greater part of the year, would you be without it? I do not wonder that the poor, when they have to choose between fuel and food, choose fuel. Food nourishes the body; but fuel, warming the body, warms the soul too. I do not wonder that the hearth has been regarded from time immemorial as the centre, and used as the symbol, of the home. I like the social tradition that we must not poke a fire in a friend's drawing-room unless our friendship dates back full seven years. It rests evidently, this tradition, on the sentiment that a fire is a thing sacred to the members of the household in which it burns. I dare say the fender has a meaning, as well as a use, and is as the rail round an altar. In 'The New Utopia' these hearths will all have been rased, of course, as demoralising relics of an age when people went in for privacy and were not always thinking exclusively about the State. Such heat as may be needed to prevent us from catching colds (whereby our vitality would be lowered, and our usefulness to the State impaired) will be supplied through hot-water pipes (white-enamelled), the supply being strictly regulated from the municipal water-works. Or has Mr. Wells arranged that the sun shall always be shining on us? I have mislaid my copy of the book. Anyhow, fires and hearths will have to go. Let us make the most of them while we may.
Personally, though I appreciate the radiance of a family fire, I give preference to a fire that burns for myself alone. And dearest of all to me is a fire that burns thus in the house of another. I find an inalienable magic in my bedroom fire when I am staying with friends; and it is at bedtime that the spell is strongest. 'Good night,' says my host, shaking my hand warmly on the threshold; you've everything you want?' 'Everything,' I assure him; 'good night.' 'Good night.' 'Good night,' and I close my door, close my eyes, heave a long sigh, open my eyes, set down the candle, draw the armchair close to the fire (my fire), sink down, and am at peace, with nothing to mar my happiness except the feeling that it is too good to be true.
At such moments I never see in my fire any likeness to a wild beast. It roars me as gently as a sucking dove, and is as kind and cordial as my host and hostess and the other people in the house. And yet I do not have to say anything to it, I do not have to make myself agreeable to it. It lavishes its warmth on me, asking nothing in return. For fifteen mortal hours or so, with few and brief intervals, I have been making myself agreeable, saying the right thing, asking the apt question, exhibiting the proper shade of mild or acute surprise, smiling the appropriate smile or laughing just so long and just so loud as the occasion seemed to demand. If I were naturally a brilliant and copious talker, I suppose that to stay in another's house would be no strain on me. I should be able to impose myself on my host and hostess and their guests without any effort, and at the end of the day retire quite unfatigued, pleasantly flushed with the effect of my own magnetism. Alas, there is no question of my imposing myself. I can repay hospitality only by strict attention to the humble, arduous process of making myself agreeable. When I go up to dress for dinner, I have always a strong impulse to go to bed and sleep off my fatigue; and it is only by exerting all my will-power that I can array myself for the final labours: to wit, making myself agreeable to some man or woman for a minute or two before dinner, to two women during dinner, to men after dinner, then again to women in the drawing-room, and then once more to men in the smoking-room. It is a dog's life. But one has to have suffered before one gets the full savour out of joy. And I do not grumble at the price I have to pay for the sensation of basking, at length, in solitude and the glow of my own fireside.
Too tired to undress, too tired to think, I am more than content to watch the noble and ever-changing pageant of the fire. The finest part of this spectacle is surely when the flames sink, and gradually the red-gold caverns are revealed, gorgeous, mysterious, with inmost recesses of white heat. It is often thus that my fire welcomes me when the long day's task is done. After I have gazed long into its depths, I close my eyes to rest them, opening them again, with a start, whenever a coal shifts its place, or some belated little tongue of flame spurts forth with a hiss.... Vaguely I liken myself to the watchman one sees by night in London, wherever a road is up, huddled half-awake in his tiny cabin of wood, with a cresset of live coal before him.... I have come down in the world, and am a night-watchman, and I find the life as pleasant as I had always thought it must be, except when I let the fire out, and awake shivering.... Shivering I awake, in the twilight of dawn. Ashes, white and grey, some rusty cinders, a crag or so of coal, are all that is left over from last night's splendour. Grey is the lawn beneath my window, and little ghosts of rabbits are nibbling and hobbling there. But anon the east will be red, and, ere I wake, the sky will be blue, and the grass quite green again, and my fire will have arisen from its ashes, a cackling and comfortable phoenix.
SEEING PEOPLE OFF
I am not good at it. To do it well seems to me one of the most difficult things in the world, and probably seems so to you, too.
To see a friend off from Waterloo to Vauxhall were easy enough. But we are never called on to perform that small feat. It is only when a friend is going on a longish journey, and will be absent for a longish time, that we turn up at the railway station. The dearer the friend, and the longer the journey, and the longer the likely absence, the earlier do we turn up, and the more lamentably do we fail. Our failure is in exact ratio to the seriousness of the occasion, and to the depth of our feeling.
In a room, or even on a door-step, we can make the farewell quite worthily. We can express in our faces the genuine sorrow we feel. Nor do words fail us. There is no awkwardness, no restraint, on either side. The thread of our intimacy has not been snapped. The leave-taking is an ideal one. Why not, then, leave the leave-taking at that? Always, departing friends implore us not to bother to come to the railway station next morning. Always, we are deaf to these entreaties, knowing them to be not quite sincere. The departing friends would think it very odd of us if we took them at their word. Besides, they really do want to see us again. And that wish is heartily reciprocated. We duly turn up. And then, oh then, what a gulf yawns! We stretch our arms vainly across it. We have utterly lost touch. We have nothing at all to say. We gaze at each other as dumb animals gaze at human beings. We 'make conversation'—and such conversation! We know that these are the friends from whom we parted overnight. They know that we have not altered. Yet, on the surface, everything is different; and the tension is such that we only long for the guard to blow his whistle and put an end to the farce.
On a cold grey morning of last week I duly turned up at Euston, to see off an old friend who was starting for America.
Overnight, we had given him a farewell dinner, in which sadness was well mingled with festivity. Years probably would elapse before his return. Some of us might never see him again. Not ignoring the shadow of the future, we gaily celebrated the past. We were as thankful to have known our guest as we were grieved to lose him; and both these emotions were made evident. It was a perfect farewell.
And now, here we were, stiff and self-conscious on the platform; and, framed in the window of the railway-carriage, was the face of our friend; but it was as the face of a stranger—a stranger anxious to please, an appealing stranger, an awkward stranger. 'Have you got everything?' asked one of us, breaking a silence. 'Yes, everything,' said our friend, with a pleasant nod. 'Everything,' he repeated, with the emphasis of an empty brain. 'You'll be able to lunch on the train,' said I, though this prophecy had already been made more than once. 'Oh yes,' he said with conviction. He added that the train went straight through to Liverpool. This fact seemed to strike us as rather odd. We exchanged glances. 'Doesn't it stop at Crewe?' asked one of us. 'No,' said our friend, briefly. He seemed almost disagreeable. There was a long pause. One of us, with a nod and a forced smile at the traveller, said 'Well!' The nod, the smile, and the unmeaning monosyllable, were returned conscientiously. Another pause was broken by one of us with a fit of coughing. It was an obviously assumed fit, but it served to pass the time. The bustle of the platform was unabated. There was no sign of the train's departure. Release—ours, and our friend's—was not yet.
My wandering eye alighted on a rather portly middle-aged man who was talking earnestly from the platform to a young lady at the next window but one to ours. His fine profile was vaguely familiar to me. The young lady was evidently American, and he was evidently English; otherwise I should have guessed from his impressive air that he was her father. I wished I could hear what he was saying. I was sure he was giving the very best advice; and the strong tenderness of his gaze was really beautiful. He seemed magnetic, as he poured out his final injunctions. I could feel something of his magnetism even where I stood. And the magnetism, like the profile, was vaguely familiar to me. Where had I experienced it?
In a flash I remembered. The man was Hubert le Ros. But how changed since last I saw him! That was seven or eight years ago, in the Strand. He was then (as usual) out of an engagement, and borrowed half-a-crown. It seemed a privilege to lend anything to him. He was always magnetic. And why his magnetism had never made him successful on the London stage was always a mystery to me. He was an excellent actor, and a man of sober habit. But, like many others of his kind, Hubert le Ros (I do not, of course, give the actual name by which he was known) drifted seedily away into the provinces; and I, like every one else, ceased to remember him.
It was strange to see him, after all these years, here on the platform of Euston, looking so prosperous and solid. It was not only the flesh that he had put on, but also the clothes, that made him hard to recognise. In the old days, an imitation fur coat had seemed to be as integral a part of him as were his ill-shorn lantern jaws. But now his costume was a model of rich and sombre moderation, drawing, not calling, attention to itself. He looked like a banker. Any one would have been proud to be seen off by him.
'Stand back, please.' The train was about to start, and I waved farewell to my friend. Le Ros did not stand back. He stood clasping in both hands the hands of the young American. 'Stand back, sir, please!' He obeyed, but quickly darted forward again to whisper some final word. I think there were tears in her eyes. There certainly were tears in his when, at length, having watched the train out of sight, he turned round. He seemed, nevertheless, delighted to see me. He asked me where I had been hiding all these years; and simultaneously repaid me the half-crown as though it had been borrowed yesterday. He linked his arm in mine, and walked me slowly along the platform, saying with what pleasure he read my dramatic criticisms every Saturday.
I told him, in return, how much he was missed on the stage. 'Ah, yes,' he said, 'I never act on the stage nowadays.' He laid some emphasis on the word 'stage,' and I asked him where, then, he did act. 'On the platform,' he answered. 'You mean,' said I, 'that you recite at concerts?' He smiled. 'This,' he whispered, striking his stick on the ground, 'is the platform I mean.' Had his mysterious prosperity unhinged him? He looked quite sane. I begged him to be more explicit.
'I suppose,' he said presently, giving me a light for the cigar which he had offered me, 'you have been seeing a friend off?' I assented. He asked me what I supposed he had been doing. I said that I had watched him doing the same thing. 'No,' he said gravely. 'That lady was not a friend of mine. I met her for the first time this morning, less than half an hour ago, here,' and again he struck the platform with his stick.
I confessed that I was bewildered. He smiled. 'You may,' he said, 'have heard of the Anglo-American Social Bureau?' I had not. He explained to me that of the thousands of Americans who annually pass through England there are many hundreds who have no English friends. In the old days they used to bring letters of introduction. But the English are so inhospitable that these letters are hardly worth the paper they are written on. 'Thus,' said Le Ros, 'the A.A.S.B. supplies a long-felt want. Americans are a sociable people, and most of them have plenty of money to spend. The A.A.S.B. supplies them with English friends. Fifty per cent. of the fees is paid over to the friends. The other fifty is retained by the A.A.S.B. I am not, alas, a director. If I were, I should be a very rich man indeed. I am only an employe'. But even so I do very well. I am one of the seers-off.'
Again I asked for enlightenment. 'Many Americans,' he said, 'cannot afford to keep friends in England. But they can all afford to be seen off. The fee is only five pounds (twenty-five dollars) for a single traveller; and eight pounds (forty dollars) for a party of two or more. They send that in to the Bureau, giving the date of their departure, and a description by which the seer-off can identify them on the platform. And then—well, then they are seen off.'
'But is it worth it?' I exclaimed. 'Of course it is worth it,' said Le Ros. 'It prevents them from feeling "out of it." It earns them the respect of the guard. It saves them from being despised by their fellow-passengers—the people who are going to be on the boat. It gives them a footing for the whole voyage. Besides, it is a great pleasure in itself. You saw me seeing that young lady off. Didn't you think I did it beautifully?' 'Beautifully,' I admitted. 'I envied you. There was I—' 'Yes, I can imagine. There were you, shuffling from foot to foot, staring blankly at your friend, trying to make conversation. I know. That's how I used to be myself, before I studied, and went into the thing professionally. I don't say I'm perfect yet. I'm still a martyr to platform fright. A railway station is the most difficult of all places to act in, as you have discovered for yourself.' 'But,' I said with resentment, 'I wasn't trying to act. I really felt.' 'So did I, my boy,' said Le Ros. 'You can't act without feeling. What's his name, the Frenchman—Diderot, yes—said you could; but what did he know about it? Didn't you see those tears in my eyes when the train started? I hadn't forced them. I tell you I was moved. So were you, I dare say. But you couldn't have pumped up a tear to prove it. You can't express your feelings. In other words, you can't act. At any rate,' he added kindly, 'not in a railway station.' 'Teach me!' I cried. He looked thoughtfully at me. 'Well,' he said at length, 'the seeing-off season is practically over. Yes, I'll give you a course. I have a good many pupils on hand already; but yes,' he said, consulting an ornate note-book, 'I could give you an hour on Tuesdays and Fridays.'
His terms, I confess, are rather high. But I don't grudge the investment.
A MEMORY OF A MIDNIGHT EXPRESS
Often I have presentiments of evil; but, never having had one of them fulfilled, I am beginning to ignore them. I find that I have always walked straight, serenely imprescient, into whatever trap Fate has laid for me. When I think of any horrible thing that has befallen me, the horror is intensified by recollection of its suddenness. 'But a moment before, I had been quite happy, quite secure. A moment later—' I shudder. Why be thus at Fate's mercy always, when with a little ordinary second sight...Yet no! That is the worst of a presentiment: it never averts evil, it does but unnerve the victim. Best, after all, to have only false presentiments like mine. Bolts that cannot be dodged strike us kindliest from the blue.
And so let me be thankful that my sole emotion as I entered an empty compartment at Holyhead was that craving for sleep which, after midnight, overwhelms every traveller—especially the Saxon traveller from tumultuous and quick-witted little Dublin. Mechanically, comfortably, as I sank into a corner, I rolled my rug round me, laid my feet against the opposite cushions, twitched up my coat collar above my ears, twitched down my cap over my eyes.
It was not the jerk of the starting train that half awoke me, but the consciousness that some one had flung himself into the compartment when the train was already in motion. I saw a small man putting something in the rack—a large black hand-bag. Through the haze of my sleep I saw him, vaguely resented him. He had no business to have slammed the door like that, no business to have jumped into a moving train, no business to put that huge hand-bag into a rack which was 'for light baggage only,' and no business to be wearing, at this hour and in this place, a top-hat. These four peevish objections floated sleepily together round my brain. It was not till the man turned round, and I met his eye, that I awoke fully—awoke to danger. I had never seen a murderer, but I knew that the man who was so steadfastly peering at me now...I shut my eyes. I tried to think. Could I be dreaming? In books I had read of people pinching themselves to see whether they were really awake. But in actual life there never was any doubt on that score. The great thing was that I should keep all my wits about me. Everything might depend on presence of mind. Perhaps this murderer was mad. If you fix a lunatic with your eye...
Screwing up my courage, I fixed the man with my eye. I had never seen such a horrible little eye as his. It was a sane eye, too. It radiated a cold and ruthless sanity. It belonged not to a man who would kill you wantonly, but to one who would not scruple to kill you for a purpose, and who would do the job quickly and neatly, and not be found out. Was he physically strong? Though he looked very wiry, he was little and narrow, like his eyes. He could not overpower me by force, I thought (and instinctively I squared my shoulders against the cushions, that he might realise the impossibility of overpowering me), but I felt he had enough 'science' to make me less than a match for him. I tried to look cunning and determined. I longed for a moustache like his, to hide my somewhat amiable mouth. I was thankful I could not see his mouth—could not know the worst of the face that was staring at me in the lamplight. And yet what could be worse than his eyes, gleaming from the deep shadow cast by the brim of his top-hat? What deadlier than that square jaw, with the bone so sharply delineated under the taut skin?
The train rushed on, noisily swaying through the silence of the night. I thought of the unseen series of placid landscapes that we were passing through, of the unconscious cottagers snoring there in their beds, of the safe people in the next compartment to mine—to his. Not moving a muscle, we sat there, we two, watching each other, like two hostile cats. Or rather, I thought, he watched me as a snake watches a rabbit, and I, like a rabbit, could not look away. I seemed to hear my heart beating time to the train. Suddenly my heart was at a standstill, and the double beat of the train receded faintly. The man was pointing upwards...I shook my head. He had asked me in a low voice, whether he should pull the hood across the lamp.
He was standing now with his back turned towards me, pulling his hand-bag out of the rack. He had a furtive back—the back of a man who, in his day, had borne many an alias. To this day I am ashamed that I did not spring up and pinion him, there and then. Had I possessed one ounce of physical courage, I should have done so. A coward, I let slip the opportunity. I thought of the communication-cord, but how could I move to it? He would be too quick for me. He would be very angry with me. I would sit quite still and wait. Every moment was a long reprieve to me now. Something might intervene to save me. There might be a collision on the line. Perhaps he was a quite harmless man...I caught his eyes, and shuddered...
His bag was open on his knees. His right hand was groping in it. (Thank Heaven he had not pulled the hood over the lamp!) I saw him pull out something—a limp thing, made of black cloth, not unlike the thing which a dentist places over your mouth when laughing-gas is to be administered. 'Laughing-gas, no laughing matter'—the irrelevant and idiotic embryo of a pun dangled itself for an instant in my brain. What other horrible thing would come out of the bag? Perhaps some gleaming instrument?... He closed the bag with a snap, laid it beside him. He took off his top-hat, laid that beside him. I was surprised (I know not why) to see that he was bald. There was a gleaming high light on his bald, round head. The limp, black thing was a cap, which he slowly adjusted with both hands, drawing it down over the brow and behind the ears. It seemed to me as though he were, after all, hooding the lamp; in my feverish fancy the compartment grew darker when the orb of his head was hidden. The shadow of another simile for his action came surging up... He had put on the cap so gravely, so judicially. Yes, that was it: he had assumed the black cap, that decent symbol which indemnifies the taker of a life; and might the Lord have mercy on my soul... Already he was addressing me... What had he said? I asked him to repeat it. My voice sounded even further away than his. He repeated that he thought we had met before. I heard my voice saying politely, somewhere in the distance, that I thought not. He suggested that I had been staying at some hotel in Colchester six years ago. My voice, drawing a little nearer to me, explained that I had never in my life been at Colchester. He begged my pardon and hoped no offence would be taken where none had been meant. My voice, coming right back to its own quarters, reassured him that of course I had taken no offence at all, adding that I myself very often mistook one face for another. He replied, rather inconsequently, that the world was a small place.
Evidently he must have prepared this remark to follow my expected admission that I had been at that hotel in Colchester six years ago, and have thought it too striking a remark to be thrown away. A guileless creature evidently, and not a criminal at all. Then I reflected that most of the successful criminals succeed rather through the incomparable guilelessness of the police than through any devilish cunning in themselves. Besides, this man looked the very incarnation of ruthless cunning. Surely, he must but have dissembled. My suspicions of him resurged. But somehow, I was no longer afraid of him. Whatever crimes he might have been committing, and be going to commit, I felt that he meant no harm to me. After all, why should I have imagined myself to be in danger? Meanwhile, I would try to draw the man out, pitting my wits against his.
I proceeded to do so. He was very voluble in a quiet way. Before long I was in possession of all the materials for an exhaustive biography of him. And the strange thing was that I could not, with the best will in the world, believe that he was lying to me. I had never heard a man telling so obviously the truth. And the truth about any one, however commonplace, must always be interesting. Indeed, it is the commonplace truth—the truth of widest application—that is the most interesting of all truths.
I do not now remember many details of this man's story; I remember merely that he was 'travelling in lace,' that he had been born at Boulogne (this was the one strange feature of the narrative), that somebody had once left him L100 in a will, and that he had a little daughter who was 'as pretty as a pink.' But at the time I was enthralled. Besides, I liked the man immensely. He was a kind and simple soul, utterly belying his appearance. I wondered how I ever could have feared him and hated him. Doubtless, the reaction from my previous state intensified the kindliness of my feelings. Anyhow, my heart went out to him. I felt that we had known each other for many years. While he poured out his recollections I felt that he was an old crony, talking over old days which were mine as well as his. Little by little, however, the slumber which he had scared from me came hovering back. My eyelids drooped; my comments on his stories became few and muffled. 'There!' he said, 'you're sleepy. I ought to have thought of that.' I protested feebly. He insisted kindly. 'You go to sleep,' he said, rising and drawing the hood over the lamp. It was dawn when I awoke. Some one in a top-hat was standing over me and saying 'Euston.' 'Euston?' I repeated. 'Yes, this is Euston. Good day to you.' 'Good day to you,' I repeated mechanically, in the grey dawn.
Not till I was driving through the cold empty streets did I remember the episode of the night, and who it was that had awoken me. I wished I could see my friend again. It was horrible to think that perhaps I should never see him again. I had liked him so much, and he had seemed to like me. I should not have said that he was a happy man. There was something melancholy about him. I hoped he would prosper. I had a foreboding that some great calamity was in store for him, and wished I could avert it. I thought of his little daughter who was 'as pretty as a pink.' Perhaps Fate was going to strike him through her. Perhaps when he got home he would find that she was dead. There were tears in my eyes when I alighted on my doorstep.
Thus, within a little space of time, did I experience two deep emotions, for neither of which was there any real justification. I experienced terror, though there was nothing to be afraid of, and I experienced sorrow, though there was nothing at all to be sorry about. And both my terror and my sorrow were, at the time, overwhelming.
You have no patience with me? Examine yourselves. Examine one another. In every one of us the deepest emotions are constantly caused by some absurdly trivial thing, or by nothing at all. Conversely, the great things in our lives—the true occasions for wrath, anguish, rapture, what not—very often leave us quite calm. We never can depend on any right adjustment of emotion to circumstance. That is one of many reasons which prevent the philosopher from taking himself and his fellow-beings quite so seriously as he would wish.
By graceful custom, every newcomer to a throne in Europe pays a round of visits to his neighbours. When King Edward came back from seeing the Tsar at Reval, his subjects seemed to think that he had fulfilled the last demand on his civility. That was in the days of Abdul Hamid. None of us wished the King to visit Turkey. Turkey is not internationally powerful, nor had Abdul any Guelph blood in him; and so we were able to assert, by ignoring her and him, our humanitarianism and passion for liberty, quite safely, quite politely. Now that Abdul is deposed from 'his infernal throne,' it is taken as a matter of course that the King will visit his successor. Well, let His Majesty betake himself and his tact and a full cargo of Victorian Orders to Constantinople, by all means. But, on the way, nestling in the very heart of Europe, perfectly civilised and strifeless, jewelled all over with freedom, is another country which he has not visited since his accession—a country which, oddly enough, none but I seems to expect him to visit. Why, I ask, should Switzerland be cold-shouldered?
I admit she does not appeal to the romantic imagination. She never has, as a nation, counted for anything. Physically soaring out of sight, morally and intellectually she has lain low and said nothing. Not one idea, not one deed, has she to her credit. All that is worth knowing of her history can be set forth without compression in a few lines of a guide-book. Her one and only hero—William Tell—never, as we now know, existed. He has been proved to be a myth. Also, he is the one and only myth that Switzerland has managed to create. He exhausted her poor little stock of imagination. Living as pigmies among the blind excesses of Nature, living on sufferance there, animalculae, her sons have been overwhelmed from the outset, have had no chance whatsoever of development. Even if they had a language of their own, they would have no literature. Not one painter, not one musician, have they produced; only couriers, guides, waiters, and other parasites. A smug, tame, sly, dull, mercenary little race of men, they exist by and for the alien tripper. They are the fine flower of commercial civilisation, the shining symbol of international comity, and have never done anybody any harm. I cannot imagine why the King should not give them the incomparable advertisement of a visit.
Not that they are badly in need of advertisement over here. Every year the British trippers to Switzerland vastly outnumber the British trippers to any other land—a fact which shows how little the romantic imagination tells as against cheapness and comfort of hotels and the notion that a heart strained by climbing is good for the health. And this fact does but make our Sovereign's abstention the more remarkable. Switzerland is not 'smart,' but a King is not the figure-head merely of his entourage: he is the whole nation's figure-head. Switzerland, alone among nations, is a British institution, and King Edward ought not to snub her. That we expect him to do so without protest from us, seems to me a rather grave symptom of flunkeyism.
Fiercely resenting that imputation, you proceed to raise difficulties. 'Who,' you ask, 'would there be to receive the King in the name of the Swiss nation?' I promptly answer, 'The President of the Swiss Republic.' You did not expect that. You had quite forgotten, if indeed you had ever heard, that there was any such person. For the life of you, you could not tell me his name. Well, his name is not very widely known even in Switzerland. A friend of mine, who was there lately, tells me that he asked one Swiss after another what was the name of the President, and that they all sought refuge in polite astonishment at such ignorance, and, when pressed for the name, could only screw up their eyes, snap their fingers, and feverishly declare that they had it on the tips of their tongues. This is just as it should be. In an ideal republic there should be no one whose name might not at any moment slip the memory of his fellows. Some sort of foreman there must be, for the State's convenience; but the more obscure he be, and the more automatic, the better for the ideal of equality. In the Republics of France and of America the President is of an extrusive kind. His office has been fashioned on the monarchic model, and his whole position is anomalous. He has to try to be ornamental as well as useful, a symbol as well as a pivot. Obviously, it is absurd to single out one man as a symbol of the equality of all men. And not less unreasonable is it to expect him to be inspiring as a patriotic symbol, an incarnation of his country. Only an anointed king, whose forefathers were kings too, can be that. In France, where kings have been, no one can get up the slightest pretence of emotion for the President. If the President is modest and unassuming, and doesn't, as did the late M. Faure, make an ass of himself by behaving in a kingly manner, he is safe from ridicule: the amused smiles that follow him are not unkind. But in no case is any one proud of him. Never does any one see France in him. In America, where no kings have been, they are able to make a pretence of enthusiasm for a President. But no real chord of national sentiment is touched by this eminent gentleman who has no past or future eminence, who has been shoved forward for a space and will anon be sent packing in favour of some other upstart. Let some princeling of a foreign State set foot in America, and lo! all the inhabitants are tumbling over one another in their desire for a glimpse of him—a desire which is the natural and pathetic outcome of their unsatisfied inner craving for a dynasty of their own. Human nature being what it is, a monarchy is the best expedient, all the world over. But, given a republic, let the thing be done thoroughly, let the appearance be well kept up, as in Switzerland. Let the President be, as there, a furtive creature and insignificant, not merely coming no man knows whence, nor merely passing no man knows whither, but existing no man knows where; and existing not even as a name—except on the tip of the tongue. National dignity, as well as the republican ideal, is served better thus. Besides, it is less trying for the President.
And yet, stronger than all my sense of what is right and proper is the desire in me that the President of the Swiss Republic should, just for once, be dragged forth, blinking, from his burrow in Berne (Berne is the capital of Switzerland), into the glare of European publicity, and be driven in a landau to the railway station, there to await the King of England and kiss him on either cheek when he dismounts from the train, while the massed orchestras of all the principal hotels play our national anthem—and also a Swiss national anthem, hastily composed for the occasion. I want him to entertain the King, that evening, at a great banquet, whereat His Majesty will have the President's wife on his right hand, and will make a brief but graceful speech in the Swiss language (English, French, German, and Italian, consecutively) referring to the glorious and never-to-be-forgotten name of William Tell (embarrassed silence), and to the vast number of his subjects who annually visit Switzerland (loud and prolonged cheers). Next morning, let there be a review of twenty thousand waiters from all parts of the country, all the head-waiters receiving a modest grade of the Victorian Order. Later in the day, let the King visit the National Gallery—a hall filled with picture post-cards of the most picturesque spots in Switzerland; and thence let him be conducted to the principal factory of cuckoo-clocks, and, after some of the clocks have been made to strike, be heard remarking to the President, with a hearty laugh, that the sound is like that of the cuckoo. How the second day of the visit would be filled up, I do not know; I leave that to the President's discretion. Before his departure to the frontier, the King will of course be made honorary manager of one of the principal hotels.
I hope to be present in Berne during these great days in the President's life. But, if anything happen to keep me here, I shall content myself with the prospect of his visit to London. I long to see him and his wife driving past, with the proper escort of Life Guards, under a vista of quadrilingual mottoes, bowing acknowledgments to us. I wonder what he is like. I picture him as a small spare man, with a slightly grizzled beard, and pleasant though shifty eyes behind a pince-nez. I picture him frock-coated, bowler-hatted, and evidently nervous. His wife I cannot at all imagine.
A CLUB IN RUINS
An antique ruin has its privileges. The longer the period of its crumbling, the more do the owls build their nests in it, the more do the excursionists munch in it their sandwiches. Thus, year by year, its fame increases, till it looks back with contempt on the days when it was a mere upright waterproof. Local guide-books pander more and more slavishly to its pride; leader-writers in need of a pathetic metaphor are more and more frequently supplied by it. If there be any sordid question of clearing it away to make room for something else, the public outcry is positively deafening.
Not that we are still under the sway of that peculiar cult which beset us in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. A bad poet or painter can no longer reap the reward of genius merely by turning his attention to ruins under moonlight. Nor does any one cause to be built in his garden a broken turret, for the evocation of sensibility in himself and his guests. There used to be one such turret near the summit of Campden Hill; but that familiar imposture was rased a year or two ago, no one protesting. Fuit the frantic factitious sentimentalism for ruins. On the other hand, the sentiment for them is as strong as ever it was. Decrepit Carisbrooke and its rivals annually tighten their hold on Britannia's heart.
I do not grudge them their success. But the very fact that they are so successful inclines me to reserve my own personal sentiment rather for those unwept, unsung ruins which so often confront me, here and there, in the streets of this aggressive metropolis. The ruins made, not by Time, but by the ruthless skill of Labour, the ruins of houses not old enough to be sacrosanct nor new enough to keep pace with the demands of a gasping and plethoric community—these are the ruins that move me to tears. No owls flutter in them. No trippers lunch in them. In no guide-book or leading-article will you find them mentioned. Their pathetic interiors gape to the sky and to the street, but nor gods nor men hold out a hand to save them. The patterns of bedroom wall-papers, (chosen with what care, after how long discussion! only a few short years or months ago) stare out their obvious, piteous appeal to us for mercy. And their dumb agony is echoed dumbly by the places where doors have been—doors that lately were tapped at by respectful knuckles; or the places where staircases have been—staircases down whose banisters lately slid little children, laughing. Exposed, humiliated, doomed, the home throws out a hundred pleas to us. And the Pharisaic community passes by on the other side of the way, in fear of a falling brick. Down come the walls of the home, as quickly as pickaxes can send them. Down they crumble, piecemeal, into the foundations, and are carted away. Soon other walls will be rising—red-brick 'residential' walls, more in harmony with the Zeitgeist. None but I pays any heed to the ruins. I am their only friend. Me they attract so irresistibly that I haunt the door of the hoarding that encloses them, and am frequently mistaken for the foreman.
A few summers ago, I was watching, with more than usual emotion, the rasure of a great edifice at a corner of Hanover Square. There were two reasons why this rasure especially affected me. I had known the edifice so well, by sight, ever since I was a small boy, and I had always admired it as a fine example of that kind of architecture which is the most suitable to London's atmosphere. Though I must have passed it thousands of times, I had never passed without an upward smile of approval that gaunt and sombre facade, with its long straight windows, its well-spaced columns, its long straight coping against the London sky. My eyes deplored that these noble and familiar things must perish. For sake of what they had sheltered, my heart deplored that they must perish. The falling edifice had not been exactly a home. It had been even more than that. It had been a refuge from many homes. It had been a club.
Certainly it had not been a particularly distinguished club. Its demolition could not have been stayed on the plea that Charles James Fox had squandered his substance in its card-room, or that Lord Melbourne had loved to doze on the bench in its hall. Nothing sublime had happened in it. No sublime person had belonged to it. Persons without the vaguest pretensions to sublimity had always, I believe, found quick and easy entrance into it. It had been a large nondescript affair. But (to adapt Byron) a club's a club tho' every one's in it. The ceremony of election gives it a cachet which not even the smartest hotel has. And then there is the note-paper, and there are the newspapers, and the cigars at wholesale prices, and the not-to-be-tipped waiters, and other blessings for mankind. If the members of this club had but migrated to some other building, taking their effects and their constitution with them, the ruin would have been pathetic enough. But alas! the outward wreck was a symbol, a result, of inner dissolution. Through the door of the hoarding the two pillars of the front door told a sorry tale. Pasted on either of them was a dingy bill, bearing the sinister imprimatur of an auctioneer, and offering (in capitals of various sizes) Bedroom Suites (Walnut and Mahogany), Turkey, Indian and Wilton Pile Carpets, Two Full-sized Billiard-Tables, a Remington Type-writer, a Double Door (Fire-Proof), and other objects not less useful and delightful. The club, then, had gone to smash. The members had been disbanded, driven out of this Eden by the fiery sword of the Law, driven back to their homes. Sighing over the marcescibility of human happiness, I peered between the pillars into the excavated and chaotic hall. The porter's hatch was still there, in the wall. There it was, wondering why no inquiries were made through it now, or, may be, why it had not been sold into bondage with the double-door and the rest of the fixtures. A melancholy relic of past glories! I crossed over to the other side of the road, and passed my eye over the whole ruin. The roof, the ceilings, most of the inner walls, had already fallen. Little remained but the grim, familiar facade—a thin husk. I noted (that which I had never noted before) two iron grills in the masonry. Miserable travesties of usefulness, ventilating the open air! Through the gaping windows, against the wall of the next building, I saw in mid-air the greenish Lincrusta Walton of what I guessed to have been the billiard-room—the billiard-room that had boasted two full-sized tables. Above it ran a frieze of white and gold. It was interspersed with flat Corinthian columns. The gilding of the capitals was very fresh, and glittered gaily under the summer sunbeams.
And hardly a day of the next autumn and winter passed but I was drawn back to the ruin by a kind of lugubrious magnetism. The strangest thing was that the ruin seemed to remain in practically the same state as when first I had come upon it: the facade still stood high. This might have been due to the proverbial laziness of British workmen, but I did not think it could be. The workmen were always plying their pick-axes, with apparent gusto and assiduity, along the top of the building; bricks and plaster were always crashing down into the depths and sending up clouds of dust. I preferred to think the building renewed itself, by some magical process, every night. I preferred to think it was prepared thus to resist its aggressors for so long a time that in the end there would be an intervention from other powers. Perhaps from this site no 'residential' affair was destined to scrape the sky? Perhaps that saint to whom the club had dedicated itself would reappear, at length, glorious equestrian, to slay the dragons who had infested and desecrated his premises? I wondered whether he would then restore the ruins, reinstating the club, and setting it for ever on a sound commercial basis, or would leave them just as they were, a fixed signal to sensibility.
But, when first I saw the poor facade being pick-axed, I did not 'give' it more than a fortnight. I had no feeling but of hopeless awe and pity. The workmen on the coping seemed to me ministers of inexorable Olympus, executing an Olympian decree. And the building seemed to me a live victim, a scapegoat suffering sullenly for sins it had not committed. To me it seemed to be flinching under every rhythmic blow of those well-wielded weapons, praying for the hour when sunset should bring it surcease from that daily ordeal. I caught myself nodding to it—a nod of sympathy, of hortation to endurance. Immediately, I was ashamed of my lapse into anthropomorphism. I told myself that my pity ought to be kept for the real men who had been frequenters of the building, who now were waifs. I reviewed the gaping, glassless windows through which they had been wont to watch the human comedy. There they had stood, puffing their smoke and cracking their jests, and tearing women's reputations to shreds.
Not that I, personally, have ever heard a woman's reputation torn to shreds in a club window. A constant reader of lady-novelists, I have always been hoping for this excitement, but somehow it has never come my way. I am beginning to suspect that it never will, and am inclined to regard it as a figment. Such conversation as I have heard in clubs has been always of a very mild, perfunctory kind. A social club (even though it be a club with a definite social character) is a collection of heterogeneous creatures, and its aim is perfect harmony and good-fellowship. Thus any definite expression of opinion by any member is regarded as dangerous. The ideal clubman is he who looks genial and says nothing at all. Most Englishmen find little difficulty in conforming with this ideal. They belong to a silent race. Social clubs flourish, therefore, in England. Intelligent foreigners, seeing them, recognise their charm, and envy us them, and try to reproduce them at home. But the Continent is too loquacious. On it social clubs quickly degenerate into bear-gardens, and the basic ideal of good-fellowship goes by the board. In Paris, Petersburg, Vienna, the only social clubs that prosper are those which are devoted to games of chance—those which induce silence by artificial means. Were I a foreign visitor, taking cursory glances, I should doubtless be delighted with the clubs of London. Had I the honour to be an Englishman, I should doubtless love them. But being a foreign resident, I am somewhat oppressed by them. I crave in them a little freedom of speech, even though such freedom were their ruin. I long for their silence to be broken here and there, even though such breakage broke them with it. It is not enough for me to hear a hushed exchange of mild jokes about the weather, or of comparisons between what the Times says and what the Standard says. I pine for a little vivacity, a little boldness, a little variety, a few gestures. A London club, as it is conducted, seems to me very like a catacomb. It is tolerable so long as you do not actually belong to it. But when you do belong to it, when you have outlived the fleeting gratification at having been elected, when you...but I ought not to have fallen into the second person plural. You, readers, are free-born Englishmen. These clubs 'come natural' to you. You love them. To them you slip eagerly from your homes. As for me, poor alien, had I been a member of the club whose demolition has been my theme, I should have grieved for it not one whit the more bitterly. Indeed, my tears would have been a trifle less salt. It was my detachment that enabled me to be so prodigal of pity.
The poor waifs! Long did I stand, in the sunshine of that day when first I saw the ruin, wondering and distressed, ruthful, indignant that such things should be. I forgot on what errand I had come out. I recalled it. Once or twice I walked away, bent on its fulfilment. But I could not proceed further than a few yards. I halted, looked over my shoulder, was drawn back to the spot, drawn by the crude, insistent anthem of the pick-axes. The sun slanted towards Notting Hill. Still I loitered, spellbound... I was aware of some one at my side, some one asking me a question. 'I beg your pardon?' I said. The stranger was a tall man, bronzed and bearded. He repeated his question. In answer, I pointed silently to the ruin. 'That?' he gasped. He stared vacantly. I saw that his face had become pale under its sunburn. He looked from the ruin to me. 'You're not joking with me?' he said thickly. I assured him that I was not. I assured him that this was indeed the club to which he had asked to be directed. 'But,' he stammered, 'but—but—' 'You were a member?' I suggested. 'I am a member,' he cried. 'And what's more, I'm going to write to the Committee.' I suggested that there was one fatal objection to such a course. I spoke to him calmly, soothed him with words of reason, elicited from him, little by little, his sad story. It appeared that he had been a member of the club for ten years, but had never (except once, as a guest) been inside it. He had been elected on the very day on which (by compulsion of his father) he set sail for Australia. He was a mere boy at the time. Bitterly he hated leaving old England; nor did he ever find the life of a squatter congenial. The one thing which enabled him to endure those ten years of unpleasant exile was the knowledge that he was a member of a London club. Year by year, it was a keen pleasure to him to send his annual subscription. It kept him in touch with civilisation, in touch with Home. He loved to know that when, at length, he found himself once again in the city of his birth he would have a firm foothold on sociability. The friends of his youth might die, or might forget him. But, as member of a club, he would find substitutes for them in less than no time. Herding bullocks, all day long, on the arid plains of Central Australia, he used to keep up his spirits by thinking of that first whisky-and-soda which he would order from a respectful waiter as he entered his club. All night long, wrapped in his blanket beneath the stars, he used to dream of that drink to come, that first symbol of an unlost grip on civilisation... He had arrived in London this very afternoon. Depositing his luggage at an hotel, he had come straight to his club. 'And now...' He filled up his aposiopesis with an uncouth gesture, signifying 'I may as well get back to Australia.'
I was on the point of offering to take him to my own club and give him his first whisky-and-soda therein. But I refrained. The sight of an extant club might have maddened the man. It certainly was very hard for him, to have belonged to a club for ten years, to have loved it so passionately from such a distance, and then to find himself destined never to cross its threshold. Why, after all, should he not cross its threshold? I asked him if he would like to. 'What,' he growled, 'would be the good?' I appealed, not in vain, to the imaginative side of his nature. I went to the door of the hoarding, and explained matters to the foreman; and presently, nodding to me solemnly, he passed with the foreman through the gap between the doorposts. I saw him crossing the excavated hall, crossing it along a plank, slowly and cautiously. His attitude was very like Blondin's, but it had a certain tragic dignity which Blondin's lacked. And that was the last I saw of him. I hailed a cab and drove away. What became of the poor fellow I do not know. Often as I returned to the ruin, and long as I loitered by it, him I never saw again. Perhaps he really did go straight back to Australia. Or perhaps he induced the workmen to bury him alive in the foundations. His fate, whatever it was, haunts me.
This is an age of prescriptions. Morning after morning, from the back-page of your newspaper, quick and uncostly cures for every human ill thrust themselves wildly on you. The age of miracles is not past. But I would raise no false hopes of myself. I am no thaumaturgist. Do you awake with a sinking sensation in the stomach? Have you lost the power of assimilating food? Are you oppressed with an indescribable lassitude? Can you no longer follow the simplest train of thought? Are you troubled throughout the night with a hacking cough? Are you—in fine, are you but a tissue of all the most painful symptoms of all the most malignant maladies ancient and modern? If so, skip this essay, and try Somebody's Elixir. The cure that I offer is but a cure for overwrought nerves—a substitute for the ordinary 'rest-cure.' Nor is it absurdly cheap. Nor is it instant. It will take a week or so of your time. But then, the 'rest-cure' takes at least a month. The scale of payment for board and lodging may be, per diem, hardly lower than in the 'rest-cure'; but you will save all but a pound or so of the very heavy fees that you would have to pay to your doctor and your nurse (or nurses). And certainly, my cure is the more pleasant of the two. My patient does not have to cease from life. He is not undressed and tucked into bed and forbidden to stir hand or foot during his whole term. He is not forbidden to receive letters, or to read books, or to look on any face but his nurse's (or nurses'). Nor, above all, is he condemned to the loathsome necessity of eating so much food as to make him dread the sight of food. Doubtless, the grim, inexorable process of the 'rest-cure' is very good for him who is strong enough and brave enough to bear it, and rich enough to pay for it. I address myself to the frailer, cowardlier, needier man. Instead of ceasing from life, and entering purgatory, he need but essay a variation in life. He need but go and stay by himself in one of those vast modern hotels which abound along the South and East coasts.
You are disappointed? All simple ideas are disappointing. And all good cures spring from simple ideas.
The right method of treating overwrought nerves is to get the patient away from himself—to make a new man of him; and this trick can be done only by switching him off from his usual environment, his usual habits. The ordinary rest-cure, by its very harshness, intensifies a man's personality at first, drives him miserably within himself; and only by its long duration does it gradually wear him down and build him up anew. There is no harshness in the vast hotels which I have recommended. You may eat there as little as you like, especially if you are en pension. Letters may be forwarded to you there; though, unless your case is a very mild one, I would advise you not to leave your address at home. There are reading-rooms where you can see all the newspapers; though I advise you to ignore them. You suffer under no sense of tyranny. And yet, no sooner have you signed your name in the visitors' book, and had your bedroom allotted to you, than you feel that you have surrendered yourself irrepleviably. It is not necessary to this illusion that you should pass under an assumed name, unless you happen to be a very eminent actor, or cricketer, or other idol of the nation, whose presence would flutter the young persons at the bureau. If your nervous breakdown be (as it more likely is) due to merely intellectual distinction, these young persons will mete out to you no more than the bright callous civility which they mete out impartially to all (but those few) who come before them. To them you will be a number, and to yourself you will have suddenly become a number—the number graven on the huge brass label that depends clanking from the key put into the hand of the summoned chambermaid. You are merely (let us say) 273.
Up you go in the lift, realising, as for the first time, your insignificance in infinity, and rather proud to be even a number. You recognise your double on the door that has been unlocked for you. No prisoner, clapped into his cell, could feel less personal, less important. A notice on the wall, politely requesting you to leave your key at the bureau (as though you were strong enough or capacious enough to carry it about with you) comes as a pleasant reminder of your freedom. You remember joyously that you are even free from yourself. You have begun a new life, have forgotten the old. This mantelpiece, so strangely and brightly bare of photographs or 'knickknacks,' is meaning in its meaninglessness. And these blank, fresh walls, that you have never seen, and that never were seen by any one whom you know...their pattern is of poppies and mandragora, surely. Poppies and mandragora are woven, too, on the brand-new Axminster beneath your elastic step. 'Come in!' A porter bears in your trunk, deposits it on a trestle at the foot of the bed, unstraps it, leaves you alone with it. It seems to be trying to remind you of something or other. You do not listen. You laugh as you open it. You know that if you examined these shirts you would find them marked '273.' Before dressing for dinner, you take a hot bath. There are patent taps, some for fresh water, others for sea water. You hesitate. Yet you know that whichever you touch will effuse but the water of Lethe, after all. You dress before your fire. The coals have burnt now to a lovely glow. Once and again, you eye them suspiciously. But no, there are no faces in them. All's well.
Sleek and fresh, you sit down to dinner in the 'Grande Salle a' Manger.' Graven on your wine-glasses, emblazoned on your soup-plate, are the armorial bearings of the company that shelters you. The College of Arms might sneer at them, be down on them, but to you they are a joy, in their grand lack of links with history. They are a sympathetic symbol of your own newness, your own impersonality. You glance down the endless menu. It has been composed for a community. None of your favourite dishes (you once had favourite dishes) appears in it, thank heaven! You will work your way through it, steadily, unquestioningly, gladly, with a communal palate. And the wine? All wines are alike here, surely. You scour the list vaguely, and order a pint of 273. Your eye roves over the adjacent tables.
You behold a galaxy of folk evidently born, like yourself, anew. Some, like yourself, are solitary. Others are with wives, with children—but with new wives, new children. The associations of home have been forgotten, even though home's actual appendages be here. The members of the little domestic circles are using company manners. They are actually making conversation, 'breaking the ice.' They are new here to one another. They are new to themselves. How much newer to you! You cannot 'place' them. That paterfamilias with the red moustache—is he a soldier, a solicitor, a stockbroker, what? You play vaguely, vainly, at the game of attributions, while the little orchestra in yonder bower of artificial palm-trees plays new, or seemingly new, cake-walks. Who are they, these minstrels in the shadow? They seem not to be the Red Hungarians, nor the Blue, nor the Hungarians of any other colour of the spectrum. You set them down as the Colourless Hungarians, and resume your study of the tables. They fascinate you, these your fellow-diners. You fascinate them, doubtless. They, doubtless, are cudgelling their brains to 'spot' your state in life—your past, which now has escaped you. Next day, some of them are gone; and you miss them, almost bitterly. But others succeed them, not less detached and enigmatic than they. You must never speak to one of them. You must never lapse into those casual acquaintances of the 'lounge' or the smoking-room. Nor is it hard to avoid them. No Englishman, how gregarious and garrulous soever, will dare address another Englishman in whose eye is no spark of invitation. There must be no such spark in yours. Silence is part of the cure for you, and a very important part. It is mainly through unaccustomed silence that your nerves are made trim again. Usually, you are giving out in talk all that you receive through your senses of perception. Keep silence now. Its gold will accumulate in you at compound interest. You will realise the joy of being full of reflections and ideas. You will begin to hoard them proudly, like a miser. You will gloat over your own cleverness—you, who but a few days since, were feeling so stupid. Solitude in a crowd, silence among chatterboxes—these are the best ministers to a mind diseased. And with the restoration of the mind, the body will be restored too. You, who were physically so limp and pallid, will be a ruddy Hercules now. And when, at the moment of departure, you pass through the hall, shyly distributing to the servants that largesse which is so slight in comparison with what your doctor and nurse (or nurses) would have levied on you, you will feel that you are more than fit to resume that burden of personality whereunder you had sunk. You will be victoriously yourself again.
Yet I think you will look back a little wistfully on the period of your obliteration. People—for people are very nice, really, most of them—will tell you that they have missed you. You will reply that you did not miss yourself. And you will go the more strenuously to your work and pleasure, so as to have the sooner an excuse for a good riddance.
A STUDY IN DEJECTION
Riderless the horse was, and with none to hold his bridle. But he waited patiently, submissively, there where I saw him, at the shabby corner of a certain shabby little street in Chelsea. 'My beautiful, my beautiful, thou standest meekly by,' sang Mrs. Norton of her Arab steed, 'with thy proudly-arched and glossy neck, thy dark and fiery eye.' Catching the eye of this other horse, I saw that such fire as might once have blazed there had long smouldered away. Chestnut though he was, he had no mettle. His chestnut coat was all dull and rough, unkempt as that of an inferior cab-horse. Of his once luxuriant mane there were but a few poor tufts now. His saddle was torn and weather-stained. The one stirrup that dangled therefrom was red with rust.
I never saw in any creature a look of such unutterable dejection. Dejection, in the most literal sense of the word, indeed was his. He had been cast down. He had fallen from higher and happier things. With his 'arched neck,' and with other points which not neglect nor ill-usage could rob of their old grace, he had kept something of his fallen day about him. In the window of the little shop outside which he stood were things that seemed to match him—things appealing to the sense that he appealed to. A tarnished French mirror, a strip of faded carpet, some rows of battered, tattered books, a few cups and saucers that had erst been riveted and erst been dusted—all these, in a gallimaufry of other languid odds and ends, seen through this mud-splashed window, silently echoed the silent misery of the horse. They were remembering Zion. They had been beautiful once, and expensive, and well cared for, and admired, and coveted. And now...
They had, at least, the consolation of being indoors. Public laughing-stock though they were, they had a barrier of glass between themselves and the irreverent world. To be warm and dry, too, was something. Piteous, they could yet afford to pity the horse. He was more ludicrously, more painfully, misplaced than they. A real blood-horse that has done his work is rightly left in the open air—turned out into some sweet meadow or paddock. It would be cruel to make him spend his declining years inside a house, where no grass is. Is it less cruel that a fine old rocking-horse should be thrust from the nursery out into the open air, upon the pavement?
Perhaps some child had just given the horse a contemptuous shove in passing. For he was rocking gently when I chanced to see him. Nor did he cease to rock, with a slight creak upon the pavement, so long as I watched him. A particularly black and bitter north wind was blowing round the corner of the street. Perhaps it was this that kept the horse in motion. Boreas himself, invisible to my mortal eyes, may have been astride the saddle, lashing the tired old horse to this futile activity. But no, I think rather that the poor thing was rocking of his own accord, rocking to attract my attention. He saw in me a possible purchaser. He wanted to show me that he was still sound in wind and limb. Had I a small son at home? If so, here was the very mount for him. None of your frisky, showy, first-hand young brutes, on which no fond parent ought to risk his offspring's bones; but a sound, steady-going, well-mannered old hack with never a spark of vice in him! Such was the message that I read in the glassy eye fixed on me. The nostril of faded scarlet seemed for a moment to dilate and quiver. At last, at last, was some one going to inquire his price?
Once upon a time, in a far-off fashionable toy-shop, his price had been prohibitive; and he, the central attraction behind the gleaming shop-window, had plumed himself on his expensiveness. He had been in no hurry to be bought. It had seemed to him a good thing to stand there motionless, majestic, day after day, far beyond the reach of average purses, and having in his mien something of the frigid nobility of the horses on the Parthenon frieze, with nothing at all of their unreality. A coat of real chestnut hair, glossy, glorious! From end to end of the Parthenon frieze not one of the horses had that.
From end to end of the toy-shop that exhibited him not one of the horses was thus graced. Their flanks were mere wood, painted white, with arbitrary blotches of grey here and there. Miserable creatures! It was difficult to believe that they had souls. No wonder they were cheap, and 'went off,' as the shopman said, so quickly, whilst he stayed grandly on, cynosure of eyes that dared not hope for him. Into bondage they went off, those others, and would be worked to death, doubtless, by brutal little boys.
When, one fine day, a lady was actually not shocked by the price demanded for him, his pride was hurt. And when, that evening, he was packed in brown paper and hoisted to the roof of a four-wheeler, he faced the future fiercely. Who was this lady that her child should dare bestride him? With a biblical 'ha, ha,' he vowed that the child should not stay long in saddle: he must be thrown—badly—even though it was his seventh birthday. But this wicked intention vanished while the child danced around him in joy and wonder. Never yet had so many compliments been showered on him. Here, surely, was more the manner of a slave than of a master. And how lightly the child rode him, with never a tug or a kick! And oh, how splendid it was to be flying thus through the air! Horses were made to be ridden; and he had never before savoured the true joy of life, for he had never known his own strength and fleetness. Forward! Backward! Faster, faster! To floor! To ceiling! Regiments of leaden soldiers watched his wild career. Noah's quiet sedentary beasts gaped up at him in wonderment—as tiny to him as the gaping cows in the fields are to you when you pass by in an express train. This was life indeed! He remembered Katafalto—remembered Eclipse and the rest nowhere. Aye, thought he, and even thus must Black Bess have rejoiced along the road to York. And Bucephalus, skimming under Alexander the plains of Asia, must have had just this glorious sense of freedom. Only less so! Not Pegasus himself can have flown more swiftly. Pegasus, at last, became a constellation in the sky. 'Some day,' reflected the rocking-horse, when the ride was over, 'I, too, shall die; and five stars will appear on the nursery ceiling.'
Alas for the vanity of equine ambition! I wonder by what stages this poor beast came down in the world. Did the little boy's father go bankrupt, leaving it to be sold in a 'lot' with the other toys? Or was it merely given away, when the little boy grew up, to a poor but procreative relation, who anon became poorer? I should like to think that it had been mourned. But I fear that whatever mourning there may have been for it must have been long ago discarded. The creature did not look as if it had been ridden in any recent decade. It looked as if it had almost abandoned the hope of ever being ridden again. It was but hoping against hope now, as it stood rocking there in the bleak twilight. Bright warm nurseries were for younger, happier horses. Still it went on rocking, to show me that it could rock.
The more sentimental a man is, the less is he helpful; the more loth is he to cancel the cause of his emotion. I did not buy the horse.
A few days later, passing that way, I wished to renew my emotion; but lo! the horse was gone. Had some finer person than I bought it?—towed it to the haven where it would be? Likelier, it had but been relegated to some mirky recess of the shop... I hope it has room to rock there.
A PATHETIC IMPOSTURE
Lord Rosebery once annoyed the Press by declaring that his ideal newspaper was one which should give its news without comment. Doubtless he was thinking of the commonweal. Yet a plea for no comments might be made, with equal force, in behalf of the commentators themselves. Occupations that are injurious to the persons engaged in them ought not to be encouraged. The writing of 'leaders' and 'notes' is one of these occupations. The practice of it, more than of any other, depends on, and fosters hypocrisy, worst of vices. In a sense, every kind of writing is hypocritical. It has to be done with an air of gusto, though no one ever yet enjoyed the act of writing. Even a man with a specific gift for writing, with much to express, with perfect freedom in choice of subject and manner of expression, with indefinite leisure, does not write with real gusto. But in him the pretence is justified: he has enjoyed thinking out his subject, he will delight in his work when it is done. Very different is the pretence of one who writes at top-speed, on a set subject, what he thinks the editor thinks the proprietor thinks the public thinks nice. If he happen to have a talent for writing, his work will be but the more painful, and his hypocrisy the greater. The chances are, though, that the talent has already been sucked out of him by Journalism, that vampire. To her, too, he will have forfeited any fervour he may have had, any learning, any gaiety. How can he, the jaded interpreter, hold any opinion, feel any enthusiasm?—without leisure, keep his mind in cultivation?—be sprightly to order, at unearthly hours in a whir-r-ring office? To order! Yes, sprightliness is compulsory there; so are weightiness, and fervour, and erudition. He must seem to abound in these advantages, or another man will take his place. He must disguise himself at all costs. But disguises are not easy to make; they require time and care, which he cannot afford. So he must snatch up ready-made disguises—unhook them, rather. He must know all the cant-phrases, the cant-references. There are very, very many of them, and belike it is hard to keep them all at one's finger-tips. But, at least, there is no difficulty in collecting them. Plod through the 'leaders' and 'notes' in half-a-dozen of the daily papers, and you will bag whole coveys of them.
Most of the morning papers still devote much space to the old-fashioned kind of 'leader,' in which the pretence is of weightiness, rather than of fervour, sprightliness, or erudition. The effect of weightiness is obtained simply by a stupendous disproportion of language to sense. The longest and most emphatic words are used for the simplest and most trivial statements, and they are always so elaborately qualified as to leave the reader with a vague impression that a very difficult matter, which he himself cannot make head or tail of, has been dealt with in a very judicial and exemplary manner.
A leader-writer would not, for instance, say—
Lord Rosebery has made a paradox.
He would say:—
whether intentionally or otherwise, we leave our readers to decide, or, with seeming conviction, or, doubtless giving rein to the playful humour which is characteristic of him,
expressed a sentiment, or, taken on himself to enunciate a theory, or, made himself responsible for a dictum,
we venture to assert, or, we have little hesitation in declaring, or, we may be pardoned for thinking, or, we may say without fear of contradiction,
nearly akin to or, not very far removed from
But I will not examine further the trick of weightiness—it takes up too much of my space. Besides, these long 'leaders' are a mere survival, and will soon disappear altogether. The 'notes' are the characteristic feature of the modern newspaper, and it is in them that the modern journalist displays his fervour, sprightliness, and erudition. 'Note'-writing, like chess, has certain recognised openings, e.g.:—
There is no new thing under the sun. It is always the unexpected that happens. Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum. The late Lord Coleridge once electrified his court by inquiring 'Who is Connie Gilchrist?'
And here are some favourite methods of conclusion:—
A mad world, my masters! 'Tis true 'tis pity, and pity 'tis 'tis true. There is much virtue in that 'if.' But that, as Mr. Kipling would say, is another story. Si non e' vero, etc.
or (lighter style)
We fancy we recognise here the hand of Mr. Benjamin Trovato.
Not less inevitable are such parallelisms as:—
Like Topsy, perhaps it 'growed.' Like the late Lord Beaconsfield on a famous occasion, 'on the side of the angels.' Like Brer Rabbit, 'To lie low and say nuffin.' Like Oliver Twist, 'To ask for more.' Like Sam Weller's knowledge of London, 'extensive and peculiar.' Like Napoleon, a believer in 'the big battalions.'
Nor let us forget Pyrrhic victory, Parthian dart, and Homeric laughter; quos deus vult and nil de mortuis; Sturm und Drang; masterly inactivity, unctuous rectitude, mute inglorious Miltons, and damned good-natured friends; the sword of Damocles, the thin edge of the wedge, the long arm of coincidence, and the soul of goodness in things evil; Hobson's choice, Frankenstein's monster, Macaulay's schoolboy, Lord Burleigh's nod, Sir Boyle Roche's bird, Mahomed's coffin, and Davy Jones's locker.
A melancholy catalogue, is it not? But it is less melancholy for you who read it here, than for them whose existence depends on it, who draw from it a desperate means of seeming to accomplish what is impossible. And yet these are the men who shrank in horror from Lord Rosebery's merciful idea. They ought to be saved despite themselves. Might not a short Act of Parliament be passed, making all comment in daily newspapers illegal? In a way, of course, it would be hard on the commentators. Having lost the power of independent thought, having sunk into a state of chronic dulness, apathy and insincerity, they could hardly, be expected to succeed in any of the ordinary ways of life. They could not compete with their fellow-creatures; no door but would be bolted if they knocked on it. What would become of them? Probably they would have to perish in what they would call 'what the late Lord Goschen would have called "splendid isolation."' But such an end were sweeter, I suggest to them, than the life they are leading.
THE DECLINE OF THE GRACES
Have you read The Young Lady's Book? You have had plenty of time to do so, for it was published in 1829. It was described by the two anonymous Gentlewomen who compiled it as 'A Manual for Elegant Recreations, Exercises, and Pursuits.' You wonder they had nothing better to think of? You suspect them of having been triflers? They were not, believe me. They were careful to explain, at the outset, that the Virtues of Character were what a young lady should most assiduously cultivate. They, in their day, labouring under the shadow of the eighteenth century, had somehow in themselves that high moral fervour which marks the opening of the twentieth century, and is said to have come in with Mr. George Bernard Shaw. But, unlike us, they were not concerned wholly with the inward and spiritual side of life. They cared for the material surface, too. They were learned in the frills and furbelows of things. They gave, indeed, a whole chapter to 'Embroidery.' Another they gave to 'Archery,' another to 'The Aviary,' another to 'The Escrutoire.' Young ladies do not now keep birds, nor shoot with bow and arrow; but they do still, in some measure, write letters; and so, for sake of historical comparison, let me give you a glance at 'The Escrutoire.' It is not light reading.
'For careless scrawls ye boast of no pretence; Fair Russell wrote, as well as spoke, with sense.'
Thus is the chapter headed, with a delightful little wood engraving of 'Fair Russell,' looking pre-eminently sensible, at her desk, to prepare the reader for the imminent welter of rules for 'decorous composition.' Not that pedantry is approved. 'Ease and simplicity, an even flow of unlaboured diction, and an artless arrangement of obvious sentiments' is the ideal to be striven for. 'A metaphor may be used with advantage' by any young lady, but only 'if it occur naturally.' And 'allusions are elegant,' but only 'when introduced with ease, and when they are well understood by those to whom they are addressed.' 'An antithesis renders a passage piquant'; but the dire results of a too-frequent indulgence in it are relentlessly set forth. Pages and pages are devoted to a minute survey of the pit-falls of punctuation. But when the young lady of that period had skirted all these, and had observed all the manifold rules of caligraphy that were here laid down for her, she was not, even then, out of the wood. Very special stress was laid on 'the use of the seal.' Bitter scorn was poured on young ladies who misused the seal. 'It is a habit of some to thrust the wax into the flame of the candle, and the moment a morsel of it is melted, to daub it on the paper; and when an unsightly mass is gathered together, to pass the seal over the tongue with ridiculous haste—press it with all the strength which the sealing party possesses—and the result is, an impression which raises a blush on her cheek.'
Well! The young ladies of that day were ever expected to exhibit sensibility, and used to blush, just as they wept or fainted, for very slight causes. Their tears and their swoons did not necessarily betoken much grief or agitation; nor did a rush of colour to the cheek mean necessarily that they were overwhelmed with shame. To exhibit various emotions in the drawing-room was one of the Elegant Exercises in which these young ladies were drilled thoroughly. And their habit of simulation was so rooted in sense of duty that it merged into sincerity. If a young lady did not swoon at the breakfast-table when her Papa read aloud from The Times that the Duke of Wellington was suffering from a slight chill, the chances were that she would swoon quite unaffectedly when she realised her omission. Even so, we may be sure that a young lady whose cheek burned not at sight of the letter she had sealed untidily—'unworthily' the Manual calls it—would anon be blushing for her shamelessness. Such a thing as the blurring of the family crest, or as the pollution of the profile of Pallas Athene with the smoke of the taper, was hardly, indeed, one of those 'very slight causes' to which I have referred. The Georgian young lady was imbued through and through with the sense that it was her duty to be gracefully efficient in whatsoever she set her hand to. To the young lady of to-day, belike, she will seem accordingly ridiculous—seem poor-spirited, and a pettifogger. True, she set her hand to no grandiose tasks. She was not allowed to become a hospital nurse, for example, or an actress. The young lady of to-day, when she hears in herself a 'vocation' for tending the sick, would willingly, without an instant's preparation, assume responsibility for the lives of a whole ward at St. Thomas's. This responsibility is not, however, thrust on her. She has to submit to a long and tedious course of training before she may do so much as smooth a pillow. The boards of the theatre are less jealously hedged in than those of the hospital. If our young lady have a wealthy father, and retain her schoolroom faculty for learning poetry by heart, there is no power on earth to prevent her from making her de'but, somewhere, as Juliet—if she be so inclined; and such is usually her inclination. That her voice is untrained, that she cannot scan blank-verse, that she cannot gesticulate with grace and propriety, nor move with propriety and grace across the stage, matters not a little bit—to our young lady. 'Feeling,' she will say, 'is everything'; and, of course, she, at the age of eighteen, has more feeling than Juliet, that 'flapper,' could have had. All those other things—those little technical tricks—'can be picked up,' or 'will come.' But no; I misrepresent our young lady. If she be conscious that there are such tricks to be played, she despises them. When, later, she finds the need to learn them, she still despises them. It seems to her ridiculous that one should not speak and comport oneself as artlessly on the stage as one does off it. The notion of speaking or comporting oneself with conscious art in real life would seem to her quite monstrous. It would puzzle her as much as her grandmother would have been puzzled by the contrary notion.
Personally, I range myself on the grandmother's side. I take my stand shoulder to shoulder with the Graces. On the banner that I wave is embroidered a device of prunes and prisms.
I am no blind fanatic, however. I admit that artlessness is a charming idea. I admit that it is sometimes charming as a reality. I applaud it (all the more heartily because it is rare) in children. But then, children, like the young of all animals whatsoever, have a natural grace. As a rule, they begin to show it in their third year, and to lose it in their ninth. Within that span of six years they can be charming without intention; and their so frequent failure in charm is due to their voluntary or enforced imitation of the ways of their elders. In Georgian and Early Victorian days the imitation was always enforced. Grown-up people had good manners, and wished to see them reflected in the young. Nowadays, the imitation is always voluntary. Grown-up people have no manners at all; whereas they certainly have a very keen taste for the intrinsic charm of children. They wish children to be perfectly natural. That is (aesthetically at least) an admirable wish. My complaint against these grown-up people is, that they themselves, whom time has robbed of their natural grace as surely as it robs the other animals, are content to be perfectly natural. This contentment I deplore, and am keen to disturb.
I except from my indictment any young lady who may read these words. I will assume that she differs from the rest of the human race, and has not, never had, anything to learn in the art of conversing prettily, of entering or leaving a room or a vehicle gracefully, of writing appropriate letters, et patati et patata. I will assume that all these accomplishments came naturally to her. She will now be in a mood to accept my proposition that of her contemporaries none seems to have been so lucky as herself. She will agree with me that other girls need training. She will not deny that grace in the little affairs of life is a thing which has to be learned. Some girls have a far greater aptitude for learning it than others; but, with one exception, no girls have it in them from the outset. It is a not less complicated thing than is the art of acting, or of nursing the sick, and needs for the acquirement of it a not less laborious preparation.
Is it worth the trouble? Certainly the trouble is not taken. The 'finishing school,' wherein young ladies were taught to be graceful, is a thing of the past. It must have been a dismal place; but the dismalness of it—the strain of it—was the measure of its indispensability. There I beg the question. Is grace itself indispensable? Certainly, it has been dispensed with. It isn't reckoned with. To sit perfectly mute 'in company,' or to chatter on at the top of one's voice; to shriek with laughter; to fling oneself into a room and dash oneself out of it; to collapse on chairs or sofas; to sprawl across tables; to slam doors; to write, without punctuation, notes that only an expert in handwriting could read, and only an expert in mis-spelling could understand; to hustle, to bounce, to go straight ahead—to be, let us say, perfectly natural in the midst of an artificial civilisation, is an ideal which the young ladies of to-day are neither publicly nor privately discouraged from cherishing. The word 'cherishing' implies a softness of which they are not guilty. I hasten to substitute 'pursuing.' If these young ladies were not in the aforesaid midst of an artificial civilisation, I should be the last to discourage their pursuit. If they were Amazons, for example, spending their lives beneath the sky, in tilth of stubborn fields, and in armed conflict with fierce men, it would be unreasonable to expect of them any sacrifice to the Graces. But they are exposed to no such hardships. They have a really very comfortable sort of life. They are not expected to be useful. (I am writing all the time, of course, about the young ladies in the affluent classes.) And it seems to me that they, in payment of their debt to Fate, ought to occupy the time that is on their hands by becoming ornamental, and increasing the world's store of beauty. In a sense, certainly, they are ornamental. It is a strange fact, and an ironic, that they spend quite five times the annual amount that was spent by their grandmothers on personal adornment. If they can afford it, well and good: let us have no sumptuary law. But plenty of pretty dresses will not suffice. Pretty manners are needed with them, and are prettier than they.