How can I turn from any fire
On any man’s hearth-stone?
I know the wonder and desire
That went to build my own.
— The Fires.
All this busy while the Committee of Ways and Means kept before them the hope of a house of their very own — a real House in which to settle down for keeps — and took trains on rails and horsed carriages of the age to seek it. Our adventures were many and sometimes grim — as when a ‘comfortable nursery’ proved to be a dark padded cell at the end of a discreet passage! Thus we quested for two or three years, till one summer day a friend cried at our door; ‘Mr. Harmsworth has just brought round one of those motor-car things. Come and try it!’
It was a twenty-minute trip. We returned white with dust and dizzy with noise. But the poison worked from that hour. Somehow, an enterprising Brighton agency hired us a victoria-hooded, carriage-sprung, carriage-braked, single-cylinder, belt-driven, fixed-ignition Embryo which, at times, could cover eight miles an hour. Its hire, including ‘driver,’ was three and a half guineas a week. The beloved Aunt, who feared nothing created, said ‘Me too!’ So we three house-hunted together taking risks of ignorance that made me shudder through after-years. But we went to Arundel and back, which was sixty miles, and returned in the same ten-hour day! We, and a few other desperate pioneers, took the first shock of outraged public opinion. Earls stood up in their belted barouches and cursed us. Gipsies, governess-carts, brewery waggons — all the world except the poor patient horses who would have been quite quiet if left alone joined in the commination service, and the Times leaders on ‘motor-cars’ were eolithic in outlook.
Then I bought me a steam-car called a ‘Locomobile,’ whose nature and attributes I faithfully drew in a tale called ‘Steam Tactics.’ She reduced us to the limits of fatigue and hysteria, all up and down Sussex. Next came the earliest Lanchester, whose springing, even at that time, was perfect. But no designer, manufacturer, owner, nor chauffeur knew anything about anything. The heads of the Lanchester firm would, after furious telegrams, visit us as friends (we were all friends in those days) and sit round our hearth speculating Why What did That. Once, the proud designer — she was his newest baby — took me as far as Worthing, where she fainted opposite a vacant building-lot. This we paved completely with every other fitting that she possessed ere we got at her trouble. We then re-assembled her, a two hours’ job. After which, she spat boiling water over our laps, but we stuffed a rug into the geyser and so spouted home.
But it was the heart-breaking Locomobile that brought us to the house called ‘Bateman’s.’ We had seen an advertisement of her, and we reached her down an enlarged rabbit-hole of a lane. At very first sight the Committee of Ways and Means said; ‘That’s her! The Only She! Make an honest woman of her — quick!’ We entered and felt her Spirit — her Feng Shui — to be good. We went through every room and found no shadow of ancient regrets, stifled miseries, nor any menace, though the ‘new’ end of her was three hundred years old. To our woe the Owner said; ‘I’ve just let it for twelve months.’ We withdrew, each repeatedly telling the other that no sensible person would be found dead in the stuffy little valley where she stood. We lied thus while we pretended to look at other houses till, a year later, we saw her advertised again, and got her.
When all was signed and sealed, the seller said; ‘Now I can ask you something. How are you going to manage about getting to and from the station? It’s nearly four miles, and I’ve used up two pair of horses on the hill here.’ ‘I’m thinking of using this sort of contraption,’ I replied from my seat in-Jane Cakebread Lanchester, I think, was her dishonourable name. ‘Oh! Those things haven’t come to stay!’ he returned. Years afterwards I met him, and he confided that had he known what I had guessed, he would have asked twice the money. In three years from our purchase the railway station had passed out of our lives. In seven, I heard my chauffeur say to an under-powered visiting sardine-tin; ‘Hills? There ain’t any hills on the London road.’
The House was not of a type to present to servants by lamp or candle-light. Hence electricity, which in 1902 was a serious affair. We chanced, at a week-end visit, to meet Sir William Willcocks, who had designed the Assouan Dam — a trifling affair on the Nile. Not to be over-crowed, we told him of our project for declutching the water-wheel from an ancient mill at the end of our garden, and using its microscopical mill-pond to run a turbine. That was enough! ‘Dam?’ said he. ‘You don’t know anything about dams or turbines. I’ll come and look.’ That Monday morn he came with us, explored the brook and the mill-sluit, and foretold truly the exact amount of horse-power that we should get out of our turbine —‘Four and a half and no more.’ But he called me Egyptian names for the state of my brook, which, till then, I had deemed picturesque. ‘It’s all messed up with trees and bushes. Cut ’em down and slope the banks to one in three.’ ‘Lend me a couple of Fellahîn Battalions and I’ll begin,’ I said.
He said also; ‘Don’t run your light cable on poles. Bury it.’ So we got a deep-sea cable which had failed under test at twelve hundred volts — our voltage being one hundred and ten — and laid him in a trench from the Mill to the house, a full furlong, where he worked for a quarter of a century. At the end of that time he was a little fatigued, and the turbine had worn as much as one-sixteenth of an inch on her bearings. So we gave them both honourable demission — and never again got anything so faithful.
Of the little one-street village up the hill we only knew that, according to the guide-books, they came of a smuggling, sheep-stealing stock, brought more or less into civilisation within the past three generations. Those of them who worked for us, and who I presume would today be called ‘Labour,’ struck for higher pay than they had agreed on as soon as we were committed to our first serious works. My foreman and general contractor, himself of their race, and soon to become our good friend, said; ‘They think they’ve got ye. They think there’s no harm in tryin’ it.’ There was not. I had sense enough to feel that most of them were artists and craftsmen, either in stone or timber, or wood-cutting, or drain-laying or — which is a gift — the aesthetic disposition of dirt; persons of contrivance who could conjure with any sort of material. As our electric-light campaign developed, a London contractor came down to put a fifteen-inch eductionpipe through the innocent-seeming mill-dam. His imported gang came across a solid core of ancient brickwork about as workable as obsidian. They left, after using very strong words. But every other man of ‘our folk’ had known exactly where and what that core was, and when ‘Lunnon’ had sufficiently weakened it, they ‘conjured’ the pipe quietly through what remained.
The only thing that ever shook them was when we cut a little under the Mill foundations to fix the turbine; and found that she sat on a crib or raft of two-foot-square elm logs. What we took came out, to all appearance, as untouched as when it had been put under water. Yet, in an hour, the great baulk, exposed to air, became silver dust, and the men stood round marvelling. There was one among them, close upon seventy when we first met, a poacher by heredity and instinct, a gentleman who, when his need to drink was on him, which was not too often, absented himself and had it out alone; and he was more ‘one with Nature’ than whole parlours full of poets. He became our special stay and counsellor. Once we wanted to shift a lime and a witch-elm into the garden proper. He said not a word till we talked of getting a tree-specialist from London. ‘Have it as you’re minded. I dunno as I should if I was you,’ was his comment. By this we understood that he would take charge when the planets were favourable. Presently, he called up four of his own kin (also artists) and brushed us aside. The trees came away kindly. He placed them, with due regard for their growth for the next two or three generations; supported them, throat and bole, with stays and stiffenings, and bade us hold them thus for four years. All fell out as he had foretold. The trees are now close on forty foot high and have never flinched. Equally, a well grown witch-elm that needed discipline, he climbed into and topped, and she carries to this day the graceful dome he gave her. In his later years — he lived to be close on eighty-five — he would, as I am doing now, review his past, which held incident enough for many unpublishable volumes. He spoke of old loves, fights, intrigues, anonymous denunciations ‘by such folk as knew writing,’ and vindictive conspiracies carried out with oriental thoroughness. Of poaching he talked in all its branches, from buying Cocculus Indicus for poisoning fish in ponds, to the art of making silk-nets for trout-brooks — mine among them, and he left a specimen to me; and of pitched battles (guns barred) with heavy-handed keepers in the old days in Lord Ashburnham’s woods where a man might pick up a fallow deer. His sagas were lighted with pictures of Nature as he, indeed, knew her; night-pieces and dawn-breakings; stealthy returns and the thinking out of alibis, all naked by the fire, while his clothes dried; and of the face and temper of the next twilight under which he stole forth to follow his passion. His wife, after she had known us for ten years, would range through a past that accepted magic, witchcraft and love-philtres, for which last there was a demand as late as the middle ‘sixties.
She described one midnight ritual at the local ‘wise woman’s’ cottage, when a black cock was killed with curious rites and words, and ‘all de time dere was, like, someone trying to come through at ye from outside in de dark. Dunno as I believe so much in such things now, but when I was a maid I— I justabout did!’ She died well over ninety, and to the last carried the tact, manner and presence, for all she was so small, of an old-world Duchess.
There were interesting and helpful outsiders, too. One was a journeyman bricklayer who, I remember, kept a store of gold sovereigns loose in his pocket, and kindly built us a wall; but so leisurely that he came to be almost part of the establishment. When we wished to sink a well opposite some cottages, he said he had the gift of water-finding, and I testify that, when he held one fork of the hazel Y and I the other, the thing bowed itself against all the grip of my hand over an unfailing supply.
Then, out of the woods that know everything and tell nothing, came two dark and mysterious Primitives. They had heard. They would sink that well, for they had the ‘gift.’ Their tools were an enormous wooden trug, a portable windlass whose handles were curved, and smooth as ox-horns, and a short-handled hoe. They made a ring of brickwork on the bare ground and, with their hands at first, grubbed out the dirt beneath it. As the ring sank they heightened it, course by course, grubbing out with the hoe, till the shaft, true as a rifle-barrel, was deep enough to call for their Father of Trugs, which one brother down below would fill, and the other haul up on the magic windlass. When we stopped, at twenty-five feet, we had found a Jacobean tobacco-pipe, a worn Cromwellian latten spoon and, at the bottom of all, the bronze cheek of a Roman horse-bit.
In cleaning out an old pond which might have been an ancient marl-pit or mine-head, we dredged two intact Elizabethan ‘sealed quarts’ that Christopher Sly affected, all pearly with the patina of centuries. Its deepest mud yielded us a perfectly polished Neolithic axe-head with but one chip on its still venomous edge.
These things are detailed that you may understand how, when my cousin, Ambrose Poynter, said to me; ‘Write a yarn about Roman times here,’ I was interested. ‘Write,’ said he, ‘about an old Centurion of the Occupation telling his experiences to his children.’ ‘What is his name?’ I demanded, for I move easiest from a given point. ‘Parnesius,’ said my cousin; and the name stuck in my head. I was then on Committee of Ways and Means (which had grown to include Public Works and Communications) but, in due season, the name came back — with seven other inchoate devils. I went off Committee, and began to ‘hatch,’ in which state I was ‘a brother to dragons and a companion to owls.’ Just beyond the west fringe of our land, in a little valley running from Nowhere to Nothing-at-all, stood the long, overgrown slag-heap of a most ancient forge, supposed to have been worked by the Phoenicians and Romans and, since then, uninterruptedly till the middle of the eighteenth century. The bracken and rush-patches still hid stray pigs of iron, and if one scratched a few inches through the rabbit-shaven turf, one came on the narrow mule-tracks of peacock-hued furnace-slag laid down in Elizabeth’s day. The ghost of a road climbed up out of this dead arena, and crossed our fields, where it was known as ‘The Gunway,’ and popularly connected with Armada times. Every foot of that little corner was alive with ghosts and shadows. Then, it pleased our children to act for us, in the open, what they remembered of A Midsummer–Night’s Dream. Then a friend gave them a real birchbark canoe, drawing at least three inches, in which they went adventuring on the brook. And in a near pasture of the water-meadows lay out an old and unshifting Fairy Ring.
You see how patiently the cards were stacked and dealt into my hands? The Old Things of our Valley glided into every aspect of our outdoor works. Earth, Air, Water and People had been — I saw it at last — in full conspiracy to give me ten times as much as I could compass, even if I wrote a complete history of England, as that might have touched or reached our Valley.
I went off at score — not on Parnesius, but a story told in a fog by a petty Baltic pirate, who had brought his galley to Pevensey and, off Beachy Head — where in the War we heard merchant ships being torpedoed — had passed the Roman fleet abandoning Britain to her doom. That tale may have served as a pipe-opener, but one could not see its wood for its trees, so I threw it away.
I carried the situation to the little house in Wiltshire, where my Father and Mother were installed; and smoked it over with the Father, who said — not for the first time; ‘Most things in this world are accomplished by judicious leaving alone.’ So we played cribbage (he had carved a perfect Lama and a little Kim for my two pegs), while the Mother worked beside us, or, each taking a book, lapsed into the silence of entire mutual comprehension. One night, apropos of nothing at all, the Father said; ‘And you’ll have to look up your references rather more carefully, won’t you?’ That had not been my distinction on the little Civil and Military.
This led me on another false scent. I wrote a tale told by Daniel Defoe in a brickyard (we had a real one of our own at that time where we burned bricks for barns and cottages to the exact tints we desired) of how he had been sent to stampede King James II, then havering about Thames mouth, out of an England where no party had any use for him. It turned out a painstaken and meritorious piece of work, overloaded with verified references, with about as much feeling to it as a walking-stick. So it also was discarded, with a tale of Doctor Johnson telling the children how he had once thrown his spurs out of a boat in Scotland, to the amazement of one Boswell. Evidently my Daemon would not function in brickyards or schoolrooms. Therefore, like Alice in Wonderland, I turned my back on the whole thing and walked the other way. Therefore, the whole thing set and linked itself. I fell first upon Normans and Saxons. Parnesius came later, directly out of a little wood above the Phoenician forge; and the rest of the tales in Puck of Pook’s Hill followed in order. The Father came over to see us and, hearing ‘Hal o’ the Draft,’ closed in with fore-reaching pen, presently ousted me from my table, and inlaid the description of Hal’s own drawing-knife. He liked that tale, and its companion piece ‘The Wrong Thing’ (Rewards and Fairies), which latter he embellished, notably in respect to an Italian fresco-worker, whose work never went ‘deeper than the plaster.’ He said that ‘judicious leaving alone’ did not apply between artists.
Of ‘Dymchurch Flit,’ with which I was always unashamedly content, he asked; ‘Where did you get that lighting from? It had come of itself. Qua workmanship, that tale and two night-pieces in ‘Cold Iron’ (Rewards and Fairies) are the best in that kind I have ever made, but somehow ‘The Treasure and the Law’ (Puck of Pook’s Hill) always struck me as too heavy for its frame.
Yet that tale brought me a prized petty triumph. I had put a well into the wall of Pevensey Castle circa A.D. 1100, because I needed it there. Archaeologically, it did not exist till this year (1935) when excavators brought such a well to light. But that I maintain was a reasonable gamble. Self-contained castles must have self-contained water supplies. A longer chance that I took in my Roman tales was when I quartered the Seventh Cohort of the Thirtieth (Ulpia Victrix) Legion on the Wall, and asserted that there Roman troops used arrows against the Picts. The first shot was based on honest ‘research’; the second was legitimate inference. Years after the tale was told, a digging-party on the Wall sent me some heavy four-sided, Roman-made, ‘killing’ arrows found in situ and — most marvellously — a rubbing of a memorial-tablet to the Seventh Cohort of the Thirtieth Legion! Having been brought up in a suspicious school, I suspected a ‘leg-pull’ here, but was assured that the rubbing was perfectly genuine.
I embarked on Rewards and Fairies — the second book — in two minds. Stories a plenty I had to tell, but how many would be authentic and how many due to ‘induction’? There was moreover the old Law; ‘As soon as you find you can do anything, do something you can’t.’
My doubt cleared itself with the first tale, ‘Cold Iron,’ which gave me my underwood; ‘What else could I have done?’— the plinth of all structures. Yet, since the tales had to be read by children, before people realised that they were ‘meant for grown-ups; and since they had to be a sort of balance to, as well as a seal upon, some aspects of my ‘Imperialistic’ output in the past, I worked the material in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might or might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth, and experience. It was like working lacquer and mother-o’-pearl, a natural combination, into the same scheme as niello and grisaille, and trying not to let the joins show.
So I loaded the book up with allegories and allusions, and verified references until my old Chief would have been almost pleased with me; put in three or four really good sets of verses; the bones of one entire historical novel for any to clothe who cared; and even slipped in a cryptogram, whose key I regret I must have utterly forgotten. It was glorious fun; and I knew it must be very good or very bad because the series turned itself off just as Kim had done.
Among the verses in Rewards was one set called ‘If ——’, which escaped from the book, and for a while ran about the world. They were drawn from Jameson’s character, and contained counsels of perfection most easy to give. Once started, the mechanisation of the age made them snowball themselves in a way that startled me. Schools, and places where they teach, took them for the suffering Young — which did me no good with the Young when I met them later. (‘Why did you write that stuff? I’ve had to write it out twice as an impot.’) They were printed as cards to hang up in offices and bedrooms; illuminated text-wise and anthologised to weariness. Twenty-seven of the Nations of the Earth translated them into their seven-and-twenty tongues, and printed them on every sort of fabric.
Some years after the War a kind friend hinted that my two innocent little books might have helped towards begetting the ‘Higher Cannibalism’ in biography. By which I understood him to mean the exhumation of scarcely cold notorieties, defenceless females for choice, and tricking them out with sprightly inferences and ‘sex’-deductions to suit the mood of the market. It was an awful charge, and anyway I felt that others had qualified as Chief Morticians to that trade.
For rest and refreshment and dearly-loved experiments and anxieties, during the six months or so of each year that we stayed in England, there was always the House and the land, and on occasion the Brook at the foot of our garden, which would flood devastatingly. As she supplied the water for our turbine, and as the little weir which turned her current into the little mill-race was of a frail antiquity, one had to attend to her often and at once, and always at the most inconvenient moment.
Undiscerning folks would ask; ‘What do you find to do in the country?’ ‘Our answer was ‘Everything except time to do it.’
We began with tenants — two or three small farmers on our very few acres — from whom we learned that farming was a mixture of farce, fraud, and philanthropy that stole the heart out of the land. After many, and some comic experiences, we fell back on our own county’s cattle — the big, red Sussex breed who make beef and not milk. One got something at least for one’s money from the mere sight of them, and they did not tell lies. Rider Haggard would visit us from time to time and give of his ample land-wisdom. I remember I planted some new apple-trees in an old orchard then rented by an Irishman, who at once put in an agile and hungry goat. Haggard met the combination suddenly one morning. He had gifts of speech, and said very clearly indeed that one might as well put Satan in an orchard as a goat. I forget what — though I acted on it — he said about tenants. His comings were always a joy to us and the children, who followed him like hounds in the hope of ‘more South African stories.’ Never was a better tale-teller or, to my mind, a man with a more convincing imagination. We found by accident that each could work at ease in the other’s company. So he would visit me, and I him, with work in hand; and between us we could even hatch out tales together — a most exacting test of sympathy.
I was honoured till he died by the friendship of a Colonel Wemyss Feilden, who moved into the village to inherit a beautiful little William and Mary house on the same day as we came to take over ‘Bateman’s.’ He was in soul and spirit Colonel Newcome; in manner as diffident and retiring as an old maid out of Cranford; and up to his eighty-second year could fairly walk me off my feet, and pull down pheasants from high heaven. He had begun life in the Black Watch, with whom, outside Delhi during the Mutiny, he heard one morning as they were all shaving that a ‘little fellow called Roberts’ had captured single-handed a rebel Standard and was coming through the Camp. ‘We all turned out. The boy was on horseback looking rather pleased with himself, and his mounted Orderly carried the Colour behind him. We cheered him with the lather on our faces.’
After the Mutiny he sold out, and having interests in Natal went awhile to South Africa. Next, he ran the blockade of the U.S. Civil War, and wedded his Southern wife in Richmond with a ring hammered out of an English sovereign ‘because there wasn’t any gold in Richmond just then.’ Mrs. Feilden at seventy-five was in herself fair explanation of all the steps he had taken — and forfeited.
He came to be one of Lee’s aides-decamp, and told me how once on a stormy night, when he rode in with despatches, Lee had ordered him to take off his dripping cloak and lie by the fire; and how when he waked from badly needed sleep, he saw the General on his knees before the flame drying the cloak. ‘That was just before the surrender,’ said he. ‘We had finished robbing the grave, and we’d begun on the cradle. For those last three months I was with fifteen thousand boys under seventeen, and I don’t remember any one of them even smiling.’
Bit by bit I came to understand that he was a traveller and an Arctic explorer, in possession of the snow-white Polar ribbon; a botanist and naturalist of reputation; and himself above all.
When Rider Haggard heard these things, he rested not till he had made the Colonel’s acquaintance. They cottoned to each other on sight and sound; South Africa in the early days being their bond. One evening, Haggard told us how his son had been born on the edge of Zulu, I think, territory, the first white child in those parts. ‘Yes,’ said the Colonel, quietly out of his corner. ‘I and’— he named two men —‘rode twenty-seven miles to look at him. We hadn’t seen a white baby for some time.’ Then Haggard remembered that visit of strangers.
And once there came to us with her married daughter the widow of a Confederate Cavalry leader; both of them were what you might call ‘unreconstructed’ rebels. Somehow, the widow mentioned a road and a church beside a river in Georgia. ‘It’s still there, then?’ said the Colonel, giving it its name. ‘Why do you ask? ‘was the quick reply.’ Because, if you look in such-and-such a pew, you might find my initials. I cut them there the night ——‘s Cavalry stabled their horses there.’ There was a pause. ‘‘Fore God, then, who are you?’ she gasped. He told her. ‘You knew my husband?’ ‘I served under him. He was the only man in our corps who wore a white collar.’ She pelted him with questions, and the names of the old dead. ‘Come away,’ whispered her daughter to me. ‘They don’t want us.’ Nor did they for a long hour.
Sooner or later, all sorts of men cast up at our house. From India naturally; from the Cape increasingly after the Boer War and our half-yearly visits there; from Rhodesia when that province was in the making; from Australia, with schemes for emigration which one knew Organised Labour would never allow to pass its legislatures; from Canada, when ‘Imperial Preference’ came to the fore, and Jameson, after one bitter experience, cursed ‘that dam’ dancingmaster (Laurier) who had bitched the whole show’; and from off main-line Islands and Colonies — men of all makes, each with his lifetale, grievance, idea, ideal, or warning.
There was an ex-Governor of the Philippines, who had slaved his soul out for years to pull his charge into some sort of shape and — on a turn of the political wheel at Washington — had been dismissed at literally less notice than he would have dared to give a native orderly. I remembered not a few men whose work and hope had been snatched from under their noses, and my sympathy was very real. His account of Filipino political ‘leaders,’ writing and shouting all day for ‘independence’ and running round to him after dark to be assured that there was no chance of the dread boon being granted —‘because then we shall most probably all be killed’— was cheeringly familiar.
The difficulty was to keep these interests separate in the head; but the grind of adjusting the mental eye to new perspectives was good for the faculties. Besides this viva voce, there was always heavy written work, three-fourths of which was valueless, but for the sake of the possibly worth-while residue all had to be gone through. This was specially the case during the three years before the War, when warnings came thick and fast, and the wise people to whom I conveyed them said; ‘Oh, but you’re so-o — extreme.’
Blasts of extravagant publicity alternated with my office-work. In the late summer of ‘06, for example, we took ship to Canada, which I had not seen in any particularity for many years, and of which I had been told that it was coming out of its spiritual and material subjection to the United States. Our steamer was an Allan Liner with the earliest turbines and wireless. In the wirelessroom, as we were feeling our way blind through the straits of Belle Isle, a sister ship, sixty miles ahead, morsed that the fog with her was even thicker. Said a young engineer in the doorway ‘Who’s yon talking, Jock? Ask him if he’s done drying his socks.’ And the old professional jest crackled out through the smother. It was my first experience of practical wireless.
At Quebec we met Sir William Van Horne, head of the whole C.P.R. system, but, on our wedding trip fifteen years before, a mere Divisional Superintendent who had lost a trunk of my wife’s and had stood his Division on its head to find it. His deferred, but ample revenge was to give us one whole Pullman car with coloured porter complete, to take and use and hitch on to and declutch from any train we chose, to anywhere we fancied, for as long as we liked. We took it, and did all those things to Vancouver and back again. When we wished to sleep in peace, it slid off into still, secret freight-yards till morning. When we would eat, chefs of the great mail trains, which it had honoured by its attachment, asked us what we would like. (It was the season of blueberries and wild duck.) If we even looked as though we wanted anything, that thing would be waiting for us a few score miles up the line. In this manner and in such state we progressed, and the procession and the progress was meat and drink to the soul of William the coloured porter, our Nurse, Valet, Seneschal, and Master of Ceremonies. (More by token, the wife understood coloured folk, and that put William all at ease.) Many people would come aboard to visit us at halting-places, and there were speeches of sorts to be prepared and delivered at the towns. In the first case; ‘‘Nother depytation, Boss,’ from William behind enormous flower-pieces; ‘and more bo-kays for de Lady.’ In the second; ‘Dere’s a speech doo at ——. You go right ahaid with what you’re composin’, Boss. Jest put your feets out an’ I’ll shine ’em meanwhile.’ So, brushed up and properly shod, I was ushered into the public eye by the immortal William.
In some ways it was punishing ‘all out’ work, but in all ways worth it. I had been given an honorary Degree, my first, by the McGill University at Montreal. That University received me with interest, and after I had delivered a highly moral discourse, the students dumped me into a fragile horse-vehicle, which they hurtled through the streets. Said one nice child sitting in the hood of it; ‘You gave us a dam’ dull speech. Can’t you say anything amusin’ now?’ I could but express my fears for the safety of the conveyance, which was disintegrating by instalments.
In ‘15 I met some of those boys digging trenches in France.
No words of mine can give any notion of the kindness and good-will lavished on us through every step of our road. I tried, and failed to do so in a written account of it. (Letters to the Family.) And always the marvel — to which the Canadians seemed insensible — was that on one side of an imaginary line should be Safety, Law, Honour, and Obedience, and on the other frank, brutal decivilisation; and that, despite this, Canada should be impressed by any aspect whatever of the United States. Some hint of this too I strove to give in my Letters.
Before we parted, William told us a tale of a friend of his who was consumed with desire to be a Pullman porter ‘bekase he had watched me doin’ it, an’ thought he could do it — jest by watchin’ me.’ (This was the burden of his parable, like a deep-toned locomotive bell.) Overborne at last, William wangled for his friend the coveted post —‘next car ahaid to mine . . . I got my folks to baid early ‘kase I guessed he’d be needin’ me soon. . . . But he thought he could do it. And den all his folk in his car, dey all wanted to go to baid at de same time — like dey allus do. An’ he tried — Gawd knows he tried — to ‘commodate ’em all de same time an’ he couldn’t. He jes’ couldn’t. . . . He didn’t know haow. He thought he did bekase he had,’ etc. etc. ‘An’ den he quit . . . he jes’ quit.’ Along pause.
‘Jumped out of window?’ we demanded.
‘No. Oh no. Dey wasn’t no jump to him dat night. He went into de broom-closet —‘kase I found him dar — an’ he cried, an’ all his folks slammin’ on de broom-house door an’ cussin’ him ‘kase dey wanted to go to baid. An’ he couldn’t put ’em dar. He couldn’t put ’em. He thought,’ etc. etc. ‘An’ den? Why, o’ course I jes’ whirled in an’ put ’em to baid for him an’ when I told ’em how t’wuz with dat sorerful cryin’ nigger, dey laughed. Dey laughed heaps an’ heaps. . . . But he thought he could do it by havin’ watched me do it.’
A few weeks after we returned from the wonderful trip, I was notified that I had been awarded the Nobel Prize of that year for Literature. It was a very great honour, in all ways unexpected.
It was necessary to go to Stockholm. Even while we were on the sea, the old King of Sweden died. We reached the city, snow-white under sun, to find all the world in evening dress, the official mourning, which is curiously impressive. Next afternoon, the prize-winners were taken to be presented to the new King. Winter darkness in those latitudes falls at three o’clock, and it was snowing. One half of the vast acreage of the Palace sat in darkness, for there lay the dead King’s body. We were conveyed along interminable corridors looking out into black quadrangles, where snow whitened the cloaks of the sentries, the breeches of old-time cannon, and the shotpiles alongside of them. Presently, we reached a living world of more corridors and suites all lighted up, but wrapped in that Court hush which is like no other silence on earth. Then, in a great lit room, the weary-eyed, overworked, new King, saying to each the words appropriate to the occasion. Next, the Queen, in marvellous Mary Queen of Scots mourning, a few words, and the return piloted by soft-footed Court officials through a stillness so deep that one heard the click of the decorations on their uniforms. They said that the last words of the old King had been ‘Don’t let them shut the theatres for me.’ So Stockholm that night went soberly about her pleasures, all dumbed down under the snow.
Morning did not come till ten o’clock; and one lay abed in thick dark, listening to the blunted grind of the trams speeding the people to their work-day’s work. But the ordering of their lives was reasonable, thought out, and most comfortable for all classes in the matters of food, housing, the lesser but more desirable decencies, and the consideration given to the Arts. I had only known the Swede as a first-class immigrant in various parts of the earth. Looking at his native land I could guess whence he drew his strength and directness. Snow and frost are no bad nurses.
At that epoch staid women attached to the public wash-houses washed in a glorious lather of soap, worked up with big bunches of finest pine-shavings (when you think of it, a sponge is almost as dirty a tool as the permanent tooth-brush of the European), men desirous of the most luxurious bath known to civilisation. But foreigners did not always catch the idea. Hence this tale told to me at a winter resort in the deep, creamy contralto of the North by a Swedish lady who took, and pronounced, her English rather biblically. The introit you can imagine for yourself. Here is the finale; ‘And then she — the old woman comed — came — in to wash that man. But he was angered — angry. He wented — he went dee-ep into the water and he say-ed — said —“Go a-way!” And she sayed, “But I comm to wash you, sare.” And she made to do that. But he tur-ned over up-on his fa-ace, and wa-ved his legs in the airs and he sayed, “Go a-dam-way away!” So she went to the Direktor and she say-ed “Comm he-ere. There are a mads in my bath, which will not let me wash of him.” But the Direktor say-ed to her; “Oh, that are not a mads. That are an Englishman. He will himself — he will wash himself.”’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56