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Title: Myself when Young - Confessions
Author: Waugh, Alec (Alexander Raban)
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                           MYSELF WHEN YOUNG

                         _BY THE SAME AUTHOR_


                               _Fiction_

                           THE LOOM OF YOUTH
                               PLEASURE
                          THE LONELY UNICORN


                               _Studies_

                        THE PRISONERS OF MAINZ
                          PUBLIC SCHOOL LIFE



                                MYSELF
                              WHEN YOUNG

                              CONFESSIONS

                                  BY
                              ALEC WAUGH

                       [Illustration: colophon]

                                LONDON
                          GRANT RICHARDS LTD.
                          ST MARTIN’S STREET

                                 1923


                      Printed in Great Britain by
                     NEILL & CO., LTD., EDINBURGH.


                                  FOR
                               MY MOTHER

                      TO WHOM I FIRST SPOKE OF IT
                             WITH MY LOVE



I


If the majority of one’s friends live in Kensington and Bloomsbury, and
if one is fond of going out to parties in the evening, then one should
live somewhere midway between these two extremities of charm and
culture. With the acceptance of each fresh invitation, I am led
increasingly to appreciate that there is no stronger deterrent to one’s
enjoyment of an evening than the knowledge that one has at the end of it
to get to Golders Green. However agreeable the company, however profuse
the hospitality, there must always come that moment when one is forced
to weigh the expense of a taxi against the degree of entertainment
likely to be derived from a refusal to be disturbed by the sirens of the
last tube.

It is twenty-five minutes past twelve; in thirteen minutes the shutters
of Warren Street Station will be down. You rise from your cushioned
comfort. You inform your hostess that it is very late, that you are very
busy just now, that you have to be up early in the morning, that you
really feel that the time has come. But you rarely complete your
explanations. “Oh, but no, really; must you?” she says. “Surely you can
stay a little longer. I’m expecting ‘so-and-so’ and ‘so-and-so’ any
moment now. They promised faithfully they would come. They’ll be
frightfully disappointed if they find you have gone.” Your vanity arrays
itself before your prudence. You remind yourself that a taxi will only
cost ten shillings; you consider with what speed, with the writing of
how few extra words you will be able to earn that sum next morning; you
remember a copy-book platitude about a ship and a small amount of tar;
you vacillate; and whichever way you decide, eventually you will come to
regret your choice. If you stay it is more than likely that the owners
of the distinguished names that were dangled as a bait in front of you
will never come at all; or, if they do, they will arrive exhausted from
some previous entertainment, and will sit silent and unapproachable in a
corner. There is a strong probability that the last syphon will be
discovered to be finished. Certainly by half-past one you will be in no
humour to exchange with the taxi-driver those formalities of reluctance
and solicitation that are forced on everyone who lives north of the
Marlborough Road.

Wearily will you say to him “145 North End Road.” “Fulham?” will be his
answer. “Golders Green,” will you snap back at him. “Oh, sir!” and he
will tell you how late it is, how cold he is, and that he has got to get
back to Balham or Brixton or Upper Clapton. One day I think I shall say
“Fulham” for the mere pleasure of learning that taximeter cabriolets can
be parked at Barnet or Finchley or St Albans. In the end, as always, you
assure him that you will make it worth his while; and as you sink back
into the ill-sprung, ill-cushioned seat you wonder what folly has
persuaded you to stay that extra hour; you reflect on the
disinclination with which you will settle down to work next morning; you
ponder the slump of the literary market and the extreme difficulty of
making it yield sustenance; you ask yourself by what right you chose to
spend ten shillings on a journey that you could have made for fourpence;
thus you remind yourself did the hero of your last story set in motion
that process of reckless degeneration the details of which you so
masterfully exposed.

Nor, though you will be the richer by nine and eightpence, will you be
any less the victim of self-criticism, should you catch the 12.38 from
Warren Street. As you pull wearily up the North End Road, you will be
assailed by all those arguments that, had you stayed, you would in the
taxi have exposed to high derision.

And it was in such a mood, after such a decision, on a wet, breathless
January evening that I walked homewards past the few melancholy trees
that were once part of the proud avenue down which Dick Turpin cantered
plunderwards. Why, I asked myself, had I yielded to those instincts of
economy that are the only heritage with which my Scots ancestry has
thought prudent to endow me; why, for the sake of a few pennies had I
deserted the party at the very moment when it was about to become
genuinely amusing. Parties are like bonfires: they smoulder wretchedly
for a couple of hours; they emit columns of malodorous, unsightly smoke;
then suddenly, gloriously, unexpectedly, they burst into a splendour of
leaping flame. Such a transformation had been, I now felt, about to
enshrine that party for all time in the memory of those present at the
very moment when I had decided to desert it. Harold Scott had just
arrived from the Everyman Theatre. And than Harold Scott there are few
persons who can be, when he so desires, more cheering and more
exhilarating. He had regaled himself, not inappropriately, as he had
been that evening impersonating Feste, with a stoup of wine, had been
led to the piano, and had struck the first chords of “Another Little Job
for the Tombstone Maker.” It was a song of which the fame and the
refrain had often reached me, the words never: and why, I asked myself,
had I allowed to pass so agreeable an opportunity of making their
acquaintance. In a mood, therefore, of uncomfortable self-depreciation,
cautiously, so that the dog might not bark and awake the household, I
opened the front door, to find on the hat cupboard below the window a
letter addressed to me in a bright green envelope.

There is only one person who writes to me in bright green envelopes, and
I never see that handwriting without a thrill. Whatever else may in time
pass from memory, it is improbable that I shall ever forget the
excitement which I felt when, for the first time, I saw that
handwriting, and read in the left hand of the envelope the words “Grant
Richards Ltd.” I was at Sandhurst at the time, and the day had begun
unfortunately. I had appeared on early parade without a lanyard, and had
been requested to appear after breakfast at Company Office. I was,
indeed, waiting in the passage to be marched before the Major when the
mail arrived, and among the letters flung haphazardly on the table of
the ante-room was the one telling me that my first book had found a
publisher. At such a moment I should with equanimity have accepted any
punishment with which the authorities might have thought well to chasten
me; but even then I could not help reading into my dismissal, without
the reprimand that would have suspended my week-end leave, a happy
augury for my book. And after six years a green envelope is still for me
a symbol of romance; the miracle may be repeated. I am not of a
particularly credulous nature, but I always half expect to find there
some equally sensational announcement; and on this grey January evening
my dissatisfaction was by the sight of it instantly and marvellously
removed.

The letter contained, however, no reckless offer for film rights from
America; merely an encouraging inquiry about my new novel. “Soon,” it
said, “we shall be preparing our spring and summer list. Can you not at
least give us the title of your book?” My dissatisfaction returned. My
novel was little nearer its last chapter than it had been when I had
discussed its prospects three months earlier with Grant Richards. That
is the worst of a creative as opposed to a routine publisher. You have
had an admirable lunch; you sit back in a deep and comfortable
arm-chair; you smoke a good Egyptian cigarette; a fire is blazing
merrily in front of you; your eyes are wooed pleasantly by Sancha’s
frescoed decoration, by the photographs on the mantelpiece and walls of
those whose names have from time to time appeared among your
publisher’s announcements, and among which you are pleased to observe
your own conspicuously displayed: you feel content, in harmony,
reassured. You begin to talk of your new novel. In this pleasant
atmosphere it becomes suddenly very real to you.

“Splendid! splendid!” says Grant Richards; “now, you’ll let me have that
in time for the spring, won’t you?” He stands with his back to the
fireplace, adjusts his monocle, and begins to tell you of the artist who
will design the wrapper, of the cloth in which it will be bound, of the
type in which it will be printed, of the special instructions he will
give his travellers. You leave his study feeling that your book is
finished; that in a few days it will be presented to an enraptured
world. Your imagination is already carrying you to your club and opening
newspaper after newspaper over which you bow before a volley of critical
applause. You discover through fuddled channels of mental mathematics
the extent of the fortune that is to be yours, and, on the strength of
it, you proceed to order two new suits of clothes. Then you go home, and
you accept an invitation to a party, and you play football, and you
review a book, and you read a few manuscripts at your office, and you
turn into a short story an anecdote you overheard at your club; and in
six months’ time you find your novel where you left it, your tailor’s
bill in front of you, and your royalties account crippled by a process
of diminishing returns.

Regretfully I replaced the letter in its bright green envelope. There
were still a few coals glowing in my study grate; the room was warm and
kindly and sympathetic. The sky-blue walls with the deep black line
running round the door and beneath the ceiling, the long low tier of
bookshelves which had wooed me so often from my work, the black framed
etchings of Nevinson and Wadsworth, the two water colours by Prout, the
patterned tiling of the fireplace, and that dazzling screen by Roger Fry
which I had bought at the Omega workshop sale with such thrilled
misgiving and which has since taken its place so unobtrusively against a
background of many coloured volumes; every book and ornament and picture
in the room where I had wasted so many hours seemed to welcome me with a
smile of affectionate indulgence. “It does not matter,” they seemed to
say. “You have been very happy among us--all those hours passing from
one book to another, from one chain of memories to another. You have
idled away, doubtless, a deal of time in our company, but it was so that
we would have you be, and for all we know you may be the richer for that
idleness, richer than if you had pursued, as you had intended, with eyes
riveted on the green baize of your desk, the fortunes of your really
rather dismal heroine!”

Our study, because it is an expression of ourself, our taste, our
personality, becomes at times as reassuring, as persuasive, as that
rascally confidante of introspection--a friend whom we can persuade to
view our failings through our own eyes and in terms of our own
conscience.

I made up the fire, turned up the switch of my electric-lamp, drew my
arm-chair within the narrow circle of its light, and paused to wonder
with what book, with what companion, I should spend the hour or so
before I should be tired enough to go to bed. At such an hour one cannot
choose a book from the shelves haphazardly and allow it to evoke its own
particular series of emotions. The book must suit the mood, must fit it
as the words of a song fit the accompaniment. The varied incidents of
the day, the people we have seen and spoken to, the words we have
written and read, have created little by little the nature and intensity
of the state of mind that is upon us at this late hour.

Slowly I ran my eye along the shelves. There in the corner of the wall
were the novels, marshalled like soldiers on parade, an even row, with
their plain cloth bindings and ink lettering--serviceable stuff for the
most part; fashioned to supply a want; strong enough to resist a six
months’ battery on the shelves of Smith’s and Boot’s and Mudie’s, and
flimsy enough to sink afterwards, without too great resistance, into
coverless, dog-eared decomposition. Next to them the taller, prouder,
more exclusive demy octavos; the gleaming white backs of the George
Moore limited edition; the slim, calf-bound Maupassants; the heavy,
formidable works of reference and criticism; and beyond them the gay
adventurers; the many sized, the many coloured, the many covered; plays
and books of verse, and volumes of essays; “Jurgen,” Max Beerbohm, and
Petronius; anthologies, large and square and squat and oblong; personal
books whose shape and format have been the result of much thought; for
whose sake many specimen pages, many bindings have been returned to
their artificer; and on the extreme left, in the shadow of the screen,
the cricket books, a shelf of reminiscence and exhortation; and below it
a long row of battered _Wisden’s_, and beside them the faded rust-red
_Lillywhite’s_. A small library, not more than a thousand books
probably; but I would rather have a few friends than many acquaintances,
and there is hardly a book there that has not some personal
significance.

And yet on this particular evening I found the choice of a book by no
means easy. I felt in no mood for a book that should deal exclusively
with any one subject; and I searched unsuccessfully for the book that
should pass casually, irresponsibly as conversation does, from one theme
to another. I recalled the many evenings I have spent, tired after a
day’s work or an afternoon’s football, talking, in a studio in Edwardes
Square, of cricket and poetry, of life and literature and love; thinking
how quickly the hours had passed as I lingered talking there. And there
came back to me the memory of one particular evening when we had
discussed the prospects of a new paper shortly to be presented to the
world, in which we were jointly interested: Clifford Bax as editor,
myself as publisher; I had been asked how happy I considered to be its
prospects. But I disclaimed the rôle of prophet.

“One can’t begin to guess,” I said; “a magazine is like a novel: it’s
the expression of the editor’s personal taste. If the editor starts to
include work he doesn’t like because he thinks it may succeed, he will
fail as surely as the good novelist would fail if he tried to write a
pot-boiler. It would be insincere. Think of _Tit-Bits_. There was a
paper produced by a man who stated a fact and asked himself a question.
A paper, he said, is a thing that a man wants to read when he’s tired at
the end of the day. And the question he set himself was this: ‘What
should I myself like to read under similar circumstances?’ He decided
that _Tit-Bits_ was the sort of thing that he would like to read; and as
he was the average man to the extent that he was miraculously in tune
with the taste of the average man, _Tit-Bits_ was a big success. In the
same way the success or failure of your paper will depend on the number
of people who are sufficiently in harmony with your standard of taste to
be prepared to increase their annual expenditure to the extent of one
guinea. It is, it must always be, a pure gamble.”

And I remember thinking that it was doubtless for this reason that the
career of the literary periodical is so invariably short-lived. It is
always the same thing. The paper is launched, fresh painted, with flags
gaily fluttering. At the oars are to be seen renowned sailors: men who
have ventured on noble hazards in the cause of letters. There is a shout
of acclamation from the shore. “Never,” they say, “has a ship been
launched under happier auspices. See how it cuts the waves! See how the
oars rise and fall together! Of a surety it will win through safely to
the fortunate islands.”

But before the ship is many miles from land, the watchers from the land
observe signs of disquiet and dissension. The flags begin to droop. The
sails are slack. The oarsmen no longer work in harmony. Some of them
have indeed ceased to row at all and others are making arrangements to
put back to shore while the waters are still smooth. The bright speed of
that first passage is forgotten. The ship sways in midsea at the mercy
of tide and current. The faithful few are hard put to it to keep the
boat afloat. They can make no headway, and the watchers from the land
lose interest and give their ears to the tales of some newer seaman who
brings tidings by another route of merchandise and treasure and perilous
journeyings.

A sad story, but one whose details have grown so familiar as to cease
almost to sadden us. We talk of the literary market. How, we ask, can a
private enterprise hope to enter the lists against the vested interests
of printer and publisher and bookseller. If the editor has a number of
friends, he can produce two or three good numbers. But if his
contributors are paid at all, they receive remuneration at a rate so low
as to amount practically to insult. And however much the artificers of
the new world, the evangelists of the dawn of brotherhood, may speak of
the sacred trusts of art, a man is loath to sell for three guineas a
commodity for which elsewhere he can obtain fifteen. The editor of such
a paper receives from an “established author” only those compositions
that cannot be satisfactorily sold in the open market. For two reasons
may such compositions be unmarketable. Either they are bad, or they are
unsuited for family consumption. Indeed, the student of literary history
will find that most of the contributions to such periodicals of a
lasting æsthetic value are of a nature to justify their inclusion in
“the index”; which is unfortunate commercially; for one does not
particularly care to spend six shillings on a production that cannot be
decently left about the house.

Unquestionably this is one of the main cross-currents that hinder the
progress of the brave adventurers. But there are others, and I am not
certain that the greatest of them is not the lack of harmony between the
editor and the public. The magazine is a thing with which to pass the
evening hours of half-past nine to eleven; and the man whose day has
been spent among books, whose eyes are tired with the sight of print,
would prefer, when his work is finished, to dance or play bridge or go
to a theatre or a party. The dinner-jacket and white shirt into which we
change after our evening bath is the symbol of a change of atmosphere.
We have put away the traffic of the day’s business; and those of us
whose livelihood depends on letters find it difficult to establish
contact with the civil servant and the bank manager who is content after
dinner to settle down happily before a solid scholarly review.

The editor has put his paper to bed; he leans back exhausted in his
chair. “Thank God, that’s over,” he says; “and thank God,” he adds,
“that I haven’t got to read it.”

That is the problem for an editor. If he prints what he would himself
like to read at such a time, his choice will, as likely as not, fail to
satisfy the man who has spent his day beside the telephone and whose
ears are weary with listening to applications for an overdraft; while,
if he prints what he feels his public would like to read, if he
substitutes a standard of decision other than “I like” or “I don’t like
it,” his paper will cease to be an expression of his own personality,
and will be insincere. The ideal editor shares the tastes of the public
that he is addressing.

And it was, I think, on that same evening that Clifford Bax asked me how
the paper that I should myself most eagerly welcome would be
constituted; and I answered that the paper would have to take the place
of a friend, and that I should wish for such a paper as would reproduce
the essence of the evening that we had spent together.

“We have talked,” I said, “much of cricket, of the great matches that we
have seen and read of. We have wondered how we could persuade the M.C.C.
to arrange a single-wicket match between Hearne and Woolley. We have
fought old battles again, and have drawn weapons that have long lain
rusty on the shelf. And we have spoken of our own achievements as may
with complete propriety two such indifferent performers as ourselves. We
need make no display of modesty. Our figures prove conclusively enough
our quality. We do not apply to our cricket the standards that we apply
to Hendren’s. We deal kindlily with one another, as reviewers do with
those friendly, worthless little volumes of verse that do no one any
harm and may quite conceivably cause innocent entertainment to their
authors and their friends. So in my paper there could be some such talk
of cricket.

“And as we have spoken of the technique of writing, and of the literary
market, on these subjects should I commission articles. We have
repeated a number of anecdotes, slightly scandalous ones for the most
part, and the short story in my paper would not be sophisticated or
obscure or modern: a piece of straightforward, concrete narrative that
would aim less at vigour than at charm. I would have it a pretty,
sentimental thing, with here and there a suggestion of wantonness, of
riot. There would be personalities; for the peeping Tom that is in all
of us clamours for satisfaction. And we pass a great deal of our time
discussing the peculiarities of our acquaintances.

Each number should contain a character sketch of some public figure, and
I should not object if it were malicious. It is a sign of vulgarity, I
am told, to feel curious about the routine of other people’s lives. A
number of critics dealt very harshly with Mrs Watts-Dunton’s little book
on Swinburne. He was a poet, they said, a great poet. His work remains.
That is all that matters. What purpose is served by this trivial gossip
about boots and comforters and garters. Personally I found her book
admirably entertaining. I felt, after reading it, that I knew Swinburne
better than I had before. Routine is, after all, the framework of a
man’s life; and it is interesting for a writer to learn how others work;
at what time they write; how many words they write a day; whether they
work steadily throughout the year, or in short bursts of intense
concentration. It may dispel the illusion to watch a play from the wings
of a theatre instead of from the stalls. But there are some things about
the showman that can be only learnt behind the scenes. At any rate, that
is the sort of stuff that I would like to read in my paper.”

The fire had begun to burn merrily in the grate; the warm light fell
caressingly in a glowing haze on books and chairs and pictures; and I
turned towards it from the book-shelves that had become to me
inhospitable, wondering why one’s interests should be kept separate in
literature if they are not so kept in life; why one book should be
devoted exclusively to fiction, another to criticism, another to
reminiscence, and another to sport. Would it not be for a change amusing
to find unity of theme and subject abandoned for a unity of tone. And
suddenly I knew in what words I should reply to Grant Richards in the
morning.

“My dear Richards,” I should write, “I am afraid that I have no news for
you about my novel. But I shall be sending you quite soon, I think, a
book that you will, I hope, like a very great deal better. It will not
be fiction, though there will be short stories in it, nor a sporting
book, though there will be there both football and cricket: there will
be much talk of books, but it will not be literary criticism. Indeed, I
do not know to what shelf the librarian at the _Times_ Book Club will
consign it.”

It would be a sort of cousin to my dream paper; one feature only would
be omitted. There would be no malicious personalities. There are some
things that one may like to read, but does not care to write. For the
sake of a few pennies and a few paragraphs, I would not run the risk of
injuring a friendship.

And, lying back in the depths of my arm-chair, watching the dusky
shadows of the firelight move over the ceiling as waves do on a calm day
in mid-channel, I thought how pleasant would be the writing of such a
book that would pass as conversation does from books to life, and from
life to cricket, and so back to books again. How pleasant to let the pen
follow the fancy of the anecdote, to let impression flow into
impression, to snatch away the blinkers of the technique of formal
narrative and criticism. Tired and well content and drowsy I let my
thoughts wander out of my control on their lazy, haphazard journey.



II


About a year ago my American publishers asked me to send them some
personal material for press publicity, and I spent a hot summer
afternoon describing my parentage, my tastes, my aversions, and what use
I made of days and hours. I am now receiving by every second mail
syndicated cuttings of my confessions. I am learning quite a lot about
myself. I am, I have discovered, a methodical and industrious person.
Every Monday and Friday I go to a publisher’s office in Henrietta Street
where I read manuscripts, draft advertisements, and generally entertain
myself and my employers. During the three middle days of the week I
write.

I follow a regular routine on my writing days. I have breakfast at
half-past eight. From nine to ten I walk over Hampstead Heath. From ten
to one o’clock I write. In the afternoon I go to a cinema. From five to
seven I write again. I work at the rate of 3500 words a day. During the
week-end I enjoy myself. I dance, I play football or cricket as the time
of year ordains. I see my friends. It is, in fact, a picture of the sort
of young man who wins prizes at a Sunday school and makes good in the
business novel.

I suppose that I must have in some such way spent the week previous to
my confession. Or perhaps I felt that I needed organising, that it was
on such lines my time should be arranged, and that by the mere fact of
writing down a time-table I should “Coué” myself into an observance of
it; at any rate it is not, I need perhaps hardly say, very much like
that. I do not confine my entertainment entirely to the weekends.
Usually three days a week in summer-time are spent lazily on a cricket
field. Were I to maintain an average rate of ten thousand words a week,
I should produce some half a million words a year, and heaven knows what
I should do with them. Nor am I very often down to breakfast by
half-past eight.

A mendacious chronicle that confession. But then are we not always
drawing up schemes and time-tables. At the beginning of the year we
estimate the extent of our income. We make two columns. We put down the
items of general expenditure: rent, insurance, income-tax, club
subscriptions, clothes, and washing. And we decide how much remains over
for personal indulgence. “I may allow myself,” we say, “three or four or
five or six pounds a week in pocket money, and I will not,” we continue,
“spend one penny more than that.” Nor do we for a week or so till we
become so inflamed with a sense of merit that we adjudge our economy
entitled to some worthy tribute, and we arrange a dinner party and
twelve pounds go in a single night. It is the same with time-tables.
They always get upset somewhere, and the people who stick to them are an
infernal nuisance.

I recall a certain fellow-prisoner of war with a day curiously and
exhaustively pigeon-holed. “Come and make a fourth at bridge,” you would
say. “Sorry,” he would answer; “but in five minutes I shall be starting
on my second pipe.” And when you wanted him to walk round the square his
next drink was due. And when you wanted him to split a bottle, it was
his time for exercise. Even his romantic nature marched in fetters. He
was ordered by the irrefrangible mandate of his time-table to devote the
hour between half-past three and tea to a “siesta of sensual reverie.”

But that is the way with time-tables. There would seem to be no half-way
house. You must either scrap them or become their slave.

Habits are different, though. It is nice to know that, at a certain time
of the day, you can always find a certain person in a certain spot. E.
S. P. Haynes, for instance. You know that any day of the week you have
only to drop into the back room of a certain oyster shop at half-past
two to find him, lunching off oysters and white Burgundy and port. And
that as you enter he will wave a large, genial hand and start filling
glasses for you.

There is something essentially companionable about the man with habits.
A habit is a proof of contentment, of satisfaction. The man with habits
accepts life as essentially a good thing. Otherwise he would have made
experiments. He would have sampled new clubs, new restaurants, new
houses. I admire the old gentlemen who lunch day after day in the same
club and at the same table. It is good to hear a man say, “I have been
to the same tailor now for thirty years, and he has not made me a bad
suit.” We ourselves feel no inducement to carry our patronage to that
particular house; but in these days of change and revolution,
faithfulness, even to a tailor, is a commendable and righteous act.
Laziness? Perhaps. But then, is not laziness a philosophy, the
expression of a mellow, placid, harmonious nature. The war presented us
with few more pathetic spectacles than that of the tired, harassed
mortals turned out of commandeered hotels, adrift in a strange world,
torn from the habits that had sheltered them for twenty or thirty years.
They had grown old there, they had hoped to die there. They were trees
planted firmly and happily in congenial soil. It was cruel to uproot
them.

It is through our habits that we strive at harmony. They are the feelers
that our timidity flings out towards an illusion of permanence in an
impermanent and fleeting world. There is a rhythm in the recurrence, day
by day, of simple tastes indulged, of prejudices flattered. It is only
the superficial people who have no habits; the rudderless, inconsequent
people and those fortunate few who carry in the stability of their own
temperaments a balance, a sense of continuity; and because it is towards
that state of poise that we are aiming in literature and life, because
it is pattern, because it is rhythm that we are seeking in our lives and
in our work, we draw up time-tables and describe ourselves in interviews
as persons of routine and method.

One Saturday last November I made the discovery on a football field at
Tonbridge that the human head is a far more solid object than the human
knee. For a fortnight I stayed indoors, my leg supported by a bank of
cushions. In some such way, I told myself, in four or five, in six or
seven years’ time, I should make an end of Rugby football. Not many
people play Rugby much after they are thirty. How many were left, I
asked myself, of the odd forty-five or fifty who had turned up for those
first post-war trials at the Old Deer Park. How many of those who had
played in the 1919 A sides were still playing? Half a dozen? Barely
that, perhaps. You do not notice them as they slip out. A side alters so
little from one week to another, from one season to another. You always
seem to be playing with the same people. But when you compare the team
photograph of 1919 with the team photograph of 1923, then you realise.
Where have they all gone, you ask yourself. Have they gone abroad, or
have they married or taken up golf? Usually the end comes abruptly.
There is no gradual retirement. Rugby is a game that you play every
Saturday, or not at all. You cannot pick it up and drop it, and pick it
up again as you can cricket and golf and tennis. You go on playing till
a knee goes, or an ankle, or a shoulder, and your doctor tells you that
rugger is a young man’s game.

That is why, perhaps, we value it so highly: why we are ready to
sacrifice for it so much that tempts us. We know that it is an
excitement that will be soon taken from us. I am twenty-five. It is nine
years since I spent a day in bed. But already I am beginning to find
football something of a strain. The stiffness that used to last rarely
over Sunday is still with me on Tuesday night. And as I pondered this, I
began to realise to what an extent football, during the last four years,
has given pattern to my life. For four years I have been unable during
the winter to accept any invitation to lunch on Saturday. I have never
been able to go away for a week-end. Saturday evenings I have striven
hard to keep free from parties; and I have done my best for Friday
nights as well. I have never been able to go away anywhere between
October and the end of March for more than six days on end.

But this, you will say, is folly, a supreme example of the perverse
slavery of habits. So be it: but there is only one way of playing Rugby
football, to play it regularly, to come on the field fresh, and not to
worry during the last five minutes, when so many matches are lost and
won, whether you will be able to catch the only train that will allow
you to change in comfort for that dance. And you have to decide whether
or not the thing is worth it. It is an affair of personal preference.
Myself I know that for myself rugger has a thrill, a sensation for which
the equivalent can be found in no other sport, nor in any other
interest. On a cold October day, when ball and ground are greasy with a
morning’s rain, and the halves and backs have to go down to it if they
would stop a rush, life is for the forward a very rich, a very splendid
thing. It is a fine thing to feel a half-volley on the very drive of
one’s blade, to see cover dive for it and miss it. It is a fine thing to
run fifteen yards backwards and sideways in the deep, to feel that hot,
tingling stab as the ball lands within one’s palm, to know that sudden
beat of the heart that says, “It’s there, you’ve held it.” It is a fine
thing to see a man play forward and miss the pitch of it, to watch the
ball pass between the bat and leg, to hear the rattle of stumps. Fine
and noble things, with life at such moments marvellously rich. But it is
a finer thing that dribbling on a wet day of a slippery, bouncing ball;
a finer thing that hard-won sense of battle, as your shins crash against
the half who falls in front of you. His fingers clutch at the ball. You
kick blindly at them; you stagger; but the ball is free; it bounces into
the open; you follow, panting, a singing in your ears. The back is
rushing at the ball. Your feet are heavy with mud and a long day’s
shoving. Somehow you get to the ball before him. You kick just clear of
him. The wing three is coming up behind you. He is fresher, he is faster
than you are. Ten yards; will the ball bounce right for you? Your toe
turns it ever so slightly to the left; the line is muddily white beneath
you. You dive forward, flinging yourself upon the ball, your arms close
over it. The three-quarter crashes over you, half-stunning you. You do
not care. You hardly notice. You have scored a try.

You get at rugger something that you can get nowhere else. It is the
game of youth, the supreme expression of youth, and it is taken from us,
not unfittingly, perhaps, in early manhood.

To give up football is to change the pattern of your life. You will drop
suddenly a whole series of habits. Someone will invite you down to
Winchester for the week-end; there is an admirable train from Waterloo,
they will tell you, on Friday night. Without thinking you will begin to
excuse yourself. You are very sorry, but Saturdays ... and then suddenly
you remember--that is all over now. You can go when you like, and where
you like. And you are appalled by the enormity of your liberation, and
hastily begin to form other habits, to fling out fresh feelers, to take
up golf, or to join dining clubs that meet on the second and fourth
Wednesdays of the month; to be once again entangled in the pattern of
recurring engagements; once again to be the lackey of custom, the
creature of use and wont.

There is always cricket, though; and summer weaves of its four short
months a surer, clearer pattern than the winter does. There is cricket
every day, and there is the county championship. And if you follow
closely the fortunes of any county, as I follow those of Middlesex, you
have a firm framework for your personal peradventures. I find it
difficult, even now, at this early date, to place with immediate
accuracy the date of any given winter circumstance. “When did that
happen?” I ask myself. I try and build round it a frame of associations.
What else was happening at about that time? What book was I reading?
What suit was I wearing? What friend had I just seen?

And gradually, detail by detail, I re-create the scene. But it takes
time. And football only occasionally helps me. There are no
championships in rugger. There are no figures, no individual scores, to
help one. One game is so like another. Season after season one plays
against the same teams, on the same grounds, and with only slightly
varying results. It is difficult sometimes even to place offhand any
particular game in its right season. And anyhow, football is only a key
to week-end associations. It is of small assistance in the dating of a
meeting that took place in the middle of the week.

It is different, though, with cricket. People tell me sometimes that I
have an uncanny memory for dates. “Did you ever,” they will say, “see
that film ‘The Old Nest,’ that was on at the Alhambra about two years
ago?” “Yes,” I will answer, “I went there the last Monday in August
1921--the 29th, I think it was.” But it is not “The Old Nest” that I
remember. I only remember it through its associations of Lord’s and the
second day of that wonderful Middlesex and Surrey match; the morning of
inexplicable failure; Donald Knight’s magnificent innings in the
afternoon; tea-time with Surrey in an impregnable position. Two fifty
runs ahead and eight wickets still to go. And then afterwards that
startling, that glorious collapse. Nigel Haig taking wicket after wicket
from the nursery end. Fender trying to play for keeps, and being taken
by Murrell wide on the leg side off Hearne. The match a match again.

And I remember that evening riding on a bus down Oxford Street and
reading the red placards of the newspapers that had been printed while
Knight and Shepherd were in. I remember the shriek of the paper boys:
“Surrey making sure. Paper! Surrey making sure!” And because it was the
climax of an unforgettable day I remember afterwards dining with my
mother at the Spanish Restaurant and taking her to “The Old Nest” at the
Alhambra.

But that, you will say, is an exceptional occasion. There have only been
three such matches since you went first to Lord’s, in a sailor suit, in
the May of 1904, and cried when Plum Warner’s wicket fell. But in a
lesser way of lesser things; I remember the books I have read, the
friends I have met, the parties I have been to, by the matches that were
then in progress. Should I, for example, be able to fix the date of the
inaugural banquet at the Connaught Rooms of that ill-fated League of
Youth, had I not read on the way there in the evening paper the score of
the tie-match between Somerset and Sussex; and were I to hear two people
wondering in what year and in what month Compton Mackenzie’s _Rich
Relatives_ was published, there would be to guide me the picture of a
sun-drenched day at Lord’s with Greville Stevens asking me what I
thought of the bright red volume that lay unopened on the seat before
me. I have never kept a diary. I shall have no need to as long as
_Wisden’s Almanack_ is published--during the summer, at any rate. There
is always some association. You have met a person for the first time.
You walk down Bedford Street towards the Strand. A newsboy rushes past
you with the first issue of the late night special. You read in the
stop-press column that Fender has taken eight wickets at Trent Bridge.
The date and hour of that first meeting is in your memory for ever. And
when you come to write your reminiscences, you have only to turn for
verification to the _Wisden_ for 1921.

But I begin to detect in the reader an ominous stir of irritation. “Has
this man,” he is beginning to ask himself, “no sense of proportion? Does
he think that a book or a picture or a romantic episode is of less
importance than a game of cricket? Does he seriously discuss in the same
breath an innings by Knight and a novel by Mackenzie? Cricket and
football! what do they matter, anyway?”

Little enough, no doubt; but then in the face of eternity does anything
matter so very greatly? What are we and our works, our triumphs, our
ambitions, our disasters, but accidents in the long process of effect
and cause. We talk of the eternal verities, but the flowering of art is
as temporal as the enjoyment we draw from it. In sixty years we shall be
no longer here to admire El Greco’s painting. And in six hundred years
its colours will have faded, the canvas will have lost its beauty. It
will be valueless. And in the presence of eternity what is six years, or
sixty, or six hundred?

Already we are ceasing to read the classics. The Latin and Greek
quotation has passed from the leading article and the debate in
Parliament. The past is being rapidly immersed in the ever-widening
flood of modern literature. The past and present are always at war with
one another. China has produced no poetry for two thousand years. “There
is already,” they say, “so immense a collection of excellent work that
it would be a folly to attempt to add to it.” In China the past has
stifled and killed the present. Here in the western world we are busy
making an end of Greece and Rome. Will anyone be reading Virgil in the
nineteen-eighties? And of Shakespeare as of Virgil.

We are always asking ourselves, “Who will be reading what in 1980?” We
have always in our minds that unborn generation that we would influence
and address. But either way, does it matter very much? These buildings
of ours, these restaurants, and shops, and cinemas, that we are flinging
up on all sides of us so recklessly, so haphazardly for purposes of
convenience and display, they will speak of us far more distinctly to
the men and women of the twenty-second century than these poems and
plays and pictures, this music and these novels that we are producing in
such profusion.

Contemporary political thought, and its resulting bills and measures and
defences, will be as obsolete as is to-day the policy of Gladstone. Our
points of issue in religion and morality will doubtless be the occasion
for music-hall derision. But our buildings will be there; and as, to the
majority of us to-day, the sense of Augustan repose and polish and
formality is most easily suggested by the rectangular windows and low
lines of London squares; and as the vulgarity, and the pretentiousness,
solemnity, and solidity that were the worst characteristics of the Early
Victorian age are forced continually on our attention by the elaborate
porticos and columns, the theatricality of over-decoration that obscure
for us so much that was at that time excellent and that make us exclaim
contemptuously, “How typically Victorian,” so shall we too in our turn
be judged.

As I am carried on the top deck of a bus down Oxford Street, and see at
the end of that avenue of brightly decorated windows the majestic façade
of Peter Robinson’s emporium, and consider how it dwarfs the circus it
surveys, and when I see from the top of Regent Street, far down beyond
the jagged row of roofs and chimney stacks, the lovely low-roofed curve
that the demands of utility are busy condemning as a piece of
unserviceable decoration, I grow a little wistful, not so much because a
beautiful thing is being taken from us, but out of a distrust as to what
manner of buildings will take its place. I look nervously into the
future. I see a young man, his coat and waistcoat flowered with the
brocade of early twenty-second century fashion, passing here in whatever
means of locomotion the young blood of that period elects to honour. I
see his eye resting contemptuously on this jagged mosaic of
ill-assortment. “They made that mess,” he will say to his companion, “in
the beginning of the twentieth century.” I am afraid that of the
Georgian poets and novelists he will be as ignorant as the majority of
us are to-day of the obscure contemporaries of Wordsworth; that he will
find a history of our political practices as tedious and as corrupt as
those of the other periods with which he has had to acquaint himself for
the satisfaction of his university examiners. He will be merely
interested, casually, in his spare time in the form life took in 1923
for the average man and woman, and, as he will have inherited from us
the amiable quality of laziness, he will favour the short cut; he will
be content to contemplate, to absorb the atmosphere of our public
buildings, and I am more than a little afraid that, as he passes through
Regent Street to Oxford Circus, he will shudder, as we do when we wake
from a bad dream, with the shudder that becomes a smile, with the slow
reassurance through familiar objects of an averted evil. And he will
laugh and point to the façade of Peter Robinson’s, “Typical Twentieth
Century!”

But will it matter? Will it affect us how people live on this earth in
1990? We shall not be here to see them. They will be unable to distract
and confuse and harass us with their intelligence or stupidity. It is
only our egotism that makes us humbly prostrate ourselves before them.
It is considered unworthy in a writer to address himself to the men and
women of his own generation. But surely it is more sociable in us to
wish to be of service and entertainment to our friends than to their
grandchildren, who may develop, for all we know, into singularly
unpleasant persons. Personally, I would much prefer my books to be read
now by my contemporaries, by people I know and like, than by strangers
when I am dead, with my books incidentally out of copyright.

George Moore has protested that each man finds heaven in his own way,
claiming characteristically that he himself discovered it in the bedroom
of that mistress who was so faithless and so constant. And I could
produce, as a witness in his defence, a parson of my acquaintance who
has discovered heaven in the gallery at Lord’s. A small, wizened,
weather-beaten parson, in a long chesterfield coat that looks in the
sunlight sadly green; a guinea-pig, I suspect. For if he has a flock it
can be rarely shepherded.

A familiar, an unmistakable figure; I do not know his name, though we
have chatted together once or twice. He carries always with him a little
black notebook in which he enters every score of over fifty that he has
ever watched. When a wicket falls and a new batsman walks down the
pavilion steps, he takes out his book, verifies the newcomer’s identity
with the aid of the scoring card and telegraph and proceeds to examine
his record. “Ah, yes,” he says to his companion, “Miles Howell; a number
of good innings he has played. Let me see--99 against Kent. I remember
it; the silly fellow! Ran himself out: an impossible run. I don’t think
he will ever make a hundred for Surrey; he gets so nervous in the
nineties. Just the same at Lord’s in that big innings of his. He could
have got the record easily; only another two runs. Then he flings away
his wicket. After being missed, too, three balls earlier.”

An old man he is, nearly eighty. During the war I used to wonder if I
should ever see him again, whether he would be able to survive, at his
age, four years of rationing and air raids and overwork. And no cricket.
Very lonely, very much at a loose-end he must have been. Very many hours
he must have spent studying that small black book of his, wondering
whether the good days would ever return in his lifetime.

But he was there on the 16th of May, on the first morning of the Notts
_v._ Middlesex match at Lord’s. And his little black book was in his
hand. “Ah, yes,” he was saying; “A. W. Carr--now the last time I saw him
play was against Surrey on the Tuesday before the war. Thirty he made,
if I remember. And out to a remarkably good catch, too, in the slips.
They brought a telegram to him while he was batting, recalling him to
the colours, I expect. A month later he was wounded.”

I think that more than anything else, the sight of that old man in that
Armistice summer, reassured me of the changelessness of the human heart,
of its stability under altering conditions. And I think it was on that
day I first appreciated the native wisdom of that old man.

Before the war I had always felt that he was sadly neglecting his duty
to his congregation. He watched cricket all the week; he thought cricket
all the week; what could he find to say to his flock on Sundays? But I
learned on that first day of post-war cricket that as long as you see
life steadily in terms of something, you can acquire a true sense of
human values, and that county cricket is as serviceable a spade as
literature if you would unearth the absolute.

Someone, I half think that it was Flint, had just missed Saville rather
badly. The old man shook his head. “Poor, poor,” he muttered, “and they
were a bad fielding side in the eighties.” Suddenly I saw the parson’s
life in relief. He had seen life in terms of county cricket. He had seen
in the varying fortunes of the field as surely as has the historian in
the rise and the crash of empires, the arrogance and impermanence of
success, the courage of despair, the vanity of ambition. He had seen men
rise to fame and sink into mediocrity. Counties had had their hour.
There had been the years of Surrey’s domination, then of Yorkshire’s,
then of Kent’s. Middlesex was now the rising power. There was all
history in his recollection of “Nottingham’s weak fielding in the
eighties.” And I felt that he would be able to give true wisdom to his
flock on Sunday; he would not be easily misled by the shouting in the
market-place; he would have a sense of values. He would have a norm with
which to judge the traffic and confusion of modern life. We are
children, he would say, with the child’s right to choose such toys as
please it; or rather, perhaps, we are in search of some trumpery
half-crown clothes-peg on which to hang the sixty guinea fur-lined coat
of our immortal natures. One must have a peg; but it is the coat, and
not the peg, that matters.

And so back upon my traces. Habits are good things; a framework gives
purpose to one’s life, and cricket and football make as good a hat-rack
for literature and romance and friendship as the routine of a civil
servant or a bank clerk or an income-tax surveyor. There must be a
background for bright colour, and that is mine.



III


Everyone has some sort of framework, some series of pigeon-holes that
divides the year arbitrarily into its component parts. For Mayfair there
is Ascot and Goodwood and the London Season. For the sportsman there is
the 12th of August. For the cricketer summer begins on 1st May with the
pitching of the first wicket, and ends when the last ball is bowled
midway in September. He cannot say, as may the gardener: Summer began
earlier this year than it did last. There may come the St Martin’s
summer of late October, the days of blue sky and mellow sunlight, when
girls put on their light frocks again and when tea is taken in the
garden, and butterflies wake from their winter sleep. But he will not
care how blue the sky may be, nor how warm the air. Football has begun;
the white screens are stacked out of the wind between the pavilion and
the wall.

On the whole he is inclined to resent the unseasonable aspect of the
weather. He considers it a waste of sunshine. He remembers the wet days
of June when he tramped up and down the pavilion in his spiked boots,
listening to the rain beat upon the corrugated-iron roof, watching the
wicket turn slowly to a quagmire. Winter sunshine rarely fails to rouse
in him a feeling of homesickness. So nearly cricket weather, he thinks,
and he remembers that May is still four months distant. Equally he
distrusts the summer that begins almost before March is over. He would
prefer to have April a month of rain and cold. We are only entitled, he
thinks, every year to a certain number of fine days. We shall want all
we can of them when cricket is again with us. Sunshine is wasted when it
does not fall caressingly on white flannels and parasols and the sound
of bat on ball.

He would prefer April to be cold and wet, although, probably owing to
the peculiar formation of his time’s hat-rack, he will be forced to take
his holiday in the course of it, forced because it is the one month that
provides a gap between the demands of cricket and of football. September
does not. We play our last cricket match somewhere about the 13th, and
on the next Saturday the District Railway is bearing us to the Old Deer
Park and the rugger trials. There is no breathing space in September.
But in April there is no cricket, and only a few desultory games of
rugger; the grounds are too hard, the sun is too hot, and seven months
at one game is quite enough. We dubbin our boots, put them on the shelf,
begin oiling our bats, and spend a couple of Saturday afternoons in
comfortable leisure.

I nearly always go away myself in April, not because I particularly want
to, not because I need a rest,--is not cricket, the most complete of all
rests, imminent? but because a holiday which involves a sudden dropping
of routine and interests and relationships is our one chance of
recovering that sense of proportion which we tend to lose so rapidly in
London. It is the equivalent of the Catholic retreat; a pause; the
provision of an angle of detachment. If one has a varied and amusing
life; if one enjoys one’s work; if no place nor person has particularly
got upon one’s nerves, then a holiday is, from the mere point of
enjoyment, an unnecessary extravagance. I rarely return home from one
without thinking that I could have enjoyed myself more thoroughly and
less expensively in London. I look on a holiday, a formal holiday that
is to say, not an impromptu four days’ stay in Brussels, or in Paris,
somewhat as a duty.

In London we are always meeting the same people. Everyone knows
everything about everybody, their literary and domestic arrangements and
entanglements, their tastes, their ambitions, their peculiarities; and
it gives us an overweaning sense of our own impotence. It is healthy for
us to be transported into a society where books are not read and writers
not discussed, where we are all strangers to one another.

That is the chief charm of isolated country inns. One never knows whom
one may meet, one is always encountering new types; and it is often
easier to talk intimately to an acquaintance than a friend.

Three years ago I went away for a fortnight to a small Sussex village,
ten miles from any station. It is right underneath the Downs, and from
my bedroom window I could see the shadows moving across them in the
early morning. I have sometimes thought, as I looked down on it from a
balcony in Hammersmith, that I should never see any natural object more
varying than the river. Its greys and greens and browns flow continually
into one another, the lights and the water taking on different shades
under the influence of the tides and currents. “I shall never see
anything better than the river,” I used to say, and I don’t know that I
have. Not better; but the Downs are as good. They are as full of colour
as the river--brown, green, black, in certain aspects very nearly red.
It is wonderful to see the sunshine moving over them; the long shadows
changing their positions during the afternoon, revealing unexpected
projections of the ground. It is the Downs, I suppose, that draw people
to the place; no celebrity lives there, there is no artistic colony, no
local industry; it has not been written up by the Sussex Cyder School.
And yet there are enough visitors to support a really quite tolerable
hotel.

It is not smart; I can hardly compliment our host upon his cellar, and
there is not much choice of food; but the bedrooms are large, and two of
the smoking-room windows can be opened. It is not too cheerful on a wet
day, but I have been less comfortable in a smart hotel in Brussels at
eighty francs a day.

And one does meet quaint people. Funny old couples discussing the
income-tax; young folk on a honeymoon; retired politicians buried
beneath the _Morning Post_. It was a real thrill, that first evening in
the Downs Hotel. I had a long hot bath after my journey, changed
leisurely, carefully brushed back what little a steel helmet has left me
of my hair, and waited for the dinner-gong. I went down at once,
selected a table as far away from the door as possible, and watched the
regular residents troop slowly down. And when, on my second evening, the
waiter came up to ask whether I would mind another gentleman sitting at
my table, I was able to assure him honestly that it would be a real
pleasure to me.

Half an hour later, however, I had to confess that he might have found
me a more interesting companion.

He was a heavy, thick-set man, square-jawed, clean-shaven, middle-aged;
the sort of fellow who acts the part of the strong business man in
American films, who sits back in a chair with a cigar stuck into the
side of his face, his hand on the receiver of his telephone, while a
secretary in the corner watches the fluctuations of the tape machine.
The sort of man, in fact, whom one meets too often in London to be able
to welcome with any enthusiasm on a holiday.

And he would not talk.

I hazarded a few remarks about the trade slump, to which he listened
with interest, agreeing that things were in a bad way. I discussed the
situation in Russia, and he was of opinion that drastic measures were
required. He agreed with everything I said, and one does not get very
far in a conversation when one’s companion never says much more than:
“Yes, I think that’s quite true. That’s exactly what I feel myself.”

He showed a little more excitement when I said that the fine weather
would be to England’s advantage in the International, but his opinions
were those of the daily Press. He thought we had been lucky to beat
France, that Davies and Kershaw were the only men in the side up to the
1913 standard, and that Lowe was being starved as usual. Yes, he often
went to Twickenham. Had I seen Pillman’s last-minute try against Wales
just before the war, and F. E. Chapman’s first-minute try in 1910. He
certainly knew something about football, but nothing that he might not
have learned from the columns of the _Sportsman_, and besides, it was
not to discuss football that I had come to Sussex. I began to regret my
eagerness in accepting his company. He looked the sort of fellow who
stuck to one, who would probably come up to me next day after breakfast
with a “Well, and what about a walk this morning?”

I should be unable to refuse. He would insist on walking to the very top
of the Downs. With what had I saddled myself? Directly after dinner I
went straight up to my bedroom to avoid an increased intimacy over a
cigarette and a liqueur.

Next morning I woke to see the line of the Downs hidden in mist and
rain. “A day spent in the smoking-room,” I said to myself, “and in so
small a place I shall be unable to avoid my comrade of yesterday
evening. Perhaps he plays chess.” Fortified with this hope, I had my
bath, shaved, dressed, and went down to the breakfast-room. My friend
had been before me. There was a teapot and a dirty plate upon the table.
I was glad of the respite.

But I found him in the smoking-room, sitting, as I had suspected, in the
best armchair, with his feet on either side of the fireplace. He was
reading a book. I looked over his shoulder to see what it was, and read
across the top of the left-hand page: _Einstein’s Theory of Relativity_.

So that was it. A schoolmaster. Why had I not thought of it before? A
schoolmaster, who had long ago abandoned the habit of independent
thought, who was interested in little except athletics, and was even
there distrustful of himself, basing his opinions on standard
authorities. “A mind,” I said, “that has been dead many years, but that
continues to acquire information. He has heard someone speak of Einstein
in the common-room, and considers that a schoolmaster should know
something about everything. So he buys a handbook at the railway
station--a short cut to knowledge, that is his idea of education.”

And that evening at dinner I decided to draw him on to his own ground. I
spoke of the educational systems of France and Germany. I contrasted the
Lycée with the Public School.

“We don’t understand education in England,” I said. “We send boys from
one classroom to another, a bit of Latin here, a bit of French there,
half an hour’s mathematics, and a little science. We call it a general
education. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s knowing a little about several
things, but nothing thoroughly; and it’s better to know one thing
thoroughly than fifty things in bits.”

I paused, waiting to be contradicted.

“You may very well be right,” he said. “But I’m in no position to
judge. I don’t know anything about Public Schools.”

“But surely----”

“No; I never went to one, and, though I’ve met a good many Public School
men in my run of life, I’ve had few opportunities of contrasting their
standard of intelligence with that of the French and German. Your
criticism would not apply to the men I know, because we are all more or
less specialists in the army.”

A soldier! And to be reading Einstein. I should have been hardly more
astonished if I had discovered a parish priest reading Casanova.

“You are surprised?” he said.

“Well, a little; I hadn’t thought of you as a soldier.”

“So I would suppose; one wouldn’t, but I am, though. A Major in the
Inniskillings.”

And, in order to cover my surprise, I began to ask him about the war;
which had been his division; where had he been at Cambrai; had he been
to Ypres?

But, after dinner in the smoking-room, I drew the conversation round to
philosophy and science. I forgot how I managed it, probably through
Plato. The theory of platonic love provides an easy bridge for a
discussion of army life to cross over into the fields of speculation.
And the Major proceeded to define with real enthusiasm the difference
between the Socratic and the Aristotelian view of knowledge. His eyes
glowed as he spoke. But there was no originality in anything he said.
His conversation was a précis of the preface to the Socratic Dialogues
in the Everyman Edition. On no subject was he capable of independent
thought.

“You must have made a considerable study of philosophy,” I said.

“Yes. It’s the one thing I really care for. I have not done badly in the
army, and, on the whole, I suppose that I have been happy there. But I
have always thought that my mind’s natural bent is towards speculation,
rather than towards action. It has always been an effort to me to
concentrate my attention on my army work. I should have preferred a life
of quiet study.”

A look of wistful resignation crossed his face, and I waited for him to
continue. He was in the mood when confidence comes easily, and it is
less difficult to reveal even the most intimate secrets of one’s life to
a stranger, a person whom one has never met before, and will, in all
probability, never meet again, than to an acquaintance with whom one is
brought in contact every day.

“Yes,” he said, “I should have preferred a life of study. I never wanted
to go into the army. It was a question of money. I was an only child. My
father, a civil servant, died when I was three years old, and I was
brought up by my mother. I never went to school. I had few friends. I
used to sit and read for hours together; there was an idea of my going
into the Church. But my mother died when I was fifteen years old, and I
went to live with an uncle of mine--my father’s eldest brother. He was
not well off. I doubt very much whether, even if he had wanted to, it
would have been possible for him to send me to the University. But he
never entertained the project. He did not regard the Church as a
suitable career for a man--at any rate, not for his brother’s son. For
a month or so after my mother’s death he was patient with me and
sympathetic. But, when he thought the first grief had passed, he
reassumed his usual business manner. One morning after breakfast he
asked me to come into his study.

“‘Ah, come along, John,’ he said. ‘Now come, bring your chair up in
front of the fire and let’s have a chat about what’s going to happen to
you!’

“I am sure that he did his best to understand me. He regarded me then, I
know--for he has told me so since--as an absurd molly-coddle.

“‘You would not be the man you are now, John, if I hadn’t sent you into
the army.’

“He said that to me only a few months ago. And I daresay that he was
right. I was not at all the type of boy that he admired. I must have
been a great worry to him.”

“And he gave you no choice?” I said.

“Practically none, and I was too miserable at that time to care greatly
what happened to me. I sat in the armchair and said ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes’ and
‘Yes.’ In twenty minutes the course of my whole life was settled. It is
rather strange when you come to think of it. We live for seventy years.
But everything that happens to us during those seventy years may be
dependent on the course of a conversation that lasts twenty minutes, and
takes place before we have lived a quarter of our lives, when we have no
experience of the world at all.

“I had a bad time at the beginning. It was, as my uncle called it, ‘a
licking into shape.’ Sandhurst is no fun for a man who has never been to
school. They gave me an ink-bath because I sat on the wrong side of the
ante-room. I was no good at games, and I could see how the
staff-sergeants and officers despised me. But at last I managed to fit
into my box.”

“I think you’ve done a bigger thing in winning through against so many
odds,” I said, “than anything you would have done sitting in your study.
You’ve made a success out of a career that was uncongenial to you.
That’s a big thing.”

He seemed pleased with me for saying that.

“Yes. I suppose I have made a success of it,” he said, “and it hasn’t
been easy. It’s been against the grain, and I have had temptations--one
big temptation.”

“Yes?”

“At least I suppose it was a big temptation, and I suppose I did right
in resisting it; I don’t know. I’ve never been able to decide. I should
rather like----”

He paused, a little uncertainly, and looked at me hard from beneath his
great, heavy eyebrows.

“I should be very interested, and, of course, I should regard anything
you might tell me as a confidence,” I said.

“I wasn’t thinking of that,” he said. “But, oh well, it does not matter
very much either way, now. I might as well tell you.”

And I sat back in my chair and prepared myself for the usual story--a
clash between love and duty; that was what I expected. The wife of a
brother officer; a scene of passion and resignation; and then the long
regret, deepening with the years. It is a story frequent enough, though
everyone regards his own version of it as peculiar to himself. But the
story of the major’s temptation was quite different, or perhaps it would
be truer to say that it was the same story seen from another side. It
was a clash between honour and the thing that he valued most highly in
the world. For he was the sort of man in whose life women play only a
casual part. At any rate, this was his story as he told it me.

“It was out East,” he said, “but I won’t tell you where; and there was
trouble, I won’t tell you what. It never got into the papers, and it has
nothing to do with the story. I was a fairly senior subaltern at that
time, and with half a company I was guarding the mouth of a small river.
Our chief job was to see that no boats passed up it unsearched. It was a
fairly lazy job; not very much anxiety, and there was a jolly little
town three miles down the river, where I used to go in the evenings for
a drink and a smoke. It was here that I met one evening one of those
Europeans who have lived so long in the East as to have lost their
nationality. His face and hands were brown, and he had not shaved for at
least thirty-six hours. He looked dirty, and was without self-respect.

“We talked for a little while about indifferent things, and all the time
I felt him watching me closely with his crafty eyes. Then suddenly he
made a masonic sign. I replied. And he gave a sigh of relief.

“‘I had hoped so,’ he said, ‘but I was not certain; that makes
everything so very much more simple. Now I can say what I like, and it
will be a secret between us. You will not break your faith.’

“I nodded.

“He leant forward across the table, his face framed in his hands.

“‘You have seen a ship out to sea this morning?’

“‘Yes,’ I said.

“‘I am on that ship. I have some very important material that I wish to
get through to this village, and I cannot because of your outposts.’

“‘But we let all merchandise pass through after we have searched it.’

“‘You will not allow passage to what I bring?’

“‘Rifles?’

“‘Opium. I have many thousand pounds’ worth of opium upon that ship, and
I cannot get it through to the interior.’

“He expected me to show surprise, but I have played poker a good deal in
the mess, and have learnt not to let my face express emotion.

“‘Well,’ I said, ‘and what’s it got to do with me?’

“‘You can help me get it through.’

“‘Is that all you’ve got to say?’ and I prepared to rise.

“‘No, no,’ he said; ‘sit down. Don’t be a fool. Hear me out.’

“I looked straight at him for a moment.

“‘I shan’t do what you want me to.’

“‘If you will only listen.’

“‘I don’t know what’s to prevent me walking across the room to that
policeman, and having you arrested.’

“‘Your oath.’ And a smile glinted in his shifty eyes. ‘You would never
break your oath as a mason. I would not, and I should not call myself a
man of honour. I know I am safe where a mason is concerned.’ And,
leaning across the table he touched my sleeve, tugging it a little. ‘It
will be so simple,’ he said softly. ‘There is only one sentry on the
river. At five minutes to ten you go on your rounds. At ten o’clock the
cook brings round a dixie full of cocoa. I could give you a little
powder that you could drop in the sentry’s cup. He would faint. For an
hour he would know nothing. In that time a boat could be brought up the
river and taken away again. The sentry would recover. He would shake
himself, would stand at his post again, and would say nothing. It is
quite safe.’

“‘It’s no good your talking,’ I said; ‘I shan’t do it.’

“‘But why not? If you do not let me through, someone else will, farther
up the coast. It is a question of waiting, and I would prefer not to
wait, but sooner or later I shall find my friend. One can do anything
with two thousand pounds.’

“‘Two thousand pounds!’

“‘That is what I am offering. Big profits can be made in opium.’

“‘But you won’t be able to bribe a British officer.’

“He laughed at that.

“‘Every man has his price, and it was the Prime Minister of Great
Britain who said it. Even British officers are glad of a little pocket
money. Well?’

“I said nothing. I picked up my hat and stick, and rose.

“‘All right,’ he said, ‘but don’t be in such a hurry, and remember, if
you don’t, someone else will. Why should he have the money rather than
you?’

“I walked quickly out of the restaurant, but I had hardly gone a hundred
yards when, putting my hand into my pocket for a box of matches, I felt
my fingers touch a smooth leather purse. I took it out, opened it, and
saw inside a small grey envelope. Inside the envelope was a reddish
powder.

“I shall never forget what I endured during the next few hours. I
brought forward all the arguments that I could summon--duty, patriotism,
my name, but there remained always at the back of my mind this thought:
‘Two thousand pounds means an income of a hundred pounds a year. I can
resign my commission, and spend the rest of my life in quiet study.’ I
began to picture the long evenings before a fire, with a lamp shedding a
mild light upon my book, and I contrasted it with the smoky atmosphere
of the mess and the Colonel’s interminable anecdotes. And there was no
real reason why I should refuse this opportunity. Someone else would
accept it. The opium was certain to be got through. This was the chance
for which I had waited all my life: it would never come again.”

“But you did refuse?” I said.

“Yes. I did, and I do not know whether or not I did wisely. I went
through agonies of mind, and when my orderly came at half-past nine to
tell me that it was time for me to be starting on my rounds I knew that
if I once got out there I should be unable to resist. So I took out a
bottle of whisky, filled up my glass, spilt the powder into it, and
before the red powder had had time to reach the bottom I had raised the
glass to my mouth and emptied it.

“It was a good drug for the purpose for which it was required. I sat
down in my chair. I did not feel ill, or sick, or dizzy. I just went
off, and when I came round it was after half-past ten, and I was safe. I
felt no ill effects.”

“And that was the end of it?” I said.

“As far as I was concerned. But I suppose that the story does not end
there really. I met the same man a couple of months later in another
café a few miles farther up the coast. He looked cleaner and smarter
than when I had seen him before, and he greeted me effusively and stood
me drinks. After a while he took me aside.

“‘You were a fool,’ he said.

“I shrugged my shoulders.

“‘I’m glad I was, then.’

“‘You were a fool,’ he repeated, ‘and what has happened? You fling away
two thousand pounds--someone else picks them up.’

“‘So you got it through?’

“‘Of course. What did I tell you? The world is not full of Josephs.’

“And two weeks later one of the officers in my company applied for leave
to go home to be married. We were all surprised, as he hadn’t much
money--only his pay--and had often been heard to lament the length of
his engagement. When someone asked if his grandmother had died and left
him a fortune, he blushed awkwardly, and said something about a bit of
luck on horses.

“He never rejoined us after his marriage.”

He stopped, and we looked at each other for a moment.

“And you wonder whether what you did was right, or not?”

“Yes; I’ve been wondering that for twelve years, and I shall go on
wondering it to the end. If I had given the powder to the sentry instead
of to myself I could have spent the end of my life as I should like to
spend it. And I don’t know that it would have been wrong. I am inclined
to think that the end justifies the means, and, anyhow, the stuff was
bound to be got through.”

“But, after all,” I said, “you’ve been happy in the army on the whole?”

“Oh yes,” he said, “I’ve been happy enough, but it’s not the sort of
life for which I was intended. It’s not easy to explain, but I feel that
it could have so easily been so much more happy--if the rough edges had
only been ever so slightly trimmed.”

And for a long while he sat in silence. He was thinking no doubt of the
quiet tragedy of a life lived happily but not intensely. But I thought
of the kindly Providence that takes the handling of our destinies out of
our control, and had saved this curious old soldier from a career of
speculation that could have ended only in pathetic failure.



IV


But it is not only nor indeed even chiefly through meeting new types of
people that we can arrive at that angle of detachment. We need an entire
change of setting. It would be hard to overrate the subconscious
influence on us of our surroundings. A sudden sensation of taste and
smell will recall to us a cycle of associated memoirs. The glimpse
through a railway-carriage window of a gabled roof, a square church
tower, a particular shade of sunlight on red brick will open the pages
of a chapter whose existence we had almost forgotten; will reveal in
relief, in perspective--with an objective reality that at the time it
did not hold for us--a facet of the past. The obvious, the superficial
reflection on such occurrences would be an expression of surprise that
so trivial an affair as the taste of cocoa, the smell of wet stone, the
glimpse of a square-towered church, should become a window opening on
childhood. But probably nearer to the truth would be the assumption that
these moments of sight and taste of which, at the time, we hardly more
than recognised the existence, and to which we attached no value, were
an essential part of the framework of our thoughts, and our hopes, and
our actions, and that it was from them that what we have come to regard
in our lives as personal and important drew its nourishment, its colour,
and its direction.

As the novels of Alphonse Daudet are steeped in the sunshine of the
south and the simple, lazy kindliness that it engenders, so are
Maupassant’s stories children of the mud, the lights, the rain, the
gallantries of Paris. And so over the poetry and novels of Thomas Hardy
lies the deep shadow of the Wessex countryside. And among these many
influences that tend, unknown to us, to make our lives gay or sombre,
deep or shallow, or it would be more true perhaps to say that tend to
accentuate in us those characteristics that are gay or sombre, deep or
shallow, there are few that touch us more surely or more closely than
that of the nature of the buildings, the streets, the shops, the
churches among which we live.

It would be worth while, indeed, discussing whether the classical
scholar of some old foundation derives the sense of antiquity, that
knowledge that we are parts of a pattern, the threads of which pass out
on either side of us, which forms so human, so tolerant a basis for his
ideas and his actions, more from the study of Homer and Catullus than
from the tranquillising presence on every side of him of old buildings,
gothic arches and cloisters, and curious quadrangles. British
administration, whatever may have been said against it, has been
credited always with a genial tolerance, an admirable refusal to be
perturbed by trifles, a policy of “let it pass.” A capital social
lubricant, this characteristic. And I wonder whether it would be too
fanciful to attribute a part, at any rate, of this placidity in the
class from which the majority of officers and civil servants are drawn,
to the mellowing influence of the school buildings among which are spent
their most impressionable years. Some such effect there must be, I am
very sure. A mind continually encountering the survivals of early
generations acquires a detachment from the immediate present. A boy who,
on his way from one classroom to another, from the dayroom to the
cricket field, and the library to the chapel, has always before him the
silent grey-brown witnesses of continuity and tradition, cannot help
thinking often consciously, and unconsciously times without number: “all
this was going on two hundred years ago and, without any very
considerable alteration, it will be going on two hundred hence.”

That sensation we rarely if ever get in London. I doubt if there is in
the road I live in a single brick that is fifty-five years old. Twenty
years ago Golders Green did not exist. I can barely picture this North
End road as it was in the spring of 1907 when my father decided to build
a house here, and to call it Underhill. A muddy, unpaved affair it was,
with fields on either side of it as far as I remember: and it would
remain so, we were told, for the Hampstead tube was in process of
construction, and it would be impossible to build houses on the narrow
gap between it and the road. Land’s End for a while it seemed to us
after our nine years in a dingy West Hampstead thoroughfare. There were
no shops then at the Cross Roads. We had to walk across the heath to
Hampstead. Indeed, only one train in every four or six came through to
Golders Green. Hampstead, Highgate, Golders Green; that was the
electric sign then on the Euston platform. There were no non-stops. And
one had to decide whether it would be quicker and pleasanter to walk
across the heath or to wait for a Golders Green train.

And then the Garden Suburb came, and the builders discovered that there
was ample room for a row of houses between the railway and the road, and
Smith and Boots and Sainsbury added each of them another branch to their
activities. And ’buses ceased to stop at Child’s Hill and tubes at
Hampstead. And within four years the cross roads became as good a spot
as Piccadilly for the unwary to be run over.

When I came home at the end of the first term at my prep. I could hardly
recognise the North End Road. I believe that had I been transported
there by a motor in the night I should not have known where I was, any
more than I should have known where I was had I found myself in the
spring of 1920 suddenly beside Potije Chateau on the road from Ypres to
Zonnebeke. Golders Green sprang into life as speedily and as haphazardly
as have the devastated areas. That immense hippodrome that confronts you
as you turn to the left out of the station; they had not begun work on
it when I went back to Sherborne in the autumn of 1913; but the curtain
rang up on Boxing-Day. In less than three months they built it; working
from start to finish against the clock. They had no time to instal a
heating apparatus. On that first evening we shivered in greatcoats; but
within a week the fires were banked up. The heat dripped on to us from
the ceiling. An achievement, undoubtedly. Golders Green is a
comfortable and commodious spot. There is the heath for exercise; the
hippodrome for amusement; there are barbers and baths and cinemas, and
trams and tubes and ’buses, and a taxi rank; an illuminated clock at the
cross roads; two restaurants. A place, I am told, where one may dance,
that even.

An impressive outpost, doubtless of Newer London: a fine tribute to
progress, and mechanical invention. But there is one thing that, search
how you may, you will never find at Golders Green. You will not find
anywhere any indication that the world was inhabited a hundred years
ago.

Nor will you find any such indication at Tottenham, or Balham, or at
Upper Clapton; new streets; new shops; new houses; travel by what road
you choose through any of the London suburbs: you will find everywhere
the same cross-roads, with their policemen, and their electric cars; and
the white sham stone-fronted cinema; and the local empire, and the long
stretch of detached and semi-detached villas, with their garages and
garden plots, very pleasant, very clean, very comfortable: cheap
amusement and good amusement; such as grandparents knew not. But that
sense of antiquity; those reminders in the gables at street corners of
other men and other fortunes, that is lost to us. The old streets and
the old buildings are being swept away. History in London can only be
found in the places where one cannot afford to live, and the places
where one would not want to live. We have no eternal landscape to speak
to us of the passage of human life. We have no equivalent for the
Sussex Downs; the Downs that have hardly altered since the Romans camped
on them. We have neither the modesty nor the pride of heritage. Family
feeling dies where there are no family seat and no family possessions.
We are parvenus, we townsfolk. It is only through a detaching of
ourselves from our surroundings, through travel, or the company of
books, most particularly, perhaps, through moments of intense
self-realisation when we are in touch with eternal instincts or eternal
forces, that we recover our sense of values, that we see ourselves
simply as part of a pattern, a footfall in the sound of passage.

And it may have been that it was in search of some such amulet that
Clifford Bax and I set out last April across the North Sea to Norway.

A long journey it was, with a good twenty-four hours of open sea,
twenty-four hours in which to wonder what crazed splendour, what folly
of irresponsible ambition, urged our Viking forefathers to desert their
sheltered fjords in those flat-bottomed, high-prowed craft of theirs. A
long unheroic journey on my part, at any rate. I lay supine and neither
stirred nor ate, consoling myself as best I might with Geoffrey Moss’s
entertaining if scandalous _Sweet Pepper_.

It was worth it, though, that harassing, exacting journey, for the sake
of the two hours of quiet passage in the late evening through the
fjords. There is no country that welcomes its guests less ostentatiously
than Norway does, that stands more simply on its own attainments. There
is no parade of harbours and high buildings and imposing statues. Just
the long stretches of receding waterways, motionless, many coloured
waterways, green and grey and purple; a purple that shimmers now and
then to the rich transparent red of Homer’s sea, Homer’s wine-coloured
midland sea; the fading waterways, and about them the long, endless,
low-crested circling hills. Hardly a sign of life, only now and then
below the promontories of rock, a warning light, and near it on the land
some small wooden house.

But then Norway is an empty country. It is as large as England, and it
has a population of three million. You will see no towns on the long
fourteen-hour journey from Bergen to Christiania. Only here and there a
collection of scattered hutments and the long stretches of the fjords.
And it is remarkable that so small a nation should have made such a
considerable contribution to the literature of Europe. A useless,
hopeless task it must sometimes seem, we felt, to the young Norwegian.
“I am writing,” one can imagine him to say, “in a language that only
three million people are able to understand. It is possible that my work
may be some day read and appreciated in the foreign cities of Europe;
but it will be read there in translation; and the phrasing, the colour,
the rhythm, on which I have expended so much labour, will have gone out
of it. If only I had been born in America!”

And then we remembered that the population of England when Shakespeare
wrote was little greater than that of Norway is to-day; that it seemed
worth while to him to write for three million people; that these, as
all other, things are relative; that it would be impossible without
detachment, without a sense of the eternal values, to produce a
masterpiece; and that such a one as Björnson would know out of the
direct simplicity of his nature, that it is enough to plough one’s
furrow to the end.

We were bound for Finse and its winter sports, and it was exciting to
look for the first signs of ice and snow at the edge of the water, to
watch at each halt on the way the fall of the thermometer. We seemed to
get little colder, though, for that is the charm of Norway. The sun
shines out of a blue sky, and your face tingles with the glare that the
snow flings up on it. It is a pity, though, that you have to wear
darkened glasses to protect your eyes. It robs the sky of its colour,
and if such a phrase may be permitted, it seems to bleach the snow, with
the effect of an unreal twilight. Only now and again in glimpses,
through windows for the most part, can one see the landscape as it
really is.

But then it is not for the sake of its scenery that one goes to Finse;
the long sheets of snow have, it is true, a certain remote, cold
loveliness of their own; but the continued sight of snow is apt by
itself to be depressing. Finse is not, shall we say, an ideal place for
the ancient and infirm; it would be unexhilarating for them to sit all
day long, looking out of the drawing-room window. Finse is very nearly
the highest place on the Bergen-Christiania railway. It is well above
the vegetation line. It consists of a station, an hotel, and some
half-dozen hutments. It is quite simply an encampment among the hills,
and from the windows of the hotel one sees nothing but snow and
mountains.

But one does not go to Finse to sit in drawing-rooms, not, that is to
say, till nightfall, when one collapses among cushions, exhausted after
a day on skies. Finse is the greatest place in the world for ski-ing; in
its season, that is to say, in March and April and the first weeks of
May. During the Swiss season it is a place of fog and mist and some
three hours’ precarious sunlight, but the snow is fine and hard there,
when Mürren has become a bog.

We went there as novices, Clifford Bax and I. And it is a good place,
Finse, for the novice. It is built beside a lake, frozen over for the
great part of the year; and the banks that slope gently down to it
provide a scale of ascending difficulty. For the first morning one
stumbles helplessly within a hundred yards of the hotel on a slope with
a gradient of something, I suppose, like one in fifty. By the afternoon
one has come to master it. And as one returns tired to one’s tea, one
looks southwards beyond the lake and one says, “I think we’ll try that
slope to-morrow.”

One cannot, or at least we could not, cease in six days to be a novice.
But we managed to amuse ourselves thoroughly climbing up slopes and
falling down them. Perhaps, had we been more proficient, we should have
enjoyed it less. A thing ceases to be exciting when you are certain of
success, and you avoid the slope that you have been down ten times in
succession without disaster. How thrilling a bicycle was in those early
days. How proud we were to free-wheel down a hill, how we looked
forward to the day when we should be able to mount and unmount without
damage to our trousers. How we envied the blasé tradesboy who just
seemed to pick up the handlebars and jump on the machine. And now that
we can bicycle, the last thing that we would do would be to ride on one
for pleasure.

But then that is hardly a fair parallel. Cycling is a form of athletics
limited in scope by cross-roads and motor regulations and police. You
cannot enlarge your craft. But ski-ing must be like cricket, and must be
always new. As soon as you can do a thing one way, you learn to do it in
another. We spend hours in the nets at school learning to drive a
straight half volley over the bowler’s head or past midoff along the
grass. And then as soon as we have got it, we start trying to turn it to
mid-wicket, so that I do not suppose we could drive the thing straight
now even if we wanted, any more than Nevinson, an accurate draughtsman
and a prizewinner at the Slade, could draw a horse that would resemble a
photograph of one.

And at Finse there must be always new worlds to conquer. And always
there must be that splendid compensating sense of exhilaration that
comes from a complete physical fitness. It would be hard to imagine a
more healthy life. There is no bar there; and no late hours. You are in
bed an hour before midnight. And you wake wonderfully fit to the most
colossal breakfast that I have ever seen.

In the middle of the dining-room there is a large table on which is
spread an incredibly diverse collection of dishes. We counted them one
morning: there were forty-eight; all manner of cold meats, all manner of
cheese, all manner of _hors d’œuvres_. And there are shrimps, and
prawns, and lobsters, and fish puddings; there are egg omelettes and ham
omelettes, curious cold game, and fruit and jams and marmalade.
Breakfast was a very great adventure. You were, in addition, served with
a boiled egg and a beaker of cold milk. We never quite knew whether it
was intended to be drunk as a cocktail or a liqueur or a table wine. We
tried it in all three ways; and it was in each equally delightful. The
Norwegian breakfast is the finest type of meal that I have, I think,
ever eaten; and I was delighted to find certain personal peculiarities
endorsed by Norwegian taste. I always, when I lunch at home, eat
marmalade and cheese, preferably gruyère cheese, together. It is a
protective taste developed gradually since the days when I was made to
eat at my preparatory school milk-pudding every day for four years. It
was doubtless a very admirable form of discipline. But I have not since
eaten any pudding of any kind, and have instead developed what is, my
brother tells me, a disgusting habit, but one which the Norwegian would
apparently approve. At any rate, they place side by side on their middle
table mountains of gruyère cheese and basins of marmalade. _Coldt bord_
they called it, that centre table, and we thought of inscribing a ballad
to it, in whose every line should be the name of some new dish.

A noble foundation, that breakfast, for a long day in the open; and when
evening came one was glad to sit and talk quietly; one’s brain fresh
and one’s body tired. It is no part of my intention here--and I half
hope that it never will be--to draw pictures of my friends. Enough to
say that the evenings passed very happily in such casual intermittent
talk as can only be exchanged between two friends who know each other so
well as to have left scarcely a secret from one another.

It is an eight-hour journey from Finse to Christiania. But eight-hour
journeys abroad seem of no more matter than a week-end run to Brighton.
We are frightened in London of any place that we cannot find on a tube
map. I have never once been to watch a county match at Leyton.
“Heavens,” I say, “but that’s miles away. I could not think of going
there.” It never even occurred to me three years ago to watch the third
day of the Middlesex and Yorkshire match at Bradford, although the
championship was at stake there. And yet it would not have been, I
expect, such a terribly fatiguing affair. I could have probably caught a
train at about ten o’clock. I should have read a couple of novels for
review, lunched on the way, and arrived at the ground shortly after two.
I should have seen the finish of the match. By six o’clock I should have
been in the train, reviewing one novel before dinner, the other after;
and arriving at home certainly before midnight.

I remember being considerably surprised last summer when an officer on
leave from India told me that he was going to spend a week in Blackpool
to see the D’Oyly Carte Company in the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas.
“Lord,” I said, “what, all the way up there?” “It doesn’t seem very
far,” he answered, “when you’ve come all the way from Poona.” Certainly
we did not feel that we were undertaking a great enterprise when we left
behind us the mountains and the snow of Finse.

It is a good city, Christiania, clean and fresh and compact, with broad
streets, and an honest sprinkling of restaurants and cafés: a good city,
shall we say, to spend four days in.

After four days one begins to weary of shop windows, and museums, and
public buildings, and a drifting in and out of cafés. But for four days
it was very pleasant to watch the stir of life in a foreign capital.
Very different from ours, it would seem, the framework of their routine:
their mealtimes, for example. You will find a notice outside the
principal restaurants: Breakfast, 11-2; dinner, 2-6; supper, 8-11.
Between the hours of six and eight, that is to say, you cannot get a
solid meal, and the big meal of the day is taken at about half-past
three. The restaurants were quite empty at two o’clock when we used to
begin our lunch.

As far as we could gather Norway knows not our heavy half-past one
lunch, over which so much profitable business is transacted. When the
Norwegian sits down before a table with a menu and a wine list in front
of him, his day’s work is finished. If he feels any need for casual
sustenance he goes into a café and has a snack.

Christiania has made a speciality of the snack. I suppose that any
stranger abroad must wonder who do the work and when they do it. There
are never anywhere any signs of industry. The Italian who is taken to
the Oval on a weekday would certainly wonder how ten thousand workmen
could afford to watch cricket on a Monday. Indeed, I have yet to
discover how they can. If they are in work they should be in factories
and offices, and if out of work one would assume them to be penniless.
There is no Oval in Christiania, but there are, as I said, an honest
number of cafés; and the _coldt bord_ is spread in ample welcome. Not
quite as amply perhaps as in Finse. But still amply enough to make an
Englishman a little ashamed of the hospitality that the Bodega offers to
its guests. Great trays of various _hors d’œuvres_, cold meats and cold
poached eggs, and cheese sandwiches: sandwiches that are a vast
improvement on our own; with the cheese or meat arranged on one and not
between two slices of bread, so that you can see what you are buying and
cannot be deceived into the purchase of a ham sandwich entirely composed
of fat.

Perhaps I am talking too much of the pleasures of the table, but food
has a large share in the right ordering of a holiday. A sense of moral
indignation is not a characteristic with which we should be inclined to
associate the engaging and fantastic personality of Mr Norman Douglas.
But he has known such moments; and those of us who consider good food
and good wine two of God’s greatest gifts to man, remember gratefully
his attitude to the traveller who confessed that he did not mind what he
ate; and in truth it was a disarming of revelation. “The man who is
indifferent to women,” George Moore makes one of his characters say, “is
indifferent to all things,” and so is the man who is indifferent to
food and wine. Such a one is incomplete. He lacks a sense. He is an
abnormality. And myself I should be equally pained were someone to say
to me, “Oh, let’s go anywhere, I don’t mind where I dine.” I should feel
as pained, and for that matter as shocked, as if someone who had asked
me to lend him a book were to say, “Oh, any old novel, I don’t care!”
Far preferable the lady who said to the assistant at Bumpus’s, “I’ve got
a green book and a red book, now I should like a blue book.” She had at
least a sense of setting, of _décor_. Her drawing-room would have been,
I am sure, a very delicate symphony in blue and grey, and the light from
the electric lamp would have fallen softly on an exquisite disarray of
cushions. Certainly she would never have said, “Oh, let’s go anywhere. I
don’t mind where I dine.” She would know that evening is the artist of
the day’s traffic, who smooths, and composes and selects, and achieves a
harmony out of disorder; that it is for us to co-operate by the choice
of the right book, the right companion, and the right setting.

That is why the choice of the right restaurant is so important. If we
are in the mood for conversation there is our club or the Café Royal; if
we are alone and it would amuse us to watch other people dance, or
should we wish to add as a flavouring to the music and the dancing the
note ever so slightly struck of fugitive romances, there is the balcony
of the Elysée Café. Perhaps we feel sentimental, and at a certain table
in a certain restaurant, to the accompaniment of “Tango Dream” or of
some other tune of yesteryear that we have specially asked the
orchestra to play, we recall a phase of life that is concluded, and
quote with appropriate melancholy, Ah me, ah me, with what another heart
...! And there are again times when we ask simply for a quiet meal in
our own company.

It may have been good fortune, or it may have been through trained
instinct, that we discovered on our first day in Christiania the Theatre
Café: the restaurant was on the first floor, and there was a band on the
balcony above the café on the floor below; so that the music rose softly
and mysteriously through the floor, making it easy for us to weave
stories round the various couples of the other tables.

That middle-aged man and the young girl at the table by the window, were
they father and daughter; or were we attending the first scene, the
prelude, of some grey seduction? That young couple two tables from us,
they were not noticing what they ate. They hardly spoke a word to one
another; but their eyes kept meeting: and as they met, they smiled. She
was not wearing an engagement ring and we wondered whether he would
propose to her that afternoon, or whether he had already proposed to her
as they had driven there that morning in a taxi. Were they sitting now
shy and happy in the memory of their first kisses? We wondered if they
would make a success of life together. They were very young, we thought.
Would she still be pretty in ten years’ time? Would that fragile charm
of hers survive in womanhood? And we decided that it depended largely on
the life that awaited her, that hers was not a prettiness to sustain
long hours of toil and housework; and we hoped in that atmosphere of
unseen music that fortune would be kind to her, that her man would
invest their money wisely and present her with a large house and many
servants.

We went a couple of times, on the invitation of the management, to the
National Theatre, once to a modern piece--a Galsworthy sort of play--the
other time to a costume drama--_Madame Legros_, by Heinrich Mann. We
were not, either of us, I think, able to follow the plots at all
closely; but as a compensation we were able to study more carefully
those little mannerisms of dress and acting that are obscured by the
quick action of the play; that the Norwegian dandy, for example, does
not hitch up his trousers on sitting down. And we were able to
concentrate our attention, more than we should otherwise, on the stage
effects, the lighting, the technique, the carpentry of the business.

But it was, I think, as a picture that the theatre there appealed
chiefly to us. The theatre in a small town tends to become, as it can
never hope to become in London, a social and intellectual centre. One
seemed there to be in touch with the life of Christiania. And it was
pleasant to stroll between the acts down the long promenade behind the
stalls, to watch the various groups greet and mingle and separate; to
walk up the wide-columned staircase and turn into the large
reception-rooms, with their gilt chairs and the inevitable bar for
snacks; the gruyère and ham sandwiches, and the Hansa Ol; and it was
pleasant to walk out into the cool air of the balcony and look out over
the city as it lay below us in light and shadow. In the immediate
foreground the stern statues of Ibsen and Björnson; the trees, the
gardens and the bandstand; beyond, the turreted house of parliament; and
on either side running parallel the bright thoroughfares of the Carl
Johansgate and the Storthingsgarten with their trams and restaurants and
throng of people.

A pretty picture, but one that might at such an hour wake sadly in the
heart of the young Norwegian a sense of life hasting from him. His whole
life would seem to be enclosed by the bright boundaries of those
streets, going no farther than the eye could see. A nation, he would
say, of three million people, a capital of two streets and a few
restaurants, and he would think regretfully of the scope and freedom of
other countries and other cities--London, America, New York.

A story might be well began there on the balcony of the National Theatre
in Christiania, with a young man confronted suddenly by the challenge of
his life’s tether; a young man dreaming of a world wider and more
glamorous than his own, a world that would hold fit employment for his
youth and courage and ambition. He would turn from the balcony with an
ache about him, and it might be that in the wide reception-room behind
it he would find himself suddenly beside the girl whose image had been
never long absent from his thoughts, and there would be comfort for him
in the sight of her cool skin and light flaxen hair and pale cornflower
blue eyes, eyes that would smile softly into his, that would seem to bid
him “take life easy as the grass grows on the weirs.” And her sweetness
would be cast as a net about him, entangling alike his dreams and
purpose and his discontent. They will say nothing: there will be no need
of words; but they will turn and walk out of the large room and stand
together alone and silent on the balcony, in the evening air, happy,
unutterably happy in their nearness one beside the other.

And he will never leave the city: he will be unfaithful to his dream; he
will build a chalet on the hills of Majorstuen. And his youth will pass;
and one evening he will stand again alone upon the balcony, and remember
how thirty years earlier he had stood there, dreaming of a wider city,
and the old ache will rise in him and he will wonder if he has been wise
to accept the immediate adventure, the adventure that lay to hand. He
will ask himself whether he might not have found elsewhere employment
for that faith and energy of which the years have robbed him.

Or it may be that he is faithful to his dream and faithless to his love;
that he goes to America and prospers there, and all that other side of
him, all that is not strong and hard and resolute, is crushed out in the
fierce antagonism of finance, the ruthless fight for wealth, and he
returns at length an old man to the country of his youth, to the city
that stretches unaltered beneath him in light and shadow: the stern
statues, the trees and garden, and the bright, thronged thoroughfare of
the Carl Johansgate; and at the end of the balcony there stands a young
man leaning, as he had leant thirty years earlier, against the stone of
the balustrade, and he is filled swiftly, unaccountably, with an envy
for that young man’s potentialities. “I was once,” he thinks, “all that
he is now. I, too, was young, and fresh and gracious. I, too, stood with
the twenties and the thirties at my feet, and what have I made of them?
While others played, I worked. And while I worked the magic and the
beauty of life passed by me. I made gold of the years that others turned
to poetry.” And he feels lonely, and turns with a shiver to the warm
lights at the back of him. And he starts, for it seems to him that there
has risen suddenly at his side a figure out of the past: a pale slim
girl with cool white skin and flaxen hair and pale cornflower blue eyes,
and he is deserted by that assurance that has won him so many contracts,
and he stammers and says, “But surely, somewhere,--forgive me, please;
but, haven’t we....” And there is a low laugh, and at his side a voice,
“But you should know her, she is my daughter.”

And turning, he sees all that her mother has become, and seeing it, sees
also his own youth buried there. And life seems to me an utterly empty
and worthless thing.

A story that perhaps Maupassant would have cared to write. For that was
one of his favourite devices to bring a man face to face suddenly with
the survival of his discarded self, and the theme is Maupassant’s; that
we get always the thing we ask for, but never as we ask for it, never
according to the letter of our desire.



V


Very quickly, very pleasantly it passed, our week in Christiania, with
driftings in and out of cafés, and visits to the chalet of an old friend
of Clifford’s, Von Erpecom Sem, on the heights of Holmenhollen, from
which we could see far below the harbour and fjords of Christiania. We
never saw it in the sunlight, in all its many-coloured beauty, but at
night we saw it; a long scattered stretch of twinkling lights across the
water; and agreed that it deserved all that the guide-books have ever
said of it.

I am not certain, though, that the best of that holiday was not the
waking in a sleeper at 7.30 on a Monday morning at King’s Cross with the
knowledge that in an hour’s time I should be at home. I should find, I
knew, something between fifty and sixty letters waiting for me, for I
have made it a rule never to have correspondence forwarded to me when I
go away. There would be certainly something exciting for me in the
congregation of a fortnight’s letters. It was the first week in May; the
sun was shining out of a blue sky, with all the promise of summer’s
splendour. Lord’s and cricket, and long, lazy afternoons reading in a
deck-chair in the garden.

Once again the newspaper would become interesting. I should find myself
buying each successive issue of the _Evening News_ to know if Hearne was
still not out at Lord’s. And once again at about three o’clock would
steal over me that dissatisfaction with the manuscript that lay
unfinished on my desk in front of me. My hand would steal out towards
the receiver of the telephone. “Paddington 144. Yes: is that Lord’s?
Middlesex batting,--189 for 3. Thank you very much.” And within half an
hour I shall be sitting on the sun-baked gallery of the pavilion.

They pass so quickly those four golden months, that we are hardly
conscious of their passage till the time comes for us to walk, at the
close of the last match, wistfully across an emptying ground.

For eight months Lord’s will be shut; we shall pass by it on the ’bus,
and the white seats of the mound will be empty. A few groundsmen will be
pottering about; someone will be rolling the practice pitch. We shall
stand up on the ’bus as we go by, for one always does stand up on a ’bus
as one passes Lord’s; but no longer shall we crane our necks to read the
figures on the telegraph, or peer eagerly to distinguish the players, to
see whether it is Hearne or Hendren that is still not out. The season is
not over yet, of course; there is still the Scarborough festival, and
the champion county has to meet England at the Oval. But these games
were, after all, an anti-climax; for the true cricketer the season is at
an end when the last ball is bowled at Lord’s.

At first we are not too sorry. Four months is a long time at even the
best of games, and it is pleasant to think that in a fortnight’s time we
shall be getting out our football jerseys and putting new bars upon our
boots. It will be great fun going down to the Old Deer Park for the
trial games and meeting our old friends. Soon the season will be really
started, and every Tuesday morning will bring the yellow card: “You have
been selected to play for ‘A’ XV _v._ Exiles, or Harlequins ‘A,’ or Old
Alleynians.” And then on Saturday we shall let the District Railway
carry us out to strange places--Northfields and Boston Manor--places
whose names are familiar to us on the tubes, but are distant in the
imagination, like Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, places where we never expect
anyone to live. For members of an ‘A’ XV life is always an adventure;
and then, when the game is over, and we sit back in the carriage lazy
and tired, it is amusing to read through the soccer results in the
evening paper and learn that at Stamford Bridge 40,000 people saw “Cock
outwit the custodian and net the ball in the first three minutes.” And
afterwards we go on to Dehem’s and meet our friends from the other
games, and eat a great deal of roast beef, and drink a great deal of
beer. Oh, yes, there are many compensations for the loss of summer! The
autumn passes quickly and pleasantly, but towards Christmas there will
come, as there always must come, an evening when we shall sit over the
fire and remember suddenly that it is four months since we have held a
cricket bat, that May is still a long way off, and the procession of
Saturdays seems endless. On such an evening we take down _Wisden_ and,
long after our usual bedtime, pore over the old scores.

For _Wisden_ is the cricketer’s bible, though the unbaptized make mock
of it. “What is it,” they say, “but a record? We can understand your
wanting to look at the scores of matches that you have seen, that will
recall to you pleasant hours in pleasant company. But what possible
enjoyment can you derive from the bare figures and accounts of games you
have never watched, on grounds you have never been to? It is no doubt an
admirable work of reference for the statistician, but as literature, as
a thing that is read for pleasure! why, it reminds us of the half-pay
major who spent his evenings reading the Army List of 1860!”

It is hard to explain. In the same way that the letters _x_ and _y_
possess a significance for the mathematician, so for the cricketer these
bare figures are a symbol and a story. We can clothe the skeleton with
flesh. We can picture the scene. We know what the score-board looked
like when that seventh wicket fell; we can gauge the value of
Strudwick’s 5 not out. When we read, “Ducat, l.b.w. b. Woolley 12”; we
can imagine the emotion of the man sitting at the end of the free seats
below the telegraph. “If only Ducat can stay in,” he had thought,
“Surrey may win yet. There are several people who might stop at the
other end while he gets the runs.” But the umpire’s finger rose, and we
know the depression with which he wrote on the thumb-marked score-card
“l.b.w. b. Woolley 12,” and then pulled himself together, prepared to
watch “in a dream untroubled of hope” the inevitable end delayed for a
few minutes by Smith and Rushby.

That for the games one has not seen. But for those that one has
seen,--for them, _Wisden_ indeed becomes almost an autobiography. Our
cricket life, or rather the passive, the contemplative side of it, is
written there; and I am not sure that the receptive side is not the more
important. We only write, I sometimes think, to bring ourselves closer
to great writing; so that through our own fumblings after
self-expression we shall come to an understanding of the difficulties
that great writers have had to face, and a consequent appreciation of
their triumphs. Certainly had we not spent hours of scratching at a net,
learning to get our left shoulder over to the line of ball, we should
not feel so intensely the thrill of pleasure that Spooner’s off-drive
brings to us. It may well be that the hours of spent energy are an
apprenticeship for the intellectual calm of an afternoon at Lord’s.

Not always calm, though. Cricket, for all its leisure, is in its
long-drawn expectation the most emotional of games. It has not,
doubtless, any equivalent for the delirium of a try at Twickenham. But
then cricket does not aim at that particular sensation. It is drama, not
melodrama. Its atmosphere is heavily charged, one’s nerves are geared
high, one fidgets awkwardly in one’s seat. The effect is one of
continuously suspended action. One is always wondering. As often as not
the tension passes. The climax is never reached. I have watched a good
deal of cricket, but I have seen only four, five, at the most six, big
finishes.

There was that Middlesex and Essex game in 1910. On the whole, I am
inclined to think the most remarkable match I have ever seen. From the
very start it was remarkable. I arrived at lunch-time to find Essex
batting, with 93 runs on the board for the loss of two wickets. Half an
hour later they were all out for 110. J. W. Hearne, an unknown bowler
then, took seven wickets for no runs. And I shall not easily forget the
excitement and the pride of that last afternoon, when Middlesex, with
242 to win, lost eight wickets for 142. The pitch was bad. Buchenham was
bowling, as at that time Buchenham alone could bowl. Warner was still
in; but there was only Mignon to come, a bad bat even among fast
bowlers, and a newcomer to county cricket, who had made a duck in the
first innings and batted quite indifferently against Surrey in the
previous week. But in an hour Warner and S. H. Saville had won the
match.

A memorable evening. We had resigned ourselves to defeat. “They can’t do
it,” we had said; “it’s no use worrying. Let’s buy an evening paper and
see how Somerset are doing against Kent.” And we had smiled indulgently
when the boundaries began to come. “Fireworks,” we had said, and
remarked that it was rather stupid to have a tea interval. “They might
just as well,” we said, “have finished the thing off first.” But
something warned us not to leave the ground.

And they came in forty minutes, the last seventy-three runs; a glorious
forty minutes. Our indifference turning to a wondering hope: “Can they;
is it possible?” And then the recurring certainty they would. Forty
such minutes as come rarely in a lifetime.

Then there was the Kent match in ’21, when Middlesex, with the
championship to win, made over three hundred runs in four hours, to win
the match; then the great battle four days later against Surrey. And as
I correct these proofs I feel that, in spite of the printer’s bill, it
would be ungenerous in me to pay no tribute to the second day of this
year’s Sussex game at Lord’s. It began dingily enough, with a dull sky
and a cold wind, and H. L. Dales taking ninety minutes to make sixteen.
But fortunately I spent that first hour or so in the warm comfort of a
tube. And after lunch the sun came out; the cricket became exciting, and
the afternoon grew into one of the happiest that I have ever spent at
Lord’s. The excitement, curiously enough, was focussed on a battle for a
first innings lead. Usually one does not enthuse about points on the
first innings. But one is out to enjoy oneself on a Whit Monday. There
is in the presence of a big crowd the contagion of a herd emotion. And
certainly the cricket was very good. Sussex is the best fielding side in
England; I am not certain that J. W. Hearne is not to-day the finest
batsman in the world. And the afternoon was a long struggle between
Hearne and Sussex.

I have not the exact figures by me, but Middlesex wanted some 311 runs
for their two points, and seven wickets were down with the follow-on
still unsaved, when Twining came in to partner Hearne. On some of his
partners Hearne must, I think, exert a magnetic influence. Certainly
Twining, when he is in with him, looks and is a fifty per cent. better
player than when Lee or Hendren is at the other end. He has never done
anything comparable with the great partnership with Hearne that won
Middlesex the championship in 1921. Indeed, I rather think that his
fifty-seven not out that Whit Monday afternoon is his second highest
score in a county match. A useful rather than a good innings, perhaps,
but he stayed there; and I doubt if I ever saw a finer innings than
Hearne’s 140.

Some people find Hearne dull, as some people find Tolstoy dull. He has
not the volcanic, the eruptive vigour of Hendren and Dostoieffsky. He is
moving with a complete economy of effort towards a very distant point.
Where other batsmen think in fifties, he thinks in double centuries. He
knows exactly what he is doing all the time. Batsmen like Holmes and
Mead and Ducat get there somehow in the end; but they have not all the
time the end in view, or rather, perhaps, the spectator as he watches
them, has not the end in view. Holmes, whether he makes a cypher or a
century, never looks anything but an ordinary player. Hearne is a great
batsman the moment he walks on to the field. No one who knows anything
about cricket could see him play one stroke and have any doubts as to
his quality.

But it was after Hearne was out leg-before to Gilligan and Murrell had
failed, that the excitement really started. Twelve runs were wanted, I
think, when Durston came in to bat. They got them somehow, amazingly,
but they got them. There was a shriek of hysterical excitement every
time the ball hit the middle of the bat and trickled safely to mid on.
There were byes, and there was an overthrow, and miraculously Durston
turned Gilligan to leg and along the ground. It is the only good stroke
that I have ever seen him make. Sometimes I think I am uncharitable to
Durston. “He is not so awfully bad,” I tell myself, “not worse, really,
than Mignon was, or Rushby. It is only that there is so much of him to
look incompetent.” And then I see him bat again and I say, “No, really
he is absolutely the worst, without exception the worst. There can be no
man living whom the captain could, save as a practical joke, put in No.
11 for a side of which Durston was a member.” But on Whit Monday, when
he made that stroke for two off Gilligan, he was cheered as has rarely
any stroke by Hobbs been cheered, and the large, jolly, holiday crowd
poured homewards the happier for his batting.

Every summer has its own landmarks, its own sensations, its own big
matches; even this cold and miserable spring of numb fingers and dropped
catches. There is no season so poor that we cannot look back to it for
some things gratefully. And the future will be as good; better, perhaps.
And yet----. I wonder whether ever again there will be a day at Lord’s
to equal that of the 31st of August three years ago.

No cricketer will need me to remind him of what happened then, or to
retell the story of “Plum” Warner’s last and greatest match. Enough to
say that it was the most dramatic, the most fitting thing that has
happened in any sport in any country. If no championship even had been
at stake it would have been a great, a memorable match. With the
championship dependent on the result it was a titanic battle. But with
the added sentiment of Warner’s last appearance--such things come only
once in a generation.

I was not there on the first day. I was playing cricket at Hayward’s
Heath, and I remember the excitement with which I tore open the first
issue of the _Evening Argus_ to see which side had won the toss.
Middlesex batting. I gave a sigh of relief. That will be all right, I
thought. A plumb wicket. The Surrey bowling is weak. They took all day
yesterday to get out Northampton. There will be three hundred on the
board by six o’clock; and then came edition after edition with the news
that things were not going well at Lord’s. Lee out, Hearne out. Hendren
only 41; 109 for 5; 149 for 6. And then tardily in the last issue news
of a stand starting between Warner and Greville Stevens.

But even so, it was not good enough. To bat all day and only make 250.
And all through the Monday I watched hour by hour the match and
championship slip away. Catches were put down; the bowling had no sting.
And in the intervals one read on the tape machine of the manner of mess
that Lancashire were making of Worcester in the north. I left the ground
when Fender declared his innings closed. Seventy-three runs behind. Only
a day left for play. We could make a draw of it probably if we wanted
to. But only with a win could we win the championship. It was no use.
It was over. Better not see the end.

And yet I went down there on the Tuesday. There was still a chance;
should we win, I should never forgive myself had I not been there to
cheer the team. And hope came back to me when I met “Skipper” Pawling on
the steps of the pavilion. “It’s all right, my boy,” he said; “it’s all
right. We’ll just manage it.” Mrs Warner had come down with white
heather for the professionals. And I can still hear the eager,
high-pitched tension of her voice, “We shall do it, shan’t we, Mr
Pawling.” I am not certain that Sydney Pawling is not the most vivid
memory to me of that long August day. I can see him drawing his great
hand across his mouth; I can see him muttering when Hearne came in to
bat, “He’s looking ill; fine drawn. I must send him over some champagne;
some champagne.” And I can remember him almost in tears at the end of
the day as the Surrey wickets fell.

But then we were all of us, I think, very near to tears at the end of
that great evening. When I went to Lord’s for the first time in a sailor
suit in the spring of 1904, I cried when Warner’s wicket fell, and I
rather think I cried at the end of it all at twenty past six on the
thirty-first of August, when the huge crowd swept over the playing field
and carried him shoulder high to the pavilion.

Will Lord’s ever see such a scene again? Will Lord’s ever again know
anything to equal the excitement of that last hour, from the moment when
Hendren caught Shepherd high over his left shoulder as he backed
against the screen? It was the turning-point, that catch. In half the
time Surrey had got half the runs, and only two wickets had gone down.
Then came that catch which only Hendren could have held off a stroke
that from the other end would have been a six. It was a match again.
Fender came in next; there was an awful hush. Half an hour of Fender and
the match was Surrey’s. But he hit right across a straight length ball
from Durston. 112-4-1. Still there was Peach to come, and Reay, and
Hitch and Ducat, with Sandham batting beautifully at the other end. The
odds were still on Surrey. But Hearne and Stevens did not fail their
captain in that last hour. Hendren, of all people, missed Hitch low down
at mid-wicket, but the bowlers could afford to do without their
fielders. Wicket after wicket fell. 176 for 9, and Rushby came in,
swinging his arms, while the crowd laughed. Rushby, a clown batsman;
nothing more. But he stood there, and singles began to come; and one
looked at the clock and reminded oneself that Rushby had once stayed in
while Crawford put on 80. Twelve runs in ten minutes; would the end
never come? Then an unplayable ball from Stevens. It was all over. The
ball trickled to short leg. Hearne and Hendren rushed from the slips
after it. Hearne got there first, ran with his “souvenir” to the
pavilion. And the great crowd swarmed about the wicket.

I do not expect ever to see again anything to equal it. But I am proud
and glad to have been there, to have taken part in that tribute to the
greatest hearted cricketer the world has ever known.



VI


How many hours during the year, I wonder, must we spend over our
_Wisden_? A great many surely, so many, indeed, that we cannot help
thinking how small is the literature of cricket. Only two shelves out of
thirty. There are one or two novels, _Willow the King_, A. A. Milne’s
_The Day’s Play_, a few of Mr Lucas’s Essays, the complete works of P.
F. Warner, W. J. Ford’s _Middlesex Cricket_, Lord Harris’s _Lord’s and
the M.C.C._, a few volumes of reminiscence, one or two textbooks, P. G.
Wodehouse’s delightful _Mike, The Hambleden Men_, and Neville Cardus.

Poor stuff, too, for the most part. The literature of cricket can be
divided into two categories. There are the books by men who understand
cricket but do not know how to write, and the books by the men who know
how to write but do not understand cricket. In the course of a year many
books and stories dealing with the game are published, but only rarely
in a generation comes combined the sportsman and the man of letters.
Whom have we to-day: P. G. Wodehouse; but he prefers to write of golf.
A. A. Milne; but he is dabbling in grease paint. E. V. Lucas; but so
rarely nowadays. Neville Cardus; yes, the only one, the only genuine
one, perhaps. The first man to make literature out of cricket. His
essay on Tom Richardson; his description of Maclaren leaving the field
for the last time at Eastbourne; his “Greatest Test Match.” They were
written for the columns of a daily paper, but there is literature in
them, real prose, real melody, real emotion. He is alone, though,
Neville Cardus.

Hardly any poetry has been written about the game. There is Thompson’s
“Oh, my Hornby and my Barlow Long Ago,” and there is a quantity of
verse, pleasant jingly stuff of the drinking-song variety, the best of
it valedictory, such as Andrew Lang’s “Beneath the Daisies Now They
Lie.” But the few attempts that have been made at serious poetry have
not been fortunate. Edward Cracroft Lefroy, for example, to whom cricket
appealed chiefly as an æsthetic spectacle, included in his catalogue of
the physical attributes of a bowler the

    Elbows apt to make the leather spin
    Up the slow bat and round the unwary shin,

which is not only poor verse but proves on the part of the author an
inadequate knowledge of the no-ball rule.

But perhaps verse is not a happy medium through which to express an
enjoyment of cricket. Phrases like “unwary shin” will intrude
themselves, and, although Pindar used to celebrate with equally
appropriate ardour the feats of generals and of athletes, the very idea
of commemorating in heroic couplets Woolley’s two great test-match
innings at Lord’s seems ridiculous. We have grown so accustomed to
reading accounts of cricket matches in the prose style of the sporting
press that any other treatment is impossible. Perhaps Mr Masefield will
one day attempt an epic of the fifth test match at the Oval, but I doubt
if it would be a success. It would be a quaint performance, as though
one were to walk down the Strand in court dress of Jacobean cut. The
jargon of a cricket report is unsuited to heroic verse, but it is
indispensable. If, for instance, we were informed that Hendren,

    Snared into over-confidence, stept back,
    Swinging his bat as though he would eclipse
    The thundered violence of Albert Trott.
    Yet had he not correctly judged the flight
    Of the quick spinning ball.
                      Aghast he heard
    Behind his back the rattle of the stumps,

we should not be very much the wiser. We should prefer to learn of such
a tragedy in straightforward narrative: “Hendren hooked Mailey to the
on-boundary twice in succession; but, in an attempt to repeat the stroke
to a ball that was pitched farther up to him and that went away with the
arm, he was clean bowled.”

Indeed, A. E. Housman’s “On an Athlete Dying Young” is the best serious
poem that can be said to interpret any side of cricket, and that poem is
written to a runner. But it is universal, for it contains the tragedy of
all professional sport:

    Now you will not swell the rout
    Of lads that wore their honours out,
    Runners whom renown outran,
    And the name died before the man.

Contemporary reference to any cricketer no longer playing is made in
the past tense, “Tarrant was ...”; and how many of the enthusiastic
Ovalites who recall so eagerly the great days of “Locky and Brocky”
pause to consider that their hero is still alive?

The lack of prose literature dealing with cricket is, however, as
surprising as it is deplorable. For a hundred years ago the game must
have been able to supply an intriguing background for a novel. Lord’s
was like Paddington recreation-ground, and, when there was no match, the
public were allowed to hire a pitch there for a shilling, a sum that
included the use of stumps, bat, and ball; there were no mowing machines
then, and the grass was kept down by a flock of sheep, which was penned
up on match days. On Saturdays, four or five hundred sheep were driven
on to the ground on their way to the Smithfield Market. And then half a
dozen small boys would run out and pick out any long grass or thick
tufts that were still left. It is not surprising that there were
shooters then. And never since the days of the gladiators can there have
been such wholesale bribery and corruption as there was in the days of
Lord Frederic Beauclerk.

Enormous bets were made. Matches were played for stakes of one thousand
guineas a side--in those days no small sum, and professionals found it
hard to live on their pay; indeed, they made little effort to; and in
big matches where a lot of money was at stake it was not uncommon to
find one side trying to get themselves out while their opponents were
trying to give them easy balls to make runs off. Indeed Lord Harris
tells a story of how two professionals had a dispute at one of the
annual general meetings at Lord’s, and in the presence of the noble
lords of the M.C.C. such questions as “Who sold the match at
Nottingham?” and “Who would bowl at anything but the wicket for Kent?”
were bandied about to the consternation, Lord Harris says, “of some of
those present who had lost their money contrary to all calculation on
the matches referred to”! There were few newspaper reporters then, and
things could be done at Old Trafford news of which would come tardily to
Lord’s.

The only persons who appear to have remained incorruptible during these
early days are, strangely enough, the umpires. Perhaps they put too high
a premium on their honesty, and the bookmakers found it cheaper to have
dealings with the players, or perhaps there was a general conspiracy of
silence, no one being sufficiently without blame to cast a stone. At any
rate, the interpreters of the law seem to have given satisfaction, and
they can have had no easy time. For it was during these years that the
code of rules under which we play to-day was compiled. And it was
compiled in a most haphazard fashion. No committee sat over a table and
weighed every possible contingency and interpretation of the laws. The
authorities were worthy fellows, but lazy and unimaginative. They drew
up a rough code and waited for things to happen. If any particular
practice began to cause a nuisance they were prepared to put a stop to
it. In the meantime let the wheel turn.

It did turn, and often with uncomfortable complications. At one time,
for instance, in the days when there were only two stumps, a hole was
cut between and beneath the wickets, and when a batsman completed a run
he had to pop his bat into this hole. If the bowler succeeded in popping
the ball there before the bat the batsman was run out. It was found,
however, that bat and ball would often arrive in the hole
simultaneously, with sad results to the bowler’s fingers; and often
enough, when a fieldsman had anticipated the bat, the defeated player
would take what revenge he could by driving his bat upon the knuckles of
his conqueror. After a certain number of fingers had been broken the
authorities thought fit to substitute for the hole the present popping
crease.

Much the same thing happened in the case of leg-before-wicket. As pads
were not then invented, and as the ball was delivered with much
rapidity, it had never seemed likely that any batsman would, with
deliberate intention, place his unprotected legs in the path of a hard
ball. But one day the cricket world was thrown into consternation by the
tactics of one Ring, who placed his body in front of the wicket in such
a way that it was impossible for him to be bowled out. His shins became
very sore, but his score became very large. This gallant act of
self-sacrifice for the good of his side did not win the admiration it
deserved; it was described by a contemporary writer as “a shabby way of
taking advantage of a bowler,” so that when Tom Taylor adopted the same
tactics the bowlers “declared themselves beaten”: a leg-before-wicket
rule was drawn up, and another opportunity for Spartan courage was lost
to an effeminate age.

The rules were altered to suit each fresh development. And when we
remember the manifold and barbarous practices of that day, we cannot but
shudder when we try to imagine what fearsome and horrible atrocities
must have taken place before the rule about “obstruction of the field”
was invented. Cannot we picture some burly butcher skying the ball to
point and then, in order to save his wicket, rushing at the fieldsman
and prostrating him with his bat? Cannot we see the batsman at the other
end effecting a half-nelson upon the bowler who was about to catch his
partner? The laws of Rome were not built up without bloodshed, nor were
the laws of cricket. What opportunities for humorous narrative have been
lost!

If only there had been some naturalistic writer who would have collected
laboriously all these stories and made a novel of them. If Zola had been
an Englishman we could have forgiven him his endless descriptions of
gold-beaters and agricultural labourers, if one of the Macquarts had
been a professional cricketer and one of those interminable novels had
reconstructed the cricket world of his day. If only the caprice of
things had allowed George Moore to spend his early years near a cricket
field instead of a racing stable.

But even those few novelists who have included cricket in their panorama
of the period appear woefully ignorant of the management of the game.
What a sad mess Dickens made of it, and how well he might have done it!
How entertaining Mr Winkle might have been behind the wicket: what
sublime decisions he would have given as an umpire! But, no: Muggleton
play Dingley Dell, and the great Podder “blocked the doubtful balls,
missed the bad ones, took the good ones and sent them flying to all
parts of the field,” which is surely the most quaint procedure that any
batsman has ever followed; and as a climax Dingley Dell give in and
allow the superior prowess of all Muggleton, apparently before they have
had their own innings--an action without precedent in the annals of the
game.

And so it has happened that our one complete picture of the Homeric days
has come to us not from the novelists, the official recorders of the
hour, but from John Nyren, who wrote without any thought of posterity a
guide-book for the young cricketer. There are some books that, like
wine, acquire qualities with the passage of time, and for us to-day the
_Cricketer’s Tutor_ possesses a value that it did not have for those in
whose service it was written. To the young blood of 1840 it was merely a
manual, a sort of field service regulations; to-day it is a piece of
literature; it interprets a period; it reveals a personality.

As we read John Nyren’s advice we can see how the game was played in
1820 on rough pitches, without pads, in top hats, and with a courage the
extent of which may be gauged from the instructions that he gives to
long-stop:

     When the ball does not come to his hand with a fair bound, he must
     go down upon his right knee with his hands before him: then in case
     these should miss it, his body will form a bulwark and arrest its
     further progress.

In those days we learn that spectators were patient folk who sat on
backless seats, drank porter, smoked long pipes, and made bets about the
match. There was leisure then, and John Nyren believed that the batsman
should wait to make his runs till bowler and fieldsmen were exhausted:

     I would strongly recommend the young batsman to turn his attention
     to stopping: for by acting this part well, he becomes a serious
     antagonist to the bowler; who, when he sees a man coming in that he
     knows will stop all his length balls with ease, is always in a
     degree disheartened. He has no affection for such a customer.
     Besides, in this accomplishment lies the distinction between the
     scientific and the random batsman.

The random batsman: it is an adjective we find often in the _Cricketer’s
Tutor_. For Nyren had an intense hatred of unskilled success. Cricket
was to him an art the technique of which could only be mastered after an
elaborate apprenticeship. He distrusted the short cut, and we find him
the most bitter opponent of the young idea. He is the eternal Tory of
yesterday, of to-day and of to-morrow. And he is very human to us as he
stands on the brink of change uttering his solemn warning. For it was
towards the end of his career that round-arm bowling was introduced, and
it is hard to realise the revolution this caused in the world of sport.
It made as much stir and roused as many bad feelings in its own province
as its contemporary the Reform Bill. This bowling was described as the
“new march of intellect--style,” and in 1827 three matches were played
between Sussex and England to test the merits of the two methods. The
county won the first two matches, and the nine professionals on the
England side were so incensed that they signed a formal petition “that
we, the undersigned, do agree that we will not play the third match
between all England and Sussex unless the Sussex bowlers bowl fair--that
is, abstain from throwing.” And the great Mr Ward, when asked his
opinion, said, “I can only say cricketers are a peaceable class of men.
With this bowling I never see a match that might not end in a wrangle.”

John Nyren was its most fierce opponent, and it is rather pathetic to
read his violent and ineffectual protest. This invention would ruin
cricket. He saw a new game that would lack the grace and skill of the
game as he and his friends had played it. The ball would come so fast
that the batsman would not have time to prepare for it.

     The indifferent batsman possesses as fair a chance of success as
     the most refined player. And the reason for this is obvious,
     because from the random manner of delivering the ball it is
     impossible for the fine batsman to have time for that finesse and
     delicate management which so peculiarly distinguished the elegant
     manœuvring of the chief players who occupied the field about eight,
     ten, or more years ago.

And he goes on to state his belief that if the present system be
persisted in a few years longer “the elegant and scientific game of
cricket will develop into a mere exhibition of rough, coarse
horse-play.”

What would he say if he could return to the pavilion at the Oval, and
see Hitch bowling at how many miles is it an hour, and Hendren hooking
him to the square-leg boundary? And the last paragraph of his protest is
that of every man since the beginning of time who has seen his day pass,
his heroes overthrown, and a rash, irreverent generation in their place.

     I can use my eyes [he writes], I can compare notes and points in
     the two styles of playing, and they who have known me will bear
     testimony that I have never been accustomed to express myself
     rashly.

A forlorn figure, trusting so simply in the permanence of a static
world.

It is sad to think how quickly that world has passed, and how
effectively the machinery of our industrial system has already taken
cricket to itself. Nyren’s game is no longer the entertainment of a few.
It has become part of the national life, and probably, if the
Bolshevists get their way here, it will be nationalised with the cinema
and the theatre and association football. It is hard to find much in
common between the old men who smoked long pipes and drank strong porter
and watched Mr Haygarth bat three hours for sixteen runs, and the twenty
thousand who flock to the Middlesex and Surrey match because the
newspapers have told them to, and who barrack any batsman who plays
through a maiden over. Indeed, on those big days, I do not think that
you find there the survival of the old enthusiast. You will find him
rather on a cold morning shivering at the back of the mound, on the
third day of a match that is certain to be a draw, when there are only a
couple of hundred spectators. No one knows why he goes there. He will be
very cold. He will not see particularly good cricket. Professional
batsmen will play for a draw in the most professional manner. The
fielding towards four o’clock will grow slack, and half an hour before
the end the captains will decide that it is no good going on, and that
they might just as well draw stumps. Your old man in the mound knows
that this must happen. But he goes there all the same, and at three
o’clock he buys an evening paper to read an account of the match and he
sees that the reporter says: “Hardstaff was beaten and bowled by a
yorker.” And the old man will chuckle, knowing that it was a half-volley
and that Hardstaff hit over it. And in January, when he reads through
his _Wisden_, he will put a tick against that match, with the others
that he has seen, and he will add them up and find that he has spent
five more days at Lord’s this year than he did the year before. He will
remember how his grandfather used to talk to him of Fuller Pilch; and he
will smile, knowing the superiority of Hendren. And he will continue to
watch cricket as his grandfather watched it on cold days as well as
warm, when a draw is certain and when there is a chance of a great
finish. One day he believes the professional batsmen will fail, there
will be a collapse and a sensational victory, and only two hundred
people will have seen it. He knows that many matches are played in the
year and that very few of them yield great finishes, and he knows that
the only way to make sure of the big occasion is to go there whenever
stumps are pitched. And it is of him that we must think when we would
reconstruct the cricket world of 1830.

For Nyren was the Homer of cricket and the Homeric days have passed. In
1923 the soil is no longer virgin. Cricket is a different game, and for
the novelist it is less intriguing. There is no betting, there is no
dishonesty, and, though we hear whispers of the questionable diplomacy
of the northern leagues, it would hardly be possible to invent a cricket
story with a credible villain. Nat Gould found no difficulty in writing
a hundred novels of the racecourse; it is extremely difficult to write
one of the cricket field. No scope is provided for dramatic narrative.
Cricket in the lives of most of us is a delightful interlude--pleasant
hours in pleasant company; and we do not take our success or failure
very seriously. At school it is important: caps and cups are at stake,
positions of authority go to the most proficient; and it so happens that
the only great cricket story of recent times is a school story, P. G.
Wodehouse’s _Mike_. But apart from school it is hard to find in cricket
a motive of sufficient strength to allow of the development and
presentation of dramatic action. On the racecourse large sums of money
are at stake. On the success of a horse may depend the future happiness
of the hero and the heroine. But I doubt if the result of a cricket
match has in recent years ever involved much more than the temporary
loss or gain of personal prestige. In _Willow the King_ J. C. Snaith
chose a cricket match as the setting for a summer idyll, but the author
of _Brooke of Covenden_ would hardly rank that story highly among his
many very considerable achievements. The moment for the great cricket
novel has passed: irrecoverably perhaps. And in the winter months we
find ourselves returning as of old to a few books of reminiscence and to
our long yellow-backed, tattered row of _Wisden_, and of the two we find
_Wisden_ the more companionable.



VII


We read _Wisden_ in the winter on cold nights before a leaping fire and
it brings back to us the sense of new-mown grass, the feel of a cricket
ball and the stir of sunlight. It is a substitute for cricket: and the
old harassing doubt creeps up again, the doubt whether any literature is
anything beyond a substitute, the focus of an unfulfilled desire. We
know how old people drug themselves with novels. Every day they go down
to the library and choose a new book, and for twenty-four hours cease to
be themselves, becoming again in a story of adventure and young love all
that they were and are not. Does not foiled ambition, we ask ourselves,
always seek to realise itself in plays and pictures. Inevitably some
side of ourselves must remain undeveloped, and through a process that
the advanced psychologists describe as sublimation, we find that
undeveloped side a substitute for its expression. Is a book anything
more than a spade digging down to our subconsciousness, to our real
self? Is anything ever quite what we take it for?

Influence: they’ll talk for hours about it from the pulpit. Influence:
every little thing, every word and thought and act. It has its effect on
someone somewhere. I can still hear a certain old parish priest’s thin
voice falling across the dark silence of benediction. It was his pet
theme: influence. “They will tell you in the big world,” he used to say
to us, “that the strong man can be independent of his actions, that they
fall from him as raindrops from a sloping roof. It may be so. Perhaps:
for the very few, the very strong. But the water that falls from the
clouds rests somewhere. It may slip from the sloping roofs, but it will
find its level. Its level where it must complete its task, where it will
rot wood, rust iron, or make the corn golden for the hands of man. Your
acts, your words, your thoughts, they are like the falling rain.
Somewhere they will create beauty or decay. They will never fall
unheeded.”

He was right, of course. Every moment of the day we impart, as we
receive, impressions. But the nature of those impressions. It is there
that I’m just a little doubtful. That “as we sow we reap” theory. It
looks all right. It ought to be all right. But life has a way of
contradicting theories. It isn’t always the good tree that bears good
fruit. Sometimes, unquestionably; but one fact is worth a string of
arguments. Or rather, perhaps, there’s no argument that can withstand a
fact. And here, as my contribution to the argument, is the story of
Pussy Willow, as she told it me a couple of months ago raffishly across
the table of a dingy restaurant, in one of those back streets that
filter through from Shaftesbury Avenue across Soho.

I drop in there quite often after closing time. There’s dancing there
and music, if you can so grace an unwashed foreigner’s strumming on a
banjo. And they’ve got a licence to carry on till twelve. I don’t know
how they got it. They don’t even call themselves a club. But they’ll
dump a property sandwich down in front of you and serve you, up till
midnight, with villainous concocted cognac at half-a-crown a glass. It’s
like most of those Soho Bohemian places: a poisonous atmosphere to live
in, but amusing and profitable enough to visit now and again. I like to
sit quietly in a corner and watch a crowd of people, laughing and
quarrelling and drinking--and try to make stories up round each of them,
wondering who is in love with whom, and who will be so and so’s
successor. Sometimes I signal to one of them to come and share a drink
with me; more often they come across of their own accord and await an
invitation.

It was in this way that I met, or should rather say, perhaps, re-met,
Pussy Willow. A plump, flashily, but poorly dressed woman planted
herself down in front of me and announced that she was two sheets in the
wind.

“Mine being,” she concluded, “a double Scotch, and water, not too much
of it.”

“Admirable,” I answered. “One double, waiter, and a benedictine.”

She swallowed her double at a gulp, then leant forward across the table.
“You don’t know who I am?” she said.

I shook my head.

“Then I’ll introduce myself. Miss Pussy Willow, late of the Vaudeville
Theatre!”

She was a good actress. She had always known how to get the most out of
her voice, how to lay the bait for an effect. And she got it all right.
I sat back and looked at her, looked at the puffed, swollen cheeks, the
pouches under the eyes, the unshapely mouth where the powder caked along
the wrinkles, the bulging double chin, and searched there, as one might
search in the face of a long drowned friend for some sign of accustomed
features, searched for that face, so pretty, so delicate, so appealing,
so utterly, so entrancingly soubrette, that had made so many hearts beat
quickly fifteen years ago. Not a trace of it. Not a trace of the woman
who had once been Pussy Willow, of the radiant creature who had swayed
in that great silver dress, before the chorus, singing the song that had
been for six months the rage of London: “Love is the song of a girl and
a boy.” Gone: all of it. That youth, that charm, that divine mingling of
simplicity and wantonness--buried beneath this coated unhealthy mask of
flesh and powder. I did not know what to say. She was looking at me in a
half-dazed, half-resentful manner, ready to hit back if what I might say
should hurt her. In the end I thought it better to say nothing.

“So it’s silence, is it?” she said. “Ah, well, I guessed as much. I know
what you’re thinking--the pity of it, that’s what you’re saying to
yourself. Poor Pussy Willow, you’ll say. Drunk herself down to this. And
then you’ll go back home and think what a damned fine fellow you are.
And to-morrow you’ll tell your friends up at the club: ‘Do you know whom
I saw yesterday?’ you’ll say. ‘Pussy Willow, quite drunk, she was. All
her looks gone. You wouldn’t have recognised her.’ And you’ll all raise
your hands and say: ‘The pity of it!’ and get self-righteous. And then
you’ll go back to your office and swindle some wretched underdog and
talk about leaving the world better than you found it. I know your sort.
You only come here to get warm with self-righteousness. Ah, you--But,
well, I’ll tell you this, mister: you talk about leaving the world
better than you found it, but I’ve probably done a sight more good in it
than you have.”

She paused on a high-pitched note of challenge.

But again I made no answer. I knew that I had only to wait to be told
the story. I caught the waiter’s eye, nodded, and another double was at
her elbow. She gulped it down quickly, as she had the other. She leant
forward, warmed, softened, recollective to continue on the note where
she had paused. “More good than you,--a blooming sight more good than
you. I saved a man once from becoming--well, you know what men become if
they don’t pull the reins up tight in the early thirties. Yes, me--I
saved a man. It makes me laugh now when I think of it.

“I met him here a couple of months ago, just as I met you. Tall,
fine-looking man, he was, white-haired, with a short, close-cut beard.
Well dressed: a successful family business man--that’s what he looked.
Heaven knows what he thought he was doing here. Change, I suppose; an
empty hour to be filled in somehow. Perhaps he used to come here when he
was a boy and felt sentimental suddenly. At any rate, he came in and
stood at the corner of the bar and ordered a brown sherry and looked
very self-conscious and out of place. I nudged the girl next me. ‘The
396th hymn,’ I said. ‘Two minutes and he’ll be in the pulpit.’ And we
laughed and had another, and told a couple of bluish stories. And then,
suddenly, I found myself getting uncomfortable, and I realised that I
was being stared at, stared at in a curious, creepy sort of way, as
though I was being looked through for something that was behind me. It
went on that stare, till I couldn’t stick it any longer. I walked across
to him. ‘Well, old sport,’ I said, ‘this is me. Now, what about it?’

“He stammered a little and looked embarrassed.

“‘Yes--I--I’m sorry. It was rude of me, but ... well, you remind me very
much of someone.’

“‘And who might that be?’ I asked.

“‘An actress. You probably wouldn’t know her. We thought a lot of her
once--Pussy Willow.’

“It knocked me sideways, I can tell you. I thought the world had
forgotten Pussy, or that those who did remember wouldn’t recognise her
now in what she is.

“‘You ought to be a detective then,’ I says, ‘you’ve touched the right
target.’

“It told. I hoped it would. He stammered: ‘What! you--you really are the
Pussy Willow who----’

“And suddenly, for cheek, I cocked back my hat as I used to at the jolly
old Vaudeville, and I plumped my fists down on my hips and swayed
backwards and began to sing the first verse of that old thing of
mine--you remember it, when I wore that great silver dress, ‘Love is
the song of a girl and a boy.’

“He knew then: ‘Pussy Willow!’ he murmured. Then stood looking at me as
they all do, those that remember me, when I tell them who I am; looked
at me till I got all hot and shivery.

“‘Oh, come off it,’ I said, ‘Give me a drink, old pal.’

“He seemed to pull himself together with a start. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said,
‘I forgot. Waiter, send a bottle of champagne over to that table and
some sandwiches.’

“By the time one’s got to my age one’s learnt not to be surprised at
anything. ‘Gee, girls,’ I said, ‘but it’s a party!’ And I followed him
across and began to chatter about old times. I thought that was what he
wanted, to be made to feel young again. But I soon saw that he was not
listening to what I was saying, that he had something of his own to say,
but didn’t know how to say it, so I just chattered on till he was ready.

“It came, all of a heap, like an explosion, right across one of my best
stories.

“‘Pussy, look here--I’m ... well, I’m not rich, but I want to do
something for you. I want to--may I give you an allowance of two pounds
a week?’

“I sat back on my chair flabergasted, absolutely. It was five years
since anyone had made me that sort of offer.

“‘Well,’ I said, ‘the old lady’s a bit weatherbeaten, but what there is
of her is good.’

“He shook his hand; quite a stage gesture, quietly in front of me.

“‘Oh, no, no, no,’ he said. ‘Please don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t
mean anything like that--as a present, simply.’

“I tried him with a dead straight glance.

“‘Now, look here, my lad,’ I said, ‘cough it up. What’s it all about?
People don’t give things for nothing--not in this world, any way.’

“He nodded. ‘That’s why I want to do something for you. You’ve done me
the greatest service that anyone has ever done me. I have a very happy
home and three very happy children, and but for you I don’t think I
should have ever married.’

“That made me laugh. ‘So you heard me sing: “Love me in a cottage by the
sea,” and caught the next train to Margate?’

“‘Oh, no, no! Something--something perhaps you’d rather not be reminded
of. But, do you remember when “The Eastern Princess” was running at the
Clarion, and you flung up your part at a moment’s notice and weren’t
seen again in London for six months?’

“I nodded. One of the landmarks in my life, that show was.

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘I was twenty-seven then. I’d just passed my first
medical exam. in Ireland and had come up to London to open a practice in
Richmond. I wasn’t badly off. I had good prospects. I was a sportsman.
For eight years, ever since I had gone up to Oxford, I had been working
really hard. All my friends told me that my innings was just going to
begin. “You’ll have a wonderful time,” they said; “there’s no place like
London.”’

“‘And then I fell in love with a very young and very unsophisticated
girl, the daughter of a country parson whom I had got to know during a
cricket tour. My friends did their very best to dissuade me. “It’s
perfect madness,” they said, “you’re going to chuck your life away
before you’ve started it. You could have a wonderful time. My dear chap,
don’t be an ass!” And they took me to dancing clubs, and the heat and
colour mounted to my brain. I began to agree with them: marriage was a
fetter, a prison house. One didn’t chuck one’s life away.

“‘And then I heard a rumour about you. They were saying that you had
gone away because--well, your name was coupled with the producer’s
there. What was his name? Ah, yes, Clive Ferguson,--and they said that
you were--well--er--very ill.

“‘It’ll surprise you, but I don’t think anything’s ever shocked me quite
so much. I had heard you sing a great many times. I had made a sort of
ideal of you, as young men will of actresses. You had become the
embodiment to me of the gay, brightly coloured butterfly life of London;
and, when I heard that rumour, your ruin seemed a criticism of the whole
life you represented. That’s where it ends, I told myself. I thought of
you as I had last seen you, singing in that great silver dress of yours.
And then I thought of what life would be to you from then on. And I
don’t know, but beneath its warmth and glitter that life seemed hard and
cruel and revengeful. A month later I was married, and I’ve been very,
very happy. And--well, it’s a bit late, I’m afraid, but if I can I
should like to be able to do something for you now.’”

Pussy Willow stopped speaking, tossed back her head and smiled. “And
that’s the way I got my beer money for life.”

“And was it true?” I asked.

“True--what true?”

“About Clive Ferguson?”

She laughed a loud, harsh, triumphing laugh. “True, that! good God, no.
Clive Ferguson! I wouldn’t look at him. Dirty great oily Jew. I wouldn’t
have looked twice at him, not that way. I expect he started that story
one evening when he was drunk--sheer swank to save his vanity. Oh no, he
wasn’t the cause of that little jaunt of mine. No, I was away for six
months, old sport, with the only man I think I’ve ever really cared for.
A young boxer, he was, engaged to some soppy fool in the chorus. She
brought him round to see us one evening. I had one look at him and made
my mind up. He wasn’t going to waste himself on the likes of her. God!
but I was mad about that boy. That’s really what started things against
me. I rushed him straight away; didn’t give him time to think; and Clive
Ferguson never forgave me. The understudy was an utter dud; clean
smashed the piece, it did, in its second month. He never forgave me.
Wouldn’t take me back again. And the money I spent on that boy; all my
jewellery went and the things I’d put away. And of course I couldn’t
keep him. One never can keep them. They use one as a stepping-stone. I
never really got over it. I shan’t ever forget. But, oh, well! two
pound a week for life I’ve got out of it.

“And if it’s a woman’s job in life to make a man happy, to give him a
good home and children, well, I suppose I’ve done it. I could laugh
sometimes when I think how I have done it. But it doesn’t matter, does
it, as long as the thing gets done.”

What are you going to argue against that? and in literature as in life.

As far as effect is concerned, social and moral effect that is to say,
bad books, bad deeds, are just as valuable as good. Our contempt for the
best seller, is it anything but a form of intellectual snobbery, or
jealousy, which is the same thing, from another side.

Best sellers!

Whenever I see, on railway bookstalls and the shelves of Mudie’s
library, a novel by Florence Barclay I am reminded of one of my first,
certainly my strangest, school friends. He was not the conventional
public-school type. He disliked games. He refused to join the corps. He
had no house or school spirit. He was a fine swimmer, but never trained
for the competitions. Games were compulsory. But I do not recollect to
have ever seen him on the cricket field, and he played football scarcely
once a fortnight. He arranged for every afternoon of the week a music
lesson or a music practice. Authority let him go his own way. He was, in
fact, the sort of person whom one would expect to be bullied, and
thoroughly wretched generally. And yet he was not, I think, unhappy.
Certainly he was never bullied. Even the swashbuckling element, in what
was admittedly a fairly boisterous community, treated him with respect.
This in itself would make him a well-placed candidate for immortality.
But it is his study that I particularly remember. It was the sort of
study that challenged enterprise, and an old boy on seeing it was
reported to have exclaimed: “Good God! what must the house be coming to!
Why hasn’t this place been shipped?”

It was like no study that had ever been. They were small dark rooms, our
studies, monastic quarters that lay under the shadow, on one side, of
the abbey, and on the other, of the lindens and big school. We tried to
make them brighter with light festooned wallpapers, allegorical
pictures, and brackets on which we placed china shepherdesses; to the
height of four feet the walls were panelled, and fashion decreed that
the woodwork should be covered with long strips of brightly coloured
cloth. It was a fashion that had been handed down, like the pictures,
from one generation to another. Thus in my father’s day did they
disfigure honest handiwork, and thus will they disfigure it when I am
fifty. My friend had, however, little use for fashions. He decided that
he would have his woodwork painted in mauve and black. And to match it
he had the walls covered with a deep mauve paper. From the ceiling he
hung before the window a mauve curtain, edged with black. On the window
seat and on the chairs he heaped high a profusion of mauve cushions; the
walls, for he was a great admirer of Napoleon, he devoted exclusively to
a picture gallery for the dictator. It was, in fact, a study that would,
in Chelsea, occasion a mild surprise; at school it made you reel in
outraged dismay across the passage. Yet no one shipped it, no one turned
the portraits of Napoleon to the wall, nor bedecked the ceiling with red
ink; nor did anyone tear from their bracket beneath the gas the
calf-bound set of Mrs Barclay’s novels.

_The Rosary_ was his favourite novel, as it was mine. At each fresh
reading we were moved to the edge, if not over the edge, of tears. It
is, in the author’s words, the story of a beautiful woman in a plain
shell. No man has ever seen below that surface. But one day she sings
“The Rosary” at a concert: the veil is torn aside, and Garth Dalmain,
the famous painter, perceives her spiritual worth. But because she fears
that he will tire of her, she will not marry him, and in a scene of
sustained pathos, during which the name of the Deity is never long
absent from her lips, she tells him that their paths must separate. But
“love never faileth.” Garth is providentially blinded in a shooting
accident, and his lover returns to him as a nurse. Then the drama opens.
She writes him letters, which in the position of nurse and secretary she
reads to him, and as his nurse she makes him gradually appreciate the
intensity of his need for the woman who has refused him. And, when the
last barrier has gone, the nurse reveals herself as the lover by
striking triumphantly the solemn chords of “The hours I spent with thee,
dear heart.”

Prose narrative could, we felt, attain to no higher level of emotion,
and at the end of the day, between lock up and hall, among mauve
cushions we would sit and talk of the secret springs, the hidden
splendours of life, of how we, too, within a plain shell were beautiful.
It passed, of course, that worship that was almost idolatry. It passed
in the September of 1913, when a copy of _Carnival_ was bought at a
railway bookstall at the close of a summer holiday. That autumn we laid
our mantle of sentiment before the tripping feet of Jenny, and when in
early summer a copy of _Poems and Ballads_ found its way into the
school-house studies, it was the departed glory of Proserpine that we
declaimed. We passed from one allegiance to another, as we passed from
one size in collars to another. We were growing up.

But it is no part of my intention here, in this chapter, to attempt to
trace the growth, the development, or the decay, as you may please to
call it, of a literary taste. I am concerned solely with this fact: that
ten years ago I held Florence Barclay to be the greatest living
novelist, that in her work I found those characteristics, those
qualities that to-day I find in the stories of Turgenev; that, as
Turgenev moves me in 1923, so Mrs Barclay moved me in the summer of
1912. And this fact I find to be in the highest degree disquieting.
There are attached to it a very large number of uncomfortable
corollaries.

It depends, of course, on whether one does or does not take a relative
view of things. To those who hold that there is a definite standard of
literary judgment the tastes of immature, and of uneducated persons, can
be of little matter. You tell your form master that you consider
Swinburne a greater poet than Matthew Arnold, and he will smile
indulgently: “One does think like that at your age,” he will say, “but
you’ll find in time that Matthew Arnold is more satisfying stuff.” And I
suppose one does. At any rate, the majority of middle-aged persons of my
acquaintance seem to find him so. But I can never see that this fact is
a proof of Arnold’s superiority, any more than the fact that at forty
one plays golf with greater comfort than Rugby football is a proof of
the superiority of golf. In an estimate of Victorian poetry a critic
considers himself to have proved his case when he has written:
“Swinburne is the supreme poet of youth, but as the years pass his
tempestuous flow of sound means less to us, and we increasingly
appreciate the chastened, harmonious cadences of Matthew Arnold.”
Actually, of course, he has done no more than state that Swinburne’s is
the poetry of youth and Arnold’s of middle age. That each poet has
certain qualities and certain limitations, and in his acceptance of
Arnold’s superiority he has assumed that the tastes of a man of fifty
are more significant, less impermanent, more surely built than those of
a man of twenty-five.

It is an assumption before whose authority most young writers,
especially writers of fiction, have been in their time arraigned. “These
stories,” the reviewer says, “are well enough written, the characters
competently drawn, the situations skilfully prepared. But the book is
concerned entirely with the problems of adolescence, problems, that is
to say, that will in a few years’ time have ceased to concern the
author. Its quality, therefore, is strictly temporal.” The author has
been condemned, not on grounds of literary craftsmanship, not because
he has failed to do well the thing he set out to do, but because he has
employed unprofitable material, because the perplexities and enthusiasms
of adolescence that formed the theme of his book are transient and must
yield in time to the perplexities and enthusiasms of manhood. It is
doubtless inevitable that literary criticism should accept the quality
of permanence as its deciding standard, should consider the period of
duration rather than the intensity of the fleeting mood; but on its own
grounds even would not criticism do well to seek that quality in the
skill and sincerity of the treatment, rather than in the matter of the
material treated?

For are the tastes of a man of fifty any more permanent than those of a
man of twenty-five? Can we not still say to him: “You will feel
differently when you are older. You will look back to the person that
you now are as to a stranger: to a man with different affections,
different ambitions, and a different way of living. These present
enthusiasms of yours will in their turn pass, we can assure you. They
will pass into the tepid preferences of old age, and you will sit in the
smoking-room of your club, the chief pleasure of your life an immunity
from gout, the chief problem of it the avoidance of a draught.” Can we,
with any greater justice, condemn the problems of twenty before the
tribunal of forty-five than we can those of fifty before those of
eighty? The brain is not useless now because it will one day soften;
teeth not inefficacious because they will eventually decay. The young
man will hardly listen to the impotent antiquity who assures him that
the charm of woman is a snare and an illusion. “When you have reached my
age it will no longer move you.” In a world of fugitive sensation there
is no fixed point at which anyone can say, “thus far and no farther.” We
have a right to our own age; to the problems, the turmoil, the
compensating enthusiasms of our age, and we have an equal right to the
literature best suited for their nourishment and inspiration.

In the same way a particular period has a right to the literature best
suited to its needs. Books follow a wave of recurrent popularity and
depreciation. The masterpiece of 1820 is the Aunt Sally of 1850, but by
1880 it has been restored to favour. “The masterpiece is the mood, and
all moods pass save Shakespeare and the Bible.” This from George Moore.
But of Shakespeare, as of others. He had little, or nothing, to say to
the eighteenth century: to that unrivalled period of elegance and
polish. They re-wrote “King Lear”: they made it end happily with
Cordelia in Edgar’s arms. Shakespeare’s tragedy was described by Mr Tate
in the dedicatory epistle to his own version “as a heap of jewels,
unstrung and unpolished, yet so dazzling in their disorder that I soon
perceived that I had seized a treasure.” We are inclined to smile at
such ridiculous folly. “So that is all they knew,” we say. But I think
Mr Tate did wisely to rewrite “King Lear” in the idiom of his own time.
The eighteenth century which produced Swift, and Addison, and Pope, was
not less cultured than the century that produced Shakespeare, and Donne,
and Milton, and compares very favourably with ours that has
produced--but I will not be personal. It is enough to say that the
eighteenth century had a perfect right to say: “This is what we like.”
It could justify by its creations its exclusiveness. And, at the time,
it was so very certain it was right--as certain as we are to-day that
Clifford Bax is abundantly justified in the slaughter of Mr Gay’s
dialogue and verses that he has made in his new version of “Polly.”

With what emotions, I wonder, must the wraith of John Gay have witnessed
at the Kingsway Theatre the triumph of his opera. He can have hardly
failed to find, after an interval of two hundred years, the enraptured
reception of his work intensely gratifying. But he can equally have
hardly failed to wonder what in that interval can have happened to his
play. “This,” we can imagine him to have said, “is all of it, of course,
perfectly delightful.” But it was for a very different thing that London
was divided into two camps, and the Duchess of Queensberry was forbidden
the Court. I wrote a political and social satire. I transported to the
West Indies the most notable of my creations in “The Beggar’s Opera.”
Mrs Trapes I placed in charge of an establishment which courtesy
permitted me to describe as an “academy for young gentlewomen in song
and dance.” Of Macheath I made a pirate chief, disguised with a
blackened face, and wedded, to his no great comfort, to Jenny Diver. In
the scandalous person of Mr Ducat, the colonel of the militia, I
satirised British colonial administration. Polly Peachum, who had come
to the island in search of her rascal husband, alone, I permitted to be
an agreeable and virtuous creature. And by making her marry, after the
well-merited execution of Macheath, the Indian Prince Cawwawkee, I
established the superiority of the “noble savage” over the weak,
cowardly, and self-indulgent white man. That was my opera. But of all
this I find remarkably little in the version that Mr Clifford Bax has so
elegantly adapted and Mr Nigel Playfair so successfully produced.

“The social and political satire has been removed, No comparison is
drawn between the virtues of the black man and the white. Macheath is
never even threatened with the fate that I had prepared for him, but is
restored in health and charm and vigour to the eager embraces of his
faithful Polly. A good two-thirds of the play is not mine at all, and
though I am highly sensitive to the charms of its many bewitching
lyrics, I can claim but a small share in their authorship. It is all, as
I have previously remarked, perfectly delightful; but what has happened
to my play?”

We like to think that Mr Gay must have, by now, realised how extremely
bad his own edition was. We venture, whatever biographers may state, to
discern in his work the presence of a genial unpretentious personality.
By now, we say, he should have acquired a sufficient sense of detachment
from the jealousies and rivalries and feuds of the early eighteenth
century to realise that he himself had made a sad mess of it, that
Clifford Bax is perfectly right, and that it would have been impossible
for Macheath to die, or the divine Polly to be wedded to a black.

Doubtless they said much the same of Mr Tate two hundred years ago. To
the dandy of 1720 it seemed as impossible that Lear should die as is
to-day the execution of Macheath. And, as Clifford Bax has found in
Polly’s misfortunes the single string on which might be threaded the
characters and incidents that would have been otherwise irrelevant, so
Mr Tate discovered in the love of Edgar for Cordelia the missing unity
of Lear. Mr Gay’s Polly was as impossible to-day as Mr Shakespeare’s
Lear was in 1720. In 2020 who knows but Mr Tate’s version will be upon
the boards of the Lyric, Hammersmith, and His Majesty’s will be staging
an unexpurgated Gay. Each age takes the food it needs. Like wine in
bottles, some books deteriorate and others mature.

And, indeed, what is this posterity that we should so appeal to it? Are
we not ourselves fallible and imperfect mortals, posterity to the
Victorians? I can see Browning walking with Tennyson in the Elysian
Fields. They discuss the literary journalism of their day. “It was bad,”
Browning mumbles into his beard,--“very bad indeed. There was a silly
fellow called John Stuart Mill--what was it he said about that first
book of mine? ‘Most self-conscious thing he’d ever read.’ But I didn’t
worry. I looked ahead. I was content to let posterity decide; and I have
my reward. I read last week such a charming thing about me by, let me
see now, a very vigorous young person I thought--ah, yes, Miss Rebecca
West....”

The other day I listened for upwards of a quarter of an hour to the
complaint of a young poet whose works had been mishandled grievously in
the _London Mercury_. Highly did he heap abuse on the heads of Mr J. C.
Squire and Mr Edward Shanks; nor was he less generous to critics
unconnected with that periodical: to Middleton Murry, and T. S. Eliot,
and Robert Lynd; one by one they were presented to the lash of ridicule.
Finally the injured poet turned a loving, a valedictory eye towards the
great men of the past--Matthew Arnold, Ruskin, Emerson, Carlyle.
“There,” he said, “were critics for you.” And, after a pause: “Ah, well,
in fifty years’ time....” And he shrugged his shoulders as one who can
afford to ignore such triflings in the face of time.

I said nothing. I am a placid person; I dislike quarrels. This, though,
is what, if I were fashioned differently, I might have said: “My good,
my very good friend,” I would have said, “you despise your own
generation. You are content to appeal to posterity. You place your faith
in the traditions that have been handed down to you by great writers in
the past. Very good, but let me remind you of this--that Matthew Arnold
too despised his generation and made his appeal to posterity. It was his
hope that in 1923 he would receive the commendation of Robert Lynd, of
J. C. Squire, and of Edward Shanks. What was good enough for Matthew
Arnold should be good enough for you. The judgments of posterity are
likely to be no more profound than those of 1923. For one day this
posterity that you so worship will be to-day, and in this club and in
that armchair will be sitting a disgruntled poet telling an indifferent
friend how much better things were done in 1923. We are no better and
no worse than other generations. We are a little different, that is all.
And, because we are a little different, what you, my friend, are writing
now may be more readily understood in 1950 than it is to-day. But, for
that reason, your work will be of no higher quality than that of Walter
de la Mare, whose verses give us such pleasure now. If you are popular
in 1950 you will be little read in 1980. For that is the way things
happen, and your talk about Matthew Arnold is a mixture of vanity and of
snobbishness; let me hear no more of it.”

I should like to believe that there is to be found somewhere a standard
of literary criticism, but the power to appreciate beauty is a quality
relative to ourselves: and there are times when it seems to me to be as
vain to search for a standard of beauty in literature as it would be to
search for one in woman. We respond to a certain type of beauty. And we
say of other types: “I am sure, my dear fellow, that she is perfectly
delightful. I am not in the least surprised that you are desperately
enraptured. But, for myself, as I said, she leaves me cold.” We make no
attempt to explain or adjudge a beauty in woman that we cannot
understand. Why, then, should we speak so dogmatically of a beauty in
literature that does not touch us; why should we deny the existence of a
beauty to which we are insensible?

There was a painter once whose personality it would be discreet to hide
under the pseudonym of Eric Walker. He had never seen the country. He
did not know that trees existed outside the carefully tended borders of
Burnden Park. The only other stretch of grass he had ever seen was from
the terraces of a football ground. For him the sky had been always dim
with smoke, cut by the outline of huge chimney stacks. The only beauty
he could understand was the clean, hard efficiency of a machine. With
eager eyes he had seen stones lifted into the air by iron arms; he had
watched the glow of furnaces flickering on polished steel. For hours on
end he had stood beneath the great factory at North Town, while the
sunlight cut the wreathing smoke into hard, sharp angles. The noise and
glare of machinery enchanted him, and when a discerning teacher had
discovered that he could draw, it was only natural that he should try to
interpret in terms of line and colour those particular sights and sounds
that alone had for him an æsthetic value.

Success came to him easily and quickly. He was taken up by the right
people, his pictures were discussed in the right circles, and when his
exhibition came on the right critics said the right things in the right
papers. Eric Walker suddenly found himself rich; he came up to London,
was made much of, sold his pictures easily. For six months he was the
adored child of Mayfair.

After a while, however, his welcome grew less warm. At the time of his
reception Gerald Garstin wrote: “Here is a young man who has
successfully interpreted the hard, calculating commercialism of the
North. In a fury of indignation he has revealed the soullessness of
modern conditions. All his life he has been surrounded by squalor and
ugliness. What may he not do when he has seen more of life and has
learnt to appreciate beauty in its fullest sense?” And Mayfair had
endorsed this opinion. “Such a wonderful young man,” they would say to
one another. “And to think that he spent all those years in that
terrible place, nothing but smoke and chimneys. What a revelation it
must be to him to come to London, and how beautifully he will be able to
express it.” And the patrons of modern art waited for Eric’s delight to
break forth in a riot of form and colour.

No such thing, however, happened. At the yearly exhibition of the
Chelsea Group he was represented by a large picture of a train entering
a tube station as it would be seen through the eyes of the driver. At
the Florence Galleries he exhibited a picture called “Charing Cross
Road,” in which a small boy stood watching the glowing furnaces of
Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell, and to the New Movement Society he
contributed “Liftman at Piccadilly Circus.” The announcement that he was
at work on “Surrey and Middlesex at the Oval” gave promise of better
things, but his followers were again disappointed. In a far corner of
the canvas was a patch of green and one white figure, the remainder was
occupied by the telegraph and the gasometers. It was generally agreed
that Eric Walker had not fulfilled his promise.

“Interesting though this work may be,” wrote Gerald Garstin, “it cannot
by any stretch of the imagination be called beautiful, and without
beauty where is art?” Once again Mayfair echoed the pronouncement of its
trusted critic. “It’s not beautiful all that harping on machinery and
ugliness. I am sure he can’t have a nice mind. Why doesn’t he look on
the pleasant side of things?”

To Eric Walker this change of front came abruptly and incomprehensibly.
“Beauty,” he said. “Beauty, what do they mean? Aren’t my pictures
beautiful?” To him there was nothing in the world lovelier than the
angles that sunshine cut in smoke, than the glow of a furnace on damp
flesh, than the smooth, hard rhythm of a piston. “Beauty,” he said,
“that’s the one thing I have really striven for, to get the full value
of these things I have enjoyed, to interpret the magic of these sounds
and colours, to make others realise the perfect form, poise, balance of
a machine. What do they mean?”

In the end he took his troubles to Mrs Abbot, a kindly, sentimental
woman, who had always rather mothered the young artist. To her he poured
out all his troubles, telling her how they misinterpreted his work,
calling it ugly.

“But, my dear boy, it is ugly!”

“Ugly! Oh, but, Mrs Abbot. Why, come here. Look out there. Do you see
the great chimney-stack of the Gas Works? Do you see how the red glare
shines out against the black roofs; what could be lovelier?”

And he leapt up, seizing her hand, dragging her to the window. Gradually
Mrs Abbot pacified him.

“My dear boy,” she said, “I dare say you may like that sort of thing,
but you’ll find that it’s not what we think nice, and it’s what other
people think nice that matters. Those chimneys of yours are all very
well, and I know you’re fond of them, but the things we call beautiful
are not a bit like that.”

“No?”

“No, of course not,” she went on, “the things we like--well, trees,
fields, love--oh, you know, the joy, the beauty of life. Those are the
things you ought to be painting.”

Eric Walker gazed out fondly at the red glare of the factory as it shone
glimmering on the surrounding roofs, then he turned sadly to the
water-colours that hung on the walls, soft and delicate, roses and
arbours, with a suggestion of Love, fleeting and perilously dear. For
him there was no beauty there--only cowardice, weakness and evasion.

That evening Mrs Abbot had a long and serious talk with her husband
about her young protégé.

“Something must be done, Harry,” she said. “He’s such a dear boy, and
he’s absolutely spoiling his chances. Now I tell you what we must do. We
must take him right away from all this to some primitive, natural spot.
When once he gets free from sordid influences he’ll respond to beauty
like a child.”

Mr Abbot had been married twenty years, and had learnt that his personal
comfort was only to be purchased by a complete indulgence of his wife’s
fancies.

“All right, my dear,” he said, “we’ll see what can be done.”

And so arrangements were made. An invalid friend owned a small house on
an island in the Pacific, which he was willing to let for a summer
holiday. Mrs Abbot leapt at the opportunity, and with Eric Walker
submitting as to an intractable decree of Fate, within five weeks he and
Mr and Mrs Abbot were leaning over the taffrail of the ship watching the
churned foam stretch out in a white line behind them.

The island was certainly very charming. The air was soft and scented,
the deep blue of the sky merged almost imperceptibly into the deeper
blue of the sea. The garden was full of rich flowers and luxuriant
growth; the sunshine was full and heavy; it was the kind of island which
one never expects to see, but of which one dreams fondly, hopelessly.

“Now,” said Mrs Abbot, “you’ll be able to paint wonderful pictures,
won’t you, Eric?”

“I hope so,” he said, gazing round with puzzled eyes at this world that,
for all its riot of colour, lacked so strangely the sights and sounds to
which he was accustomed.

For four days he wandered round with his sketchbook and water-colours.
First of all he tried to draw the little house that was overgrown with
fruit and flowers, but the lines blurred into one another, and he could
not find the clear-cut form that he understood. Then he tried to paint
the sunlight as it flickered on the waves, but its movement was
irregular and spasmodic, unsuited to his method, and he failed equally
when he tried to interpret the sway of the branches and the lazy droop
of the oranges. He was puzzled, unhappy, unable to understand why things
so vague and indefinite should be called beautiful. Mrs Abbot’s large,
kindly voice quite failed to comfort him.

“Wait for your inspiration to come,” she would say. “Just walk about and
absorb all that’s round you, and you’ll be painting before you know
where you are.”

And next day it seemed as though her prophecy had been fulfilled. Eric
had gone out directly after breakfast with his easel, paints, and
canvas. They had seen nothing of him the whole morning; he had not come
back to lunch, and by tea-time there were still no signs of him.

“I knew it,” said Mrs Abbot, “I knew it. We only had to take him away
and put him in fresh surroundings; he was bound to respond to beauty, he
only needed the sunshine.”

As soon as she had finished her tea she set out to look for him,
garrulous with excitement.

“Now what do you think it will have been that moved him? I wonder if it
was the bay. No, he was standing on the top of the hill and he looked
down and saw the village lying there in the sunlight! You take my word
for it, we shall find him on the hill!”

But they did not find him on the hill, nor was he painting the bay nor
the orange grove, and they sought him in vain on the skirts of their
little orchard. At last they began to feel a little nervous and began to
ask one another fretfully whether any harm could have come to him. They
made inquiries of the natives, but learnt nothing, and it was not till
almost dinnertime that a fisherman told them where he was.

“The young artist? Yes, sir. I saw him early this morning go into that
little broken hut on the edge of the shingle, and though I have been
working here all day I haven’t seen him come out. He’s probably there
still.”

Mr and Mrs Abbot looked at each other askance. What could Eric want in
that small dilapidated house that was slowly falling to pieces over the
head of an old shrivelled woman and her daughter? At the thought of the
daughter Mrs Abbot began to blush. What if the south wind and the sudden
beauty had moved Eric to express himself in terms more personal than
those of paint? Artists were notoriously immoral, and the islanders, she
had always heard, unfortunately weak.

She hurried on, her heart beating quickly, excited and perturbed.

In a few moments, however, all her fears for the innocence of the gentle
islander were banished. For there, at the back of the small hut, an old
woman, black and shrivelled, was cooking her dinner over an iron stove.
Her neck and arms were bare, and the red glow of the fire shone dimly on
the damp flesh, the dying sunlight stealing in one long, broad band
through a chink in the woodwork fell across her throat, cutting the
curves of her hanging breasts into hard, sharp angles, and a few yards
away Eric Walker was working at his canvas in a fine frenzy of
inspiration.



VIII


What is beauty to one man is ugliness to another. There is a proverb
“about one man’s meat”; but there is a chariness about applying it to
literature. Writers like to believe that a criterion of criticism
exists; that their work is definitely good, bad, or indifferent.

Well; we are creatures of infinite limitations. A certain range of
sentiment comes within the province of our comprehension; vast tracts of
life must be for all time to us an unknown country. J. C. Squire
announces that _Jurgen_ is a poor book, but he does not persuade us that
our admiration has been misplaced. We regard his article as the
statement of a personal dislike. For criticism in the end comes always
back to this: “I like it, or I do not like it.” Criticism is
autobiography, as these pages are autobiography, the expression of
personal preferences and distastes. And, on the whole, I think critics
are ill advised to write of books that they do not like. Their inability
to appreciate the book is as likely to be their fault as the author’s.
And I find myself singularly out of sympathy with the type of critic who
tries to explain his enthusiasms and disapprovals by metaphysics. He
discusses for three pages what he considers to be the function of
literature. “Literature,” he concludes, “is the sublimation of
phenomena.” And, for the remainder of his article, proceeds to show
which poets do, and which do not, satisfy the requirements of his
formula. And, of course, he leaves us unimpressed. The ability to
conduct an argument is not a proof of literary taste. And if the
substance of the article is to be “I like, or do not like, this book,”
then the critic is beholden to persuade us that he is a person whose
opinion is deserving of attention. He can prove it to us in two ways,
preferably in both. He can show that he has read and appreciated a
quantity of good literature. “A man,” we say, “who has really
appreciated Turgenev, should have a standard implicit in his emotional
response to other books. If he says this book is good, there must be
something in it.” Or the critic may prove by writing well and
interestingly that he has a sense of literature. For there is nothing
more damning to a book than a favourable, but ill-written, notice. “If
the ass who wrote this,” the reader thinks, “liked that book, then I’m
pretty certain that I shouldn’t.” Criticism would carry much more weight
if it would forget its sense of responsibility, and would remember that
its purpose is, as that of all literature, the entertainment of the
reader.

And so back to that original, that disconcerting fact that Florence
Barclay was to me ten years ago an equivalent for Turgenev. She meant as
much; she revealed as much. She touched the heart as surely and as
deeply. And again comes that uncomfortable knowledge that a book is
after all only a focus for ourselves, a spade to unearth the absolute.
And does it matter what sort of a spade you use as long as the work gets
finished? The object of any emotion is of less matter than the intensity
of the emotion that object has evoked. Is a love any the less real, less
tender, less passionate, less unselfish because it has been inspired by
a shallow, trivial, worthless woman? Does it very much matter whence we
derive that state of heightened consciousness that we undoubtedly reach
through literature, as long as we do reach it? We come the richer from
_King Lear_, from _Anna Karenin_, from _Lycidas_, because these books
have revealed to us what is eternal in ourselves. In their company we
have forgotten momentarily the anxieties, the ambitions, the frivolities
that dazzle and distract us, that move in glittering, bewildering
profusion on the surface of our lives, that belong to time and space. In
such moments of heightened consciousness we are in harmony with
ourselves, we see ourselves as a part of that pattern that Pater spoke
of, the pattern whose threads pass out on either side of us.

And it is towards such moments that we are always striving, for the most
part indirectly, striving in our work, our love affairs, our amusements
and distractions. We are dissatisfied with what we are and with what we
have. That which is immortal in us struggles towards what is remote, in
the hope, in the belief that it may prove immortal. It may be that books
add something to our emotional, our intellectual stature, that they are
the rich soil in which we dig for treasure; but I prefer to think that
we are the rich soil, that we contain an immortal spirit, and that our
ultimate success or failure must be judged by our ability to keep that
spirit nourished and alive. If this be so, and it is a philosophy that
commended itself to Wordsworth, are we not right in saying that Florence
Barclay and Turgenev are fulfilling a similar function in different
spheres?

There is no difference in the quality nor the intensity of the emotion.
I am, I believe, tone deaf, and I have a perfectly deplorable taste in
music. But by some music I am very profoundly moved. Sometimes it is by
music with which I have personal associations--marches and dance tunes,
and that, of course, strictly speaking, should not count. The emotion is
inspired not by the music, but the scene evoked through it. But quite
often it is by some catchy affair heard for the first time in a
restaurant or across a street. I listen to it with enraptured pleasure,
thrilled by the tricks and twiddles and syncopations, and I am quite
prepared to accept my companion’s assurance that it is a cheap, vulgar,
sentimental thing. “I do not care,” I say, “these things are relative.
It moves me, therefore to me it is a masterpiece.”

Everyone has, I suppose, at one time or another paused to examine the
windows of the type of bookshop that abounds in certain streets in the
west end of London. They are curiously alike, these places. One side of
the window is stocked with articles the nature of which it is
unnecessary to particularise, and the other side with such literature as
the management appears to consider most likely to encourage the
purchase of them. The selection of that literature does not greatly
alter with the passage of time. There are no spring and autumn seasons
in these bookshops. Occasionally some new novel finds a home there;
occasionally a callous or unenterprising publisher allows some fading
favourite to pass from circulation. But there is, on the whole, a
commendable fidelity to old friends. Were you to be transplanted
miraculously to the Piccadilly of 1926 you would find of the volumes
that to-day adorn so proudly the front tables of Mr Hatchards’ bookshop
scarcely half a dozen, but the appearance of the questionable shop
window will be probably no more altered by 1930 than it has been since
1910. Victoria Cross will be there, and Elinor Glyn, and the confessions
of the retiring aristocrat who is content to sign himself “A Peer.”
There will be the same French classics, _Droll Stories_, _Madame
Bovary_, _A Woman’s Life_. The alliterative titles of Gertie de S.
Wentworth James will show against a circle of entwining arms. Between
_Bel-ami_ and _Anna Lombard_ will be spread enticingly _A Bed of Roses_.
The public, whatever it be, that patronises such establishments knows
its mind.

They are good hat-racks, these bookshops, for ridicule, for
denunciation, for satire. They can make a sermon for the priest, a
middle for the journalist, a simile for the politician. For the student
of life they are a subject of speculative curiosity.

What is, we ask ourselves, this public with so catholic a taste? We
rarely see anyone enter one of these bookshops. There are always two or
three people gazing enviously at the window, but self-consciousness
restrains them. They dare not publicly declare their interest by
purchasing a volume. Indeed, there are times when we wonder how these
shops carry on their business at all. Are they, we wonder, a spectacle
and nothing else? Do the same books remain there from one season to
another for the simple reason that no one buys them? A pleasant fancy,
but apparently they do carry on a very excellent, a very thriving,
trade. I once asked a proprietor if the trade slump had at all affected
him. “Very little,” he said. “Just before the armistice I ordered two
thousand copies of _Five Nights_, and I sold the last one yesterday.”

Two thousand copies of one book in one shop in three years. That man
must have sold on an average two copies of _Five Nights_ every day. Can
Mr Bumpus say as much for Shakespeare? Two thousand copies in three
years! It is easy, of course, to shrug one’s shoulders, to say: “But for
such stuff there will always be a public.” And yet so vague a gesture
provides no explanation of this incredible popularity. The appeal of
_Five Nights_ is not, I believe, due to what bishops describe as the
baser instincts of human nature. Victoria Cross wrote it in the
innocence of her heart, firmly believing it to be a good book. It is a
sincere book as _The Rosary_ is sincere, and _The Way of an Eagle_ is
sincere. It is written with feeling; she enjoyed writing it. Its
sentimental sensuality is warm and cloying and pleasant, like a hot bath
after too good a dinner. There even comes a moment when the heat of the
bath mingling with the heat of Pommard makes us ask ourselves whether
it is such appalling drivel after all. A couple of pages more we decide
it is; but there was that moment of doubt.

Thus it happens, I conjecture.

The shop assistant as he hurries homewards at the close of his day’s
work is moved with a sense of envy for the eager life of pleasure that
wakes in the city only at the moment that he leaves it. His own life is
tedious, with small excitements. He feels the need of vicarious
sensation. The cover and title of Miss Cross’s masterpiece allures him.
And as he journeys home he is pleasantly excited by the description of
the painter’s intrigue with the Chinese. He feels otherwise, however,
when he meets the heroine, and is confronted with what appears to him as
a picture of nobility and self-sacrifice. He is deeply moved. That it is
bad literature does not matter. It is enough that it should arouse in
him the same thoughts and emotions that _Anna Karenin_ stirs in a man of
letters. He feels himself in touch with a great passion, a passion that
can override the convention of an hour and a place, that destroys life
but makes of it first a thing worth having. In the world of popular
fiction _Five Nights_ bears to _The Rosary_ the same relation that in
the world of literature _Manon Lescaut_ bears to _On the Eve_.

I read while I was a prisoner in Germany Elinor Glyn’s novel, _Three
Weeks_, and I remember thinking that it was of its kind the very worst
novel that I had ever read. The grand passion is as rare as genius, and
it is as difficult to make the grand passion convincing in a novel as
to make a genius convincing. The novels in which a grand passion has
been “got over” could be counted on the fingers of one hand. But never,
I felt, had any novel of passion failed more lamentably, more
inexcusably, than _Three Weeks_.

But, as I said, these things are relative. To a couple of my
fellow-captives _Three Weeks_ was a window opening on the immortal
meadows. For days they discussed it exhaustively from every point of
view. It was, they were agreed, marvellously done. But they were
doubtful of its morals; such ardour, they felt, was only permissible
after a marriage ceremony, or, they were prepared to concede, as a
prelude to one. But it was the less real part of them that doubted.
Their instincts told them that the grand passion makes its own laws. And
finally they yielded to their deeper nature.

“After all,” they said, “those two were different from the rest of us.
They were wonderful characters. You can’t judge them as you judge
ordinary people.”

It is with such words that we acquit Paolo and Francesca, Antony and
Cleopatra, Lancelot and Guinevere. _Three Weeks_ said to my
fellow-captives what _Antony and Cleopatra_ says to a cultured public.
It was a focus for their belief in the grand passion.

One may well wonder, though, in what spirit the man who is deeply
stirred by Victoria Cross and Elinor Glyn reads such masterpieces of
prose narrative as _Une Vie_ and _Madame Bovary_ and _Mademoiselle de
Maupin_. They are bound in the same lurid cover, printed on the same
absorbent paper, and yet it is hard to believe that a man can be moved
equally by what is good and by what is bad. Is it not more likely that
he will be shocked and a little disgusted by Maupassant’s detachment and
cold restraint? “Pretty hot stuff,” he will say to himself of _Une Vie_,
but will add, “most awful filth.” And he will be ashamed of the book,
and secrete it at the bottom of his chest of drawers. A melancholy
reflection. It is, after all, of little matter that two thousand people
should in the course of three years purchase at one shop a rather silly,
sensual, sentimental book. But it is a little sad that only thus, in
this form, and in this type of shop, should be procurable in the English
language a complete translation of one of the world’s greatest novels, a
little sad that even then it should be only read by such a person, and
in such a spirit.

Sad though for the man of letters, not for the advocate of social
progress. I am convinced that these books are as completely harmless as
any book that may possibly encourage people to think for themselves can
be harmless.

There appeared a few months ago an article, I believe, by St John
Ervine, maintaining that the effect on the mind of the public of books
such as _The Way of an Eagle_, with their scenes of brutality and
masculine domination, was pernicious. And certainly they make melancholy
enough reading. But what are they, after all, but an expression for our
eternal human impulse to be swept off our feet, to be subjugated by a
force outside of and stronger than ourselves. And cannot we find in
literature equivalents enough for the cracked whip and the submissive
cheek of an Ethel Dell romance? Equivalents, but not parallels; for the
best seller is written for women, usually by women. And it is by a
masculine intelligence that the masterpieces of prose literature have
been produced. A man would, in search of such an equivalent, choose an
experience of which he was the object, not the subject. He would not
write of the dominant male, but of the siren. “Is it to be a kiss or a
blow?” asks the hero of popular fiction. In Turgenev, that woman who
“when she comes towards one, seems as though she is bringing all the
happiness of one’s life to meet one,” leans forward across a table and
taps the nails of one hand against the nails of the other. “Tell me,
tell me,” she says, “is it true, they say you are going to be married?”

It is from such reflections that we are forced to ask ourselves how much
purpose is served by our attempts to educate the public up to
Shakespeare. We are only giving them an equivalent for what they already
have. And the energy that we devote so prodigally to the organisation of
lectures and bazaars and repertory theatres might be spent so very much
more profitably on ourselves. I doubt if the Ethel Dell public would
find life any fuller, any more enraptured, by an exchange of _The Knave
of Diamonds_ for _Jude the Obscure_.

I suspect, indeed, that these educational movements are inspired
subconsciously for the most part, by the novelist’s desire to increase
his own public. “If only,” he says, “a sixth part of the 60,000 who buy
each novel by Ethel Dell would divert their attention towards my
admittedly superior work, how salutary it would be for them and how
charming it would be for me!” It sounds pleasant enough, but they are
dangerous things, these revolutions, and they have a way of turning on
their organisers. On the whole, I prefer to leave things as they are. It
would be perfectly delightful if that 60,000 public were to transfer its
affection to my humble efforts. If the public could be educated to a
wide appreciation of the tendenz novel, very well, very admirably well.
But this talk of Shakespeare and Fielding and the giants of the
eighteenth century, frankly, I distrust it. I have no wish to see the
public educated to that degree. Were it so to be, I can see that myself
and many other deserving and inoffensive persons would have to seek some
other means of livelihood--a procedure that would be most distasteful.
For were the public able to appreciate Fielding and Balzac, and Smollett
and Thomas Hardy, I cannot believe that it would take much interest in
the stories that I should have to tell it. I distrust these Literature
Promotion Leagues. I am disturbed when a new edition of Trollope is put
upon the market. But a deep content consumes me when I open my Sunday
newspaper and see that the publishers of Miss Dell’s new novel have
“called” already for a seventh printing. I smile. Things are as they
have been. The old standards remain. And I feel that there are still
left a few people whom my publishers may be able to persuade to take
some interest in my writings.



IX


I said that Florence Barclay was an equivalent for Turgenev. But I could
wish that, eleven years ago, I had elected to read some popular writer
in whom I could trace a closer parallel, a similarity of plot as well as
atmosphere. For it would not be difficult to find in the _Family Herald_
stories that would in synopsis seem to resemble very closely those of
Turgenev. The plot of _On the Eve_ or _A House of Gentlefolk_ might well
have appealed to the writer of slushy sentimental romances. In the type
of story that Turgenev wrote, the story of memory and regret, the
boundary between excellence and rubbish is very narrow, and only a lax
sentimentalist or a man of genius would attempt to tell it. Talent would
be frightened by the simple triangle of _Spring Floods_ and of _Smoke_.
It would seem ordinary, as would that of _Rudin_ and _The House of
Gentlefolk_. A man’s wife is unfaithful. He leaves her, and in time,
believing her to be dead, falls in love with a young girl and proposes
marriage. But the wife returns and his happiness is shattered. “What!”
says the professional novelist, “that old theme; the person who returns
from the grave at the eleventh hour and upsets everything. But that has
been done a hundred times. It is impossibly _vieux jeu_. In farce, in
light opera, perhaps, but in serious drama....” The writer of talent
must take unusual and difficult situations. He must find originality in
the employment of new material. The broad field has been ploughed too
many times, has yielded too many harvests. It must lie fallow for a
while.

I remember talking once with W. L. George of the eternal appeal of a
good story, and of how the first business of the novelist was to tell a
story. “Possibly,” he said, “but I will tell you a true story, a
universal story, and you will not dare to write it. It is the story of
Edwin and Angelina. Edwin is a clerk in the office of Angelina’s father.
He is sent up to the house with messages for his employer, and passes
Angelina in the hall. Their eyes meet and he knows that he is in love. A
few days later there is a football match between the office team and
that of a neighbouring factory. Edwin wins the match with a brilliant
last-minute goal, but in doing so he breaks his arm. Angelina is
watching the match. Edwin becomes her hero. Soon afterwards they again
meet in the hall. She asks him about his arm. They talk together, and
discover in a short while that they are in love. Of course, Angelina’s
father refuses to countenance the match. He has his own plans for his
daughter. The lovers are forbidden to meet. Angelina falls sick. They
send her to the South of France; but she grows worse. She is listless
and despondent. The doctor says that unless she is given an interest in
life she will die. All that money can provide is showered on her. But
she becomes thinner and paler every day. At last the mother intervenes,
‘She must see Edwin.’ The father tardily assents. There is a reunion of
the lovers, and the miracle happens. The book ends with marriage bells.
It is a true story,” he concluded, “but you wouldn’t dare to write it.”

I agreed. “Only two people could write it,” I said. “Turgenev, or a
merchant of popular fiction.”

Turgenev is always obvious. He employs none of the devices of surprise
and of suspended interest on which the writer of talent depends for his
effects. The waters of Turgenev’s narrative are so smooth, so clear, and
bring the river bed so close to us that we hardly realise how deep they
are. It is not till we see the blunders that others make with the
Turgenev technique that we realise to what an extent he is supreme. And
it is such a simple technique. The passage of youth; the waning power of
love; the recompenses of middle age; memory and regret, and a serene
twilight that harmonises and consoles. It is of these things that
Turgenev speaks--simple things, and he speaks of them simply, through a
technique that is miraculously adequate and sure. A man in the middle
years finds under two layers of cotton a little garnet cross; three men
sitting round a table talk of love; a young man, betrothed and happy,
returns at night to his hotel to recapture, in a room filled with the
overpowering scent of heliotrope, the buried anguish of an earlier love.
A man sits in a garden, and remembers. It looks so easy; and yet, in
mediocre work, how the machinery creaks. How artificial become the
excuses for recollection. A violin playing in a certain restaurant,
after many years, a tune to which the hero danced when young. A
narrative that closes where it began, in the same place, on the same
note, with the same sentence. What is pattern in Turgenev becomes in
lesser writers a series of devices.

And yet it is thus that life is always getting its effects; sometimes
with our co-operation. We return after certain months to the ball-room
where we first encountered love, to the restaurant where we first spoke
of love, to the woods that were the shelter and the screen of our first
love-making. But at such moments the scene has been set too carefully;
the climax is manufactured. We have known beforehand the nature of the
emotion we are to experience; we force it to the required pitch of
intensity. And that is bad technique. Only if we stand aside and let
life tell our story for us, shall we happen on the inevitable, the
unpremeditated moment.

In the early spring of 1921 I wrote a sketch of an ex-officer; it was an
attempt to interpret the spirit of post-war disillusionment, and I
selected as its subject a clerk in a large advertising agency and
christened him Evan Miller.

He occupied in Johnson’s renowned establishment an obscure position. He
sat in a small room with two male typists at the top of three flights of
stairs. He sorted out press cuttings, despatched the right copy to the
right papers, entered up the proofs in a large folio, checked the
returned slips, supplied a head clerk with lists giving the space rates
and percentages allowed to agents. It was routine work that required an
orderly mind; that quality Miller possessed, and his employers
estimated its value at three pounds five shillings a week. An unexciting
job for a man who three years earlier had been in command of a company
of Fusiliers.

But it was the best he had been able to find, and his friends had
assured him that he had been remarkably lucky to get it. As soon as the
Armistice was signed he had commenced a series of desperate assaults on
the War Office; he had claimed in turn to be a pivotal man, an
educational authority, a university student. He had even considered an
appeal on sympathetic grounds. Finally, he was allowed to transfer his
commission from the regular army to the reserve of officers, and in
April he was able to walk a free man down Savile Row and carefully
finger the tailor’s samples of tweed and serge. Great days, undoubtedly.
He had a good balance at Cox’s; a large gratuity was due to him. For two
months he enjoyed himself. Then he began to look for a job. He had hoped
vaguely for some sort of Government post with a good salary and not a
great deal of work. But he soon discovered that Whitehall was more than
full, and that civil service jobs abroad were going to the men from the
Universities. He felt lost in a world that moved so fast and with such
complete detachment from his interests.

At last, through the influence of a fellow-officer, he had got this
advertising job. “And very lucky too,” he had been told.

Miller did not appreciate his fortune. At first he had managed to work
himself into a mood of self-complacence; every evening, as he walked
home from the office, he had reminded himself that a year ago he had
been standing in a narrow trench waiting for the stand to, with the
prospect of a cold night, to be spent either in patrols or in working
parties; whereas now he was going back to a good dinner, a warm fire,
and, afterwards, a soft bed--a very different proposition. And, as he
sat reading the paper, he remembered pleasantly the cold wind that swept
over the lonely hills. He always thought of France as he walked home. “A
year ago,” he would say to himself, and try to reconstruct the scene;
where had he been, what had he been doing, what had he thought; only
twelve months ago he had belonged to a different life.

And then, when November had passed, it was “two years ago” that he found
himself saying, for, after the Armistice, there had not seemed anything
particular to remember. “Two years ago”--and he saw himself once again
in the mud and cold of Bullecourt during those dark weeks over which had
hung the menace of the great advance; strangely quiet days. There had
been rain in January, cruel driving rain; the main trench had been three
feet deep in mud and men had stuck in it for hours. But February had
been fine and warm with a suggestion of spring. They had been out of the
line just then, and he had gone for long rides to Peronne and Baupaume
in the faint mild sunshine. He had been very happy, and the memory of
that happiness caused him an insidious disquiet. As he walked back from
the office he found himself thinking less of the mud and cold, the
fatigue and danger, than of the warm comfort of the mess; the
friendliness of those long evenings, when they sat round the stove and
had opened bottle after bottle of port. In particular, he remembered
that last night at Ervillers, when they had collected a huge beam from a
neighbouring ruin and had piled up an enormous fire; he remembered how
they had undressed before it, and how the light had flickered on past
midnight, and that when he had woken at three o’clock, it had still
glowed dimly. They had had good times, and he could not help contrasting
them with this present uneventful routine of home and office. Nothing
unexpected ever happened. An evening of desultory conversation. Bed.
Next morning the hurried breakfast; the scramble for shoes and hat and
coat; the uncomfortable journey in the tube, with the same faces
opposite him, the same heavy, taciturn, discontented faces; and the
squash in the lift; the bad-tempered, ill-mannered crowd; and,
afterwards, from 9.30 till 5.30 in that small room at the top of the
third flight of stairs with two male typists, with neither of whom he
had anything in common and who were both secretly a little glad to see
an ex-officer reduced to the same position as themselves, he sat
arranging proofs, checking the copy, filing lists.

Occasionally he had to answer an inquiry on the telephone, and this was
the one excitement of his day. The telephone had always possessed a
fascination for him, and whenever he heard the bell ring in the next
room he would put down his pen and wait, listening for the sound of a
chair pushed back, an opened door, and the short, “Mr Miller, you’re
wanted on the ’phone.” It was always the same thing--an inquiry about
space rate, or the date of a special issue, but he never failed to
experience a tremor of excitement as he ran into the next room and took
up the receiver.

Nothing unexpected ever happened; there was nothing to look forward to;
each day was exactly like the one that had gone before; he did not,
indeed, see how anything could ever happen now. He would remain in that
office for the rest of his life. In the end he might become manager of a
department. At the age of forty he might have a large enough salary to
be able to think of marriage. Forty! How often had they agreed in the
mess that love was the privilege of the young. As far as he could see,
everyone else was in the same boat. He used to go round occasionally to
the long bar at the Troc: a melancholy sight. In 1917 it had been full
of young officers, eager, light-hearted, home on leave with pay in their
pockets and in their hearts a reckless determination to make the most of
what little time was left them. The same fellows were there now, young
men in mufti, leaning across the bar sipping their cocktails, raising
their glasses to the light, exchanging their “cheeriohs.” But the
lightheartedness had left them; their faces were set in lines of sullen
discontent; they would stand and talk together of France and their
experiences there. The unpleasant memories had been effaced. Already
they had forgotten. They were unhappy in the present; they remembered
they had been happy in the past.

And, with a vague nostalgia, Miller appreciated that in France, in spite
of the danger and discomfort, there had been always something to look
forward to. There had been the mail, a relief, the taking over of a new
bit of line, a continual change, and there had been leave--how wonderful
that had been, to count the days to one’s leave, to say to one’s self:
“in twenty-three days’ time I shall be in London”; there was nothing
like that now. And peace: how often he had talked of it, of all the
things he would do, _après la guerre_; the future had seemed to him
boundless then with opportunities. He had looked forward with a happy
confidence to the days of routine and quiet work. He had asked nothing
more than that--the resumption of the ordered ways.

He remembered, too, in what spirit he had read three years earlier a
novel by Zola called _The Soil_. He had seen a copy at the railway
bookstall at Boulogne with “Suppressed English Edition” printed in thick
black lettering across the yellow cover. He was on his way back from
leave and he had hoped that the book would help him to pass agreeably
the long journey to Baupaume. But he had found it heavy even in its
obscenity, and he had discarded it for the light suggestion of
_Fantasia_ and _Le Rire_. Later, however, during the nights of
wakefulness in a lonely post, he had returned, for want of anything else
to read, to Zola, and he had soon found to his surprise that, instead of
turning the pages quickly with prurient fingers in search of the
flavoured passage, he was reading the book carefully, word by word,
letting it pass slowly before his eyes--a savage spectacle of human life
held captive to the soil, of men and women whose actions and desires
were controlled by their allegiance to it, and of that fierce ferment of
deceit, greed, falsehood, wantonness that the soil turned in its own way
to its own use.

It had seemed strange to him, though, that Jean, an old soldier, should
be prepared, even after so much adversity, to rejoin the army. It was
easy to forget; memory, concerned with the general proportions of a
picture, selected what it chose; Miller knew that, but could anyone, he
had asked himself, forget the fatigue of a long march, the chill of
nightfall in the open, the heartache of separation, the fields of blood
and pain. And, putting the book down on the table, he had walked to the
head of his dug-out steps and looked out over the long stretch of
mangled country. Himself, he never could forget.

But that had been three years earlier, under the flicker of a Verey
light, within the range of guns. And now, sitting at a desk with a pile
of press-cuttings before him, and the clatter of typewriters beating on
his ear, he felt prepared to welcome any change, however violent. If
only something would happen. That evening as he walked down Kingsway to
Holborn station the newsboys were shouting tidings of another war;
across the placards a huge note of interrogation followed the word
Berlin. Was it then to begin again--the noise, the cruelty, the carnage?
For a moment there passed before his eyes a picture of Passendael as he
had last seen it in the October rains, the dead tilted across the lips
of shell holes. Then his thoughts returned to the present and its more
urgent trouble, the monotony of routine; the type-writers; the proofs;
the copy. “Allies to march to Berlin! Paper! Ultimatum to Germany!
Paper!” The words were flung out into the mild spring air and the sound
floated heedlessly down Kingsway over the heads of the workers, old and
young, who were hurrying towards their homes, with faces set in hard
lines of dull, sullen resentment. “Start of a New War! Paper!” If only
something new would happen. “Ultimatum to Germany! Paper!
Allies--Berlin--Paper!” And Evan Miller, in his heart of hearts, hoped
that it was true.

That is the story as I wrote it. But life from its vast repertoire can
produce always when it chooses, a climax far more complete than any of
our contrivance. Sometimes, impatient with our fumbling, it takes the
pen from us and writes.

Three weeks later a trade dispute brought England nearer to revolution
than it had been for a hundred years. The regular reserve was recalled
to the colours and Evan Miller found himself at Shorncliffe reporting at
orderly room his existence and unimportance; curiously easy, he would
discover, the re-adoption, after an absence of two years, of the
formalities of military life; curious, too, how stabilising became,
after the casual nature of town engagements, the fixed routine of the
parade-ground and the mess. But that would be personal and incidental.
The significance, the universally applicable significance of that six
weeks’ return to uniform would lie in the chance discovery in the pocket
of an old tunic of a piece of paper, placed there hurriedly and
forgotten, two years before. There would be nothing romantic about that
piece of paper. A memo, from battalion dated the 17th of February 1919.
“Please note,” it said, “that you were passed fit for active service by
the Medical Board at Dover, the 3rd of December 1918.” Formal enough: to
anyone but himself, meaningless enough. The sort of thing with which a
dug-out would have become quickly littered had he not possessed a
servant. But its discovery would be, for him, that inevitable, that
unpremeditated moment, at which every story-teller is aiming and so
rarely reaching. He would stand in the centre of the room, the piece of
paper in his hand, and before his eyes, and before his brain, the
details of the circumstances under which he had last seen it.

In the early spring of 1919 a couple of months’ leave had been granted
to all regular officers, and a very great number of them had taken
advantage of that leave to file their application for transference to
the reserve of officers. It was on the last morning before his leave
that he had found waiting for him in the ante-room that memo. from
battalion correcting a mistake he had made in his application for leave.
He had laughed gaily, confidently. They could send their memos. if they
liked, he had told himself. To-morrow he would be in London, and if,
during two months, he could achieve no compromise with the Whitehall
mandarins he had no right to call himself a soldier. And he pushed the
note away into his pocket.

The recovered memory of that gesture of careless confidence would be a
mirror in which he could see reflected the significance of the last two
years. He would see himself two years earlier, eager and exuberant,
tired of army life, anxious for a return to freedom, proudly assured of
his capacity to subdue the future. He would remember how his one idea in
those days had been to rush away from camp. For the sake of eleven hours
in town he had caught a five o’clock train from Grantham on Sunday
morning and had not got back to bed till three o’clock. The journey had
cost him twenty-seven shillings. His first question on joining a new
unit had been, “What chance of leave?” No matter how far from town, how
long, how expensive, how uncomfortable the journey--he had been prepared
to make it: anything to get back to civil life. And he would see himself
now in this aftermath of turmoil, indifferent, passive, dumbly
satisfied. He had hardly considered the question of leave. It would cost
him over a pound to get to town; it wasn’t worth it. There would be very
little for him to do when he got there. A theatre, a dance, a dinner. It
was pleasanter on the whole to sit and read _Blackwood’s_ in the mess
and play bridge and walk across the cliffs to Folkestone. He had nothing
in particular that he wanted to do. He was well enough where he was. The
old zest for life had gone, pilfered from him by two years of
frustration and disappointment and foiled endeavour. And the realisation
of it would be brought to him by the discovery of a crumpled memo., a
thing intrinsically worthless, but the focus, the rallying-point of much
hard circumstance.

And thus, indeed, it was that, to one at least of many thousands, was
brought fully and bitterly the significance of that post-war period, of
those treacherous, deceiving years that had glittered so bravely on the
horizon, that had looked so warm and hospitable, that had promised so
much and had brought so little.

1919 was the year of disillusion, not merely of a political disillusion,
of disgust at broken faith and forgotten promises and personal
treacheries, but of a profounder, subtler disenchantment, of an awakened
sense of life’s deception.

We came back from the trenches, the prison camp, the parade ground,
radiantly, unspeakably confident. We had looked forward for so long to
peace. There had been times when we hardly thought that it would come,
certainly not to us. It was like the city of Heaven--a dazzling, remote
prospect. We had come to look on it as a tavern where we should rest
after our journey; a huge fire would be blazing in the grate, barons of
beef would be set before us, mine host would bring from his cellar his
richest chambertin. But we had hardly defined the circumstance of our
dream. We saw it with the heightened vision of strained and tired nerves
as a land of limitless enchantment. And, when peace came, we settled
down and waited for the good things to be set before us. And, of course,
they were not set before us. And we had not the vitality to fetch them
for ourselves; we were tired, not with the exhaustion that follows a
day’s hard work, from which after sleep we awake the fitter, but with
the exhaustion of dissipation, of a sleepless night. For too long we
had been geared too high. The pressure had been maintained by the
intoxication of war conditions. We were like tops that are models of
poise and balance only as long as they retain their intensity of speed.
The stimulation, the incentive had been removed suddenly. We were weak
as a drug fiend who has been deprived of morphia; we became listless,
lifeless, indifferent.

We have been described as a generation that has flung up the sponge; and
the old men grumble about us in their clubs. “No social sense,” they
say. “A generation that thinks of nothing except tennis and dancing.
Poor stuff!” Perhaps: it may be we are the seed that has been flung on
stony ground, that has sprung up quickly, without root in itself or
sustenance. It may be that the hot sun has scorched and withered
us. It may be. But the Victorians indulged in such an orgy of
self-righteousness. They proclaimed so loudly that they were leaving the
world better than they found it: and we know what manner of inheritance
they handed down to us. It may be pardoned in us, I think, our
indifference to politics, and the rights and wrongs of little nations.

And yet we all of us, four years ago, came back to life with some sort
of an ideal of citizenship; we were conscious of our responsibility to
the future. “We would make it,” we said, “impossible for there to be
ever war again.” We were frightfully anxious to do something, but there
did not seem anything in particular for us to do. Those of us who wrote,
would not have found it difficult perhaps to sell our pens in the arena
of party politics. There were plenty of people ready enough to exploit
us. But that was not what we wanted.

During the war many of us had come to look on the Labour party as a sort
of fairy godmother. Labour was the only party that had included in its
programme a ruthless avoidance of war. And, as the man who is hungry can
think only of food, so in 1917 it had seemed to us that the avoidance of
war was the one thing that mattered. We expected great things of the
_Daily Herald_. But long before the end of 1919 we had realised that no
more bellicose production had been ever presented in large quantities to
the public. It had substituted one form of war for another. Nations were
not to fight each other, but classes were. The proletariat of the world,
with the possible exception of the French, was to ride triumphantly over
the mangled remains of the idle and blood-sucking rich. It was to be war
to the death. Prizes were offered for the best slogan. The people who
had clamoured in 1916 for arbitration and compromise between the demands
of Germany and those of the Allies, would not listen to arbitration and
compromise when the Tynesider demanded another shilling a day from his
employer. The _Herald_ became the champion of every trade dispute, and
some of us began to wonder. Was this international peace, we asked
ourselves, worth the purchase at such a price? If it came to a fight,
would we rather fight beside English navvies and English ploughmen
against the navvies and ploughmen of Germany and Russia; or would we
rather fight beside English, Russian, French, Belgian, German, and
Swedish ploughmen against Russian, English, French, German and Swedish
aristocrats, or _vice versa_? Of two wars, which was the less
pernicious? And we began to think that class is a habit that can be
changed in half a generation; a man who is a newsboy at seventeen may be
a baronet at fifty and a viscount at seventy; but race is a tree planted
deeply in firm soil. We can change our class as easily as we can change
our clothes; but English blood is English blood in the pit, in Mayfair,
in the shires; and we should have no sympathy with that party that
strove to divide a people against itself.

Indeed, we were sick of party politics: we were in search of some league
of international co-operation of the young people of Europe, which
should have the right to direct our destinies. “It had been our war,” we
said, “it was going to be our peace.” It sounds foolish now, no doubt,
at this distant date, but we believed in it then; we were sincere in our
desire for it. They offered us “The League of Youth.”

It was a magnificent affair that inaugural banquet at the Connaught
Rooms. Viscount Bryce and Sir Oliver Lodge were the chief speakers, as
far as I remember. And a number of other very venerable persons
described themselves, like the old gentleman in the story, as being no
older than they felt. I don’t think that there were at the high table
three people under thirty. And the aims and objects of the League were
outlined subsequently in the daily press in an article headed with
commendable accuracy, but with a singular absence of self-criticism,
“The Age of Youth.” But still we had hopes of it. I found myself
vice-president of the Education Committee. One Committee meeting I
attended. It was my last.

We assembled to discuss the reformation of the Public Schools. There
were eight of us. Four of these were girls, of the Girton-Newnham-1917
Club variety. The other half was composed of a secondary schoolmaster, a
journalist, an imponderable young Scot, and myself. The schoolmaster was
the president. He knew a good deal about the practical side of the
business, and he was, therefore, somewhat sceptical. He opened
proceedings with a bland, highly noncommittal speech about “harnessing
the activities of youth,” which was very jolly but got us little
“forra’der.” The journalist, who was, in a sense, secretary of the
affair, then read some letters from people who had been sufficiently
far-seeing to decline the honour to co-operate. Then the Scotsman began
his innings: it was a good, breezy innings, of the Walter Brearley-Tom
Wass variety; vigorous, but with the bat infrequently connected with the
ball. His idea was to draft manifestoes, circularise headmasters, and
open a press campaign on such as declined co-operation. I suggested that
headmasters were busy men, that they had secretaries and waste-paper
baskets, and that a press campaign on what would be consequently the
entire educational world would be a gallant, but unprofitable,
undertaking. This perturbed the Scot.

“What, then,” he asked me, “are we going to do?”

“That,” I said, “is what I have come here this afternoon to learn.”

He emitted a snort of disgust. “But we must do something.” And for the
first time one of the four flappers spoke: “We’ve got,” she said, “to
justify our existence.”

That is rather what we were in 1919: a number of persons walking about
with a pocket full of stones, wondering which window to smash. In the
end we found the stones weighed rather heavily and hurt our thighs and
spoilt our clothes, and we dropped them on the pavement. It is easy
enough to evolve plans of international brotherhood when the Government
feeds and boards and clothes you and gives you some twenty-five pounds
pocket-money a month. It is less easy when you have to earn your own
living. Questions of international policy seemed less important when the
morning post brought a yellow form with scarlet letters across the top:
“Third and final application.” During the war our liabilities had been
those of many million others. In 1919 we entered the glass case of our
private lives. We reassumed the habit of our own troubles and our own
problems; we became again what Gilbert Frankau describes as the
“possessive and predatory male.”



X


But I doubt even if there had been some employment for it, whether that
particular enthusiasm would have survived very long the return to peace
conditions. We were only sympathetic to the Communists because their
views on the war tallied with our own. We should have soon realised how
wide is the divergence between their interests and ours. For Communism
is, or so it would seem to me, a sort of insurance policy taken out by
the routine worker against the creative worker. The routine worker, the
man who knocks nails into the soles of boots, who adds up columns of
figures in a ledger, who pushes a trolley up a slope, who does tolerably
well a thing that some fifty thousand other people could do equally well
if they so chose, is protecting himself against the ingenuity that
contrives a machine that will take the place of twenty such as he. He
plays for safety. He enters a business as office boy; licks the backs of
stamps; he passes into the counting-house and sits on a high stool. He
makes no blots in his ledgers, and puts the right invoices in the right
envelopes. He is allotted a room to himself and becomes a junior
manager. At the age of forty-five he is drawing a salary of £450 a year.
At the age of sixty-six he is given a pension in return for faithful
service. He knows his limitations. He accepts and fulfils orders. Of
himself he produces nothing. He knows that anyone else could do his job
as well as he can. He retains his position through industry and
punctuality. He appeals to the humanity of his directors. He hopes in
time to fill, in his firm, much the same position as a butler in a
baronial establishment. He has weathered many storms. He has become an
institution. But because he knows his limitations he is frightened,
frightened of the ravages of creative business, the amalgamations of one
firm with another firm, the hard, purposeful nature of young blood, of
the introduction of new ideas. He knows that, after a certain age, he
has no value in the open market. And so he would limit the scope of
private enterprise. He would prevent big men from launching schemes
whose failure will involve thousands in disaster. The State must
supervise and guarantee big business. It must control the avenues of
precarious livelihood. It is not envy of the rich that drives the
routine worker to Communism. As long as he is paid an adequate and
steady wage he does not mind what money his employer makes or loses. But
he knows as long as there is big business, as long as tigers hunt and
are hunted in the high jungle of finance, so long will markets rise and
fall, and so long will there be slumps and crashes and a cutting of
staffs and wages; so long will the law of demand and supply be
operative. Communism is the armour of the feeble against the
adventurous; of safety against daring.

And the artist, more perhaps than anyone, is the soldier of fortune.

He has no armour but his talents and his confidence. He makes his own
terms with life. He stands in the open market. And he will stand there
whatever party may be in power, whatever changes may alter the surface
and the circumstance of life. He belongs to that community which was
designated once “as rogues and vagabonds.” He is of the bastardy of
Feste and Touchstone.

We are entertainers: we who paint pictures, or tell stories, or enact
history. And, if we amuse you, you pay us well; and if we fail, you seek
elsewhere diversion. Six hundred years ago minstrels and strolling
players came by night to the great banqueting hall, and before the
leaping fire told their stories and played their play and sang their
song. And, if they gave pleasure, there was good food and wine and a
roof above them and gold in their purses for the morrow’s journey. And
if they failed to please there were blows and curses and a night of
rain. To-day a novel is printed upon paper, bound in cloth, and
scattered over three continents. There are double-column advertisements
in the Sunday papers; there are paragraphs and reviews and luncheon
parties. There are agents and royalties and contracts. The writing of a
story is a trade that provides many thousands of people with employment.
But it is only the surface of life that alters, the principle is the
same. A man is telling a story: men and women respond to its humour, or
its pathos, or its beauty. They pay richly for their entertainment. But
the moment that the story-teller ceases to amuse he is deserted. There
are some writers who are pleased to think of themselves as prophets and
reformers, who object to the social stigma of their profession. But
because they are merchants of hard words they are entertainers none the
less. People like to be abused now and then. It is agreeable to sit
after a good dinner before a leaping fire, with a decanter of whisky at
one’s elbow, and read of the approaching overthrow of Israel. The sense
of danger titivates the jaded palate. People do not wish always to be
wrapped in cotton wool; they like to be frightened, to be “Grand
Guignoled” now and then. To be told that their sins are of such
blackness gives them a pleasing sense of their own importance. It is a
sensation worth the buying.

It would be hardly, I think, too fanciful to draw a parallel between the
artist and the courtesan. The real courtesan, I mean; not the poor drabs
who trudge by night down Shaftesbury Avenue. One thinks of “Skittles”
driving down Hyde Park in the sixties, to hold a levee by the Achilles
statue; “Skittles” who broke hearts and homes and fortunes; Skittles who
outlived her friends, her beauty, and her generation to die three years
ago unremembered. There is more than a slight resemblance between the
life of such a one and of the artist. Like her, he has no social status;
like her, he is bought and used and flung away. He pleases as she
pleases, for a while, through freshness and vitality and novelty; and
those that have had their entertainment, feel no after sense of
obligation. As long as he so pleases he is granted a wide licence to
flout the conventions with which society has thought it wise to protect
itself. Society knows that he is not of her, and she can afford to wait.
Everything is forgiven to an “artistic temperament” as long as that
temperament is the property of a skilful entertainer. The artist can
make what hash he likes of his private life. He can refuse to be
accepted without his mistress: and, on the whole, the public prefers its
entertainer not to be domesticated like itself. A popular novelist, who
had contributed a serial to a Sunday newspaper, was asked to provide the
editor with a photograph. He sent a pleasant snap of himself, in his
garden, with his wife and children. The snap was returned. “Our
readers,” the editor said, “would prefer not to think of you as a
married man.”

Much the same licence is accorded to the courtesan, as long as she is
beautiful. She can, if she chooses, be rude to men who ask her for a
dance. She can make fun of them in public. She rampages through life in
the pride of her youth; she can pick and choose. Her charm and her
beauty are her capital. She makes a bargain with the world of routine
and wealth, the world that sells cotton and builds empires, the
industrious, unflagging world that asks in its spare time to be amused.
To such a one the world says: “Here are two pictures. Make your choice.
You may stay all your life a suburban girl. You will go to subscription
dances and get kissed furtively in the passage by smarmy, over-dressed
young men, who will boast to their companions of your surrender. One of
them you will select to take you to a cinema, and, as a payment, you
will allow him to hold your hand. And to one of these young men you will
eventually become engaged. You may be very much in love with him, or you
may be seeking an escape from the uncongenial surroundings of your home.
But in either case the result at the end of three years’ time will be
the same. The blue bird will have flown away. You will be a mother and a
housewife. You will have settled down to the humdrum of suburban
matrimony. Your husband will no longer be satisfied with your company in
the evening. He will bring in with him those tedious friends of his who
were once your dance partners, those tedious friends grown smarmier and
softer with the years. And you will sit sewing in a corner while they
discuss the political situation and the latest murder case. There will
be not a great deal of money. You will be clothed, not dressed. Your
prettiness will soon pass, because you will be unable to give it the
right setting of georgette and crêpe-de-chine. And you will gaze
enviously at the gay windows of Oxford Circus. Before you are thirty,
before one of your hairs is grey, your personal life will be at an end.
And you will never have lived. You will be safe, that is all. There will
be food to eat, a fire to sit before, a roof above you when you have
come to the weakening hours of age.

“And this is what we bring you in exchange. We bring you the opportunity
of living to their full the best years of your life, eighteen to
thirty-three. You will dance night after night at the Savoy. Poiret will
design your dresses; you will drive through the London streets in the
deep comfort of a Daimler; you will meet men of the world, brilliant,
interesting men: barristers, financiers, doctors, artists. You will live
romance. You will love deeply, you will suffer deeply. You will pass
from the extreme of happiness to the extreme of pain. You will love no
longer than love pleases. You will be the swinging pendulum. You will
never rest. You will fulfil yourself.”

“And afterwards?”

The world shrugs its shoulders.

“That,” it says, “is your concern. You have had those years. It depends
on whether you are clever and far-seeing. You may save much money; you
may marry; you may become a respectable dowager. Or, with your
connection, you may open, very profitably to yourself, a manicure
establishment. But that is your affair. If you are wasteful and
improvident, life may be very hard to you. That is, we repeat, not part
of our bargain. We offer you those fifteen years.”

And is that offer so very different from the offer that the world makes
the artist? “You have talent,” the world says. “We found that first book
of yours to a high degree diverting. We are content that you should
amuse us for a while if you so choose.” And are the alternatives so very
different? The future presents no less dark a menace to the novelist. He
knows that, sooner or later, he will out-write himself, that the public
will get tired of his tricks, that he will cease to be original and they
will clamour for something new. If he has saved money during his days
of fortune, or if he has managed to establish himself in some sound
commercial concern, in an Editor’s chair, or on the board of a
publishing house, well and good. But if not, if he has saved no money
and is at the end of his resources, he is driven to the equivalent of
the courtesan’s dreary tramp down Jermyn Street and Piccadilly to hack
ill-paid journalism in the columns of the provincial press. And the
artist is in exchange offered the same wages. He is offered the
opportunity of living to its full the best years of his life. He has
money, he is well known. He is not fettered, as his contemporaries are,
with office hours. He is free to do what he likes, go where he likes,
make love where he likes.

Much has been written of the amours of poets, and novelists, and actors.
They have earned a publicity far beyond the range, possibly also beyond
the desire, of the financier’s. And the artist has been always inclined
to attribute the dimensions of his success to his personal magnetism, to
his powers of finesse and intuition. But it would be more modest,
certainly more generous, in him to return gratitude for the unparalleled
opportunities for gallantry with which the circumstances of his life
provide him. Far let it be from me to disparage in any way the triumphal
progress of certain distinguished and notorious persons. I would merely
point out the disadvantages under which their less gifted rivals are
conducting operations.

Consider the position of the city man. His daily routine is a matter of
general knowledge. In order to carry on his business a great number of
people must know where he is at any given moment to be found. His
secretary should even know where he is lunching. If the telephone may
be, and it doubtless is, of considerable assistance in the happy
ordering of an intrigue, it is of no less service in the detection of
it. If a wife rings up her husband in the afternoon and finds him away
she begins to wonder. She knows, too, at what hour he leaves his office
in the evening. If he is not home half an hour later her wonderment
increases. He has either to resort to a lunch in a _cabinet particulier_
or he has to manœuvre with endless deception a week-end, or a business
trip to Leeds. Every assignation has to be skilfully arranged. There is
small scope for the sudden, the unpremeditated moment. It is as
machine-made as the hosiery he handles.

But if it is hard to conduct an intrigue, it must be infinitely harder
to start one. Even nowadays the majority of women are under some sort of
masculine protection; there is either a husband or a father, or a fiancé
or “an uncle.” And at the only hours when he himself is free that
masculine protection is in operation, a fact that the realistic novelist
is in the habit of overlooking. One wonders sometimes how they get
started, these affairs of which we read every other day in the evening
papers. At haphazard, possibly. Adjacent bedrooms at the end of the
passage in a country house. A husband detained in town: a sudden
opportunity seized at eagerly--the sort of thing, though, that happens
more frequently in literature than in life. Certainly not an accident in
the hope of which a conscientious Casanova would be prepared to delay
action. Either that, though, or else a purely business proposition. A
lunch at the Carlton grill, and over the liqueur the offer of a flat and
five hundred pounds a year. Paul Bourget is reported to have remarked
that the only folk worth writing about were those with large incomes;
because it was only people without employment who were able to develop
themselves naturally, which sounds foolish enough; but as adultery is
the invariable background for Latin fiction, it was possibly some such
predicament that Bourget had in mind.

Often enough, indeed, a man’s love-life is a spectacle to the novelist
for melancholy contemplation. In the years that should overbrim with
kisses, he has neither the money nor the leisure for much love-making.
He is economically and temporally dependent. He indulges in occasional
flirtations that he dare not pursue, believing it unfair to make love to
a decent girl if he is not in a position to propose marriage to her.
Occasionally he buys pleasure in some fourth-floor flat in Piccadilly
and feels rather “a dog” about it. He marries when he is thirty-four,
and the next three years are the most vital, the most personal he will
ever know. Rapture passes; and having once drunken, he would drink
again. He begins to sow his wild oats; wild oats must be sown at some
time in a man’s life, and the casual bartering of sensation is of no
significance. But by the time a man is thirty-seven he knows too much
and has seen too much to become the light-hearted philanderer he might
have been in the earlier twenties. A woman writer--I think it was
Rebecca West--wrote somewhere something to the effect that it was not
the bad man, not the philanderer against whom a young girl should be
warned. The Jurgens and Casanovas and Macheaths have received so much
happiness from women that they repay happiness with happiness. They are
the sun that shines and leaves, after its setting, a sense of gratitude.
It is against the spiteful man, against the man who has been
unsuccessful with women that a young girl should be protected. That is
the man who will be unkind to her. And I think it is a bad thing when a
man on the verge of middle-age sets out deliberately to sow wild oats.
He will be taking revenge somewhere for his starved boyhood. The chance
to make the most of the years best worth having is the greatest offer
that the world makes to the young artist whom it would turn into an
entertainer.

But, even so, I doubt whether this bribe would overcome the instinct of
preservation that cautions us to play for safety, were there not that
other, that more powerful inducement, the love of one’s work for its own
sake.

About a year ago there was a symposium in _The Strand_ in which a number
of novelists were invited to name that book of theirs of which they had
most enjoyed the writing. Several writers said that they had not enjoyed
writing any of them; that they had enjoyed the planning, the revision,
but that the actual writing was hard and unpleasant work. I wonder. I
suppose they were sincere. But I was glad to see the other day in an
American paper an article by Hugh Walpole saying that he continued
writing simply because he “loved it--it, telling stories.”

Money and leisure and gratified ambition are prettily coloured toys; but
they are flavour, they are decoration; there does not come from them the
deep, the sustaining satisfaction of a hard task tackled and carried
through. It does not matter whether one writes well or badly: there is
the same joy of creation, the same pleasure in watching the blank page
fill before one’s eyes, in counting up the number of words that are the
outcome of a morning’s work. There is the physical sense of effort; the
physical weariness to be fought against, when one’s brain is eager with
ideas, but one’s wrist is stiff and tired--when one longs to drop the
pen and sink into an armchair. But one doesn’t drop the pen; one goes
on, and it is worth it.

It is bowling up hill, against the wind, to keep the runs down while the
man at the other end gets wickets. You have bowled ten overs; your legs
and arms and back are tired. For sixty balls you have kept that length
outside the off stump, just too short to drive, just too far up to cut.
You have altered your pace a little; you have bowled first from the far
end of the crease; then from close up against the wicket. Little tricks
to keep him playing, to break his patience, so that he may make the
fatal mistake at the other end against the man with wind and slope to
help him. And you are tired. It is heart-breaking, the Fabius Cunctator
game. You long to chuck the ball over to the captain, to say, “I’m
tired, I can’t go on.” But you know that he cannot trust his other and
better bowler to keep on at that length ball: you know that the wickets
must come from the top end. You stick to it. You bowl another over and
you get your second wind.

There is no such thing as work without physical exhaustion, and writing
is physically the most exhausting thing I know, far more exhausting than
the hardest game of rugger, or the longest day in the field. It is such
an emptying of oneself. I tried dictating once, but I did not like it. I
got through a terrific lot of work in a very little while. But I did not
like it. I missed the sight of the white page slowly turning black, of
the rising pile of paper at my side, and the long struggle of the brain
against the growing weariness of wrist and fingers.

For, whatever happens, the love of writing stays even with the sorriest
of hacks, the man who can afford to write only occasionally the thing he
wants to write, who has to produce magazine fiction, and reviews and
paragraphs, so that he may buy the leisure in which to write his verses
or his unmarketable stories. We stint ourselves in one way so that we
may squander ourselves in another. And, here again, we can find an
analogy in the courtesan, in the woman who sells part of herself to one
man that she may give herself more fully to another. In a love freely
given she recovers her self-respect. “What does it matter,” she thinks,
“what I do as long as I can make that one man happy. And because I allow
a few favours to that rich old Jew, I can give to that other what he
could have never got from those pink and white, those simpering,
bread-and-butter misses.” It is in the same spirit that the purveyor of
cheap fiction finances the publication of his verses.

We are of the same race and the same blood, speaking the same language,
having no part in the world’s business, in what is serviceable to the
commercial machinery of life. Even if what we produce is a marketable
commodity, even if we bring money into the pockets of publishers and
promoters and actor managers, we are still the merchants of
entertainment. For a while we have ceased to be rogues and vagabonds. We
do not dine, as strolling players did, in the servant’s kitchen. We are,
for the moment, almost respectable. We belong to clubs. We wear no
distinctive dress. It is indeed the fashion for the artist of the day to
look perfectly ordinary, to be, in fact, like everyone else, with short
hair and servant problems. To-day Congreve would be content to style
himself a dramatist and be a member of the Garrick Club. It is a phase.
It is only the surface of life that alters. Another turn of the wheel
and the artist will return to his own people. And he will stroll from
one town to another, with minstrels and actors and courtesans, a merry,
careless company, vagabonds of fortune, useless and ornamental. And once
more, perhaps, there will be real play-acting and English singing and
a-telling of simple tales.



XI


There is an idea that story-telling is a cheap and vulgar thing; that it
fulfils no function; that it does not enlarge our knowledge of human
character and human life. And yet who is the more distinct to us,
Michael Fane or Sir Launcelot, Guinevere or Sylvia Scarlett? The
character of Michael Fane has been presented to us through many thousand
words of detailed analysis. Sir Launcelot is the hero of a few
incidents. But we know Launcelot better than we know Michael, for all
his many volumes. And do we know Jean Christophe as well as we know Saul
and Joab and the son of Jesse? There are fifteen hundred pages of Jean
Christophe, fifteen hundred pages of turmoil and conflict and desire; in
retrospect a confused impression. But we never forget the Sabine
incident, that perfect story, that diamond in a copper ring. The outline
blurs; one character merges into another. But there remains the picture
of Sabine sitting listlessly before her house; of Sabine pulling down
the blind across the window on the night when she realises that Jean
loves her; of Sabine shelling peas; of Sabine searching for a button in
the disorder of her shop; of Jean and Sabine shivering on either side of
the door afraid to turn the handle. Forty pages out of fifteen hundred,
but the most perfect in the prose literature of the last forty years.

Turgenev never organised his thought as Tolstoi did. He did not explain
himself in constructive argument. He had no need. There is implicit in
his work, the most gentle, the most tolerant, the most harmonious
philosophy that has been expounded by man since the Sermon on the Mount.
And Turgenev was a story-teller. He knew that no language speaks more
directly to the human heart than that of simple narrative. The Russians
hated and distrusted him, especially Dostoieffsky, who could never
forgive Turgenev for being a gentleman. But there has never been anyone
less a snob, intrinsically, than Turgenev, no one who has stood more
simply, less assumingly by his achievements. He was content to be an
artist, a maker of beautiful things. He did not, as Tolstoi did, assume
the rôle of prophet. “If story-telling is a cheap thing,” we can imagine
him to say, “I cannot help it. It is the thing that I was born to do.”

Turgenev knew that it was enough to create beauty: that it is
unprofitable folly to ask a direct influence of art; that it is for the
politician and the journalist, not the artist, to alter the social
fabric. Turgenev was an entertainer; nothing more, and nothing less.
To-day the artist has developed a sense of mission. He feels that he is
here to get something done. And is in danger, consequently, of
exchanging a temporal for an eternal view of life. We have come through
our familiarity with the daily press to associate the written word with
the statement of a case.

When we read a newspaper article on the conditions of life in Bermondsey
our first question is: “That is all very well. But is it thus that the
majority of people in Bermondsey exist?” And when we read a novel about
Bermondsey we apply the same standard. “Is this,” we ask ourselves, “how
the majority of Bermondsians live?” If we decide that it is not, we say
that the novel “is not true to life.” We find it hard to rid ourselves
of the idea that all writing must be a form of special reporting.

And, of course, for the purposes of a novel it does not in the least
matter whether the lives of the majority of Bermondsians do, or do not,
correspond with those of the hero and the heroine. Universality is not
obtained by cataloguing the routine of a number of uninteresting
persons. It is unlikely that many dairy-maids have been the victims of
such a disconcerting series of adventures as befell Tess of the
D’Urbevilles. But Tess is true to life. It is true to life because
Thomas Hardy is a novelist and not a journalist. If he had intended his
book to be an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” if his creative impulse had been
inspired by a wish to improve the lot of the Wessex farm-hand, the
critics would have been justified in saying: “This is a piece of special
pleading based on a particularly unusual combination of circumstances.
We therefore consider it to be untrue to life.” For the journalist the
word “life” implies the external conditions under which the majority of
people live; for the artist, life is the reality behind livelihood, and
for the revelation of that reality the choice of subject is
comparatively unimportant. The same moment of reality may be presented
equally effectively through the most diverse mediums.

The appreciation of the temporal quality of life, of the approach of
age, the sense of weakening power, is found in the work of nearly all
great writers; but it is expressed by each writer in terms of the
phenomena with which he is most familiar. Anthony Trollope would find
relief from such a mood in the study of a kindly, ineffectual parson.
George Moore would tell the story of some butterfly of the Nouvelle
Athène, some Marie Pellegrin. Neville Cardus would recall the fleeting
splendour of Tom Richardson. To the journalist there would seem little
in common between these three studies. But the artist would see that the
subject was in each case the same. In “La Terre,” Zola told the same
story that Shakespeare told in “Lear.”

It is only the best sellers nowadays who are writing stories, really
writing stories, stories for their own sakes. That is why they are best
sellers. They may be bad stories that they are telling, or rather they
may be telling the stories badly. For there is no such thing as a new
story--it is the treatment that is all-important. But they are stories;
and most of their authors, if they chose, if they thought it worth the
doing, could write the sort of novel with three hundred readers that
would get half a column of serious consideration in the cultured
weeklies.

Berta Ruck, for instance. I do not know if her books are ever reviewed
in the sixpenny weeklies; I should be inclined to doubt it. But I have
not the slightest doubt that her books are a great deal better than the
majority of novels that are so honoured. She writes very jolly stories
about very jolly people. They begin with a highly improbable situation.
A woman persuades a man to become her husband in name so that she can
attend to her business unbothered by the attentions of a crowd of
suitors. A financier, to pacify his match-making parents, engages a
secretary to act as his official fiancée. A girl dresses up as a boy and
becomes a chauffeur. Highly improbable occurrences, undoubtedly. But it
is permissible to open on a situation of any degree of improbability,
provided the characters subsequently behave according to rule. And Berta
Ruck’s characters do. They are real people. And what is more important,
they are very jolly people. One has a genuine affection for them, which
is more than one can say of most modern novels. How often do we come
across a hero and a heroine that we really like, that we really want to
see in the last chapter happily married to the right person? We do in a
Berta Ruck novel, and we will pardon any stretching of coincidence if it
allows that fortunate encounter on the last page. To be able to do that,
to be able to write a jolly book about jolly people is very much more
worth while than.... But we will be neither personal nor malicious. Let
us be content to state that it would be certainly more charitable, and
probably more accurate to assume that a book sells on account of its
qualities rather than its defects.

One envies, sometimes, the people who were born a hundred years ago. It
must have been so easy to write then, when all the plots were new and
there were so few writers. To-day everyone is writing novels. One is
cultivating a soil that has yielded many harvests. One begins a story:
for a week, a month, a fortnight one is happy and excited, and then one
loses interest suddenly. It is _vieux jeu_, one says. It has all been
done so many times before. One is not good enough to make an old thing
new. Or, again, it may be that one can find no ending to a story, an
ending that has not become banal through other people’s exploitation of
it. This, for instance, this scene in a Soho restaurant: a small,
unobtrusive, unsensational, but very excellent foreign restaurant in
Dean Street, where I used to dine occasionally, in days when I had a
bungalow beneath the Downs, after a day’s football, before the last
train down to Sussex, when I was tired, when I did not want to be
disturbed by music and noise and laughter, when I wanted my eyes to rest
on quiet wallpaper and quiet dresses, when I knew exactly what I wanted,
and exactly where to find it; there: this one dramatic episode of which
it has been my fortune to be a witness.

I had only just taken my seat and begun my examination of the menu when
the double-doors of the restaurant swung open and a young girl paused
there in the doorway, looking round her with the expression of perplexed
embarrassment that the faces of young people assume in a strange place.
She made a pretty picture as she stood there, a fur cap fitting tightly
over the head, pressing the brown hair into a thick wave about her ears;
a small hand raised towards the throat, keeping in its place the
woollen scarf that was flung across the shoulder; a slim ankle
protruding beneath her skirt, a “tweazy” looking little thing; and if
her features were not beautiful, she had the prettiness of all young
girls whose figures are slim and graceful--the charm of the green leaf
and the bud, that fascinates a man more than beauty does, but that
passes quickly and lasts rarely into womanhood.

She stood there, looking round her for a moment, then the perplexed
expression left her; she smiled and walked down the centre of the room.

A man rose from a table in the corner and came to meet her. He was one
of those men whom it is almost impossible to describe, so much did he
resemble the rest of his sex in his dress, his manner, and the general
carriage of his person. He looked, and probably was, a gentleman; he was
about thirty years old; he had a small dark moustache, and he showed no
signs of baldness. Beyond that I could tell nothing. He was hidden in
complete security behind the technique of an upbringing.

I could not hear how they greeted each other, but in the way in which he
helped her off with her coat there was implied, I fancied, a suggestion
of uneasiness. “They do not know each other very well,” I said to
myself, and, moving my chair a little further to the right, I arranged
myself so that I should be able to watch them without turning my head.

The suggestion of uneasiness was repeated as he leaned over the table
towards her with the menu. “He is a little too eager,” I told myself.
“He is anxious to make a success of it, and he is overacting. He is
confoundedly uncomfortable.” And, calling the waiter, I ordered a dish
of which the preparation would take, I knew, a good twenty minutes--and
settled myself to enjoy the little comedy.

He had ordered an expensive dinner--champagne, a fried sole, a pheasant
and a Japanese salad, and a mushroom savoury. He was desperately anxious
to make it a success, and, to avoid awkward pauses, he was talking most
of the time: amusingly, too, I gathered, for she often smiled at what he
said, and once she burst out laughing--fresh, clear laughter; and that
laugh, which came about half-way through the meal, revealed to me what
indeed I should have seen before, that, while he was enduring agonies of
self-consciousness, she was solely concerned with the natural enjoyment
of a good dinner in pleasant company. “The plot thickens,” I said, for
this discovery ruled out the possibility of the pleasant little romance
I had been considering--their parents had forbidden their marriage, they
had decided to run away feeling very brave when the scheme was only
under discussion, but now that the moment had come they repented the
splendid resolution and would give anything to be in their respective
homes sitting before the fire, thinking pleasantly of bed. That solution
would have to go; for, if this was the case, she would certainly be as
nervous, and probably more nervous, than he, unless--but that was a
contingency of which I refused to consider the possibility. The
elopement idea would have to go, and, besides, there was not the least
suggestion that they were lovers; they had not once looked into each
other’s eyes; they had not been even silent together, and silence is the
beginning of love. They were not man and wife; they were not avowed
lovers; they did not even seem to be potential lovers.

And yet this dinner was for him certainly a big occasion. She meant
something to him. But what? It was possible, of course, that he was in
love with her, and not she with him. But that was no cause for shyness.
Courtship is a leisured and, on the whole, pleasant business; and surely
the young man was not so foolish as to be contemplating a premature
proposal on the way home. For there is nothing more fatal than a hurried
courtship. A moment comes when a girl expects a man to take her by the
hand and tell her that he loves her, and would be angry with him if he
did not. But it is disastrous to anticipate a climax. And this the young
man knows; being a man of thirty such moments must have often come to
him before. “And yet, perhaps,” I said to myself, “he is contemplating
this folly. Why?”

And, putting down my glass, I began to frame a story. He had been an
officer in the war, and after demobilisation had gone up to Oxford to
take his degree. That was quite possible, and would make him
twenty-eight years old to-day. Yes, he had gone up to Oxford, and had
decided to go in for the Civil Service; he had wanted a post in the Home
Civil, but he had not been able to make up for the years he had lost
during the war, and he had passed into the Indian Civil. In a fortnight
he would go abroad for several years, and there was this girl whom he
had met perhaps at tennis, and with whom he had fallen in love,
fascinated by her delicacy, her frail grace, her suggestion of the
butterfly. She was young and inexperienced, and had regarded his love as
comradeship, for he was undemonstrative, and talked about dancing and
the cricket championship; and now he was going away. He had asked her
out to dinner, and was desperately anxious to bring things to a head
before he went. And of all this she knew nothing.

An interesting situation that could be developed into a good story. In
the man’s failure to pass into the Home Civil Service there would be
just a hint of the sad position of the ex-soldier; he had served, and
had been passed over in favour of someone who had not. And on this
failure hung the significance of his romance. He had prepared himself
for a slow, quiet courtship, and now found that he had to compress into
a few days the campaign of several months--and, of course, he had not
been able to. He was not the man to capture a young girl’s heart by
storm. If he succeeded in making her fall in love with him, it would be
only after many weeks of growing intimacy. She would begin by confiding
in him--that would be the first step; and then--but it would be a slow
business, and, at any rate, it was impossible now. In three days he
would have to go to India.

It was really a capital story, and I began to plan it out: the meeting
at a tennis tournament; the news of his failure at the exam.; the dinner
party in the restaurant; and then the journey home in the taxi. I could
see it so clearly.

They would sit in silence for a while. Then he would lean forward and
whisper her name, and she would turn her head and look at him with
surprise.

“Yes,” she would say.

And he would not know what to do in the unaccustomed situation; and, as
he had over-acted in the restaurant to hide his nervousness, so would he
overact now. Without any warning he would take her in his arms and kiss
her awkwardly and say: “I love you.” It would be a horrible failure.
Very likely it would be her first kiss, and she would have her own
romantic conception of what a first kiss should be, and she would be
angry with him for his clumsiness. The kiss will have given her no
pleasure, and that she cannot forgive him. She will push him from her,
will probably say: “Now you’ve spoilt it all,” for at these moments it
is the ridiculous that occurs to us, and she would speak out of her
recollection of book and magazine heroines, and he would try and
explain, but she would shake her head angrily.

“Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Can’t you see that you’ve spoilt
everything?”

And, when they reached her home, she would jump out of the taxi and run
straight up the steps without turning to say good-bye to him, and he
would sit back in the cushions reflecting dismally that in three days he
would sail for India, and would not see her again for three--perhaps
four--years.

A good story! I would sit down to write it as soon as I got home, not
waiting for the morning to blur my impression of her startled girlhood.
And I should not find it difficult to end this story. While he was away
he would write to her and ask forgiveness, protesting that he loved her,
had always loved her, that he was sorry for his rudeness; and that, when
he came back, might he hope--a trite letter it would be; but then, if it
were anything but trite, he would be a writer of much talent, and that I
did not propose to make him. No; he would write her an ordinary
love-letter, and she, being an ordinary woman, would be moved by it,
and, with the distance hiding her blushes, she would write, saying that
she had been young and foolish, but was now wise, and would gladly wait
for him. And during four years they would create slowly, letter by
letter, an illusion of each other out of the enchantment of things
remote. He would become her Prince Charming, and she would be for him a
creature of infinite fragrance. And then, when they met again, she would
find herself in the arms of a prosaic Anglo-Indian, with thinning hair,
and he would find that a girl had become a woman, that her pretty
features had grown petulant during the years of waiting.

And in the morning I should have to decide whether or not they should
marry; probably they would, from a lack of the courage that looks at
itself in the glass and says: “You have failed, my friend.” Yes, it
would be truer to make them marry, and perhaps she might be happy in her
children, while he found pleasure in the society of another woman. But,
at any rate, a dream would have been passed, and that would be the
object of my story: to tell simply how everything changes, everything
passes; not a new philosophy and one that occurred to Heraclitus, but
true nevertheless.

And looking across at the couple in the corner, I thought with real
sympathy on their sad fate. They were just getting ready to go; the
waiter had brought the bill neatly folded upon a plate; the girl had
turned towards a large photograph of the Royal Family, and was
endeavouring to arrange her hair from the blurred reflection in it.

She was smiling and happy, ignorant of the disaster that awaited her.
Within five minutes she would have been embraced clumsily, would have
assured her lover that “he had spoiled everything,” and the curtain
would have descended on the first act of the tragedy. Could nothing be
done to save her; it was cruel--so young, so fresh and with so brief a
springtime.

I was indulging myself in this soft, sentimental reverie, for a
story-teller always runs in great danger of confusing his own reality
with that of the world, and of regarding everything that happens to
himself and to his friends as chapter headings in a novel. I was just, I
say, indulging my pet weakness to the top of my bent when suddenly, for
the first time in my life, I was the witness of a real dramatic
incident.

The girl had turned to arrange her hair in the blurred reflection of the
sheet of glass that protected the Royal Family from dust, and, in order
to brush a little powder from her chin, she had taken her
pocket-handkerchief from her bag. The bag lay open on the table, its
mouth pointing to her companion, and, to my amazement, I saw the man
lean forward, glance round the room to see if anyone was looking, and
then quickly take from the bag a couple of pound notes; these he placed
on the plate under the bill, added another note of his own, and called
the waiter’s attention to the plate. Then, a minute later, the plate
returned; the waiter received a substantial tip, in return for which he
helped his clients on with their coats and bowed them out of the
restaurant; all of which I watched in dazed, though intrigued,
wonderment. I suppose I ought to have risen from my seat and called the
girl’s attention to the theft, but it is hard for one who has chosen for
himself the rôle of onlooker to decide on violent and sudden action. And
besides, I have learnt that interference is invariably unwise, that I
cannot expect other people to mind their own business until I mind mine.
At any rate, whatever was the right thing to do, I did what it was
natural for me to do under such circumstances: I sat where I was, and in
five minutes became lost in a vague and wistful speculation.

The reasons for the man’s embarrassment were now clear; all the evening
he had been waiting his opportunity to steal his companion’s money--that
much was obvious. And to think that for half an hour I had been
concocting an absurd story after the manner of Turgenev, about an Indian
Civil Servant and “the girl he left behind him”! Impatiently I called
for my bill, tipped the waiter, and walked out into Dean Street.

The cool air did me good in restoring my self-confidence. It was a
mistake, I told myself, that anyone might have made. We do not expect
to meet thieves outside the Stock Exchange and the pages of the police
reports. And it was quite a good story that I had invented--a slight
debt to Turgenev perhaps, but then every short story that is written
owes something either to Turgenev or de Maupassant or Tchecov. And I
had, besides, the material for another really first-class tale. I could
see it so clearly: the young girl prattling away pleasantly and the man
getting more and more worried. “Will she never powder her nose?” he asks
himself, and tries to hide his anxiousness beneath a series of amusing
anecdotes. And no doubt I could make them discuss the modern girl, and
she will say that she hates the girl who powders and paints; and he will
have to agree with her, seeing that her complexion is her own, although
he is, for the first time in his life, hating the fresh bloom of her
cheek and praying that she were another sort of girl--a delightful
situation. And then, at last, when all seems lost, I could make her lean
forward to smell the flowers on the table, and a speck of yellow pollen
would attach itself to her chin, to which he would, of course, call her
attention.

“Is there really,” she would say, and, opening her bag, she would take
out her handkerchief, turn to the photograph beside them, and give him
his opportunity.

Up to that point it would be quite simple. But beyond it a lot of
thought would be required. So good a motive must not be flung away, and
all the way down the Charing Cross Road I turned the incident over in my
mind.

Fifteen years ago I could have made him an agent in the White Slave
Traffic. It was a popular theme then; every young girl who came up to
London looked round at Paddington apprehensively for the kindly old lady
who would ask her if she was new to these parts. Yes, fifteen years ago
it would have been a moving story. But, during the last fifteen years,
Villiers Street has become placarded with shilling descriptions of “Why
Girls Go Wrong”; and the Bishop of London has written a great many
prefaces and preached a great many sermons. The White Slave Traffic is
_vieux jeu_. Still, there was something in the seduction _motif_. “Yes,
certainly,” I said to myself, as I presented my season-ticket at the
barrier at Victoria and walked down the platform in search of a
corner-seat; something might be made out of it: and by the time we had
reached Selhurst a story had begun to form itself in my mind.

She had come up from the provinces for the day, and had met an old
friend of hers who had asked her out to dinner; she had intended to
catch the last train home. The man is smitten by her beauty and wonders
how he can best possess it. Should he steal her money she will be unable
to buy a ticket back.

The picture grew before me. I could see them at the booking-office. I
could see her fumbling in her bag, searching every pocket, and then
turning to him with a despairing look.

“I’ve lost the money.”

“Oh, no; surely not,” he would say. “It must be in one of your pockets.
Have another look.”

And she would make another long, careful search which would, of course,
be equally vain. And she would turn to him with tear-filled eyes.

“But what am I to do? I can’t get home. I haven’t any money to buy a
ticket.”

And in her voice would be the suggestion that he should lend her some,
and, of course, he would say that he had none with him, but that if she
would come back to his flat.... And she would thank him effusively and
they would leap into a taxi, but when they arrived at the flat, which
would be at the top of four flights of stairs, with the flat below
unoccupied, he would discover that he had no money after all, and that
the porter had gone, and that there was no one from whom he could borrow
any; she would sink down on the sofa, her hands clasped before her
knees, while he stood behind her wondering at what exact point----

But at that moment the train stopped at East Croydon, where I had to
change and wait twenty minutes for a connection; and, while I stamped up
and down the platform trying to keep warm, a swift dissatisfaction with
my story overcame me. What did it matter what he said next, or at what
exact point he ... for whatever he did, or whatever she did, the story
as I had elected to tell it could only end in one way--a row of dots,
and a short concluding paragraph: “Next morning, her dark hair scattered
across the pillow, she woke in a strange room....” And how often that
has been done. In how many novels has not that dark hair been scattered
across that pillow? It was theatrical, vulgar, the sort of plot that
occurs to one as one sits in the smoking-room of one’s club after a
heavy lunch and half a bottle of Pommard, and I walked up and down the
platform of East Croydon station in a state of cold and miserable
self-contempt.

But warmth revives us, and when I was again in the corner-seat of a
smoker, down the window of which the heat ran in long, straggly
trickles, I began to think that, after all, though I had to wash out the
seduction motive, there might be something in the idea of the lost
return-ticket, and the last train to Anerley. Suppose now that the young
man had for a long time besieged unsuccessfully his fair companion, and
that on the refusal of his third proposal he had decided that he would
never secure the hand of his beloved unless he managed to compromise
innocently her honour?

Yes, that might work out. He would steal her money at the restaurant;
they would reach the booking-office where the scene which I have already
described would be enacted. There would be the return to the flat and
the discovery that the porter was out, and that, after all, he had
forgotten to cash the cheque he had written out that morning.

“But what am I to do?” she would say.

And, with well-simulated confusion, he would mutter something about not
minding a “shake-down” on the sofa, and that if she would take his room
...

“Oh, but I couldn’t! How could I? What would mother say?”

Just a little touch that would place the mother at once before the
reader’s eye--a plump, heavy woman with a small, unsatisfactory husband.
A woman of strong passions, that have focussed themselves on a rigid
observance of the proprieties.

“But what else are you to do?” the young man would exclaim, and he would
stammer something about giving her his key. And, in the end, she would
consent to pass the night there, and next morning they would arrive at
Anerley together with the milk, and be received by the mother in the
front-parlour, a cold, melancholy room with the fire smoking dismally.
She would receive them with her hands on her hips, and she would say one
word, “Well!” and then listen while the young man stammered his
explanations. Of course she would not believe him: he had never expected
her to, and would have been miserably disappointed if she had. He would
listen to her threats and tirades, and then, at the right moment, he
would draw himself up to his full height.

“Madam,” he would say, “your accusations are untrue; the door of the
room in which your daughter slept was locked all night. I slept on the
sofa. But to prove my honour, and to vindicate hers, I am prepared--and
shall be proud--to marry your daughter.”

A slow smile would spread across the mother’s face. Honour saved, a
daughter off her hands; and at last the daughter, moved by his chivalry,
might even fall in love with her knight-errant.

I considered this solution during the two miles’ walk from Hassocks
station. It was original. I had never seen it done before. Such a
situation is common enough in modern fiction. But the mistake is usually
genuine, and that scene in the dismal parlour is the prelude to long
years of married misery. Occasionally the affair is arranged by the
girl, if she can trust her lover’s lack of enterprise. For a girl is
more interested in marriage than a man, and proposes it indirectly more
often than the admirers of the strong man would have us think. But for a
man to plan such an escapade--that would indeed be new. And I went to
sleep contented, thinking that the next day would pass pleasantly in
congenial work.

But there is a poem by a poetess, now little read, which contains the
lines:

    “Colours seen by candlelight
     Do not look the same by day,”

and when the sun shone next morning through my bedroom window my plot
seemed less original than I had thought it the night before. What was
it, after all, but a conceit? It said “black” to someone else’s “white”;
it turned an old coat inside out, and though it would no doubt cause
surprise if I were to walk down the village with my coat inside out, it
would not be a particularly original act, and it would be the same coat.

That is not the way to make a good story--to tack an old situation on to
a new one. I should have to find a different ending somehow; it was no
good setting out to write it yet. For want of anything better to do, I
walked out and began to weed the garden. But though I weeded the
flower-beds in front of the house, and did valiant work with a hoe
among the cabbages, no idea had come to me by lunch-time. And, though I
spent the whole afternoon before a jigsaw puzzle, the most restful of
all pursuits, tea-time found my mind a blank, and in this state it
remained until a friend, to whom I had related the incident, made a most
pertinent remark:

“Why, if the girl could see her face reflected in the photograph, did
she not see the young man take the money from her purse?”

I sat in surprised silence. Why had I not thought of that before?

“Yes,” I said, “but if she saw, why didn’t she say something?”

“That’s for you to find out.”

And for the next three days I searched my mind for reasons for her
silence.

At last I began to see the glimmerings of a tale, the fifth that I had
constructed about this romantic couple. And this is what I saw: a shy
young man from the provinces comes up to London with an introduction to
some wealthy friends. There is a daughter whom he thinks very beautiful,
and with whom he thinks that he might in a short while find himself in
love. And he suggests very timidly that it would be nice if she would
show him “round the sights,” for he wants to see London, and has no
other friends in it. And, as these wealthy people have advanced views,
or perhaps because the daughter has succeeded in impressing her views
upon her parents, his suggestion is accepted; the result is a lunch at
the Criterion, a theatre, and tea afterwards. As they seem to be
getting on rather well together, he suggests a dinner-party. He would
like to see Soho.

“Oh, but I must go back and ask mother first,” she says.

“Really?”

“Of course; it’s very nice of her to let me out at all. I must go back
and ask her.”

And he admires this sense of duty, which is probably only an excuse for
a change of frock. And so she returns home to tell her mother how well
everything is going, while he goes to the little Soho restaurant to
engage a table; and then, while he is waiting for her, he makes a
horrible discovery. He has only a pound left; what is he to do? He picks
up the menu, and sees that it will be impossible for him to dine in
anything like the way he wishes for less than thirty shillings. He is a
stranger; the restaurant will not give him credit. There is no one to
whom he can go to for a loan; he cannot ask the girl, on their first day
together, to lend him money. And so, all through the dinner there hangs
over his head the menace of that piece of folded paper. What will happen
to him? He remembers seeing once in Manchester the proprietor pitch an
impecunious client headlong into the street. They could hardly do that
to him. He would be too big, but he will be disgraced in the girl’s
eyes. He has not the presence to carry off such a scene with honour. He
will stammer and mumble, and try to explain, and look foolish; probably
in the end he will leave his watch in bail, while the girl will stand
by him, ashamed of him and contemptuous.

He tries to make the meal last as long as possible; they have coffee and
two liqueurs and endless cigarettes; but the moment comes at last when
she begins to button on her gloves and collect her things.

“I really must go now,” she says, “and it has been such a lovely
evening. Thank you so much.”

And he looks in misery at the piece of folded paper. Then, just as he is
preparing to signal to the waiter and ask for an interview with the
patron, the temptation comes: her bag lies open facing him; she is
looking the other way. He sees money. Here is the way out; perhaps she
will not notice that she has lost it. She is rich. At any rate, he must
run the risk. And, as she tidies her hair in the glass, she sees him
take her money.

She is shocked, terribly shocked, but it is easy to understand her
silence; her curiosity is whetted, she is interested in the young man,
and guesses that one day it may very well be that she will feel more
than interest for him. Money is of no great concern to her.

Yes, I could see the scene clearly enough; it would provide me with
excellent opportunities for dramatic dialogue; the growing uneasiness of
the man with the girl’s gradual appreciation of it and wonder at the
cause of it, the hope, perhaps, that it is the beginning of love. A good
scene, but it would be impossible not to write a good scene with such a
setting and such an episode. But, even as I saw it, I knew that it would
be no good. To what climax would it work: to nothing but the old
_cliché_--“I knew it all along.” It would be kept as a surprise, of
course; the reader would not be told that the girl had seen the theft
reflected in the looking-glass. The story would describe the progress of
their courtship; the heart-searchings of the young man. “If I tell her,
will she despise me?” How the machinery would creak, how often it has
been done before; and at last the stage would be set for the confession.

“I have something terrible to tell you, dear.”

He would blurt it out and then hide his face in her lap for shame, and
she would stroke his hair softly and smile.

“Silly old dear,” she would say. “I knew it all along!”

How trite it would be, how banal! And the fact that it might be very
likely true would not in any way redeem it. We are plagiarists in life
as we are in books, and there are certain motives that are now
impossible in a story, although they occur in life. They have been used
too often. What a weariness overcomes us when we discover in a novel of
matrimonial dispute that the wife is about to become a mother, and that
in consequence the hero cannot run off with his secretary.

No doubt it is an affair of frequent occurrence; impending maternity
frustrates an impending honeymoon. Autumn lays waste the spring. But no
self-respecting novelist would allow “the little stranger” to extricate
him from a difficulty. And, in the same way, no self-respecting novelist
would allow a heroine “to know it all along.” It is a motive that has
served its purpose well enough in its time, but when a coin has passed
through many hands the signs and figures on it are worn away; it is
valueless and is returned to the Mint; which is the proper place for
“the little stranger” and “I knew it all along.”

And now, having attempted five different stories, all of them
unsatisfactory, I know that it is my duty to provide a conclusion that
shall be unexpected and that shall ridicule my previous conjectures. I
know that I ought to meet in the restaurant at a later date the hero or
heroine, or both of them together, and learn from them the true story;
there should be--I know it--a punch in the last paragraph; but that is
exactly what I cannot give, for I do not know the real end of the story
and have been unable to invent one. Unsatisfactory, perhaps, but
intriguing all the same. In a world where so much is ordered by the
inviolable laws of mathematics, it is pleasant to find something that is
truly incomplete. For the first time in my life I was the witness of a
dramatic episode, the sort of thing that one would not see again in a
thousand years. It was a fragment in the lives of two people, and it
must remain a fragment, a baffling, fascinating fragment. And, on the
whole, I am glad to have it so. Such another moment will never come to
me. When the voice of the lecturer begins to fade, when the sun beats
down upon the mound at Lord’s and the cricket becomes slow: at all times
when the mind detaches itself from its surroundings I shall return in my
imagination to that evening in the restaurant. It will be a treasure
for all time, a book in which I shall read for ever without weariness.
Perhaps one day I shall hit upon the meaning of it; but I hope not. I
prefer to keep it an enigma, to be able to shut my eyes and watch the
growing embarrassment of a young man who is planning an unnatural theft,
to see a young girl stand in the doorway of a restaurant, a fur cap
fitting tightly over her head, a gloved hand raised across her throat.



XII


Certain motives, I said, after a while get written out, and must be sent
like coins for renewal to the mint. And so of a particular technique, of
certain ways of narrative, the chronicle novel for example. In 1911
everyone was telling the story of a generation’s passage through youth
to middle age; it had become the fashionable medium for social satire;
it seemed the destined channel for the main stream of early
twentieth-century narrative. But already a dam has been placed across
its path, the dam of the years 1914-1918.

The novel reader, I suppose, knows no greater weariness, no sensation of
more profound misgiving than that which comes over him when he realises
on page 173 that the action of the story is about to land him in the
year 1913. He loses interest immediately. What does it matter, he asks
himself, whether Jane becomes engaged to that rascal Harry, or Arthur
elopes with the designing Marjorie? August 1914 is coming, and from
whatever manner of fix into which, between now and then, they may
contrive to place themselves the author will have no difficulty in
extricating them. The reader feels that he has been deceived. He has no
use for the _deus ex machinâ_. He feels as the small boy did who flung
the _Iliad_ in disgust across the room, and exclaimed: “Rotten! they
never had a fair fight once. There was always a god on one side or
another.”

The war, in the average novel, is an effect without a cause. It is
unquestionable that a great many homes were absolutely turned inside out
by “the great interruption.” There is no doubt that a great many
difficulties were removed by this heaven-sent intervention, even as a
great many simple situations were made interminably complex. All over
the world there was effect without a cause, but in the novel, which is
an essentially artificial thing, a thing that one makes with one’s own
hands, there can be no effect without cause. And the conscientious
novelist gazes in dismay at this tear across the fabric of life. He can,
of course, start his story earlier; but there can be no real conclusion
to a chronicle novel that ends in 1910. The reader knows that, in four
years’ time, the happy home on which the curtain has so tenderly
descended will be in chaos and that the hero will have to set out again
on his travels. He can hardly begin it in December 1918 with the picture
of a young man walking out of his tailor’s, in a grey tweed suit. A
chronicle novel can barely get started in five years. And it is equally
difficult for a writer to take the war in his stride. There have been
one or two attempts; but, with the exception of “The Forsyte Saga,” they
have been failures. For that type of novel one wants a clear ten years
on either side.

Or it may be that the generating force of the movement is already spent;
it may be that the reader has grown indifferent through repetition to
the fortunes of the shy, sensitive young man who retired into a corner
and read Keats while his companions were playing football, and to whom
one of the masters would deliver himself of some such portentous
prophecy as: “You are not for the middle way. You will rise or you will
sink. The stars for you, or the depths.” And there was certainly a
singular similarity about that young man’s early amatory adventures; the
wanton with the heart of gold; the pure girl and the unhappy marriage;
the splendid heroism of infidelity. It seemed very daring and original
in 1912 to end a novel with a divorce instead of with a marriage. But
was such an end any more conclusive than the Victorian wedding bells? In
the Victorian novel the young man gets engaged to the wrong girl, but
meets the right girl in time to marry her. In the Georgian novel the
marriage to the right girl is preceded by a divorce, instead of a broken
engagement.

Fashions pass quickly nowadays, there are so many novels and so many
novelists. One man starts a movement; a whole host of lesser writers
follow him, prejudicing him with their imitations. This romantic
movement of Michael Sadleir’s: ten years at the most I give it.
“Desolate Splendour” is a good book, but it is the forerunner inevitably
of a positive cavalcade of melodramatic barons and pornographic
duchesses. As a publisher’s reader I shiver to think of the fare with
which these next few summers will provision me.

We have too many books: that is the whole trouble. And it is not from
the commercial point of view that I am complaining. I am not saying the
supply is greater than the demand. It isn’t. The number of novelists has
increased, but so has the reading public. Commercially the writer has a
pretty good time of it nowadays. The big men, Wells and Galsworthy and
Bennett, must have made more money out of writing than Dickens and
Thackeray ever did: and we others, life is materially easier for us than
it was probably for our brothers of the 1820’s. At any rate, I know no
other profession in which a man of twenty-five can afford to play
cricket three whole days of a working week. It is not on the commercial
side I am grumbling. What I am trying to say is this: that it is harder
to-day for a writer to produce good work now than it has ever been
before.

The pace is too fast for one thing. A novel a year. “You must keep your
name before a public.” That is what agent and publisher are continually
dinning into the author’s mind, and it is true, of course. That is the
commercial line. Spring and autumn fashions. And only a few can last. A
novel a year would be no hardship to a man endowed with the ebullient
vitality of a Dickens or a Balzac; but there are not many such. In five
novels and a few short stories Flaubert said all he had to say.
Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, and Richardson together, they do little more
than reach double figures. Maupassant had written himself out at
forty-three.

And then because there are so many novelists, each writer is expected to
cultivate a particular province. His name on a book is like the label on
a bottle of wine. “Ah, yes,” says the library subscriber, “Compton
Mackenzie, a story of sound and colour; a little naughty: many alluring
ladies; a smooth, ornate, sentimental style.” Should he discover instead
a grey, political study of the effect of Trade Unionism on the
commercial prosperity of the Tynemouth, he would be as disappointed, and
would consider himself as ill-used, as Professor Saintsbury would if the
Chateau Margaux he was offering his guests should reveal itself as Clos
de Vougeot. An admirable Burgundy, but he had ordered claret. The
novelist is not encouraged to make experiments. He is asked to rewrite
one book indefinitely, till the material is watered down and a new
entertainer has appeared.

And there have been so many novels. Every obvious situation has been
used. The simple themes of love, jealousy, parenthood have been
exploited till there is little new to say. The broad field has been
ploughed so often. There are only a few dark spots by the hedge, under
the shadow of the trees, where there is little sunshine and plants grow
weakly, crookedly, different from their fellows, dank places where the
few may specialise. “This, at least,” they say, “we can make our own.”

And whatever else may be urged against _Ulysses_ no one could deny it is
James Joyce’s own. An amazing work. A book without grammar and without
coherence; like a boat that is launched from an aeroplane in mid-ocean,
without oars, without rudder, and without sails. Sometimes I see
_Ulysses_ as a literary Thermopylae, a desperate stand against
insuperable odds. “I will transcribe life,” he said, “as it is. I will
omit nothing. Everything that passes through the mind shall be set on
record. By setting everything down I shall achieve proportion.”
_Ulysses_ is, perhaps, the most splendid failure in literature. But it
is a failure. And when I hear ecstatic praise of it, I remember the five
weeks or so during which I was the slave of jigsaw puzzles. For six
hours a day I worked at them. I assorted and reassorted ridiculous
pieces of coloured wood; I acquired a second sight for the dimensions of
lozenge shapes. Gradually, bit by bit, there emerged from the discordant
masses of detail on the table, a scheme, a pattern. Gradually, what I
had taken for a turnip was revealed to me as a cockatoo, and what I had
thought to be a beetroot became a face. Till, at last, the final piece
was fitted, and there stared up at me from the table the sort of picture
that I used to paint with water-colours in the nursery: a young girl
feeding a rabbit with a lettuce; an old man filling a pipe before a
fire; a dog crying for its master in the snow. But I had no eyes for the
thing’s futility. Out of chaos had I achieved this symmetry.
“Wonderful,” I said, “simply wonderful.” It was the picture that I so
apostrophised. But it was myself that I was really praising. How
wonderful of me, it was, I felt to have produced this thing. And in the
same way when, after an hour’s battle, we have restored to sense and
English a passage of Joyce’s shorthand, we have not the heart to
consider the intrinsic value of the thing restored. We are so delighted
with ourselves for having done it. “Wonderful,” we say, “wonderful,” and
actually believe it is.

I rather suspect that the year 1922 will be a landmark for the literary
historian of our day. _Ulysses_ is a sign-post. It will he hardly
possible for the two styles of writing, the analytical shorthand and the
narrative any longer to imagine that they are hunting together. James
Joyce has worked out on the blackboard the piece of algebra over which
his pupils have been so long puzzling. _Ulysses_ is the answer.

“Life with a big ‘L.’” Every generation has its own pet hobby-horse to
ride to death, and that’s been ours: still is, I think. We are all in
search, each of us in our own way, of this strange quality of living
that our own existence lacks.

The young poet walks down the steps of the stately mansion where he has
been reading his poems aloud to bright-eyed admiration in a
softly-lighted, softly-cushioned drawing-room. He hails a taxi, and as
he sinks back into the padded seat he ponders the arid monotony of his
existence; one day is so like another. Where is the thrill, the mystery
of life? He will return to his flat. His clothes will be laid out ready
for him. His man will ask him if he will have his bath at once. He will
nod. He will undress slowly, will finish reading that review book in his
bath; he will linger over his dressing. He is dining with Mrs Spurway.
Just such another dinner-party as yesterday’s was and to-morrow’s will
be. Lady Mary will be there and he will have to find occasion to whisper
that he loves her as desperately as ever, though he knows too well how
rapidly his ardour is cooling. She is like all the rest. And through
the window he contemplates the firm, resolute back of the taxi-driver.
How he envies him. That is life. He is not tied to a circle of social
obligations. He lives outside the conventions. He is free.

The thoughts of the taxi-driver are not dissimilar. He, too, is
pondering the monotony of his existence. How the London streets resemble
one another. He has promised to take Mary Gubbins to the pictures that
evening; and he remembers that he is getting rather tired of Mary
Gubbins; she is like all the rest. He envies the gilded persons whom he
bears all day long from one scene of revel to another. It is human to
envy the conditions of another’s life. The young girl who looks from her
bedroom window on to the street below is wooed by its sense of mystery
and adventure, and the inspector of omnibus tickets pauses on the top
deck to gaze wistfully at the lighted window. It is the hunger for
experience, for variety, for a fuller life. We should all like to live a
hundred lives, to enter into the heart of every mystery, to feel every
human emotion of happiness and sorrow. That is a natural instinct. But
its present manifestation is unfortunate. There is a deep-rooted
conviction that life is only intense when it is bitter, that waitresses
and dustmen and crossing-sweepers have seen deeper into the human heart
than bank clerks and school-mistresses and lawyers, that life is only
real when it is raw.

Some years ago a mixed vermouth at the Café Royal resulted in my
inclusion in a general invitation to a studio party. An obscure musician
was celebrating his wife’s elopement. There were prodigal promises of
gin and whisky. Everyone would be there, I was informed. I had nothing
to do that evening. I went, in search of life.

It was a surprise. We all have our illusion of Bohemia; all of us, that
is to say, who study modern fiction and frequent the cinema. At the back
of our mind there is a vivid picture of Bohemia as we would have it; an
affair of half-lights and perfumes, and cushions and clinging draperies.
Perhaps such a Bohemia exists somewhere. It may do; certainly it ought
to. But it had no counterpart in that studio party.

By the time I arrived the party had been in progress a couple of hours.
The atmosphere was thick. The floor was covered with cigarette ends and
the splinters of broken glass. In various corners of the room partially
inebriated couples were lost to the world in amorous abandon. An
unwashed, unshaved Italian was strumming on a fiddle. There was a little
dancing. A number of loose collared Americans were talking in art jargon
at the tops of their voices. In a deep armchair, his nose broken, his
forehead and eyebrows cut and swollen, a man slept. Whether he had
disputed a brother artist’s claim to some lady’s favours, or whether his
legs had been unequal to their task and he had collapsed upon a broken
bottle, I was unable to discover. At any rate, he slept. He was a
loathsome sight; and, for that matter, the whole party was a pretty
loathsome sight. But I was impressed. I was just free from the shackles
of military discipline and etiquette. Here, I thought, was life. Here
was a society that had won to freedom, that was divorced from all
preconceived opinions, from every super-imposed tradition of taste and
conduct. It was, indeed, somewhat of a shock to me that the only man in
the room who appeared to possess a razor should say in a dry voice,
“What a show. Look at all these idiots pretending to be Dostoieffskies.”
He was right, of course. London is full of people trying to be
Dostoieffsky, nursing secretly the grief that they are not epileptic.
Dostoieffsky preached the gospel of suffering, and because he spent his
life in poverty, the modern idea would appear to be that the only real
suffering is material privation, that the man has not lived who has not
starved. It is the new snobbery. Once everyone was anxious to establish
his descent from a baron. Now everyone is grieved if his pedigree does
not contain a dustman.

James Joyce is like that, I fancy: or rather I should say the stuff he
writes is. And he could have been so great a writer if he had not been
led astray by that reckless heroism of his, that determination at all
costs to transcribe life. Perhaps, though, _Ulysses_ is more than
Journey’s End for a certain type of fiction: it may be that it is
Journey’s End for the novel as a vehicle for narrative; it may be that
the novel is played out.

Since the beginning of time the world has had stories told to it. But
always in a different form. There was the epic, and that has gone; the
ballad, and that has gone; the drama, and that is passing; the novel,
and who knows but that the novel as a medium of story-telling has
served its turn, that it is through the cinema that the twentieth
century will elect to have its stories told, and that the novel will
become a weapon of dialectic, a glorified form of journalism, or purely
a medium of psychological investigation.



XIII


I am uncertain as to the official highbrow attitude towards the
“Movies.” I am indeed doubtful whether there is one. Highbrowism is
supposed to turn on all objects of popular enthusiasm a cold judicial
eye, to weigh and compare the manifold futilities of each fresh
expression of humanity’s imperfect reason, and to deliver a final, an
irrevocable judgment. That, at any rate, is what the jaundiced writer
would have us think. “A coterie of the intellectuals,” he will say. And
I suppose it is all right. I suppose that somewhere, in some form,
highbrowism does exist. I can only say that I have not met it. The men
and women who have been described to me as “impossibly highbrow” reveal
themselves for the most part on acquaintance as very simple, ordinary
folk who are more interested in cricket than Russian politics, and more
interested in law reports than either. This may only be additional
evidence of cunning. But, as I say, I have a very real suspicion that
highbrowism is nothing more than a popular conception, and that to talk
about a “highbrow” attitude is about as sensible as to call seventy
million people France and treat them as one person.

But whether highbrowism exists or not, a popular conception is always a
useful peg to hang a chapter on. In the days when I sat at the foot of
the history sixth and was driven to deploy, as a screen for my ignorance
and idleness, many ingenious devices, I had resort frequently to a ruse
which has no doubt in its time assisted many another harassed historian,
but which I should like to think was of my own invention. I would
manufacture some startlingly dogmatic exaggeration, attribute it to a
writer whose name I was careful to conceal, and proceed to illuminate
the quotation with historical illustrations. The answer to a question on
Prussian diplomacy would, for example, open thus: “A certain
eighteenth-century essayist, a writer more remarkable perhaps for the
vigour than the accuracy of his assertions, once stated that to be
successful it was necessary to be unscrupulous, and though there are
fortunately many careers against which no such charge could be
rightfully directed, there are others, among which must be
unquestionably included that of Bismarck ...” etc. etc. Such an opening
set a note of erudition that would, I hoped, for at least a page and a
half, prevent its reader from discovering that the meal I set before him
contained “a deal of sack and very little bread.”

And so I return to my opening sentence: that though I do not know what
is the official highbrow attitude towards the cinema, I should, if I had
to define it in a hundred words for a symposium, write something like
this. “The highbrow professes to despise the American sobstuff drama: he
objects to the conversion into films of plays and novels. He searches in
classical presentations for anachronisms and historical blunders. He
enjoys, however, the gymnastics of Douglas Fairbanks, the knockabout
comedies, Charlie Chaplin and the Pathé Gazette.” And were my opinion to
be invited further, I should pronounce myself to be in complete
disagreement with this attitude. I enjoy American sobstuff; I feel the
right emotions at the right moment. I pray that the misunderstanding
between the hero and the heroine may be speedily and effectively
removed. It is with extreme difficulty that I restrain myself from
rising in my seat to explain to the young ass that the affluent and
middle-aged person with whom he saw her at the opera was in fact her
uncle. In these days of infinite compression it is not unpleasant to
have told one in eighty minutes a story that it would take a day and a
half to read, and told on the whole, I find, more entertainingly than in
a full-length novel. There are no psychological or sociological
interludes; one gets on with the business. Indeed, for ninety-nine per
cent. of the long films that are put upon the market, I am, I take it,
the sort of person the producer has in mind when he produces them. As
the dramatic critic says, “For those that like this sort of thing, this
is the sort of thing they like.”

But by the short, one-reel affairs I am, I confess, unmoved. It does not
amuse me to see the Duke of York inspect Boy Scouts at Northampton, nor
am I anxious to learn by what process sardines are transferred from the
Atlantic to the breakfast table. Films that are described as “interest”
weary me. Nor can I believe that Larry Semon is a comedy king. Rarely
can a civilised people have allowed itself to be entertained
by more primitive, less subtle humour. It is entirely of the
“top-hat-on-the-chair” variety, and it ends like the Harlequinade, in a
chase.

There is, however, one trick in the comedy film which always gets me;
the trick of making you, by a reversion of the film and turning of the
handle backwards, see an aged and effete man do a standing, backward,
fifteen-foot jump on to the top of a narrow wall. You see a plate that
has been smashed to atoms recollect itself and become whole. You see
milk that has been spilt return to the pitcher. A couple of ruffians
have reduced a room in three minutes to utter ruin; the handle is turned
and the room restores itself. A miracle, you say. For, although you know
perfectly well that it is a trick, you cannot help for the moment being
swept into credulence. After all, there, before your eyes, the thing is
happening.

It is a pity, I always feel, that the producers make such little play
with this device. It could be infinitely diverting. There would be no
need for the broken things always to be made whole. It is amusing to see
a house that has been blown to atoms rise proudly out of the _débris_
into stately indestructibility. But it would be as amusing to see a team
of builders slowly, brick by brick, unbuild a mansion. The end would
always precede the start. This trick might even be made the vehicle for
subtle satire. A maid, for instance, would walk backwards into a tidy
drawing-room, and would litter the floor with cigarette ash, cover the
shelves with dust, and disturb the papers on your desk. Nor would it be
necessary for the producer to confine himself to material accidents. He
could describe thus the backward development of the emotions and the
sensations. Imagine, let us say, a day lived backwards, as the film
would show it you.

You would rise from your bed at midnight, and wearily put on your
evening clothes. You might discover that you were drunk, but though you
would spend the next two hours at a table with walnuts and wine in front
of you, the shells of the walnuts would become whole and the glass that
you raised to your lips would be empty; while the glass that you
replaced before you would be full. You would in fact rise from the table
sober. You would pass through curious states of mind. You would sit down
to read a book knowing the plot, the theme, the treatment; but, as you
read, this knowledge would pass page by page from you. And you would
rise from your armchair saying: “I’ve just got this new book by Michael
Sadleir from the library. I think I shall enjoy it.” It might be the
afternoon of an assignation. Languid and quiescent would you come to the
arms of love; vibrant and eager-eyed would you leap from them. As the
sun moved eastward, carrying you to three o’clock, you would find
yourself sitting warm and comfortable in the Café Royal, the stump of a
cigar between your fingers, an empty liqueur glass on the table. But in
two hours’ time you would be refolding a napkin and telling your guest
that you hoped he was as uncommonly hungry as you were.

And then you would be washing your hands. As you dried them they would
become less dry until they were quite wet, and you would place them,
white and glistening, into a basin of dirty water, and all the dirt from
the water would settle upon your hands, till the water was clean and
your hands were grubby: and when the water was quite clean you would
take your hands from it and they would become instantly dry and dirty
and uncomfortable. You would put on your coat and you would walk
backwards out of the restaurant towards your office.

And so the day would pass. At your office you would forget matters that
an hour earlier you had settled, and you would seek information of them
from your secretary. As the sun sank eastwards you would grow less
hungry. You would indeed feel increasingly comfortable till you found
yourself at the breakfast table and were forced to watch your empty
plate become filled with kidneys and bacon and tomatoes. Finally, after
you had bathed and had shaved, and in the process had restored to your
chin its rough, bristly appearance, you would be lying in bed,
clear-eyed, fresh, ready for the day’s work; you would be watching the
sun sink slowly behind a bank of cloud: “A glorious day,” you would say
to yourself. You would watch the maid move quietly about the room; she
would lower the blinds; the room would become dark. You would feel a
little dazed, a little drowsy. For a moment you would wonder where you
were. There would be a loud knock upon the door; you would find yourself
in the bitter throes of a nightmare; its agony would pass. You would
drift into a deep, untroubled sleep.

But that, you will say, is an ordinary, and on the whole rather
unromantic day. It is the hour of stress, of delirium, of turmoil, that
if the past is to be relived you would ask to see again. Let the
operator have done, you say, with this traffic of routine. Let us be
transported to something of greater matter. We must make a choice? To
the hour, then, of that first dance together, to that hour of which the
memory can never leave us; to that hour than which we have known nothing
fresher, keener, more romantic.

So be it; you are once again in that silk-hung alcove, in your ears the
sound of music and the stir of feet, in your heart a brimming ecstasy.
Let the handle turn. You are sitting there alone. The grey curtain is
drawn back; she steps towards you. You do not notice her partner. He
bows, steps backward, leaving you together. The sound of music ceases.
There is a silence. Your arms are about her neck, your lips are against
hers. You draw back, you look into her eyes, deep wide eyes, hazel,
below the fringe of hair: the dark brown hair that is curled in a
plaited loop about her ears; you think how wonderful it would be to kiss
her. Your hand slips from hers and you are talking, eagerly, happily,
and she is smiling up at you and you are thinking: “If this could last
for ever.” You are in the ballroom. She is in your arms. What are they
playing, she asks you, although you have told her it is “Honolulu Eyes.”
You have never known that a valse could be like this. Life is suddenly
a very marvellous, a very precious thing. The music ceases; you stand
beside her talking. You are thinking, “In a moment I shall be dancing
with her. In a moment she will be in my arms.” Your hostess is beside
you. Your name and hers are murmured in introduction. She is walking
away, backwards, beside your hostess. You are thinking, “I am going to
be introduced to her.” She is standing in the doorway of the ballroom.
You are dazzled by her as she hesitates there for a moment, radiant in
the black, low-waisted dress; then she turns behind the curtain. And all
knowledge, all memory of her is lost. You have never met her. You are
tired and dispirited; life has become a worthless, an empty thing.
Nothing remains of that high ecstasy, except far down a vague resentment
that no such miracle has come to you.

And you have had enough of the film. It is all very amusing, no doubt,
to see one’s life lived backwards, to recover one’s old enthusiasms and
prejudices and loyalties. But it is rather a cruel business, with the
evening coming before dawn; friendships must end at the hour when they
begin; the first kiss must always be the last; and you sit in your chair
and draw uncomfortable parallels and wonder whether old age is not
rather like that: the reversal of the film. Whether there will not come
a time at forty-five, at fifty, or at sixty when you will find yourself
sitting at the banquet, confident and happy, in harmony with yourself
and with your companions, replete with the good things of life. And then
slowly the wheel will turn. The scene of repose will pass. You will
gradually cease to be full of good food and wine. You will grow a little
cold, a little hungry. You will find yourself among strangers; you will
be embarrassed and unhappy, and you will rise from the table with the
_mauvais quart d’heure_ in front of you.

A far-fetched simile, and one that will, doubtless, hardly bear
examination. Morbid, too, perhaps, but then it is the privilege of youth
to make “copy” of its grey hairs. It is only natural that our
imagination should fly like a scout before us into the country where we
must travel. Age is as real to us now as our youth will be to us when we
are old. It is distant, unknown: romantic therefore. How will it come to
us, we wonder, this trial which must make or break us? In what words
will it address us, in what shape present itself? With what armour shall
we be defended? Shall we pass petulantly, resentfully, with struggles,
into middle-age? Shall we cry, as does a child in the nursery impotently
over a broken toy? Shall we beat our hands against the barred gates of
the enchanted garden? It is inconceivable that there should not be one
such moment of rage and bitterness and of frustration. But will it be
slow in passing? That is the question that we ask ourselves. Shall we
find it difficult to shrug our shoulders, to say: “The wine is
different, but it is still good.”

We seek our answer in the companionship of age. Venerable, white-haired
gentlemen who spend their afternoons asleep in the libraries of their
clubs, are messengers to us from that far country. They know the
geography of the road that we must travel. They have left much behind
them on the road. They, too, knew once courage and danger and ambition.
But it is not pity that we bring them for the loss of this rich
merchandise. We do not contrast consciously their weariness with our
vigour, our hope with their resignation, their weakness with our
capacity. We come in a mood of humble curiosity; is there comfort, we
ask them at that last tavern: Life is a bargain; you have lost much;
does the exchange content you?

And they tell us so little. They brag extravagantly of their youth, of
their feats and gallantries and disasters. “We lived, and fought and
suffered, and life was good.” But they overact the part. They are too
hearty about it. We are what they were once, and we know it to be a far
less ecstatic business than they would have us think. When they appeal
in contrast to our sympathies, we feel that they are, on the whole,
really rather enjoying themselves. After a certain age people seem to
lose the power of self-criticism. They will not place their life as they
have made it beside their life as they had hoped to make it. They
pretend to be something they are not. Instead of finding themselves,
they lose themselves.

But occasionally, now and again, one does meet an old man who will tell
you the truth about himself, who will not try and dramatise his life,
who will face the past as once he could face the future, with unbandaged
eyes. Such a man I have the privilege to number among my friends. We
meet casually, once or twice a month, in our club at lunch. And usually
we sit together afterwards over our coffee and liqueurs. And in the
summer we can watch from the terrace the grey water of the river moving
sluggishly below us, bearing pleasure-boats, tramps, and steamers on its
muddied surface, carrying them to sea or harbour. And we find it easy to
talk there of the drift and hurry, the traffic and confusion of human
life, and of that abiding rhythm that makes out of discord, harmony.

He speaks always unassumingly, always confidently, as a man should who
has achieved balance.

“Life is still as entertaining to me,” he will say, “as surprising, as
adventurous as it was thirty years ago. I am the spectator, and that is
the only difference. I sit ‘quiet handed’ in the shadow and find the
answer to much that, when I was young, puzzled me.

“At sixty we cease to make love, if we are wise. _On fait voyeur_ and
women lift their mask. It is our recompense for the loss of youth: this
privilege of confidence.”

He talks to me of his friends whom he has the leisure to observe and
understand, and in particular of a certain lady who has flavoured the
charm of youth with widowhood.

“A man of my age,” he says, “may speak of all things, even of love, with
complete propriety to a young and attractive person. And as I sit beside
her in that softly-lighted drawing-room, in that dusk of lilac and
lavender, with the sound of a woman’s voice about me, and before my eyes
the loveliness of brown hair and hazel eyes and pouted mouth, and in my
heart the knowledge that she could love, I reflect how once I should
have been the prisoner of a single impulse, and I tell myself I am
happier now, sitting there, listening while she lays bare her soul to me
as thirty years ago she might have revealed her body.

“‘It isn’t worth it, my dear Gerald,’ she will say; ‘really it isn’t
worth it. There’s so little harmony, so much friction. We read of love
at first sight, of people rushing into each other’s arms. But how often
does that happen? Half the time we are trying to make a man who is
indifferent fall in love with us, and the other half to get rid of a man
who has begun to weary us. It’s always the same.’

“There is a pause, and she leans back against the high-heaped pile of
cushions with a little sigh that is half-boredom and half-petulance.

“‘There was Roger, now,’ she says. ‘I didn’t care for him a bit at
first. I thought he was uncouth and ill-mannered, and he would so pester
me to go out with him. And when I did go out I used to be oh! so bored.
He never said anything: he just sat opposite, gazing at me with greedy,
adoring eyes, and then one day he kissed me. I shall never forget that
moment. We were standing, after a game of tennis, in the shade of that
big oak tree by the lake at Barolin, leaning against the bridge, and
suddenly I felt his fingers on my arms, hard and compelling. I was swung
round against him. “You little fool,” he said, “I am sick of this. You
have got to love me!” And then he kissed me.’

“Only a week ago she told me that. The wide-set, luminous eyes were
dilated and very tender; the lines of the pouted mouth became softer and
less sensual. Then she shrugged her shoulders and was once again the
petulant, cynical child of pleasure. ‘But afterwards,’ she sighed.

“You had that moment, though,” I said, and I began to quote from
Meredith: “‘Love that had robbed us of immortal things.’ But she
interrupted me. ‘I know, I know, but I had to pay for it, and I am
asking myself whether it was worth the price. Men and women, they are
just paths that intersect and then go their own ways. We had a while of
perfect harmony; then Roger grew tired of me at the very moment when I
had really begun to love him. Although I knew that he didn’t love me, I
tried to keep him; and that’s degrading, it hurts one’s self-respect.
It’s always like that, or else it’s the other way; one wants a man, one
woos him, one makes love to him; and then as soon as one’s got him,
one’s tired of him.’

“‘From which,’ I said, ‘one may gather that you are finding Paul a
little too exacting.’

“The hazel eyes flashed a look of grateful recognition.

“‘There’s nothing about that man, my dear, that doesn’t absolutely
exasperate me, and he won’t let me alone. He rings me up every hour of
the day; he sends me letters by special messenger. I can’t get away from
him. It seems incredible to me that eighteen months ago I couldn’t be
happy away from him; that I could think of nothing but him; that my
heart beat every time I heard the postman’s knock, every time the bell
of the telephone rang. I don’t know how it happened. His wife, I think,
very largely. I hated her, the great fat cow, so domineering and
unwomanly. I hated the proprietary way in which she said, “my husband.”
I wanted to humble her. There was pity in it, too: Paul looked so
forlorn as he sat plucking at his beard while his wife’s voice boomed
across the dinner table. But it’s hard enough to know how one felt a
year and a half ago, let alone the “why” of it. I wanted him; that’s all
that matters. I wanted him. It took a long time: little by little I
broke down his reserve. I felt his sympathy, his interest in me, change
to tenderness. His voice was like a diffident caress. I longed to throw
myself into his arms; to be his utterly; to give him love as no other
woman had ever given it him; and, then, within a couple of months he had
become as every other man. They are all much the same when the glamour
has passed. And, of course, I began to mean more to him every day; an
endless flow of telephone calls and special messengers; desperate,
imploring notes. He must see me. He couldn’t exist away from me. And all
the time I was growing more and more tired of him; he exasperated me
with his quiet voice and woman’s hands. I began to hate all the things
about him that I had loved before: his weakness, his diffidence, his
self-pity, his ceaseless references to his wife: how she bullied him;
how he was dependent on her; how it would break his father’s heart were
he to leave her; how he could not bear to leave his child. I grew as
impatient of those two words “my wife,” as once I had of that
proprietary “my husband.” I wanted to scream at him, “For God’s sake, be
a man!” I tried to make him jealous by talking to him of earlier love
affairs. No one, not even you, Gerald, knows as much about me as he
does. I’ve told him all those little intimate things that would have
made any other man hate me or hate himself for loving me. But nothing
moved him.

“‘I told him once of a quarrel that I had had with Roger. Roger had
threatened to leave me, never to see me again. I said nothing. I stood
straight up in front of him, looking him in the eyes; then, with a
sudden sweep, I tore away from my arms the soft silk of my evening
dress, and stood there, my shoulders bare, the white skin stained with
the bruises of our love-making. We stood there, we said nothing, but we
read in our eyes those things of memory for which there are no words.
Then he took a quick step forward, caught me in his arms and kissed away
our quarrel. I told Paul that. “There was a man,” I said to him. I flung
the words at him as one flings a glove in a challenge. But he didn’t hit
back. He said none of the things he might have said. He just took my
hand. “Margaret,” he said, “I can’t love you in that way; each man has
his own way of loving, and that isn’t mine. But in my own way I love you
more than the others have. Do believe that, my dear, I do--I do!”’

“‘What was I to do, Gerald--what was I to say? I was moved. What woman
wouldn’t be? I felt a pig, and kissed him, and let him make love to me.
That’s the worst of those people--they get under one’s guard; they
disarm one; one can’t hurt them; they are too weak; and, oh! Gerald,
it’s more than I can stand. It’s hateful to have a coward for a lover:
I’d much rather be a strong man’s toy. I keep saying to myself:
“Margaret, my girl, you’ve got to make an end of this.” But I can’t. He
always gets round me in the end. You can only fight what’s stronger than
yourself.’

“She paused, out of breath, flushed, bright-eyed, amazingly attractive.
Then, in a sudden, chastened voice, ‘Oh! Gerald, Gerald, why don’t
people keep pace with one another in love, why don’t they fall in love
at the same time and fall out of love at the same time? Why must it be a
race in which everyone is handicapped, and starts at different times and
different paces, when it is all a chasing and a being chased, and there
is only a few yards of running side by side together?’

“Never before, I think, had she so completely revealed herself to me, or
it would, perhaps, be more true to say never before had she revealed
that particular facet of her personality. She had become suddenly a
woman wistful and self-doubting, frightened of her mortality, saddened
by the contrast between the dream and the actuality, by the passage of
good things.

“I sat watching her, held silent in the spell of her beauty, wondering
what next would come, when, from below, came the faint ring of an
electric bell, the sound of an opening door, the soft stir of feet on
Axminster.

“‘Mr Paul Johnson, madam!’

“There was a pause. I saw a look, half terror, half relief, pass across
Margaret’s face; then she appeared to pull herself together. ‘Very well,
Parker,’ she said, ‘show him up.’

“I rose to go. But she stretched out a hand of admonition.

“‘No, please, Gerald, no,’ she said, in a fluttered, nervous voice. ‘It
may be--I don’t know--I’d rather you stayed.’

“I had known Paul Johnson for a long time. I had seen him change from a
silent youth into a diffident, ineffectual man; I had been present at
his wedding; and I had felt vaguely sorry for him as I shook hands with
his bride and scanned for a hurried moment the hard-set rigor of her
mouth. I had noticed his absence from the club, and learnt later of his
resignation. From time to time I had seen him at dinner parties and
garden parties, always silent, almost shy, his eyes timidly following
his wife. I had not seen him, though, since his romance with Margaret. I
was curious to know if it had altered him, whether he was more of a man,
more confident, or whether he had been overwhelmed, scorched, shrivelled
by the hot flame of her love for him.

“His appearance, as he stood for a moment irresolute in the centre of
the room, shifting from one foot to the other, with one finger plucking
at the bottom button of his waistcoat and his other hand raised to
stroke the curling down of his beard, gave me small guide to whatsoever
change the past eighteen months might have worked in him. He was
obviously the prey of one emotion, an emotion that obliterated the
chance characteristics of environment. He was a man wounded, frightened,
desperate. Without acknowledging my presence, without seeming even to
notice me he began to pour forth an eager stream of words.

“‘Oh, Margaret, my dear! my dear! I don’t know what to do, it’s terrible
after all these months, after all we’ve meant one to another, for this
to happen. Oh! my dear! my dear!’

“He stumbled towards her, sat on the edge of the footstool at her feet,
and leant his face forward in his hands.

“She rested her hand upon his shoulder.

“‘What is it, Paul, darling?’

“Her voice was soft and caressing: the note of anger and impatience had
passed from it utterly. ‘That is how he will always win her back to
him,’ I thought. ‘He is weak and makes her pity him, a sort of maternal
mistress.’

“And again her voice said gently: ‘What is it, my darling, tell me?’

“For an answer he dived his hand into his breast pocket, withdrew a
letter, and handed it to her.

“‘Read that,’ he said. ‘It’ll explain everything. Someone has written to
my wife, has told her all about us. You’ll see, it’s there, read it!’

“She took the letter, a short, five-line thing, unsigned, undated. Her
cheeks flushed, she turned to him and laid her hand on his. ‘Oh, Paul!’
she said, ‘Paul!’

“There was a poignant, dramatic silence. Then he spoke again in the calm
tones of despair.

“‘There’s nothing to be done; you know how things are with me. I am
weak, I daresay, but I’ll have to do what my wife wants. There’s my
father, you see: it would break his heart, and our child, I can’t leave
him with my wife; I can’t, I owe that much to him.’

“‘So it’s over then, Paul?’

“He nodded, and I could see, from the sudden paling of the flesh, how
tightly her fingers were pressing upon his. It seemed to me that at the
moment of separation they had won back to the ecstasy of their first
embraces: that they were nearer now than they had been for many months.

“I rose from my chair.

“‘Good-bye, Margaret, my dear,’ I said. ‘Good-bye!’

“She said nothing, but the eyes that met mine were dim and very tender.

“And as I walked down the street I pondered the contradictions, the
inequalities of life. Only a few minutes ago she was praying to be rid
of him, and now she could ask for nothing better than to be for all time
within his arms.”

       *       *       *       *       *

He paused; for comment; for encouragement.

“And the sequel?” I said.

He smiled.

“Three days later,” he said, “I met her at a friend’s house.

“‘So it’s over?’ I said to her.

“She nodded.

“‘And have you any idea who wrote the letter?’

“She made no answer, but across her lips and in her eyes flickered a
curious smile, a smile that was part cunning, part pride, part triumph.

“‘I wonder,’ I continued, ‘if it was a man or a woman. A woman more
likely. Constance, perhaps, or Mrs. Berridge, or Marjorie
Godwin--Marjorie was once in love with him, so they said, it might have
been she.’

“‘I shouldn’t think so!’ And the curious smile deepened, grew more
baffling, more evocative, more triumphant.

“Suddenly I had a wave of intuition; our eyes met in the glance of two
conspirators who share a secret.

“‘Margaret,’ I said, ‘you wrote that letter.’

“The curious smile became infinitely suggestive. ‘But, my dear,’ she
said, ‘of course.’”



XIV


It must make good drinking, that after-battle wine! We only play
football, I sometimes think, for the sake of that hour of indolence and
exhaustion, when we lie back in comfort after a hot bath, stiff and
tired, to fight the afternoon’s struggle over again. It is good to get
our innings over early and sit in the pavilion with a pint pot at the
elbow while we watch our successors battle in the sunlight, and if we
happen to have made a few, the world is a very companionable spot. It is
worth while taking trouble out there in the open if only for that
after-sense of security and content. There is no temptation then to
grumble and feel jealous of those whose wickets are still intact and
whose innings is in front of them. And it is worth our while for the
sake of those fifteen years or so, when we shall stand above the battle,
to make the most of our youth while it is with us. If we realise
ourselves, if we live fully now, we shall be more sociable, more
generous, more kindhearted when the arteries begin to thicken. We shall
be able to look the younger generation in the face. We shall welcome it
as a host should, courteously. If we are wise now, or rather if we make
a wisdom of our indifference, we will come to find our last ten years
the happiest of all.

There are indeed times when we are inclined to welcome the infirmities
and immunities of age.

During the coal strike of 1921 my platoon was protecting the property of
the Shell Motor Spirit Company in Newcastle. It was a dismal enough
spot, beside the river. There was a long row of miners’ cottages between
my billet and the guard-room, and after tea the women would sit upon
their doorsteps and talk to one another, while the children played on a
strip of grass that ran dingily to the waterside. Beyond a more or less
mechanical supervision I had very little work to do, and in the evenings
I would stand in the roadway and watch the dusk rise slowly from the
river, to soften the harsh outline of chimney stack and factory. I grew
lonely and a little wistful as the twilight settled caressingly on the
poor houses that the sunlight had made so drab. Evening is always
beautiful. And I used to indulge the hour of sentiment with romantic
reveries concerning a young and charming girl who would sit evening
after evening knitting beside her mother.

I can recall now not a single feature of her; whether she was dark or
fair or tall: but I seem to recollect vaguely that she was plump and
that the light in her eyes was roguish. I used to think how pleasantly a
love affair would enliven the tedium of military routine. I had not, let
it be clearly understood, the slightest intention of embarking on such
an enterprise. On the lowest grounds, it would have been unsoldierlike
behaviour. The preliminaries, at any rate, would have been staged in
full view of my platoon. And an officer should not encourage in the
private soldier a suspicion that he is a creature of the same clay and
of the same instincts. There is much to be said for the Ouida convention
of beer in the canteen and champagne in the mess.

But dreams are agreeable things, and my fancy created a number of
romantic situations in which that girl and myself might at some later
day find ourselves. I never came out of my billet without a slight
quickening of the pulses. “Will she be there?” I asked myself. “Will she
be as pretty as she was yesterday?” Once she smiled at me, and my vanity
began to wonder whether she too was not regretting that there lay
between us the barrier of military rank. Perhaps she, too, was musing
wistfully in the twilight on the inequalities of time and place. Perhaps
she, too, was dreaming of some romantic encounter in a lane in
spring-time on the Cornish cliffs.

“You!” I should gasp. And we should stand still, gazing at one another.
And then we should both begin to talk eagerly at once. “I so wanted to
speak to you,” I should say.

“I, too,” she would reply. And we should walk together arm-in-arm along
the lane by the tall cliffs, standing perhaps silent for a while
saddened by the permanence of these high cliffs. So were they yesterday,
so would they be to-morrow; their silence might well seem a criticism of
our enchantment.

But it would pass quickly enough, that fleeting sorrow, in the bright
sunlight of an April day. And she would tell me that she was not really
the daughter of a Tyneside miner, but of an impoverished country
Squire, married to a rich cad, in part settlement of an overdue account.
“I could not stand it,” she would say, “I ran away. But he found me, he
dragged me back. He is with me now in the hotel at Boscastle.”

But she should never go back to him. We should rush to Padstow and catch
the next train to town. I should hurry round to Grant Richards.
“Trouble,” I should say, “I’m going to Austria to-morrow. I must have a
hundred pounds at once. My address to no one.” A terrific story, I felt,
ending perhaps with a duel on the steps of a Viennese hotel. I had
indeed already begun to wonder what editor I should approach with its
scenario when the dream was broken.

I detected her, shortly before lights out, leaning in the dark corner of
a wall against the beating breast of a junior lance-sergeant.

If I had been sixty instead of twenty-two, I should have been doubtless
highly thrilled by the discovery. I should not, indeed, have even
included myself in my romantic reverie. I should have selected an
attractive member of my platoon and ordaining that he should fall in
love with her, I should have watched their love-making with that mixture
of subjective and objective interest with which we watch the love-making
of the cinema and the stage, I should have identified myself, through my
imagination, with their rapture. It would have been a focussing of
myself, like the writing of a love-story is when, for a while, one
ceases to be oneself, or perhaps becomes oneself more truly in the
persons of one’s hero and one’s heroine.

There must be rough sea, though, before the calm waters of harbourage
are reached. Many stories of first love have been written, but I cannot
at the moment remember a single story about last love. I do not mean the
“Père Goriot,” or “Poor Folk”; the “gaga” love affairs. I mean a story
of purposeful, commanding love; a love that is at its dawn fine and
fresh and vigorous; but that comes too late in life, that pilfers the
last years of manhood, that wastes and exhausts itself; but to which its
object clings desperately, knowing it is for the last time, knowing that
he will not have the faith, the strength, the confidence to begin again.
And it must come very often, such a love; must be, as often as not, an
inevitable stage in the natural development of man; must mark the
passage of the borderland between middle-age and age.

Take, as an example, a prosperous man in the middle fifties, a
politician shall we say, grey-haired, grey-bearded, with a strong,
massive, heavily-lined face. His second daughter has been married for
two years. He is emotionally unattached. His wife has been to him for
many years little more than a companion. He can no longer live as he had
lived for the ten or twelve years previously, in his daughters. He has
begun to weary somewhat of the evasion, the deceit, the insincerity of
party politics. He meets at a friend’s house a young girl who has ideas
of going on the stage. It is not difficult to understand their
attraction for one another. She is small, dainty, with light flaxen hair
bobbed low at the neck, and drawn back tightly from her forehead, so
that it may bunch widely like clustering flowers about her ears. Her
eyes are blue, a pale, cornflower blue; she is not pretty, perhaps; she
is the sort of girl who would look very ordinary in a photograph, for
the charm of her features lies in their mobility. She is never still.
She is listening eagerly, or talking eagerly, and her laughs are quick
and short, like commas in her conversation. There is a gulf of over
thirty years between them. But her innocence responds to his experience.
He can teach her so much. And for him the greed of life, the curiosity,
the freshness, the enthusiasm of those dancing eyes and laughing lips
speak of a country in which he will never again travel.

He wins her as she would be won. There is no diffidence, no hesitation
in his wooing. They lunch together; there is no word of love between
them. He talks of himself and not of her; of the men he has known, the
places he has visited, of his early days in politics; his first
campaign, that reversal of a two-thousand vote majority. He mentions
casually as men of his acquaintance the great men of the hour. And, as
he talks, the spell of his domination is falling over her. She does not
analyse the sensation, does not ask herself whether or not she is in
love with him. But she knows that here is a man to whom she could trust
herself, in whose arms she would find surely, and to its full, the
relief of self-surrender.

Two days later they dine together. It is the first time she has ever
been to the Savoy. She is thrilled and frightened by the glare of
lights, and is measurably grateful for the guiding hand at her elbow. In
this new atmosphere of luxury and display she feels more than ever the
need of his experience. She notices with pride and pleasure the
assurance with which he follows the bowing waiter to their table at the
far end of the room, and he does not embarrass her by handing her a menu
and asking her what she will choose. He decides what they shall have. “A
savoury dinner, I think,” he says, “caviare; turtle soup and _truite au
bleu_ and a pheasant, and perhaps--yes, I think we’ll have an anchovy
savoury to finish up with. And a bottle of that 103.” Ninety seconds and
it is over. It is she this time who does the talking. She is happy and
excited, and she tells him of her ambitions, of her hopes to get an
engagement in a touring company. “It won’t be much fun,” she said, “but
I shall get to know people and I shall get experience.” He smiles. “We
must see what we can do for you,” he says.

They dance afterwards, and she finds, as she had expected, that he
dances well, if conventionally, following closely the pattern of the
music. She is lulled by the rhythm of the dance, upheld by the pressure
of his hand upon her shoulder. She misses her step once, and his toe
strikes against her instep. He apologises, but in a tone that reminds
her that the fault is hers, not his. And for the first time in her life
she is content to be corrected. He makes no avowal of love to her as
they drive home in the taxi, but just before the car slows down before
her door his hand closes firmly over hers. “Wednesday, then, at one
o’clock,” he says. She nods her head, weak, happy and submissive.

There is never any talk of marriage. He has his political career. There
are his daughters. For their sake he must keep his name free of scandal.
And even if he were free it is doubtful if she would want to marry him.
Over thirty years between them. She will not want to spend some of the
best years of her life nursing an old man. But she is content that as
long as their love lasts he should give her his protection. For a while
they are wonderfully happy. In his arms and against his lips she comes
into the rich kingdom of her womanhood. Through her he wins back to the
lost countries of his youth.

They are happy days. He takes her to restaurants of which she only knows
the name, places over which her imagination has spread the high colour
of romance. They go to theatres and dances and music-halls, and they
know always there is waiting for them the little flat that he has
furnished for her so prettily, and where their love makes the hours pass
on such swiftly sandalled feet.

She abandons naturally her scheme of joining a touring company. For a
few months, indeed, she forgets her ambition in her happiness, and by
the time she has begun again to feel the lure of grease-paint and the
footlights, the influence and affluence of her protector has found her a
leading part in a forthcoming West-end production. Marvellously grateful
she is, marvellously happy. The days of excitement as the first night
draws near are almost more than she can bear, and it means much to her
to have at such a time a strong arm about her shoulders, and in her ears
the sound of a firm voice.

She need, though, have had no fears of failure. It is a good play, and
she has talent. But it is at the very moment of her triumph that her
lover is, for the first time, frightened. He stands in the shadow of the
box and watches her in the front of the stage bending, over a bank of
bouquets, to an audience hoarse with shouting. He sees suddenly into the
heart of their relationship. He sees her a young woman at the start of
her career--fresh, radiant, intoxicated with the sensation of a first
success. And he is an ageing man, with the best of life behind him. How
can he hope to keep her? She will find herself now the centre of a
circle of brilliant and charming persons. She will be invited to houses
where, for his good name’s sake, he can hardly accompany her. Now that
she is a public figure he must be careful of her reputation and of his.
He will not be able to go about with her so much. She will make her own
friends. She will forget him. He will have been a stepping-stone in her
life; nothing more.

For him there is in their love-making no longer a solid, satisfying
comfort, only an occasional moment in which he may forget. Life catches
her up. She has luncheon engagements and week-end parties. And, as soon
as the curtain falls, she is being rushed away to dances at Murray’s or
at Ciro’s. The names of her new friends, Christian names for the most
part, trip from her tongue at every turn of her conversation. He knows
none of them; they are strangers to him. And he realises that now she
has found her feet in the world he has lost his hold over her. She needs
his help no longer. He cannot exert the dominating influence of
experience and success. Probably she has begun to think of him already
as an old man.

Is she still faithful to him, he wonders. He knows what are the morals
of the green-room--one intrigue after another. “And the people
concerned,” he reminds himself, “are always the very last to hear
anything.” He makes enquiries furtively about her especial friends. He
finds himself listening in his club to the tedious reminiscences of
obsolete tragedians. He asks chance acquaintances in the train whether
they have ever heard of her. “That’s a wonderful discovery,” he says,
“that new star at the Adelphi.” And he waits anxiously, in case the
stranger may have some scandal to tell of her. He sees very little of
her now. “But you cannot think how one thing comes on the top of
another,” she explains. “All these people; its business half of it, and
I am so happy. And you want me to be happy, don’t you, darling?” And
every day he grows more jealous; every day the strain grows greater.
Night after night she is supping and dancing, at other people’s expense;
and in this world people don’t give anything for nothing, especially
that type of person. There are times when he thinks he would give
anything to be certain, to know one way or another. But there are others
when he knows that that knowledge is the one thing which he would avoid.
He is almost certain that there is something between her and that young
barrister he saw her dining with last Sunday at the Berkeley. But he
dare not make sure. He dare not be forced to break with her.

For he knows that if he once broke with her he would have to say
good-bye to love for ever. He knows that he has not the faith, nor the
strength, to begin again. He has lived ten years in the last eighteen
months, and ten years bring him very close to the prescribed limits of a
life’s endurance. He can no longer say, as he could in the early
forties, what is one love affair, is not the world companionably full of
freehearted ladies? This is the last time, the very last. He has not the
courage to say good-bye to pleasure.

And then one evening the crested wave of jealousy is at its height.
There is an all-night sitting at the House, and he is walking from his
club to Westminster. It is just after eleven. The theatres are emptying
into Piccadilly. The pavements are crowded. Along the streets cars and
taxis are hurrying their occupants in search of further entertainment.
He follows enviously the momentary view of bright interiors. He regrets
the long hours that await him, on a hard bench, listening to dull
speeches. He could wish that he were young again, forgetting in the
evening’s intoxication the morning’s bills and overdrafts. And suddenly
he catches in the corner of a taxi, lit suddenly by the glare of a
street lamp, a glimpse of flaxen hair drawn back tight from a forehead,
of hair bunching like clustering flowers about the ears, of pale blue
cornflower eyes, and of lips so close against a man’s that they have
just been kissed, or are about to kiss. A second and the taxi is again
in shadow.

Slowly, an old man, he turns and walks back westward to Piccadilly. He
could not, after such a sight, endure the superficial oratory, the
unreal antagonism of the House. He must be alone on such an evening
with his thoughts. Backwards and forwards he paces up and down his long,
book-lined study. Was it she, he wonders. It was for only the merest
fraction of a second that the glare of the lamp had revealed the dark
interior. And there must be so many girls with flaxen hair and pale
cornflower blue eyes.

Not like hers, though, not quite like hers: never anywhere had he seen
such eyes, such hair. And he had learnt during the last year to know by
heart every changing light and shadow of those loved features. Surely he
could not make a mistake about her now. But even if it were she, what
then? What was a kiss after all? To some girls it meant everything.
There were some girls whose lips once yielded would be ready to
surrender all. There were others to whom a kiss was no more than the
casual brushing of a hand; who kissed out of kindliness, out of
affection. And surely she would be one of them, she who was kissed every
night before a thousand people, with the limelight on her upturned face,
by a man for whom she had on the whole almost a physical dislike. What
could kisses mean to her?

And yet how shy she had been when he had first kissed her, nearly two
years ago. She had trembled and had sat on the edge of the sofa in that
private room, her fingers plucking at her skirt, afraid to look at him.
It had passed swiftly enough, that nervousness. But she had not been
then the girl to exchange kisses lightly with any man. And if she had
become so since, the change had not been of his making.

The heavy alabaster clock on the mantelpiece strikes one. She should be
back by now. They have agreed so often that if an actress is to be fresh
for her work next day, she cannot dance away her energy, night after
night, till morning. They have talked so often of the wisdom of cutting
one’s supper parties short. “A couple of hours, darling, that’s all one
needs.” And there is a matinée next day. Surely she will be home by now.
He walks across to his desk and lifts the receiver of the telephone.
“Hammerton 5769,” he calls. The operator repeats the number. He sits
there, the receiver against his ear, waiting, waiting for the sound of
the quick, breathless voice that will put all his anxieties to sleep.
But it does not come. Perhaps she is asleep. It was selfish of him to
ring her up. She was tired and has returned straight to the flat after
the theatre. The vision in the taxi was the trick of a disordered fancy.
He will have woken her up. She will be angry with him. He will send her
some flowers in the morning and she will forgive him. But no answer
comes. And after a long delay a sleepy, masculine voice informs him that
he can “get no answer, sir.” But he is sure he has the right number?
“Yes, sir, Hammerton 5769.”

He restores the receiver to its place. She is not there. She is a light
sleeper; she would have been sure to wake. Comes to him the memory of an
evening fourteen months ago, the evening of his big speech in the House
on Ireland. He had returned, eager and elated, and he had felt that he
must tell her of his triumph. A sleepy voice had answered him, a voice
that had instantly lost its sleepiness when it had realised who was
speaking. “Oh, you, darling,” she had said. “Yes, what is it?”

And she had listened intently to his account of the night’s debate.

“But I’m a selfish pig,” he had said, “waking you up like this.”

And in his whole life he had never known anything more intense than the
thrill with which he had heard her quick, breathless answer.

“But, my darling, you know, surely, I want you to, always, always. It’s
the next best thing to seeing you.”

Those were the days when she had been never too busy, too late, too
pre-occupied to talk to him, or see him. He had often come to the flat
after a long, night’s sitting, and she had rekindled the fire for him,
and had sat before it leaning back against his knees. That had passed,
of course, inevitably, in the nature of things. But something surely
should have come to take its place. Surely they should have built for
themselves some abiding mansion. Had they squandered their capital? Was
there nothing left for them?

Backwards and forwards he paces up and down his study. She is not home
yet, and he knows that till she is home, sleep is impossible for him. He
would lie tossing in bed at the mercy of his fevered fancy. He must know
one way or another. It is a quarter of an hour since he rang up. She is
back by now perhaps. Again he raises the receiver. Again he calls her
number. Again there is the long delay. Again the sleepy, “Sorry, I can
get no answer, sir.”

This time he does not rise from the chair. He takes the watch from his
pocket and leans it in front of him against the pedestal of the
telephone. “Every ten minutes,” he says, “I will ring her up. I will
know the exact minute at which she returns. I will see that she does not
lie to me. I shall know whether she is telling me the truth or not.”

And every ten minutes from half past one to two, and from two to three,
he raises the receiver and calls in the same steady voice, “Hammerton
5769.” And every time there is the same delay and then the same answer.
He does not move from the chair. The fire has become a dull glow among
charred ashes; the room is cold. But he sits there, his eyes fixed on
the second hand of his watch as it eats into the minutes.

Then suddenly a new fear comes to him. She has been home all the time.
She has brought her lover with her and refuses to be disturbed. He can
see them in the warm dusk of her room, the small table lamp casting
through its silk covering a pale rose radiance upon the white linen of
the lace-fringed pillows, heightening the beauty of her face, as she
turns it to meet his kisses. There is the ring of the telephone in the
other room.

“Your silly old man,” he says, and they laugh together. And he places
his hands over her ears that she shall not hear it, and his lips wander
over her face and neck. The bell stops ringing, and once more his hands
are about her and his mouth is against her ear whispering: “Now I can
tell you again how much I love you.”

He sees it with the hard clarity of jealousy and foiled desire. He rises
quickly, pushing his chair sideways as he does so, and strides backwards
and forwards across the room. There is the sound of an opening door upon
the landing, the patter of slippered feet upon the staircase, the rap of
a knuckle in the passage. “Come in,” he says. And his wife is standing
in the doorway.

Old and shrivelled and pathetic she looks, with her sparse hair falling
over the black and gold of her long silk dressing-gown. And yet she is
younger than he is; he remembers they are both old stuff, and there
rises in him the suffocating need for sympathy, for maternal kindliness,
for someone to whom he can say in his loneliness: “I’m tired; I’m an old
man: be good to me.”

“But, my dear,” she says, “I thought you would be at the House all
night.”

“I know, I know,” he says, on his guard instantly against surrender. “It
wasn’t very interesting, and I thought--well, I just came back and I’ve
been reading for a few minutes before going up.”

But the moment he has said it he realises that she does not believe him.
She has heard the crash of his chair beside the telephone: that is what
has awakened her; and she has heard him striding up and down the room,
and there is no book lying open on the table; there is no chair drawn
before the fire, and in the grate only a few dull coals; no whisky on
the small table; no cigar smoke; no feature of the usual setting for an
evening’s reading, and, after thirty years of marriage, a wife knows her
husband’s habits.

“My dear,” she begins. But he will not let her finish. At all events he
must protect himself against discovery and against this fatal weakness
in himself that would fling him before her on his knees and on her pity.
“It’s quite all right,” he says; “I shall be going up in a minute. I
just want to settle my mind a bit first. I can’t sleep if I’m at all
excited. And you’ll be catching cold, dear, here. You mustn’t stay,
really, in that dressing-gown.”

They look each other in the face. She knows that he is lying, and he
knows she knows. But she has a dignity that will not descend to the
vulgarity of cross-examination. “Very well,” she says, and again turns,
leaving him to the sting of his jealousy.

And it is not till nearly four that he hears, at last, the quick,
breathless voice; hears its answering “Hullo!” in the casual tone of one
who is happy and tired, and cannot be bothered at this late hour.

“What, you!” it says, “at this time. Where have you been gadding round?”

He keeps his dignity; he would not betray to her the secret of his long
night’s vigil. The tone of his voice as he replies to her is equally
casual, equally pre-occupied. “A long sitting at the House,” he says.
“I’ve only just got back. I thought I’d ring up and say good-night.”

“And I’ve only just got in, too.”

“Really!”

“Yes; dancing at Jack’s, a studio affair, a jolly party. Everyone there,
Sybil and Ernest, and Marjorie Cooper and Arthur Winston. Oh, and do you
know I believe that Forster ménage is coming to an end. She was dancing
with another man the whole evening; rather funny, isn’t it, after all
we’ve said?”

He agrees that it is funny, and listens for a few moments to the eager
flow of talk. “Well, I expect you’re tired,” he says at last. “You’ve
got a matinée to-morrow. I mustn’t keep you up. _A bientot._” And he
hears the click of the receiver at the other end.

And next day they lunch together, and the wretched business begins again
at the beginning. He daren’t bring things to a head; he daren’t part
with her. He daren’t make sure, and it was with a strong man’s love he
won her.

How does it end? If I were to attempt the conventional magazine short
story I should have to contrive, I suppose, a dramatic climax. But
things rarely happen like that, really. There is a working up to a point
and a falling away from it. As spring passes into summer, so as one
enthusiasm wanes another comes to take its place. We are never rid of
our desires; we change them, that is all.

    The life of all mortals in kissing should pass,
    Lip to lip while we’re young, then the lip to the glass.

And of last love, as of second love and first love; it passes calmly
enough probably in the end. There will be an American tour, perhaps. And
when she returns they will meet as friends. There will be no abrupt
severing, “_coupé net en plein ardeur_.” There will be a pause, and
during it he will decide that the time has come for him to grow old
decently. But anyway the end is unimportant. The emotional climax is
reached on that night of jealousy, in the weakness of a strong man, in
his desperate clinging to a waning ecstasy, his cowardice, his
determination to know the truth, his pitiful desire to be deceived; and
in the rallying of his dignity at the last moment, his refusal to be
“gaga,” to play “Père Goriot.”

And it is because the climax of such a relationship comes then, that I
have preferred to write of it in the form of an essay, rather than of a
story; a short story must close on a dramatic curtain. And if a
situation does not offer a dramatic curtain, it is wrong to make a story
of it: it would be either a bad story because it would have no climax,
or it would be an untrue story with the high light flung on a climax
that was manufactured and incidental, instead of the significant, the
universal moment, the hour of jealousy and self-contempt, the hour when
a strong man sits before a telephone watching the second hand eat away
the minutes.

It could be done, though, in a novel; it would make an admirable opening
chapter to the story of a woman’s life: it would have to be told
probably through the woman’s eyes; its early _motif_ would be the
arrogance of youth as it strides contemptuously over age. There would be
the middle years of turmoil and success, and then the story would turn
back upon itself. The woman would fall in love with a younger man and
would find herself, in her turn, being used as a stepping-stone for
youth. And as she stands watching youth ride past her, she would know
all that her early lover had known and suffered.

The love of a mature woman for a boy is a theme that has been used often
enough, especially in French fiction, but never quite in this way,
perhaps, never as a key to unlock the heart of a man’s last love. But
then it is a woman’s theme perhaps rather than a man’s; and we must
remember always that, with the exception of some dozen books, the
masterpieces of prose literature, and indeed of all literature and all
art, are the work of a masculine intelligence. It may be that the
contemporary women novelists are better than the contemporary men
novelists. It may be that to the nineteen-eighties the great writers of
the post-war period will be May Sinclair and Clemence Dane, and Rebecca
West and Sheila Kaye-Smith. It may be, I do not know. I should myself
doubt whether there is to-day a single woman writer, with the possible
exception of Edith Wharton, who can begin to stand comparison with
Thomas Hardy and George Moore, with Cavell, with Conrad, with Max
Beerbohm, with Galsworthy, and with de la Mare. But one hesitates to
dogmatise on living writers. This, at least, is sure. For many hundreds
of years there have been pictures painted, and poetry written, and
stories told. There have been a few writers of genius, and many
painters, and poets, and musicians of great talent. There have been one
or two minor poetesses, and there have been Jane Austen, and George
Eliot, and George Sand. Women have inspired books, but men have written
them, written them, perhaps, I sometimes think, chiefly with the object
of giving pleasure to woman, of making themselves attractive to her. The
monkey and the West Indian savage woes its mate with dancing, and
ornament, and display. The mediæval baron instituted tournaments and
exhibitions of strength and courage. Art is the fine raiment in which
the civilised man arrays himself before a woman. And it is, perhaps,
because women have need of no such artifice that their contributions to
the museum of the world’s art have been so casual and so imponderable.

I believe that some such apologia has been made before, and I am
half-inclined to feel that it was George Moore who made it. Certainly he
has said somewhere that the most precious service that art has done to
life is its exalting of an instinct into a revelation, its gorgeous
apparelling of love. And whether or no he stressed the fact that it was
a masculine achievement, it is a point certainly not to be disregarded
by the critic of prose literature. For this is what it comes to, that
the themes of the world’s great stories are masculine. And it is only
youth that can write honestly and convincingly of age.

We are under the spell always of what is distant from us. From the
bondage of marriage we survey the raptures of free love. And from the
deceit, the evasions, the premeditation of an intrigue we turn our eyes
towards the decent pasturage of matrimony. Riot is as real to the
virtuous, as virtue to the riotous. It is experience that attracts
innocence. And if a young man would write of last love, he has, in the
love for him of a mature woman, the situation ready to his hand. There
is no need for him to search further; it is thus that the story of youth
and middle age is told to him. If he would write of a man’s old age,
would go beyond maturity, he would select some Père Goriot, some aspect
of wronged senility, some Fouan or King Lear. And by the time that he
has come himself to middle age, by the time that he has reached that
borderland, the theme of age is, because he is no longer remote from it,
unattractive. The ageing novelist returns to youth, and first love, and
the raptures of spring. In “The Man of Property” Galsworthy told the
story of mature, devastating passion; he was then at that point of
balance of which Shakespeare wrote. But mature love, and the love of
middle age for youth had, when he came to complete the Saga, ceased to
appeal to him. The love of Jolyon for Irene is never actual to us; but
of first love, of Val and Holly, of Jon and Fleur; of the hesitations,
the blindness, the enrapturement of dawning love, he writes as few save
Turgenev have ever written.

Youth means nothing to us when we are young. It is gold that we spend
freely. We push past it towards the future. To-day is as indifferent to
us as yesterday. We set out to write a book and we do not find out till
we have finished it what we meant to say. We have lost interest in our
book long before we have corrected the final proof. We are at work
already on some new thing. We hardly pause to read the reviews of the
book that we handed to our publisher with such excitement six months
earlier. What does it matter what they say about that book. We have got
beyond it. It is a part of our dead self. We are living in to-morrow.
People come up and say: “We like your last book,” or “We don’t think
that your heroine would have fallen in love with that sort of man,” or,
“Do you think that he would really have behaved quite like that?” And we
smile and we say, “Perhaps.” But we are thinking of the new story that
is shaping itself in our brain, the new story for which we have already
prepared a series of brand-new note-books. I am always surprised when I
find a writer of under forty genuinely depressed by his reviews. Surely
he must know, I think, that all this is only his apprenticeship, that he
is learning how to write, and that a generous public is financing his
education. He has not begun yet.

And this book of which I am now writing the last pages: I have come down
to the Albany, at Hastings, for a week to finish it. For five days I
have scarcely spoken to a soul except to the waiter and the girl who
brings me my shaving water and prepares my bath for me in the morning. I
have shut myself up in my room all day, writing. I have enjoyed the
writing of it more, I think, than that of any of my other books. But
already, even before it is finished, it has begun to become a parcel of
the past. Already I am living in to-morrow. I am thinking of the relief
I shall feel on Saturday as I catch the 8.30 for Charing Cross: I am
playing football against the Exiles. There will be nothing on my mind
as there was last week to mar the enjoyment of the match. I shall not
afterwards have to rush away to catch an early train. I shall go with
the rest of the team to de Hem’s, and we shall dance our dance in Dansey
Yard, and we shall toast our victory in pints of lukewarm ale, and by
eleven o’clock we shall feel the world to be a very companionable spot.
And on Monday morning I shall go back to the office, and at about eleven
Douglas Goldring will drop in with the latest 1917 club scandal, and an
enquiry about the sales of his new novel; but I shall be for once
indifferent to 1917 club scandal. I shall tell him that since he saw me
last I have written 20,000 words, and that for another month I do not
propose to put pen to paper, and we shall discuss with what wines we are
to heighten our enjoyment on Friday of _Polly_ at the Kingsway. And in
the evening, as I walk homewards up the North End Road, I shall notice
the first signs of budding leaves, heralds of spring and sunshine, and
the long June days. “Cricket is coming,” I shall tell myself. The last
Test Match in South Africa is over; only another month of football. It
is high time that I was thinking of putting some oil on those old bats
of mine. And now that my book is finished, my season’s cricket, I shall
remind myself, will be unharassed by financial worries. I shall play
three times a week, and on the fourth sit at Lord’s in the top gallery
of the pavilion and watch Hearne and Hendren pile another double century
on to their list of third-wicket partnerships.

And when summer is over and once again in mid-September I take down
from its shelf my red-and-white jersey and my studded boots; when these
pages are with the booksellers and the critics, I shall be hard at work
on another and, it is to be hoped, less unworthy book. To-day will be as
dead then as yesterday is now. I shall be disappointed, naturally, if
people do not like my book; but I shall not be broken-hearted. There is
time in plenty.

But I also know that forty years from now, when the corner has been
reached, when I have definitely turned my back upon the future,--the
dull, uninteresting, unromantic future; the future that can bring me no
new thing--when I have set out upon my second journey into the unknown,
my journey “_à la recherche du temps perdu_”; when I shall try to
recreate the past through an endless series of associations; the smell
of wet stone that will recall to me the cloisters and high garden walls
of Sherborne; the taste of cocoa that will recapture for me the
depression of Sunday nights in the autumn of 1915 and the spring of
1916, when after an early dinner and a cup of cocoa I set out with my
father to catch the last train from Euston back to camp; the sound of
dance music, of “The Sheik” and “Honolulu Eyes”; the chance glimpses
through a carriage window of a square-towered church, of the sudden
aspect of sunlight on old stone; when, through the associated memory of
taste and sight and smell and sense, I shall recompose that picture of
all that my life has been and is not; then I know that I shall take down
again from the shelf the books that I have written in the early
twenties, and that they will possess for me a significance that they
have never had for me before, and they can have for no one else. They
will be the spade with which I shall unearth the past.

I do not know what he will be like, the old man who, forty years from
now, will read them; what will be left to him of the thing that I now
imagine to be myself. I do not know whether he will be sad or happy,
married or single, rich or poor, lonely or befriended. I do not know
what injuries the years may do to him, or what recompenses bring him.
This only I know: with whatever else he parts he will never part with
the books that he has written. And as he sits turning these pages at
nightfall before his fire, he will find here once again the vigour, the
turmoil, and the confidence of twenty-five.


PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY NEILL AND CO., LTD., EDINBURGH.





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