THE BALLET OF THE
, > Essays
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
GOSPELS OF ANARCHY. ■> Philosophical Essays on
VITAL LIES. J Modern Tendencies.
THE SENTIMENTAL TRAVELLER.
THE ENCHANTED WOODS.
THE TOWER OF THE MIRRORS.
THE SPIRIT OF ROME.
VANITAS. [ Stories.
LOUIS NORBERT. -j
OTTILIE. I Novels.
ARIADNE IN MANTUA. Play.
WORKS ON ART
STUDIES OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY IN
BEAUTY AND UGLINESS.
LIFE AND ART.
THE BEAUTIFUL. Cambridge Universily Manuals.
THE BALLET OF
A PRESENT-DAY MORALITY
by VERNON LEE
mth a PICTORIAL COMMENTARY
by MAXWELL ARMFIELD
IVhat is the Sorriest thing that enters Hell?
Not any of the Sins . . .
D. G. ROSSETTI.
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis
le 4 Aotit 1 9 1 5
THE BALLET OF THE NATIONS
"C^OR a quarter or so of a century, Death's celebrated Dances had gone
rather out of fashion.
Then, with the end of the proverbially bourgeois Victorian age,
there set in a revival of taste, and therefore of this higher form of tragic
art, combining, as it does, the truest classical tradition with the romantic
attractions of the best Middle Ages. In South Africa and the Far East,
and then in the Near East quite recently, the well-known Ballet-Master
Death had staged some of his vastest and most successful productions.
" It is time," said Satan, the Lessee of the World, to " re-open the
Theatre of the West. The Politicians and Armament Shareholders have
long got all the stage-property in readiness, and the Scene-Shifters of the
Press are only waiting for the signal."
"Your orders shall have my very best attention," answered Ballet-
Master Death, " for, to tell you the truth, my dear Lord Satan, this
West, with its Doctors and Economists and Trade Unions, is fast losing
the habit of those sublimer forms of Art of which Aristotle pithily remarks,
that they purge the world of its inhabitants by terror and pity. I myself
will answer for the Dancers, if you will see to getting an adequate
orchestra ; for, as you are aware, Death himself cannot set the Nations
dancing, still less keep up the dance, without the Music of the Passions.'
" That shall be my business," said Satan, the World's immortal
Impresario ; "let us lose no time."
The first Instrumentalist whom they called upon was Self- Interest,
who is usually engaged to play the ground-bass of Human Life. But
he had joined a Trade Union. "I am busy," yawned Self-Interest, "come
some other day" ; and he turned upon his ear, and dreamed of recon-
stituting Society upon a broader basis.
" Self-interest was always a dull dog ; not a particle of divine fire
in him" grumbled Death. " What was the good of wasting time on such
a fellow ? "
" May I remark that you Skeletons are apt to be a trifle testy?"
answered Satan, quite unruffled in his delicate iron wings. " Don't you
see that by knocking at Self- Interest's door, I have brought Fear, that
over- retiring old slut, to her window? Hi! Widow Fear, it's only a
couple of old friends inviting you to a little entertainment. Come down,
my dear, and bring some of your ungraceful but amusing offspring."
So Fear, squalid beyond all other Passions, came down, hesitating
just a little, because she had heard Self- Interest refuse the invitation.
But she was speedily dragged along by her shabby, restless twins,
Suspicion and Panic ; and the family carried penny-whistles and fog-
horns and a cracked storm-and-massacre bell, genuine mediaeval but
wrapped in yesterday's Daily Mail and Globe.
" Rather an unpresentable lot, though such first-rate performers,"
mused Satan ; "we must have something handsome to make up for
them, for the Nations have grown dreadfully superfine of late, and some
of the other indispensable members of the band aren't very attractive
either. Deign to join our little amateur orchestra," he cried in a fine
round voice, and rustling his arch-angelic wings ceremoniously, " dear
my Lady Idealism and my young Prince Adventure." And the couple,
bride and bridegroom, came out of their palace of cloud and sunbeams ;
very magnificent they were, and of noblest bearing, if a little over-
dressed. Idealism carried a silver trumpet and Adventure a woodland
horn. There came also Death's mother (or wife, for their family
relations are best not inquired into) Sin, whom the gods call Disease ;
nor was there any need of calling her. With her came her well-known
crew. Rapine, Lust, Murder and Famine, fitted out with bull-roarers
and rattles and other cannibalic instruments.
"Here comes Hatred with Self- Righteousness," said Satan, nodding
in the direction of a pair who pretended not to be acquainted, but were
nevertheless hurrying together out of the Inn of Vanity, and trundling
between them a huge double-bass and a small harmonium, upon which,
once they had taken place, side by side, Self- Righteousness, most
obligingly, gave Hatred his right pitch.
" That'll do to begin with," cried Death, who was always in a hurry.
" Heroism is sure to join as soon as we have well begun ; and he can
be plopped down anywhere. See! here come the Dancers! Just strike
up a bit ; Fear and you ; Idealism ; and you. Hatred, growl on the deep
string ; just a bar or two to make the Nations hurry up and get over
that tiresome mauvaise honte of theirs."
npHE Nations had meanwhile assembled, each brilliant and tidy in
its ballet dress, which was far better cut, and of handsomer stuff, of
course, than its everyday broad-cloth or rags. And Idealism and
Adventure, Hatred and Self- Righteousness, were already busy tuning,
for unlike the rest of the orchestra they were sticklers for correctness,
when Ballet-Master Death's preliminary instructions were cut short by
the appearance of an unsuspected and very odd pair of additional
musicians. For while the rest of the band were dressed, or in some
cases undressed, in classical, mediaeval, biblical or savage costumes, these
two were habited in a manner uncompromisingly modern, the one like a
city clerk who should have joined the Red Cross, and the other, who was
a lady, in the spectacles and smock most commonly seen in laboratories.
" Get out with you! " yelled Ballet- Master Death, jumping from his
stool at the sight of the new-comers; and, turning to his orchestra, "Kick
them out ! Kick out the new-fangled intruders who want to spoil our
fun ! Knock them down ! Trample on them ! Don't you see they are
alien spies ? Spies in the service of Life and Progress 1 "
" Hush, hush!" answered Satan, with an arch-angelic gesture which
sent all the orchestra cowering to their places, and temporarily paralysed
the skeleton arm of Death. "Which of us is master here, I wonder?
Will you never learn manners, you bony old relic of the Stone Age, with
your rabble of instruments fit for an ethnological museum .•* " Then,
turning to the new-comers, " Please excuse his country manners, dear
Madam Science and dear Councillor Organisation. You know the habits
of Skeletons, their skulls are inevitably empty ! "
" Pray don't mention it, my Lord," answered Science, who had a
first-rate gramophone tucked under her arm, '' qui sait comprendre sait
tout pardonner, so it is part of my professional duty to find excuses for
your Ballet- Master's behaviour towards us."
" It's all as it should be," added Organisation, who had begun un-
/ ■ + +
+ + •♦• -^
+L + +■ +
((fi^li. .♦- ..
packing a very handy miniature pianola and its various rollers. "Of
course Science and I are permanently in the service of Life and Progress.
But that firm is worthing slack at present, so we feel at liberty to take
a temporary engagement."
" Nothing could be more conducive to the success of our Ballet "
answered Satan, pressing their hands affectionately but lightly between
his claws, which Science took this opportunity of examining; "and I
only hope our collaboration may become permanent. Of course Death, "
and he lowered his arch-angelic voice to the politest whisper, " is netting
a bit old for his job and dreadfully prejudiced. Besides, I fearTt can't
be denied that you have done one or two things which have made ignorant
people gossip in a manner calculated to rub him the wrong way. Come
here, you peppery old Ballet- Master," and Satan playfully sent an
electric stream through the Skeleton which sent him shivering and rattling
like a brake of dry reeds, " come and shake hands with this illustrious
lady and gentleman, who will keep up our Ballet with their wonderful
mechanical instruments when the rest of our classic band have neither
breath nor strings left. And now, as soon as our new friends are seated
m the front place they deserve, please begin your instructions. And,
by the way, you haven't yet given out the title of our new Ballet."
" ^ I 'HIS Ballet of ours," began Death, after rapping three times on his
desk, "is called the Ballet of the Nations. Nothing very new in the
title, but one that always draws. As regards instructions, long experience
has taught me that I can leave both my orchestra and my corps de ballet
— the Nations at present have all got excellent heads — to their own in-
spiration, provided only they will keep their eyes constantly fixed on my
baton. The more they depart from the regulation steps, cutting capers
according to circumstances and inventing terrifically new figures, the
more they will find, odd as it may appear, that their vis-a-vis as well
as their partners will respond ; and the more indissolubly interlocked will
become the novel and majestic pattern of destruction which their gory but
indefatigable limbs are weaving for the satisfaction of our enlightened
Stage- Lessee, my Lord Satan, and the admiration of History. As to
the music, all that is wanted is that the rythm be well marked, the dis-
cords plentiful but adequately relieved by allied harmonies and powerful
national unisons ; and that our Orchestra of Human Passions should
refresh itself with strong spirits as often as is compatible with not falling
asleep. The scheme of the Ballet is very simple, and its variety arises
out of the great number — I hope I may say the constantly increasing
number — of Dancing Nations. The main motif is, of course — for we
are thoroughly up to date, although our dear Impresario does not give us
credit for it — the main theme is that each Nation is repelling the aggres-
sion of its vis-a-vis, and at the same time defending its partner. There are
two minor themes of outstanding Dancers flying to the rescue of the main
groups: the two themes together giving rise to all manner of surprising
inventions. It is, I need scarcely say, very conducive to a fine effect
that all the Nations should keep a strictly innocent expression of counte-
nance, while endeavouring to tear off as much of the costume and orna-
ments, and lop off as many as possible of the limbs of their vis-a-vis.
At the end of the main action the Chief Dancers may be called upon
to shift sides or take part in a general breakdown of a highly modern and
anarchical style, something like the Paris impromptu aher the pas de deux
of 1870, only on a vast scale. And now ! the first position, please ! "
" One moment ! " cried Satan ; " I'm sorry to be always interrupting,
but what about Heroism ? He's sure to join, and where shall we place
him when he turns up? "
" Oh, just anywhere," whispered Ballet-Master Death ; "he is always
the most obliging of my orchestra, although he usually comes in after
we have begun. And not a bit difficult to please, like Idealism and even
Adventure, //e won't mind sitting alongside that filthy slut Fear, or
surrounded by the cannibal music of the Companions of Sin. But here
he comes!" For at that moment there entered Heroism, with limbs
like a giant, blushes like a girl, and merry eyes like a child's.
" Welcome, Heroism, our Prince of Tenors," cried Satan, with sham
cordiality, for there was no love lost between the new-comer and himself,
although Heroism was sincerely attached to Death. '* We were just
saying, my dear young friend, that there is nothing you shrink from,
and that you are the most modest and reliable of our orchestra. Why,
I remember the French Revolution Ballet, when Heroism and Panic
played not only a duet, but at the same instrument, four hands ! That
was Lessee Satan's finest Ballet hitherto, with the Marat theme in Paris
and the Hoche theme on the frontier. But, with good-will, this new
dance of our Ballet- Master Death may be still finer and as long."
Death smiled, for he loved Heroism.
" Come here, my boy," he said, " you have always been dutiful and
loving to your old daddy Death, and cared for him more than for any
other of the Immortals." So saying, the Skeleton Ballet-Master tapped
the budding cheeks of Heroism, that star-like youth, with eyes which
laughed but saw not, for even as his cousin Love, he is blind from the
cradle. And Heroism, at the sound of Death's well-known voice, kissed
his bony fingers with rapture ; and, grasping the drum with which he
accompanies his heavenly voice, sat down obedient between Fear and
Hatred, unconscious of their foulness.
'T'HE way the Ballet began was this : Among the Nations appointed
by Satan to dance, for a few had to be kept to swell the audience,
which would otherwise have consisted only of sundry sleepy Virtues and
of the Centuries-to-Come, which are notoriously bodiless and difficult to
please — among those Dancing Nations there was a very little one, far
too small to have danced with the others, and particularly unwilling to
dance at all, because it knew by experience that the dances of Ballet-
Master Death oftenest took place upon its prostrate body. So it was
told, as it always had been told, it need do nothing but stay quite quiet
for the others to dance round. And as it stood there, in the middle of
the Western Stage, two or three of the tallest and finest Dancers danced-
up in a silent step, smiling, wreathing their arms and blowing kisses,
all of which is the ballet-language for " Don't be afraid, we will protect
you," and danced away again wagging their finger at a particular one
of their vis-i-vis, who was also curtsying and smiling in the most engag-
ing manner on the other side. During this prelude Idealism, Self-
r A^ jVWa^
T^^M T^^M r
Righteousness and a one-eyed hidden Fiddler called Statecraft, played
a few conventional variations on the well-known diplomatic hymn to
Peace, to which the Nations pirouetted unconcernedly about, although
Fear, with Suspicion and Panic, were beginning to whistle and to thump
on that mediaeval tocsin-bell concealed in greasy newspapers.
And as the Smallest-of-all-the-Corps-de-Ballet stood quite alone in
the middle of the Western Stage, that same tall and very well-trained
Dancer sidled up to it with polite gestures of " by your leave," and,
suddenly placing his colossal horny paws on the Tiny One's shoulders,
prepared for leap-frog. But at a sign from Death's baton, and with a
hideous crash of all the instruments of Satan's orchestra, and a magnifi-
cent note from Heroism's clear voice, the poor Smallest- Dancer-of- All
tripped up that Giant and made him reel. But the Giant instantly
recovered his feet, although his eyes became bloodshot and his brain
swam. And, flinging the poor Smallest-Dancer on the floor, he set to
performing on its poor little body one of the most terrific pas seu/s that
Ballet- Master Death had ever invented, while the vis-^-vis Nations
danced slowly up, till they all came to grips over that Smallest-of-all-
the- Dancers, who lay prone on the ground, and continued so to lie,
pounded out of all human shape into a dancing-mat for the others.
" This first figure of our Ballet," said the world's Impresario Satan,
rising from his seat and bowing to the audience, that is to say, the
Nations who wouldn't dance, and the sleepy Virtues and the Centuries-
to-Come ; "this first figure of our Ballet is called The Defence of the Weak.
It will continue unremittingly at the Western End of the Stage, while the
Eastern End is occupied by a not entirely symmetrical (for symmetry is
apt to be/^rt'i?) choreographic invention called the Steam- Roller Movement y
which will end up in the Triumph of such small Nationalities (and I
sincerely hope many will join!) as may have any limbs left to dance with."
TOURING this first figure of the Ballet the scenery of that Western
End of the Stage had undergone a slow change, and continued
changing in a manner such that the Ages-to-Come, seated among the
audience, admitted to one another these new scenic displays surpassed
all others with which the courtesy of Satan had wiled away their ennui.
For, whereas the Ballet had begun with the tender radiance of an
August sunset above half-harvested fields, where the reaping machines
hummed peacefully among the corn-stooks and the ploughs cut into the
stubble, the progress of the performance had seen the deep summer
starlit vault lit up by the flare of distant blazing farms, and its blue
solemnity rent by the fitful rocket-tracks of shells and the Roman-candles
and Catherine-wheels of far-off explosions. Until, little by little, the
heavens, painted such a peaceful blue, were blotted out by volumes of
flamelit smoke and poisonous vapours, rising and sinking, coming forward
and receding like a stifling fog, but ever growing denser and more blind-
ing, and swaying obedient to Death's baton no less than did the bleeding
Nations of his Corps-de- Ballet. In and out of that lurid chasm they
moved, by twos or threes, now lost to view in the billows of darkness,
now issuing thence towards the Ballet- Master's desk; or suddenly
revealed, clasped in terrific embrace, by the meteor- curve of a shell or
the leaping flame of an exploding munition-magazine, while overhead
fluttered and whirred great wings which showered down bomb-lightnings.
Backwards and forwards moved the Dancers in that changing play of light
and darkness, and undergoing uncertain and fearful changes of aspect.
Since, you should know, that Nations, contrary to the opinion of
Politicians, are immortal. Just as the Gods of Valhalla could slash each
other to ribbons after breakfast and resurrect for dinner, so every Nation
can dance Death's Dance however much bled and maimed, dance upon
stumps, or trail itself along, a living jelly of blood and trampled flesh, pro-
viding only it has its Head fairly unhurt. And that Head, which each
Nation calls its Government, but the other Nations call " France," or
"Russia," or "Britain," or "Germany," or "Austria" for short, that Head
of each Dancing Nation (except that of the Smallest-Dancer, who never
ceased being prostrate on the ground) is very properly helmetted, and
rarely gets so much as a scratch, so that it can continue to catch the
Ballet- Master's eye, and order the Nation's body to put forth fresh limbs,
and, even when that is impossible, keep its stump dancing ever new figures
in obedience or disobedience to what are called the Rules of War. This
being the case, Death kept up the dance regardless of the state of the
Dancers, and also of the state of the Stage, which was such that, what
between blood and entrails and heaps of devastated properties, it was
barely possible to move even a few yards.
Yet dance they did, lopping each others' limbs and blinding one
another with spirts of blood and pellets of human flesh. And as they
appeared and disappeared in the moving wreaths of fiery smoke, they
lost more and more of their original shape, becoming, in that fitful light,
terrible uncertain forms, armless, legless, recognisable for human only
by their irreproachable-looking heads which they carried stiff and high
even while crawling and staggering along, lying in wait, and leaping and
rearing and butting as do fighting animals ; until they became, with those
r i'V >
decorous well-groomed faces, mere unspeakable hybrids between man
and beast, they who had come on to the stage so erect and beautiful.
For the Ballet of the Nations, when Satan gets it up regardless of ex-
pense, is an unsurpassed spectacle of transformations, such as must be
witnessed to be believed in.
Thus on they danced their stranger and stranger antics. And, as
they appeared by turns in that chaos of flame and darkness, each of those
Dancing Nations kept invoking Satan, crying out to him, " Help me,
my own dear Lord." But they called him by Another Name.
And Satan, that creative Connoisseur, rejoiced in his work and
saw that it was very good.
" Dear Creatures," he murmured to himself, where he throned
invisible above the audience of Neutral Peoples and Sleepy Virtues
and Ages- to-Come, "how true it is that great artistic exhibitions,
especially when they address themselves to the Group- Emotion,
invariably bring home to the Nations that there is, after all, a Power
transcending their ephemeral existence ! Indeed that is one reason why
I prefer the Ballet of the Nations to any of the other mystery-plays,
like Earthquake and Pestilence, which Death puts on our stage from
time to time. The music is not always very pretty, at once too
Zw^m Z^^M Z^^m f
archaic and too ultra-modern for philistine taste, and the steps are
a trifle monotonous. But it gives immense scope for moral beauty,
and revives religious feeling in all its genuine primeval polytheism.
It answers perfectly to what the Spaniards call an Auto Sacramental, a
sacred drama having all the attractions of a bull-fight. I grant the Heads
of the Nations are occasionally a bit hard-featured. But the Bodies of
the Nations are always sound and virginal ; and their heart is always in
the right place. And for true sublimity," purred Satan gently on his
invisible throne, " give me, I always say, one of Death's dances performed
by Nations each with its heart absolutely in the right place, and perfectly
obedient to its traditional Head."
So the Ballet went on. But for this it was necessary to keep
up the music of that orchestra of Passions and Habits which sat
around the slippery and reeking stage : Widow Fear with her nimble
children. Suspicion and Panic, playing on penny-whistles, foghorns and
that mediaeval tocsin-bell in its wrapper of newspapers ; Idealism and
Adventure, that splendid pair, blowing their silver trumpet and wood-
land horn ; Hatred, who was always tuning afresh at the harmonium
of Self- Righteousness ; Sin, whom the Gods call Disease, and her
classic crew Rapine, Lust and Murder, with their cannibal band of bull-
roarers and rattles ; Science and Organisation seated a little apart, for
none of the others liked their new-fangled looks, but whose gramophone
and pianola went on unflaggingly when all the other musicians began
showing signs of fatigue ; and only Heroism, a smile in his clear blind
eyes, found ever fresh breath and ever more jubilant notes.
T HAVE just said that the rest of the band were beginning to flag;
either because the Passions are notoriously deficient in staying-power,
or because, in the case of the less noble ones, they had fuddled them-
selves with the strong liquor of literature from Satan's tap-room, and
were coming in all at random, Suspicion and Panic, notably, deafening
the Heads of the Nations, and Fear, poor slut, being seized with delirium
tremens. None of these things were noticed by the Dancers, but they
danced a little less fiercely, and began mistaking their vis-a-vis for
partners and vice versa, to the despair of the Ballet- Master, who
wheeled from side to side at his desk, cracking his fleshless joints like
castagnettes, and hitting the somnolent Human Motives of the orchestra
tremendous whacks with his baton of fire-hardened root-of-prejudice.
But Satan began to fear lest the performance might end untimely, for,
except the voice of Heroism and the mechanical instruments of Science
and Organisation, the sounds were getting feeble and intermittent, and
the Nations were beginning to halt and stumble, and even to curtsy to
each other as if the end might be at hand.
" This will never do," said Satan to himself " Why ! we haven't yet
come to the figure of Famine and Insurrection ! " So, beckoning with his
arch-angelic claw to the followers of Sin, he whispered Rapine, Murder
and Lust to fetch him two new players from among the Sleepy Virtues
of the Audience.
Sleepy indeed they seemed, and some, like Wisdom, Equanimity
and Temperance, let alone Truthfulness, had long since fallen into con-
soling dreams, after closing their eyes and bunging-up their ears against
sights and sounds repugnant to their principles, but which they had not
grit enough to interrupt. But among the Virtues two were not asleep,
and sat motionless under the spell of hideous fascination ; their eyes
fixed, their hearing intent, with horror so great it almost turned to
pleasure. These two were called Pity and Indignation, sister and
brother of divinest breed ; she, wan like waters under moonlight and as
gentle, murmurous and lovely, and also, like such waters, dangerous in
her innocence. The other, golden and vivid as flame, and like flame,
tipped with terrible scarlet, purifying but devastating.
To them, who were fascinated with horror before that dance, there
sprang, at Satan's bidding, Rapine, Murder and Lust, the crew of
Death's Mother- Paramour Sin, whom the Gods call Disease. And
straightway that noble pair of twins, Pity and Indignation, responded
to the hideous summons. Hand in hand they leaped from among the
sleeping Virtues, and flew, on rushing pinions, into the midst of Satan's
orchestra. Fear and her brood fell back. Idealism and Adventure,
by this time wellnigh spent with breathless blowing of their silver
trumpet and hunting-horn, eagerly made room for them. Heroism, that
blind, smiling young giant, recognised at once Pity's delicious healing
breath and Indignation's fiery blast ; he shook himself, and with
renewed vigour his godlike youthful voice sang out words which no one
distinguished but all the world understood. And Sin, with her crew,
fell down at the new-comers' feet and fawned upon them.
Even before either of that immortal pair had uttered a sound, the
flagging Dancers, the bleeding Nations, weary of that stage slippery with
blood and entrails, felt the wind of the wings of Pity and Indignation ;
and, in its pure breath, suddenly revived.
The holy pair required no instruments. Pity merely sobbed, and
her sobs were like the welling-up notes of many harps, drowning the soul
in tender madness. But Indignation hissed and roared like a burning
granary when the sparks crackle as they fly into the ripe standing harvest,
and the flames wave scores of feet high in the blast of their own making.
Death was overpowered with delight.
" Now nothing can stop the dancing," he cried ; " and this shall yet
be the greatest triumph of Ballet- Master Death ! " and, rapping on his
desk, spoke as follows : " Ladies and Gentlemen, dear valiant Nations
of my Corps-de- Ballet ! we will now proceed to the third and last figure ;
the last because, as you know, it is made never to end! For it is called
" You might have trusted to me, dear Ballet-Master Death," purred
Satan, the World's great Stage-Lessee, quite softly to himself. " Pity
and Indignation can renew Death's dance when all the Nations have
danced themselves to stumps, and the ordinary band, except perhaps
Fear and her Children, can fiddle and blow no longer."
And thus the Ballet of the Nations is still a-dancing.
REPROnrCED ANJ> PRtNTED BV
THE GRAPHIC PHOTO ENGRAVING CO.
University of California
SOUTHERN REGIONAL LIBRARY FACILITY
305 De Neve Drive - Parking Lot 17 • Box 951388
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA 90095-1388
Return this material to the library from which it was borrowed.
M'S^"K'^'°^ llSfWH. ,« -
D 000 465 699 7