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Title: The Pleasures of Ignorance

Author: Robert Lynd

Release Date: September 12, 2004 [EBook #13448]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII

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THE PLEASURES OF IGNORANCE


BY ROBERT LYND



LONDON

GRANT RICHARDS LTD.

ST MARTIN'S STREET

1921

PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY THE RIVERSIDE PRESS LIMITED

EDINBURGH



TO JAMES WINDER GOOD



CHAPTER                                         PAGE

    I. THE PLEASURES OF IGNORANCE                 11

   II. THE HERRING FLEET                          19

  III. THE BETTING MAN                            29

   IV. THE HUM OF INSECTS                         40

    V. CATS                                       51

   VI. MAY                                        61

  VII. NEW YEAR PROPHECIES                        70

 VIII. ON KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE                  82

   IX. THE INTELLECTUAL SIDE OF HORSE-RACING      91

    X. WHY WE HATE INSECTS                       102

   XI. VIRTUE                                    114

  XII. JUNE                                      123

 XIII. ON FEELING GAY                            132

  XIV. IN THE TRAIN                              141

   XV. THE MOST CURIOUS ANIMAL                   149

  XVI. THE OLD INDIFFERENCE                      158

 XVII. EGGS: AN EASTER HOMILY                    167

XVIII. ENTER THE SPRING                          176

  XIX. THE DAREDEVIL BARBER                      186

   XX. WEEDS: AN APPRECIATION                    195

  XXI. A JUROR IN WAITING                        205

 XXII. THE THREE-HALFPENNY BIT                   215

XXIII. THE MORALS OF BEANS                       224

 XXIV. ON SEEING A JOKE                          233

  XXV. GOING TO THE DERBY                        243

 XXVI. THIS BLASTED WORLD                        253



_Acknowledgments are due to "The New Statesman," in which all but one
of these essays appeared. "Going to the Derby" appeared in "The Daily
News."--R.L._




I



THE PLEASURES OF IGNORANCE

It is impossible to take a walk in the country with an average
townsman--especially, perhaps, in April or May--without being amazed
at the vast continent of his ignorance. It is impossible to take a
walk in the country oneself without being amazed at the vast continent
of one's own ignorance. Thousands of men and women live and die
without knowing the difference between a beech and an elm, between the
song of a thrush and the song of a blackbird. Probably in a modern
city the man who can distinguish between a thrush's and a blackbird's
song is the exception. It is not that we have not seen the birds. It
is simply that we have not noticed them. We have been surrounded by
birds all our lives, yet so feeble is our observation that many of us
could not tell whether or not the chaffinch sings, or the colour of
the cuckoo. We argue like small boys as to whether the cuckoo always
sings as he flies or sometimes in the branches of a tree--whether
Chapman drew on his fancy or his knowledge of nature in the lines:

     When in the oak's green arms the cuckoo sings,
     And first delights men in the lovely springs.

This ignorance, however, is not altogether miserable. Out of it we get
the constant pleasure of discovery. Every fact of nature comes to us
each spring, if only we are sufficiently ignorant, with the dew still
on it. If we have lived half a lifetime without having ever even seen
a cuckoo, and know it only as a wandering voice, we are all the more
delighted at the spectacle of its runaway flight as it hurries from
wood to wood conscious of its crimes, and at the way in which it halts
hawk-like in the wind, its long tail quivering, before it dares
descend on a hill-side of fir-trees where avenging presences may lurk.
It would be absurd to pretend that the naturalist does not also find
pleasure in observing the life of the birds, but his is a steady
pleasure, almost a sober and plodding occupation, compared to the
morning enthusiasm of the man who sees a cuckoo for the first time,
and, behold, the world is made new.

And, as to that, the happiness even of the naturalist depends in some
measure upon his ignorance, which still leaves him new worlds of this
kind to conquer. He may have reached the very Z of knowledge in the
books, but he still feels half ignorant until he has confirmed each
bright particular with his eyes. He wishes with his own eyes to see
the female cuckoo--rare spectacle!--as she lays her egg on the ground
and takes it in her bill to the nest in which it is destined to breed
infanticide. He would sit day after day with a field-glass against his
eyes in order personally to endorse or refute the evidence suggesting
that the cuckoo _does_ lay on the ground and not in a nest. And, if he
is so far fortunate as to discover this most secretive of birds in the
very act of laying, there still remain for him other fields to conquer
in a multitude of such disputed questions as whether the cuckoo's egg
is always of the same colour as the other eggs in the nest in which
she abandons it. Assuredly the men of science have no reason as yet to
weep over their lost ignorance. If they seem to know everything, it is
only because you and I know almost nothing. There will always be a
fortune of ignorance waiting for them under every fact they turn up.
They will never know what song the Sirens sang to Ulysses any more
than Sir Thomas Browne did.

If I have called in the cuckoo to illustrate the ordinary man's
ignorance, it is not because I can speak with authority on that bird.
It is simply because, passing the spring in a parish that seemed to
have been invaded by all the cuckoos of Africa, I realised how
exceedingly little I, or anybody else I met, knew about them. But your
and my ignorance is not confined to cuckoos. It dabbles in all created
things, from the sun and moon down to the names of the flowers. I once
heard a clever lady asking whether the new moon always appears on the
same day of the week. She added that perhaps it is better not to know,
because, if one does not know when or in what part of the sky to
expect it, its appearance is always a pleasant surprise. I fancy,
however, the new moon always comes as a surprise even to those who are
familiar with her time-tables. And it is the same with the coming in
of spring and the waves of the flowers. We are not the less delighted
to find an early primrose because we are sufficiently learned in the
services of the year to look for it in March or April rather than in
October. We know, again, that the blossom precedes and not succeeds
the fruit of the apple-tree, but this does not lessen our amazement at
the beautiful holiday of a May orchard.

At the same time there is, perhaps, a special pleasure in re-learning
the names of many of the flowers every spring. It is like re-reading a
book that one has almost forgotten. Montaigne tells us that he had so
bad a memory that he could always read an old book as though he had
never read it before. I have myself a capricious and leaking memory. I
can read _Hamlet_ itself and _The Pickwick Papers_ as though they were
the work of new authors and had come wet from the press, so much of
them fades between one reading and another. There are occasions on
which a memory of this kind is an affliction, especially if one has a
passion for accuracy. But this is only when life has an object beyond
entertainment. In respect of mere luxury, it may be doubted whether
there is not as much to be said for a bad memory as for a good one.
With a bad memory one can go on reading Plutarch and _The Arabian
Nights_ all one's life. Little shreds and tags, it is probable, will
stick even in the worst memory, just as a succession of sheep cannot
leap through a gap in a hedge without leaving a few wisps of wool on
the thorns. But the sheep themselves escape, and the great authors
leap in the same way out of an idle memory and leave little enough
behind.

And, if we can forget books, it is as easy to forget the months and
what they showed us, when once they are gone. Just for the moment I
tell myself that I know May like the multiplication table and could
pass an examination on its flowers, their appearance and their order.
To-day I can affirm confidently that the buttercup has five petals.
(Or is it six? I knew for certain last week.) But next year I shall
probably have forgotten my arithmetic, and may have to learn once more
not to confuse the buttercup with the celandine. Once more I shall see
the world as a garden through the eyes of a stranger, my breath taken
away with surprise by the painted fields. I shall find myself
wondering whether it is science or ignorance which affirms that the
swift (that black exaggeration of the swallow and yet a kinsman of the
humming-bird) never settles even on a nest, but disappears at night
into the heights of the air. I shall learn with fresh astonishment
that it is the male, and not the female, cuckoo that sings. I may have
to learn again not to call the campion a wild geranium, and to
rediscover whether the ash comes early or late in the etiquette of the
trees. A contemporary English novelist was once asked by a foreigner
what was the most important crop in England. He answered without a
moment's hesitation: "Rye." Ignorance so complete as this seems to me
to be touched with magnificence; but the ignorance even of illiterate
persons is enormous. The average man who uses a telephone could not
explain how a telephone works. He takes for granted the telephone, the
railway train, the linotype, the aeroplane, as our grandfathers took
for granted the miracles of the gospels. He neither questions nor
understands them. It is as though each of us investigated and made his
own only a tiny circle of facts. Knowledge outside the day's work is
regarded by most men as a gewgaw. Still we are constantly in reaction
against our ignorance. We rouse ourselves at intervals and speculate.
We revel in speculations about anything at all--about life after death
or about such questions as that which is said to have puzzled
Aristotle, "why sneezing from noon to midnight was good, but from
night to noon unlucky." One of the greatest joys known to man is to
take such a flight into ignorance in search of knowledge. The great
pleasure of ignorance is, after all, the pleasure of asking questions.
The man who has lost this pleasure or exchanged it for the pleasure of
dogma, which is the pleasure of answering, is already beginning to
stiffen. One envies so inquisitive a man as Jowett, who sat down to
the study of physiology in his sixties. Most of us have lost the sense
of our ignorance long before that age. We even become vain of our
squirrel's hoard of knowledge and regard increasing age itself as a
school of omniscience. We forget that Socrates was famed for wisdom
not because he was omniscient but because he realised at the age of
seventy that he still knew nothing.




II



THE HERRING FLEET

The last spectacle of which Christian men are likely to grow tired is
a harbour. Centuries hence there may be jumping-off places for the
stars, and our children's children's and so forth children may regard
a ship as a creeping thing scarcely more adventurous than a worm.
Meanwhile, every harbour gives us a sense of being in touch, if not
with the ends of the universe, with the ends of the earth. This, more
than the entrance to a wood or the source of a river or the top of a
bald hill, is the beginning of infinity. Even the dirtiest coal-boat
that lies beached in the harbour, a mere hulk of utilities that are
taken away by dirty men in dirty carts, will in a day or two lift
itself from the mud on a full tide and float away like a spirit into
the sunset or curtsy to the image of the North Star. Mystery lies over
the sea. Every ship is bound for Thule. That, perhaps, is why men are
content day after day to stand on the pier-head and to gaze at the
water and the ships and sailors running up and down the decks and
pulling the ropes of sails.

We may have no reason for pretending to ourselves that the
fishing-boats are ships of dreams setting out on infinite voyages.
But, none the less, even in a fishing village there is always a
congregation of watching men and women on the pier. Every day the
crowd collects to see the harbour awake into life with the bustle of
men about to set out among the nations of the fishes. By day the boats
lie side by side in the harbour--stand side by side, rather, like
horses in a stable. There are two rows of them, making a camp of masts
on the shallow water. In other parts of the harbour white gigs are
bottomed on the sand in companies of two and three. As the tide slowly
rises, the masts which have been lying over on one side in a sleepy
stillness begin to stir, then to sway, until with each new impulse of
the sea all the boats are dancing, and soon the whole harbour is awake
and merry as if every mast were a steeple with a peal of bells. It is
not long till the fishermen arrive. One meets them in every cobbled
lane. How magnificent the noise made by a man in sea-boots on the
stones! Surely, he strikes sparks from the road. He thumps the ground
as with a hammer. The earth rings. One has seen those boots in the
morning hanging outside the door of his house while he slept. They
have been oiled, and left there to dry. They have kept the shape of
his limb and the crook of his knee in an uncanny way. They look as
though he had taken off his legs before going into the house and hung
them on the wall. But the fisherman is a hero not only in his boots.
His sea-coat is no less magnificent. This may be of oil-skin yellow or
of maroon or of stained white or of blue, with a blue jersey showing
under it, and, perhaps, a red woollen muffler or a scarf with green
spots on a red ground round his throat. He has not learned to be timid
of colour. Even out of the mouths of his boots you may see the ends of
red knitted leggings protruding. His yellow or black sou'-wester
roofing the back of his neck, he comes down to harbour, as splendid as
a figure at a fair. And always, when he arrives, he is smoking a pipe.
As one watches him, one wonders if anybody except a fisherman, as he
looks out over the harbour, knows how to smoke. He has made tobacco
part of himself, like breathing.

If the tide is already full the fishermen are taken off in small
rowing-boats, most of them standing, and the place is busy with a
criss-cross of travelling crews till the fishing-boats are all manned.
If the water is not yet deep, however, most of the men walk to their
boats, lumbering through the waves, and occasionally jumping like a
wading girl as a larger wave threatens the tops of their boots. Many
of them carry their supper in a basket or a handkerchief. The first of
the boats begins to move out of its stall. It is tugged into the clear
water, and the fishermen put out long oars and row it laboriously to
the mouth of the harbour and the wind. It is followed by a motor-boat,
and another, and another. There are forty putting up their sails like
one. The harbour moves. One has a sense as of things liberated. It is
as though a flock of birds were being loosed into the air--as though
pigeon after pigeon were being set free out of a basket for home.
Lug-sail after lugsail, brown as the underside of a mushroom, hurries
out among the waves. A green little tub of a steamboat follows with
insolent smoke. The motor-boats hasten out like scenting dogs. Every
sort of craft--motor-boat, gig, lugger and steamboat--makes for sea,
higgledy-piggledy in a long line, an irregular procession of black and
blue and green and white and brown. Here, as in the men's clothes, the
paint-pots have been spilled.

There is nothing more sociable than a fishing-fleet. The boats
overtake each other, like horses in a race. They gallop in rivalry.
But for the most part they keep together, and move like a travelling
town over the sea. As likely as not they will have to come back out of
the storm into the shelter of the bay, and they will ride there till
nightfall, when every boat becomes a lamp and every sail a shadow. In
the darkness they hang like a constellation on the oily water. They
become a company of dancing stars. Every now and then a boat moves off
on a quest of its own. It is as though the firmament were shaken. One
hears the kick-kick-kick of the motor, and a star has become a
will-o'-the-wisp. These lights can no more keep still than a
playground of children. They always make a pattern on the water, but
they never make the same pattern. Sometimes they lengthen themselves
against the sandy shore on the far side of the bay into a golden
river. Sometimes they huddle together into a little procession of
monks carrying tapers....

One goes down to the harbour after breakfast the next morning to see
what has been the result of the night's fishing. One does not really
need to go down. One can see it afar off. There is movement as at the
building of a city. On every boat men are busy emptying the nets,
disentangling the fish that have been caught by the gills, tumbling
them in a liquid mass into the bottom of the boat. One can hardly see
the fish separately. They flow into one another. They are a pool of
quick-silver. One is amazed, as the disciples must have been amazed at
the miraculous draught. Everything is covered with their scales. The
fishermen are spotted as if with confetti. Their hands, their brown
coats, their boots are a mass of white-and-blue spots. The labourers
with the gurries--great blue boxes that are carried like Sedan-chairs
between two pairs of handles--come up alongside, and the fish are
ladled into the gurries from tin pans. As each gurry is filled the men
hasten off with it to where the auctioneer is standing. With the help
of a small notebook and a lead pencil he auctions it before an
outsider can wink, and the gurry is taken a few yards further, where
women are pouring herrings into barrels. They, too, are covered with
fish-scales from head to foot. They are dabbled like a painter's
palette. So great is the haul that every cart in the country-side has
come down to lend a hand. The fish are poured into the carts over the
sides of the boats like water. Old fishermen stand aside and look on
with a sense of having wasted their youth. They recall the time when
they went fishing in the North Sea and had to be content to sell their
catch at a shilling and sixpence a cran--a cran being equal to four
gurries, or about a thousand herrings. Who is there now who would sell
even a hundred herrings for one and sixpence? Who is there who would
sell a hundred herrings for ten and sixpence? Yet one gig alone this
morning has brought in fourteen thousand herrings. No wonder that
there is an atmosphere of excitement in the harbour. No wonder that
the carts almost run over you as they make journey after journey
between boat and barrel. No wonder that three different sorts of
sea-gulls--the herring gull, the lesser black-headed gull, and the
black-backed gull--have gathered about us in screaming multitudes and
fill the air like a snowstorm. Every child in the town seems to be
making for home with its finger in a fish's mouth, or in two fishes'
mouths, or in three fishes' mouths. Artists have hurried down to the
harbour, and have set up their easels on every spot that is not
already occupied by a fish barrel or an auctioneer or a man with a
knife in his teeth preparing to gut a dogfish. The town has lost its
head. It has become Midas for the day. Every time it opens its mouth a
herring comes out. A doom of herrings has come upon us. The smell
rises to heaven. It is as though we were breathing fish-scales. Even
the pretty blue overalls of the children have become spotted.
Everywhere barrels and boxes have been piled high. We are hoisting
them on to carts--farm carts, grocers' carts, coal carts, any sort of
carts. We must get rid of the stuff at all costs. Anything to get it
up the hill to the railway station. The very horses are frenzied. They
stick their toes into the hill and groan. The drivers, excited with
cupidity as they think of all the journeys they will be able to make
before evening, bully them and beat them with the end of the reins.
Their eyes are excited, their gestures impatient. They fill the town
with clamour and smell. It is an occasion on which, as the vulgar say,
they wouldn't call the Queen their aunt....

This, I fancy, is where all the romance of the sea began--in the story
of a greedy man and a fresh herring. The ship was a symbol of man's
questing stomach long before it was a symbol of his questing soul. He
was a hungry man, not a poet, when he built the first harbour.
Luckily, the harbour made a poet of him. Sails gave him wings. He
learned to traffic for wonders. He became a traveller. He told tales.
He discovered the illusion of horizons. Perhaps, however, it is less
the sailor than the ship that attracts our imagination. The ship seems
to convey to us more than anything else a sense at once of perfect
freedom and perfect adventure.

That is why we are content to stand on the harbour stones all day and
watch anything with sails. We ourselves want to live in some such
freedom and adventure as this. We are feeding our appetite for liberty
as we gaze hungrily after the ships making their way out of harbour
into the sea.




III



THE BETTING MAN

If The Panther wins the Derby,[He didn't] as most people apparently
expect him to do, his victory will carry more weight among frequenters
of race-courses as an argument for Socialism than any that has yet
been invented. For The Panther is a Government-bred horse, born and
brought up in defiance of the _laissez-faire_ principles of Mr Harold
Cox. He will therefore carry the colours of a great principle at Epsom
as well as those of his present lessee. Who would have thought five
years ago that the Derby favourite of 1919 would start under so grave
a responsibility?

Not that racing men have much time to spare for thoughts about social
problems, even when these are related to a horse. Theirs is a busy
life. They enjoy little of the leisure that falls to the lot of
statesmen and haberdashers.

Their anxieties are a serial story continued from one edition of the
day's papers to another Nor does the last edition of the evening paper
make an end of their anxieties. It is not an epilogue to one day so
much as a prologue to the next. The programme of races for the
following day suggests more problems than the Peace Conference itself
could settle in a month. The racing man, having studied the names of
the horses entered, goes out to buy some tobacco. As he takes his
change from the tobacconist, he asks: "Have you heard anything for
to-morrow?" The tobacconist says: "I heard Green Cloak for the first
race," The racing man nods. "You didn't hear anything for the big
race?" he asks. "No. Somebody was saying Holy Saint." "I heard Oily
Hair," says the racing man gravely. "Good-night." And he goes out. His
brow becomes knitted with thought as he moves off along the pavement.
He tells himself that Holy Saint certainly does offer difficulties.
Holy Saint is a notoriously bad starter. If he could be trusted to get
away, he would be one of the finest horses of his year in
long-distance races. But he is continually being left at the post. To
back him would be pure gambling. He could win if he liked, but would
he like? On the whole, Oily Hair is a safer horse to back. He has
already beaten Holy Saint in the Chiswick Cup, and only lost the
Scotch Plate to Disaster by a neck. As the racing man allows his
memory to dwell on the achievements of Oily Hair his confidence rises.
"I see nothing to beat him," he says to himself. He has just decided
to put "a fiver" on him when he meets an acquaintance, who suggests a
drink. As they drink, the talk turns on horses. "What are you backing
in the big race to-morrow?" "Have you heard anything?" "I heard Oily
Hair." "I think not. I'll tell you why. Tommy Fitzgibbon's youngest
sister is at school with two sisters of Willie Soames, who's going to
ride Peace on Earth to-morrow, and one of them told her that Willie
had written to her to put every halfpenny she has on Peace on Earth."
"I'm sick, sore and tired of backing Peace on Earth. He's a
cantankerous beast that seems to take a positive pleasure in losing
races." "Well, remember what I told you...."

On arriving home our sportsman goes to his shelves and takes down the
last annual volume of _M'Call's Racing Chronicle and Pocket Turf
Calendar_, and looks up Peace on Earth in the index. He turns up the
record of one race after another, and finds that the horse has a
better past than he had remembered. He cannot make up his mind what to
do. He looks over several weekly papers to see if any of them can
throw light on his difficulties. Each of them names a different winner
for the big race. When he puts on his pyjamas that night, all he knows
is that he has decided to decide nothing till the next day.

Next day he once more reads the names of the horses entered for the
various races, and glances down the list of winners selected by the
racing prophet in the morning paper. Having breakfasted late, he finds
he has only about an hour to waste before catching a train for the
races, and he resolves to pay a call at the "Bird of Paradise," where
a friend of his who has an unusual gift for picking up information is
usually to be found about noon. He learns from the landlord that his
friend has been in and gone away, but the landlord tells him that he
hears Pudding is a certainty.

"Have you any reason for thinking so?"

"Well, there was a man in here who has a son a policeman close by
Jobson's stables, and he tells me that everybody in the neighbourhood
has been backing Pudding down to their last spoon. That looks as if
word had been passed round that it was going to win." The racing man
passes out and looks in at the "Pink Elephant" to see if his friend is
there. He is seated at a little table in an upstairs parlour with four
others, all drinking whisky and exchanging tips. They belong to the
most credulous race of men alive. They are all believers in what is
called information, and information is simply the betting man's name
for gossip. The friend is speaking in a low but excited voice to his
companions, who crouch over towards him in order to catch information
not meant for the rest of the room. He tells how he had just been in
to buy a paper at his newsagent's, and how his newsagent had been
calling on his solicitor that morning, and the solicitor told him that
the caller who had just left as he came in was Gordon, the owner of
Cutandrun, and Gordon said that Cutandrun was the biggest thing that
had ever come into his hands. The buzz-buzz of talk in the
smoke-filled room and the clatter of passing carts makes it difficult
to hear him, but the others lean over the table with red, intent
faces, like men among whom an apostle has come. They do not stay long
over their drinks, as they have not much time for social pleasures.
They swallow their whisky with a quick gesture look at their watches,
stand up hurriedly and part with handshakes.

Then comes a drive to the railway station where race-cards are being
sold. The racing-man buys a "card" and several papers. He looks down
the lists of the horses again in the train, and tries to make up his
mind whether to take the tobacconist's tip and back Green Cloak for
the first race. He believes greatly in breeding, and by far the
best-bred horse in the race is Liberal, who has three Derby winners in
his pedigree. Then there is Red Rose, who created a sensation a month
ago by winning two races in a day. He decides to do nothing till he
sees the horses themselves. He pays thirty shillings at the turnstile
of the race-course and is admitted to the grand stand. Already one or
two bookmakers are shouting from their stands, and some of them have
chalked up on blackboards the odds they are willing to give in the big
race. He looks at the board and sees that he can get twenties against
Cutandrun. A five-pound note might bring him a hundred pounds. On the
other hand, if Oily Hair was going to win, he wouldn't like to miss
it. The bookmakers are offering fives against it. Holy Saint is hot
favourite at two to one. That alone makes him impatient of it, for he
dislikes backing favourites. He prefers the big risks, with great
scoops if he wins. However, he will make up his mind later. Meanwhile,
he will go to the paddock and have a look at the horses for the first
race. Half-a-dozen horses are already out, and men with numbers on
their arms are walking them round and round in a ring. He consults his
card and sees that No. 7 is Brighton Beauty, and No. 2 (a slender,
glossy, black beast with a white star in his forehead) Green Cloak.
Liberal has not appeared. The numbers of the starters, with the names
of the jockeys, are now being hoisted. He makes a pencil-mark opposite
the name of each starter on his racing-card, and jots down the name of
the jockey. Raff, he sees, is riding Green Cloak. That is in its
favour.

When he gets back to the betting-ring, the bookmakers are shouting
hoarsely against each other. Liberal is a very hot favourite. They are
shouting: "I'll take two to one. I'll take two to one. Five to one bar
one. A hundred to eight Green Cloak." He feels almost sure Liberal
will win, but Green Cloak--he wishes he had asked the tobacconist
where he got his information from. Anyhow, half-a-sovereign doesn't
matter much. He goes up to a bookmaker, and says: "Ten shillings Green
Cloak." The bookmaker turns to his clerk and says: "Six pound five to
ten shillings Green Cloak," gives a red-white-and-blue card with his
name and a number on it; the other takes the card, writes on the back
of it the name of the horse and the amount of the bet, and makes for
the stand to see the race. The horses have now come out, and are off
one after another to the starting-post. Green Cloak would be hard to
miss because of his jockey's colours--old gold, scarlet sleeves, and
green and black quartered cap. The bell has hardly rung to announce
that the race has begun when men in the crowd begin to dogmatise about
the result. One man keeps saying: "Green Cloak wins this race. Green
Cloak wins this race." Another says: "Liberal leads." Another says:
"No; that's Jumping Frog." To the unaccustomed eye the horses seem as
close to each other as a swarm of bees. Suddenly, however, a bay horse
springs forward and seems to put a length between itself and the
others at every stride. The people in the stand shout: "Liberal!
Liberal!" It wins by about ten lengths. Green Cloak is second, but a
bad second. The crowd begins to pour down from the stand again. Those
who have won wait near the bookmakers till the winner has been to the
unsaddling enclosure and the announcement "All right" is made. Then
the bookmakers begin to pay out, and the crowd moves off to the
paddock again to see the horses for the next race.

Friends stop each other and exchange information in low voices. Others
do their best to listen in the hope of overhearing information: "I
hear Tomsk," "Johnnie says lay your last penny on Glasgow Pet," "I'm
going to back Submarine." And the parade of the horses, the hoisting
of the names of the starters and jockeys, the laying of the bets, and
the climbing of the grand stand are all gone through over and over
again. The betting man has no time even for a drink. To the casual
onlooker a day's horse-racing has the appearance of a day's holiday.
But the racing man knows better. He is collecting information, coming
to decisions, wandering among the bookies in the hope of getting a
good price, climbing into the grand stand and descending from it,
studying the points of the horses all the time with as little chance
of leisure as though he were a stockbroker during a financial crisis
or a sailor on a sinking ship.

Perhaps, in the train on the way home from the races, he may relax a
little. Certainly, if he has backed Cutandrun, he will. For Cutandrun
won at ten to one, and his pocket is full of five-pound notes. He
feels quite jocular now that the strain is over. He makes puns on the
names of the defeated horses. "Lie Low lay low all right," he
announces to the compartment, indifferent to the scowls of the man in
the corner who had backed it. "Hopscotch didn't hop quite fast
enough." Were he tipsy, he could not jest more fluently. His jokes are
small, but be not too severe on him. The man has had a hard day. Wait
but an hour, and care will descend on him again. He will not have sat
down to dinner in his hotel for three minutes till someone will be
saying to him: "Have you heard anything for the Cup to-morrow?" There
is no six-hours day for the betting man. He is the drudge of chance
for every waking hour. He is enviable only for one thing. He knows
what to talk about to barbers.




IV



THE HUM OF INSECTS


It makes all the difference whether you hear an insect in the bedroom
or in the garden. In the garden the voice of the insect soothes; in
the bedroom it irritates. In the garden it is the hum of spring; in
the bedroom it seems to belong to the same school of music as the bizz
of the dentist's drill or the saw-mill. It may be that it is not the
right sort of insect that invades the bedroom. Even in the garden we
wave away a mosquito. Either its note is in itself offensive or we
dislike it as the voice of an unscrupulous enemy. By an unscrupulous
enemy I mean an enemy that attacks without waiting to be attacked. The
mosquito is a beast of prey; it is out for blood, whether one is as
gentle as Tom Pinch or uses violence. The bee and the wasp are in
comparison noble creatures. They will, so it is said, never injure a
human being unless a human being has injured them. The worst of it is
they do not discriminate between one human being and another, and the
bee that floats over the wall into our garden may turn out to have
been exasperated by the behaviour of a retired policeman five miles
away who struck at it with a spade and roused in it a blind passion
for reprisals. That or something like it is, probably, the explanation
of the stings perfectly innocent persons receive from an insect that
is said never to touch you if you leave it alone. As a matter of fact,
when a bee loses its head, it does not even wait for a human being in
order to relieve its feelings, I have seen a dog racing round a field
in terror as a result of a sting from an angry bee. I have seen a
turkey racing round a farmyard in terror as a result of the same
thing. All the trouble arose from a human being's having very properly
removed a large quantity of honey from a row of hives. I do not admit
that the bee would have been justified in stinging even the human
being--who, after all, is master on this partially civilised planet.
It had certainly no right to sting the dog or the turkey, which had as
little to do with stealing the honey as the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford
University. Yet in spite of such things, and of the fact that some
breeds of bees are notorious for their crossness, especially when
there is thunder in the air, the bee is morally far higher in the
scale than the mosquito. Not only does it give you honey instead of
malaria, and help your apples and strawberries to multiply, but it
aims at living a quiet, inoffensive life, at peace with everybody,
except when it is annoyed. The mosquito does what it does in cold
blood. That is why it is so unwelcome a bedroom visitor.

But even a bee or a wasp, I fancy, would seem tedious company at two
in the morning, especially if it came and buzzed near the pillow. It
is not so much that you would be frightened: if the wasp alighted on
your cheek, you could always lie still and hold your breath till it
had finished trying to sting--that is an infallible preventive. But
there is a limit to the amount of your night's rest that you are
willing to sacrifice in this way. You cannot hold your breath while
you are asleep, and yet you dare not cease holding your breath while a
wasp is walking over your face. Besides, it might crawl into your ear,
and what would you do then? Luckily, the question does not often arise
in practice owing to the fact that the wasp and the bee are more like
human beings than mosquitoes and have more or less the same habits of
nocturnal rest. As we sit in the garden, however, the mind is bound to
speculate, and to revolve such questions as whether this hum of
insects that delights us is in itself delightful, whether its
delightfulness depends on its surroundings, or whether it depends on
its associations with past springs.

Certainly in a garden the noise of insects seems as essentially
beautiful a thing as the noise of birds or the noise of the sea. Even
these have been criticised, especially by persons who suffer from
sleeplessness, but their beauty is affirmed by the general voice of
mankind. These three noises appear to have an infinite capacity for
giving us pleasure--a capacity, probably, beyond that of any music of
instruments. It may be that on hearing them we become a part of some
universal music, and that the rhythm of wave, bird and insect echoes
in some way the rhythm of our own breath and blood. Man is in love
with life and these are the millionfold chorus of life--the magnified
echo of his own pleasure in being alive. At the same time, our
pleasure in the hum of insects is also, I think, a pleasure of
reminiscence. It reminds us of other springs and summers in other
gardens. It reminds us of the infinite peace of childhood when on a
fine day the world hardly existed beyond the garden-gate. We can smell
moss-roses--how we loved them as children!--as a bee swings by. Insect
after insect dances through the air, each dying away like a note of
music, and we see again the border of pinks and the strawberries, and
the garden paths edged with box, and the old dilapidated wooden seat
under the tree, and an apple-tree in the long grass, and a stream
beyond the apple-tree, and all those things that made us infinitely
happy as children when we were in the country--happier than we were
ever made by toys, for we do not remember any toys so intensely as we
remember the garden and the farm. We had the illusion in those days
that it was going to last for ever. There was no past or future. There
was nothing real except the present in which we lived--a present in
which all the human beings were kind, in which a dim-sighted
grandfather sang songs (especially a song in which the chorus began
"Free and easy"), in which aunts brought us animal biscuits out of
town, in which there was neither man-servant nor maid-servant, neither
ox nor ass, that did not seem to go about with a bright face. It was a
present that overflowed with kindness, though everybody except the ox
and the ass believed that it was only by the skin of our teeth that
any of us would escape being burnt alive for eternity. Perhaps we
thought little enough about it except on Sundays or at prayers.
Certainly no one was gloomy about it before children. William John
McNabb, the huge labourer who looked after the horses, greeted us all
as cheerfully as if we had been saved and ready for paradise.

It would be unfair to human beings, however, to suggest that they are
less lavish with their smiles than they were thirty years or so ago.
Everybody--or almost everybody--still smiles. We can hardly stop to
talk to a man in the street without a duet of smiles. The Prince of
Wales smiles across the world from left to right, and the Crown Prince
of Japan smiles across the world from right to left. We cannot open an
illustrated paper without seeing smiling statesmen, cricketers,
jockeys, oarsmen, bridegrooms, clergymen, actresses and
undergraduates. Yet somehow we are no longer made happy by a smile. We
no longer take it, as we used to take it, as evidence that the person
smiling is either happy or kind. It then seemed to come from the
heart. It now seems a formula. It is, we may admit, a pleasant and
useful formula. But a man might easily be a burglar or a murderer or a
Cabinet Minister and smile. Some people are supposed to smile merely
in order to show what good teeth they have. William John McNabb, I am
sure, never did that.

We need not grumble at our contemporaries, however, for not being so
fine as William John McNabb. To children, for all we know, the world
may still seem to be full of people who laugh because they are happy
and smile because they are kind. The world will always remain to a
child the chief of toys, and the hum of insects as enchanting as the
hum of a musical top. Even those of us who are grown up can recover
this enchantment, not only through the pleasures of memory but through
the endless pleasures of watching the things that inhabit the earth.
The world is always waiting to be discovered in full, and yet no life
is long enough to discover the whole of a single county, or even the
whole of a single parish. Who alive, for instance, knows all the moles
of Sussex? I confess I got my first sight of one a few days ago, and,
though I had seen dead moles hanging from trees and had read
descriptions of moles, the living creature was as unexpected as if one
had come on it silent upon a peak in Darien. I had never expected it
to look so black and glossy in the midday sun or to have that little
pink snout that made me think of it as a small underground pig. I had
always been told, too, that the sound of a footstep would frighten a
mole, but this mole only began to show fright at the sound of voices.
Then it began to tear its way into the undergrowth with paws and snout
ever trying to overtake each other. Mr Blunden has described how

     The lost mole tries to pierce the mattocked clay
     In agony and terror of the sun.

I got much the same impression of agony and terror as this poor
creature dug its way into the grass and ferns and, coming out at the
far end of the clump, bolted under a tree like a frightened pig. And
yet, they say, this poor little coward is a fierce animal enough. He
is, we are told, impelled by so cruel a hunger that he would die of it
were it to go unsatisfied for even twenty-four hours. If he can find
nothing else to eat, he will kill and eat a fellow-mole. So the
authorities tell us, but I wonder how many of the authorities have
even seen a mole in the very act of cannibalism. How many of them have
followed him on his long journeys through the bowels of the earth? He
certainly looked no South Sea monster on the Sunday morning on which
for a few seconds I watched him. Nor would John Clare have written
affectionately about him had he been entirely bloody-minded.

Then there was the hedgehog. The charm of hedgehogs is that we do not
see them every day--that their appearance is a secret and an accident.
They are a part of the busy life that goes on all about us as
mysteriously as the movements of spirits. Consequently, when I was
looking over a sloping field the other evening and, hearing a
crackling as of sticks being trodden on, turned my eyes and saw a
living creature making its way out of a wood into the grass, I was
delighted to find that it was a hedgehog and not a man or a rat. I
could see it only dimly in the twilight, and it was difficult to
believe that so small an animal had made so great a noise. The
pleasure of recognition, unfortunately, was not mutual. No sooner did
the hedgehog hear a foot pressing on the road than it gave up all
thoughts of its supper of insects and hobbled back into the thicket. I
regretted only that I had not made a greater noise, and scared it into
rolling itself into a ball, as everybody says it does when alarmed.
But it is perhaps just as well that the hedgehog did not merely repeat
itself in this way. We like a certain variety of behaviour in
animals--some element of the unexpected that always keeps our
curiosity alive and looking forward.

But we must not exaggerate the pleasure to be got from moles and
hedgehogs. They make a part of our being happy, but they do not
delight the whole of our being, as a child is delighted by the world
every spring. It is probably the child in us that responds most
wholeheartedly to such pleasures. They, like the hum of insects, help
to restore the illusion of a world that is perfectly happy because it
is such a Noah's Ark of a spectacle and everybody is kind. But, even
as we submit to the illusion in the garden, we become restive in our
deck-chairs and remember the telephone or the daily paper or a letter
that has to be written. And reality weighs on us, like a hand laid on
a top, making an end of the spinning, making an end of the music. The
world is no longer a toy dancing round and round. It is a problem, a
run-down machine, a stuffy room full of little stabbing creatures that
make an irritating noise.




V



CATS


The Champion Cat Show has been held at the Crystal Palace, but the
champion cat was not there. One could not possibly allow him to appear
in public. He is for show, but not in a cage. He does not compete,
because he is above competition. You know this as well as I. Probably
you possess him. I certainly do. That is the supreme test of a cat's
excellence--the test of possession. One does not say: "You should see
Brailsford's cat" or "You should see Adcock's cat" or "You should see
Sharp's cat," but "You should see our cat." There is nothing we are
more egoistic about--not even children--than about cats. I have heard
a man, for lack of anything better to boast about, boasting that his
cat eats cheese. In anyone else's cat it would have seemed an inferior
habit and only worth mentioning to the servant as a warning. But
because the cat happens to be his cat, this man talks about its vice
excitedly among women as though it were an accomplishment. It is
seldom that we hear a cat publicly reproached with guilt by anyone
above a cook. He is not permitted to steal from our own larder. But if
he visits the next-door house by stealth and returns over the wall
with a Dover sole in his jaws, we really cannot help laughing. We are
a little nervous at first, and our mirth is tinged with pity at the
thought of the probably elderly and dyspeptic gentleman who has had
his luncheon filched away almost from under his nose. If we were quite
sure that it was from No. 14, and not from No. 9 or No. 11, that the
fish had been stolen, we might--conceivably--call round and offer to
pay for it. But with a cat one is never quite sure. And we cannot call
round on all the neighbours and make a general announcement that our
cat is a thief. In any case the next move lies with the wronged
neighbour. As day follows day, and there is no sign of his irate and
murder-bent figure advancing up the path, we recover our mental
balance and begin to see the cat's exploit in a new light. We do not
yet extol it on moral grounds, but undoubtedly, the more we think of
it, the deeper becomes our admiration. Of the two great heroes of the
Greeks we admire one for his valour and one for his cunning. The epic
of the cat is the epic of Odysseus. The old gentleman with the Dover
sole gradually assumes the aspect of a Polyphemus outwitted--outwitted
and humiliated to the point of not even being able to throw things
after his tormentor. Clever cat! Nobody else's cat could have done
such a thing. We should like to celebrate the Rape of the Dover Sole
in Latin verse.

As for the Achillean sort of prowess, we do not demand it of a cat,
but we are proud of it when it exists. There is a pleasure in seeing
strange cats fly at his approach, either in single file over the wall
or in the scattered aimlessness of a bursting bomb. Theoretically, we
hate him to fight, but, if he does fight and comes home with a torn
ear, we have to summon up all the resources of our finer nature in
order not to rejoice on noticing that the cat next door looks as
though it had been through a railway accident. I am sorry for the cat
next door. I hate him so, and it must be horrible to be hated. But he
should not sit on my wall and look at me with yellow eyes. If his eyes
were any other colour--even the blue that is now said to be the mark
of the runaway husband--I feel certain I could just manage to endure
him. But they are the sort of yellow eyes that you expect to see
looking out at you from a hole in the panelling in a novel by Mr Sax
Rohmer. The only reason why I am not frightened of them is that the
cat is so obviously frightened of me. I never did him any injury
unless to hate is to injure. But he lowers his head when I appear as
though he expected to be guillotined. He does not run away: he merely
crouches like a guilty thing. Perhaps he remembers how often he has
stepped delicately over my seed-beds, but not so delicately as to
leave no mark of ruin among the infant lettuces and the
less-than-infant autumn-sprouting broccoli. These things I could
forgive him, but it is not easy to forgive him the look in his eyes
when he watches a bird at its song. They are ablaze with evil. He
becomes a sort of Jack the Ripper at the opera. People tell us that we
should not blame cats for this sort of thing--that it is their nature
and so forth. They even suggest that a cat is no more cruel in eating
robin than we are cruel ourselves in eating chicken. This seems to me
to be quibbling. In the first place, there is an immense difference
between a robin and a chicken. In the second place, we are willing to
share our chicken with the cat--at least, we are willing to share the
skin and such of the bones as are not required for soup. Besides, a
cat has not the same need of delicacies as a human being. It can eat,
and even digest, anything. It can eat the black skin of filleted
plaice. It can eat the bits of gristle that people leave on the side
of their plates. It can eat boiled cod. It can eat New Zealand mutton.
There is no reason why an animal with so undiscriminating a palate
should demand song-birds for its food, when even human beings, who are
fairly unscrupulous eaters, have agreed in some measure to abstain
from them. On reflection, however, I doubt if it is his appetite for
birds that makes the cat with the yellow eyes feel guilty. If you were
able to talk to him in his own language, and formulate your
accusations against him as a bird-eater, he would probably be merely
puzzled and look on you as a crank. If you pursued the argument and
compelled him to moralise his position, he would, I fancy, explain
that the birds were very wicked creatures and that their cruelties to
the worms and the insects were more than flesh and blood could stand.
He would work himself up into a generous idealisation of himself as
the guardian of law and order amid the bloody strife of the
cabbage-patch--the preserver of the balance of nature. If cats were as
clever as we, they would compile an atrocities blue-book about worms.
Alas, poor thrush, with how bedraggled a reputation you would come
through such an exposure! With how Hunnish a tread you would be
depicted treading the lawn, sparing neither age nor sex, seizing the
infant worm as it puts out its head to take its first bewildered peep
at the rolling sun! Cats could write sonnets on such a theme.... Then
there is that other beautiful potential poem, _The Cry of the
Snail_.... How tender-hearted cats are! Their sympathy seems to be all
but universal, always on the look out for an object, ready to extend
itself anywhere where it is needed, except, as is but human, to their
victims. Yellow eyes or not, I begin to be persuaded that the cat next
door is a noble fellow. It may well be that his look as I pass is a
look not of fear but of repulsion. He has seen me going out among the
worms with a sharp--no, not a very sharp--spade, and regards me as no
better than an ogre. If I could only explain to him! But I shall never
be able to do so. He could no more appreciate my point of view about
worms than I can appreciate his about robins. Luckily, we both eat
chicken. This may ultimately help us to understand one another.

On the other hand, part of the fascination of cats may be due to the
fact that it is so difficult to come to an understanding with them. A
man talks to a horse or a dog as to an equal. To a cat he has to be
deferential as though it had some Sphinx-like quality that baffled
him. He cannot order a cat about with the certainty of being obeyed.
He cannot be sure that, if he speaks to it, it will even raise its
eyes. If it is perfectly comfortable, it will not. A cat is obedient
only when it is hungry or when it takes the fancy. It may be a
parasite, but it is never a servant. The dog does your bidding, but
you do the cat's. At the same time, the contrast between the cat and
the dog has often been exaggerated by dog-lovers. They tell you
stories of dogs that remained with their dead masters, as though there
were no fidelity in cats. It was only the other day, however, that the
newspapers gave an account of a cat that remained with the body of its
murdered mistress in the most faithful tradition of the dogs. I know,
again, of cats that will go out for a walk with a human
fellow-creature, as dogs do. I have frequently seen a lady walking
across Hampstead Heath with a cat in train. When you go for a walk
with a dog, however, the dog protects you: when you go for a walk with
a cat, you feel that you are protecting the cat. It is strange that
the cat should have imposed the myth of its helplessness on us. It is
an animal with an almost boundless capacity for self-help. It can jump
up walls. It can climb trees. It can run, as the proverb says, like
"greased lightning." It is armed like an African chief. Yet it has
contrived to make itself a pampered pet, so that we are alarmed if it
attempts to follow us out of the gate into a world of dogs, and only
feel happy when it is purring--rolling on its back and purring as we
rub its Adam's apple--by the fireside. There is nothing that gives a
greater sense of comfort than the purring of a cat. It is the most
flattering music in nature. One feels, as one listens, like a humble
lover in a bad novel, who says: "You do, then, like me--a
little--after all?" The fact that a cat is not utterly miserable in
our presence always comes with the freshness and delight of a
surprise. The happiness of a crowing baby, newly introduced to us, may
be still more flattering, but a cat will get round people who cannot
tolerate babies.

It is all the more to be wondered at that a cat, which is such a
master of this conversational sort of music, should ever attempt any
other. There never was an animal less fit to be a singer. Someone--was
it Cowper?---has said that there are no really ugly voices in nature,
and that he could imagine that there was something to be said even for
the donkey's bray. I should have thought that the beautiful voices in
nature were few, and that most of them could be defended only on the
ground of some pleasant association. Humanity, at least, has been
unanimous in its condemnation of the cat as part of nature's chorus.
Poems have been written in praise of the corncrake as a singer, but
never of the cat. All the associations we have with cats have not
accustomed us to that discordant howl. It converts love itself into a
torment such as can be found only in the pages of a twentieth-century
novel. In it we hear the jungle decadent--the beast in dissolution,
but not yet civilised. When it rises at night outside the window, we
always explain to visitors: "No; that's not Peter. That's the cat next
door with the yellow eyes." The man who will not defend the honour of
his cat cannot be trusted to defend anything.




VI



MAY


May is chiefly remarkable for being the only month in which one does
not like cats. June, too, perhaps; but, after that, one does not mind
if the garden is full of cats. One likes to have a wild beast whose
movements, lazy as those of Satan, will terrify the childish birds out
of the gooseberry bushes and the raspberries and strawberries. He will
not, we know, have much chance of catching them as late as that. They
will be as cunning as he, and the robin will wind his alarum-clock,
the starling in the plum-tree will cry out like a hysterical drake,
and the blackbird will make as much noise as a farmyard. The cat can
but blink at the clamour of such a host of cunning sentinels and,
pretending that he had come out only to take the air, return
majestically to his dinner of leavings in the kitchen. In May and
June, however, one does not wish the birds to be frightened. One would
like one's garden to be an Alsatia for all their wings and all their
songs. There is no hope of this in a garden full of cats. Even a
Tetrazzini would cease to be able to produce her best trills if every
time she opened her mouth, a tiger padded in her direction down a path
of currant bushes. There are, it may be admitted, heroic exceptions.
The chaffinch sits in the plum and blusters out his music, cat or no
cat. To be sure, he only sings, a flush of all the colours, in order
to distract our attention. He is not an artist but a watchman. If you
look into the buddleia-tree beside him, you will see his hen moving
about in silence, creeping, dancing, fluttering, as she gorges herself
with insects. She is a fly-catcher at this season, leaping into the
air and pirouetting as she seizes her prey and returns to the bough.
She is restless and is not content with the spoil of a single tree.
She flings herself gracefully, like a ballet-dancer, into the plum,
and takes up a caterpillar in her beak. She does not eat it at once,
but stands still, eyeing you as though awaiting your applause. Her
husband, sitting on the topmost spray, goes on singing his version of
_The Roast Beef of Old England_. She does not even now eat the
caterpillar, but hurries along the paths of the branches with the
obvious purpose of finding a tasty insect to eat long with it. It may
be that there are insects that play the part of mustard or
Worcestershire sauce in the chaffinch world. What a meal she is making
in any case before she hurries back to her nest! It seems that among
the chaffinches the male is the more spiritual of the sexes. But then
he has so little to do compared with the female. He is still in that
state of savagery in which the male dresses finely and idles.

The thrush cannot carry on with the same indifference to cats. He is
the most nervous of parents, and spends half his time calling on his
children to be careful. The young thrush hopping about on the lawn
knows nothing of cats and refuses to believe that they are dangerous.
He is not afraid even of human beings. His parent becomes
argumentative to the point of tears, but the young one stays where he
is and looks at you with a sideways jerk of his head as much as to
say: "Listen to the old 'un." You, too, begin to be alarmed at such
boldness. You know, like the pitiful parent, that the world is a very
dangerous place, and that your neighbour's cat goes about like a
roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. It has been contended by some
men of science that all birds are born fearless after the manner of
the young thrush, and that fear is a lesson that has to be taught to
each new generation by the more experienced parents. Fear, they say,
is not an inherited instinct, but a racial tradition that has to be
communicated like the morality of civilised people. The young thrush
on the lawn is certainly a witness on behalf of this theory. He hops
towards you instead of away from you. He moves his gaping beak as
though he were trying to say something. If there were no cats in the
world, you would encourage his confidences, but you feel that, much as
you would like to make friends with him, you must, for his own sake,
give him his first lesson in fear. You try to give yourself the
appearance of a grim giant: it has no effect on him. You make a quick
movement to chase him away: he runs a few yards and then stops and
looks round at you as though you were playing a game. It is too much
to expect of you that you will actually throw stones at a bird for its
good, and so you give up his education as a bad job. Alas, in two
days, your worst fears are justified. His dead body is found, torn and
ruffled, among the bushes. Some cat has murdered him--murdered him,
evidently, not in hunger, but just for fun. Two indignant children,
one gold, one brown, discover the dead body and bring in the tale.
They prepare the funeral rites of one whose only sin was his
innocence. This is not the first burial in the garden. There is
already a cemetery marked with half-a-dozen crosses and heaped with
flowers under the pear-tree on the south wall. Here is where the mouse
was buried; here where the starling; and here the rabbit's skull. They
all lie there under the earth in boxes, as you and I will lie,
expecting the Last Trump. The robins are not kinder to the "friendless
bodies of unburied men" than are children to the bodies of mice and
birds. Here the ghost of no creature haunts reproaching us with the
absence of a tomb, as the dead sailor washed up on an alien shore
reproaches us so often in the pages of _The Greek Anthology_. There is
a procession to the grave and all due ceremony. There is even a
funeral service. Over the starling, perhaps, it lacked something in
appropriateness. The buriers meant well however. Their favourite in
verse at the time was _Lars Porsena of Clusium_, and they gave the
starling the best they knew--gave it to him from beginning to end.
What he made of it, there is no telling: he is, it is said an
impressionable bird, though something of a satirist. Someone,
overhearing them, recommended a briefer and more fitting service for
the future. The young thrush had the benefit of the advice. He was
laid to his last rest with the recitation of that noblest of
valedictories: "Fear no more the heat o' the sun," over his tomb. He
is now gone where there is no cat or parent to disturb. The priests
who buried him declare that he has been turned into a golden
nightingale, and that there must be no noise or romping in the garden
for three days, as not till then will he have arrived safely at the
Appleiades. That is the name they give to the Pleiades--the seven
golden islands whither pass the souls of dead mice and birds and dolls
and where Scarlatti lives and where you, too, may expect to go if you
please them. Even the black cat will probably go there--one's own
black cat. But not the neighbour's cat--the reddish-brown one--thief,
murderer and beast. It is the neighbour's cat that makes one believe
there is a hell.

Short is the memory of man, however. Shorter the memory of children.
There is no gloom that can withstand May pouring itself out in the
deep blue of anchusa and the paler blue of lupin, gushing out in the
yellow of laburnum, tossing like the tides in the wind. One is gloomy,
perhaps, when one looks at the lettuces and sees how slow is their
growth. Watching a plant grow is like watching a kettle boil. It seems
to take æons. The patience of gardeners always astonishes me. Were
gardening my profession, I should spend half my time inventing schemes
for making plants grow up in a night like Jonah's gourd. I should not
mind about parsnips. A parsnip might mature as slowly as an oak and
live as long for all I care. There is something, it may be, to be said
for parsnips, as there is something, it may be, to be said for Mr
Bonar Law. But I do not know it. They do not even tempt the slugs and
the leather-jackets away from the lettuces. There is nothing that
puzzles one more in a friend than if he confesses to a taste for
parsnips. Immediately, a gulf yawns deeper than could be caused by any
confession of religious or moral eccentricity. One's sympathies
instinctively close up like a sea-anemone touched by a child's finger.
Yet people eat them. All that you and I know about them is that kind
words do not butter them; but, if you go to Covent Garden at the right
time of the year, you will undoubtedly find them being sold for food.
Why should they make one gloomy, however, seeing that one has
successfully excluded them from one's garden? Perhaps one is gloomy
because of the reflection that there must be many other gardens in
which they are growing. Gloom of this kind, however, is mere
philanthropy. Turn your eyes, instead, to the strawberry-flowers and
think of June. Consider the broad beans and the young peas safe amid
their tall stakes. Consider even the spring onions. Is it any wonder
that the chaffinch sings and the wren is operatic on the thither side
of the garden wall? High in the air the swifts scream, as they rush
here and there after their prey, like polo teams galloping, pulling
up, scrimmaging, turning, and off on the gallop again. The swift is an
evil-looking bird, but playful. He has none of the grace of the
swallow, for he cannot fold his wings, and he is black as a
devil-worshipper. Still, he knows more of sport than most of the
birds. I suspect that those rushing companions are not merely bent on
food but have chosen out one individual insect for their pursuit like
a ball in a game. Otherwise, why such excitement? There are billions
of insects to be had for the mere asking. The fly-catcher knows this.
He can spend an hour at a meal without ever flying more than ten yards
from his bough. Still, one rejoices in the energy of the swift. One
wishes the greenfinch had a little of it. The yellow splashes on his
wings are undoubtedly delightful, but why will he perch so long in the
acacia wailing like a sick cricket? And why did Wordsworth write a
poem in praise of him? Probably he mistook some other bird for him.
Poets are like that. Or perhaps he liked a noise like the voice of a
sick cricket. One can never tell with Wordsworth. He had a
cuckoo-clock.




VII



NEW YEAR PROPHECIES


Some people are surprised at the daring with which compilers of
prophetic almanacs forecast the details of the future. The most
astonishing thing of all is that nearly everybody still regards the
future as a mystery. As a matter of fact, we know a great deal about
the future. We know that next year will contain 365 days. We know--and
this is rather a tribute to our cleverness--that the year 1924 will
contain 366 days, and even the exact point at which the extra day will
slip in. Ask a savage to point you out the extra day in Leap Year, and
he will be more hopelessly at a loss than a man looking for a needle
in a haystack, but even the most ignorant Christian will pick it out
at the right end of February as neatly and inevitably as a love-bird
on a barrel-organ picking out a fortune. The art of prophecy has grown
with civilisation. Prophets were regarded as almost divine persons in
the old days, but now every man is his own Isaiah. I am the most
modest of the prophets, but even I venture to foretell that there will
be an annular eclipse of the sun in the coming year on the 8th of
April, that it will begin at twenty-two minutes to 8 A.M. at
Liverpool, and that it will be visible at Greenwich. What clairvoyant
could go further? Test my mantic gifts at any other point and I doubt
not I can satisfy you. Do you want to know at what time there will be
high water at Aberdeen on the afternoon of the 21th January? The
answer is: "Thirteen minutes past one." Do you want to know when
partridge shooting will begin? I do not even need to reflect before
giving the answer: "The 1st of September." And so I could go on,
almost _ad infinitum_, filling in the details of the year in advance.
On the 1st of March, for instance, being St David's Day, there will be
a banquet at which Mr Lloyd George will make a reference to hills,
mists, God, and a country called Wales. On the 28th of March, being
Easter Monday, there will be a Bank Holiday. On the 24th of May, being
Empire Day, the majority of shops in Regent Street will hang out Union
Jacks, and school children will salute the flag at Abinger Hammer,
Communists in various parts of London gnashing their teeth the while.
On the 15th of June the anniversary of Magna Charta will fall and will
pass without any disturbance. On the 12th of July Orangemen will dress
im in sashes and listen to orators whose speeches will prove the
hollowness of the old adage that you cannot serve both God and Mammon.
On the same day, Lord Birkenhead will celebrate his forty-ninth
birthday, showing that Gallopers are born not made. Need I continue,
however? The year is obviously going to be a crowded one. It will, as
I have said, contain 365 days and will come to an end at 12 P.M. on St
Silvester's Day at the time of the new moon.

I have said enough, I think, to prove that one knows a great deal more
about the future than is generally realised. There may be sceptics who
doubt the virtue of my prophecies. If there be such, all I ask is that
they should mark them well and verify each of them as its fulfilment
falls due. The expense will be small. The most serious item will be
the journey to Aberdeen to see the tide coming in on the 24th of
January; but, by taking up a collection in Aberdeen, it should be
possible to reduce one's net outlay by the better part of a shilling.
On the whole, there never were prophecies easier to verify. I
confidently challenge comparison between them and any prophecy made by
any Cabinet Minister during the last five years. I even challenge
comparison with the much more respectable prophecies contained in
_Raphael's Prophetic Messenger_. Raphael at times strains our
credulity. When he tells us, for instance, that on the 27th of April
it is going to be "cold and frosty" and that on the 29th of April we
shall see "high winds, storms and thunder," we feel that he is giving
a free rein to his imagination and treating prophecy not as a science
but as an art. That the 30th of April will be "showery" I agree, but
how does he know that there will be "high wind and lightning" on the
21st of December? I am also somewhat puzzled as to the means by which
he arrives at the conclusions set forth in his "every-day" guide for
each day in the year. I can myself prophesy what you will do on each
day, but I cannot, as he does, prophesy what you ought to do. This
introduces an ethical element which is beyond my scope or horoscope.
We need not quarrel with him when he dismisses the 1st of January as
"an unimportant day," but when he bids us on the 2nd of January
"court, marry, and deal with females," we may reasonably ask: "Why?"
His advice for the 3rd is more acceptable. "Be careful," he says,
"until 1 P.M. then seek work and push thy business." That is about the
time of day one prefers to begin to "seek work"; would there were more
days in the calendar like the 3rd of January. Some saint must have it
in his keeping. On the 7th, however, it will be safer to abstain from
work altogether. Raphael says: "A very unfortunate P.M. and evening
for most purposes. Court and deal with females." Sunday, the 9th, is
better. "Ask favours," he says, "in the P.M., and court." Though
January is less than half gone, I confess I am getting a little
breathless with so much courting. Raphael probably recognises this,
and a note of caution creeps into his advice on the 13th, on which he
bids us "court and marry in the morning, then be careful." By the
18th, however, he is his old self again. "Court," he says cheerfully,
"marry and ask favours and push ahead." Then come one rather careful
day and two unfortunate ones, till on the 22nd, in a burst of
exuberance, he offers us the day of our lives. "Deal with others," he
exhorts us, "and push thy business, seek work, travel, court, marry,
buy and speculate." I doubt if all this can be crowded into
twenty-four hours outside _The Arabian Nights_. Besides, as a result
of following Raphael's advice, we are already bigamists several times
over, and have become sick of the sight of a Registry Office. By the
end of the month even Raphael shows signs of being a little weary of
his scarcely veiled incitements to Bluebeardism. For the 29th he
advises: "Avoid females and be very careful," and for the 30th, which
is a Sunday: "Avoid females and superiors." I should just about think
so.

We need not follow Raphael through the rest of the year. It is enough
to say that he keeps us busy courting, marrying, seeking work, being
careful, travelling, speculating, pushing ahead, and avoiding females
right down till the end of December. He occasionally varies his
formula, as when on the 6th of April he bids us: "Do not quarrel. Be
quiet," and when, on the 23rd of June, he advises: "Ask favours of
females, and travel." On the whole however, his recommendations leave
us with a sense of the desperate monotony of human existence. It is no
wonder the novelists find it so difficult to invent an original plot.
Nothing seems to happen--even in the future--except the same old
thing. It is all as monotonous as North, South, East and West. We turn
with relief to the page on which Raphael tells us what are the best
days on which to hire maidservants and to set turkeys. Our interest
redoubles when we come on his advice to those about to kill pigs. "Do
this," he says, "between eight and ten in the morning, and between the
first quarter and full of the Moon; the pigs will weigh more, and the
flavour of the pork be improved." Then there are "Legal and Commercial
Notes," one of which--"A bailiff must not break into a house, but he
may enter by the chimney "--suggests a subject for a drawing by Mr
George Morrow. The medical notes are equally worthy of consideration.
On one page we are given a list of herbal remedies, and we are told
how one disease can be cured by pouring boiling water on hay (upland
hay being better than meadow hay) and applying it to the stomach. But
Raphael is no crank, as we see in his suggestion for the treatment of
influenza:

     "If you think you have got an attack of influenza slip off
     to bed at once and take the whisky or brandy bottle with
     you, and don't be afraid of it, for alcohol is the best
     medicine you can take as it kills the germs in the blood. Do
     not wait until you are half dead--remember that a stitch in
     time saves nine, even with health."

Even on the subject of the care of children's teeth he makes it clear
that, whoever may have come under the blight of Pussyfoot, it is not
he:

     "I believe a Committee is to be appointed to inquire into
     the failing eyesight and decaying teeth in children. I think
     I have already stated that these troubles were due to the
     excessive amount of sugar or sweetstuffs consumed. All sweet
     things cause an excessive exudation of saliva from the gums,
     which affect and impair both the teeth and the eyesight for,
     despite of what dentist and doctor may say, there is an
     intimate relation between the two. Dr Sims Wallace, the
     eminent lecturer on Dental Surgery, recommends _Beer_ or dry
     _Champagne_ as an excellent mouth wash. They are also
     pleasant to the throat and stomach!"

The reader is now in a position to estimate for himself the extent to
which he can rely on Raphael's judgment, and to decide how far he will
accept the horoscope Raphael has cast for Mr Lloyd George. On this he
writes:

     "This gentleman has figured so prominently in our national
     affairs for the last few years, that it may not be out of
     place if I give a few remarks on his horoscope. The time of
     his birth is stated to have been January 17th, 1863, 8h.
     55m. A.M., but neither myself, nor other Astrologers, are
     satisfied with this hour. I think he was born some minutes
     sooner. At his birth the Sun was in exact Square to Jupiter,
     and also in Square to Mars, and Mars was in Opposition to
     Jupiter. These are very ominous and important aspects. The
     former denotes great extravagance, and waste of money, and
     the latter gives impetuosity, and danger to the person."

He then proceeds to give a "brief analysis" of Mr Lloyd George's
horoscope:

     "The Sun near Ascendant--self-praise, egotism,
     self-satisfaction, fondness for publicity and notoriety.

     "Venus and Mercury on Ascendant--fluency in speech,
     agreeableness, desire to please, fondness for Music, Arts,
     and Sciences.

     "Mars in 2nd, in Opposition to Jupiter, unfavourable for
     financial undertakings, extravagance, carelessness, and
     losses in speculation.

     "Uranus in 4th, trouble at end of life.

     "Jupiter in the 8th, benefit or help from marriage partner.

     "Moon near cusp of the 11th, many friends, especially females.

     "The Aspects denote--Sun Square Jupiter and Mars,
     recklessness in expenditure, public disapprobation, and an
     unfavourable and sudden ending to life.

     "Venus in Trine to Saturn, and Moon in Sextile to
     Jupiter--domestic relations of the happiest description, and
     the wife a great help."

I frankly doubt if any man can foretell the future of Mr Lloyd George.
No one knows what he will say or do to-morrow. We know what phrases he
will use, but we do not know on what side he will use them, or what he
will mean by them. All we know is that Sir William Sutherland will say
ditto.

Let us, then, return to safer fields of prophecy. What, really, is
going to happen in 1921? I think I know. Human beings will behave like
bewildered sheep. They will be chiefly notable for their lack of moral
courage. Good men will apologise for the deeds of bad men, and bad men
will do very much as they please. Cruel and selfish faces will be seen
in every railway carriage and in every omnibus, but readers of the
respectable Press will refuse to believe that there are any cruel
people outside Germany and Russia. Not one but all the Ten
Commandments will be broken, and turkeys will be eaten on Christmas
Day. Men will die of disease, violence, famine and old age, and others
will be born to take their place. Intellectuals will be
pretentious--mules solemnly trying to look like Derby winners. There
will be a considerable amount of lying, injustice, and
self-righteousness. Dogs will be fairly decent, but some of them will
bite. Above all, the human conscience will survive. It will survive.
It will continue to be the old still, small voice we know--as still
and as small as it is possible to be without disappearing into silence
and nothingness. And some of us will get a certain amusement out of it
all, and will prefer life rather than death. We shall also go on
puzzling ourselves as to what under the sun it all means. Not even a
murderer will be without a friend or a pet dog or cat or bird. That is
what 1921 will be like. That, at least, is as certain as the time of
the high tide at Aberdeen on the 24th of January.




VIII



ON KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE


It was only the other day that I came upon a full-grown man reading
with something like rapture a little book--_Ships and Seafaring Shown
to Children_. His rapture was modified however, by the bitter
reflection that he had already passed so great a part of his life
without knowing the difference between a ship and a barque; and, as
for sloops, yawls, cutters, ketches, and brigantines, they were simply
the Russian alphabet to him. I sympathise with his regret. It was a
noble day in one's childhood when one had learned the names of
sailing-vessels, and, walking to the point of the harbour beyond the
bathing-boxes, could correct the ignorance of a friend: "That's not a
ship. That's a brig." To the boy from an inland town every vessel that
sails is a ship. He feels he is being shown a new and bewildering
world when he is told that the only ship that has the right to be
called a ship is a vessel with three masts (at least), all of them
square-rigged. When once he has learned his lesson, he finds an
unaccustomed delight in wandering along the dirtiest coal-quay, and
recognising the barques by the fact that only two of their three masts
are square-rigged, and the brigs by the fact that they are
square-rigged throughout--a sort of two-masted ships. Vessels have
suddenly become as real to him in their differences as the different
sorts of common birds. As for his feelings on the day on which he can
tell for certain the upper fore topsail from the upper fore
top-gallant sail, and either of these from the fore skysail, the
crossjack, or the mizzen-royal, they are those of a man who has
mastered a language and discovers himself, to his surprise, talking it
fluently. The world of shipping has become articulate poetry to him
instead of a monotonous abracadabra.

It is as though we can know nothing of a thing until we know its name.
Can we be said to know what a pigeon is unless we know that it is a
pigeon? We may have seen it again and again, with its bottle-shoulders
and shining neck, sitting on the edge of a chimney-pot, and noted it
as a bird with a full bosom and swift wings. But if we are not able to
name it except vaguely as a "bird," we seem to be separated from it by
an immense distance of ignorance. Learn that it is a pigeon however,
and immediately it rushes towards us across the distance, like
something seen through a telescope. No doubt to the pigeon-fancier
this would seem but the first lisping of knowledge, and he would not
think much of our acquaintance with pigeons if we could not tell a
carrier from a pouter. That is the charm of knowledge--it is merely a
door into another sort of ignorance. There are always new differences
to be discovered, new names to be learned, new individualities to be
known, new classifications to be made. The world is so full of a
number of things that no man with a grain of either poetry or the
scientific spirit in him has any right to be bored, though he lived
for a thousand years. Terror or tragedy may overwhelm him, but boredom
never. The infinity of things forbids it. I once heard of a tipsy
young artist who, on his way home on a beautiful night, had his
attention called by a maudlin friend to the stars, where they twinkled
like a million larks. He raised his eyes to the heavens, then shook
his head. "There are too many of them," he complained wearily. It
should be remembered, however, that he was drunk, and that he did not
know astronomy. There could be too many stars only if they were all
turned out on the same pattern, and made the same pattern on the sky.
Fortunately, the universe is the creation not of a manufacturer but of
an artist.

There is scarcely a subject that does not contain sufficient Asias of
differences to keep an explorer happy for a lifetime. It would be easy
to do nothing but chase butterflies all one's days. It is said that
thirteen thousand species of butterflies have been already discovered,
and it is suggested that there may be nearly twice as many that have
so far escaped the naturalists. After so monstrous a figure, we are
not surprised to learn that there are sixty-eight species of
butterflies in Great Britain and Ireland. We should be astonished,
however, had we not already expended our astonishment on the larger
number. How many of us are there who could name even half-a-dozen
varieties? We all know the tortoiseshell and the white and the
blue--the little blue butterflies that flutter over the gold and red
of the cornfields. But the average man does not even know by name such
varieties as the Camberwell Beauty, the Dingy Skipper, the
Pearl-bordered Fritillary, and the White-letter Hairstreak. As for the
moth, are there not as many sorts of moths as there are words in a
dictionary? Many men give all the pleasant hours of their lives to
learning how to know the difference between one of them and another.
One used to see these moth-hunters on windless nights in a Hampstead
lane pursuing their quarry fantastically with nets in the light of the
lamps. In pursuing moths, they pursue knowledge. This, they feel, is
life at its most exciting, its most intense. They regard a man who
does not know and is not interested in the difference between one moth
and another as a man not yet thoroughly awakened from his pre-natal
sleep. And, indeed, one could not conceive a more appalling sort of
blank idiocy than the condition of a man who could not tell one thing
from another in any department of life whatever. We would rather
change lives with a jelly-fish than with such a man. This luxury of
variety was not meant to be ignored. We throw ourselves into it with
exhilaration as a swimmer plunges into the sea. There are few forms of
happiness I know which are more enviable than that of those who have
eyes for birds and flowers. How they rejoice on learning that,
according to one theory, there are a hundred and three different
species of brambles to be found in these islands! They would not have
them fewer by a single one. It is extraordinarily pleasant even for
one who is mainly ignorant of the flowers and their families to come
on two or three varieties of one flower in the course of a country
walk. As a boy, he is excited by the difference between the pin-headed
and the thrum-headed primrose. As he grows older, he scans the
roadside for little peeping things that to a lazy eye seem as like
each other as two peas--the dove's foot geranium, the round-leaved
geranium and the lesser wild geranium. "As like each other as two
peas," we have said: but _are_ two peas like each other? Who knows
whether the peas have not the same differences of feature among
themselves that Englishmen have? Half the similarities we notice are
only the results of our ignorance and idleness. The townsman passing a
field of sheep finds it difficult to believe that the shepherd can
distinguish between one and another of them with as much certainty as
if they were his children. And do not most of us think of foreigners
as beings who are all turned out as if on a pattern, like sheep? The
further removed the foreigners are from us in race the more they seem
to us to be like each other. When we speak of negroes, we think of
millions of people most of whom look exactly alike. We feel much the
same about Chinamen and even Turks. Probably to a Chinaman all English
children look exactly alike, and it may be that all Europeans seem to
him to be as indistinguishable as sticks of barley-sugar. How many
people think of Jews in this way! I have heard an Englishman
expressing his wonder that Jewish parents should be able to pick out
their own children in a crowd of Jewish boys and girls.

Thus our first generalisations spring from ignorance rather than from
knowledge. They are true, so long as we know that they are not
entirely true. As soon as we begin to accept them as absolute truths,
they become lies. One of the perils of a great war is that it revives
the passionate faith of the common man in generalisations. He begins
to think that all Germans are much the same, or that all Americans are
much the same, or that all Conscientious Objectors are much the same.
In each case he imagines a lay figure rather than a human being. He
may hate his lay figure or he may like it; but, if he is in search of
truth, he had better throw the thing out of the window and try to
think about a human being instead. I do not wish to deny the
importance of generalisations. It is not possible to think or even to
act without them. The generalisation that is founded on a knowledge of
and a delight in the variety of things is the end of all science and
poetry. Keats said that he sought the principle of beauty in all
things, and poems are in a sense simply beautiful generalisations.
They subject the unclassified and chaotic facts of life to the order
of beauty. The mystic, meditating on the One and the Many, is also in
pursuit of a generalisation--the perfect generalisation of the
universe. And what is science but the attempt to arrange in a series
of generalisations the facts of what we are vain enough to call the
known world? To know the resemblances of things is even more important
than to know the differences of things. Indeed, if we are not
interested in the former, our pleasure in the latter is a mere
scrap-book pleasure. If we are not interested in the latter, on the
other hand, our sense of the former is apt to degenerate into
guesswork and assertion and empty phrases. Shakespeare is greater than
all the other poets because he, more than anybody else, knew how very
like human beings are to each other and because he, more than anybody
else, knew how very unlike human beings are to each other. He was
master of the particular as well as of the universal. How much poorer
the world would have been if he had not been so in regard not only to
human beings but to the very flowers--if he had not been able to tell
the difference between fennel and fumitory, between the violet and the
gillyflower!




IX



THE INTELLECTUAL SIDE OF HORSE-RACING


Horse-racing--or, at least, betting--is one of the few crafts that are
looked down on by practically everybody who does not take part in it.
"It's a mug's game," people say. Even betting men talk like this.
There is a street called Mug's Row in a north of England town: it is
so called because the houses in it were built by a bookmaker. Whether
it was the bookmaker or his victims that gave the street its name I do
not know. To call a bookmaker a mug would seem to most people an abuse
of language. Yet the only bookmaker I have ever really known used to
confess himself a mug in the most penitent fashion. He was a mug,
however, not because he could not make money, but because he could not
keep it. The poor of his suburb, when in difficulties, he declared,
used always to come to him instead of going to the clergy, and he was
unable to refuse them. But then he was bitter against the clergy. As a
young man, he had been a Sunday school teacher, and so far as I could
gather, he might have gone on being a Sunday school teacher till the
present day if he had not suddenly been assailed with doubts one
Sabbath afternoon as he expounded the story of David and Goliath.
Whether it was that he looked on David as having taken an
unsportsmanlike advantage of the giant or whether he doubted that so
much could be done with such little stones, he did not make quite
clear. Anyhow, from that day on, he never believed in revealed
religion. He quarrelled with his clergyman. He broke the Sabbath. He
began to drink beer and to go to race-meetings. He rapidly rose from
the position of carpenter to that of bookmaker, and, were it not for
his infernal gift of charity, he would probably now be driving his own
car and be hall-marked with a Coalition title. Even as it was, he was
much more prosperous than any carpenter. Whenever he produced money,
it was in pocketfuls and handfuls. Strange that a bookmaker, who by
his trade must be accustomed to miracles, should find it difficult to
believe in David and Goliath. He was possibly a man who betted on
form, and on form Goliath should undoubtedly have won. David was an
outsider. He had no breeding. He would have been surprised if he could
have foreseen how his victory would rankle some thousands of years
later in the soul of an honest English bookmaker.

It is, however, just these matters of form and breeding that raise
horse-racing and betting above the intellectual level of a game of
nap. Betting men who ignore these things are as unintellectual as the
average novelist. There are some, for instance, who shut their eyes
and bring down a pin or a pencil on a list of names of the horses, in
the hope that in this way they may discover a winner. No doubt they
may. It is perhaps as good a way as any other. But there is something
trivial in such methods. This is mere gambling for the sake of
excitement. There is no more fundamental brainwork in it than in a
game I saw being played in a railway carriage the other day, when a
man drew a handful of coins from his pocket and bet his friend
half-a-sovereign that there would be more heads than tails lying
uppermost. This is a game at which it is possible to lose five pounds
in two minutes. It is the sort of game to which a betting man will
resort when _in extremis_, but only then. The ruling passion is
strong, however. I have a friend who on one occasion went into retreat
in a Catholic monastery. Two well-known bookmakers had also gone into
temporary retreat for the good of their souls. My friend told me that
even during the religious services the bookmakers used to bet as to
which of the monks would stand up first at the conclusion of a prayer,
and that in the solemn hush of the worship he would suddenly hear a
hoarse whisper: "Two to one on Brownie"--a brother with hair of that
colour--and the answer: "I take you, Joe." I have even heard of men
betting as to which of two raindrops on a window-pane will reach the
bottom first. It is possible to bet on cats, rats or flies. Calvinists
do not bet, because they believe that everything that happens is a
certainty. The extreme betting man is no Calvinist, however. He
believes that most things are accidents, and the rest catastrophes.
Hence his philosophy is almost always that of Epicurus. To him every
day is a new day, at the end of which it is his aim to be able to say,
like Horace, _Vixi_, or, as the text ought perhaps to read, _Vici_.

The intellectual betting man, on the other hand, has a position
somewhere between the extremes of Calvinism and Epicureanism. He
worships neither certainty nor chance. He reckons up probabilities.
When Mr Asquith picked out Spion Kop as the winner of the Derby, he
did so because he went about the business of selection not with a pin
or a pencil, but with one of the best brains in England. In the course
of his long conflicts with the House of Lords he had probably
interested himself somewhat profoundly in questions of heredity and
pedigree, and he was thus well equipped for an investigation into the
records of the parentage and grandparentage of the various Derby
horses. All that the ordinary casual better knows about Spion Kop is
that he is the son of Spearmint, which won the Derby in 1906. This,
however, would not alone make him an obviously better horse than
Orpheus, whose sire, Orby, won the Derby in 1907. The student of
breeding must be a feminist, who pays as much attention to the female
as to the male line. It was by the study of the female line that the
most cunning of the sporting journalists were able to eliminate
Tetratema from the list of probable winners. Tetratema, as son of the
Tetrarch, was excellently fathered for staying the mile-and-a-half
course at Epsom. More than this, as a writer in _The Sportsman_
pointed out: "The Tetrarch himself is by Roi Herode, a fine stayer,
and his maternal grand-dam was by Hagioscope, who rarely failed to
transmit stamina." It is when we turn to Tetratema's mother, Scotch
Gift--or is it his grandmother something else?--apparently, that we
discover his hereditary vice. This mare our journalist exposed to
scathing and searching criticism, and concluded that "there can be
nothing unreasonable in the inference, based on the records of this
family, that the chances are against a Derby winner having descended
from the least distinguished of ... four sisters." Even so, however,
the writer a few sentences later abjures Calvinism, and denies that
there is anything certain in what he calls breeding problems. "It
seemed," he writes, "wildly improbable at one time that Flying Duchess
would produce a Derby winner, for I believe it is correct that two of
Galopin's elder brothers ran in a bus, and there were two others quite
useless So, on the face of it, the chances were against Galopin, the
youngest brother." I quote these passages as evidence of the immense
demand the serious pursuit of horse-racing puts on the intellect. The
betting man must be as well versed in precedents as a lawyer and in
genealogical trees as a historian. At school, I always found the
genealogical trees the most difficult and bewildering part of history.
Yet the genealogical tree of a king is a simple matter compared to
that of a horse. All you have to learn about a king is the names of
his relations: regarding a horse, however, you must know not only the
names but the character, staying power and domestic virtues of every
male and female with whom he is connected during several generations.
If a man spent as much labour in disentangling the cousinship of the
royal families of ancient Egypt, he would be venerated as a scholar in
five continents. Oxford and Cambridge would shower degrees on him. Sir
William Sutherland would get him a place on the Civil List. Hence it
seems to me that tipping the winners is not, as is too often regarded,
"anybody's job": it is work that should be undertaken only by men of
powerful mind. No man should be allowed to qualify as a tipster unless
he has taken a degree at one of the Universities. The ideal tipster
would at once be a great historian a great antiquary, a great
zoologist, a great mathematician, and a man of profound common-sense.
It is no accident that an ex-Prime Minister was one of the few
Englishmen to spot the winner of the Derby of 1920. Mr Asquith must
have gone patiently through all Spion Kop's relations, weighing up the
chances whether it was an accident or owing to the weather that such
an one fifteen years ago was beaten by a neck in a six-furlong race,
studying incidents in every one of their careers, seeing that none of
them had ever had a great-uncle a bus-horse, bringing out a table of
logarithms to decide difficult points.... We need not be surprised
that there are fewer great tipsters than great poets. Shakespeare
alone has given us a portrait of the perfect tipster--"looking before
and after ... in apprehension how like a god!"

It is perhaps, however, when we leave questions of breeding and come
to those of form, that we realise most fully the amazing
intellectualism of the betting life. In the study of form we are faced
by problems that can be solved only by the higher algebra. Thus, if
Jehoshaphat, carrying 7 st., ran third to Jezebel, carrying 8 st. 4
lb., in a mile race, and Jezebel, carrying 8 st. 4 lb., was beaten by
a neck by Woman and Wine, carrying 7 st. 9 lb., over a mile and a
quarter, and Woman and Wine, carrying 8 st. 1 lb., was beaten by Tom
Thumb, carrying 9 st. in a mile 120 yds., and Tom Thumb, carrying 9
st. 7 lb., was beaten by Jehoshaphat over seven furlongs, we have to
calculate what chance Tom Thumb has of beating Jezebel in a race of a
mile and a half on a wet day. There are men to whom such calculations
may come easy. To Mr Asquith they are probably child's play. For
myself, I shrink from them and, if I were a betting man, would no
doubt in sheer desperation be driven back on the method of pin and
pencil. But it is obvious that the sincere betting man has to make
such calculations daily. Every morning the student of form finds his
sporting page full of such lists as the following:--

     0 0 0 CONCLUSIVE (7-5), Kroonstad-Conclusion. 8th of 9 to
     Poltava (gave 17lb.) Gatwick May (6f) and 7th of 19 to
     Orby's Pride (rec 4lb) Kempton May (5f).

     3 3 3 RAPIERE (7-4), Sunder--Gourouli. Lost 3-4 length and 3
     lengths to Bantry (gave 2lb) and Marcia (rec 7lb) Newmarket
     May (1m), GOLDEN GUINEA (gave 20lb) not in first 9. See
     BLACK JESS.

     0 0 4 ROYAL BLUE (7-0), Prince Palatine--China Blue. See
     NORTHERN LIGHT.

     0 2 0 BLACK JESS (6-11), Black Jester--Diving Bell. Not in
     first 4 to St Corentin (gave 121b) Lingfield last week (7f).
     Here Ap. (7f) lost 3 lengths to Victory Speech (rec 1lb),
     RAPIERE (gave 13lb, favourite) ½ length off.

     0 LLAMA (6-11), Isard II.--Laughing Mirror. Nowhere to
     Silver Jug (gave 15lb) Newbury Ap. (7f).

Is not a page of Thucydides simpler? Is Persius himself more succinct
or obscure? Our teachers used to apologise for teaching us Latin
grammar and mathematics by telling us that they were good mental
gymnastics. If education is only a matter of mental gymnastics,
however, I should recommend horse-racing as an ideal study for young
boys and girls. The sole objection to it is that it is so engrossing;
it might absorb the whole energies of the child. The safety of Latin
grammar lies in its dullness. No child is tempted by it into
forgetting that there are other duties in life besides mental
gymnastics. Horse-racing, on the other hand, comes into our lives with
the effect of a religious conversion. It is the greatest monopolist
among the pleasures. It affects men's conversation. It affects their
entire outlook. The betting man's is a dedicated life. Even books have
a new meaning for him. _The Ring and the Book_--it is his one and only
epic. And it is the most intellectual of epics. That is my point.




X



WHY WE HATE INSECTS


It has been said that the characteristic sound of summer is the hum of
insects, as the characteristic sound of spring is the singing of
birds. It is all the more curious that the word "insect" conveys to us
an implication of ugliness. We think of spiders, of which many people
are more afraid than of Germans. We think of bugs and fleas, which
seem so indecent in their lives that they are made a jest by the
vulgar and the nice people do their best to avoid mentioning them. We
think of blackbeetles scurrying into safety as the kitchen light is
suddenly turned on--blackbeetles which (so we are told) in the first
place are not beetles, and in the second place are not black. There
are some women who will make a face at the mere name of any of these
creatures. Those of us who have never felt this repulsion--at least,
against spiders and blackbeetles--cannot but wonder how far it is
natural. Is it born in certain people, or is it acquired like the
old-fashioned habit of swooning and the fear of mice? The nearest I
have come to it is a feeling of disgust when I have seen a cat
retrieving a blackbeetle just about to escape under a wall and making
a dish of it. There are also certain crawling creatures which are so
notoriously the children of filth and so threatening in their touch
that we naturally shrink from them. Burns may make merry over a louse
crawling in a lady's hair, but few of us can regard its kind with
equanimity even on the backs of swine. Men of science deny that the
louse is actually engendered by dirt, but it undoubtedly thrives on
it. Our anger against the flea also arises from the fact that we
associate it with dirt. Donne once wrote a poem to a lady who had been
bitten by the same flea as himself, arguing that this was a good
reason why she should allow him to make love to her. It is, and was
bound to be, a dirty poem. Love, even of the wandering and polygynous
kind, does not express itself in such images. Only while under the
dominion of the youthful heresy of ugliness could a poet pretend that
it did. The flea, according to the authorities, is "remarkable for its
powers of leaping, and nearly cosmopolitan." Even so, it has found no
place in the heart or fancy of man. There have been men who were
indifferent to fleas, but there have been none who loved them, though
if my memory does not betray me there was a famous French prisoner
some years ago who beguiled the tedium of his cell by making a pet and
a performer of a flea. For the world at large, the flea represents
merely hateful irritation. Mr W.B. Yeats has introduced it into poetry
in this sense in an epigram addressed "to a poet who would have me
praise certain bad poets, imitators of his and of mine":

     You say as I have often given tongue
     In praise of what another's said or sung,
     'Twere politic to do the like by these,
     But where's the wild dog that has praised his fleas?

When we think of the sufferings of human beings and animals at the
hands--if that is the right word--of insects, we feel that it is
pardonable enough to make faces at creatures so inconsiderate. But
what strikes one as remarkable is that the insects that do man most
harm are not those that horrify him most. A lady who will sit bravely
while a wasp hangs in the air and inspects first her right and then
her left temple will run a mile from a harmless spider. Another will
remain collected (though murderous) in presence of a horse-fly, but
will shudder at sight of a moth that is innocent of blood. Our fears,
it is evident, do not march in all respects with our sense of physical
danger. There are insects that make us feel that we are in presence of
the uncanny. Many of us have this feeling about moths. Moths are the
ghosts of the insect world. It may be the manner in which they flutter
in unheralded out of the night that terrifies us. They seem to tap
against our lighted windows as though the outer darkness had a message
for us. And their persistence helps to terrify. They are more
troublesome than a subject nation. They are more importunate than the
importunate widow. But they are most terrifying of all if one suddenly
sees their eyes blazing crimson as they catch the light. One thinks of
nocturnal rites in an African forest temple and of terrible jewels
blazing in the head of an evil goddess--jewels to be stolen, we
realise, by a foolish white man, thereafter to be the object of a
vendetta in a sensational novel. One feels that one's hair would be
justified in standing on end, only that hair does not do such things.
The sight of a moth's eye is, I fancy, a rare one for most people. It
is a sight one can no more forget than a house on fire. Our feelings
towards moths being what they are, it is all the more surprising that
superstition should connect the moth so much less than the butterfly
with the world of the dead. Who save a cabbage-grower has any feeling
against butterflies? And yet in folk-lore it is to the butterfly
rather than to the moth that is assigned the ghostly part. In Ireland
they have a legend about a priest who had not believed that men had
souls, but, on being converted, announced that a living thing would be
seen soaring up from his body when he died--in proof that his earlier
scepticism had been wrong. Sure enough, when he lay dead, a beautiful
creature "with four snow-white wings" rose from his body and fluttered
round his head. "And this," we are told, "was the first butterfly that
was ever seen in Ireland; and now all men know that the butterflies
are the souls of the dead waiting for the moment when they may enter
Purgatory." In the Solomon Islands, they say, it used to be the
custom, when a man was about to die, for him to announce that he was
about to transmigrate into a butterfly or some other creature. The
members of his family, on meeting a butterfly afterwards, would
exclaim: "This is papa," and offer him a coco-nut. The members of an
English family in like circumstances would probably say: "Have a
banana." In certain tribes of Assam the dead are believed to return in
the shape of butterflies or house-flies, and for this reason no one
will kill them. On the other hand, in Westphalia the butterfly plays
the part given to the scapegoat in other countries, and on St Peter's
Day, in February, it is publicly expelled with rhyme and ritual.
Elsewhere, as in Samoa--I do not know where I found all these
facts--probably in _The Golden Bough_--the butterfly has been feared
as a god, and to catch a butterfly was to run the risk of being struck
dead. The moth, for all I know, may be the centre of as many legends
but I have not met them. It may be, however, that in many of the
legends the moth and the butterfly are not very clearly distinguished.
To most of us it seems easy enough to distinguish between them; the
English butterfly can always be known, for instance, by his clubbed
horns. But this distinction does not hold with regard to the entire
world of butterflies--a world so populous and varied that thirteen
thousand species have already been discovered, and entomologists hope
one day to classify twice as many more. Even in these islands, indeed,
most of us do not judge a moth chiefly by its lack of clubbed horns.
It is for us the thing that flies by night and eats holes in our
clothes. We are not even afraid of it in all circumstances. Our terror
is an indoors terror. We are on good terms with it in poetry, and play
with the thought of

     The desire of the moth for the star.

We remember that it is for the moths that the pallid jasmine smells so
sweetly by night. There is no shudder in our minds when we read:

     And when white moths were on the wing,
       And moth-like stars were flickering out,
     I dropped the berry in a stream,
       And caught a little silver trout.

No man has ever sung of spiders or earwigs or any other of our pet
antipathies among the insects like that. The moth is the only one of
the insects that fascinates us with both its beauty and its terror.

I doubt if there have ever been greater hordes of insects in this
country than during the past spring. It is the only complaint one has
to make against the sun. He is a desperate breeder of insects. And he
breeds them not in families like a Christian but in plagues. The
thought of the insects alone keeps us from envying the tropics their
blue skies and hot suns. Better the North Pole than a plague of
locusts. We fear the tarantula and have no love for the tse-tse fly.
The insects of our own climate are bad enough in all conscience. The
grasshopper, they say, is a murderer, and, though the earwig is a
perfect mother, other insects, such as the burying-beetle, have the
reputation of parricides, But, dangerous or not, the insects are for
the most part teasers and destroyers. The greenfly makes its colonies
in the rose, a purple fellow swarms under the leaves of the apples,
and another scoundrel, black as the night, swarms over the beans.
There are scarcely more diseases in the human body than there are
kinds of insects in a single fruit tree. The apple that is rotten
before it is ripe is an insect's victim, and, if the plums fall green
and untimely in scores upon the ground, once more it is an insect that
has been at work among them. Talk about German spies! Had German spies
gone to the insect world for a lesson, they might not have been the
inefficient bunglers they showed themselves to be. At the same time,
most of us hate spies and insects for the same reason. We regard them
as noxious creatures intruding where they have no right to be, preying
upon us and giving us nothing but evil in return. Hence our
ruthlessness. We say: "Vermin," and destroy them. To regard a human
being as an insect is always the first step in treating him without
remorse. It is a perilous attitude and in general is more likely to
beget crime than justice. There has never, I believe, been an empire
built in which, at some stage or other, a massacre of children among a
revolting population has not been excused on the ground that "nits
make lice." "Swat that Bolshevik," no doubt, seems to many
reactionaries as sanitary a counsel as "Swat that fly." Even in regard
to flies, however, most of us can only swat with scruple. Hate flies
as we may, and wish them in perdition as we may, we could not slowly
pull them to pieces, wing after wing and leg after leg, as thoughtless
children are said to do. Many of us cannot endure to see them slowly
done to death on those long strips of sticky paper on which the flies
drag their legs and their lives out--as it seems to me, a vile
cruelty. A distinguished novelist has said that to watch flies trying
to tug their legs off the paper one after another till they are twice
their natural length is one of his favourite amusements. I have never
found any difficulty in believing it of him. It is an odd fact that
considerateness, if not actually kindness, to flies has been made one
of the tests of gentleness in popular speech. How often has one heard
it said in praise of a dead man: "He wouldn't have hurt a fly!" As for
those who do hurt flies, we pillory them in history. We have never
forgotten the cruelty of Domitian. "At the beginning of his reign,"
Suetonius tells us "he used to spend hours in seclusion every day,
doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly sharpened
stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked whether anyone was in
there with Cæsar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply: 'Not even a
fly.'" And just as most of us are on the side of the fly against
Domitian, so are most of us on the side of the fly against the spider.
We pity the fly as (if the image is permissible) the underdog. One of
the most agonising of the minor dilemmas in which a too sensitive
humanitarian ever finds himself is whether he should destroy a
spider's web, and so, perhaps, starve the spider to death, or whether
he should leave the web, and so connive at the death of a multitude of
flies. I have long been content to leave Nature to her own ways in
such matters. I cannot say that I like her in all her processes, but I
am content to believe that this may be owing to my ignorance of some
of the facts of the case. There are, on the other hand, two acts of
destruction in Nature which leave me unprotesting and pleased. One of
these occurs when a thrush eats a snail, banging the shell repeatedly
against a stone. I have never thought of the incident from the snail's
point of view. I find myself listening to the tap-tap of the shell on
the stone as though it were music. I felt the same sort of mild thrill
of pleasure the other day when I found a beautiful spotted ladybird
squeezing itself between two apples and settling down to feed on some
kind of aphides that were eating into the fruit. The ladybird, the
butterfly, and the bee--who would put chains upon such creatures?
These are insects that must have been in Eden before the snake.
Beelzebub, the god of the other insects, had not yet any engendering
power on the earth in those days, when all the flowers were as strange
as insects and all the insects were as beautiful as flowers.




XI



VIRTUE


There is grave danger of a revival of virtue in this country. There
are, I know, two kinds of virtue, and only one of them is a vice
Unfortunately, it is the latter a revival of which is threatened
to-day. This is the virtue of the virtuously indignant. It is virtue
that is not content merely to be virtuous to the glory of God. It has
no patience with the simple beauty and goodness of the saints. Virtue,
in the eyes of the virtuously indignant, is hardly worthy to be called
virtue unless it goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom it may
devour. Virtue, according to this view, is a detective, inquisitor,
and flagellator of the vices--especially of the vices that are so
unpopular that the mob may be easily persuaded to attack them. One of
the chief differences between the two kinds of virtue, I fancy, is
that while true virtue regards the mob-spirit as an enemy, simular
virtue (if we may adopt the Shakespearean phrase) looks to the mob as
its cousin and its ally. To be virtuous in the latter sense is
obviously as easy as hunting rats or cats. Virtue of this kind is
simply the eternal huntsman in man's breast with eyes aglint for a
victim. It is Mr Murdstone's virtue--the persecutor's virtue. It is
the virtue that warms the bosom of every man who is more furious with
his neighbour's sins than with his own. If virtue is merely an
inflammation against our neighbour's sins, what man on earth is so
mean as to be incapable of it? To be virtuous in this fashion is as
easy as lying. Those who abstain from it do so not out of lack of
heart, but from choice. We have read of the popularity of the
ducking-stool in former days for women taken in adultery. Savage mobs
may have thought that by putting their hearts into this amusement they
were making up to virtue for the long years of neglect to which, as
individuals, they had subjected her. They might not have been virtue's
lovers, but at least they could be virtue's bullies. After all, virtue
itself is no bad sport, when chasing, kicking, thumping, and yelling
are made the chief part of the game. Sending dogs coursing after a
hare is nothing to it. Man's enjoyment of the chase never rises to the
finest point of ecstasy save when his victim is a human being. Man's
inhumanity to man, says the poet, makes countless thousands mourn. But
think also of the countless thousands that it makes rejoice! We should
always remember that the Crucifixion was an exceedingly popular event,
and in no quarter more so than among the virtuously indignant. It
would probably never have taken place had it not been for the close
alliance between the virtuously indignant and the mob.

To be fair to the virtuously indignant and the mob, they do not insist
beyond reason that their victim shall be a bad man. Good hunting may
be had even among the saints, and who does not enjoy the spectacle of
a citizen distinguished mainly for his unblemished character being
dragged down into the dust? We have no reason to believe that the
people who were burned during the Inquisition were worse than their
neighbours, yet the mob, we are told, used to gather enthusiastically
and dance round the flames. The destructive instincts of the mob are
such that in certain moods it is ready to destroy any kind of man,
just as the destructive instincts of a puppy are such that in certain
moods it is ready to destroy any sort of book--whether Smiles's
_Self-Help_ or _Mademoiselle de Maupin_ is a matter of perfect
indifference. The virtuously indignant maintain their power by
constantly inciting and feeding this appetite for destruction. Hence,
when we feel virtuously indignant, we would do well to inquire of
ourselves if that is the limit and Z of our virtue. Have we no sins of
our own to amend that we have all this time for barking and biting at
the vices of our neighbours? And if we must attack the sins of our
fellows, would it not be the more heroic course to begin with those we
are most tempted by, instead of those to which we have no mind? Do not
let the drunkard feel virtuous because he is able with an undivided
heart to denounce simony, and do not let the forger, who happens to be
a teetotaller because of the weakness of his stomach, be too
virtuously indignant at the red-nosed patron of the four-ale bar. Any
of us can achieve virtue, if by virtue we merely mean the avoidance of
the vices that do not attract us. Most of us can boast than we have
never been cruel to a hippopotamus or had dealings with a succubus or
taken a bribe of a million pounds to betray a friend. On these points
we can look forward with perfect confidence to the scrutiny of the Day
of Judgment. I fear, however, the Recording Angel is likely to devote
such little space as he can afford to each of us to the vices we have
rather than to the vices we have not. Even Charles Peace would have
been acquitted if he had been accused of brawling in church instead of
murder. Hence it is to be hoped that passengers in railway trains will
not remain content with gloating down upon the unappetising sins of
which the forty-seven thousand are accused by Mr Pemberton Billing.
Steep and perilous is the ascent of virtue, and the British public may
well be grateful to Mr Billing and Mr Bottomley if they help it with
voice or outstretched hand to climb to the snowy summits. So far as
can be seen, however, all that Mr Billing and Mr Bottomley do is to
interrupt the British public in its upward climb and orate to it on
the monstrous vices of the Cities of the Plain. This may be an
agreeable diversion for weary men, but it obviously involves the
neglect of virtue, not the pursuit of it. Most people imagine that to
pursue vice is to pursue virtue. But the wisdom of the ages tells us
that the only thing to do to vice is to fly from it. Lot's wife was a
lady who looked round once too often to see what was happening to the
forty-seven thousand. Let Mr Billing and Mr Bottomley beware. Their
interest in the Cities of the Plain will turn them into pillars of
salt a thousand years before it turns them into pillars of society.

As for virtue, then, how is it to be achieved? Merely by blackening
the rest of the world, we cannot hope to make ourselves white. Modern
writers tell us that we cannot make ourselves white even by blackening
ourselves. They denounce the sense of sin as a sin, and tell us that
there is nothing of which we should repent except repentance. We need
not stay to discuss this point. We know well enough that, so long as
the human intellect (to leave the human conscience out of the
question) survives, men will be burdened with the sense of
imperfection and think enviously of the nobility of Epaminondas or
Julius Cæsar or St Francis of Assisi. For we have to count even Julius
Cæsar among the virtuous, though the scandalmongers would not have it
so. His vices may have made him bald and brought about his
assassination. But he had the heroic virtues--courage and generosity
and freedom from vindictiveness. When we read how he wept at the death
of his great enemy, and how "from the man who brought him Pompey's
head he turned away with loathing, as from an assassin," we bow before
the nobility of his character and realise that he was something more
than a stern man and an adulterer. Pompey, too, had this gift of
virtue--this capacity for turning away from foul means of besting his
enemies. When he had captured Perpenna in Spain, the latter offered
him a magnificent story of a plot, the knowledge of which would have
put the lives of many leading Romans in his power. "Perpenna, who had
come into possession of the papers of Sertorius, offered," says
Plutarch, "to produce letters from the chief men of Rome, who had
desired to subvert the existing order and change the form of
government, and had therefore invited Sertorius into Italy. Pompey,
therefore, fearing that this might stir up greater wars than those now
ended, put Perpenna to death and burned the letters without even
reading them." It was hard on Perpenna, but in burning the letters at
least Pompey gave us an example of virtue. It is Plutarch's feeling
for the beauty of such noble actions that has made his biographies a
primer of virtue for all time. None of his heroes are primarily "good"
men. There is scarcely one of them who could have been canonised by
any Church. They have enough of the weaknesses of flesh and blood to
satisfy even the most exacting novelist of these days. On the other
hand, they nearly all had that capacity for grandeur of conduct which
distinguishes the noble man from the base. Plutarch never pretends
that mean and filthy motives and generous motives do not jostle one
another strangely in the same breast, but his portraits of great men
give us the feeling that we are in presence of men redeemed by their
virtues rather than utterly destroyed by their vices. Suetonius, on
the other hand, is the historian of the forty-seven thousand. His book
may be recommended as scandalmongering--hardly as an aid to virtue.
Here we have the servants' evidence of Roman history, the plots and
the secret vices. Suetonius, fortunately, has the grace not to write
as though in narrating his story of vice he were performing a virtuous
act. If we are to have stories of fashionable sinners, let us at least
have them naked and not dressed up in the language of outraged virtue.
Scandal is sufficiently entertaining by itself. There is no need to
lace it with self-righteousness.




XII



JUNE


There is always a cuckoo that stays out later than the other
cuckoos....

Two goldfinches came and sang in the catalpa-tree in the garden....

It is difficult to decide with which sentence to begin. There are so
many pleasures. The goldfinches have not come back again, however.
They and the faint blue flowers of the catalpa turned a sinister
growth for an interval into a small Paradise of colour and song. Then
the flowers fell. They had no more life than snow in May. Coming as
they did at the end of years of barrenness, they astonished one like
the blossoming of the Rose of Sharon. But now the bough is dark and
sinister and melancholy again. Sparrows squabble over their love
affairs in it. The, cuckoo that stays out later than the other cuckoos
is the triumphant survivor.

Not that there is much to be said even for him as a model of
continuance. His note will soon change. He will become hoarse and only
half-articulate. He will cease to be the flying echo of the mystery of
skies and wood at dawn and in the still evening. The disreputable bat,
whose little wings flutter half visibly like waves of heat rising
above a stove, will outlast him.

There is no getting beyond the old image of things in general as a
stream that disappears. The flowers and the birds come in tides that
sweep over the world and in a moment are lost like a broken wave. The
lilacs filled with purple; laburnum followed, and in a few days all
the gold ebbed, and nothing was left but a drift of withered blossoms
on the ground; then came the acacia-flowers, white as the morning
among the cool green plumage of the tree, and now they, too, have been
turned into dirtiness and deserted foam. And in the hedges change has
been as swift, as merciless--change so imperceptible in what it is
doing, so manifest in what it has done. The white blossoms of the sloe
gave place to the foam of the hawthorn and the flat clusters of the
wayfaring-tree; now in its turn has come the flood of the
elder-flowers, a flood of commonness, and June on the roads would
hardly be beautiful were it not for the roses that settle, delicate
and fleeting as butterflies, on the long and crooked briers. Perhaps
one has not the right to say of any flower or any bird that it is not
beautiful Even elder-flowers, seen at a distance, can give
cheerfulness to a roadside. But, if we have to pick and choose among
flowers, there are many who will give the lowest prize to the flowers
that have been compared to umbrellas--elder-flowers, cow's parsley,
hemlock, and the rest. These are the plebeians of the hedges and
ditches. They have the air of something useful. One would imagine they
were intended to be cooked and eaten in cheap restaurants. We
experience no lifting of the heart at sight of them. We should be
surprised to hear the abrupt ecstasy of a wren issuing from among
their leaves. And yet it is hardly a week since, walking in a Sussex
lane, I saw a long procession of cow's parsley on the top of a high
bank silhouetted against the twilight sky. There seemed never to have
been more exquisite flowers. They had captured the silver of evening
as in a net.

There are many flowers that seem ugly to an indifferent eye. Even the
red valerian, that sprouts so boldly in bushes of coral from the top
of the wall, is regarded by some people as a weed and an impudent
intruder. For myself, I love the spectacle of stone walls breaking out
into flower with red valerian and ivy-leaved toad-flax. The country
people have greeted these flowers with comic and friendly names.
Valerian they call "drunken sailor," and the ivy-leaved toad-flax that
blossoms in a thousand tiny blue butterflies from the stones has (so
prolific it is) been given the nickname of "mother of thousands." I
doubt, however, whether the country people have as many fanciful names
for the flowers as they are represented as having in the books. When
Mr W.H. Hudson first came on winter heliotrope in Cornwall, and was
attracted by its meadow-sweet smell at a season when there were few
other flowers, he was told by a countryman that it was called simply
"weed." Countrymen, if they are asked the name of a flower, will often
say that they do not know, but that they call it so-and-so. A small
boy who was gathering green-stuffs for his rabbits came up and walked
beside me the other day, and, on being shown some goose-grass, and
asked what name he knew it by, said: "I don't know its name; we calls
it 'cleavers.'" In my childhood, I never heard it called by any other
name than "robin-run-the-hedge," and under that name alone am I
attracted by it. "Cleavers" is too reminiscent of a butcher's yard or
of some dull tool. "Goose-grass" at least fills the imagination with
the picture of a bird. But "robin-run-the-hedge" is better, for it is
an image of wild adventure. It will be a pity if the tradition of
picturesque names for flowers is allowed to die. The kidney-vetch, a
long yellow claw of a flower that looks withered even at birth, may
not deserve a prettier name, but at least it is possible to give it an
ugly name with more interesting associations. "Staunch" is an older
name that reminds us that the flower was, a few generations ago, used
to staunch wounds. The other name, it is suggested, had its origin in
the supposed excellence of the plant in curing diseases of the kidney.

But there seem to be no grounds for believing this. There are,
unfortunately, some beautiful flowers for which no beautiful or even
expressive name has ever been invented. Who is there who, coming on
the blue scabious on a hill near the sea, is not conscious of the
gross failure of the human race in never having found anything but
this name out of a dustbin for one of the most charming of flowers?
Matthew Arnold, appalled by some of the names of human beings that
still flourished in the days of Victoria, and may for all I know be
flourishing to-day, once hoped to turn us into Hellenists by declaring
that there was "no Wragg on the Ilissus." Was there no "scabious" on
the Ilissus either, I wonder? Were I a flower of the field, I should
prefer to be called "nose-bleed" or "sow-thistle." On the whole,
however, the plants have little to complain of in the matter of names.
The milkwort that has been scattering its fine, delicate colours among
the short grasses of the bare hills deserves its beautiful name,
"grace of God." We think of it as the sprigging of a divine mantle
cast over the June world. The greater plantain, that after the recent
rain has come out on the hills, with a ruff of purple feathers round
its brown cone, neither deserves nor possesses a name connoting
sacredness. It is interesting mainly as a plant that somehow became
associated with the voyages and travels of Englishmen, and is known in
America as "Englishman's foot," because, wherever the Englishman goes,
the plant follows him.

The riot of the spring flowers is already passing, however. As we walk
along the path through the corn, we find the wild mustard, that a few
weeks ago made a steep field blaze like a precinct of the sun, already
withering into a mass of green pods; and the hay in the valley has
been cut down with all its crimson clover. The smell of the tossed
hay, as we pass, sends back the memory into an older world. How is it
that sweet smells do not please us so much for what they are as for
the things of which they remind us? At the smell of hay newly stacked
we cease to be our present age; we are in a world as distant as that
of Theocritus. There is no ambition in it, no tears or taxes, no men
and women pretending, nothing that is not happy. Every scent is sweet,
every sound is a laugh or a bird's song. Every man and woman and
animal we behold is more interesting than if they had come out of a
Noah's Ark. Smell has been described as the most sensual of the
senses. It may be so, but it is surely also the sense that is most
closely related to the memory. Old landscapes, old happinesses old
gardens, old people, come to life again--at times, almost unbearably
so--with the smell of wallflower or hay or the sea. It may be,
however, that this is not a universal experience. Some of us, no
doubt, live more in our memories than others: it is our doom.

Even we, however, are sensualists of the open air, and the spectacle
of the wind foaming among the leaves of the oak and elm can easily
make us forget all but the present. The blue hills in the distance
when rain is about, the grey arras of wet that advances over the
plain, the whitethroat that sings or rather scolds above the hedge as
he dances on the wing, the tree-pipit--or is it another bird?--that
sinks down to the juniper-tip through a honey of music, a rough sea
seen in the distance, half shine, half scowl--any of these things may
easily cut us off from history and from hope and immure us in the
present hour. Or may they? Or do these things too not leave us
home-sick, discontented, gloomy--gloomy if it is only because we are
not nearly so gloomy as we ought to be?




XIII



ON FEELING GAY


Gaiety has come back at least to parts of London. There never were
greater crowds of people eating with bottles at their sides in public
places. On the whole, however, there has been little down-heartedness
at the restaurants during the past four and a half years Even while
the housewife in the red-brick street was wasting her mornings in the
patient vigil of the queue, only to find at the end of it that there
was no butter, no lard, no tea, no jam, no golden syrup, no prunes, no
potatoes, no currants, no olive oil, or whatever it might be she
wanted most, the restaurants never shut their doors as the grocers'
shops and the confectioners' sometimes did. When rationing came, one
could eat the greater part of the week's beef allowance at a single
meal in the home, but in a restaurant one could get four excellent
meat meals--in some restaurants even eight excellent meals--in return
for a week's coupons. There were, no doubt, parts of the country in
which the housewife was hardly more restricted than the diner-out in
restaurants. Travellers came back from places in Dorsetshire,
Gloucestershire, and Scotland, as from Ireland, with gorgeous
narratives of areas in which the King's writ did not run so far as
coupons were concerned and beef was free if only you paid for it. But
in London, and especially in the Home Counties, there was no such
reign of liberty. The housewife went shopping, as it were, on
ticket-of-leave, and even the sleepiest suburbans began to realise
that the arrival of our daily bread is a daily miracle instead of the
commonplace it once seemed to be. Had Dr Faustus come back to life a
modern lady would have invoked the aid of his magic for some food less
romantic than grapes out of season: she would have been content with a
tin of golden syrup. As for butter, it is surprising that no one wrote
a sonnet to butter during the war. I have seen eyes positively moisten
with love at the sight of a small dish of it. Even from the
restaurants it seemed to vanish for a time, and some of them are still
doing their best to help one to deceive oneself with a curl of what is
called butter substitute. The restaurant, however, seem to be better
supplied than the home with the three great aids to gaiety--wine, jam
and currants. I confess I have never been able to understand why
currants should be generally regarded as one of the necessary
ingredients of perfect pleasure. But they unquestionably are The child
on a holiday will eat a bun with only three currants in it with three
times more pleasure than he will eat a frankly plain bun A suet
pudding without currants or raisins is prison fare, barren to the eye
and cheerless: let but an infrequent currant or raisin peep from the
mass and it is a pudding for a birthday. So universal is the passion
for currants as an aid to pleasure that during the past three weeks
the only matter that rivalled in general interest the question whether
the Kaiser was to be hanged was the question whether we should have
currants before Christmas. So profound is the disappointment of the
public at the non-arrival of the currants that explanations have been
put in the papers, calling on us to practise the sublime virtue of
self-sacrifice, happy in the knowledge that all the currants are
needed for invalid soldiers. But if the currants are needed for
soldiers, how comes it that we sometimes find them in the puddings in
restaurants? Those who are concerned for the preservation of home life
in this country cannot but be perturbed by the way in which in this
matter of currants the scales have been weighted in favour of the
restaurant and against the home. As for jam, the diner in the
restaurant rejoices in jam roll while the child in the home labours
its way through tapioca pudding. Is it any wonder if, as the
pessimists believe, the English home decays?

Whether as a result of the jam roll or the rare currants in the
puddings, it has been unusually difficult to get a table at some of
the restaurants since the signing of the Armistice. No doubt the
signing of the Armistice itself had something to do with it. Christian
men, whenever anything epoch-making happens, must have something to
eat. Marriage, the return of a conquering hero, the visit of a great
statesman, the birth of Christ--we find in all these things a reason
for calling on the cooks to do their damnedest. Even the dyspeptic
forgets his doctor's orders in the general excitement and chases
oysters down the narrow stairway of his throat with thick soup, follow
thick soup with lobster, and lobster with turkey and turkey with a
savoury, and the savoury with a _pêche Melba_, and at the end of it
will not reject cheese and a banana, all of this accompanied with
streams of liquid in the form of wine coffee and brandy. I have often
wondered why a man should feel gay doing violence to his entrails in
this fashion. I have noticed again and again that he loses a little of
his gaiety if the dinner is served slowly enough to give him time to
think. The gay meal, like the farce, must be enacted quickly. The very
spectacle of waiters hurrying to and fro with an air of peril to the
dishes quickens the fancy, and the gastric juices flow to an anapæstic
measure. Who does not know what it is to sit through a slow meal and
digest in spondees? One is given time between the courses to turn
philosopher--to meditate becoming a hermit and dining on a bowl of
rice in a cave. Nothing can prevent one from there and then coming to
a decision on the matter save a waiter with the eye of a psychoanalyst
ready to rush forward at the first sadness of an eyelid and tempt one
either with a new dish or with a glass refilled. "Stay me with
flagons; comfort me with apples." It is a universal cry. Our desire is
for the banqueting-house. Perhaps it is not so much that we feel gay
as that we are afraid of feeling gloomy. We have no force within us
that will enable us to laugh over a lettuce and become wits on water.
There must be an element of riot in our eating and drinking if we are
to drive dull care away. That is the defence of cakes and ale. Cakes,
no doubt, are not what they used to be, and ale is even less so. But
human beings are symbolists, and, if you give them something that
looks like cakes and something that looks like beer, it is surprising
how content they will be. Our eating and drinking is but a game, and
we deceive ourselves at table like children among their toys. Even the
vegetarian lies his food into grandeur not its own. There is a
vegetarian restaurant in London in which one of the dishes on the bill
of fare bears the name "Like chicken." _Splendide mendax!_

One of the most amazing features in the appearance of London at the
present time is surely the absence of the signs of widespread
mourning. The windows of the shops are full of all the colours of the
parrot. The hats are as bright as a scrap-book. The confectioners'
shops are making a desperate effort to look as if nothing had
happened. The death of a single monarch would have darkened Christmas
in Regent Street more effectually than the million mournings of the
war. It is as though we were eager to conceal from ourselves the news
of this terrible disaster. After all, to judge by the crowds in the
streets, most people still remain alive. We have sworn we will never
forget those others, but one has only to read some of the election
speeches to see that with many of us our own greed and vindictiveness
are already ousting the ideals for which hundreds of thousands of men
gave up their lives. Can it be that we are feeling gay not only
because we have escaped from the disasters of the war but because we
are escaping from the ideals of the war? It is as though we had
returned from the barren snows of the mountain-tops to the cosy plenty
of the valleys. We are glad to exchange the stars as companions for
the nearer illuminations of the streets. The familiar world is coming
back, and civilian youths have begun once more to sing music-hall
choruses on the way home on the tops of buses:--

     So I dillied,
     And dallied,
     And dallied,
     And dillied;
     But you can't trust a speshul
     Like an old-time copper
     When you can't find your way home.

Peace had returned without question when nonsense of this venerable
kind sped into the air from the roof of a late bus. Well, we have
always wanted the world to be "as usual." We were angry with the
Germans for plunging us into the unusualness of war, and we feel
scarcely more friendly to those who would plunge us into the
unusualness of Utopia. We feel at home among neither horrors nor
ideals. We are glad at the prospect of having the old world back
rather than at having to make a new world. Lord Birkenhead, I observe,
declares that it would be an awful thing if the war had left us
unchanged, but we look in vain for signs of any deep change even in
the speeches of Lord Birkenhead. One noticeable change the war has
unquestionably made: more women smoke in the restaurants than
formerly. Sanguine people declare that other changes are impending;
but other people, equally sanguine, are doing their best to prevent
this. The human race is gradually feeling its way back to its
traditional division into those who desire a change and those who
desire to keep things as they are. The Christmas festival appeals to
both equally. It is at once an old custom and the prophecy of a new
earth. On such a day one can rejoice even without currants or the
League of Nations. The world is a good place. Let us eat, drink, and
be merry.




XIV



IN THE TRAIN


It is said that travelling by train is to be made still more
uncomfortable. I doubt if there is a man of sufficient genius in the
Government to accomplish this. Are not the trains already merely
elongated buses without the racing instincts of the bus? Have they not
already learned to crawl past mile after mile of backyard and back
garden at such a snail's pace that we have come to know like an old
friend every disreputable garment hung out on the clothes-lines of a
score of suburbs? Do they not stand still at the most unreasonable
places with the obstinacy of an ass? Stations, the names of which used
to be an indistinguishable blur as we swept past them as on a
swallow's wing, have now become a part of the known world, and have as
much attention paid to them as though they were Paris or Vienna.
Equality has not yet been established among men, but it has been
established among stations. There never was such a democracy of
frightfulness.

We seldom see a station which has about it the air of permanence.
There are, I believe good historical reasons why there are no Tudor
stations or Queen Anne stations to be found in the country. Still, I
know of no reason why so many stations should look as though they had
been built hurriedly to serve the needs of a month, like a travelling
show in a piece of waste ground. Not that the railway station has any
of the gaudy detail of the travelling show. It resembles it only in
its dusty and haphazard setting. It is more like a builder's or a
tombstone-maker's yard. The very letters in which the name of the
station is printed are often of a deliberate ugliness. No newspaper
would tolerate letters of such an ugliness in its headlines. They
stare at one vacuously, joylessly. It is said that the village of
Amberley is known to the natives as "Amberley, God help us!" How many
stations look at us from their name-plates with that "God help us!"
air! What I should like to see would be a name-plate that would seem
to announce to us in passing: "Glasgow, thank God!" or whatever the
name of the station may be. I have never yet discovered a merry
station. Here and there a station-master has done his best to make the
place attractive by planting geraniums in the form of letters to spell
the name of the place on a neighbouring embankment. But these things
remind one of the flowers on a grave. And the people who walk up and
down the platform, their noses cold in the wind, are hardly more
cheerful than undertakers' men. Even the porters in their green
trousers, who roll the milk-cans along the platform to the luggage-van
with an energy and a clatter that would satisfy the ambition of any
healthy child, do not look merry. There was one cheerful porter who
used to welcome you like a host, and make a jest as he clipped your
railway ticket--"Just to lighten your load, sir!"--but the Government
had him removed and put to mind gates at a crossing where he would not
be able to speak to the passengers. As a rule, however, nobody looks
as if he liked being in a railway station or would stop there if he
could go anywhere else. I trust the Ministry of Reconstruction will
see to it that the railway stations of the country are rebuilt and
vivified. One does not really wish to stop at any station at all
except one's own station. But if one has to do so, let the stations be
made more amusing.

Unfortunately, it is not only the frequent stops that have made
railway travelling almost ideally uncomfortable. The Government seems
also to have hired a staff of workers to impregnate the seats of the
carriages with dust and to scatter all the dust that can be spared in
these exiguous days on the floors. They have also a gang of old and
wheezy gentlemen who travel up and down the line all day shutting the
windows. This work is sometimes deputed to women. They are forbidden
to say "May I?" or "Do you mind?" or to make use of any civil
expression that might mollify the traveller sitting by the window. It
is part of their instructions to reach past him with an air of
independence and to have the window shut and the book that he is
reading knocked out of his hand before he has time to see what has
happened. Some day someone will write a book about the alteration of
English manners that took place during the Great War. I believe the
alteration is largely due to these Government hirelings whose duty it
is to make railway travel a burden and never to say "Please" or "Thank
you."

Even now, however, there are compensations. In the morning the shadows
are long, and, as one rattles north among the water-meadows, the
flying plumes of the engine leave a procession of melting silhouettes
on the fields to the west. Rooks oar their way towards their homes
with long twigs in their beaks. Horses go through the last days of
their kingship dragging ploughs and harrows over the fields with slow
and monotonous tread. Here a hill has been ploughed into a sea of
little brown waves. Further on a meadow is already bright with the
green of winter-sown corn. The country has never been so laboured
before. Chalk and sand and brown earth and red are all being turned up
and broken and bathed in the sun and wind. Adam has begun to delve
again. There is the urgency of life in fields long idle. It is not
that the fields have become populous. One sees many laboured fields,
but little labour. The occasional plough-horse, however, brings
strength into the stillness. How noble a figure of energy he makes!

As for us who sit in the railway train, we do not look at him much. We
are all either reading papers or talking. Two old men, bearded and
greasy-coated, tramps of a bygone era, sit opposite one another and
neither read nor talk. One of them is blear-eyed and coughs, and has
an unclean moustache. All his friend ever says to him is: "Clean your
nose," making an impatient gesture. A young man in a bowler hat and
spectacles, who smokes a pipe in inward-drawn lips, discusses the
Labour situation with some acquaintances. "They would be all right,"
he explains, "if it wasn't for the Labour leaders. You know what a
Labour leader is. He's a chap that never did an honest day's work in
his life. He finds it pays better to jaw than to work, and I don't
blame him. After all, it's human nature. Every man's out to do the
best for himself, isn't he?" "Your nose--blow your nose," mumbled the
tramp across the carriage. "Take Australia," continues the young man;
"they've had Labour Governments in Australia. What good did they do
for the working man? Did they satisfy him? Why, there were more
strikes in Australia under the Labour Government than there ever had
been before." "Did you hear that, Johnny?" I heard another voice
saying. "A tame rabbit was sold Sat'day in Guildford market for
twelve-and-sixpence!" "How did they know it was a tame one?" "Ah, now
you're asking!" A man looked up from _The Morning Post_ with interest
in his face. "Why," he said, "is a tame rabbit considered to be better
eating than a wild one?" It was explained to him that wild rabbits
were often kept for a long time after they were killed, and were
therefore regarded as more dangerous. Otherwise, the tame rabbit had
no point of superiority. "What do _you_ say, Johnny?" Johnny had a fat
face and no eyelashes, and wore a muffler instead of a collar. "I say,
give me a wild one." The man with _The Morning Post_ went on to talk
about rabbits and the price at which he had sold them. At intervals,
during everything he said, Johnny kept nodding and saying, with a
smile of relish: "Give me a wild one!" He said it even when the talk
had drifted altogether away from rabbits. He went on repeating it to
himself in lower tones, as though at last he had found a thought that
suited him. "Municipalisation means jobbery," said the young man with
the bowler hat; "look at the County Council tramways." "Give me a wild
one," said Johnny, in a dreamy whisper; "I say, give me a wild one."
"Why, it stands to reason, if you have a friend, and you see a chance
of shovin' him into a job at the public expense, you'll do it, won't
you?" said the young man, addressing the reader of _The Morning Post_,
who merely cleared his throat nervously in answer. "It's human
nature," said the young man. "Give me a wild one" whispered Johnny.
"I'm afraid there's going to be trouble in Ireland," the man with _The
Morning Post_ turned the subject. The young man was ready for him.
"There will always be trouble in Ireland," he said, with what the
novelists describe as a curl of his lip, "so long as Ireland exists."
The tramp continued to mumble about the condition of his friend's
nose, Johnny relapsed into silence, and the young man made the man
with _The Morning Post_ tremble by a horrible picture of what the
country would be like under a Labour Government. "It would be all
U.P.," he said firmly; "all up...." Who would travel in such days if
he could possibly avoid it?




XV



THE MOST CURIOUS ANIMAL


Curiosity is the first of the sins. On the day on which Eve gave way
to her curiosity, man broke off his communion with the angels and
allied himself with the beasts. To-day we usually applaud curiosity;
we think of it as the alternative to stagnation. The tradition of
mankind, however, is against us. The fables never pretend that
curiosity is anything but an evil. Literature is full of tales of
forbidden rooms that cannot be peeped into without disaster. Fatima in
_Bluebeard_ escapes punishment, but her escape is narrow enough to
leave her a warning to the nursery. A version of the Pandora legend
imputes the state of mankind to the curiosity of one disastrous fool
who raised the lid of the sacred box, with the result that the
blessings intended for our race escaped and flew away. We have cursed
the inquisitive person through the centuries. We have instinctively
hated him to the point of persecution. The curious among mankind have
gone about their business at peril of their lives. It is probable that
Athens was a city as much given to curiosity as any city has ever
been, and yet the Athenians put Socrates to death on account of his
curiosity. He was accused of speculating about the heavens above and
inquiring into the earth beneath as well as of corrupting the youth
and making the worse appear the better reason. History may be read as
the story of the magnificent rearguard action fought during several
thousand years by dogma against curiosity. Dogma is always in the
majority and is therefore detestable, but it is also always beaten and
is therefore admirable. It rallies its forces afresh on some new field
in every generation. It fights with its back to the sunrise under a
banner of darkness, but even when we abominate it most we cannot but
marvel at its endurance. The odd thing is that man clings to dogma
from a sense of safety. He can hardly help feeling that he was never
so safe as he is in the present in possession of this little patch his
fathers have bequeathed to him. He felt quite safe without printed
books, without chloroform, without flying machines. He mocked at
Icarus as the last word in human folly. We say nowadays "as safe as
the Bank of England," but he felt safer without the Bank of England.
We are told that when the Bank was founded in 1694 its institution was
warmly opposed by all the dogmatic believers in things as they were.
But it is against curiosity about knowledge that men have fought most
stubbornly. Galileo was forbidden to be curious about the moon. One of
the most difficult things to establish is our right to be curious
about facts. The dogmatists offer to provide us with all the facts a
reasonable man can desire. If we persist in believing that there is a
world of facts yet undiscovered and that it is our duty to set out in
quest of it, in the eyes of the dogmatists we are scorned as heretics
and charlatans. Even at the present day, when the orthodoxies sit on
shaky thrones, dogma still opposes itself to curiosity at many points.
A great deal of the popular dislike of psychical research is due to
hatred of curiosity in a new direction. People who admit the existence
of a world of the dead commonly feel that none the less it ought to be
taboo to the too-curious intellect of man. They feel there is
something uncanny about spirits that makes it unsafe to approach them
with an inquisitive mind. I am not concerned either to attack or
defend Spiritualism. I merely suggest that a rational attack on
Spiritualism must be based on the insufficiency of the evidence put
forward in its behalf, not on the ground that the curiosity which goes
in search of such evidence is in itself wicked.

It is odd to see how men who take sides with dogma give themselves the
airs of men who live for duty, while they regard the more curious
among their fellows as licentious, trifling, irreverent and
self-indulgent. The truth is, there is no greater luxury than dogma.
It puts an eminence under the most stupid. At the same time I am not
going to deny the pleasures of curiosity. We have only to see a cat
looking up the chimney or examining the nooks of a box-room or looking
over the edge of a trunk to see what is inside in order to realise
that this is a vice, if it is a vice, which we inherit from the
animals. We find a comparable curiosity in children and other simple
creatures. Servants will rummage through drawer after drawer of old,
dull letters out of idle curiosity. There are men who declare that no
woman could be trusted not to read a letter. We persuade ourselves
that man is a higher animal, above curiosity and a slave to his sense
of honour. But man, too, likes to spy upon his neighbours when he is
not indifferent to them. No scrupulous person of either sex would read
another person's letter surreptitiously. But that is not to say that
we do not want to know what is in the letter. We can hardly see a
parcel lying unopened in a hall without speculating on what it
contains. We should always feel happier if the owner of the parcel
indulged us to the point of opening it in our presence. I know a man
whose curiosity extends so far as to set him uncorking any
medicine-bottles he sees in a friend's house, sniffing at them, and
even sipping them to see what they taste like. "Oh, I have had that
one," he says, as he lingers over the bitter flavour of strychnine.
"Let me see," he reflects, as he sips another bottle, "there's nux
vomica in that." Half the interesting books of the world were written
by men who had just this sipping kind of curiosity. Curiosity was the
chief pleasure of Montaigne and of Boswell. We cannot read an early
book of science without finding signs of the pleasure of curiosity in
its pages. Theophrastus, we may be sure, was a happy man when he
wrote:

     "However, there is one question which applies to all
     perfumes, namely, why it is that they appear to be sweetest
     when they come from the wrist; so that perfumers apply the
     scent to this part."

To be curious about such matters would keep many a man entertained for
an evening. Some people are so much in love with their curiosity that
they object even to having it satisfied too quickly with an obvious
explanation. We have an instance of this in a pleasant anecdote about
Democritus, which Montaigne borrowed from Plutarch. Montaigne, who
substitutes figs for cucumbers in the story, relates:

     "Democritus, having eaten figs at his table that tasted of
     honey, fell presently to consider within himself whence they
     should derive this unusual sweetness; and to be satisfied in
     it, was about to rise from the table to see the place whence
     the figs had been gathered; which his maid observing, and
     having understood the cause, she smilingly told him that he
     need not trouble himself about that, for she had put them
     into a vessel in which there had been honey. He was vexed
     that she had thus deprived him of the occasion of this
     inquisition and robbed his curiosity of matter to work upon.
     'Go thy way,' said he, 'thou hast done me wrong; but for all
     that I will seek out the cause, as if it were natural'; and
     would willingly have found out some true reason for a false
     and imaginary effect."

The novel-reader who becomes furious with someone for letting him into
the secret of the end of the story is of the same mind as Democritus.
"Go thy way," he says in effect, "thou hast done me wrong." The child
protests in the same way to a too-informative elder: "You weren't to
tell me!" He would like to wander in the garden paths of curiosity. He
has no wish to be led off hurriedly into the schoolroom of knowledge.
He instinctively loves to guess. He loves at least to guess at one
moment and to be told the next.

The greater part of human curiosity has as little to be said for
it--or against it--as a child's whim. It is an affair of the senses,
and an extraordinarily innocent one. It is a vanity of the eye or ear.
It is another form of the hatred of being left out. So many human
beings do not like to miss things. We saw during Saturday's aeroplane
raid how far men and women will go rather than miss things. Thousands
of Londoners stood in the streets and at their windows and gazed at
what seemed to be the approach of one of the plagues of Egypt. No
plague of locusts ever came out of the sky with a greater air of the
will to destruction. It was as though the eastern sky were hung with
these monstrous insects, leisurely hovering over a people they meant
to destroy. They had the cupidity of hawks at one moment. At another
they had the innocence of a school of little fishes. Shell-smoke
opened out among them like a sponge thrown into the water. It swelled
into larger clouds monstrous in shape as the things doctors preserve
in bottles. But the plague did not rest. One saw a little black
aeroplane hurry across them, a mere water beetle of a thing, and one
wondered if a collision would send one of them to earth with broken
wings. But one did not really know whether this was the manoeuvre of
an enemy or the daring of a friend. There was never a more astonishing
spectacle. A desperate battle in the air would have been less of a
surprise. But that there should have been nobody to interfere with
them! ... Yes, it was certainly a curious sight, and London was
justified in putting its head out of its house, like a tortoise under
its shell, till the bombs began to fall. Still, the more often they
come the less curious we shall be about them. A few years ago we
gladly paid five shillings for the pleasure of seeing an aeroplane
float round a big field. There is a limit, however, to our curiosity
even about German aeroplanes. Speaking for myself, I may say my
curiosity is satisfied. I do not care if they never come again.




XVI



THE OLD INDIFFERENCE


It was an old belief of the poets and the common people that nature
was sympathetic towards human beings at certain great crises. Comets
flared and the sun was darkened at the death of a great man. Even the
death of a friend was supposed to bow nature with despair; and Milton
in _Lycidas_ mourned the friend he had lost in what nowadays seems to
us the pasteboard hyperbole:

     The willows and the hazel copses green
     Shall now no more be seen
     Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.

It may be contended that Milton was here speaking, not of nature, but
of his vision of nature; and certainly one cannot help reading one's
own joys and sorrows into the face of the earth. When the lover in
_Maud_ affirms:

     A livelier emerald twinkled in the grass,

he states a fact. He utters a truth of the eye and heart. The wonder
of the world resides in him who sees it. The earth becomes a new place
to a man who has fallen in love or who has just returned to it from
the edge of the grave. It is as though he saw the flowers as a
stranger. Larks ascending make the planet a ball of music for him. He
may well begin to lie about nature, for he has seen it for the first
time. Experience is not long in warning him, however, that it is he
and not the world that has changed. He meets a funeral in the
midsummer of his happiness, and larks sing the same songs above the
fields whether it is the lover or the mourner that goes by. The
continuity of nature is not broken either for our gladness or our
grief. Mr Hardy frequently introduces the mournful drip of rain into
his picture of men and women unhappily mated. But the rain is not at
the beck and call of the unhappy. The unhappy would still be unhappy
though they were in a cherry orchard on the loveliest morning of the
year. The happy would still be happy though St Swithin's Day were
streaming in floods down the window-panes. Who does not know what it
is to be happy watching the rain-drops racing down the glass and
hearing the gutter chattering like a hedgeful of sparrows or tinkling
like a bell? Who is there, on the other hand, who has not found, and
been perplexed to find, the world going on its way in full song and
bloom on a day that has seemed to him to darken all human experience?
Burns's reproach to the indifferent earth has often been quoted as an
expression of this realisation that nature does not mind:

     How can ye sing, ye little birds,
       And I sae weary, fu' o' care?

Nature, we discover, passes us and our sorrows by. We are of little
account to the race of birds. We are of little account, for that
matter, to the race of men. The end of Hamlet is not the end even of a
kingdom. Fortinbras comes upon the scene, and life goes on. Our
mournings are only interruptions. The ranks of the procession close up
and little is changed. Even the funeral of a king is as a rule less an
occasion for grief than a spectacle for the curious. The crowd may
have filled the streets all night, but they did not forget to bring
their sandwiches and whisky-flasks with them. The theatres and the
tea-shops and the public-houses will be as full as ever the next day.
And for the death of a great author not even the sweet-shops will be
closed. The funeral ceremonies over the dead body of Herbert Spencer
drew a smaller crowd than would gather to see a dog that had been run
over in the street.

We were never before so conscious of the indifference of Nature to
human tragedy as since the outbreak of the war. Here, one would think,
was a tragedy that all but threatened to crack the globe. One would
imagine that the sides of Nature must be in pain with it and the earth
in peril of being hurled out of her accustomed path round the sun. Yet
the sparrows in the Surrey valleys have not heard of it, and the
sea-birds know nothing of it, save that occasionally they are
bewildered to find a submarine rising from the waters instead of the
porpoise for whose presence they had hoped. It is said that the
pheasants in a Sussex wood awoke and screamed on Sunday night during
the barrage fire around London. But this was egotism on the part of
the pheasants. The pheasants of Wiltshire did not have their sleep
broken, and so were not troubled about the sufferings of Londoners.
Wordsworth assured Toussaint L'Ouverture:

     There's not a breathing of the common air
     That will forget thee.

He exaggerated. The common air is more perturbed in the year 1918 by
the passing of a single gnat than by the memory of Toussaint
L'Ouverture. On Sunday I walked along a quiet hill road within thirty
miles of London, and it seemed for an hour or two as though one were
as remote from the war as a man living a century hence. The catkins in
the hazels by the roadside were beautiful as falling rain: they hung
on the branches like notes of music. The country children see them as
lambs' tails, dangling in twos and threes in the gentle air. They have
been growing longer every day since Christmas and the red tips of the
female flowers have now begun to appear. In the hedge there are still
the remains of old man's beard that, in one light, looks like dirty
wool, but, with the sun shining on it, seems at a distance to be
hawthorn in the full glory of blossom. Every now and then a crooked
caterpillar of down is detached from it by the wind and sails off
vaguely over a field. A few weeks ago sparrows were singing choruses
as they gorged themselves upon it, but lately they have been scraping
their beaks busily on the bark of trees as though they had found more
satisfying dishes. At the lower end of the road there is a glow of
crimson among the sallows, which have begun to festoon their straight
rods with silver buds. Chaffinches are beginning to pipe more
solitarily to each other in the tall elms. A few weeks ago they
fluttered everywhere in companies, occupying now a hedge, now a road,
and now a tree. The naturalists tell us that these winter companies of
chaffinches are usually composed of birds of one sex only, the males
consorting together for the time as in a boys' school. The chaffinch,
I think, is the commonest bird in this part of the country. It is so
common that its loveliness has hardly been appreciated as it ought to
be. It is a little world of colour, like a small jay, and nothing
could be more beautiful than its flushed breast as it sits on the top
of a tall tree in the sunset. As for the jay, it hurries away like a
thief before one has time to see its coat of many colours. The jay,
like the cuckoo, is a bird with a guilty conscience. The wood here is
full of jays, uttering their one monotonous shriek, like the ripping
of a skirt. They scuttle among the trees at one's approach, showing
the white feather. Occasionally, however, they too will sit in a tree
and allow the sun to flush their cinnamon-coloured breasts. But we
shall see hundreds of them before we see a single one in the crested
and passive splendour of the jays in the picture-books. As a matter of
fact, nearly all the birds in the picture-books are guesses and
exaggerations. The birds, we discover before long, are a secret
kingdom into which it is given to few to enter.

The whole of Nature, indeed, is curiously secretive. She does not tell
much about herself save to the importunate. Not many of us can speak
her language or have learned the password to her cave of treasure. She
thrusts upon our notice a few birds, a few insects, a few animals, a
few flowers. But for the most part there is no finding her population
without seeking for it. Hundreds of her flowers are hidden from the
lazy eye, and we may pass a lifetime without seeing so common a bird
as a tree-creeper or so common an animal as a shrew-mouse. How seldom
it is one sees even a rat! There are human beings who will never
discover an early flower, however many miles they cover in their
country walks. They take no pleasure in finding a wild-strawberry
flower in January or a campion blossom in the first week in February.
They are as indifferent to Nature as Nature is to them. The
honeysuckle that breaks out with leaves as with green flames; the
thrust of the leaves of the wild hyacinth under the trees, like the
return of youth; the flowering of the elm; the young moon like a white
bird with spread wings in the afternoon sky; the golden journey of
Orion and his dog across the heavens by night--these things, they
feel, are not interwoven with man's fate. They were before him, and
they will be after him. Therefore, he cares more for his little brick
house in the suburbs, which will at least be changed when he goes. I
do not suggest that anyone consciously adopts a philosophy of this
kind. But most of us are undoubtedly a little offended at some time in
our lives when we realise that Nature has so little regard for our
passions and our tears. She is a consoler, but it is on her own terms.
Matthew Arnold found the secret of life in becoming as resigned to
obedience as the stars and the tide. Who knows but, if we do this,
Nature may be found to care after all? But she does not care in the
way in which most of us want her to care. The religious discovered
that long ago. They found that Nature was guilty of neutrality in
human affairs if they did not go further and suspect her of enmity. It
is only when philosophy has been added to religion that men have been
able to reconcile without gloom the indifference of Nature with the
idea of the love of God. And even the religious and the philosophers
are puzzled by the spectacle of the worm that writhes on the garden
path while the robin pecks at it, triumphant in his fatness and
praising the fine weather.




XVII



EGGS: AN EASTER HOMILY


Having decided to write on Easter, I took out a volume of _The
Encyclopædia Britannica_ in order to make up the subject of eggs, and
the first entry under "Egg" that met my eye was:

"EGG, AUGUSTUS LEOPOLD (1816-1863), English painter, was born on the
2nd of May, 1816, in London, where his father carried on business as a
gun-maker."

I wish I had known about Augustus five years ago. I should like to
have celebrated the centenary of an _egg_ somewhere else than in a
London tea-shop. Augustus Leopold Egg seems to have spent a life in
keeping with his name. He was taught drawing by Mr Sass, and in later
years was a devotee of amateur theatricals, making a memorable
appearance, as we should expect of an Egg, in a play called _Not so
Bad as We Seem_. He also appears to have devoted a great part of his
life to painting bad eggs, if we may judge by the titles of his most
famous pictures--_Buckingham Rebuffed, Queen Elizabeth discovers she
is no longer young, Peter the Great sees Catherine for the First
Time_, and _Past and Present, a Triple Picture of a Faithless Wife_.
She was a lady, no doubt, who could not submit to the marriage yolk.
Anyhow, she had a great fall, and Augustus did his best to put her
together again. "Egg," the _Encyclopædia_ tells us finally, "was
rather below the middle height, with dark hair and a handsome,
well-formed face." He seems to have been a man, take him for all in
all: we shall not look upon his like again.

Even so, Augustus was not the only Egg. He was certainly not the egg
in search of which I opened the _Encyclopædia_. The egg I was looking
for was the Easter egg, and it seemed to be the only egg that was not
mentioned. There were birds' eggs, and reptiles' eggs, and fishes'
eggs, and molluscs' eggs, and crustaceans' eggs, and insects' eggs,
and frogs' eggs, and Augustus Egg, and the eggs of the duck-billed
platypus, which is the only mammal (except the spiny ant-eater) whose
eggs are "provided with a large store of yolk, enclosed within a
shell, and extruded to undergo development apart from the maternal
tissues." I do not know whether it is evidence of the irrelevance of
the workings of the human mind or of our implacable greed of
knowledge, but within five minutes I was deep in the subject of eggs
in general, and had forgotten all about the Easter variety. I found
myself fascinated especially by the eggs of fishes. There are so many
of them that one was impressed as one is on being told the population
of London. "It has been calculated," says the writer of the article,
"that the number laid by the salmon is roughly about 1000 to every
pound weight of the fish, a 15-lb. salmon laying 15,000 eggs. The
sturgeon lays about 7,000,000; the herring 50,000; the turbot
14,311,000; the sole 134,000; the perch 280,000." This is the sort of
sentence I always read over to myself several times. And when I come
to "the turbot, 14,311,000," I pause, and try to picture to myself the
man who counted them. How does one count 14,311,000? How long does it
take? If one lay awake all night, trying to put oneself to sleep by
counting turbots' eggs instead of sheep, one would hardly have done
more than make a fair start by the time the maid came in to draw the
curtains and let in the sun on one's exhausted temples. A person like
myself, ignorant of mathematics, could not easily count more that
10,000 in an hour. This would mean that, even if one lay in bed for
ten hours, which one never does except on one's birthday, one would
have counted only 100,000 out of the 14,311,000 eggs by the time one
had to get up for breakfast. That would leave 14,211,000 still to be
counted At this point, most of us, I think, would give it up in
despair. After one horrible night's experience, we would jump into a
hot bath muttering: "Never again! Never again!" like a statesman who
can't think of anything to say, and send out for a quinine-and-iron
tonic. Our friends meeting us later in the day would say with concern:
"Hullo! you're looking rather cheap. What have you been doing?"; and
when we answered bitterly: "Counting turbots' eggs," they would hurry
off with an apprehensive look on their faces. The naturalist, it is
clear, must be capable of a persistence that is beyond the reach of
most of us. I calculate that, if he were able to work for 14 hours a
day, counting at the rate of 10,000 an hour, even then it would take
him 122-214 days to count the eggs of a single turbot. After that, it
would take a chartered accountant at least 122-214 days to check his
figures. One can gather from this some idea of the enormous industry
of men of science. For myself, I could more easily paint the Sistine
Madonna or compose a Tenth Symphony than be content to loose myself
into this universe of numbers. Pythagoras, I believe, discovered a
sort of philosophy in numbers, but even he did not count beyond seven.

After the fishes, the reptiles seem fairly modest creatures. The
ordinary snake does not lay more than twenty or thirty eggs, and even
the python is content to stop at a hundred. The crocodile, though a
wicked animal, lays only twenty or thirty; the tortoise as few as two
or four; and the turtle does not exceed two hundred. But I am not
really interested in eggs--not, at least, in any eggs but birds'
eggs--or should not have been, if I had not read _The Encyclopædia
Britannica_. The sight of a fly's egg--if the fly lays an egg--fills
me with disgust--and frogs' eggs attract me only with the fascination
of repulsion. What one likes about the birds is that they lay such
pretty eggs. Even the duck lays a pretty egg The duck is a plain bird,
rather like a char-woman, but it lays an egg which is (or can be) as
lovely as an opal. The flavour, I agree, is not Christian, but, like
other eggs of which this can be said, it does for cooking. Hens' eggs
are less attractive in colour, but more varied. I have always thought
it one of the chief miseries of being a man that, when boiled eggs are
put on the table, one does not get first choice, and that all the
little brown eggs are taken by women and children before one's own
turn comes round. There is one sort of egg with a beautiful sunburnt
look that always reminds me of the seaside, and that I have not tasted
in a private house for above twenty years. To begin the day with such
an egg would put one in a good temper for a couple of hours. But
always one is fobbed off with a large white egg of demonstrative
uncomeliness. It may taste all right, but it does not look all right.
Food should appeal to the eye as well as to the palate, as everyone
recognises when the blancmange that has not set is brought to the
table. At the same time, there is one sort of white egg that is quite
delightful to look at. I do not know its parent, but I think it is a
black hen of the breed called Spanish. Not everything white in Nature
is beautiful. One dislikes instinctively white calves, white horses,
white elephants and white waistcoats. But the particular egg of which
I speak is one of the beautiful white things--like snow, or a breaking
wave, or teeth. So certain am I, however, that neither it nor the
little brown one will ever come my way, while there is a woman or a
child or a guest to prevent it, that when I am asked how I like the
eggs to be done I make it a point to say "poached" or "fried." It
gives me at least a chance of getting one of the sort of eggs I like
by accident. As for poached eggs, I agree. There are nine ways of
poaching eggs, and each of them is worse than the other. Still, there
is one good thing about poached eggs: one is never disappointed. One
accepts a poached egg like fate. There is no sitting on tenterhooks,
watching and waiting and wondering, as there is in regard to boiled
eggs. I admit that most of the difficulties associated with boiled
eggs could be got over by the use of egg-cosies--appurtenances of the
breakfast table that stirred me to the very depths of delight when I
first set eyes on them as a child. It was at a mothers' meeting, where
I was the only male present. Thousands of women sat round me, sewing
and knitting things for a church bazaar. Much might be written about
egg-cosies. Much might be said for and much against. They would be
effective, however only if it were regarded as a point of honour not
to look under the cosy before choosing the egg. And the sense of
honour, they say, is a purely masculine attribute. Children never had
it, and women have lost it. I do not know a single woman whom I would
trust not to look under an egg cosy--not, at least, unless she were
forbidden eggs by the doctor. In that case, any egg would seem
delicious, and she would seize the nearest, irrespective of class or
colour.

This may not explain the connection between eggs and Easter. But then
neither does _The Encyclopædia Britannica_. I have looked up both the
article on eggs and the article on Easter, and in neither of them can
I find anything more relevant than such remarks as that "the eggs of
the lizard are always white or yellowish, and generally soft-shelled;
but the geckos and the green lizards lay hard-shelled eggs" or
"Gregory of Tours relates that in 577 there was a doubt about Easter."
In order to learn something about Easter eggs one has to turn to some
such work as _The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable_, which tells us that
"the practice of presenting eggs to our friends at Easter is Magian or
Persian, and bears allusion to the mundane egg, for which Ormuzd and
Ahriman were to contend till the consummation of all things." The
advantage of reading _Tit-Bits_ is that one gets to know hundreds of
things like that. The advantage of not reading _Tit-Bits_ is that one
is so ignorant of them that a piece of information of this sort is as
fresh and unexpected as the morning's news every Easter Monday. Next
Easter, I feel sure, I shall look it up again. I shall have forgotten
all about the mundane egg, even if Ormuzd and Ahriman have not. I
shall be thinking more about my breakfast egg. What a piece of work is
a man! And yet many profound things might be said about eggs, mundane
or otherwise. I wish I could have thought of them.




XVIII



ENTER THE SPRING


One would imagine from the way in which some people are talking that
this is an early spring. I do not think it is. The daffodils certainly
came before the swallows dared, but they came reluctantly and in less
generous profusion than usual--at least, in one county. As for the
swallow, it may have arrived by Saturday, but it has not arrived on
the day on which I am writing. "About the middle of March," says Mr
Coward, "the first swallows arrive," but I have met no one who has
seen one even in the first week in April. The sky seems empty without
them. This is, no doubt, an illusion. There are plenty of rooks and
pigeons, and there are always starlings desperately hustling from the
chimney-pot across to the plum-tree and back again. But the starling
is most interesting, not when he is in the air, but when he is at
rest--making queer noises in his effulgent, tight-fitting clothes,
sometimes like a baby in a cradle, sometimes like a girl trying to
whistle, always experimenting with sound rather than singing. One
looks forward to the swallows and martins and swifts because they
really do live the life of the air. The sky is their domain, and no
roof or tree or even telegraph wire. Till they arrive the air is an
all but stagnant pool. They transform it into a scene of whirlpools.
They do for the air what the hum of insects does for the garden. They
banish the stillness of winter and lead the year in the movements of a
remembered dance. Spring, however, awakens gradually, and does not
plunge precipitately into an orgy. First, the home birds sing, or
rather redouble their singing, for the wren and the robin hardly ever
left off. This, I think, must be an exceptional year for the chorus of
wrens. Last year the lane that leads to the station was at this time a
lane of chaffinches: this year it is a lane of wrens. Last year the
garden was a garden of thrushes: this year it is a garden of wrens.
That is possibly an exaggeration, but this little Tetrazzini among the
birds has never seemed to me to trill so dominantly and over so wide a
rule. As for the thrushes, I do not know what has happened to them. I
heard plenty of them on the outskirts of London in February, but here,
fifty miles from London, it is as though they were an exterminated
race. Whether gardeners or cats or some other epidemic is to blame,
the trees are silent of them. Even the blackbird is not too common
here this year, but then a country gardener regards a blackbird as a
Turk regards an Armenian. I wish thrushes and blackbirds could read,
so that one could put up a notice offering them sanctuary even at the
expense of one's gooseberries and strawberries. Strange that a
strawberry should appear more delightful to anyone than the song of a
blackbird! I know, I may say, the feeling of helpless rage that wells
up in the human breast at the sight of a blackbird stealing one's
strawberries. Thank God, I am not impervious to moral indignation. If
shouting "Stop thief!" could save the strawberries, my voice would be
for saving them. But I do not believe in capital punishment for petty
theft, and, anyhow, if I must lose either a song or a strawberry, I
had rather lose the strawberry.

The larks luckily take to the fields and do not trust themselves near
either cats or gardeners. They do not always escape even in the
fields, and the dead bodies of some of them are served in a pudding in
a Fleet Street restaurant. But, on the whole, considering what a
dangerous neighbour man is, they escape fairly lightly. There is a
sort of "live and let live" truce between them and the human race. The
chaffinches, too--the greatest bird multitude there is, perhaps, after
the house-sparrows--are free enough to sing. They have been, during
the past week, sailing out on short voyages from the tops of trees,
like flycatchers, dancing in the air after their victims and then
returning to the spray. The green-finch--that beautiful-winged Mrs
Gummidge among birds--is also abundant, and slips down nervously every
now and then among the groundsel in the unweeded garden. I confess the
greenfinch has all my sympathy, but it rather bores me. What the deuce
is it worrying about? There is no poetry in its lamentation--only a
sort of habitual formula of a poor, lorn woman. If birds could read, I
think I should add to the notices I put up a little board containing
the words:

     "No bottles.
     No hawkers,
     No greenfinches."

I should feel really sorry if they took any notice of my notice, but
it might convey a hint to them that it would be good policy on their
part to cheer up for at least five minutes in the day and that, in any
case, there is no need to say the same thing over and over again.
Every bird, it is true, says the same thing over and over again--at
any rate, more or less the same thing. Birds such as the robin and the
thrush vary their song as the chaffinch and the willow-wren do not.
But even the robin and the thrush have a recognisable pattern.
Fortunately, they are not always, like the greenfinch, thinking of the
old 'un and thinking out loud.

The goldfinches have begun to fly about the garden again with their
little sequins of song, as someone has delightfully described their
music. They have their eyes, I hope, on the pear-tree--now as white as
an Alp--where they built and brought up a large family last year. The
cornflowers in the flower border are already in bud, and I am told
that this is the temptation to which goldfinches most easily yield. I
hope so, at any rate. I should have a garden blue with cornflowers, if
I were sure that this would entice the seven colours of the goldfinch
to make their home in it. Last Saturday, two lesser spotted
woodpeckers invaded the garden. One always imagines a woodpecker as a
bird of more substantial size, and it is surprising to see this little
creature, patterned on the back like something made in the Omega
workshop, no bigger than a sparrow, as it hastily visits apple and fig
tree and even wygelia. As it climbed the wygelia, indeed, a sparrow
stooped down from an upper branch to study it, and then advanced in
the direction of the woodpecker. The woodpecker lay back from the
trunk of the tree--lying on its back in the air, as it were, and
fluttering its wings while holding on with its claws--and seemed to
invite the sparrow to come on. I don't think the sparrow had ever seen
a woodpecker before. Its curiosity rather than its wrath was aroused
by the strange spectacle. It did not want to hurt the foreigner, but
only to look at him. After having looked its fill, it moved off to a
safer tree. Then the woodpecker, whose heart had no doubt been in its
boots for the past five minutes, also loosed its hold on the bark and
made off over the gate for a less exciting garden.

Outside the garden the spring began on Good Friday. It came in with
the chiffchaff. For three years in succession I have heard the first
chiffchaff in exactly the same place--a clump of nut-trees on the top
of a high bank. At this time of year, too, before the leaves are out,
it is easy to see it. And there are few more charming birds to watch.
With its little beak as slender as a grass-seed, and its body moving
among the branches like a tiny shadow rather than flesh and bones, it
pauses again and again in the midst of its eating to take an upward
glance and utter its mite of music--as monotonous as a Thibetan's
praying wheel. Still lovelier is the willow-wren that follows it. It
is as though the chiffchaff were the first sketch of a willow-wren.
The willow-wren is the perfected work of art, with little shades of
green added and a voice that, small though its range is, is perhaps
the most exquisite that will fill the air till the nightingale
arrives. When I went out on Sunday morning, I prophesied that I would
hear the first willow-wren, and, though I heard only one in a
hill-side copse where the cowslips are just getting their bells ready,
the prophecy came true. Not that I am much of a prophet. I don't know
how often I have prophesied the arrival of the swallow. And, indeed,
it is the surprises in nature, rather than the things that one
foresees, that are the pleasantest--especially if one is easily
surprised, as I am. Whoever ceases to be surprised, for instance, by
the sight of a goldcrested wren? I heard its tiny pinpoint of voice
last Sunday afternoon when I was walking past a plantation where the
bullace was in flower, and, on looking into the trees, saw the little
thimble-sized creature making free with invisible insects--his beak is
hardly big enough to eat a visible one--and performing acrobatics like
a tit. One of the charms of the goldcrest is that he does not look on
a human being as a wild beast. The blackbird regards a man as a
policeman; the greenfinch bolts for it if you so much as look at him,
but the goldcrest feels as secure in your presence as if you were
behind bars in a cage in the Zoological Gardens. One could probably
make him jump if one went up to him and shouted suddenly into his ear,
or even by making a violent gesture. But his first instinct is not to
run. That, for a bird, is a considerable compliment. There can be
nothing more distressing to a man of strictly honourable intentions
than to have to creep about hedges furtively like a criminal in order
to get a good look at a bird. Why he should want to look at birds at
all it is difficult to explain. I suppose it is a sort of disease,
like going to the "movies" or doing exercises. All I know is that, if
you get it, you get it very badly. You would stop Shakespeare himself,
if he were reciting a new sonnet to you, and bid him be quiet and look
half-way up the elm where the nuthatch was beating away--up and down,
like a blacksmith--at a nut or something in a knob of the tree. St
Paul might be reading out to you the first draft of his Epistle to the
Romans; you would quite unscrupulously interrupt him with a "Hush,
man! There's a tree-creeper somewhere about. Listen, there he is! If
you keep quiet, perhaps we'll be able to see him." I assure you, it is
as bad as that. As for a man who takes out a noisy dog, or who whacks
at loose stones with his stick on the road, you would regard him as a
misbehaved and riotous person and would not call him your friend.
Everything has to be subordinated to the hope of catching sight of a
hypothetical bird--which you have probably seen dozens of times
already. Truly, there is no accounting for human vices. There is,
however, at least this to be said in favour of bird-watching, that it
is the pleasantest of the vices, that it is cheaper than golf, and
does not harden the arteries like tea-drinking. And after all, if one
is going to get excited at all, one may as well get excited about the
colours and songs of birds as about most things.




XIX



THE DAREDEVIL BARBER


To roll over Niagara Falls in a barrel is an odd way of courting
death, but it seems that death must be courted somehow. Danger is more
attractive to many men than drink. They prefer gambling with their
lives to gambling with their money. They have the gambler's faith in
their lucky star. They are preoccupied with the vision of victory to
the exclusion of all timid thoughts. They have a dramatic sense that
sets them anticipatorily on a stage, bowing to the applause of the
multitude. It is the applause, I fancy, rather than the peril itself,
that entices them. The average boy who performs a deed of derring-do
performs it before his admiring fellows. Even in so small a thing as
ringing a bell and running away he likes to have spectators. Few boys
ring bells out of mischief when they are alone. Poor Mr Charles
Stephens, the "Daredevil Barber" of Bristol, who lost his life at
Niagara Falls in his six-foot barrel the other Sunday, made sure that
there would be plenty of witnesses of his adventure. Not only had he a
party of sightseers in motors along the road following the cask on its
perilous voyage but he had a cinematograph photographer ready to
immortalise the affair on a film. Two other persons, it is said, had
already accomplished a similar feat. One of them, a woman, "was just
about gone," according to a witness, "when we got her out of the
barrel." The other "was a used-up man for several weeks." This
however, did not deter the daredevil barber. Had he not already on one
occasion put his head into a lion's mouth? Had he not boxed in a
lion's den? Had he not stood up to men with rifles who shot lumps of
sugar from his head? It may seem an extraordinary way to behave in a
world in which there are so many reasonable opportunities for heroism,
but men are extraordinary creatures. There is no adventure so wild
that they will not embark on it. There are men who, if they took it
into their heads that there was one chance in a hundred of reaching
the moon by being precipitated into space in some kind of torpedo,
would volunteer for the adventure. They do these mad things alike for
trivial and noble ends. They love a stunt even (or especially) at the
risk of their lives. Half the aeroplane accidents are due to the fact
that many men prefer risk to safety. To do some things that other
people cannot do seems to them the only way of justifying their
existence. It is an initiation into aristocracy. Every man is the
rival of all other men, and he is not satisfied till he has beaten
them. If he is a great cricketer, or a great poet, or a Cabinet
Minister, or wins the Derby, his ambition as a rule is fulfilled and
he does not feel the need of jumping down Etna or hanging by his toes
from the Eiffel Tower in order to create a sensation. But if a man is
no use at either poetry or football, he must do something. Blondin
became a world-famous figure simply by walking along a tight-rope
along which neither Shakespeare nor Shelley could have walked. It may
be that they would have had no desire to walk along it, but in any
case Blondin was able to feel that he could beat the greatest of men
in at least one game. In his own business he stood above the Apostle
Paul and Michelangelo and Napoleon. He was a king and, even if you did
not envy him his trade, you had to envy him his throne. He was a man
you would have liked to meet at dinner, not for the sake of his
conversation, but for the sake of his uniqueness. One remembers how
one stood with heart in mouth as he set out with his balancing-pole in
his hand on his journey across the rope blindfolded and pretending to
stumble every ten yards. A single false step and he would have fallen
from the height of a tower to certain death, for there was no net to
catch him. Strange that one should have cared whether he fell or not!
But ninety-nine out of a hundred did care. We watched him as
breathlessly as though he were carrying the future of the world in his
hands. He knew that he was interesting us, engrossing us, and that was
his reward. It was a reward, no doubt, that could be measured in gold.
But it is more than greed of gold that sets men courting death in such
ways. The joy of being unique is at least as great as the joy of being
rich. And the surest way of becoming unique is to trail one's coat in
the presence of Death and challenge him to tread on the tail of it.

Not that even the most daring seeker after uniqueness fails to take
numerous precautions for his safety. No man is mad enough to set out
along a tight-rope in hobnailed boots with out previous practice. No
woman who has not learned to swim has ever tried to swim the English
Channel from Dover to Cape Grisnez. Even the daredevil barber of
Bristol insured himself, so far as he could, against the perils of his
adventure. He had an oxygen tank in the barrel which would have kept
him alive for a time if the barrel had not been swept under the Falls,
and he had friends patrolling the waters to recover the barrel. Like
the schoolboy who takes risks, he did not feel that he was going to
get caught. "I have the greatest confidence," he said, "that I shall
come through all right." His previous escapes must have given him the
assurance that he was not born to die of danger. Not only had he
served through the war, but he had once plucked a woman from the
railway line when the express was so near that it tore her skirt. He
must have felt that one man at least could live in perfect safety in
the kingdom of danger. He was probably less nervous as he crept into
his barrel than a schoolgirl would be in getting into the boat on the
chute. He had we may be sure, his thrill, but was it the thrill of
being in peril or the thrill of being conspicuous? Some men, of
course, there are who love danger for danger's sake, and who would run
risks in an empty world. Men of this kind make good spies, and, in
their youth, good burglars. Theirs is the desire of the moth for the
star--or at any rate of the moth that feels it is different from every
other moth and can successfully dare the candle flame. To play with
fire and not to be consumed is a universal pleasure. The child passes
its finger through the gas-flame and glories in the sensation. It is
like playing a game of touch with danger. The triumph of escape gives
one a delicious moment. That is why many men invent dangers for
themselves. It is simply for the pleasure of escaping them. There are
boys who enjoy wrenching knockers off doors, not because knockers are
an interesting kind of bric-à-brac, but because there is just a chance
of being caught in the act by the police. I once knew a youth who had
a drawer filled with knockers. He felt as proud of them as a young
Indian would have been of an equal number of the scalps of his
enemies. They proved that he was a brave. Every man would like to be a
brave, though every man dare not. I confess I never had much ambition
to wrench knockers, but that may have been because I was perfectly
content with the world as it is without making it any more dangerous.
I often think that people who put their heads into lions' mouths do
not realise what a dangerous place the planet is without any
artificial stimulus.

Did the daredevil barber of Bristol ever realise, I wonder, the danger
he was in every time he raised a fork with a piece of roast beef to
his lips? Either the beef might have choked him or it might have given
him ptomaine poisoning, or, if it failed of either of these, there are
at least half-a-dozen fatal diseases which vegetarians say are caused
by eating it. Even if we take for granted that there is little danger
in plain beef, are there not curries and sausages and pork-pies on
which a lover of risks may exercise his daring in the restaurants? I
know people who are afraid to eat fish on a Monday lest it may have
gone bad over the week-end. Others live in terror of mackerel and
herrings. I myself have always admired the gallantry of Londoners who
go into a chance restaurant and order lobster or curried prawns. Then
there are all the tinned foods, a spoil for heroes. I have known a
V.C. who was frightened of tinned salmon. And a man's food is not more
beset with perils than his drink. Even if he confines himself to
water, he is in danger at every sip. If the water is too hard, it may
deposit destruction in his arteries. If it is too soft, it may give
his child rickets. Or it may be populous with germs and give him
typhoid fever. If, on the other hand, he is dissatisfied with the
drink of the beasts and takes to beverages the use of which
distinguishes men from oxen, what a nightmare procession of potential
ills lies in wait for him! You may read an account of them in any
temperance tract. The very enumeration of them would drive a weak man
to water, if water itself were not suspect. But, alas, even to breathe
is to put oneself in danger. There are more germs in a bus than there
are stars in the firmament, and one cannot walk along the Strand
without all sorts of bacilli shooting their little arrows at one at
every breath. If men realised these things--truly realised them--they
would see that there is no need to go to the North Pole in order to
live dangerously. A walk from Charing Cross to St Paul's would then be
seen to be as rich in hairbreadth escapes as a voyage to an island of
head-hunters. The man who lives the most thrilling life I know is a
man who rarely stirs beyond his garden. Every time he is pricked by a
thorn or gets a little earth in his finger-nail, he rushes into the
house to bathe his hands in lysol and, for days afterwards, he keeps
feeling his jaw to see whether it is stiffening with the first signs
of tetanus. He lives in a condition of recurrent alarm. He gets more
frights in a week than an ordinary traveller could get in a year. I
have often advised him to give up gardening, seeing that he finds it
so exciting. I have come to the conclusion, however, that he enjoys
those half-hourly rushes to the lysol-bottle--the desperate game of
hide-and-seek with lockjaw. He needs no barrel to roll him over
Niagara in order to gaze into "the bright eyes of danger." He finds
all the danger he wants at the root of the meanest brussels sprout
that blows.




XX



WEEDS: AN APPRECIATION


A weed, says the dictionary, is "any plant that is useless,
troublesome, noxious or grows where it is not wanted." The dictionary
also adds: "_colloq._, a cigar." We may omit for our present purpose
the harmless colloquialism, but the rest of the definition deserves to
be closely examined. Socrates, I imagine, could have found a number of
pointed questions to put to the dictionary maker. He might have begun
with two of the commonest weeds, the nettle and the dandelion. Having
got his opponent--and the opponents of Socrates were all of the same
mental build as Sherlock Holmes's Dr Watson--eagerly to admit that the
nettle was a weed, he would at once put the definition to the test.
"The story goes," he would say, quoting Mrs. Clark Nuttall's admirable
work, _Wild Flowers as They Grow_, "that the Roman soldiers brought
the most venomous of the stinging nettles to England to flagellate
themselves with when they were benumbed with the cold of this--to
them--terribly inclement isle. It is certain," he would add from the
same source, "that physicians at one time employed nettles to sting
paralysed limbs into vigour again, also to cure rheumatism. In view of
all this," he would ask, "does it not follow either that the nettle is
not a weed or that your definition of a weed is mistaken?" And his
opponent would be certain to answer: "It does follow, O Socrates." A
second opponent, however, would rashly take up the argument. He would
point out that even if the Romans had a mistaken notion that
nettle-stings were useful as a preventive of cold feet, and if our
superstitious ancestors made use of them to cure rheumatism, as our
superstitious contemporaries resort to bee-stings for the same
purpose, the nettle was at all times probably useless and is certainly
useless to-day. Socrates would turn to him with a quiet smile and ask:
"When we say that a plant is useless, do we mean merely that we as a
matter of fact make no use of it, or that it would be of no use even
if we did make use of it?" And the reply would leap out: "Undoubtedly
the latter, O Socrates." Socrates would then remember his Mrs. Nuttall
again, and refer to an old herbal which claimed that "excessive
corpulency may be reduced" by taking a few nettle-seeds daily. He
would admit that he had never made a trial of this cure, as he had no
desire to get rid of the corpulency with which the gods had seen fit
to endow him. He would claim, however, that the usefulness of the
nettle had been proved as an article of diet, that it was once a
favourite vegetable in Scotland, that it had helped to keep people
alive at the time of the Irish famine, and that even during the recent
war it had been recommended as an excellent substitute for spinach.
"May we not put it in this way," he would ask, "that you call a nettle
useless merely because you yourself do not make use of it?" "It seems
that you are right, O Socrates." "And would you call an aeroplane
useless, merely because you yourself have never made use of an
aeroplane? Or a pig useless, merely because you yourself do not eat
pork?" There would be a great wagging of heads among the opponents,
after which a third would pluck up courage to say: "But, surely,
Socrates, nettles as we know them to-day are simply noxious plants
that fulfil no function but to sting our children?" Socrates would
say, after a moment's pause: "That certainly is an argument that
deserves serious consideration. A weed, then, is to be condemned, you
think, not for its uselessness, but for its noxiousness?" This would
be agreed to. "Then," he would pursue his questions, "you would
probably call monkshood a weed, seeing that it has been the cause not
merely of pain but even of death itself to many children." His
opponent would grow angry at this, and exclaim: "Why, I cultivate
monkshood in my own garden. It is one of the most beautiful of the
flowers." Then there would be some wrangling as to whether ugliness
was the test of weeds, till Socrates would make it clear that this
would involve omitting speedwell and the scarlet pimpernel from the
list. Someone else would contend that the essence of a weed was its
troublesomeness, but Socrates would counter this by asking them
whether horseradish was not a far more troublesome thing in a garden
than foxgloves. "Oh," one of the disputants would cry in desperation,
"let us simply say that a weed is any plant that is not wanted in the
place where it is growing." "You would call groundsel a weed in the
garden of a man who does not keep a canary, but not a weed in the
garden of a man who does?" "I would." Socrates would burst out
laughing at this, and say: "It seems to me that a weed is more
difficult to define even than justice. I think we had better change
the subject and talk about the immortality of the soul." The only part
of the definition of a weed, indeed, that bears a moment's
investigation is contained in the three words: "_colloq._, a cigar."

In my opinion, the safest course is to include among weeds all plants
that grow wild. It is also important to get rid of the notion that
weeds are necessarily evil things that should be exterminated like
rats. I remember some years ago seeing an appalling suggestion that
farmers should be compelled by law to clear their land of weeds. The
writer, if I remember correctly, even looked forward to the day when a
farmer would be fined if a daisy were found growing in one of his
fields. Utilitarianism of this kind terrifies the imagination. There
are some people who are aghast at the prospect of a world of
simplified spelling. But a world of simplified spelling would be
Arcadia itself compared to a world without wild flowers. According to
certain writers in _The Times_, however, we are faced with the
possibility of a world without wild flowers, even if the Board of
Agriculture takes no hand in the business. These writers tell us that
the reckless plucking of wild flowers has already led to a great
diminution in their numbers. Daffodils grow wild in many parts of
England, but, as soon as they appear, hordes of holiday-makers rush to
the scene and gather them in such numbers as to injure the life of the
plants. I am not enough of a botanist to know whether it is possible
in this way to discourage flowers that grow from bulbs. If it is, it
seems likely enough that, with the increasing popularity of country
walks, there will after a time be no daffodils or orchises left in
England. If one were sure of it, one would never pluck a bee-orchis
again. One does not know why one plucks it, except that the bee-shaped
flower is one of the most exquisite of Nature's toys, and one is
greedy of possessing it. Children try to catch butterflies for the
same reason. If it were possible to catch a sunset or a blue sea, no
doubt we should take them home with us, too. It may be that art is
only the transmuted instinct to seize and make our own all the
beautiful things we see. The collector of birds' eggs and the painter
are both collectors of a beauty that can be known only in hints and
fragments. Still, the painter is justified by the fact that his
borrowings actually add to the number of beautiful things. If the
collector of eggs and the gatherer of flowers can be shown to be
actually anti-social in their greed, we cannot be so enthusiastic
about them. I confess that on these matters I have an open mind. For
all I know, the discussion on wild flowers in _The Times_ may be
merely a scare. At the same time, it seems reasonable to believe that
if flowers that propagate themselves from seed were all gathered as
soon as they appeared, there would before long be no flowers left. I
notice that one suggestion has been made to the effect that
flower-lovers should provide themselves with seeds and should scatter
these in "likely places" during their country walks. I do not like
this plotting on Nature's behalf. Besides, it might lead to some
rather difficult situations. If this general seed-sowing became a
matter of principle, for instance, I should probably sow daisies on my
neighbour's tennis lawn, poppies and fumitory in his cornfield, and
dandelions in his meadow. It is not that I am devoted to the dandelion
as a flower, though it has been praised for its beauty, but at a later
stage a meadow of a million dandelion-clocks seems to me to be one of
the most beautiful of spectacles. But I would go further than this. I
should never see a hill-side cultivated without going out at night and
sowing it with the seeds of gorse and thistle. Not that I should bear
any ill-will to the farmer, but it is said that the diminution of
waste land, with its abundance of gorse and thistles, has led to a
great diminution in the number of linnets and goldfinches. The farmer,
perhaps, can do without linnets and goldfinches, but we who make our
living in other ways cannot. I should sow tares among his wheat, if
necessary, if I believed that tares would tempt a bearded tit or a
golden oriole.

Still, I cannot easily persuade myself that a Society for the
Protection of Weeds is even now necessary. I have great faith in
weeds. If they are given a fair chance, I should back them against any
cultivated flower or vegetable I know. Anyone who has ever had a
garden knows that, while it is necessary to work hard to keep the
shepherd's purse and the chickweed and the dandelion and the wartwort
and the hawkweed and the valerian from growing, one has to take no
such pains in order to keep the lettuces and the potatoes from
growing. For myself, I should, in the vulgar phrase, back the
shepherd's purse against the lettuces every time. If the weeds in the
garden fail to make us radiantly happy, it is not because they are
weeds, but because they are the wrong weeds. Why not the ground-ivy
instead of the shepherd's purse, that lank intruder that not only is a
weed but looks like one? Why not bee-orchises for wartwort, and
gentians for chickweed? I have no fault to find with the foxgloves
under the apple-tree or with the ivy-leaved toad-flax that hangs with
its elfin flowers from every cranny in the wall. But I protest against
the dandelions and the superfluity of groundsel. I undertake that, if
rest-harrow and scabious and corn-cockle invade the garden, I shall
never use a hoe on them. More than this, if only the right weeds
settled in the garden, I should grow no other flowers. But shepherd's
purse! Compared with it, a cabbage is a posy for a bridesmaid, and
sprouting broccoli a bouquet for a prima donna. After all, one ought
to be allowed to choose the weeds for one's own garden. But then when
one chooses them, one no longer calls them weeds. The periwinkle, the
primrose and the mallow--we spare them with our tongue as with our
hoe. This, perhaps, suggests the only definition of a weed that is
possible. A weed is a plant we hoe up or, rather, that we try to hoe
up. A flower or a vegetable is a plant that the hoe deliberately
misses. But, in spite of the hoe, the weeds have it. They survive and
multiply like a subject race.... Well, perhaps better a weed than a
geranium.




XXI



A JUROR IN WAITING


The train was crowded with jurymen. Every one of them was saying
something like "It's a disgrace," "It's a perfect scandal," "No other
nation would put up with it," and "Here we all are grumbling; and what
are we going to do about it? Nothing. That's the British way." They
were not complaining of any act of injustice perpetrated against a
prisoner. They were complaining of their own treatment. Fifty or sixty
of them had been summoned from the four ends of the county, and kept
packed away all day under a gallery at the back of the court, where
there was not even room for all of them to sit down, and where there
was certainly not room for all of them to breathe. It would have been
an easy thing for the Clerk of the Court to choose a dozen jurymen in
the first ten minutes of the day, and to dismiss the rest on their
business. He might, if necessary, have also picked a reserve jury, and
selected the jury for the next day's cases. The law revels in expense,
however and so a great number of middle-aged men were taken away for
two whole days from their businesses and compelled to sit in filthy
air and on benches that would not be endured in the gallery of a
theatre, with nothing to do but watch the backs of the heads of a
continuous procession of barristers and bigamists.

Few jurors would have complained, I think if there had been any
rational excuse for detaining them. What they objected to so bitterly
was the fact that no use was made of them, and that they were kept
there for two days, though it must have been obvious to everyone that
the majority of them might as well he at home. It may be, however,
that there is some great purpose underlying the present system of
calling together a crowd of unnecessary jurymen. Perhaps it is a form
of compulsory education for middle-aged men. It shows them the machine
of the law in action, and enables them to some extent to say from
their own observation whether it is being worked in a fair and humane
or in a harsh and vindictive spirit. One cannot sit through one
criminal case after another at the Assizes without gaining a
considerable amount of material for forming a judgment on this matter.
The juror in waiting, as he sees a pregnant woman swooning in the dock
or a man with a high, pumpkin-shaped back to his head led off down the
dark stairs to five years' penal servitude, becomes a keen critic of
the British justice that may have been to him until then merely a
phrase. How does British justice emerge from the test? Well, it may be
that this judge was a particularly kind judge and that the policemen
of this county are particularly kindly policemen, but I confess that,
much as I detest other people's boasting, I came away with the
impression that the boast about British justice is justified. I do not
believe that it is by any means always justified in the mouths of
statesmen who use it as an excuse for their own injustice, and I would
not trust every judge or every jury to give a verdict free from
political bias in a case that involved political issues. But in the
ordinary case--"as between," in the words of the oath, "our sovereign
lord the King and the prisoner at the bar"--it seems to me, if my two
days' experience can be taken as typical, that British justice is not
only just but merciful.

The evidence is, perhaps, insufficient, as, in most cases, the
sentences were deferred. But what pleased one was the general lack of
vindictiveness in the prosecution or in the police evidence. Hardly a
bigamist climbed into the dock--and there was an apparently endless
stream of them--to whom the local police did not give a glowing
certificate of character. The chief constable of the county went into
the witness-box to testify that one bigamist was "reliable," "a, good
worker," etc. "His general conduct," a policeman would say of another,
"as regards both the women, was good." The barristers, as was natural,
dwelt on the Army record of most of the men, and, even when a client
had pleaded guilty, would appeal to the judge to remember that he had
before him a man with a stainless past. "But wait, wait," the judge
would interrupt; "you know bigamy is a very serious offence." "I quite
agree with your lordship," counsel would reply nervously, "but I beg
of you to take into consideration that the prisoner was carried away
by his love for this woman--" This was where the judge always grew
indignant. He was a little man with big eyebrows, a big nose, a big
mouth, and white whiskers. His whiskers made him appear a little like
Matthew Arnold in a wig and scarlet, save that he did not look as if
he were sitting above the battle. "You tell me," he declared warmly,
"that he loved this woman, while he admits that he deceived her into
marrying him and falsely described himself in the marriage certificate
as a bachelor." Counsel would again nervously agree with his lordship
that his client had done wrong in deceiving the woman, but in three
sentences he would have found another way round to the portraiture of
the prisoner as all but a model for the young. Certainly, the great
increase in the offence of bigamy proves at least the hollowness of
all the talk about the growing indifference to the marriage tie.
Whatever we may think of bigamists--and there are black sheep in every
flock--the bigamist is manifestly a much-married man. He is a person,
I should say, with the bump of domesticity excessively developed. The
merely immoral man, as most of us know him, does not ask for the
sanction of the law for his immorality. He does not feel the want of
"a home from home," as the bigamist does. The increase in bigamy, it
seems clear enough, is largely due to the war, which not only gave men
opportunities for travel such as they had never had before, but
enabled them to travel in a uniform which was itself a passport to
many an impressionable female heart. Men had never been so much
admired before. Never had they had so wide a choice of female
acquaintances. "I am amazed," said Clive on a famous occasion, "at my
own moderation." Many a bigamist, as he stands in the dock in these
days of the cool fit, could conscientiously put forward the same plea.
But the most that any of them can say is that they thought the first
wife was dead or that she wanted to bring up the children Roman
Catholics.

The first wife in one of the bigamy cases went into the witness-box,
and I saw what to me was an incredible sight--an Englishwoman of
thirty who could neither read nor write. Red-haired, tearful, weary,
she did not even know the months of the year. She said a telegram had
been sent to her husband saying she was dangerously ill in February.
"Was that this year or last year?" asked counsel. "I don't know, sir,"
she said. "Come, come," said the judge, "you must know whether you
were suffering from a dangerous illness this year or last." "No, sir,"
she replied shakily; "you see, sir, not bein' a scholar, I couldn't
'ardly tell, sir." Then a bright idea struck her. "My hospital papers
could tell the date, sir." She produced from her pocket a paper saying
that she had undergone an operation in a hospital in September 1919.
That was all that could be got out of her. The counsel on the other
side rose to cross-examine her about the dates. "You had an operation
in September, you say. Were you laid up at any other time during the
past two years?" "No, sir." "But you have sworn that you were ill in
February, when a telegram was sent to your husband?" "Yes, sir." "And
now you say that you weren't ill at any other time except in
September?" "No, sir." "So you weren't ill in February?" "Oh yes, sir;
I had the 'flu, sir." She was as obstinate about it all as the child
in _We are Seven_. But she kept assuring us that she was no scholar.
Her husband said that he had received a letter saying she was dead,
and, though he had lost it, he quoted it at length "as far as he could
remember it." It was a beautiful letter, expressing regret that he had
not been at the side of the deathbed, where, the writer was sure,
whatever faults had been on either side would have been forgiven. "You
never were dead?" the judge asked the woman. "No sir," she replied in
the same tone of _We are Seven_ seriousness.

A girl was put in the dock, charged with having stolen a Post Office
savings bank book. A policeman, giving evidence, said: "Until the 6th
of December she was in the Wacks." "You say," said the judge, rather
bewildered by the good appearance of the girl, "that she was in the
workhouse!" "In the Wacks, my lord." "I think he means the Royal Air
Force," prosecuting counsel helped the judge out of his perplexity.
And the word "Wraf" went from mouth to mouth round the court. The girl
was guilty, but the judge told her that he was not going to send her
to prison. "I don't think it would do you any good, and I don't think
the interests of society call for it," he said. "What I'm going to do
is to bind you over to come up for judgment if called upon. Now, go
away home, and be a good girl, and, if you are, you won't hear
anything more about it. You have done a very disgraceful thing, but
you can live it down by good conduct in the future." There was another
thief, a boy of eighteen, who had been deserted by his mother at the
age of three, and whom the judge also told, though not in those words,
to go and sin no more. There was also a boy who had forged his
father's consent to his marriage, and he and his girl wife were
lectured like children and sent home to do better in future. As the
judge said to the boy: "This is not a thing you are likely to do
again." His wife, who was expecting a baby, had to be carried fainting
from the dock. Counsel could not bring himself to say that she was
expecting a baby. He said that she was "in a certain condition." The
modesty of the law is marvellous. One of the most interesting of the
prisoners was a little sleek-headed man accused of fraud, who kept
moving his head about like a tortoise's out of its shell. His head was
black and shining where it was not bald and shining. He had
gold-rimmed spectacles and a sallow face. He glided his hands over the
knobs on the front of the dock with a reptilian smoothness. He had
persuaded a number of tradesmen and hotel-keepers that he was an
English peer. He had even complained to one shopkeeper of the
smallness of a wallet, as he needed something larger to hold the
title-deeds relating to the peerage. In another case, a young man,
staying in a house, had stolen, along with other things, his hostess's
false teeth, her best dress and a great quantity of underclothing. A
parcel of clothing had been recovered from a second-hand shop and was
shown to the lady when in the witness-box. She took up one of the
garments and fingered it. "Well," said the prosecuting counsel,
encouragingly, "is that your best dress?" "Naoh," she said
melancholily, "that's me ypron." Then there was a young man who stole
a motor-bicycle by presenting a revolver at the head of the owner. He
denied that he had stolen it, and maintained that, after he had
apologised to the owner "for having treated him so abruptly," they had
become friendly and he had been told to take the bicycle away and pay
for it later. Alas! there is a limit to human credulity. Besides, the
young man had a crooked mouth. After two days in court, one begins to
believe that one can tell an honest man from a liar by looking at him.
Probably one is over-confident.




XXII



THE THREE-HALFPENNY BIT


As a rule, there is nothing that offends us more than a new kind of
money. We felt humiliated in the early days of the war when we were no
longer paid in heavy little discs of gold, and had to accept paper
pounds and ten-shillingses. We even sneered at the design. We always
sneer at the design of new money or a new stamp. But we hated the
paper even more than the design. We could not believe it had any
value. We spent it as though it were paper. One would as soon have
thought of collecting old newspapers as of playing the miser with it.
That is probably the true secret of the fall in the value of money.
Economists explain it in other ways. But it seems likeliest that paper
money lost its value because we did not value it. Shopkeepers took
advantage of our foolish innocence, and the tailor demanded sums in
paper that he would never have dared to ask in gold. I doubt if the
habit of thrift will ever be restored till the gold currency comes
back. Gold is the only metal for which human beings have any lasting
respect. No one but a child would save up pennies. There is something
in gold--the colour, perhaps, reminding us of the sun, the god of our
ancestors--that puts us into the mood of worshippers. The children of
Israel found it impossible not to worship the golden calf. They have
gone on worshipping it ever since. Had the calf been of paper, they
would, I feel confident, have remained good Christians.

The influence of hatred on the expenditure of money is seen in our
attitude to threepenny bits. Nine out of ten people feel sincerely
indignant when a threepenny bit is given to them in their change. The
shopkeeper who gives you two threepenny bits instead of a sixpence
knows this and, as he hands you the money, says apologetically: "Do
you mind?" You say: "Not at all," but you do. You know that they will
be a constant misery to you till you get rid of them. You know that if
you give one of them to a bus conductor, even if he is able to
restrain himself, he will feel like throwing you off the top of the
bus. When at length you spend one of them in a post office--one never
has the same scruples about Government institutions--you hurry out
with a guilty air, not having dared to look the lady at the counter in
the eye. In the nineteenth century, when people went to church, they
used to get rid of their threepenny bits at the collection. They at
once relieved themselves of a nuisance, and enjoyed the luxury of
flinging the gleam of silver on to the plate. Many a good Baptist has
trusted to his threepenny bit's being mistaken for a sixpence, by the
neighbours, at least--perhaps even by Heaven. He has a notion that the
widow's mite was a threepenny bit, and feels that his gift is in a
great tradition.

The popular hatred of certain coins, however, goes back to a far
earlier date than the invention of the threepenny bit. Even gold, when
it was first introduced into the English coinage, was met with such a
storm of denunciation that it had to be withdrawn. This was in the
time of Henry III., who issued a golden penny to take the place of the
silver penny that had hitherto been the chief English coin. It was
only in the reign of Edward III. that gold coins became established in
England They may have helped to recommend themselves to the nation by
their intensely anti-French character. They bore the French arms, and
announced that King Edward was King of England and France. France is a
country lying close to the shores of England, and is of great
strategic importance to her. I do not know whether the copper coins
which first came into England in the time of Charles II. raised any
clamour of public protest. The nation, I fancy, was so relieved to get
back to cakes and ale that it was not inclined to be censorious about
the new halfpennies and farthings. In the old days, people had made
their own halfpennies and farthings by the simple process of cutting
pennies into halves and quarters. They also issued private coins on
the same principle on which we nowadays write cheques. Municipalities
and shopkeepers alike issued these tokens, or promises to pay, and
without them there would not have been sufficient currency for the
transaction of business. The copper coins of Charles II. were intended
to put a stop to this unofficial sort of money, but towards the end of
the eighteenth century there was such a scarcity of copper currency
that local shopkeepers and bankers defied the law and again began to
issue their own coins. I have in my possession what looks like a
George III. shilling, with the King's head on one side and, on the
other, inside a wreath of shamrocks, the inscription: "Bank Token, 10
Pence Irish, 1813." It was turned up by the plough on a Staffordshire
farm a few years ago. Speaking of this reminds me that a separate
Irish coinage continued even after the Union of 1800. It was not till
1817 that English gold and silver became current in Ireland, and Irish
pennies and halfpennies were struck as late as the reign of George IV.
The Scottish coins came to an end more than a century earlier. The
name of one of them, however, the "bawbee," has survived in popular
humour. Some people say that the name is merely a corruption of
"baby," referring to the portrait of Queen Mary as an infant. It seems
to me as unlikely a derivation as could be imagined.

Of all the English coins, the first appearance of which occasioned
popular anger, none had a worse reception than the two-shilling piece
which appeared in 1849. "This piece," says Miss G.B. Rawlings in
_Coins and How to Know Them_, a book rich in information, "was
unfavourably received, owing to the omission of 'Dei Gratia' after the
Queen's name, and was stigmatised as the godless or graceless florin."
The florin, however, so called after a Florentine coin, had come to
stay, but since 1851 it has been as godly in inscription as any of the
other money in one's pocket. The coin has survived, but hardly the
name. One can with an effort call a spade a spade, but who would think
of calling a florin a florin? The coin itself for a time bore the
inscription: "One Florin, Two Shillings," as though the name called
for translation. Since the introduction of the florin, there have been
many coins that aroused popular hatred. The four-shilling piece,
especially, that was struck in the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee,
was received with a howl of execration. Men went about in constant
dread of argument with shopkeepers as to whether they had given them a
four-shilling or a five-shilling piece. In the interests of the
national good temper the coin ceased to be struck after 1890
Englishmen, however, disliked the entire Jubilee coinage. They
disliked the Queen's portrait, and they disliked especially a sixpence
which could be easily gilded to look like a half-sovereign. The
sixpences were hurriedly withdrawn, but schoolboys continued to
treasure them in the belief that they were worth fabulous sums. Like
groats, the delight of one's childhood, they began to be desirable as
soon as they ceased to be common. When King Edward VII. came to the
throne, there was another outburst of hatred of new money. The chief
objection to it was that the King's effigy had been designed by a
German and had not even been designed well. It was at this time,
perhaps, when people began to hate the money in their pockets, that
the reign of modern extravagance began. To get rid of a sovereign
bearing a design by Herr Fuchs seemed a patriotic duty. Thrift and
pro-Germanism were indistinguishable.

Much as men detest new sorts of money in their own country, however,
many of us take a childish pleasure on our first arrival in France in
handling strange and unfamiliar coins. One of the great pleasures of
travel is changing one's money. There is a certain lavishness about
the coinage of the Continent that appeals to our curiosity. Even in
getting a five-franc piece we never know whether it will bear the
emblem of a republic, a kingdom or an empire. Coins of Greece and
Italy jingle in our pocket with those of the impostor, Louis Napoleon,
and those of the wicked Leopold, King of the Belgians. In Switzerland
I remember even getting a Cretan coin, which I was humiliated by being
unable to pass at a post office. The postal official took down a huge
diagram containing pictures of all the European coins he was allowed
to accept. He studied Greek coins and, for all I know, Jugo-Slav
coins, but nowhere could he find the image of the coin I had proffered
him. Crete for him did not exist. He shook his head solemnly and
handed the coin back. Is there any situation in which a man feels
guiltier than when his money is thrust back on him as of no value?
This happens oftener, perhaps, in France than in any other country.
France has the reputation of being the country of bad money. The
reputation is, I believe, exaggerated, though I have known a Boulogne
tram conductor to refuse even a 50-centime piece as bad. I remember
vividly a warning given to me on this subject during my first visit to
France. I was sitting with a friend in an estaminet in a small village
in the north of France, when an English chauffeur insinuated himself
into the conversation. He was eager to give us advice about France and
the French. "I like the French," he said, "but you can't trust them.
Look out for bad money. They're terrors for bad money. I'd have been
done oftener myself, only that luckily I married a Frenchwoman. She's
in the ticket office at the Maison des Delits--you probably know the
name--it's a dancing-hall in Montmartre. Any time I get a bad 5 franc
piece, I pass it on to her, and she gets rid of it in the change to
some Froggie. My God, they _are_ dishonest! I wouldn't say a word
against the French, but just that one thing. They're dishonest--damned
dishonest." He sat back on the bench, a figure of insular rectitude
but of cosmopolitan broadmindedness. Is it not the perfect compromise?




XXIII



THE MORALS OF BEANS


"Nine bean-rows will I have there," cries Mr Yeats in describing his
Utopia in _The Lake Isle of Innisfree_. I have only two. They run east
to west between the second-early potatoes and the red-currant bushes.
They are broad beans. They are in flower just now, and every flower is
a little black-and-white butterfly. That, however, is the good side of
the account. If you look closer at them, you will see that each of
them appears as if its head had been dipped into coal-dust. There is a
congregation of the blackest of all insects hiding in horrid
congestion among the leaves and flowers at the top. Compared to them,
the green-fly on the roses has almost charm. There is something slummy
and unwashed-looking about the black blight. These insects are as foul
as a stagnant pond. Though they have wings, they seem incapable of
flight. They are microbes of a larger growth--a disease and a
desecration. On the other hand, there is one good point about them:
they are very stupid. Instead of spreading themselves out along the
entire extent of the bean and so lessening their peril, they mass
themselves in hordes in the very tops of the plants as though they had
all some passionate taste for rocking in the wind like the baby on the
tree-top. This is what gives the gardener his opportunity. He has but
to walk along the rows, pinching off the top of each plant, and
filling his flat little basket (called, I believe, a trug) with them,
and lo, the beans are safe, and produce all the finer and fuller pods
as a result of their having been stunted.

At this point the moral thrusts out its head. There are those who
believe that beans have no morals. To call a man "Old bean" gives him,
it is said, a pleasant feeling that he is something of a dog. Gilbert,
again, in _Patience_ has a reference to "a not-too-French French bean"
that suggests a ribald estimate of this family of plants. The broad
bean, on the other hand, seems to me to exude morality--not least,
when it parts with its head to save its life. There is no better
preacher in the vegetable garden. It is the very Chrysostom of the
gospel of frustration--the gospel that a great loss may be a great
gain--the gospel that through their repressions men may all the more
successfully achieve their ends.

Nor is this gospel confined to the sect of the beans (which are by a
happy paradox both broad and evangelical). The apple-trees bear the
same message in their unpruned branches--unpruned owing to a long
absence from home during the winter. It is an amazing fact--I speak as
an amateur--but it is an amazing fact, if it is a fact, that an
apple-tree, if it is left to itself, will not grow apples. It has an
entirely selfish purpose in life. Its aim is to be a tree, living to
itself, producing a multitude of shoots and leaves. It succeeds in
living a rich and fruitful life only when the gardener has come with
the abhorred shears and lopped its branches till it must feel like a
frustrate thing. The fruit is the fruit of frustration. Were it not
for this frustration, it would ultimately return to a state of
wildness, and would become a crabbed and barren weed, fit only to be a
perch for birds.

Thus, it seems to me, the broad bean and the apple-tree are persuasive
defenders of civilisation and of those concomitants of civilisation
morality and the arts. Heretics frequently arise, both in ethics and
in the arts, who say: "No more restraints! Give the bean its head."
There are psycho-analysts who appear to regard frustration as the one
serious evil in life, and the apostles of _vers libre_ denounce metre
and rhyme because these merely serve to frustrate the natural impulses
of the imagination. As a matter of fact, it is this very frustration
that gives poetry much of its depth and vehemence. Great genius
expresses itself, not in the freedom of formlessness, but in the
limitations of form. Shakespeare's passion turned instinctively to the
most frustrative of all poetic forms--that of the sonnet--in order to
express itself in perfection. It is, as a rule, those who have nothing
to say who wish to say it without the terrible frustrations of form.
Obviously, there is a golden mean in the arts as in all things, and
there comes a point at which form passes into formalism. Genius
requires just enough frustration to increase its vehemence, and so to
transmute nature into art. It is possible that some frustration of a
comparable kind is needed in order to transmute nature into morality,
and that the man who would, in Milton's phrase, make of his life a
poem must submit to commandments as difficult as those of metre or
rhyme. It is not merely the Christians and the Stoics who have
maintained this; Epicurus himself was a believer in virtue as a means
to happiness. This, indeed, is a commonplace written all over the face
of nature. There is no great happiness without opposition except for
children. The climber struggles with the hill, the rower with the
water, the digger with the earth. They are all men who live on the
understanding that the pleasures of difficulty are greater even than
the pleasures of ease.

The biographies of famous men are prolific of examples that support
the theory of frustration. Homer, they say, was blind, and the legend
seems to suggest that his blindness, far from injuring, abetted his
genius. Tyrtæus, being physically unable to fight, became the poet of
fighting, and achieved more with his words than did most men with
their weapons. Demosthenes, again, was an orator frustrated by many
defects. Everyone knows the story of his wretched articulation and how
he shut himself up and practised speaking with pebbles in his mouth in
order to overcome it. Few of the great orators, indeed, seem to have
succeeded in oratory without difficulty. Neither Cicero nor Burke
spoke with the natural ease of many a young man in a Y.M.C.A. debating
society. And the great writers, like the great orators, have been, in
many instances, men doomed in some important respect to lead
frustrated lives. Mr Beerbohm recently said that he has never known a
man of genius whose life was not marred by some obvious defect. People
have talked for two thousand years of the desirability of _mens sana
in corpore sano_, but if everybody possessed this--possessed it from
birth and without effort--there would probably soon be a shortage of
genius. The sanity of genius is not the sanity of the healthy minded
athlete: it is the sanity of the human spirit struggling against
forces that threaten to frustrate it. The greatest love-poetry has not
been written by men who have found easy happiness in love. Donne's
poems are the poems of a frustrated lover. Keats's greatest poetry was
the fruit of unfulfilled love. Thus genius turns poverty into riches.
Few men of genius are enviable save in their genius. Beethoven, a
frustrate lover and ultimately a deaf musician, is a type of genius at
its most sublime.

Charles Lamb, as we read the _Essays_, seems at times to be one of the
most enviable of men, but that is only because he is supremely
lovable. Who knows how much we owe to the defects of his life? Even
the impediment in his speech seems to have been one of the conditions
of his genius. He tells us that, if he had not stammered, he would
probably have been a clergyman, and, if he had been a clergyman, he
would hardly have been Elia. His life, too, was that of a tragic
bachelor--he whose writings breathe the finest spirit of fireside
comedy. There could be no better example of the truth that genius is,
as a rule, a response to apparently hostile limitations.

On the whole, then, the common-sense attitude to life is, not to
deplore one's limitations, but to make the best of them. No man need
envy another his good fortune too bitterly. Good fortune has wasted as
many men as it has assisted. George Wyndham was one of the most
fortunate men of his time--strong, handsome, an athlete, an orator, a
statesman, a writer with a sense of style, popular, rich, and with
nine out of ten of the attributes that we envy most. Had achievement
come less easily to him, he might have been a greater man. There have
been ugly men who have been more enviable. There have been weedy men
who were more enviable. There have been poor men who were more
enviable. But the truth is, one does not know whom to envy. It is
probably wise to envy nobody.

It would be foolish, however, to pretend that frustration is a
desirable thing in itself, apart from all other considerations. The
beans nod their heads to no such gospel. Frustration may easily reach
the point of destruction. One might frustrate one's broad beans
excessively by pulling them up by the roots or cutting them down to
within an inch of the ground. There must still be room left for the
life of the plant to find a new outlet. The beans do not preach a
sermon against liberty, but only against lawlessness. But, for all I
know, they may preach different gospels to different amateur
gardeners. Each of us finds in nature what he wishes to find. I
confess I myself am prejudiced in favour of sermons of a consoling
kind. It is consoling to think that, in a world of defects, a defect
often carries with it its own compensation--that strength, as the
preachers say, may be made perfect in weakness. But, when one looks
round and enumerates the miseries of human beings, one wonders how far
this is, after all, true except for men whose gifts are naturally
greater than hog, dog or devil can imperil.




XXIV



ON SEEING A JOKE


Almost any man can make a joke, but it sometimes requires a clever man
to see one. It is said that a Scotsman "jokes wi' deeficulty." What we
really mean is that it is often difficult to see a Scotsman's jokes or
even to know whether he is joking or being serious. As a matter of
fact, the Scots are an unusually humorous race. They make jokes,
however, with the long faces of undertakers, and one is sometimes
afraid to laugh for fear of appearing frivolous on a solemn occasion.
I have in mind one brilliant Scottish professor who, whether he is
jocular or serious, invariably monologises in the tones of a man
condoling with a widow. He half-shuts his eyes and folds his hands,
and, for the first minute or two, takes an evil delight in leaving you
in doubt whether he is launching into a tragic narrative or whether he
will suddenly look up through his spectacles and expect to see you
laughing. His English friends are in a constant state of embarrassment
because they know that he is a humorist of genius, but his humour is
so subtle that they do not trust themselves to see the point when it
comes and laugh at the right place. Now, there are only two things
that can make the professor look sterner than he looks while giving
birth to a joke. One is, if you laugh too early: the other is, if the
great moment comes and you don't laugh at all. He makes no complaint,
but he sits back in his chair, looking like an embittered owl. And
everybody else in the room has a sense of ghastly failure--his own
failure, not the professor's. To miss seeing a joke is, in some
circumstances, far worse than to miss making the point of a joke
visible. If one were in the position of a Queen Victoria, one might,
of course, quench the professor by merely saying: "We are not amused."
But even Queen Victoria, when she said this, did not mean that she had
not seen the joke but that she had seen it and didn't like it. It is
not only the subtle and Scottish jokes, however, that are at times
difficult to see with the naked eye. There is also the joke that hits
you in the eye like a blow and blinds you. Captain Wedgwood Benn
referred to a joke of this kind in the House of Commons on the
authority of Mr Stephen Gwynn. A judge of the Irish High Court, he
related, was recently travelling on a tram which was held up by
Black-and-Tans. The Black-and-Tans, who, like the Most High, are no
respecters of persons, called on the judge to descend, using the
quaint colloquial formula: "Come down, you Irish bastard; put up your
hands." Captain Wedgwood Benn does not unfortunately possess a
twentieth-century sense of humour, and he did not see this particular
joke. The comedy of a judge's being addressed as an Irish bastard did
not strike him. I doubt if half-a-dozen members of the House of
Commons realised the beauty of the joke till Sir Hamar Greenwood got
up and explained it. "I happen to know the judge," said the twinkling
Chief Secretary. "He told the story himself with great glee, and here
it is. Mr Justice Wylie, the last, and one of the best judges
appointed in Ireland, was riding on a tramcar to a hunting meet. When
he got to the end of his ride, there were some policemen on duty, and
they did use a word which, I trust, no hon. Member of this House will
ever use in calling him down from the tram. They did him no harm. He
treated it as a joke, and he would be the man most surprised to find
it quoted in the House and in the _Observer_ as an example of the
decadence of the Irish police." I agree with Sir Hamar. A joke is a
joke, and many Irishmen, unlike Mr Justice Wylie, are unduly
thin-skinned. The only criticism I would make on Sir Hamar Greenwood's
idea of a joke is that he appears to suggest that it would have been
less funny if the Black-and-Tans had done the judge some harm. I
should have expected him rather to dilate on the attractions of life
in the Irish police force for men with a sense of humour. Suppose the
judge had been robbed of his watch, or had had his front teeth broken
with the muzzle of a revolver like the University Professor at Cork,
would not that have made the incident still funnier? Suppose he had
been carried round as a hostage on a motor-lorry, or shot with a
bucket over his head, as has happened to other innocent men, would it
not have been a theme for Aristophanes, who got so much fun out of the
idea of one person's being beaten in mistake for another?

I am confident that distinguished Englishmen will behave in the spirit
of Mr Justice Wylie, when there is an outbreak of humour among the
English police. Mr Justice Darling will, no doubt, enjoy himself
hugely on the day on which an armed policeman first holds up his
motor-car, and addresses him: "'Ullo, you blasted old Bolshevik, come
off the perch, and quick about it, and put up the 'Idden 'And!" There
are some judges who would complain to the Home Office, if such a thing
happened to them. Mr Justice Darling, however, has a keen sense of
humour. I feel certain that on arriving in Court after his experiences
he would tell the story with great glee. He would turn up his face
sideways, as he does when he is amused, and say to the jury: "A most
amusing thing happened to me this morning, by the way ..." There is no
end, indeed, to the directions in which a police force saturated with
the Greenwoodian sense of fun might add to the gaiety of nations. They
might arm themselves with squirts, and laughing Cabinet ministers
would have to duck as they passed down Whitehall in order to avoid a
drenching. Pluffing peas at the bishops on their way to the House of
Lords would also be good sport, so long as they did not really hurt
any of them. To bash the Lord Chancellor's hat over his eyes would be
going too far, as it involves a money loss, but a harmless blow on the
crown with a bladder would be rather amusing. It would also be amusing
if a number of policemen were told off to greet Mr Lloyd George with
cries of "Welsh attorney," and to chaff him with genial scurrilities
on his arrival at the House. If these things happened, there are
killjoys, I know, who would immediately set up a clamour for the
restoration of discipline in the police force. Mr Lloyd George,
however, has always been a man who can not only make a joke but take
one, and I am sure that he at least would defend the democratic right
of the policeman to a bit of chaff.

Nor would I confine the right of chaff to the police force. I would
make it universal. I should like to see it introduced into the Church
itself. Even the dullest sermon would become entertaining if the
verger had the right and the habit of interpolating such remarks as:
"Cheese it, Pussyfoot!" or "Ring off, you bleedin' old bore, ring
off!" There has been too little of this sort of popular raillery in
recent years. The bus-drivers used to be past masters at it, poking
their quiet fun impartially at their fellow-drivers and ordinary
citizens. Whether it is that the drivers of motor-buses realise that
no joke could be heard above the din, or whether it is that they feel
as ill-tempered as they look, their arrival has made fatal inroads on
the geniality of London. An artist with uncut hair can still awaken a
spark of the old wit if he goes down a back street, and women and
children will revive for his benefit the venerable witticism: "Get
your hair cut!" But, generally speaking, there has been a notable
decline in the humours of insult within living memory. The Germans,
always fond of a joke, made an effort to revive it during the war. It
was a common thing for them, we are told, on capturing a prisoner, to
address him as "Schweinhund" or "Verdammte Engländer," or by some
other good-humoured phrase of the same kind. I regret to say that some
Englishmen were so deficient in the sense of humour that, instead of
taking this in the spirit in which it was offered, they bitterly
resented it. I cannot, indeed, recall a single instance of an
Englishman who properly appreciated the joke of being called a
"Schweinhund" by a man he had never seen before. You will seek in vain
through the literature of prisoners of war for a returned soldier who
tells the story of the names he was called with the glee that it
deserves. And yet, no doubt, the Germans enjoyed the joke thoroughly,
and would have been surprised to find it quoted in the _Observer_ as
an example of the decadence of the German Army.

Perhaps, however, the "Schweinhund" joke does not afford an entirely
fair comparison. It is a simple joke, whereas in the Greenwood joke
there are two elements. There is the element of insult, and there is
the element of mistaken identity. It is not merely that somebody or
other was called "You Irish bastard," but that the wrong person was
called "You Irish bastard." Thus, if a policeman addressed a woman in
Oxford Street in the words: "'Op it, you old bitch," it would be only
mildly funny, if the woman were a poor woman. But it would be
immensely funny if she turned out to be a marchioness. The
marchioness, no doubt, would be enchanted, and would tell the story
with great glee. If she were a sentimentalist, she might say to
herself:

     "Is this really the way in which ordinary human beings are
     treated by the police? This is a hideous state of affairs in
     which bullies in uniform are allowed to address foul insults
     to whom they please. Thank heaven, it has happened to
     someone like me. Now, I can tell the Home Secretary, and he
     will put an end to the whole system."

One never knows what a modern Home Secretary might do, but I doubt if
one could be found who would reply to the marchioness: "Well, he did
you no harm. You know, to me it all seems rather funny." And yet most
things have their funny side if you look on them in the right spirit.
It would have been a funny thing if the hangman had executed the wrong
prisoner instead of Crippen. The hanged man would not have seen the
joke, but impartial onlookers would have seen it, and Crippen would
have seen it. Similarly, if a drunken man threw a brick at his wife
and hit the missionary by mistake, who could help laughing? Even the
wife, if she had a sense of humour, would have to join in.
Over-sensitive souls, such as Shelley was might view the incident with
pain and mourn over a world in which human beings treated each other
in such a way. But life is a hard school, and it is not well to be
over-sensitive. After all, if we all became angels, there would be no
jokes left. We should have no clowns in the music-halls--no comic
boxing-turns with glorious thumpings on unexpecting noses. Heaven is a
place without laughter because there is no cruelty in it--no insults
and no accidents. As for us, we are children of earth, and may as well
enjoy the advantages of our position. So let us laugh, "Ha, ha!"--let
us laugh, "Ho, ho!"

     The world is so full of a number of things,
     I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.

And never was it so full of a number of things as since a Coalition
Government came into power--queer, delightful things, for instance,
like policemen who call judges "bastard," as who should say: "Cheerio,
old thing!" Our grandfathers would not have seen that joke. That is
one of the things that convince me of the reality of progress.




XXV



GOING TO THE DERBY


"Do they have as much fun at the Derby as they used to?" I heard an
old gentleman in a white hat, canary gloves, and buttoned boots asking
a fellow-passenger in a London train. Fun? No; one would hardly call
it that. Looking back on it after forty years one will no doubt call
it fun. But it is certainly not fun while it lasts.

The two most important features of the Derby are getting there and
getting away again. Getting there is harder work than bricklaying or
journalism. You may ride in a motor-car, but your motor will be as
useless to you as a submarine in a swimming bath. From Sutton to Epsom
and from Epsom to the Downs a long procession of motor-cars, buses,
waggonettes, greengrocers' carts, lorries, school carts, drays, and
human beings stretches like a serpent of infinite length--a serpent
that is apparently too sick to move. One thinks of it as an old
serpent that has made itself very ill by swallowing machinery.

Every few minutes it gives the machinery in its inward parts a shake,
and makes one more effort to crawl. A queer rattle, shiver, and groan
run through it from tip to tail. But the effort is too much for it. It
immediately subsides on a lame and impotent stomach, and hour after
hour passes with no other diversion except the antics of an occasional
nervous horse that rises on his hind legs and waves his forefeet in
the back of your neck over the hood of the motor.

There is a common belief that the crowd that goes to the Derby is a
cheerful crowd--that it sings and plays concertinas and changes hats.
There could not be a greater delusion. It is as quiet and determined
as a procession of men and women going to hear Dr Horton preaching at
Hampstead. Not a song--well, one song. Not a joke--well, one joke,
when a fat man saw a poor brown lop-eared ass in a field of daisies,
and called out: "There's the winner o' the Durby!" He apparently felt
it was a very good joke, for he repeated it to parties on the tops of
buses and parties on greengrocers' carts and parties in furniture
vans.

The sun, however, was unpropitious for jokes. Even the East Ender, who
had worked an edging of red and white wool into his pony's mane and
hung rosettes of red, white, and blue at its ears, was too busy
perspiring and hating his hundred thousand neighbours to smile. He was
also busy weighing his chances of getting to Epsom Downs before
Judgment Day. I admired his spirit in waving a whip with a knot of
coloured ribbons. There was little other colour to be seen. We were a
procession of victims--red as beef, steaming like the window of a
fried-fish shop, dusty, swollen-veined--and we could only sink back
helpless and gasping in the grip of the monstrous procession of
wheeled things that advanced more slowly than any snail that was ever
known on this side of the Ural Mountains.

I doubt if that procession ever reached Epsom Downs. I did so only
because I got out and walked; and even then the first two races were
over. Half England seemed already to have arrived on the hills, and to
have pitched its wigwams there. The other half was blocking up the
road for ten miles back, and could not possibly arrive in time for the
Derby; but the half who had arrived had already set up a city of
booths and flags on hill after hill as far as the eye could see.

There may have been encampments of this vastness in the days of
Xerxes, but surely never since. It was oppressive, overwhelming. There
were so many people there that there was no room for anybody. There
was no room, so far as I could see, for the man who plays the
three-card trick on the top of an open umbrella, or for the man with
the tape and pencil, and even the beggars who prayed by the roadside
for your success were few. There was simply a crush--an enormous,
sweltering, and appallingly silent crush. Even the bookmakers seemed
to be awed by it. They stood on their stands beside blackboards full
of horses' names and mystical figures, but they did not yell at you
hoarsely, bullyingly, as bookmakers ought to do. If, having looked at
the elephantine portrait advertisement of one of them, you wished to
bet with him, he would consent in a listless way, and say wearily to
his clerk: "Nine-nine-one, seventy shillings to a dollar Polumetis,"
as he handed you a blue, red, and green card.

I do not blame him for not being enthusiastic. I am myself no longer
enthusiastic about Polumetis. Still, one wished for a little violence
besides the violence of the sun and of the man who tried to sell you a
shilling's worth of sausage and who said he was "the only firm, the
only firm in the place." Camden Town on a Saturday night could give
points to Derby Day for colour and uproar. Derby Day is so big,
perhaps, that it is frightened of itself. But I forgot. There was one
violent man. He was fat, hatless, and sweating, and he was hoarse with
shouting superlatives about his tips to a circle of poor old men,
"dunchers" in caps, small boys in jerseys, and tired-looking country
girls.

"If only I could tell you where I got my information," he declared,
"you'd--you'd be s'prised. If any of you has got twenty-five pahnd
abaht him--if you've got even a tenner--why, you've only got ten
bob--well, you can't exactly have a gamble for ten bob, but you can
'ave a bit o' fun, anyway. If you take my advice--it's 'ere on this
bit o' paper--you can 'ave it for a bob--I can give you three 'orses
that'll turn your ten bob into a tenner see? Some people tell you
Tetratema's going to win."

He made a face of disgust, popularly known as giving Tetratema the
raspberry, "Don't you believe it. Didn't I tell you Tagrag? Didn't I
tell you Arion? 'Ere, take my tip, and you'll dance all the w'y 'ome
with joy tonight. Dance? Why, you'll go 'ome jazzin' all the w'y."

And he spread out his fat hands and threw out his fat stomach, and
danced on the grass, just to show one how one ought to behave if one
backed a Derby winner.

Meanwhile, his partner, dressed as a red and white jockey, in a peaked
cap and incongruous puttees, moved round the circle thrusting his
slips of tips almost angrily on us. "Go on," he ordered us. "What's a
bob to a gambler? You people read the papers and believe what you see
in 'em. The papers! I tell you stryte--the worst pack of rogues and
bookmakers in England." A simple old man of ninety, who had lost his
teeth, beckoned to him and paid him a shilling for his tip. The jockey
took him aside and whispered impressively into his ear. Then he said,
in a loud voice: "Are you satisfied, sir?" "Quite satisfied," quavered
the old man. I wish I could have stayed near him. I should like to
have seen him jazzing later in the evening.

Sausages, lemonade, fried fish, chewing gum, bets, ladies standing on
the roofs of taxis, a try-your-strength machine, extemporised
conveniences of civilisation, with youths standing by them and yelling
"Commodytion!" hills of humanity in all attitudes of dazedness and
despair, the thunder and the shouting of the distant bookmakers under
the stands, the quiet of the ten thousand free-lance bookmakers who
were, I suppose, breaking the law in the open spaces; the dust, the
sun, the smell, faces smeary with fruit, the cunning tinker in an old
khaki hat with striped ribbon, who was selling some twopenny
instrument that was supposed to imitate either the bark of a dog or
the song of a nightingale--one could not tell which from the noise he
made with it; stand after stand packed to the sky with what are called
serried ranks of human beings, who looked like immense banks of
many-coloured shingle, and who, as they raised a million pairs of
field-glasses to two million eyes, scintillated in the distance like a
bank of shingle after a wave has broken on it on a tropical noon--it
was certainly an amazing medley of spectacle and odour.

It is said that an important horse-race took place. It is even said
that Polumetis ran in it. I looked for him everywhere--over people's
heads, under people's heads, through motor-buses, round the corners of
refreshment tents, in the sky above, and on the earth beneath. But no
Polumetis was to be seen anywhere--except on my race-card, where I
read about his lilac-coloured jockey. A jockey in lilac--how
beautiful, how Japanese! And, indeed, all the jockeys as they paraded
down the field before the race seemed to have robbed a rainbow.

They brought meaning and beauty into an otherwise bald and
unconvincing mob. I assure you I love horse-racing--if I could see it.
But of all the people who congregated the little crooked hills of
Epsom, I doubt if ten people in a hundred saw it. You knew that the
horses had started only because, as you lay dreaming, the million
people on the stands suddenly made you jump with a loud, sharp, and
terrifying bark, which said: "They're off!" in one syllable.

Then there was deep silence, and somebody near me said: "The favourite
can't be leading, or they would be shouting." Then from the stands
came a murmur like bees, a muttering as of a man talking in his sleep,
a growling as of wind in a cave. This only served to intensify the
silence of a defeated people. One knew that something awful must be
happening. Perhaps even Polumetis was winning.

Above the heads of the crowd the heads of jockeys began to be visible.
A fool cried out: "The favourite wins." Another: "Allenby has it."
Then one had a glimpse of three horses close--well, fairly close--on
each other's tails, and none of them the grey Tetratema. I noticed
that on one of them crouched a jockey in exquisite grass-green. He
passed like a fine phrase out of a poem of which one does not know the
rest. But I did not really know who had won till the numbers were put
up on the board. Then a badly shaven man in a bowler cried: "Spion Kop
has won! Bravo!" and clapped his friend on the back. The rest of us
looked at him with contempt. The tinker-nosed man who played the
instrument that sang like a dog or barked like a nightingale began to
squeak it into people's ears.

The crowd began pouring itself through itself, and the dust from its
feet rose like a cloud till it was difficult to see across the course.

And the motor-car broke down on the way home.

And Polumetis didn't win.

And I'm as tired as a dog....

And so say all of us.




XXVI



THIS BLASTED WORLD


Everything has begun to have a blasted look till the sun shines. The
ferns have been beaten down by the wind and the rain, and lie withered
and broken-backed among the brambles, waiting till some poor man
thinks it worth his while to go off with a load of them on his back
for bedding. The brambles, too, all hoops and arches, have the air of
dying things, though white blossoms still continue to appear, and the
fruit is not yet all ripened and many of the leaves are as red and
bright as flowers. The edges of most of the leaves have began to
crumple: they are victims of a creeping sickness that eats into them
and dirties them, and makes bramble and fern together an inextricable
wilderness of refuse.

This, however, is only if one looks too closely. The hill that loses
itself among the rocks on the sea-shore is capped and patched with
just such refuse as this, but how happily the rust-colour of dying
things is broken by the grey of the loose stone walls--"hedges," they
call them in Cornwall--that seem to totter up the hill like old men!
The mist of rain that leaves each individual plant bedraggled seems to
make the red and green and grey pattern of the patched hill only more
beautiful and mysterious. The truth is, winter speaks with two voices
even in these early days. She has one voice that sends cold shivers
down our backs. She has another voice that is refreshment like water
from a spring. She speaks with the first voice in the crooked trees.
In the summer they were cloaked and glorious. Now, when their cloaks
seem so much more necessary, they are left naked, poor creatures,
their backs to the sea-wind, with the air of runaways unable to
escape. They seem bent and poised for flight, but when a blast of wind
comes and tugs at them they are as the stump of a tooth that will not
move, and the leaves (such of them as are left), which in summer made
a music as pleasant as that of windbells, rattle in their branches
like the laughter of a skeleton. The oak and the thorn-bush could
scarcely writhe more if they were crippled by rheumatism. Every leaf
on the sycamore is spotted as if with some foul black acid.

Here, too, however, as soon as the leaves have fallen, the world is
restored to cheerfulness. The withering tree seems a sufferer. The
fallen leaf is an imp, an adventurer. As the wind sweeps round a bend
in the road, leaf after leaf is up and performing cart-wheels down the
road as if Christmas Day had come. Thousands of them, borne along in a
dance of this kind, advance with the beflustered, orderly air of a
procession of starlings. The world ceases to be a universal grave. It
is at the very least a dance and a dust-storm.

There are some days, no doubt, on which the chill damp in the air
seems to terrify almost every living thing into hiding, and the
stillness of the dead world is not disturbed by any bird or insect.
Even the jackdaws have mysteriously disappeared like melted snow. But
no sooner does the storm in the sky break up into floating islands of
cloud and the sun shine than all the world begins to glitter again,
bramble and ivy and stone, and a host of tiny and coloured creatures
resume their game of an infinite general post in the bright air. The
ivy especially is a little continent of life where-ever it grows.
Clambering over a wall or climbing up among the sloes in a blackthorn
it attracts bee and wasp and fly, blue fly and grey fly and green fly,
to graze on the pollen of its late flowers. The ivy is the last of the
plants to flower, and insects come to it as from the ends of the earth
in rejoicing myriads. Among the berries in the hedges the birds, too,
rejoice. The robin, though for the most part, I believe, a meat-eater,
becomes unambiguously happy at this time of year. He has usurped the
morning, and, while one is lying in bed, he is boasting in the trees
outside where the thrush and the blackbird will in a few months be
boasting with their scarcely more beautiful voices. I am half
persuaded that his song becomes different at this season. As he sits
and sways on the top of a cypress and looks down on a rich and eatable
world, he seems to have cast every note of pensive sadness out of his
being and to sing aloud the rapture of a happy stomach. He is no
longer the singer of elegy but of ecstasy. He is as unlike his old
simple, friendly, appealing, pathetic self as a beggar who has come
into a fortune. He actually swaggers, and, as he does so, he can fill
a garden or a wood at the end of October with the pleasure of spring.

The large titmouse in its dark cap, and the blue-tit, almost too
pretty for an English winter in its blue and yellow coat, also hasten
to the feast of the berries. I do not know whether, under the iron
reign of high prices, people have ceased to hang out coco-nuts in
their gardens for the blue-tits; at present, fortunately, the berries
are abundant, and it is pleasant to see a tit venture to the edge of
the road in quest of one and then fly off into hiding, like a thief,
with a red ball in his beak. A scarcely less pretty bird that one sees
flying across the road now and then with cries of alarm is the grey
wagtail. The grey wagtail, you probably know, is the wagtail that is
not grey. As it struggles and shrills through the sunny air, it seems
a delight mainly of yellow. Both its cries and its flight make one
think that it lives in constant terror of falling. It proceeds through
the air in a series of efforts and ups-and-downs, and its long tail
seems perpetually to threaten to misguide it into collapse. Down among
the rocks and in the fields near them, the real grey wagtails
abound--the pied wagtails, as they are called--with their white cheeks
and their less hysterical voices that greet one in passing with a
pleasant little "Cheerio!" As they alight from the air beside a
puddle, they indulge in a little prance as though they were trying to
cut a figure of eight on nothing or were essaying in some manner to
sweep their tails out of way. Their whole existence, however, is a
dance. Whether they pick their food from the rocks or in a field of
cows, the alert head and jerking tail are never still, but are
nervously ready for flight almost before the hint of danger. And they
have usually with them as nervous companions the rock-pipits, charming
little tight-skinned, low-crowned birds that hurry off wavily through
the air, reiterating their solitary note of fear as they fly. The
starlings, which seemed to disappear for a time, have now returned to
the fields near the sea. They have left their wonderful sheen
somewhere behind them, and are mottled and plebeian. Still, to see a
cloud of them alighting in a field at the end of a swift circle of
flight is a pretty enough spectacle.

The evolutions of cavalry and still more of aeroplanes are elementary
compared to this. Close-packed as they are, a thousand of them will
wheel in order without an accident and alight each on his own patch of
ground with the easy grace of acrobats. It is only when they have
found their feet that the disorder begins. Whether it is worms or
insects or verdure they seek among the grazing cows, there is
evidently little enough to go round, and starling fights starling with
peck and protest all over the field. It is a scene of civil war, save
that the birds do not form themselves into sides but each wrestles
with its neighbour at random. But, after all, they are very hungry.
They cluster ravenously on the green patches, even on the sides of the
old stone walls. They have evidently not had the economic question
settled for them as the cows have.

Luckily, other birds are either less desperate or more pacific by
nature. The stone-chat as he flits from bramble to bramble in his
black cap, white collar, and red bib is a bird of charming behaviour
as well as of charming colour. There is nothing in him at discord with
these rainbow days. For stormy as they are, the days are rainbow days
to an astonishing extent. Seldom have I seen such a violence of
rainbows. The colours almost startle one, like a courting ape's. Every
passing shower builds an arch of the seven colours like a palace on
the sea. Then it draws near till the foot of the rainbow stands a few
yards below over the breaking waves. Sea-birds sail through it, and,
if a pot of gold is really to be found at the end of it, I must often
lately have been within touching distance of a fortune.... At night,
Jupiter--it is Jupiter, is it not? that hangs in the V of Aldebaran
about eight or nine in the evening just now--stills the world to
wonder as the rainbow does by day. He is so splendid a fire as to seem
almost solitary, even when the moon is shining. A few evenings ago, he
shed a path of light over the sea as the moon does, and seemed to
light up the sands on the far side of the bay.... It is undoubtedly a
blasted world, but what a beautiful blasted world! It is a pity that
we and the starlings are so belly-driven that we cannot settle down to
enjoy it. Peck, peck. My worm, I think. Peck, peck, peck.






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