First and Last
Part 3 out of 4
One form of wealth alone puzzled the beneficent monarch and his
Napoleonic advisers, and this was the production (for it then existed)
of literary matter.
At first this seemed as simple to tax as any one of the other numerous
activities upon which the Emperor's loyal and loving subjects were
engaged. A brief examination of the customs of the trade, conducted by
an army of officials who penetrated into the very dens and attics in
which Letters are evolved, reported that the method of payment was by
the measurement of a number of words.
"It is, your Majesty," wrote the permanent official of the department in
his minute, "the practice of those who charitably employ this sort of
person to pay them in classes by the thousand words; thus one man gets
one sequin a thousand, another two byzants, a third as much as a ducat,
while some who have singularly attracted the notice of the public can
command ten, twenty, nay forty scutcheons, and in some very exceptional
cases a thousand words command one of those beautiful pieces of stiff
paper which your Majesty in his bountiful provision tenders to his
dutiful subjects for acceptance as metal under diverse penalties. The
just taxation of these fellows can therefore be easily achieved if your
Majesty, in the exercise of his almost superhuman wisdom, will but add a
schedule to the Finance Act in which there shall be set down fifteen or
twenty classes of writers, with their price per thousand words, and a
compulsory registration of each class, enforced by the rude hand of the
The Emperor of Monomotopa immediately nominated a Royal Commission
(unpaid), among whose sons, nephews, and private friends the salaried
posts connected with the work were distributed. This Commission reported
by a majority of one ere two years had elapsed. The schedule was
designed, and such _litterateurs_ as had not in the interval fled
the country were registered, while a further enactment strictly
forbidding their employers to make payment upon any other system
completed the scheme.
But, alas! so full of low cunning and dirty dodges is this kind of man
(I mean what we call authors) that very soon after the promulgation of
the new law a marked deterioration in the quality of Monomotopan letters
was apparent upon every side!
The citizen opening his morning paper would be astonished to find the
leading article consist of nothing more original than a portion of the
sacred Scriptures. A novel bought to ease the tedium of a journey would
consist of long catalogues for the most part, and when it came to
descriptions of scenery would fall into the most minute and detailed
category of every conceivable feature of the landscape. Some even took
advantage of the new regulation so far as to repeat one single word an
interminable number of times, while it was remarked with shame by the
Ministers of Religion that the morals of their literary friends
permitted them only to use words of one syllable, and those of the
shortest kind. And this they said was the only true and original
Such was the public inconvenience that next year a sharper and much more
drastic law was passed, by which it was laid down that every literary
composition should make sense within the meaning of the Act, and should
be original so far as the reading of the judge appointed for the trial
of the case extended. But though after the first few executions this law
was generally observed, the nasty fellows affected by it managed to
evade it in spirit, for by the use of obscure terms, of words drawn from
dead languages, and of bold metaphor transferred from one art to
another, they would deliberately invite prosecution, and then in the
witness-box make fools of those plain men, the judge and jury, by
showing that this apparently meaningless claptrap could, with sufficient
ingenuity, be made to yield some sort of sense, and during this period
no art critic was put to death.
Driven to desperation, the Emperor changed the whole basis of the
Remuneration of Literary Labour, and ordered that it should be by the
length of the prose or poetry measured in inches.
This reform, however, did but add to the confusion, for while the men of
the pen wrote their works entirely in short dialogue, asterisks, and
blanks, the publishers, who were now thoroughly organized, printed the
same in smaller and smaller type, in order to avoid the consequences of
At this last piece of insolence the Emperor's mind was quickly decided.
Arresting one night not only all those who had ever written, but all
those who had even boasted of letters, or who were so much as suspected
by their relatives of secretly indulging in them, he turned the whole
two million into a large but enclosed area, and (desiring to kill two
birds with one stone) offered the ensuing spectacle as an amusement to
the more sober and respectable sections of the community.
It is well known that the profession of letters breeds in its followers
an undying hatred of each against his fellows. The public were therefore
entertained for a whole day with the pleasing sight of a violent but
quite disordered battle, in which each of the wretched prisoners seemed
animated by no desire but the destruction of as many as possible of his
hated rivals, until at last every soul of these detestable creatures had
left its puny body and the State was rid of all.
A law which carried to the universities the rule of the primary
schools--to wit, that men should be taught to read but not to
write--completed the good work. And there was peace.
Without any doubt whatsoever, the one characteristic of the towns is
the lack of reality in the impressions of the many: now we live in
towns: and posterity will be astounded at us! It isn't only that we get
our impressions for the most part as imaginary pictures called up by
printer's ink--that would be bad enough; but by some curious perversion
of the modern mind, printer's ink ends by actually preventing one from
seeing things that are there; and sometimes, when one says to another
who has not travelled, "Travel!" one wonders whether, after all, if he
does travel, he will see the things before his eyes? If he does, he will
find a new world; and there is more to be discovered in this fashion
to-day than ever there was.
I have sometimes wished that every Anglo-Saxon who from these shores has
sailed and seen for the first time the other Anglo-Saxons in New York or
Melbourne, would write in quite a short letter what he really felt.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred men only write what they have read
before they started, just as Rousseau in an eighteenth-century village
believed that every English yokel could vote and that his vote conveyed
a high initiative, making and unmaking the policy of the State; or just
as people, hearing that the birth-rate of France is low, travel in that
country and say they can see no children--though they would hardly say
it about Sussex or Cumberland where the birth-rate is lower still.
What travel does in the way of pleasure (the providing of new and fresh
sensations, and the expansion of experience), that it ought to do in the
way of knowledge. It ought to and it does, with the wise, provide a
complete course of unlearning the wretched tags with which the sham
culture of our great towns has filled us. For instance, of Barbary--the
lions do not live in deserts; they live in woods. The peasants of
Barbary are not Semitic in appearance or in character; Barbary is full
to the eye, not of Arab and Oriental buildings--they are not
striking--but of great Roman monuments: they are altogether the most
important things in the place. Barbary is not hot, as a whole: most of
Barbary is extremely cold between November and March. The inhabitants of
Barbary do not like a wild life, they are extremely fond of what
civilization can give them, such as _creme de menthe_, rifles, good
waterworks, maps, and railways: only they would like to have these
things without the bother of strict laws and of the police, and so
forth. Travel in Barbary with seeing eyes and you find out all this new
Now it took the French forty years and more before each of these plain
facts (and I have only cited half a dozen out of as many hundred) got
into their letters and their print: they have not yet got into the
letters and the print of other nations. But an honest man travelling in
Barbary on his own account would pick up every one of these truths in
two or three days, except the one about the lions; to pick up that truth
you must go to the very edge of the country, for the lion is a shy beast
and withdraws from men.
The wise man who really wants to see things as they are and to
understand them, does not say: "Here I am on the burning soil of
Africa." He says: "Here I am stuck in a snowdrift and the train twelve
hours late"--as it was (with me in it) near Setif in January, 1905. He
does not say as he looks on the peasant at his plough outside Batna:
"Observe yon Semite!" He says: "That man's face is exactly like the face
of a dark Sussex peasant, only a little leaner." He does not say: "See
those wild sons of the desert! How they must hate the new artificial
world around them!" Contrariwise, he says: "See those four Mohammedans
playing cards with a French pack of cards and drinking liqueurs in the
cafe! See, they have ordered more liqueurs!" He does not say: "How
strange and terrible a thing the railway must be to them!" He says: "I
wish I was rich enough to travel first, for the natives pouring in and
out of this third-class carriage, jabbering like monkeys, and treading
on my feet, disturb my tranquillity. Some hundreds must have got in and
out during the last fifty miles!"
In other words, the wise man has permitted eye-openers to rain upon him
their full, beneficent, and sacramental influence. And if a man in
travelling will always maintain his mind ready for what he really sees
and hears, he will become a whole nest of Columbuses discovering a
perfectly interminable series of new worlds.
A man can only talk of what he himself knows. Let me give further
examples. I had always heard until I visited the Pyrenees how French
civilization (especially in the matter of roads, motors, and things like
that) went up to the "Spanish" frontier and then stopped dead. It
doesn't. The change is at the Aragonese frontier. On the Basque third of
the frontier the people are just as active and fond of wealth, and of
scraping of stone and of cleanliness, and of drawing straight lines, to
the north as to the south of it. They are all one people, as
industrious, as thrifty, and as prosperous as the Scots. So are the
Catalans one people, and you get much the same sort of advantages and
disadvantages (apart from the effect of government) with the Catalans to
the north as with the Catalans to the south of the border.
So with religion. I had thought to find the Spanish churches crowded. I
found just the contrary. It was the French churches that were crowded,
not the Spanish; and the difference between the truth--what one really
sees and hears--and the printed legend happens to be very subtly
illustrated in this case of religion. The French have inherited (and are
by this time used to, and have, perhaps grown fond of) a big religious
debate. Those who side with the national religion and tradition
emphasize their opinion in every possible way--so do their opponents.
You pick up two newspapers from Toulouse, for instance, and it is quite
on the cards that the leading article of each will be a disquisition
upon the philosophy of religion, the one, the "Depeche" of Toulouse,
militantly, and often solently atheist; the other as militantly
You don't get that in Pamplona, and you don't get it in Saragossa. What
you get there is a profound dislike of being interfered with, ancient
and lazy customs, wealth retained by the chapters, the monasteries, and
the colleges, and with all this a curious, all-pervading indifference.
One might end this little train of thought by considering a converse
test of what the eye-opener is in travel; and that test is to talk to
foreigners when they first come to England and see how they tend to
discover in England what they have read of at home instead of what they
really see. There have been very few fogs in London of late, but your
foreigner nearly always finds London foggy. Kent does not show along its
main railway line the evidence of agricultural depression: it is like a
garden. Yet, in a very careful and thorough French book just published
by a French traveller, his bird's-eye view of the country as he went
through Kent just after landing would make you think the place a desert;
he seems to have thought the hedges a sign of agricultural decay. The
same foreigner will discover a plebeian character in the Commons and an
aristocratic one in the House of Lords, though he shall have heard but
four speeches in each, and though every one of the eight speeches shall
have been delivered by members of one family group closely intermarried,
wealthy, titled, and perhaps (who knows?) of some lineage as well.
The moral is that one should tell the truth to oneself, and look out for
it outside one. It is quite as novel and as entertaining as the
discovery of the North Pole--or, in case that has come off (as some
believe), the discovery of the South Pole.
I notice a very curious thing in the actions particularly of business
men to-day, and of other men also, which is the projection outward from
their own inward minds of something which is called "The Public"--and
which is not there.
I do not mean that a business man is wrong when he says that "the public
will demand" such and such an article, and on producing the article
finds it sells widely; he is obviously and demonstrably right in his use
of the word "public" in such a connexion. Nor is a man wrong or subject
to illusion when he says, "The public have taken to cinematograph
shows," or "The public were greatly moved when the Hull fishermen were
shot at by the Russian fleet in the North Sea." What I mean is "The
Public" as an excuse or scapegoat; the Public as a menace; the Public as
a butt. That Public simply does not exist.
For instance, the publisher will say, as though he were talking of some
monster, "The Public will not buy Jinks's work. It is first-class work,
so it is too good for the Public." He is quite right in his statement of
fact. Of the very small proportion of our people who read only a
fraction buy books, and of the fraction that buy books very few indeed
buy Jinks's. Jinks has a very pleasant up-and-down style. He loves to
use funny words dragged from the tomb, and he has delicate little
emotions. Yet hardly anybody will buy him--so the publisher is quite
right in one sense when he says, "The Public" won't buy Jinks. But where
he is quite wrong and suffering from a gross illusion is in the motive
and the manner of his saying it. He talks of "The Public" as something
gravely to blame and yet irredeemably stupid. He talks of it as
something quite external to himself, almost as something which he has
never personally come across. He talks of it as though it were a Mammoth
or an Eskimo. Now, if that publisher would wander for a moment into the
world of realities he would perceive his illusion. Modern men do not
like realities, and do not usually know the way to come in contact with
them. I will tell the publisher how to do so in this case.
Let him consider what books he buys himself, what books his wife buys;
what books his eldest son, his grandmother, his Aunt Jane, his old
father, his butler (if he runs to one), his most intimate friend, and
his curate buy. He will find that not one of these people buys Jinks.
Most of them will talk Jinks, and if Jinks writes a play, however dull,
they will probably go and see it once; but they draw the line at buying
Jinks's books--and I don't blame them.
The moral is very simple. You yourselves are "The Public," and if you
will watch your own habits you will find that the economic explanation
of a hundred things becomes quite clear.
I have seen the same thing in the offices of a newspaper. Some simple
truth of commanding interest to this country, involving no attack upon
any rich man, and therefore not dangerous under our laws, comes up for
printing. It is discussed in the editor's room. The editor says, "Yes,
of course, we know it is true, and of course it is important, but the
Public would not stand it."
I remember one newspaper office of my youth in which the Public was
visualized as a long file of people streaming into a Wesleyan chapel,
and another in which the Public was supposed to be made up without
exception of retired officers and maiden ladies, every one of whom was a
communicant of the English Established Church, every one of good birth,
and yet every one devoid of culture.
Without the least doubt each of these absurd symbols haunted the brain
of each of the editors in question. The editor of the first paper would
print at wearisome length accounts of obscure Catholic clerical scandals
on the Continent, and would sweat with alarm if his sub-editors had
admitted a telegram concerning the trial of some fraudulent Protestant
missionary or other in China.
Meanwhile his rather dull paper was being bought by you and me, and bank
clerks and foreign tourists, and doctors, and publicans, and brokers,
Catholics, Protestants, atheists, "peculiar people," and every kind of
man for many reasons--because it had the best social statistics, because
it had a very good dramatic critic, because they had got into the habit
and couldn't stop, because it came nearest to hand on the bookstall. Of
a hundred readers, ninety-nine skipped the clerical scandal and either
chuckled over the fraudulent missionary or were bored by him and went on
to the gambling news from the Stock Exchange. But the type for whom all
that paper was produced, the menacing god or demon who was supposed to
forbid publication of certain news in it, did not exist.
So it was with the second paper, but with this difference, that the
editor was right about the social position of those who read his sheet,
but quite wrong about the opinions and emotions of people in that social
It was all the more astonishing from the fact that the editor was born
in that very class himself and perpetually mixed with it. No one perhaps
read "The Stodge" (for under this device would I veil the true name of
the organ) more carefully than those retired officers of either service
who are to be found in what are called our "residential" towns. The
editor was himself the son of a colonel of guns who had settled down in
a Midland watering-place. He ought to have known that world, and he did
know that world, but he kept his illusion of his Public quite apart from
his experience of realities.
Your retired officer (to take his particular section of this particular
paper's audience) is nearly always a man with a hobby, and usually a
good scientific or literary hobby at that. He writes many of our best
books demanding research. He takes an active part in public work which
requires statistical study. He is always a travelled man, and nearly
always a well-read man. The broadest and the most complete questioning
and turning and returning of the most fundamental subjects--religion,
foreign policy, and domestic economics--are quite familiar to him. But
the editor was not selecting news for that real man; he was selecting
news for an imaginary retired officer of inconceivable stupidity and
ignorance, redeemed by a childlike simplicity. If a book came in, for
instance, on biology, and there was a chance of having it reviewed by
one of the first biologists of the day, he would say: "Oh, our Public
won't stand evolution," and he would trot out his imaginary retired
officer as though he were a mule.
Artists, by which I mean painters, and more especially art critics, sin
in this respect. They say: "The public wants a picture to tell a story,"
and they say it with a sneer. Well, the public does want a picture to
tell a story, because you and I want a picture to tell a story. Sorry.
But so it is. The art critic himself wants it to tell a story, and so
does the artist. Each would rather die than admit it, but if you set
either walking, with no one to watch him, down a row of pictures you
would see him looking at one picture after another with that expression
of interest which only comes on a human face when it is following a
human relation. A mere splash of colour would bore him; still more a
mere medley of black and white. The story may have a very simple plot;
it may be no more than an old woman sitting on a chair, or a landscape,
but a picture, if a man can look at it all, tells a story right enough.
It must interest men, and the less of a story it tells the less it will
interest men. A good landscape tells so vivid a story that children (who
are unspoilt) actually transfer themselves into such a landscape, walk
about in it, and have adventures in it.
They make another complaint against the public, that it desires painting
to be lifelike. Of course it does! The statement is accurate, but the
complaint is based on an illusion. It is you and I and all the world
that want painting to imitate its object. There is a wonderful picture
in the Glasgow Art Gallery, painted by someone a long time ago, in which
a man is represented in a steel cuirass with a fur tippet over it, and
the whole point of that picture is that the fur looks like fur and the
steel looks like steel. I never met a critic yet who was so bold as to
say that picture was a bad picture. It is one of the best pictures in
the world; but its whole point is the liveliness of the steel and of the
Finally, there is one proper test to prove that all this jargon about
"The Public" is nonsense, which is that it is altogether modern. Who
quarrelled with the Public in the old days when men lived a healthy
corporate life, and painted, wrote, or sang for the applause of their
If you still suffer from the illusion after reading these magisterial
lines of mine, why, there is a drastic way to cure yourself, which is to
go for a soldier; take the shilling and live in a barracks for a year;
then buy yourself out. You will never despise the public again. And
perhaps a better way still is to go round the Horn before the mast. But
take care that your friends shall send you enough money to Valparaiso
for your return journey to be made in some comfort; I would not wish my
worst enemy to go back the way he came.
I am always planning in my mind new kinds of guide books. Or, rather,
new features in guide books.
One such new feature which I am sure would be very useful would be an
indication to the traveller of how he should approach a place.
I would first presuppose him quite free and able to come by rail or by
water or by road or on foot across the fields, and then I would describe
how the many places I have seen stand quite differently in the mind
according to the way in which one approaches them.
The value of travel, to the eye at least, lies in its presentation of
clear and permanent impressions, and these I think (though some would
quarrel with me for saying it) are usually instantaneous. It is the
first sharp vision of an unknown town, the first immediate vision of a
range of hills, that remains for ever and is fruitful of joy within the
mind, or, at least, that is one and perhaps the chief of the fruits of
I remember once, for instance, waking from a dead sleep in a train (for
I was very tired) and finding it to be evening. What woke me was the
sudden stopping of the train. It was in Italy. A man in the carriage
said to me that there was some sort of accident and that we should be
waiting a while. The people got out and walked about by the side of the
track. I also got out of the carriage and took the air, and when I so
stepped out into the cool of that summer evening I was amazed at the
loneliness and tragedy of the place.
There were no houses about me that I could see save one little place
built for the railway men. There was no cultivation either.
Close before me began a sort of swamp with reeds which hardly moved to
the air, and this gradually merged into a sheet of water above and
beyond which were hills, barren and not very high, which took the last
of the daylight, for they looked both southward and to the west. The
more I watched the extraordinary and absolute scene the less I heard of
the low voices about me, and indeed a sort of positive silence seemed to
clothe the darkening landscape. It was full of something quite gone
down, and one had the impression that it would never be disturbed.
As the light lessened, the hills darkened, the sky took on one broad and
tender colour, the sheet of water gleamed quite white, and the reeds
stood up like solid shadows against it. I wish I could express in words
the impression of recollection and of savage mourning which all that
landscape imposed, but from that impression I was recalled and startled
by the guard, who came along telling us that things were righted and
that the train would start again; soon we were in our places and the
rapid movement isolated for me the memory of a singularly vivid scene. I
thought the place must have a name, and I asked a neighbour in the
carriage what it was called; he told me it was called Lake Trasimene.
Now I do not say that this tragic site is to be visited thus. It was but
an accident, though an accident for which I am most grateful to my fate.
But what I have said here illustrates my meaning that the manner of
one's approach to any place in travel makes all the difference.
Thus one may note how very different is Europe seen from the water than
seen from any other opportunity for travel. So many of the great
cathedrals were built to dominate men who should watch them from the
wharves of the mediaeval towns, but I think it is almost a rule if you
have leisure and can take your choice to choose this kind of entry to
them. Amiens is quite a different thing seen from the river below it to
the north and east from what it is seen by a gradual approach along the
street of a modern town. The roofs climb up at it, and it stands
enthroned. So Chartres seen from the little Eure; but the Eure is so
small a river that he would be a bold man who would travel up it all
this way. Nevertheless it is a good piece of travel, and anyone who will
undertake it will see Louviers and will pass Anet, where the greatest
work of the Renaissance once stood, and will go through lonely but rich
pastures until at last he gets to Chartres by the right gate. Thence he
will see something astonishing for so flat a region as the Beauce. The
great church seems mountainous upon a mountain. Its apse completes the
unclimbable steepness of the hill and its buttresses follow the lines of
the fall of it. But if you do not come in by the river, at least come in
by the Orleans road. I suppose that nine people out of ten, even to-day
when the roads are in proper use again, come into Chartres by that
northern railway entry, which is for all the world like coming into a
great house by a big, neglected backyard.
Then if ever you have business that takes you to Bayonne, come in by
river and from the sea, and how well you will understand the little town
and its lovely northern Gothic!
Some of the great churches all the world knows must be seen from the
water, and most of the world so sees them. Ely is one, Cologne is
another, but how many people have looked right up at Durham as at a
cliff from that gorge below, or how many have seen the height of Albi
from the Tarn?
As for famous cities with their walls, there is no doubt that a man
should approach them by the chief high road, which once linked them with
their capital, or with their nearest port, or with Rome--and that
although this kind of entry is nowadays often marred by ugly suburbs.
You will get much your finest sight of Segovia as you come in by the
road from the Guadarama and from Madrid. It is from that point that you
were meant to see the town, and you will get much your best grip on
Carcassonne, old Carcassonne, if you come in by the road from Toulouse
at morning as you were meant to come, and so Coucy should be approached
by that royal road from Soissons and from the south, while as for Laon
(the most famous of the hill towns), come to it from the east, for it
looks eastward, and its lords were Eastern lords.
Ranges of hills, I think, are never best first seen from railways.
Indeed, I can remember no great sight of hills so seen, not even the
Alps. A railway must of necessity follow the floor of the valley and
tunnel and creep round the shoulders of the bulwarks. There is perhaps
one exception to this rule, which is the sight of the Pyrenees from the
train as one comes into Tarbes. It is a wise thing if you are visiting
those hills to come into Tarbes by night and sleep there, and then next
morning the train upon its way to Pau unfolds you all the wall of the
mountains. But this is an accident. It is because the railway runs upon
a sort of high platform that you see the mountains so. With all other
hills that I remember it is best to have them burst suddenly upon you
from the top of some pass lifted high above the level and coming, let us
say, to a height half their own. Certainly the Bernese Oberland is more
wonderful caught in one moment from the Jura than introduced in any
other way, and the snows on Atlas over the desert seem like part of the
sky when they come upon one after climbing the red rocks of the high
plateaux and you see them shining over the salt marshes. The Vosges you
cannot thus see from a half-height; there is no platform, and that is
perhaps why the Vosges have not impressed travellers as they should. But
you can so watch the grand chain of old volcanoes which are the rampart
of Auvergne. You can stand upon the high wooden ridge of Foreze and see
them take the morning across the mists and the flat of the Limagne,
where the Gauls fought Caesar. Further south from the high table of the
Velay you can see the steep backward escarpment of the Cevennes, inky
blue, desperately blue, blue like nothing else on earth except the
mountains in those painters of North Italy, of the parts north and east
of Venice, the name of whose school escapes me--or, rather, I never knew
Now, as for towns that live in a hollow, it is great fun to come upon
them from above. They are not used to being thus taken at a disadvantage
and they are both surprised and surprising. There are many towns in
holes and trenches of Europe which you can thus play "peep-bo" with if
you will come at them walking. By train they will mean nothing to you.
You will probably come upon them out of a long, shrieking tunnel, and by
the high road they mean little more, for the high road will follow the
vale. But if you come upon them from over their guardian cliffs and
scars you catch them unawares, and this is a good way of approaching
them, for you master them, as it were, and spy them out before you enter
in. You can act thus with Grenoble and with many a town on the Meuse,
and particularly with Aubusson, which lies in the depths of so dreadful
a trench that I could wonder how man ever dreamt of living and building
The most difficult of all places on which to advise, I think, would be
the very great cities, the capitals. They seem to have to-day no noble
entries and no proper approach. Perhaps we shall only deal with them
justly when we can circle down to them through the air and see their
vast activity splashed over the plain. Anyhow, there is no proper way of
entering them now that I know of. Berlin is not worth entering at all.
Rome (a man told me once) could be entered by some particular road over
the Janiculum, I think--which also, if I remember right, was the way
that Shelley came--but I despair of Paris, and certainly of London. I
cannot even recall an entry for Brussels, though Brussels is a
monumental city with great rewards for those who love the combination of
building and hills.
Perhaps, after all, the happiest entries of all and the most easy are
those of our many market towns, small and not swollen in Britain and in
Northern Gaul and in the Netherlands and in the Valley of the Rhine.
These hardly ever fail us, and we come upon them in our travels as they
desire that we should come, and we know them properly as things should
properly be known--that is, from the beginning.
Companions of Travel
I write of travelling companions in general, and not in particular,
making of them a composite photograph, as it were, and finding what they
have in common and what is their type; and in the first place I find
them to be chance men. For there are some people who cannot travel
without a set companion who goes with them from Charing Cross all over
the world and back to Charing Cross again. And there is a pathos in
this: as Balzac said of marriage, "What a commentary on human life, that
human beings must associate to endure it." So it is with many who cannot
endure to travel alone: and some will positively advertise for another
to go with them.
In a glade of the Sierra Nevada, which, for awful and, as it were,
permanent beauty seemed not to be of this world, I came upon a man
slowly driving along the trail a ramshackle cart, in which were a few
chairs and tables and bedding. He had a long grey beard and wild eyes;
he was old, and very small like a gnome, but he had not the gnome's
good-humour. I asked him where he was going, and I slowed down, so as to
keep pace with his ridiculous horse. For some time he would not answer
me, and then he said, "Out of this." He added, "I am tired of it." And
when I asked him, "Of what?" his only answer was an old-fashioned oath.
But from further complaints which he made I gathered that what he was
tired of was clearing forests, digging ground, paying debts, and in
general living upon this unhappy earth. He did not like me very much,
and though I would willingly have learned more, he would tell me nothing
further, so when we got to a place where there was a little stream I
went on and left him.
I have never forgotten the sadness of this man. Where he was going, and
what he expected to do, or what opportunities he had, I have never
understood. Though some years after, in quite another place--namely,
Steyning, in Sussex--I came upon just such another, whose quarrel was
with the English climate, the rich and the poor, and the whole
constitution of God's earth. These are the advantages of travel, that
one meets so many men whom one would otherwise never meet, and that one
feeds as it were upon the complexity of mankind.
Thus in a village called Encamps, in the depths of Andorra, where no man
has ever killed another, I found a man with a blue face, who was a
fossil, the kind of man you would never find in the swelling life of
Western Europe. He was emancipated, he had studied in Perpignan, over
and beyond the great hills. He could not see why he should pay taxes to
support a priest. "The priests" he assured me, "say the most ridiculous
things. They narrate the most impossible fables. They affirm what cannot
possibly be true. All that they say is in opposition to science. If I am
ill, can a priest cure me? No. Can a priest tell me how to build, or how
to light my house? He is unable to do so. He is a useless and a lying
mouth, why should I feed him?"
I questioned this man very closely, and discovered that in his view the
world slowly changed from worse to better, and to accelerate this
process enlightenment alone was needed. "But what do these brutes," he
said, alluding to his fellow-countrymen, "know of enlightenment? They do
not even make roads, because the priests forbid them."
I could write at length upon this man. He was not a Sceptic as you may
imagine, nor had he adopted the Lucretian form of Epicureanism. Not a
bit of it. He was a hearty Atheist, with Positivist leanings. I further
found that he had married a woman older, wealthier, and if possible
uglier than himself. She kept the inn, and was very kind to him. His
life would have been quite happy had he not been tortured by the
monstrous superstitions of others.
Then, again, in the town of Marseilles, only two years ago, I met a man
who looked well fed, and had a stalwart, square French face, and whose
politico-economic ideal, though it was not mine, greatly moved me. It
was just past midnight, and I was throwing little stones into the old
Greek harbour, the stench and the glory of which are nearly three
thousand years old; I was to be off at dawn upon a tramp steamer, and I
had so determined to pass the few hours of darkness.
I was throwing pebbles into the water, I say, and thinking about
Ulysses, when this man came slouching up, with his hands in the pockets
of his enormous corduroy trousers, and, looking at me with some contempt
from above (for he was standing, I was sitting), he began to converse
with me. We talked first of ships, then of heat and cold, and so on to
wealth and poverty; and thus it was I came upon his views, which were
that there should be a sort of break up, and houses ought to be burned,
and things smashed, and people killed; and over and above this, it
should be made plain that no one had a right to govern: not the people,
because they were always being bamboozled; obviously not the rich; least
of all, the politicians, to whom he justly applied the most derogatory
epithets. He waved his arm out in the darkness at the Phoceans, at the
half-million of Marseilles, and said, "All that should disappear." The
constructive side of his politico-economic scheme was negative. He was a
practical man. None of your fine theories for him. One step at a time.
Let there be a Chambardement--that is, a noisy collapse, and he would
think about what to do afterwards.
His was not the narrow, deductive mind. He was objective and concrete.
Believe me or not, he was paid an excellent wage by the municipality to
prevent people like me, who sit up at night, from doing mischief in the
harbour. When I had come to an end of his politico-economic scheme--the
main lines of which were so clear and simple that a child could
understand them--we fell to talking of the tides, and I told him that in
my country the sea went up and down. He was no rustic, and would have no
such commonplace truths. He was well acquainted with the Phenomenon of
the Tides; it was due to the combined attraction of the sun and of the
moon. But when I told him I knew places where the tides fell thirty or
forty feet, we would have had a violent quarrel had I not prudently
admitted that that was romantic exaggeration, and that five or six was
the most that one ever saw it move. I avoided the quarrel, but the
little incident broke up our friendship, and he shuffled away. He did
not like having his leg pulled.
There are many others I remember. Those I have written about elsewhere I
am ashamed to recall, as the man at Jedburgh, who first expounded to me
how one knew all about the fate of the individual soul, and then
objected to personal questions about his own; the German officer man at
Aix-la-Chapelle, who had hair the colour of tow, and gave me minute
details of the method by which England was to be destroyed; a man I met
upon the Appian Way, who told the most abominable lies; and another man
who met me outside Oxford station during the Vac. and offered to show me
the sights of the town for a consideration, which he did, but I would
not pay him because he was inaccurate, as I easily proved by a few
searching questions upon the exact site of Bocardo (of which he had
never heard), and the negative evidence against a Roman origin for the
site of the city. Moreover, he said that Trinity was St. John's, which
Then there was another man who travelled with me from Birmingham,
pressed certain tracts upon me, and wanted to charge me sixpence each at
Paddington. But if I were to speak of even these few I should exceed.
On the Sources of Rivers
There are certain customs in man the permanence of which gives infinite
pleasure. When the mood of the schools is against them these customs lie
in wait beneath the floors of society, but they never die, and when a
decay in pedantry or in despotism or in any other evil and inhuman
influence permits them to reappear they reappear.
One of these customs is the religious attachment of man to isolated high
places, peaks, and single striking hills. On these he must build
shrines, and though he is a little furtive about it nowadays, yet the
instinct is there, strong as ever. I have not often come to the top of a
high hill with another man but I have seen him put a few stones together
when he got there, or, if he had not the moral courage so to satisfy his
soul, he would never fail on such an occasion to say something ritual and
quasi-religious, even if it were only about the view; and another instinct
of the same sort is the worship of the sources of rivers.
The Iconoclast and the people whose pride it is that their senses are
dead will see in a river nothing more than so much moisture gathered in
a narrow place and falling as the mystery of gravitation inclines it.
Their mood is the mood of that gentleman who despaired and wrote:
A cloud's a lot of vapour,
The sky's a lot of air,
And the sea's a lot of water
That happens to be there.
You cannot get further down than that. When you have got as far down as
that all is over. Luckily God still keeps his mysteries going for you,
and you can't get rid, even in that mood, of the certitude that you
yourself exist and that things outside of you are outside of you. But
when you get into that modern mood you do lose the personality of
everything else, and you forget the sanctity of river heads.
You have lost a great deal when you have forgotten that, and it behoves
you to recover what you have lost as quickly as possible, which is to be
done in this way: Visit the source of some famous stream and think about
it. There was a Scotchman once who discovered the sources of the Nile,
to the lasting advantage of mankind and the permanent glory of his
native land. He thought the source of the Nile looked rather like the
sources of the Till or the Tweed or some such river of Thule. He has
been ridiculed for saying this, but he was mystically very right. The
source of the greatest of rivers, since it was sacred to him, reminded
him of the sacred things of his home.
When I consider the sources of rivers which I have seen, there is not
one, I think, which I do not remember to have had about it an influence
of awe. Not only because one could in imaginings see the kingdoms of the
cities which it was to visit and the way in which it would bind them all
together in one province and one story, but also simply because it was
The sources of the Rhone are famous: the Rhone comes out of a glacier
through a sort of ice cave, and if it were not for an enormous hotel
quite four-square it would be as lonely a place as there is in Europe,
and as remarkable a beginning for a great river as could anywhere be
found. Nor, when you come to think of it, does any European river have
such varied fortunes as the Rhone. It feeds such different religions and
looks on such diverse landscapes. It makes Geneva and it makes Avignon;
it changes in colour and in the nature of its going as it goes. It sees
new products appearing continually on its journey until it comes to
olives, and it flows past the beginning of human cities, when it
reflects the huddle of old Arles.
The sources of the Garonne are well known. The Garonne rises by itself
in a valley from which there is no issue, like the fabled valleys shut
in by hills on every side. And if it were anything but the Garonne it
would not be able to escape: it would lie imprisoned there for ever.
Being the Garonne it tunnels a way for itself right under the High
Pyrenees and comes out again on the French side. There are some that
doubt this, but then there are people who would doubt anything.
The sources of the River Arun are not so famous as these two last, and
it is a good thing, for they are to be found in one of the loneliest
places within an hour of London that any man can imagine, and if you
were put down there upon a windy day you would think yourself upon the
moors. There is nothing whatsoever near you at the beginnings of the
little sacred stream.
Thames had a source once which was very famous. The water came out
plainly at a fountain under a bleak wood just west of the Fosse Way,
under which it ran by a culvert, a culvert at least as old as the
Romans. But when about a hundred years ago people began to improve the
world in those parts, they put up a pumping station and they pumped
Thames dry--since which time its gods have deserted the river.
The sources of the Ribble are in a lonely place up in a corner of the
hills where everything has strange shapes and where the rocks make one
think of trolls. The great frozen Whernside stands up above it, and
Ingleborough Hill, which is like no other hill in England, but like the
flat-topped Mesas which you have in America, or (as those who have
visited it tell me) like the flat hills of South Africa; and a little
way off on the other side is Pen-y-ghent, or words to that effect. The
little River Ribble rises under such enormous guardianship. It rises
quite clean and single in the shape of a little spring upon the
hillside, and too few people know it. The other river that flows east
while the Ribble flows west is the River Ayr. It rises in a curious way,
for it imitates the Garonne, and finding itself blocked by limestone
burrows underneath at a place called Malham Tarn, after which it has no
The River Severn, the River Wye, and a third unimportant river, or at
least important only for its beauty (and who would insist on that?) rise
all close together on the skirts of Plinlimmon, and the smallest of them
has the most wonderful rising, for it falls through the gorge of Llygnant,
which looks like, and perhaps is, the deepest cleft in this island, or, at
any rate, the most unexpected. And a fourth source on the mountain, a tarn
below its summit, is the source of Rheidol, which has a short but
adventurous life like Achilles.
There is one source in Europe that is properly dealt with, and where the
religion due to the sources of rivers has free play, and this is the
source of the Seine. It comes out upon the northern side of the hills
which the French call the Hills of Gold, in a country of pasturage and
forest, very high up above the world and thinly peopled. The River Seine
appears there in a sort of miraculous manner, pouring out of a grotto,
and over this grotto the Parisians have built a votive statue; and there
is yet another of the hundred thousand things that nobody knows.
There is an elusive idea that has floated through the minds of most of
us as we grew older and learnt more and more things. It is an idea
extremely difficult to get into set terms. It is an idea very difficult
to put so that we shall not seem nonsensical; and yet it is a very
useful idea, and if it could be realized its realization would be of
very practical value. It is the idea of a Dictionary of Ignorance and
On the face of it a definition of the work is impossible. Strictly
speaking it would be infinite, for human knowledge, however far
extended, must always be infinitely small compared with all possible
knowledge, just as any given finite space is infinitely small compared
with all space.
But that is not the idea which we entertain when we consider this
possible Dictionary of Ignorance and Error. What we really mean is a
Dictionary of the sort of Ignorance and the sort of Error which we know
ourselves to have been guilty of, which we have escaped by special
experience or learning as time went on, and against which we would warn
Flaubert, I think, first put it down in words, and said that such an
encyclopaedia was very urgently needed.
It will never exist, but we all know that it ought to exist. Bits of it
appear from time to time piecemeal and here and there, as for instance
in the annotations which modern scholarship attaches to the great text,
in the printed criticisms to which sundry accepted doctrines are
subjected by the younger men to-day, in the detailed restatement of
historical events which we get from modern research as our fathers could
never have them--but the work itself, the complete Encyclopaedia or
Dictionary of Ignorance and Error, will never be printed. It is a great
Incidentally one may remark that the process by which a particular error
is propagated is as interesting to watch as the way in which a plant
The first step seems to be the establishing of an authority and the
giving of that authority a name which comes to connote doctrinal
infallibility. A very good example of this is the title "Science." Mere
physical research, its achievements, its certitudes, even its
conflicting and self-contradictory hypotheses, having got lumped
together in many minds under this one title Science, the title is now
sacred. It is used as a priestly title, as an immediate estopper to
doubt or criticism.
The next step is a very interesting one for the student of psychical
pathology to note. It seems to be a disease as native and universal to
the human mind as is the decay of the teeth to the human body. It seems
as though we all must suffer somewhat from it, and most of us suffer a
great deal from it, though in a cool aspect we easily perceive it to be
a lesion of thought. And this second step is as follows:
The whole lump having been given its sacred title and erected into an
infallible authority, which you are to accept as directly superior to
yourself and all personal sources of information, there is attributed to
this idol a number of attributes. We give it a soul, and a habit and
manners which do not attach to its stuff at all. The projection of this
imagined living character in our authority is comparable to what we also
do with mountains, statues, towns, and so forth. Our living
individuality lends individuality to them. I might here digress to
discuss whether this habit of the mind were not a distorted reflection
of some truth, and whether, indeed, there be not such beings as demons
or the souls of things. But, to leave that, we take our authority--this
thing "Science," for instance--we clothe it with a creed and appetites
and a will, and all the other human attributes.
This done, we set out in the third step in our progress towards fixed
error. We make the idol speak. Of course, being only an idol, it talks
nonsense. But by the previous steps just referred to we must believe
that nonsense, and believe it we do. Thus it is, I think, that fixed
error is most generally established.
I have already given one example in the hierarchic title "Science."
It was but the other day that I picked up a weekly paper in which a
gentleman was discussing ghosts--that is, the supposed apparition of the
living and the dead: of the dead though dead, and of the living though
Nothing has been more keenly discussed since the beginning of human
discussions. Are these phenomena (which undoubtedly happen) what modern
people call subjective, or are they what modern people call objective?
In old-fashioned English, Are the ghosts really there or are they not?
The most elementary use of the human reason persuades us that the matter
is not susceptible of positive proof. The criterion of certitude in any
matter of perception is an inner sense in the perceiver that the thing
he perceives is external to himself. He is the only witness; no one can
corroborate or dispute him. The seer may be right or he may be wrong,
but we have no proof--and only according to our temperament, our fancy,
our experience, our mood, do we decide with one or the other of the two
Well, the gentleman of whom I am speaking wrote and had printed in plain
English this phrase (read it carefully):--"Science teaches us that these
phenomena are purely subjective."
Now I am quite sure that of the thousands who read that phrase all but a
handful read it in the spirit in which one hears the oracle of a god.
Some read it with regret, some with pleasure, but all with acquiescence.
That physical science was not competent in the matter one way or the
other each of those readers would probably have discovered, if even so
simple a corrective as the use of the term "physical research" instead
of the sacred term "science" had been applied; the hierarchic title
"Science" did the trick.
I might take another example out of many hundreds to show what I mean.
You have an authority which is called, where documents are concerned,
"The Best Modern Criticism." "The Best Modern Criticism" decides that
"Tam o' Shanter" was written by a committee of permanent officials of
the Board of Trade, or that Napoleon Bonaparte never existed. As a
matter of fact, the tomfoolery does not usually venture upon ground so
near home, but it talks rubbish just as monstrous about a poem a few
hundred or a few thousand years old, or a great personality a few
hundred or a few thousand years old.
Now if you will look at that phrase "The Best Modern Criticism" you will
see at once that it simply teems with assumption and tautology. But it
does more and worse: it presupposes that an infallible authority must of
its own nature be perpetually wrong.
Even supposing that I have the most "modern" (that is, merely the
latest) criticism to hand, and even supposing that by some omniscience
of mine I can tell which is "the best" (that is, which part of it has
really proved most ample, most painstaking, most general, and most
sincere), even then the phrase fatally condemns me. It is to say that
Wednesday is always infallible as compared with Tuesday, and Thursday as
compared with Wednesday, which is absurd.
The B.M.C. tells me in 1875 that the Song of Roland could have no
origins anterior to the year 1030. But the B.M.C. of 1885 (being a
B.M.C. and nothing more valuable) has a changed opinion. It must change
its opinion, that is the law of its being, since an integral factor in
its value is its modernity. In 1885 B.M.C. tells me that the Song of
Roland can be traced to origins far earlier, let us say to 912.
In 1895 B.M.C. has come to other conclusions--the Song of Roland is
certainly as late as 1115 ... and so forth.
Now you would say that an idol of that absurdity could have no effect
upon sane men. Change the terms and give it another name, and you would
laugh at the idea of its having an effect upon any men. But we know as a
matter of fact that it commands the thoughts of nearly all men to-day
and makes cowards of the most learned.
Perhaps you will ask me at the end of so long a criticism in what way
error may be corrected, since there is this sort of tendency in us to
accept it, to which I answer that things correct it, or as the
philosophers call things, "Reality." Error does not wash.
To go back to that example of ghosts. If ever you see a ghost (my poor
reader), I shall ask you afterwards whether he seemed subjective or no.
I think you will find the word "subjective" an astonishingly thin
one--if, at least, I catch you early after the experience.
The Great Sight
All night we had slept on straw in a high barn. The wood of its beams
was very old, and the tiles upon the roof were green with age; but there
hung from beam to beam, fantastically, a wire caught by nails, and here
and there from this wire hung an electric-light bulb. It was a symbol of
the time, and the place, and the people. There was no local by-law to
forbid such a thing, or if there was, no one dreamt of obeying it.
Just in the first dawn of that September day we went out, my companion
and I, at guesswork to hunt in the most amusing kind of hunting, which
is the hunting of an army. The lane led through one of those lovely
ravines of Picardy which travellers never know (for they only see the
plains), and in a little while we thought it wise to strike up the steep
bank from the valley on to the bare plateau above, but it was all at
random and all guesswork, only we wisely thought that we were nearing
the beginning of things, and that on the bare fields of the high flat we
should have a greater horizon and a better chance of catching any
indications of men or arms.
When we had reached the height the sun had long risen, but it as yet
gave no shining and there were no shadows, for a delicate mist hung all
about the landscape, though immediately above us the sky was faintly
It was the weirdest of sensations to go for mile after mile over that
vast plain, to know that it was cut in regular series by parallel
ravines which in all that extended view we could not guess at; to see up
to the limits of the plateau the spires of villages and the groups of
trees about them, and to know that somewhere in all this there lay
concealed a _corps d'armee_--and not to see or hear a soul. The
only human being that we saw was a man driving a heavy farm cart very
slowly up a side-way just as we came into the great road which has shot
dead across this country in one line ever since the Romans built it. As
we went along that road, leaving the fields, we passed by many men
indeed, and many houses, all in movement with the early morning; and the
chalked numbers on the doors, and here and there an empty tin of
polishing-paste or an order scrawled on paper and tacked to a wall
betrayed the passage of soldiers. But of the army there was nothing at
all. Scouting on foot (for that was what it was) is a desperate
business, and that especially if you have nothing to tell you whether
you will get in touch in five, or ten, or twenty miles.
It was nine o'clock before a clatter of horse-hoofs came up the road
behind us. At first my companion and I wondered whether it were the
first riders of the Dragoons or Cuirassiers. In that case the advance
was from behind us. But very soon, as the sound grew clearer, we heard
how few they were, and then there came into view, trotting rapidly, a
small escort and two officers with the umpires' badges, so there was
nothing doing; but when, half a mile ahead of us on the road, they
turned off to the left over plough, we knew that that was the way we
must follow too. Before we came to the turning-place, before we left the
road to take the fields on the left, there came from far off and on our
right the sound of a gun.
It was my companion who heard it first. We strained to hear it again;
twice we thought we had caught it, and then again twice we doubted. It
is not so easily recognizable a sound as you might think in those great
plains cut by islands of high trees and steading walls. The little "75"
gun lying low makes a different sound altogether at a distance from the
old piece of "90." At any rate there was here no doubt that there were
guns to the right and in front of us, and the umpire had gone to the
left. We were getting towards the thick, and we had only to go straight
on to find out where the front was.
Just as we had so decided and were still pursuing the high road, there
came, not half a mile away and again to our right, in a valley below us,
that curious sound which is like nothing at all unless it be dumping of
flints out of a cart: rifle fire. It cracked and tore in stretches. Then
there were little gaps of silence like the gaps in signalling, and then
it cracked and tore in stretches again; and then, fitfully, one
individual shot and then another would be heard; and, much further off,
with little sounds like snaps, the replies began from the hillside
beyond the stream. So far so good. Here was contact in the valley below
us, and the guns, some way behind and far off northwards, had opened. So
we got the hang of it instantly--the front was a sort of a crescent
lying roughly north and south, and roughly parallel to the great road,
and the real or feigned mass of the advance was on the extreme left of
that front. We were in it now, and that anxious and wearing business in
all hunting, finding, was over; but we had been on foot six mortal hours
before coming across our luck, and more than half the soldiers' day was
over. These men had been afoot since three, and certain units on the
left had already marched over twenty miles.
After that coming in touch with our business, not only did everything
become plain, but the numbers we met, and what I have called "the thick
of things," fed us with interest. We passed half the 38th, going down
the road singing, to extend the line, and in a large village we came to
the other half, slouching about in the traditional fashion of the
Service; they had been waiting for an hour. With them, and lined up all
along the village street, was one battery, with the drivers dismounted,
and all that body were at ease. There were men sitting on the doorsteps
of the houses and men trotting to the canteen-wagon or to the village
shops to buy food; and there were men reading papers which a pedlar had
brought round. Mud and dust had splashed them all; upon some there was a
look of great fatigue; they were of all shapes and sizes, and altogether
it was the sort of sight you would not see in any other service in the
world. It was the sort of sight which so disgusted the Emperor Joseph
when he made his little tour to spy out the land before the
Revolutionary Wars. It was the sort of sight which made Massenbach
before Grandpre marvel whether the French forces were soldiers at all,
and the sort of sight which made Valmy inexplicable to the King of
Prussia and his staff. It was the sort of sight which eighteen months
later still convinced Mack in Tournai that the Duke of York's plan was a
plan "of annihilation." It is a trap for judgment is the French service.
So they lounged about and bought bread, and shifted their packs, and so
the drivers stood by their horses, and so they all waited and slouched;
until there came, not a man with a bugle nor anything with the slightest
savour of drama but a little fellow running along thumping in his loose
leather leggings, who went up to a Major of Artillery and saluted, and
immediately afterwards the Major put his hand up, and then down a
village street, from a point which we could not see came a whistle, and
the whole of that mass of men began to swarm. The grey-blue coats of the
line swung round the corner of the village street; they had yet a few
miles before them. Anything more rapid or less in step it would be
difficult to conceive. The guns were off at a right angle down the main
road, making a prodigious clatter, and at the same time appeared two
parties, one of which it was easy to understand, the other not. They
were both parties of sappers. The one party had a great roll of wire on
a drum, and as quick as you could think they were unreeling it, and as
they unreeled it fastening it to eaves, overhanging branches, and to
corners of walls, stretching it out forward. It was the field-telephone.
The other party came along carrying great beams upon their shoulders,
but what they were to do with these beams we did not know.
We followed the tail of the line down into the valley, and all that
morning long and past the food time at midday, and so till the sun
declined in the afternoon, we went with the 38th in its gradual success
from crest to crest. And still the 38th slouched by companies, and mile
after mile with checks and halts, and it never seemed to get either less
or more tired. The men had had twelve hours of it when they came at
last, and we after them, on to the critical position. They had carried
(together with all the line to left and to the right of them) a string
of villages which crowned the crest of a further plateau, and over this
further plateau they were advancing against the main body of the
resistance--the other army corps which was set up against ours, to
simulate an enemy.
A railway line ran here across the rolling hedgeless fields, and just at
the point where my companion and I struck it there was a dip in the land
and a high embankment which hid the plain beyond; but from that plain
beyond one heard the separate fire of the advancing line in its
scattered order. We climbed the embankment, and from its ridge we saw
over two miles or more of stubble, the little creeping bunches of the
attack. What was resisting, or where it lay, one could only guess. Some
hundreds of yards before us to the east, with the sloping sun full on
it, a line of thicket, one scattered wood and then another, an
imperceptible lifting of the earth here and there marked the opposing
firing line. Two pompoms could be spotted exactly, for the flashes were
clear through the underwood. And still the tide of the advance continued
to flow, and the little groups came up and fed it, one after another and
another, in the centre where we were, and far away to the north and
right away to the south the countryside was alive with it. The action
was beginning to take on something of that final movement and decision
which makes the climax of manoeuvres look so great a game. But in a
little while that general creeping forward was checked: there were
orders coming from the umpires, and a sort of lull fell over each
position held. My companion said to me:
"Let us go forward now over the intervening zone and in among Picquart's
men, and get well behind their line, and see whether there is a rally or
whether before the end of this day they begin to fall back again."
So we did, walking a mile or so until we had long passed their outposts
and were behind their forward lines. And standing there, upon a little
eminence near a wood, we turned and looked over what we had come,
westward towards the sun which was now not far from its setting. Then it
was that we saw the last of the Great Sight.
The level light, mellow and already reddening, illumined all that plain
strangely, and with the absolute stillness of the air contrasted the
opening of the guns which had been brought up to support the renewal of
the attack. We saw the isolated woods standing up like islands with low
steep cliffs, dotted in a sea of stubble for miles and miles, and first
from the cover of one and then from another the advance perpetually,
piercing and deploying. As we so watched there buzzed high above us,
like a great hornet, a biplane, circling well within our lines, beyond
attack from the advance, but overlooking all they concealed behind it.
In a few minutes a great Bleriot monoplane like a hawk followed, yet
further inwards. The two great birds shot round in an arc, parallel to
the firing line, and well behind it, and in a few minutes, that seemed
seconds, they were dots to the south and then lost in the air. And
perpetually, as the sun declined, Picquart's men were falling back north
and south of us and before us, and the advance continued. Group by group
we saw it piercing this hedge, that woodland, now occupying a nearer and
a nearer roll of land. It was the greatest thing imaginable: this
enormous sweep of men, the dead silence of the air, and the
comparatively slight contrast of the ceaseless pattering rifle fire and
the slight intermittent accompaniment of the advancing batteries; until
the sun set and all this human business slackened. Then for the first
time one heard bugles, which were a command to cease the game.
I would not have missed that day nor lose the memories of it for
anything in the world.
The Decline of a State
The decline of a State is not equivalent to a mortal sickness therein.
States are organisms subject to diseases and to decay as are the
organisms of men's bodies; but they are not subject to a rhythmic rise
and fall as is the body of a man. A State in its decline is never a
State doomed or a State dying. States perish slowly or by violence, but
never without remedy and rarely without violence.
The decline of a State differs with the texture of it. A democratic
State will decline from a lowering of its potential, that is of its
ever-ready energy to act in a crisis, to correct and to control its
servants in common times, to watch them narrowly and suspect them at all
times. A despotic State will decline when the despot is not in point of
fact the true depository of despotic power, but some other acting in his
name, of whom the people know little and cannot judge; or when the
despot, though fully in view and recognized, lacks will; or when (which
is rare) he is so inhuman as to miss the general sense of his subjects.
An oligarchic State, or aristocracy as it is called, will decline
principally through two agencies which are, first, illusion, and
secondly, lack of civic aptitude. For an oligarchic State tends very
readily to illusion, being conducted by men who live at leisure, satisfy
their passions, are immune from the laws, and prefer to shield
themselves from reality. Their capacity or appetite for illusion will
rapidly pervade those below them, for in an aristocracy the rulers are
subjected to a sort of worship from the rest of the community, and thus
it comes about that aristocracies in their decline accept fantastic
histories of their own past, conceive victory possible without armies,
wealth to be an indication of ability, and national security to be a
natural gift rather than a product of the will. Such communities further
fail from the lack of civic aptitude, as was said above, which means
that they deliberately elect to leave the mass of citizens incompetent
and irresponsible for generations, so that, when any more strain is upon
them, they look at once for some men other than themselves to relieve
them, and are incapable of corporate action upon their own account.
The decline of a State differs also according to whether it be a great
State or a small one, for in the first indifference, in the latter
faction, are a peril, and in the first ignorance, in the latter private
Then again, the decline of a State will differ according to whether its
strength is rooted originally in commerce, in arms, or in production;
and if in production, then whether in the production of the artisan or
in that of the peasant. If arms be the basis of the State, then that the
army should become professional and apart is a symptom of decline and a
cause of it; if commerce, the substitution of hazards and imaginaries
for the transport of real goods and the search after real demand; if
production, the discontent or apathy of the producer; as with peasants
an ill system in the taxation of the land or in the things necessary for
its tillage, such as a misgovernment of its irrigation in a dry country;
the permission of private exactions and tolls in a fertile one; the
toleration of thieves and forestallers, and so forth. Artisans, upon the
other hand, may well flourish, though the State be corrupt in such
matters, but they must be secured in a high wage and be given a vast
liberty of protest, for if they sink to be slaves in fact, they will
from the nature of their toil grow both weak and foolish. Yet is not the
State endangered by the artisan's throwing off a refuse of ill-paid and
starving men who are either too many for the work or unskilful at it?
Such an excretion would poison a peasantry, remaining in their body as
it were, but artisans are purged thereby. This refuse it is for the
State to decide upon. It may in an artisan State be used for soldiery
(since such States commonly maintain but small armies and are commonly
indifferent to military glory), or it may be set to useful labour, or
again, destroyed; but this last use is repugnant to humanity, and so in
the long run hurtful to the State.
In the decline of a State, of whatever nature that State be, two vices
will immediately appear and grow: these are Avarice and Fear; and men
will more readily accept the imputation of Avarice than of Fear, for
Avarice is the less despicable of the two--yet in fact Fear will be by
far the strongest passion of the time.
Avarice will show itself not indeed in a mere greed of gain (for this is
common to all societies whether flourishing or failing), but rather in a
sort of taking for granted and permeation of the mere love of money, so
that history will be explained by it, wars judged by their booty or
begun in order to enrich a few, love between men and women wholly
subordinated to it, especially among the rich: wealth made a test for
responsibility and great salaries invented and paid to those who serve
the State. This vice will also be apparent in the easy acquaintance of
all who are possessed of wealth and their segregation from the less
fortunate, for avarice cleaves society flatways, keeping the scum of it
quite clear of the middle, the middle of it quite clear of the dregs,
and so forth. It is a further mark of avarice in its last stages that
the rich are surrounded with lies in which they themselves believe.
Thus, in the last phase, there are no parasites but only friends, no
gifts but only loans, which are more esteemed favours than gifts once
were. No one vicious but only tedious, and no one a poltroon but only
Of Fear in the decline of a State it may be said that it is so much the
master passion of such decline as to eat up all others. Coming by travel
from a healthy State to one diseased, Fear is the first point you take.
Men dare not print or say what they feel of the judges, the public
governors, the action of the police, the controllers of fortunes and of
news. This Fear will have about it something comic, providing infinite
joy to the foreigner, and modifying with laughter the lament of the
patriot. A miserable hack that never had a will of his own, but ran to
do what he was told for twenty years at the bidding of his masters,
being raised to the Bench will be praised for an impartial virtue more
than human. A drunken fellow, the son of a drunkard, having stolen
control over some half-dozen sheets, must be named under the breath or
not at all. A powerful minister may be accused with sturdy courage of
something which he did not do and no one would mind his doing, but under
the influence of Fear, to tell the least little truth about him will put
a whole assembly into a sort of blankness.
This vice has for its most laughable effect the raising of a whole host
of phantoms, and when a State is so far gone that civic Fear is quite
normal to the citizens, then you will find them blenching with terror at
a piece of print, a whispered accusation. Bankruptcy, though they be
possessed of nothing, and even the ill-will of women. Moneylenders under
this influence have the greatest power, next after them, blackmailers of
all kinds, and next after these eccentrics who may blurt or break out.
Those who have least power in the decline of a State, are priests,
soldiers, the mothers of many children, the lovers of one woman, and
On Past Greatness
There lies in the North-East of France, close against the Belgian
frontier and within cannon shot of the famous battlefield of Malplaquet,
a little town called Bavai--I have written of it elsewhere.
Coming into this little town you seem to be entering no more than a
decent, unimportant market borough, a larger village meant for country
folk, perhaps without a history and certainly without fame.
As you come to look about you one thing after another enlivens your
curiosity and suggests something at once enormous and remote in the
destinies of the place.
In the first place, seven great roads go out like the seven rays of a
star, plumb straight, darting along the line, across the vast, bare
fields of Flanders, past and along the many isolated woods of the
provinces, and making to great capitals far off--to Cologne, to Paris,
to Treves, and to the ports of the sea.
These roads are deserted in great part. Some of them are metalled in
certain sections, and again in other sections are no more than lanes,
and again no more than footpaths, as you proceed along their miles of
way; but their exact design awfully impresses the mind. You know, as you
follow such strict alignment, that you are fulfilling the majestic
purpose of Imperial Rome. It was the Romans that made these things.
Then, intrigued and excited by such remains of greatness, you read what
you can of the place.... And you find nothing but a dust of legend. You
find a story that once here a king, filled with ambition and worshipping
strange gods, thrust out these great roads to the ends of the earth;
desired his capital to be a hub and navel for the world. He put them
under the protection of the seven planets and of the deities of those
stars. Three he paved with black marble and four with white marble, and
where they met upon the market place he put up a golden terminal. There
the legend ends.
It is only legend--a true product of the Dark Ages, when all that Rome
had done rose like a huge dream in the mind of Europe and took on
gorgeous and fantastic colouring. You learn (for the rest) very
little--that ornaments and money have been found dating from two
thousand years, that once great walls surrounded the place. It must have
had noble buildings and solemn courts. In strict history all you will
discover is that it was the capital of that tribe, the Nervii, against
whom Caesar fought, and whose territory was early conquered for the
Empire. You will find nothing more. There is no living tradition, there
is no voice; the little town is dumb.
The place is a figure, and a striking one, of greatness long dead, and a
man visiting its small domestic interests to-day, and noting its
comfort, its humility, and its sleep, is reminded of many things
attaching to human fame. It would seem as though the ambitions of men,
and that exalted appetite for glory which has produced the chief things
of this world, suffer the effect of time somewhat as the body of an
animal slain will suffer that.
One part of the organism and then another decays and mixes back with
nature. The effect of will has vanished. The thing is a prey to all that
environment which, once alive, it combated, conquered, and transformed
to its own use. One portion after another is lost, until at last only
the most resisting stands--the skeleton and hard framework, the least
expressive, the least personal part of the whole. This also decays and
perishes. Then there remains no more but a score of hardened fragments
that linger in their place, and what has passed away is fortunate if
even the slightest or most fantastic legend of itself survives.
The great dead are first forgotten in their physical habit; we lose the
nature of their voices, we forget their sympathies and their affections.
Bit by bit all that they intended to be eternal slips back into the
common thing around. A blurred image, growing fainter and fainter,
lingers. At last the person vanishes, and in its place some public
raising material things--a monument, a tomb, an ornament, or weapon of
enduring metal--is all that remains.
If it were possible for the spring of appetite and quest to be dried up
in man, such a spectacle would dry up that spring.
It is not possible, for it is providentially in the nature of man to
cherish these illusions of an immortal memory and of a life bestowed
upon the shade or the mere name of his living greatness. Those various
forms of fame which are young men's goals, and to which the eager
creative power of early manhood so properly directs itself, seem each in
turn or each for its varying temperament to promise the desired reward;
and one imagines that his love, another that his discoveries, another
that his victories in the field or his conspicuous acts of courage will
remain permanently with his fellows long after he has left their feast.
As though to give some substance to the flattering cheat, there is one
kind of fame which men have been permitted to attain, and which does
give them a sort of fixed tenure--if not for ever, yet for generations
upon generations--in the human city. This sort of fame is the fame of
the great poets. There is nothing more enduring. It has for some who
were most blessed outlasted, you may say, all material things which they
handled or they knew--all fabrics, all instruments, all habitations. It
is comparable in its endurance to the years, and a man reads the "Song
of Roland" and can still look on that same unchanged Cleft of
Roncesvalles, or a man reads the Iliad and can look to-day westward from
the shores to Tenedos. But wait a moment. Are they indeed blessed in
this, the great poets? Ronsard debated it. He decided that they were,
and put into the mouth of the muses the great lines:----
Mais un tel accident n'arrive point a l'ame,
Qui sans matiere vist immortelle la haut.
* * * * *
Vela saigement dit, Ceux dont la fantaisie
Sera religieuse et devote envers Dieu
Tousjours acheveront quelque grand poesie,
Et dessus leur renom la Parque n'aura lieu.
But the matter is still undecided.
Mr. The Duke: The Man of Malplaquet
On the field of Malplaquet, that battlefield, I met a man.
He was pointed out to me as a man who drove travellers to Bavai. His
name was Mr. The Duke, and he was very poor.
If he comes across these lines (which is exceedingly unlikely) I offer
him my apologies. Anyhow, I can write about him freely, for he is not
rich, and, what is more, the laws of his country permit the telling of
the truth about our fellow-men, even when they are rich.
Mr. The Duke was of some years, and his colour was that of cedar wood. I
met him in his farmyard, and I said to him:
"Is it you, sir, that drive travellers to Bavai?"
"No," said he.
Accustomed by many years of travel to this type of response, I
"How much do you charge?"
"Two francs fifty," said he.
"I will give you three francs," I said, and when I had said this he
shook his head and replied:
"You fall at an evil moment; I was about to milk the cows." Having said
this he went to harness the horse.
When the horse was harnessed to his little cart (it was an extremely
small horse, full of little bones and white in colour, with one eye
stronger than the other) he gave it to his little daughter to hold, and
himself sat down to table, proposing a meal.
"It is but humble fare," he said, "for we are poor."
This sounded familiar to me; I had both read and heard it before. The
meal was of bread and butter, pasty and beer, for Malplaquet is a
country of beer and not of wine.
As he sat at table the old man pointed out to me that contraband across
the Belgian frontier, which is close by, was no longer profitable.
"The Fraud," he said, "is no longer a living for anyone."
Upon that frontier contraband is called "The Fraud"; it holds an
honourable place as a career.
"The Fraud," he continued, "has gone long ago; it has burst. It is no
longer to be pursued. There is not even any duty upon apples.... But
there is a duty upon pears. Had I a son I would not put him into The
Fraud.... Sometimes there is just a chance here and there.... One can
pick up an occasion. But take it all in all (and here he wagged his head
solemnly) there is nothing in it any more."
I said that I had no experience of contraband professionally, but that I
knew a very honest man who lived by it in the country of Andorra, and
that according to my morals a man had a perfect right to run the risk
and take his chance, for there was no contract between him and the power
he was trying to get round. This announcement pleased the old gentleman,
but it did not grip his mind. He was of your practical sort. He was
almost a Pragmatist. Abstractions wearied him. He put no faith in the
reality of ideas. I think he was a Nominalist like Abelard: and whatever
excuse you may make for him, Abelard was a Nominalist right enough, for
it was the intellectual thing to be at the time, though St. Bernard
utterly confuted him in arguments of enormous length and incalculable
The old man, then, I say, would have nothing to do with first
principles, and he reasserted his position that, in the concrete, in the
existent world, The Fraud no longer paid.
This said for the sixth or seventh time, he drank some brandy to put
heart into him and climbed up into his little cart, I by his side. He
hit the white horse with a stick, making at the same time an
extraordinary shrill noise with his mouth, like a siren, and the horse
began to slop and sludge very dolefully towards Bavai.
"This horse," said Mr. The Duke, "is a wonderfully good horse. He goes
like the wind. He is of Arab extraction, and comes from Africa."
With these words he gave the horse another huge blow with his stick, and
once more emitted his piercing cry. The horse went neither faster nor
slower than before, and seemed very indifferent to the whole
"He is from Africa," said Mr. The Duke again, meditatively. "Do you know
Africa with the French populace means Algiers. I answered that I knew
it, and that in particular I knew the road southward from Constantine.
At this he looked very pleased, and said:
"I was a soldier in Africa. I deserted seven times."
To this I made no answer. I did not know how he wanted me to take it, so
I waited until he should speak again, which he soon did, and said:
"The last time I deserted I was free for a year and a half. I used to
conduct beasts; that was my trade. When they caught me I was to have
been shot. I was saved by the tears of a woman!"
Having said this the old man pulled out a very small pipe and filled it
with exceedingly black tobacco. He lit it, then he began talking again
rather more excitedly.
"It is a terrible thing and an unhappy thing none the less," he went on,
"that a man should be taken out to be shot and should be saved by the
tears of a woman." Then he added, "Of what use are wars? How foolish it
is that men should kill each other! If there were a war I would not
fight. Would you?"
I said I thought I would; but whether I should like to or not would
depend upon the war.
He was eager to contradict and to tell me that war was wrong and stupid.
Having behind him the logical training of fifteen Christian centuries he
was in no way muddle-headed upon the matter. He saw very well that his
doctrine meant that it was wrong to have a country, and wrong to love
it, and that patriotism was all bosh, and that no ideal was worth
physical pain or trouble. To such conclusions had he come at the end of
The white horse meanwhile slouched; Bavai grew somewhat nearer as we sat
in silence after his last sentence. He was turning many things over in
his mind. He veered off on to political economy.
"When the rich man at the Manufactory here, the place where they sell
phosphates for the land, when he stands beer to all the workmen and to
the countryside, I always say, 'Fools! All this will be put on to the
cost of the phosphates; they will cost you more!'"
Mr. The Duke did not accept John Stuart Mill's proposition upon the cost
of production nor the general theories of Ricardo upon which Mill's
propositions were based. In his opinion rent was a factor in the cost of
production, for he told me that butter had gone up because the price of
land was rising near the towns. In what he next said I found out that he
was not a Collectivist, for he said a man should own enough to live
upon, but he said that this was impossible if rich people were allowed
to live. I asked him what the politics of the countryside were and how
people voted. He said:
"The politicians trick the people. They are a heap of worthlessness."
I asked him if he voted, and he said "yes." He said there was only one
way to vote, but I did not understand what this meant.
Had time served I should have asked him further questions--upon the
nature of the soul, its ultimate fate, the origin of man and his
destiny, whether mortal or immortal; the proper constitution of the
State, the choice of the legislator, the prince, and the magistrate; the
function of art, whether it is subsidiary or primary in human life; the
family; marriage. Upon the State he had already informed me, and also
upon the institution of property, and upon his view of armies. Upon all
those other things he would equally have given me a clear reply, for he
was a man that knew his own mind, and that is more than most people can
But we were now in Bavai, and I had no time to discover more. We drank
together before we parted, and I was very pleased to see the honest look
in his face. With more leisure and born to greater opportunities he
would have been talked about, this Man of Malplaquet. He had come to his
odd conclusions as the funny people do in Scandinavia and in Russia, and
among the rich intellectuals and usurers in London and Berlin; but he
was a jollier man than they are, for he could drive a horse and lie
about it, and he could also milk a cow. As we parted he used a phrase
that wounded me, and which I had only heard once before in my life. He
"We shall never see each other again!"
Another man had once said this thing to me before. This man was a farmer
in the Northumbrian hills, who walked with me a little way in the days
when I was going over Carter Fell to find the Scots people, many, many
years ago. He also said: "We shall never meet again!"
The Game of Cards
A youth of no more than twenty-three years entered a first-class
carriage at the famous station of Swindon in the county of Wiltshire,
proposing to travel to the uttermost parts of the West and to enjoy a
comfortable loneliness while he ruminated upon all things human and
divine; when he was sufficiently annoyed to discover that in the further
corner of the carriage was sitting an old gentleman of benevolent
appearance, or at any rate a gentleman of benevolent appearance who
appeared in his youthful eyes to be old.
For though the old gentleman was, as a fact, but sixty, yet his virile
beard had long gone white and the fringes of hair attaching to his
ostrich egg of a head confirmed his venerable appearance.
When the train had started the young man proceeded in no very good
temper and with great solemnity to fill a pipe. He turned to his senior,
who was watching him in a very paternal and happy manner, and said
"I hope you do not mind my smoking, sir?"
"Not at all," said the old boy; "it is a habit I have long grown
accustomed to in others."
The young man bowed in a somewhat absurd fashion and felt for his
matches. He discovered to his no small mortification that he had none.
He was so used to his pipe after a meal that he really could not forgo
it. He came off his perch by at least three steps and asked the old man
very gently whether he had any matches.
The older man produced a box and at the same time brought out with it a
little notebook and a playing card which happened to be in his pocket.
The young man took the matches and lit his pipe, surveying the old man
the while with a more complacent eye.
"It is very kind of you, sir," he said a little less stiffly. He handed
back the matches, wrapped his rug round his legs, sat down in his place,
and knowing that one should prolong the conversation for a moment or two
after a favour, said: "I see that you play cards."
"I do," said the old man simply; "would you like a game?"
"I don't mind," said the young man, who had always heard that it was
unmanly and ridiculous to refuse a game of cards in a railway carriage.
The elder man laughed merrily in his strong beard as he saw his junior
begin to spread somewhat awkwardly a copy of a newspaper upon his knees.
"I'll show you a trick worth two of that," he said, and taking one of
the first-class cushions, which alone of railway cushions are movable
from its place, he came over to the corner opposite the young man and
made a table of the cushion between them. "Now," said he genially,
"what's it to be?"
"Well," said the young man like one who expounds new mysteries, "do you
"Oh, yes," said his companion with another happy little laugh of
contentment with the world. "I'll take you on. What shall it be?"
"Pennies if you like," said the young man nonchalantly.
"Very well, and double for the Rubicon."
"How do you mean?" said the young man, puzzled.
"You will see," said the old man, and they began to play.
The game was singularly absorbing. At first the young man won a few
pounds; then he lost rather heavily, then he won again, but not quite
enough to recoup. Then in the fourth game he won, so that he was a
little ahead, and meanwhile the old man chatted merrily during the
discarding or the shuffling: during the shuffling especially. He looked
out towards the downs with something of a sigh at one moment, and said:
"It's a happy world."
"Yes," answered the younger man with the proper lugubriousness of youth,
"but it all comes to an end."
"It isn't its coming to an end," said the elder man, declaring a point
of six, "that's not the tragedy; it's the little bits coming to an end
meanwhile, before the whole comes to an end: that's the tragedy...." But
he added with another of his jolly laughs: "We must play. Piquet takes
up all one's grey matter."
They played and the young man lost again, but by a very narrow margin:
it was quite an absorbing game. As they shuffled again the young man
"What did you mean by the little bits stopping, or whatever it was?"
"Oh," said the old man as though he couldn't remember, and then he
added: "Oh, yes, I mean you'll find, as you grow older, people die and
affections change, and, though it seems silly to mention it in company
with higher things, there's what Shelley called the 'contagion of the
world's slow stain.'"
Then their conversation was interrupted by the ardour of the game; but
as they played the young man was ruminating, and he had come to the
conclusion that his senior was imperfectly educated and was probably of
the middle classes, whereas he himself was destined to be a naval
architect, and with that object had recently left the university for an
office in the city. The young man thought that a man properly educated
would never quote a tag: he was wrong there. As he had allowed his
thoughts to wander somewhat the young man lost that game rather heavily,
and at the end of it he was altogether about ten shillings to the bad.
It was his turn to shuffle. The older man was at leisure to speak, and
did so rather dreamily as he gazed at the landscape again.
"Things change, you know," he said, "and there is the contagion of the
world's slow stain. One gets preoccupied: especially about money. When
men marry they get very much preoccupied upon that point. It's bad for
them, but it can't be helped."
"You cut," said the young man.
His elder cut and they played again. This time as they played their game
the old man broke his rule of silence and continued his observations
"Four kings," he said.... "It isn't that a man gets to think money
all-important, it is that he has to think of it all the time.... No,
three queens are no good. I said four kings.... four knaves.... The
little losses of money don't affect one, but perpetual trouble about it
does, and" (closing up the majority of tricks which he had just gained)
"many a man goes on making more year after year and yet feels himself in
peril.... _And_ the last trick." He took up the cards to shuffle
them. "Towards the very end of life," he continued, "it gets less, I
suppose, but you'll feel the burden of it." He put the pack over for the
younger man to cut. When that was done he dealt them out slowly. As he
dealt he said: "One feels the loss of little material things: objects to
which one was attached, a walking-stick, or a ring, or a watch which one
has carried for years. Your declare."
The young man declared, and that game was played in silence. I regret to
say that the young man was Rubiconed, and was thirty shillings in the
"We'll stop if you like" said the elder man kindly.
"Oh, no," said the youth with nonchalance, "I'll pay you now if you
"Not at all, I didn't mean that," said the older man with a sudden prick
"Oh, but I will, and we'll start fair again," said the young man.
Whereupon he handed over his combined losses in gold, the older man gave
him change, they shuffled again, and they went on with their play.
"After all," said the older man, musing as he confessed to a point of no
more than five, "it's all in the day's work.... It's just a day's work,"
he repeated with a saddened look in his eyes, "it's a game that one
plays like this game, and then when it's over it's over. It's the little
losses that count."
That game again was unfortunate for the young man, and he had to shell
out fifteen and six. But the brakes were applied, Bristol was reached,
the train came to a standstill, and the young man, looking up a little
confused and hurried, said: "Hello, Bristol! I get out here."
"So do I," said the older man. They both stood up together, and the jolt
of the train as it stopped dead threw them into each other's arms.
"I am really very sorry," said the youth.
"It's my fault," said the old chap like a good fellow, "I ought to have
caught hold. You get out and I'll hand you your bag."
"It's very kind of you," said the young man. He was really flattered by
so much attention, but he knew himself what a good companion he was and
he could understand it; besides which they had made friends during that
little journey. He always liked a man to whom he had lost some money in
an honest game.
There was a heavy crowd upon the platform, and two men barging up out of
it saluted the old man boisterously by the name of Jack. He twinkled at
them with his eyes as he began moving the luggage about, and stood for a
moment in the doorway with his own bag in his right hand and the young
man's bag in his left. The young man so saw it for an instant, a fine
upstanding figure--he saw his bag handed by some mistake to the second
of the old man's friends, a porter came by at the moment pushing through
the crowd with a trolley, an old lady made a scene, the porter
apologized, the crowd took sides, some for the porter, some for the old
lady; the young man, with the deference of his age, politely asked
several people to make way, but when he had emerged from the struggle
his companion, his companion's friends, and his own bag could not be
found; or at any rate he could not make out where they were in the great
mass that pushed and surged upon the platform.
He made himself a little conspicuous by asking too many questions and by
losing his temper twice with people who had done him no harm, when, just
as his excitement was growing more than querulous, a very heavy,
stupid-looking man in regulation boots tapped him on the shoulder and
said: "Follow me." He was prepared with an oath by way of reply, but
another gentleman of equal weight, wearing boots of the same pattern,
linked his arm in his and between them they marched him away, to a
little private closet opening out of the stationmaster's room.
"Now, sir," said he who had first tapped him on the shoulder, "be good
enough to explain your movements."
"I don't know what you mean," said the young man.
"You were in the company," said the older man severely, "of an old man,
bald, with a white beard and a blue sailor suit. He had come from
London; you joined him at Swindon. We have evidence that he was to be
met at this station and it will be to your advantage if you make a clean
breast of it."
The young man was violent and he was borne away.
But he had friends at Bristol. He gave his references and he was
released. To this day he believes that he suffered not from folly, but
from injustice. He did not see his bag again, but after all it contained
no more than his evening clothes, for which he had paid or rather owed
six guineas, four shirts, as many collars and dress ties, a
silver-mounted set of brushes and combs, and useless cut-glass bottles,
a patented razor, a stick of shaving soap, and two very, very
confidential letters which he treasured. His watch, of course, was gone,
but not, I am glad to say, his chain, which hung dangling, though in his
flurry he had not noticed it. It made him look a trifle ridiculous. As
he wore no tie-pin he had not lost that, and beyond his temper he had
indeed lost nothing further save, possibly, a textbook upon
Thermodynamics. This book he _thought_ he remembered having put
into the bag, and if he had it belonged to his library, but he could not
quite remember this point, and when the Library claimed it he stoutly
disputed their claim.
In this dispute he was successful, but it was the only profit he made
out of that journey, unless we are to count his experience, and
experience, as all the world knows, is a thing that men must buy.
The great unity which was built up two thousand years ago and was
called Christendom in its final development split and broke in pieces.
The various civilizations of its various provinces drifted apart, and it
will be for the future historian to say at what moment the isolation of
each from all was farthest pushed. It is certain that that point is
In the task of reuniting what was broken--it is the noblest work a
modern man can do--the very first mechanical act must be to explain one
national soul to another. That act is not final. The nations of Europe,
now so divided, still have more in common than those things by which
they differ, and it is certain that when they have at last revealed to
them their common origin they will return to it. They will return to it,
perhaps, under the pressure of war waged by some not Christian
civilization, but they will return. In the meanwhile, of those acts not
final, yet of immediate necessity in the task of establishing unity, is
the act of introducing one national soul to another.
Now this is best accomplished in a certain way which I will describe.
You will take that part in the letters of a nation which you maturely
judge most or best to reflect the full national soul, with its
qualities, careless of whether these be great or little; you will take
such a work as reproduces for you as you read it, not only in its
sentiment, but in its very rhythm, the stuff and colour of the nation;
this you will present to the foreigner, who cannot understand. His
efforts must be laborious, very often unfruitful, but where it is
fruitful it will be of a decisive effect.
Thus let anyone take some one of the immortal things that Racine wrote
and show them to an Englishman. He will hardly ever be able to make
anything of it at first. Here and there some violently emotional passage
may faintly touch him, but the mass of the verse will seem to him dead.
Now, if by constant reading, by association with those who know what
Racine is, he at last sees him--and these changes in the mind come very
suddenly--he will see into the soul of Gaul. For the converse task,
to-day not equally difficult but once almost impossible, of presenting
England to the French intelligence--or, indeed, to any other alien
intelligence--you may choose the play "King Lear."
That play has every quality which does reflect the soul of the community
in which and for which it was written. Note a few in their order.
First, it is not designed to its end; at least it is not designed
accurately to its end; it is written as a play and it is meant to be
acted as a play, and it is the uniform opinion of those versed in plays
and in acting that in its full form it could hardly be presented, while
in any form it is the hardest even of Shakespeare's plays to perform.
Here you have a parallel with a thousand mighty English things to which
you can turn. Is there not institution after institution to decide on,
so lacking a complete fitness to its end, larger in a way than the end
it is to serve, and having, as it were, a life of its own which proceeds
apart from its effect? This quality which makes so many English things
growths rather than instruments is most evident in the great play.
Again, it has that quality which Voltaire noted, which he thought
abnormal in Shakespeare, but which is the most national characteristic
in him, that a sort of formlessness, if it mars the framework of the
thing and spoils it, yet also permits the exercise of an immeasurable
vitality. When a man has read "King Lear" and lays down the book he is
like one who has been out in one of those empty English uplands in a
storm by night. It is written as though the pen bred thoughts. It is
possible to conjecture as one reads, and especially in the diatribes,
that the pen itself was rapid and the brain too rapid for the pen. One
feels the rush of the air. Now, this quality is to be discovered in the
literature of many nations, but never with the fullness which it has in
the literature of England. And note that in those phases of the national
life when foreign models have constrained this instinct of expansion in
English verse, they never have restrained it for long, and that even
through the bonds established by those models the instinct of expansion
breaks. You see it in the exuberance of Dryden and in the occasional
running rhetoric of Pope, until it utterly loosens itself with the end
of the eighteenth century.
The play is national, again, in that permanent curiosity upon knowable
things--nay, that mysterious half-knowledge of unknowable things--which,
in its last forms, produced the mystic, and which is throughout history
so plainly characteristic of these Northern Atlantic islands. Every play
of Shakespeare builds with that material, and no writer, even of the
English turn, has sent out points further into the region of what is not
known than Shakespeare has in sudden flashes of phrase. But "King Lear,"
though it contains a lesser number of lines of this mystical and
half-religious effect than, say, "Hamlet," yet as a general impression
is the more mystical of the two plays. The element of madness, which in
"Hamlet" hangs in the background like a storm-cloud ready to break, in
"King Lear" rages; and it is the use of this which lends its amazing
psychical power to the play. It has been said (with no great profundity
of criticism) that English fiction is chiefly remarkable for its power
of particularization of character, and that where French work, for
instance, will present ideas, English will present persons. The judgment
is grossly insufficient, and therefore false, but it is based upon a
proof which is very salient in English letters, which is that, say, in
quite short and modern work the sense of complete unity deadens the
English mind. The same nerve which revolts at a straight road and at a
code of law revolts against one tone of thought, and the sharp contrast
of emotional character, not the dual contrast which is common to all
literatures, but the multiple contrast, runs through "King Lear" and
gives the work such a tone that one seems as one reads it to be moving
in a cloud.
The conclusion is perhaps Shakespearean rather than English, and in a
fashion escapes from any national labelling. But the note of silence
which Shakespeare suddenly brings in upon the turmoil, and with which he
is so fond of completing what he has done, would not be possible were
not that spirit of expansion and of a kind of literary adventurousness
present in all that went before.
It is indeed this that makes the play so memorable. And it may not be
fantastic to repeat and expand what has been said above in other words,
namely, that King Lear has something about him which seems to be a
product of English landscape and of English weather, and if its general
movement is a storm its element is one of those sudden silences that
come sometimes with such magical rapidity after the booming of the wind.
It is so old a theme that I really hesitate to touch it; and yet it is
so true and so useful that I will. It is true all the time, and it is
particularly useful at this season of the year to men in cities: to all
repetitive men: to the men that read these words. What is more, true as
it is and useful as it is, no amount of hammering at people seems to get
this theme into their practice; though it has long ago entered into
their convictions they will not act upon it in their summers. And this
true and useful theme is the theme of little freedoms and discoveries,
the value of getting loose and away by a small trick when you want to
get your glimpse of Fairyland.
Now how does one get loose and away?
When a man says to himself that he must have a holiday he means that he
must see quite new things that are also old: he desires to open that
door which stood wide like a window in childhood and is now shut fast.
But where are the new things that are also the old? Paradoxical fellows
who deserve drowning tell one that they are at our very doors. Well,
that is true of the eager mind, but the mind is no longer eager when it
is in need of a holiday. And you can get at the new things that are also
the old by way of drugs, but drugs are a poor sort of holiday fabric. If
you have stored up your memory well with much experience you can get
these things from your memory--but only in a pale sort of way.
I think the best avenue to recreation by the magical impressions of the
world upon the mind is this: To go to some place to which the common
road leads you and then to get just off the common road. You will be
astonished to find how strange the world becomes in the first mile--and
how strange it remains till the common road is reached again.
It always sounds like a mockery for a man who has travelled to a great
many places, as I have, to advise his fellows to travel abroad; they are
most of them hard tied. Yet it is really a much easier thing than men
bound to the desk and the workshop understand. Britain is but one great
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