These articles appeared in the 1920s and 1930s in The Spectator, The New Statesman, Punch, and other journals. They were first published in book form in London in 1938 by Chatto & Windus, under the title Try Anything Twice. Next, they were reprinted in New York by Harcourt Brace in 1946 in a collection of Jan Struther's poetry and prose called A Pocketful of Pebbles. A new edition of Try Anything Twice was published in London by Virago Press in 1990, with an Introduction by Valerie Grove (reprinted here with her kind permission) but shortened by omitting thirteen of the original essays.
This Internet edition of the complete book was put on line in 2001. This date coincides with the 100th anniversary of Jan Struther's birth, and with publication of The Real Mrs Miniver–Jan Struther's Story by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, her grand-daughter (London, John Murray).
Ysenda's book discusses the extent to which the fictitious Minivers and their three children Vin, Judy and Toby may be regarded as representing the true Tony and Joyce Maxtone Graham and their similarly-aged children Jamie, Janet and Robert. In some of the Try Anything Twice articles, the author likewise draws partly on fact and partly on fiction, calling her husband "T" and their children Andrew, Robina and Benjie. Holiday companions, "A", "E" and "C", are references to the Talbot family–Anne, her brother Evan, and his wife Cynthia. As far as I know, other names were invented, though in many cases they were based on real people.
Robert Maxtone Graham, August 2001.
"Giving a party is very like having a baby: its conception is more fun than its completion, and once you have begun it it is almost impossible to stop. How perfect it is, that first moment, when one of you says, 'It's about time we gave another party,' and suddenly the room is full of people, talking, laughing, drinking, the women all beautiful and the men witty."
So begins Jan Struther's essay "–Of A Party" and those who already know Mrs Miniver will recognise the mischievous tone of its author. Her reflections on everyday life in London began to appear in The Times in the 1930s after Peter Fleming, Ian's less famous but more talented brother, had asked her to write about "an ordinary woman like yourself" to brighten up the Court Page which, he said, was full of dull articles about stoats. So Jan Struther invented Mrs Miniver, a wife and mother of three living in a Chelsea square, with little to do except enjoy observing people's foibles, record small family crises and the changing seasons, until World War II loomed. Jan Struther was Mrs Miniver in all but name. The Minivers went to Sussex at weekends, Scotland in August. The garage-man brought her husband's car to the door at nine; tea was served in the drawing room at four: all uncannily like Jan Struther's life in Wellington Square.
But the elegant, polished and witty pieces she wrote as "Caroline Miniver" were the kind of thing Jan Struther had already been writing for the Spectator, the New Statesman and Punch. A selection of these had been published in 1938 in hard covers as Try Anything Twice, and the title essay is as good a place as any to start. As she explains, most maxims by which we govern our lives are lily-livered (never trust a foreigner, cast a clout before May be out). "Try anything once" is the exception, but is fraught with difficulty. Some things, "such as marital fidelity and keeping a diary, take years to try: others, such as inconstancy and leaving off keeping a diary, are the work of a moment". And what about things one cannot try more than once, like jumping from a sixth-floor window, or making mushroom ketchup from the Deadly Amanita?
The deceptive lightness, and the nugatory subject matter disguising the crisp common sense beneath, were the work of afternoons on a sofa, where she would write on lined vellum with a fine gold-embossed pen ("Genius may write on the backs of old envelopes, but mere talent requires the very best stationery money can buy", as she used to say.) She could produce a Times leader between lunch and tea, and wrote dozens of them during the 1930s, at four or five guineas a time.
The Jan Struther essay, of which forty-odd are collected here, is an extended version of the Spectator notebook of today: prompted by any observation or memory, and capable of frivolity and profundity at once. For though Jan Struther was born with a canteenful of silver spoons (from her noble Sudely and Dysart relations) she mocked the pretensions and snobberies of her class, danced lightly over their social habits and leaned so far leftward that in America she became a natural victim of the McCarthy blacklist. She and her husband lived extravagantly, so there were constant financial embarrassments and pawnings of jewellery. The bailiffs turned up on the doorstep on the very day of her daughter Janet's birth. Jan dealt with them by asking sweetly: "Do any of you gentlemen know anything about midwifery?"
She was born Joyce Anstruther (hence her pen-name Jan Struther, i.e. J. Anstruther) in 1901, the daughter of a Liberal MP, Harry Anstruther and his wife, the Hon. Eva Hanbury-Tracy, later Dame Eva Anstruther. She grew up in Westminster, in a house within the division bell area, and attended Miss Ironside's school (where she was in the same class as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother). At twenty-one she married Anthony James Oliphant Maxtone Graham, Eton and Sandhurst, insurance broker and scion of an old Scottish family. She had fallen for him on the rebound when her first love committed suicide: Tony Maxtone Graham's was the shoulder she cried on. It was a happy marriage at first–Mrs Miniver's famous line about the best thing about marriage ("always having an eye to catch"), was Jan's own view. But Clem Miniver was the husband she would have liked, not the one she had. Though they entertained a lot, and were apparently an amusing couple, they were physically, emotionally and temperamentally opposites.
Men adored Jan. She was small and bright-eyed and a lifelong tomboy: she did not cook or sew and was happiest in dungarees with a kerchief round her head (she had an aristocratic disdain for appearances) and loved boyish windswept pursuits–scouting, camping, tracking, carpentry, rope work. She built a boat in the back garden of the coastguard's cottage the family rented for weekends. Her daughter Janet ("Judy Miniver" who later married Patrick Rance the great cheese expert, and became a magazine writer herself–as Janet Graham–as well as mother of seven) reports that her mother "revelled in all aspects of plumbing, and would rather clear a drain than make a bed".
She was interested in everyone, valued kindness above all virtues and declared that stupidity was the eighth deadly sin. In print, she could be waspish but always disguised her victims although she drew unabashedly from her own life, which was until 1940 a civilised and leisured one. No modern Miniver or Struther (who would certainly be running home, career and children without numerous staff from Mrs Cattermole's Domestic Agency, as described in the "Dragons and Duchesses" essay here) would have time to write a list of "People I want to see" let alone reorganise her old address book as in "Ainsworth-Zazoulian", wondering who on earth were the Dunkleys. (Oh yes: met them on "the boat two years ago. You asked them to dinner once and they couldn't come...Delete Dunkley.")
The writer of these essays, where every word is perfectly in place, certainly could not agree with Carlyle's notion that "No speech ever uttered or utterable is worth comparison with silence." Who believed still waters ran deep? she asks. Speech "spreads wisdom, dispels ignorance, ventilates grievances, stimulates curiosity, lightens the spirits, lessens the fundamental loneliness of the soul, and is indispensable to the proper enjoyment of love-making".
Her passion for words and the games you can play with them would have made her an ideal panellist on Call My Bluff. She was game enough to learn Esperanto and would trap words like butterflies: in Try Anything Twice readers will find sesquipedalian, callipygian, macrocephalous. Words, she knew, have magic powers and can make the dullest heart dance; they can also be wicked (she annotated her rhyming dictionary with several scurrilous addenda) and even their misuse is relished. A shopkeeper assures her that this is "a quality carpet". "Yes, we reply inaudibly between ground teeth, and such a quantity one, too, isn't it? Such a shape one, such a size one, and oh! so terribly texture..."
She liked family sayings, eg. "One of the I.A.s of being G.U." (one of the Inestimable Advantages of being Grown-Up) and their expression "boat-shaped" which meant not quite the same as ship-shape, but applied to people reliable and efficient in their habits. Unlike the feudal Maxtone Grahams, she was less interested in forebears than what she called her afterbears.
Anyone who has read Jan Struther's poems knows they are not "miserable puling stuff full of love and flowers" as she claims here, but trim, pertinent lyrics which always had a good point to make. I have pinned this, her "Variation On An Old Proverb" above my desk:
Hard words will break no bones
But more than bones are broken
By the inescapable stones
Of fond words left unspoken.
Her love poems are fine, and the one about lost love ("Now heaven be thanked, I am out of love again") among her finest. "Love poetry, I have always felt, should steer a middle course," she wrote, "between the Scylla of St James's Street and the Charybdis of Hampstead Heath."
But it was the success of Mrs. Miniver which diverted her from poetry. When it was published in book form in 1939, Mrs. Miniver became a Book of the Month selection in America (according to President Roosevelt, it also became a decisive factor in bringing the US into the war) and it took Struther there. But only the merest vestiges of the real Miniver survived in the sentimental MGM movie starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, set in a Green Belt village and with unaccountably American children. Not surprisingly Jan did not enjoy the Garson Miniver: "So damn ladylike, with that quizzical lift of just one eyebrow" but the film has had an aura of instant nostalgia ever since, and at the time ensured Jan Struther immediate fame in America, where she spent 1940-45, years which changed her life.
She took her two younger children with her; there Janet went to a Quaker boarding school and young Robert ("Toby" in Mrs. Miniver) kept a pet snake in their New York apartment. Its desiccated corpse turned up a year later in the oven, which proved, as the family anecdote had it, that Jan had not opened the oven door for a year. She embarked on a gruelling programme of lecture tours, visiting forty-seven states, addressing luncheon clubs on Anglo-American relations, her pet subject. She paid to equip two ambulances for the British Red Cross, and gave money for schoolbooks, paper and shoes for schools in Kentucky and Tennessee. She also became a panellist on a radio programme, called Information Please, ideally suited to her fund of general knowledge, vocabulary and wit.
Her marriage to Tony did not survive this separation. He spent three of the war years as a POW having been captured by Rommel at Tobruk; afterwards he was a changed person, while she was an international celebrity. She returned to England hoping to make a go of the marriage, but in fact she had fallen in love with Adolf Placzek, known as Dolf, a tall erudite Viennese refugee she had originally met in London when doing voluntary work with refugees from Hitler, and who later became Avery librarian at Columbia University. She married Dolf in 1948 and spent the rest of her life with him in New York, where she died at fifty-two, a year after a radical mastectomy, of a brain tumour.
She had not been immune to the snare of depression. When her first marriage ended Jan was brought very low and could not write. But the family memory is of her enthusiasms and her good humour. "I have seen her dance around her sitting room to a Mozart piano concerto," says Janet, "till her shoe came off, flew out of the window and landed on the bald head of a departing dinner guest."
It was her ability to express an unmawkish delight in life and faith in the universe that made her such a successful writer of hymns. Though positively averse to church-going herself, she could bring spiritual thoughts to vivid life and when her friend Canon Percy Dearmer of Westminster Abbey asked her to try her hand at hymns she fulfilled all his expectations. "Lord Of All Hopefulness, Lord Of All Joy" is sung movingly on every kind of occasion, marriages and memorial services; "Daisies Are My Silver, Buttercups My Gold" and "When A Knight Won His Spurs" remain children's favourites.
She knew the hymns would outlive her "perishable prose" but as is clear from Try Anything Twice, even essays on trifling subjects contained essentially poetic perceptions. Few have so captured the moods and rhythms of metropolitan life. London is, she says, like a subtle and expensive scent: it contains repellent ingredients ("fogs, slums, dirt, pneumatic drills–there is more than a touch of civet in the spiritual exhalation of London") but what the banished Londoner longs for is something indefinable: "the mere memory of a ghost of a mood that he once had while walking down a quiet side-street at dusk".
She has that sure trick of translating the abstract into the apposite example. Children have no sense of the future, she comments, but for adults the "sense of tomorrow" is both blessing and bane: it "makes toothache bearable but clouds the second half of a weekend". And speaking of weekends, and having people to stay, she proposes that we never feel the same way about anyone who has been our host or our guest: "you know too much about him, about his personal fads, his pet economics, and his methods of treating soap". The ideal relationship, therefore, is that between fellow guests staying in the same house: instant friends, they can slope off together to gossip about the hosts "than which there is no more satisfying conversation in the world". Perhaps what a host should do is invite a collection of carefully chosen people, plan a series of exquisite meals and congenial pastimes for them, and then go away himself for the weekend...For it is surely the invitees who do the host a favour by bothering to come at all: think of packing, the world's most disagreeable chore. As she argues in "Snillocs", it is the hosts who should write thank-you letters to departed guests.
Mrs Miniver, readers may remember, regarded early autumn as a good point at which to begin the year, refreshed and reinvigorated. But Jan Struther makes a more convincing argument here for "The Real New Year" being springtime. She believes with John Masefield that "the days that make us happy make us wise" and surely spring, filling us with irrational joy, is the time for resolutions: at the first glimpse of bursting buds we resolve to "write a poem, paint a picture, compose a symphony, found a business, plant a tree, build a summer-house, and repaper the dining-room". There is certainly no point in making resolutions in January, a wretched time of unpayable bills. But resolutions we persist in making, and then six months fly swiftly by. "And have we begun those Spanish lessons? Have we taken up tap-dancing? Have we read Spinoza, or even Tom Jones? Have we explored the Isle of Dogs, cleaned our typewriter, stuck in last year's photographs or written a play?"
Passing time is always a fruitful source of inspiration. Only yesterday one was making a mud-pie, she reflects, and now a contemporary has just become a Brigadier General. When sitting among the other parents at a school function, they all look "collectively fat and grey and middle-aged and respectable, possessed of life insurances and bank accounts" surely one cannot be one of them? Even gardening, once regarded as "the last refuge of age or boredom" begins to have its appeal. Five minutes of weeding routs accidie, and "provides an incentive to be in the open air without the intolerable necessity for striking, coaxing, pursuing or intercepting any kind, shape or size of ball..."
The tone of her essays might not invariably seem, by the standards of today, perfectly judged. Though quick to mock snootiness–writing about kitting out her son for Eton; or having the children photographed by a Mayfair photographer who finds Chelsea off his beaten track; or the way some of her friends "often in front of the servants...dignify their hard-upness with the name of poverty"–inevitably, writing fifty years ago she is sometimes prone to little grandeurs herself. In small particulars, her essays may be period pieces, but in their larger truths they are universal and transcend time and class. She could discover what is bizarre and unique in the humdrum, and what is consoling or uplifting in the merest thing, the feel of the banister at home, the napes of children's necks. She could find inspiration in a fallen leaf or a feather duster. Why do we watch the tossing of the caber? Why are cabers tossed at all? she asks, relishing the exquisite uselessness of it. She never has to travel far to find a subject: she merely has to look out of her window onto the square. But when she does travel she writes graphically of foreign places and characters, the most memorable here being "The Philosopher in the Pine-Wood". But no modern returning holidaymaker will fail to recognise the truth of her essay "Paradise Lost". She and Tony and another couple take a holiday on a Balearic isle before its touristic invasion. The life is blissful, the brandy cheap, the swimming relentlessly perfect...And there is a nearby farmhouse to let, also very cheap.
"We sailed at seven o'clock next morning. As our steamer left the jetty I found myself wondering why we had done nothing about that farm; asked no questions, made no effort at all; why one never does do anything; why one always goes back in the end to fogs and offices and wet Saturday nights in the King's Road."
Valerie Grove, London, 1990
TRY ANYTHING TWICE
A BALKAN JOURNEY
THE PASSING OF PUMP LANE
HE WHO GOT SLAPPED
WITH LOVE FROM AUNT HILDEGARDE
LADY LILIAN AND THE MODERN DOLL
A WILD GOOSE CHASE
"–OF A PARTY"
"A NOISY NOISE..."
DRAGONS AND DUCHESSES
ONE OF THE BEST
GOD BLESS SHILLITOE
"TO A PASSIONATE POKER-PLAYER..."
"WHEN IS A DOOR...?"
ALL OAK DINERS HAVE FIGURED TOPS
THIRTY BY TEN
THE REAL NEW YEAR
BRIEF GUIDE TO CORNWALL
CUT OUT THE STARS
ON THE TIP OF ONE'S TONGUE
OUT OF DOORS
ON NOT READING THE PAPERS
THE CLOCK STRIKES
LAMENT FOR HAY
WINDING AND UNWINDING
A CHANGE OF FOCUS
"...BEHOLD THE HEBRIDES"
THE HIGHLAND GAMES
EVE OF TERM
WOMEN WITHOUT MEN
'THE TOYS OF WAR
THE CURIOUS PHENOMENON OF THE MILITARIST'S SISTER
THE PHILOSOPHER IN THE PINE-WOOD
WE live, most of us, by rule of thumb; navigate these tricky waters not so much by chart, lead and compass as by casual glances at a tree or a ruined tower. Our minds are equipped, not with a complete, orderly philosophy, but with a farrago of axioms, theories and beliefs, some inherited, some borrowed, some home-made; mostly unexamined and often contradictory. Guided by these, we wear wool next the skin, throw salt over our shoulder, and eat spinach; worship dogs, abuse cats, think dentists respectable and artists raffish; never strike a woman, trust a foreigner, or cast a clout till May is out; never judge a man by his friends, always judge a man by his friends; let to-morrow take care of itself, but put a little bit away for a rainy day.
It works well enough in practice. At any rate it keeps us happy, for out of such a rag-bag we are nearly always able to pull something to suit our mood, a nice piece of prudence when we are feeling cowardly or a heartening scrap of bravado when we want to throw our caps over the mill. In other words, we do what we like, but prefer to wear some verbal talisman while doing it.
On the whole we must be a lily-livered lot, for at least four-fifths of these precepts are negative and cautionary: but on the other side there is one so notably dashing, so heroically imprudent, that it almost evens matters up. And that is the theory, often advanced by the unlikeliest-looking people, that one should try anything once. ("Except," as one of our younger composers has immortally remarked, "incest and folk-dancing.")
This theory has been the cause of much delight, many disappointments and not a few disasters. The disasters have been largely due to neglect of the simple but insufficiently recognised fact that all human experiments are not of equal duration and that certain pairs of them are mutually irreconcilable. Some, such as marital fidelity and keeping a diary, take years to try: others, such as inconstancy and leaving off keeping a diary, are the work of a moment. It will be seen that the shorter and simpler experiment instantly invalidates the longer and more difficult one: this is probably the only sound argument in favour of conventional morality.
It should also be remembered that if you do certain things once you will not only be unable to do them again but will have to give up experimenting for good and all. Under this head may be placed jumping out of a sixth-floor window, trying to cross the Atlantic in a Thames skiff, and making mushroom ketchup out of the Deadly Amanita.
But the main weakness of this misleading axiom is that it does not go far enough. It ought to run "Try Anything Twice." For what, after all, is actuality? A slice of ham, sandwiched between anticipation and remembrance: and an experience which has had no anticipation is like a sandwich with half the bread missing–and the underneath half at that. But no, that is not a perfect metaphor. For ham is nourishing in itself and some people even prefer it without bread: whereas an experience would have no value whatever if there were no such thing as memory, and is at least half as precious again if it can be looked forward to. A crinkled peach-stone, then–that is actuality: of little worth in itself (though it contains, to be sure, a small kernel), but necessary as a support, a skeleton, upon which the two halves of the fruit can hang.
In a sense, of course, it is possible to anticipate an experience which you have never had, just as you can imagine a place to which you have never been. But this is mere guesswork, a shifting, hazy affair: for interest and piquancy it cannot be compared with the picture that the mind's eye paints as you approach the place for the second time. When I come round that corner, you say, there will be nets spread out to dry on the quay; and beyond, three carob-trees; and beyond that, the hill shaped like a cat asleep. And then each detail becomes real, each corrugation of the stone fits exactly into the intricate grooves of the fruit; and with a sigh of delight you give yourself up to the present. But it is a present enriched by having been consciously a future; and you know that as soon as it is over the other half of the peach will be waiting for you to eat, fitting just as miraculously on to the crinkled stone.
To object that the two halves are not separate but a complete sphere is merely to reaffirm the undeniable fact that anticipation is always, in part at least, the offspring of memory. For this reason it is false to say, as poets and others are fond of doing, that the young live in the future and the old in the past. Children, although they may academically decide to be engine-drivers when they grow up, have no true conception of the future; they have not yet acquired that "sense of to-morrow" which is alternately our comfort and our bane, which makes toothache bearable but clouds the second half of a week-end. That is why their griefs are so inconsolable, their disappointments so heart-rending to watch. It is too wet for the picnic; I wish I was dead.... And the very old, too, for most of whom the past is saddening and the future jejune, tend to take shelter in the present. Only the middle-aged are free to range: for their future, barring accidents, is still long enough to make it worth while for them to reconsider their past.
The cynical and the disillusioned, the worldly-wise and the merely infirm of purpose–these are the chief opponents of the try-anything-twice campaign. I remember a scrap of dialogue which I overheard once in the macabre atmosphere of a seaside lodging-house sitting-room (but it was called the lounge) during a relentlessly wet November half-term. My own child and I were playing Gibbets. My fellow-guest (for it was called a guest-house) was the quintessence of prep.-school motherhood, one of those hair's-breadth approximations to the average whose thrust is more deadly than any caricature. So this, one says, is what it all comes down to: and surreptitiously puts some more powder on one's nose. Her son was a stocky youth whose mind harped on food. In the middle of a game of Halma he asked if he might have another dough-nut.
"I shouldn't if I were you," said his mother in her rather dreary voice.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't know.... I never think the second one tastes as good as the first, do you?"
"I've never noticed it," the boy answered stolidly.
"Oh, well," she said with a sigh. "You're young."
She had been speaking absent-mindedly, engrossed in the unaccustomed effort of concentrating on the game. But all at once she seemed to remember that there were other people in the room; for she gave a little embarrassed laugh and shot a glance at me as though I had seen her in her underclothes. I looked out of the window so as not to meet her eye. The late chrysanthemums in the back garden were hanging on their stalks like worn-out mops, bedraggled by the wind and the rain.
"E," said my son. I gibbeted him triumphantly, and the cloud lifted. How absurd, I thought, to have been even momentarily depressed: for of course the silly woman had missed the point. To eat two dough-nuts at a single sitting is not to repeat an experiment but merely to invite a surfeit. For the circumstances have changed. The charm of the dough-nut is unaltered, but the state of the stomach is not. So perhaps, to be fool-proof, the axiom ought to run:
"Try Anything Twice: but Consider the Digestion."
THERE are people who never make lists, relying upon their memories or upon their friends' reminders; there are people who do make lists, but grudgingly and without relish, as a means to an end, like a Puritan making love; and there are people to whom making lists is an end in itself, a pure, abstract and never-failing delight.
To the third class I am happy, though not particularly proud, to belong. Not proud, because I know only too well that the habit of list-making, carried to excess, can waste a lot of time: many is the letter I might have written if I had not first made a list of the letters I intended to write. Happy, because–unlike most pastimes–it is cheap, harmless to other people, and independent of your age or your income. When I was eight I made lists of all my toys, of all the cooks we had ever had, of all the plays I had ever been to–not counting pantomimes, which I scorned–and of all the languages I claimed to know (the last was a longish one, because a single word of each was enough to count, and I had a good many uncles in foreign parts); and when I am eighty, no doubt, I shall still be at it, making grim little lists of all the things I meant to learn and all the places I never went to see.
As a day with a dry-fly on the Kennet is to a fisherman, so to a list-maker is the moment, all too seldom recurring, when he feels justified in treating himself to a new address-book. Address-book-making is the pinnacle, the fine fleur, of the listmaker's art. For one thing, it is not a flimsy, ephemeral affair, like a shopping-list, no sooner made than it begins to be marred by smug ticks or triumphant crossings-out: an address-book is a permanent masterpiece, to be superseded, perhaps, in a year or two's time, but never, if you have any proper feeling, thrown away. A ten-year-old address-book makes good, though cryptic, reading. How few people you seemed to know in those days... And what has become, you wonder, of the Hartley-Wintneys? And who the devil was Mrs. Broole?
Even your current about-to-be-superseded address-book will present a few problems when you sit down (pen newly filled, blotting-paper handy, fire dancing and a Haydn symphony on the wireless) to copy it out. The new book, spotless without, virginal within, of a generous small quarto, the little shallow staircase of its alphabet as yet unsullied by exploring thumb-prints, lies open before you; the old one, an overcrowded, much-corrected octavo, lies beside it. Smoothly, flowingly, the panorama of your friends passes before you. Ainsworth, Antrobus, Archer, Avery, Ashe... (Ashe, a recent acquisition, is out of order: you put him in his place before Avery). Block capitals for the surnames: there are few things more satisfactory than making block capitals. The address on the next line. The telephone number. The husband's office number. A line left blank, in case they move or buy a country cottage.
Barnaby, Baxter, Blennerhassett.... But Blennerhassett died last year, poor chap, and his widow went back to live with her people in Canada. You aren't likely to see her again: she was only a friend's wife, not a real human being. Leave her out–you can always find her in the old book if necessary.
Carfax, Conybeare, Critchley, Crumme.... But the Crummes are in the middle of getting divorced. Mr. Crumme is going to marry Mrs. Vinnabar and Mrs. Crumme is going to marry Mr. Vinnabar, so that in the end there will still be two Crummes and two Vinnabars; but at present they have four addresses between them, and what are you to do? Put them down as they are, knowing that you are in for several unsightly corrections in a few months' time? Or put them down as they eventually will be, making a mental reservation in the meanwhile? But perhaps that would bring them bad luck and count as tempting Providence–or the King's Proctor. It is a nice point.
Darroway, Dunkley... Dunkley. They were the people you made friends with on the boat two years ago. You asked them to dinner once and they couldn't come. Later, you met Mrs. Dunkley in a bus, and you both said, "We must forgather–are you in the book?" Delete Dunkley. But don't forget to put in that amusing man Driscoll who was introduced to you last week at a party: he would be fun to collect. At this point you begin making a separate list on a loose sheet of paper, entitled "People I want to see." Then, stabbed by conscience, you start another one called "People I ought to do something about." The Frisbys, the Gowlands, Miss Hatch and–Oh God!–the Loxley-Bitternes....
The Haydn symphony is over long ago; they are playing dance music now. To the bizarre plangency of muted trumpets you copy out your cherished, your solitary "Z": Zazoulian, the little Armenian painter. His pictures are not very good, nor his conversation amusing, and it is eighteen months since you saw him: but a "Z" is a "Z."
The main work–alas!–is finished. But tomorrow evening you will have the almost subtler joy of making out the quick-reference list at the end. A new department, this; there wasn't room for it in the old book. Surname only, in three categories–Married Couples (all too many), Unattached Men (all too few) and Unattached Women: invaluable when you want to make up a party in a hurry. Then business with coloured pencils–a blue tick for bridge-players, a red tick for poker-players, a green tick for golfers; and a very special tick (in golden ink, if one had it) against the married couples who do not mind being asked out separately.
After that nothing remains except the Miscellaneous: but these are the most important of the lot, for once lost they are irretrievable. They figure neither in Who's Who nor in the telephone directory; they have been acquired patiently, often painfully, by experiment, research or recommendation:
"Mrs. Bollings, 34k Simpson's Dwellings. Char, can cook if nec."
"Mr. Widgery, 49 Paradise Grove. Logs and upholstery, keeps a horse and van."
"Miss Towser, 37 Maberly Terrace. Dressmaker. (N.B. does up, but can't cut out.)"
And finally, at the end of a long list, the brief entry:
"W. Smith. Can do anything."
There flash across your mind's eye many and varied memories of Smith. Smith distempering the ceilings; Smith tiling the front door-step; Smith mending the wireless, the doll's house, the car; Smith waiting at a dinner-party, even on one occasion cooking the nursery luncheon; Smith the versatile, Smith the ingenious, Smith the reassuring. But Smith's address I am not going to write down here: even a stamped addressed envelope will not drag it from me.
COMFORT'S crown of comfort is remembering Balkan trains. We left Bucharest on a Sunday morning by the eight o'clock train, which started at eight thirty-five. The time-table said that we should reach Sofia, less than three hundred miles away, at ten o'clock that night. Our Rumanian friends said that we should probably get stranded at Rustchuk for the night; and added that spending a night at Rustchuk was one of the things one simply could not do. ("Brigands?" we asked; but they replied darkly, "No, not brigands...") The hall-porter at our hotel said that we should never get to Sofia at all, and that he hoped to see us back soon. We ourselves said nothing, having already learned that in the Balkans prophecy is useless and patience is the only thing which matters.
The reason for all this speculation was that the recent heavy snowstorms had blocked the lines entirely for several days, and ours was the first train to attempt the journey. For an hour or so we travelled at a leisurely pace across a plain of incredible flatness and whiteness. "It's what a tablecloth must look like," said T., "to a caterpillar crawling across it." "More like Bedfordshire, really," said A., who, when we are in exciting places, has a perverse habit of making prosaic comparisons.
We were in the middle of a game of Gibbets which, like Clumps, Lists and Anagrams, is an excellent game for long railway journeys–when we heard an ominous rending sound beneath our feet. The train jolted wildly, and began to rock. We stood up in the middle of the carriage, wondering which way it was going to turn over. But it didn't turn over; it merely ran off the rails and settled itself down in the snow like a broody ptarmigan.
We got out, gasping a little, as usual, at the difference of 80 ° or 90 ° between the inside and the outside air, and walked about taking photographs of torn-up rails and trying to talk Rumanian to our fellow-passengers. It seemed that the hard, packed snow had lifted the wheels off the rails; that the Tool To Put Trains Back On To Rails With, that indispensable piece of equipment, was broken; that, since it was a single line, we should have to wait until the next train came from Giurgiu to meet us. It was due in an hour. We smoked, and went on with our Gibbets.
Four hours later the other train turned up. It, too, had been derailed on the way, but the T.T.P.T.B.O.T.R.W. had not, luckily, been broken. The two trains then exchanged passengers, which took some time, for the snow was rather deep, and one was apt to stumble, luggage and all, into a drift. The contents of the other train consisted almost entirely of peasants, dressed in dyed goat-skins and pointed fur hats, and weighed down with bright bales and bundles. They clambered patiently into our abandoned train, where for all I know they may be sitting to this day, with crumpled rails between them and Bucharest.
Our new train was not so long as the old one, and we had to crowd into it as best we could. Nor was it quite so clean; but this did not prevent A. from being politely reproved for dropping her cigarette-ash on the floor, in spite of the fact that somebody had already spat there. The etiquette of a country is more stringent and more bewildering than its bye-laws. The new train, however, went considerably faster than the other. In fact, it began to go very fast indeed; and presently a fellow-passenger came along the corridor, put his head in at our door and said, with a broad grin and strong Rumanian accent:
"L'ingénieur–il est ivre."
The other Rumanians in our carriage received this news with good-humoured sympathy. Poor fellow–it was so cold: wasn't it natural that he should have had a drink or two?
Nevertheless we got to Giurgiu without further mishap, hired a couple of crazy sleighs and jingled off for two or three miles to Port Ramadan, which is a huddle of wooden huts on the northern bank of the Danube. A piercing east wind was sweeping across a hundred miles of snow-plain from the Black Sea. The passport official had long ago grown tired of waiting for our train and was nowhere to be found. So we stood leaning against a stack of drainpipes, and lifting first one foot and then the other out of the snow, for an hour and a half. Our noses became bluer, our limbs number and our stomachs emptier; we wished passionately that we had had another helping of grilled sturgeon for dinner the night before. An old Rumanian very kindly shared with us his flask of a curious local drink called, I think, pellín. We played who could see the peasant with (a) the longest goatskin coat, (b) the brightest yellow shoes, (c) the tallest fur hat, and (d) the greatest number of visible gold teeth. The last was won by M. with our own porter, who, so far as we could see, had a complete set of them. Eventually the passport man appeared, performed his duties with surprising speed, and set us free to leave Rumania.
This time we could get only one sleigh, into which we managed to cram our four selves, five suit-cases, three guns and two rifles. Then we set off at full gallop across the frozen Danube to the accompaniment of sleigh-bells and curses. The Rumanian and the Bulgarian drivers expressed their mutual hatred by letting out a continuous, full-throated roar of invective, and by trying to force each other's sleighs off the smooth narrow track on to the wilderness of rough ice on either side.
After paying our driver twice his legal fare–very nearly half what he had asked–and freeing ourselves with the usual difficulty from his protests and clutchings, we climbed precariously up the steep, icy bank and found ourselves in Bulgaria.
Rustchuk's native name is Ruse; but owing to the Bulgarians' habit of playing general post with the alphabet, it is written "Pyce," which is rather confusing to the newcomer. It is a desolate little town of square low-built houses set in a flat waste of snow and ice. Considering that we knew no Bulgarian at all, we managed to get through the customs house, or rather hut, fairly quickly. The man in charge tapped our gun-cases and then went through the motions of playing a stringed musical instrument, with an interrogative look at me. I nodded eagerly. It seemed too good a chance to miss. But something prompted him to open one of them, and he found a Mannlicher. Eyebrows were raised, heads shaken, arms excitedly waved. With a blank smile I said in Rumanian–it is one of the few things I can say–that I did not understand Bulgarian. For a short time it looked as though we were going to be arrested as gun-runners or members of the I.M.R.O. But at last a German fellow-traveller, who did understand Bulgarian, came to our rescue.
"Englisch," he explained soothingly. "Englisch. Sportist."
The customs official's brow cleared instantly. He smiled, winked at the crowd, tapped his forehead and chalked our luggage through.
It was then four o'clock and we set off in search of lunch. The first thing we discovered about Rustchuk was that at the hotels you can sleep (which God forbid) but you can't eat. The second thing we discovered was that at the eating-places you can't eat either. At least, so the proprietor assured us at the "Casino," which is the high-sounding and misleading name of the only café we could find. He was sorry, he said in bad German, but cooks in Rustchuk get the afternoon off, and there would be no hot food until seven-thirty. We pointed out that that was the time our train was due to go: could he not give us something cold? He said he had nothing but sardines. Bring us, we said, twenty, thirty or even forty sardines. He smiled as an English waiter would smile if you asked him for a soup-tureen full of caviare. He brought us one sardine apiece, reverently garnished with lemon and parsley. Under great pressure he gave us each one more; but further than that he would not go. Sardines, in the land of caviare, are treated with respect.
So we had to be content with sitting round the stove and drinking innumerable tiny glasses of mastika, which is like gin mixed with aniseed, slivovitz, which is like vodka mixed with ammoniated quinine, and tsuica, which is like slivovitz, only more so. It was not until we got up to go, three hours later, that we discovered what these innocent-looking little drinks can do on an empty stomach. However, we got to the station without falling out of the sleigh, which went, as usual, at full gallop.
This train we caught (for we had missed the "rapid") was described by the station-master as "ordinary." To him, perhaps, it may have been; but we, who lead a sheltered life, are not yet so blasé. We still have it in us to marvel when we find such a masterpiece of dirtiness, such a gem of untouched squalor, as that train. After sitting for an hour in a first-class carriage, the state of whose plush upholstery would have made the boldest vacuum-cleaner flinch, we were so filthy that we decided to see what the train could offer in the way of washing facilities. But one glance at the basin was enough to send us back, shuddering, to the vaguer, less concentrated grime of our compartment.
Dinner consisted of one dry roll and a small slice of garlic sausage apiece, which we had managed to buy at the station. Then we tied our heads up in handkerchiefs and settled down in our corners for the night. Fatigue, combined with tsuica, mastika and slivovitz, did the rest; we slept passably well, woke up to a landscape of fairy-tale mountains, winding valleys and frozen rivers, and arrived at Sofia about ten o'clock in the morning. It was then twenty-seven hours since we had washed and thirty-eight since our last square meal. C., to whom we had telegraphed from Rustchuk, was on the platform, clothed as usual in the immaculate garments of Diplomacy.
"My God," he said, "what a state you're in!"
"We are," I replied. "A very Balkan State."
An hour later, such is the magic of eighteen fried eggs between four people, the journey from Bucharest had already begun to seem like a dream. But I, for one, would willingly dream it again. Punctuality is the thief of adventure; and neither at King's Cross nor at Euston can you find a porter in a pointed fur hat.
OURS, in the words of the old song, is a nice house. That is to say, we have lived in it for just under a year and we are still house-conscious; the first fine careless rapture has not yet been worn off by too many bills for plumbing and roof repairs, and there are quite a lot of people left to whom we can say, after dinner, "Would it amuse you to see the rest of the house?" in such a tone that they haven't the heart to say "No." But after they have been dragged upstairs to see the roof-garden and downstairs to see the oil-fired central heating, and we have just come back to the drawing-room again and settled down to bridge–then, as likely as not, a shrill scream will rend the air, and there will rise to our windows the sound of skirmishing and a woman's voice angrily shouting, "Ern-ay!"
"Oh, yes," we explain apologetically. "Of course, Pump Lane is rather a drawback; but they're going to begin clearing it out quite soon–such a relief."
For although our front windows face on to the orderly stucco perspective of Sycamore Square, with its trees, its fountain and its strip of green lawn, the back of our house has a very different prospect. It looks, in fact, on to Pump Lane, which is a narrow cobbled cul-de-sac bordered by a row of dilapidated two-storey cottages, each with a tiny patch of garden. Its inhabitants are a decent enough lot of people–poor, cheerful, and as clean as the fundamental inconvenience of their houses will allow them to be, which is not very. There are about three families in each house and each family has on an average three children, who spend most of the day playing in the street: the two noisiest are Doris (who was brought into the world rather audibly five months ago on a night when we had some complete strangers dining with us) and Mick-ay, who is three and has red hair and a warlike disposition. Most of the screams which float up to our windows can be traced directly or indirectly to Mick-ay: either he himself is screaming because his mother has smacked him, or else he has made Ern-ay scream by taking away his favourite tin can, and Ern-ay's mother is standing in her doorway, arms akimbo, and telling Mick-ay's mother what she thinks of her and her methods of upbringing. Meanwhile Doris lies in a soap-box mounted on a rickety pram-chassis, clutching at her own toes when she is feeling happy and roaring unrestrainedly when she isn't. Her mother, in defiance of text-books and welfare centres, stuffs a rubber dummy into her mouth whenever she cries, having first sucked it herself to make quite sure that it is clean.
In spite of this kind of thing, and in spite of living, as far as I can see, entirely on jam and white bread, the Pump Lane children are ravishingly beautiful and unreasonably healthy. Their complexions, though streaked with jam, tears and grime, are clear and rosy; their hair, though in some ways not above suspicion, twists itself into natural curls the like of which never appear on the heads of our own children, crimp we never so cunningly.
At tea-time the older boys and girls come back from school, and the din becomes more complex. The most popular sport at the moment is yodelling, in which several of them have attained an uncanny proficiency. Now this is an art-form which may sound tolerable or even charming when practised among mountain pastures, but in a narrow and reverberating street it lacks appeal. Where do they learn it? Is the taxpayer's money being used to give yodelling classes in the elementary schools, or is this craze the second or third-hand result of the Tyrolese invasion of the London theatres? Be that as it may, the theatre and the cinema are certainly responsible for another of Pump Lane's less attractive features: namely, the devilish reiteration by Frederick, aged twenty months, of the expression, "Oh, yeah?" It is the only thing he has yet learnt to say, and he says it a great deal. One day I counted seventeen repetitions of the abominable phrase in ten minutes: then, I think, he must have found a crust in the gutter, for a blessed silence fell. But a little while later I heard his mother saying proudly, "C'mon, let Mrs. Wilson 'ear you talk, duck"; and, nothing loth, Frederick began again. I gave it up and worked for the rest of the morning in the dining-room, overlooking the neat, clean emptiness of the square. Only a few months more, I thought to myself consolingly.
. . . . .
We have just come back after six weeks in the country to find that the reclamation of Pump Lane has been put in hand during our absence. Most of the little houses have already been forsaken by their human inhabitants, and under the generalship of a zealous Sanitary Inspector are being laboriously divested of their non-human ones. Some of the non-human ones have come over to our garage for shelter: but only, thank God, the mammals. After all, ratting is good fun, and difficult to come by in London. The few remaining Pump Lane children look upon the empty houses as their own special perquisites: they have broken all the windows they can reach, pulled the bedraggled Virginia creeper off the walls, trampled the tiny gardens underfoot, and torn up the painted wooden palings that surrounded them. The palings make excellent swords, and the pointed ends can be driven into the ground for cricket stumps.
The two furthest houses are nearly finished, and through the new latticed casements I can catch a glimpse of parquet floors, fitted washbasins and electric fires. Outside, too, they are almost unrecognisable, with their freshly pointed brickwork, their oak front doors, their wrought-iron knockers, and the neat posts and chains which have taken the place of the faded wooden palings. One of them has a board up saying "Disposed Of," and a newly married couple comes and moons about in it every day with foot-rules and patterns of cretonne. The young man is exquisitely clean and pink, and wears a rather tight jacket and a very blue shirt; the girl has blonde elaborate hair escaping from beneath a carefully Bohemian hat: their car, which blocks up half Pump Lane, is the kind that wears a broad leather strap round its bonnet. We hate them.
. . . . .
This morning we stood at our drawing-room window watching the last of the old families moving out of Pump Lane. It was the Jackmans–father, mother, Gladys, Ellen and Mick-ay. Gladys and Ellen were two of our keenest yodellers. The remover was old Widgery from round the corner in Paradise Grove, who hangs out a sign saying, "Work Done with Horse and Van." The horse stands thirteen hands if an inch; the van is a converted coster's barrow. Still, it held the Jackmans' belongings all right: bits of them could be seen sticking out from under the ragged tarpaulin–the head of a rusty brass bedstead; a bit of the black horsehair sofa on which, presumably, the two elder children sleep; a broom-handle, and a large pink china vase.
"Well, that's the lot," we heard Mr. Jackman say. "We'd best be getting along, Mr. Widgery."
"Kerp!' cried old Widgery to the horse, who strained forward valiantly, his small hoofs slipping on the cobbles. But at the last moment came the familiar screech of "Mick-ay!" and Mrs. Jackman was forced to rush back to collect her youngest, who had had an eleventh-hour urge to take one of the old palings with him for a gun. Yelling lustily but still clutching his gun, he was dragged along in the wake of the retreating van.
"Well, that's that," I said, as his howls grew fainter.
"Yes," said T.
"It'll be a bit quieter now," I continued brightly. "It's really been awful, trying to get any work done with all those screeching children about."
"Yes," said T.
"And besides," I went on, talking rather loud, "it'll be ever so much nicer for them in the Buildings. Water laid on, and gas. And no bugs."
"Mm," said T., and we stood at the window for a minute listening to the unaccustomed silence of Pump Lane.
"Oh, damn," I said. "I wish they hadn't gone."
"I know," said T.
IT was obvious, from the moment when he shuffled round the corner into the square, that he would leave it without having sold a single broom; and I felt as I watched him from my window that sinking of the heart, that small embarrassed misery, which you feel when you see a grown-up about to play a practical joke on a child, or when there is a little man at a party whose card tricks do not quite come off.
He evidently had not the faintest idea of how to sell feather brooms, or anything else. Salesmanship, that widely studied art, was a closed book to him, and he did not even seem to have common-sense to fall back upon. For one thing, he made no noise. The people who come to sell things in the square are divided into three classes: those who stand in the road and cry their wares, those who knock timidly at the door and pitch hard-luck stories to the parlourmaid, and those who ring the bell briskly and ask to see the lady of the house. The first class sell, roughly speaking, logs, muffins and strawberries; the second, bootlaces, buttons, hairy writing-pads and hand-made lace of distressing design; the third, water-softeners and labour-saving appliances. Class I are legitimate and useful traders, who make no demands upon your time or your emotions; either you want logs, in which case you shout "Hi!", or else you have plenty, in which case you wait, partially deafened, until their uncouth but exciting roars have left the square. Class II are more difficult to deal with, because they hit you below the belt; somehow you never seem to have just run out of hand-made lace, and you generally salve your conscience by parting with your favourite pair of old shoes, which you would have gone on wearing for years, for the benefit of their youngest daughter, who happens (they say, after a rapid and expert glance at your own feet) to take size three-and-a-half. Class III are emissaries of the Tempter, wasters of time and wreckers of content. The only way to get rid of them is to keep a permanent case of scarlet fever in the house–and even then some of them have had it.
But the old man with the feather brooms did not fit into any of these categories. He did not shout "Fine broom-O!" or any inarticulate corruption of the old cry. He did not ring at a single bell, or even clamber down the steep area steps to tap at kitchen windows. He just pottered very slowly round the square, pausing uncertainly every few yards and gazing up at each house in turn, as though by the mere power of thought he could induce the occupants to become broom-conscious.
But his will-power was evidently as weak and bleary as his eyes; too weak, at any rate, to pierce the well-knit brickwork, the prim, trim stucco of Sycamore Square: for nobody took any notice of him at all. Occasionally a lady of the house would shut her front door behind her, pause a moment on the step to draw on her gloves and taste the fresh morning air, and then, with delicate leisured assurance, walk away up the square to do her morning's shopping in the King's Road. With unfailing regularity the old man missed his chance. All he did was to stand there as dumb as a lamp-post, making a small ineffective gesture with his unwieldy handful of brooms. It was not surprising that the lady of the house either walked on without noticing him or else drew perceptibly aside. And when she had gone past he would blink resignedly and move on a few steps further to stare at the next house.
My mind was exasperated and my heart wrung. Work became impossible. I put down my pen and marched out into the square. There was, I felt, nothing in life I wanted less at that moment than a new feather broom. Still, they could not cost more than a shilling, and that seemed a small price to pay for an eased conscience.
"Here!" I called out. His face lit up hopefully as he shambled towards me. "How much?"
"Five-and-six the long 'ns. Free-and-six the short."
"Good Lord," I said, aghast. "Surely that's rather a lot, isn't it?"
"Ever tried to buy one in a shop, lidy?
"No," I admitted.
"Ar," said the old man, and left it at that.
"Well, I'm sorry," I said, "but I really can't afford to buy one." I expected pleading, protestation, possibly a drop in price. Instead, he gave an almost inaudible sigh, picked up his brooms and began to move away. Against such humility–or was it, after all, such pride?–I was defenceless.
"Look here," I said, "you can give me a three-and-sixpenny."
He turned, handed me one of the shorter brooms and pushed the money with gnarled fingers into some unspeakable recess of his clothing.
"You won't regret it, lidy," he said simply. "It's a nice straight bit o' cane, and the turkey fevvers is from Norwich, in Norfolk. I always makes 'em to last."
"You make them?" I said, surprised at the contrast between his own unsavoury person and the spruce beauty of his wares, all shining bamboo and nodding plumes, with pieces of scarlet leather to hide the binding.
"Yerss, lidy," he said. "Wiv my pore old rheumaticky fingers." He held out a dirty, shrivelled claw. Somehow this, his only attempt at deliberate pathos, was the most heart-rending thing of all. That he should be so pitiful an object was bad enough: that he should be conscious of it was unbearable. I said good-bye rather curtly and went indoors. But he kept coming between me and my thoughts, and after a few minutes I had to go to the window and look at him again.
By this time he had reached the Barringtons' house, three doors away. The Barrington pram, as usual, was strapped to the area railings, and the Barrington baby was having its morning yell. Mrs. Barrington is one of those modern young mothers who hold that the time-honoured practice of pram-jiggling is bad for a baby's nerves. Grown-ups, it appears, have none. So Edward Barrington goes purple in the face from ten-thirty to ten-forty-five every morning, and if we don't like it we can always shut our windows. The old man with the brooms was standing by the pram looking down at the baby's contorted face and whirling fists.
"Oy," I heard him say through the din. "Oy-oy-oy. Wassa matter?" The Barrington baby went on yelling. The old man, who had never heard of modern mother-craft, glanced inquiringly at the front door, but nobody came. So he took out one of his brooms and tickled the baby's face with it. The effect was magical. The yelling stopped at once; it was followed by a few hysterical hiccups and then by an unmistakable crow. Two starfish hands and two woollen-booted feet shot simultaneously into the air towards the soft waving feathers.
"Thass better," said the old man. "Oy-oy-oy. Thass better." He grinned toothlessly at the baby, and the baby grinned toothlessly back at him. Again he tickled it; again it crowed with delight. But at this moment the Barrington front door opened and the Barrington Nannie appeared–puzzled, no doubt, by the untimely cessation of the morning yell.
"My precious lamb!" She flew down the steps like an avenging whirlwind and snatched up the baby in her arms.
"You be off," she said sharply. "Pushing your dirty feathers in the child's face. I've a good mind to send for the police." The baby began howling again as she bore it off into the house.
His one success over, the old man shouldered his brooms again and trailed away up the square. His broken boots moved over the flagstones like two misshapen toads.
"WHEN Primo Carnera was leaving The Ring, Blackfriars, the other day, a man stepped out from the crowd and slapped the giant boxer on the cheek. Asked why he had done this, the man replied 'Just for fun."'
You can take this news item how you like: you may see in it an exhibition of foolhardy courage–for, although the police intervened, they might not have; or a rash act which might have led to international complications; or a joke in poor taste; or material for a Bateman drawing; or what you will. But to me, at any rate, it has a noble significance. It is a symbol of the age-long antagonism between the large and the small. In the old days, when might was right and when size and strength meant bread, money and acres, the small man feared the large man and tried to destroy him. Hence Hop-o'-my-thumb, hence David, hence Jack the Giant-killer. But nowadays, when bulk is not only useless, but, in a world of flats and buses, inconvenient, the small man no longer wants to kill the large one, because the latter no longer represents a physical danger. He remains, however, a social and psychological menace; for mere size still has a certain spurious publicity value, a base hold over the enfeebled imaginations of the crowd. A fine figure of a man... tall and broad-shouldered... as strong as a horse.... So run the admiring whispers, thither turn the adoring eyes of Her whose favours you yourself are seeking; past he strides in his immense tweeds, or saunters in his vast immaculate flannels, that godlike nitwit, that six-foot-three of curly-headed inanity: while you look down, discomfited, at your size-seven shoes, a mere sixty-five inches or so away. There are no prizes for neatness, no tokens of gratitude for taking up less room on an overcrowded planet. The most you can hope for is pity, or an amused and tolerant friendship: she may even like you well enough to sweep round upon you, after he has passed, those dazzling (but spiritually myopic) eyes, those eyes which are, alas, so nearly on a level with your own, and squeeze your arm affectionately, and say, with a maudlin sigh, "Isn't he marvellous?"
So the old rivalry persists, though in a different guise; the battle still rages, though in Another Part of the Field. You, as the small man, have the choice of weapons: you can outwit the large man, or you can make fun of him. The first is easy but dangerous: women are mistrustful of brains except in the rare instances when they are combined with bulk. If you get the better of the large man in business, they will suspect you of being a bit of a cad; if you outshine him in conversation they will label you an insufferable highbrow, while he himself will take refuge in a bluff and engaging Philistinism. "I can't keep my end up against you writing fellows," he murmurs, wagging his blond Neanderthal head; and immediately it is he who is the hero, you who are showing off. The small man, therefore, must fall back on his only infallible weapon–ridicule. If he can make the large man look silly he has gone a long way towards making him, as the saying is, look small. For although people in general, and women in particular, find stupidity tolerable or even charming, they will not easily forgive mere silliness. And they will forgive it still less in a large man than in a small one; perhaps they have an illogical feeling that the former is the further removed of the two from the status of childhood as he is from its stature, and that therefore he has less excuse for looking undignified. Be that as it may, when a small man slips on a banana-skin, or falls over a rug, or runs after his own hat, or sits down where there isn't a chair, the incident strikes people as laughable but not incongruous; they think no less of him for it–though that may be partly because they thought so little of him before. But when a large man does any of these things the laughter of the world has a crueller ring; his own magnificence is the measure of his own defeat; the greater the bulk, it seems, the greater the bathos. And though it is not always easy to arrange deliberately for any of these accidents, on the material plane, to befall your hulking rival at the right moment, there are many spiritual banana-skins towards which, in Her presence, you can adroitly lead him.
That is why–for I am no great height myself–I feel such an overwhelming rush of sympathy towards the man who did this admirably symbolic deed; the man who, with a single sharp movement of the hand, expressed the feelings of all the small ones of the world towards all the large ones. There were many other less direct and less personal ways in which he might have done it. He might, for instance, have gone to the Zoo with a peashooter in his pocket and spent the morning making some of the larger mammalia jump; he might have gone stealthily by night to Parliament Square and balanced a paper hat (or something better) upon the head of each of those more-than-life-size statesmen; he might have contented himself with taking a running kick at the Albert Hall. But he did none of these things. With the simple directness of pure genius he just made a bee-line for the largest man he knew of, and slapped him. Slapped him, you notice, not hit him. To hit a giant, especially when he happens to be a boxer and therefore accustomed to being hit, is simply to make yourself, and not him, ridiculous; but to slap a giant boxer–that is sublime. And to say, when questioned, that you did it "just for fun"–that is sublimer still; that is the ultimate snook which David, in these bloodless days, can cock at Goliath.
You should be grateful, you tweed-clad Apollo, to the man who slapped Carnera. For his one inimitable gesture has taken all the itch out of my own fingers; I feel vindicated, satisfied, assuaged. I will not (as I had planned) tweak away that shooting-stick from under your vast person just as you are going to sit down, in order that She may see you looking silly. No, I will be magnanimous: go on and win her if you can. I wish her joy of you.
THERE are three ways of choosing presents for other people. The first is to choose something you think they would like; the second, something you would like yourself; the third, something you think they ought to have. Of these methods the first is the wisest but the least common; the second is less wise but more usually followed; while the third is wholly unforgivable and accounts for much of the post-Christmas bitterness from which we are apt to suffer.
My great-aunt Hildegarde is an almost fanatical devotee of the third method. Many people would call her an ideal aunt; that is to say, she gives us presents not only at Christmas but for each of our birthdays and often in between times as well. But her gifts have, so to speak, a sting in the tail; they represent her unspoken criticisms on our habits, customs and whole mode of living. Whenever we see her firm capable handwriting on a parcel, or a box arrives from a shop with one of her cards enclosed, we pause before unpacking it any further, sit back on our haunches and wonder what we've done wrong now.
"I know," says T. "Last time she dined here the spout of the coffee-pot was chipped and it dribbled all down her frock."
"No," I reply, "I know what it is. The menu-card was propped up against the candlestick, and she said how awkward it was the way it kept slipping down."
And when we open it, sure enough, if it isn't a new china coffee-pot it is a pair of menu-holders–contrivances which we particularly dislike, even when they are not made from tooled gun-metal in the form of two hedge-sparrows rampant, regardant and proper.
Once she came to tea with me on a pouring wet day and found nowhere to park her umbrella. The next day a large tubular object arrived. It had vaguely military associations, but it had been so converted and distorted that it was difficult to tell whether it had originally been a large German shell or part of a small field-gun used in the Russo-Japanese War. A third possibility is that it was once a moth-proof travelling container for a Balkan field-marshal's top-boots. At any rate, it takes up a great deal of room in the hall.
And another time, I remember, she wanted to write a note at my desk and was scandalised because there was no proper pen and ink–although, as I explained, I had three fountain-pens, any of which I was willing to lend her. Four days elapsed and I began to breathe more freely. But on the fifth there came a small square parcel containing a silver-mounted ink-pot with my initials irrevocably engraved upon it (which accounted, no doubt, for the delay). Like the umbrella stand, it was a convert; but in this case there was no difficulty in guessing its original function. To make matters quite clear, Aunt Hildegarde had attached a note saying: "I feel sure you will like to have this little memento of poor dear Blackie, on whose back you took your first ride. This is the very hoof which she used to lift so prettily to shake hands. May it bring you lots of inspiration for your little poems!!"
I groaned, filled it with fountain-pen ink and set it fair and square in the middle of my writing-table, where it remains to this day, a constant reminder of the agonies and humiliations of childhood; for it was the self-same hoof with which Blackie once stood for a full five minutes on my toe, I having neither the strength nor the courage to remove her.
I do not wish to look a gift-hoof in the mouth or to seem in any way ungrateful, but the thing is getting on our nerves. Not only are we developing an inferiority complex about our own home but we are becoming self-conscious about entertaining Aunt Hildegarde. We dare not give her grapes, lest she should think that we are hinting at grape-scissors; nor lobster, for fear of invoking a set of silver-plated picks. But however careful we are we cannot think of everything. We did not, for instance, foresee that she would give us an electric clock for Christmas.
It is true that when she came to stay with us a month ago our drawing-room clock was not behaving quite as a good clock should. One day it was a few minutes slow and she missed the weather forecast on the wireless. And another day it ran down altogether and made her late for church. "Your Uncle Julian," she said gently, "used to wind all the clocks in the house every Sunday morning." But this mild fragment of reminiscence did not at all prepare us, though perhaps it should have, for the grey maple rhomboid which now adorns our mantelpiece.
At least, it looks like maple, but it is actually (so the accompanying leaflet informs us) made of steel, which can neither shrink nor warp, neither rust nor tarnish. It runs off the electric mains; it needs no winding; it is guaranteed to keep absolutely perfect time; and ever since it came into the house we have felt acutely ill at ease.
Our old happy-go-lucky days are over. No more can we think comfortingly as we start out rather late for a dinner-party: "Oh, well, perhaps our clock is fast," nor, when we arrive there to find hostess champing and fellow-guests ravenous, can we murmur, "We are dreadfully sorry, but our clock was slow," for our friends have already got to know about our new, our abominable possession. Gone too are sundry minor pleasures, such as listening for the radio Time Signal and leaping up to make a half-minute adjustment; and, better still, squandering pennies in a lordly way by dialling T.I.M.
And gone–worst of all–is the small friendly sound which used to accompany our thoughts, the balanced alternation of tick and tock, like the footsteps of a little dog walking very quickly beside you on the pavement. Time now proceeds for us in a series of hard metallic clicks, one every minute, each identical with the last: it is a large, slow, hopping bird of prey which follows relentlessly behind us. For fifty-nine seconds it stands still; we escape it; we are immortal; and then with a sudden deft leap it catches us up again. Better never to escape; better to have our little trotting dog.
But there is nothing to be done about it. If we did not use the clock, or if we banished it to the dining-room, Aunt Hildegarde would not only think us both mad and decadent–for what sane responsible citizen would not jump at the opportunity of being always certain of the time?–but she would also be terribly hurt. It was touching to see her when she came to tea yesterday, gazing up with reverent eyes at the angular, impersonal, implacable monster on the mantelpiece.
"Your Uncle Julian," she said, "would have found it such a boon."
The vulture took another hop forward.
THE relationship of host and guest has always been a difficult one, hedged about with practical and spiritual problems. Even in our nursery days we perceived that it was a very ticklish affair. There were no proper rules, only a few loose and ambiguous axioms which always seemed to work in the other person's favour. If you went to tea with Marmaduke, you were not allowed to take things away from him because, after all, they were his toys; but if Marmaduke came to tea with you, you had to give him everything he wanted because he was the visitor. As Marmaduke's nurse was busy instilling the same principles into him, the visit was pretty well bound to end in either a fiasco or a free fight. Also it gave you such a scunner of the whole affair that you never again felt quite the same about Marmaduke.
As a matter of fact, you never do feel quite the same about anybody who has been either your host or your guest; you know too much about him, about his personal fads, his pet economies, and his methods of treating soap. The ideal relationship, undoubtedly, is that of guest and fellow-guest. Between two people staying in the same house there may spring up the most delightful of friendships. They can bask in the same luxuries or groan beneath the same discomforts unembarrassed by either a sense of gratitude in the one case or a sense of grievance in the other. Each can present to the other whatever side of his character he chooses, since he is not hampered by the presence of those two great give-aways, his own house or his own relations. Moreover, when the two of them have reached a certain degree of intimacy they can slope off together, on the time-honoured pretext of buying stamps, and have a good old gossip about their host and hostess, than which there is no more satisfying conversation in the world.
A fellow-guest, then, is the best thing to be. But fellow-guests cannot exist without a host–until someone has the good sense to invite to his house a collection of carefully chosen people, plan out for them a series of exquisite meals and congenial pastimes, and then go away himself for the weekend, which I have always thought would be the ideal house-party from everybody's point of view. Let us, therefore, tackle the problem as it stands and do what we can to make the host-guest relationship a less troublesome one.
To my mind the chief trouble lies in the falseness of popular ideas on the subject. It is conventionally assumed that all the kindness is on the host's side, and that all the gratitude ought to be on the guest's; that the host is conferring a great favour, and the guest receiving an unmixed boon. The outward symbol of this convention can be seen in the fawning and servile tone adopted by the ex-guest when composing his bread-and-butter letter. "Thank you a thousand times for having us to stay... we are most grateful... it was too kind of you to think of asking us..." How many times have you not written or received phrases like these? And, sincere as they often are, did they not arouse in you, the ex-guest, a faint sense of injustice, and in you, the ex-host, a half-conscious feeling of shame?
For consider what actually happens. The host, or more probably the hostess (since nature has decreed that for what men suffer by having to shave, be killed in battle, and eat the legs of chickens, women make amends by housekeeping, childbirth, and writing all the letters for both of them)–the hostess, I say, is the person who suggests the visit in the first place. She begs, she implores you to come and stay. "We should adore to see you again," she writes. And "So hoping you are not already booked up for that week-end–I know how sought-after you are!" And again, more briefly and winningly, "Do say Yes!!!" Thus far you, the potential guest, are top-dog; you are the wooed, the desired, the beautiful maiden whose hand has just been asked in marriage. But as soon as you accept you find yourself de-rated. The beautiful maiden becomes merely another superfluous woman who has been lucky enough to get off. From now on, until the moment when you take the pen between your teeth to compose your Collins, you are popularly supposed to be the beneficiary, your hostess the benefactor.
The facts, as a brief audit will show, are otherwise. You, it is true, have saved the price of a few days' food, but that is more than swallowed up by your railway fare and your tips. You are the richer by a few days and nights of country air, which, if it happens to be a part of the country that suits you, is a distinct asset; but against that you must set the agonising discomfort of midge-bites in summer and arctic bedrooms in winter. (All very well to talk about roaring fires, but I have yet to meet the house where the fires are lit in time for you to get up in the morning.) You have voluntarily undertaken, for friendship's sake, the two most disagreeable tasks in the world–packing and unpacking. You have had, certainly, the pleasure of talking to your host and hostess again; but you have also had to talk to their neighbours–or, more likely, to listen to them talking to each other about people you do not know.
And for all this, if you please, you, and you only, are expected to write an effusive letter of gratitude: while your hostess, who begged you to come, whose avowed object in buying a country house was that it would be such fun to have people to stay, who has had the pleasure of your company without having to put up with that of any of your acquaintances; your hostess, who has not had to move a finger (except for arranging a few flowers on your dressing-table), or spend a penny (except for the trivial cost of your food); your hostess, into whose drab, herbaceous existence your coming has brought a breath of refreshing air from a larger and livelier world: your hostess, I repeat, is not expected to scribble so much as a hurried thank-you on a post card.
That is the gnawing canker at the heart of the house-party system. If public opinion will not agree that the boot should be on the other leg, let it at least admit that there ought to be one on each; and let us introduce the pretty custom of Snillocs, or reversed Collinses, to be written by the grateful hostess to the departed guest. "A thousand thanks for coming to stay...we enjoyed every moment of your visit...it was too sweet of you to go to all that trouble and expense..." I, as a guest, would feel that a letter like that made up for everything–even the midge-bites. And it is, of course, from the guest's point of view that I am mainly qualified to speak; though probably, if my ex-hostesses read this, for the last time.
IT is with us once again–the annual pageant which is spread before our eyes by invisible powers from All Saints to Hogmanay. Sometimes it is called Toy Fair, sometimes Christmas Bazaar, sometimes, I regret to say, Kiddie Land; it may have as its central set-piece Aladdin's Cave, the Enchanted Castle, the Pirate Ship or even–since we must all be up to date–the Magic Air Liner: but it is always the same thing in a different disguise, and its real name is Paradise Recurring.
I went there by myself: partly because it is the best way to enjoy it (send the children with their nurse by all means, but don't have them tagging around after you wanting to look at Red Indian outfits when you are absorbed in trains, or saying "But, Mummy, you're touching things"), and partly because I wanted to carry out some serious research. I had read so many articles, listened to so many lectures, on the Modern Woman, the Modern Girl, the Modern Child: it was time, I thought, that somebody went into the question of the Modern Doll. So I set out for Paradise to make my investigations.
When I say that I went alone it is not strictly true, for I took Lady Lilian with me, wrapped up in tissue paper to protect her waxen nose; it seemed a pity for it to get damaged when I had somehow kept it intact for thirty years. There is one great difference between the Modern Girl and the Modern Doll: the man who writes about the former never has an Ancient Girl handy for reference and comparison, because all the Ancient Girls are now either grandmothers or great-aunts; he is, therefore, compelled to write either from hearsay or from memory, both of which are distorting mirrors. That is why he often writes such nonsense. But with the Modem Doll it is easy: you simply take one of the ancient ones along with you and look at them side by side. That is, if you have been careful enough or lucky enough to preserve one.
Lady Lilian was given to me for Christmas when I was six years old. I christened her–with real water, which disfigured her wax forehead a little, but it didn't show if you pulled her hair well forward–I christened her Lady Lilian because she was so like the heroine of that name in a novelette which my nurse was reading at the time and which I used to dip into whenever I was left alone. She–Lady Lilian–had to have a new head a few months later owing to a brush with my brother, and a new body the following spring owing to my stabbing her too realistically with a paper-knife when she was the villainess in a play: so that I have often wondered whether she is really Lady Lilian at all, and whether, canonically speaking, the christening still holds good. Anyway, I took her.
The lift shot us up and shot us out. Three people hurried forward to attend to us–for it was soon after nine o'clock in the morning, an hour when shop assistants have not yet become tired or blasé, when you may even see, if you are lucky, a saleswoman spontaneously stroking a plush pig.
"Dolls?" they said. "Dolls and Cuddly Toys straight on, through the Mechanicals and the Kindergartens."
I passed the Mechanicals with reluctance and the Kindergartens with relief. There flashed across my mind's eye a kaleidoscopic vision of the plaited shiny paper mats, the gilt cardboard hair-tidies, which my own mother was so often forced to accept from me thirty years ago. And so we came to the section labelled "Dolls and Cuddly Toys."
Now when I was a child Cuddly Toys hardly existed. Gollywogs were just going out, Teddy Bears just coming in; we had some stuffed animals, certainly, but they were hard, unbreakable creatures, modelled to scale and covered with real skin; the era of dyed plush and mass production was not yet at hand. In those days dolls were still the thing. Then came a generation–that mysterious, unknown generation between one's own and one's children's–which indulged in an orgy of comic dogs, grotesque cats, grinning monkeys and apocryphal beasts of no known breed; dolls, for a time, were considered démodé; in the children's world, as elsewhere, it was the day of the empty cradle and the full dog-kennel. Nowadays the pendulum has swung back, and dolls are again the thing. Nevertheless, Cuddly Toys have clearly come to stay; and here I found myself faced with a difficulty–should they be included in my treatise? It is true that they have certain doll-like qualities; you can take them to bed with you, or out in your pram; they can even be made to sit up and fill a gap at a dolls' tea-party, though I for one do not care to see performing animals: but on the whole, though engaging to look at and comforting to the very young, they are a lower grade of being and have no place (I decided) in a serious disquisition on the Modern Doll.
So I resisted the temptation to linger among the acres of sky-blue bears, the waves of apple-green monkeys, the banks of rose-pink elephants which lay on either side of me, and found myself at last among the dolls proper.
I unwrapped Lady Lilian. If I did not know for a fact that she has no blinking apparatus, I could swear that she blinked at the sudden light. At any rate, she sat bolt upright in my arms, staring disdainfully at the younger generation, while the younger generation stared back at her with a thousand tiny faces. As I watched the comedy I felt that my treatise on the Modem Doll was as good as written. Comparisons and generalisations, couched in the best journalese, came thronging into my head.
"The Modern Doll is in every way superior to the doll of twenty-five years ago. Gone are the unhealthy pallor of wax and the consumptive flush of painted china: the Modern Doll's face (whether of felt or unbreakable composition) is sun-tanned; her cheeks are aglow with health. Gone are the unbelievably flaxen ringlets: the Modern Doll's hair is hair-coloured, and no curlier than it should be. Gone are the impossibly enormous eyes, the improbably tiny mouth, the expression at once simpering and supercilious: the Modern Doll is a natural, normal being with intelligence and character written in every line of her features. She is hardier, too, than her predecessors: the infant mortality among dolls has fallen from 956 per 1000 in 1907 to 15.3 per 1000 in 1937."
Yes, it was going to be quite easy to write. Eager to get home and begin on it, I turned round rather too quickly and collided with a rocking-horse which two workmen were carrying past. Alas for Lady Lilian! Like her namesake in the novelette, she fell to the floor a lifeless wreck. Her haughty stare and her aristocratic nose tumbled in one direction; her pointed chin and her tiny petulant mouth in another. Healthy, heartless and retroussé, the younger generation watched her die. I gathered up the pieces in my handbag and went home with a heavy heart. My treatise on the Modern Doll will never be written now: there are some disloyalties at which even a journalist must draw the line.
"I AM quite completely and utterly happy," said A. She had taken the cartridges out of her gun and was lying on her back among the reeds, looking up at the sky and stretching out her arms and legs in a straight line until she measured, as M. remarked, about eight feet.
"Parasangs," said T. "Don't forget we're in Greece."
We weren't likely to forget it. All around us lay the Vardar marshes, about a quarter of a million acres of them; beyond, on three sides, a jagged white frieze of mountains; to the south, the shimmering distant blue of the Gulf of Salonika; and away to the south-west, dominating everything, Mount Olympus. It is a very subtle domination, more psychological than physical. Most mountains tower over you in an understandable way, rising solid and dark from the earth itself, visible, palpable giants. But Olympus is different: its lower slopes are wreathed in mist and cloud, so that the mountain itself seems to be floating in mid-air, remote, ethereal and shining, like another, whiter cloud; an angular cloud; a cloud, perhaps by Epstein. Its power lies in its very unreality, like the power of a dream.
There had been five of us when we had started out from Salonika in the morning–our four selves and P., a Greek friend, who had offered to take us wild-fowl shooting. But no sooner had the toy train deposited us at a toy station labelled "Adendron" and trundled away over the marshes than we began to collect followers. The first ones were two charming dogs, who came bounding up from behind a hut and refused to leave us. They were not ordinary village mongrels, but enormous fluffy year-old creatures like a cross between sheep-dogs and golden retrievers. They were an abominable nuisance all day, putting up birds far out of shot, chasing the grey woolly cattle all over the marsh, falling into rivers and failing to retrieve anything except one drowned rat. P. roared at them in Greek, Turkish and Bulgarian, but they paid not the dimmest attention. At last T. absent-mindedly shouted, "Damn and blast you, come back to heel!" They were back in five seconds, grinning apologetically. It turned out afterwards that they were English-speaking dogs belonging to a Scotsman on the Settlement Commission who was quartered in the village.
The village, by the way, used under the Turkish rule to be called "Kirjilar." The Greeks renamed it "Adendron," which cut the villagers' feelings to the quick. They sent an indignant protest to the Government, saying, "But we have got some trees!" and a Cabinet Minister had to be sent down to see if they were speaking the truth. At least, that was P.'s story, but he never finished it; because at that moment, having walked for a mile or two along the railway track, we came to a big iron bridge across the Vardar, which was being guarded by two Greek soldiers, each with a rifle and a week's growth of beard. We asked P. why they were there. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "You are in Macedonia." Pressed further, he questioned the soldiers.
"They say," he translated, "that the bridge is liable to be blown up at any moment by the Turks, the Serbs, the Bulgarians or the I.M.R.O. They are not sure which."
Nor, it seemed, did they greatly care; for they quite light-heartedly abandoned the bridge and offered us their services as beaters. We, with our strait-laced British attitude towards law and order, were appalled at this suggestion; we saw ourselves being held responsible to the League of Nations for facilitating an international outrage which might easily prove to be the Sarajevo of the next world war. But P. seemed to see no harm in it, so we let the soldiers come. They were even more of a nuisance than the dogs, though fully as charming. They burst into excited chattering when geese were just coming over; they tramped noisily along the narrow mud paths until the whole reed-bed shook and clattered; they wasted a great deal of Government ammunition in shooting, or rather shooting at, bustards; finally, they risked their lives and lacerated our nerves by wobbling out in a leaky punt on to the brown icy racing flood-waters of the Vardar to retrieve an unimportant bird which had dropped in mid-stream.
"Come back!" M. yelled. "It's only a coot. Oh God, what's the Greek for a coot?"
"Phalarida" [printed in Greek characters] said P., imperturbably. "But it's no good shouting–they eat them."
So we gave it up, and sat down under a dry sunny bank to have our picnic. We ate bread and cheese and ham and raisins and pieces of chicken and bananas and apples and chocolate and more bread and more cheese. And P. contributed a large flask of rough red wine which he had carried all day slung from his shoulder. I am not used to drinking Greek wine at picnics; moreover, walking in the sun had made me thirsty. So after luncheon the day seemed to me even more magic than it had before. It was about as hot as August sometimes is in the Highlands, although there was a little glittering ring of ice round the stem of every reed where the receding floods had left it. The soldiers (after squabbling so violently over the ownership of the small bedraggled coot that the punt nearly capsized) had come back from their voyage; one of them was finishing the dregs of P.'s flask; the other was singing a Greek love-song in a tenor voice as rough and sweet and intoxicating as the wine. At least I tried to persuade myself that it was a love-song, but the expression on P.'s face made me a little doubtful. "Mademoiselle from Thessalonika," [printed in Greek characters] more likely; anyway, his voice was superb.
After a while he went to sleep, and then there was silence, spangled only with the faint singing of a thousand invisible larks. The marshes lay drowsily in the sun; nothing moved, save for an occasional kestrel sailing slowly overhead, or, closer at hand, a tiny silver-grey bird with a black face which ran very quickly up and down the reed-stems like a mouse.
I lay with my eyes half shut, looking at Olympus and wondering what had happened to them all, with their loving and their fighting, their singing and their hunting and their everlasting picnics. Did they leave their home when the new beliefs came along? Or did they stay on, disestablished? Into these very marshes, I thought, Pan may have come when he wanted to cut a new reed. And over them, perhaps, with shining hoofs and streaming mane and beating wings, flew–
"Mark over!" cried T. For a long white feather had come floating down through the still air, rocking gently and lazily as it fell. We scrambled to our feet in a great hurry, cramming our guns with number fours. And there we stood, five foolish humans, staring up with sun-dazzled eyes into a perfectly empty sky.
"Well, I could have sworn–" said A.
"I suppose it is goose?" said M. doubtfully, looking down at the feather.
"Not goose," said P. "Much too white."
I said nothing. All I wanted to do was to get hold of the feather before any of the others could touch it; to hide it away inside my shirt and keep it for ever. But one of the sheep-dogs was too quick for me; he pounced upon it with his huge woolly paws and chewed it rapturously to pieces.
And what a pen, what a pen it would have made!
GIVING a party is very like having a baby: its conception is more fun than its completion, and once you have begun it it is almost impossible to stop. How perfect it is, that first moment, when one of you says, "It's about time we gave another party," and suddenly the room is full of people, talking, laughing, drinking, the women all beautiful and the men witty. So rosy is the picture that you lose no time in setting the reality in train. To begin with, a date is chosen–not too near, lest the sought-after people should be already engaged, and not too far ahead, lest your own enthusiasm should flag. Next, the form of invitation has to be considered. It is desirable, you feel, to steer between the copper-plate formality of:
Mr. and Mrs. Moffat-Grimes At Home
and the self-conscious Bohemianism of "Jane and Tommy are throwing a party on Thursday week–please come along." Finally, you decide upon:
Mr. and Mrs. Moffat-Grimes invite you
to a Party on
And you fill in the date on the line below.
You have it printed on post cards (to save all that tedious tucking-in) in the chastest of "sans" types; and on some of them, in one corner, you scribble "Do come," and on others "Do come–J." Then you go out to the post office and buy a complete sheet of halfpenny stamps, with a border of stamp-paper all round the edge. This is one of the cheapest ways I know of attaining the sensation of true lordliness. And lastly, sitting down with a saucer of water and a small piece of sponge, you stick on the first three hygienically and the rest with your tongue as God meant you to.
After the invitations are posted there is a short respite until the answers begin to come in. It is like a summer shower; first there are a few preliminary drops–people who reply by telephone in order to save time, but who cannot ring off after less than five minutes' chat, during which they demand from you all over again the details of date and hour which you had been so careful to have printed on the invitation. Then, for the next four or five days, comes a spate of letters and post cards. This is the most agreeable time of all: the lover, the party-giver and the free-lance journalist are the only people who feel a genuine interest in the postman's knock. A good deal of gruesome amusement can be got out of taking the first half-dozen acceptances and imagining what would happen if the party were to consist solely of these. They are nearly always of horrifying incompatibility: a couple of brilliant talkers each of whom prefers to be the only brilliant talker in the room, a die-hard colonel, a pacifist poet, a nubile but witless débutante, and a man who has just written a standard work on toads. Supposing–but it is only a nightmare: the worst that can happen is that these six will be the first to arrive.
Presently the spate wanes into a rill, then into detached last-minute driblets full of apologies and exclamation marks. By the morning of the party 90 per cent. of your invitations have been answered. But this calculation is not arrived at till long afterwards: on the day itself you are in no mood for statistics. Your state of mind is a blend of faith and foreboding, of exaltation and despair. The childbirth motif becomes more and more firmly woven into the fabric of your thoughts; only in this case you go on feeling sick all day.
You spend the morning tidying the house, the afternoon arranging flowers. At five o'clock the parlourmaid cuts her hand rather badly and the doctor has to be telephoned for. At six o'clock the baker's van arrives with the sausage-rolls, and a few minutes later you are requested in an ominous tone to come down and inspect them. "Of course, they may be what you ordered, madam..." One glance reveals that they definitely are not what you ordered. You ordered one hundred delicate, miniature sausage-rolls, elegant, Lilliputian sausage-rolls, sausage-rolls which were to bear no more relation to the ordinary article than a Watteau shepherdess to a land-girl. They have sent two hundred and fifty extra large sausage-rolls, obscene, dropsical things specially designed for the jaws and maws of giants. The manageress of the shop–when, after two wrong numbers, you get through to her–is very, very sorry indeed; she cannot understand it at all. Just as you ring off, the baker's van draws up again at the door and a perspiring man begins to unload more trays. This, you decide, is definitely too much, and you hurl yourself down the stairs to tell him so. But he explains that he is merely bringing you your own hundred miniature sausage-rolls, which he had delivered in error to a large and hungry school-treat near by. He adds a fervent hope that the two hundred and fifty outsize ones are still uneaten. Otherwise, he says, he will be for it.
In an ecstasy of fatigue you throw yourself on your bed: but no sooner have you relaxed than it is time to change and sit through a pretence of dinner. Eating is out of the question–you are far too tired. There is a beautiful emptiness about the house, a serene exquisite silence; you cling to them wistfully, knowing how soon they will be shattered. Thoughts of flight cross your mind, but are rejected: it is all your own doing and you have got to go through with it now. With the first ring at the front-door bell your heart swoops sickeningly downward. And suddenly the party breaks over you like a wave. You throw up your hands and drown.
The next morning you stay in bed late, physically spent and spiritually fallow. It is all over, thank heaven: at last, at last, the party is really your own. It lies there peacefully curled up in the cradle of your memory, a rosy glamorous bundle; nothing can go wrong with it now, nothing take it from you. Occasionally you will pull down the covers, gaze at it with a glow of maternal pride, and tuck it up again: but never (you secretly swear) will you have another. Yet even as you make this vow you know that you will break it, as you have broken it so many times before.
HUMAN beings are in many ways very like oysters. They can all, though some of them do not like it, be described as natives; they are apt, though not so apt as they used to be, to have beards; their everyday value when happy and healthy is high enough, but their most precious contributions to the universe, such as poetry and music, are accidental by-products thrown off in moments of irritation, frustration or stress.
There is, however, no real danger of the two species getting confused, for they differ irreconcilably on one important point, namely, their reaction to noise.
It was Professor Heffeldinger of Heidelberg (1838-1902) who originated, in his monumental work, A Note on the Effects. of Phonic Stimuli upon the Auditory Organs of the Bivalve (Zwingler, 2 vols., £3, 3s.), that profound axiom which has been so widely accepted that it is now a household word. I refer, of course, to "A Noisy Noise Annoys an Oyster Most." What, I wonder, would Heffeldinger's thoughts be if he knew that this cherished scientific formula of his, arrived at after years of untiring research in the laboratory, had become a nursery commonplace, a pendant to "Peter Piper"? Much the same, no doubt, as Jonathan Swift's, if he could see his savage political satire being lapped up as a schoolroom classic. But I digress.
To question the Heffeldinger theory would be not only impertinent but a waste of time. His experiments (involving as they did the employment of no fewer than 9157 different varieties of noise-producer, from a woodpecker to a ship's riveter) were exhaustive and exhausting, both to himself and to the oysters; and, since oyster nature does not change perceptibly, what was true of it in 1896 is likely to be true of it to-day. All we need to do is to accept his dictum and to compare it with the findings of the Noise Abatement Commission, which has recently been investigating the auditory reactions of the human race.
And now let us drop it, push Heffeldinger back into his cobwebby pigeon-hole and get down to brass tacks.
The whole thing is, I have been thinking a lot lately about noise. We chose our present house principally because it stands between one cul-de-sac and another cul-de-sac: I put it that way to avoid having to spell the plural. Sycamore Square in front, where the dining-room is, is quiet enough; Pump Lane at the back, on which the drawing-room looks out, is not quite so silent, but it is at least almost entirely innocent of traffic. It has consisted until recently of a little low row of workmen's cottages. Now, however, they have all been bought up by the enterprising Mr. Tarquin, who by means of lavish plumbing and insecticide has converted them into the bijouest of bijou residences. These are eagerly inspected one afternoon by rapturous engaged couples and firmly vetoed the next morning by their parents, who are longer-sighted and avid for grandchildren.
Anyway, the Borough Council has now decided that Pump Lane is a grand enough street to deserve taking up and putting down again, so for the last three days there has been a pneumatic drill under our drawing-room windows. Hence my interest in noise.
At first, of course, I fled from the back of the house altogether and tried to work in the dining-room. But Christopher Fawcett was riding up and down the square on his new tricycle, ringing at intervals a small maddening bell. After he had passed for the sixth time I went to the window, determined to intercept him at his next appearance; but when I saw how his already blissful face lit up with redoubled ecstasy every time he flipped the bell-lever I hadn't the heart to speak. After a while, luckily, his nurse came out and swept him away for a walk. But almost at once a barrel-organ materialised out of thin air and crashed into–
"Ta-ra-ta-ta-TUM (tum-tum, tum-tum),Now I love The Blue Danube, but I knew from experience that it would be remorselessly followed by Baby, Be Mine, You're Young and I'm Young, A Little Bird Told Me, My Sweetie's Treating Me Rough, and Languid Moon. I could, of course, ask him or even bribe him to go away; but the poor man had his living to earn–and besides, he was evidently giving several people a great deal of pleasure, judging by the hail of pennies which had begun to tinkle on the pavement. After some minutes of internal debate I decided not to do anything about him, but merely to read a book until he had gone, since even light verse is almost impossible to write against a cross-rhythm of dance music.
Ta-ra-ta-ta-TUM (tum-tum, tum-tum)."
Languid Moon was reached, mangled and finished at last, ending with a frantic and quite apocryphal glissando; and the barrel-organ trundled away to burst into The Blue Danube again at a more bearable distance.
For perhaps ten minutes there was peace. Then the Penrods' sealyham at No. 41 came out on to his balcony and began to yipe. He yiped at the milkman, he yiped at the postman, he yiped at the black cat (No. 40), at the tabby cat (No. 42), and at the great dane (No. 43). After that he yiped at life. Now I know Mrs. Penrod slightly; that is to say, we smile at one another when we meet at the greengrocer's, and our children go to each other's Christmas parties. So I began to toy with the idea of ringing her up about the sealyham: "Oh, Mrs. Penrod, it's Jane Moffat-Grimes speaking. I wonder whether you could possibly... ?" Or, "I say, I'm terribly sorry to be such a tiresome neighbour, but..." Or perhaps a note would be better, sent across the square by hand: "Nobody is fonder of dogs than I am, but I do feel..." Or was I making an absurd fuss over a trifle? Would it be wiser to take no action at all?
In the end, worn out by the strain of indecision, I went back to the horrifying uproar, the comfortable inevitability of the pneumatic drill. And the conclusion I have come to about noises is this: that the most annoying kind is not, as might seem probable, the noisy noise, or even, as some contend, the irregularly intermittent noise, but the noise which it is remotely possible, though either unpopular or fatiguing, to put an end to. If you hear a door banging at night you may lie awake for hours in a fury of vacillation, weighing the nuisance of enduring it against the effort of getting up and going downstairs to stop it. But if you hear a road-drill or a thunderstorm–well, there is just nothing to be done about it. Your ears may be split, but your mind is undivided; for the forces of nature are as inexorable and as little to be parleyed with as the Chelsea Borough Council.
Whether this theory of mine will be of any use to the Noise Abatement Commission I do not know. Probably they are too much occupied with the minute measurement of decibels to take any notice of it. But I offer it to them for what it is worth.
HITHERTO I have been unnaturally lucky about Nannies. They have dropped from the sky whenever I wanted them, been harmonious, competent and friendly, and departed only at the most urgent demand of impatient fiancés. But now my luck has deserted me. The present one's wedding-day grows steadily nearer and no new treasure has turned up, so yesterday I decided that there was nothing for it but to go out in search of one.
Thus it came about that for the first time in my life I set foot inside Mrs. Cattermole's Establishment, that select and superior hunting-ground of which, if you are a parent, you cannot fail to have heard. I expected to find Mrs. Cattermole herself, in a small confidential room, sitting at a writing-table as capacious and comfortable as her own figure–a kindly middle-aged woman who would listen sympathetically while I described to her my idea of the perfect Nannie. Instead, I was shown into a long bare office, with a row of knee-hole desks down the middle, and at each desk a brisk businesslike young woman with a poised pen. I felt as a man might feel who had entered heaven in the devout belief that he would get individual attention, and found instead that the place was run on the card-index system by a band of efficient seraphim.
I approached the nearest young woman. She was careful to write a few more lines before raising her head.
"I am looking for a Nannie," I said.
"What kind of a nurse were you requiring?" she asked, poising her pen once more.
"A really nice one," I said. "You know what I mean–a really nice one."
"College or nursery?"
"Oh, for a nursery."
"I mean college-trained or nursery-trained?" she explained patiently.
"I don't mind," I said. "You can't really learn to be a Nannie, anyhow, can you? Either you're born one or you aren't."
She neither acquiesced nor argued, but continued to hover hopefully over the still empty sheet.
"Do you want a lady-nurse? "
"Not a bit," I said, recoiling at the very thought. "Just an ordinary Nannie is what I'm looking for."
"How many children?"
"No," I said guiltily.
"Nurseries waited on?"
"I'm afraid not," I said. "But our last Nannie," I added, "was most awfully happy with us. She only left to be married."
This gratuitous piece of information could not be entered on her form, so she ignored it.
"Religion?" she asked. "And age required?"
"I don't mind about her religion," I said, feeling that I ought to mind; "but I don't want one older than forty."
She asked her final question as though it were the most important of the lot, as indeed, from the Establishment's point of view, it may have been.
"And what salary were you offering?"
"Fifty-five," I said.
To me, and to my previous Nannies, fifty-five has always seemed a comfortable ample sum. Now for the first time it sounded like a starvation wage, and I felt that all the other would-be employers in the room were offering seventy, eighty or even a hundred pounds a year.
"Is that your outside limit?" she asked after a slight pause.
"Well, if I found exactly the right person I might be able to run to sixty."
After all, I thought, what does the price of a frock, of a country week-end, of a library subscription matter, compared with keeping up one's self-respect? I saw her put down sixty pounds as though her very pen would have jibbed at writing a lesser sum.
"I don't know that I've got very many at that salary," she said, "but if you will go into Cubicle No. 17 I will do my best for you."
Cubicle No. 17 was about six feet square and contained two chairs. From where I sat I could see across the passage into the nurses' waiting-room. The walls of it were lined with a solid row of Nannies, like some fantastic living frieze–Nannies of all ages, all sizes, all shapes; brown Nannies, green Nannies, grey, navy and black. My heart leapt; I had not known that there were so many of them in the world; surely my perfect one must be among them.
Soon I heard the waiting-room clerk call out in a high-pitched voice, "Nurse Hemingway, will you go into No. 17?" I was afflicted with sudden panic, as I always am at the prospect of a cold-blooded interview. Nurse Hemingway, tall, stern and sinister, loomed in the doorway. The interview lasted perhaps thirty seconds; then I discovered that she was asking eighty pounds a year. It was not much, she assured me, considering that she had been in some of the highest nurseries in the land. I was glad when her dragon-like figure retreated.
The next one was not a dragon; she had a patient dignified expression, well-cut clothes and a cultured accent.
"I want a Nannie for my three children," I began.
"I'm sorry," she said gently, "but I'm a lady-nurse."
I apologised for Mrs. Cattermole's mistake and the duchess followed the dragon back into the waiting-room.
Next came another duchess, but a young one this time, with high-heeled shoes and a scarlet handbag. At any rate, I thought, she can't be old enough to be expensive. When I asked her salary she answered briefly, "Thirty."
"That seems very little," I exclaimed in surprise.
"Oh, I don't know," she answered airily. "Some nurses go for as little as a pound a week, but of course I'm college-trained, so I always get thirty shillings."
The fourth was a dear old thing, so fat that she could scarcely squeeze her way into the cubicle. She could not have been a day under sixty-five, and she said she couldn't manage without a nursery-maid on account of her feet.
At this point I lost patience, marched out into the office and made a row.
"Have you," I demanded in conclusion, "mixed up my form with somebody else's, or have you merely put down the wrong particulars for fun?"
The young woman raised her eyebrows and inspected my form as though she herself had not filled it in only half an hour ago. Then, without explanation or apology, she said, "If you will go back to Cubicle No. 17, I think I have one who might suit your requirements."
Helpless in the face of such blank unrepentance, I obeyed, and presently I heard the clerk's voice intoning, "Nurse Ratcliff! No. 17."
No sooner did I set eyes on Nurse Ratcliff than I knew that nothing in the world would induce me to have her in the house. But in civilised society you cannot after one glance say to a person, "I'm afraid I don't like you." So I had to begin questioning her, feeling sure that it would not take me long to find a plausible disqualification. But every answer that she gave was more devastatingly satisfactory than the last, and at every word she spoke I disliked her more intensely. Her age was thirty, her salary fifty-two, her references excellent. Yes, she could easily manage three children. No, she did not want to be waited upon. Yes, she could sew and cut out. No, she did not mind taking the dog out with the pram.
"And you're really fond of children?" I asked.
"I am devoted to them," she said grimly. "I think they're So Sweet. And they always obey me instantly too. I have a way with them."
I shuddered. So might the Giant, I thought, be devoted to Jack. And dragons notoriously have a way with them.
I racked my brains for a way out, but the woman seemed determined to come to us. Her black beady eyes fixed me like gimlets, her thin-lipped mouth was set in a relentless line.
What are mothers for but to imperil their own souls for their children's sake? Flinging truth to the winds, I made up my mind to save Andrew, Robina and Benjie from this monster.
"By the way," I said, "I forgot to mention that we live half the year on a small motor-yacht cruising about the west coast of Scotland. I suppose you don't mind that?"
"I love the sea," she answered, and my heart sank. "But the sea," she added darkly, "doesn't love me."
I felt a warm rush of sympathy for the sea. Nurse Ratcliff shook her head and stood up.
"No," she said reluctantly, "I'm afraid I really couldn't take on a–a marine situation. What a pity!"
"Isn't it?" I agreed, and beamed at her with a smile of fervent relief.
I escaped from Mrs. Cattermole's as quickly as possible, running the gauntlet of the row of superior young women.
I think the only thing to do now is to put an advertisement in the paper. After what I have suffered I shall word it something like this:
"WANTED.–A Really Nice Nannie. Born, not made. Must be fond of dogs and able to make toffee. No dragons or duchesses need apply."
AN uncle of mine who had a quite fantastically ugly housekeeper was in the habit of reproving his wife when, in her impulsive way, she referred to some moderately plain person as "the most hideous woman in the world." "Steady on, my dear," he would say. "That leaves one nothing for Mrs. Mackillop."
I was reminded of this yesterday by hearing two men in a bus discussing a third.
"And what about George?" said the first.
"George?" the other echoed. "Oh, George is one of the best. Not much of a talker, of course, but the sort of chap who'd never let you down." I held my breath, fascinated, making an inward bet; and sure enough, he added in a second or two, "Children and animals absolutely worship him, and I always think that's the biggest test."
It was a complete portrait of George in three strokes. I could see him, pipe and all, in my mind's eye: the sort of man who looks his best in a mackintosh. A good fellow, certainly, but not–and this is the point–one of the best.
True, he may be the average Englishman's idea of the best. But the trouble with the English is that their standards have been lowered by too much tolerance. Tolerance is their outstanding characteristic; making allowances–at any rate for their own fellow-countrymen–is the most flourishing industry they possess. But a mind can become so broad as to be practically shapeless; and the danger of a charitable outlook is that it so often leads to the glorification of the mediocre. It begins with not thinking the worse of a man because he is not clever, and ends with thinking the better of him because he is stupid. It begins by excusing his lack of eloquence, and ends by making a virtue of his taciturnity. It begins with forgiving him for being unreliable, and ends with calling him a fine fellow for keeping his word. It begins with observing that even a criminal may retain the affection of his child and his dog, and ends with believing that children and animals are infallible dowsers of excellence.
Which (to take the last point first) God knows they are not. One of the chief trials and disillusionments of dog-owning or parenthood is the utterly appalling people that the cherished creatures make friends with: the toughs on beaches, the oicks in buses, the bores and ne'er-do-weels among your own acquaintance upon whom they fling their persons, their affection, and their respect. "And yet," you muse, "they seem to be fond of me, too. Am I like that? Or worse still, do they wish that I was?" A thought so unendurable demands instant comfort: you find it in the reflection that children and animals are charming immaturities, lacking in judgment, devoid of discrimination, swayed by trifles; and that winning their approval is a matter, not of mental or spiritual worth, but of a willingness to throw sticks into the sea or an ability to draw elephants with a single line.
As to the second point which had been put forward in George's favour, namely, that he would never let you down: I grant that this is a virtue; but not so rare a one, surely, as to be singled out for such emphatic comment. Civilised human beings do not, on the whole, let one another down. Benevolence is a stronger instinct than malice, co-operation than hostility. Chronologically, both in the history of the race and in the life of the individual, love comes before hate. Crooks and murderers are rare in comparison with the uncounted hordes of honest and amiable men; and it is the exception rather than the rule to be robbed by an absconding partner or to have your secrets betrayed by a confidant. This being so, why should George receive such a thumping pat on the back? To refrain from letting people down is something, but it is not enough: does he, I should be interested to know, ever lift people up? Does he quicken them to action by his vitality, kindle them to laughter by his humour, or inspire them to creation by his intelligence? If he does none of these things, then he is still not "one of the best," though he never broke a promise or committed adultery in his life.
And now for the other remark, the first and most telling stroke in the Portrait of George. "Not much of a talker." The words were deprecating enough, but the tone in which they were uttered belied them. It was heavy with the flotsam and jetsam of age-old prejudices and half-digested copy-book maxims. Still waters, it implied, run deep; least said is soonest mended; speech is silver, but silence is golden; and the French are filthy frogs and jabber your head off.
Things have come to a pretty pass, I must say, if men are to be blamed for exercising the power which is supposed to distinguish them from the beasts–a point of view that reaches its pinnacle of absurdity in Carlyle's famous remark, "No speech ever uttered or utterable is worth comparison with silence." (Jane must have got a lot of quiet enjoyment out of that.) Was any statement ever so demonstrably untrue? Certainly, speech may sometimes do harm: but so may silence, and a worse harm at that. No offered insult ever caused so deep a wound as a tenderness expected and withheld; and no spoken indiscretion was ever so bitterly regretted as the words that one did not speak. Moreover, the injuries done by speech can usually be cured by speech; whereas those done by silence are merely aggravated and deepened by further silence, and must come back to words for healing in the end.
So much for the debit side. As for the credit–what good does silence do in the world? At the best, it may help you to catch a fish, save you from betraying your ignorance, or allow somebody else to get off to sleep. But these are small benefits compared with those of speech. If silence is really golden, which I quarrel with, then speech is platinum. It spreads wisdom, dispels ignorance, ventilates grievances, stimulates curiosity, lightens the spirits, lessens the fundamental loneliness of the soul, and is indispensable to the proper enjoyment of love-making.
But fighting proverbs with reasonable arguments is uphill work. Quicker, perhaps, and surer, to bring up a battery of counter-proverbs. "A lame tongue gets nowt" is a good one. And here is an older and a better–"From a cholerick man withdraw a little: from him that saies nothing, for ever." And when it comes to quotations, there are many that one might marshal against Carlyle's piece of didactic folly. "O! have a care of natures that are mute," says Meredith in Modern Love; while no less reputable a person than Keble assures us that "Strong men delight in forceful speech."
Strong men, mark you. In other words, Georges. But that, alas! was a hundred years ago. Nowadays, it seems, we are expected to choose between the S.S.M. and the voluble decadent–the former complacently inarticulate, the latter arrogantly weedy; between the Hearty Man, who, on that hackneyed and hypothetical desert-island so dear to amateur psychologists, would build you a hut in twenty-four hours but bore you to death in a week, and the Arty Man, who would talk to you quite brilliantly while you died of starvation and mosquito-bites.
But there are, thank God, a few exceptions; a few who are loved, not only by children and animals, but by discerning adults as well; who not only never let you down but are constantly buoying you up; and who, into the bargain, are capable of wise and witty conversation. They are rare, it is true, but they exist: and if people in buses are to be allowed to refer to George as "one of the best"–well, what, so to speak, is left for Mrs. Mackillop?
ONE of the things which make children so expensive–and it is an item which nobody seems to budget for in advance–is that at least once a year it becomes necessary to have them photographed. Not really necessary, of course: not like shoes and mackintoshes and new tyres for the pram–three spectres which arise with relentless punctuality whenever you have just had a subacid letter from your bank. But still, pretty urgent; for Andrew will have grown out of his kilt-things by next year and be in school knickerbockers; and Robina looks so ravishing in her new spotted muslin; and Benjie will never be two any more.
At a moment like this, when your sales-resistance is thoroughly undermined, an unknown feminine voice will coo at you one morning over the telephone. "Mr. Basil Delaunay," it will say, "wonders whether you would let him send a representative down to photograph you and your kiddies in home surroundings?" Wincing a little, but quite unable to resist, you suffer an appointment to be made.
At three o'clock the next day, therefore, you all assemble in the drawing-room to wait for the photographer, who is late. Chelsea, he explains on arrival by way of apology, is a bit out of his beat: his tone implies that he would never be late in Mayfair. In the meantime you and Nannie do your best to keep the children from destroying their present exquisite spickness. Andrew wants to play trains, but cannot be allowed to in case he gets his knees black. Benjie has set his heart on plasticine, which is even more undesirable. Robina is the only one of the three who is being no trouble. She sits demurely in her miniature wheelback chair, her hands folded in her lap, her red shoes mousing out below the hem of her long muslin frock. But we know what is keeping her so quiet: she got off eating her Brussels sprouts at lunch because we were afraid of a scene and a spoiled face; and she is having a secret revel over her triumph.
At last the photographer arrives. He is a brisk young man with a high colour and a faintly public-school tie. His assistant, who carries the lamps, plates and what his superior describes as the rest of the doings, is smaller, meeker, of worse complexion and dressed in a blue serge suit. Benjie, misled by the blue serge and always a bad judge of stature, takes an instantaneous dislike to him which, though probably justified, is based on a false impression.
"Ah-dudda pinner!" he screams, clutching Nannie with one hand and pointing furiously with the other. Luckily the young man does not understand Benjie's language, or he might feel hurt. Pinner is a policeman; ah-dudda is an elastic and hard-worked adjective meaning (as P. M. Roget so neatly puts it) "dirty, filthy, nasty, squalid, gross, impetiginous, shameful, pernicious, sinister or mephitic."
Nannie's tact comes to the rescue as usual. She quickly points out to Benjie the intriguing appearance and magical properties of the lamps. Filthy policemen vanish from his kitten-like brain.
The photographer, meanwhile, is engaged in making friends with the two older children. At least, he thinks he is making friends. His flow of small-talk is terrific.
"Well, young man, and what's your name? Andrew? Ah! There's no mistaking where you come from, is there? Caledonia stern and wild, eh?"
"No," says Andrew. "Scotland."
"Well, well, we won't quarrel over that. You look a regular little Scottie, anyhow. And what's that tartan you're wearing? Wee Macgregor?"
"No," says Andrew with dangerous politeness.
"Andy," I put in hastily, lifting a warning finger. I know that light in his eye. But the young man smiles with unruffled good humour.
"That's quite all right–no need to tick him off on my account. I asked for it, and I got it. Besides, I'm used to kiddies–never mind what they say or do. What I say is, they always seem to cotton to the people who cotton to them. Same as dogs."
He turns his attention to Robina, who is looking like all five of the Heads of Angels.
"And now the little lady. Robina, isn't it? There's a pretty name for a little girl. And isn't she the image of Mummy, too? How old are you, Robina? Three? Four?"
"Five and a quarter," says Robina: she is touchy about her size.
"Well, well," says the young man kindly, "girls don't want to be great big lumping tomboys, do they? "
"No," says Robina, with a grateful smile. I can see quite well that she is going to trot this out triumphantly the next time she wants to avoid her lunch.
"Now then, Mr. Jackson, are we all set? Lamps O.K.? Come along then, people. What's it going to be–Mummy on the couch and the family all round?"
"I think that would be very nice," I say with as much enthusiasm as I can summon up. I have always rather disliked the tigress-defending-her-young type of photograph, but it is already a quarter to four. Benjie is getting restive, and I am in a mood to take the line of least resistance.
I drape myself on the sofa as maternally as possible. Robina nestles beside me: she is a born photographee.
"And if Andrew would stand beside you, Mummy...With perhaps his arm along the back of the couch behind your shoulders?" Andrew stands stiffly to attention, his arm outstretched like a ramrod, his expression that blend of the ferocious and the pudding-like which can only be achieved by little boys of nine who are having their photographs taken.
"And now," continues our tormentor, "if Nurse would just place Baby on Mummy's knee..." But Benjie is at the age when knees are only made to be climbed down from, and this he does, not once but several times. I try cuddling, but he is off cuddling; cajolery, but he will have none of it; ride-a-cock-horse, but this is so successful that he wails whenever it stops, and as the camera cannot take motion-pictures we are no better off than we were before.
The photographer works hard, and so does his assistant. The former claps his hands, clicks his fingers, and says "Baby! Look at Uncle!" a good many times. The latter, heroically unselfconscious, makes little high chirruping noises, jumps into the air, waves his handkerchief and does a really brilliant imitation of a popping cork. But Benjie remains thrawn. He has remembered, and is announcing loudly in his own language, that he has not yet had his daily quota of barley sugar. Modern medical science has much to answer for.
"Perhaps if he had a book to look at?" the assistant suggests.
"That's a bonne eeday," says the photographer. "Mummy, could you supply us with a book?"
My head reels with the growing complexity of our relationships. If I am his mother and he is my children's uncle...Engrossed in this problem, I reach out absently to the table for the nearest book. It happens to be a New Yorker Album. Benjie seizes upon it with delight.
"I think, perhaps, Madam," says the photographer, disowning me as his mother and going a little pink, "I think, perhaps, some other book. You see, the illustrations may show up rather distinctly."
"Give him the ox for Daniel, Mummy," Robina suggests. Benjie, who is already rocking with primitive mirth over a very fat man of Peter Arno's, is persuaded to exchange the New Yorker Album for the more edifying though less robust delights of the Oxford Annual for Tiny Folks.
There is a brief, heavenly lull. The patient young man is at last able to expose a plate. And another; and, miraculously, a third. Then the lull is over. Andrew begins tickling the back of Robina's neck with a feather out of the sofa-cushion; Robina, turning round to retaliate, knocks the Oxford Annual on to the floor; Benjie throws himself after it.
"I'm afraid that will have to do," I say to the photographer. "I'm sorry you've had such a job with them. I think it must be the hot weather."
"Don't mention it. Your youngsters are a picnic compared with some, I assure you. Still, it's only a matter of perseverance: I generally manage to win their confidence in the end."
He speaks breezily enough, but he is sweating and there is a weary look in his eye. My heart softens to him a little.
The photographs, somehow or other, turn out a brilliant success. They are so good, in fact, that there is nothing for it but to order a full dozen. And this time next year Andrew will simply have to be done in his new school clothes; and Benjie's first kilt, an absurd green frill, will clamour to be immortalised; and Robina's hair will have developed a new kink; and Mr. Basil Delaunay will ring up once again.
THERE are many poets who declare that they never use a rhyming dictionary; there may even be a few who really do deny themselves the aid of this admirable invention: but such pride or such pig-headedness is not for me. Time and energy get more precious every day, and it is sheer folly not to conserve them. Why work out sums in your head when you can buy a ready-reckoner? Why sweep floors by hand when a vacuum cleaner will do it better? And why mutter laboriously to yourself "bat, cat, fat, hat, mat"–forgetting, as one always does, "brat," "chat," and "flat"–when a glance at Shillitoe's Poetical Lexicon will give you, in a neat column, no less than fifty-eight rhymes in "-at"?
There are others, but Shillitoe is the one which happened, many years ago, to come into my possession. It was left to me by an aunt, whose own poetry must have been either anonymously published or discreetly overlaid at birth. I met her very seldom, but through the medium of Shillitoe I have come to know her quite well. She was, it seems, almost fanatically genteel; for when she found the word "blouse" placed under "arouse" she put a neat firm line through it, wrote a little "No!" of horror in the margin, and added it to the "ooze" column instead. And she must have been delicate-minded to the verge of prudery, for she has taken the trouble to scratch out several of Shillitoe's robuster suggestions, including one of the very few available rhymes to "jelly."
Not that Shillitoe himself, though sometimes biblical, is ever coarse: in fact, he would turn over in his grave, while my aunt would do a perfect somersault in hers, if they could see some of the rhymes which I have added to the volume since I owned it. After all, we are a plain-speaking generation, and one never knows.
My own niece, to whom I shall leave the book, will probably put in a whole lot more of which I have never even heard. And she in her turn, I suppose, will try to deduce my character from my marginalia. "A pedantic Scot," she will murmur when she comes to the "loch" savagely struck out from the column of rhymes to "rock." And "Oh, a love poet!" she will say with an indulgent smile (for she herself, if the present trend of poetry continues, will be writing about nothing whatever but pylons and politics) when she sees the dog-eared and finger-marked state of page 204.
As a matter of fact, some of the finger-marks are my aunt's. She too, it appears, had a romantic temperament; she, too, laboured beneath that great handicap of English poets–the fewness and irrelevance of the rhymes to "love." How much easier it must be for the French, whose love rhymes with the day, with eternity, and with courtship itself; how fortunate are the Spanish, whose language perpetually invites them to say it with flowers.
In England, the situation is appalling. Consider–I give them in Shillitoe's formation–the choices open to us:
Four of these must be dismissed as mere variants: it was thoughtful of Shillitoe to put them in, but they do not really help. That leaves only four–"above," "dove," "glove," and "shove." To use the first, you must either drag in a reference to heaven, which, though ennobling, soon palls; or else change the locale of your wooing to the open air, which in these urban days is often impracticable. The second–"dove"–is of even less use. The two outstanding characteristics of a dove are its greyness and its softness. Only one of these can with courtesy be transferred to your beloved if you are a male poet, and neither if you are a female. The following well-known quotations will show to what lengths even the finest poets will go in sheer despair. Tennyson plunges into irrelevant and far-fetched ornithology:
"In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove (whew!);
In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."
Wordsworth frankly cheats: his Lucy, he arbitrarily tells us, is one of the Derbyshire Lucies, and we can believe it or not:
"She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love."
Can you beat that for low cunning?
"Glove," again, is not inspiring. It will pass well enough in a triolet, a rondeau, a villanelle–any of those little velvet-lined caskets in which sophisticated philanderers delight to convey the highly-polished trinket of their esteem. But passion in the raw is seldom gloved; and for a really heartfelt declaration the word simply will not do.
There remains only "shove." And, just as the last candidate was too refined, so is this one too crude, too vulgar, too redolent of the football crowd and the fun fair. Love poetry, I have always felt, should steer a middle course between the Scylla of St. James's Street and the Charybdis of Hampstead Heath.
In this important matter, then, Shillitoe fails you: but on other occasions he can be superb. Take, for example, the moon, which is, I suppose, the world's second greatest incentive to the writing of verse. Left to yourself, you are apt to depend for ever upon those three tried henchmen, "June," "soon," and "swoon"; adding, if you are not over-scrupulous, "tune." But apply to Shillitoe and he will beat up a whole regiment of supporters. Seventy-three, to be precise. True, many of them are too martial in their import to be of much use–"dragoon," for instance, and "frigatoon"; "musketoon," "picaroon," "rigadoon," "spadroon" and "spontoon": while some of the others, such as "gambroon," "ratoon," and "seroon," have a curiously swashbuckling air, even if they turn out to mean nothing more stirring than a twilled cloth of worsted, cotton or linen, a new shoot from the root of a sugar-cane, and a crate in which figs or raisins are packed. There is always the chance, though, that you may one day find yourself writing a sword-and-cloak melodrama in rhymed couplets; and in the meanwhile there are plenty more to choose from.
But (say Shillitoe's detractors) will not the sight of so many enticing possibilities deflect the poet from his original purpose? Will it not, in short, go putting ideas into his head? I do not deny that there may be something in this: I have often wondered whether mildness, which is by no means the same thing as humility, would ever have gained such prestige as a Christian virtue if the hymn-writers had not been at their wits' end for a rhyme to "child." This objection, however, applies not only to Shillitoe, but to the primitive method of going through the alphabet in your head, and indeed to the whole practice of rhyming. And it might equally well be argued that in rhymes, as in marriage, the wider the choice the greater the chance of ultimate compatibility. Away with scruples, then, and God bless Shillitoe.
THE theme of the New Boy, his delights and anguishes, his discoveries, solecisms and bewilderments, has been treated by many pens and in many styles, from the farcical to the tragic, from the sentimental to the psycho-analytical; that of the New Master, too, has had able, though fewer, exponents; but nobody, so far as I know, has yet touched upon the third person of the scholastic trinity–the New Parent. The third person–and yet, in a sense, the first; for from him, undeniably, the other two proceed. Without him there would be no boys and without boys there would be no masters. (For that matter, without boys there would be no parents either; but let us avoid at all costs these hen-and-egg, snake-eating-its-own-tail digressions; the subject is complex enough already.)
It is difficult to account for this curious omission. Perhaps the parent is believed to be too aloof and Olympian a creature to suffer from any feelings of inexperience; or perhaps he is considered so humble and humdrum that his feelings are not worth recording. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes: he is neither above analysis nor beneath contempt; he is, in fact, an ordinary human being, and his wrigglings, whether of pain or pleasure, deserve investigation.
They do not begin in earnest until the first half-term. The preliminary visit of inspection a couple of years ago does not count. That was a joke, a dream, a fantastic escapade which made you pinch yourself at intervals and nudge your partner behind the headmaster's back ("Is this really us–inspecting schools?"); you could not take it seriously; the project was still in the air, and he was still in the nursery, and there were still plenty of loopholes. And the actual parting, six weeks ago, was a crude animal wrench, too soon over to admit of any pondering upon technique. But this half-term business is going to last for a whole week-end, and part of it at least will have to be played before an audience–a threefold lynx-eyed audience consisting of the school staff, the other boys and, worst of all, the other parents.
The other parents come first, chronologically, for they begin at lunch in the hotel dining-room. There are quite a lot of people staying at the hotel, but you can pick out the parents with one hand tied behind your back. There is an incongruous, suspended, fish-out-of-the-water look about them; they are here neither on business nor on holiday; they are obviously not the sort of people who would otherwise be staying at a smallish seaside hotel in the middle of June. They do not talk very much. Occasionally the wife says, "Remind me to speak to Miss Simmonds about David's teeth," and the husband replies, "I only hope to God I don't get bowled for a duck." And occasionally they exchange a remark or two with a couple at another table.
"Well, here we are again."
"Yes, it does come round, doesn't it?"
"This must be nearly your last."
"Oh Lord, no! We've got two younger ones coming on."
You catch each other's eye, appalled. (Shall we soon look like that, talk like that? Or do we already, without knowing it? Are we, to the other visitors, as recognisably parents? It is a mortifying thought.)
After lunch you drive out to the school. In the distance you catch sight of a small figure in grey shorts and a grey felt hat sitting on one of the gateposts.
"There he is!" you exclaim, and begin waving wildly. The figure on the gate-post takes no notice at all, and as you draw near you perceive that he has sandy hair, pale blue eyes and rabbity teeth. Disconcerted, but hoping that your gestures may have been mistaken for road signals, you sweep past him up the drive. Round the front door there clusters excitedly a shoal of grey sardines. At this point, by all the rules of art and literature, a magical current of mother-love should flash instantaneously between you and your child, enabling you to pick him out in a moment. But instinct, as so often happens, lets you down, and it is really quite a long time before you can discover under which particular dome of grey felt your son's face is concealed. Even when you have done so you are in a quandary. Your inclination is to kiss it, but you have heard dark rumours that this is not done. Like a parvenu confronted with asparagus, you glance furtively around you. Other parents are now arriving thick and fast; with a swift gull-like movement each of them swoops down upon its appropriate sardine, and in nearly every case there is an unmistakable kiss. Times must have changed, you reflect gratefully, surrendering to inclination and hugging your own sardine.
Throughout the afternoon he sits wedged between you on a garden seat, watching the match with unflagging seriousness. You yourself are more occupied with watching him; he is close beside you, yet a thousand miles away; he is still living in an alien world. "Played!" he says at intervals; and," Oh, bad luck!" dutifully, when somebody misses a catch; and once he calls his father "Sir" by mistake, and does not notice it. Only twice during the afternoon does he make any remark unconnected with the game. The first time is when an immensely fat boy of about twelve walks past.
"I bet you don't know what his nickname is."
"My gosh!" he exclaims respectfully. "However did you guess?"
The second time is when he nudges you in the ribs and jerks his head towards a round-faced solemn little boy in spectacles.
"That's Rupert Smith-Twissington. He collects skulls."
There is a burst of applause. The match has at last been brought to an end by the questionable action of a father who has caught his own son. There is a half-defiant, half-apologetic look on the father's face as they all stroll in to tea. "Tom, how could you?" murmurs his wife reproachfully. You feel sorry for the man; the intricacies of Test Match etiquette seem child's play to problems such as these.
Tea, a magnificent stand-up affair on the lawn, is far easier than you expected. The headmaster and his wife take you with gratifying seriousness, as though you were parents of many years' standing instead of the merest tenderfeet. And although you would have sworn that every parent must seem to every headmaster and his wife at best a necessary evil and at worst a blasted nuisance, this remarkable couple treat all their guests as though they were intimate and welcome friends.
At any rate the day is now over, and you can return to your hotel feeling tolerably certain that you have avoided making any of the grosser gaffes.
Sunday, in comparison, is plain sailing. Once church is over and you have carried your sardine off in the car, there is no audience. You spend a long, hot, happy day on the beach, punctuated only by a colossal lunch of sausage-rolls, bananas and ginger-beer and a hardly smaller tea of jam-puffs, buns and raspberry cider. He is still a little remote to begin with, a little inclined to answer every inquiry with an automatic "Yes, thank you, Mummy"; but he soon becomes perfectly at his case. Leaning back against a sand-dune, you try to look at him dispassionately. He is certainly much plumper and browner than he was six weeks ago; his manners have improved and he is more independent; he is, in fact, a very nice little boy of nine: and if his chief interest in life seems to be food and his small-talk consists entirely of age-old riddles and verbal catches–well, little boys of nine are like that, and you may as well accept the fact. And if you once thought that he was something a little out of the ordinary, that he had imagination, that you could talk to him as though he was a contemporary, then you were deceived, the victim of a wish-fulfilment; and a good thing too, you reflect, or he would be having a bad time of it at school.
At this point you notice that he has stopped chewing and is gazing curiously at the half-eaten jam-puff in his hand.
"What's wrong?" you ask. "Isn't it a good one? "
"Mm," he replies. "But I was just wondering. Do you ever think things aren't really there at all–only inside your mind?"
"Good Lord! Have they been teaching you about Bishop Berkeley already?"
"No. But I asked Rupert Smith-Twissington that once, and he said he'd often thought of it too."
Baffled again. Inscrutable, delightful sardine.
I WENT to it quite by accident. If I had not taken the wrong turning in the nightgown department of Fender and Hobson's I might never have seen those intriguing blue velvet curtains discreetly drawn across a usually open archway. Having seen them, of course it was impossible not to part them and look inside; nor, having looked, could I do anything but slip through.
The room–or, as Messrs. Fender and Hobson would say, salon–in which I found myself was three-quarters filled with rows of gilt chairs. At one end had been erected a little dais with concealed lighting and a blue velvet backcloth. About half the chairs already contained women; though perhaps "contained" is hardly the word, for the chairs were very small and the women very large. While waiting for the theatre to fill up I looked at one of the leaflets which were freely scattered about on the empty seats.
"A Figure Causerie," it said, "illustrated by Living Models, will be given daily at 12 noon and 4 p.m. by Miss Ruby Thorogood, the Phynephyt Corset Company's well-known Demonstrator and Lecturer."
I settled down to the prospect of half an hour's delight.
It was five minutes to twelve. More women came in, some of them in pairs, frankly interested and cheerful; others alone, glancing round furtively as though they hoped they would not see anyone they knew. They spread themselves and their parcels over the gilt chairs until wood and cane creaked in protest. Behind the scenes someone put a new record on a gramophone. It had already played, optimistically enough, Shepherd's Hey and The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. Halfway through, however, it was faded out. The clock said twelve noon. Miss Ruby Thorogood appeared on the little dais.
She was a dark jolly woman of forty-five or so. Left to herself she might have been called buxom; but she had not been left to herself, and you could hardly apply that romping Arcadian adjective to the controlled embonpoint, the suavely upholstered convexity which, as an employee of the Phynephyt Corset Company, she had obviously made it a point of honour to achieve. She advanced to the front of the stage, cleared her throat, smiled, and looked round at us all with such a benign yet authoritative glance that her first word came as quite a surprise to me.
"Ladies," she said. I had almost expected her to say "Girls."
For two or three minutes she talked to us in a general way about figures. To have a good figurr was not only a pleasure, she said, but a doody. (She was American, though the Phynephyt Corset, she assured us, was a hundred per cent. Briddish.) It was a doody that we owed to everybody we knoo–to our husbands, our children and our friends. And why? Because a good figurr was beaudiful to look at, and a thing of beaudy was a joy for ever.
Her hearers drooped visibly, looking as guilty as a midnight cocoa-party surprised by the headmistress. "But, ladies," continued Miss Thorogood leniently, "there is no need to imagine that a good figurr necessarily means a small figurr. A woman of eleven stone may be just as pleasing to look at as one of eight"–here her eyes rested rather disparagingly upon me–"if she is well-proportioned or, atennyrut, well-controlled. In other words, if I may coin an expression"–she gave a deprecating smile–"though some of us cannot help being bulky there is no need for any of us to be bulgy."
Her audience revived; the cocoa-party was not going to be so severely censured after all.
"Now I want to show you, with the aid of these three gurrls, just how splendidly Phynephyt can smooth away all your figurr difficulties."
Three female forms, clothed in satin-and-swansdown négligés, sidled into the room and on to the dais. Then, at a sign from Miss Thorogood, they let these elaborate and frothy garments slip to the ground, revealing underneath (decorously allied with pink silk combinations) three separate triumphs of the Phynephyt Corset Company's art. Irreverently, I remembered a scene in Maya.
There were, Miss Thorogood reminded us, three main types of abnormal figurr: the Large Hip, the Large Diaphragm and the Large Bust. For convenience she proposed to refer to them by their initials. "Come hyurr, dyurr"–she beckoned to the first model, a good-natured blonde of about thirty-five, one of whose chins had a dimple in it.
"Now this gurrl," said Miss Thorogood, "is indoobitably L.H. (Turn right around, dyurr.) If you look at her, ladies, I'm sure you will agree that she carries her weight hyurr"–she patted ever so genteelly the offending curve. "Yet you see what wunnerful control Phynephyt gives? Note the front-lacing, the elastic side-inserts..." She launched into a spate of technicalities, ending with the stock number and the price. Then L.H. stepped down from the dais and made a tour of the room, twirling serenely this way and that. Every now and then one of the women in the audience would lean forward to finger the material of the gleaming pink carapace or to say earnestly, "But tell me–is it really comfortable when you sit?"
I longed for an eye to catch, but there was none. Feverishly I tried to commit every detail to memory. I was going on to a women's lunch-party; how they'd laugh!
By the time L.H. had finished her round Miss Thorogood had already begun on the second model.
"Now, hyurr," she was saying, "we have a very defnut case of L.D. (Turn half sideways, dyurr.)" L.D. turned half sideways. She had sleek black hair, plucked eyebrows, thin scarlet lips and a bitter little smile. She must have been very good-looking before she began to put on weight.
"Now this gurrl's figurr," said Miss Thorogood with a pride which seemed to me misplaced, "is an almost exact replica of my own. You mightn't believe it, ladies, but I measure fordy-six around the waist. The garment she has on is idennical with the one I wear myself. As you will notice, it does away with all unsightly fullness hyurr"–she prodded the L.D.–"while at the same time allowing complete freedom of movement." She dropped her handkerchief, then stooped and recovered it with a little air of triumph, as who should say Ally-oop!"
L.D. stepped down from the dais, made her tour of the room, strutted, postured and twirled. She stopped when requested and answered questions civilly enough, wearing all the time that thin-lipped smile. But when she drew level with me she paused of her own accord and gave me a long, cold, bitter, resentful stare.
All of a sudden the entertainment lost its savour for me. Aldwych farce had turned to Tchehov. It was as though the sun had gone in. Miss Ruby Thorogood and her audience was no longer exquisitely funny, a mine of unconscious gems, the raw material of a luncheon-table saga. And I myself was no longer a Small Lady strayed into a friendly Brobdingnag; I was a spy in a hostile camp, an infidel whose very presence was disturbing to the atmosphere of mysteries which I had no right to attend.
I got up as quietly as possible and slipped away through the blue velvet curtains.
THE other day a poker-playing friend of mine, a young woman who combines great beauty with a devilish capacity for holding four aces, had a son. As we had been mock enemies across the poker-table two or three times a week for a year or more, I thought it would be nice to send her some more touching and appropriate tribute than the usual roses or carnations. A black china bowl, I decided, closely packed with tiny bright red ranunculus; and, sticking up in the middle, a poker-hand made of miniature playing-cards–to be precise, a royal straight flush in hearts, which was a combination that she had had the effrontery to hold against a king-high full house of mine only a few weeks before. (We were playing, as we always do, with nothing wild; and she drew two cards, too, which shows you the kind of player she is.) This offering would at least prove that I bore her no ill-will for that disastrous encounter, especially if it was accompanied by a neat little verse in the Restoration manner written on a blank card out of a full-sized pack.
I spent a happy but strenuous morning composing the verse. Poker is a game with an almost embarrassing wealth of metaphor to choose from, even if you exclude all the picturesque terms for freak and obsolete hands. In the end it went like this:
TO A PASSIONATE POKER-PLAYER ON THE
BIRTH OF HER SECOND CHILD
The birth of this, your son and heir,
Ensures you, at the least, a Pair.
May he become a model child
Who never makes his parents Wild,
And may you soon Improve still more
To holding Three, or even Four–
When lo! you'll find that, strange to tell,
A fine Full House is yours as well.
Not very brilliant perhaps, but short, simple and tolerably refined. Anyway, you try.
The next thing was to copy it out. I happened to have a new pack of cards in the house–a rare enough thing in our poker circle. The blank card, however, turned out to be not blank at all but an ordinary eight of spades with one of the corners cut off to avoid confusion. This was a difficulty I had not reckoned with. I sent Kathleen out to the paper-shop to buy another pack. This time the extra card had been ingeniously but annoyingly printed all over with contract scores. All the poker-players' contempt for bridge-players surged up in me as I tore it into small pieces and sent Kathleen out again.
"Get two packs this time," I said,"of quite different makes." The first of these produced nothing but a cornerless five of clubs, but the second had a beautiful white blank–just what I needed. I sat down to it with a fountain-pen and scrupulously washed hands.
It was no good. The ink would not stay on. By the time I had written the second word the first had disappeared, leaving nothing but a wan blue smear and a few blobs. I wrote the first word again, and while I was doing so the second one vanished. After three attempts the card was a shambles; moreover, dirty finger-marks had mysteriously appeared all over it. It seemed unfair that it should attract dirt while so steadfastly repelling ink.
I sent Kathleen out for two more packs of the same make. Unfortunately it did not occur to her to insist upon different coloured backs, so heaven knows what will happen when we start playing with them; but I was past bothering about details like that. This time I tried a crow-quill pen. It went a little better, but the result was still pale, patchy and almost illegible. I tore it up and tried black Indian ink for the next one. This at any rate stayed on; but it utterly refused to get dry, and when I tried to blot it it spread wildly in all directions and made the card look as though someone had been playing Ghost Signatures.
"They haven't any more of that make, Madam," said Kathleen the next time I rang.
I decided that I would get some myself on my way to the flower-shop and do the copying while they were making up the bowl. The florist's young lady, a chilly arum-like blonde, took my order and the five miniature cards as though such vagaries were all in the day's work.
"You want to write out a card?" she said, indicating a rather wobbly writing-table.
"I do indeed," I replied fervently, sitting down and producing crow-quill and Indian ink from my bag. I had bought three new packs to be on the safe side, as it had proved impossible to see what the spare card was like without tearing the paper wrapper. The first pack yielded those vile contract scores again. I tore it up. The second was linen-faced, which turned out to be worse than ever; the crow-quill scratched, the ink spluttered wildly. I tore it up. The third card also was linen-faced; I wrote out my verse on it in pencil. This went splendidly, and I was about to turn and hand it to the arum blonde when I happened to rub my hand across it and the whole thing smudged into powdery grey illegibility. I tore that up too.
"Perhaps," suggested the arum politely, "you would care to use one of our cards?"
"You see," I explained, "it was meant to be a sort of joke."
"I thought it must be," she said.
There was no help for it. It was getting late and the bowl with its fan of tiny cards was all ready.
I returned home the richer by eight unwanted new packs and the poorer by one cherished illusion. You have probably heard the legend, as I had, about a certain playing-card being known as "The Curse of Scotland" because the order for the massacre of Glencoe was written out on a nine of diamonds. Believe me, it can't be done.
UNTIL yesterday the most romantic and honourable profession to which I had ever attained was that of poet. But now unwittingly I have entered a higher estate–I am an inspirer of poets. For into my hands yesterday was thrust a poem, newly-born, unseen as yet by the world and inspired entirely by myself.
It is not exactly lyrical, although it has passages of purest music; nor is it dramatic, though it contains the stuff of drama; it is in a sense epic–if a work can be called epic which is written throughout in the imperative and not the narrative mood. It might with truth be described as a "slim volume," but its slimness is more than counteracted by its superficial size, which is foolscap. It runs to some fifteen hundred lines–no mean achievement for a man who doesn't even call himself a poet. For Haythorn is a very modest man; all he said when he pressed his work of art into my hands was, "Well, here's the spess. Have a look at it, will you, and let me know if you can suggest any improvements?"
Improvements? Improve this masterpiece–I, who never wrote a poem longer than thirty lines in my life, and miserable puling stuff at that full of love and flowers.... No! only over my dead body shall a word of it be altered; for it is, after all, partly my property, springing as it did from some casual stumbling words which I let fall to Haythorn a little over a week ago. How weak, how inadequate those words of mine seem now, compared with Haythorn's vivid vigorous style!
"Look here," I remember saying to him vaguely, "I think I'll have a door just there."
A door–well, I mean, a door is a door, isn't it? Except in riddles. But observe how this simple object blossoms and expands beneath Haythorn's touch:
"Provide and fix to external door opening Ground Floor Back Room 4-in. x 3-in. solid deal rebated posts and head secured to brickwork and dowelled into stone threshold with architraves on inside. Provide and fix 11-in. x 3-in. York stone threshold with iron water bar fixed in groove as weather check, throated under.
"Provide and hang with pair of 4-in. steel butt hinges 2-in. deal square framed and panelled door 6-ft. 6-in. x 2-ft. 6-in. upper panels prepared for glazing and with vertical and horizontal stout glazing bars, the lower panels bead and butt and flush panels on outside. Provide and fix to lower rail splayed and throated weather bar.
"Provide and fix lock and furniture to approval. Allow P.C. sum of 15/-, add profit and fixing cornplete. Point in cement all door frames throughout to the new work and make good where defective all cement soffits and reveals."
What detail! What observation! You and I walk through doorways a hundred times a day: would it have occurred to either of us to mention the soffits and reveals?
Again, I said airily, "Oh, let's have a few steps here." And out of this idle wish has sprung the following inimitable passage:
"Form flights of stairs to the widths shown with 2-in. wall strings and carriages and 1 1/2-in. treads with nosings and scotia moulding under and 1-in. risers and proper fir carriages three in all including fir brackets."
He knows how to make skilful use of that favourite poetical device, the refrain. For nearly every stanza (or should it be canto?) of the poem ends with the phrase, "Make good all work disturbed." It is psalm-like in sound and reassuring in substance; it falls sweetlier on the ear at every repetition.
If he has a fault it is a tendency to obscurity, as in such a line as: "two 8-in. x 6-in. R.S.J.'s @ 35 lbs. per ft. run each." But, compared with some of our really advanced poets, even that is as clear as daylight.
And what a style he has, what a love for the short strong word rather than the sesquipedalian and diffuse! Are ceilings in question? Then "lath, plaster, float and set them." Or wood-work? Then "knot, prime, stop and paint in four oils." Or sand for mortar? Then it must be "clean, sharp sand, free from loam, salt and mud." How boldly the clear monosyllables go marching past!
But the best passage in the whole poem, both for beauty of language and loftiness of ideals, is the following:
"The whole of the bricks are to be the best of their respective kinds, hard, sound, square, well-burnt, uniform in texture, regular in shape, with true arises, even in size, all to approval."
What symbolism! What uplift!
After reading that I shall sleep soundly at night, knowing well that my house is in safe hands. Under Haythorn's care there is nothing to fear: all colours will be intense and finely ground; somebody will attend upon, cut away for and make good after all trades in all trades; no flettons will be used in the footings; moth, rust, corruption and snapheaders will be kept at bay.
Dear Haythorn! I always knew he was an architect; he has proved himself to be a poet; and now I am convinced that he is a brick. He himself would wish for no higher praise.
OWING to a number of circumstances over most of which I have had complete control, I have managed to pass thirty-odd years in this world without setting heel to spade or hand to trowel. It is not that I am indifferent to flowers–far from it: for I am a keen member of that happy and informal fraternity of botanists known as Bentham-painters, who forgather stealthily in lonely inns near the reputed haunts of the spider orchis, run into each other on hands and knees at the summit of Ben Lawers in pursuit of the drooping saxifrage, and boast in their cups that they know a man whose cousin has found the leafless epipogon.
But in spite of this–or it may be because of it–I have never been able to take much interest in gardens. As things to sit in, well and good; as things to be taken round, definitely bad: though the possibility of finding an unknown wild flower skulking in somebody's herbaceous border has often enabled me to wear an expression of eager interest which has entirely deceived my hostess. (I scored caper spurge in that way, I remember, hailed it with perhaps rather tactless triumph in the middle of a tedious homily on antirrhinums, and was never asked again.) As for the actual practice of gardening, I am afraid I have always looked upon it as a joke occupation, the last resource of age or boredom, the legitimate butt of the humorous weeklies and the middle name of Strube's Little Man.
From this intolerant attitude I now publicly withdraw. For only a week or two ago I became the possessor, for the first time, of a garden of my own. And this morning, acting on the principle that one should try anything once, I went out rather dubiously and gardened. Dubiously, because I had not the faintest idea what I ought to do. Weed? Perhaps. The idea did not attract me. To anyone accustomed to the vigorous and jostling democracy in which wild flowers contrive to flourish and look beautiful, weeding smacks both of mollycoddling and of snobbism. I felt, in fact, about these civilised plants much as a worker in a slum parish, used to the spry and merry hardihood of the Cockney child, might feel if suddenly put in charge of a party of Mayfair brats who could not so much as blow their own noses. Besides, it seemed unnecessary. So far as I could see, a large army of bulbs–grey-green daffodil bayonets, curved ogival tulip blades and the malachite stilettoes of crocus–were coming up perfectly well without my help.
However, the garden did not seem to need anything else doing to it at present, and from what I have gathered during odd minutes when I have been too idle to get up and switch off the radio after a concert, it is against all the rules of horticulture to let well alone. There is always, it seems, scope for human interference; and I suspect the existence of an age-old gardening maxim:
"When in dowte,
Mucke yt abowte."
So I grasped a small three-pronged toasting-fork (for I have as yet no batterie de jardin), planted one foot firmly on the lawn and the other gingerly in the middle of the bed, bent down, and began to weed.
Four hours later I stopped, not from choice but because Mrs. Shoesmith wanted the toasting-fork for luncheon. And after having eaten ravenously I sat down to put my first impressions about gardening on paper.
I shall have plenty of time in the future to add to them, for from now on I intend to garden every day. Whether I shall grow successful flowers I do not know. That, I have always heard, is a matter of having a "green thumb," and a green thumb, like blue blood, is something which cannot be acquired. Nor, to tell you the truth, do I very much care whether my hollyhocks reach seven feet or nine. For it is the means, not the end, which have so taken my fancy.
As in many other affairs, it is all a question of attitude. I had not been weeding for five minutes, bent double like a pair of compasses with my head a foot from the ground, before I became aware that my whole outlook on life was changing. The mental and spiritual accidie which had been enveloping me for nearly a year dropped off me like a cloak. Problems which had appeared insoluble laid their solutions ready-made at my feet with a neat flourish. Situations which had seemed as unmanageable as rogue mules crept up on their bellies and fawned. Short stories whose characters had turned to wood, essays which had refused to come to a point, poems in which laboured craftsmanship had numbed and weakened the original impact of beauty–all these presented themselves to my inverted brain in their finished form, masterly, unsmutched and point-device.
And these visions, it seemed, were caused by nothing more romantic than the running of blood to the head: for when I straightened myself up, eager to get indoors to pen and paper as soon as possible, they at once began to fade. Evidently the magic had not had time to take a proper hold. I hurriedly replaced my head on a level with my knees, determined to keep it there, if need be, till I had an apoplexy.
So, uprooting grass and groundsel on my way, I moved happily though inelegantly along; and at every step the advantages of gardening became more and more clear to me. First of all, it enables you to stand for long periods in this evidently inspiring upside-down position without being suspected of eccentricity or of unhallowed dabblings in Yoga. Secondly, it is a means by which you can attain many valuable hours of solitude without being thought unsociable. Thirdly, it provides an outlet for the well-known Mud Pie Urge of the psychologists, which most of us are forced to repress after leaving our childhood behind, with, as Bösendorfer holds, such grave results. Fourthly, it gives unlimited scope for that deep and so often frustrated human instinct known variously as meddlesomeness, organising ability, or love of power–for anybody with a patch of ground and a few penny packets of seed can experience, at least temporarily, the sensation of playing the god. Here, he says, let there be lupins; and Over there, he adds, montbretia shall be no more seen.
To come down to mere physiology, gardening provides an incentive to be in the open air without the intolerable necessity for striking, coaxing, pursuing or intercepting any kind, shape or size of ball. Moreover, as an aid to peristalsis and an encouragement to shapely hips it is probably unrivalled; for the wildest gymnastics advocated by the doctors and the beauty specialists are mere inactivity compared with the contortions which the human body has to undergo in order to reach the greatest possible area of flower-bed with the hands while wreaking the smallest possible havoc with the feet.
That, for the moment, is all I have to say about gardening. To-morrow may bring disillusion, but I like to think not. For to-night at least I intend to cherish a vision of myself marching triumphantly down the years, toasting-fork in hand, in person eupeptic and callipygian, on paper brilliant and profound.... But I expect there is a catch in it somewhere.
IT would be possible, I suppose, to count up within a dozen or so how many languages and dialects there are in the world. But the languages within languages–could anybody make a reckoning of those?
There is, for example, shop language. This morning I drove into the nearest town to make three purchases. According to the invoices which were handed to me I bought four ups, two metal spills and an extra duck liner. And these, mind you, are not local words: the first two I have heard used in London, and the third I have since verified in a famous catalogue. An up, it appears, is one of those common little U-shaped tooth-glasses which always seem to me the height of squalor and disillusion, but which are constantly getting broken and which for some reason one goes on replacing.
The metal spills were what I should loosely have called tin waste-paper baskets. And the extra duck liner was a brush intended for painting the name on a boat. "You know," I said; "one of those brown ones that you can lick into a nice fine point." The ironmonger vanished, as usual, for seven minutes; came back with a big brown-paper parcel wrapped cornerwise (an ironmonger's peculiarity, he told me with pride) and marked, in thick block capitals, "LINERS"; untied it at his own pace, and revealed a clutch of smaller parcels each done up in the same way. On one of these was written "DUCK, 10 1/2 d."; on another, "EXTRA DUCK, 1s. 3d." Feeling that the boat deserved it, I chose the latter. Certainly its quill was beyond criticism and its sable tip went into a magnificent point. The ironmonger licked it himself to make sure. And I was so delighted at having found a new piece of shop language that I very nearly changed my mind about Puffin and called the boat Extra Duck instead: but I remembered in time how tired one gets of explaining that sort of joke.
Many shop words, of course, are good old English ones which have fallen into genteelism and disrepute. It is excusable to be nettled when a blonde goddess with scarlet nails, after giving ear to one's enquiry for stockings, stays, frocks, coats or hats, passes it on to her colleague disdainfully translated into hose, corsets, gowns, mantles or millinery. But if one can master one's irritation, what vanished scenes and characters those five elegant words conjure up! The pageant of the Middle Ages, when hose were hose and covered the whole leg, and jagged sleeves hung down beside them; Elizabeth's ladies with their rigid busks and farthingales; Georgian beauties in flowered paduasoy; the high breasts and flowing draperies of the Regency; and, best of all, the "little milliner," without whose aid, it seems, no scion of the Victorian aristocracy could sow his first wild oats.
Less endurable are certain compound words which seem to have been adopted on purpose to nauseate, such as slumber-wear for pyjamas and baby-carriages for prams. Gâteaux for cakes is pretty bad, too. Or, to be more exact, for iced cakes: "a gattoe, madam," as a goddess once made clear to me, "is never plain."
There is a certain grimness, too, about the discreet initials which in shop language are used to denote the six sizes of woman–X.O.S., O.S., W.X., W., S.W., and S.S.W. The last of these, by the way, has never been satisfactorily explained to me. Does it stand for Small Small Women? Or Shrimp-Sized Women? Or, as I fear, Shamefully Stunted Women? I asked a goddess once: but she gazed down at me pityingly and did not reply. They divide us also into six ages: infants, children, maids (the only remaining instance, I think, except on the lips of property gaffers, of this word being used in its old sense of "young girl" instead of in its modern one of "domestic servant"), débutantes, matrons and what they tactfully call the Older Woman. There is, you will notice, one surprising gap. Unmarried women do not exist. In the glamorous simple world of the shop-people's imagination, every débutante–quite respectably, of course–becomes a matron without the least delay. Or with no more delay, at any rate, than is biologically necessary: and even this interval she can while away pleasantly enough in the pinkly-lit, rather hush-hush department labelled–God save the mark–"For the Mother-To-Be."
Then there are those two deplorable adjectives, "art" and "quality." "Art" is something of a mystery. I used to think it simply meant "artificial": in the expression "art silk" it certainly does. But what about "art furniture," "art paper" and "art colours"? The first of these phrases suggests fumed oak and beaten copper; the second, nubbliness and deckle edging; the third, dull pink, saxe blue, sage green, heliotrope and the archer shades of orange. Now these things, though admittedly repellent, cannot be called artificial: one is driven to the conclusion, therefore, that the word "art" is short for "artistic." The implications of this are too far-reaching to discuss here. About "quality" there is no such doubt. This, the shop assures us, is a quality carpet. Yes, we reply inaudibly between ground teeth, and such a quantity one, too, isn't it? Such a shape one, such a size one, and oh! so terribly texture.... There is a low rumbling sound beneath our feet. The assistant mutters something about alterations to the central heating, but we know better. It is the author of Modern English Usage turning over sardonically in his grave.
These examples, to be sure, are taken from the debased currency of shop language, which better taste and better education will one day call in: it is a relief to turn again to its legitimate coinage, racy, individual and exact, which I hope will never be allowed to die.
Mr. Toop, a wholesale furniture-maker in Curtain Road with whom I once had dealings, introduced me to some pretty examples of what grammarians, I believe, call aphæresis. "If you want a 'board," he would say, "I'd choose wawnut every time: but when it comes to a 'robe, there's nothing to touch m'yogany." His office notepaper, I remember, bore a touching confession of faith which always pleased me. Across the top, in faintly Gothic lettering, ran the legend: "All Oak Diners Have Figured Tops."
But the two finest gems I ever collected came respectively from the Knitwear and Footwear departments of a certain well-known store. "I like the shape of this sweater," I said, "but not the colour. Haven't you got a pattern-book of all the shades you can make it in?" "Certainly, madam," was the reply; "I will show you our cashmere swatch." And later, on the ground floor, I explained to another goddess how I wanted to buy a new pair of shoes; how they must be of a very dark brown; how they must not have any straps or fastenings at all; and how I could not wear anything unless it was made on a Swiss last. "Madam," she observed succinctly to a sub-goddess, "would like to see a Bally Nigger Court."
You bet she would, I thought: for, with a flash of that outrageous inward punning which is too swift for the reason to control, I had had, absurdly enough, a tantalising vision of the curtain going up on Scheherazade.
ONE should always, when wishing, remember the Monkey's Paw. Ten days ago, suspended in the delicious limbo between early morning tea and getting up, I thought what a satisfying view I had from my bedroom window and how nice it would be to lie and look at it for a week. There was no particular reason why I should not have done so: but we humans are slaves to habit, inveterate Britishers in the cosmic Bush, for ever punctiliously hauling on our threadbare dinner-jackets to keep at bay the demoralising jungle of the subconscious. So I got up to breakfast as usual and took the ferry over to the Harbour, which was riddled with influenza, to buy a ring-bolt.
Helped by the heightened if slightly distorted perception of fever, I now know that view by heart; in a Kim's game I think I could score one hundred per cent.; and I find that its beauty consists almost entirely in the variations played by light upon a theme of four colours–green, ochre, grey and white.
The frame is a low-silled white-painted window about four feet high by two-feet-six wide: but so flat is the country that from pillow-level four-fifths of the picture is sky, and the whole landscape is contained in a space no bigger than thirty inches by ten. In the immediate foreground is the roof of the tool-shed, its old chipped slates the colour of a pigeon's breast. Beyond that lies a circle of smooth vivid green, striped broadly light and dark with recent mowing; in the middle of it, on a thin metal post, waves a white three-cornered pennon. I have heard a theory that this is part of the Third Green. It is not: it is a piece of striped damask stretched over a tambour frame, with an embroidery needle stuck ready in the middle. But there is no sense in arguing.
Behind it is a sandy hazard; the turf which surrounds this is rougher and shot with russet moss. Then, right across the picture, runs the narrow grey road which leads from Rye to the Holmstone. It is bordered by weather-worn split-chestnut fencing, grey in some lights, pale gold in others, along the foot of which the grass grows rank, coarse and brilliant; and somewhere near the left-hand edge of the picture the road-menders have left a low grey hummock of granite chips.
Behind this, again, lies Pound Field–a flattish arbitrary trapezoid of reclaimed marshland. Here, on a tussocky green drugget worn so threadbare in parts that you can see the sandy stage beneath, is performed a non-stop ballet of rabbits and lambs. It reaches its height in the morning and evening, but impromptu ensembles are liable to take place at any hour of the day. The rabbits tend to keep upstage, near the sandy outcrop. Their brown-on-green arabesques are intricate, swift and apparently without meaning. One minute the whole corps will be motionless, almost invisible; the next, as at the striking-up of an orchestra, the field will be alive with them, white scuts twinkling, furry flanks flashing from fawn to sepia as, in their weavings and wheelings, they catch or lose the sun. The lambs, for the most part, stay near the footlights. They are completely mass-produced and completely adorable. The dazzling purity of their colouring, the warmth and softness of their texture, the engaging ungainliness of their shape, the blend of valour and helplessness in their movements, the gay nitwit innocence of their faces–only an ogre could resist this battery of attractions. They curl round and doze becomingly in the sun; spring up, alarmed at nothing, and suck vigorously with ecstatic ripples of the tail; leap into the air for no good reason, coming down with a sweet ridiculousness on all four feet at once. And among them, slowly cropping, grey, bulky and torpid–the Philistines in Carnaval, the Customers in La Boutique Fantasque–move their mothers, the sheep: awful reminders of what eventually happens to charm without character.
Along the back of Pound Field runs Coneybank Wall: a long green-and-tawny ridge about fifteen feet high, pitted and pocked with a labyrinth of burrows. At the foot of it stand three brownish-grey hen-houses, and here the white motif is carried out by the farmer's Leghorns, stalking and scratching incessantly up and down the wall.
Beyond the wall there lies a two-mile stretch of marsh-land, foreshortened on my window-frame to about a quarter of an inch. It is hardly more than a blur to the naked eye, but memory can piece it out with detail. And finally, beyond everything, is the Island. It is not really an island any more, except during floods. But it goes by that name, and it has many of the endearing qualities of an island. It rears its two hundred feet above the surrounding Marsh as proudly as though they were two thousand. It varies in distance from one mile away, when you can count its cottage windows, to twenty-five, when you can barely discern its outline. Very often, especially at the beginning of a scorching day, it is not there at all. It stands to us for height and mystery: it is all the hills we have to lift up our eyes to.
These are the main outlines of my picture; but it has its incidents, mostly in the key of white. At daybreak seagulls fly inland and brandish their double scimitars over the Marsh; the horizontal sun, pouring westward across the levels from the Holmstone, floodlights the under side of their wings to an unreal brilliance. Later comes a young greenkeeper carrying a very long, supple, tawny cane: he swishes it all over the circle of dewy grass in deft half-moons, sending up a shower of diamondy drops at every stroke. It looks to me the perfect way to spend a fine morning: but they have the effrontery to tell me that it has something to do with worms. Twenty or thirty times a day, in the middle distance between Coneybank Wall and the Island, a pearl necklace is drawn smoothly across the picture. Sometimes you can see the neat toy train to which this is attached; sometimes only the necklace is visible, hanging softly on the still air. At certain hours the up pearl necklace from Rye coincides with the down pearl necklace from London. They pass each other plumb in the middle of my picture, just above the middle hen-house.
That is all, I think: except the tall toppling cumulus clouds which dawdle along the horizon like heavy galleons languishing in light airs. And the ice-cream man on his white box-tricycle, who is forgiven for his jarring modernity because he fits in with the colour scheme. And the postman, who is forgiven for anything.
Down the side of my picture runs its sound-strip, beautifully synchronised. The lambs bleat, the gulls mew and skirl; the mowing-machine and the bumble-bees compete lazily for the title Spirit of Summer; the cuckoos, in these treeless levels, manage to retain the scarcity value which they so quickly lose in the Weald. And as for the larks... They began, as I remember well, in January, and they have not stopped singing since except during a few negligible hours of darkness. They contrive somehow to be exquisite when one wants to listen to them and, unlike the cuckoo, inaudible when one doesn't. It is surprising that no poet, so far as I know, has ever called them "air-borne carpenters" or some such euphuistic name: for all their sounds are those of delicate joinery, heard from a long way off and given musical timbre. They drill, they file, they saw, they twirl their sweet ratchets all day long, building heaven knows what invisible scaffolding of delight.
But I doubt if this would sound well in a poem. Better, perhaps, to say that their fragile bines of song climb all day up unseen hop-poles, so that the whole air is laced with tendrils of music and the Marsh is turned into an ethereal hop-garden, whose harvest no hands can pick, nor oast dry. Perhaps this is just as well: for it would be a rare, heady and dangerous draught.
NOW is the time when the soot-black twigs of London and the polished brown ones of the country burst out, page-like, into rows of neat green buttons, which later on become little plumes or tufts of crinkled leaves; when vacuum-cleaners, like primeval monsters, advance with questing snouts in search of their coveted diet of grime and fluff. Now is the time when the first white hairs stick up remorselessly in the parting, but you don't give a damn; when typists put jars of daffodils on their chiefs' desks, and cross old ladies smile at the dustman. Now, in fact, is the real New Year, when all good resolutions ought to be made.
For consider what becomes of those you make on January 1. Conceived in a mood of post Christmas indigestion, prenatally depressed by the influence of unpayable bills, born in the bleak small hours of January 1 after an exhaustingly convivial party–what chance do the poor little creatures stand? I will not drink, you say lugubriously, and move your aching head into an easier position on the pillow; I will not smoke, you add, moistening your dry lips; I will not swear or lie or live above my means, be nasty to my wife or too nice to anybody else's....
The days go by. The Christmas tree is thrown away; the shops are paid somehow, or at least sent something on account. Physical vigour returns and with it spiritual robustness. The devil a monk am I, and a fig for prohibitions. By Candlemas, at latest, the puny brats are dead, and you are smoking, drinking, and all the rest of it on their unhallowed grave.
It is a good riddance. They were admirable in their way, but their birth was inauspicious. Hunger is supposed to be a bad counsellor: but so is surfeit. You are as likely to make mistakes in one state as in the other. And as Masefield said in Biography, "The days that make us happy make us wise." Now is the time for good resolutions: now, when the blood is rising like sap; when irrational joy, the only safe kind, threatens to burst your respectable waistcoat buttons; when your feet, however prosaic your boots may look to others, are wing-shod and scarcely touch the pavement; when it is only a matter of moments before another pair of wings sprouts from the shoulders of your fifty-shilling suit and sends you soaring over the roof-tops.
The resolutions which you make in this mood are certain to be good ones, and stand a very good chance of remaining unbroken. They will be bold and strong, positive and constructive and adventurous. From now on, you say, I am going to be as brave as a lion, as firm as a rock, as kind as a dove, as active as an ant, as truthful as glass; I will write a poem, paint a picture, compose a symphony, found a business, plant a tree, build a summer-house, and repaper the dining-room; I will go and make love to my wife as charmingly as though she were somebody else's. And in the intervals (but there won't, of course, be very much time) I will smoke a pipe, drink a glass of bitter, and conceivably say "Gadzooks."
They may not all come off, these spring-time resolutions. A symphony or two may have to be scrapped, or reduced to a song; and the dining-room may only get as far as having its ceiling distempered. But they will be rosy, lusty children, pleasanter to live with than their peevish winter-born brothers; and the making of them, at any rate, will provide some sort of answer to the eternal question: "What can one do about the spring?" For something must be done, and soon, or one will undoubtedly burst.
ONE of the pretty ideas which continue to flourish in the grown-up mind, but which are scarcely ever translated into fact, is the concept known as Children's Gardens. The mental picture is of an engaging little creature in a floppy hat leaning on a rake in the middle of a small square plot of intensely cultivated ground. The flowers are tastefully chosen, carefully tended, and wholly unaffected by frost, gales, or insect pests. The box edges are glossy and neatly trimmed.
"Look, Mummy!" the child lisps (no mean feat). "Look, Mummy! I did it all myself..."
In reality, gardening is the very last occupation which is likely to appeal to children. Patience, perseverance, the long view, the sense of to-morrow–these are not the qualities of youth. To develop a taste for gardening is, perhaps, the first sign of approaching middle-age. Childhood likes quick results, something to show for its labours, not in six months or six weeks, but to-morrow, to-day. Nothing slower of growth than mustard-and-cress on wet flannel will suit the fiery urgencies of the young. Moreover, they want something which will last. Their impatience at the time a bulb takes to produce a daffodil is only equalled by their distress when the golden trumpet begins to shrivel at the edges. They have not yet lived through enough springs to acquire our irrational conviction that there are bound to be other daffodils next year.
Also, they still believe in morality and fair play, in the triumph of virtue, and the downfall of the lazy and wicked. It is an outrage to their creed when one of them who has been both careful and industrious has his seeds stolen by birds, his leaves eaten by caterpillars, and his crocuses trodden down by the cat, while the boy next door, who is notoriously idle and careless, gets off scot-free and produces blooms as perfect as the pictures in a seedsman's catalogue. As for climatic disasters–frost, flood, drought, hail, and hurricane–to dismiss these with a shrug as Acts of God, in the manner of older gardeners, is beyond them: they have still got too much respect for God to believe that he would do anything so damnably unfair.
It is only the mechanics of horticulture that children really enjoy. The potting-shed means more to them than the parterre. There is, for them, untold fascination in all the paraphernalia of gardening–not only in the tools, but in the bundles of bamboo canes, the tall pea-sticks, the flat wooden labels, the strips of felt and square nails for fixing up creepers, the trugs, the cloches, the slug-traps, the mole-traps, the squat, pungent balls of tarred string, and the long pale hanks of bass which come in so handy for mermaid's hair.
Moreover, most of the jobs that children like doing are ones for which there is little or no scope in their own tiny patches. Helping to pull the mowing-machine or to empty the cut grass into the wheel-barrow, with the chance of a ride afterwards; clipping evergreens with shears they can hardly lift; cutting turf edges with a crescent-shaped spud, dangerously sharp; pleaching alleys with pebbles or paving them with brick; building rockeries, damming streams, puddling lily-ponds: these are the occupations which delight them. But digging, raking, hoeing, pricking out seedlings, and, above all, weeding, are to most children, once the novelty has worn off, nothing but a bore. Even watering, an ecstasy at first, begins to pall as soon as they discover that it is a daily obligation.
That is why one's touchingly hopeful ideas about children's gardens are so seldom realised. They start with a flourish of miniature forks and trowels, a blaze of coloured seed packets neatly impaled on sticks. Within a week or two neglect sets in; tools are allowed to stay out all night to rust; seed packets, blown adrift by the wind, are left to disintegrate damply on top of inappropriate seeds. By the end of the season the patch has become a sorry cross between garden and wilderness, possessing, like other half-castes, the good qualities of neither; by the following summer the wilderness has reclaimed its own.
Yet such is the persistence of ideas, the buoyancy of the human soul, and the persuasiveness of children's promises, that a year later the whole business begins over again. New tools are bought, a size bigger this time; the ground is once more cleared of dock and groundsel, chickweed, dandelion, and shepherd's purse: and once more the three of them stand in a row at Woolworth's in front of the serried seed-packets, gravely comparing the rival shapes and colours of columbine and snapdragon, sweet-william and marigold, night-scented stock and Canterbury bell; while you, standing behind them, enjoy for the thousandth time the incomparable contour and texture of the backs of their necks.
WE had planned to go to Brittany this spring. But owing to a series of minor disasters which were as poignant to live through as they would be tedious to relate, we had to give up the idea. Instead, we went to Cornwall. Ethnologists would say that this came to much the same thing: but we didn't think so.
Still, there was no need, we felt, to let ourselves be wholly cheated of our foreign travel. The fun of going to new countries lies not so much in being abroad as in being conscious that you are abroad. Strangeness is in the eye of the beholder: all you have to do, therefore, is to acquire a fresh technique. If you cannot go to very strange places, let the places you do go to feel as strange as possible. Take nothing about them for granted. View their inhabitants with puzzled suspicion, their customs with amused tolerance, their food with snobbish and unquestioning respect. Say of their scenery, not "That view reminds one of something abroad," but "Look! that might almost be a bit of Sussex." Be parochial, that you may have the pleasure of feeling insular; narrow your mind, that your meagre little wedge of travel may be given a chance to broaden it.
To Cornwall, then, we went, because it was a nice long way off, and because it stuck out into the sea, and because the place-names were preposterous and fetching, and because the roads on the map were covered with little triple arrows ("gradients over one-in-seven"), blue fans ("views"), green fringes ("picturesque routes") and black dots ("dangerous bumps or hollows"). And now we are back again, feeling agreeably out-there-ish and bursting to pass on all our newly acquired knowledge. Here, then, is a Brief Guide to Cornwall.
Geography.–Cornwall is divided into three parts. The north part is by Norfolk out of Brittany. It has sand-dunes, and dark sheer cliffs, and Ovaltine-coloured ploughland, and seaside resorts, and wild, savage, beautiful headlands with Ye Olde Holy Grail Café perched on top, and a rushing, tearing, warm, unescapable wind. The south part is by the Côte d'Azur out of West Kent, but takes after its father. It has blue bays, yellow coves, black rocks, featherbed woods that flow spaciously down the sides of windless coombes, and tiny perpendicular limpet villages that somehow manage not to slither right down the cliffs into the sea. The middle part of Cornwall is by South Yorkshire out of Egypt; a kind of albino Black Country; a sullen, haunted plain, scattered with derelict mining villages and tall, ghostly, white pyramids. This has something to do with tin, or slate, or china-clay: I don't know which. In certain districts all the men's faces are quite covered with a fine white floury dust, so that they look, according to expression, like millers, lepers or clowns. This, too, has something to do with china-clay. Or tin.
Inhabitants.–Cornwall is populated entirely by two sets of Bokanovskified twins. (I am indebted to Mr. Aldous Huxley for enabling me to understand without hesitation what might otherwise have struck me as baffling.) One set have round heads, barley-gold hair and wood-smoke-coloured eyes; they are slow and sunny and see fairies on Bodmin Moor. The other set have long heads, black hair and ravishingly haggard faces carved into deep ironical lines; their eyes are blue and piercing, ringed with a darker blue round the iris; they are sinister, sardonic, heart-rending and quite irresistible. There was a young fisherman in a pub at Mevagissey... and another, older, with spare stooped shoulders, carrying water in two Old Testament earthenware pitchers up the steep crooked street of Gorran Haven–a wicked-looking hamlet if ever there was one, with a keg of smuggled brandy in every cellar, I'll be bound, propped up on the long-brittle bones of quietly stabbed excisemen.
Fauna.–The fauna consists of moles, starfish and snow-white cats.
Flora.–In the north, scurvy-grass, navelwort and primroses. In the south, wild daffodils, palm-trees and primroses. In the middle, primroses.
Myths and Legends.–Cornish cream. Cornish pasties.
Habits and Customs.–There is a left-handed rule for motor traffic and a right-handed rule for cyclists, farm-carts and cows. All gates are left permanently open, jutting out across the road, just to learn you. Level-crossings have no gates and are placed immediately round a sharp corner, between high hedges, half-way up a one-in-six hill.
Place-Names.–Unbelievable, as I said before. Still, there they are on the map. But don't go to Saint-Anthony-in-Roseland, because no place could possibly live up to a name like that. We avoided it, for fear of disillusion.
Language.–Up to the scratch. Pointing to a three-masted schooner with an unfamiliar flag, which was loading (or unloading) china-clay (or tin) in Pen-something Harbour, we asked a white-haired, apple-cheeked salt where she came from. He said, dreamily: "She 'm a furriner. We don't 'ardly know wur them furriners du be fraam: they du jest pop in an' aowt."
Unclassifiable Phenomenon.–Some way from any human habitation, in the middle of a vast crater of sand-dunes which, made theatrical by the horizontal light of the sinking sun, set one vaguely thinking of the Children of Israel, we suddenly saw, startlingly black against the pale sand and grey-green bents, a very, very ancient four-wheeled cab. It was deserted, dilapidated. Its paint and its leather were half peeled away, its wheels were nearly hub-deep in sand, its curved shafts were flung up to the empty sky in a gesture of grotesque and agonizing prayer. Hanging askew from one of its rusty door-handles was a square white notice-board, which we were too far away to read.
"Probably," said T., "it says, 'This is the fly that they sent to meet Napoleon the year he invaded Cornwall.' "
"Or perhaps," I suggested, "it says it was King Arthur's coronation coach."
We went closer. What it said was:–
"Beware of the Bees."
That is all I know about Cornwall.
INTO the lives of even the best-regulated families–well, no, that cliché for once will not do: for the best-regulated families, of course, are those who live strictly within their means, make ample provision for income tax, settle their gas, telephone and electricity bills before there is even a mention of those ominous words "cut off," put aside a sensible sum for appendicitis, and even, on top of all this, manage to save.
Into the lives, then, of most ordinary families–in some as rarely as shingles, in others with the seasonal frequency of influenza–there crops up from time to time that distressing malady known as a financial crisis. Like other diseases, this is sometimes one's own fault, sometimes other people's.
The former kind, though often easier to treat, is far the more unpleasant of the two. In fact, a financial crisis for which one can in no way be held responsible, such as that caused by a defaulting partner, a failing bank, or a heavy increase in taxation, has in it many almost enjoyable elements. Righteous anger, the knowledge that one is living in a stage situation, or the sense of being in the same boat with a number of other people–these are luxuries which compensate more than a little for those one is forced to give up. For let it be clearly understood that I am talking of luxuries, not of necessities; of reduced circumstances, not of penury; of mental anxiety, not of bodily hunger. One cannot joke about hunger; and there are few things more embarrassing than to hear people, often in front of the servants which they are still able to keep, dignify their hard-upness with the name of poverty.
Between the bare-necessity line, however, and the rosy, care-free state which is vaguely but expressively known as "feeling flush," there are infinite and delicate gradations. This state, mind you, may be attained by one man at £2 a week and by another at £10,000 a year: it is a matter of tastes, habits and upbringing.
I do not believe, as is generally held, that the more money one has the more one wants. I believe that each person has an optimum income: beyond this point the Law of Diminishing Returns begins to operate, not materially alone (the rising scale of taxation sees to that) but by means of such imponderables as anxiety and responsibility, and by that nebulous drain on both purse and peace of mind known as what-is-expected-of-people-in-our-position. But optimum incomes are so rarely achieved, let alone surpassed, that there is not room for them in this brief study of the financial crisis. What we are concerned with here is the inception and progress of the disease in normal cases.
The first symptom is usually a slight queasiness in the pit of the stomach on hearing the postman's knock, which increases every day as the stack of unpaid bills continues to silt up in the right-hand pigeon-hole. Unless the swelling of this stack can be reduced, the sensation of discomfort will become almost unbearable, as bills are succeeded first by stiff letters, then by stinkers, thirdly by visits from firms' representatives, and lastly by the arrival of two men with blue chins, deplorable hair-cuts, and a knowledgeable eye for furniture.
Patients are strongly advised not to let the disease proceed along these lines, as it is apt to get out of control. It is much better to reduce the above-mentioned swelling by the judicious application of cheques. But this treatment, in many cases, only serves to bring on a further symptom: a short but extremely painful letter from the bank stating the amount of the patient's overdraft not only in figures but in words, and regretting that no further cheques can be cashed.
At this point the disease may be said to have become acute, and drastic measures are necessary if the patient is not to succumb. The treatment from now on consists of two parts: the temporary, or styptic, and the permanent, or recuperative. The first (also called getting out of the jam) can be accomplished by various means, all more or less unpalatable. A visit to the bank manager will in some cases be effective, but more often is merely waste of time; there remain, in order of unpleasantness, borrowing, selling or earning. The first, whether from a friend or from a pawnbroker, is extremely distasteful; the second provides, for some people, a certain masochistic kick; the third is definitely enjoyable, but can seldom be done in a hurry.
There are also the Derby Sweep, the £1000 Crossword, and the unexpected legacy from the old lady whose Pomeranian you rescued from an Airedale in Winchester High-street twenty years ago: but these should not be counted upon in real life.
Whichever method is employed to stave off immediate disaster (and it is surprising how frequently it does get staved off), the hardest task is yet to come: that intricate gymnastic exercise which consists of simultaneously pulling up one's socks, drawing in one's horns, and turning over a new leaf. The well-known difficulty of this feat bears little or no relation to the patient's past or present height in the financial scale. The measure of a fall is the distance dropped, not the precise height above sea-level at which one stops falling.
Economy has been called a habit of mind, and certainly it is not until it has become a habit that it can cease to be irksome. For some natures it never does cease; but for others–and they are not always the naturally prudent ones, either–there is a queer satisfaction to be got out of being in a State of Economy. It is hard to analyse this feeling: the main ingredient, perhaps, is a sense of relief at the sudden simplification of life, at the narrowing of one's field of choice. Much the same effect could no doubt be obtained by joining the Army or the Roman Catholic Church. One spends far less time, for instance, in making up one's mind between the equal though differing attractions of sole and herring, wine and beer, silk and gingham; between going out to a film and staying at home with a book; between giving a party and not giving a party; between the excitement of new shoes and the familiarity of old ones.
Of all the many factors which used to affect one's decision–time, effort, digestibility, chic, comfort, and so on–there remains only one: cost. To weigh the alternatives in this balance alone is the work of a moment: and there are all the more moments left for the life of princely expenditure, of inexhaustible revenue, without tax or toil, overdraft, usury or distraint, which is lived in the secret kingdom behind the eyelids.
"TO glaze it the same again," said Mr. Cotterson, "'ll cost you a guinea."
"Yerss. You see, it 's one of them old-fashioned ones. This here black border's all painted on the glass from the inside, and them gold stars is done in leaf."
I groaned. It is a commonplace of domestic life that just when one has made up one's mind that for a year at least one must buy nothing but necessities, a nail slips out of the wall and sends a picture crashing to the ground. To let a valuable engraving be ruined by dust for the sake of a new glass is obviously bad economy. It is true that one might wrap it up for a year in a dust-proof parcel: but for one thing, no parcels are dust-proof in London, and for another, there is an oblong mark on the wall which would put off prospective tenants. So I took it round to Cotterson's, prepared to spend, reluctantly, a few shillings.
"How much would a plain glass be?"
"Plain glass woan do," said Mr. Cotterson. "That'd need a mount, plain glass would. And I carn do this black and gold affair for lessan a guinea."
There was a silence.
"Of course," added Mr. Cotterson thoughtfully, "if you cut out the stars, that'd on'y come fifteen shillings. There's a lot of work in them stars."
I jumped at this rebate, though even fifteen shillings seemed an appalling sum.
"All right," I said. "Cut out the stars." And as I walked away down the King's Road I knew that, quite by chance, I had hit upon a slogan.
Now a slogan is a very great help. The belligerent clans of the Gael knew this many centuries ago–though they, with their genius for wasting letters, wrote it sluagh-gairm. "Chlanna nan con thigibh a so 's gheibh sibh feòil!" yelled (no easy matter) the Camerons of Lochiel as they charged down the brae with drawn claymores; and their opponents–who gathered, astutely enough, that this meant "Sons of the hounds, come here and get flesh!"–shook in their brogans. Of late years the principle has been rediscovered by those shrewd campaigners, the advertising agents. "Eat More Tripe!" they bellow at us from every hoarding, or scrawl in letters of smoke across the impartial serenity of the sky; and before long the whole country has become tripe-conscious, and smart women sit round the fire, after dinner and before the men come up, discussing the rival merits of monk's-hood and honeycomb. If a slogan can work such magic, it is clearly worth having one. "Cut Out the Stars..." It is a poem in itself, apart from its esoteric significance.
The well-known axiom, usually applied to alcohol and tobacco, that it is easier to do without than to do with less, is equally true of expenditure. Not that one can ever become a total abstainer from spending: one's landlord on quarter-day would remain coldly unmoved by a letter saying that one had signed the pledge. But to some temperaments it is less irksome to buy no extras at all than to have the intolerable strain of deciding, every time the instinct to buy a non-necessity crops up, whether one can afford it or not. This attitude, by the way, often earns its possessors a reputation for self-denial which they do not wholly deserve: there is much in it also of indolence, of hedonism, of a desire to save not money, but time and trouble. But it has this advantage, that with its aid one more quickly gets back on to that rung in the financial ladder at which one need no longer cut out the stars. One may even, if one keeps it up long enough, reach that still higher rung which is known in one family at any rate as being on the Amber Duck Standard.
This expression was minted many years ago when we, during some previous and now-forgotten financial crisis, happened to go to dinner with a charming, kindly and hospitable old bachelor of whom we were very fond. On his chaste Adam chimney-piece, flanking the graceful ormolu clock which had been there ever since we had known him, we caught sight of a new treasure–a pair of Chinese ducks, nearly half life-size, carved out of clear amber. They were rich in duck-like characteristics: they had the practical fussiness, the bland innocence, the complacent humour, all the inward and outward curliness of duckhood. Facing each other, they floated motionless on their little ebony pools, miracles of plump translucency. They were delicious.
"Oh!" we exclaimed with one voice.
"Yes," said our host, beaming. "Aren't they nice? I got them at — 's this afternoon."
The name he mentioned was that of the most expensive dealer in St. James's, but that was beside the point: what struck us, filling us with a mixture of envy, amusement and awe, was how wonderful it must feel to be in the market not only for bread and circuses, but for chimney-piece ornaments as well.
Ornaments, as a rule, are things one does not buy. One inherits them, one receives them as wedding or Christmas presents, one wins them at a hoop-la stall. For it must be borne in mind that there is no difference whatever between a pink china boot and a Dresden shepherdess: both, technically, are amber ducks. I have, before now, heard the expression on other people's lips, misused, and known the vexation of a carpenter who sees one of his own chisels being employed as a screw-driver. I have heard it applied to such things as plays, films and concerts, which is entirely wrong: these things are circuses, not amber ducks. Books, pictures and gramophone records, too, are exempt, for some reason vaguely, perhaps snobbishly, connected with uplift: though to buy a vellum-bound limited edition of a book which is obtainable in ordinary form is getting nearer the mark. Even this, however, the purist would reject. For a book, however grandly got up, can still be read: whereas with an amber duck, strictly speaking, there should be no possibility of doing anything at all except look at it. The term may be stretched, however, to include usable objects which you do not in fact intend to use, such as snuff-boxes, étuis, vinaigrettes, lacquer fans, damascened daggers, unwashable milk-jugs in the shape of cows, and all bowls, jars, dishes, plates and glasses which are considered too valuable to contain flowers, food or wine.
Let it not be thought that I am in any way denigrating amber ducks. Far from it. They are, for me, a symbol of prosperity: to be in a position to buy them–and their price varies from twopence at the Caledonian Market to a thousand guineas in King Street, according to the buyer's standard of living–is to be a wealthy man. They are more than cake, more even than sugar icing; they are the paper frill round it and the little silver balls on the top. They are decorative and idle and unjustifiable and lovably absurd–the aristocracy of the world of inanimate objects.
And like other idle aristocracies they are the first thing to be thrown overboard in a crisis. As a virtuous bride, from her wedding day onward, keeps her heart so closed to temptation that her eyes are blind, her ears deaf, to the flying banners and sounding trumpets of adventure, so, when one embraces a régime of economy, one ceases even to be aware of the existence of amber ducks. (Not just at first; but after a while a merciful numbness sets in.) And as, to one who is in the mood for adventure, there is no lack of it to be found, so, directly the necessity for economy is over, one's range of vision automatically widens. One becomes conscious, and lustfully conscious, of the green glass egg in the corner shop which one has walked past, unseeing, every day for months: in no time at all one is strolling in and asking the price.
But that day is a long way off. In the meanwhile one has still to climb back somehow on to the rung below–the rung called Legitimate Replacements. In the meanwhile one must still, with drawn claymore, cut out the stars.
THEY are at it again, those three. They stand quite a long way off on the other side of the garden, but when there is a south wind, as there is to-night, it blows their voices right across the lawn and in at my bedroom window. As usual, their conversation begins in the friendliest of tones.
"My dear," says the first, "I see you've got your new spring outfit at last. How delightful it looks!" Her voice is firm, deep and rather loud.
"It is nice, isn't it?" says the second in a smoother, softer voice. "I never believe in going into spring clothes too early. They get dowdy-looking quite soon enough."
"Some do," says the first; "but of course I always believe in using really good material. I've had mine a week or more now."
"So I noticed," says the second. "Oh, well, that's all right and proper and as it should be. They say it means a fine summer when you get yours before mine.
'Ash before oak,I heard two humans quoting that only the other day when they were walking past."
In for a soak;
Oak before ash,
Only a splash.'
At this point the third voice joins in, high, silvery and tinkling.
"Of course I'm always told," it says, "that I look every bit as nice with nothing on."
"Betula," says the first voice sharply, "just because you happen to have a silver complexion there is no need to be a minx. When you're as old as I am–"
"Oh, heaven forbid!" says Betula, laughing. "I'd sooner die young. A fat middle-aged dryad is a dreadful sight, I always think. I never can see, Querkie, why you oaks should be so proud of yourselves. After all, mere long-livingness isn't a virtue."
"You forget," says the first voice with dignity, "that we are the strongest of all trees, the most useful to man, the most famous in history and mythology–"
"May I remind you," puts in the second, "that Yggdrasil was an ash-tree?"
"I am not talking of Scandinavia; I am talking of England. The oak is the national symbol."
"And why, pray?" asks the second.
"Why, because all the great sailing-ships, which gave England her supremacy, were built of oak."
"Exactly," says the second triumphantly. "And now that wooden ships are out of date, what tree is being planted all over the country instead of the oak? Why, the ash, of course–because it is used for building aeroplanes. You're a back-number, my dear, that's what you are. Before very long I shall be the national symbol and somebody will be writing a song called 'Hearts of Ash.'"
"Don't get waxy, Fraxy," says Betula in her childish treble. "I 'm the only one of us three that's really got news-value. Why, haven't you heard of my latest triumph?"
"No," the other two admit with grudging curiosity.
"I," says Betula, "have been specially invited to help in the campaign against motoring accidents. They are planting clumps of silver birch opposite all the side turnings on the new by-pass roads, so that if any cars are approaching the main road their head-lights will be reflected in my white bark. If that isn't keeping abreast of modern affairs I don't know what is. But of course," she adds politely, "it's not your fault that neither of you were chosen for that particular job. After all, everybody can't have a silver complexion..."
The wind, which has been steadily growing, rises to a shriek. I can hear nothing more.
The morning after I wrote this I looked out of my window, and what I saw sent me hurrying across the lawn in my dressing-gown. The oak and the ash were still standing, their young foliage exquisitely green after the storm. Between them, prone, lay the birch-tree, her lovely silver body gleaming among the wet fern, the delicate net-work of her boughs ravelled and broken.
I looked up sternly at the oak and ash; it seemed to me that they were fluttering their new spring dresses a little too innocently in the breeze.
I AM going through, at this moment, a well-known form of minor hell; one of those trivial anguishes of the mind which have the power, while they last, to overshadow the vaster despairs of love, death or bankruptcy: as, on the bodily plane, a flea-bite can monopolise the attention of a dying man. In other words I am suffering from partial, and I hope temporary, amnesia. Or, to put it even more plainly, I have been trying in vain for several hours to remember the name of a little man I met on a boat in 1922.
It is of no practical importance whether I remember it or not. Even at the time he meant nothing to me, except that he sat at the same table, shared my taste for pickled walnuts, and was the only person I ever managed to beat at bull-board; and by now I should have forgotten him completely if it had not been for an old photograph album through which, every five years or so, I have the idle curiosity to glance. "Ah, yes," I say reminiscently, "there's little —" But what do I say? Little who? This time my memory has failed me. All I can be certain of is that it began with an M. Moore? Too short. Middleton? Too long. Mackay? No; for we never mentioned Scotland. Morgan? Morris? Marshall? I rage, I burn.
Reason, or rather a kind of superstitious low cunning, counsels me to stop thinking about it. Leave it alone and it'll come home, bringing its name behind it. Ignore it deliberately, as a kitten stalks away with feigned unconcern from a suddenly tedious cotton-reel, in the hope that, seen afresh from the other side of the room, it will turn once more into a mouse. (Ah! I nearly had it that time. Marriott? No.)
Very well, then; let me tear myself away from the particular annoyance and consider the general problem. A brain specialist, no doubt, could whip out, as neat as ninepence, the scientific explanation of why certain words or facts should suddenly change from docile palfreys, saddled, bridled, unobtrusively awaiting one's pleasure, into intractable mustangs, ranging beyond recall; should escape from the orderly pigeon-holes of one's brain into that mysterious region known as the tip of one's tongue. It is a small area: one would not think it had enough room on it for the number of things that manage to lurk there–addresses, telephone numbers, book-titles, middle parts of tunes, second lines of limericks, and above all, names of little men whom one met on a boat in 1922. (I glance out of the corner of my eye at the cotton-reel: but it is still a lifeless block.)
Scientific explanations, however, are more interesting than consoling. What one wants is a reliable cure for the disease, a magic formula which will release one from these bouts of agony. (Abracadabra. Gazeeka, gazeeka, gazum. Murphy? Mylechreest?) What is more, it must be a lasting cure. One might imagine that the amount of time and trouble one spends in coaxing a truant word back into the memory would inscribe it indelibly on one's heart and ensure that that particular creature, at any rate, should never escape again: whereas in fact, like a once-dislocated ankle, it is more than ever liable to slip out.
The art of mnemonics is insufficiently taught, and when practised by novices is apt to lead to confusion: witness the crude prep.-school chestnut about Mrs. Lummock and Mrs. Kelly. A similar but more complex tangle was all the result I got from trying to fix in my head the name of a certain restaurant manager whom I sometimes wanted to ring up. He was called Clayton, and he always took more trouble if one asked for him by name: but nothing would din it into me, not even connecting his red hair with the colour of clay. Finally, I thought of that well-known theatrical partnership Clayton and Waller. In order to be sure of remembering the second name I resorted to an excruciating pun. "What does one do in a restaurant?" I asked myself. "Swaller," I replied unblushingly. The plan seemed pretty cast-iron: but the next time I wanted to book a table I asked for Mr. Lewis.
The only mnemotechnic device which ever worked with me did so by virtue of its superb and flagrant inconsequence.
"Where do you live, in case I should need you again?" I asked of a departing charwoman.
"Seventy-nine Skinner's Dwellings," she replied. "And if you forget the number, m'm, think of a dog-licence."
"Seven-an'-six–on'y you turn the six upside down," she explained, beaming. "I thought of that," she added modestly, "myself." I was staggered: but I have remembered her number ever since.
There is, too, the well-known story of Benvenuto Cellini's father, who boxed his son's ears in order that he might never forget having seen a salamander. But such violent methods, all very well in mediæval Italy, are out of place to-day. Ear-boxing is now deprecated as being likely to cause deafness; and in any case it is difficult to box one's own.
(Mitchell? Getting warmer, surely. I am certain it was something very like Mitchell.)
Another point is this: a sudden lapse of the conscious memory seems to let loose the subconscious with a rush. One can remember all kinds of little irrelevant details: that the sentence one is searching for came two-thirds of the way down on a left-hand page; or that just as Oliver made that so maddeningly mislaid witty remark the traffic-lights changed from red to amber and a passer-by dropped his newspaper. And if the missing object is a human being one may get a shock, when the mystery is cleared up, at the things one's tentative gropings have revealed.
"Who on earth was it," T. asked me the other day, "who was telling us all that stuff about werewolves?"
"I quite forget," I said, "but I know it was a man: and I've a sort of idea it was somebody we weren't mad cats on."
"Yes–or didn't trust very far, or something."
"A slight oick, too, so far as I remember."
"And surely, didn't he have rather a tiresome voice?"
"Very. Who could it have been?"
At that moment X. happened to drop in for a drink, and as his name was announced T. and I looked at each other in horrified realisation. It was very queer: for we had always taken it for granted, just because we saw him pretty often, that X. was a great friend of ours. And I, at any rate, have never felt quite the same about him since I caught that brief glimpse of him through the lidless eye of the subconscious.
Out of the photograph album, which I have been using as a writing-board, slips a discoloured sheet of notepaper.
"DEAR MISS —,
–As promised am enclosing copies of the snaps I took on the trip. The ones of our final bull-board contest are quite a success, I think!
Hoping we may meet again when you are next in town,
Yours v. sincerely,
Simpson! SIMPSON! O blessed name! O sweet, incomparable relief! I knew, I knew it had an M in it.
SUMMER, after all our weary waiting, is here at last. That is to say, she was here yesterday and she will probably be back again to-morrow. To-day is one of those nondescript bits of weather which she leaves behind in her stead when she wants to play truant; it is like that pathetic creature, the stand-in, who takes the place of a film actress during the tedious hours while the electricians are adjusting the lights, and who never appears in the finished film at all. She may spend more time on the set than the actress herself, but no record is made of her: just as nobody remembers afterwards those in-between days, cold, grey and gusty, which do not fit in with our conventional idea of summer; though there may be fifty of them between May and September.
It is the poets who are to blame for this. They will copy from other poets instead of using their powers of observation. The poets whom the earliest ones copied from were not Englishmen at all but Greeks and Romans: and everybody knows that Abroad is a place with real seasons which run true to type, instead of the hotchpotch we have to put up with in this country. Poetry has a greater influence on everyday thought than non-poetry-lovers care to admit, probably because even the most hard-headed business man among us was brought up on nursery rhymes and never quite shakes off his respect for incantation. So it is only natural that our Platonic ideal of spring, summer, autumn and winter should be one which dooms us to disappointment.
For all that, summer is here; and there is certain to be quite a number of days on which she will attend to the job herself and not palm us off with a stand-in. On one of these days, leaning out of the window after breakfast and sniffing ecstatically at perfection, you decide that it would be a crime to sit indoors at a writing-table on a morning like this: you will take your work out into the garden and do it there. It all sounds so simple and so idyllic. What could be a pleasanter and a nobler occupation than to sit in the sunshine, green grass beneath your feet, balmy zephyrs playing with your hair, the scent of flowers in every breath you take, and to write immortal poetry–or even, for that matter, perishable prose?
But in practice there are snags. To begin with, the grass on a fine summer morning is not only green but conspicuously dewy; and dew, although it sounds more romantic than rain, is every bit as wet. It is difficult to feel inspired in Wellington boots, so there is nothing for it but a foot-stool. Now the only foot-stool in the house happens to be a pink brocade one with cabriole legs: and this, somehow, seems to bring the atmosphere of the scene further from Eden and nearer to the Petit Trianon.
Secondly, the balmy zephyrs refuse to confine themselves to your hair. They flutter the corners of the paper you are writing on, scatter the lawn with the pages you have already finished, and cause leaves and flowers to wave within eyeshot, distractingly.
Thirdly, the sun–so welcome a companion in your leisure hours–is the greatest possible hindrance to the profession of letters. Its light, reflected from white paper, dazzles the eyes: its warmth lulls the brain and saps the resolution. Lids tend to close, coherent thought to relapse into random daydreaming. It takes a stern effort of will to write as much as fifty words without a break. True, you can sit in the shade: but then being out of doors loses much of its point. Or you can arrange yourself with great care so that your upper half is in the shade and the rest of you in the sun: but then you come up against what is probably the most annoying of all natural phenomena–namely, that the sun (pace Galileo and vide Einstein) will not keep still for two minutes together. Inexorably, and with a sublime disregard for human convenience, it creeps round the pear-tree and settles comfortably down on your writing-block again like an importunate cat. There are sun-glasses, I know, at a price to suit every pocket. But even the most expensive ones give a depressing effect, as of November twilight in a slate quarry; while the cheaper brands transport their wearer into such a lurid, threatening and phantasmagorical world that he might well imagine himself to be looking at a colour-film of the Day of Judgment designed by El Greco and produced by M.-G.-M. Interesting, no doubt: but not what he came out into the garden for.
Lastly, there is the garden itself: and this is the most distracting thing of all. There is no need to descend to Godwottery, or even to know the difference between an aquilegia and an antirrhinum, in order to be enthralled by the ingenious and lovely permutations of shape, colour and texture–to say nothing of scent–which surround you. Whatever your personal beliefs, you cannot deny that the affair has been well done.
Nor is the beauty of the garden a static thing, to be glanced at once and stored in the mind's eye. It is dramatic: things are happening all the time, clamouring for your attention. Look again, and a big hairy poppy-bud, which five minutes ago was all green, is slashed with scarlet. In another quarter of an hour the crumpled silk will be bursting right out of it. And while your back was turned, too, those broom-flowers have been visited by a bee: their stamens are uncoiled, their petals dishevelled; they have a gay, raffish air, very different from their former demureness.
The situation is really impossible. Nobody but an automaton could concentrate in a place like this. There is nothing for it but to gather up your papers and retreat indoors. One thing is certain: the greatest service that has ever been rendered to literature is the invention of houses.
ONLY a day or two ago, it seems, we held the New Year in the palm of our hand, a round silver shilling of almost inexhaustible promise. There appeared to be no limit to the things we could do with it: but while we stood wondering what to buy first, it turned mysteriously into small change and one of the pennies was missing. And now six of them have gone; daffodils are nothing but a memory, and a wave of cow-parsley has flooded the land. And have we begun those Spanish lessons? Have we taken up tap-dancing? Have we read Spinoza, or even Tom Jones? Have we explored the Isle of Dogs, cleaned our typewriter, stuck in last year's photographs or written a play? In short, where are our New Year resolutions? Gone with the wind. And yet, you know, we are not at heart irresolute. Our trouble, we protest, is not so much infirmity of purpose as shortage of time.
It all comes back to that in the end. It is idle for our friends to say (as some of them, notably childless philosophers, do), "There is all the time in the world." There is, it is true, a great deal of time in the world; but most of it, unfortunately, belongs to other people, many of whom, God help them, do not even enjoy having it and will go to almost any lengths in order to kill it. Our own allowance is hopelessly inadequate, and a large part of it we must spend in being old and disinclined for tap-dancing. During our periodical flirtations with Buddhism we reflect that we can do it all next time; but that is tepid comfort. Meanwhile, the tempo of life speeds up in an alarming way, not only from year to year but from century to century. Every day presents us with wider possibilities of knowledge, adventure and delight, but our opportunities for exploring them are still rigidly confined to a meagre twenty-four hours, and during those hours we have also to sleep, eat, dress, undress, clean our teeth and play with our children: so that Time, who in the age of Marvell made himself sufficiently unpopular with a wingèd chariot, now pursues his victims at the wheel of a super-charged Mercedes.
Clearly something must be done. Since we cannot make time, we must contrive to save it. But where, we ask ourselves, surveying, bill-hook in hand, the weed-enjungled garden of our day, where can we possibly begin? It is a difficult problem; but I have been giving it some profound thought, and I think I may claim to have discovered a way of saving time in enormous and satisfying quantities. And that is by not reading the newspapers.
When I say newspapers I mean daily newspapers, and when I say not reading them I mean not reading them. I would not for the world discourage you from buying them: journalists must live, and so must advertising copy-writers, and to have two or three papers lying about lends tone, as they say, to a drawing-room–though it is insufficiently realised that the kind of tone it lends depends upon the kind of paper. Besides, there is always the Free Insurance. But reading newspapers–have you ever reckoned up how much time you waste every year on this idle, this superfluous pursuit? If you take in two morning papers and one evening one, and are a plodding, conscientious reader, you can easily squander three hours a day on the process; and even if you are one of the people whose eye glazes over at such headlines as "Reconstruction: the Next Step," or "Whither India?" or "Germany on the Eve of the Polls," you are unlikely to spend less than one. Take two hours as the average, multiply it by the number of days in the year–leaving out Christmas Day and Good Friday–and you will have a time-total before which your mind will reel. What might I not achieve, you will murmur brokenly, if I employed this time in doing things instead of in reading about what other people have done?
But still, you will argue, one must not entirely lose touch with current affairs; one ought to know what is going on in the world. My answer to this is, that if anything important happens you will hear of it soon enough: in seven days, at the very most–for you will, of course, continue to read the literary weeklies. You will thus get your news reassuringly mellowed, decently peptonised by educated minds, instead of having it flung at you all hot and bloody from the slaughter-house, as meat is thrown to lions. Moreover, it will be free from non-essentials. You will not have your mind littered up each day with irrelevant, haunting, and for the most part regrettable facts: as, that a post-master's wife in Eastern Silesia has just been delivered of her fourth set of triplets; that Albert Jenkins, 38, an electrical engineer, of Darlington, was yesterday struck by lightning and unrecognisably scorched; and that Kenneth Cosh, 3 1/2, of Greenloaning, Midlothian, has died of swallowing a conversation sweetie.
Quite apart from the question of time-saving, no sensitive person can long remain unaffected by the endless saga of horror and calamity which he absorbs every day, almost unconsciously, into his mental blood-stream. It is, I am convinced, to the insidious influence of the smaller news items that the neurotic state of present-day humanity is principally due.
But I can hear you making one final, feeble protest. "How," you ask, "am I to get on at dinner-parties?" Believe me, you will have the time of your life. "Do tell me," you will say to the large man on your right, "what is the latest news about the Test Match? I haven't seen a paper to-day." (On no account divulge that you never read them at all, or he will inevitably think you mad.) "Do tell me," you will say to the small man on your left, "what was the verdict in the Toothpick Murder Case?" And at one bound you will have achieved popularity. For there is nothing in the world that people like so much as imparting news: and nowadays there is hardly anybody left by dinner-time who has not already heard it.
FOR the most part, life has no chiming clocks. Our age is a thing we keep in our pocket, to be glanced at occasionally if we feel inclined, but otherwise ignored. Time flows past irregularly, as though a lunatic upstream of us were opening and shutting a sluice. A week-end lasts for an hour or a month; sometimes, but not often, for two days. One year is a stalagmite, the next a mushroom. We live by our own private time-scheme and seldom have occasion to check its accuracy. But every now and then a clock strikes; and then we pull out our watches and look at them in surprise. Good God, we mutter, here I am laying a foundation stone: and it seems only yesterday that I was making mud pies. Sometimes it works the other way round: a bus-conductor calls us Miss, and we put our watch backward a little with a smile of relief. But on the whole we are far more likely to be slow.
There is no telling when the clock will chime. So many different things may set it off: an unexpected glimpse of our own profile in a triple mirror; or hearing that one of our contemporaries has become a Brigadier-General; or even–as I am just discovering–being an attendant parent at a Scholarship Exam.
It is, of course, the presence of the other parents that makes the clock strike. The fact that with two exceptions they are all at least ten years senior to us is no great comfort: the point is that we are virtually of the same generation. We are all, prospectively, public school parents, the bane of the Bursar and the potential prey of all the local tradesmen. We are all, collectively, fat and grey and middle-aged and unassailably respectable. We have life insurances and bank accounts. Nous n'irons plus au bois.
Apart from these somewhat melancholy reflections, the days pass delightfully enough. One of the house-masters (God bless him!) has given us the freedom of his garden. Red may is in blossom, lilac, laburnum, guelder-rose and all the lovely accessories of summer. Cow-parsley foams round the shrubbery. The weather is brilliant. There are deck-chairs, numerous and comfortable. From time to time a manservant appears with a tray of quite unrivalled lemonade. The whole thing is what one has always dreamed of but never before attained–a country-house visit during which one can be as unsociable as one likes. True, the chairs are put out in couples every morning; but they are very soon re-arranged. The mothers, with two exceptions, remain in pairs and talk. Heavens, how they talk! Disjointed phrases, sweetened with mown grass, float across the lawn. The word "boy" occurs with the relative frequency of the letter "c" in a type-fount. "Is yours feeling nervous?" "Of course, mine is so terribly highly-strung." "And I said to the Matron, 'Just you try adrenalin.' You see, I've had a lot of experience of bleeders in my family. In fact, We Are Bleeders...." At this the two unsociable ones, who have dragged their chairs almost but not quite out of earshot, catch each other's eye and tremble on the verge of an alliance, but decide after all to respect each other's solitude.
The fathers sit on the other side of the lawn, singly, doing The Times crossword puzzle; and when that becomes too baffling they just sit, their hats tilted forward over their eyes. They do not speak at all. There is complete segregation of the sexes.
The school clock beautifully chimes the quarters on a falling fourth–doh-sol, doh-sol. About ten minutes after the fifth quarter (for one's day is rigorously cut up into hour-and-a-half lengths by the examination time-table), all the parents, as though moved by some primitive swarming instinct, fold up their knitting and their newspapers, hoist themselves to their feet, and stroll away–on such academic sward it is impossible to do anything but stroll–in the direction of School Hall. The foyer of that building strikes as chill as a vault after the hot street. The two inner doors have glass panels, through which the parents peer with compassionate anxiety at the innocent victims inside. A few of these have already finished their paper and are leaning back and staring at the motes in a sunbeam. The rest are frantically scribbling; the backs of their heads are eloquent. The mothers smile ruefully at one another. The fathers stand about in manly attitudes, concealing all signs of couvade.
Doh-sol. Doh-sol. A man in brown, whose face we are beginning to know well, steps across the foyer and throws open the inner doors. The victims stream out, some confident, some despairing, but all inky.
We walk down the High Street. Every now and then, through time-hallowed casements, we hear a long-drawn "B-o-o-oy!" followed, no doubt, but we cannot hear that, by an obedient scurrying of fags.
Over two strawberry messes, in a historic confectioner's, we look through the exam. paper, groaning in sympathy. Only a tortuous and dæmonic mind could have devised such impossible questions. Our hopes of a scholarship grow dimmer. For a few moments we become regrettably flippant, and toy with the idea of composing a Handbook to Eton in the Sellar-Yeatman style, beginning with the sentence: "No scug is permitted to order a strawberry pop in the mess." But then we remember the figure we saw crossing the High Street just as we left School Hall–a serious-looking youth in a ruffled top-hat and a thick black overcoat, the collar well turned up, with a rifle slung on one shoulder: and we are sobered at once. A school which in a self-conscious country can make that spectacle possible is clearly worthy of respect. Floreat Etona.
"BUT, Robina," I said, "why did you go on eating the cherries once you'd discovered that they weren't ripe?"
"Well," she said defensively, "you wouldn't like me to marry an apothecary, would you?"
"Marry a what?"
"An apothecary. You know–it's an old-fashioned kind of chemist. It would be an awful thing to marry because he'd keep on trying all his medicines on you, and Nannie says old-fashioned medicines were made out of frogs and spiders, and–"
"But why should you marry an apothecary?"
"'Tinker, tailor,"' recited Robina patiently, "'soldier, sailor, gentleman, apothecary, ploughboy, thief."'
"Oh, I see. I always used to say 'rich man, poor man, beggar-man, thief."'
"That's wrong," said Robina. "Nannie says so. So you see I simply had to go on. And then, of course, it came to 'ploughboy.' Well, that wouldn't be much fun either–you have to cook their breakfasts frightfully early in the morning, and they come home all muddy. Nannie says so. So I ate another, and that made it 'thief.' Well, I couldn't possibly stop there, could I?"
"I suppose not."
"So then it came round to the beginning again, and by the time I'd got to 'soldier' I had such an awful tummy-ache I had to stop. I wish I could have managed just one more," she added; "I do like sailors so much better." And such is the weakening effect of unripe cherries upon the morale that she burst into tears.
"Now look here," I said, feeling that this was a chance to improve the occasion, "just remember that it's never worth giving yourself a tummy-ache for the sake of a superstition."
"What is," asked Robina, "a scoopertition?
"Well, it's a... it's something that... it's a kind of belief."
"Kind of what?"
"Belief. A thing people believe in, only it isn't true."
"But if it isn't true, it must be a lie?"
"Sort of," I said.
"But Nannie wouldn't ever tell lies, and she told me about 'Tinker, tailor.'"
The League of Nations, I reflected for the thousandth time, has an easy job.
"It's not telling lies," I explained, "to say something that you really believe is true, even if it isn't. And 'Tinker, tailor' isn't."
"What about wishing when you eat a mince-pie? Is that true?"
"And getting a letter when you sneeze three times? "
"That's not true either. Look here," I added with a flash of brilliant logic, "suppose you sneeze three times when you wake up in the morning, and then at breakfast time you get a letter: well, the letter must have been posted the night before, mustn't it? So how could it have anything to do with your sneezing?"
This, I thought, was unanswerable. Robina seemed depressed.
"But, Mummy, I don't like all that sort of thing not being true. Because I saw a piebald horse this morning, and Nannie said I was sure to get a present before the day was out."
"Well, I bet you don't," I said, making a private vow to hide until the next morning any unexpected parcels that might arrive for her, and if necessary to have all visitors searched. Drastic measures, I know, but scoopertition had evidently got her in a vice-like grip, and I felt that something must be done.
"Cheer up," I said, seeing her woebegone face. "Think what a good job it is that all the other kind aren't true either–about having seven years' bad luck when you break a looking-glass, and quarrelling with your friend when the knives get crossed, or hearing of a death when you see the new moon through glass."
"Yes," said Robina, brightening. "And not getting to heaven unless you go to church."
"That's rather different," I said, with as much conviction as I could muster.
"Why? Is that one true?"
"Look here," I said, "I must go downstairs now and write some letters. You'd better stay in bed till tea-time, anyhow. Shall I fetch you a book to look at?"
"I'd rather draw," said Robina; "but the thing is, I've lost all my pencils."
"Well, here's the little tiny one I carry in my bag for shopping-lists. You can use that for a treat to make up for having a tummy-ache."
"Oh! What a darling! Can I keep it for my own?"
"If you like," I said indulgently. "What are you going to draw?"
"A piebald horse," said Robina, with a triumphant grin.
TO protest against the progress of science is not only a mark of approaching middle-age but a waste of breath. It will, whatever we say, continue its forward march, and on the whole it does more good than harm: but just occasionally, when we see its relentless foot about to descend upon some flower a little more lovely than the rest, we may permit ourselves the luxury of a lament.
"Hay-making," we read, "is doomed. Chemists have discovered that it is an extremely wasteful method of conserving summer's herbage for winter use. It causes serious loss of protein and a wholesale destruction of vitamins and carotene. It will be supplanted in the future by accurate chemical methods such as silage."
The heart sinks. To those of us, at any rate, who live in temperate regions, a world without hay is unthinkable, so intimately is the stuff bound up with our lives, our language and our literature. In childhood, it is one of the three most treasured substances which nature provides for our delight. Sand is wonderful, but palls. Snow is superb, but unreliable. Hay is perfect: for it appears without fail every year, yet never lasts long enough for us to exhaust its possibilities as a plaything–thus giving us, in those few ecstatic picnics between cutting and carting, our first lesson in the proper appreciation of the transient.
In later life, for the most part, we are not likely to have so much tactual experience of hay; but we lean over gates to look at it, sniff nostalgically, and take a genuine if uninformed interest in whether, this year, it is early or late. Even when out of season it is often in our minds and on our lips. We advise our friends to make it while the sun shines and beseech our children not to make it in the drawing-room; we talk about looking for a needle in a bundle of it, and then some pedant says it ought to be "bottle," and soon everybody is writing letters about it in The Times.
The poets would be lost without it. Apart from the fact that it has seventy-six possible rhymes, it is one of the oldest and most powerful emotive symbols. Nothing more easily induces in the reader a mood of gay serenity than the mention of hay, especially if it is new-mown. The old ballad-writers knew this; so did Shakespeare, Thomson, Tennyson and a score of others; even the collaborative turners-out of modern dance-lyrics perform, with an air of discovery, the ancient trick.
But it was Thomas Hood, that profound and flippant poet, who hit the nail most squarely on the head. When he wrote, in Miss Kilmansegg's Courtship,
"Oh, there's nothing in life like making love,he not only used the charm but gave us an inkling of why it works. A world without hay-making would be almost as bad as a world without lovemaking: and indeed there is more than a verbal resemblance between the two activities. The one is the crown of life as the other is the crown of the year; each represents a crest, a cream, a pinnacle of almost unbearable loveliness. In each, the making is of more beauty and significance than the thing made; their ultimate aims–the preservation of the human race, the winter maintenance of cattle do not vex the minds of lovers and haymakers: the moment's perfection is enough, the sun and the sweetness, the time-honoured and leisurely ritual of their craft. And though science may one day find a means of doing without both of them, it is doubtful whether, in a world of silo-towers and ecto-genesis, life will be quite so well worth living.
Save making hay in fine weather,"
EVERY Friday evening I wind on to a mental bobbin the seventy miles of road from London to the sea: and every Monday morning I unwind it again, leaving it laid out flat ready to wind up once more on the following Friday. I have now covered this road about two hundred times and I have not yet begun to find it monotonous. To start with, the number should really be halved, because the upward and the downward journeys are by no means the same. A village approached from different ends is two villages; the north side of a house has an entirely different character from the south; and most of the views, vistas, prospects or whatever is the right name for the phenomena which on certain motoring maps are indicated by a little spreading blue fan–most of these are entirely one-way affairs, invisible on the opposite journey or only to be seen, cheatingly, by means of a deliberate contortion of the neck.
The southward drive is the one for blue fans, owing to the lie of the land. Even though my starting-point and my destination are on almost the same level, all the steep down-grades seem to be in one direction. Anerley Hill, Polhill, River Hill, Lamberhurst Hill–these are the chief vantage points, the sure-fire draws for the exclamations of guest passengers. But interspersed with these are many less extensive but lovelier glimpses: a quilt of small water meadows slanting down on the right into billowy woods; a cluster of oast-houses pricked like cats' ears against the distant background of the Rother Valley; and at least a dozen more.
But the homeward journey, thanks to the tendency of humans to build on a south slope, scores heavily in the matter of architecture. There is, for instance, the cottage with the tiled roof that comes nearly to the ground, looking like an old red petticoat; and the two striped cottages, one brown-and-white, one black-and-white, like a brandy-ball and a bull's-eye; and the church and oast-house at Newenden, each disguising itself as the other; and the little set-back cottage at Sandhurst, round whose door, when I knocked at it while house-hunting, came four claw-like fingers, barely two feet from the ground (a horrifying moment, for I had been expecting a hand much higher up), followed by an infuriated dwarf witch who said that her landlord would live to rue it if he turned her out. And there is also the cottage near Flimwell like a chunk of cake; and the big workhouse at Pembury, which I always pass just at the time when the Monday morning batch of tramps are straggling out on to the roads again, clumsily adjusting the string round their shapeless bundles. And there is the glimpse of Tonbridge Castle from the bridge; and, of course, what is left of the Crystal Palace, that vast and vitreous joke.
Advertisements, road signs and the names of shops and public-houses photograph themselves on the brain with the well-known pertinacity of the printed or painted word. It is impossible to avoid them. The Oak and Ivy, Ye Ancient Druids, "Cemetery for Dogs and Cats Killed on the Road," "Fork Left for Ashford," "These Spaciously-Planned Houses..." The Green Rabbit, The Railway and Bicycle, "Strawberries," "New Laid Eggs," "This Commanding Gentleman's Residence...," "Do You Thank God In Words Only?"–inexorably they draw the eye, and click! goes their imprint a little deeper every week. But two of them are accompanied by such charmingly painted pictures that they give me a glow of satisfaction whenever I see them: the blue and gold trumpeting Angel at Tonbridge, and the Bullfinch (on a spray of cherries) at Dunton Green.
Then there are the particular trees; a dark sturdy Irish yew in Sandhurst, a tall cypress near Lamberhurst, a chestnut like a puff-ball in the middle of Pembury green; two poplars near Hildenborough, whose outline exactly echoes that of the twin oasts in front of them; a magnificent cedar in Sevenoaks and, at a cross-roads at Eden Park, a huge and ancient elm which was cut down after about my twentieth journey but whose ghost I never fail to see.
With certain animals, too, I have developed a strange one-sided intimacy. There is a continually changing but never-failing dynasty of rabbits in the park at Knole; a herd of Jersey cattle between Pembury and Lamberhurst; and two cats, one snow-white, one grey, who are to be seen, week in, week out, sitting on a window-sill near Beckley. They have not the faintest knowledge of my existence, but I have known them and watched them grow from their earliest kittenhood. The pleasure they give me is as unintentional as that which is provided by the owner of a certain small weatherboarded cottage on the left-hand side going down; the friendly yellow glow from the oil-lamp in his window can be seen half a mile away and is for me, in winter, an eagerly looked-for beacon; if it were ever to be missing, I should be forced to stop and ask whether anything was wrong.
In winter, of course, the downward journey is made entirely in the dark. One's visual landmarks are reduced to a very few, but one develops a tactual and aural sensitiveness which records the stages of the journey almost as faithfully. One's body, swaying, recognises the curves of the road, one's ears can measure the gradients by the note of the engine, one's cheeks feel the wind now on this side, now on that, during the final zigzag across the Marsh; and once, as a passenger, waking up from a sleep of unknown duration, I could tell where I was before I opened my eyes by the unmistakable, exciting smell of a smithy.
The wheel of the year turns. One week the lights do not have to go on until Hayes Common; the next, until Riverhead. Primroses are followed by bluebells, the fey beauty of cherry-blossom gives way to the heady lavishness of lilac, laburnum, chestnut and red may. The multicoloured undulations of the early woods, soft and rounded as giant moss–the oaks standing out gold and crinkled among the grape-bloom birches–blend gradually into a rich canopy of almost uniform green. Every week the bines reach higher on the hop-poles. The car slides precariously between two green combers crested with a foam of cow-parsley, which at any moment may break over the road and drown it. One arrives by broad daylight, in plenty of time for a bathe before the sun sets behind Point Hill, with Rye standing up dark and delicate like a painting on glass. The bobbin is wound: and there are fifty-nine precious hours to be lived through before–meeting the seven o'clock postman as he pedals eastward across the Marsh with the sun in his eyes–one need begin to unwind it again.
DURING a game of Analogies (that subtlest and most dangerous of after-dinner amusements, in which each person in turn is likened by the rest of the company to this beverage, that animal, and the other musical instrument), I once saw a woman look genuinely hurt when a fellow-guest, faced with the question "What kind of landscape is she like?", replied "Sand-dunes." I, who knew at the time as little about her as I did about sand-dunes, took a rather malicious pleasure in the aptness of the comparison. For beverage she had been given "tonic water," for material "casement cloth," for food "celery," for music "a fugue for two ocarinas." You see the idea. Sparse. Jejune. Ungenerous.
Later I got to know the woman very well, discovered in her an unsuspected warmth of heart, a rich imagination, a dry delightful wit, and decided that the label "sand-dunes" had been both unkind and inexact. But later still I got to know sand-dunes very well, and once again the pendulum swung back, for I realised that the glib competitor in that long-past game of analogies had, after all, hit the nail on the head.
It was winter when I first came to live under the dunes, and for the first three days the word "under" was almost literally true. Their behaviour exceeded my worst forebodings. A south-westerly gale blew without intermission from Friday night till the small hours of Monday morning; the air was so full of flying sand that if you walked fifty yards to post a letter you came back with a flayed face, streaming eyes, and sand in the ears, nose, hair and pockets; sand whitened the flower-beds, trickled down the chimneys, drifted a quarter of an inch deep on the inside of the weather window-sills, and even managed to insinuate itself into a covered rice-jar in the larder, and so, indirectly, into a curried rabbit pie. The woman from the end cottage, who battled round every morning to do our housework, beret pulled down to jaw-level with an utter abandonment of chic, told us that twenty years ago, when she first came to the Coastguards, you could see the sea over the top of the dunes: since then they had risen by thirty feet. A boat-house, she said, had been completely buried; and pointed out of the window to the rafters of it, half hidden by marram-grass. Her tone implied, fatalistically, that it would be our turn next.
When the gale was over I went out to explore the dunes. It was a brilliant morning. The air was as crisp as celery. As I clambered, dipped and zigzagged I noticed in the sand a number of circular marks of varying sizes, as clearly cut as though they had been made by the lower rims of set-down buckets; but there were no footmarks beside them. For perhaps a quarter of an hour I puzzled over this: then I noticed that in the middle of each circle was an isolated blade of bent-grass, which, lashed hither and thither by every gust of wind, must have described the circle with its point, compass-wise. It was the discovery of this endearing trick that first softened my heart towards the dunes. The next thing I grew to love was their unfailing variety of climate. On the coldest day they manage to provide shelter in one or other of their all-way-facing hollows: on the hottest, it is possible to find a cool draught wandering somewhere through their miniature gullies and passes. And although their general outline lacks grandeur, their intimate detail is full of charm. The barer slopes, where even the marram can get no hold, are patterned with a maze of tracks: footprints, paw-prints, claw-prints; Iggulsden in his sea-boots, taking a short-cut to lay his sand-lines at low water; Burchett in his hobnails, standing motionless at sunset waiting for the duck to flight; a pair of lovers who have left their motor-bicycle on the road, the girl's feet stumbling absurdly in high-heeled shoes; Burchett's collie and Iggulsden's terrier, going off together after rabbits; the rabbits themselves–two marks level and the other two in single file behind; the intricate feather-stitching of gulls and other birds, and the crazy indeterminate scribbling of beetles.
So much for the fauna. One ought, I suppose, to mention the little striped snails: but they are so decorative and so very nearly static that I feel almost tempted to include them among the flora. Certainly when they hang singly or in clusters at the top of the bents they look for all the world like the seed-vessels of some curious plant; and their workmanship is really remarkable. I have often reflected, fingering them, how valuable and exquisite one would think them if they were something that a French prisoner had made out of ebony and ivory and given to one's great-great-grandmother.
In winter the bent-grass is the only vegetation, except for an occasional bush of buckthorn or tamarisk: but in summer the dunes have a queer succulent flora of their own–sea-convolvulus with its thick shining leaves; yellow horned poppy with its silky petals and twisted green scimitars; and that most noble, symmetrical and heraldic of flowers, the sea-holly. The last is agonising to collect but so perfect as an indoor decoration that it is worth while; and you can make a curious sweetmeat out of its roots. Their power of storing up water is not the only quality which dune flowers share with the camel. There is also a certain aloofness, a peculiar but understandable arrogance. They can live where others would die: and that, perhaps, is a secret which excuses pride.
On the lower slopes there is moss, green, ruddy and russet: and here you can find, if you look closely, a different vegetation, akin to that of the downs, but stunted by drought. Yet stunted is an ugly and misleading word: for the flowers that grow here are not deformed midgets but perfectly proportioned miniatures–real plants seen through the wrong end of the glass. If you were to take a round tin pastry-cutter three inches across and screw it into the ground almost at random, you would find that you had cut out a Lilliputian garden. That small mossy circle would be thick with flowers, not one of them more than an inch high and some barely a centimetre–speedwell and forget-me-not, pearlwort and white flax, stork's-bill, cranesbill and valerianella, several minute purple vetches, and, best of all, a tiny pure-white saxifrage with scarlet leaves and stem. Against such minikin blossoms a drop of dew looks the size of a gazing-crystal, and the ordinary lemon-yellow hawkbit towers above them like a sunflower. You might walk over acres of this closely-embroidered carpet and never notice what it was made of unless you happened to drop your hat. But once you have knelt to look at it it is almost impossible not to lie down and lay your face against the moss; and when you have done that you are lost. You will never get as far as the village, because it is obviously so much better to stay where you are, counting how many flowers go to the square inch, watching a copper-green beetle climb over a blade of grass, letting hot sand trickle between your fingers, and listening to the slender jets of larksong which spring invisibly all day out of the waterless dunes, each with a small brown bird bobbing like a ball on the top.
LITERATURE, that assiduous foster-mother of fallacies, has long kept alive in us the belief that we are a sea-faring, or at any rate a sea-loving, nation. We must continually–or so we would have the foreigner believe–go down to the sea again; and all we ask is a tall ship and a telescope to look at her through. In sober fact, however, the sea, for most of us, comes but once a year–in August. For the rest of the time it might just as well not exist: indeed, on the rare occasions in the past when some emergency has taken me to its borders during the intervening months, I have been apt to look at it a little queerly and say "Good Lord–it's still there!" as though I had expected someone to roll it up and put it away under the bandstand along with the deck-chairs and all the other paraphernalia of summer.
But two years ago I fell into the clutches of an ex-Coastguard cottage, intending to use it only in the summer holidays. Since then I have spent almost every week-end by the sea: and curiously enough it is the winter ones which I have enjoyed the most.
A town, a seaside resort, is a different matter. There, the deserted pier, the derelict bathing huts, the forlorn and shuttered kiosks, stand as melancholy reminders of suspended activity: it is like a ballroom in dust-sheets. But here, though the beach is thronged in summer by the overflow from the bungalow village half a mile away, there is, in winter, nothing to remind one of the invaders, except a small wooden hut which clings precariously to a jutting ridge of shingle. In one of the recent gales it failed to cling, and through its upside-down windows one could see a litter of thick white cups and saucers. When the owners righted it and repaired the damaged side they put back one of the planks the wrong way up; so that the legend on its east wall now reads as follows:
Except for this hut, and a couple of tarred shacks where the fishermen keep their gear, there is little to break the horizontal lines which make sea and marshland so much more restful to the townsman's eye, ceaselessly fretted by perpendiculars, than all the enchantments of woodland or mountain scenery. To the west lie the saltings, their pools lapis, their vegetation an astonishing jade; and beyond them the river, deepened and narrowed by its restraining walls, swirls out savagely at six and a half knots. To the cast, beyond the bungalow outcrop, eight miles of unspoiled coastline stretch between here and the lighthouse on the Ness. Ironically enough its peacefulness is due to war: for if it were not for the artillery practice-ranges which lie behind it, it would long ago have been exploited. Disarmament will spell its doom.
To the south lies the sea itself, a couple of hundred yards away at high-water, but at the low springs nearly a mile. It comes in across the flat sand not, perhaps, faster than a horse can gallop, but certainly faster than a human being can wade in gumboots: as I discovered one bitterly cold December day when I walked out (half-way to France, it seemed) to buy shrimps from an old man with gold ear-rings. He had caught no shrimps that day: but he mentioned en passant that he had seen his grandfather ploughing them sands with a pair of horses by moonlight to find bars of gold which had been cast up from the wreck of a French brig. Which, even if it was really silver, and by daylight, and somebody else's grandfather, and only one horse, was worth getting wet to hear. And if I had been wearing thigh-boots, as he was, I should have stayed for a great deal more.
Bar-gold is rare, but the sands hold other treasures: indeed, one of the reasons why I prefer the winter is because it yields a far richer variety of flotsam. The morning after a gale gives the best results, and if the wind has been southerly most of the tins and bottles have French names on them: a detail which has somehow put France on the map for me as no amount of geography lessons have ever done.
The items in my year's list may be divided into animal, vegetable and hardware. The hardware includes tea-chests, sugar-boxes, logs, spars and other potential firewood; bed-springs, mattresses, motor-tyres, bathing shoes, rope, saucepans, frying-pans, and kettles; a green glass net-float (falsely reputed unbreakable), a window-frame, several hatch-covers, a life-jacket, a pound of candles (salt-caked), two netting-shuttles, a panama hat, a topee, and three beautiful and luxurious wicker-covered flasks, invaluable for picnics. The animal section tells a sadder tale, for it consists almost entirely of dead birds, black duck for the most part, who have died of disease or starvation, their feathers clogged with fuel-oil. Larger corpses have been mercifully lacking, with the exception of two sheep who made the shingle spit unvisitable for a couple of weeks before they were solemnly buried in quicklime by the local police. As for the vegetable section, it would stock a greengrocer's. I have found oranges, onions, cabbages, radishes and potatoes; and after one particularly rough night the beach was improbably strewn with excellent cobnuts. Strangest of all, there is an intermittent but lavish supply of coconut husks, which, when dried, burn very sweetly with a white ash and a faint ropy smell. The collecting of them, in sacks, enables much good Man of Aran stuff to be put over on guests who are in need of exercise.
I have kept to the last–since in any case it will not be believed–my red-letter day, when I found, on a single tide, an unbroken electric light bulb, a stuffed olive, an arum lily and a moth-ball.
As the water ebbs it reveals another beauty which in summer is quickly trampled and obscured but which in winter lies almost untouched from tide to tide: namely, the curious and lovely patterns traced in sand by the complicated cross-rhythms of wind and water. Only an experienced needlewoman could do justice in words to such a variety of rimplings and crinklings, of pleatings and puckerings, of gaugings, rufflings, gofferings, and pin-tuckings as it is possible to find; though somebody with a knowledge of heraldry could perhaps convey a few of the designs in such terms as nebuly, raguly or dancetty (semée, he might add, of starfish proper). If the wind has been strong and steady, the ridges will be as regular as corduroy; if it has blown gustily, they will look like a cardiographic record of a man in the last stages of heart-disease; while if the day has been windless the gentle laminations of the ebb will have left nothing but a delicate surface embroidery, a pattern of interlinked chevrons damascened on the sand in a fine nacreous dust of powdered shells.
As for the weather, until two years ago I imagined that the seaside, from October to April, was an unremitting hell of cold, wind and wet. Well, there is certainly cold, but it is not the sodden cold of weald or marsh, and it has been more than worth while for the sake of two new experiences: the sight of upturned cockle-shells frozen into the rimed sand, each filled with a precise individual helping of snow; and the curious, half-crisp, half-soapy texture of frozen foam when crushed between the fingers. But even in a district whose low rainfall is made up for by the speed, strength and frequency of its winds, there is a surprising number of days when it is possible to sit on the beach and enjoy all the advantages of summer without its two crowning drawbacks–the presence of other people, and the uneasy feeling that you ought to be immersing yourself in the sea.
England–which is why her climate is so often abused by people with tidy minds–wears her seasons haphazard, dining in tweeds if she feels inclined and putting on a ball-dress for breakfast when the mood takes her. You may find a patch of purest winter in July (like "Part of Flint" on an old map), while the pieces of summer which are scattered recklessly throughout the year would, if put end to end, make a total of which any country might be proud. If this is true of her countryside, it is even more true of her sea-coast: for here there is not even a skeleton tree or a bare hedgerow to point inexorably to the calendar, shattering our make-believe; here the splendid insignia of summer, never worn, cannot be missed; and the year, like the human heart, is as young as it feels.
THE best cure for optical strain is a complete change of focus. When the eye is exhausted from watching the inexplicable antics of human beings, clap it to a telescope or a microscope: the behaviour of stars and beetles, though scarcely less baffling, will come as a relief.
It was all very well to tell myself this, last night, in a mood of sickened weariness at the almost unbroken gloom of the world's news. But a south-west gale was raging outside and rain streamed relentlessly down the windows; both astronomy and entomology were out of the question. So I was compelled, as one too often is, to fall back upon half-measures: if a drastic change of focus was impossible, then a slight one would have to do. I put aside the London papers and took up the local one instead; there would be solace, I felt, in its small babbling chronicle of flower-shows and whist-drives, amateur theatricals and harvest-homes. Not, as I well know, that peace is the key-note, or even the dominant one, of country life: every village is a microcosm, and flouncing out of council-rooms in a huff is a parochial, as well as an international, sport; nature, if no longer red in tooth and claw, can still deal some pretty telling blows; and there are always tithes. But on the whole it seemed likely that I should be soothed rather than disquieted by the local news.
It was with a double sense of shock, therefore, that I read the first item which caught my eye, namely, that Alfred Nettipole, itinerant vendor employed by the Arktiko Ice-Cream Company, had been charged with embezzlement; embezzlement, to be exact, of "ice-cream or its equivalent in money to the value of £7. 4s. 2d." I knew the man well. The ingratiating tinkle of his tricycle-bell had been heard approaching along the road twice or three times a day all the summer; with Pied-Piperish skill he conjured children out of their homes and pennies out of their parents' pockets; and his wares were as appetising to the palate as their names–Kooling Kups, Ice-oh-Bars and the like–were repellent to the sensitive mind.
But it was not only because I knew the man that I felt disturbed, though one is always sorry to see one's friends in the Police Court. What really worried me was the idea of any ice-cream man going to the bad. I had always instinctively thought of them as being a race whose integrity was above suspicion. If it is true, as we were taught at school, that you cannot touch pitch without being defiled, then surely the handling of ice-cream, day in, day out, ought to make you as pure as the driven snow. Sewermen and street-scavengers, now–there would be some excuse for them leading corrupt lives; fishmongers could be forgiven for becoming slippery customers, and butchers for being bloody-minded; the moral sense of horse-copers and second-hand car-dealers is notoriously but pardonably warped by the influence of the cranky difficult creatures which they buy and sell; but to think of an ice-cream man–that Kumrade of the Kiddies, that white-clad purveyor of mass-produced and immaculate delight–straying from the frigid path of honour, is aesthetically, as well as ethically, shocking. My only hope is that the charge may yet turn out to be a complete fabrication on the part of some malicious galakto-krystallophobe.
Evidently my change of focus had not been a big enough one after all. I laid down the local paper with a sigh, picked up Bowater's Knots and Splices, and spent the rest of the evening trying to make a double wall-and-crown. Failing stars, failing beetles, there is a wealth of comfort in the passionless intricacies of rope.
THAT the Scots run England is a time-hallowed music-hall joke, and, like most music-hall jokes, largely true. Neither side, in any case, attempts to deny it. The Scots do not deny it because they have far too great a respect for tradition. And the English do not deny it because they find it such a convenient belief: for if anything goes wrong with the running of England they can always blame it on the Scots.
It is not surprising, really. The Scots as a race combine an almost terrifying talent for organisation with a marked distaste for being organised: the English, on the other hand, have no great passion for organising themselves but are too good-humoured and too orderly-minded to object to somebody else doing it for them. The arrangement works admirably.
But what is surprising, at first sight, is that the natives of such a beautiful country as Scotland can so readily exile themselves from it. All over the world lusty Scottish voices (for our musical tastes incline more towards the sing-song than the concert-hall) can be heard uplifted in praise of their homeland's natural beauties, from the Banks of Loch Lomond to the Braes of Bonnie Doon, from the Birks of Aberfeldy to the Bush Aboon Traquair. But the owners of the voices do not seem to go back there, even when they can; or at any rate they go only for a brief holiday–a Hogmanay reunion, perhaps, or a family funeral. Their feet are no sooner set upon their native heath than they are itching restlessly once more for the pavements of London or the engine-room floors of remote tramp steamers. "My heart's in the Highlands," the exiled Scot declares: but the rest of his body–which is perhaps why he is sometimes accused of heartlessness–remains firmly ensconced in London, Montreal or Buenos Aires. "Oh, gin I were where Gadie rins!" he trolls over a stiff sundowner with a perfectly genuine lump in the throat: but he takes mighty good care that the river which runs past his windows or his port-holes shall be the Thames, the Hudson, the Ganges, the Amazon or the Yangtse-Kiang.
The truth is that the Scots are born exiles, and Scotland the perfect country to be exiled from. Do not imagine that I am running down Scotland. Far from it. When I go back there myself I never want to come away again: but then, I am half English. No: what I mean is that Scotland's beauties, though undeniable, are obvious ones, easy to carry in the heart, easy even to describe to the benighted members of less fortunate races. Lochs, islands and mountains, heather and rowan, broad straths and narrow glens–these are jewels easily worn in the memory, easily captured in verse or prose even by the most inarticulate people in the world. It would require far more technique to be an exile from, say, the Essex marshes, where atmosphere counts for more than outline, where mutable clouds must do duty for mountains and where transient effects of light and shade are the incidents which capture the heart. These beauties are difficult to take about with one: all that sticks in the mind is the memory of many lovely moments, and the sense of something lost–a mood more than a picture. Nor can they be passed on to anybody who has never known them, either by words or by the dexterous whipping-out of snapshots.
The Midlands, too, would present a difficult problem to exiles. Their comfortable, cultivated charm could so easily be made to sound merely smug and prosperous. Perhaps that is why they possess little or no nostalgic literature: or perhaps the real reason is that so few people are fools enough to leave them.
The southern counties, though scarcely more spectacular in appearance, have (partly owing to a greater density of population) been the home of more poets than the Midlands, so they are better equipped with those memorable rhythmic tags which are both the fruit and the food of nostalgia. Sussex-by-the-sea, for instance, is now a most satisfactory place to be exiled from, so persistently have the poets of the Georgian school over-dramatised her homely beauties and woven facile jingles out of her place-names; while Devon, of course, has stolen a march on the whole lot by means of a mere accident of rhyme. I do not deny that it is a very lovely county: but it is interesting to speculate how the poets and song-writers would behave if Devon and Norfolk, say, were to exchange names. I suspect that they would all tumble over each other to catch the 3.40 from Liverpool Street, and that Mousehold Heath would soon become as famous as Dartmoor.
The exile from London–and perhaps this applies to any large city–has neither romantic nor literary status. Music-hall songs are his only living folk-music. He may long as passionately as the rest, but those who do not share his longing seem to think that there is something slightly comic and more than a little immoral about London nostalgia. Leicester Square, Piccadilly, the Old Kent Road: a bit of fun, or stewed eels–they all know that's what he's after. He yearns, and they read a wink into his gaze. He has no means of explaining to them the complex charm of what he is missing, for like a subtle and expensive scent it contains many ingredients which, taken by themselves, would seem repellent. Fogs, slums, dirt, pneumatic drills–there is more than a touch of civet in the spiritual exhalation of London: but occasionally, to one who is banished from it, there comes an ache no less intolerable than that which assails the mountain-dweller in the plains. And what he longs for is not a sight or a sound or a touch or a scent but a bit of all four and something more besides–hot asphalt, shouting paper-boys, fluttering plane-leaves, the comfortable contact of unknown but friendly humanity; or street-lamps shining on wet pavements and a barrel organ playing in the rain; or something more indefinite still–a mere memory of a ghost of a mood that he once had while walking down a quiet side-street at dusk.
Beside these vague regrets, these shapeless rags and tags of homesickness, the sentimental equipment of the exile from Scotland seems as neat and manageable as a well-packed suitcase. There is a place for everything and everything in its place. In his mind's eye are the snowy crags and cool corries of the Grampians, in his ears the skirl of the pipes or the lapping of loch-water against heathery headlands; whether he comes from Mamore or the Mearns, from Cape Wrath or the banks of Yarrow, his lips need never lack a poignant ballad, nor his throat a beautiful sad air, in which to convey, and thereby assuage, his melancholy. Nostalgia suits him: it suits the timbre of his voice, the stern set of his jaw, the far-away look in his blue, blue eyes. It is fortunate, and not to be wondered at, that the Scotsman so seldom goes home: for he is never so attractive as when, five hundred or five thousand miles away from them, he is agreeably engaged in beholding the Hebrides.
ROBINA, who had been chain-sucking since Falkirk, finished the last stick of barley sugar soon after Gowan Bridge, and about ten miles farther on she began, with devastating punctuality, to wilt. Motoring with Robina, ever since I heard about the barley sugar dodge, has lost its terrors but doubled its expense. Why such an apparently cloying sweetmeat should be a cure for car-sickness I have never been able to understand. The doctor says that it is all a question of glucose; but doctors and children are in league with each other nowadays, and we parents are caught in a cleft stick.
Glucose or greed, it works; and it was inefficient of me not to have brought a bigger supply. Glancing down at Robina's rapidly paling face, I saw that a new stock must be laid in as soon as possible.
"It's all right," I said. "There's a very good shop in the next village. I used to buy sweets there when I was a little girl." And as we ran down the winding hill into Wester Milquhan I wondered whether Mrs. McKerchar could possibly still be alive. She had seemed to me immensely old even then, and that was twenty-five years ago.
But when we went into the tiny shop there she was, a hale old body of about eighty, with a tooth or two less, perhaps, and a wrinkle or two more, but otherwise quite unchanged.
"You won't remember me," I began.
"Will I not?" she said. "There's no mony I forget. Wait now till I get a guid look at ye." She peered intently at me through the aromatic gloom of the shop, and shook her head.
"Na, na, I dinna mind ye." Then she looked down at Robina, whose pointed chin was resting on the worn edge of the counter and whose eyes, round as brandy-balls, ranged ecstatically from jar to jar. "But I ken the wee girl fine. An' yet I canna pit a name tae her. She'll not have bin nin here this year, I'm thinkin', nor the last neether. An' yet she's no that auld."
Her words gave me a queer shock. I don't think I had quite realised before how slowly the old grow older, and how quickly the young.
"She isn't me," I explained. "She's my daughter. We used to take Ardbennie before the war–do you remember?"
Her hands went up and her wrinkles rearranged themselves into a beaming smile.
"Come a-way, Miss Jeannie! My, but yon's a lang while back. I mind ye fine now.... And is the wee girl as great a one for soor-plums as her mither was? "
"I love plums," said Robina, "but I don't like them sour. I got a pain once."
Mrs. McKerchar's eyes and hands shot ceilingwards.
"My! My! Whaur's the bairn been brought up? Come here now till I gie ye a soor-plum." She leant over the counter, hauled Robina up on to it, took down one of the large glass jars, fished out a small, round, pale-green bobble, and popped it into Robina's mouth, which closed over it like a pink sea-anemone making sure of its prey. "Well, now, what d'ye think of that?"
Robina sucked in dreamy silence for a few seconds; then she murmured the one word:
"It's no' a nacid drop," said Mrs. McKerchar. "It's a soor-plum. I can see fine you dinna live in Scotland, young leddy. Now what would ye call these, I wonder?"
"Bull's-eyes," said Robina, instantly though indistinctly.
"I thocht as much," said Mrs. McKerchar with mingled triumph and disgust. "Yon's what all the Englishy folk call them. They're strippit ba's."
"Bull's-eyes," said Robina, her diction growing clearer as the sour-plum diminished.
"You never went in for sherbet pokey hats, did you, Miss Jeannie?"
"I remember sherbet fountains," I admitted cautiously. "You suck the sherbet out through a tube of liquorice, don't you?"
"Ay. Turn an' turn aboot's the usual way–boys first. Wale, sherbet pokey hats is a kin' o' a refinement. There's one in yon box."
The object she pointed at was about four inches long, conical in shape, made of some indefinite yellowish substance, filled, presumably, with sherbet, and sealed at the large end with a dollop of bright pink sugar which, in turn, was liberally sprinkled with grated coconut.
"Wonderful," I said. It seemed the only word.
"Ye can have it," said Mrs. McKerchar.
"No, no. I wouldn't dream of taking your last one."
"Tck! I've a new box on the shelf. Go on now, Miss Jeannie. Ye're welcome."
"Oh, do, Mummy," Robina pleaded. "It looks lovely." Fate came to my rescue in the shape of a very small, very grubby boy, who marched in at the door and slapped a coin down on the counter with the panache of a Regency buck.
"Penn'th ogle-pogles," he said.
"If–you–" said Mrs. McKerchar severely.
"Please," conceded the urchin.
This was evidently a regular order, for she handed him a little screw of paper which had already been filled. He trotted out of the shop without a word.
"Yon's wee Johnnie Carr, auld Peter's grandson. His manners is terrible, but he's gey fond of ogle-pogles."
"What are they?" I asked.
She produced a flat cardboard box on the lid of which was printed, "Ogo-Pogo Eyes. The Magic Sweetmeat! Every Colour of the Rainbow!"
"But they're not," I said, mystified, picking up several purplish objects of the size and consistency of large marbles.
"Not now. But they change colour in the mooth," explained Mrs. McKerchar proudly.
"Oh!" said Robina.
And even I was conquered. I bought half a pound of them, and a quarter of mixed tablet, and a quarter of peppermint creams–only the label called them "Mint Dome Fondants."
So we said good-bye and clambered back into the car. It wasn't until we were half-way to Perth that I remembered about the barley sugar. I glanced apprehensively at Robina. She was absorbed in an ogle-pogle; it had just been taken out for the seventh time (or was it the eighth?) and each time it had proved to be only a slightly paler shade of the same pinkish-purple. But Robina knows nothing of the spectrum, and anyway her cheeks were rosy again. So I left it at that.
THE same thing happens every year. On Monday you say with a groan, "Heavens, Saturday's the Games. Surely this year we might give them a miss?" On Wednesday you observe that perhaps, after all, you ought just to put in an appearance. On Friday a newly-arrived English visitor confesses that she has never been to a Highland Gathering in her life. Secretly relieved at having your mind made up for you, you say that you will be delighted to take her: and on Saturday, as usual, you find yourself buying your tickets at the gate from Willie Macrae.
From now on you can ignore the English visitor. She has fulfilled her purpose, poor thing, by providing you with an excuse for coming to the Games. She will be quite happy, no doubt, watching the troupes of self-assured small girls, bekilted and beringleted, plastered with medals and bristling with blackcock's feathers, who mount, four at a time, upon a crude wooden platform and dance intricately and beautifully before the local chieftains. "Aren't they sweet?" she will probably exclaim: and not wonder, as you yourself have often done, what they are like in the home; whether they can possibly be as insufferable as they look, or whether, for the rest of the year, they are douce, biddable, straight-haired creatures who help their fathers in the byre and their mothers at the kitchen sink. To the music which accompanies them she will react in one of two ways: either she will clap her hands to her ears with a tortured grimace, or else she will brighten visibly, beat time with her programme. remark that she always loves a bagpipe and identify every tune as "The Campbells Are Coming."
In any case there is nothing to be done for her, and you can lean back and enjoy the thing you really came to see–that primitive, preposterous and strangely fascinating pursuit known as tossing the caber. A brawny kilted giant balances a young tree trunk upright in his hands, runs a few yards with it at an ungainly trot, and hurls it into the air so that (if he is skilful) it lands on its butt-end and topples away from him.
The performance has neither the soaring grace of pole-vaulting nor the slow rhythmic beauty of putting the stone: nor does it contain any movement as exciting as that final teetotum whirl, arms taut and kilt flying, of the hammer-thrower. Its appeal, I think, must be in its exquisite uselessness, its complete lack of connection with any of the normal activities of mankind. For I have always held that a pastime, to be perfect, should be a pastime pure and simple, incapable of being turned to any practical account. The attainment of speed in running may one day enable a man to perform some sordid duty like catching the 8.15; hammer-throwing and stone-putting may help to make him a pretty shot with a hand-grenade in the next war; jumping, vaulting and hurdling are all in danger of being turned to practical account–when following beagles, for instance, or escaping from a mad bull; but it is in the highest degree unlikely that he will ever, so long as he lives, find himself in the position of needing to balance a young tree trunk in his hands and cast it from him so that it turns a somersault. And the sight of several grown men solemnly performing this feat over and over again in front of a large crowd is, to me, one of almost mystical significance. In an age of reason and utilitarianism it stands out as a superb gesture–a defiant assertion of man's sacred right to be as silly as he pleases in his leisure hours, and to choose his own weapons in the killing of his enemy, Time.
ONE evening at Auchilhanzie, when we had played Consequences and Clumps and Newspaper Articles and Week-End Lists and all the other paper games we knew (except Telegrams, which we couldn't play because the Minister had come to dinner and Telegrams doesn't seem to go with really clean fun), some ingenious person suddenly invented a new one. It was called "Cruel Collinses," and the object of it was to see who could compose the most heartless bread-and-butter letter, calculated to exasperate the recipient without laying the writer open to a charge of deliberate rudeness.
Prunella won with the following:
"DEAREST AGNES,–I cannot tell you how much we appreciate your kindness in having us to stay. I know that guests must be a great strain when you are trying to run a house on a very much reduced staff, especially when you are not lucky enough to have fitted wash-basins, electric light and other modern conveniences. However, you know that Tom and I are such very old friends that 'roughing it' simply doesn't bother us a bit compared with the joy of seeing you and Henry again. Besides, I really think your little maid is quite wonderful considering she's had no proper training. I always say that if they're sober, honest and respectable, one can put up with untidiness, unpunctuality, and all those minor faults.
"By the way, I am sending you a little book of recipes which I think you may be glad to have. Do try some of them, especially the puddings; it's always so difficult, isn't it, to get them free from lumps? You will find them very economical, as they are specially planned for reduced incomes!
"We were glad to see you both looking so well on the whole, considering what you've had to put up with. Henry's deafness doesn't seem to depress him at all (such a blessing; some people get so morbid about it, even when they are not nearly so deaf as he is); and really, you know, I think grey hair rather suits you!
"It was nice seeing the children, too. I shouldn't worry too much about Bobby's backwardness if I were you. Lots of people who were positive idiots at school seem to get on quite well afterwards. It's probably due to those nasty adenoids he's got. Take my advice, my dear, and have them whipped out at once, however hard-up you may be feeling. It's nothing of an op. nowadays if taken in time, and after what happened to poor Catherine's boy one can't be too careful. Besides, it does spoil a child's appearance so to have its mouth always hanging open like that. He's the living image of Henry, isn't he? And Peggy certainly takes after you–she is evidently going to be nice-looking, one day; of course fifteen is a very leggy age.
"We both thought your garden was coming on splendidly, though I know we saw it rather between seasons. It must look lovely a little later on. I will certainly send you a cutting of that Rudivallia I told you about; but don't be too disappointed if it doesn't turn out well. Your heavy clay and those thick fogs you seem to get every other day aren't so suitable to it as our own dry gravel soil; and besides it needs a very experienced hand to make a success of it. Our man Williams has such a real genius for rearing delicate plants.
"We had quite a good journey here and the weather seemed to improve rapidly as we came further east. Your little Ford rattled us merrily to the station (what wonderful cars they are–I can scarcely believe yours is really ten years old!) and the Comptons' Rolls met us at the other end.
"This is the most marvellous house, and they have just done it all up from top to toe. Almost too luxurious–Tom and I have very simple tastes, as you know–but still very pleasant for a change. Wireless laid on in every bedroom, a squash court, a swimming pool and every sort of thing. And the food is nyum-nyum; I foresee that we are going to over-eat ourselves disgustingly. Mary Compton looks just as young as ever–she never seems to get a day older; so annoying for the likes of you and me, my dear!!!
"Well, I must stop. I am just going to plunge into a really hot bath (we've got our own private one, of course; such a treat, I always think).
"Tom sends his love and says he enjoyed the rabbiting with Henry so much. It has given him just the practice he needed for the big covert-shoot here to-morrow. He's very nearly got over the cold he caught on that divine drive you took us last week-such a bore his being so liable to catch cold in an open car!
"Again many, many thanks, from your affectionate,
"P.S.–I'm so dreadfully sorry, but I left behind my tortoiseshell spectacles, a bottle of setting-lotion, both our shooting-sticks and that delicious comb of real heather honey that you gave me. Could you be very sweet and send them on by return, as I am quite lost without my glasses. Shocking of me to be so inefficient at doing my own packing. Your little maid valiantly offered to do it for me, but of course I wouldn't have dreamt of giving her the extra work!"
It's a good game. Try it and see next time you have people to stay. It will at any rate ensure that the real letters you get from them when they leave will be models of tact and charm.
IF I was asked who, in my opinion, had done most to improve the amenities of country-house life, I should say, without a moment's hesitation, Ruth Draper. For she has very nearly stamped out the garden menace; or at any rate reduced it to bearable proportions. There is hardly anybody left who does not know, at least by hearsay, her "Showing the Garden"; and though some people still go on making the very remarks she satirises, they at least have the grace to make them in inverted commas. There is perhaps a danger that one day our laughing references to Miss Draper will themselves become so stereotyped as to constitute a further menace; and then there will have to be a double set of inverted commas. That day, however, is far distant: at present "glubjulla" is still a word to conjure with.
But Miss Draper's sketch, though brilliant, is a little misleading. She wields the superb weapon of her satire entirely on the guests' behalf. It is time, I think, that somebody pointed out how often the boot is on the other leg: how often it is the guest who begs to be shown round the garden and the hostess's heart that sinks.
Perhaps this is truer of Scotland than of England. In England, after all, the garden lies round the house, the scent of wallflowers and cherry-pie comes right in at the drawing-room windows, and if the hostess is tired or does not feel inclined to embark for the third time in two days on a personally conducted tour of the herbaceous border, all she has to do is to lead the guest to a deck-chair on the lawn and let her look at it from there.
But in Scotland the garden is right away from the house, sometimes a quarter of a mile or more. Many theories have been advanced to account for this curious custom. Some say that it is deliberately arranged as an inducement to exercise, in order that the non-sporting members of the party may have some pretext for walking off the effects of unlimited scones, cakes and porridge. Others contend that it is an aesthetic dodge to make one appreciate the flowers, with which, otherwise, one might grow familiar and contemptuous. Others, more prosaically, that it is something to do with the climate and the need for sheltering walls. My own theory is that in Covenanting days flowers, like dancing, were considered to be an invention of the devil, too beautiful to be good, and were therefore banished to a distant spot in case one should clap eyes on them on the Sabbath and find oneself in hell. (Then why, you ask shrewdly, did they not do away with the garden altogether? Because, I answer swiftly, they were then, as now, sair hadden doun by the head gardener.)
Be that as it may, a visit to the garden in Scotland is something of an expedition. You take a walking-stick, and very often a mackintosh. One man I know, who is slightly lame, always goes by car. But as your guests have driven twenty or thirty miles to call upon you, you cannot very well refuse their request, quail as you may when, the last scone swallowed, you see that horticultural lust come into their eye. So off you go, at that most exhausting of gaits, which is for some reason adopted on these occasions by young and old alike–the country-house stroll. Past the disused laundry, past the car-invaded stables, past the kennels; up the wooden steps ("Take care, there's a bees' byke under the top one," you murmur mechanically, as you murmured it to another party yesterday and another the day before), through the opening in the beech hedge, along the gravel path–and there you are at the gate in the high stone wall. As you open it a flood of warmth and colour rushes to meet you: it is really a heavenly garden. If only you could just sit in it and enjoy it while you talked about something else; if only these broad-beamed enthusiastic women didn't keep moving on, and exclaiming, and sniffing, and asking you what things were; if only you didn't have to say things like "Yes, Shot Silk" or "No, Cardinalis;" yesterday it was "No, Shot Silk," and "Yes, Cardinalis," because that particular guest happened to know more about lobelias than roses; but the variation is too small to give you any real sense of breaking new ground. If only they wouldn't turn snapdragons into antirrhinums, love-lies-bleeding into amaranthus, and red-hot-pokers into kniphofias....
And this leads you, not for the first time, into the following train of thought: that if you have a surname which is ugly, cumbrous or comical you ought to be very careful not to take up botany. For it is cruel to expose some innocent plant, not yet discovered or evolved, to the risk of being called after you, which will certainly happen if you become famous enough. It was all right in the case of Dr. Andrew Dahl, Professor Pierre Magnol and the Vicomte de Cassini: for dahlia, magnolia and cassinia sound quite euphonious and flowery. But consider the unhappy fate of leuchera, forsythia, darwinia and eschscholtzia, all of them beautiful flowers, all of them blighted and handicapped by their names. The camellia, provided as it now is with glamorous and faintly immoral connotations, has tricked us into forgetting that its godfather was a Jesuit named Kamel; but gesnera, goodyera and fothergilla still wear their synthetic verbal grandeur with a stilted, self-conscious air like a herd in his Sunday blacks. And what poet has ever grown lyrical about a cunninghamia? And suppose, one day, there sprang up a botanist called Higginbottom?
To the silent accompaniment of these thoughts you have somehow been keeping up a stream of suitable remarks to the visitors; and now you are back at the house and they, with their lust sated, are saying good-bye.
"See you at the flower show," one of them adds. "I hear you're going to open it this year."
Brute and devil, you think, as the wheels scrunch away up the avenue: why need you have reminded me about that looming horror? But perhaps it is just as well, because there are only a few days left and you have not yet thought out what to say.
It is practically impossible to open a flower show without a reference either to Francis Bacon–which the villagers greet in pop-eyed silence, because they have never heard of him–or to Adam and Eve–which the villagers greet with ribald sniggers, because they have. The third thing you can do is to recite a certain little poem which I purposely refrain from quoting here because it is a loathsome thing, God wot. If you are determined to avoid historical and literary allusions there is nothing to do but to fall back upon personal confidences such as "I always say I'd willingly go without food but I simply can't live without flowers"–which the villagers, decent folk, listen to politely instead of getting up and breaking your head, as they ought; or "I always get up and do an hour's weeding before breakfast"–which the villagers know perfectly well to be untrue, because your under-gardener's brother is married to the daughter of the postman.
Personally I never can see why a flower show has to be opened at all, as though it were a jack-pot or a tin of sardines: it ought to be left to unfold gradually like the flowers themselves. Think what a row you got into in your nursery days for forcibly popping the fuchsia buds.... Ah! that might do for your first sentence: childhood reminiscences always strike a human chord.
It is all very difficult; and, as you trudge off gardenwards yet again, basket in hand, to get a few more flowers for the dining-room, you ask yourself wearily whether the game is worth the candle; whether it would not be simpler if the next time a guest asked to see the garden, you were able to reply quite truthfully, "I'm so sorry, but as a matter of fact we put the whole thing under plough last Tuesday." That, at any rate, would ensure that you were never again invited to open a flower show.
But suddenly you remember Macgillivray: and at the thought of that wrinkled mahogany mask, that out-thrust lower lip, those gimlet eyes, shrubby eyebrows, grey lichenous whiskers and tortoiselike neck, you know that you are powerless. The neighbours you might face, but Macgillivray has got you under his horny and earth-stained thumb.
By this time you have come to the gate once more; you step through it and are alone in the garden. The sun is lower now and the slanting light has more magic in it. Like children who do not know they are being watched, the flowers seem to glow with a special, luminous and heart-breaking beauty. Pinks and columbines, mullein and Canterbury bells, the burning blue of lupin and larkspur, the magenta plush tassels of love-lies-bleeding, the streaked and goffered rosettes of the French marigolds–they have about them the harmonious confusion, the riotous immobility of a crowd of stage peasantry during the principals' duet.
Bees blunder musically in and out of the roses. The hot scent of lavender is laced with the cool scent of sweetpeas. You stand quite still for a long time, your defences falling, your spirit being soothed and enchanted through three senses at once.
"All right, you win," you say to the garden; and bend down with your scissors to gather a Shot Silk.
IN my gallery of unpainted pictures (those impalpable treasures which neither fade nor depreciate, and which cost nothing whatever to insure) there hangs, along with Turner's Battersea Power Station, El Greco's James Maxton, M.P., and Rubens' Portrait of Mae West, a large canvas by W. P. Frith entitled Boys' Outfitting Department at Porridge's: Eve of Term. What a subject for that painstaking brush!
What a subject, too, for the student of sociology: an unrivalled opportunity to observe, en masse, the upper-middle-class lower-middle-aged Englishwoman, dragging her young by invisible apron-strings through the morass of reluctant extravagance into which the conventions of her time and race have forced her. A fine hunting-ground, also, for the connoisseur of family likenesses: for beneath all the obvious differences of age, sex, coiffure and complexion he can discern the fascinating persistence of important details–an inquisitive nose here, a generous mouth there, an indolent eyelid, or an imperious lift of the head; and trace with delight how an overwhelming passion for Bridge has clearly been transmitted and transmuted into an insatiable lust for bull's-eyes.
The mothers have for the most part long ago abandoned themselves frankly to parenthood, though here and there it is possible to detect a lingering attempt at chic. The sons range from macrocephalous tadpoles of eight to rawboned giants of eighteen. There are, to be sure, a few fathers, who get through the whole business with miraculous speed, partly by being tall enough to catch the assistants' eye and partly by never asking the price: but on the whole it is mothers-and-sons' day, and probably the severest test which their mutual love is ever likely to undergo. The mother is irritated at the scarcity of assistants, at her own folly in leaving the job to the last minute instead of getting it done at the beginning of August when the shops were empty, and above all at her child's total inability to stand still while he is being fitted. The boy's anguish is simpler and more concentrated: he is going through hell lest his mother should run amok on the few non-regulation items and buy him something perfectly unspeakable. He remembers the incident of Arbuthnot's dressing-gown, and sweats.
From the darker aspects of this depressing picture one turns with relief to a pleasing little incident portrayed in the lower right-hand corner. Here a very young mother, accompanied by a very small tadpole, is ordering name-tapes for his first school outfit. The assistant has just handed her a sample-card, and she is running her eye critically down the two columns of assorted celebrities whose names are so skilfully used to lend interest and piquancy to the various styles of type. J. P. Morgan is there, in square green block capitals; Gracie Fields in sloping black ones; Jack Hulbert in heliotrope Roman; Baden-Powell in bold blue sanserif; Arnold Bennett (rather surprisingly) in ecclesiastical Gothic; and Ian Hay in what I can only describe as yellow rococo. But the young mother, well aware that she must on no account choose anything unconventional, puts her finger on No. 4–Mary Pickford, in a neat copybook script. "We'll have that one, please," she says to the assistant; and immediately becomes aware that something is wrong with her tadpole. His face is crimson with mortification; he seems about to burst.
"Why, what's the matter, darling?" she asks, bewildered.
"Surely, Mother," he protests with the dignity born of utter despair, "it would be better if I had my own name?"
THE flat golden tonking of a hundred sheep-bells came floating down upon me like a shower of pebbles through the indigo depths of sleep. I stirred, clung instinctively to oblivion for a moment, then let myself drift slowly up to the surface of another Balearic day.
I knew by the sheep-bells that it could not be more than five o'clock, but the room was already flooded with sunlight and the black and white marble squares of the floor felt warm to my bare feet as I walked over to the window. The sheep by now were about to pass beneath me, their jostling backs merged into one white woolly cumulus as though a cloud had fallen out of the cloudless sky. Their hoofs made a twittering sound upon the sun-baked mud of the road; the clangour of the bells rose in a confused crescendo, sagged a little in passing, and faded away along the quay, leaving a train of wakefulness behind it.
The fishermen were just returning from the night's work, lowering sail as they rounded the jetty. A few of them had already come ashore and were beginning to spread out their nets in symmetrical patterns on the hot flags of the quay. The wall-eyed puppy with the lame leg was chewing at the corks and tangling the nets up as fast as the fishermen could lay them out, until one of them gave him a good-natured clout and sent him squealing and yapping across the road. And that woke the other dogs, and the dogs woke their owners, and the baker's wife next door began to sing one of those endless wandering songs of hers, and soon the whole village was astir, as though someone had dropped a coin into a penny-in-the-slot machine. With a pang I remembered that it was our last day. Not a moment of it must be wasted, and I slipped along the passage to wake the others. I noticed how brown and polished their arms looked against the matt whiteness of the sheets.
When we got downstairs there was nobody about except Blond Dog. He, as usual, was sitting at his desk in the hall, gazing out with prominent blue eyes across the bay. So far as I know he never went to bed. By the exercise of what we had learnt in a fortnight to call typical Blond-Doggery he had managed to have our picnic lunch ready for us before breakfast, and that, in Spanish territory, takes genius.
"You have a beautiful day," said Blond Dog, as we drank our coffee.
"All days are beautiful in Miramosa," we responded. Somehow one can say things like that in Spanish, even if one knows how to say little else.
"Your last one," he mentioned tactlessly.
"Don't rub it in," we said, but in English this time, for idioms are tricky things. "We don't want to go."
"Then why not stay?" said Blond Dog. He made it sound so delightfully simple.
"How can we? We have work to do in England."
"But look," said Blond Dog, "at the Señor Thompson. He came here for a holiday ten years ago, and he has stayed ever since."
"Alas," we said, "the Señor Thompson probably has private means."
"With the exchange like this, it would cost very little for you to live here."
"Very little. But we must go back nevertheless."
"One spends one's life," said Blond Dog, "being where one would not be." He stared out again across the relentless dancing blue. He had, we knew, a young woman in Barcelona. "There is a house to let," he added irrelevantly. "The second farm after you pass the lighthouse island. It will be going very cheap. The man there has just been arrested for smuggling."
"Come on," said T. "We ought to be off before the sun gets too hot."
"It has a good fig-orchard," said Blond Dog. "And I am told the olives bear well."
"Come on," said T.; and we stepped out into the fresh blinding sunlight.
We walked past the village shop where you buy tobacco and stamps and straw sombreros and cheese and rope-soled shoes; past the tiny rose-red barracks where a Gilbertian garrison lives with its wives and its amber-coloured children; past the fonda where the soldiers meet in the evening to gamble and play guitars; past the other fonda where the fishermen go and where brandy is three-ha'pence a glass; past the little white convent from which, later in the day, would come a drone of nuns and schoolchildren; and so out into the open country.
"Which way?" said C., who was in front. "Into the hills, or along the coast road?"
"Coast road," I said. "Past the lighthouse island."
"You're not," said T., "letting Blond Dog put ideas into your head?"
"It's a nice road," I said. "And it won't do any harm just to have a look at that farm."
So we took the path by the sea, stopping very often to pick figs. You cannot buy figs in Miramosa. If you try, the peasants smile deprecatingly and give you whole basketfuls of them. The ripe ones are shaken down early every morning for the pigs to eat. It is as though a foreigner came to England and tried to buy acorns.
As E. reached up for a particularly beautiful fig, like a green puffed sleeve slashed with crimson, a book fell out of his pocket. I picked it up.
"Not again?" I groaned.
"Yes," said E. "And I really am going to start on it to-day."
He had brought Paradise Lost with him from England, saying that it was a thing every Englishman ought to have read, and that it was only on a holiday like this that he would ever have the chance of doing so. But on the journey out, of course, none of us read anything but Spanish phrase-books; and ever since we had arrived at Miramosa fate had been against him. Whenever he settled down and opened it, something happened.
There was, for instance, the evening when he tried to read it after dinner, under the awning, between sips of brandy: but all of a sudden we heard such a curious noise coming from the jetty that there was nothing for it but to go and see what was the matter. What was the matter was a herd of black pigs; two men were trying very hard to embark them on to a pig-barge, and they were trying still harder not to be embarked. Milton, they say, has a hundred uses, but embarking hysterical pigs is not one of them. What could any man of spirit do but pocket Paradise Lost and plunge into the mêlée? The next hour was spent in shoving and pulling at slippery black bodies in a darkness only less black, in tripping over hawsers and barking our shins on crates and bollards. Finally–and small thanks, no doubt, to our help–the gate of the pig-barge slammed on the last struggling rump; the swineherd cast off and clung precariously, a dark crouching figure, to the stern of the barge; the tugs got under way, and the whole fantastic cortège set out in the direction of the Barcelona steamer, which lay twinkling far off in the bay. I thought, as the tugs receded into the night and the indignant grunting and squealing grew fainter across the water, of Charon and the Styx, hoping that the dead embarked with a better grace and with less reluctant rumps.
Then there was the time when he was lying sunbathing in the sand-dunes. He had skimmed drowsily through the first ten lines or so when one of the Gilbertian carabineros appeared from behind a cactus-bush and accused him of being a smuggler. E. indicated by signs that the amount of clothing he was wearing at that moment would not conceal so much as one pipeful of tobacco. The soldier grinned, spat and offered him a Canarias. To read Milton and smoke Canarias at the same time would be both disrespectful and inartistic, so Paradise Lost was again laid aside: a grasshopper came and sunned himself on it, and a little more sand drifted in between its pages. But every day E. hopefully brought it out once more, crammed into his hip-pocket or wedged between the wine and the ensiemadas.
By the time we had passed the lighthouse island the sun had swung high, and long before we reached the first farm the heat had a real bite in it. The first farm was quite near the sea, with a small cove below it. But there was no sand in the cove; the shore just there was all made of dried seaweed-not the crimped, popping kind, nor the broad shiny kind that you hang up as a barometer, but a kind I had never seen before, like chopped straw, brittle, pale brown, and so tightly packed layer on resilient layer that it made a new kind of earth. The sea had worn it away into miniature gullies, gorges and headlands, so that it looked like a scale model of a wild and rugged coast; but the water, lapping against it, made a soft sucking sound quite different from the clean slap that it makes against real rocks. Moreover, you could not dive from it, for fear it should crumble away beneath you. So, although our bodies ached to slip into the cool emerald of the water, we decided to push on across the high stony headland to the next cove, where there might be sand.
For an hour we climbed steeply among grey boulders and a tangle of lentiscus. Here and there, like a miracle in a desert, rose the delicate, feathery grey-blue spire of an aloe in full bloom; and here and there a chocolate-brown goat arranged itself with unconscious artistry upon a crag, silhouetted against blue nothingness, the cynical topaz lozenges of its eyes belying, as is the way with goats, its foolish, amiable mouth. Crickets, those industrious musicians, tuned up hopefully and without respite for a symphony which would never be played; and small green lizards flickered and darted among the rocks, as though the earth, grown over-hot, had burst spontaneously into little tongues of flame.
On the backbone of the ridge, between its jagged vertebrae, there was a close tufty carpet of aromatic plants–thyme, lavender, southernwood, and one or two more whose names I did not know; and on these we threw ourselves down, bruising them into sweetness.
Our climb had brought us at last within sight of the second farm, the one that Blond Dog had so tantalisingly mentioned. It lay below us and a little to the left, on the edge of a narrow arroyo which wound down to a cove of white sand. Its roof was of that gentle slope which comes naturally to builders who have little need to reckon with rain. Its walls were melon-pink. On the seaward side, overlooking the miniature precipice on whose brink it stood, was a wooden arbour or balcony roofed by a vine. Over the low rail of this balcony, and half-way down the face of the cliff, blue convolvulus and magenta bougainvillaea hung in a glowing arras. Behind the house lay a square sun-baked farmyard surrounded by a cactus hedge; behind that again, an orchard of laden fig-trees; and above the fig-line the olive-terraces began.
For some minutes we lay silent, getting back our breath and taking in every detail of the scene. Then E. looked at C., and I looked at T., and we all began talking at once.
"But it's madness to go home..."
"I wonder how much that olive crop is worth?"
"Blond Dog said one could live on a peseta a day..."
"There would be room for all the children..."
And then we turned towards the farm again and discovered further delights. It was E. who pointed out that there was a clump of almonds at the foot of the little cliff, so that in spring one would be looking at the sea across a cloud of blossom. And T., I think, was the one who first noticed the pig-sty. It was a very exceptional pig-sty. It had an oleander on one side of it and a pomegranate on the other, and it, too, was canopied with a growing vine. The pig, unimpressed, snored in the sun.
As we watched, an old man with cropped hair and a middle-aged woman with a yard-long plait–the father and wife, we judged, of the man who was in prison–came out on to the balcony and laid the table for their midday meal. We could make out a loaf, pimientos, a bottle of wine and a great steaming bowl of what was probably arroz marinera. The sight was too much for us: we got to our feet, shouldered the food baskets and scrambled as quickly as possible down the other side of the headland to have a bathe before lunch.
"Perhaps the bathing'll be rotten," I said hopefully. "Sea-urchins and jelly-fish. That'll put us off for good and all."
But the bathing was relentlessly perfect. Fine hard sand sloped gently, for those who liked gradual immersion, into water unbelievably green: while for those who did not, a ledge of volcanic rock ran out conveniently on either side. The sea was so clear that even from the furthest end of the ledge it looked scarcely deep enough for diving, and the tenuous green fronds which grew on the bottom seemed almost within arm's reach: but we took a sounding with string and found that there was eighteen feet of water. T. had a terrifying experience: he was pursued by a huge dark shape with waving tentacles; the faster he swam the faster it followed, behind and a little below him. His blood, he admitted afterwards, ran cold; and it was not until he had almost reached the shore that he discovered he was fleeing from his own shadow on the sea's floor.
Sprawling in the shade of the rocks with our feet in the sun, we ate enormously. Blond Dog had surpassed himself. Besides the usual sandwiches, ensiemadas, goat-cheese, grapes and wine, he had risen to a whole melon and some excellent tinned squid. We finished the lot, slept for three hours, and woke up encrusted with a mosaic of tiny shells. As we brushed them off we became aware of their minuteness and perfection. Not one of them was more than an eighth of an inch long. There were some which in shape, colour and transparency could only be compared with babies' finger-nails; there were spirals of every kind–flattened whorls of canary yellow, shallow pointed cones with a rainbow sheen, and slender white spires like the ivory towers of Lilliput. There were cockles so small that the naked eye could hardly see their flutings; diminutive blue-black mussels like inky tear-drops; and a multitude of unknown ones, fragile as fallen petals, saffron, rose, amethyst and apple-green.
When we at last raised our eyes from this absorbing task, we saw that we were not alone in the cove. A boy of about twelve, presumably the son of the arrested farmer, had walked past us while we slept, and was fishing unconcernedly from the rocks. He must have been there some time, for his rod, a roughly trimmed reed-cane, was lying on the sand beside a bunch of small rainbow-coloured fish, strung together through the gills, as brilliant as a nosegay of flowers. He was now practising, with great precision, another branch of his art. He carried a long narrow piece of lath with a small fish lashed uncomfortably to one end of it like a fixed bayonet. This he thrust downwards under the overhanging ledge, and three times out of four brought it up with a crab clinging to the helpless, but one hoped unconscious, fish.
"Buenas!" we shouted, and he echoed it with a beautiful flashing grin. But it turned out to be nearly all the Spanish he knew, and none of us could speak the island language: so it was by signs, mostly, that we bought, for half a peseta, four of his fish–not because we were hungry, but because we wanted the fun of lighting a fire and cooking them in wet paper. The boy stood and watched us, his faded blue cotton trousers rolled to the knee, his toes sticking out of his ragged alpargatas. To our great pride, the wet-paper technique was new to him; and when the last of the three thicknesses was charred through, revealing the fish done to a turn, he clapped his hands in delight and uttered, unmistakably, the island word for "Attaboy."
We gave him one of the fish, which he ate with approval. In return, he opened a rusty knife, ran back to the rocks, pried off a sea-urchin (there were few, and none underfoot) and brought it carefully back; setting it up edgewise on a flat stone, he cracked it all round with the knife as though it were an egg, threw away the squirming lower half and offered us, with grave courtesy, the upper–an exquisitely patterned bowl in which lay, star-fashion, five slips of coral-pink flesh. There was nothing for it: we scooped out and ate one each, and he himself swallowed the last. He was a charming child, and we felt that whatever happened he would have to be let with the farm. After all, he was no younger than Guillermo, the tiny under-waiter at our hotel: and in his spare time he could keep us supplied with fish.
We did not bathe again, for the sun was already round the headland and off the water. We doused the fire with sand, hoisted up our lightened baskets, and said good-bye to the brown boy: his hand was thin, supple and surprisingly cool.
"Hasta la vista," we said, and we really meant to come back: but he, with instinctive wisdom, replied "Adios."
At the top of the ridge we emerged once more into the sunshine, which was now flooding horizontally from the south-west. The lighthouse island was stencilled in bramble-black on a gold-leaf sea. We turned to have one more look at the cove. Two uniformed figures were strolling across it with blankets and rifles slung on their shoulders, while a young Alsatian bounded along in front: it was a pair of carabineros setting off on their night-patrol. Suddenly one of them gave a howl of pain and clapped his hand to the back of his neck. They both spun round, unslinging their rifles: but the cove was apparently empty and the dog's clumsy rangings had no success. It was only we, with our god's-eye view, who could see the brown boy lying as still as a cat along the branch of a carob-tree a few yards from where they stood. We could not tell for certain what his avenging missile had been, but the last we saw of the scene was the other carabinero laboriously plucking out of his colleague's nape what we hoped and believed were sea-urchin spines.
We sailed at seven o'clock next morning. As our steamer left the jetty I found myself wondering why we had done nothing about that farm; asked no questions, made no effort at all; why one never does do anything; why one always goes back in the end to fogs and offices and wet Saturday nights in the King's Road. I dare say the others were wondering too, but none of us said it aloud.
Blond Dog, inscrutable as ever, waved to us from the quay; the wall-eyed puppy gnawed incorrigibly at the net-floats; and as C., T., and I leaned over the after rail we became aware that E. had already left our side. He was sitting in a deck-chair, reading, with his back turned resolutely to the island. He read, as often, half-aloud; and his voice mingled with the steady throbbing of the engines:
"Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden...."
I KNOW two men, brothers, who are meteorological highbrows. Weather, to them, is not a mere stop-gap at the conversational feast: it is the guest of honour, to be treated with respect, enthusiasm, the Crown Derby and the Cockburn '96. They discuss it, not, as we lowbrows are content to, in loose amateurish phrases such as "Isn't it a lovely day?", "There's thunder in the air," or "It looks like rain," but in clear-cut technical terms, in depressions, isobars, and anticyclones.
Let no one think from this that their conversation is dull or pedantic. Far from it: their eagerness has an almost lyrical quality. One of them leans across the breakfast table, tapping with an excited finger the weather chart in The Times.
"Look at that! You see how that big depression is filling up. I told you yesterday–"
"Yes, but don't you see–?" says the other and draws a little anticyclone on the tablecloth with a fork.
The north wall of their house is plastered with thermometers; in the garden there are a rain-gauge, a sun-gauge and a wind-gauge; and the front hall contains a wealth of instruments to poke, tap and peer at, including one of those Heath Robinson contraptions which live in a glass case and make little tremulous lines with ink. Nor is their interest in weather in any way a selfish or insular one, connected with their own pursuits: for they actually take in, and study with unaffected delight, a publication called The World Weather Record.
"By the way," says one of them, "I see they had a sun temperature of 140 degrees in Sierra Leone last Tuesday."
"I know!" replies the other, with shining eyes. "And look what the humidity was at Pará on Thursday week!"
I stayed with them once during a record heat wave. Iced drinks in deck-chairs under the cedar-tree were thoughtfully provided for, and thankfully accepted by, their guests: but they themselves took it in turns to trot backwards and forwards across the sun-baked lawn, bringing news from the north wall.
"Eighty-nine!" one of them would mutter ecstatically, mopping his forehead and collapsing into a chair. And a little while later the other one would hoist himself to his feet, cram on a hat–for the sun was really ferocious–and set off on a similar expedition. When he reappeared we knew by his triumphant walk, even before he was within shouting distance, that the mercury had touched ninety.
They are fortunate, these two: they have hit upon a hobby of which nothing can ever deprive them. Failing sight may cheat the philatelist and the bird-watcher; the amateur of snuff-boxes may find himself in his old age with no money to spare: but the man who collects weather can count upon a lifetime's amusement. Weather goes on and on. Weather happens to you, unsought: and if it isn't happening in your particular part of the world at any given moment it is happening somewhere else and you can enjoy it vicariously.
Weather–by which, of course, I mean remarkable weather–is, sociologically speaking, a good thing. It knits people together, heals petty differences, promotes co-operation. One's first impulse, when snow comes, is to find somebody to talk to about it: it does not seem real until one has shared the news. And when the pavements are caked with ice, and everybody walks precariously, curling up the toes, there is a sense of comradeship in the street which is not usually there. Slipping and staggering, people smile at one another without introduction, and sometimes even speak. They are the common butts of an enormous joke which has deprived them alike of their equilibrium and their reserve.
High winds have much the same effect. Hats bowl away, coats fly open, skirts cling, umbrellas flype themselves: and their owners, grotesquely running, grabbing, snatching, struggling, are consumed with rueful and involuntary mirth. Thrusting forward against the wind, or leaning backwards on it, they catch one another's eye and feel as much akin as barley-stalks in a field.
Rain will do it, too. Not ordinary rain, unless it is so prolonged as to make each new day of it a source of horrified wonder; not a half-hearted drizzle, which is divisive in its effects, sending each one of us huddling down into a solitary, misanthropic coat-collar: but sudden, torrential rain, coming down in hammer-strokes, the drops bouncing up from the pavement like little ballet-dancers; sluicing down the inadequate gutters, flooding across the road; catching people unawares, driving them to take shelter in the doorways of shops, breathless, laughing, sharers of an adventure.
But fog is the best of the lot–the best common enemy. It is the grey wolf at the door, the yellow snake writhing at the window-pane. Our throats thicken and our eyes smart; linking arms with strangers we grope our way perilously from kerb to kerb. Familiar streets are turned into caverns of unknown depths out of which monstrous shapes come looming with orange eyes. Sounds are muffled and sinister. Torches flare, heraldically, at Hyde Park Corner. There is more than a chance that one may not get to one's destination: or that, having done so, one may not get back.
That is the core of the matter. Everyday life has become too certain. We move a switch, and light blazes; we turn a tap, and water flows; we post a letter, and it is punctually received; we set out for a dinner-party, and infallibly arrive there. It is all too easy, too predictable.
We cannot unwind the intricate skein of civilisation; nor would we if we could. But when something unwinds it for us, there is a small rebellious devil lurking in our well-drilled souls which is always ready to leap out, rejoicing. Here, he says with a grin, is your chance; here is adventure for the million, drama for the masses: here is the unforeseen, the incalculable, the deuce of spades wild.
And here, above all, is something to dine out on, even if one only dines with oneself. "I was in London that day it touched a hundred degrees." "I was snowed up once in a train for forty-eight hours." Or even, as the child in A High Wind in Jamaica said with simple pride, "I've got an earthquake."
Which reminds me: the two brothers I spoke of have just come into a tidy sum of money from an uncle. Their house urgently needs re-roofing, and their car is in the last stage of senility: but they are buying a seismograph.
GENERALISING is a foolish pastime, and generalising about men as men, and women as women, represents the highest pinnacle of its folly. But when the will to indulge in it becomes too strong for you and you feel you must generalise or burst, then the following one is comparatively safe: namely that, at dinner-parties, the time when the ladies are in the drawing-room and the gentlemen are finishing their port is for men one of the most enjoyable parts of the evening and for women simple hell.
The custom–a relic of the days when men got disgustingly drunk, slid under the table and were there saved from apoplexy by the ministrations of page-boys–is a barbarous one and has been abandoned in most civilised countries. But in England, unhappily, it still obtains. I have made a careful study of the look which hostesses give their husbands when they go past them out of the dining-room. Almost always the expression is one of intense and rueful pleading, streaked in some cases with menace. Expanded, it says quite plainly, "For God's sake, darling, don't be all night." And almost always it is answered by a non-committal and quite unrepentant smile. The other women dread the ordeal as much, or almost as much, as the hostess, but they know that no glance of theirs can influence the situation; so up they all go, wearing their invisible yashmaks with a bad grace.
The facts are undeniable; but the inference usually drawn from them–that women cannot get on socially with other women–is false. Go to any restaurant in the middle of the day and you will see women lunching together in groups of any size from two to twenty, laughing and talking, completely at ease with each other. There is no magic in luncheon as opposed to dinner, or in restaurants as opposed to private houses. How, then, do these feminine after-dinner sessions contrive to be at once so insipid and so embarrassing?
The main reason, I think, is the uncertainty of the time factor, which lies entirely in the men's hands. Whenever they happen to finish their port or their conversation they will come upstairs–it may be in twenty minutes, it may be in an hour and twenty; and the moment the door opens to admit them the women's party will be arbitrarily brought to an end; conversations must be broken off in mid-air and places changed to allow for the neat alternation of the sexes which convention, that hardened old patience-player, insists upon.
For the women, then, it is scarcely worth while embarking on any subject which is likely to lead to prolonged and interesting discussion. The talk, therefore, perches and flits, birdlike. I would not mind betting that if the men left the dining-room and drank their port upstairs and the women were free to lean their elbows on the table and get down to brass tacks without fear of interruption, matters would take a very different turn.
But there is, to be honest, another reason. At the dinner-table, even though they are arranged alternately, men and women are at liberty to forget that they are anything but human beings; consequently there is a strong chance that they will be at their best. But at a given moment it is the duty of the hostess, Circe-like, with a complex wave of her eye, to transform these reasonable people, herself included, into two groups of animals by the mere process of suddenly and pointedly separating them. Now, never having been present at an all-male gathering, I cannot tell what kind of animal men turn into when abruptly left alone. Tigers, perhaps; bulls, apes or bears; for all I know, wart-hogs. Or perhaps, since they have been allowed to behave like human beings far longer than women have, they do not so easily regress, especially as they are at least left in comfortable and dignified command of the situation. But the women, cast out, herded upstairs and immediately sent about the biological business of powdering their noses–the women (I can vouch for it) go completely to pieces. They have become sub-human before they reach the half-landing; and by the time they set foot in the drawing-room Circe's work is finished. Set foot is hardly the word; set hoof, rather, or set paw. For there is unfortunately little need to ask what animals women turn into when they are too suddenly segregated. Broadly speaking, they become either cats or cows.
There are exceptions, of course: an occasional trend towards the horse, especially among county families; a few rather engaging dormice; you yourself, I am quite willing to believe, turn into an elegant milk-white gazelle; and I once had the misfortune to run across a black mamba. But on the whole, yes, cats or cows: there is no getting away from it. And within five minutes the same creatures who at dinner were talking more or less intelligently about world affairs and the quantum theory are engaged in one of two occupations–chewing the cud or sharpening the claws. Domesticities or gossip: there seems to be no other choice. In one corner, two mothers of contemporary children are exchanging in a low moo maternal platitudes. (Even their jargon is scarcely human. "How are your infants?" "Flourishing." "My small boy..."). From another direction there comes a soft malicious purring; two more of them have discovered acquaintances in common and are ecstatically kneading bread as they pull them to pieces. ("Is she a friend of yours?" "Well, I've known her a long time.... ") A third pair contains one of each species, so they have chosen the servant problem, a subject which gives equal scope for mooing and miaowing.
If there was more time, or even if one knew just how much time there was, it might be possible for a strong-minded hostess to break the spell and turn herself and her guests into human beings again. But as things are she can only keep an eye uselessly on the clock and pray–either to Hathor or to Bubastis, according to her nature. And when at last the men come up, her relief at seeing them is almost spoilt by her annoyance at feeling relieved. As a rule they seem quite unconscious that they have been a long time: which is bad enough. But sometimes they apologise for it, which is worse. For how is one to reply without pandering to the arrogance which the apology reveals? How, without being a traitor to one's sex, is one to explain about Circe?
IT is more than twenty years since "Saki" was killed at Beaumont-Hamel. How many people, I wonder, read him now? Most of his short stories are period pieces, frothy spoonfuls from the brilliant doomed soufflé of pre-war Society. Their interest has already become a historical one, their dialogue is as dated, though as witty, as Sheridan's, and the values which are implicit in them have long ago been cancelled or revised. But there is one which strikes home at the present moment with a startling, an almost uncomfortable topicality. It is called The Toys of Peace.
This story was written, or at any rate conceived, just before the last war. If universally read and taken to heart it might go far towards the prevention of the next one: or at any rate the one after that. Eleanor Bope, an ardent pacifist, suddenly decides that her children must no longer be allowed to possess soldiers, guns and forts: instead, she persuades her brother to give them an elaborate and expensive outfit of "civilian toys"–district councillors, ballot-boxes, municipal buildings and the like. Peeping in through the nursery doorway a little while later, their uncle is horrified to see that the children have already pierced the public library with holes to turn it into a fort, and dipped the town councillors in red ink to represent blood. He steals away from the room and seeks out his sister. "The experiment," he says, "has failed. We have begun too late."
For those children, perhaps, it was too late. We (for it was I and my contemporaries who were sitting on that nursery floor) had been raised since infancy on the glamour of the scarlet coat. The only real wars of which we had any knowledge were the Boer and the Balkan. The first had ended shortly before our birth and survived for us only in the songs our nurses sang to us in our bath and the stories in our much older brothers' bound magazines. The second was no more than a Ruritanian fantasy, a matter of sticking little flags into places with comic names on a brightly-coloured map. Both were remote in distance and romantic in atmosphere. It would have been extraordinarily difficult to persuade us that there was anything wrong in war, nor can we blame our parents for not pursuing the policy of Eleanor Bope. But since then a generation has passed. It is our children, now, who occupy the nursery floor, and it is we ourselves who are faced with the choice between Bopery and non-Bopery. We have no excuse whatever for evading the issue.
Like most other issues it is complicated by the existence of our fellow-beings. If the buying of toys lay entirely in our own hands we could be relied upon, I suppose, not to buy war toys, and presently the supply of them would cease with the demand. People who have young children do not need very much reminding to be pacifists. There are, however, other sources of supply–lavish but unimaginative friends, aunts pressed for time in the Christmas rush, great-uncles who have been in the army and are proud of their old regiment, and reactionary members of both generations who think that all this kind of thing is hooey. Ought one, then, to open all incoming presents, consign objectionable ones to the fire (for one cannot, of course, pass them on to any other children, however toyless) and substitute others out of one's own pocket? The answer, I am afraid, is Yes, at whatever cost of time, trouble, money or the sender's feelings.
For of course the sender is bound to know. Concealment would be not only cowardly but almost impossible to achieve–unless he or she happened to live in California. It could only be managed by letting the children into the conspiracy: and that would arouse in them a passionate interest in the confiscated toys. War knowledge might become to them, as physiological knowledge was to us, an absorbing mystery, only to be unravelled by furtive conversation among themselves. ("I know how a machine-gun works." "Bet you don't." "Bet I do." "How did you find out?" "The boy next door told me." "Come on, then.... ")
There is no doubt that half the difficulty, when discussing war toys with children, lies in not investing the whole subject with the glamour of the forbidden. And discuss it one must: for there is yet another source from which toys can be obtained–the children's own pocket-money, which, once given, ought to be within reasonable limits spent at their discretion. To forbid them to buy soldiers, guns and forts is asking for trouble. One can only point out, as carelessly as possible, more attractive objects on another counter. But when they get old enough to walk round to the toy-shop by themselves and to come back eagerly clasping a handsome new three-engined bomber, what is one to do? Once, faced with this problem, I suggested that it should be used as a mail-plane instead. The owner, flushed with his orgy of expenditure, objected that bombs were more fun. I pointed out that they might be more fun to drop, but that if you happened to be the person they were dropped on you would get no fun out of it at all because you would simply be dead. He replied with an angelic smile that you would then go up to heaven and be in a position to drop bombs on other people. Helplessly out-Boped, I said no more, except that at any rate there was to be no bombing in the drawing-room.
The dread of being thought a humourless spoilsport has held back many would-be reformers. To go to the stake for the sake of a great principle seems–to one, at any rate, who has never undergone any severe burns–less formidable than to be laughed at for the sake of a small one. But it is a martyrdom which must be endured: and is the principle involved, after all, so trifling? Nobody but a sadistic lunatic would allow children to play with an outfit of toy thumbscrews, racks and Iron Maidens, complete with miniature victims made of lead or wood. Why, then, guns and soldiers? To allow them in the nursery is at the best misleading and at the worst criminal. Criminal, because children soon identify themselves with their playthings; and to them, as to their elders, a catchword rapidly becomes a creed. It is a short step from dropping a wooden bomb on a regiment of leaden Italians to calling old Giuseppe, the barrel-organ man, to whom they have given a penny every Friday for years, a dirty wop. And misleading, because no toy, however realistically modelled, can give anything but a false idea of war. In the old days, when it was a simpler and a cleaner sport, model weapons and model troops could provide a mild, painless but fairly accurate representation of a battle. You fired a cannon, and down with a clatter fell half a battalion of infantry. You removed them from the field either in Red Cross wagons or by a simple sweep of the hand, and then it was the other person's turn. It was all very neat, very leisurely and absolutely cricket. But nobody has yet invented a set of toys which will debunk once and for all the glamour of modern warfare.
Perhaps some sub-sub-sub-committee of the League, twiddling its thumbs in a Genevan anteroom while it waits for a chance to lay its report before the Council, might pass the time by designing such a set. It must contain, among other things, guns which are impossible to fire without pinching the fingers and which after a few rounds become uncomfortably hot to handle; and heavy tanks which, once wound up, advance inexorably across the floor, crushing to pulp not only the enemy troops but any civilian toys which happen to be lying about–trains and buses, for instance, dolls, circuses, farmyards, Noah's arks, floating ducks for the bath and albums of nursery gramophone records. Most important of all, there must be some harmless but extremely unpleasant form of gas, which induces simultaneously both tears and nausea. (Not actual sickness: we have the Nannies to consider.)
This outfit, in various sizes, at a price within the reach of every pocket, would bear the approval-stamp of the League, and the manufacture of the old, inaccurate, glamorous war toys would be forbidden. A drastic measure, no doubt, but one which would so impress upon the minds of the young the futility, horror and far-reaching inconvenience of war that they would grow up thinking it unthinkable. And it is not until everybody thinks it unthinkable that war will cease.
EVERYWHERE–in clubs, in pubs, in dining rooms, in offices, in trains–the same discussion rages: the age-old, ever-burning controversy between the pacifists and the militarists. Or rather, I suppose, between the whole pacifists and the part pacifists: between those who believe that the taking of human life is always wrong, and those who believe that in certain circumstances it can be justified–on behalf, say, of an International Army controlled by the League of Nations; or to bring about the political ideals of Communism or of Fascism; or to resist invasion. The out-and-out militarist–the believer in wars of conquest or colonisation, or in war for its own sake, as a means whereby the mass of mankind may rapidly acquire all those virtues which can otherwise be obtained only at an expensive public school–the out-and-out militarist is almost dead. Not quite. Not as dead as the countless million victims of his ideals. But still, moribund: a partially disembodied spirit floating uneasily in a threadbare armchair half-way between Cheltenham and Valhalla. In any case, one no longer argues with him, but enquires about the garden or his wife's health.
Between him and the out-and-out pacifist there are a hundred delicate gradations of opinion; but since their holders are all prepared, with varying degrees of reluctance, to fall back upon the principle of war, they must all, for our present purpose, be classed as militarists.
Anybody who has listened to these arguments is by now familiar with everything that can be said on both sides. There is no need to recapitulate it here. But the time is ripe, I think, for a few words of comment upon a certain stock character who, sooner or later, is sure to crop up in the discussion. She–for it is a woman–can make her entry upon almost any cue, but as a rule she does not appear until things have gone pretty far, and the pacifist is pressing home one of his most cogent thrusts: for instance, that to settle a difference of opinion by physical force is about as sensible as to elect a boxing champion by a contest in general knowledge. The militarist, at bay, looks wildly round, does some swift and characteristically confused thinking, and produces his trump card.
"But look here," he said, "what would you expect me to do if I saw a fellow trying to rape my sister?" The wording of the question varies from club to pub, but the sense remains the same. And invariably, before the pacifist can open his mouth to speak, the militarist himself supplies the answer.
"Why, of course," he continues, "I should knock the beggar down." And this time the club version and the pub version differ from each other only by a single vowel sound.
To this triumphant sally the pacifist has a choice of replies. He can speak with the tongues of Sheppards and of Angells, both of whom have dealt convincingly with the question. He can point out that any man in his senses would try to restrain the aggressor by muscular force, and if necessary, by a sock on the jaw; but that he would not be justified in killing him, even in so admirable a cause. For the physiological and psychological consequences of rape, however serious, are seldom beyond human adjustment; whereas the great thing about death is that it is incurable. Or he can quote Milne, who defines the sister-protecting incident as "a special instance of the instinctive use of force," and war as "a conventional use of force on all occasions which is now become ridiculous." If, however, the militarist appears to be approaching dangerously near to an apoplexy, the best course is simply to lean forward and say in an urbane manner: "By the way, Carruthers, how is your sister?"
But the present investigation is concerned not so much with the discussions which she provokes as with the personality of the girl herself. What does she look like? How does she walk and talk? Where was she educated? What are her interests, her hobbies, her attitude to life? In brief, why is she, above all other young women, so peculiarly subject to rape? Other people's sisters, according to the latest statistics available, get off comparatively free. In legal, clerical and diplomatic circles the catastrophe is virtually unknown; even in agricultural districts, where, as all novel-readers are aware, there is a lecherous cretin concealed behind every hedge, the occurrence is rare; among gas-fitters, stevedores and acetylene-welders the figures are encouragingly low; numismatists, philatelists, taxidermists, lorimers and members of the College of Heralds seem to enjoy almost complete immunity from this vicarious disgrace; while there is positively not a single case on record of any pacifist's sister being so much as winked at in a Tube lift. Whereas the militarist's sister–well, one does not want to exaggerate, but she is what is known in insurance jargon as a bad risk.
She is, I surmise, of middle height, or slightly below it, and rather on the plump side. She has fair hair, correctly dealt with in the fashion of the moment, and she dresses well but not conspicuously, choosing, out of two frocks, the one with the more feminine cut. She was brought up in the country, rides well (side-saddle), plays a goodish game of tennis, but does not know a stoat from a weasel or notice the direction of the wind. She had a governess till she was twelve, and then went to boarding-school, where she was popular alike with girls and mistresses, got up a few innocently illicit cocoa-parties in the dorm., but formed no morbid attachments.
At the age of eighteen, not without some sacrifice on her parents' part, she had a season in London, followed by a brief career at a friend's hat-shop in Beauchamp Place; but she was not quite punctual enough in the mornings, and the friend soon tactfully persuaded her that she was looking run down and would be happier living at home with her parents. So she went back to the Home Counties, where, as everybody knows, there is no need to lose touch with life, because it is so nice and easy to pop up to a show.
She reads quite a lot, mostly novels, with an occasional romantic biography; enjoys the Ballet, particularly Sylphides and Carnaval, but thinks the male dancers terribly effeminate; makes, and sometimes sells, rather amusing artificial flowers out of pine-cones, corks and sealing-wax; and is something of an expert at tuning-in to difficult short-wave stations after midnight. She gets on well with her mother, better with her father, and best of all with her brother, for whom, ever since early childhood, she has had an unwavering admiration. She thinks there is nobody like him, accepts his opinions without question, dreads the day when he will fall a victim to some designing minx not half good enough for him, and of course would not herself dream of marrying any man whom he considered a bit of an outsider. It is pleasant, as people often say, to come across a relationship like that in an age when it is de rigueur to be on bad terms with all one's immediate family.
Well, there she is: as nice, wholesome a young woman as you could wish to meet, and one whom any man might be proud to lead to the altar. It does seem a pity, poor girl, that she is destined for such a very different fate. Sooner or later some great hulking brute is sure to set eyes on her, and then–so irresistible is her attraction for men of that type–there will be nothing for it but the old, old story of worse than death. That is, unless her brother happens to be conveniently at hand to knock the beggar down.
I can offer no explanation, nor can I suggest a remedy. Unless, of course, one could persuade her brother to change his beliefs, so that she would no longer be a militarist's sister. He will not give them up for the sake of humanity or of civilisation, or to prevent a few thousand more children choking to death in the not too distant future; but surely, if one made it clear that it was going to save his sister from all further inconvenience, one would not appeal in vain?
SO they have bombed Tortosa at last. I have watched for its name in the newspapers ever since the civil war began, and I had begun to believe that the insurgents were going to spare it altogether. But this was too much to hope: and now I can only wonder, sick at heart, what has happened to old Rosendo Prunell; and recall in detail the whole pointless little adventure, alternately agonising and delightful, during which, a few months before the war broke out, we made his acquaintance.
We had left Pamplona at dawn and had driven all the morning across the desolate plains of Navarre, between rose-yellow sandstone ridges, flat-topped and horizontally striped, like the hills of Palestine in an illustrated Bible; between acres of fine stubble like cropped golden hair, bordered by huge heraldic thistles. We lunched off fried artichokes and boiled mussels in Zaragoza, and then climbed up on to the great desert plateau of Aragon, beside which Navarre, in memory, seemed almost lush. Here the soil made no attempt to cover the harsh grey bones of the land; nothing grew except coarse grass, and that grudgingly; there were no birds or animals, and no human beings except an occasional gang of road-menders breaking stones under the remorseless sun. They wore wire eye-shields; their long-handled hammers swung with a terrible precision; and the sweat stood bright on their arms. Once or twice by a stream we came upon a fertile belt of figs, maize and olives, and a beautiful filthy town: but it was not until dusk that we dropped down through a gorge into the rich dark green of the Ebro valley. Parched with dust, we drew up beside a vineyard and crammed our mouths with small sweet stolen grapes. The river, grown into a giant since we had crossed its stripling waters at Tudela, gleamed in the half-light, and the soft shrilling of crickets rose pleasantly to our ears after the burning silence of the plains.
It was dark by the time we reached Tortosa. To our consternation every hotel was full, for people had flocked in from all over the province to attend the opening night of a newly-built theatre. After the fourth, last, and humblest hotel had told us the same thing, we decided that at any rate we must have dinner before driving on to find a bed. The dining-room was small, hot and crowded, with an old dark flowered wall-paper; the food was plain and good, but the service, naturally enough, showed signs of strain. In fact, the solitary waiter seemed at his wits' end; and half-way through the meal he was supplemented by a benign little man of about sixty-five, whom I took at first to be what in an English inn would be called the boots. He was tubby, and grubby, and shabby, but he had an air: so that I was amused but not greatly surprised when, on hearing him give an order to the waiter which was received with a respectful "Sí, Señor," I realised that he was not the boots but the proprietor.
When the pressure had eased off a little and we were all contentedly nibbling turrón, he stood in the doorway and surveyed the scene with the half-anxious, half-elated air of a child successfully sailing a home-made boat. I guessed that he was very proud of his little hotel. As I looked at his bald shiny head, his tufts of untidy grey hair, his shapeless trousers, his crumpled linen coat, I racked my brains to remember where I had seen such a figure before: and remembered with a flash of pleasure the old shopkeeper in La Boutique Fantasque.
He did not seem to have been paying any particular attention to us, but those innocent eyes, peering over lop-sided spectacles, evidently had their own shrewdness: for as we pushed our coffee-cups aside and wearily spread out a map, trying to decide which of two equally distant towns would be the more likely to provide a comfortable bed, he edged over to us between the tables and said in Spanish, but with a Catalan accent and with Catalonian abruptness:
"Put that away. I have a little house in a pine-wood."
"But, señor, we cannot possibly–"
He lifted his hand in a gesture of mild but unassailable authority.
"It is settled. There is a room with two beds next to mine. I would not let the world come there, but you are all right."
Something in his manner turned this into the princeliest of compliments. We bowed across the stained table-cloth.
"The only difficulty is, I cannot leave here until half-past nine. We are very busy to-night."
We thanked him as fluently as we knew how, assured him that there was no hurry, and moved out to sit at one of the small tables on the pavement. It was cooler there and we could watch the crowds strolling past towards the new theatre. As usual, a wireless blared out dance music from Barcelona. Drinking Domecq, we wondered with discreet words but eloquent faces what we had let ourselves in for this time. A little house in a pine-wood sounded pretty vague: it might easily be very uncomfortable, and judging by the hotel dining-room and our host's shirt-cuffs we did not feel convinced that it would be particularly clean. As for the sanitation–but we had long ago resigned ourselves to the fact that the Spaniards, good plumbers in every other way, do not seem to have discovered the elementary principle of the curved trap.
At nine-thirty precisely (for we were in Catalonia) Rosendo Prunell appeared, in a broad-brimmed straw hat which made him look even more like the Boutique shopkeeper. If the wireless had switched for a moment on to Rossini I feel certain he would have trotted back into the hotel and put up the shutters with little dancing steps. But to the strains of a paso doble on a piano-accordion band he stepped into his car, which was small, old and shabby like himself; and we stepped into ours, which was yellow with the dust of Aragon; and off we went.
We had not the faintest idea where he was taking us, nor at that time did we even know his name; but fortunately, though he drove fast, we were able to keep his car in sight and to follow it by a series of hairpin bends up what was clearly a considerable hill. We could feel the air grow fresher as we climbed, and soon it became charged with resiny sweetness. We left the road, turned down a lane between young pine-trees, and presently drew up at a small white house in a moonlit clearing. It was built in the monastic simplicity of the modern Spanish style, flat-roofed, green-shuttered, with a graceful arcaded balcony all round the first floor. On the south side, wooded slopes fell away from it like the folds of a cloak; the Ebro valley lay below us in a gold wash of moonlight; the sky was sown with stars, the air spiced with aromatic plants; the silence, as always among pines, was of a lovely texture, woven smooth out of a million sibilations. We could not have hit upon a greater contrast to the noise and fustiness of the town.
"Es precioso, no?" said Prunell, smiling at our delight.
"Es maravilloso," I said, and T. gave an international murmur of appreciation. When we tore our senses at last from beauty, we saw that our host was standing by the front door with a jar of milk in one hand and a bottle of whitish medicine in the other. He had evidently just taken them out of his car. Seeing that we had noticed them, he displayed them with a little deprecating smile.
"Leche," he said. "Bismuto." He set them both down on the doorstep and laid his hands on his stomach. "Delicado," he added ruefully.
"Qué lástima!" I said. We little knew then how fortunate it was.
The door was opened by a servant whom he called Fernanda, a dark sonsy young woman of about thirty. He must have telephoned to her from the hotel, for she had our room ready–a cool white cube with a marble floor, a mosquito frame across the window, and two beds, narrow but clean. Sinking into them, we forgot within a few moments Navarre and Aragon, Tortosa, Fernanda and Prunell.
To the rest of that night I could only do justice in an oral account, with gestures, to an intimate friend: but anybody who has ever been rash enough to eat boiled mussels in Zaragoza will be able to fill in the cruder details. For the squeamish reader it will be enough to say that between midnight and three o'clock we experienced every known symptom of violent food-poisoning; sweated, shivered, writhed, retched and all the rest of it; clasped our stomachs in spasms of pain which, like those of childbirth, forced groans out of us against our will; thought, during brief limp intervals, of our home in England which we should never see again; wondered whether our bodies would be sent back there or buried beside the Ebro; and hoped the children would not miss us very much. If anybody thinks I exaggerate, I can only beg him to eat boiled mussels in Zaragoza: but to make a will first.
After three hours of this, returning from a deplorable excursion during which I thanked God that at any rate we were not at the mercy of Torresan plumbing, I saw a light in the kitchen, tried to hurry towards it, lost all sense of balance and collapsed in the passage just outside our host's bedroom. The next thing I knew was that Fernanda, fully dressed, and Prunell, in a touching night-shirt, were bending over me, while T., too weak to move, called out from our room to know what had happened.
"Malos mariscos," I said wanly. "En Cataluña, no. Aragón."
"Cha!" said my host sympathetically, and then asked me whether the dolores were in the estómago or the vientre.
"Ambos," I groaned. "Y mi marido–" I doubled up again. They helped me on to a kitchen chair and took the situation in hand.
Rosendo Prunell, it appears, suffered from chronic dyspepsia, and Fernanda was quite accustomed to being roused in the night to look after him. I suppose she slept it off in the day-time. When she heard me fall she was in the act of making him some gruel, but at his request she put this aside and began to brew a tisane for us. It was a decorative scene, if I had–literally–had the stomach for it: Rosendo, a chubby white-robed figure, coaxing the charcoal embers into life with a round fan of plaited green-and-red straw, while Fernanda, her starling-black hair swinging in a thick rope, took down several small canisters from a shelf and sprinkled from them into a copper saucepan careful expert pinches of home-dried herbs. I understood now why the whole house, outside and in, had such a sweet sharp fragrance.
When the concoction was ready she helped me back to bed, poured out a glass of it for each of us, stood over us while we drank it–it was warm, sweetish and insipid–and then left us with what I realised afterwards was a knowing smile. Five minutes later we were both helplessly and agonisingly sick. I banged on the kitchen wall; when Fernanda stuck her head round the door we turned upon her the reproachful eyes of two dumb animals who have been betrayed by someone whom they trusted. She smiled again–brutally, we thought–described a significant parabola from the mouth outwards with her hand, raised her eyebrows, and asked us something in Catalan.
"Sí, sí," we moaned, answering her gesture. Whereupon she nodded her head wisely and produced another jug of tisane.
"No!" we croaked as firmly as we could. "No. No. No."
"Sí," said Fernanda far more firmly, for she was in excellent health. "Está bien. Primero–" she repeated the outward gesture: "segundo–" she stroked her diaphragm soothingly and then laid her cheek sideways on folded hands, eyes closed–the age-old childish pantomime for sleep. Hypnotised into obedience by this reminder of our nursery days, we swallowed a second and even more unappetising draught. We were by now so sunk in gloom that we felt pretty sure she was in the pay of a herbal maniac who was trying to kill us, or who at best had kidnapped us to try experiments on. It seemed a little hard on our parents, after all the trouble they had taken to bring us up, that we should die–so painfully, too–to please a lunatic in a Catalonian pine-wood. Maudlin with weakness and self-pity, we drank, Fernanda akimbo between us. Miraculously the spasms of pain grew less frequent and more bearable; within twenty minutes we were both asleep, and four hours later we woke up completely cured.
It was a brilliant morning. The sun, already high and hot, threw a scrolled shadow on the floor through the wrought-iron grill. I got up rather gingerly–I who had thought I should never get up again–and dressed, feeling a little as though somebody had borrowed my inside, played a brisk game of football with it and put it back. Apart from that I felt marvellously well. T. had gone to sleep again, and both Fernanda and Prunell seemed to have vanished, so I stepped out of doors in search of someone to whom I could boast of my recovery. I found our host strolling in the herb-garden, his hands clasped behind his back, stopping every now and then to prod aimlessly at a weed with a walking-stick, for all the world as though he were in Wiltshire.
"Qué tal?" he enquired, smiling. "Como van los dolores?"
"Dolores no hay," I bragged, taking his arm. You cannot be unintimate with a person after a night like that. He did not seem in the least surprised at my cure, but nodded and murmured something about the unfailing power of "yerbas." As we walked he picked several sprigs and told me to bruise them between my fingers. Some of them I knew, such as thyme, rosemary, southernwood, lavender, catmint, balm and verbena: others were strange to me. With a wealth of gesture he described their various properties: it was like walking with Gerard or Culpeper. He showed me also the swimming-pool and the water-tower, and a well which was immensely deep. With a mirror borrowed from my hand-bag he caught a little square slab of sunlight and forced it slowly down the damp inner wall of the well until, leaning over the brick coping, I could see it glint on water an incredible distance below.
"Cincuenta-y-ocho metros!" he announced, beaming like a child who has brought off a conjuring trick. The two young peasants whom he had summoned to lift the heavy cover of the well let it down again, saluted him with a loose gesture of affectionate respect and went back to their gardening. They clearly adored him. The sun grew hotter. At his request, though I did not yet feel very steady, I climbed to the top of the water-tower, and was rewarded by a tremendous view. Below, across feathery pine-tops, I could see the town, slashed in two by the bright sabre-cut of the Ebro; around it were the cultivated plains; and beyond, shimmering in the heat, lay desolation and aridity, bounded only by the ring of low sierras which in Spain seems always to fringe one's horizon like a remote, unattainable dream.
I clambered backwards down the iron ladder, while my host enquired if the view was not muy precioso. Then he took me to see his aviary. It was beautifully designed and well cared for, a living tapestry of lovely brilliant birds–cardinals, canaries, guinea-fowl, budgerigars, orioles, and some kind of pheasant whose plumage glowed with all the fires of sunset.
"Precioso!" I said, before he could.
"Me gustan los pájaros," he said instead, simply. That was evident: he called them by name, fondled them, and fed them with grain from his pocket. As we walked back to the house I asked him how long he had lived there.
"I built it ten years ago," he said. "And before that I dreamed of it for ten more. I go down to the hotel at midday and return at nine. In the mornings I sit in this pine-wood and study."
"What do you study?"
"Quixote," he said. "And other books," he added after a brief pause.
"What other books?"
"I have many," he said with pride. "I will show them to you." We went into the house. I had pictured a considerable library, contained in some room which I had not yet seen. But he led me into his bedroom, another white cube, empty except for a bed, a chair, a table and a tin bidet. On the table were all his books: there were exactly twelve of them. We both sat down on the edge of his bed, and he showed them to me one by one, laying them, when they were done with, on top of the bidet. There was Don Quixote, well bound and much thumbed; three devotional works, of which two were in Catalan; four books on herbs, including one called Flores Que Curan y Flores Que Matan; and three, to my surprise, on Marxism.
"Comunista?" I said.
"Comunista, sí!" he replied eagerly. "Me gustan mucho los Soviets." Birds, I thought, and Soviets. The first seemed perfectly in keeping, but political extremism, either to right or to left, was the last thing I should have expected him to love. "Listen," he said. "Very soon there will be a big outbreak. Mucho movimiento...." He plunged into ferocious prophecy. The Ebro, it appeared, would run red.
"But what will happen to you?" I asked. "Your hotel? Your aviary? This lovely house?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "It is for the cause," he said, and his eyes glowed for a moment with fanatical fire. But they could not keep it up for long: they softened into their natural piety and kindliness as he laid Marx on the bidet and took up the twelfth book.
"El Criterio," he said, "de Balmés."
I turned over a few pages: it seemed to be some kind of treatise on ethics.
"Sabiduría," he explained. "Filosofía."
"Es famoso?" I asked. I had never heard of Balmés.
"Famoso, no," said Prunell. "Pero–" he kissed his fingers into empty air–"es precioso." And with great tenderness, as we sat together on the unmade bed with his crumpled nightshirt between us, he began reading aloud to me the opening chapter of El Criterio.
At twelve o'clock we said an almost tearful goodbye and drove away in opposite directions. He went north, back to Tortosa, with the bismuth and the empty milk-bottle on the seat beside him. We went south, towards Andalusia. We came home a different way, and by the time we reached England again the picture of Rosendo Prunell had been overlaid with a thousand other impressions. But now, with the account of the air raid before me, I can see him very clearly; and I can only hope that when the planes came over he had not yet gone down to his hotel, but was reading Flores Que Curan under the pine-trees in the sun.