WHEN the children reached home they told the Philosopher the result of their visit. He questioned them minutely as to the appearance of Pan, how he had received them, and what he had said in defence of his iniquities; but when he found that Pan had not returned any answer to his message he became very angry. He tried to persuade his wife to undertake another embassy setting forth his abhorrence and defiance of the god, but the Thin Woman replied sourly that she was a respectable married woman, that having been already bereaved of her wisdom she had no desire to be further curtailed of her virtue, that a husband would go any length to asperse his wife’s reputation, and that although she was married to a fool her self-respect had survived even that calamity. The Philosopher pointed out that her age, her appearance, and her tongue were sufficient guarantees of immunity against the machinations of either Pan or slander, and that he had no personal feelings in the matter beyond a scientific and benevolent interest in the troubles of Meehawl MacMurrachu; but this was discounted by his wife as the malignant and subtle tactics customary to all husbands.
Matters appeared to be thus at a deadlock so far as they were immediately concerned, and the Philosopher decided that he would lay the case before Angus Og and implore his protection and assistance on behalf of the Clann MacMurrachu. He therefore directed the Thin Woman to bake him two cakes of bread, and set about preparations for a journey.
The Thin Woman baked the cakes, and put them in a bag, and early on the following morning the Philosopher swung this bag over his shoulder, and went forth on his quest.
When he came to the edge of the pine wood he halted for a few moments, not being quite certain of his bearings, and then went forward again in the direction of Gort na Cloca Mora. It came into his mind as he crossed the Gort that he ought to call on the Leprecauns and have a talk with them, but a remembrance of Meehawl MacMurrachu and the troubles under which he laboured (all directly to be traced to the Leprecauns) hardened his heart against his neighbours, so that he passed by the yew tree without any stay. In a short time he came to the rough, heather-clumped field wherein the children had found Pan, and as he was proceeding up the hill, he saw Caitilin Ni Murrachu walking a little way in front with a small vessel in her hand. The she-goat which she had just milked was bending again to the herbage, and as Caitilin trod lightly in front of him the Philosopher closed his eyes in virtuous anger and opened them again in a not unnatural curiosity, for the girl had no clothes on. He watched her going behind the brush and disappearing in the cleft of the rock, and his anger, both with her and Pan, mastering him he forsook the path of prudence which soared to the mountain top, and followed that leading to the cave. The sound of his feet brought Caitilin out hastily, but he pushed her by with a harsh word. “Hussy,” said he, and he went into the cave where Pan was.
As he went in he already repented of his harshness and said —“The human body is an aggregation of flesh and sinew, around a central bony structure. The use of clothing is primarily to protect this organism from rain and cold, and it may not be regarded as the banner of morality without danger to this fundamental premise. If a person does not desire to be so protected who will quarrel with an honourable liberty? Decency is not clothing but Mind. Morality is behaviour. Virtue is thought —“I have often fancied,” he continued to Pan, whom he was now confronting, “that the effect of clothing on mind must be very considerable, and that it must have a modifying rather than an expanding effect, or, even, an in tensifying as against an exuberant effect. With clothing the whole environment is immediately affected. The air, which is our proper medium, is only filtered to our bodies in an abated and niggardly fashion which can scarcely be as beneficial as the generous and unintermitted elemental play. The question naturally arises whether clothing is as unknown to nature as we have fancied? Viewed as a protective measure against atmospheric rigour we find that many creatures grow, by their own central impulse, some kind of exterior panoply which may be regarded as their proper clothing. Bears, cats, dogs, mice, sheep and beavers are wrapped in fur, hair, fell, fleece or pelt, so these creatures cannot by any means be regarded as being naked. Crabs, cockroaches, snails and cockles have ordered around them a crusty habiliment, wherein their original nakedness is only to be discovered by force, and other creatures have similarly provided themselves with some species of covering. Clothing, therefore, is not an art, but an instinct, and the fact that man is born naked and does not grow his clothing upon himself from within but collects it from various distant and haphazard sources is not any reason to call this necessity an instinct for decency. These, you will admit, are weighty reHections and worthy of consideration before we proceed to the wide and thorny subject of moral and immoral action. Now, what is virtue?”—
Pan, who had listened with great courtesy to these Remarks, here broke in on the Philosopher.
“Virtue,” said he, “is the performance of pleasant actions.”
The Philosopher held the statement far a moment on his forefinger.
“And what, then, is vice?” said he.
“It is vicious,” said Pan, “to neglect the performance of pleasant actions.”
“If this be so,” the other commented, “philosophy has up to the present been on the wrong track.”
“That is so,” said Pan. “Philosophy is an immoral practice because it suggests a standard of practice impossible of being followed, and which, if it could be followed, would lead to the great sin of sterility.”
“The idea of virtue,” said the Philosopher, with some indignation, “has animated the noblest intellects of the world.”
“It has not animated them,” replied Pan; “it has hypnotised them so that they have conceived virtue as repression and self-sacrifice as an honourable thing instead of the suicide which it is.”
“Indeed,” said the Philosopher; “this is very interesting, and if it is true the whole conduct of life will have to be very much simplified.”
“Life is already very simple,” said Pan; “it is to be born and to die, and in the interval to eat and drink, to dance and sing, to marry and beget children.”
“But it is simply materialism,” cried the Philosopher.
“Why do you say ‘but’?” replied Pan.
“It is sheer, unredeemed animalism,” continued his visitor.
“It is any name you please to call it,” replied Pan.
“You have proved nothing,” the Philosopher shouted.
“What can be sensed requires no proof.”
“You leave out the new thing,” said the Philosopher. “You leave out brains. I believe in mind above matter. Thought above emotion. Spirit above flesh.”
“Of course you do,” said Pan, and he reached for his oaten pipe.
The Philosopher ran to the opening of the passage and thrust Caitilin aside. “Hussy,” said he fiercely to her, and he darted out.
As he went up the rugged path he could hear the pipes of Pan, calling and sobbing and making high merriment on the air.
“SHE does not deserve to be rescued,” said the Philosopher, “but I will rescue her. Indeed,” he thought a moment later, “she does not want to be rescued, and, therefore, I will rescue her.”
As he went down the road her shapely figure floated before his eyes as beautiful and simple as an old statue. He wagged his head angrily at the apparition, but it would not go away. He tried to concentrate his mind on a deep, philosophical maxim, but her disturbing image came between him and his thought, blotting out the latter so completely that a moment after he had stated his aphorism he could not remember what it had been. Such a condition of mind was so unusual that it bewildered him.
“Is a mind, then, so unstable,” said he, “that a mere figure, an animated geometrical arrangement can shake it from its foundations?”
The idea horrified him: he saw civilisation building its temples over a volcano. . .
“A puff,” said he, “and it is gone. Beneath all is chaos and red anarchy, over all a devouring and insistent appetite. Our eyes tell us what to think about, and our wisdom is no more than a catalogue of sensual stimuli.”
He would have been in a state of deep dejection were it not that through his perturbation there bubbled a stream of such amazing well-being as he had not felt since childhood. Years had toppled from his shoulders. He left one pound of solid matter behind at every stride. His very skin grew flexuous, and he found a pleasure in taking long steps such as he could not have accounted for by thought. Indeed, thought was the one thing he felt unequal to, and it was not precisely that he could not think but that he did not want to. All the importance and authority of his mind seemed to have faded away, and the activity which had once belonged to that organ was now transferred to his eyes. He saw, amazedly, the sunshine bathing the hills and the valleys. A bird in the hedge held him — beak, head, eyes, legs, and the wings that tapered widely at angles to the wind. For the first time in his life he really saw a bird, and one minute after it had flown away he could have reproduced its strident note. With every step along the curving road the landscape was changing. He saw and noted it almost in an ecstasy. A sharp hill jutted out into the road, it dissolved into a sloping meadow, rolled down into a valley and then climbed easily and peacefully into a hill again. On this side a clump of trees nodded together in the friendliest fashion. Yonder a solitary tree, well-grown and clean, was contented with its own bright company. A bush crouched tightly on the ground as though, at a word, it would scamper from its place and chase rabbits across the sward with shouts and laughter. Great spaces of sunshine were everywhere, and everywhere there were deep wells of shadow; and the one did not seem more beautiful than the other. That sunshine! Oh, the glory of it, the goodness and bravery of it, how broadly and grandly it shone, without stint, without care; he saw its measureless generosity and gloried in it as though himself had been the flinger of that largesse. And was he not? Did the sunlight not stream from his head and life from his finger-tips? Surely the well-being that was in him did bubble out to an activity beyond the universe. Thought! Oh! the petty thing! but motion! emotion! these were the realities. To feel, to do, to stride forward in elation chanting a paean of triumphant life!
After a time he felt hungry, and thrusting his hand into his wallet he broke off a piece of one of his cakes and looked about for a place where he might happily eat it. By the side of the road there was a well; just a little corner filled with water. Over it was a rough stone coping, and around, hugging it on three sides almost from sight, were thick, quiet bushes. He would not have noticed the well at all but for a thin stream, the breadth of two hands, which tiptoed away from it through a field. By this well he sat down and scooped the water in his hand and it tasted good.
He was eating his cake when a sound touched his ear from some distance, and shortly a woman came down the path carrying a vessel in her hand to draw water.
She was a big, comely woman, and she walked as one who had no misfortunes and no misgivings. When she saw the Philosopher sitting by the well she halted a moment in surprise and then came forward with a good-humoured smile.
“Good morrow to you, sir,” said she.
“Good morrow to you too, ma’am,” replied the Philosopher. “Sit down beside me here and eat some of my cake.”
“Why wouldn’t I, indeed,” said the woman, and she did sit beside him.
The Philosopher cracked a large piece off his cake and gave it to her and she ate some.
“There’s a taste on that cake,” said she. “Who made it?”
“My wife did,” he replied.
“Well, now!” said she, looking at him. “Do you know, you don’t look a bit like a married man.”
“No?” said the Philosopher.
“Not a bit. A married man looks comfortable and settled: he looks finished, if you understand me, and a bachelor looks unsettled and funny, and he always wants to be running round seeing things. I’d know a married man from a bachelor any day.”
“How would you know that?” said the Philosopher.
“Easily,” said she, with a nod. “It’s the way they look at a woman. A married man looks at you quietly as if he knew all about you. There isn’t any strangeness about him with a woman at all; but a bachelor man looks at you very sharp and looks away and then looks back again, the way you’d know he was thinking about you and didn’t know what you were thinking about him; and so they are always strange, and that’s why women like them.”
“Why!” said the Philosopher, astonished, “do women like bachelors better than married men?”
“Of course they do,” she replied heartily. “They wouldn’t look at the side of the road a married man was on if there was a bachelor man on the other side.”
“This,” said the Philosopher earnestly, “is very interesting.”
“And the queer thing is,” she continued, “that when I came up the road and saw you I said to myself ‘it’s a bachelor man.’ How long have you been married, now?”
“I don’t know,” said the Philosopher. “Maybe it’s ten years.”
“And how many children would you have, mister?”
“Two,” he replied, and then corrected himself, “No, I have only one.”
“Is the other one dead?”
“I never had more than one.”
“Ten years married and only one child,” said she. “Why, man dear, you’re not a married man. What were you doing at all, at all! I wouldn’t like to be telling you the children I have living and dead. But what I say is that married or not you’re a bachelor man. I knew it the minute I looked at you. What sort of a woman is herself?”
“She’s a thin sort of woman,” cried the Philosopher, biting into his cake.
“Is she now?”
“And,” the Philosopher continued, “the reason I talked to you is because you are a fat woman.”
“I am not fat,” was her angry response.
“You are fat,” insisted the Philosopher, “and that’s the reason I like you.”
“Oh, if you mean it that way . . .” she chuckled.
“I think,” he continued, looking at her admiringly, “that women ought to be fat.”
“Tell you the truth,” said she eagerly, “I think that myself. I never met a thin woman but she was a sour one, and I never met a fat man but he was a fool. Fat women and thin men; it’s nature,” said she.
“It is,” said he, and he leaned forward and kissed her eye.
“Oh, you villain!” said the woman, putting out her hands against him.
The Philosopher drew back abashed. “Forgive me,” he began, “if I have alarmed your virtue —”
“It’s the married man’s word,” said she, rising hastily: “now I know you; but there’s a lot of the bachelor in you all the same, God help you! I’m going home.” And, so saying, she dipped her vessel in the well and turned away.
“Maybe,” said the Philosopher, “I ought to wait until your husband comes home and ask his forgiveness for the wrong I’ve done him.”
The woman turned round on him and each of her eyes was as big as a plate.
“What do you say?” said she. “Follow me if you dare and I’ll set the dog on you; I will so,” and she strode viciously homewards.
After a moment’s hesitation the Philosopher took his own path across the hill.
The day was now well advanced, and as he trudged forward the happy quietude of his surroundings stole into his heart again and so toned down his recollection of the fat woman that in a little time she was no more than a pleasant and curious memory. His mind was exercised superficially, not in thinking, but in wondering how it was he had come to kiss a strange woman. He said to himself that such conduct was not right; but this statement was no more than the automatic working of a mind long exercised in the distinctions of right and wrong, for, almost in the same breath, he assured himself that what he had done did not matter in the least. His opinions were undergoing a curious change. Right and wrong were meeting and blending together so closely that it became difficult to dissever them, and the obloquy attaching to the one seemed out of proportion altogether to its importance, while the other by no means justified the eulogy wherewith it was connected. Was there any immediate or even distant, effect on life caused by evil which was not instantly swung into equipoise by goodness? But these slender reflections troubled him only for a little time. He had little desire for any introspective quarryings. To feel so well was sufficient in itself. Why should thought be so apparent to us, so insistent? We do not know we have digestive or circulatory organs until these go out of order, and then the knowledge torments us. Should not the labours of a healthy brain be equally subterranean and equally competent? Why have we to think aloud and travel laboriously from syllogism to ergo, chary of our conclusions and distrustful of our premises? Thought, as we know it, is a disease and no more. The healthy mentality should register its convictions and not its labours. Our ears should not hear the clamour of its doubts nor be forced to listen to the pro and con wherewith we are eternally badgered and perplexed.
The road was winding like a ribbon in and out of the mountains. On either side there were hedges and bushes, — little, stiff trees which held their foliage in their hands and dared the winds snatch a leaf from that grip. The hills were swelling and sinking, folding and soaring on every view. Now the silence was startled by the falling tinkle of a stream. Far away a cow lowed, a long, deep monotone, or a goat’s call trembled from nowhere to nowhere. But mostly there was a silence which buzzed with a multitude of small winged life. Going up the hills the Philosopher bent forward to the gradient, stamping vigorously as he trod, almost snorting like a bull in the pride of successful energy. Coming down the slope he braced back and let his legs loose to do as they pleased. Didn’t they know their business — Good luck to them, and away!
As he walked along he saw an old woman hobbling in front of him. She was leaning on a stick and her hand was red and swollen with rheumatism. She hobbled by reason of the fact that there were stones in her shapeless boots. She was draped in the sorriest miscellaneous rags that could be imagined, and these were knotted together so intricately that her clothing, having once been attached to her body, could never again be detached from it. As she walked she was mumbling and grumbling to herself, so that her mouth moved round and round in an india-rubber fashion.
The Philosopher soon caught up on her.
“Good morrow, ma’am,” said he.
But she did not hear him: she seemed to be listening to the pain which the stones in her boots gave her.
“Good morrow, ma’am,” said the Philosopher again.
This time she heard him and replied, turning her old, bleared eyes slowly in his direction — “Good morrow to yourself, sir,” said she, and the Philosopher thought her old face was a very kindly one.
“What is it that is wrong with you, ma’am?” said he.
“It’s my boots, sir,” she replied. “Full of stones they are, the way I can hardly walk at all, God help me!”
“Why don’t you shake them out?”
“Ah, sure, I couldn’t be bothered, sir, for there are so many holes in the boots that more would get in before I could take two steps, and an old woman can’t be always fidgeting, God help her!”
There was a little house on one side of the road, and when the old woman saw this place she brightened up a little.
“Do you know who lives in that house?” said the Philosopher.
“I do not,” she replied, “but it’s a real nice house with clean windows and a shiny knocker on the door, and smoke in the chimney — I wonder would herself give me a cup of tea now if I asked her — A poor old woman walking the roads on a stick! and maybe a bit of meat, or an egg perhaps. . ”
“You could ask,” suggested the Philosopher gently.
“Maybe I will, too,” said she, and she sat down by the road just outside the house and the Philosopher also sat down.
A little puppy dog came from behind the house and approached them cautiously. Its intentions were friendly but it had already found that amicable advances are sometimes indifferently received, for, as it drew near, it wagged its dubious tail and rolled humbly on the ground. But very soon the dog discovered that here there was no evil, for it trotted over to the old woman, and without any more preparation jumped into her lap.
The old woman grinned at the dog —“Ah, you thing you!” said she, and she gave it her finger to bite. The delighted puppy chewed her bony finger, and then instituted a mimic warfare against a piece of rag that fluttered from her breast, barking and growling in joyous excitement, while the old woman fondled and hugged it.
The door of the house opposite opened quickly, and a woman with a frost-bitten face came out.
“Leave that dog down,” said she.
The old woman grinned humbly at her.
“Sure, ma’am, I wouldn’t hurt the little dog, the thing!”
“Put down that dog,” said the woman, “and go about your business — the likes of you ought to be arrested.”
A man in shirt sleeves appeared behind her, and at him the old woman grinned even more humbly.
“Let me sit here for a while and play with the little dog, sir,” said she; “sure the roads do be lonesome —”
The man stalked close and grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck. It hung between his finger and thumb with its tail tucked between its legs and its eyes screwed round on one side in amazement.
“Be off with you out of that, you old strap!” said the man in a terrible voice.
So the old woman rose painfully to her feet again, and as she went hobbling along the dusty road she began to cry.
The Philosopher also arose; he was very indignant but did not know what to do. A singular lassitude also prevented him from interfering. As they paced along his companion began mumbling, more to herself than to him —“Ah, God be with me,” said she, “an old woman on a stick, that hasn’t a place in the wide world to go to or a neighbour itself. . . . I wish I could get a cup of tea, so I do. I wish to God I could get a cup of tea. . . . Me sitting down in my own little house, with the white table-cloth on the table, and the butter in the dish, and the strong, red tea in the tea-cup; and me pouring cream into it, and, maybe, telling the children not to be wasting the sugar, the things! and himself saying he’d got to mow the big field today, or that the red cow was going to calve, the poor thingl and that if the boys went to school, who was going to weed the turnips — and me sitting drinking my strong cup of tea, and telling him where that old trapesing hen was laying. . . . Ah, God be with me! an old creature hobbling along the roads on a stick. I wish I was a young girl again, so I do, and himself coming courting me, and him saying that I was a real nice little girl surely, and that nothing would make him happy or easy at all but me to be loving him. — Ah, the kind man that he was, to be sure, the kind, decent man. . . . And Sorca Reilly to be trying to get him from me, and Kate Finnegan with her bold eyes looking after him in the Chapel; and him to be saying that along with me they were only a pair of old nanny goats. . . . And then me to be getting married and going home to my own little house with my man — ah, God be with me! and him kissing me, and laughing, and frightening me with his goings-on. Ah, the kind man, with his soft eyes, and his nice voice, and his jokes and laughing, and him thinking the world and all of me — ay, indeed. . . . And the neigh-bours to be coming in and sitting round the fire in the night time, putting the world through each other, and talking about France and Russia and them other queer places, and him holding up the discourse like a learned man, and them all listening to him and nodding their heads at each other, and wondering at his education and all: or, maybe, the neighbours to be singing, or him making me sing the Coulin, and him to be proud of me . . . and then him to be killed on me with a cold on his chest. . . . Ah, then, God be with me, a lone, old creature on a stick, and the sun shining into her eyes and she thirsty — I wish I had a cup of tea, so I do. I wish to God I had a cup of tea and a bit of meat . . . or, maybe, an egg. A nice fresh egg laid by the speckeldy hen that used to be giving me all the trouble, the thing! . . . Sixteen hens I had, and they were the ones for laying, surely.
. . It’s the queer world, so it is, the queer world — and the things that do happen for no reason at all. . . . Ah, God be with me! I wish there weren’t stones in my boots, so I do, and I wish to God I had a cup of tea and a fresh egg. Ah, glory be, my old legs are getting tireder every day, so they are. Wisha, one time — when himself was in it — I could go about the house all day long, cleaning the place, and feeding the pigs, and the hens and all, and then dance half the night, so I could: and himself proud of me. . . . ”
The old woman turned up a little rambling road and went on still talking to herself, and the Philosopher watched her go up that road for a long time. He was very glad she had gone away, and as he tramped forward he banished her sad image so that in a little time he was happy again. The sun was still shining, the birds were flying on every side, and the wide hill-side above him smiled gaily.
A small, narrow road cut at right angles into his path, and as he approached this he heard the bustle and movement of a host, the trample of feet, the rolling and creaking of wheels, and the long unwearied drone of voices. In a few minutes he came abreast of this small road, and saw an ass and cart piled with pots and pans, and walking beside this there were two men and a woman. The men and the woman were talking together loudly, even fiercely, and the ass was drawing his cart along the road without requiring assistance or direction. While there was a road he walked on it: when he might come to a cross road he would turn to the right: when a man said “whoh” he would stop: when he said “hike” he would go backwards, and when he said “yep” he would go on again. That was life, and if one questioned it, one was hit with a stick, or a boot, or a lump of rock: if one continued walking nothing happened, and that was happiness.
The Philosopher saluted this cavalcade.
“God be with you,” said he.
“God and Mary be with you,” said the first man.
“God, and Mary, and Patrick be with you,” said the second man.
“God, and Mary, and Patrick, and Brigid be with you,” said the woman.
The ass, however, did not say a thing. As the word “whoh” had not entered into the conversation he knew it was none of his business, and so he turned to the right on the new path and continued his journey.
“Where are you going to, stranger,” said the first man.
“I am going to visit Angus Og,” replied the Philosopher.
The man gave him a quick look.
“Well,” said he, “that’s the queerest story I ever heard. Listen here,” he called to the others, “this man is looking for Angus Og.”
The other man and woman came closer.
“What would you be wanting with Angus Og, Mister Honey?” said the woman.
“Oh,” replied the Philosopher, “it’s a particular thing, a family matter.”
There was silence for a few minutes, and they all stepped onwards behind the ass and cart.
“How do you know where to look for himself?” said the first man again: “maybe you got the place where he lives written down in an old book or on a carved stone?”
“Or did you find the staff of Amergin or of Ossian in a bog and it written from the top to the bottom with signs?” said the second man.
“No,” said the Philosopher, “it isn’t that way you’d go visiting a god. What you do is, you go out from your house and walk straight away in any direction with your shadow behind you so long as it is towards a mountain, for the gods will not stay in a valley or a level plain, but only in high places; and then, if the god wants you to see him, you will go to his rath as direct as if you knew where it was, for he will be leading you with an airy thread reaching from his own place to wherever you are, and if he doesn’t want to see you, you will never find out where he is, not if you were to walk for a year or twenty years.”
“How do you know he wants to see you?” said the second man.
“Why wouldn’t he want?” said the Philosopher.
“Maybe, Mister Honey,” said the woman, “you are a holy sort of a man that a god would like well.”
“Why would I be that?” said the Philosopher. “The gods like a man whether he’s holy or not if he’s only decent.”
“Ah, well, there’s plenty of that sort,” said the first man. “What do you happen to have in your bag, stranger?”
“Nothing,” replied the Philosopher, “but a cake and a half that was baked for my journey.”
“Give me a bit of your cake, Mister Honey,” said the woman. “I like to have a taste of everybody’s cake.”
“I will, and welcome,” said the Philosopher.
“You may as well give us all a bit while you are about it,” said the second man. “That woman hasn’t got all the hunger of the world.”
“Why not,” said the Philosopher, and he divided the cake.
“There’s a sup of water up yonder,” said the first man, “and it will do to moisten the cake — Whoh, you devil,” he roared at the ass, and the ass stood stock still on the minute.
There was a thin fringe of grass along the road near a wall, and towards this the ass began to edge very gently.
“Hike, you beast, you,” shouted the man, and the ass at once hiked, but he did it in a way that brought him close to the grass. The first man took a tin can out of the cart and climbed over the little wall for water. Before he went he gave the ass three kicks on the nose, but the ass did not say a word, he only hiked still more which brought him directly on to the grass, and when the man climbed over the wall the ass commenced to crop the grass. There was a spider sitting on a hot stone in the grass. He had a small body and wide legs, and he wasn’t doing anything.
“Does anybody ever kick you in the nose?” said the ass to him.
“Ay does there,” said the spider; “you and your like that are always walking on me, or lying down on me, or running over me with the wheels of a cart.”
“Well, why don’t you stay on the wall?” said the ass.
“Sure, my wife is there,” replied the spider.
“What’s the harm in that?” said the ass.
“She’d eat me,” said the spider, “and, anyhow, the competition on the wall is dreadful, and the flies are getting wiser and timider every season. Have you got a wife yourself, now?”
“I have not,” said the ass; “I wish I had.”
“You like your wife for the first while,” said the spider, “and after that you hate her.”
“If I had the first while I’d chance the second while,” replied the ass.
“It’s bachelor’s talk,” said the spider; “all the same, we can’t keep away from them,” and so saying he began to move all his legs at once in the direction of the wall. “You can only die once,” said he.
“If your wife was an ass she wouldn’t eat you,” said the ass.
“She’d be doing something else then,” replied the spider, and he climbed up the wall.
The first man came back with the can of water and they sat down on the grass and ate the cake and drank the water. All the time the woman kept her eyes fixed on the Philosopher.
“Mister Honey,” said she, “I think you met us just at the right moment.”
The other two men sat upright and looked at each other and then with equal intentness they looked at the woman.
“Why do you say that?” said the Philosopher.
“We were having a great argument along the road, and if we were to be talking from now to the dav of doom that argument would never be finished.”
“It must have been a great argument. Was it about predestination or where consciousness comes from?”
“It was not; it was which of these two men was to marry me.”
“That’s not a great argument,” said the Philosopher.
“Isn’t it,” said the woman. “For seven days and six nights we didn’t talk about anything else, and that’s a great argument or I’d like to know what is.”
“But where is the trouble, ma’am?” said the Philosopher.
“It’s this,” she replied, “that I can’t make up my mind which of the men I’ll take, for I like one as well as the other and better, and I’d as soon have one as the other and rather.”
“It’s a hard case,” said the Philosopher.
“It is,” said the woman, “and I’m sick and sorry with the trouble of it.”
“And why did you say that I had come up in a good minute?”
“Because, Mister Honey, when a woman has two men to choose from she doesn’t know what to do, for two men always become like brothers so that you wouldn’t know which of them was which: there isn’t any more difference between two men than there is between a couple of hares. But when there’s three men to choose from, there’s no trouble at all; and so I say that it’s yourself I’ll marry this night and no one else — and let you two men be sitting quiet in your places, for I’m telling you what I’ll do and that’s the end of it.”
“I’ll give you my word,” said the first man, “that I’m just as glad as you are to have it over and done with.”
“Moidered I was,” said the second man, “with the whole argument, and the this and that of it, and you not able to say a word but — maybe I will and maybe I won’t, and this is true and that is true, and why not to me and why not to him — I’ll get a sleep this night.”
The Philosopher was perplexed.
“You cannot marry me, ma’am,” said he, “because I’m married already.”
The woman turned round on him angrily.
“Don’t be making any argument with me now,” said she, “for I won’t stand it.”
The first man looked fiercely at the Philosopher, and then motioned to his companion.
“Give that man a clout in the jaw,” said he.
The second man was preparing to do this when the woman intervened angrily.
“Keep your hands to yourself,” said she, “or it’ll be the worse for you. I’m well able to take care of my own husband,” and she drew nearer and sat between the Philosopher and the men.
At that moment the Philosopher’s cake lost all its savour, and he packed the remnant into his wallet. They all sat silently looking at their feet and thinking each one according to his nature. The Philosopher’s mind, which for the past day had been in eclipse, stirred faintly to meet these new circumstances, but without much result. There was a flutter at his heart which was terrifying, but not unpleasant. Quickening through his apprehension was an expectancy which stirred his pulses into speed. So rapidly did his blood flow, so quickly were an hundred impressions visualized and recorded, so violent was the surface movement of his brain that he did not realize he was unable to think and that he was only seeing and feeling.
The first man stood up.
“The night will be coming on soon,” said he, “and we had better be walking on if we want to get a good place to sleep. Yep, you devil,” he roared at the ass, and the ass began to move almost before he lifted his head from the grass. The two men walked one on either side of the cart, and the woman and the Philosopher walked behind at the tail-board.
“If you were feeling tired, or anything like that, Mister Honey,” said the woman, “you could climb up into the little cart, and nobody would say a word to you, for I can see that you are not used to travelling.”
“I am not indeed, ma’am,” he replied; “this is the first time I ever came on a journey, and if it wasn’t for Angus Og I wouldn’t put a foot out of my own place for ever.”
“Put Angus Og out of your head, my dear,” she replied, “for what would the likes of you and me be saying to a god. He might put a curse on us would sink us into the ground or burn us up like a grip of straw. Be contented now, I’m saying, for if there is a woman in the world who knows all things I am that woman myself, and if you tell your trouble to me I’ll tell you the thing to do just as good as Angus himself, and better perhaps.”
“That is very interesting,” said the Philosopher. “What kind of things do you know best?”
“If you were to ask one of them two men walking beside the ass they’d tell you plenty of things they saw me do when they could do nothing themselves. When there wasn’t a road to take anywhere I showed them a road, and when there wasn’t a bit of food in the world I gave them food, and when they were bet to the last I put shillings in their hands, and that’s the reason they wanted to marry me.”
“Do you call that kind of thing wisdom?” said the Philosopher.
“Why wouldn’t I?” said she. “Isn’t it wisdom to go through the world without fear and not to be hungry in a hungry hour?”
“I suppose it is,” he replied, “but I never thought of it that way myself.”
“And what would you call wisdom?”
“I couldn’t rightly say now,” he replied, “but I think it was not to mind about the world, and not to care whether you were hungry or not, and not to live in the world at all but only in your own head, for the world is a tyrannous place. You have to raise yourself above things instead of letting things raise themselves above you. We must not be slaves to each other, and we must not be slaves to our necessities either. That is the problem of existence. There is no dignity in life at all if hunger can shout ‘stop’ at every turn of the road and the day’s journey is measured by the distance between one sleep and the next sleep. Life is all slavery, and Nature is driving us with the whips of appetite and weariness; but when a slave rebels he ceases to be a slave, and when we are too hungry to live we can die and have our laugh. I believe that Nature is just as alive as we are, and that she is as much frightened of us as we are of her, and, mind you this, mankind has declared war against Nature and we will win. She does not understand yet that her geologic periods won’t do any longer, and that while she is pattering along the line of least resistance we are going to travel fast and far until we find her, and then, being a female, she is bound to give in when she is challenged.”
“It’s good talk,” said the woman, “but it’s foolishness. Women never give in unless they get what they want, and where’s the harm to them then? You have to live in the world, my dear, whether you like it or not, and, believe me now, that there isn’t any wisdom but to keep clear of the hunger, for if that gets near enough it will make a hare of you. Sure, listen to reason now like a good man. What is Nature at all but a word that learned men have made to talk about. There’s clay and gods and men, and they are good friends enough.”
The sun had long since gone down, and the grey evening was bowing over the land, hiding the mountain peaks, and putting a shadow round the scattered bushes and the wide clumps of heather.
“I know a place up here where we can stop for the night,” said she, “and there’s a little shebeen round the bend of the road where we can get anything we want.”
At the word “whoh” the ass stopped and one of the men took the harness off him. When he was unyoked the man gave him two kicks: “Be off with you, you devil, and see if you can get anything to eat,” he roared. The ass trotted a few paces off and searched about until he found some grass. He ate this, and when he had eaten as much as he wanted he returned and lay down under a wall. He lay for a long time looking in the one direction, and at last he put his head down and went to sleep. While he was sleeping he kept one ear up and the other ear down for about twenty minutes, and then he put the first ear down and the other one up, and he kept on doing this all the night. If he had anything to lose you wouldn’t mind him setting up sentries, but he hadn’t a thing in the world except his skin and his bones, and no one would be bothered stealing them.
One of the men took a long bottle out of the cart and walked up the road with it. The other man lifted out a tin bucket which was punched all over with jagged holes. Then he took out some sods of turf and lumps of wood and he put these in the bucket, and in a few minutes he had a very nice fire lit. A pot of water was put on to boil, and the woman cut up a great lump of bacon which she put into the pot. She had eight eggs in a place in the cart, and a flat loaf of bread, and some cold boiled potatoes, and she spread her apron on the ground and arranged these things on it.
The other man came down the road again with his big bottle filled with porter, and he put this in a safe place. Then they emptied everything out of the cart and hoisted it over the little wall. They turned the cart on one side and pulled it near to the fire, and they all sat inside the cart and ate their supper. When supper was done they lit their pipes, and the woman lit a pipe also. The bottle of porter was brought forward, and they took drinks in turn out of the bottle, and smoked their pipes, and talked.
There was no moon that night, and no stars, so that just beyond the fire there was a thick darkness which one would not like to look at, it was so cold and empty. While talking they all kept their eyes fixed on the red fire, or watched the smoke from their pipes drifting and curling away against the blackness, and disappearing as suddenly as lightning.
“I wonder,” said the first man, “what it was gave you the idea of marrying this man instead of myself or my comrade, for we are young, hardy men, and he is getting old, God help him!”
“Aye, indeed,” said the second man; “he’s as grey as a badger, and there’s no flesh on his bones.”
“You have a right to ask that,” said she, “and I’ll tell you why I didn’t marry either of you. You are only a pair of tinkers going from one place to another, and not knowing anything at all of fine things; but himself was walking along the road looking for strange, high adventures, and it’s a man like that a woman would be wishing to marry if he was twice as old as he is. When did either of you go out in the daylight looking for a god and you not caring what might happen to you or where you went?”
“What I’m thinking,” said the second man, “is that if you leave the gods alone they’ll leave you alone. It’s no trouble to them to do whatever is right themselves, and what call would men like us have to go mixing or meddling with their high affairs?”
“I thought all along that you were a timid man,” said she, “and now I know it.” She turned again to the Philosopher —“Take off your boots, Mister Honey, the way you’ll rest easy, and I’ll be making down a soft bed for you in the cart.”
In order to take off his boots the Philosopher had to stand up, for in the cart they were too cramped for freedom. He moved backwards a space from the fire and took off his boots. He could see the woman stretching sacks and clothes inside the cart, and the two men smoking quietly and handing the big bottle from one to the other. Then in his stockinged feet he stepped a little farther from the fire, and, after another look, he turned and walked quietly away into the blackness. In a few minutes he heard a shout from behind him, and then a number of shouts and then these died away into a plaintive murmur of voices, and next he was alone in the greatest darkness he had ever known.
He put on his boots and walked onwards. He had no idea where the road lay, and every moment he stumbled into a patch of heather or prickly furze. The ground was very uneven with unexpected mounds and deep hollows: here and there were water-soaked, soggy places, and into these cold ruins he sank ankle deep. There was no longer an earth or a sky, but only a black void and a thin wind and a fierce silence which seemed to listen to him as he went. Out of that silence a thundering laugh might boom at an instant and stop again while he stood appalled in the blind vacancy.
The hill began to grow more steep and rocks were lying everywhere in his path. He could not see an inch in front, and so he went with his hands out-stretched like a blind man who stumbles painfully along. After a time he was nearly worn out with cold and weariness, but he dared not sit down anywhere; the darkness was so intense that it frightened him, and the overwhelming, crafty silence frightened him also.
At last, and at a great distance, he saw a flickering, waving light, and he went towards this through drifts of heather, and over piled rocks and sodden bogland. When he came to the light he saw it was a torch of thick branches, the flame whereof blew hither and thither on the wind. The torch was fastened against a great cliff of granite by an iron band. At one side there was a dark opening in the rock, so he said: “I will go in there and sleep until the morning comes,” and he went in. At a very short distance the cleft turned again to the right, and here there was another torch fixed. When he turned this corner he stood for an instant in speechless astonishment, and then he covered his face and bowed down upon the ground.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59