The Hotel Decameron is named after Boccaccio, who was once a bartender there. It stands in a commanding position on the Place Nouveau Riche overlooking the Casino and the odalisk erected by Edward VII in memory of his cure. After two weeks of the strychnine baths the merry monarch is said to have called for a corncob pipe and a plate of onions, after which he made his escape by walking over the forest track to the French frontier, although previous to this he had not walked a kilometer without a cane since John Bull won the Cowes regatta. The haut ton of the section in which the Hotel Decameron finds itself can readily be seen by the fact that the campanile of the Duke of Marmalade fronts on the rue Sauterne, just across from the barroom of the Hotel. The antiquaries say there is an underground corridor between the two.
The fascinations of a stay in Strychnine are manifold. I have a weak heart, so I did not try the baths, although I used to linger on the terrace of the Casino about sunset to hear Tinpanni's band and eat a bronze bowl of Kerosini's gooseberry fool. I spent a great deal of my time exploring the chief glory of the town, the Casa Grande, which stands on the colossal crag honeycombed underneath with the shafts and vaults of the cheese mine. There is nothing in the world more entrancing than to stand (with a vinaigrette at one's nose) on the ramp of the Casa, looking down over the ochre canal, listening to the hoarse shouts of the workmen as they toil with pick and shovel, laying bare some particularly rich lode of the pale, citron-coloured cheese which will some day make Strychnine a place of pelerinage for all the world. Pay homage to the fromage is a rough translation of the motto of the town, which is carved in old Gothic letters on the apse of the Casa itself. Limberg, Gruyere, Alkmaar, Neufchatel, Camembert and Hoboken—all these famous cheeses will some day pale into whey before the puissance of the Strychnine curd. I was signally honoured by an express invitation of the burgomaster to be present at a meeting of the Cheesemongers' Guild at the Rathaus. The Kurdmeister, who is elected annually by the town council, spoke most eloquently on the future of the cheese industry, and a curious rite was performed. Before the entrance of the ceremonial cheese, which is cut by the Kurdmeister himself, all those present donned oxygen masks similar to those devised by the English to combat the German poison-gas. And I learned that oxygen helmets are worn by the workmen in the quarries to prevent prostration.
It was with unfeigned regret that I found my fortnight over. I would gladly have lingered in the medieval cloisters of the Gin Palace, and sat for many mornings under the pistachio trees on the terrace sipping my verre of native wine. But duties recalled me to the beaten paths of travel, and once more I drove in the old-fashioned ambulance to catch my even more old-fashioned train. The B.V.D. trains only leave Strychnine when there is a stern wind, as otherwise the pungent fumes of the cheese carried in the luggage van are very obnoxious to the passengers. Some day some American efficiency expert will visit the town and teach them to couple their luggage van on to the rear of the train. But till then Strychnine will be to me, and to every other traveller who may chance that way, a fragrant memory.
And as you enter the tunnel, the last thing you see is the onyx canal and the old women fishing for lambrequins and palfreys.
The first night we sat down at the inn table for supper I lost my heart to Ingo! Ingo was just ten years old. He wore a little sailor suit of blue and white striped linen; his short trousers showed chubby brown calves above his white socks; his round golden head cropped close in the German fashion. His blue eyes were grave and thoughtful. By great good fortune we sat next each other at table, and in my rather grotesque German I began a conversation. How careful Ingo was not to laugh at the absurdities of my syntax! How very courteous he was!
Looking back into the mysterious panorama of pictures that we call memory, I can see the long dining room of the old gasthaus in the Black Forest, where two Americans on bicycles appeared out of nowhere and asked for lodging. They were the first Americans who had ever been seen in that remote valley, and the Gasthaus zur Krone ("the Crown Inn") found them very amusing. Perhaps you have never seen a country tavern in the Schwarzwald? Then you have something to live for. A long, low building with a moss-grown roof and tremendous broad eaves sheltering little galleries; and the barn under the same roof for greater warmth in winter. One side of the house was always strong with an excellent homely aroma of cow and horse; one had only to open a door in the upper hall, a door that looked just like a bedroom entrance, to find oneself in the haymow. There I used to lie for hours reading, and listening to the summer rain thudding on the shingles. Sitting in the little gallery under the eaves, looking happily down the white road where the yellow coach brought the mail twice a day, one could see the long vista of the valley, the women with bright red jackets working in the fields, and the dark masses of forest on the hillside opposite. There was much rain that summer; the mountains were often veiled all day long in misty shreds of cloud, and the two Americans sat with pipes and books at the long dining table, greeted by gales of laughter on the part of the robust landlord's niece when they essayed the native idiom. "Sie arbeiten immer!" she used to say; "Sie werden krank!" ("You're always working; you'll be ill!")
There is a particular poignance in looking back now on those happy days two years before the war. Nowhere in all the world, I suppose, are there more cordial, warmhearted, simple, human people than the South Germans. On the front of the inn there was a big yellow metal sign, giving the military number of the district, and the mobilization points for the Landsturm and the Landwehr, and we realized that even here the careful organization of the military power had numbered and ticketed every village. But what did it mean to us? War was a thing unthinkable in those days. We bicycled everywhere, climbed, mountains, bathed in waterfalls, chatted fluent and unorthodox German with everyone we met, and played games with Ingo.
Dear little Ingo! At the age when so many small boys are pert, impudent, self-conscious, he was the simplest, happiest, gravest little creature. His hobby was astronomy, and often I would find him sitting quietly in a corner with a book about the stars. On clear evenings we would walk along the road together, in the mountain hush that was only broken by the brook tumbling down the valley, and he would name the constellations for me. His little round head was thrilled through and through by the immense mysteries of space; sometimes at meal times he would fall into a muse, forgetting his beef and gravy. Once I asked him at dinner what he was thinking of. He looked up with his clear gray-blue eyes and flashing smile: "Von den Sternen!" ("Of the stars.")
The time after supper was reserved for games, in which Wolfgang, Ingo's smaller brother (aged seven), also took part. Our favourite pastimes were "Irrgarten" and "Galgenspiel," in which we found enormous amusement. Galgenspiel was Ingo's translation of "Hangman," a simple pastime which had sometimes entertained my own small brother on rainy days; apparently it was new in Germany. One player thinks of a word, and sets down on paper a dash for each letter in this word. It is the task of the other to guess the word, and he names the letters of the alphabet one by one. Every time he mentions a letter that is contained in the word you must set it down in its proper place in the word, but every time he mentions a letter that is not in the word you draw a portion of a person depending from a gallows; the object of course being for him to guess the word before you finish drawing the effigy. We played the game entirely in German, and I can still see Ingo's intent little face bent over my preposterous drawings, cudgelling his quick and happy little brain to spot the word before the hangman could finish his grim task. "Quick, Ingo!" I would cry. "You will get yourself hung!" and he would laugh in his own lovable way. There was never a jollier way of learning a foreign language than by playing games with Ingo.
The other favourite pastime was drawing mazes on paper, labyrinths of winding paths which must be traversed by a pencil point. The task was to construct a maze so complicated that the other could not find his way out, starting at the middle. We would sit down at opposite ends of the room to construct our mysteries of blind alleys and misleading passages, then each one would be turned loose in the "irrgarten" drawn by the other. Ingo would stand at my side while I tried in obstinate stupidity to find my way through his little puzzle; his eager heart inside his sailor blouse would pound like a drum when I was nearing the dangerous places where an exit might be won. He would hold his breath so audibly, and his blue eyes would grow so anxious, that I always knew when not to make the right turning, and my pencil would wander on in hopeless despair until he had mercy on me and led me to freedom.
After lunch every day, while waiting for the mail-coach to come trundling up the valley, Ingo and I used to sit in the little balcony under the eaves, reading. He introduced me to his favourite book Till Eulenspiegel, and we sped joyously through the adventures of that immortal buffoon of German folk-lore. We took turns reading aloud: every paragraph or so I would appeal for an explanation of something. Generally I understood well enough, but it was such a delight to hear Ingo strive to make the meaning plain. What a puckering of his bright boyish forehead, what a grave determination to elucidate the fable! What a mingling of ecstatic pride in having a grown man as pupil, with deference due to an elder. Ingo was a born gentleman and in his fiercest transports of glee never forgot his manners! I would make some purposely ludicrous shot at the sense, and he would double up with innocent mirth. His clear laughter would ring out, and his mother, pacing a digestive stroll on the highway below us, would look up crying in the German way, "Gott! wie er freut sich!" The progress of our reading was held up by these interludes, but I could never resist the temptation to start Ingo explaining.
Ingo having made me free of his dearest book, it was only fair to reciprocate. So one day Lloyd and I bicycled down to Freiburg, and there, at a heavenly "bookhandler's," I found a copy of 'Treasure Island' in German. Then there was revelry in the balcony! I read the tale aloud, and I wish R.L.S. might have seen the shining of Ingo's eyes! Alas, the vividness of the story interfered with the little lad's sleep, and his mother was a good deal disturbed about this violent yarn we were reading together. How close he used to sit beside me as we read of the dark doings at the Admiral Benbow: and how his face would fall when, clear and hollow from the sounding-board of the hills, came the quick clop, clop of the mail-man's horses.
I don't know anything that has ever gone deeper in my memory than those hours spent with Ingo. I have a little snapshot of him I took the misty, sorrowful morning when I bicycled away to Basel and left the Gasthaus zur Krone in its mountain valley. The blessed little lad stands up erect and stiff in the formal German way, and I can see his blue eyes alight with friendliness, and a little bit unhappy because his eccentric American comrade was gomg away and there would be no more afternoons with Till Eulenspiegel on the balcony. I wonder if he thinks of me as often as I do of him? He gave me a glimpse into the innocent heaven of a child's heart that I can never forget. By now he is approaching sixteen, and I pray that whatever the war may take away from me it will spare me my Ingo. It is strange and sad to recall that his parting present to me was a drawing of a Zeppelin, upon which he toiled manfully all one afternoon. I still have it in my scrapbook.
And I wonder if he ever looks in the old copy of "Hauff's Maerchen" that I bought for him in Freiburg, and sees the English words that he was to learn how to translate when he should grow older! As I remember them, they ran like this:
For Ingo to learn English will very easy be If someone is as kind to him as he has been to me; Plays games with him, reads fairy tales, corrects all his mistakes, And never laughs too loudly at the blunders that he makes— Then he will find, as I did, how well two pleasures blend: To learn a foreign language, and to make a foreign friend.
If I love anybody in the world, I love Ingo. And that is why I cannot get up much enthusiasm for hymns of hate.
After Simmons had been married two years he began to feel as though he needed a night off. But he hesitated to mention the fact, for he knew his wife would feel hurt to think that he could dream of an evening spent elsewhere than in their cosy sitting room. However, there were no two ways about it: the old unregenerate male in Simmons yearned for something more exciting than the fireside armchair, the slippers and smoking jacket, and the quiet game of cards. Visions of the old riotous evenings with the boys ran through his mind; a billiard table and the click of balls; the jolly conversation at the club, and glass after glass of that cold amber beer. The large freedom of the city streets at night, the warm saloons on every corner, the barrooms with their pyramids of bottles flashing in the gaslight—these were the things that made a man's life amusing. And here he was cooped up in a little cage in the suburbs like a tame cat!
Thoughts of this kind had agitated Simmons for a long time, and at last he said something to Ethel. He had keyed himself up to meet a sharp retort, some sarcastic comment about his preferring a beer garden to his own home, even an outburst of tears. But to his amazement Ethel took it quite calmly.
"Why, yes, of course, dear," she said. "It'll do you good to have an evening with your friends."
A little taken aback, he asked whether she would rather he didn't go.
"Why, no," she answered. "I shall have a lovely time. I won't be lonely."
This was on Monday. Simmons planned to go out on Friday night, meeting the boys for dinner at the club, and after that they would spend the evening at Boelke's bowling alley. All the week he went about in a glow of anticipation. At the office he spoke in an offhand way of the pleasant evenings a man can have in town, and pitied the prosaic beggars who never stir from the house at night.
On Friday evening he came home hurriedly, staying just long enough to shave and change his collar. Ethel had on a pretty dress and seemed very cheerful. A strange sinking came over him as he saw the familiar room shining with firelight and the shabby armchair.
"Would you rather I stayed at home?" he asked.
"Not a bit," she said, quite as though she meant it. "Diana has a steak in the oven, and I've got a new book to read. I won't wait up for you."
He kissed her and went off.
When he got on the trolley a sudden revulsion struck him. He was tired and wanted to go home. Why on earth spend the evening with a lot of drunken rowdies when he might be at his own hearth watching Ethel's face bent over her sewing? He saw little enough of her anyway.
At the door of the club he halted. Inside, the crowd was laughing, shouting jests, dicing for cocktails. Suddenly he turned and ran.
He cursed himself for a fool, but none the less an irresistible force seemed to draw him home. On the car he sat glum and silent, wondering how all the other men could read their papers so contentedly.
At last he reached the modest little suburb. He hurried along the street and had almost entered his gate when he paused.
Through the half-drawn curtains he could see Ethel sitting comfortably by the lamp. She was reading, and the cat was in her lap. His heart leaped with a great throb. But how could he go in now? It was barely eight o'clock. After all his talk about a man's need of relaxation and masculine comradeship—why, she would never stop laughing! He turned and tiptoed away.
That evening was a nightmare for Simmons. Opposite his house was a little suburban park, and thither he took himself. For a long while he sat on a bench cursing. Twice he started for the trolley, and again returned. It was a damp autumn night; little by little the chill pierced his light coat and he sneezed. Up and down the little park he tramped, biting a dead cigar. Once he went as far as the drugstore and bought a box of crackers.
At last—it seemed years—the church chimes struck ten and he saw the lights go out in his house. He forced himself to make twenty-five more trips around the gravel walk and then he could wait no longer. Shivering with weariness and cold, he went home.
He let himself in with his latch key and tiptoed upstairs. He leaned over the bed and Ethel stirred sleepily.
"What time is it, dear?" she murmured. "You're early, aren't you?"
"One o'clock," he lied bravely—and just then the dining-room clock struck half-past ten and supported him.
"Did you have a good time?"
"Bully—perfectly bully," he said. "There's nothing like a night with the boys now and then."
THE HILARITY OF HILAIRE
I remember some friends of mine telling me how they went down to Horsham, in Sussex, to see Hilaire Belloc. They found him in the cellar, seated astraddle of a gigantic wine-cask just arrived from France, about to proceed upon the delicate (and congenial) task of bottling the wine. He greeted them like jovial Silenus, and with competitive shouts of laughter the fun went forward. The wine was strained, bottled, sealed, labelled, and binned, the master of the vintage initiating his young visitors into the rite with bubbling and infectious gaiety—improvising verses, shouting with merriment, full of an energy and vivacity almost inconceivable to Saxon phlegm. My friends have always remembered it as one of the most diverting afternoons of their lives; and after the bottling was done and all hands thoroughly tired, he took them a swinging tramp across the Sussex Downs, talking hard all the way.
That is the Belloc we all know and love: vigorous, Gallic, bursting with energy, hospitality, and wit: the enfant terrible of English letters for the past fifteen years. Mr. Joyce Kilmer's edition of Belloc's verses is very welcome.[C] His introduction is charming: the tribute of an understanding lover. Perhaps he labours a little in proving that Belloc is essentially a poet rather than a master of prose; perhaps too some of his judgments of Pater, Hardy, Scott, and others of whom one has heard, are precipitate and smack a little of the lecture circuit: but there is much to be grateful for in his affectionate and thoughtful tribute. Perhaps we do not enough realize how outstanding and how engaging a figure Mr. Belloc is.
[Footnote C: Verses by Hilaire Belloc; with an introduction by Joyce Kilmer. New York: Laurence J. Gomme, 1916.]
Hilaire Belloc is of soldierly, artistic, and lettered blood. Four of his great-uncles were generals under Napoleon. The father of his grandmother fought under Soult at Corunna. A brother of his grandmother was wounded at Waterloo.
His grandmother, Louise Marie Swanton, who died in 1890, lived both in France and England, and was famous as the translator into French of Moore's "Life of Byron," "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and works by Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell. She married Hilaire Belloc, an artist, whose pictures are in the Louvre and many French museums; his tomb may be seen in Pere la Chaise. Their son was Louis Swanton Belloc, a lawyer, who married an English wife.
The only son of this couple was the present Hilaire Belloc, born at Lacelle St. Cloud, July 27, 1870—the "Terrible Year" it was called—until 1914.
Louis Belloc died in 1872, and as a very small child Hilaire went to live in Sussex, the gracious shire which both he and Rudyard Kipling have so often and so thrillingly commemorated. Slindon, near Arundel, became his home, the rolling hills, clean little rivers, and picturesque villages of the South Downs moulded his boyish thoughts.
In 1883 he went to the famous Catholic school at Edgbaston. Mr. Thomas Seccombe, in a recent article on Belloc (from which I dip a number of biographical facts), quotes a description of him at this period:
"I remember very well Belloc coming to the Oratory School—some time in '83, I suppose. He was a small, squat person, of the shaggy kind, with a clever face and sharp, bright eyes. Being amongst English boys, his instinctive combativeness made him assume a decidedly French pose, and this no doubt brought on him many a gibe, which, we may be equally sure, he was well able to return. I was amongst the older boys, saw little of him. But I recollect finding him cine day studying a high wall (of the old Oratory Church, since pulled down). It turned out that he was calculating its exact height by some cryptic mathematical process which he proceeded to explain. I concealed my awe, and did not tell him that I understood nothing of his terms, his explanations, or deductions; it would have been unsuitable for a big fellow to be taught by a 'brat.' In those days the boys used to act Latin plays of Terence, which enjoyed a certain celebrity, and from his first year Belloc was remarkable. His rendering of the impudent servant maid was the inauguration of a series of triumphs during his whole school career."
In '89 Hilaire left school, and served for a year in the French field artillery, in a regiment stationed at Toul. Here he revived the Gallic heritage which was naturally his, learned to talk continually in French, and to drink wine. You will remember that in "The Path to Rome" he starts from Toul; but I cannot quote the passage; someone (who the devil is it?) has borrowed my copy. It is the perpetual fate of that book—everyone should have six copies.
After the rough and saline company of French gunners it is a comical contrast to find him winning a scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford—admittedly the most rarefied and azure-pedalled precinct in England. He matriculated at Balliol in January, 1895, and was soon known as one of the "characters" of the college. There was little of the lean and pallid clerk of Oxenford in his bearing: he was the Roman candle of the Junior Common Room, where the vivacious and robust humour of the barracks at Toul at first horrified and then captivated the men from the public schools. Alternately blasphemous and idolatrous he may have seemed to Winchester and Eton: a devil for work and a genius at play. He swam, wrestled, shouted, rode, drank, and debated, says Mr. Seccombe. He read strange books, swore strange oaths, and amazed his tutors by the fire and fury of his historical study. His rooms were a continual focus of noise: troops of friends, song, loud laughter, and night-long readings from Rabelais. And probably his battels, if they are still recorded in the Balliol buttery, would show a larger quantity of ale and wine consumed than by any other man who ever made drinking a fine art at Balliol. Some day perhaps some scholar will look the matter up.
Balliol is not beautiful: more than any other of the older colleges in Oxford, she has suffered from the "restorations" of the 70's and 80's. It is a favourite jest to pretend to confuse her with the Great Western Railway Station, which never fails to bring a flush to a Balliol cheek. But whatever the merciless hand of the architect has done to turn her into a jumble of sham Gothic spikes and corners, no one can doubt her wholesome democracy of intellect, her passion for sound scholarship, and the unsurpassable gift of her undergraduates for the delicately obscene. This may be the wake of a tradition inaugurated by Belloc; but I think it goes farther back than that. At any rate, in Oxford the young energumen found himself happy and merry beyond words: he worked brilliantly, was a notable figure in the Union debates, argued passionately against every conventional English tradition, and attacked authority, complacence, and fetichism of every kind. Never were dons of the donnish sort more brilliantly twitted than by young Belloc. And, partly because of his failure to capture an All Souls fellowship (the most coveted prize of intellectual Oxford) the word "don" has retained a tinge of acid in Belloc's mind ever since. (Who can read without assentive chuckles his delicious "Lines to a Don!" It was the favourite of all worthy dons at Oxford when I was there.) He has never had any reverence for a man merely because he held a post of authority.
Of the Balliol years Mr. Seccombe says:
"He was a few years older and more experienced than most of his college friends, but had lost little of the intoxication, the contagion and the ringing laughter of earliest manhood. He dazzled and infected everyone with his mockery and his laughter. There never was such an undergraduate, so merry, so learned in medieval trifling and terminology, so perfectly spontaneous in rhapsody and extravaganza, so positive and final in his judgments—who spoke French, too, like a Frenchman, in a manner unintelligible to our public-school-French-attuned ears."
No one can leave those Balliol years behind without some hope to quote the ringing song in which Belloc recalled them at the time of the Boer War. It is the perfect expression of joyful masculine life and overflowing fellowship. It echoes unforgettably in the mind.
TO THE BALLIOL MEN STILL IN AFRICA
Years ago when I was at Balliol, Balliol men—and I was one— Swam together in winter rivers, Wrestled together under the sun. And still in the heart of us, Balliol, Balliol, Loved already, but hardly known, Welded us each of us into the others: Called a levy and chose her own.
Here is a House that armours a man With the eyes of a boy and the heart of a ranger, And a laughing way in the teeth of the world And a holy hunger and thirst for danger: Balliol made me, Balliol fed me, Whatever I had she gave me again: And the best of Balliol loved and led me, God be with you, Balliol men.
I have said it before, and I say it again, There was treason done, and a false word spoken, And England under the dregs of men, And bribes about, and a treaty broken: But angry, lonely, hating it still, I wished to be there in spite of the wrong. My heart was heavy for Cumnor Hill And the hammer of galloping all day long.
Galloping outward into the weather, Hands a-ready and battle in all: Words together and wine together And song together in Balliol Hall. Rare and single! Noble and few!... Oh! they have wasted you over the sea! The only brothers ever I knew, The men that laughed and quarrelled with me.
* * * * *
Balliol made me, Balliol fed me, Whatever I had she gave me again; And the best of Balliol loved and led me, God be with you, Balliol men.
Belloc took a First in the Modern History School in 1895. No one ever experienced more keenly the tingling thrill of the eager student who finds himself cast into the heart of Oxford's abundant life: the thousands of books so generously alive; the hundreds of acute and worthy rivals crossing steel on steel in play, work, and debate; the endless throb of passionate speculation into all the crowding problems of human history. The zest and fervour of those younger days he has never outgrown, and there are few writers of our time who have appealed so imperiously to the young. In the Oxford before the war all the undergraduates were reading Belloc: you would hardly find a college room that did not shelve one or two of his volumes.
There is no space to chronicle the life in detail. The romantic voyage to California, and marriage at twenty-six (Mrs. Belloc died in 1914); his life in Chelsea and then in Sussex; the books on Revolutionary France, on military history, biography and topography; the flashing essays, political satires, and whimsical burlesques that ran so swiftly from his pen—it did not take England long to learn that this man was very much alive. In 1903 he was naturalized as a British subject, and humorously contemplated changing his name to "Hilary Bullock." In 1906 he joined the Liberal benches in the House of Commons, but the insurgent spirit that had cried out in college debates against the lumbering shams of British political life was soon stabbing at the party system. Here was a ringing voice indeed: one can hear that clear, scornful tenor startling the House with its acid arraignment of parliamentary stratagems and spoils. As Mr. Kilmer says, "British politicians will not soon forget the motion which Hilaire Belloc introduced one day in the early Spring of 1908, that the Party funds, hitherto secretly administered, be publicly audited. His vigorous and persistent campaign against the party system has placed him, with Cecil Chesterton, in the very front ranks of those to whom the democrats of Great Britain must look for leadership and inspiration."
Perhaps we can take issue with Mr. Kilmer in his estimate of Belloc's importance as a poet. He is a born singer, of course; his heart rises to a lyric just as his tongue to wine and argument and his legs to walking or saddle leather. But he writes poetry as every honest man should: in an imperative necessity to express a passing squall of laughter, anger, or reverence; and in earnest hope of being condemned by Mr. W.S. Braithwaite, which happens to so few. His "The South Country" will make splendid many an anthology. But who shall say that his handful of verses, witty, debonair, bacchanalian, and tender, is his most important contribution?
What needs to be said is that Belloc is an authentic child gotten of Rabelais. I can never forget a lecture I heard him give in the famous Examination Schools at Oxford—that noble building consecrated to human suffering, formerly housing the pangs of students and now by sad necessity a military hospital. Ruddy of cheek, a burly figure in his academic gown, without a scrap of notes and armed only with an old volume of Rabelais in the medieval French, he held us spellbound for an hour and a half—or was it three hours?—with flashing extempore talk about this greatest figure of the Renaissance.
Rabelais, he told us, was the symbolic figure of the incoming tide of Europe's rebirth in the sixteenth century. Rabelais, the priest, physician, and compounder of a new fish sauce, held that life is its own justification, and need not be lived in doleful self-abasement. Do what you wish, enjoy life, be interested in a thousand things, feel a perpetual inquisitive delight in all the details of human affairs! The gospel of exuberance—that is Rabelais. Is it not Belloc, too?
Rabelais came from Touraine—the heart of Gaul, the island of light in which the tradition of civilization remained unbroken. One understands Rabelais better if one knows the Chinon wine, Belloc added. His writing is married to the soil and landscape from which he sprang. His extraordinary volatility proceeds from a mind packed full of curiosity and speculation. For an instance of his exuberance see his famous list of fools, in which all fools whatsoever that ever walked on earth are included.
Now no one who loves Belloc can paddle in Rabelais without seeing that he, too, was sired from Chinon. Dip into Gargantua: there you will find the oinolatrous and gastrolatrous catalogues that Belloc daily delights in; the infectious droll patter of speech, piling quip on quip. Then look again into "The Path to Rome." How well does Mr. John Macy tell us "literature is not born spontaneously out of life. Every book has its literary parentage, and criticism reads like an Old Testament chapter of 'begats.' Every novel was suckled at the breasts of older novels."
In Belloc we find the perfect union of the French and English minds. Rabelaisian in fecundity, wit, and irrepressible sparkle, he is also of English blood and sinew, wedded to the sweet Sussex weald. History, politics, economics, military topography, poetry, novels, satires, nonsense rhymes—all these we may set aside as the hundred curiosities of an eager mind. (The dons, by the way, say that in his historical work he generalizes too hastily; but was ever history more crisply written?) It is in the essays, the thousand little inquirendoes into the nature of anything, everything or nothing, that one comes closest to the real man. His prose leaps and sparks from the pen. It is whimsical, tender, biting, garrulous. It is familiar and unfettered as open-air talk. His passion for places—roads, rivers, hills, and inns; his dancing persiflage and buoyancy; his Borrovian love of vagabondage—these are the glories of a style that is quick, close-knit, virile, and vibrant. Here Belloc ranks with Bunyan, Swift, and Defoe.
Whoso dotes upon fine prose, prose interlaced with humour, pathos, and whim, orchestrated to a steady rhythm, coruscated with an exquisite tenderness for all that is lovable and high spirited on this dancing earth, go you now to some bookseller and procure for yourself a little volume called "A Picked Company" where Mr. E.V. Lucas has gathered some of the best of Mr. Belloc's pieces. Therein will you find love of food, companionship, cider and light wines; love of children, artillery, and inns in the outlands; love of salt water, great winds, and brown hills at twilight—in short, passionate devotion to all the dear devices that make life so sweet. Hear him on "A Great Wind":
A great wind is every man's friend, and its strength is the strength of good fellowship; and even doing battle with it is something worthy and well chosen. It is health in us, I say, to be full of heartiness and of the joy of the world, and of whether we have such health our comfort in a great wind is a good test indeed. No man spends his day upon the mountains when the wind is out, riding against it or pushing forward on foot through the gale, but at the end of his day feels that he has had a great host about him. It is as though he had experienced armies. The days of high winds are days of innumerable sounds, innumerable in variation of tone and of intensity, playing upon and awakening innumerable powers in man. And the days of high wind are days in which a physical compulsion has been about us and we have met pressure and blows, resisted and turned them; it enlivens us with the simulacrum of war by which nations live, and in the just pursuit of which men in companionship are at their noblest.
And lest all this disjointed talk about Belloc's prose seem but ungracious recognition of Mr. Kilmer's service in reminding us of the poems, let us thank him warmly for his essay. Let us thank him for impressing upon us that there are living to-day men who write as nobly and simply as Belloc on Sussex, with his sweet broken music:
I never get between the pines But I smell the Sussex air; Nor I never come on a belt of sand But my home is there. And along the sky the line of the Downs So noble and so bare.
A lost thing could I never find, Nor a broken thing mend: And I fear I shall be all alone When I get towards the end. Who will there be to comfort me Or who will be my friend?
I will gather and carefully make my friends Of the men of the Sussex Weald, They watch the stars from silent folds, They stiffly plough the field. By them and the God of the South Country My poor soul shall be healed.
If I ever become a rich man, Or if ever I grow to be old, I will build a house with deep thatch To shelter me from the cold, And there shall the Sussex songs be sung And the story of Sussex told.
I will hold my house in the high wood Within a walk of the sea, And the men that were boys when I was a boy Shall sit and drink with me.
A CASUAL OF THE SEA
He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea.
Books sometimes make surprising connections with life. Fifteen-year-old Tommy Jonkers, shipping as O.S. (ordinary seaman) on the S.S. Fernfield in Glasgow in 1911, could hardly have suspected that the second engineer would write a novel and put him in it; or that that same novel would one day lift him out of focsle and galley and set him working for a publishing house on far-away Long Island. Is it not one more proof of the surprising power of the written word?
For Tommy is not one of those who expect to find their names in print. The mere sight of his name on a newspaper page, in an article I wrote about him, brought (so he naively told me) tears to his eyes. Excellent, simple-hearted Tommy! How little did you think, when you signed on to help the Fernfield carry coal from Glasgow to Alexandria, that the long arm of the Miehle press was already waiting for you; that thousands of good people reading a certain novel would be familiar with your "round rosy face and clear sea-blue eyes."
"Tommy" (whose real name is Drevis) was born in Amsterdam in 1896. His father was a fireman at sea, and contributed next to nothing to the support of Tommy and his pretty little sister Greta. They lived with their grandmother, near the quays in Amsterdam, where the masts of ships and the smell of tar interfered with their lessons. Bread and treacle for breakfast, black beans for lunch, a fine thick stew and plenty more bread for supper—that and the Dutch school where he stood near the top of his class are what Tommy remembers best of his boyhood. His grandmother took in washing, and had a hard time keeping the little family going. She was a fine, brusque old lady and as Tommy went off to school in the mornings she used to frown at him from the upstairs window because his hands were in his pockets. For as everybody knows, only slouchy good-for-nothings walk to school with pocketed hands.
Tommy did so well in his lessons that he was one of the star pupils given the privilege of learning an extra language in the evenings. He chose English because most of the sailors he met talked English, and his great ambition was to be a seaman. His uncle was a quartermaster in the Dutch navy, and his father was at sea; and Tommy's chance soon came.
After school hours he used to sell postcards, cologne, soap, chocolates, and other knicknacks to the sailors, to earn a little cash to help his grandmother. One afternoon in the spring of 1909 he was down on the docks with his little packet of wares, when a school friend came running to him.
"Drevis, Drevis!" he shouted, "they want a mess-room boy on the Queen Eleanor!"
It didn't take Drevis long to get aboard the Queen Eleanor, a British tramp out of Glasgow, bound for Hamburg and Vladivostok. He accosted the chief engineer, his blue eyes shining eagerly.
"Yes," says the chief, "I need a mess-room steward right away—we sail at four o'clock."
"Try me!" pipes Drevis. (Bless us, the boy was barely thirteen!)
The chief roars with laughter.
"Too small!" he says.
Drevis insisted that he was just the boy for mess-room steward.
"Well," says the chief, "go home and put on a pair of long pants and come back again. Then we'll see how you look!"
Tommy ran home rejoicing. His Uncle Hendrick was a small man, and Tommy grabbed a pair of his trousers. Thus fortified, he hastened back to the Queen Eleanor. The chief cackled, but he took him on at two pounds five a month.
Tommy didn't last long as mess-room boy. He broke so many cups the engineers had to drink out of dippers, and they degraded him to cabin boy at a pound a month. Even as cabin boy he was no instant success. He used to forget to empty the chief's slop-pail, and the water would overflow the cabin. He felt the force of a stout sea boot not a few times in learning the golden rubric of the tramp steamer's cabin boy.
"Drevis" was a strange name to the English seamen, and they christened him "Tommy," and that handle turns him still.
Tommy's blue eyes and honest Netherland grin and easy temper kept him friendly with all the world. The winds of chance sent him scudding about the globe, a true casual of the seas. His first voyage as A.B. was on the Fernfield in 1911, and there he met a certain Scotch engineer. This engineer had a habit of being interested in human problems, and Tommy's guileless phiz attracted him. Under his tutelage Tommy acquired a thirst for promotion, and soon climbed to the rank of quartermaster.
One thing that always struck Tommy was the number of books the engineer had in his cabin. A volume of Nat Gould, Ouida or "The Duchess" would be the largest library Tommy would have found in the other bunks; but here, before his wondering gaze, were Macaulay, Gibbon, Gorki, Conrad, Dickens, Zola, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Chaucer, Shaw, and what not. And what would Master Tommy have said had he known that his friend, even then, was working on a novel in which he, Tommy, would play an important role!
The years went by. On sailing ships, on steam tramps, on private yachts, as seaman, as quartermaster, as cook's helper, Tommy drifted about the world. One day when he was twenty years old he was rambling about New York just before sailing for Liverpool on the steam yacht Alvina. He was one of a strictly neutral crew (the United States was still neutral in those days) signed on to take a millionaire's pet plaything across the wintry ocean. She had been sold to the Russian Government (there still was one then!)
Tommy was passing through the arcade of the Pennsylvania Station when his eye fell upon the book shop there. He was startled to see in the window a picture of the Scotch engineer—his best friend, the only man in the world who had ever been like a father to him. He knew that the engineer was far away in the Mediterranean, working on an English transport. He scanned the poster with amazement.
Apparently his friend had written a book. Tommy, like a practical seaman, went to the heart of the matter. He went into the shop and bought the book. He fell into talk with the bookseller, who had read the book. He told the bookseller that he had known the author, and that for years they had served together on the same vessels at sea. He told how the writer, who was the former second engineer of the Fernfield, had done many things for the little Dutch lad whose own father had died at sea. Then came another surprise.
"I believe you're one of the characters in the story," said the bookseller.
It was so. The book was "Casuals of the Sea," the author, William McFee, who had been a steamship engineer for a dozen years; and Drevis Jonkers found himself described in full in the novel as "Drevis Noordhof," and playing a leading part in the story. Can you imagine the simple sailor's surprise and delight? Pleased beyond measure, in his soft Dutch accent liberally flavoured with cockney he told the bookseller how Mr. McFee had befriended him, had urged him to go on studying navigation so that he might become an officer; and that though they had not met for several years he still receives letters from his friend, full of good advice about saving his money, where to get cheap lodgings in Brooklyn, and not to fall into the common error of sailors in thinking that Hoboken and Passyunk Avenue are all America. And Tommy went back to his yacht chuckling with delight, with a copy of "Casuals of the Sea" under his arm.
Here my share in the adventure begins. The bookseller, knowing my interest in the book, hastened to tell me the next time I saw him that one of the characters in the story was in New York. I wrote to Tommy asking him to come to see me. He wrote that the Alvina was to sail the next day, and he could not get away. I supposed the incident was closed.
Then I saw in the papers that the Alvina had been halted in the Narrows by a United States destroyer, the Government having suspected that her errand was not wholly neutral. Rumour had it that she was on her way to the Azores, there to take on armament for the house of Romanoff. She was halted at the Quarantine Station at Staten Island, pending an investigation.
Then enters the elbow of coincidence. Looking over some books in the very same bookshop where Tommy had bought his friend's novel, I overheard another member of the Alvina's crew asking about "Casuals of the Sea." His chum Tommy had told him about his adventure, and he, too, was there to buy one. (Not every day does one meet one's friends walking in a 500-page novel!) By the never-to-be-sufficiently-admired hand of chance I was standing at Joe Hogan's very elbow when he began explaining to the book clerk that he was a friend of the Dutch sailor who had been there a few days before.
So a few days later, behold me on the Staten Island ferry, on my way to see Tommy and the Alvina.
I'm afraid I would always desert the office if there's a plausible excuse to bum about the waterfront. Is there any passion in the breast of mankind more absorbing than the love of ships? A tall Cunarder putting out to sea gives me a keener thrill than anything the Polo Grounds or the Metropolitan Opera can show. Of what avail a meeting of the Authors' League when one can know the sights, sounds, and smells of West or South Street? I used to lug volumes of Joseph Conrad down to the West-Street piers to give them to captains and first mates of liners, and get them to talk about the ways of the sea. That was how I met Captain Claret of the Minnehaha, that prince of seamen; and Mr. Pape of the Orduna, Mr. Jones of the Lusitania and many another. They knew all about Conrad, too. There were five volumes of Conrad in the officers' cabins on the Lusitania when she went down, God rest her. I know, because I put them there.
* * * * *
And the Staten Island ferry is a voyage on the Seven Seas for the landlubber, After months of office work, how one's heart leaps to greet our old mother the sea! How drab, flat, and humdrum seem the ways of earth in comparison to the hardy and austere life of ships! There on every hand go the gallant shapes of vessels—the James L. Morgan, dour little tug, shoving two barges; Themistocles, at anchor, with the blue and white Greek colours painted on her rusty flank; the Comanche outward bound for Galveston (I think); the Ascalon, full-rigged ship, with blue-jerseyed sailormen out on her bowsprit snugging the canvas. And who is so true a lover of the sea as one who can suffer the ultimate indignities—and love her still! I am queasy as soon as I sight Sandy Hook....
At the quarantine station I had a surprise. The Alvina was not there. One old roustabout told me he thought she had gone to sea. I was duly taken aback. Had I made the two-hour trip for nothing? Then another came to my aid. "There she is, up in the bight," he said. I followed his gesture, and saw her—a long, slim white hull, a cream-coloured funnel with a graceful rake; the Stars and Stripes fresh painted in two places on her shining side. I hailed a motor boat to take me out. The boatman wanted three dollars, and I offered one. He protested that the yacht was interned and he had no right to take visitors out anyway. He'd get into trouble with "39"—"39" being a United States destroyer lying in the Narrows a few hundred yards away. After some bickering we compromised on a dollar and a quarter.
That was a startling adventure for the humble publisher's reader! Wallowing in an ice-glazed motor boat, in the lumpy water of a "bight"—surrounded by ships and the men who sail them—I might almost have been a hardy newspaper man! But Long Island commuters are nurtured to a tough and perilous his, and I clambered the Alvina's side without dropping hat, stick, or any of my pocketful of manuscripts.
Joe Hogan, the steward, was there in his white jacket. He introduced me to the cook, the bosun, the "chief," the wireless, and the "second." The first officer was too heavy with liquor to notice the arrival of a stranger. Messrs. Haig and Haig, those Dioscuri of seamen, had been at work. The skipper was ashore. He owns a saloon.
The Alvina is a lovely little vessel, 215 feet long, they told me, and about 525 tons. She is fitted with mahogany throughout; the staterooms all have brass double beds and private bathrooms attached; she has her own wireless telegraph and telephone, refrigerating apparatus, and everything to make the owner and his guests comfortable. But her beautiful furnishings were tumbled this way and that in preparation for the sterner duties that lay before her. The lower deck was cumbered with sacks of coal lashed down. A transatlantic voyage in January is likely to be a lively one for a yacht of 500 tons.
I found Tommy below in his bunk, cleaning up. He is a typical Dutch lad—round, open face, fair hair, and guileless blue eyes. He showed me all his treasures—his certificates of good conduct from all the ships (both sail and steam) on which he has served; a picture of his mother, who died when he was six; and of his sister Greta—a very pretty girl—who is also mentioned in Casuals of the Sea. The drunken fireman in the story who dies after a debauch was Tommy's father who died in the same way. And with these other treasures Tommy showed me a packet of letters from Mr. McFee.
I do not want to offend Mr. McFee by describing his letters to this Dutch sailor-boy as "sensible," but that is just what they were. Tommy is one of his own "casuals"—
—those frail craft upon the restless Sea Of Human Life, who strike the rocks uncharted, Who loom, sad phantoms, near us, drearily, Storm-driven, rudderless, with timbers started—
and these sailormen who drift from port to port on the winds of chance are most in need of sound Ben Franklin advice. Save your money; put it in the bank; read books; go to see the museums, libraries, and art galleries; get to know something about this great America if you intend to settle down there—that is the kind of word Tommy gets from his friend.
Gradually, as I talked with him, I began to see into the laboratory of life where "Casuals of the Sea" originated. This book is valuable because it is a triumphant expression of the haphazard, strangely woven chances that govern the lives of the humble. In Tommy's honest, gentle face, and in the talk of his shipmates when we sat down to dinner together, I saw a microcosm of the strange barren life of the sea where men float about for years like driftwood. And out of all this ebbing tide of aimless, happy-go-lucky humanity McFee had chanced upon this boy from Amsterdam and had tried to pound into him some good sound common sense.
When I left her that afternoon, the Alvina was getting up steam, and she sailed within a few hours. I had eaten and talked with her crew, and for a short space had a glimpse of the lives and thoughts of the simple, childlike men who live on ships. I realized for the first time the truth of that background of aimless hazard that makes "Casuals of the Sea" a book of more than passing merit.
As for Tommy, the printed word had him in thrall though he knew it not. When he got back from Liverpool, two months later, I found him a job in the engine room of a big printing press. He was set to work oiling the dynamos, and at ten dollars a week he had a fine chance to work his way up. Indeed, he enrolled in a Scranton correspondence course on steam engineering and enchanted his Hempstead landlady by his simple ways. That lasted just two weeks. The level ground made Tommy's feet uneasy. The last I heard he was on a steam yacht on Long Island Sound.
But wherever steam and tide may carry him, Tommy cherishes in his heart his own private badge of honour: his friend the engineer has put him in a book! And there, in one of the noblest and most honest novels of our day, you will find him—a casual of the sea!
THE LAST PIPE
The last smoker I recollect among those of the old school was a clergyman. He had seen the best society, and was a man of the most polished behaviour. This did not hinder him from taking his pipe every evening before he went to bed. He sat in his armchair, his back gently bending, his knees a little apart, his eyes placidly inclined toward the fire. The end of his recreation was announced by the tapping of the bowl of his pipe upon the hob, for the purpose of emptying it of its ashes. Ashes to ashes; head to bed.
The sensible man smokes (say) sixteen pipefuls a day, and all differ in value and satisfaction. In smoking there is, thank heaven, no law of diminishing returns. I may puff all day long until I nigresce with the fumes and soot, but the joy loses no savour by repetition. It is true that there is a peculiar blithe rich taste in the first morning puffs, inhaled after breakfast. (Let me posit here the ideal conditions for a morning pipe as I know them.) After your bath, breakfast must be spread in a chamber of eastern exposure; let there be hominy and cream, and if possible, brown sugar. There follow scrambled eggs, shirred to a lemon-yellow, with toast sliced in triangles, fresh, unsalted butter, and Scotch bitter marmalade. Let there be without fail a platter of hot bacon, curly, juicy, fried to the debatable point where softness is overlaid with the faintest crepitation of crackle, of crispyness. If hot Virginia corn pone is handy, so much the better. And coffee, two-thirds hot milk, also with brown sugar. It must be permissible to call for a second serving of the scrambled eggs; or, if this is beyond the budget, let there be a round of judiciously grilled kidneys, with mayhap a sprinkle of mushrooms, grown in chalky soil. That is the kind of breakfast they used to serve in Eden before the fall of man and the invention of innkeepers with their crass formulae.
After such a breakfast, if one may descend into a garden of plain turf, mured about by an occluding wall, with an alley of lime trees for sober pacing: then and there is the fit time and place for the first pipe of the day. Pack your mixture in the bowl; press it lovingly down with the cushion of the thumb; see that the draught is free—and then for your saeckerhets taendstickor! A day so begun is well begun, and sin will flee your precinct. Shog, vile care! The smoke is cool and blue and tasty on the tongue; the arch of the palate is receptive to the fume; the curling vapour ascends the chimneys of the nose. Fill your cheeks with the excellent cloudy reek, blow it forth in twists and twirls. The first pipe!
But, as I was saying, joy ends not here. Granted that the after-breakfast smoke excels in savour, succeeding fumations grow in mental reaction. The first pipe is animal, physical, a matter of pure sensation. With later kindlings of the weed the brain quickens, begins to throw out tendrils of speculation, leaps to welcome problems for thought, burrows tingling into the unknowable. As the smoke drifts and shreds about your neb, your mind is surcharged with that imponderable energy of thought, which cannot be seen or measured, yet is the most potent force in existence. All the hot sunlight of Virginia that stirred the growing leaf in its odorous plantation now crackles in that glowing dottel in your briar bowl. The venomous juices of the stalk seep down the stem. The most precious things in the world are also vivid with poison.
Was Kant a smoker? I think he must have been. How else could he have written "The Critique of Pure Reason"? Tobacco is the handmaid of science, philosophy, and literature. Carlyle eased his indigestion and snappish temper by perpetual pipes. The generous use of the weed makes the enforced retirement of Sing Sing less irksome to forgers, second-story men, and fire bugs. Samuel Butler, who had little enough truck with churchmen, was once invited to stay a week-end by the Bishop of London. Distrusting the entertaining qualities of bishops, and rightly, his first impulse was to decline. But before answering the Bishop's letter he passed it to his manservant for advice. The latter (the immortal Alfred Emery Cathie) said: "There is a crumb of tobacco in the fold of the paper, sir: I think you may safely go." He went, and hugely enjoyed himself.
There is a Bible for smokers, a book of delightful information for all acolytes of this genial ritual, crammed with wit and wisdom upon the art and mystery we cherish. It is called "The Social History of Smoking," by G.L. Apperson. Alas, a friend of mine, John Marshall (he lives somewhere in Montreal or Quebec), borrowed it from me, and obstinately declines to return it. If he should ever see this, may his heart be loosened and relent. Dear John, I wish you would return that book. (Canadian journals please copy!)
* * * * *
I was contending that the joy of smoking increases harmonically with the weight of tobacco consumed, within reasonable limits. Of course the incessant smoker who is puffing all day long sears his tongue and grows callous to the true delicacy of the flavour. For that reason it is best not to smoke during office hours. This may be a hard saying to some, but a proper respect for the art impels it. Not even the highest ecclesiast can be at his devotions always. It is not those who are horny with genuflection who are nearest the Throne of Grace. Even the Pope (I speak in all reverence) must play billiards or trip a coranto now and then!
This is the schedule I vouch for:
After breakfast: 2 pipes
At luncheon: 2 pipes
Before dinner: 2 pipes
Between dinner and bed: 10 to 12 pipes
(Cigars and cigarettes as occasion may require.)
The matter of smoking after dinner requires consideration. If your meal is a heavy, stupefying anodyne, retracting all the humane energies from the skull in a forced abdominal mobilization to quell a plethora of food into subjection and assimilation, there is no power of speculation left in the top storeys. You sink brutishly into an armchair, warm your legs at the fire, and let the leucocytes and phagocytes fight it out. At such times smoking becomes purely mechanical. You imbibe and exhale the fumes automatically. The choicest aromatic blends are mere fuel. Your eyes see, but your brain responds not. The vital juices, generous currents, or whatever they are that animate the intelligence, are down below hatches fighting furiously to annex and drill into submission the alien and distracting mass of food that you have taken on board. They are like stevedores, stowing the cargo for portability. A little later, however, when this excellent work is accomplished, the bosun may trill his whistle, and the deck hands can be summoned back to the navigating bridge. The mind casts off its corporeal hawsers and puts out to sea. You begin once more to live as a rational composition of reason, emotion, and will. The heavy dinner postpones and stultifies this desirable state. Let it then be said that light dining is best: a little fish or cutlets, white wine, macaroni and cheese, ice cream and coffee. Such a regime restores the animal health, and puts you in vein for a continuance of intellect.
Smoking is properly an intellectual exercise. It calls forth the choicest qualities of mind and soul. It can only be properly conducted by a being in full possession of the five wits. For those who are in pain, sorrow, or grievous perplexity it operates as a sovereign consoler, a balm and balsam to the harassed spirit; it calms the fretful, makes jovial the peevish. Better than any ginseng in the herbal, does it combat fatigue and old age. Well did Stevenson exhort virgins not to marry men who do not smoke.
Now we approach the crux and pinnacle of this inquirendo into the art and mystery of smoking. That is to say, the last pipe of all before the so-long indomitable intellect abdicates, and the body succumbs to weariness.
No man of my acquaintance has ever given me a satisfactory definition of living. An alternating systole and diastole, says physiology. Chlorophyl becoming xanthophyl, says botany. These stir me not. I define life as a process of the Will-to-Smoke: recurring periods of consciousness in which the enjoyability of smoking is manifest, interrupted by intervals of recuperation.
Now if I represent the course of this process by a graph (the co-ordinates being Time and the Sense-of-by-the-Smoker-enjoyed-Satisfaction) the curve ascends from its origin in a steep slant, then drops away abruptly at the recuperation interval. This is merely a teutonic and pedantic mode of saying that the best pipe of all is the last one smoked at night. It is the penultimate moment that is always the happiest. The sweetest pipe ever enjoyed by the skipper of the Hesperus was the one he whiffed just before he was tirpitzed by the poet on that angry reef.
The best smoking I ever do is about half past midnight, just before "my eyelids drop their shade," to remind you again of your primary school poets. After the toils, rebuffs, and exhilarations of the day, after piaffing busily on the lethal typewriter or schreibmaschine for some hours, a drowsy languor begins to numb the sense. In dressing gown and slippers I seek my couch; Ho, Lucius, a taper! and some solid, invigorating book for consideration. My favourite is the General Catalogue of the Oxford University Press: a work so excellently full of learning; printed and bound with such eminence of skill; so noble a repository or Thesaurus of the accumulated treasures of human learning, that it sets the mind in a glow of wonder. This is the choicest garland for the brain fatigued with the insignificant and trifling tricks by which we earn our daily bread. There is no recreation so lovely as that afforded by books rich in wisdom and ribbed with ripe and sober research. This catalogue (nearly 600 pages) is a marvellous precis of the works of the human spirit. And here and there, buried in a scholarly paragraph, one meets a topical echo: "THE OXFORD SHAKESPEARE GLOSSARY: by C.T. ONIONS: Mr. Onions' glossary, offered at an insignificant price, relieves English scholarship of the necessity of recourse to the lexicon of Schmidt." Lo, how do even professors and privat-docents belabour one another!
With due care I fill, pack, and light the last pipe of the day, to be smoked reverently and solemnly in bed. The thousand brain-murdering interruptions are over. The gentle sibilance of air drawn through the glowing nest of tobacco is the only sound. With reposeful heart I turn to some favourite entry in my well-loved catalogue.
"HENRY PEACHAM'S COMPLEAT GENTLEMAN. Fashioning him absolut in the most necessary and Commendable Qualities concerning Minde, or Body, that may be required in a Noble Gentleman. Wherunto is annexed a Description of the order of a Maine Battaile or Pitched Field, eight severall wayes, with the Art of Limming and other Additions newly Enlarged. Printed from the edition of 1634; first edition, 1622, with an introduction by G. S. Gordon. 1906. Pp xxiv + 16 unpaged + 262. 7s. 6d. net. At the Clarendon Press."
"H. HIS DEVISES, for his owne exercise, and his Friends pleasure. Printed from the edition of 1581, with an introduction. 1906. Pp xviii + 104. 5s. net."
O excellent H! Little did he dream that his devises (with an introduction by Professor Sir Walter Raleigh) would be still giving his Friends pleasure over three hundred years later. The compiler of the catalogue says here with modest and pardonable pride "strongly bound in exceptionally tough paper and more than once described by reviewers as leather. Some of the books are here printed for the first time, the rest are reproductions of the original editions, many having prefaces by good hands."
One o'clock is about to chime in the near-by steeple, but my pipe and curiosity are now both going strong.
"THE CURES OF THE DISEASED in remote Regions, preventing Mortalitie incident in Forraine Attempts of the English Nation. 1598. The earliest English treatise on tropical diseases. 1915. 1s. 6d. net."
Is that not the most interesting comment on the English colonial enterprises in Elizabeth's reign? And there is no limit to the joys of this marvellous catalogue. How one dreams of the unknown delights of "Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books," or "Dan Michel's Ayenbite of Inwyt, 1340" (which means, as I figure it, the "Backbite of Conscience"), or "Origenis Hexaplorum quae supersunt sive Veterum Interpretum Graecorum in totum Vetus Testamentum Fragmenta, edidit F. Field. 1865. Two volumes L6 6s. net" or "Shuckford's Sacred and Profane History of the World, from the Creation of the World to the Dissolution of the Assyrian Empire at the death of Sardanapalus, and to the Declension of The Kingdom of Judah and Israel under the Reigns of Ahaz and Pekah, with the Creation and Fall of Man. 1728, reprinted 1848. Pp 550. 10s. net."
But I dare not force my hobbies on you further. One man's meat is another's caviar. I dare not even tell you what my favourite tobaccos are, for recently when I sold to a magazine a very worthy and excellent poem entitled "My Pipe," mentioning the brands I delight to honour, the editor made me substitute fictitious names for my dearly loved blends. He said that sound editorial policy forbids mentioning commercial products in the text of the magazine.
But tobacco, thank heaven, is not merely a "commercial product." Let us call on Salvation Yeo for his immortal testimony:
"When all things were made none was made better than this; to be a lone man's companion, a bachelor's friend, a hungry man's food, a sad man's cordial, a wakeful man's sleep, and a chilly man's fire, sir; while for stanching of wounds, purging of rheum, and settling of the stomach, there's no herb like unto it under the canopy of heaven."
And by this time the bowl is naught but ash. Even my dear General Catalogue begins to blur before me. Slip it under the pillow; gently and kindly lay the pipe in the candlestick, and blow out the flame. The window is open wide: the night rushes in. I see a glimpse of stars ... a distant chime ... and fall asleep with the faint pungence of the Indian herb about me.
TIME TO LIGHT THE FURNACE
The twenty-eighth of October. Coal nine dollars a ton. Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell had made a resolution not to start the furnace until Thanksgiving. And in the biting winds of Long Island that requires courage.
Commuters the world over are a hardy, valorous race. The Arab commutes by dromedary, the Malay by raft, the Indian rajah by elephant, the African chief gets a team of his mothers-in-law to tow him to the office. But wherever you find him, the commuter is a tough and tempered soul, inured to privation and calamity. At seven-thirty in the morning he leaves his bungalow, tent, hut, palace, or kraal, and tells his wife he is going to work.
How the winds whistle and moan over those Long Island flats! Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell had laid in fifteen tons of black diamonds. And hoping that would be enough, they were zealous not to start the furnace until the last touchdown had been made.
But every problem has more than one aspect. Belinda, the new cook, had begun to work for them on the fifth of October. Belinda came from the West Indies, a brown maiden still unspoiled by the sophistries of the employment agencies. She could boil an egg without cracking it, she could open a tin can without maiming herself. She was neat, guileless, and cheerful. But, she was accustomed to a warm climate.
The twenty-eighth of October. As Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell sat at dinner, Mr. Blackwell buttoned his coat, and began a remark about how chilly the evenings were growing. But across the table came one of those glances familiar to indiscreet husbands. Passion distorted, vibrant with rebuke, charged with the lightning of instant dissolution, Mrs. Blackwell's gaze struck him dumb with alarm. Husbands, husbands, you know that gaze!
Mr. Blackwell kept silence. He ate heartily, choosing foods rich in calories. He talked of other matters, and accepted thankfully what Belinda brought to him. But he was chilly, and a vision of coal bills danced in his mind.
* * * * *
After dinner he lit the open fire in the living room, and he and Mrs. Blackwell talked in discreet tones. Belinda was merrily engaged in washing the dishes.
"Bob, you consummate blockhead!" said Mrs. Blackwell, "haven't you better sense than to talk about its being chilly? These last few days Belinda has done nothing but complain about the cold. She comes from Barbados, where the thermometer never goes below sixty. She said she couldn't sleep last night, her room was so cold. I've given her my old fur coat and the steamer rug from your den. One other remark like that of yours and she'll leave. For heaven's sake, Bob, use your skull!"
Mr. Blackwell gazed at her in concern. The deep, calculating wisdom of women was made plain to him. He ventured no reply.
Mrs. Blackwell was somewhat softened by his docility.
"You don't realize, dear," she added, "how servants are affected by chance remarks they overhear. The other day you mentioned the thermometer, and the next morning I found Belinda looking at it. If you must say anything about the temperature, complain of the heat. Otherwise we'll have to start the furnace at once."
Mr. Blackwell's face was full of the admiration common to the simple-minded race of husbands.
"Jumbo," he said, "you're right. I was crazy. Watch me from now on. Mental suggestion is the dope. The power of the chance remark!"
The next evening at dinner, while Belinda was passing the soup, Mr. Blackwell fired his first gun. "It seems almost too warm for hot soup," he said. "All the men at the office were talking about the unseasonable hot weather. I think we'd better have a window open." To Mrs. Blackwell's dismay, he raised one of the dining-room windows, admitting a pungent frostiness of October evening. But she was game, and presently called for a palm-leaf fan. When Belinda was in the room they talked pointedly of the heat, and Mr. Blackwell quoted imaginary Weather Bureau notes from the evening paper.
After dinner, as he was about to light the log fire, from force of habit, Mrs. Blackwell snatched the burning match from him just as he was setting it to the kindling. They grinned at each other wistfully, for the ruddy evening blaze was their chief delight. Mr. Blackwell manfully took off his coat and waistcoat and sat in his shirtsleeves until Belinda had gone to bed. Then he grew reckless and lit a roaring fire, by which they huddled in glee. He rebuilt the fire before retiring, so that Belinda might suspect nothing in the morning.
The next evening Mr. Blackwell appeared at dinner in a Palm Beach suit. Mrs. Blackwell countered by ordering iced tea. They both sneezed vigorously during the meal. "It was so warm in town to-day, I think I caught a cold," said Mr. Blackwell.
Later Mrs. Blackwell found Belinda examining the thermometer with a puzzled air. That night they took it down and hid it in the attic. But the great stroke of the day was revealed when Mrs. Blackwell explained that Mr. and Mrs. Chester, next door, had promised to carry on a similar psychological campaign. Belinda and Mrs. Chester's cook, Tulip—jocularly known as the Black Tulip—were friends, and would undoubtedly compare notes. Mrs. Chester had agreed not to start her furnace without consultation with Mrs. Blackwell.
October yielded to November. By good fortune the weather remained sunny, but the nights were crisp. Belinda was given an oil-stove for her attic bedroom. Mrs. Blackwell heard no more complaints of the cold, but sometimes she and her husband could hear uneasy creakings upstairs late at night. "I wonder if Barbados really is so warm?" she asked Bob. "I'm sure it can't be warmer than Belinda's room. She never opens the windows, and the oil-stove has to be filled every morning."
"Perhaps some day we can get an Eskimo maid," suggested Mr. Blackwell drowsily. He wore his Palm Beach suit every night for dinner, but underneath it he was panoplied in heavy flannels.
* * * * *
Through Mr. Chester the rumour of the Blackwells' experiment in psychology spread far among suburban husbands. On the morning train less fortunate commuters, who had already started their fires, referred to him as "the little brother of the iceberg." Mr. and Mrs. Chester came to dinner on the 16th of November. Both the men loudly clamoured for permission to remove their coats, and sat with blanched and chattering jaws. Mr. Blackwell made a feeble pretence at mopping his brow, but when the dessert proved to be ice-cream his nerve forsook him. "N-no, Belinda," he said. "It's too warm for ice-cream to-night. I don't w—want to get chilled. Bring me some hot coffee." As she brought his cup he noticed that her honest brown brow was beaded with perspiration. "By George," he thought, "this mental suggestion business certainly works." Late that evening he lit the log fire and revelled by the blaze in an ulster.
The next evening when Mr. Blackwell came home from business he met the doctor in the hall.
"Hello, doc," he said, "what's up?"
"Mrs. Blackwell called me in to see your maid," said the doctor. "It's the queerest thing I've met in twenty years' practice. Here it is the 17th of November, and cold enough for snow. That girl has all the symptoms of sunstroke and prickly heat."
To-day we called each other by our given names for the first time.
Making a new friend is so exhilarating an adventure that perhaps it will not be out of place if I tell you a little about him. There are not many of his kind.
In the first place, he is stout, like myself. We are both agreed that many of the defects of American letters to-day are due to the sorry leanness of our writing men. We have no Chestertons, no Bellocs. I look to Don Marquis, to H.L. Mencken, to Heywood Broun, to Clayton Hamilton, and to my friend here portraited, to remedy this. If only Mr. Simeon Strunsky were stouter! He is plump, but not yet properly corpulent.
My friend is a literary journalist. There are but few of them in these parts. Force of circumstances may compel him to write of trivial things, but it would be impossible for him not to write with beauty and distinction far above his theme. His style is a perfect echo of his person, mellow, quaint, and richly original. To plunder a phrase of his own, it is drenched with the sounds, the scents, the colours, of great literature.
I, too, am employed in a bypath of the publishing business, and try to bring to my tasks some small measure of honest idealism. But what I love (I use this great word with care) in my friend is that his zeal for beauty and for truth is great enough to outweigh utterly the paltry considerations of expediency and comfort which sway most of us. To him his pen is as sacred as the scalpel to the surgeon. He would rather die than dishonour that chosen instrument.
I hope I am not merely fanciful: but the case of my friend has taken in my mind a large importance quite beyond the exigencies of his personal situation. I see in him personified the rising generation of literary critics, who have a hard row to hoe in a deliterated democracy. By some unknowable miracle of birth or training he has come by a love of beauty, a reverence for what is fine and true, an absolute intolerance of the slipshod and insincere.
Such a man is not happy, can never be happy, when the course of his daily routine wishes him to praise what he does not admire, to exploit what he does not respect. The most of us have some way of quibbling ourselves out of this dilemma. But he cannot do so, because more than comfort, more than clothes and shoe leather, more than wife or fireside, he must preserve the critic's self-respect. "I cannot write a publicity story about A.B," he said woefully to me, "because I am convinced he is a bogus philosopher. I am not interested in selling books: what I have to do with is that strange and esoteric thing called literature."
I would be sorry to have it thought that because of this devotion to high things my friend is stubborn, dogmatic, or hard to work with. He is unpractical as dogs, children, or Dr. Johnson; in absent-minded simplicity he has issued forth upon the highway only half-clad, and been haled back to his boudoir by indignant bluecoats; but in all matters where absolute devotion to truth and honour are concerned I would not find him lacking. Wherever a love of beauty and a ripened judgment of men and books are a business asset, he is a successful business man.
In person, he has the charm of a monstrously overgrown elf. His shyly wandering gaze behind thick spectacle panes, his incessant devotion to cigarettes and domestic lager, his whimsical talk on topics that confound the unlettered—these are amiable trifles that endear him to those who understand.
Actually, in a hemisphere bestridden by the crass worship of comfort and ease, here is a man whose ideal is to write essays in resounding English, and to spread a little wider his love of the niceties of fine prose.
I have anatomized him but crudely. If you want to catch him in a weak spot, try him on Belloc. Hear him rumble his favourite couplet;
And the men who were boys when I was a boy Shall sit and drink with me.
Indeed let us hope that they will.
A POET OF SAD VIGILS
There are many ways of sitting down to an evening vigil. Unquestionably the pleasantest is to fortify the soul with a pot of tea, plenty of tobacco, and a few chapters of Jane Austen. And if the adorable Miss Austen is not to hand, my second choice perhaps would be the literary remains of a sad, poor, and forgotten young man who was a contemporary of hers.
I say "forgotten," and I think it is just; save for his beautiful hymn "The Star of Bethlehem," who nowadays ever hears of Henry Kirke White? But on the drawing-room tables of our grandmothers' girlhood the plump volume, edited with a fulsome memoir by Southey, held honourable place near the conch shell from the Pacific and the souvenirs of the Crystal Palace. Mr. Southey, in his thirty years' laureateship, made the fame of several young versifiers, and deemed that in introducing poor White's remains to the polite world he was laying the first lucifer to a bonfire that would gloriously crackle for posterity. No less than Chatterton was the worthy laureate's estimate of his young foundling; but alas! Chatterton and Kirke White both seem thinnish gruel to us; and even Southey himself is down among the pinch hitters. Literary prognosis is a parlous sport.
The generation that gave us Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Lamb, Jane Austen, Hazlitt, De Quincey, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, leaves us little time for Kirke White considered purely as a literary man. His verses are grotesquely stilted, the obvious conjunction of biliousness and overstudy, and adapted to the taste of an era when the word female was still used as a substantive. But they are highly entertaining to read because they so faithfully mirror the backwash of romanticism. They are so thoroughly unhealthy, so morbid, so pallid with moonlight, so indentured by the ayenbite of inwit, that it is hard to believe that Henry's father was a butcher and should presumably have reared him on plenty of sound beefsteak and blood gravy. If only Miss Julia Lathrop or Dr. Anna Howard Shaw could have been Henry's mother, he might have lived to write poems on the abolition of slavery in America. But as a matter of fact, he was done to death by the brutal tutors of St. John's College, Cambridge, and perished at the age of twenty-one, in 1806. As a poet, let him pass; but the story of his life breathes a sweet and honourable fragrance, and is comely to ponder in the midnight hours. As Southey said, there is nothing to be recorded but what is honourable to him; nothing to be regretted but that one so ripe for heaven should so soon have been removed from the world.
He was born in Nottingham, March 21, 1785, of honest tradesman parents; his origin reminds one inevitably of that of Keats. From his earliest years he was studious in temper, and could with difficulty be drawn from his books, even at mealtimes. At the age of seven he wrote a story of a Swiss emigrant and gave it to the servant, being too bashful to show it to his mother. Southey's comment on this is "The consciousness of genius is always accompanied with this diffidence; it is a sacred, solitary feeling."
His schooling was not long; and while it lasted part of Henry's time was employed in carrying his father's deliveries of chops and rumps to the prosperous of Nottingham. At fourteen his parents made an effort to start him in line for business by placing him in a stocking factory. The work was wholly uncongenial, and shortly afterward he was employed in the office of a busy firm of lawyers. He spent twelve hours a day in the office and then an hour more in the evening was put upon Latin and Greek. Even such recreation hours as the miserable youth found were dismally employed in declining nouns and conjugating verbs. In a little garret at the top of the house he began to collect his books; even his supper of bread and milk was carried up to him there, for he refused to eat with his family for fear of interrupting his studies. It is a deplorable picture: the fumes of the hearty butcher's evening meal ascend the stair in vain, Henry is reading "Blackstone" and "The Wealth of Nations." If it were Udolpho or Conan Doyle that held him, there were some excuse. The sad life of Henry is the truest indictment of overstudy that I know. No one, after reading Southey's memoir, will overload his brain again.
At the age of fifteen we find the boy writing to his older brother Neville: "I have made a firm resolution never to spend above one hour at this amusement [novel reading]. I have been obliged to enter into this resolution in consequence of a vitiated taste acquired by reading romances." He is human enough to add, however, that "after long and fatiguing researches in 'Blackstone' or 'Coke,' 'Tom Jones' or 'Robinson Crusoe' afford a pleasing and necessary relaxation. Of 'Robinson Crusoe' I shall observe that it is allowed to be the best novel for youth in the English language."
The older brother to whom these comments were addressed was living in London, apparently a fairly successful man of business. Henry permitted himself to indulge his pedagogical and ministerial instincts for the benefit and improvement of his kinsman. They seem to have carried on a mutual recrimination in their letters: Neville was inclined to belittle the divine calling of poets in their teens; while Henry deplored his brother's unwillingness to write at length and upon serious and "instructive" topics. Alas, the ill-starred young man had a mania for self-improvement. If our great-grandparents were all like that what an age it had been for the Scranton correspondence courses! "What is requisite to make one's correspondence valuable?" asks Henry. "I answer, sound sense." (The italics are his own.) "You have better natural abilities than many youth," he tells his light-hearted brother, "but it is with regret I see that you will not give yourself the trouble of writing a good letter. My friend, you never found any art, however trivial, that did not require some application at first." He begs the astounded Neville to fill his letters with his opinions of the books he reads. "You have no idea how beneficial this would be to yourself." Does one not know immediately that Henry is destined to an early grave?
Henry's native sweetness was further impaired by a number of prizes won in magazine competitions. A silver medal and a pair of twelve-inch globes shortly became his for meritorious contributions to the Monthly Mirror. He was also admitted a member of a famous literary society then existing in Nottingham, and although the youngest of the sodality he promptly announced that he proposed to deliver them a lecture. With mingled curiosity and dismay the gathering assembled at the appointed time, and the inspired youth harangued them for two hours on the subject of Genius. The devil, or his agent in Nottingham, had marked Henry for destruction.
In such a career there can be no doubt as to the next step. He published a book of poems. His verses, dealing with such topics as Consumption, Despair, Lullaby of a Female Convict to Her Child the Night Previous to Execution, Lines Spoken by a Lover at the Grave of His Mistress, The Eve of Death, and Sonnet Addressed by a Female Lunatic to a Lady, had been warmly welcomed by the politest magazines of the time. To wish to publish them in more permanent form was natural; but the unfortunate young man conceived the thought that the venture might even be a profitable one. He had found himself troubled with deafness, which threatened to annul his industry in the law; moreover, his spirit was canting seriously toward devotional matters, and thoughts of a college career and then the church were lively in his mind.
The winter of 1802-3 was busily passed in preparing his manuscript for the printer. Probably never before or since, until the Rev. John Franklin Bair of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, set about garnering his collected works into that volume which is the delight of the wicked, has a human heart mulled over indifferent verses with so honest a pleasure and such unabated certainty of immortality. The first two details to be attended to were the printing of what were modestly termed Proposals—i.e., advertisements of the projected volume, calling for pledges of subscription—and, still more important, securing the permission of some prominent person to accept a dedication of the book. The jolly old days of literary patronage were then in the sere and saffron, but it was still esteemed an aid to the sale of a volume if it might be dedicated to some marquis of Carabas. Accordingly the manuscript was despatched to London, and Neville, the philistine brother, was called upon to leave it at the residence of the Duchess of Devonshire. A very humble letter from honest Henry accompanied it, begging leave of her Grace to dedicate his "trifling effusions" to her.
Henry's letters to Neville while his book was in preparation are very entertaining, as those of minor poets always are under such circumstances. Henry was convinced that at least 350 copies would be sold in Nottingham. He writes in exultation that he has already got twenty-three orders even before his "proposals" are ready:
"I have got twenty-three, without making the affair public at all, among my immediate acquaintance: and mind, I neither solicit nor draw the conversation to the subject, but a rumour has got abroad, and has been received more favourably than I expected."
But the matter of the dedication unfortunately lagged far behind the poet's hopes. After the manuscript was left at the house of her Grace of Devonshire there followed what the Ancient Mariner so feelingly calls a weary time. Poor Henry in Nottingham hung upon the postman's heels, but no word arrived from the duchess. She was known to be assaulted from all sides by such applications: indeed her mail seems to have been very nearly as large as that of Mary Pickford or Theda Bara. Then, to his unspeakable anxiety, the miserable and fermenting Henry learned that all parcels sent to the duchess, unless marked with a password known only to her particular correspondents, were thrown into a closet by her porter to be reclaimed at convenience, or not at all. "I am ruined," cried Henry in agony; and the worthy Neville paid several unsuccessful visits to Devonshire House in the attempt to retrieve the manuscript. Finally, after waiting four hours in the servants' hall, he succeeded. Even then undaunted, this long-suffering older brother made one more try in the poet's behalf: he obtained a letter of introduction to the duchess, and called on her in person, wisely leaving the manuscript at home; and with the complaisance of the great the lady readily acquiesced in Henry's modest request. Her name was duly inscribed on the proper page of the little volume, and in course of time the customary morocco-bound copy reached her. Alas, she took no notice of it, and Mr. Southey surmises that "Involved as she was in an endless round of miserable follies, it is probable that she never opened the book."
"Clifton Grove" was the title Henry gave the book, published in 1803.
It is not necessary to take the poems in this little volume more seriously than any seventeen-year-old ejaculations. It is easy to see what Henry's reading had been—Milton, Collins, and Gray, evidently. His unconscious borrowings from Milton do him great credit, as showing how thoroughly he appreciated good poetry. It seeped into his mind and became part of his own outpourings. Il Penseroso gushes to the surface of poor Henry's song every few lines; precious twigs and shreds of Milton flow merrily down the current of his thought. And yet smile as we may, every now and then friend Henry puts something over. One of his poems is a curious foretaste of what Keats was doing ten years later. Every now and then one pauses to think that this lad, once his youthful vapours were over, might have done great things. And as he says in his quaint little preface, "the unpremeditated effusions of a boy, from his thirteenth year, employed, not in the acquisition of literary information, but in the more active business of life, must not be expected to exhibit any considerable portion of the correctness of a Virgil, or the vigorous compression of a Horace."
The publishing game was new to Henry, and the slings and arrows found an unshielded heart. When the first copies of his poor little book came home from the printer he was prostrated to find several misprints. He nearly swooned, but seizing a pen he carefully corrected all the copies. After writing earnest and very polite letters to all the reviewers he dispatched copies to the leading periodicals, and sat down in the sure hope of rapid fame. How bitter was his chagrin when the Monthly Review for February, 1804, came out with a rather disparaging comment: in particular the critic took umbrage at his having put boy to rhyme with sky, and added, referring to Henry's hopes of a college course, "If Mr. White should be instructed by alma mater, he will, doubtless, produce better sense and better rhymes."