After supper, a little weary and eager to meditate calmly in the delicious clear evening, and to look about and see what sort of place this Eberbach is, you will slip outside the inn for a stroll. But glorious Herr Leutz is not evadable. He comes with. He takes position between you two, holding each firmly by an elbow so that no escape is possible. In a terrific stream of friendliness he explains everything, particularly expatiating upon the gratification he feels at being honoured by visitors all the way from America. The hills around, which stand up darkly against a speckle of stars, are all discussed for you. One of them is called Katzenbuckel, and doubting that your German may not be able to cope with this quite simple compound, he proceeds to illustrate. He squats in the middle of the street, arching his back like a cat in a strong emotion, uttering lively miaowings and hissings. Then he springs, like the feline in fury, and leaps to his feet roaring with mirth. "You see?" he cries. "A cat, who all ready to spring crouches, that is of our beautiful little mountain the name-likeness."
Yes, if Bergdoll has been staying in Eberbach, the good Herr Leutz will know all about it.
MR CONRAD'S NEW PREFACE
Joseph Conrad, so we learn from the March Bookman, has written a preface to a cook book about to be published by Mrs. Conrad.
We like to think about that preface. We wonder if it will be anything like this:
I remember very well the first time I became aware of the deep and consoling significance of food. It was one evening at Marlow's, we were sitting by the hearth in that small gilded circle of firelight that seems so like the pitiful consciousness of man, temporarily and gallantly relieved against the all-covering darkness. Marlow was in his usual posture, cross-legged on the rug. He was talking.... I couldn't help wondering whether he ever gets pins and needles in his legs, sitting so long in one position. Very often, you know, what those Eastern visionaries mistake for the authentic visit of Ghautama Buddha is merely pins and needles. However. Humph. Poor Mrs. Marlow (have I mentioned her before?) was sitting somewhere in the rear of the circle. I had a curious but quite distinct impression that she wanted to say something, that she had, as people say, something on her mind. But Marlow has a way of casting pregnancy over even his pauses, so that to speak would seem a quite unpardonable interruption.
"The power of mind over matter," said Marlow, suddenly, "a very odd speculation. When I was on the Soliloquy, I remember one evening, in the fiery serenity of a Sourabaja sunset, there was an old serang...."
In the ample drawing room, lit only by those flickering gleams of firelight, I seemed to see the others stir faintly—not so much a physical stir as a half-divined spiritual uneasiness. The Director was sitting too close to the glow, for the fire had deepened and intensified as the great logs slowly burned into rosy embers, and I could smell a whiff of scorching trouser legs; but the courageous man dared not move, for fear of breaking the spell. Marlow's tale was a powerful one: I could hear Mrs. Marlow suspire faintly, ever so faintly—the troubled, small, soft sigh of a brave woman indefinably stricken. The gallantry of women! In a remote part of the house a ship's clock tingled its quick double strokes.... Eight o'clock, I thought, unconsciously translating nautical horology into the dull measurements of landsmen. None of us moved. The discipline of the sea!
Mrs. Marlow was very pale. It began to come over me that there was an alien presence, something spectral and immanent, something empty and yet compelling, in the mysterious shadow and vagueness of the chamber. More than once, as Marlow had coasted us along those shining seascapes of Malaya—we had set sail from Malacca at tea time, and had now got as far as Batu Beru—I had had an uneasy impression that a disturbed white figure had glanced pallidly through the curtains, had made a dim gesture, and had vanished again.... I had tried to concentrate on Marlow's narrative. The dear fellow looked more like a monkey than ever, squatting there, as he took the Soliloquy across the China Sea and up the coast of Surinam. Surinam must have a very long coast-line, I was thinking. But perhaps it was that typhoon that delayed us.... Really, he ought not to make his descriptions so graphic, for Mrs. Marlow, I feared, was a bad sailor, and she was beginning to look quite ill.... I caught her looking over her shoulder in a frightened shudder, as though seeking the companionway.
It was quite true. By the time we had reached Tonking, I felt sure there was someone else in the room. In my agitation I stole a cautious glance from the taff-rail of my eye and saw a white figure standing hesitantly by the door, in an appalled and embarrassed silence. The Director saw it, too, for he was leaning as far away from the fire as he could without jibing his chair, and through the delicate haze of roasting tweed that surrounded him I could see something wistfully appealing in his glance. The Lawyer, too, had a mysterious shimmer in his loyal eyes, but his old training in the P. and O. service had been too strong for him. He would never speak, I felt sure, while his commanding officer had the floor.
I began to realize that, in a sense, the responsibility was mine. The life of the sea—a curious contradiction. Trained from boyhood to assume responsibility, but responsibility graded and duly ascending through the ranks of command. Marlow, an old shipmaster, and more than that, our host—a trying problem. If it had not been for the presence of Mrs. Marlow, I could not have dared. But the woman complicates the situation with all sorts of delicate reactions of tact, conduct, and necessity. It is always so. Well. Humph!
But the apparition at the other end of the room was plainly in trouble. A distressing sight, and I divined that the others were relying on me. Mrs. Marlow, poor soul, her face had a piteous and luminous appeal. It was, once more, the old and shocking question of conflicting loyalties. There was nothing else to do. I shoved out one foot, and the stand of fire-irons fell over with an appalling clatter. Marlow broke off—somewhere near Manila, I think it was.
"Charlie, my dear," said Mrs. Marlow, "Don't you think we could finish the story after dinner? The roast will be quite spoiled. The maid has been waiting for nearly two hours...."
THE LITTLE HOUSE
After many days of damp, dull, and dolorous weather, we found ourself unexpectedly moving in a fresh, cool, pure air; an air which, although there was no sunlight, had the spirit and feeling of sunlight in it; an air which was purged and lively. And, so strangely do things happen, after days of various complexion and stratagem, we found ourself looking across that green field, still unchanged, at the little house.
Wasn't there—we faintly recall a saccharine tune sung by someone who strode stiffly to and fro in a glare of amber footlights—wasn't there a song about: "And I lo-ong to settle down, in that old Long Island town!" Wasn't there such a ditty? It came softly back, unbidden, to the sentimental attic of our memory as we passed along that fine avenue of trees and revisited, for the first time since we moved away, the wide space of those Long Island fields and the row of frame cottages. There was the little house, rather more spick and span than when we had known it, freshly painted in its brown and white, the privet hedge very handsomely shaven, and its present occupant busily engaged in trimming some tufts of grass along the pavement. We did not linger, and that cheerful-looking man little knew how many ghosts he was living among. All of us, we suppose, dwell amid ghosts we are not aware of, and this gentleman would be startled if he knew the tenacity and assurance of certain shades who moved across his small lawn that afternoon.
It was strange, we aver, to see how little the place had changed, for it seemed that we had passed round the curves and contours of a good many centuries in those four or five years. In the open meadow the cow was still grazing; perhaps the same cow that was once pestered by a volatile Irish terrier who used to swing merrily at the end of that cow's tail; a merry and irresponsible little creature, she was, and her phantom still scampers the road where the sharp scream of the Freeport trolley brings back her last fatal venture to our mind. It was strange to look at those windows, with their neat white sills, and to remember how we felt when for the first time we slept in a house of our own, with all those Long Island stars crowding up to the open window, and, waking in drowsy unbelief, put out a hand to touch the strong wall and see if it was still there. Perhaps one may be pardoned for being a little sentimental in thinking back about one's first house.
The air, on that surprising afternoon, carried us again into the very sensation and reality of those days, for there is an openness and breezy stir on those plains that is characteristic. In the tree-lined streets of the village, where old white clapboarded houses with green or pale blue shutters stand in a warm breath of box hedges, the feeling is quite different. Out on the Long Island prairie—which Walt Whitman, by the way, was one of the first to love and praise—you stand uncovered to all the skirmish of heaven, and the feathery grasses are rarely still. There was the chimney of the fireplace we had built for us, and we remembered how the wood-smoke used to pour gallantly from it like a blue pennon of defiance. The present owner, we fear, does not know how much impalpable and unforgotten gold leaped up the wide red throat of that chimney, or he would not dream of selling. Yes, the neighbours tell us that he wants to sell. In our day, the house was said to be worth $3,000. Nowadays, the price is $7,000. Even at that it is cheap, if you set any value on amiable and faithful ghosts.
Oh, little house on the plains, when our typewriter forgets thee, may this shift key lose its function!
Near our house, out in the sylvan Salamis Estates, there is a pond. We fear we cannot describe this pond to you in a way to carry conviction. You will think we exaggerate if we tell you, with honest warmth, how fair the prospect is. Therefore, in sketching the scene, we will be austere, churlish, a miser of adjectives. We will tell you naught of sun-sparkle by day where the green and gold of April linger in that small hollow landskip, where the light shines red through the faint bronze veins of young leaves—much as it shines red through the finger joinings of a child's hand held toward the sun. We will tell you naught of frog-song by night, of those reduplicated whistlings and peepings. We will tell you naught of.... No, we will be austere.
On one side, this pond reflects the white cloudy bravery of fruit trees in flower, veterans of an orchard surviving an old farmhouse that stood on the hilltop long ago. It burned, we believe: only a rectangle of low stone walls remains. Opposite, the hollow is overlooked by a bumpy hillock fringed with those excellent dark evergreen trees—shall we call them hemlocks?—whose flat fronds silhouette against the sky and contribute a feeling of mystery and wilderness. On this little hill are several japonica trees, in violent ruddy blossom; and clumps of tiger lily blades springing up; and bloodroots. The region prickles thickly with blackberry brambles, and mats of honeysuckle. Across the pond, looking from the waterside meadow where the first violets are, your gaze skips (like a flat stone deftly flung) from the level amber (dimpled with silver) of the water, through a convenient dip of country where the fields are folded down below the level of the pool. So the eye, skittering across the water, leaps promptly and cleanly to blue ranges by the Sound, a couple of miles away. All this, mere introduction to the real theme, which is Tadpoles.
We intended to write a poem about those tadpoles, but Endymion tells us that Louis Untermeyer has already smitten a lute on that topic. We are queasy of trailing such an able poet. Therefore we celebrate these tadpoles in prose. They deserve a prose as lucid, as limpid, as cool and embracing, as the water of their home.
Coming back to tadpoles, the friends of our youth, shows us that we have completed a biological cycle of much import. Back to tadpoles in one generation, as the adage might have said. Twenty-five years ago we ourself were making our first acquaintance with these friendly creatures, in the immortal (for us) waters of Cobb's Creek, Pennsylvania. (Who was Cobb, we wonder?) And now our urchins, with furious glee, applaud their sire who wades the still frosty quags of our pond, on Sunday mornings, to renew their supply of tads. It is considered fair and decent that each batch of tadpoles should live in their prison (a milk bottle) only one week. The following Sunday they go back to the pond, and a new generation take their places. There is some subtle kinship, we think, between children and tadpoles. No childhood is complete until it has watched their sloomy and impassive faces munching against the glass, and seen the gradual egress (as the encyclopaedia pedantically puts it) of their tender limbs, the growing froggishness of their demeanour.
Some time when you are exploring in the Britannica, by the way, after you have read about Tactics and William Howard Taft, turn to the article on Tadpoles and see if you can recognize them as described by the learned G.A.B. An amusing game, we submit, would be to take a number of encyclopaedia descriptions of familiar things, and see how many of our friends could identify them under their scientific nomenclature.
But it is very pleasant to dally about the pond on a mild April morning. While the Urchiness mutters among the violets, picking blue fistfuls of stalkless heads, the Urchin, on a plank at the waterside, studies these weedy shallows which are lively with all manner of mysterious excitement, and probes a waterlogged stump in hope to recapture Brer Tarrypin, who once was ours for a short while. Gissing (the juvenile and too enthusiastic dog) has to be kept away from the pond by repeated sticks thrown as far as possible in another direction; otherwise he insists on joining the tadpole search, and, poking his snout under water, attempts to bark at the same time, with much coughing and smother.
The tadpoles, once caught, are taken home in a small yellow pail. They seem quite cheerful. They are kept, of course, in their native fluid, which is liberally thickened with the oozy emulsion of moss, mud, and busy animalculae that were dredged up with them in clutches along the bottom of the pond. They lie, thoughtful, at the bottom of their milk bottle, occasionally flourishing furiously round their prison. But, since reading that article in the Britannica, we are more tender toward them. For the learned G.A.B. says: "A glandular streak extending from the nostril toward the eye is the lachrymal canal." Is it possible that tadpoles weep? We will look at them again when we go home to-night. We are, in the main, a kind-hearted host. If they show any signs of effusion....
MAGIC IN SALAMIS
Why is it (we were wondering, as we walked to the station) that these nights of pearly wet Long Island fog make the spiders so active? The sun was trying to break through the mist, and all the way down the road trees, bushes, and grass were spangled with cob-webs, shining with tiny pricks and gems of moisture. These damp, mildewy nights that irritate us and bring that queer soft grayish fur on the backs of our books seem to mean high hilarity and big business to the spider. Along the hedge near the station there were wonderful great webs, as big as the shield of Achilles. What a surprising passion of engineering the spider must go through in the dark hours, to get his struts and cantilevers and his circling gossamer girders properly disposed on the foliage.[*] Darkness is no difficulty to him, evidently. If he lays his web on the grass, he builds it with a little tunnel leading down to earth, where he hides waiting his breakfast. But on such a morning, apparently, with thousands of webs ready, there can hardly have been enough flies to go round; for we saw all the appetent spiders had emerged from their tubes and were waiting impatiently on the web itself—as though the host should sit on the tablecloth waiting for his guest. Put a finger at the rim of the web and see how quickly he vanishes down his shaft. Most surprising of all it is to see the long threads that are flung horizontally through the air, from a low branch of a tree to the near-by hedge. They hang, elastic and perfect, sagged a little by a run of fog-drops almost invisible except where the wetness catches the light. Some were stretched at least six feet across space, with no supporting strands to hold them from above—and no branches from which the filament could be dropped. How is it done? Does our intrepid weaver hurl himself madly six feet into the dark, trusting to catch the leaf at the other end? Can he jump so far?
[* Perhaps the structural talent of our Salamis arachnids is exceptional. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the famous Engineers' Country Club is near by. Can the spiders have learned their technology by watching those cheerful scientists on the golf greens?]
All this sort of thing is, quite plainly, magic. It is rather important to know, when you are dealing with magic, just where ordinary life ends and the mystery begins, so that you can adjust yourself to incantations and spells. As you make your green escape from town (which has magic of its own, but quite different) you must clearly mark the place where you pierce the veil. We showed it to Endymion lately. We will tell you about it.
There is a certain point, as you go out to Salamis on the railroad, when you begin to perceive a breath of enchantment in the landscape. For our own part, we become aware of a subtle spice of gramarye as soon as we see the station lamps at East Williston, which have tops like little green hats. Lamps of this sort have always had a fascination for us, and whenever we see them at a railway station we have a feeling that that would be a nice place to get off and explore.
And, of course, after you pass East Williston there is that little pond in which, if one went fishing, he could very likely pull up a fine fleecy cloud on his hook. Then the hills begin, or what we on Long Island consider hills. There are some fields on the left of the train that roll like great green waves of the sea; they surge up against the sky and seem about to spill over in a surf of daisies.
A quiet road runs up a hill, and as soon as you pass along its green channel, between rising thickets where rabbits come out to gape, you feel as though walking into a poem by Walter de la Mare. This road, if pursued, passes by a pleasing spot where four ways cross in an attenuated X. Off to one side is a field that is very theatrical in effect: it always reminds us of a stage set for "As You Like It," the Forest of Arden. There are some gigantic oak trees and even some very papier-mache-looking stumps, all ready for the duke, "and other Lords, like Foresters," to do their moralizing upon; and in place of the poor sequestered stag there is a very fine plushy cow, grazing, hard by a very agreeable morass. At the back (L.U.E.) is discovered a pleasing ruin, the carcass of an ancient farmstead, whose stony ribs are thickset with brambles; and the pleasant melancholy of an abandoned orchard rounds off the scene in the wings, giving a fine place for Rosalind and Celia and the leg-weary Touchstone to abide their cue.
Choosing the left-hand arm of the X, and moving past wild rose bushes toward the even richer rose-garden of the sunset, the fastidious truant is ushered (as was our friend Endymion the other evening) upon a gentle meadow where a solitary house of white stucco begs for a poet as occupant. This house, having been selected by Titania and ourself as a proper abode for Endymion and his family, we waited until sunset, frogsong, and all the other amenities of life in Salamis were suitable for the introduction of our guest to the scene. This dwelling, having long lain untenanted, has a back door that stands ajar and we piloted the awe-struck lyrist inside. Now nothing rages so merrily in the blood as the instinct of picking out houses for other people, houses that you yourself do not have to live in; and those Realtors whom we have dismayed by our lack of enthusiasm would have been startled to hear the orotund accents in which we vouched for that property, sewage, messuage, and all. Here, we cried, is the front door (facing the sunset) where the postman will call with checks from your publishers; and here are the porcelain laundry tubs that will make glad the heart of the washerwoman (when you can get one).
Endymion's guileless heart was strongly uplifted. Not a question did he ask as to heating arrangements, save to show a mild spark in his eye when he saw the two fireplaces. Plumbing was to him, we saw, a matter to be taken on faith. His paternal heart was slightly perturbed by a railing that ran round the top of the stairs. This railing, he feared, was so built that small and impetuous children would assuredly fall headlong through it, and we discussed means of thwarting such catastrophe. But upstairs we found the room that caused our guest to glimmer with innocent cheer. It had tall casement windows looking out upon a quiet glimpse of trees. It had a raised recess, very apt for a bust of Pallas. It had space for bookcases. And then, on the windowsill, we found the dead and desiccated corpse of a swallow. It must have flown in through a broken pane on the ground floor long ago and swooped vainly about the empty house. It lay, pathetically, close against the shut pane. Like a forgotten and un-uttered beauty in the mind of a poet, it lay there, stiffened and silent.
CONSIDER THE COMMUTER
When they tell us the world is getting worse and worse, and the follies and peevishness of men will soon bring us all to some damnable perdition, we are consoled by contemplating the steadfast virtue of commuters. The planet grows harder and harder to live on, it is true; every new invention makes things more complicated and perplexing. These new automatic telephones, which are said to make the business of getting a number so easy, will mean (we suppose) that we will be called up fifty times a day—instead of (as now) a mere twenty or thirty, while we are swooning and swinking over a sonnet. But more and more people are taking to commuting and we look to that to save things.
Because commuting is a tough and gruelling discipline. It educes all the latent strength and virtue in a man (although it is hard on those at home, for when he wins back at supper time there is left in him very little of what the ladies so quaintly call "soul"). If you study the demeanour of fellow-passengers on the 8:04 and the 5:27 you will see a quiet and well-drilled acceptiveness, a pious non-resistance, which is not unworthy of the antique Chinese sages.
Is there any ritual (we cry, warming to our theme) so apt to imbue the spirit with patience, stolidity, endurance, all the ripe and seasoned qualities of manhood? It is well known that the fiercest and most terrible fighters in the late war were those who had been commuters. It was a Division composed chiefly of commuters that stormed the Hindenburg Stellung and purged the Argonne thickets with flame and steel. Their commanding officers were wont to remark these men's carelessness of life. It seemed as though they hardly heeded whether they got home again or not.
See them as they stand mobbed at the train gate, waiting for admission to the homeward cars. A certain disingenuous casualness appears on those hardened brows; but beneath burn stubborn fires. These are engaged in battle, and they know it—a battle that never ends. And while a warfare that goes on without truce necessarily develops its own jokes, informalities, callousnesses, disregard of wounds and gruesome sights, yet deep in their souls the units never forget that they are drilled and regimented for struggle. We stood the other evening with a Freeport man in the baggage compartment at the front of a train leaving Brooklyn. We two had gained the bull's-eye window at the nose of the train and sombrely watched the sparkling panorama of lights along the track. Something had gone wrong with the schedule that evening, and the passengers of the 5:27 had been shunted to the 5:30. As fellow mariners will, we discussed famous breakdowns of old and the uncertainties of the commuter's life. "Yes," said our companion, "once you leave home you never know when you'll get back." And he smiled the passive, placable smile of the experienced commuter.
It is this reasonable and moderate temper that makes the commuter the seed wherewith a new generation shall be disseminated. He faces troubles manifold without embittered grumbling. His is a new kind of Puritanism, which endures hardship without dourness. When, on Christmas Eve, the train out of Jamaica was so packed that the aisle was one long mass of unwillingly embraced passengers, and even the car platforms were crowded with shivering wights, and the conductor buffeted his way as best he could over our toes and our parcels of tinsel balls, what was the general cry? Was it a yell against the railroad for not adding an extra brace of cars? No, it was good-natured banter of the perspiring little officer as he struggled to disentangle himself from forests of wedged legs. "You've got a fine, big family in here," they told him: "you ought to be proud of us." And there was a sorrowing Italian who had with him a string of seven children who had tunnelled and burrowed their way down the packed aisle of the smoking car and had got irretrievably scattered. The father was distracted. Here and there, down the length of the car, someone would discover an urchin and hold him up for inspection. "Is this one of them?" he would cry, and Italy would give assent. "Right!" And the children were agglomerated and piled in a heap in the middle of the car until such time as a thinning of the crowd permitted the anxious and blushing sire to reassemble them and reprove their truancy with Adriatic lightnings from his dark glowing eyes.
How pleasing is our commuter's simplicity! A cage of white mice, or a crated goat (such are to be seen now and then on the Jamaica platform) will engage his eye and give him keen amusement. Then there is that game always known (in the smoking car) as "pea-knuckle." The sight of four men playing will afford contemplative and apparently intense satisfaction to all near. They will lean diligently over seat-backs to watch every play of the cards. They will stand in the aisle to follow the game, with apparent comprehension. Then there are distinguished figures that move through the observant commuter's peep-show. There is the tall young man with the beaky nose, which (as Herrick said)
Is the grace And proscenium of his face.
He is one of several light-hearted and carefree gentry who always sit together and are full of superb cheer. Those who travel sometimes with twinges of perplexity or skepticism are healed when they see the magnificent assurance of this creature. Every day we hear him making dates for his cronies to meet him at lunch time, and in the evening we see him towering above the throng at the gate. We like his confident air toward life, though he is still a little too jocular to be a typical commuter.
But the commuter, though simple and anxious to be pleased, is shrewdly alert. Every now and then they shuffle the trains at Jamaica just to keep him guessing and sharpen his faculty of judging whether this train goes to Brooklyn or Penn Station. His decisions have to be made rapidly. We are speaking now of Long Island commuters, whom we know best; but commuters are the same wherever you find them. The Jersey commuter has had his own celebrant in Joyce Kilmer, and we hope that he knows Joyce's pleasant essay on the subject which was published in that little book, "The Circus and Other Essays." But we gain-say the right of Staten Islanders to be classed as commuters. These are a proud and active sort who are really seafarers, not commuters. Fogs and ice floes make them blench a little; but the less romantic troubles of broken brake-shoes leave them unscotched.
Of Long Island commuters there are two classes: those who travel to Penn Station, those who travel to Brooklyn. Let it not be denied, there is a certain air of aristocracy about the Penn Station clique that we cannot waive. Their tastes are more delicate. The train-boy from Penn Station cries aloud "Choice, delicious apples," which seems to us almost an affectation compared to the hoarse yell of our Brooklyn news-agents imploring "Have a comic cartoon book, 'Mutt and Jeff,' 'Bringing Up Father,' choclut-covered cherries!" The club cars all go to Penn Station: there would be a general apoplexy in the lowly terminal at Atlantic Avenue if one of those vehicles were seen there. People are often seen (on the Penn Station branch) who look exactly like the advertisements in Vanity Fair. Yet we, for our humility, have treasures of our own, such as the brightly lighted little shops along Atlantic Avenue and a station with the poetic name of Autumn Avenue. The Brooklyn commuter points with pride to his monthly ticket, which is distinguished from that of the Penn Station nobility by a red badge of courage—a bright red stripe. On the Penn Station branch they often punch the tickets with little diamond-shaped holes; but on our line the punch is in the form of a heart.
When the humble commuter who is accustomed to travelling via Brooklyn is diverted from his accustomed orbit, and goes by way of the Pennsylvania Station, what surprising excitements are his. The enormousness of the crowd at Penn Station around 5 P.M. causes him to realize that what he had thought, in his innocent Brooklyn fashion, was a considerable mob, was nothing more than a trifling scuffle. But he notes with pleasure the Penn Station habit of letting people through the gate before the train comes in, so that one may stand in comparative comfort and coolness downstairs on the train platform. Here a vision of luxury greets his eyes that could not possibly be imagined at the Brooklyn terminal—the Lehigh Valley dining car that stands on a neighbouring track, the pink candles lit on the tables, the shining water carafes, the white-coated stewards at attention. At the car's kitchen window lolls a young coloured boy in a chef's hat, surveying the files of proletarian commuters with a glorious calmness of scorn and superiority. His mood of sanguine assurance and self-esteem is so complete, so unruffled, and so composed that we cannot help loving him. Lucky youth, devoid of cares, responsibilities, and chagrins! Does he not belong to the conquering class that has us all under its thumb? What does it matter that he (probably) knows less about cooking than you or I? He gazes with glorious cheer upon the wretched middle class, and as our train rolls away we see him still gazing across the darkling cellars of the station with that untroubled gleam of condescension, his eyes seeming (as we look back at them) as large and white and unspeculative as billiard balls.
In the eye of one commuter, the 12:50 SATURDAY ONLY is the most exciting train of all. What a gay, heavily-bundled, and loquacious crowd it is that gathers by the gate at the Atlantic Avenue terminal. There is a holiday spirit among the throng, which pants a little after the battle down and up those steps leading from the subway. (What a fine sight, incidentally, is the stag-like stout man who always leaps from the train first and speeds scuddingly along the platform, to reach the stairs before any one else.) Here is the man who always carries a blue cardboard box full of chicks. Their plaintive chirpings sound shrill and disconsolate. There is such a piercing sorrow and perplexity in their persistent query that one knows they have the true souls of minor poets. Here are two cheerful stenographers off to Rockaway for the week-end. They are rather sarcastic about another young woman of their party who always insists on sleeping under sixteen blankets when at the shore.
But the high point of the trip comes when one changes at Jamaica, there boarding the 1:15 for Salamis. This is the train that on Saturdays takes back the two famous club cars, known to all travellers on the Oyster Bay route. Behind partly drawn blinds the luncheon tables are spread; one gets narrow glimpses of the great ones of the Island at their tiffin. This is a militant moment for the white-jacketed steward of the club car. On Saturdays there are always some strangers, unaccustomed to the ways of this train, who regard the two wagons of luxury as a personal affront. When they find all the seats in the other cars filled they sternly desire to storm the door of the club car, where the proud steward stands on guard. "What's the matter with this car?" they say. "Nothing's the matter with it," he replies. Other more humble commuters stand in the vestibule, enjoying these little arguments. It is always quite delightful to see the indignation of these gallant creatures, their faces seamed with irritation to think that there should be a holy of holies into which they may not tread.
A proud man, and a high-spirited, is the conductor of the 4:27 on weekdays. This train, after leaving Jamaica, does not stop until Salamis is reached. It attains such magnificent speed that it always gets to Salamis a couple of minutes ahead of time. Then stands the conductor on the platform, watch in hand, receiving the plaudits of those who get off. The Salamites have to stand patiently beside the train—it is a level crossing—until it moves on. This is the daily glory of this conductor, as he stands, watch in one hand, the other hand on the signal cord, waiting for Time to catch up with him. "Some train," we cry up at him; he tries not to look pleased, but he is a happy man. Then he pulls the cord and glides away.
Among other articulations in the anatomy of commuting, we mention the fact that no good trainman ever speaks of a train going or stopping anywhere. He says, "This train makes Sea Cliff and Glen Cove; it don't make Salamis." To be more purist still, one should refer to the train as "he" (as a kind of extension of the engineer's personality, we suppose). If you want to speak with the tongue of a veteran, you will say, "He makes Sea Cliff and Glen Cove."
The commuter has a chance to observe all manner of types among his brethren. On our line we all know by sight the two fanatical checker players, bent happily over their homemade board all the way to town. At Jamaica they are so absorbed in play that the conductor—this is the conductor who is so nervous about missing a fare and asks everyone three times if his ticket has been punched—has to rout them out to change to the Brooklyn train. "How's the game this morning?" says someone. "Oh, I was just trimming him, but they made us change." However thick the throng, these two always manage to find seats together. They are still hard at it when Atlantic Avenue is reached, furiously playing the last moves as the rest file out. Then there is the humorous news-agent who takes charge of the smoking car between Jamaica and Oyster Bay. There is some mysterious little game that he conducts with his clients. Very solemnly he passes down the aisle distributing rolled-up strips of paper among the card players. By and by it transpires that some one has won a box of candy. Just how this is done we know not. Speaking of card players, observe the gaze of anguish on the outpost. He dashes ahead, grabs two facing seats and sits in one with a face contorted with anxiety for fear that the others will be too late to join him. As soon as a card game is started there are always a half dozen other men who watch it, following every play with painful scrutiny. It seems that watching other people play cards is the most absorbing amusement known to the commuter.
Then there is the man who carries a heavy bag packed with books. A queer creature, this. Day by day he lugs that bag with him yet spends all his time reading the papers and rarely using the books he carries. His pipe always goes out just as he reaches his station; frantically he tries to fill and light it before the train stops. Sometimes he digs deeply into the bag and brings out a large slab of chocolate, which he eats with an air of being slightly ashamed of himself. The oddities of this person do not amuse us any the less because he happens to be ourself.
So fares the commuter: a figure as international as the teddy bear. He has his own consolations—of a morning when he climbs briskly upward from his dark tunnel and sees the sunlight upon the spread wings of the Telephone and Telegraph Building's statue, and moves again into the stirring pearl and blue of New York's lucid air. And at night, though drooping a little in the heat and dimness of those Oyster Bay smoking cars, he is dumped down and set free. As he climbs the long hill and tunes his thoughts in order, the sky is a froth of stars.
THE PERMANENCE OF POETRY
We heard a critic remark that no great sonnets are being written nowadays. What (he said morosely) is there in the way of a recent sonnet that is worthy to take its place in the anthologies of the future beside those of Sir Philip Sidney, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Mrs. Browning, Louise Guiney, Rupert Brooke, or Lizette Reese? (These were the names he mentioned.)
This moves us to ask, how can you tell? It takes time for any poem to grow and ripen and find its place in the language. It will be for those of a hundred or more years hence to say what are the great poems of our present day. If a sonnet has the true vitality in it, it will gather association and richness about it as it traces its slender golden path through the minds of readers. It settles itself comfortably into the literary landscape, incorporates itself subtly into the unconscious thought of men, becomes corpuscular in the blood of the language. It comes down to us in the accent of those who have loved and quoted it, invigorated by our subtle sense of the permanent rightness of its phrasing and our knowledge of the pleasure it has given to thousands of others. The more it is quoted, the better it seems.
All this is a slow process and an inscrutable. No one has ever given us a continuous history of any particular poem, tracing its history and adventures after its first publication—the places it has been quoted, the hearts it has rejoiced. It could only be done by an infinity of toil and a prodigal largesse to clipping bureaus. It would be a fascinating study, showing how some poems have fought for their lives against the evaporation of Time, and how they have come through, sometimes, because they were carried and cherished in one or two appreciative hearts. But the point to bear in mind is, the whole question of the permanence of poetry is largely in the hands of chance. If you are interested to observe the case of some really first-class poetry which has been struggling for recognition and yet shows, so far, no sign of breaking through into the clear light of lasting love and remembrance, look at the poems of James Elroy Flecker.
Generally speaking, one law is plain: that it is not until the poet himself and all who knew him are dead, and his lines speak only with the naked and impersonal appeal of ink, that his value to the race as a permanent pleasure can be justly appraised.
There is one more point that perhaps is worth making. It is significant of human experience that the race instinctively demands, in most of the poetry that it cares to take along with it as permanent baggage, a certain honourable sobriety of mood. Consider Mr. Burton E. Stevenson's great "Home Book of Verse," that magnificent anthology which may be taken as fairly indicative of general taste in these matters. In nearly 4,000 pages of poetry only three or four hundred are cynical or satirical in temper. Humanity as a whole likes to make the best of a bad job: it grins somewhat ruefully at the bitter and the sardonic; but when it is packing its trunk for the next generation it finds most room for those poets who have somehow contrived to find beauty and not mockery in the inner sanctities of human life and passion. This thought comes to us on reading Aldous Huxley's brilliant and hugely entertaining book of poems called "Leda." There is no more brilliant young poet writing to-day; his title poem is nothing less than extraordinary in pagan and pictorial beauty, but as a whole the cynical and scoffish tone of carnal drollery which gives the book its appeal to the humorously inclined makes a very dubious sandal for a poet planning a long-distance run. Please note that we are not taking sides in any argument: we ourself admire Mr. Huxley's poems enormously; but we are simply trying, clumsily, to state what seem to us some of the conditions attaching to the permanence of beauty as arranged in words.
It is not to be supposed that you have done your possible when you have read a great poem once—or ten times. A great poem is like a briar pipe—it darkens and mellows and sweetens with use. You fill it with your own glowing associations and glosses, and the strong juices seep through, staining and gilding the grain and fibre of the words.
BOOKS OF THE SEA
The National Marine League asks, What are the ten best books of the sea? Without pondering very deeply on the matter, and confining ourself to prose, we would suggest the following as our own favourites:
Typhoon, by Joseph Conrad The Nigger of the "Narcissus," by Joseph Conrad The Mirror of the Sea, by Joseph Conrad Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling The Brassbounder, by David W. Bone Salt of the Sea, by Morley Roberts Mr. Midshipman Easy, by Captain Marryat The Wreck of the "Grosvenor," by Clark Russell Moby Dick, by Herman Melville An Ocean Tramp, by William McFee.
If one is allowed to include books that deal partially with salt water, one would have to add "Treasure Island," "Casuals of the Sea," by McFee, and "Old Junk," by Tomlinson. The kind of shallow-water sea tales that we love to read after supper, with our feet on the nearest chair and a decent supply of tobacco handy, are the delicious stories by W.W. Jacobs. Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast," which is spoken of as a classic, we have never read. We have always had a suspicion of it, we don't know why. Before we tackle it we shall re-read "The Water Babies." We have always found a good deal of innocent cheer in the passages in John Woolman's Journal describing his voyage from Philadelphia to London in 1772. Friend Woolman, like the sturdy Quaker that he was, was horrified (when he went to have a look at the ship Mary and Elizabeth) to find "sundry sorts of carved work and imagery" on that part of the vessel where the cabins were; and in the cabins themselves he observed "some superfluity of workmanship of several sorts." This subjected his mind to "a deep exercise," and he decided that he would have to take passage in the steerage instead of the cabin. Having our self made use of the steerage aforetime, both in the Mauretania and humbler vessels, we feel a certain kindred sympathy for his experiences. We have always enjoyed his remark: "The wind now blew vehemently, and the sea wrought to that degree that an awful seriousness prevailed."
To come to poetry, we suppose that the greatest sea-poet who never ventured on anything more perilous than a ferry-boat was Walt Whitman. Walt, one likes to think, would have been horribly sea-sick if he had ventured out beyond the harbour buoy. A good deal of Walt's tempestuous uproar about the glories of America was undoubtedly due to the fact that he had never seen anything else. Speaking of Walt reminds us that one book of the sea that we have never read (for the best of reasons: it has not been written) might be done by Thomas Mosher, the veteran tippler of literary minims. Mr. Mosher, we understand, "followed" the sea in his youth. Not long ago, when Mr. Mosher published that exquisite facsimile of the 1855 "Leaves of Grass," we asked him when and how he first came in contact with Whitman's work. He said:
I don't suppose there was anything particularly interesting about my first acquaintance with Whitman, which at 14 years of age I made in my old family mansion situated at Smith's Corner, America. I had been taking "The Galaxy" from its start, only a few months previous to the date I mention. I can still see myself in the sitting room of the old house. Smith's Cor., America, I will remind you, is a portion of Biddeford, Me. An extra "d" has got into the old English name—which, by the way, only a year later I passed through after a shipwreck on the Devonshire coast. (That was in 1867.) No one ever told me anything about Walt.
These amateurish speculations on maritime books are of no value except for the fact that they elicited an interesting letter from an expert on these matters. William McFee wrote us as follows:—
"The first thing I laid my hands on this evening, while hunting for some forgotten nugget of wisdom in my note-books filled with Mediterranean brine, was that list of books for a projected sea library. Perpend....
The Sea Farer's Library
Tom Cringle's Log Michael Scott Two Years Before the Mast Dana Midshipman Easy Marryat Captains Courageous Kipling The Flying Cloud Morley Roberts The Cruise of the Cachalot Frank T. Bullen Log of a Sea Waif Frank T. Bullen The Salving of a Derelict Maurice Drake The Grain Carriers Edward Noble Marooned Clark Russell Typhoon Conrad Toilers of the Sea Hugo An Iceland Fisherman Loti The Sea Surgeon D'Annunzio The Sea Hawk Sabatini
"A good many of these need no comment. Attention is drawn not to the individual items, but to the balance of the whole. That is the test of a list. But there is a good balance, a balance of power, and a balance of mere weight or prestige. It is the power we are after here. Regard for a moment the way 'Tom Cringle' balances Dana's laconic record of facts. No power on earth could hold 'Tom Cringle' to facts, with the result that his story is more truly a representation of sea life in the old navy than a ton of statistics. He has the seaman's mind, which Dana had not.
"Then again 'Captains Courageous' and 'The Flying Cloud' balance each other with temperamental exactitude. Each is a fine account of sea-doings with a touch of fiction to keep the sailor reading, neither of them in the very highest class. 'The Cruise of the Cachalot' is balanced by the 'Log of a Sea Waif,' each in Bullen's happier and less evangelical vein. I was obliged to exclude 'With Christ at Sea,' not because it is religious, but because it does not balance. It would give the whole list a most pronounced 'list,' if you will pardon the unpardonable.... I regret this because 'With Christ at Sea' has some things in it which transcend anything else Bullen ever wrote.
"Now we come to a couple of books possibly requiring a little explanation. 'The Salving of a Derelict' is a remarkably able story of a man's reclamation. I believe Maurice Drake won a publisher's prize with it as a first novel some years ago. It was a winner among the apprentices, I remember. 'The Grain Carriers' is a grim story of greedy owners and an unseaworthy ship by an ex-master mariner whose 'Chains,' while not a sea story, is tinged with the glamour of South American shipping, and is obviously a work written under the influence of Joseph Conrad. 'Marooned' and 'Typhoon' balance (only you mustn't be too critical) as examples of the old and new methods of telling a sea story.
"'The Sea Surgeon' is one of a collection of stories about the Pescarese, which D'Annunzio wrote years ago. They are utterly unlike 'II Fuoco' and the other absurd tales on which translators waste their time. In passing one is permitted to complain of the persistent ill-fortune Italian novelists suffer at the hands of their English translators.
"Assuming, however, that our seafarer wants a book or two of what is euphemistically termed 'non-fiction,' here are a few which will do him no harm:
"Southey's 'Life of Nelson.'
"'The Influence of Sea Power Upon History,' Mahan.
"Admiral Lord Beresford's 'Memoirs.'
"The Diary of Samuel Pepys, F.R.S., Secretary to the Admiralty in the Reign of Charles II and James II. It is most grievously overlooked that Samuel was the first to draft a naval Rate Book, which is a sort of indexed lexicon of everything one needs 'for fighting and sea-going efficiency.' And it is a pleasure, chastened by occasional fits of ill-temper, to discover that the present British Naval Rate Book hath in it divers synonyms coeval with Samuel and his merry monarchs. As when the present writer tried to order some hammer-handles and discovered after much tribulation that the correct naval equivalent for such is 'ash-helms.' Whereupon he toilfully rewrote his requisitions 'and so to bed.'
"Another suggestion I might make is a volume to be compiled, containing the following chapters:
I. "Landsmen Admirals," Generals Blake and Monk. II. "A Dutch Triumvirate," Van Tromp, De Witt and De Ruyter. III. "Napoleon as a Sea Tactician." IV. "Decatur and the Mediterranean Pirates." V. "The Chesapeake and the Shannon." VI. "The Spanish-American Naval Actions." VII. "The Russo-Japanese Naval Actions." VIII. "The Turko-Italian Naval Actions." Conclusion. "Short Biography of Josephus Daniels."
"Only deep-water sailors would be able to take this suggested library to sea with them, because a sailor only reads at sea. When the landward breeze brings the odours of alien lands through the open scuttle one closes the book, and if one is a normal and rational kind of chap and the quarantine regulations permit, goes ashore."
Gruesome as anything in any seafaring pirate yarn is Trelawny's description (in "Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron") of the burning of Shelley's body on the seashore near Via Reggio. The other day, in company with two like-minded innocents, we visited a bookshop on John Street where we found three battered copies of this great book, and each bought one, with shouts of joy. The following day, still having the book with us, we dropped in to see the learned and hospitable Dr. Rosenbach at his new and magnificent thesaurus at 273 Madison Avenue. We showed him the book, because every time one shows the doctor a book he can startle you by countering with its original manuscript or something of that sort. We said something about Shelley and Trelawny, in the hope of starting him off. He smiled gently and drew out a volume from a shelf. It was the copy of "Prometheus Unbound" that Shelley had given Trelawny in July, 1822, with an inscription. As the poet was drowned on July 8, 1822, it probably was the last book he ever gave away.
One wonders what may have become of the log of the American clipper that Shelley and Trelawny visited in the harbour of Leghorn shortly before Shelley's death. Shelley had said something in praise of George Washington, to which the sturdy Yankee skipper replied: "Stranger, truer words were never spoken; there is dry rot in all the main timbers of the Old World, and none of you will do any good till you are docked, refitted, and annexed to the New. You must log that song you sang; there ain't many Britishers that will say as much of the man that whipped them; so just set these lines down in the log!"
Whereupon Shelley autographed the skipper's log for him, with some sentiments presumably gratifying to American pride, and drank some "cool peach brandy." It was his last drink.
We ourself, just as much as Shelley, enjoy visiting ships, and have had some surprising adventures in so doing. We remember very clearly our first call upon William McFee, when he was First Assistant Engineer in S.S. Turrialba. But getting aboard vessels is a much more complicated and diplomatic task than it was in Shelley's day. Even when armed with Mr. McFee's autographed card, it was by no means easy. We went dutifully up to the office of the United Fruit Company at Pier 9, to apply for a pass, and were surveyed with grim suspicion. Why, we asked gently, in these peaceful times is it so difficult to visit a friend who happens to be in a ship? Prohibition, said the candid clerk, and a whole province of human guile was thereby made plain to our shrinking mind. Mortals incline readily to sin, it seems, and apparently evil and base men will even go so far as to pretend a friendship with those who go down to wet territory in ships, simply for the sake of—well, we cannot bring ourself to mention it. "How do you know Mr. McFee wants to see you?" we were asked. Luckily we had Mac's card to prove it.
We had long wanted to see Mr. McFee in his sea-going quarters, where he writes his books and essays (so finely flavoured with a rich ironical skepticism as to the virtues of folk who live on shore). Never was a literary sanctum less like the pretentious studios of the imitation litterateurs. In a small cabin stood our friend, in his working dungarees (if that is what they are called) talking briskly with the Chief and another engineer. The conversation, in which we were immediately engulfed, was so vivacious that we had small chance to examine the surroundings as we would have liked to. But save for the typewriter on the desk and a few books in a rack, there was nothing to suggest literature. "Plutarch's Lives," we noticed—a favourite of Mac's since boyhood; Frank Harris's "The Bomb" (which, however, the Chief insisted belonged to him), E.S. Martin's "Windfalls of Observation," and some engineering works. We envied Mac the little reading lamp at the head of his bunk.
We wish some of the soft-handed literary people who bleat about only being able to write in carefully purged and decorated surroundings could have a look at that stateroom. In just such compartments Mr. McFee has written for years, and expected to finish that night (in the two hours each day that he is able to devote to writing) his tale, "Captain Macedoine's Daughter." As we talked there was a constant procession of in-comers, most of them seeming to the opaque observation of the layman to be firemen discussing matters of overtime. On the desk lay an amusing memorandum, which the Chief referred to jocularly as one of Mac's "works," anent some problem of whether the donkeyman was due certain overtime on a Sunday when the Turrialba lay in Hampton Roads waiting for coal. On the cabin door was a carefully typed list marked in Mr. McFee's hand "Work to Do." It began something like this:
Main Engine Pump-Link Brasses Fill Up Main Engine Feed Pump and Bilge Rams Open and Scale After Port Boiler Main Circulator Impeller to Examine Hydrokineter Valve on Centre Boiler to be Rejointed
The delightful thing about Mr. McFee is that he can turn from these things, which he knows and loves, to talk about literary problems, and can out-talk most literary critics at their own game.
He took us through his shining engines, showing us some of the beauty spots—the Weir pumps and the refrigerating machinery and the thrust-blocks (we hope we have these right), unconsciously inflicting upon us something of the pain it gives the bungling jack of several trades when he sees a man who is so fine a master not merely of one, but of two—two seemingly diverse, but in which the spirit of faith and service are the same. "She's a bonny ship," he said, and his face was lit with sincerity as he said it. Then he washed his hands and changed into shore clothes and we went up to Frank's, where we had pork and beans and talked about Sir Thomas Browne.
FALLACIOUS MEDITATIONS ON CRITICISM
There are never, at any time and place, more than a few literary critics of genuine incision, taste, and instinct; and these qualities, rare enough in themselves, are further debilitated, in many cases, by excessive geniality or indigestion. The ideal literary critic should be guarded as carefully as a delicate thermal instrument at the Weather Bureau; his meals, friendships, underwear, and bank account should all be supervised by experts and advisedly maintained at a temperate mean. In the Almost Perfect State (so many phases of which have been deliciously delineated by Mr. Marquis) a critic seen to become over-exhilarated at the dining table or to address any author by his first name would promptly be haled from the room by a commissionaire lest his intellectual acuity become blunted by emotion.
The unfortunate habit of critics being also human beings has done a great deal to impair their value to the public. For other human beings we all nourish a secret disrespect. And therefore it is well that the world should be reminded now and then of the dignity and purity of the critic's function. The critic's duty is not merely to tabulate literary material according to some convenient scale of proved niceties; but to discern the ratio existing in any given work between possibility and performance; between the standard the author might justly have been expected to achieve and the standard he actually attained. There are hierarchies and lower archies. A pint pot, full (it is no new observation), is just as full as a bathtub full. And the first duty of the critic is to determine and make plain to the reader the frame of mind in which the author approached his task.
Just as a ray of sunshine across a room reveals, in air that seemed clear, innumerable motes of golden dancing dust and filament, so the bright beam of a great critic shows us the unsuspected floating atoms of temperament in the mind of a great writer. The popular understanding of the word criticize is to find fault, to pettifog. As usual, the popular mind is only partly right. The true critic is the tender curator and warden of all that is worthy in letters. His function is sacramental, like the sweeping of a hearth. He keeps the hearth clean and nourishes the fire. It is a holy fire, for its fuel is men's hearts.
It seems to us probable that under present conditions the cause of literature is more likely to suffer from injudicious and excessive praise rather than from churlish and savage criticism. It seems to us (and we say this with certain misgivings as to enthusiasms of our own) that there are many reviewers whose honest zeal for the discovering of masterpieces is so keen that they are likely to burst into superlatives half a dozen times a year and hail as a flaming genius some perfectly worthy creature, who might, if he were given a little stiff discipline, develop into a writer of best-readers rather than best-sellers. Too resounding praise is often more damning than faint praise. The writer who has any honest intentions is more likely to be helped by a little judicious acid now and then than by cartloads of honey. Let us be candid and personal. When someone in The New Republic spoke of some essays of our own as "blowzy" we were moved for a few moments to an honest self-scrutiny and repentance. Were we really blowzy, we said to ourself? We did not know exactly what this meant, and there was no dictionary handy. But the word gave us a picture of a fat, ruddy beggar-wench trudging through wind and rain, probably on the way to a tavern; and we determined, with modest sincerity, to be less like that in future.
The good old profession of criticism tends, in the hands of the younger generation, toward too fulsome ejaculations of hurrahs and hyperboles. It is a fine thing, of course, that new talent should so swiftly win its recognition; yet we think we are not wholly wrong in believing that many a delicate and promising writer has been hurried into third-rate work, into women's magazine serials and cheap sordid sensationalism, by a hasty overcapitalization of the reviewer's shouts. For our own part, we do not feel any too sure of our ability to recognize really great work when we first see it. We have often wondered, if we had been journalizing in 1855 when "Leaves of Grass" appeared, would we have been able to see what it meant, or wouldn't we have been more likely to fill our column with japeries at the expense of Walt's obvious absurdities, missing all the finer grain? It took a man like Emerson to see what Walt was up to.
There were many who didn't. Henry James, for instance, wrote a review of "Drum Taps" in the Nation, November 16, 1865. In the lusty heyday and assurance of twenty-two years, he laid the birch on smartly. It is just a little saddening to find that even so clear-sighted an observer as Henry James could not see through the chaotic form of Whitman to the great vision and throbbing music that seem so plain to us to-day. Whitman himself, writing about "Drum Taps" before its publication, said, "Its passion has the indispensable merit that though to the ordinary reader let loose with wildest abandon, the true artist can see that it is yet under control." With this, evidently, the young Henry James did not agree. He wrote:
It has been a melancholy task to read this book; and it is a still more melancholy one to write about it. Perhaps since the day of Mr. Tupper's "Philosophy" there has been no more difficult reading of the poetic sort. It exhibits the effort of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry. Like hundreds of other good patriots, Mr. Walt Whitman has imagined that a certain amount of violent sympathy with the great deeds and sufferings of our soldiers, and of admiration for our national energy, together with a ready command of picturesque language, are sufficient inspiration for a poet.... But he is not a poet who merely reiterates these plain facts ore rotundo. He only sings them worthily who views them from a height.... Mr. Whitman is very fond of blowing his own trumpet, and he has made very explicit claims for his book.... The frequent capitals are the only marks of verse in Mr. Whitman's writing. There is, fortunately, but one attempt at rhyme.... Each line starts off by itself, in resolute independence of its companions, without a visible goal ... it begins like verse and turns out to be arrant prose. It is more like Mr. Tupper's proverbs than anything we have met.... No triumph, however small, is won but through the exercise of art, and this volume is an offence against art.... We look in vain through the book for a single idea. We find nothing but flashy imitations of ideas. We find a medley of extravagances and commonplaces.
We do not know whether H.J. ever recanted this very youthful disposal of old Walt. The only importance of it at this moment seems to us this: that appreciation of all kinds of art is so tenderly interwoven with inherited respect for the traditional forms of expression by which they are conveyed that a new and surprising vehicle quite unfits most observers for any reasonable assessment of the passenger.
As for Walt himself, he was quite unabashed by this or any other onslaught. He was not gleg at argument, and probably rolled up the issue of the Nation in his pocket and went down to Coney Island to lie on the sand and muse (but no, we forget, it was November!). In the same issue of the Nation he doubtless read, in the "Literary Notes," that "Poems Relating to the American Revolution," by Philip Freneau, was "in press under the scholarly editing of Evart A. Duyckinck to form a complete presentment of the genius of an author whose influence in the affairs of his time would alone impart a lasting value to his works." At this Walt smiled gently to himself, wondered how soon "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" would get into the anthologies, and "sped to the certainties suitable to him."
These miscellaneous thoughts on the fallibility of critics were suggested to us by finding some old bound volumes of the Edinburgh Review on a bookstall, five cents each. In the issue for November, 1814, we read with relish what the Review had to say about Wordsworth's "Excursion." These are a few excerpts:
This will never do.... The case of Mr. Wordsworth, we perceive, is now manifestly hopeless; and we give him up as altogether incurable, and beyond the power of criticism ... making up our minds, though with the most sincere pain and reluctance, to consider him as finally lost to the good cause of poetry.... The volume before us, if we were to describe it very shortly, we should characterize as a tissue of moral and devotional ravings, in which innumerable changes are rung upon a few very simple and familiar ideas.
The world of readers has not ratified Jeffrey's savage comments on "The Excursion," for (to reckon only by the purse) any frequenter of old bookshops can pick up that original issue of the Edinburgh Review for a few cents, while the other day we saw a first edition of the maligned "Excursion" sold for thirty dollars. A hundred years ago it was the critic's pleasure to drub authors with cruel and unnecessary vigour. But we think that almost equal harm can be done by the modern method of hailing a new "genius" every three weeks.
For example, there is something subtly troublesome to us in the remark that Sinclair Lewis made about Evelyn Scott's novel, "The Narrow House." The publishers have used it as an advertising slogan, and the words have somehow buzzed their way into our head:
"Salute to Evelyn Scott: she belongs, she understands, she is definitely an artist."
We have been going about our daily affairs, climbing subway stairs, dodging motor trucks, ordering platters of stewed rhubarb, with that refrain recurring and recurring. Salute to Evelyn Scott! (we say to ourself as we stand in line at the bank, waiting to cash a small check). She belongs, she understands. And then, as we go away, pensively counting the money (they've got some clean Ones down at our bank, by the way; we don't know whether the larger denominations are clean or not, we haven't seen any since Christmas), we find ourself mumbling, She is definitely an artist.
We wonder why that pronouncement annoys us so. We haven't read all Mrs. Scott's book yet, and doubt our strength to do so. It is a riot of morbid surgery by a fumbling scalpel: great powers of observation are put to grotesque misuse. It is crammed with faithful particulars neither relevant nor interesting. (Who sees so little as he who looks through a microscope?) At first we thought, hopefully, that it was a bit of excellent spoof; then, regretfully, we began to realize that not only the publishers but even the author take it seriously. It feels as though it had been written by one of the new school of Chicago realists. It is disheartening that so influential a person as Mr. Lewis should be fooled by this sort of thing.
So there is something intensely irritating to us (although we admire Mr. Lewis) in that "She belongs, she understands, she is definitely an artist." In the first place, that use of the word artist as referring to a writer always gives us qualms unless used with great care. Then again, She belongs somehow seems to intimate that there is a registered clique of authors, preferably those who come down pretty heavily upon the disagreeable facts of life and catalogue them with gluttonous care, which group is the only one that counts. Now we are strong for disagreeable facts. We know a great many. But somehow we cannot shake ourself loose from the instinctive conviction that imagination is the without-which-nothing of the art of fiction. Miss Stella Benson is one who is not unobservant of disagreeables, but when she writes she can convey her satire in flashing, fantastic absurdity, in a heavenly chiding so delicate and subtle that the victim hardly knows he is being chidden. The photographic facsimile of life always seems to us the lesser art, because it is so plainly the easier course.
We fear we are not acute enough to explain just why it is that Mr. Lewis's salute to Mrs. Scott bothers us so. But it does bother us a good deal. We have nourished ourself, in the main, upon the work of two modern writers: Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad; we like to apply as a test such theories as we have been able to glean from those writers. Faulty and erring as we are, we always rise from Mr. Conrad's books purged and, for the moment, strengthened. Apparent in him are that manly and honourable virtue, that strict saline truth and scrupulous regard for life, that liberation from cant, which seem to be inbred in those who have suffered the exacting discipline of the hostile sea. Certainly Conrad cannot be called a writer who has neglected the tragic side of things. Yet in his "Notes on Life and Letters," we find this:
What one feels so hopelessly barren in declared pessimism is just its arrogance. It seems as if the discovery made by many men at various times that there is much evil in the world were a source of proud and unholy joy unto some of the modern writers. That frame of mind is not the proper one in which to approach seriously the art of fiction.... To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of its being made so.... I would ask that in his dealings with mankind he [the writer] should be capable of giving a tender recognition to their obscure virtues. I would not have him impatient with their small failings and scornful of their errors.
We fear that our mild protest is rather mixed and muddled. But what we darkly feel is this: that no author "belongs," or "understands," or is "definitely an artist" who merely makes the phantoms of his imagination paltry or ridiculous. They may be paltry, but they must also be pitiable; they may be ridiculous, but they must also be tragic. Many authors have fallen from the sublime to the ridiculous; but, as Mr. Chesterton magnificently said, in order to make that descent they must first reach the sublime.
LETTING OUT THE FURNACE
The prudent commuter (and all commuters are prudent, for the others are soon weeded out by the rigours of that way of life) keeps the furnace going until early May in these latitudes—assuming that there are small children in the house. None of those April hot waves can fool him; he knows that, with cunning management, two or three shovelfuls of coal a day will nurse the fire along, and there it is in case of a sudden chilly squall. But when at last he lets the fire die, and after its six months of constant and honourable service the old boiler grows cold, the kindly glow fades and sinks downward out of sight under a crust of gray clinkers, our friend muses tenderly in his cellar, sitting on a packing case.
He thinks, first, how odd it is that when he said to himself, "We might as well let the fire go out," it kept on sturdily burning, without attention or fuel, for a day and a half; whereas if he had, earlier in the season, neglected it even for a few hours, all would have been cold and silent. He remembers, for instance, the tragic evening with the mercury around zero, when, having (after supper) arranged everything at full blast and all radiators comfortably sizzling, he lay down on his couch to read Leonard Merrick, intending to give all hands a warm house for the night. Very well; but when he woke up around 2 A.M. and heard the tenor winds singing through the woodland, how anxiously he stumbled down the cellar stairs, fearing the worst. His fears were justified. There, on top of the thick bed of silvery ashes, lay the last pallid rose of fire. For as every pyrophil has noted, when the draught is left on, the fire flees upward, leaving its final glow at the top; but when all draughts are shut off, it sinkst downward, shyly hiding in the heart of the mass.
So he stood, still drowsily aghast, while Gissing (the synthetic dog) frolicked merrily about his unresponsive shins, deeming this just one more of those surprising entertainments arranged for his delight.
Now, on such an occasion the experienced commuter makes the best of a bad job, knowing there is little to be gained by trying to cherish and succour a feeble remnant of fire. He will manfully jettison the whole business, filling the cellar with the crash of shunting ashes and the clatter of splitting kindling. But this pitiable creature still thought that mayhap he could, by sedulous care and coaxing, revive the dying spark. With such black arts as were available he wrestled with the despondent glim. During this period of guilty and furtive strife he went quietly upstairs, and a voice spoke up from slumber. "Isn't the house very cold?" it said.
"Is it?" said this wretched creature, with great simulation of surprise. "Seems very comfortable to me."
"Well, I think you'd better send up some more heat," said this voice, in the tone of one accustomed to command.
"Right away," said the panic-stricken combustion engineer, and returned to his cellar, wondering whether he was suspected. How is it, he wondered, that ladies know instinctively, even when vested in several layers of blankets, if anything is wrong with the furnace? Another of the mysteries, said he, grimly, to the synthetic dog. By this time he knew full well (it was 3 A.M.) that there was naught for it but to decant the grateful of cinders and set to work on a new fire.
Such memories throng in the mind of the commuter as he surveys the dark form of his furnace, standing cold and dusty in the warm spring weather, and he cleans and drains it for the summer vacation. He remembers the lusty shout of winter winds, the clean and silver nakedness of January weather, the shining glow of the golden coals, the comfortable rustling and chuckle of the boiler when alive with a strong urgency of steam, the soft thud and click of the pipes when the pressure was rising before breakfast. And he meditates that these matters, though often the cause of grumbles at the time, were a part of that satisfying reality that makes life in the outposts a more honest thing than the artificial convenience of great apartment houses. The commuter, no less than the seaman, has fidelities of his own; and faithful, strict obedience to hard necessary formulae favours the combined humility and self-respect that makes human virtue. The commuter is often a figure both tragic and absurd; but he has a rubric and discipline of his own. And when you see him grotesquely hasting for the 5:27 train, his inner impulse may be no less honourable than that of the ship's officer ascending the bridge for his watch under a dark speckle of open sky.
BY THE FIREPLACE
We were contemplating our fireplace, in which, some of the hearth-bricks are rather irregularly disposed; and we said to ourself, perhaps the brick-layer who built this noble fireplace worked like Ben Jonson, with a trowel in one hand and a copy of Horace in the other. That suggested to us that we had not read any Ben Jonson for a very long time: so we turned to "Every Man in His Humour" and "The Alchemist." Part of Jonson's notice "To the Reader" preceding "The Alchemist" struck us as equally valid as regards poetry to-day:
Thou wert never more fair in the way to be cozened, than in this age, in poetry; wherein ... antics to run away from nature, and be afraid of her, is the only point of art that tickles the spectators ... For they commend writers, as they do fencers or wrestlers; who if they come in robustuously, and put for it with a great deal of violence, are received for the braver fellows.... I deny not, but that these men, who always seek to do more than enough, may some time happen on some thing that is good, and great; but very seldom ... I give thee this warning, that there is a great difference between those, that utter all they can, however unfitly; and those that use election and a mean. For it is only the disease of the unskilful, to think rude things greater than polished; or scattered more numerous than composed.
Ben Jonson's perpetual allusions to tobacco always remind one of the odd circumstance that of two such cronies as he and Will Shakespeare, one should have mentioned tobacco continually, the other not at all. Undoubtedly Ben smoked a particularly foul old pipe and was forever talking about it, spouting his rank strangling "Cuban ebolition" across the table; and Will, probably rather nice in his personal habits, grew disgusted with the habit.
At any rate, Shakespeare's silence on the subject has always been a grief to smokers. At a time when we were interested in that famous and innocent way of wasting time, trying to discover ciphers in Shakespeare's sonnets, we spent long cryptogrammarian evenings seeking to prove some anagram or rebus by which the Bard could be supposed to have concealed a mention of tobacco. But the only lurking secret we ever discovered seemed to suggest that the sonnets had been written by an ex-President of the United States. Observe the 131st sonnet:
*T*hou art as tyrannous, so as thou art *A*s those whose beauties proudly make them cruel; *F*or well thou know'st to my dear doting heart *T*hou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
And evidently Shakespeare intended to begin the 51st sonnet with the same acrostic; but, with Elizabethan laxity, misspelled Mr. Taft's name as TOFT.
Reading Elizabethan literature always encourages one to proceed, even though decorously, with the use of the pun. Such screams of mirth as (we doubt not) greeted one of Ben Jonson's simpletons when he spoke of Roger Bacon as Rasher Bacon (we can hear them laughing, can't you?) are highly fortifying.
But we began by quoting Ben Jonson on poetry. The passage sent us to the bookcase to look up the "axioms" about poetry stated by another who was also, in spirit at least, an habitue of The Mermaid. In that famous letter from Keats to his publisher and friend John Taylor, February 27, 1818, there is a fine fluent outburst on the subject. All Keats lovers know these "axioms" already, but they cannot be quoted too often; and we copy them down with additional pleasure because not long ago, by the kindness of the two librarians who watch over one of the most marvellous private collections in the world—Mr. J.P. Morgan's—we saw the original letter itself:—
1st. I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity. It should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
2d. Its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the sun, come natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight. But it is easier to think what poetry should be than to write it—and this leads me to
Another axiom—That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.
Some people can always find things to complain about. We have seen protests because the house in Rome where Keats died is used as a steamship office. We think it is rather appropriate. No man's mind ever set sail upon wider oceans of imagination. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson:
Night after night his purple traffic Strews the landing with opal bales; Merchantmen poise upon horizons, Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.
Another pleasing fact is that while he was a medical student Keats lived in Bird-in-Hand Court, Cheapside—best known nowadays as the home of Simpson's, that magnificent chophouse. Who else, in modern times, came so close to holding unruffled in his hand the shy wild bird of Poetry?
A CITY NOTE-BOOK
Well, now let us see in what respect we are richer to-day than we were yesterday.
Coming down Fifth Avenue on top of a bus, we saw a man absorbed in a book. Ha, we thought, here is our chance to see how bus reading compares to subway reading! After some manoeuvering, we managed to get the seat behind the victim. The volume was "Every Man a King," by Orison Swett Marden, and the uncrowned monarch reading it was busy with the thirteenth chapter, to wit: "Thoughts Radiate as Influence." We did a little radiating of our own, and it seemed to reach him, for presently he grew uneasy, put the volume carefully away in a brief-case, and (as far as we could see) struck out toward his kingdom, which apparently lay on the north shore of Forty-second Street.
We felt then that we would recuperate by glancing at a little literature. So we made our way toward the newly enlarged shrine of James F. Drake on Fortieth Street. Here we encountered our friends the two Messrs. Drake, junior, and complimented them on their thews and sinews, these two gentlemen having recently, unaided, succeeded in moving a half-ton safe, filled with the treasures of Elizabethan literature, into the new sanctum. Here, where formerly sped the nimble fingers of M. Tappe's young ladies, busy with the compilation of engaging bonnets for the fair, now stand upon wine-dark shelves the rich gold and amber of fine bindings. We were moved by this sight. We said in our heart, we will erect a small madrigal upon this theme, entitled: "Song Upon Certain Songbirds of the Elizabethan Age Now Garnishing the Chamber Erstwhile Bright With the Stuffed Plumage of the Milliner." To the Messrs. Drake we mentioned the interesting letter of Mr. J. Acton Lomax in yesterday's Tribune, which called attention to the fact that the poem at the end of "Through the Looking Glass" is an acrostic giving the name of the original Alice—viz., Alice Pleasance Liddell. In return for which we were shown a copy of the first edition of "Alice in Wonderland." Here, too, we dallied for some time over a first edition of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, and were pleased to learn that the great doctor was no more infallible in proofreading than the rest of us, one of our hosts pointing out to us a curious error by which some words beginning in COV had slipped in ahead of words beginning in COU.
* * * * *
At noon to-day we climbed on a Riverside Drive bus at Seventy-ninth Street and rode in the mellow gold of autumn up to Broadway and 168th. Serene, gilded weather; sunshine as soft and tawny as candlelight, genial at midday as the glow of an open fire in spite of the sharpness of the early morning. Battleships lay in the river with rippling flags. Men in flannels were playing tennis on the courts below Grant's Tomb; everywhere was a convincing appearance of comfort and prosperity. The beauty of the children, the good clothing of everybody, canes swinging on the pavements, cheerful faces untroubled by thought, the warm benevolence of sunlight, bronzing trees along Riverside Park, a man reading a book on the summit of that rounded knoll of rock near Eighty-fourth Street which children call "Mount Tom"—everything was so bright in life and vigour that the sentence seems to need no verb. Joan of Arc, poised on horseback against her screen of dark cedars, held her sword clearly against the pale sky. Amazingly sure and strong and established seem the rich facades of Riverside Drive apartment houses, and the landlords were rolling in limousines up to Claremont to have lunch. One small apartment house, near Eighty-third or thereabouts, has been renamed the Chateau-Thierry.
After crossing the long bridge above Claremont and the deep ravine where ships and ferryboats and coal stations abound, the bus crosses on 135th Street to Broadway. At 153d, the beautiful cemetery of Trinity Parish, leafy paths lying peaceful in the strong glow. At 166th Street is an open area now called Mitchel Square, with an outcrop of rock polished by the rearward breeks of many sliding urchins. Some children were playing on that small summit with a toy parachute made of light paper and a pebble attached by threads. On 168th Street alongside the big armoury of the Twenty-second Engineers boys were playing baseball, with a rubber ball, pitching it so that the batter received it on the bounce and struck it with his fist. According to the score chalked on the pavement the "Bronx Browns" and the "Haven Athletics" were just finishing a rousing contest, in which the former were victors, 1-0. Haven Avenue, near by, is a happy little street perched high above the river. A small terraced garden with fading flowers looks across the Hudson to the woody Palisades. Modest apartment houses are built high on enormous buttresses, over the steep scarp of the hillside. Through cellar windows coal was visible, piled high in the bins; children were trooping home for dinner; a fine taint of frying onions hung in the shining air. Everywhere in that open, half-suburban, comfortable region was a feeling of sane, established life. An old man with a white beard was greeted by two urchins, who ran up and kissed him heartily as he beamed upon them. Grandpa, one supposes! Plenty of signs indicating small apartments to rent, four and five rooms. And down that upper slant of Broadway, as the bus bumbles past rows of neat prosperous-seeming shops, one feels the great tug and pulling current of life that flows down the channel, the strange energy of the huge city lying below. The tide was momentarily stilled, but soon to resume action. There was a magic touch apparent, like the stillness of a palace in a fairy tale, bewitched into waiting silence.
* * * * *
Sometimes on our way to the office in the morning we stop in front of a jeweller's window near Maiden Lane and watch a neat little elderly gentleman daintily setting out his employer's gauds and trinkets for the day. We like to see him brood cheerfully over the disposition of his small amber-coloured velvet mats, and the arrangement of the rings, vanity cases, necklaces, and precious stones. They twinkle in the morning light, and he leans downward in the window, innocently displaying the widening parting on his pink scalp. He purses his lips in a silent whistle as he cons his shining trifles and varies his plan of display every day.
Now a modern realist (we have a painful suspicion) if he were describing this pleasant man would deal rather roughly with him. You know exactly how it would be done. He would be a weary, saddened, shabby figure: his conscientious attention to the jewels in his care would be construed as the painful and creaking routine of a victim of commercial greed; a bitter irony would be distilled from the contrast of his own modest station in life and the huge value of the lucid crystals and carbons under his hands. His hands—ah, the realist would angrily see some brutal pathos or unconscious naughtiness in the crook of the old mottled fingers. How that widening parting in the gray head would be gloated upon. It would be very easy to do, and it would be (if we are any judge) wholly false.
For we have watched the little old gentleman many times, and we have quite an affection for him. We see him as one perfectly happy in the tidy and careful round of his tasks; and when his tenderly brushed gray poll leans above his treasures, and he gently devises new patterns by which the emeralds or the gold cigarette cases will catch the slant of 9 o'clock sunlight, we seem to see one who is enjoying his own placid conception of beauty, and who is not a figure of pity or reproach, but one of decent honour and excellent fidelity.
* * * * *
One of our colleagues, a lusty genial in respect of tobacco, has told us of a magnificent way to remove an evil and noisome taste from an old pipe that hath been smoked overlong. He says, clean the bowl carefully (not removing the cake) and wash tenderly in fair, warm water. Then, he says, take a teaspoonful of the finest vatted Scotch whiskey (or, if the pipe be of exceeding size, a tablespoonful of the same) and pour it delicately into the bowl. Apply a lighted match, and let the liquor burn itself out. It will do so, he avouches, with a gentle blue flame of great beauty and serenity. The action of this burning elixir, he maintains, operates to sizzle and purge away all impurity from the antique incrustation in the bowl. After letting the pipe cool, and then filling it with a favourite blend of mingled Virginia, Perique, and Latakia, our friend asserts that he is blessed with a cool, saporous, and enchanting fumigation which is so fragrant that even his wife has remarked upon it in terms complimentary. Our friend says (but we fear he draws the longbow nigh unto fracture) that the success of this method may be tested so: if one lives, as he does, in the upward stories of a tall apartment house, one should take the pipe so cleansed to the window-sill, and, smoking it heartily, lean outward over the sill. On a clear, still, blue evening, the air being not too gusty, the vapours will disperse and eddy over the street; and he maintains with great zeal that passersby ten tiers below will very soon look upward from the pavement, sniffingly, to discern the source of such admirable fumes. He has even known them, he announces, to hail him from the street, in tones of eager inquiry, to learn what kind of tobacco he is smoking.
All this we have duly meditated and find ourselves considerably stirred. Now there is only one thing that stands between ourself and such an experiment.
* * * * *
There are some who hold by the theory that on visiting a restaurant it is well to pick out a table that is already cleared rather than one still bearing the debris of a previous patron's meal. We offer convincing proof to the contrary.
Rambling, vacant of mind and guileless of intent, in a certain quiet portion of the city—and it is no use for you, O client, to ask where, for our secrecy is firm as granite—we came upon an eating house and turned inward. There were tables spread with snowy cloths, immaculate; there were also tables littered with dishes. We chose one of the latter, for a waiter was removing the plates, and we thought that by sitting there we would get prompter service. We sat down and our eye fell upon a large china cup that had been used by the preceding luncher. In the bottom of that cup was a little pool of dark dregs, a rich purple colour, most agreeable to gaze upon. Happy possibilities were opened to our mind. Like the fabled Captain X, we had a Big Idea. We made no outcry, nor did we show our emotion, but when the waiter asked for our order we said, calmly: "Sausages and some of the red wine." He was equally calm and uttered no comment.
Soon he came back (having conferred, as we could see out of the wing of our eye) with his boss. "What was it you ordered?" he said.
"Sausages," we replied, urbanely, "and some of the red wine."
"I don't remember having served you before," he said. "I can't give you anything like that."
We saw that we must win his confidence and we thought rapidly. "It's perfectly all right," we said. "Mr. Bennett" (we said, seizing the first name that came into our head), "who comes here every day, told me about it. You know Mr. Bennett; he works over on Forty-second Street and comes here right along."
Again he departed, but returned anon with smiling visage. "If you're a friend of Mr. Bennett's," he said, "it's all right. You know, we have to be careful."
"Quite right," we said; "be wary." And we laid hand firmly on the fine hemorrhage of the grape.
A little later in the adventure, when we were asked what dessert we would have, we found stewed rhubarb on the menu, and very fine stewed rhubarb it was; wherefore we say that our time was not ill-spent and we shall keep the secret to ourself.
But we can't help feeling grateful to Mr. Bennett, whoever he is.
* * * * *
Occasionally (but not often) in the exciting plexus of our affairs (conducted, as we try to persuade ourself, with so judicious a jointure of caution and hilarity) we find it necessary to remain in town for dinner. Then, and particularly in spring evenings, we are moved and exhilarated by that spectacle that never loses its enchantment, the golden beauty and glamour of downtown New York after the homeward ebb has left the streets quiet and lonely. By six o'clock in a May sunset the office is a cloister of delicious peace and solitude. Let us suppose (oh, a case merely hypothetic) that you have got to attend a dinner somewhere in the Forties, say at half-past seven; and it is requisite that evening clothes should be worn. You have brought them to the office, modestly hidden, in a bag; and in that almost unbelievable privacy, toward half-past six, you have an enjoyable half hour of luxurious amusement and contemplation. The office, one repeats, is completely stripped of tenants—save perhaps an occasional grumbling sortie by the veteran janitor. So all its resources are open for you to use as boudoir. Now, in an office situated like this there is, at sunset time, a variety of scenic richness to be contemplated. From the President's office (putting on one's hard-boiled shirt) one can look down upon St. Paul's churchyard, lying a pool of pale blue shadow in the rising dusk. From the City Room (inserting studs) one sees the river sheeted with light. From the office of the Literary Editor (lacing up one's shoes) one may study the wild pinnacle of Woolworth, faintly superfused with a brightness of gold and pink. From the office of one of our dramatic critics the view is negligible (being but a hardy brick wall), but the critic, debonair creature, has a small mirror of his own, so there one manages the ticklish business of the cravat. And from our own kennel, where are transacted the last touches (transfer of pipe, tobacco, matches, Long Island railroad timetable, commutation ticket, etc., to the other pockets) there is a heavenly purview of those tall cliffs of lower Broadway, nobly terraced into the soft, translucent sky. In that exquisite clarity and sharpness of New York's evening light are a loveliness and a gallantry hardly to be endured. At seven o'clock of a May evening it is poetry unspeakable. O magnificent city (one says), there will come a day when others will worship and celebrate your mystery; and when not one of them will know or care how much I loved you. But these words, obscure and perishable, I leave you as a testimony that I also understood.
She cannot be merely the cruel Babel they like to describe her: the sunset light would not gild her so tenderly.
* * * * *
It was a great relief to us yesterday evening to see a man reading a book in the subway. We have undergone so many embarrassments trying to make out the titles of the books the ladies read, without running afoul of the Traveller's Aid Society, that we heaved a sigh of relief and proceeded to stalk our quarry with a light heart. Let us explain that on a crowded train it is not such an easy task. You see your victim at the other end of the car. First you have to buffet your way until you get next to him. Then, just as you think you are in a position to do a little careful snooping, he innocently shifts the book to the other hand. This means you have got to navigate, somehow, toward the hang-handle on the other side of him. Very well. By the time the train gets to Bowling Green we have seen that it is a fattish book, bound in green cloth, and the author's name begins with FRAN. That doesn't help much. As the train roars under the river you manage, by leanings and twistings, to see the publisher's name—in this case, Longmans. At Borough Hall a number of passengers get out, and the hunted reader sits down. Ten to one he will hold the book in such a way that you cannot see the title. At Nevins Street you get a seat beside him. At Atlantic Avenue, as he is getting off, you propose your head over his shoulder in the jam on the stairs and see what you are after. "Lychgate Hall," by M.E. Francis. And in this case, success left us none the wiser.
Atlantic Avenue, by the way, always seems to us an ideal place for the beginning of a detective story. (Speaking of that, a very jolly article in this month's Bookman, called "How Old Is Sherlock Holmes?" has revived our old ambition to own a complete set of all the Sherlock Holmes tales, and we are going to set about scouring the town for them). Every time we pass through the Atlantic Avenue maelstrom, which is twelve times a week, we see, as plain as print, the beginning of two magazine tales.
One begins as the passengers are streaming through the gate toward the 5:27 train. There is a very beautiful damsel who always sits on the left-hand side of the next to last car, by an open window. On her plump and comely white hand, which holds the latest issue of a motion picture magazine, is a sparkling diamond ring. Suddenly all the lights in the train go out. Through the open window comes a brutal grasp which wrenches the bauble from her finger. There are screams, etc., etc. When the lights go on again, of course there is no sign of the criminal. Five minutes later, Mr. Geoffrey Dartmouth, enjoying a chocolate ice cream soda in the little soft-drink alcove at the corner of the station, is astonished to find a gold ring, the stone missing, at the bottom of his paper soda container.