The materials for the history of an odd episode in Ambrose Meyrick’s life are to be found in a sort of collection he made under the title “Concerning Gaiety.” The episode in question dates from about the middle of his eighteenth year.
“I do not know”— he says —“how it all happened. I had been leading two eager lives. On the outside I was playing games and going up in the school with a rush, and in the inside I was being gathered more and more into the sanctuaries of immortal things. All life was transfigured for me into a radiant glory, into a quickening and catholic sacrament; and, the fooleries of the school apart, I had more and more the sense that I was a participant in a splendid and significant ritual. I think I was beginning to be a little impatient with the outward signs: I think I had a feeling that it was a pity that one had to drink wine out of a cup, a pity that kernels seemed to imply shells. I wanted, in my heart, to know nothing but the wine itself flowing gloriously from vague, invisible fountains, to know the things ‘that really are’ in their naked beauty, without their various and elaborate draperies. I doubt whether Ruskin understood the motive of the monk who walked amidst the mountains with his eyes cast down lest he might see the depths and heights about him. Ruskin calls this a narrow asceticism; perhaps it was rather the result of a very subtle aestheticism. The monk’s inner vision might be fixed with such rapture on certain invisible heights and depths, that he feared lest the sight of their visible counterparts might disturb his ecstasy. It is probable, I think, that there is a point where the ascetic principle and the aesthetic become one and the same. The Indian fakir who distorts his limbs and lies on spikes is at the one extreme, the men of the Italian Renaissance were at the other. In each case the true line is distorted and awry, for neither system attains either sanctity or beauty in the highest. The fakir dwells in surfaces, and the Renaissance artist dwelt in surfaces; in neither case is there the inexpressible radiance of the invisible world shining through the surfaces. A cup of Cellini’s work is no doubt very lovely; but it is not beautiful in the same way as the old Celtic cups are beautiful.
“I think I was in some danger of going wrong at the time I am talking about. I was altogether too impatient of surfaces. Heaven forbid the notion that I was ever in danger of being in any sense of the word a Protestant; but perhaps I was rather inclined to the fundamental heresy on which Protestantism builds its objection to what is called Ritual. I suppose this heresy is really Manichee; it is a charge of corruption and evil made against the visible universe, which is affirmed to be not ‘very good,’ but ‘very bad’— or, at all events, too bad to be used as the vehicle of spiritual truth. It is extraordinary by the way, that the thinking Protestant does not perceive that this principle damns all creeds and all Bibles and all teaching quite as effectually as it damns candles and chasubles — unless, indeed, the Protestant thinks that the logical understanding is a competent vehicle of Eternal Truth, and that God can be properly and adequately defined and explained in human speech. If he thinks that, he is an ass. Incense, vestments, candles, all ceremonies, processions, rites — all these things are miserably inadequate; but they do not abound in the horrible pitfalls, misapprehensions, errors which are inseparable from speech of men used as an expression of the Church. In a savage dance there may be a vast deal more of the truth than in many of the hymns in our hymn-books.
“After all, as Martinez said, we must even be content with what we have, whether it be censers or syllogisms, or both. The way of the censer is certainly the safer, as I have said; I suppose because the ruin of the external universe is not nearly so deep nor so virulent as the ruin of men. A flower, a piece of gold, no doubt approach their archetypes — what they were meant to be — much more nearly than man does; hence their appeal is purer than the speech or the reasoning of men.
“But in those days at Lupton my head was full of certain sentences which I had lit upon somewhere or other — I believe they must have been translations from some Eastern book. I knew about a dozen of these maxims; all I can remember now are:
“If you desire to be inebriated: abstain from wine.”
“If you desire beauty: look not on beautiful things.”
“If you desire to see: let your eyes be blindfolded.”
“If you desire love: refrain from the Beloved.”
“I expect the paradox of these sayings pleased me. One must allow that if one has the inborn appetite of the somewhat subtle, of the truth not too crudely and barely expressed, there is no such atmosphere as that of a Public School for sharpening this appetite to an edge of ravening, indiscriminate hunger. Think of our friend the Colonel, who is by way of being a fin gourmet; imagine him fixed in a boarding-house where the meals are a repeating cycle of Irish Stew, Boiled Rabbit, Cold Mutton and Salt Cod (without oyster or any other sause)! Then let him out and place him in the Café Anglais. With what a fierce relish would he set tooth into curious and sought-out dishes! It must be remembered that I listened every Sunday in every term to one of the Doctor’s sermons, and it is really not strange that I gave an eager ear to the voice of Persian Wisdom— as I think the book was called. At any rate, I kept Nelly Foran at a distance for nine or ten months, and when I saw a splendid sunset I averted my eyes. I longed for a love purely spiritual, for a sunset of vision.
“I caught glimpses, too, I think, of a much more profound askesis than this. I suppose you have the askesis in its simplest, most rationalised form in the Case of Bill the Engine-driver — I forget in what great work of Theologia Moralis I found the instance; perhaps Bill was really Quidam in the original, and his occupation stated as that of Nauarchus. At all events, Bill is fond of four-ale; but he had perceived that two pots of this beverage consumed before a professional journey tended to make him rather sleepy, rather less alert, than he might be in the execution of his very responsible duties. Hence Bill, considering this, wisely contents himself with one pot before mounting on his cab. He has deprived himself of a sensible good in order that an equally sensible but greater good may be secured — in order that he and the passengers may run no risks on the journey. Next to this simple asceticism comes, I suppose, the ordinary discipline of the Church — the abandonment of sensible goods to secure spiritual ends, the turning away from the type to the prototype, from the sight of the eyes to the vision of the soul. For in the true asceticism, whatever its degree, there is always action to a certain end, to a perceived good. Does the self-tormenting fakir act from this motive? I don’t know; but if he does not, his discipline is not asceticism at all, but folly, and impious folly, too. If he mortifies himself merely for the sake of mortifying himself; then he defiles and blasphemes the Temple. This in parenthesis.
“But, as I say, I had a very dim and distant glimpse of another region of the askesis. Mystics will understand me when I say that there are moments when the Dark Night of the Soul is seen to be brighter than her brightest day; there are moments when it is necessary to drive away even the angels that there may be place for the Highest. One may ascend into regions so remote from the common concerns of life that it becomes difficult to procure the help of analogy, even in the terms and processes of the Arts. But suppose a painter — I need not say that I mean an artist — who is visited by an idea so wonderful, so super-exalted in its beauty that he recognises his impotence; he knows that no pigments and no technique can do anything but grossly parody his vision. Well, he will show his greatness by not attempting to paint that vision: he will write on a bare canvass vidit anima sed non pinxit manus. And I am sure that there are many romances which have never been written. It was a highly paradoxical, even a dangerous philosophy that affirmed God to be rather Non–Ens than Ens; but there are moods in which one appreciates the thought.
“I think I caught, as I say, a distant vision of that Night which excels the Day in its splendour. It began with the eyes turned away from the sunset, with lips that refused kisses. Then there came a command to the heart to cease from longing for the dear land of Gwent, to cease from that aching desire that had never died for so many years for the sight of the old land and those hills and woods of most sweet and anguished memory. I remember once, when I was a great lout of sixteen, I went to see the Lupton Fair. I always liked the great booths and caravans and merry-go-rounds, all a blaze of barbaric green and red and gold, flaming and glowing in the middle of the trampled, sodden field against a background of Lupton and wet, grey autumn sky. There were country folk then who wore smock-frocks and looked like men in them, too. One saw scores of these brave fellows at the Fair: dull, good Jutes with flaxen hair that was almost white, and with broad pink faces. I liked to see them in the white robe and the curious embroidery; they were a note of wholesomeness, an embassage from the old English village life to our filthy ‘industrial centre.’ It was odd to see how they stared about them; they wondered, I think, at the beastliness of the place, and yet, poor fellows, they felt bound to admire the evidence of so much money. Yes, they were of Old England; they savoured of the long, bending, broad village street, the gable ends, the grave fronts of old mellow bricks, the thatched roofs here and there, the bulging window of the ‘village shop,’ the old church in decorous, somewhat dull perpendicular among the elms, and, above all, the old tavern — that excellent abode of honest mirth and honest beer, relic of the time when there were men, and men who lived. Lupton is very far removed from Hardy’s land, and yet as I think of these country-folk in their smock-frocks all the essence of Hardy is distilled for me; I see the village street all white in snow, a light gleaming very rarely from an upper window, and presently, amid ringing bells, one hears the carol-singers begin:
‘Remember Adam’s fall,
O thou man.’
“And I love to look at the whirl of the merry-go-rounds, at the people sitting with grave enjoyment on those absurd horses as they circle round and round till one’s eyes were dazed. Drums beat and thundered, strange horns blew raucous calls from all quarters, and the mechanical music to which those horses revolved belched and blazed and rattled out its everlasting monotony, checked now and again by the shriek of the steam whistle, groaning into silence for a while: then the tune clanged out once more, and the horses whirled round and round.
“But on this Fair Day of which I am speaking I left the booths and the golden, gleaming merry-go-rounds for the next field, where horses were excited to brief madness and short energy. I had scarcely taken up my stand when a man close by me raised his voice to a genial shout as he saw a friend a little way off. And he spoke with the beloved accent of Gwent, with those tones that come to me more ravishing, more enchanting than all the music in the world. I had not heard them for years of weary exile! Just a phrase or two of common greeting in those chanting accents: the Fair passed away, was whirled into nothingness, its shouting voices, the charging of horses, drum and trumpet, clanging, metallic music — it rushed down into the abyss. There was the silence that follows a great peal of thunder; it was early morning and I was standing in a well-remembered valley, beside the blossoming thorn bush, looking far away to the wooded hills that kept the East, above the course of the shining river. I was, I say, a great lout of sixteen, but the tears flooded my eyes, my heart swelled with its longing.
“Now, it seemed, I was to quell such thoughts as these, to desire no more the fervent sunlight on the mountain, or the sweet scent of the dusk about the runnings of the brook. I had been very fond of ‘going for walks’— walks of the imagination. I was afraid, I suppose, that unless by constant meditation I renewed the shape of the old land in my mind, its image might become a blurred and fading picture; I should forget little by little the ways of those deep, winding lanes that took courses that were almost subterranean over hill and vale, by woodside and waterside, narrow, cavernous, leaf-vaulted; cool in the greatest heats of summer. And the wandering paths that crossed the fields, that led one down into places hidden and remote, into still depths where no one save myself ever seemed to enter, that sometimes ended with a certain solemnity at a broken stile in a hedgerow grown into a thicket — within a plum tree returning to the savage life of the wood, a forest, perhaps, of blue lupins, and a great wild rose about the ruined walls of a house — all these ways I must keep in mind as if they were mysteries and great secrets, as indeed they were. So I strolled in memory through the Pageant of Gwent: ‘lest I should forget the region of the flowers, lest I should become unmindful of the wells and the floods.’
“But the time came, as I say, when it was represented to me that all this was an indulgence which, for a season at least, must be pretermitted. With an effort I voided my soul of memory and desire and weeping; when the idols of doomed Twyn–Barlwm, and great Mynydd Maen, and the silver esses of the Usk appeared before me, I cast them out; I would not meditate white Caerleon shining across the river. I endured, I think, the severest pains. De Quincey, that admirable artist, that searcher into secrets and master of mysteries, has described my pains for me under the figure of the Opium Eater breaking the bonds of his vice. How often, when the abominations of Lupton, its sham energies, its sham morals, its sham enthusiasms, all its battalia of cant surged and beat upon me, have I been sorely tempted to yield, to suffer no more the press of folly, but to steal away by a secret path I knew, to dwell in a secure valley where the foolish could never trouble me. Sometimes I ‘fell,’ as I drank deep then of the magic well-water, and went astray in the green dells and avenues of the wildwood. Still I struggled to refrain my heart from these things, to keep my spirit under the severe discipline of abstention; and with a constant effort I succeeded more and more.
“But there was a yet deeper depth in this process of catharsis. I have said that sometimes one must expel the angels that God may have room; and now the strict ordinance was given that I should sever myself from that great dream of Celtic sanctity that for me had always been the dream, the innermost shrine in which I could take refuge, the house of sovran medicaments where all the wounds of soul and body were healed. One does not wish to be harsh; we must admit, I suppose, that moderate, sensible Anglicanism must have something in it — since the absolute sham cannot very well continue to exist. Let us say, then, that it is highly favourable to a respectable and moral life, that it encourages a temperate and well-regulated spirit of devotion. It was certainly a very excellent and (according to her lights) devout woman who, in her version of the Anima Christi altered ‘inebriate me’ to ‘purify me,’ and it was a good cleric who hated the Vulgate reading, calix meus inebrians. My father had always instructed me that we must conform outwardly, and bear with Dearly Beloved Brethren; while we celebrated in our hearts the Ancient Mass of the Britons, and waited for Cadwaladr to return. I reverenced his teaching, I still reverence it, and agree that we must conform; but in my heart I have always doubted whether moderate Anglicanism be Christianity in any sense, whether it even deserves to be called a religion at all. I do not doubt, of course, that many truly religious people have professed it: I speak of the system, and of the atmosphere which emanates from it. And when the Public School ethos is added to this — well, the resultant teaching comes pretty much to the dogma that Heaven and the Head are strict allies. One must not degenerate into ecclesiastical controversy; I merely want to say that I never dreamed of looking for religion in our Chapel services. No doubt the Te Deum was still the Te Deum, but the noblest of hymns is degraded, obscured, defiled, made ridiculous, if you marry it to a tune that would disgrace a penny gaff. Personally, I think that the airs on the piano-organs are much more reverend compositions than Anglican chants, and I am sure that many popular hymn tunes are vastly inferior in solemnity to ’E Dunno where ‘e are.
“No; the religion that led me and drew me and compelled me was that wonderful and doubtful mythos of the Celtic Church. It was the study — nay, more than the study, the enthusiasm — of my father’s life; and as I was literally baptized with water from a Holy Well, so spiritually the great legend of the Saints and their amazing lives had tinged all my dearest aspirations, had become to me the glowing vestment of the Great Mystery. One may sometimes be deeply interested in the matter of a tale while one is wearied or sickened by the manner of it; one may have to embrace the bright divinity on the horrid lips of the serpent of Cos. Or, on the other hand, the manner — the style — may be admirable, and the matter a mere nothing but a ground for the embroidery. But for me the Celtic Mythos was the Perfect Thing, the King’s Daughter: Omnis gloria ejus filiæ Regis ab, intus, in fimbriis aureis circumamicta varietatibus. I have learned much more of this great mystery since those days — I have seen, that is, how entirely, how absolutely my boyhood’s faith was justified; but even then with but little knowledge I was rapt at the thought of this marvellous knight-errantry, of this Christianity which was not a moral code, with some sort of metaphorical Heaven held out as a reward for its due observance, but a great mystical adventure into the unknown sanctity. Imagine a Bishop of the Established Church getting into a boat without oar or sails! Imagine him, if you can, doing anything remotely analagous to such an action. Conceive the late Archbishop Tait going apart into the chapel at Lambeth for three days and three nights; then you may well conceive the people in the opposite bank being dazzled with the blinding supernatural light poured forth from the chapel windows. Of course, the end of the Celtic Church was ruin and confusion — but Don Quixote failed and fell, while Sancho Panza lived a fat, prosperous peasant. He inherited, I think, a considerable sum from the knight, and was, no doubt, a good deal looked up to in the village.
“Yes; the Celtic Church was the Company of the Great Errantry, of the Great Mystery, and, though all the history of it seems but a dim and shadowy splendour, its burning rose-red lamp yet glows for a few, and from my earliest childhood I was indoctrinated in the great Rite of Cor-arbennic. When I was still very young I had been humoured with the sight of a wonderful Relic of the Saints — never shall I forget that experience of the holy magic of sanctity. Every little wood, every rock and fountain, and every running stream of Gwent were hallowed for me by some mystical and entrancing legend, and the thought of this High Spiritual City and its Blessed Congregation could, in a moment, exercise and drive forth from me all the ugly and foolish and gibbering spectres that made up the life of that ugly and foolish place where I was imprisoned.
“Now, with a sorrowful farewell, I bade good-bye for a brief time (as I hoped it would be) to this golden legend; my heart was emptied of its treasures and its curious shows, and the lights on the altars were put out, and the images were strictly veiled. Hushed was the chanting in the Sovereign and Perpetual Choir, hidden were the High Hallows of the Saints, no more did I follow them to their cells in the wild hills, no more did I look from the rocks in the west and see them set forth for Avalon. Alas!
“A great silence seemed to fall upon me, the silence of the depths beneath the earth. And with the silence there was darkness. Only in a hidden place there was reserved the one taper — the Light of Conformity, of a perfect submission, that from the very excess of sorrow and deprivation drew its secret but quintessential joy. I am reminded, now that I look back upon this great purgation of the soul, of the story that I once read of the Arabic Alchemist. He came to the Caliph Haroun with a strange and extravagant proposal. Haroun sat in all his splendour, his viziers, his chamberlains, his great officers about him, in his golden court which displayed all the wonders and superfluities of the East. He gave judgment; the wicked were punished, the virtuous were rewarded; God’s name was exalted, the Prophet was venerated. There came before the Commander of the Faithful a poor old man in the poor and ragged robes of a wandering poet; he was oppressed by the weight of his years, and his entrance was like the entrance of misery. So wretched was his appearance that one of the chamberlains, who was well acquainted with the poets, could not help quoting the well-known verses:
“‘Between the main and a drop of rain the difference seen is nothing great.
The sun so bright and the taper’s light are alike and one save in pomp and state.
In the grain of sand and in all the land what may ye arraign as disparate?
A crust of bread and a King’s board spread will hunger’s lust alike abate.
With the smallest blade or with host arrayed the Ruler may quench his gall and hate.
A stone in a box and a quarry of rocks may be shown to be of an equal freight.
With a sentence bold or with gold untold the lover may hold or capture his mate.
The King and the Bard may alike be debarred from the fold of the Lord Compassionate.’”
“The Commander of the Faithful praised God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, the King of the Day of Judgment, and caused the chamberlain to be handsomely rewarded. He then enquired of the old man for what reason he came before him, and the beggar (as, indeed, he seemed) informed the Caliph that he had for many years prosecuted his studies in magic, alchemy, astrology and geomancy and all other curious and surprising arts, in Spain, Grand Cairo, the land of the Moors, India, China, in various Cities of the Infidels; in fact, in every quarter of the world where magicians were to be found. In proof of his proficiency he produced a little box which he carried about him for the purpose of his geomantic operations and asked anyone who was willing to stand forth, that he might hear his whole life, past, present and future. The Caliph ordered one of his officers to submit himself to this ordeal, and the beggar having made the points in the sand, and having erected the figure according to the rules of the geomantic art, immediately informed the officer of all the most hidden transactions in which he had been engaged, including several matters which this officer thought had been secrets locked in his own breast. He also foretold his death in a year’s time from a certain herb, and so it fell out, for he was strangled with a hempen cord by order of the Caliph. In the meantime, the Commander of the Faithful and all about him were astonished, and the Beggar Magician was ordered to proceed with his story. He spoke at great length, and everyone remarked the elegance and propriety of his diction, which was wanting in no refinement of classical eloquence. But the sum of his speech was this — that he had discovered the greatest wonder of the whole world, the name of which he declared was Asrar, and by this talisman he said that the Caliph might make himself more renowned than all the kings that had ever reigned on the earth, not excepting King Solomon, the son of David. This was the method of the operation which the beggar proposed. The Commander of the Faithful was to gather together all the wealth of his entire kingdom, omitting nothing that could possibly be discovered; and while this was being done the magician said that he would construct a furnace of peculiar shape in which all these splendours and magnificences and treasures of the world must be consumed in a certain fire of art, prepared with wisdom. And at last, he continued, after the operation had endured many days, the fire being all the while most curiously governed, there would remain but one drop no larger than a pearl, but glorious as the sun to the moon and all the starry heavens and the wonders of the compassionate; and with this drop the Caliph Haroun might heal all the sorrows of the universe. Both the Commander of the Faithful and all his viziers and officers were stupefied by this proposal, and most of the assemblage considered the beggar to be a madman. The Caliph, however, asked him to return the next day in order that his plans might receive more mature consideration.
“The beggar prostrated himself and went forth from the hall of audience, but he returned no more, nor could it be discovered that he had been seen again by anyone.
“‘But one drop no larger than a pearl,’ and ‘where there is Nothing there is All.’ I have often thought of those sentences in looking back on that time when, as Chesson said, I was one of those ‘light-hearted and yet sturdy and reliable young fellows to whose hands the honour and safety of England might one day be committed.’ I cast all the treasures I possessed into the alembic; again and again they were rectified by the heat of the fire ‘most curiously governed’; I saw the ‘engendering of the Crow’ black as pitch, the flight of the Dove with Silver Wings, and at last Sol rose red and glorious, and I fell down and gave thanks to heaven for this most wonderful gift, the ‘Sun blessed of the Fire.’ I had dispossessed myself of all, and I found that I possessed all; I had thrown away all the money in my purse, and I was richer than I had ever been; I had died, and I had found a new life in the land of the living.
“It is curious that I should now have to explain the pertinency of all that I have written to the title of this Note — concerning Gaiety. It should not be necessary. The chain of thought is almost painfully obvious. But I am afraid it is necessary.
“Well: I once read an interesting article in the daily paper. It was written apropos of some Shakespearean celebrations or other, and its purport was that modern England was ever so much happier than mediæval or Elizabethian England. It is possible that an acute logician might find something to say on this thesis; but my interest lay in the following passages, which I quote:
“‘Merrie England,’ with its maypoles and its Whitsun Ales, and its Shrove-tide jousts and junketings is dead for us, from the religious point of view. The England that has survived is, after all, a greater England still. It is Puritan England. . . . The spirit has gone. Surely it is useless to revive the form. Wherefore should the May Queen be “holy, wise, and fair,” if not to symbolise the Virgin Mary? And as for Shrove-tide, too, what point in jollity without a fast to follow?’
“The article is not over-illuminating, but I think the writer had caught a glimpse of the truth that there is a deep relation between Mirth and Sanctity; that no real mirth is possible without the apprehension of the mysteries as its antecedent. The fast and the feast are complementary terms. He is right; there is no point in jollity unless there is a fast or something of the nature of a fast to follow — though, of course, there is nothing to hinder the most advanced thinker from drinking as much fusel-oil and raw Russian spirit as he likes. But the result of this course is not real mirth or jollity; it is perhaps more essentially dismal than a ‘Tea’ amongst the Protestant Dissenters. And, on the other hand, true gaiety is only possible to those who have fasted; and now perhaps it will be seen that I have been describing the preparations for a light-hearted festival.
“The cloud passed away from me, the restrictions and inhibitions were suddenly removed, and I woke up one morning in dancing, bubbling spirits, every drop of blood in my body racing with new life, my nerves tingling and thrilling with energy. I laughed as I awoke; I was conscious that I was to engage in a strange and fantastic adventure, though I had not the remotest notion of what it was to be.”
Ambrose Meyrick’s adventure was certainly of the fantastic order. His fame had long been established on a sure footing with his uncle and with everybody else, and Mr. Horbury had congratulated him with genuine enthusiasm on his work in the examinations — the Summer term was drawing to a close. Mr. Horbury was Ambrose’s trustee, and he made no difficulty about signing a really handsome cheque for his nephew’s holiday expenses and outfit. “There,” he said “you ought to be able to do pretty well on that. Where do you think of going?”
Ambrose said that he had thought of North Devon, of tramping over Exmoor, visiting the Doone country, and perhaps of working down to Dartmoor.
“You couldn’t do better. You ought to try your hand at fishing: wonderful sport in some of those streams. It mightn’t come off at first, but with your eye and sense of distance you’ll soon make a fine angler. If you do have a turn at the trout, get hold of some local man and make him give you a wrinkle or two. It’s no good getting your flies from town. Now, when I was fishing in Hampshire ——”
Mr. Horbury went on; but the devil of gaiety had already dictated a wonderful scheme to Ambrose, and that night he informed Nelly Foran that she must alter her plans; she was to come with him to France instead of spending a fortnight at Blackpool. He carried out this mad device with an ingenuity that poor Mr. Palmer would certainly have called “diabolical.” In the first place, there was to be a week in London — for Nelly must have some clothes; and this week began as an experience of high delight. It was not devoid of terror, for masters might be abroad, and Ambrose did not wish to leave Lupton for some time. However, they neither saw nor were seen. Arriving at St. Pancras, the luggage was left in the station, and Ambrose, who had studied the map of London, stood for a while on the pavement outside Scott’s great masterpiece of architecture and considered the situation with grave yet humorous deliberation. Nelly proved herself admirably worthy of the adventure; its monstrous audacity appealed to her, and she was in a state of perpetual subdued laughter for some days after their arrival. Meyrick looked about him and found that the Euston Road, being squalid and noisy, offered few attractions; and with sudden resolution he took the girl by the arm and steered into the heart of Bloomsbury. In this charmingly central and yet retired quarter they found rooms in a quiet byway which, oddly enough, looked on a green field; and under the pleasant style of Mr. and Mr. Lupton they partook of tea while the luggage was fetched by somebody — probably a husband — who came with a shock of red, untidy hair from the dark bowels of the basement. They screamed with mirth over the meal. Mr. Horbury had faults, but he kept a good table for himself, his boys and his servants; and the exotic, quaint flavour of the “bread” and “butter” seemed to these two young idiots exquisitely funny. And the queer, faint, close smell, too, of the whole house — it rushed out at one when the hall door was opened: it was heavy, and worth its weight in gold.
“I never know,” Ambrose used to say afterwards, “whether to laugh or cry when I have been away for some time from town, and come back and smell that wonderful old London aroma. I don’t believe it’s so strong or so rare as it used to be; I have been disappointed once or twice in houses in quite shabby streets. It was there, of course, but — well, if it were a vintage wine I should say it was a second growth of a very poor year — Margaux, no doubt, but a Margaux of one of those very indifferent years in the early ‘seventies. Or it may be like the smell of grease-paints; one doesn’t notice it after a month or two. But I don’t think it is.
“Still,” he would go on, “I value what I can smell of it. It brings back to me that afternoon, that hot, choking afternoon of ever so many years ago. It was really tremendously hot — ninety-two degrees, I think I saw in the paper the next day — and when we got out at St. Pancras the wind came at one like a furnace blast. There was no sun visible; the sky was bleary — a sort of sickly, smoky yellow, and the burning wind came in gusts, and the dust hissed and rattled on the pavement. Do you know what a low public-house smells like in London on a hot afternoon? Do you know what London bitter tastes like on such a day — the publican being evidently careful of his clients’ health, and aware of the folly of drinking cold beverages during a period of extreme heat? I do. Nelly, poor dear, had warm lemonade, and I had warm beer — warm chemicals, I mean. But the odour! Why doesn’t some scientific man stop wasting his time over a lot of useless rubbish and discover a way of bottling the odour of the past?
“Ah! but if he did so, in a phial of rare crystal with a stopper as secure as the seal of Solimaun ben Daoud would I preserve one most precious scent, inscribing on the seal, within a perfect pentagram, the mystic legend ‘No. 15, Little Russell Row.’”
The cat had come in with the tea-tray. He was a black cat, not very large, with a decent roundness of feature, and yet with a suggestion of sinewy skinniness about him — the Skinniness of the wastrel, not of the poor starveling. His bright green eyes had, as Ambrose observed, the wisdom of Egypt; on his tomb should be inscribed “The Justified in Sekht.” He walked solemnly in front of the landlady, his body describing strange curves, his tail waving in the air, and his ears put back with an expression of intense cunning. He seemed delighted at “the let,” and when Nelly stroked his back he gave a loud shriek of joy and made known his willingness to take a little refreshment.
They laughed so heartily over their tea that when the landlady came in to clear the things away they were still bubbling over with aimless merriment.
“I likes to see young people ‘appy,” she said pleasantly, and readily provided a latchkey in case they cared to come in rather late. She told them a good deal of her life: she had kept lodgings in Judd Street, near King’s Cross — a nasty, noisy street, she called it — and she seemed to think the inhabitants a low lot. She had to do with all sorts, some good some bad, and the business wasn’t what it had been in her mother’s day.
They sat a little while on the sofa, hand in hand still consumed with the jest of their being there at all, and imagining grotesque entrances of Mr. Horbury or Dr. Chesson. Then they went out to wander about the streets, to see London easily, merrily, without bothering the Monument, or the British Museum, or Madame Tussaud’s — finally, to get something to eat, they didn’t know when or where or how, and they didn’t in the least care! There was one “sight” they were not successful in avoiding: they had not journeyed far before the great portal of the British Museum confronted them, grandiose and gloomy. So, by the sober way of Great Russell Street, they made their way into Tottenham Court Road and, finally, into Oxford Street. The shops were bright and splendid, the pavement was crowded with a hurrying multitude, as it seemed to the country folk, though it was the dullest season of the year. It was a great impression — decidedly London was a wonderful place. Already Ambrose felt a curious sense of being at home in it; it was not beautiful, but it was on the immense scale; it did something more than vomit stinks into the air, poison into the water and rows of workmen’s houses on the land. They wandered on, and then they had the fancy that they would like to explore the regions to the south; it was so impossible, as Ambrose said, to know where they would find themselves eventually. He carefully lost himself within a few minutes of Oxford Street. A few turnings to right and then to left; the navigation of strange alleys soon left them in the most satisfactory condition of bewilderment; the distinctions of the mariner’s compass, its pedantry of east and west, north and south, were annihilated and had ceased to be; it was an adventure in a trackless desert, in the Australian bush, but on safer ground and in an infinitely more entertaining scene. At first they had passed through dark streets, Georgian and Augustan ways, gloomy enough, and half deserted; there were grave houses, with many stories of windows, now reduced to printing offices, to pickle warehouses, to odd crafts such as those of the metal assayer, the crucible maker, the engraver of seals, the fabricator of Boule. But how wonderful it was to see the actual place where those things were done! Ambrose had read of such arts, but had always thought of them as existing in a vague void — if some of them even existed at all in those days: but there in the windows were actual crucibles, strange-looking curvilinear pots of grey-yellowish ware, the veritable instruments of the Magnum Opus, inventions of Arabia. He was no longer astonished when a little farther he saw a harpsichord, which had only been a name to him, a beautiful looking thing, richly inlaid, with its date — 1780 — inscribed on a card above it. It was now utterly wonderland: he could very likely buy armour round the corner; and he had scarcely formed the thought when a very fine sixteenth-century suit, richly damascened, rose up before him, handsomely displayed between two black jacks. These were the comparatively silent streets; but they turned a corner, and what a change! All the roadway, not the pavement only, seemed full of a strolling, chatting, laughing mob of people: the women were bareheaded, and one heard nothing but the roll of the French “r,” torrents of sonorous sound trolled out with the music of happy song. The papers in the shops were all French, ensigns on every side proclaimed “Vins Fins,” “Beaune Supérieur”: the tobacconists kept their tobacco in square blue, yellow and brown packets; “Charcuterie” made a brave and appetising show. And here was a “Café Restaurant: au château de Chinon.” The name was enough; they could not dine elsewhere, and Ambrose felt that he was honouring the memory of the great Rabelais.
It was probably not a very good dinner. It was infinitely better than the Soho dinner of these days, for the Quarter had hardly begun to yield to the attack of Art, Intellect and the Suburbs which, between them, have since destroyed the character and unction of many a good cook-shop. Ambrose only remembered two dishes; the pieds de porc grillés and the salad. The former he thought both amusing and delicious, and the latter was strangely and artfully compounded of many herbs, of little vinegar, of abundant Provençal oil, with the chapon, or crust rubbed with garlic, reposing at the bottom of the bowl after Madame had “tormented” the ingredients — the salad was a dish from Fairyland. There be no such salads now in all the land of Soho.
“Let me celebrate, above all, the little red wine,” says Ambrose in a brief dithyrambic note. “Not in any mortal vineyard did its father grape ripen; it was not nourished by the warmth of the visible sun, nor were the rains that made it swell common waters from the skies above us. Not even in the Chinonnais, sacred earth though that be, was the press made that caused its juices to be poured into the cuve, nor was the humming of its fermentation heard in any of the good cellars of the lower Touraine. But in that region which Keats celebrates when he sings the ‘Mermaid Tavern’ was this juice engendered — the vineyard lay low down in the south, among the starry plains where is the Terra Turonensis Celestis, that unimaginable country which Rabelais beheld in his vision where mighty Gargantua drinks from inexhaustible vats eternally, where Pantagruel is athirst for evermore, though he be satisfied continually. There, in the land of the Crowned Immortal Tosspots was that wine of ours vintaged, red with the rays of the Dog-star, made magical by the influence of Venus, fertilised by the happy aspect of Mercury. O rare, superabundant and most excellent juice, fruit of all fortunate stars, by thee were we translated, exalted into the fellowship of that Tavern of which the old poet writes: Mihi est propositum in Taberna mori!”
There were few English people in the Château de Chinon — indeed, it is doubtful whether there was more than one — the ménage Lupton excepted. This one compatriot happened to be a rather remarkable man — it was Carrol. He was not in the vanguard of anything; he knew no journalists and belonged to no clubs; he was not even acquainted in the most distant manner with a single person who could be called really influential or successful. He was an obscure literary worker, who published an odd volume every five or six years: now and then he got notices, when there was no press of important stuff in the offices, and sometimes a kindly reviewer predicted that he would come out all right in time, though he had still much to learn. About a year before he died, an intelligent reading public was told that one or two things of his were rather good; then, on his death, it was definitely discovered that the five volumes of verse occupied absolutely unique ground, that a supreme poet had been taken from us, a poet who had raised the English language into a fourth dimension of melody and magic. The intelligent reading public read him no more than they ever did, but they buy him in edition after edition, from large quarto to post octavo; they buy him put up into little decorated boxes; they buy him on Japanese vellum; they buy him illustrated by six different artists; they discuss no end of articles about him; they write their names in the Carrol Birthday Book; they set up the Carrol Calendar in their boudoirs; they have quotations from him in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral; they sing him in the famous Carrol Cycle of Song; and, last and best of all, a brilliant American playwright is talking even now of dramatising him. The Carrol Club, of course, is ancient history. Its membership is confined to the ranks of intellect and art; it invites to its dinners foreign princes, bankers, major-generals and other persons of distinction — all of whom, of course, are intensely interested in the master’s book; and the record and praise of the Club are in all the papers. It is a pity that Carrol is dead. He would not have sworn: he would have grinned.
Even then, though he was not glorious, he was observant, and he left a brief note, a sort of thumb-nail sketch, of his impressions that night at the Château de Chinon.
“I was sitting in my old corner,” he says, “wondering why the devil I wrote so badly on the whole, and what the devil I was going to do with the subject that I had tackled. The dinner was not so bad at the old Château in those days, though now they say the plate-glass is the best dish in the establishment. I liked the old place; it was dingy and low down and rather disreputable, I fancy, and the company was miscellaneous French with a dash of Italian. Nearly all of us knew each other, and there were regulars who sat in the same seat night after night. I liked it all. I liked the coarse tablecloths and the black-handled knives and the lead spoons and the damp, adhesive salt, and the coarse, strong, black pepper that one helped with a fork handle. Then there was Madame sitting on high, and I never saw an uglier woman nor a more good-natured. I was getting through my roast fowl and salad that evening, when two wonderful people came in, obviously from fairyland! I saw they had never been in such a place in all their lives before — I don’t believe either of them had set foot in London until that day, and their wonder and delight and enjoyment of it all were so enormous that I had another helping of food and an extra half-bottle of wine. I enjoyed them, too, in their way, but I could see that their fowl and their wine were not a bit the same as mine. I once knew the restaurant they were really dining at — Grand Café de Paradis — some such name as that. He was an extraordinary looking chap, quite young, I should fancy, black hair, dark skin, and such burning eyes! I don’t know why, but I felt he was a bit out of his setting, and I kept thinking how I should like to see him in a monk’s robe. Madame was different. She was a lovely girl with amazing copper hair; dressed rather badly — of the people, I should imagine. But what a gaiety she had! I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but one had to smile with sheer joy at the sight of her face — it positively danced with mirth, and a good musician could have set it to music, I am sure. There was something a little queer — too pronounced, perhaps — about the lower part of her face. Perhaps it would have been an odd tune, but I know I should have liked to hear it!”
Ambrose lit a black Caporal cigarette — he had bought a packet on his way. He saw an enticing bottle, of rotund form, paying its visits to some neighbouring tables, and the happy fools made the acquaintance of Benedictine.
“Oh, yes, it is all very well,” Ambrose has been heard to say on being offered this agreeable and aromatic liqueur, “it’s nice enough, I daresay. But you should have tasted the real stuff. I got it at a little cafe in Soho some years ago — the Château de Chinon. No, it’s no good going there now, it’s quite different. All the walls are plate-glass and gold; the head waiter is called Maître d’hôtel, and I am told it’s quite the thing, both in southern and northern suburbs, to make up dinner parties at the Château — everything most correct, evening dress, fans, opera cloaks, ‘Hide-seek’ champagne, and stalls afterwards. One gets a glimpse of Bohemian life that way, and everybody says it’s been such a queer evening, but quite amusing, too. But you can’t get the real Benedictine there now.
“Where can you get it? Ah! I wish I knew. I never come across it. The bottle looks just the same, but it’s quite a different flavour. The phylloxera may be responsible, of course, but I don’t think it is. Perhaps the bottle that went round the table that night was like the powder in Jekyll and Hyde— its properties were the result of some strange accident. At all events, they were quite magical.”
The two adventurers went forth into the maze of streets and lost themselves again. Heaven knows where they went, by what ways they wandered, as with wide-gleaming eyes, arm locked in arm, they gazed on an enchanted scene which they knew must be London and nothing else — what else could it be? Indeed, now and again, Ambrose thought he recognized certain features and monuments and public places of which he had read; but still! That wine of the Château was, by all mundane reckonings, of the smallest, and one little glass of Benedictine with coffee could not disturb the weakest head: yet was it London, after all?
What they saw was, doubtless, the common world of the streets and squares, the gay ways and the dull, the broad, ringing, lighted roads and the dark, echoing passages; yet they saw it all as one sees a mystery play, through a veil. But the veil before their eyes was a transmuting vision, and its substance was shot as if it were samite, with wonderful and admirable golden ornaments. In the Eastern Tales, people find themselves thus suddenly transported into an unknown magical territory, with cities that are altogether things of marvel and enchantment, whose walls are pure gold, lighted by the shining of incomparable jewels; and Ambrose declared later that never till that evening had he realized the extraordinary and absolute truth to nature of the Arabian Nights. Those who were present on a certain occasion will not soon forget his rejoinder to “a gentleman in the company” who said that for truth to nature he went to George Eliot.
“I was speaking of men and women, Sir,” was the answer, “not of lice.”
The gentleman in question, who was quite an influential man — some whisper that he was an editor — was naturally very much annoyed.
Still, Ambrose maintained his position. He would even affirm that for crude realism the Eastern Tales were absolutely unique.
“Of course,” he said, “I take realism to mean absolute and essential truthfulness of description, as opposed to merely conventional treatment. Zola is a realist, not — as the imbeciles suppose — because he described — well, rather minutely — many unpleasant sights and sounds and smells and emotions, but because he was a poet, a seer; because, in spite of his pseudo-philosophies, his cheap materialisms, he saw the true heart, the reality of things. Take La Terre; do you think it is ‘realistic’ because it describes minutely, and probably faithfully, the event of a cow calving? Not in the least; the local vet. who was called in could probably do all that as well, or better. It is ‘realist’ because it goes behind all the brutalities, all the piggeries and inhumanities, of those frightful people, and shows us the strange, mad, transcendent passion that lay behind all those things — the wild desire for the land — a longing that burned, that devoured, that inflamed, that drove men to hell and death as would a passion for a goddess who might never be attained. Remember how ‘La Beauce’ is personified, how the earth swells and quickens before one, how every clod and morsel of the soil cries for its service and its sacrifice and its victims — I call that realism.
“The Arabian Nights is also profoundly realistic, though both the subject-matter and the method of treatment — the technique — are very different from the subject-matter and the technique of Zola. Of course, there may be people who think that if you describe a pigsty well you are a ‘realist,’ and if you describe an altar well you are ‘romantic.’ . . . I do not know that the mental processes of Crétins form a very interesting subject for discussion.”
One may surmise, if one will, that the sudden violence of the change was a sufficient cause of exaltation. That detestable Lupton left behind; no town, but a collection of stink and poison factories and slave quarters; that more detestable school, more ridiculous than the Academy of Lagado; that most detestable routine, games, lessons and the Doctor’s sermons — the transition was tremendous to the freedom of fabled London, of the unknown streets and unending multitudes.
Ambrose said he hesitated to talk of that walk, lest he should be thought an aimless liar. They strolled for hours seeing the most wonderful things, the most wonderful people; but he declared that the case was similar to that of the Benedictine — he could never discover again the regions that he had perambulated. Somewhere, he said, close to the Château de Chinon there must be a passage which had since been blocked up. By it was the entrance to Fairyland.
When at last they found Little Russell Row, the black cat was awaiting them with an expression which was pleased and pious, too; he had devoured the greater portion of that quarter-pound of dubious butter. Ambrose smoked black cigarettes in bed till the packet was finished.
It was an amazing week they spent in London. For a couple of days Nelly was busied in getting “things” and “odds and ends,” and, to her credit, she dressed the part most admirably. She abjured all the imperial purples, the Mediterranean blues, the shrieking lilacs that her class usually affects, and appeared at last a model of neat gaiety.
In the meantime, while these shopping expeditions were in progress, while Nelly consulted with those tall, dark-robed, golden-haired and awful Elegances which preside over the last mysteries of the draper and milliner, Ambrose sat at home in Little Russell Row and worked out the outlines of some fantasies that had risen in his mind. It was, in fact, during these days that he made the notes which were afterwards expanded into the curious Defence of Taverns, a book which is now rare and sought after by collectors. It is supposed that it was this work that was in poor Palmer’s mind when the earnest man referred with a sort of gloomy reticence to Meyrick’s later career. He had, in all probability, not read a line of it; but the title was certainly not a very pleasing one, judged by ordinary scholastic standards. And it must be said that the critical reception of the book was not exactly encouraging. One paper wondered candidly why such a book was ever written or printed; another denounced the author in good, set terms as an enemy of the great temperance movement; while a third, a Monthly Reviewer, declared that the work made his blood boil. Yet even the severest moralists should have seen by the epigraph that the Apes and Owls and Antiques hid mysteries of some sort, since a writer whose purposes were really evil and intemperate would never have chosen such a motto as: Jalalúd-Din praised the behaviour of the Inebriated and drank water from the well. But the reviewers thought that this was unintelligible nonsense, and merely a small part of the writer’s general purpose to annoy.
The rough sketch is contained in the first of the Note Books, which are still unpublished, and perhaps are likely to remain so. Meyrick jotted down his hints and ideas in the dingy “first floor front” of the Bloomsbury lodging-house, sitting at the rosewood “Davenport” which, to the landlady, seemed the last word in beautiful furniture.
The ménage rose late. What a relief it was to be free of the horrible bells that poisoned one’s rest at Lupton, to lie in peace as long as one liked, smoking a matutinal cigarette or two to the accompaniment of a cup of tea! Nelly was acquiring the art of the cigarette-smoker by degrees. She did not like the taste at all at first, but the wild and daring deviltry of the practice sustained her, and she persevered. And while they thus wasted the best hours of the day, Ambrose would make to pass before the bottom of the bed a long procession of the masters, each uttering his characteristic word of horror and astonishment as he went by, each whirled away by some invisible power in the middle of a sentence. Thus would enter Chesson, fully attired in cassock, cap and gown:
“Meyrick! It is impossible? Are you not aware that such conduct as this is entirely inconsistent with the tone of a great Public School? Have the Games . . . ” But he was gone; his legs were seen vanishing in a whirlwind which bore him up the chimney.
Then Horbury rose out of the carpet:
“Plain living and clear thinking are the notes of the System. A Spartan Discipline — Meyrick! Do you call this a Spartan Discipline? Smoking tobacco and reposing with . . . ” He shot like an arrow after the Head.
“We discourage luxury by every means in our power. Boy! This is luxury! Boy, boy! You are like the later Romans, boy! Heliogabalus was accustomed . . . ” The chimney consumed Palmer also; and he gave place to another.
“Roughly speaking, a boy should be always either in school or playing games. He should never be suffered to be at a loose end. Is this your idea of playing games? I tell you, Meyrick . . . ”
The game amused Nelly, more from its accompanying “business” and facial expression than from any particular comprehension of the dialogue. Ambrose saw that she could not grasp all the comedy of his situations, so he invented an Idyll between the Doctor and a notorious and flamboyant barmaid at the “Bell.” The fame of this lady ran great but not gracious through all Lupton. This proved a huge success; beginning as a mere episode, it gathered to itself a complicated network of incidents and adventures, of wild attempts and strange escapes, of stratagems and ambushes, of disguises and alarms. Indeed, as Ambrose instructed Nelly with great solemnity, the tale, at first an idyll, the simple, pastoral story of the loves of the Shepherd Chesson and the Nymph Bella, was rapidly becoming epical in its character. He talked of dividing it into twelve books! He enlarged very elaborately the Defeat of the Suitors. In this the dear old Head, disguised as a bookmaker, drugged the whisky of the young bloods who were accustomed to throng about the inner bar of the “Bell.” There was quite a long passage describing the compounding of the patent draught from various herbs, the enormous cook at the Head’s house enacting a kind of Canidia part, and helping in the concoction of the dose.
“Mrs. Belper,” the Doctor would observe, “This is most gratifying. I had no idea that your knowledge of simples was so extensive. Do I understand you to affirm that those few leaves which you hold in your hand will produce marked symptoms?”
“Bless your dear ‘art, Doctor Chesson, and if you’ll forgive me for talking so to such a learned gentleman, and so good, I’m sure, but you’ll find there’s nothing in the world like it. Often and often have I ‘eard my pore old mother that’s dead and gone these forty year come Candlemas . . . ”
“Mrs. Belper, Mrs. Belper, I am surprised at you! Are you not aware that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has pronounced the observance of the festival you so lightly name to be of a highly superstitious nature? Your deceased mother, you were saying, will have entered into her reward forty years ago on February the second of next year? Is not this the case?”
“These forty years came Febbymas, I mean, and a good woman she was, and never have I seen a larger wart on the nose and her legs bad as bad for years and years!”
“These details, though, no doubt, of high personal interest, seem hardly germane to our present undertaking. However, Mrs. Belper, proceed in your remarks.”
“And thank you kindly, Sir, and not forgetting you are a clergyman — but there! we can’t all of us be everything. And my pore mother, as I was saying, Sir, she said, again and again, that if she’d been like some folks she’d a made a fortune in golden money from this very yarb I’m a-showing you, Sir.”
“Dear me, Mrs. Belper! You interest me deeply. I have often thought how wrong it is of us to neglect, as undoubtedly we do neglect, the bounteous gifts of the kindly earth. Your lamented mother used this specific with remarkable success?”
“Lord a mercy, Doctor ‘Chesson! elephants couldn’t a stood against it, nor yet whales, being as how it’s stronger than the strongest gunpowder that was ever brewed or blasted, and miles better than the nasty rubbidge you get in them doctors’ shops, and a pretty penny they make you pay for it and no better than calomel, if you ask me, Sir. But be it the strongest of the strong, I’ll take my Gospel oath it’s weak to what my pore mother made, and that anybody in Much Moddle parish would tell you, for man, woman or child who took one of Mrs. Marjoram’s Mixtures and got over it, remember it, he would, until his dying day. And my pore old mother, she was that funny — never was a cheerfuller woman, I do believe, and when Tom Copus, the lame fiddler, he got married, pore mother! though she could hardly walk, her legs was that bad, come she would, and if she didn’t slip a little of the mixture into the beer when everybody was looking another way! Pore, dear soul! as she said herself afterwards, ‘mirth becomes marriage,’ and so to be sure it does, and merry they all were that day that didn’t touch the beer, preferring spirits, which pore mother couldn’t get at, being locked up — a nasty, mean trick, I call it, and always will.”
“Enough, Mrs. Belper, enough! You have amply satisfied me as to the potency of the late Mrs. Marjoram’s pharmacopoeia. We will, if you have no objection, Mrs. Belper, make the mixture — to use the words of Shakespeare —‘slab and thick.’”
“And bless your kind ‘art, Sir, and a good, kind master you’ve always been to me, if you ‘aven’t got enough ’ere to lay out all the Lupton town, call me a Dutchwoman, and that I never was, nor pore Belper neither.”
“Certainly not, Mrs. Belper. The Dutch belong to a different branch of the great Teutonic stock, or, if identity had ever existed, the two races have long been differentiated. I think, Mrs. Belper, that the most eminent physicians have recognised the beneficial effects of a gentle laxative during the treacherous (though delightful) season of spring?”
“Law bless you, Sir, you’re right, as you always are, or why, Doctor? As my pore mother used to say when she made up the mixture: ‘Scour ’em out is the right way about!’ And laugh she would as she pounded the stuff up till I really thought she would ‘a busted, and shaking like the best blancmanges all the while.”
“Mrs. Belper, you have removed a weight from my mind. You think, then, that I shall be freed from all unfair competition while I pay my addresses to my young friend, Miss Floyer?”
“As free you will be, Doctor Chesson, Sir, as the little birds in the air; for not one of them young fellers will stand on his feet for days, and groans and ‘owls will be the best word that mortal man will speak, and bless you they will with their dying breath. So, Sir, you’ll ‘ave the sweet young lady, bless her dear ‘art, all to yourself, and if it’s twins, don’t blame me!”
“Mrs. Belper, your construction, if I may say so, is somewhat proleptic in its character. Still, I am sure that your meaning is good. Ha! I hear the bell for afternoon school.”
The Doctor’s voice happened to be shrill and piercing, with something of the tone of the tooth-comb and tissue-paper; while the fat cook spoke in a suety, husky contralto. Ambrose reproduced these peculiarities with the gift of the born mimic, adding appropriate antic and gesture to grace the show, and Nelly’s appreciation of its humours was intense.
Day by day new incidents and scenes were added. The Head, in the pursuit of his guilty passion, hid in the coal-cellar of the “Bell,” and, rustling sounds being heard, evaded detection for a while by imitating the barks of a terrier in chase of a rat. Nelly liked to hear the “Wuff! wuff! wuff!” which was introduced at this point. She liked also the final catastrophe, when the odd man of the “Bell” burst into the bar and said: “Dang my eyes, if it ain’t the Doctor! I seed his cap and gown as he run round and round the coals on all fours, a-growling ‘orrible.” To which the landlady rejoined: “Don’t tell your silly lies here! How could he growl, him being a clergyman?” And all the loafers joined in the chorus: “That’s right, Tom; why do you talk such silly lies as that — him being a clergyman?”
They laughed so loud and so merrily over their morning tea and these lunacies that the landlady doubted gravely as to their marriage lines. She cared nothing; they had paid what she asked, money down in advance, and, as she said: “Young gentlemen will have their fun with the young ladies — so what’s the good of talking?”
Breakfast came at length. They gave the landlady a warning bell some half-hour in advance, so the odd food was, at all events, not cold. Afterwards Nelly sallied off on her shopping expeditions, which, as might have been expected, she enjoyed hugely, and Ambrose stayed alone, with his pen and ink and a fat notebook which had captured his eye in a stationer’s window.
Under these odd circumstances, then, he laid the foundations of his rare and precious Defence of Taverns, which is now termed by those fortunate enough to possess copies as a unique and golden treatise. Though he added a good deal in later years and remodelled and rearranged freely, there is a certain charm of vigour and freshness about the first sketch which is quite delightful in its way. Take, for example, the description of the whole world overwhelmed with sobriety: a deadly absence of inebriation annulling and destroying all the works and thoughts of men, the country itself at point to perish of the want of good liquor and good drinkers. He shows how there is grave cause to dread that, by reason of this sad neglect of the Dionysiac Mysteries, humanity is fast falling backward from the great heights to which it had ascended, and is in imminent danger of returning to the dumb and blind and helpless condition of the brutes.
“How else,” he says, “can one account for the stricken state in which all the animal world grows and is eternally impotent? To them, strange, vast and enormous powers and faculties have been given. Consider, for example, the curious equipments of two odd extremes in this sphere — the ant and the elephant. The ant, if one may say so, is very near to us. We have our great centres of industry, our Black Country and our slaves who, if not born black, become black in our service. And the ants, too, have their black, enslaved races who do their dirty work for them, and are, perhaps, congratulated on their privileges as sharing in the blessings of civilisation — though this may be a refinement. The ant slaves, I believe, will rally eagerly to the defence of the nest and the eggs, and they say that the labouring classes are Liberal to the core. Nay; we grow mushrooms by art, and so they. In some lands, I think, they make enormous nests which are the nuisance and terror of the country. We have Manchester and Lupton and Leeds, and many such places — one would think them altogether civilised.
“The elephant, again, has many gifts which we lack. Note the curious instinct (or intuition, rather) of danger. The elephant knows, for example, when a bridge is unsafe, and refuses to pass, where a man would go on to destruction. One might examine in the same way all the creatures, and find in them singular capacities.
“Yet — they have no art. They see — but they see not. They hear — and they hear not. The odour in their nostrils has no sweetness at all. They have made no report of all the wonders that they knew. Their houses are, sometimes, as ingenious as a Chemical Works, but never is there any beauty for beauty’s sake.
“It is clear that their state is thus desolate, because of the heavy pall of sobriety that hangs over them all; and it scarcely seems to have occurred to our ‘Temperance’ advocates that when they urge on us the example and abstinence of the beasts they have advanced the deadliest of all arguments against their nostrum. The Laughing Jackass is a teetotaller, doubtless, but no sane man should desire to be a Laughing Jackass.
“But the history of the men who have attained, who have done the glorious things of the earth and have become for ever exalted is the history of the men who have quested the Cup. Dionysius, said the Greeks, civilised the world; and the Bacchic Mystery was, naturally, the heart and core of Greek civilisation.
“Note the similitudes of Vine and Vineyard in Old Testament.
“Note the Quest of the San Graal.
“Note Rabelais and La Dive Bouteille.
“Place yourself in imagination in a Gothic Cathedral of the thirteenth century and assist at High Mass. Then go to the nearest Little Bethel, and look, and listen. Consider the difference in the two buildings, in those who worship in one and listen and criticise in the other. You have the difference between the Inebriated and the Sober, displayed in their works. As Little Bethel is to Tintern, so is Sobriety to Inebriation.
“Modern civilisation has advanced in many ways? Yes. Bethel has a stucco front. This material was quite unknown to the builders of Tintern Abbey. Advanced? What is advancement? Freedom from excesses, from extravagances, from wild enthusiasms? Small Protestant tradesmen are free from all these things, certainly. But is the joy of Adulteration to be the last goal, the final Initiation of the Race of Men? Cælumque tueri— to sand the sugar?
“The Flagons of the Song of Songs did not contain ginger-beer.
“But the worst of it is we shall not merely descend to the beasts. We shall fall very far below the beasts. A black fellow is good, and a white fellow is good. But the white fellow who ‘goes Fantee’ does not become a negro — he becomes something infinitely worse, a horrible mass of the most putrid corruption.
“If we can clear our minds of the horrible cant of our ‘civilisation,’ if we can look at a modern ‘industrial centre’ with eyes purged of illusions, we shall have some notion of the awful horror to which we are descending in our effort to become as the ants and bees — creatures who know nothing of
“I doubt if we can really make this effort. Blacks, Stinks, Desolations, Poisons, Hell’s Nightmare generally have, I suspect, worked themselves into the very form and mould of our thoughts. We are sober, and perhaps the Tavern door is shut for ever against us.
“Now and then, perhaps, at rarer and still rarer intervals, a few of us will hear very faintly the far echoes of the holy madness within the closed door:
“When up the thyrse is raised, and when the sound
Of sacred orgies flies ‘around, around.‘
“Which is the Sonus Epulantium in Æterno Convivio.
“But this we shall not be able to discern. Very likely we shall take the noise of this High Choir for the horrid mirth of Hell. How strange it is that those who are pledged officially and ceremonially, as it were, to a Rite of Initiation which figures certainly a Feast, should in all their thoughts and words and actions be continually blaspheming and denying all the uses and ends of feastings and festivals.
“This is not the refusal of the species for the sake of enjoying perfectly the most beautiful and desirable genus; it is the renouncing of species and genus, the pronouncing of Good to be Evil. The Universal being denied, the Particular is degraded and defiled. What is called ‘The Drink Curse’ is the natural and inevitable result and sequence of the ‘Protestant Reformation.’ If the clear wells and fountains of the magic wood are buried out of sight, then men (who must have Drink) will betake them to the Slime Ponds and Poison Pools.
“In the Graal Books there is a curse — an evil enchantment — on the land of Logres because the mystery of the Holy Vessel is disregarded. The Knight sees the Dripping Spear and the Shining Cup pass before him, and says no word. He asks no question as to the end and meaning of this ceremony. So the land is blasted and barren and songless, and those who dwell in it are in misery.
“Every day of our lives we see the Graal carried before us in a wonderful order, and every day we leave the question unasked, the Mystery despised and neglected. Yet if we could ask that question, bowing down before these Heavenly and Glorious Splendours and Hallows — then every man should have the meat and drink that his soul desired; the hall would be filled with odours of Paradise, with the light of Immortality.
“In the books the Graal was at last taken away because of men’s unworthiness. So it will be, I suppose. Even now, the Quester’s adventure is a desperate one — few there be that find It.
“Ventilation and sanitation are well enough in their way. But it would not be very satisfactory to pass the day in a ventilated and sanitated Hell with nothing to eat or drink. If one is perishing of hunger and thirst, sanitation seems unimportant enough.
“How wonderful, how glorious it would be if the Kingdom of the Great Drinkers could be restored! If we could only sweep away all the might of the Sober Ones — the factory builders, the poison makers, the politicians, the manufacturers of bad books and bad pictures, together with Little Bethel and the morality of Mr. Mildmay, the curate (a series of negative propositions)— then imagine the Great Light of the Great Inebriation shining on every face, and not any work of man’s hands, from a cathedral to a penknife, without the mark of the Tavern upon it! All the world a great festival; every well a fountain of strong drink; every river running with the New Wine; the Sangraal brought back from Sarras, restored to the awful shrine of Cor-arbennic, the Oracle of the Dive Bouteille once more freely given, the ruined Vineyard flourishing once more, girt about by shining, everlasting walls! Then we should hear the Old Songs again, and they would dance the Old Dances, the happy, ransomed people, Commensals and Compotators of the Everlasting Tavern.”
The whole treatise, of which this extract is a fragment in a rudimentary and imperfect stage, is, of course, an impassioned appeal for the restoration of the quickening, exuberant imagination, not merely in art, but in all the inmost places of life. There is more than this, too. Here and there one can hear, as it were, the whisper and the hint of deeper mysteries, visions of a great experiment and a great achievement to which some men may be called. In his own words: “Within the Tavern there is an Inner Tavern, but the door of it is visible to few indeed.”
In Ambrose’s mind in the after years the stout notebook was dear, perhaps as a substitute for that aroma of the past in a phial which he has declared so desirable an invention. It stood, not so much for what was written in it as for the place and the circumstances in which it was written. It recalled Little Russell Row and Nelly, and the evenings at the Château de Chinon, where, night by night, they served still stranger, more delicious meats, and the red wine revealed more clearly its high celestial origin. One evening was diversified by an odd encounter.
A middle-aged man, sitting at an adjoining table, was evidently in want of matches, and Ambrose handed his box with the sympathetic smile which one smoker gives to another in such cases. The man — he had a black moustache and a small, pointed beard — thanked him in fluent English with a French accent, and they began to talk of casual things, veering, by degrees, in the direction of the arts. The Frenchman smiled at Meyrick’s enthusiasm.
“What a life you have before you!” he said. “Don’t you know that the populace always hates the artist — and kills him if it can? You are an artist and mystic, too. What a fate!
“Yes; but it is that applause, that réclame that comes after the artist is dead,” he went on, replying to some objection of Ambrose’s; “it is that which is the worst cruelty of all. It is fine for Burns, is it not, that his stupid compatriots have not ceased to utter follies about him for the last eighty years? Scotchmen? But they should be ashamed to speak his name! And Keats, and how many others in my country and in yours and in all countries? The imbeciles are not content to calumniate, to persecute, to make wretched the artist in his lifetime. They follow him with their praise to the grave — the grave that they have digged! Praise of the populace! Praise of a race of pigs! For, you see, while they are insulting the dead with their compliments they are at the same time insulting the living with their abuse.”
He dropped into silence; from his expression he seemed to be cursing “the populace” with oaths too frightful to be uttered. He rose suddenly and turned to Ambrose.
“Artist — and mystic. Yes. You will probably be crucified. Good evening . . . and a fine martyrdom to you!”
He was gone with a charming smile and a delightful bow to “Madame.” Ambrose looked after him with a puzzled face; his last words had called up some memory that he could not capture; and then suddenly he recollected the old, ragged Irish fiddler, the player of strange fantasies under the tree in the outskirts of Lupton. He thought of his phrase about “red martyrdom”; it was an odd coincidence.
The phrases kept recurring to his mind after they had gone out, and as they wandered through the lighted streets with all their strange and variegated show, with glittering windows and glittering lamps, with the ebb and flow of faces, the voices and the laughter, the surging crowds about the theatre doors, the flashing hansoms and the omnibuses lumbering heavily along to strange regions, such as Turnham Green and Castlenau, Cricklewood and Stoke Newington — why, they were as unknown as cities in Cathay!
It was a dim, hot night; all the great city smoked as with a mist, and a tawny moon rose through films of cloud far in the vista of the east. Ambrose thought with a sudden recollection that the moon, that world of splendour, was shining in a farther land, on the coast of the wild rocks, on the heaving sea, on the faery apple-garths in Avalon, where, though the apples are always golden, yet the blossoms of enchantment never fade, but hang for ever against the sky.
They were passing a half-lit street, and these dreams were broken by the sudden clanging, rattling music of a piano-organ. For a moment they saw the shadowy figures of the children as they flitted to and fro, dancing odd measures in the rhythm of the tune. Then they came into a long, narrow way with a church spire in the distance, and near the church they passed the “church-shop”— Roman, evidently, from the subjects and the treatment of the works of art on view. But it was strange! In the middle of the window was a crude, glaring statue of some saint. He was in bright red robes, sprinkled with golden stars; the blood rained down from a wound in his forehead, and with one hand he drew the scarlet vestment aside and pointed to the dreadful gash above his heart, and from this, again, the bloody drops fell thick. The colours stared and shrieked, and yet, through the bad, cheap art there seemed to shine a rapture that was very near to beauty; the thing expressed was so great that it had to a certain extent overcome the villainy of the expression.
They wandered vaguely, after their custom. Ambrose was silent; he was thinking of Avalon and “Red Martyrdom” and the Frenchman’s parting salutation, of the vision in one of the old books, “the Man clothed in a robe redder and more shining than burning fire, and his feet and his hands and his face were of a like flame, and five angels in fiery vesture stood about him, and at the feet of the Man the ground was covered with a ruddy dew.”
They passed under an old church tower that rose white in the moonlight above them. The air had cleared, the mist had floated away, and now the sky glowed violet, and the white stones of the classic spirit shone on high. From it there came suddenly a tumult of glad sound, exultant bells in ever-changing order, pealing out as if to honour some great victory, so that the mirth of the street below became but a trivial restless noise. He thought of some passage that he had read but could not distinctly remember: a ship was coming back to its haven after a weary and tempestuous voyage over many dreadful seas, and those on board saw the tumult in the city as their sails were sighted; heard afar the shouts of gladness from the rejoicing people; heard the bells from all the spires and towers break suddenly into triumphant chorus, sounding high above the washing of the waves.
Ambrose roused himself from his dreams. They had been walking in a circle and had returned almost to the street of the Château, though, their knowledge of the district being of an unscientific character, they were under the impression that they were a mile or so away from that particular point. As it happened, they had not entered this street before, and they were charmed at the sudden appearance of stained glass lighted up from within. The colour was rich and good; there were flourished scrolls and grotesques in the Renaissance manner, many emblazoned shields in ruby and gold and azure; and the centre-piece showed the Court of the Beer King — a jovial and venerable figure attended by a host of dwarfs and kobolds, all holding on high enormous mugs of beer. They went in boldly and were glad. It was the famous “Three Kings” in its golden and unreformed days, but this they knew not. The room was of moderate size, very low, with great dark beams in the white ceiling. White were the walls; on the plaster, black-letter texts with vermilion initials praised the drinker’s art, and more kobolds, in black and red, loomed oddly in unsuspected corners. The lighting, presumably, was gas, but all that was visible were great antique lanterns depending from iron hooks, and through their dull green glass only a dim radiance fell upon the heavy oak tables and the drinkers. From the middle beam an enormous bouquet of fresh hops hung on high; there was a subdued murmur of talk, and now and then the clatter of the lid of a mug, as fresh beer was ordered. In one corner there was a kind of bar; behind it a couple of grim women — the kobolds apparently — performed their office; and above, on a sort of rack, hung mugs and tankards of all sizes and of all fantasies. There were plain mugs of creamy earthenware, mugs gaudily and oddly painted with garlanded goats, with hunting scenes, with towering castles, with flaming posies of flowers. Then some friend of the drunken, some sage who had pried curiously into the secrets of thirst, had made a series of wonders in glass, so shining and crystalline that to behold them was as if one looked into a well, for every glitter of the facets gave promise of satisfaction. There were the mugs, capacious and very deep, crowned for the most part not with mere plain lids of common use and make, but with tall spires in pewter, richly ornamented, evident survivals from the Middle Ages. Ambrose’s eyes glistened; the place was altogether as he would have designed it. Nelly, too, was glad to sit down, for they had walked longer than usual. She was refreshed by a glass of some cool drink with a borage flower and a cherry floating in it, and Ambrose ordered a mug of beer.
It is not known how many of these krugs he emptied. It was, as has been noted, a sultry night, and the streets were dusty, and that glass of Benedictine after dinner rather evokes than dismisses the demon of thirst. Still, Munich beer is no hot and rebellious drink, so the causes of what followed must probably be sought for in other springs. Ambrose took a deep draught, gazed upward to the ceiling, and ordered another mug of beer for himself and some more of the cool and delicate and flowery beverage for Nelly. When the drink was set upon the board, he thus began, without title or preface:
“You must know, Nelly dear,” he said, “that the marriage of Panurge, which fell out in due time (according to the oracle and advice of the Holy Bottle), was by no means a fortunate one. For, against all the counsel of Pantagruel and of Friar John, and indeed of all his friends, Panurge married in a fit of spleen and obstinacy the crooked and squinting daughter of the little old man who sold green sauce in the Rue Quincangrogne at Tours — you will see the very place in a few days, and then you will understand everything. You do not understand that? My child, that is impiety, since it accuses the Zeitgest, who is certainly the only god that ever existed, as you will see more fully demonstrated in Huxley and Spencer and all the leading articles in all the leading newspapers. Quod erat demonstrandum. To be still more precise: You must know that when I am dead, and a very great man indeed, many thousands of people will come from all the quarters of the globe — not forgetting the United States — to Lupton. They will come and stare very hard at the Old Grange, which will have an inscription about me on the wall; they will spend hours in High School; they will walk all round Playing Fields; they will cut little bits off ‘brooks’ and ‘quarries.’ Then they will view the Sulphuric Acid works, the Chemical Manure factory and the Free Library, and whatever other stink-pots and cesspools Lupton town may contain; they will finally enjoy the view of the Midland Railway Goods Station. Then they will say: ‘Now we understand him; now one sees how he got all his inspiration in that lovely old school and the wonderful English country-side.’ So you see that when I show you the Rue Quincangrogne you will perfectly understand this history. Let us drink; the world shall never be drowned again, so have no fear.
“Well, the fact remains that Panurge, having married this hideous wench aforesaid, was excessively unhappy. It was in vain that he argued with his wife in all known languages and in some that are unknown, for, as she said, she only knew two languages, the one of Touraine and the other of the Stick, and this second she taught Panurge per modum passionis— that is by beating him, and this so thoroughly that poor Pilgarlic was sore from head to foot. He was a worthy little fellow, but the greatest coward that ever breathed. Believe me, illustrious drinkers and most precious. . . . Nelly, never was man so wretched as this Panurge since Paradise fell from Adam. This is the true doctrine; I heard it when I was at Eleusis. You enquire what was the matter? Why, in the first place, this vile wretch whom they all called — so much did they hate her — La Vie Mortale, or Deadly Life, this vile wretch, I say: what do you think that she did when the last note of the fiddles had sounded and the wedding guests had gone off to the ‘Three Lampreys’ to kill a certain worm — the which worm is most certainly immortal, since it is not dead yet! Well, then, what did Madame Panurge? Nothing but this: She robbed her excellent and devoted husband of all that he had. Doubtless you remember how, in the old days, Panurge had played ducks and drakes with the money that Pantagruel had given him, so that he borrowed on his corn while it was still in the ear, and before it was sown, if we enquire a little more closely. In truth, the good little man never had a penny to bless himself withal, for the which cause Pantagruel loved him all the more dearly. So that when the Dive Bouteille gave its oracle, and Panurge chose his spouse, Pantagruel showed how preciously he esteemed a hearty spender by giving him such a treasure that the goldsmiths who live under the bell of St. Gatien still talk of it before they dine, because by doing so their mouths water, and these salivary secretions are of high benefit to the digestion: read on this, Galen. If you would know how great and glorious this treasure was, you must go to the Library of the Archevêché at Tours, where they will show you a vast volume bound in pigskin, the name of which I have forgotten. But this book is nothing else than the list of all the wonders and glories of Pantagruel’s wedding present to Panurge; it contains surprising things, I can tell you, for, in good coin of the realm alone, never was gift that might compare with it; and besides the common money there were ancient pieces, the very names of which are now incomprehensible, and incomprehensible they will remain till the coming of the Coqcigrues. There was, for instance, a great gold Sol, a world in itself, as some said truly, and I know not how many myriad myriad of Étoiles, all of the finest silver that was ever minted, and Anges–Gardiens, which the learned think must have been first coined at Angers, though others will have it that they were the same as our Angels; and, as for Roses de Paradis and Couronnes Immortelles, I believe he had as many of them as ever he would. Beauties and joys he was to keep for pocket-money; small change is sometimes great gain. And, as I say, no sooner had Panurge married that accursed daughter of the Rue Quincangrogne than she robbed him of everything, down to the last brass farthing. The fact is that the woman was a witch; she was also something else which I leave out for the present. But, if you will believe me, she cast such a spell upon Panurge that he thought himself an absolute beggar. Thus he would look at his Sol d’Or and say: ‘What is the use of that? It is only a great bright lump: I can see it every day.’ Then when they said, ‘But how about those Anges–Gardiens?’ he would reply, ‘Where are they? Have you seen them? I never see them. Show them to me,’ and so with all else; and all the while that villain of a woman beat, thumped and belaboured him so that the tears were always in his eyes, and they say you could hear him howling all over the world. Everybody said that he had made a pretty mess of it, and would come to a bad end.
“Luckily for him, this . . . witch of a wife of his would sometimes doze off for a few minutes, and then he had a little peace, and he would wonder what had become of all the gay girls and gracious ladies that he had known in old times — for he had played the devil with the women in his day and could have taught Ovid lessons in arte amoris. Now, of course, it was as much as his life was worth to mention the very name of one of these ladies, and as for any little sly visits, stolen endearments, hidden embraces, or any small matters of that kind, it was good-bye, I shall see you next Nevermas. Nor was this all, but worse remains behind; and it is my belief that it is the thought of what I am going to tell you that makes the wind wail and cry of winter nights, and the clouds weep, and the sky look black; for in truth it is the greatest sorrow that ever was since the beginning of the world. I must out with it quick, or I shall never have done: in plain English, and as true as I sit here drinking good ale, not one drop or minim or drachm or pennyweight of drink had Panurge tasted since the day of his wedding! He had implored mercy, he had told her how he had served Gargantua and Pantagruel and had got into the habit of drinking in his sleep, and his wife had merely advised him to go to the devil — she was not going to let him so much as look at the nasty stuff. ‘“Touch not, taste not, smell not,” is my motto,’ said she. She gave him a blue ribbon, which she said would make up for it. ‘What do you want with Drink?’ said she. ‘Go and do business instead, it’s much better for you.’
“Sad, then, and sorry enough was the estate of poor Panurge. At last, so wretched did he become, that he took advantage of one of his wife’s dozes and stole away to the good Pantagruel, and told him the whole story — and a very bad one it was — so that the tears rolled down Pantagruel’s cheeks from sheer grief, and each teardrop contained exactly one hundred and eighteen gallons of aqueous fluid, according to the calculations of the best geometers. The great man saw that the case was a desperate one, and Heaven knew, he said, whether it could be mended or not; but certain it was that a business such as this could not be settled in a hurry, since it was not like a game at shove-ha’penny to be got over between two gallons of wine. He therefore counselled Panurge to have patience and bear with his wife for a few thousand years, and in the meantime they would see what could be done. But, lest his patience should wear out, he gave him an odd drug or medicine, prepared by the great artist of the Mountains of Cathay, and this he was to drop into his wife’s glass — for though he might have no drink, she was drunk three times a day, and she would sleep all the longer, and leave him awhile in peace. This Panurge very faithfully performed, and got a little rest now and again, and they say that while that devil of a woman snored and snorted he was able, by odd chances once or twice, to get hold of a drop of the right stuff — good old Stingo from the big barrel — which he lapped up as eagerly as a kitten laps cream. Others there be who declare that once or twice he got about his sad old tricks, while his ugly wife was sleeping in the sun; the women on the Maille make no secret of their opinion that his old mistress, Madame Sophia, was seen stealing in and out of the house as slyly as you please, and God knows what goes on when the door is shut. But the Tourainians were always sad gossips, and one must not believe all that one hears. I leave out the flat scandal-mongers who are bold enough to declare that he kept one mistress at Jerusalem, another at Eleusis, another in Egypt and about as many as are contained in the seraglio of the Grand Turk, scattered up and down in the towns and villages of Asia; but I do believe there was some kissing in dark corners, and a curtain hung across one room in the house could tell odd tales. Nevertheless, La Vie Mortale (a pest on her!) was more often awake than asleep, and when she was awake Panurge’s case was worse than ever. For, you see, the woman was no piece of a fool, and she saw sure enough that something was going on. The Stingo in the barrel was lower than of rights, and more than once she had caught her husband looking almost happy, at which she beat the house about his ears. Then, another time, Madame Sophia dropped her ring, and again this sweet lady came one morning so strongly perfumed that she scented the whole place, and when La Vie woke up it smelt like a church. There was fine work then, I promise you; the people heard the bangs and curses and shrieks and groans as far as Amboise on the one side and Luynes on the other; and that year the Loire rose ten feet higher than the banks on account of Panurge’s tears. As a punishment, she made him go and be industrial, and he built ten thousand stink-pot factories with twenty thousand chimneys, and all the leaves and trees and green grass and flowers in the world were blackened and died, and all the waters were poisoned so that there were no perch in the Loire, and salmon fetched forty sols the pound at Chinon market. As for the men and women, they became yellow apes and listened to a codger named Calvin, who told them they would all be damned eternally (except himself and his friends), and they found his doctrine very comforting, and probable too, since they had the sense to know that they were more than half damned already. I don’t know whether Panurge’s fate was worse on this occasion or on another when his wife found a book in his writing, full from end to end of poetry; some of it about the wonderful treasure that Pantagruel had given him, which he was supposed to have forgotten. Some of it verses to those old light-o’-loves of his, with a whole epic in praise of his mistress-in-chief, Sophia. Then, indeed, there was the very deuce to pay; it was bread and water, stripes and torment, all day long, and La Vie swore a great oath that if he ever did it again he should be sent to spend the rest of his life in Manchester, whereupon he fell into a swoon from horrid fright and lay like a log, so that everybody thought he was dead.
“All this while the great Pantagruel was not idle. Perceiving how desperate the matter was, he summoned the Thousand and First Great OEcumenical Council of all the sages of the wide world, and when the fathers had come, and had heard High Mass at St. Gatien’s, the session was opened in a pavilion in the meadows by the Loire just under the Lanterne of Roche Corbon, whence this Council is always styled the great and holy Council of the Lantern. If you want to know where the place is you can do so very easily, for there is a choice tavern on the spot where the pavilion stood, and there you may have malelotte and friture and amber wine of Vouvray, better than in any tavern in Touraine. As for the history of the acts of this great Council, it is still a-writing, and so far only two thousand volumes in elephant folio have been printed sub signo Lucernæ cum permissu superiorum. However, as it is necessary to be brief, it may be said that the holy fathers of the Lantern, after having heard the whole case as it was exposed to them by the great clerks of Pantagruel, having digested all the arguments, looked into the precedents, applied themselves to the doctrine, explored the hidden wisdom, consulted the Canons, searched the Scriptures, divided the dogma, distinguished the distinctions and answered the questions, resolved with one voice that there was no help in the world for Panurge, save only this: he must forthwith achieve the most high, noble and glorious quest of the Sangraal, for no other way was there under heaven by which he might rid himself of that pestilent wife of his, La Vie Mortale.
“And on some other occasion,” said Ambrose, “you may hear of the last voyage of Panurge to the Glassy Isle of the Holy Graal, of the incredible adventures that he achieved, of the dread perils through which he passed, of the great wonders and marvels and compassions of the way, of the manner in which he received the title Plentyn y Tonau, which signifies ‘Child of the Waterfloods,’ and how at last he gloriously attained the vision of the Sangraal, and was most happily translated out of the power of La Vie Mortale.”
“And where is he now?” said Nelly, who had found the tale interesting but obscure.
“It is not precisely known — opinions vary. But there are two odd things: one is that he is exactly like that man in the red dress whose statue we saw in the shop window to-night; and the other is that from that day to this he has never been sober for a single minute.
“Calix meus inebrians quam præclarus est!”
Ambrose took a great draught from the mug and emptied it, and forthwith rapped the lid for a fresh supply. Nelly was somewhat nervous; she was afraid he might begin to sing, for there were extravagances in the history of Panurge which seemed to her to be of alcoholic source. However, he did not sing; he lapsed into silence, gazing at the dark beams, the hanging hops, the bright array of the tankards and the groups of drinkers dotted about the room. At a neighbouring table two Germans were making a hearty meal, chumping the meat and smacking their lips in a kind of heavy ecstasy. He had but little German, but he caught scraps of the conversation.
One man said:
“Heavenly swine cutlets!”
And the other answered:
“Nelly,” said Ambrose, “I have a great inspiration!”
She trembled visibly.
“Yes; I have talked so much that I am hungry. We will have some supper.”
They looked over the list of strange eatables and, with the waiter’s help, decided on Leberwurst and potato-salad as light and harmless. With this they ate crescent loaves, sprinkled with caraway seeds: there was more Munich Lion–Brew and more flowery drink, with black coffee, a fine and a Maraschino to end all. For Nelly the kobolds began to perform a grotesque and mystic dance in the shadows, the glass tankards on the rack glittered strangely, the white walls with the red and black texts retreated into vast distances, and the bouquet of hops seemed suspended from a remote star. As for Ambrose, he was certainly not ebrius according to the Baron’s definition; he was hardly ebriolus; but he was sensible, let us say, of a certain quickening of the fancy, of a more vivid and poignant enjoyment of the whole situation, of the unutterable gaiety of this mad escape from the conventions of Lupton.
“It was a Thursday night,” said Ambrose in the after years, “and we were thinking of starting for Touraine either the next morning or on Saturday at latest. It will always be bright in my mind, that picture — the low room with the oak beams, the glittering tankards, the hops hanging from the ceiling, and Nelly sitting before me sipping the scented drink from a green glass. It was the last night of gaiety, and even then gaiety was mixed with odd patterns — the Frenchman’s talk about martyrdom, and the statue of the saint pointing to the marks of his passion, standing in that dyed vesture with his rapt, exultant face; and then the song of final triumph and deliverance that rang out on the chiming bells from the white spire. I think the contrast of this solemn undertone made my heart all the lighter; I was in that odd state in which one delights to know that one is not being understood — so I told poor Nelly ‘the story of Panurge’s marriage to La Vie Mortale; I am sure she thought I was drunk!
“We went home in a hansom, and agreed that we would have just one cigarette and then go to bed. It was settled that we would catch the night boat to Dieppe on the next day, and we both laughed with joy at the thought of the adventure. And then — I don’t know how it was — Nelly began to tell me all about herself. She had never said a word before; I had never asked her — I never ask anybody about their past lives. What does it matter? You know a certain class of plot — novelists are rather fond of using it — in which the hero’s happiness is blasted because he finds out that the life of his wife or his sweetheart has not always been spotless as the snow. Why should it be spotless as the snow? What is the hero that he should be dowered with the love of virgins of Paradise? I call it cant — all that — and I hate it; I hope Angel Clare was eventually entrapped by a young person from Piccadilly Circus — she would probably be much too good for him! So, you see, I was hardly likely to have put any very searching questions to Nelly; we had other things to talk about.
“But this night I suppose she was a bit excited. It had been a wild and wonderful week. The transition from that sewage-pot in the Midlands to the Abbey of Theleme was enough to turn any head; we had laughed till we had grown dizzy. The worst of that miserable school discipline is is that it makes one take an insane and quite disproportionate enjoyment in little things, in the merest trifles which ought really to be accepted as a matter of course. I assure you that every minute that I spent in bed after seven o’clock was to me a grain of Paradise, a moment of delight. Of course, it’s ridiculous; let a man get up early or get up late, as he likes or as he finds best — and say no more about it. But at that wretched Lupton early rising was part of the infernal blether and blatter of the place, that made life there like a long dinner in which every dish has the same sauce. It may be a good sauce enough; but one is sick of the taste of it. According to our Bonzes there, getting up early on a winter’s day was a high virtue which acquired merit. I believe I should have liked a hard chair to sit in of my own free will, if one of our old fools — Palmer — had not always been gabbling about the horrid luxury of some boys who had arm-chairs in their studies. Unless you were doing something or other to make yourself very uncomfortable, he used to say you were like the ‘later Romans.’ I am sure he believed that those lunatics who bathe in the Serpentine on Christmas Day would go straight to heaven!
“And there you are. I would awake at seven o’clock from persistent habit, and laugh as I realised that I was in Little Russell Row and not at the Old Grange. Then I would doze off again and wake up at intervals — eight, nine, ten — and chuckle to myself with ever-increasing enjoyment. It was just the same with smoking. I don’t suppose I should have touched a cigarette for years if smoking had not been one of the mortal sins in our Bedlam Decalogue. I don’t know whether smoking is bad for boys or not; I should think not, as I believe the Dutch — who are sturdy fellows — begin to puff fat cigars at the age of six or thereabouts; but I do know that those pompous old boobies and blockheads and leather-skulls have discovered exactly the best way to make a boy think that a packet of Rosebuds represents the quintessence of frantic delight.
“Well, you see how it was, how Little Russell Row — the dingy, the stuffy, the dark retreat of old Bloomsbury — became the abode of miraculous joys, a bright portion of fairyland. Ah! it was a strong new wine that we tasted, and it went to our heads, and not much wonder. It all rose to its height on that Thursday night when we went to the ‘Three Kings’ and sat beneath the hop bush, drinking Lion–Brew and flowery drink as I talked extravagances concerning Panurge. It was time for the curtain to be rung down on our comedy.
“The one cigarette had become three or four when Nelly began to tell me her history; the wine and the rejoicing had got into her head also. She described the first things that she remembered: a little hut among wild hills and stony fields in the west of Ireland, and the great sea roaring on the shore but a mile away, and the wind and the rain always driving from across the waves. She spoke of the place as if she loved it, though her father and mother were as poor as they could be, and little was there to eat even in the old cabin. She remembered Mass in the little chapel, an old, old place hidden way in the most desolate part of the country, small and dark and bare enough except for the candles on the altar and a bright statue or two. St. Kieran’s cell, they called it, and it was supposed that the Mass had never ceased to be said there even in the blackest days of persecution. Quite well she remembered the old priest and his vestments, and the gestures that he used, and how they all bowed down when the bell rang; she could imitate his quavering voice saying the Latin. Her own father, she said, was a learned man in his way, though it was not the English way. He could not read common print, or write; he knew nothing about printed books, but he could say a lot of the old Irish songs and stories by heart, and he had sticks on which he wrote poems on all sorts of things, cutting notches on the wood in Oghams, as the priest called them; and he could tell many wonderful tales of the saints and the people. It was a happy life altogether; they were as poor as poor could be, and praised God and wanted for nothing. Then her mother went into a decline and died, and her father never lifted up his head again, and she was left an orphan when she was nine years old. The priest had written to an aunt who lived in England, and so she found herself one black day standing on the platform of the station in a horrible little manufacturing village in Lancashire; everything was black — the sky and the earth, and the houses and the people; and the sound of their rough, harsh voices made her sick. And the aunt had married an Independent and turned Protestant, so she was black, too, Nelly thought. She was wretched for a long time, she said. The aunt was kind enough to her, but the place and the people were so awful. Mr. Deakin, the husband, said he couldn’t encourage Popery in his house, so she had to go to the meeting-house on Sunday and listen to the nonsense they called ‘religion’— all long sermons with horrible shrieking hymns. By degrees she forgot her old prayers, and she was taken to the Dissenters’ Sunday School, where they learned texts and heard about King Solomon’s Temple, and Jonadab the son of Rechab, and Jezebel, and the Judges. They seemed to think a good deal of her at the school; she had several prizes for Bible knowledge.
“She was sixteen when she first went out to service. She was glad to get away — nothing could be worse than Farnworth, and it might be better. And then there were tales to tell! I never have had a clearer light thrown on the curious and disgusting manners of the lower middle-class in England — the class that prides itself especially on its respectability, above all, on what it calls ‘Morality’— by which it means the observance of one particular commandment. You know the class I mean: the brigade of the shining hat on Sunday, of the neat little villa with a well-kept plot in front, of the consecrated drawing-room, of the big Bible well in evidence. It is more often Chapel than Church, this tribe, but it draws from both sources. It is above all things shiny — not only the Sunday hat, but the furniture, the linoleum, the hair and the very flesh which pertain to these people have an unwholesome polish on them; and they prefer their plants and shrubs to be as glossy as possible — this gens lubrica.
“To these tents poor Nelly went as a slave; she dwelt from henceforth on the genteel outskirts of more or less prosperous manufacturing towns, and she soon profoundly regretted the frank grime and hideousness of Farnworth. A hedgehog is a rough and prickly fellow — better his prickles than the reptile’s poisonous slime. The tales that yet await the novelist who has courage (what is his name, by the way?), who has the insight to see behind those Venetian blinds and white curtains, who has the word that can give him entrance through the polished door by the encaustic porch! What plots, what pictures, what characters are ready for his cunning hand, what splendid matter lies unknown, useless, and indeed offensive, which, in the artist’s crucible, would be transmuted into golden and exquisite perfection. Do you know that I can never penetrate into the regions where these people dwell without a thrill of wonder and a great desire that I might be called to execute the masterpieces I have hinted at? Do you remember how Zola, viewing these worlds from the train when he visited London, groaned because he had no English, because he had no key to open the treasure-house before his eyes? He, of course, who was a great diviner, saw the infinite variety of romance that was concealed beneath those myriads of snug commonplace roofs: I wish he could have observed in English and recorded in French. He was a brave man, his defence of Dreyfus shows that; but, supposing the capacity, I do not think he was brave enough to tell the London suburbs the truth about themselves in their own tongue.
“Yes, I walk down these long ways on Sunday afternoons, when they are at their best. Sometimes, if you choose the right hour, you may look into one ‘breakfast room’— an apartment half sunken in the earth — after another, and see in each one the table laid for tea, showing the charming order and uniformity that prevail. Tea in the drawing-room would be, I suppose, a desecration. I wonder what would happen if some chance guest were to refuse tea and to ask for a glass of beer, or even a brandy and soda? I suppose the central lake that lies many hundreds of feet beneath London would rise up, and the sinful town would be overwhelmed. Yes: consider these houses well; how demure, how well-ordered, how shining, as I have said; and then think of what they conceal.
“Generally speaking, you know, ‘morality’ (in the English suburban sense) has been a tolerably equal matter. I shouldn’t imagine that those ‘later Romans’ that poor old Palmer was always bothering about were much better or worse than the earlier Babylonians; and London as a whole is very much the same thing in this respect as Pekin as a whole. Modern Berlin and sixteenth-century Venice might compete on equal terms — save that Venice, I am sure, was very picturesque, and Berlin, I have no doubt is very piggy. The fact is, of course (to use a simple analogy), man, by his nature, is always hungry, and, that being the case, he will sometimes eat too much dinner and sometimes he will get his dinner in odd ways, and sometimes he will help himself to more or less unlawful snacks before breakfast and after supper. There it is, and there is an end of it. But suppose a society in which the fact of hunger was officially denied, in which the faintest hint at an empty stomach was considered the rankest, most abominable indecency, the most detestable offence against the most sacred religious feelings? Suppose the child severely reprimanded at the mere mention of bread and butter, whipped and shut up in a dark room for the offence of reading a recipe for making plum pudding; suppose, I say, a whole society organised on the strict official understanding that no decent person ever is or has been or can be conscious of the physical want of food; that breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner and supper are orgies only used by the most wicked and degraded wretches, destined to an awful and eternal doom? In such a world, I think, you would discover some very striking irregularities in diet. Facts are known to be stubborn things, but if their very existence is denied they become ferocious and terrible things. Coventry Patmore was angry, and with reason, when he heard that even at the Vatican the statues had received the order of the fig-leaf.
“Nelly went among these Manichees. She had been to the world beyond the Venetians, the white muslin curtains and the india-rubber plant, and she told me her report. They talk about the morality of the theatre, these swine! In the theatre — if there is anything of the kind — it is a case of a wastrel and a wanton who meet and part on perfectly equal terms, without deceit or false pretences. It is not a case of master creeping into a young girl’s room at dead of night, with a Bible under his arm — the said Bible being used with grotesque skill to show that ‘master’s’ wishes must be at once complied with under pain of severe punishment, not only in this world, but in the world to come. Every Sunday, you must remember, the girl has seen ‘master’ perhaps crouching devoutly in his pew, perhaps in the part of sidesman or even church-warden, more probably supplementing the gifts of the pastor at some nightmarish meeting-house. ‘Master’ offers prayer with wonderful fervour; he speaks to the Lord as man to man; in the emotional passages his voice gets husky, and everybody says how good he is. He is a deacon, a guardian of the poor (gracious title!), a builder and an earnest supporter of the British and Foreign Bible Society: in a word, he is of the great middle-class, the backbone of England and of the Protestant Religion. He subscribes to the excellent society which prosecutes booksellers for selling the Decameron of Boccaccio. He has from ten to fifteen children, all of whom were found by Mamma in the garden.
“‘Mr. King was a horrible man,’ said Nelly, describing her first place; ‘he had a great greasy pale face with red whiskers, and a shiny bald head; he was fat, too, and when he smiled it made one feel sick. Soon after I got the place he came into the kitchen. Missus was away for three days, and the children were all in bed. He sat down by the hearth and asked whether I was saved, and did I love the Lord as I ought to, and if I ever had any bad thoughts about young men? Then he opened the Bible and read me nasty things from the Old Testament, and asked if I understood what it meant. I said I didn’t know, and he said we must approach the Lord in prayer so that we might have grace to search the Scriptures together. I had to kneel down close to him, and he put his arm round my waist and began to pray, as he called it; and when we got up he took me on his knee and said he felt to me as if I were his own daughter.’
“There, that is enough of Mr. King. You can imagine what the poor child had to go through time after time. On prayer-meeting nights she used to put the chest of drawers against her bedroom door: there would be gentle, cautious pushes, and then a soft voice murmuring: ‘My child, why is your heart so bad and stubborn?’ I think we can conceive the general character of ‘master’ from these examples. ‘Missus,’ of course, requires a treatise to herself; her more frequent failings are child-torture, secret drinking and low amours with oily commercial travellers.
“Yes, it is a hideous world enough, isn’t it? And isn’t it a pleasant thought that you and I practically live under the government of these people? ‘Master’ is the ‘man in the street,’ the ‘hard-headed, practical man of the world,’ ‘the descendant of the sturdy Puritans,’ whose judgment is final on all questions from Poetics to Liturgiology. We hardly think that this picture will commend itself to the ‘man in the street’— a course of action that is calculated to alienate practical men. Pleasant, isn’t it? Suburbia locuta est: causa finita est.
“I suppose that, by nature, these people would not be so very much more depraved than the ordinary African black fellow. Their essential hideousness comes, I take it, from their essential and most abominable hypocrisy. You know how they are always prating about Bible Teaching — the ‘simple morality of the Gospel,’ and all that nauseous stuff? And what would be the verdict, in this suburban world, on a man who took no thought for the morrow, who regulated his life by the example of the lilies, who scoffed at the idea of saving money? You know perfectly well that his relations would have him declared a lunatic. There is the villainy. If you are continually professing an idolatrous and unctuous devotion to a body of teaching which you are also persistently and perpetually disregarding and disobeying in its plainest, most simple, most elementary injunctions, well, you will soon interest anglers in search of bait.
“Yes, such is the world behind the india-rubber plant into which Nelly entered. I believe she repelled the advances of ‘master’ with success. Her final undoing came from a different quarter, and I am afraid that drugs, not Biblical cajoleries, were the instruments used. She cried bitterly when she spoke of this event, but she said, too; ‘I will kill him for it!’ It was an ugly story, and a sad one, alas! — the saddest tale I ever listened to. Think of it: to come from that old cabin on the wild, bare hills, from the sound of the great sea, from the pure breath of the waves and the wet salt wind, to the stenches and the poisons of our ‘industrial centres.’ She came from parents who had nothing and possessed all things, to our civilisation which has everything, and lies on the dung-heap that it has made at the very gates of Heaven — destitute of all true treasures, full of sores and vermin and corruption. She was nurtured on the wonderful old legends of the saints and the fairies; she had listened to the songs that her father made and cut in Oghams; and we gave her the penny novelette and the works of Madame Chose. She had knelt before the altar, adoring the most holy sacrifice of the Mass; now she knelt beside ‘master’ while he approached the Lord in prayer, licking his fat white lips. I can imagine no more terrible transition.
“I do not know how or why it happened, but as I listened to Nelly’s tale my eyes were opened to my own work and my own deeds, and I saw for the first time my wickedness. I should despair of explaining to anyone how utterly innocent I had been in intention all the while, how far I was from any deliberate design of guilt. In a sense, I was learned, and yet, in a sense, I was most ignorant; I had been committing what is, doubtless a grievous sin, under the impression that I was enjoying the greatest of all mysteries and graces and blessings — the great natural sacrament of human life.
“Did I not know I was doing wrong? I knew that if any of the masters found me with Nelly I should get into sad trouble. Certainly I knew that. But if any of the masters had caught me smoking a cigarette, or saying ‘damn,’ or going into a public-house to get a glass of beer, or using a crib, or reading Rabelais, I should have got into sad trouble also. I knew that I was sinning against the ‘tone’ of the great Public School; you may imagine how deeply I felt the guilt of such an offence as that! And, of course, I had heard the boys telling their foolish indecencies; but somehow their nasty talk and their filthy jokes were not in any way connected in my mind with my love of Nelly — no more, indeed, than midnight darkness suggests daylight, or torment symbolises pleasure. Indeed, there was a hint — a dim intuition — deep down in my consciousness that all was not well; but I knew of no reason for this; I held it a morbid dream, the fantasy of an imagination over-exalted, perhaps; I would not listen to a faint voice that seemed without sense or argument.
“And now that voice was ringing in my ears with the clear, resonant and piercing summons of a trumpet; I saw myself arraigned far down beside the pestilent horde of whom I have just spoken; and, indeed, my sin was worse than theirs, for I had been bred in light, and they in darkness. All heedless, without knowledge, without preparation, without receiving the mystic word, I had stumbled into the shrine, uninitiated I had passed beyond the veil and gazed upon the hidden mystery, on the secret glory that is concealed from the holy angels. Woe and great sorrow were upon me, as if a priest, devoutly offering the sacrifice, were suddenly to become aware that he was uttering, all inadvertently, hideous and profane blasphemies, summoning Satan in place of the Holy Spirit. I hid my face in my hands and cried out in my anguish.
“Do you know that I think Nelly was in a sense relieved when I tried to tell her of my mistake, as I called it; even though I said, as gently as I could, that it was all over. She was relieved, because for the first time she felt quite sure that I was altogether in my senses; I can understand it. My whole attitude must have struck her as bordering on insanity, for, of course, from first to last I had never for a moment taken up the position of the unrepentant but cheerful sinner, who knows that he is being a sad dog, but means to continue in his naughty way. She, with her evil experience, had thought the words I had sometimes uttered not remote from madness. She wondered, she told me, whether one night I might not suddenly take her throat in my hands and strangle her in a sudden frenzy. She hardly knew whether she dreaded such a death or longed for it.
“‘You spoke so strangely,’ she said; ‘and all the while I knew we were doing wrong, and I wondered.’
“Of course, even after I had explained the matter as well as I could she was left to a large extent bewildered as to what my state of mind could have been; still, she saw that I was not mad, and she was relieved, as I have said.
“I do not know how she was first drawn to me — how it was that she stole that night to the room where I lay bruised and aching. Pity and desire and revenge, I suppose, all had their share. She was so sorry, she said, for me. She could see how lonely I was, how I hated the place and everybody about it, and she knew that I was not English. I think my wild Welsh face attracted her, too.
“Alas! that was a sad night, after all our laughter. We had sat on and on till the dawn began to come in through the drawn blinds. I told her that we must go to bed, or we should never get up the next day. We went into the bedroom, and there, sad and grey, the dawn appeared. There was a heavy sky covered with clouds and a straight, soft rain was pattering on the leaves of a great plane tree opposite; heavy drops fell into the pools in the road.
“It was still as on the mountain, filled with infinite sadness, and a sudden step clattering on the pavement of the square beyond made the stillness seem all the more profound. I stood by the window and gazed out at the weeping, dripping tree, the ever-falling rain and the motionless, leaden clouds — there was no breath of wind — and it was as if I heard the saddest of all music, tones of anguish and despair and notes that cried and wept. The theme was given out, itself wet, as it were, with tears. It was repeated with a sharper cry, a more piteous supplication; it was re-echoed with a bitter utterance, and tears fell faster as the raindrops fell plashing from the weeping tree. Inexorable in its sad reiterations, in its remorseless development, that music wailed and grew in its lamentation in my own heart; heavy it was, and without hope; heavy as those still, leaden clouds that hung motionless in heaven. No relief came to this sorrowing melody — rather a sharper note of anguish; and then for a moment, as if to embitter bitterness, sounded a fantastic, laughing air, a measure of jocund pipes and rushing violins, echoing with the mirth of dancing feet. But it was beaten into dust by the sentence of despair, by doom that was for ever, by a sentence pitiless, relentless; and, as a sudden breath shook the wet boughs of the plane tree and a torrent fell upon the road, so the last notes of that inner music were to me as a burst of hopeless weeping.
“I turned away from the window and looked at the dingy little room where we had laughed so well. It was a sad room enough, with its pale blue, stripy-patterned paper, its rickety old furniture and its feeble pictures. The only note of gaiety was on the dressing-table, where poor little Nelly had arranged some toys and trinkets and fantasies that she had bought for herself in the last few days. There was a silver-handled brush and a flagon of some scent that I liked, and a little brooch of olivines that had caught her fancy; and a powder-puff in a pretty gilt box. The sight of these foolish things cut me to the heart. But Nelly! She was standing by the bedside, half undressed, and she looked at me with the most piteous longing. I think that she had really grown fond of me. I suppose that I shall never forget the sad enchantment of her face, the flowing of her beautiful coppery hair about it; and the tears were wet on her cheeks. She half stretched out her bare arms to me and then let them fall. I had never known all her strange allurement before. I had refined and symbolised and made her into a sign of joy, and now before me she shone disarrayed — not a symbol, but a woman, in the new intelligence that had come to me, and I longed for her. I had just enough strength and no more.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12