Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

Part 3 out of 3

Adobe PDF icon
Download And Even Now pdf
File size: 0.3 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

afterwards for his sudden exodus from Rome. But why, in this case, did
he leave Naples, why go back to Rome, when Goethe was in Sicily? I
hope he went for the purpose of shaking off his infatuation for Miss
Harte. I am loth to think he went merely to wind up his affairs in
Rome. I will assume that only after a sharp conflict, in which he
fought hard on the side of duty against love, did he relapse to
Naples. But I won't pretend to wish he had finished that portrait.

If you know where that portrait is, tell me. I want it. I have tried
to trace it--vainly. What became of it? I thought I might find this
out in George Henry Lewes' `Life of Goethe.' But Lewes had a hero-
worship for Goethe: he thought him greater than George Eliot, and in
the whole book there is but one cold mention of Tischbein's name. Mr.
Oscar Browning, in the `Encyclopaedia Britannica,' names Tischbein as
Goethe's `constant companion' in the early days at Rome--and says
nothing else about him! In fact, the hero-worshippers have evidently
conspired to hush up the affront to their hero. Even the `Penny
Cyclopaedia' (1842), which devotes a column to little Tischbein
himself, and goes into various details of his career, is silent about
the portrait of Goethe. I learn from that column that Tischbein became
director of the Neapolitan Academy, at a salary of 600 ducats, and
resided in Naples until the Revolution of '99, when he returned in
haste to Germany. Suppose he passed through Rome on his way. A homing
fugitive would not pause to burden himself with a vast unfinished
canvas. We may be sure the canvas remained in that Roman studio--an
object of mild interest to successive occupants. Is it there still?
Does the studio itself still exist? Belike it has been demolished,
with so much else. What became of the expropriated canvas? It wouldn't
have been buried in the new foundations. Some one must have staggered
away with it. Whither? Somewhere, I am sure, in some dark vault or
cellar, it languishes.

Seek it, fetch it out, bring it to me in triumph. You will always find
me in the Baptistery of San Lorenzo. But I have formed so clear and
sharp a preconception of the portrait that I am likely to be
disappointed at sight of what you bring me. I see in my mind's eye
every falling fold of the white mantle; the nobly-rounded calf of the
leg on which rests the forearm; the high-light on the black silk
stocking. The shoes, the hands, are rather sketchy, the sky is a mere
slab; the ruined temples are no more than adumbrated. But the
expression of the face is perfectly, epitomically, that of a great man
surveying a great alien scene and gauging its import not without a
keen sense of its dramatic conjunction with himself--Marius in
Carthage and Napoleon before the Sphinx, Wordsworth on London Bridge
and Cortes on the peak in Darien, but most of all, certainly, Goethe
in the Campagna. So, you see, I cannot promise not to be horribly let
down by Tischbein's actual handiwork. I may even have to take back my
promise that it shall have a place of honour. But I shall not utterly
reject it--unless on the plea that a collection of unfinished works
should itself have some great touch of incompletion.

July, 1919.

The cottage had a good trim garden in front of it, and another behind
it. I might not have noticed it at all but for them and their emerald
greenness. Yet itself (I saw when I studied it) was worthy of them.
Sussex is rich in fine Jacobean cottages; and their example, clearly,
had not been lost on the builder of this one. Its proportions had a
homely grandeur. It was long and wide and low. It was quite a yard
long. It had three admirable gables. It had a substantial and shapely
chimney-stack. I liked the look that it had of honest solidity all
over, nothing anywhere scamped in the workmanship of it. It looked as
though it had been built for all time. But this was not so. For it was
built on sand, and of sand; and the tide was coming in.

Here and there in its vicinity stood other buildings. None of these
possessed any points of interest. They were just old-fashioned
`castles,' of the bald and hasty kind which I myself used to make in
childhood and could make even now--conic affairs, with or without
untidily-dug moats, the nullities of convention and of unskilled
labour. When I was a child the charm of a castle was not in the
building of it, but in jumping over it when it was built. Nor was this
an enduring charm. After a few jumps one abandoned one's castle and
asked one's nurse for a bun, or picked a quarrel with some child even
smaller than oneself, or went paddling. As it was, so it is. My survey
of the sands this morning showed me that forty years had made no
difference. Here was plenty of animation, plenty of scurrying and
gambolling, of laughter and tears. But the actual spadework was a mere
empty form. For all but the builder of that cottage. For him,
manifestly, a passion, a rite.

He stood, spade in hand, contemplating, from one angle and another,
what he had done. He was perhaps nine years old; if so, small for his
age. He had very thin legs in very short grey knickerbockers, a pale
freckled face, and hair that matched the sand. He was not remarkable.
But with a little good-will one can always find something impressive
in anybody. When Mr. Mallaby-Deeley won a wide and very sudden fame in
connexion with Covent Garden, an awe-stricken reporter wrote of him
for The Daily Mail, `he has the eyes of a dreamer.' I believe that Mr.
Cecil Rhodes really had. So, it seemed to me, had this little boy.
They were pale grey eyes, rather prominent, with an unwavering light
in them. I guessed that they were regarding the cottage rather as what
it should be than as what it had become. To me it appeared quite
perfect. But I surmised that to him, artist that he was, it seemed a
poor thing beside his first flushed conception.

He knelt down and, partly with the flat of his spade, partly with the
palm of one hand, redressed some (to me obscure) fault in one of the
gables. He rose, stood back, his eyes slowly endorsed the amendment. A
few moments later, very suddenly, he scudded away to the adjacent
breakwater and gave himself to the task of scraping off it some of the
short green sea-weed wherewith he had made the cottage's two gardens
so pleasantly realistic, oases so refreshing in the sandy desert. Were
the lawns somehow imperfect? Anon, when he darted back, I saw what it
was that his taste had required: lichen, moss, for the roof. Sundry
morsels and patches of green he deftly disposed in the angles of roof
and gables. His stock exhausted, off to the breakwater he darted, and
back again, to and fro with the lightning directness of a hermit-bee
making its nest of pollen. The low walls that enclosed the two gardens
were in need of creepers. Little by little, this grace was added to
them. I stood silently watching.

I kept silent for fear of discommoding him. All artists--by which I
mean, of course, all good artists--are shy. They are trustees of
something not entrusted to us others; they bear fragile treasure, not
safe in a jostling crowd; they must ever be wary. And especially shy
are those artists whose work is apart from words. A man of letters can
mitigate his embarrassment among us by a certain glibness. Not so can
the man who works through the medium of visual form and colour. Not
so, I was sure, could the young architect and landscape-gardener here
creating. I would have moved away had I thought my mere presence was a
bother to him; but I decided that it was not: being a grown-up person,
I did not matter; he had no fear that I should offer violence to his
work. It was his coevals that made him uneasy. Groups of these would
pause in their wild career to stand over him and watch him in a
fidgety manner that hinted mischief. Suppose one of them suddenly
jumped--on to the cottage!

Fragile treasure, this, in a quite literal sense; and how awfully
exposed! It was spared, however. There was even legible on the faces
of the stolid little boys who viewed it a sort of reluctant approval.
Some of the little girls seemed to be forming with their lips the word
`pretty,' but then they exchanged glances with one another, signifying
`silly.' No one of either sex uttered any word of praise. And so,
because artists, be they never so agoraphobious, do want praise, I did
at length break my silence to this one. `I think it splendid,' I said
to him.

He looked up at me, and down at the cottage. `Do you?' he asked,
looking up again. I assured him that I did; and to test my opinion of
him I asked whether he didn't think so too. He stood the test well. `I
wanted it rather diff'rent,' he answered.

`In what way different?'

He searched his vocabulary. More comf'table,' he found.

I knew now that he was not merely the architect and builder of the
cottage, but also, by courtesy of imagination, its tenant; but I was
tactful enough not to let him see that I had guessed this deep and
delicate secret. I did but ask him, in a quite general way, how the
cottage could be better. He said that it ought to have a porch--`but
porches tumble in.' He was too young an artist to accept quite meekly
the limits imposed by his material. He pointed along the lower edge of
the roof: `It ought to stick out,' he said, meaning that it wanted
eaves. I told him not to worry about that: it was the sand's fault,
not his. `What really is a pity,' I said, `is that your house can't
last for ever.' He was tracing now on the roof, with the edge of his
spade, a criss-cross pattern, to represent tiles, and he seemed to
have forgotten my presence and my kindness. `Aren't you sorry,' I
asked, raising my voice rather sharply, `that the sea is coming in?'

He glanced at the sea. `Yes.' He said this with a lack of emphasis
that seemed to me noble though insincere.

The strain of talking in words of not more than three syllables had
begun to tell on me. I bade the artist good-bye, wandered away up the
half-dozen steps to the Parade, sat down on a bench, and opened the
morning paper that I had brought out unread. During the War one felt
it a duty to know the worst before breakfast; now that the English
polity is threatened merely from within, one is apt to dally....
Merely from within? Is that a right phrase when the nerves of
unrestful Labour in any one land are interplicated with its nerves in
any other, so vibrantly? News of the dismissal of an erring workman in
Timbuctoo is enough nowadays to make us apprehensive of vast and
dreadful effects on our own immediate future. How pleasant if we had
lived our lives in the nineteenth century and no other, with the
ground all firm under our feet! True, the people who flourished then
had recurring alarms. But their alarms were quite needless; whereas
ours--! Ours, as I glanced at this morning' s news from Timbuctoo and
elsewhere, seemed odiously needful. Withal, our Old Nobility in its
pleasaunces was treading once more the old graceful measure which the
War arrested; Bohemia had resumed its motley; even the middle class
was capering, very noticeably... To gad about smiling as though he
were quite well, thank you, or to sit down, pull a long face, and make
his soul,--which, I wondered, is the better procedure for a man
knowing that very soon he will have to undergo a vital operation at
the hands of a wholly unqualified surgeon who dislikes him personally?
I inclined to think the gloomier way the less ghastly. But then, I
asked myself, was my analogy a sound one? We are at the mercy of
Labour, certainly; and Labour does not love us; and Labour is not
deeply versed in statecraft. But would an unskilled surgeon, however
ill-wishing, care to perform a drastic operation on a patient by whose
death he himself would forthwith perish? Labour is wise enough--
surely?--not to will us destruction. Russia has been an awful example.
Surely! And yet, Labour does not seem to think the example so awful as
I do. Queer, this; queer and disquieting. I rose from my bench,
strolled to the railing, and gazed forth.

The unrestful, the well-organised and minatory sea had been advancing
quickly. It was not very far now from the cottage. I thought of all
the civilisations that had been, that were not, that were as though
they had never been. Must it always be thus?--always the same old tale
of growth and greatness and overthrow, nothingness? I gazed at the
cottage, all so solid and seemly, so full of endearing character, so
like to the `comf'table' polity of England as we have known it. I
gazed away from it to a large-ish castle that the sea was just
reaching. A little, then quickly much, the waters swirled into the
moat. Many children stood by, all a-dance with excitement. The castle
was shedding its sides, lapsing, dwindling, landslipping--gone. O
Nineveh! And now another--O Memphis? Rome?--yielded to the cataclysm.
I listened to the jubilant screams of the children. What rapture, what
wantoning! Motionless beside his work stood the builder of the
cottage, gazing seaward, a pathetic little figure. I hoped the other
children would have the decency not to exult over the unmaking of what
he had made so well. This hope was not fulfilled. I had not supposed
it would be. What did surprise me, when anon the sea rolled close up
to the cottage, was the comportment of the young artist himself. His
sobriety gave place to an intense animation. He leapt, he waved his
spade, he invited the waves with wild gestures and gleeful cries. His
face had flushed bright, and now, as the garden walls crumbled, and
the paths and lawns were mingled by the waters' influence and
confluence, and the walls of the cottage itself began to totter, and
the gables sank, and all, all was swallowed, his leaps were so high in
air that they recalled to my memory those of a strange religious sect
which once visited London; and the glare of his eyes was less
indicative of a dreamer than of a triumphant fiend.

I myself was conscious of a certain wild enthusiasm within me. But
this was less surprising for that I had not built the cottage, and my
fancy had not enabled me to dwell in it. It was the boy's own
enthusiasm that made me feel, as never before, how deep-rooted in the
human breast the love of destruction, of mere destruction, is. And I
began to ask myself: `Even if England as we know it, the English
polity of which that cottage was a symbol to me, were the work of
(say) Mr. Robert Smillie's own unaided hands'--but I waived the
question coming from that hypothesis, and other questions that would
have followed; for I wished to be happy while I might.


Fragmentary, pale, momentary; almost nothing; glimpsed and gone; as it
were, a faint human hand thrust up, never to reappear, from beneath
the rolling waters of Time, he forever haunts my memory and solicits
my weak imagination. Nothing is told of him but that once, abruptly,
he asked a question, and received an answer.

This was on the afternoon of April 7th, 1778, at Streatham, in the
well-appointed house of Mr. Thrale. Johnson, on the morning of that
day, had entertained Boswell at breakfast in Bolt Court, and invited
him to dine at Thrale Hall. The two took coach and arrived early. It
seems that Sir John Pringle had asked Boswell to ask Johnson `what
were the best English sermons for style.' In the interval before
dinner, accordingly, Boswell reeled off the names of several divines
whose prose might or might not win commendation. `Atterbury?' he
suggested. `JOHNSON: Yes, Sir, one of the best. BOSWELL: Tillotson?
JOHNSON: Why, not now. I should not advise any one to imitate
Tillotson's style; though I don't know; I should be cautious of
censuring anything that has been applauded by so many suffrages.--
South is one of the best, if you except his peculiarities, and his
violence, and sometimes coarseness of language.--Seed has a very fine
style; but he is not very theological. Jortin's sermons are very
elegant. Sherlock's style, too, is very elegant, though he has not
made it his principal study.--And you may add Smalridge. BOSWELL: I
like Ogden's Sermons on Prayer very much, both for neatness of style
and subtility of reasoning. JOHNSON: I should like to read all that
Ogden has written. BOSWELL: What I want to know is, what sermons
afford the best specimen of English pulpit eloquence. JOHNSON: We have
no sermons addressed to the passions, that are good for anything; if
you mean that kind of eloquence. A CLERGYMAN, whose name I do not
recollect: Were not Dodd's sermons addressed to the passions? JOHNSON:
They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.'

The suddenness of it! Bang!--and the rabbit that had popped from its
burrow was no more.

I know not which is the more startling--the de'but of the unfortunate
clergyman, or the instantaneousness of his end. Why hadn't Boswell
told us there was a clergyman present? Well, we may be sure that so
careful and acute an artist had some good reason. And I suppose the
clergyman was left to take us unawares because just so did he take the
company. Had we been told he was there, we might have expected that
sooner or later he would join in the conversation. He would have had a
place in our minds. We may assume that in the minds of the company
around Johnson he had no place. He sat forgotten, overlooked; so that
his self-assertion startled every one just as on Boswell's page it
startles us. In Johnson's massive and magnetic presence only some very
remarkable man, such as Mr. Burke, was sharply distinguishable from
the rest. Others might, if they had something in them, stand out
slightly. This unfortunate clergyman may have had something in him,
but I judge that he lacked the gift of seeming as if he had. That
deficiency, however, does not account for the horrid fate that befell
him. One of Johnson's strongest and most inveterate feelings was his
veneration for the Cloth. To any one in Holy Orders he habitually
listened with a grave and charming deference. To-day moreover, he was
in excellent good humour. He was at the Thrales', where he so loved to
be; the day was fine; a fine dinner was in close prospect; and he had
had what he always declared to be the sum of human felicity--a ride in
a coach. Nor was there in the question put by the clergyman anything
likely to enrage him. Dodd was one whom Johnson had befriended in
adversity; and it had always been agreed that Dodd in his pulpit was
very emotional. What drew the blasting flash must have been not the
question itself, but the manner in which it was asked. And I think we
can guess what that manner was.

Say the words aloud: `Were not Dodd's sermons addressed to the
passions?' They are words which, if you have any dramatic and
histrionic sense, cannot be said except in a high, thin voice.

You may, from sheer perversity, utter them in a rich and sonorous
baritone or bass. But if you do so, they sound utterly unnatural. To
make them carry the conviction of human utterance, you have no choice:
you must pipe them.

Remember, now, Johnson was very deaf. Even the people whom he knew
well, the people to whose voices he was accustomed, had to address him
very loudly. It is probable that this unregarded, young, shy
clergyman, when at length he suddenly mustered courage to `cut in,'
let his high, thin voice soar too high, insomuch that it was a kind of
scream. On no other hypothesis can we account for the ferocity with
which Johnson turned and rended him. Johnson didn't, we may be sure,
mean to be cruel. The old lion, startled, just struck out blindly. But
the force of paw and claws was not the less lethal. We have endless
testimony to the strength of Johnson's voice; and the very cadence of
those words, `They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they
may,' convinces me that the old lion's jaws never gave forth a louder
roar. Boswell does not record that there was any further conversation
before the announcement of dinner. Perhaps the whole company had been
temporarily deafened. But I am not bothering about them. My heart goes
out to the poor dear clergyman exclusively.

I said a moment ago that he was young and shy; and I admit that I
slipped those epithets in without having justified them to you by due
process of induction. Your quick mind will have already supplied what
I omitted. A man with a high, thin voice, and without power to impress
any one with a sense of his importance, a man so null in effect that
even the retentive mind of Boswell did not retain his very name, would
assuredly not be a self-confident man. Even if he were not naturally
shy, social courage would soon have been sapped in him, and would in
time have been destroyed, by experience. That he had not yet given
himself up as a bad job, that he still had faint wild hopes, is proved
by the fact that he did snatch the opportunity for asking that
question. He must, accordingly, have been young. Was he the curate of
the neighbouring church? I think so. It would account for his having
been invited. I see him as he sits there listening to the great
Doctor's pronouncement on Atterbury and those others. He sits on the
edge of a chair in the background. He has colourless eyes, fixed
earnestly, and a face almost as pale as the clerical bands beneath his
somewhat receding chin. His forehead is high and narrow, his hair
mouse-coloured. His hands are clasped tight before him, the knuckles
standing out sharply. This constriction does not mean that he is
steeling himself to speak. He has no positive intention of speaking.
Very much, nevertheless, is he wishing in the back of his mind that he
could say something--something whereat the great Doctor would turn on
him and say, after a pause for thought, `Why yes, Sir. That is most
justly observed' or `Sir, this has never occurred to me. I thank you'-
-thereby fixing the observer for ever high in the esteem of all. And
now in a flash the chance presents itself. `We have,' shouts Johnson,
`no sermons addressed to the passions, that are good for anything.' I
see the curate's frame quiver with sudden impulse, and his mouth fly
open, and--no, I can't bear it, I shut my eyes and ears. But audible,
even so, is something shrill, followed by something thunderous.

Presently I re-open my eyes. The crimson has not yet faded from that
young face yonder, and slowly down either cheek falls a glistening
tear. Shades of Atterbury and Tillotson! Such weakness shames the
Established Church. What would Jortin and Smalridge have said?--what
Seed and South? And, by the way, who were they, these worthies? It is
a solemn thought that so little is conveyed to us by names which to
the palaeo-Georgians conveyed so much. We discern a dim, composite
picture of a big man in a big wig and a billowing black gown, with a
big congregation beneath him. But we are not anxious to hear what he
is saying. We know it is all very elegant. We know it will be printed
and be bound in finely-tooled full calf, and no palaeo-Georgian
gentleman's library will be complete without it. Literate people in
those days were comparatively few; but, bating that, one may say that
sermons were as much in request as novels are to-day. I wonder, will
mankind continue to be capricious? It is a very solemn thought indeed
that no more than a hundred-and-fifty years hence the novelists of our
time, with all their moral and political and sociological outlook and
influence, will perhaps shine as indistinctly as do those old
preachers, with all their elegance, now. `Yes, Sir,' some great pundit
may be telling a disciple at this moment, `Wells is one of the best.
Galsworthy is one of the best, if you except his concern for delicacy
of style. Mrs. Ward has a very firm grasp of problems, but is not very
creational.--Caine's books are very edifying. I should like to read
all that Caine has written. Miss Corelli, too, is very edifying.--And
you may add Upton Sinclair.' `What I want to know,' says the disciple,
`is, what English novels may be selected as specially enthralling.'
The pundit answers: `We have no novels addressed to the passions that
are good for anything, if you mean that kind of enthralment.' And here
some poor wretch (whose name the disciple will not remember) inquires:
`Are not Mrs. Glyn's novels addressed to the passions?' and is in due
form annihilated. Can it be that a time will come when readers of this
passage in our pundit's Life will take more interest in the poor
nameless wretch than in all the bearers of those great names put
together, being no more able or anxious to discriminate between (say)
Mrs. Ward and Mr. Sinclair than we are to set Ogden above Sherlock, or
Sherlock above Ogden? It seems impossible. But we must remember that
things are not always what they seem.

Every man illustrious in his day, however much he may be gratified by
his fame, looks with an eager eye to posterity for a continuance of
past favours, and would even live the remainder of his life in
obscurity if by so doing he could insure that future generations would
preserve a correct attitude towards him forever. This is very natural
and human, but, like so many very natural and human things, very
silly. Tillotson and the rest need not, after all, be pitied for our
neglect of them. They either know nothing about it, or are above such
terrene trifles. Let us keep our pity for the seething mass of divines
who were not elegantly verbose, and had no fun or glory while they
lasted. And let us keep a specially large portion for one whose lot
was so much worse than merely undistinguished. If that nameless curate
had not been at the Thrales' that day, or, being there, had kept the
silence that so well became him, his life would have been drab enough,
in all conscience. But at any rate an unpromising career would not
have been nipped in the bud. And that is what in fact happened, I'm
sure of it. A robust man might have rallied under the blow. Not so our
friend. Those who knew him in infancy had not expected that he would
be reared. Better for him had they been right. It is well to grow up
and be ordained, but not if you are delicate and very sensitive, and
shall happen to annoy the greatest, the most stentorian and roughest
of contemporary personages. `A Clergyman' never held up his head or
smiled again after the brief encounter recorded for us by Boswell. He
sank into a rapid decline. Before the next blossoming of Thrale Hall's
almond trees he was no more. I like to think that he died forgiving
Dr. Johnson.


On a bleak wet stormy afternoon at the outset of last year's Spring, I
was in a cottage, all alone, and knowing that I must be all alone till
evening. It was a remote cottage, in a remote county, and had been
`let furnished' by its owner. My spirits are easily affected by
weather, and I hate solitude. And I dislike to be master of things
that are not mine. `Be careful not to break us,' say the glass and
china. `You'd better not spill ink on me,' growls the carpet. `None of
your dog's-earing, thumb-marking, back-breaking tricks here!' snarl
the books.

The books in this cottage looked particularly disagreeable--horrid
little upstarts of this and that scarlet or cerulean `series' of
`standard' authors. Having gloomily surveyed them, I turned my back on
them, and watched the rain streaming down the latticed window, whose
panes seemed likely to be shattered at any moment by the wind. I have
known men who constantly visit the Central Criminal Court, visit also
the scenes where famous crimes were committed, form their own theories
of those crimes, collect souvenirs of those crimes, and call
themselves Criminologists. As for me, my interest in crime is, alas,
merely morbid. I did not know, as those others would doubtless have
known, that the situation in which I found myself was precisely of the
kind most conducive to the darkest deeds. I did but bemoan it, and
think of Lear in the hovel on the heath. The wind howled in the
chimney, and the rain had begun to sputter right down it, so that the
fire was beginning to hiss in a very sinister manner. Suppose the fire
went out! It looked as if it meant to. I snatched the pair of bellows
that hung beside it. I plied them vigorously. `Now mind!--not too
vigorously. We aren't yours!' they wheezed. I handled them more
gently. But I did not release them till they had secured me a steady

I sat down before that blaze. Despair had been warded off. Gloom,
however, remained; and gloom grew. I felt that I should prefer any
one's thoughts to mine. I rose, I returned to the books. A dozen or so
of those which were on the lowest of the three shelves were full-
sized, were octavo, looked as though they had been bought to be read.
I would exercise my undoubted right to read one of them. Which of
them? I gradually decided on a novel by a well-known writer whose
works, though I had several times had the honour of meeting her, were
known to me only by repute.

I knew nothing of them that was not good. The lady's `output' had not
been at all huge, and it was agreed that her `level' was high. I had
always gathered that the chief characteristic of her work was its
great `vitality.' The book in my hand was a third edition of her
latest novel, and at the end of it were numerous press-notices, at
which I glanced for confirmation. `Immense vitality,' yes, said one
critic. `Full,' said another, `of an intense vitality.' `A book that
will live,' said a third. How on earth did he know that? I was,
however, very willing to believe in the vitality of this writer for
all present purposes. Vitality was a thing in which she herself, her
talk, her glance, her gestures, abounded. She and they had been, I
remembered, rather too much for me. The first time I met her, she said
something that I lightly and mildly disputed. On no future occasion
did I stem any opinion of hers. Not that she had been rude. Far from
it. She had but in a sisterly, brotherly way, and yet in a way that
was filially eager too, asked me to explain my point. I did my best.
She was all attention. But I was conscious that my best, under her
eye, was not good. She was quick to help me: she said for me just what
I had tried to say, and proceeded to show me just why it was wrong. I
smiled the gallant smile of a man who regards women as all the more
adorable because logic is not their strong point, bless them! She
asked--not aggressively, but strenuously, as one who dearly loves a
joke--what I was smiling at. Altogether, a chastening encounter; and
my memory of it was tinged with a feeble resentment. How she had
scored! No man likes to be worsted in argument by a woman. And I fancy
that to be vanquished by a feminine writer is the kind of defeat least
of all agreeable to a man who writes. A `sex war,' we are often told
is to be one of the features of the world's future--women demanding
the right to do men's work, and men refusing, resisting, counter-
attacking. It seems likely enough. One can believe anything of the
world's future. Yet one conceives that not all men, if this particular
evil come to pass, will stand packed shoulder to shoulder against all
women. One does not feel that the dockers will be very bitter against
such women as want to be miners, or the plumbers frown much upon the
would-be steeple-jills. I myself have never had my sense of fitness
jarred, nor a spark of animosity roused in me, by a woman practising
any of the fine arts--except the art of writing. That she should write
a few little poems or pense'es, or some impressions of a trip in a
dahabieh as far as (say) Biskra, or even a short story or two, seems
to me not wholly amiss, even though she do such things for
publication. But that she should be an habitual, professional author,
with a passion for her art, and a fountain-pen and an agent, and sums
down in advance of royalties on sales in Canada and Australia, and a
profound knowledge of human character, and an essentially sane
outlook, is somehow incongruous with my notions--my mistaken notions,
if you will--of what she ought to be.

`Has a profound knowledge of human character, and an essentially sane
outlook' said one of the critics quoted at the end of the book that I
had chosen. The wind and the rain in the chimney had not abated, but
the fire was bearing up bravely. So would I. I would read cheerfully
and without prejudice. I poked the fire and, pushing my chair slightly
back, lest the heat should warp the book's covers, began Chapter I. A
woman sat writing in a summer-house at the end of a small garden that
overlooked a great valley in Surrey. The description of her was
calculated to make her very admirable--a thorough woman, not strictly
beautiful, but likely to be thought beautiful by those who knew her
well; not dressed as though she gave much heed to her clothes, but
dressed in a fashion that exactly harmonised with her special type.
Her pen `travelled' rapidly across the foolscap, and while it did so
she was described in more and more detail. But at length she came to a
`knotty point' in what she was writing. She paused, she pushed back
the hair from her temples, she looked forth at the valley; and now the
landscape was described, but not at all exhaustively, it, for the
writer soon overcame her difficulty, and her pen travelled faster than
ever, till suddenly there was a cry of `Mammy!' and in rushed a seven-
year-old child, in conjunction with whom she was more than ever
admirable; after which the narrative skipped back across eight years,
and the woman became a girl, giving as yet no token of future eminence
in literature but--I had an impulse which I obeyed almost before I
was, conscious of it.

Nobody could have been more surprised than I was at what I had done--
done so neatly, so quietly and gently. The book stood closed, upright,
with its back to me, just as on a book-shelf, behind the bars of the
grate. There it was. And it gave forth, as the flames crept up the
blue cloth sides of it, a pleasant though acrid smell. My astonishment
had passed, giving place to an exquisite satisfaction. How pottering
and fumbling a thing was even the best kind of written criticism! I
understood the contempt felt by the man of action for the man of
words. But what pleased me most was that at last, actually, I, at my
age, I of all people, had committed a crime--was guilty of a crime. I
had power to revoke it. I might write to my bookseller for an unburnt
copy, and place it on the shelf where this one had stood--this
gloriously glowing one. I would do nothing of the sort. What I had
done I had done. I would wear forever on my conscience the white rose
of theft and the red rose of arson. If hereafter the owner of this
cottage happened to miss that volume--let him! If he were fool enough
to write to me about it, would I share my grand secret with him? No.
Gently, with his poker, I prodded that volume further among the coals.
The all-but-consumed binding shot forth little tongues of bright
colour--flamelets of sapphire, amethyst, emerald. Charming! Could even
the author herself not admire them? Perhaps. Poor woman!--I had scored
now, scored so perfectly that I felt myself to be almost a brute while
I poked off the loosened black outer pages and led the fire on to
pages that were but pale brown.

These were quickly devoured. But it seemed to me that whenever I left
the fire to forage for itself it made little headway. I pushed the
book over on its side. The flames closed on it, but presently, licking
their lips, fell back, as though they had had enough. I took the tongs
and put the book upright again, and raked it fore and aft. It seemed
almost as thick as ever. With poker and tongs I carved it into two,
three sections--the inner pages flashing white as when they were sent
to the binders. Strange! Aforetime, a book was burnt now and again in
the market-place by the common hangman. Was he, I wondered, paid by
the hour? I had always supposed the thing quite easy for him--a bright
little, brisk little conflagration, and so home. Perhaps other books
were less resistant than this one? I began to feel that the critics
were more right than they knew. Here was a book that had indeed an
intense vitality, and an immense vitality. It was a book that would
live--do what one might. I vowed it should not. I subdivided it,
spread it, redistributed it. Ever and anon my eye would be caught by
some sentence or fragment of a sentence in the midst of a charred page
before the flames crept over it. `lways loathed you, bu', I remember;
and `ning. Tolstoi was right.' Who had always loathed whom? And what,
what, had Tolstoi been right about? I had an absurd but genuine desire
to know. Too late! Confound the woman!--she was scoring again. I
furiously drove her pages into the yawning crimson jaws of the coals.
Those jaws had lately been golden. Soon, to my horror, they seemed to
be growing grey. They seemed to be closing--on nothing. Flakes of
black paper, full-sized layers of paper brown and white, began to hide
them from me altogether. I sprinkled a boxful of wax matches. I
resumed the bellows. I lunged with the poker. I held a newspaper over
the whole grate. I did all that inspiration could suggest, or skill
accomplish. Vainly. The fire went out--darkly, dismally, gradually,
quite out.

How she had scored again! But she did not know it. I felt no
bitterness against her as I lay back in my chair, inert, listening to
the storm that was still raging. I blamed only myself. I had done
wrong. The small room became very cold. Whose fault was that but my
own? I had done wrong hastily, but had done it and been glad of it. I
had not remembered the words a wise king wrote long ago, that the lamp
of the wicked shall be put out, and that the way of trangressors is


Nothing is more pleasant than to see suddenly endowed with motion a
thing stagnant by nature. The hat that on the head of the man in the
street is nothing to us, how much it is if it be animated by a gust of
wind! There is no churl that does not rejoice with it in its strength,
and in the swiftness and cunning that baffle its pursuer, who, he too,
when the chase is over, bears it no ill will at all for its escapade.
I know families that have sat for hours, for hours after bedtime,
mute, in a dim light, pressing a table with their finger-tips, and
ever bringing to bear the full force of their minds on it, in the
unconquerable hope that it would move. Conversely, nothing is more
dismal than to see set in permanent rigidness a thing whose aspect is
linked for us with the idea of great mobility. Even the blithest of us
and least easily depressed would make a long detour to avoid a stuffed
squirrel or a case of pinned butterflies. And you can well imagine
with what a sinking of the heart I beheld, this morning, on a road
near the coast of Norfolk, a railway-car without wheels.

Without wheels though it was, it had motion--of a kind; of a kind
worse than actual stagnation. Mounted on a very long steam-lorry that
groaned and panted, it very slowly passed me. I noted that two of its
compartments were marked FIRST, the rest THIRD. And in some of them, I
noted, you might smoke. But of this opportunity you were not availing
yourself. All the compartments, the cheap and the dear alike, were
vacant. They were transporting air only--and this (I conceived)
abominable. The sun slanted fiercely down on the old iron roof, the
old wooden walls, the dingy shut windows. The fume and grime of a
thousand familiar tunnels, of year after year of journeys by night,
journeys by day, from time immemorial, seemed to have invested the
whole structure with a character that shrank from the sun's scrutiny
and from the nearness of sea and fields. Fuliginous, monstrous,
slowly, shamefully, the thing went by--to what final goal?--in the
lovely weather.

There attended it, besides the driver of the lorry, a straggling
retinue of half-a-dozen men on foot--handy-looking mechanics, very
dusty. I should have liked to question one or another of these as to
their mission. But I was afraid to do so. There is an art of talking
acceptably to people who do not regard themselves as members of one's
own class; and I have never acquired it. I suppose the first step is
to forget that any art is needed-to forget that one must not be so
wildly cordial for fear of seeming to `condescend,' nor be more than a
trifle saturnine, either, for the same motive. Or am I wrong? The
whole thing is a mystery to me. All I know is that if I had asked
those mechanics what they were doing with that railway car they would
have seemed to suspect me of meaning that it was my property and that
they had stolen it. Or perhaps they would have seemed merely to resent
my idle curiosity. If so, why not? When I walk abroad with a sheaf of
manuscript in my hand, mechanics do not stop me to ask `What's that?
What's it about? Who's going to publish it?' Nor is this because,
times having changed so, they are afraid of seeming to condescend.
They always did mind their own business. And now that their own
business is so much more lucrative than mine they still follow that
golden rule.

I stood gazing back at the procession till it disappeared round a bend
of the road. Its bequest of dust and smoke was quickly spent by a
prodigal young breeze. Landscape and seascape were reindued with their
full amenities. Ruskin would have been pleased. So indeed was I; but
that railway-car (in which, it romantically struck me, I myself might
once, might frequently, have travelled) was still upmost in my
brooding mind. To what manner of wretched end was it destined? No end
would have seemed bad enough for it to Ruskin. But I was born late
enough to acquiesce in railways and in all that pertains to them. And
now, since the success of motor-cars (those far greater, because
unrestricted, bores), railways have taken on for me some such charm as
the memory of the posting coaches had for the greybeards of my
boyhood, some such charm as aeroplanes may in the fulness of time
foist down for us on motor-cars. `But I rove,' like Sir Thomas More.
And I seem to think that a cheap literary allusion will make you
excuse that vice. To resume my breathless narrative I decided that I
would slowly follow the tracks of the lorry.

I supposed that these were leading me to some great scrapping-place
filled with the remains of other railway-cars foully scrapped for some
fell industrial purpose. But this was a bad guess. The tracks led me
at last through a lane and thence into sight of a little bay, on whose
waters were perceptible the deck heads of sundry human beings, and on
its sands the full-lengths of sundry other human beings in bath-robes,
reading novels or merely basking. There was nowhere any sign of
industrialism. More than ever was I intrigued as to the fate of the
old railway-car that I had been stalking. It and its lorry had halted
on the flat grassy land that fringed the sands. This land was
dominated by a crescent of queer little garish tenements, the like of
which I had never seen, nor would wish to see again. They did not
stand on the ground, but on stakes of wood and shafts of brick, six
feet or so above the ground's level, and were led up to by flights of
wooden steps that tried not to look like ladders. They displeased me
much. They had little railed platforms round them, and things hanging
out to dry on the railings; and their walls vied unneighbourly with
one another in lawless colour-schemes. One tenement was salmon-pink
with wide bands of scarlet, another sky-blue with a key-pattern in
orange, and so on around the whole little horrid array. And I deduced,
from certain upstanding stakes and shafts at the nearer end of the
crescent, that the horror was not complete yet. A suspicion dawned in
me, and became, while I gazed again at the crescent's facades, a
glaring certainty; in the light of which I saw that I had been wrong
about the old railway-car. Defunct, it was not to die. It was to have
a new function.

I had once heard that disused railway-cars were convertible into sea-
side cottages. But the news had not fired my imagination nor protruded
in my memory. To-day, as an eye-witness of the accomplished fact, I
was impressed, sharply enough, and I went nearer to the crescent,
drawn by a sort of dreadful fascination. I found that the cottages all
had names. One cottage was Mermaid's Rock; another (which had
fluttering window-curtains of Stuart tartan), Spray o' the Sea;
another, The Nest; another, Brinynook; and yet another had been named,
with less fitness, but in an ampler and to me more interesting spirit,
Petworth. I looked from them to the not-yet-converted railway-car. It
had a wonderful dignity. In its austere and monumental way, it was
very beautiful. It was a noble work of man, and Nature smiled on it. I
wondered with what colours it was to be bejezebelled, and what name--
Bolton Abbey?--Glad Eye?--Gay Wee Gehenna?--it would have to bear, and
what manner of man or woman was going to rent it.

It was on this last point that I mused especially. The housing problem
is hard, doubtless; but nobody, my mind protested as I surveyed the
crescent, nobody is driven to so desperate a solution of it as this!
There are tents, there are caves, there are hollow trees...and there
are people who prefer--this! Yes, `this' is a positive taste, not a
necessity at all. I swept the bay with a searching eye; but heads on
the surface of water tell nothing to the sociologist, and in bath-
robes even full-lengths on the sand give him no clue. Three or four of
the full-lengths had risen and strolled up to the lorry, around which
the mechanics were engaged in some dispute of a technical nature. I
hoped the full-lengths would have something to say too. But they said
nothing. This I set down to sheer perversity. I was more than three
miles from the place where I am sojourning, and the hour for luncheon
was nearly due. I left the bay without having been able to determine
the character, the kind, of its denizens.

I take it there is a strong tincture of Bohemianism in them. Mr.
Desmond MacCarthy, of whose judgment I am always trustful, has said
that the hallmark of Bohemianism is a tendency to use things for
purposes to which they are not adapted. You are a Bohemian, says Mr.
MacCarthy, if you would gladly use a razor for buttering your toast at
breakfast, and you aren't if you wouldn't. I think he would agree that
the choice of a home is a surer index than any fleeting action,
however strange, and that really the best-certified Bohemians are they
who choose to reside in railway-cars on stilts. But--why particularly
railway-cars? That is a difficult question. A possible answer is that
the Bohemian, as tending always to nomady, feels that the least
uncongenial way of settling down is to stow himself into a thing
fashioned for darting hither and thither. Yet no, this answer won't
do. It is ruled out by the law I laid down in my first paragraph.
There's nothing sadder to eye or heart than a very mobile thing made

No house, especially if you are by way of being nomadic, can be so ill
to live in as one that in its heyday went gadding all over the place.
And, on the other hand, what house more eligible than one that can
gad? I myself am not restless, and am fond of comfort: I should not
care to live in a caravan. But I have always liked the idea of a
caravan. And if you, alas, O reader, are a dweller in a railway-car, I
commend the idea to you. Take it, with my apologies for any words of
mine that may have nettled you. Put it into practice. Think of the
white road and the shifting hedgerows, and the counties that you will
soon lose count of. And think what a blessing it will be for you to
know that your house is not the one in which the Merstham Tunnel
murder was committed.


Memories, like olives, are an acquired taste. William and Mary (I give
them the Christian names that were indeed theirs--the joint title by
which their friends always referred to them) were for some years an
interest in my life, and had a hold on my affection. But a time came
when, though I had known and liked them too well ever to forget them,
I gave them but a few thoughts now and then. How, being dead, could
they keep their place in the mind of a young man surrounded with large
and constantly renewed consignments of the living? As one grows older,
the charm of novelty wears off. One finds that there is no such thing
as novelty--or, at any rate, that one has lost the faculty for
perceiving it. One sees every newcomer not as something strange and
special, but as a ticketed specimen of this or that very familiar
genus. The world has ceased to be remarkable; and one tends to think
more and more often of the days when it was so very remarkable indeed.

I suppose that had I been thirty years older when first I knew him,
William would have seemed to me little worthier of attention than a
twopenny postage-stamp seems to-day. Yet, no: William really had some
oddities that would have caught even an oldster's eye. In himself he
was commonplace enough (as I, coeval though I was with him, soon saw).
But in details of surface he was unusual. In them he happened to be
rather ahead of his time. He was a socialist, for example. In 1890
there was only one other socialist in Oxford, and he not at all an
undergraduate, but a retired chimney-sweep, named Hines, who made
speeches, to which nobody, except perhaps William, listened, near the
Martyrs' Memorial. And William wore a flannel shirt, and rode a
bicycle--very strange habits in those days, and very horrible. He was
said to be (though he was short-sighted and wore glasses) a first-rate
`back' at football; but, as football was a thing frowned on by the
rowing men, and coldly ignored by the bloods, his talent for it did
not help him: he was one of the principal pariahs of our College; and
it was rather in a spirit of bravado, and to show how sure of myself I
was, that I began, in my second year, to cultivate his acquaintance.

We had little in common. I could not think Political Economy `the most
exciting thing in the world,' as he used to call it. Nor could I
without yawning listen to more than a few lines of Mr. William Morris'
interminable smooth Icelandic Sagas, which my friend, pious young
socialist that he was, thought `glorious.' He had begun to write an
Icelandic Saga himself, and had already achieved some hundreds of
verses. None of these pleased him, though to me they seemed very like
his master's. I can see him now, standing on his hearth-rug, holding
his MS. close to his short-sighted eyes, declaiming the verses and
trying, with many angular gestures of his left hand, to animate them--
a tall, broad, raw-boned fellow, with long brown hair flung back from
his forehead, and a very shabby suit of clothes. Because of his
clothes and his socialism, and his habit of offering beer to a guest,
I had at first supposed him quite poor; and I was surprised when he
told me that he had from his guardian (his parents being dead) an
allowance of 350, and that when he came of age he would have an
income of 400. `All out of dividends,' he would groan. I would hint
that Mr. Hines and similar zealots might disembarrass him of this
load, if he asked them nicely. `No,' he would say quite seriously, `I
can't do that,' and would read out passages from `Fabian Essays' to
show that in the present anarchical conditions only mischief could
result from sporadic dispersal of rent. `Ten, twelve years hence--' he
would muse more hopefully. `But by that time,' I would say, `you'll
probably be married, and your wife mightn't quite--', whereat he would
hotly repeat what he had said many times: that he would never marry.
Marriage was an anti-social anachronism. I think its survival wasin
some part due to the machinations of Capital. Anyway, it was doomed.
Temporary civil contracts between men and women would be the rule
`ten, twelve years hence'; pending which time the lot of any man who
had civic sense must be celibacy, tempered perhaps with free love.

Long before that time was up, nevertheless, William married. One
afternoon in the spring of '95 I happened to meet him at a corner of
Cockspur Street. I wondered at the immense cordiality of his greeting;
for our friendship, such as it was, had waned in our two final years
at Oxford. `You look very flourishing, and,' I said, `you're wearing a
new suit!' `I'm married,' he replied, obviously without a twinge of
conscience. He told me he had been married just a month. He declared
that to be married was the most splendid thing in all the world; but
he weakened the force of this generalisation by adding that there
never was any one like his wife. `You must see her,' he said; and his
impatience to show her proudly off to some one was so evident, and so
touching, that I could but accept his invitation to go and stay with
them for two or three days--`why not next week?' They had taken and
furnished `a sort of cottage' in --shire, and this was their home. He
had `run up for the day, on business--journalism' and was now on his
way to Charing Cross. `I know you'll like my wife,' he said at
parting. She's--well, she's glorious.'

As this was the epithet he had erst applied to `Beowulf' and to
`Sigurd the Volsung' it raised no high hopes. And indeed, as I was
soon to find, he had again misused it. There was nothing glorious
about his bride. Some people might even have not thought her pretty. I
myself did not, in the flash of first sight. Neat, insignificant,
pleasing, was what she appeared to me, rather than pretty, and far
rather than glorious. In an age of fringes, her brow was severely
bare. She looked `practical.' But an instant later, when she smiled, I
saw that she was pretty, too. And presently I thought her delightful.
William had met me in a `governess cart,' and we went to see him
unharness the pony. He did this in a fumbling, experimental way,
confusing the reins with the traces, and profiting so little by his
wife's directions that she began to laugh. And her laugh was a lovely
thing; quite a small sound, but exquisitely clear and gay, coming in a
sequence of notes that neither rose nor fell, that were quite even; a
trill of notes, and then another, and another, as though she were
pulling repeatedly a little silver bell... As I describe it, perhaps
the sound may be imagined irritating. I can only say it was

I wished she would go on laughing; but she ceased, she darted forward
and (William standing obediently aside, and I helping unhelpfully)
unharnessed the pony herself, and led it into its small stable.
Decidedly, she was `practical,' but--I was prepared now to be lenient
to any quality she might have.

Had she been feckless, no doubt I should have forgiven her that, too;
but I might have enjoyed my visit less than I did, and might have been
less pleased to go often again. I had expected to `rough it' under
William's roof. But everything thereunder, within the limits of a
strict Arcadian simplicity, was well-ordered. I was touched, when I
went to my bedroom, by the precision with which the very small maid
had unpacked and disposed my things. And I wondered where my hostess
had got the lore she had so evidently imparted. Certainly not from
William. Perhaps (it only now strikes me) from a handbook. For Mary
was great at handbooks. She had handbooks about gardening, and others
about poultry, and one about `the stable,' and others on cognate
themes. From these she had filled up the gaps left in her education by
her father, who was a widower and either a doctor or a solicitor--I
forget which--in one of the smallest towns of an adjoining county. And
I daresay she may have had, somewhere hidden away, a manual for young
hostesses. If so, it must have been a good one. But to say this is to
belittle Mary's powers of intuition. It was they, sharpened by her
adoration of William, and by her intensity for everything around him,
that made her so efficient a housewife.

If she possessed a manual for young house-hunters it was assuredly not
by the light of this that she had chosen the home they were installed
in. The `sort of cottage' had been vacant for many years--an
unpromising and ineligible object, a mile away from a village, and
three miles away from a railway station. The main part of it was an
actual cottage, of seventeenth-century workmanship; but a little
stuccoed wing had been added to each side of it, in 1850 or
thereabouts, by an eccentric old gentleman who at that time chose to
make it his home. He had added also the small stable, a dairy, and
other appanages. For these, and for garden, there was plenty of room,
as he had purchased and enclosed half an acre of the surrounding land
Those two stuccoed, very Victorian wings of his, each with a sash-
window above and a French window below, consorted queerly with the old
red brick and the latticed panes. And the long wooden veranda that he
had invoked did not unify the trinity. But one didn't want it to. The
wrongness had a character all its own. The wrongness was right--at any
rate after Mary had hit on it for William. As a spinster, she would, I
think, have been happiest in a trim modern villa. But it was a belief
of hers that she had married a man of strange genius. She had married
him for himself, not for his genius; but this added grace in him was a
thing to be reckoned with, ever so much; a thing she must coddle to
the utmost in a proper setting. She was a year older than he (though,
being so small and slight, she looked several years younger), and in
her devotion the maternal instinct played a great part. William, as I
have already conveyed to you, was not greatly gifted. Mary's instinct,
in this one matter, was at fault. But endearingly, rightly at fault.
And, as William was outwardly odd, wasn't it well that his home should
be so, too? On the inside, comfort was what Mary always aimed at for
him, and achieved.

The ground floor had all been made one room, into which you stepped
straight from the open air. Quite a long big room (or so it seemed,
from the lowness of the ceiling), and well-freshened in its antiquity,
with rush-mats here and there on the irregular red tiles, and very
white whitewash on the plaster between the rafters. This was the
dining-room, drawing-room, and general focus throughout the day, and
was called simply the Room. William had a `den' on the ground floor of
the left wing; and there, in the mornings, he used to write a great
deal. Mary had no special place of her own: her place was wherever her
duties needed her. William wrote reviews of books for the Daily --. He
did also creative work. The vein of poetry in him had worked itself
out--or rather, it expressed itself for him in Mary. For technical
purposes, the influence of Ibsen had superseded that of Morris. At the
time of my first visit, he was writing an extraordinarily gloomy play
about an extraordinarily unhappy marriage. In subsequent seasons
(Ibsen's disc having been somehow eclipsed for him by George
Gissing's) he was usually writing novels in which every one--or do I
exaggerate?--had made a disastrous match. I think Mary's belief in his
genius had made him less diffident than he was at Oxford. He was
always emerging from his den, with fresh pages of MS., into the Room.
`You don't mind?' he would say, waving his pages, and then would shout
`Mary!' She was always promptly forthcoming--sometimes from the
direction of the kitchen, in a white apron, sometimes from the garden,
in a blue one. She never looked at him while he read. To do so would
have been lacking in respect for his work. It was on this that she
must concentrate her whole mind, privileged auditor that she was. She
sat looking straight before her, with her lips slightly compressed,
and her hands folded on her lap. I used to wonder that there had been
that first moment when I did not think her pretty. Her eyes were of a
very light hazel, seeming all the lighter because her hair was of so
dark a brown; and they were beautifully set in a face of that `pinched
oval' kind which is rather rare in England. Mary as listener would
have atoned to me for any defects there may have been in dear old
William's work. Nevertheless, I sometimes wished this work had some
comic relief in it. Publishers, I believe, shared this wish; hence the
eternal absence of William's name from among their announcements. For
Mary's sake, and his, I should have liked him to be `successful.' But
at any rate he didn't need money. He didn't need, in addition to what
he had, what he made by his journalism. And as for success--well,
didn't Mary think him a genius? And wasn't he Mary's husband? The main
reason why I wished for light passages in what he read to us was that
they would have been cues for Mary's laugh. This was a thing always
new to me. I never tired of that little bell-like euphony; those funny
little lucid and level trills.

There was no stint of that charm when William was not reading to us.
Mary was in no awe of him, apart from his work, and in no awe at all
of me: she used to laugh at us both, for one thing and another--just
the same laugh as I had first heard when William tried to unharness
the pony. I cultivated in myself whatever amused her in me; I drew out
whatever amused her in William; I never let slip any of the things
that amused her in herself. `Chaff' is a great bond; and I should have
enjoyed our bouts of it even without Mary's own special obbligato. She
used to call me (for I was very urban in those days) the Gentleman
from London. I used to call her the Brave Little Woman. Whatever
either of us said or did could be twisted easily into relation to
those two titles; and our bouts, to which William listened with a
puzzled, benevolent smile, used to cease only because Mary regarded me
as a possible purveyor of what William, she was sure, wanted and
needed, down there in the country, alone with her: intellectual
conversation, after his work. She often, I think, invented duties in
garden or kitchen so that he should have this stimulus, or luxury,
without hindrance. But when William was alone with me it was about her
that he liked to talk, and that I myself liked to talk too. He was
very sound on the subject of Mary; and so was I. And if, when I was
alone with Mary, I seemed to be sounder than I was on the subject of
William's wonderfulness, who shall blame me?

Had Mary been a mother, William's wonderfulness would have been less
greatly important. But he was her child as well as her lover. And I
think, though I do not know, she believed herself content that this
should always be, if so it were destined. It was not destined so. On
the first night of a visit I paid them in April, 1899, William, when
we were alone, told me news. I had been vaguely conscious, throughout
the evening, of some change; conscious that Mary had grown gayer, and
less gay--somehow different, somehow remote. William said that her
child would be born in September, if all went well. `She's immensely
happy,' he told me. I realised that she was indeed happier than
ever... `And of course it would be a wonderful thing, for both of us,'
he said presently, `to have a son--or a daughter.' I asked him which
he would rather it were, a son or a daughter. `Oh, either,' he
answered wearily. It was evident that he had misgivings and fears. I
tried to reason him out of them. He did not, I am thankful to say,
ever let Mary suspect them. She had no misgivings. But it was destined
that her child should live only for an hour, and that she should die
in bearing it.

I had stayed again at the cottage in July, for some days. At the end
of that month I had gone to France, as was my custom, and a week later
had written to Mary. It was William that answered this letter, telling
me of Mary's death and burial. I returned to England next day. William
and I wrote to each other several times. He had not left his home. He
stayed there, `trying,' as he said in a grotesque and heart-rending
phrase, `to finish a novel.' I saw him in the following January. He
wrote to me from the Charing Cross Hotel, asking me to lunch with him
there. After our first greetings, there was a silence. He wanted to
talk of--what he could not talk of. We stared helplessly at each
other, and then, in the English way, talked of things at large.
England was engaged in the Boer War. William was the sort of man whom
one would have expected to be violently Pro-Boer. I was surprised at
his fervour for the stronger side. He told me he had tried to enlist,
but had been rejected on account of his eyesight. But there was, he
said, a good chance of his being sent out, almost immediately, as one
of the Daily --'s special correspondents. `And then,' he exclaimed, `I
shall see something of it.' I had a presentiment that he would not
return, and a belief that he did not want to return. He did not
return. Special correspondents were not so carefully shepherded in
that war as they have since been. They were more at liberty to take
risks, on behalf of the journals to which they were accredited.
William was killed a few weeks after he had landed at Cape Town.

And there came, as I have said, a time when I did not think of William
and Mary often; and then a time when I did more often think of them.
And especially much did my mind hark back to them in the late autumn
of last year; for on the way to the place I was staying at I had
passed the little railway station whose name had always linked itself
for me with the names of those two friends. There were but four
intervening stations. It was not a difficult pilgrimage that I made
some days later--back towards the past, for that past's sake and
honour. I had thought I should not remember the way, the three miles
of way, from the station to the cottage; but I found myself
remembering it perfectly, without a glance at the finger-posts. Rain
had been falling heavily, driving the late leaves off the trees; and
everything looked rather sodden and misty, though the sun was now
shining. I had known this landscape only in spring, summer, early
autumn. Mary had held to a theory that at other seasons I could not be
acclimatised. But there were groups of trees that I knew, even without
their leaves; and farm-houses and small stone bridges that had not at
all changed. Only what mattered was changed. Only what mattered was
gone. Would what I had come to see be there still? In comparison with
what it had held, it was not much. But I wished to see it, melancholy
spectacle though it must be for me if it were extant, and worse than
melancholy if it held something new. I began to be sure it had been
demolished, built over. At the corner of the lane that had led to it,
I was almost minded to explore no further, to turn back. But I went
on, and suddenly I was at the four-barred iron gate, that I
remembered, between the laurels. It was rusty, and was fastened with a
rusty padlock, and beyond it there was grass where a winding `drive'
had been. From the lane the cottage never had been visible, even when
these laurels were lower and sparser than they were now. Was the
cottage still standing? Presently, I climbed over the gate, and walked
through the long grass, and--yes, there was Mary's cottage; still
there; William's and Mary's cottage. Trite enough, I have no doubt,
were the thoughts that possessed me as I stood gazing. There is
nothing new to be thought about the evanescence of human things; but
there is always much to be felt about it by one who encounters in his
maturity some such intimate instance and reminder as confronted me, in
that cold sunshine, across that small wilderness of long rank wet
grass and weeds.

Incredibly woebegone and lonesome the house would have looked even to
one for whom it contained no memories; all the more because in its
utter dereliction it looked so durable. Some of the stucco had fallen
off the walls of the two wings; thick flakes of it lay on the
discoloured roof of the veranda, and thick flakes of it could be seen
lying in the grass below. Otherwise, there were few signs of actual
decay. The sash-window and the French window of each wing were
shuttered, and, from where I was standing, the cream-coloured paint of
those shutters behind the glass looked almost fresh. The latticed
windows between had all been boarded up from within. The house was not
to be let perish soon.

I did not want to go nearer to it; yet I did go nearer, step by step,
across the wilderness, right up to the edge of the veranda itself, and
within a yard of the front-door.

I stood looking at that door. I had never noticed it in the old days,
for then it had always stood open. But it asserted itself now, master
of the threshold.

It was a narrow door--narrow even for its height, which did not exceed
mine by more than two inches or so; a door that even when it was
freshly painted must have looked mean. How much meaner now, with its
paint all faded and mottled, cracked and blistered! It had no knocker,
not even a slit for letters. All that it had was a large-ish key-hole.
On this my eyes rested; and presently I moved to it, stooped down to
it, peered through it. I had a glimpse of--darkness impenetrable.

Strange it seemed to me, as I stood back, that there the Room was, the
remembered Room itself, separated from me by nothing but this
unremembered door...and a quarter of a century, yes. I saw it all, in
my mind's eye, just as it had been: the way the sunlight came into it
through this same doorway and through the lattices of these same four
windows; the way the little bit of a staircase came down into it, so
crookedly yet so confidently; and how uneven the tiled floor was, and
how low the rafters were, and how littered the whole place was with
books brought in from his den by William, and how bright with flowers
brought in by Mary from her garden. The rafters, the stairs, the
tiles, were still existing, changeless in despite of cobwebs and dust
and darkness, all quite changeless on the other side of the door, so
near to me. I wondered how I should feel if by some enchantment the
door slowly turned on its hinges, letting in light. I should not
enter, I felt, not even look, so much must I hate to see those inner
things lasting when all that had given to them a meaning was gone from
them, taken away from them, finally. And yet, why blame them for their
survival? And how know that nothing of the past ever came to them,
revisiting, hovering? Something--sometimes--perhaps? One knew so
little. How not be tender to what, as it seemed to me, perhaps the
dead loved?

So strong in me now was the wish to see again all those things, to
touch them and, as it were, commune with them, and so queerly may the
mind be wrought upon in a solitude among memories, that there were
moments when I almost expected that the door would obey my will. I was
recalled to a clearer sense of reality by something which I had not
before noticed. In the door-post to the right was a small knob of
rusty iron--mocking reminder that to gain admission to a house one
does not `will' the door: one rings the bell--unless it is rusty and
has quite obviously no one to answer it; in which case one goes away.
Yet I did not go away. The movement that I made, in despite of myself,
was towards the knob itself. But, I hesitated, suppose I did what I
half meant to do, and there were no sound. That would be ghastly. And
surely there would be no sound. And if sound there were, wouldn't that
be worse still? My hand drew back, wavered, suddenly closed on the
knob. I heard the scrape of the wire--and then, from somewhere within
the heart of the shut house, a tinkle.

It had been the weakest, the puniest of noises. It had been no more
than is a fledgling's first attempt at a twitter. But I was not
judging it by its volume. Deafening peals from steeples had meant less
to me than that one single note breaking the silence--in there. In
there, in the dark, the bell that had answered me was still quivering,
I supposed, on its wire. But there was no one to answer it, no
footstep to come hither from those recesses, making prints in the
dust. Well, I could answer it; and again my hand closed on the knob,
unhesitatingly this time, pulling further. That was my answer; and the
rejoinder to it was more than I had thought to hear--a whole quick
sequence of notes, faint but clear, playful, yet poignantly sad, like
a trill of laughter echoing out of the past, or even merely out of
this neighbouring darkness. It was so like something I had known, so
recognisable and, oh, recognising, that I was lost in wonder. And long
must I have remained standing at that door, for I heard the sound
often, often. I must have rung again and again, tenaciously,
vehemently, in my folly.


Wherever two Englishmen are speaking French to a Frenchman you may
safely diagnose in the breast of one of the two humiliation, envy,
ill-will, impotent rage, and a dull yearning for vengeance; and you
can take it that the degree of these emotions is in exact ratio to the
superiority of the other man's performance. In the breast of this
other are contempt, malicious amusement, conceit, vanity, pity, and
joy in ostentation; these, also, exactly commensurable with his
advantage. Strange and sad that this should be so; but so it is.
French brings out the worst in all of us--all, I mean, but the few,
the lamentably far too few, who cannot aspire to stammer some
colloquial phrases of it.

Even in Victorian days, when England was more than geographically, was
psychologically an island, French made mischief among us, and was one
of the Devil's favourite ways of setting brother against brother. But
in those days the bitterness of the weaker brother was a little
sweetened with disapproval of the stronger. To speak French fluently
and idiomatically and with a good accent--or with an idiom and accent
which to other rough islanders seemed good--was a rather suspect
accomplishment, being somehow deemed incompatible with civic worth.
Thus the weaker ones had not to drain the last lees of their shame,
and the stronger could not wholly rejoice in their strength. But the
old saving prejudice has now died out (greatly to the delight of the
Devil), and there seems no chance that it will be revived.

Of other languages no harm comes. None of us--none, at any rate,
outside the diplomatic service--has a feeling that he ought to be
master of them. In every recent generation a few men have learned
Italian because of the Divina Commedia; and a very few others have
tried Spanish, with a view to Cervantes; and German has pestered not
always vainly the consciences of young men gravitating to philosophy
or to science. But not for social, not for any oral purposes were
these languages essayed. If an Italian or a Spanish or a German came
among us he was expected to converse in English or spend his time in
visiting the sights silently and alone. No language except French has
ever--but stay! There was, at the outbreak of the War, a great impulse
towards Russian. All sorts of people wanted their children to be
taught Russian without a moment's delay. I do not remember that they
wanted to learn it themselves; but they felt an extreme need that
their offspring should hereafter be able to converse with moujiks
about ikons and the Little Father and anything else--if there were
anything else--that moujiks cared about. This need, however, is not
felt now. When, so soon after his de'but in high politics, M. Kerensky
was superseded by M. Lenin, Russian was forthwith deemed a not quite
nice language, even for children. Russia's alphabet was withdrawn from
the nurseries as abruptly as it had been brought in, and le chapean de
la cousine du jardinier was re-indued with its old importance.

I doubt whether Russian would for more than a little while have seemed
to be a likely rival of French, even if M. Kerensky had been the
strong man we hoped he was. The language that succeeded to Latin as
the official mode of intercourse between nations, and as the usual
means of talk between the well-educated people of any one land and
those of any other, had an initial advantage not quite counterbalanced
by the fact that there are in Russia myriads of people who speak
Russian, and a few who can also read and write it. Russian may, for
aught I know, be a very beautiful language; it may be as lucid and
firm in its constructions as French is, and as musical in sound; I
know nothing at all about it. Nor do I claim for French that it was by
its own virtues predestined to the primacy that it holds in Europe.
Had Italy, not France, been an united and powerful nation when Latin
became desuete, that primacy would of course have been taken by
Italian. And I cannot help wishing that this had happened. Italian,
though less elegant, is, for the purpose of writing, a richer language
than French, and an even subtler; and the sound of it spoken is as
superior to the sound of French as a violin's is to a flute's. Still,
French does, by reason of its exquisite concision and clarity, fill
its post of honour very worthily, and will not in any near future, I
think, be thrust down. Many people, having regard to the very numerous
population of the British Empire and the United States, cherish a
belief that English will presently be cock of the world's walk. But we
have to consider that English is an immensely odd and irregular
language, that it is accounted very difficult by even the best foreign
linguists, and that even among native writers there are few who can so
wield it as to make their meaning clear without prolixity--and among
these few none who has not been well-grounded in Latin. By its very
looseness, by its way of evoking rather than defining, suggesting
rather than saying, English is a magnificent vehicle for emotional
poetry. But foreigners don't much want to say beautiful haunting
things to us; they want to be told what limits there are, if any, to
the power of the Lord Mayor; and our rambling endeavours to explain do
but bemuse and annoy them. They find that the rewards of learning
English are as slight as its difficulties are great, and they warn
their fellows to this effect. Nor does the oral sound of English allay
the prejudice thus created. Soothing and dear and charming that sound
is to English ears. But no nation can judge the sound of its own
language. This can be judged only from without, only by ears to which
it is unfamiliar. And alas, much as we like listening to French or
Italian, for example, Italians and Frenchmen (if we insist on having
their opinion) will confess that English has for them a rather harsh
sound. Altogether, it seems to me unlikely that the world will let
English supplant French for international purposes, and likely that
French will be ousted only when the world shall have been so
internationalised that the children of every land will have to learn,
besides their own traditional language, some kind of horrible
universal lingo begotten on Volapuk by a congress of the world's worst

Almost I could wish I had been postponed to that era, so much have I
suffered through speaking French to Frenchmen in the presence of
Englishmen. Left alone with a Frenchman, I can stumble along, slowly
indeed, but still along, and without acute sense of ignominy.
Especially is this so if I am in France. There is in the atmosphere
something that braces one for the language. I don't say I am not
sorry, even so, for my Frenchman. But I am sorrier for him in England.
And if any Englishmen be included in the scene my sympathy with him is
like to be lost in my agony for myself.

Would that I had made some such confession years ago! O folly of
pride! I liked the delusion that I spoke French well, a delusion
common enough among those who had never heard me. Somehow I seemed
likely to possess that accomplishment. I cannot charge myself with
having ever claimed to possess it; but I am afraid that when any one
said to me `I suppose you speak French perfectly?' I allowed the tone
of my denial to carry with it a hint of mock-modesty. `Oh no,' I would
say, `my French is wretched,' rather as though I meant that a member
of the French Academy would detect lapses from pure classicism in it;
or `No, no, mine is French pour rire,' to imply that I was practically
bilingual. Thus, during the years when I lived in London, I very often
received letters from hostesses asking me to dine on the night when
Mme. Chose or M. Tel was coming. And always I excused myself--not on
the plea that I should be useless. This method of mine would have been
well enough, from any but the moral standpoint, had not Nemesis,
taking her stand on that point, sometimes ordained that a Gaul should
be sprung on me. It was not well with me then. It was downfall and

Strange, how one will trifle with even the most imminent doom. On
being presented to the Gaul, I always hastened to say that I spoke his
or her language only `un tout petit peu'--knowing well that this poor
spark of slang would kindle within the breast of M. Tel or the bosom
of Mme. Chose hopes that must so quickly be quenched in the puddle of
my incompetence. I offer no excuse for so foolish a proceeding. I do
but say it is characteristic of all who are duffers at speaking a
foreign tongue. Great is the pride they all take in airing some little
bit of idiom. I recall, among many other pathetic exemplifiers of the
foible, an elderly and rather eminent Greek, who, when I was
introduced to him, said `I am jolly glad to meet you, Sir!' and,
having said that, had nothing whatever else to say, and was moreover
unable to grasp the meaning of anything said by me, though I said the
simplest things, and said them very slowly and clearly. It is to my
credit that in speaking English to a foreigner I do always try to be
helpful. I bear witness against Mme. Chose and M. Tel that for me they
have never made a like effort in their French. It is said that French
people do not really speak faster than we, and that their seeming to
do so is merely because of their lighter stress on syllables. If this
is true, I wish that for my sake they would stress their syllables a
little more heavily. By their omission of this kindness I am so often
baffled as to their meaning. To be shamed as a talker is bad enough;
it is even worse to be shamed in the humble refuge of listener. To
listen and from time to time murmur `C'est vrai' may seem safe enough;
yet there is danger even here. I wish I could forget a certain
luncheon in the course of which Mme. Chose (that brilliant woman)
leaned suddenly across the table to me, and, with great animation,
amidst a general hush, launched at me a particularly swift flight of
winged words. With pensively narrowed eyes, I uttered my formula when
she ceased. This formula she repeated, in a tone even more pensive
than mine. `Mais je ne le connais pas,' she then loudly exclaimed. `Je
ne connais pas me^me le nom. Dites-moi de ce jeune homme.' She had, as
it presently turned out, been asking me which of the younger French
novelists was most highly thought of by English critics; so that her
surprise at never having heard of the gifted young Se'vre' was natural

We all--but no, I must not say that we all have painful memories of
this kind. Some of us can understand every word that flies from the
lips of Mme. Chose or from the mouth of M. Tel. Some of us can also
talk quickly and well to either of these pilgrims; and others can do
the trick passably. But the duffers are in a great grim majority; and
the mischief that French causes among us is mainly manifest, not (I
would say) by weaker brethren hating the stronger, but by weak ones
hating the less weak.

As French is a subject on which we all feel so keenly, a point of
honour on which we are all so sensitive, how comes it that our general
achievement is so slight? There was no lack of hopes, of plans, that
we should excel. In many cases Time was taken for us by the forelock,
and a French nurse installed. But alas! little children are wax to
receive and to retain. They will be charmingly fluent speakers of
French within six weeks of Mariette's arrival, and will have forgotten
every word of it within as brief an interval after her departure.
Later, their minds become more retentive, though less absorbent; and
then, by all means, let French be taught. Taught it is. At the school
where I was reared there were four French masters; four; but to what
purpose? Their class-rooms were scenes of eternal and incredible
pandemonium, filled with whoops and catcalls, with devil's-tattoos on
desks, and shrill inquiries for the exact date of the battle of
Waterloo. Nor was the lot of those four men exceptional in its horror.
>From the accounts given to me by `old boys' of other schools I have
gathered that it was the common lot of French masters on our shores;
and I have often wondered how much of the Anglophobia recurrent among
Frenchmen in the nineteenth century was due to the tragic tales told
by those of them who had returned from our seminaries to die on their
own soil. Since 1914, doubtless, French masters have had a very good
time in England. But, even so, I doubt whether they have been
achieving much in the way of tutelage. With the best will in the
world, a boy will profit but little by three or four lessons a week
(which are the utmost that our system allows him). What he wants, or
at any rate will want, is to be able to cope with Mme. Chose. A
smattering of the irregular verbs will not much avail him in that
emprise. Not in the dark by-ways of conjugation, but on the sunny
field of frank social intercourse, must he prove his knighthood. I
would recommend that every boy, on reaching the age of sixteen, should
be hurled across the Channel into the midst of some French family and
kept there for six months. At the end of that time let him be returned
to his school, there to make up for lost time. Time well lost, though:
for the boy will have become fluent in French, and will ever remain

Fluency is all. If the boy has a good ear, he will speak with a good
accent; but his accent is a point about which really he needn't care a
jot. So is his syntax. Not with these will he win the heart of Mme.
Chose, not with these the esteem of M. Tel, not with these anything
but a more acrid rancour in the silly hostility of his competitors. If
a foreigner speaks English to us easily and quickly, we demand no more
of him; we are satisfied, we are delighted, and any mistakes of
grammar or pronunciation do but increase the charm, investing with
more than its intrinsic quality any good thing said--making us marvel
at it and exchange fatuous glances over it, as we do when a little
child says something sensible. But heaven protect us from the
foreigner who pauses, searches, fumbles, revises, comes to
standstills, has recourse to dumb-show! Away with him, by the first
train to Dover! And this, we may be sure, is the very train M. Tel and
Mme. Chose would like to catch whenever they meet me--or you?


M. Bergson, in his well-known essay on this theme, says...well, he
says many things; but none of these, though I have just read them, do
I clearly remember, nor am I sure that in the act of reading I
understood any of them. That is the worst of these fashionable
philosophers--or rather, the worst of me. Somehow I never manage to
read them till they are just going out of fashion, and even then I
don't seem able to cope with them. About twelve years ago, when every
one suddenly talked to me about Pragmatism and William James, I found
myself moved by a dull but irresistible impulse to try Schopenhauer,
of whom, years before that, I had heard that he was the easiest
reading in the world, and the most exciting and amusing. I wrestled
with Schopenhauer for a day or so, in vain. Time passed; M. Bergson
appeared `and for his hour was lord of the ascendant;' I tardily
tackled William James. I bore in mind, as I approached him, the
testimonials that had been lavished on him by all my friends. Alas, I
was insensible to his thrillingness. His gaiety did not make me gay.
His crystal clarity confused me dreadfully. I could make nothing of
William James. And now, in the fullness of time, I have been floored
by M. Bergson.

It distresses me, this failure to keep pace with the leaders of
thought as they pass into oblivion. It makes me wonder whether I am,
after all, an absolute fool. Yet surely I am not that. Tell me of a
man or a woman, a place or an event, real or fictitious: surely you
will find me a fairly intelligent listener. Any such narrative will
present to me some image, and will stir me to not altogether fatuous
thoughts. Come to me in some grievous difficulty: I will talk to you
like a father, even like a lawyer. I'll be hanged if I haven't a
certain mellow wisdom. But if you are by way of weaving theories as to
the nature of things in general, and if you want to try those theories
on some one who will luminously confirm them or powerfully rend them,
I must, with a hang-dog air, warn you that I am not your man. I suffer
from a strong suspicion that things in general cannot be accounted for
through any formula or set of formulae, and that any one philosophy,
howsoever new, is no better than another. That is in itself a sort of
philosophy, and I suspect it accordingly; but it has for me the merit
of being the only one I can make head or tail of. If you try to
expound any other philosophic system to me, you will find not merely
that I can detect no flaw in it (except the one great flaw just
suggested), but also that I haven't, after a minute or two, the
vaguest notion of what you are driving at. `Very well,' you say,
`instead of trying to explain all things all at once, I will explain
some little, simple, single thing.' It was for sake of such shorn
lambs as myself, doubtless, that M. Bergson sat down and wrote about--
Laughter. But I have profited by his kindness no more than if he had
been treating of the Cosmos. I cannot tread even a limited space of
air. I have a gross satisfaction in the crude fact of being on hard
ground again, and I utter a coarse peal of--Laughter.

At least, I say I do so. In point of fact, I have merely smiled.
Twenty years ago, ten years ago, I should have laughed, and have
professed to you that I had merely smiled. A very young man is not
content to be very young, nor even a young man to be young: he wants
to share the dignity of his elders. There is no dignity in laughter,
there is much of it in smiles. Laughter is but a joyous surrender,
smiles give token of mature criticism. It may be that in the early
ages of this world there was far more laughter than is to be heard
now, and that aeons hence laughter will be obsolete, and smiles
universal--every one, always, mildly, slightly, smiling. But it is
less useful to speculate as to mankind's past and future than to
observe men. And you will have observed with me in the club-room that
young men at most times look solemn, whereas old men or men of middle
age mostly smile; and also that those young men do often laugh loud
and long among themselves, while we others--the gayest and best of us
in the most favourable circumstances--seldom achieve more than our
habitual act of smiling. Does the sound of that laughter jar on us? Do
we liken it to the crackling of thorns under a pot? Let us do so.
There is no cheerier sound. But let us not assume it to be the
laughter of fools because we sit quiet. It is absurd to disapprove of
what one envies, or to wish a good thing were no more because it has
passed out of our possession.

But (it seems that I must begin every paragraph by questioning the
sincerity of what I have just said) has the gift of laughter been
withdrawn from me? I protest that I do still, at the age of forty-
seven, laugh often and loud and long. But not, I believe, so long and
loud and often as in my less smiling youth. And I am proud, nowadays,
of laughing, and grateful to any one who makes me laugh. That is a bad
sign. I no longer take laughter as a matter of course. I realise, even
after reading M. Bergson on it, how good a thing it is. I am qualified
to praise it.

As to what is most precious among the accessories to the world we live
in, different men hold different opinions. There are people whom the
sea depresses, whom mountains exhilarate. Personally, I want the sea
always--some not populous edge of it for choice; and with it sunshine,
and wine, and a little music. My friend on the mountain yonder is of
tougher fibre and sterner outlook, disapproves of the sea's laxity and
instability, has no ear for music and no palate for the grape, and
regards the sun as a rather enervating institution, like central
heating in a house. What he likes is a grey day and the wind in his
face; crags at a great altitude; and a flask of whisky. Yet I think
that even he, if we were trying to determine from what inner sources
mankind derives the greatest pleasure in life, would agree with me
that only the emotion of love takes higher rank than the emotion of
laughter. Both these emotions are partly mental, partly physical. It
is said that the mental symptoms of love are wholly physical in
origin. They are not the less ethereal for that. The physical
sensations of laughter, on the other hand, are reached by a process
whose starting-point is in the mind. They are not the less `gloriously
of our clay.' There is laughter that goes so far as to lose all touch
with its motive, and to exist only, grossly, in itself. This is
laughter at its best. A man to whom such laughter has often been
granted may happen to die in a work-house. No matter. I will not admit
that he has failed in life. Another man, who has never laughed thus,
may be buried in Westminster Abbey, leaving more than a million pounds
overhead. What then? I regard him as a failure.

Nor does it seem to me to matter one jot how such laughter is
achieved. Humour may rollick on high planes of fantasy or in depths of
silliness. To many people it appeals only from those depths. If it
appeal to them irresistibly, they are more enviable than those who are
sensitive only to the finer kind of joke and not so sensitive as to be
mastered and dissolved by it. Laughter is a thing to be rated
according to its own intensity.

Many years ago I wrote an essay in which I poured scorn on the fun
purveyed by the music halls, and on the great public for which that
fun was quite good enough. I take that callow scorn back. I fancy that
the fun itself was better than it seemed to me, and might not have
displeased me if it had been wafted to me in private, in presence of a
few friends. A public crowd, because of a lack of broad impersonal
humanity in me, rather insulates than absorbs me. Amidst the guffaws
of a thousand strangers I become unnaturally grave. If these people
were the entertainment, and I the audience, I should be sympathetic
enough. But to be one of them is a position that drives me spiritually
aloof. Also, there is to me something rather dreary in the notion of
going anywhere for the specific purpose of being amused. I prefer that
laughter shall take me unawares. Only so can it master and dissolve
me. And in this respect, at any rate, I am not peculiar. In music
halls and such places, you may hear loud laughter, but--not see silent
laughter, not see strong men weak, helpless, suffering, gradually
convalescent, dangerously relapsing. Laughter at its greatest and best
is not there.

To such laughter nothing is more propitious than an occasion that
demands gravity. To have good reason for not laughing is one of the
surest aids. Laughter rejoices in bonds. If music halls were
schoolrooms for us, and the comedians were our schoolmasters, how much
less talent would be needed for giving us how much more joy! Even in
private and accidental intercourse, few are the men whose humour can
reduce us, be we never so susceptible, to paroxysms of mirth. I will
wager that nine tenths of the world's best laughter is laughter at,
not with. And it is the people set in authority over us that touch
most surely our sense of the ridiculous. Freedom is a good thing, but
we lose through it golden moments. The schoolmaster to his pupils, the
monarch to his courtiers, the editor to his staff--how priceless they
are! Reverence is a good thing, and part of its value is that the more
we revere a man, the more sharply are we struck by anything in him
(and there is always much) that is incongruous with his greatness. And
herein lies one of the reasons why as we grow older we laugh less. The
men we esteemed so great are gathered to their fathers. Some of our
coevals may, for aught we know, be very great, but good heavens! we
can't esteem them so.

Of extreme laughter I know not in any annals a more satisfying example
than one that is to be found in Moore's Life of Byron. Both Byron and
Moore were already in high spirits when, on an evening in the spring
of 1818, they went `from some early assembly' to Mr. Rogers' house in
St. James's Place and were regaled there with an impromptu meal. But
not high spirits alone would have led the two young poets to such
excess of laughter as made the evening so very memorable. Luckily they
both venerated Rogers (strange as it may seem to us) as the greatest
of living poets. Luckily, too, Mr. Rogers was ever the kind of man,
the coldly and quietly suave kind of man, with whom you don't take
liberties, if you can help it--with whom, if you can't help it, to
take liberties is in itself a most exhilarating act. And he had just
received a presentation copy of Lord Thurloe's latest book, `Poems on
Several Occasions.' The two young poets found in this elder's Muse
much that was so execrable as to be delightful. They were soon, as
they turned the pages, held in throes of laughter, laughter that was
but intensified by the endeavours of their correct and nettled host to
point out the genuine merits of his friend's work. And then suddenly--
oh joy!--`we lighted,' Moore records, `on the discovery that our host,
in addition to his sincere approbation of some of this book's
contents, had also the motive of gratitude for standing by its author,
as one of the poems was a warm and, I need not add, well-deserved
panegyric on himself. We were, however'--the narrative has an added
charm from Tom Moore's demure care not to offend or compromise the
still-surviving Rogers--`too far gone in nonsense for even this
eulogy, in which we both so heartily agreed, to stop us. The opening
line of the poem was, as well as I can recollect, "When Rogers o'er
this labour bent;" and Lord Byron undertook to read it aloud;--but he
found it impossible to get beyond the first two words. Our laughter
had now increased to such a pitch that nothing could restrain it. Two
or three times he began; but no sooner had the words "When Rogers"
passed his lips, than our fit burst out afresh,--till even Mr. Rogers
himself, with all his feeling of our injustice, found it impossible
not to join us; and we were, at last, all three in such a state of
inextinguishable laughter, that, had the author himself been of our
party, I question much whether he could have resisted the infection.'
The final fall and dissolution of Rogers, Rogers behaving as badly as
either of them, is all that was needed to give perfection to this
heart-warming scene. I like to think that on a certain night in
spring, year after year, three ghosts revisit that old room and
(without, I hope, inconvenience to Lord Northcliffe, who may happen to
be there) sit rocking and writhing in the grip of that old shared
rapture. Uncanny? Well, not more so than would have seemed to Byron
and Moore and Rogers the notion that more than a hundred years away
from them was some one joining in their laughter--as I do.

Alas, I cannot join in it more than gently. To imagine a scene,
however vividly, does not give us the sense of being, or even of
having been, present at it. Indeed, the greater the glow of the scene
reflected, the sharper is the pang of our realisation that we were not
there, and of our annoyance that we weren't. Such a pang comes to me
with special force whenever my fancy posts itself outside the Temple's
gate in Fleet Street, and there, at a late hour of the night of May
10th, 1773, observes a gigantic old man laughing wildly, but having no
one with him to share and aggrandise his emotion. Not that he is
alone; but the young man beside him laughs only in politeness and is
inwardly puzzled, even shocked. Boswell has a keen, an exquisitely
keen, scent for comedy, for the fun that is latent in fine shades of
character; but imaginative burlesque, anything that borders on lovely
nonsense, he was not formed to savour. All the more does one revel in
his account of what led up to the moment when Johnson `to support
himself, laid hold of one of the posts at the side of the foot
pavement, and sent forth peals so loud that in the silence of the
night his voice seemed to resound from Temple Bar to Fleet Ditch.'

No evening ever had an unlikelier ending. The omens were all for
gloom. Johnson had gone to dine at General Paoli's, but was so ill
that he had to leave before the meal was over. Later he managed to go
to Mr. Chambers' rooms in the Temple. `He continued to be very ill'
there, but gradually felt better, and `talked with a noble enthusiasm
of keeping up the representation of respectable families,' and was
great on `the dignity and propriety of male succession.' Among his
listeners, as it happened, was a gentleman for whom Mr. Chambers had
that day drawn up a will devising his estate to his three sisters. The
news of this might have been expected to make Johnson violent in
wrath. But no, for some reason he grew violent only in laughter, and
insisted thenceforth on calling that gentleman The Testator and
chaffing him without mercy. `I daresay he thinks he has done a mighty
thing. He won't stay till he gets home to his seat in the country, to
produce this wonderful deed: he'll call up the landlord of the first
inn on the road; and after a suitable preface upon mortality and the
uncertainty of life, will tell him that he should not delay in making
his will; and Here, Sir, will he say, is my will, which I have just
made, with the assistance of one of the ablest lawyers in the kingdom;
and he will read it to him. He believes he has made this will; but he
did not make it; you, Chambers, made it for him. I hope you have had
more conscience than to make him say "being of sound understanding!"
ha, ha, ha! I hope he has left me a legacy. I'd have his will turned
into verse, like a ballad.' These flights annoyed Mr. Chambers, and
are recorded by Boswell with the apology that he wishes his readers to
be `acquainted with the slightest occasional characteristics of so
eminent a man.' Certainly, there is nothing ridiculous in the fact of
a man making a will. But this is the measure of Johnson's achievement.
He had created gloriously much out of nothing at all. There he sat,
old and ailing and unencouraged by the company, but soaring higher and
higher in absurdity, more and more rejoicing, and still soaring and
rejoicing after he had gone out into the night with Boswell, till at
last in Fleet Street his paroxysms were too much for him and he could
no more. Echoes of that huge laughter come ringing down the ages. But
is there also perhaps a note of sadness for us in them? Johnson's
endless sociability came of his inherent melancholy: he could not bear
to be alone; and his very mirth was but a mode of escape from the dark
thoughts within him. Of these the thought of death was the most
dreadful to him, and the most insistent. He was for ever wondering how
death would come to him, and how he would acquit himself in the
extreme moment. A later but not less devoted Anglican, meditating on
his own end, wrote in his diary that `to die in church appears to be a
great euthanasia, but not,' he quaintly and touchingly added, `at a
time to disturb worshippers.' Both the sentiment here expressed and
the reservation drawn would have been as characteristic of Johnson as
they were of Gladstone. But to die of laughter--this, too, seems to me
a great euthanasia; and I think that for Johnson to have died thus,
that night in Fleet Street, would have been a grand ending to `a life
radically wretched.' Well, he was destined to outlive another decade;
and, selfishly, who can wish such a life as his, or such a Life as
Boswell's, one jot shorter?

Strange, when you come to think of it, that of all the countless folk
who have lived before our time on this planet not one is known in
history or in legend as having died of laughter. Strange, too, that
not to one of all the characters in romance has such an end been
allotted. Has it ever struck you what a chance Shakespeare missed when
he was finishing the Second Part of King Henry the Fourth? Falstaff
was not the man to stand cowed and bowed while the new young king
lectured him and cast him off. Little by little, as Hal proceeded in
that portentous allocution, the humour of the situation would have
mastered old Sir John. His face, blank with surprise at first, would
presently have glowed and widened, and his whole bulk have begun to
quiver. Lest he should miss one word, he would have mastered himself.
But the final words would have been the signal for release of all the
roars pent up in him; the welkin would have rung; the roars, belike,
would have gradually subsided in dreadful rumblings of more than
utterable or conquerable mirth. Thus and thus only might his life have
been rounded off with dramatic fitness, secundum ipsius naturam. He
never should have been left to babble of green fields and die `an it
had been any christom child.'

Falstaff is a triumph of comedic creation because we are kept laughing
equally at and with him. Nevertheless, if I had the choice of sitting
with him at the Boar's Head or with Johnson at the Turk's, I shouldn't
hesitate for an instant. The agility of Falstaff's mind gains much of
its effect by contrast with the massiveness of his body; but in
contrast with Johnson's equal agility is Johnson's moral as well as
physical bulk. His sallies `tell' the more startlingly because of the
noble weight of character behind them: they are the better because he
makes them. In Falstaff there isn't this final incongruity and element
of surprise. Falstaff is but a sublimated sample of `the funny man.'
We cannot, therefore, laugh so greatly with him as with Johnson. (Nor
even at him; because we are not tickled so much by the weak points of
a character whose points are all weak ones; also because we have no
reverence trying to impose restraint upon us.) Still, Falstaff has
indubitably the power to convulse us. I don't mean we ever are
convulsed in reading Henry the Fourth. No printed page, alas, can
thrill us to extremities of laughter. These are ours only if the
mirthmaker be a living man whose jests we hear as they come fresh from
his own lips. All I claim for Falstaff is that he would be able to
convulse us if he were alive and accessible. Few, as I have said, are
the humorists who can induce this state. To master and dissolve us, to
give us the joy of being worn down and tired out with laughter, is a
success to be won by no man save in virtue of a rare staying-power.
Laughter becomes extreme only if it be consecutive. There must be no
pauses for recovery. Touch-and-go humour, however happy, is not
enough. The jester must be able to grapple his theme and hang on to
it, twisting it this way and that, and making it yield magically all
manner of strange and precious things, one after another, without
pause. He must have invention keeping pace with utterance. He must be
inexhaustible. Only so can he exhaust us.

I have a friend whom I would praise. There are many other of my
friends to whom I am indebted for much laughter; but I do believe that
if all of them sent in their bills to-morrow and all of them
overcharged me not a little, the total of all those totals would be
less appalling than that which looms in my own vague estimate of what
I owe to Comus. Comus I call him here in observance of the line drawn
between public and private virtue, and in full knowledge that he would
of all men be the least glad to be quite personally thanked and
laurelled in the market-place for the hours he has made memorable
among his cronies. No one is so diffident as he, no one so self-
postponing. Many people have met him again and again without faintly
suspecting `anything much' in him. Many of his acquaintances--friends,
too--relatives, even--have lived and died in the belief that he was
quite ordinary. Thus is he the more greatly valued by his cronies.
Thus do we pride ourselves on possessing some curious right quality to
which alone he is responsive. But it would seem that either this asset
of ours or its effect on him is intermittent. He can be dull and null
enough with us sometimes--a mere asker of questions, or drawer of
comparisons between this and that brand of cigarettes, or full
expatiator on the merits of some new patent razor. A whole hour and
more may be wasted in such humdrum and darkness. And then--something
will have happened. There has come a spark in the murk; a flame now,
presage of a radiance: Comus has begun. His face is a great part of
his equipment. A cast of it might be somewhat akin to the comic mask
of the ancients; but no cast could be worthy of it; mobility is the
essence of it. It flickers and shifts in accord to the matter of his
discourse; it contracts and it expands; is there anything its elastic
can't express? Comus would be eloquent even were he dumb. And he is
mellifluous. His voice, while he develops an idea or conjures up a
scene, takes on a peculiar richness and unction. If he be describing
an actual scene, voice and face are adaptable to those of the actual
persons therein. But it is not in such mimicry that he excels. As a
reporter he has rivals. For the most part, he moves on a higher plane
that of mere fact: he imagines, he creates, giving you not a person,
but a type, a synthesis, and not what anywhere has been, but what
anywhere might be--what, as one feels, for all the absurdity of it,
just would be. He knows his world well, and nothing human is alien to
him, but certain skeins of life have a special hold on him, and he on
them. In his youth he wished to be a clergyman; and over the clergy of
all grades and denominations his genius hovers and swoops and ranges
with a special mastery. Lawyers he loves less; yet the legal mind
seems to lie almost as wide-open to him as the sacerdotal; and the
legal manner in all its phases he can unerringly burlesque. In the
minds of journalists, diverse journalists, he is not less thoroughly
at home, so that of the wild contingencies imagined by him there is
none about which he cannot reel off an oral `leader' or `middle' in
the likeliest style, and with as much ease as he can preach a High
Church or Low Church sermon on it. Nor are his improvisations limited
by prose. If a theme call for nobler treatment, he becomes an
unflagging fountain of ludicrously adequate blank-verse. Or again, he
may deliver himself in rhyme. There is no form of utterance that comes
amiss to him for interpreting the human comedy, or for broadening the
farce into which that comedy is turned by him. Nothing can stop him
when once he is in the vein. No appeals move him. He goes from
strength to strength while his audience is more and more piteously

What a gift to have been endowed with! What a power to wield! And how
often I have envied Comus! But this envy of him has never taken root
in me. His mind laughs, doubtless, at his own conceptions; but not his
body. And if you tell him something that you have been sure will
convulse him you are likely to be rewarded with no more than a smile
betokening that he sees the point. Incomparable laughter-giver, he is
not much a laugher. He is vintner, not toper. I would therefore not
change places with him. I am well content to have been his beneficiary
during thirty years, and to be so for as many more as may be given us.

Facebook Google Reddit Twitter Pinterest