Thus our first generalisations spring from ignorance rather than from knowledge. They are true, so long as we know that they are not entirely true. As soon as we begin to accept them as absolute truths, they become lies. One of the perils of a great war is that it revives the passionate faith of the common man in generalisations. He begins to think that all Germans are much the same, or that all Americans are much the same, or that all Conscientious Objectors are much the same. In each case he imagines a lay figure rather than a human being. He may hate his lay figure or he may like it; but, if he is in search of truth, he had better throw the thing out of the window and try to think about a human being instead. I do not wish to deny the importance of generalisations. It is not possible to think or even to act without them. The generalisation that is founded on a knowledge of and a delight in the variety of things is the end of all science and poetry. Keats said that he sought the principle of beauty in all things, and poems are in a sense simply beautiful generalisations. They subject the unclassified and chaotic facts of life to the order of beauty. The mystic, meditating on the One and the Many, is also in pursuit of a generalisation—the perfect generalisation of the universe. And what is science but the attempt to arrange in a series of generalisations the facts of what we are vain enough to call the known world? To know the resemblances of things is even more important than to know the differences of things. Indeed, if we are not interested in the former, our pleasure in the latter is a mere scrap-book pleasure. If we are not interested in the latter, on the other hand, our sense of the former is apt to degenerate into guesswork and assertion and empty phrases. Shakespeare is greater than all the other poets because he, more than anybody else, knew how very like human beings are to each other and because he, more than anybody else, knew how very unlike human beings are to each other. He was master of the particular as well as of the universal. How much poorer the world would have been if he had not been so in regard not only to human beings but to the very flowers—if he had not been able to tell the difference between fennel and fumitory, between the violet and the gillyflower!
THE INTELLECTUAL SIDE OF HORSE-RACING
Horse-racing—or, at least, betting—is one of the few crafts that are looked down on by practically everybody who does not take part in it. "It's a mug's game," people say. Even betting men talk like this. There is a street called Mug's Row in a north of England town: it is so called because the houses in it were built by a bookmaker. Whether it was the bookmaker or his victims that gave the street its name I do not know. To call a bookmaker a mug would seem to most people an abuse of language. Yet the only bookmaker I have ever really known used to confess himself a mug in the most penitent fashion. He was a mug, however, not because he could not make money, but because he could not keep it. The poor of his suburb, when in difficulties, he declared, used always to come to him instead of going to the clergy, and he was unable to refuse them. But then he was bitter against the clergy. As a young man, he had been a Sunday school teacher, and so far as I could gather, he might have gone on being a Sunday school teacher till the present day if he had not suddenly been assailed with doubts one Sabbath afternoon as he expounded the story of David and Goliath. Whether it was that he looked on David as having taken an unsportsmanlike advantage of the giant or whether he doubted that so much could be done with such little stones, he did not make quite clear. Anyhow, from that day on, he never believed in revealed religion. He quarrelled with his clergyman. He broke the Sabbath. He began to drink beer and to go to race-meetings. He rapidly rose from the position of carpenter to that of bookmaker, and, were it not for his infernal gift of charity, he would probably now be driving his own car and be hall-marked with a Coalition title. Even as it was, he was much more prosperous than any carpenter. Whenever he produced money, it was in pocketfuls and handfuls. Strange that a bookmaker, who by his trade must be accustomed to miracles, should find it difficult to believe in David and Goliath. He was possibly a man who betted on form, and on form Goliath should undoubtedly have won. David was an outsider. He had no breeding. He would have been surprised if he could have foreseen how his victory would rankle some thousands of years later in the soul of an honest English bookmaker.
It is, however, just these matters of form and breeding that raise horse-racing and betting above the intellectual level of a game of nap. Betting men who ignore these things are as unintellectual as the average novelist. There are some, for instance, who shut their eyes and bring down a pin or a pencil on a list of names of the horses, in the hope that in this way they may discover a winner. No doubt they may. It is perhaps as good a way as any other. But there is something trivial in such methods. This is mere gambling for the sake of excitement. There is no more fundamental brainwork in it than in a game I saw being played in a railway carriage the other day, when a man drew a handful of coins from his pocket and bet his friend half-a-sovereign that there would be more heads than tails lying uppermost. This is a game at which it is possible to lose five pounds in two minutes. It is the sort of game to which a betting man will resort when in extremis, but only then. The ruling passion is strong, however. I have a friend who on one occasion went into retreat in a Catholic monastery. Two well-known bookmakers had also gone into temporary retreat for the good of their souls. My friend told me that even during the religious services the bookmakers used to bet as to which of the monks would stand up first at the conclusion of a prayer, and that in the solemn hush of the worship he would suddenly hear a hoarse whisper: "Two to one on Brownie"—a brother with hair of that colour—and the answer: "I take you, Joe." I have even heard of men betting as to which of two raindrops on a window-pane will reach the bottom first. It is possible to bet on cats, rats or flies. Calvinists do not bet, because they believe that everything that happens is a certainty. The extreme betting man is no Calvinist, however. He believes that most things are accidents, and the rest catastrophes. Hence his philosophy is almost always that of Epicurus. To him every day is a new day, at the end of which it is his aim to be able to say, like Horace, Vixi, or, as the text ought perhaps to read, Vici.
The intellectual betting man, on the other hand, has a position somewhere between the extremes of Calvinism and Epicureanism. He worships neither certainty nor chance. He reckons up probabilities. When Mr Asquith picked out Spion Kop as the winner of the Derby, he did so because he went about the business of selection not with a pin or a pencil, but with one of the best brains in England. In the course of his long conflicts with the House of Lords he had probably interested himself somewhat profoundly in questions of heredity and pedigree, and he was thus well equipped for an investigation into the records of the parentage and grandparentage of the various Derby horses. All that the ordinary casual better knows about Spion Kop is that he is the son of Spearmint, which won the Derby in 1906. This, however, would not alone make him an obviously better horse than Orpheus, whose sire, Orby, won the Derby in 1907. The student of breeding must be a feminist, who pays as much attention to the female as to the male line. It was by the study of the female line that the most cunning of the sporting journalists were able to eliminate Tetratema from the list of probable winners. Tetratema, as son of the Tetrarch, was excellently fathered for staying the mile-and-a-half course at Epsom. More than this, as a writer in The Sportsman pointed out: "The Tetrarch himself is by Roi Herode, a fine stayer, and his maternal grand-dam was by Hagioscope, who rarely failed to transmit stamina." It is when we turn to Tetratema's mother, Scotch Gift—or is it his grandmother something else?—apparently, that we discover his hereditary vice. This mare our journalist exposed to scathing and searching criticism, and concluded that "there can be nothing unreasonable in the inference, based on the records of this family, that the chances are against a Derby winner having descended from the least distinguished of ... four sisters." Even so, however, the writer a few sentences later abjures Calvinism, and denies that there is anything certain in what he calls breeding problems. "It seemed," he writes, "wildly improbable at one time that Flying Duchess would produce a Derby winner, for I believe it is correct that two of Galopin's elder brothers ran in a bus, and there were two others quite useless So, on the face of it, the chances were against Galopin, the youngest brother." I quote these passages as evidence of the immense demand the serious pursuit of horse-racing puts on the intellect. The betting man must be as well versed in precedents as a lawyer and in genealogical trees as a historian. At school, I always found the genealogical trees the most difficult and bewildering part of history. Yet the genealogical tree of a king is a simple matter compared to that of a horse. All you have to learn about a king is the names of his relations: regarding a horse, however, you must know not only the names but the character, staying power and domestic virtues of every male and female with whom he is connected during several generations. If a man spent as much labour in disentangling the cousinship of the royal families of ancient Egypt, he would be venerated as a scholar in five continents. Oxford and Cambridge would shower degrees on him. Sir William Sutherland would get him a place on the Civil List. Hence it seems to me that tipping the winners is not, as is too often regarded, "anybody's job": it is work that should be undertaken only by men of powerful mind. No man should be allowed to qualify as a tipster unless he has taken a degree at one of the Universities. The ideal tipster would at once be a great historian a great antiquary, a great zoologist, a great mathematician, and a man of profound common-sense. It is no accident that an ex-Prime Minister was one of the few Englishmen to spot the winner of the Derby of 1920. Mr Asquith must have gone patiently through all Spion Kop's relations, weighing up the chances whether it was an accident or owing to the weather that such an one fifteen years ago was beaten by a neck in a six-furlong race, studying incidents in every one of their careers, seeing that none of them had ever had a great-uncle a bus-horse, bringing out a table of logarithms to decide difficult points.... We need not be surprised that there are fewer great tipsters than great poets. Shakespeare alone has given us a portrait of the perfect tipster—"looking before and after ... in apprehension how like a god!"
It is perhaps, however, when we leave questions of breeding and come to those of form, that we realise most fully the amazing intellectualism of the betting life. In the study of form we are faced by problems that can be solved only by the higher algebra. Thus, if Jehoshaphat, carrying 7 st., ran third to Jezebel, carrying 8 st. 4 lb., in a mile race, and Jezebel, carrying 8 st. 4 lb., was beaten by a neck by Woman and Wine, carrying 7 st. 9 lb., over a mile and a quarter, and Woman and Wine, carrying 8 st. 1 lb., was beaten by Tom Thumb, carrying 9 st. in a mile 120 yds., and Tom Thumb, carrying 9 st. 7 lb., was beaten by Jehoshaphat over seven furlongs, we have to calculate what chance Tom Thumb has of beating Jezebel in a race of a mile and a half on a wet day. There are men to whom such calculations may come easy. To Mr Asquith they are probably child's play. For myself, I shrink from them and, if I were a betting man, would no doubt in sheer desperation be driven back on the method of pin and pencil. But it is obvious that the sincere betting man has to make such calculations daily. Every morning the student of form finds his sporting page full of such lists as the following:—
0 0 0 CONCLUSIVE (7-5), Kroonstad-Conclusion. 8th of 9 to Poltava (gave 17lb.) Gatwick May (6f) and 7th of 19 to Orby's Pride (rec 4lb) Kempton May (5f).
3 3 3 RAPIERE (7-4), Sunder—Gourouli. Lost 3-4 length and 3 lengths to Bantry (gave 2lb) and Marcia (rec 7lb) Newmarket May (1m), GOLDEN GUINEA (gave 20lb) not in first 9. See BLACK JESS.
0 0 4 ROYAL BLUE (7-0), Prince Palatine—China Blue. See NORTHERN LIGHT.
0 2 0 BLACK JESS (6-11), Black Jester—Diving Bell. Not in first 4 to St Corentin (gave 121b) Lingfield last week (7f). Here Ap. (7f) lost 3 lengths to Victory Speech (rec 1lb), RAPIERE (gave 13lb, favourite) length off.
0 LLAMA (6-11), Isard II.—Laughing Mirror. Nowhere to Silver Jug (gave 15lb) Newbury Ap. (7f).
Is not a page of Thucydides simpler? Is Persius himself more succinct or obscure? Our teachers used to apologise for teaching us Latin grammar and mathematics by telling us that they were good mental gymnastics. If education is only a matter of mental gymnastics, however, I should recommend horse-racing as an ideal study for young boys and girls. The sole objection to it is that it is so engrossing; it might absorb the whole energies of the child. The safety of Latin grammar lies in its dullness. No child is tempted by it into forgetting that there are other duties in life besides mental gymnastics. Horse-racing, on the other hand, comes into our lives with the effect of a religious conversion. It is the greatest monopolist among the pleasures. It affects men's conversation. It affects their entire outlook. The betting man's is a dedicated life. Even books have a new meaning for him. The Ring and the Book—it is his one and only epic. And it is the most intellectual of epics. That is my point.
WHY WE HATE INSECTS
It has been said that the characteristic sound of summer is the hum of insects, as the characteristic sound of spring is the singing of birds. It is all the more curious that the word "insect" conveys to us an implication of ugliness. We think of spiders, of which many people are more afraid than of Germans. We think of bugs and fleas, which seem so indecent in their lives that they are made a jest by the vulgar and the nice people do their best to avoid mentioning them. We think of blackbeetles scurrying into safety as the kitchen light is suddenly turned on—blackbeetles which (so we are told) in the first place are not beetles, and in the second place are not black. There are some women who will make a face at the mere name of any of these creatures. Those of us who have never felt this repulsion—at least, against spiders and blackbeetles—cannot but wonder how far it is natural. Is it born in certain people, or is it acquired like the old-fashioned habit of swooning and the fear of mice? The nearest I have come to it is a feeling of disgust when I have seen a cat retrieving a blackbeetle just about to escape under a wall and making a dish of it. There are also certain crawling creatures which are so notoriously the children of filth and so threatening in their touch that we naturally shrink from them. Burns may make merry over a louse crawling in a lady's hair, but few of us can regard its kind with equanimity even on the backs of swine. Men of science deny that the louse is actually engendered by dirt, but it undoubtedly thrives on it. Our anger against the flea also arises from the fact that we associate it with dirt. Donne once wrote a poem to a lady who had been bitten by the same flea as himself, arguing that this was a good reason why she should allow him to make love to her. It is, and was bound to be, a dirty poem. Love, even of the wandering and polygynous kind, does not express itself in such images. Only while under the dominion of the youthful heresy of ugliness could a poet pretend that it did. The flea, according to the authorities, is "remarkable for its powers of leaping, and nearly cosmopolitan." Even so, it has found no place in the heart or fancy of man. There have been men who were indifferent to fleas, but there have been none who loved them, though if my memory does not betray me there was a famous French prisoner some years ago who beguiled the tedium of his cell by making a pet and a performer of a flea. For the world at large, the flea represents merely hateful irritation. Mr W.B. Yeats has introduced it into poetry in this sense in an epigram addressed "to a poet who would have me praise certain bad poets, imitators of his and of mine":
You say as I have often given tongue In praise of what another's said or sung, 'Twere politic to do the like by these, But where's the wild dog that has praised his fleas?
When we think of the sufferings of human beings and animals at the hands—if that is the right word—of insects, we feel that it is pardonable enough to make faces at creatures so inconsiderate. But what strikes one as remarkable is that the insects that do man most harm are not those that horrify him most. A lady who will sit bravely while a wasp hangs in the air and inspects first her right and then her left temple will run a mile from a harmless spider. Another will remain collected (though murderous) in presence of a horse-fly, but will shudder at sight of a moth that is innocent of blood. Our fears, it is evident, do not march in all respects with our sense of physical danger. There are insects that make us feel that we are in presence of the uncanny. Many of us have this feeling about moths. Moths are the ghosts of the insect world. It may be the manner in which they flutter in unheralded out of the night that terrifies us. They seem to tap against our lighted windows as though the outer darkness had a message for us. And their persistence helps to terrify. They are more troublesome than a subject nation. They are more importunate than the importunate widow. But they are most terrifying of all if one suddenly sees their eyes blazing crimson as they catch the light. One thinks of nocturnal rites in an African forest temple and of terrible jewels blazing in the head of an evil goddess—jewels to be stolen, we realise, by a foolish white man, thereafter to be the object of a vendetta in a sensational novel. One feels that one's hair would be justified in standing on end, only that hair does not do such things. The sight of a moth's eye is, I fancy, a rare one for most people. It is a sight one can no more forget than a house on fire. Our feelings towards moths being what they are, it is all the more surprising that superstition should connect the moth so much less than the butterfly with the world of the dead. Who save a cabbage-grower has any feeling against butterflies? And yet in folk-lore it is to the butterfly rather than to the moth that is assigned the ghostly part. In Ireland they have a legend about a priest who had not believed that men had souls, but, on being converted, announced that a living thing would be seen soaring up from his body when he died—in proof that his earlier scepticism had been wrong. Sure enough, when he lay dead, a beautiful creature "with four snow-white wings" rose from his body and fluttered round his head. "And this," we are told, "was the first butterfly that was ever seen in Ireland; and now all men know that the butterflies are the souls of the dead waiting for the moment when they may enter Purgatory." In the Solomon Islands, they say, it used to be the custom, when a man was about to die, for him to announce that he was about to transmigrate into a butterfly or some other creature. The members of his family, on meeting a butterfly afterwards, would exclaim: "This is papa," and offer him a coco-nut. The members of an English family in like circumstances would probably say: "Have a banana." In certain tribes of Assam the dead are believed to return in the shape of butterflies or house-flies, and for this reason no one will kill them. On the other hand, in Westphalia the butterfly plays the part given to the scapegoat in other countries, and on St Peter's Day, in February, it is publicly expelled with rhyme and ritual. Elsewhere, as in Samoa—I do not know where I found all these facts—probably in The Golden Bough—the butterfly has been feared as a god, and to catch a butterfly was to run the risk of being struck dead. The moth, for all I know, may be the centre of as many legends but I have not met them. It may be, however, that in many of the legends the moth and the butterfly are not very clearly distinguished. To most of us it seems easy enough to distinguish between them; the English butterfly can always be known, for instance, by his clubbed horns. But this distinction does not hold with regard to the entire world of butterflies—a world so populous and varied that thirteen thousand species have already been discovered, and entomologists hope one day to classify twice as many more. Even in these islands, indeed, most of us do not judge a moth chiefly by its lack of clubbed horns. It is for us the thing that flies by night and eats holes in our clothes. We are not even afraid of it in all circumstances. Our terror is an indoors terror. We are on good terms with it in poetry, and play with the thought of
The desire of the moth for the star.
We remember that it is for the moths that the pallid jasmine smells so sweetly by night. There is no shudder in our minds when we read:
And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, I dropped the berry in a stream, And caught a little silver trout.
No man has ever sung of spiders or earwigs or any other of our pet antipathies among the insects like that. The moth is the only one of the insects that fascinates us with both its beauty and its terror.
I doubt if there have ever been greater hordes of insects in this country than during the past spring. It is the only complaint one has to make against the sun. He is a desperate breeder of insects. And he breeds them not in families like a Christian but in plagues. The thought of the insects alone keeps us from envying the tropics their blue skies and hot suns. Better the North Pole than a plague of locusts. We fear the tarantula and have no love for the tse-tse fly. The insects of our own climate are bad enough in all conscience. The grasshopper, they say, is a murderer, and, though the earwig is a perfect mother, other insects, such as the burying-beetle, have the reputation of parricides, But, dangerous or not, the insects are for the most part teasers and destroyers. The greenfly makes its colonies in the rose, a purple fellow swarms under the leaves of the apples, and another scoundrel, black as the night, swarms over the beans. There are scarcely more diseases in the human body than there are kinds of insects in a single fruit tree. The apple that is rotten before it is ripe is an insect's victim, and, if the plums fall green and untimely in scores upon the ground, once more it is an insect that has been at work among them. Talk about German spies! Had German spies gone to the insect world for a lesson, they might not have been the inefficient bunglers they showed themselves to be. At the same time, most of us hate spies and insects for the same reason. We regard them as noxious creatures intruding where they have no right to be, preying upon us and giving us nothing but evil in return. Hence our ruthlessness. We say: "Vermin," and destroy them. To regard a human being as an insect is always the first step in treating him without remorse. It is a perilous attitude and in general is more likely to beget crime than justice. There has never, I believe, been an empire built in which, at some stage or other, a massacre of children among a revolting population has not been excused on the ground that "nits make lice." "Swat that Bolshevik," no doubt, seems to many reactionaries as sanitary a counsel as "Swat that fly." Even in regard to flies, however, most of us can only swat with scruple. Hate flies as we may, and wish them in perdition as we may, we could not slowly pull them to pieces, wing after wing and leg after leg, as thoughtless children are said to do. Many of us cannot endure to see them slowly done to death on those long strips of sticky paper on which the flies drag their legs and their lives out—as it seems to me, a vile cruelty. A distinguished novelist has said that to watch flies trying to tug their legs off the paper one after another till they are twice their natural length is one of his favourite amusements. I have never found any difficulty in believing it of him. It is an odd fact that considerateness, if not actually kindness, to flies has been made one of the tests of gentleness in popular speech. How often has one heard it said in praise of a dead man: "He wouldn't have hurt a fly!" As for those who do hurt flies, we pillory them in history. We have never forgotten the cruelty of Domitian. "At the beginning of his reign," Suetonius tells us "he used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly sharpened stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Csar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply: 'Not even a fly.'" And just as most of us are on the side of the fly against Domitian, so are most of us on the side of the fly against the spider. We pity the fly as (if the image is permissible) the underdog. One of the most agonising of the minor dilemmas in which a too sensitive humanitarian ever finds himself is whether he should destroy a spider's web, and so, perhaps, starve the spider to death, or whether he should leave the web, and so connive at the death of a multitude of flies. I have long been content to leave Nature to her own ways in such matters. I cannot say that I like her in all her processes, but I am content to believe that this may be owing to my ignorance of some of the facts of the case. There are, on the other hand, two acts of destruction in Nature which leave me unprotesting and pleased. One of these occurs when a thrush eats a snail, banging the shell repeatedly against a stone. I have never thought of the incident from the snail's point of view. I find myself listening to the tap-tap of the shell on the stone as though it were music. I felt the same sort of mild thrill of pleasure the other day when I found a beautiful spotted ladybird squeezing itself between two apples and settling down to feed on some kind of aphides that were eating into the fruit. The ladybird, the butterfly, and the bee—who would put chains upon such creatures? These are insects that must have been in Eden before the snake. Beelzebub, the god of the other insects, had not yet any engendering power on the earth in those days, when all the flowers were as strange as insects and all the insects were as beautiful as flowers.
There is grave danger of a revival of virtue in this country. There are, I know, two kinds of virtue, and only one of them is a vice Unfortunately, it is the latter a revival of which is threatened to-day. This is the virtue of the virtuously indignant. It is virtue that is not content merely to be virtuous to the glory of God. It has no patience with the simple beauty and goodness of the saints. Virtue, in the eyes of the virtuously indignant, is hardly worthy to be called virtue unless it goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom it may devour. Virtue, according to this view, is a detective, inquisitor, and flagellator of the vices—especially of the vices that are so unpopular that the mob may be easily persuaded to attack them. One of the chief differences between the two kinds of virtue, I fancy, is that while true virtue regards the mob-spirit as an enemy, simular virtue (if we may adopt the Shakespearean phrase) looks to the mob as its cousin and its ally. To be virtuous in the latter sense is obviously as easy as hunting rats or cats. Virtue of this kind is simply the eternal huntsman in man's breast with eyes aglint for a victim. It is Mr Murdstone's virtue—the persecutor's virtue. It is the virtue that warms the bosom of every man who is more furious with his neighbour's sins than with his own. If virtue is merely an inflammation against our neighbour's sins, what man on earth is so mean as to be incapable of it? To be virtuous in this fashion is as easy as lying. Those who abstain from it do so not out of lack of heart, but from choice. We have read of the popularity of the ducking-stool in former days for women taken in adultery. Savage mobs may have thought that by putting their hearts into this amusement they were making up to virtue for the long years of neglect to which, as individuals, they had subjected her. They might not have been virtue's lovers, but at least they could be virtue's bullies. After all, virtue itself is no bad sport, when chasing, kicking, thumping, and yelling are made the chief part of the game. Sending dogs coursing after a hare is nothing to it. Man's enjoyment of the chase never rises to the finest point of ecstasy save when his victim is a human being. Man's inhumanity to man, says the poet, makes countless thousands mourn. But think also of the countless thousands that it makes rejoice! We should always remember that the Crucifixion was an exceedingly popular event, and in no quarter more so than among the virtuously indignant. It would probably never have taken place had it not been for the close alliance between the virtuously indignant and the mob.
To be fair to the virtuously indignant and the mob, they do not insist beyond reason that their victim shall be a bad man. Good hunting may be had even among the saints, and who does not enjoy the spectacle of a citizen distinguished mainly for his unblemished character being dragged down into the dust? We have no reason to believe that the people who were burned during the Inquisition were worse than their neighbours, yet the mob, we are told, used to gather enthusiastically and dance round the flames. The destructive instincts of the mob are such that in certain moods it is ready to destroy any kind of man, just as the destructive instincts of a puppy are such that in certain moods it is ready to destroy any sort of book—whether Smiles's Self-Help or Mademoiselle de Maupin is a matter of perfect indifference. The virtuously indignant maintain their power by constantly inciting and feeding this appetite for destruction. Hence, when we feel virtuously indignant, we would do well to inquire of ourselves if that is the limit and Z of our virtue. Have we no sins of our own to amend that we have all this time for barking and biting at the vices of our neighbours? And if we must attack the sins of our fellows, would it not be the more heroic course to begin with those we are most tempted by, instead of those to which we have no mind? Do not let the drunkard feel virtuous because he is able with an undivided heart to denounce simony, and do not let the forger, who happens to be a teetotaller because of the weakness of his stomach, be too virtuously indignant at the red-nosed patron of the four-ale bar. Any of us can achieve virtue, if by virtue we merely mean the avoidance of the vices that do not attract us. Most of us can boast than we have never been cruel to a hippopotamus or had dealings with a succubus or taken a bribe of a million pounds to betray a friend. On these points we can look forward with perfect confidence to the scrutiny of the Day of Judgment. I fear, however, the Recording Angel is likely to devote such little space as he can afford to each of us to the vices we have rather than to the vices we have not. Even Charles Peace would have been acquitted if he had been accused of brawling in church instead of murder. Hence it is to be hoped that passengers in railway trains will not remain content with gloating down upon the unappetising sins of which the forty-seven thousand are accused by Mr Pemberton Billing. Steep and perilous is the ascent of virtue, and the British public may well be grateful to Mr Billing and Mr Bottomley if they help it with voice or outstretched hand to climb to the snowy summits. So far as can be seen, however, all that Mr Billing and Mr Bottomley do is to interrupt the British public in its upward climb and orate to it on the monstrous vices of the Cities of the Plain. This may be an agreeable diversion for weary men, but it obviously involves the neglect of virtue, not the pursuit of it. Most people imagine that to pursue vice is to pursue virtue. But the wisdom of the ages tells us that the only thing to do to vice is to fly from it. Lot's wife was a lady who looked round once too often to see what was happening to the forty-seven thousand. Let Mr Billing and Mr Bottomley beware. Their interest in the Cities of the Plain will turn them into pillars of salt a thousand years before it turns them into pillars of society.
As for virtue, then, how is it to be achieved? Merely by blackening the rest of the world, we cannot hope to make ourselves white. Modern writers tell us that we cannot make ourselves white even by blackening ourselves. They denounce the sense of sin as a sin, and tell us that there is nothing of which we should repent except repentance. We need not stay to discuss this point. We know well enough that, so long as the human intellect (to leave the human conscience out of the question) survives, men will be burdened with the sense of imperfection and think enviously of the nobility of Epaminondas or Julius Csar or St Francis of Assisi. For we have to count even Julius Csar among the virtuous, though the scandalmongers would not have it so. His vices may have made him bald and brought about his assassination. But he had the heroic virtues—courage and generosity and freedom from vindictiveness. When we read how he wept at the death of his great enemy, and how "from the man who brought him Pompey's head he turned away with loathing, as from an assassin," we bow before the nobility of his character and realise that he was something more than a stern man and an adulterer. Pompey, too, had this gift of virtue—this capacity for turning away from foul means of besting his enemies. When he had captured Perpenna in Spain, the latter offered him a magnificent story of a plot, the knowledge of which would have put the lives of many leading Romans in his power. "Perpenna, who had come into possession of the papers of Sertorius, offered," says Plutarch, "to produce letters from the chief men of Rome, who had desired to subvert the existing order and change the form of government, and had therefore invited Sertorius into Italy. Pompey, therefore, fearing that this might stir up greater wars than those now ended, put Perpenna to death and burned the letters without even reading them." It was hard on Perpenna, but in burning the letters at least Pompey gave us an example of virtue. It is Plutarch's feeling for the beauty of such noble actions that has made his biographies a primer of virtue for all time. None of his heroes are primarily "good" men. There is scarcely one of them who could have been canonised by any Church. They have enough of the weaknesses of flesh and blood to satisfy even the most exacting novelist of these days. On the other hand, they nearly all had that capacity for grandeur of conduct which distinguishes the noble man from the base. Plutarch never pretends that mean and filthy motives and generous motives do not jostle one another strangely in the same breast, but his portraits of great men give us the feeling that we are in presence of men redeemed by their virtues rather than utterly destroyed by their vices. Suetonius, on the other hand, is the historian of the forty-seven thousand. His book may be recommended as scandalmongering—hardly as an aid to virtue. Here we have the servants' evidence of Roman history, the plots and the secret vices. Suetonius, fortunately, has the grace not to write as though in narrating his story of vice he were performing a virtuous act. If we are to have stories of fashionable sinners, let us at least have them naked and not dressed up in the language of outraged virtue. Scandal is sufficiently entertaining by itself. There is no need to lace it with self-righteousness.
There is always a cuckoo that stays out later than the other cuckoos....
Two goldfinches came and sang in the catalpa-tree in the garden....
It is difficult to decide with which sentence to begin. There are so many pleasures. The goldfinches have not come back again, however. They and the faint blue flowers of the catalpa turned a sinister growth for an interval into a small Paradise of colour and song. Then the flowers fell. They had no more life than snow in May. Coming as they did at the end of years of barrenness, they astonished one like the blossoming of the Rose of Sharon. But now the bough is dark and sinister and melancholy again. Sparrows squabble over their love affairs in it. The, cuckoo that stays out later than the other cuckoos is the triumphant survivor.
Not that there is much to be said even for him as a model of continuance. His note will soon change. He will become hoarse and only half-articulate. He will cease to be the flying echo of the mystery of skies and wood at dawn and in the still evening. The disreputable bat, whose little wings flutter half visibly like waves of heat rising above a stove, will outlast him.
There is no getting beyond the old image of things in general as a stream that disappears. The flowers and the birds come in tides that sweep over the world and in a moment are lost like a broken wave. The lilacs filled with purple; laburnum followed, and in a few days all the gold ebbed, and nothing was left but a drift of withered blossoms on the ground; then came the acacia-flowers, white as the morning among the cool green plumage of the tree, and now they, too, have been turned into dirtiness and deserted foam. And in the hedges change has been as swift, as merciless—change so imperceptible in what it is doing, so manifest in what it has done. The white blossoms of the sloe gave place to the foam of the hawthorn and the flat clusters of the wayfaring-tree; now in its turn has come the flood of the elder-flowers, a flood of commonness, and June on the roads would hardly be beautiful were it not for the roses that settle, delicate and fleeting as butterflies, on the long and crooked briers. Perhaps one has not the right to say of any flower or any bird that it is not beautiful Even elder-flowers, seen at a distance, can give cheerfulness to a roadside. But, if we have to pick and choose among flowers, there are many who will give the lowest prize to the flowers that have been compared to umbrellas—elder-flowers, cow's parsley, hemlock, and the rest. These are the plebeians of the hedges and ditches. They have the air of something useful. One would imagine they were intended to be cooked and eaten in cheap restaurants. We experience no lifting of the heart at sight of them. We should be surprised to hear the abrupt ecstasy of a wren issuing from among their leaves. And yet it is hardly a week since, walking in a Sussex lane, I saw a long procession of cow's parsley on the top of a high bank silhouetted against the twilight sky. There seemed never to have been more exquisite flowers. They had captured the silver of evening as in a net.
There are many flowers that seem ugly to an indifferent eye. Even the red valerian, that sprouts so boldly in bushes of coral from the top of the wall, is regarded by some people as a weed and an impudent intruder. For myself, I love the spectacle of stone walls breaking out into flower with red valerian and ivy-leaved toad-flax. The country people have greeted these flowers with comic and friendly names. Valerian they call "drunken sailor," and the ivy-leaved toad-flax that blossoms in a thousand tiny blue butterflies from the stones has (so prolific it is) been given the nickname of "mother of thousands." I doubt, however, whether the country people have as many fanciful names for the flowers as they are represented as having in the books. When Mr W.H. Hudson first came on winter heliotrope in Cornwall, and was attracted by its meadow-sweet smell at a season when there were few other flowers, he was told by a countryman that it was called simply "weed." Countrymen, if they are asked the name of a flower, will often say that they do not know, but that they call it so-and-so. A small boy who was gathering green-stuffs for his rabbits came up and walked beside me the other day, and, on being shown some goose-grass, and asked what name he knew it by, said: "I don't know its name; we calls it 'cleavers.'" In my childhood, I never heard it called by any other name than "robin-run-the-hedge," and under that name alone am I attracted by it. "Cleavers" is too reminiscent of a butcher's yard or of some dull tool. "Goose-grass" at least fills the imagination with the picture of a bird. But "robin-run-the-hedge" is better, for it is an image of wild adventure. It will be a pity if the tradition of picturesque names for flowers is allowed to die. The kidney-vetch, a long yellow claw of a flower that looks withered even at birth, may not deserve a prettier name, but at least it is possible to give it an ugly name with more interesting associations. "Staunch" is an older name that reminds us that the flower was, a few generations ago, used to staunch wounds. The other name, it is suggested, had its origin in the supposed excellence of the plant in curing diseases of the kidney.
But there seem to be no grounds for believing this. There are, unfortunately, some beautiful flowers for which no beautiful or even expressive name has ever been invented. Who is there who, coming on the blue scabious on a hill near the sea, is not conscious of the gross failure of the human race in never having found anything but this name out of a dustbin for one of the most charming of flowers? Matthew Arnold, appalled by some of the names of human beings that still flourished in the days of Victoria, and may for all I know be flourishing to-day, once hoped to turn us into Hellenists by declaring that there was "no Wragg on the Ilissus." Was there no "scabious" on the Ilissus either, I wonder? Were I a flower of the field, I should prefer to be called "nose-bleed" or "sow-thistle." On the whole, however, the plants have little to complain of in the matter of names. The milkwort that has been scattering its fine, delicate colours among the short grasses of the bare hills deserves its beautiful name, "grace of God." We think of it as the sprigging of a divine mantle cast over the June world. The greater plantain, that after the recent rain has come out on the hills, with a ruff of purple feathers round its brown cone, neither deserves nor possesses a name connoting sacredness. It is interesting mainly as a plant that somehow became associated with the voyages and travels of Englishmen, and is known in America as "Englishman's foot," because, wherever the Englishman goes, the plant follows him.
The riot of the spring flowers is already passing, however. As we walk along the path through the corn, we find the wild mustard, that a few weeks ago made a steep field blaze like a precinct of the sun, already withering into a mass of green pods; and the hay in the valley has been cut down with all its crimson clover. The smell of the tossed hay, as we pass, sends back the memory into an older world. How is it that sweet smells do not please us so much for what they are as for the things of which they remind us? At the smell of hay newly stacked we cease to be our present age; we are in a world as distant as that of Theocritus. There is no ambition in it, no tears or taxes, no men and women pretending, nothing that is not happy. Every scent is sweet, every sound is a laugh or a bird's song. Every man and woman and animal we behold is more interesting than if they had come out of a Noah's Ark. Smell has been described as the most sensual of the senses. It may be so, but it is surely also the sense that is most closely related to the memory. Old landscapes, old happinesses old gardens, old people, come to life again—at times, almost unbearably so—with the smell of wallflower or hay or the sea. It may be, however, that this is not a universal experience. Some of us, no doubt, live more in our memories than others: it is our doom.
Even we, however, are sensualists of the open air, and the spectacle of the wind foaming among the leaves of the oak and elm can easily make us forget all but the present. The blue hills in the distance when rain is about, the grey arras of wet that advances over the plain, the whitethroat that sings or rather scolds above the hedge as he dances on the wing, the tree-pipit—or is it another bird?—that sinks down to the juniper-tip through a honey of music, a rough sea seen in the distance, half shine, half scowl—any of these things may easily cut us off from history and from hope and immure us in the present hour. Or may they? Or do these things too not leave us home-sick, discontented, gloomy—gloomy if it is only because we are not nearly so gloomy as we ought to be?
ON FEELING GAY
Gaiety has come back at least to parts of London. There never were greater crowds of people eating with bottles at their sides in public places. On the whole, however, there has been little down-heartedness at the restaurants during the past four and a half years Even while the housewife in the red-brick street was wasting her mornings in the patient vigil of the queue, only to find at the end of it that there was no butter, no lard, no tea, no jam, no golden syrup, no prunes, no potatoes, no currants, no olive oil, or whatever it might be she wanted most, the restaurants never shut their doors as the grocers' shops and the confectioners' sometimes did. When rationing came, one could eat the greater part of the week's beef allowance at a single meal in the home, but in a restaurant one could get four excellent meat meals—in some restaurants even eight excellent meals—in return for a week's coupons. There were, no doubt, parts of the country in which the housewife was hardly more restricted than the diner-out in restaurants. Travellers came back from places in Dorsetshire, Gloucestershire, and Scotland, as from Ireland, with gorgeous narratives of areas in which the King's writ did not run so far as coupons were concerned and beef was free if only you paid for it. But in London, and especially in the Home Counties, there was no such reign of liberty. The housewife went shopping, as it were, on ticket-of-leave, and even the sleepiest suburbans began to realise that the arrival of our daily bread is a daily miracle instead of the commonplace it once seemed to be. Had Dr Faustus come back to life a modern lady would have invoked the aid of his magic for some food less romantic than grapes out of season: she would have been content with a tin of golden syrup. As for butter, it is surprising that no one wrote a sonnet to butter during the war. I have seen eyes positively moisten with love at the sight of a small dish of it. Even from the restaurants it seemed to vanish for a time, and some of them are still doing their best to help one to deceive oneself with a curl of what is called butter substitute. The restaurant, however, seem to be better supplied than the home with the three great aids to gaiety—wine, jam and currants. I confess I have never been able to understand why currants should be generally regarded as one of the necessary ingredients of perfect pleasure. But they unquestionably are The child on a holiday will eat a bun with only three currants in it with three times more pleasure than he will eat a frankly plain bun A suet pudding without currants or raisins is prison fare, barren to the eye and cheerless: let but an infrequent currant or raisin peep from the mass and it is a pudding for a birthday. So universal is the passion for currants as an aid to pleasure that during the past three weeks the only matter that rivalled in general interest the question whether the Kaiser was to be hanged was the question whether we should have currants before Christmas. So profound is the disappointment of the public at the non-arrival of the currants that explanations have been put in the papers, calling on us to practise the sublime virtue of self-sacrifice, happy in the knowledge that all the currants are needed for invalid soldiers. But if the currants are needed for soldiers, how comes it that we sometimes find them in the puddings in restaurants? Those who are concerned for the preservation of home life in this country cannot but be perturbed by the way in which in this matter of currants the scales have been weighted in favour of the restaurant and against the home. As for jam, the diner in the restaurant rejoices in jam roll while the child in the home labours its way through tapioca pudding. Is it any wonder if, as the pessimists believe, the English home decays?
Whether as a result of the jam roll or the rare currants in the puddings, it has been unusually difficult to get a table at some of the restaurants since the signing of the Armistice. No doubt the signing of the Armistice itself had something to do with it. Christian men, whenever anything epoch-making happens, must have something to eat. Marriage, the return of a conquering hero, the visit of a great statesman, the birth of Christ—we find in all these things a reason for calling on the cooks to do their damnedest. Even the dyspeptic forgets his doctor's orders in the general excitement and chases oysters down the narrow stairway of his throat with thick soup, follow thick soup with lobster, and lobster with turkey and turkey with a savoury, and the savoury with a pche Melba, and at the end of it will not reject cheese and a banana, all of this accompanied with streams of liquid in the form of wine coffee and brandy. I have often wondered why a man should feel gay doing violence to his entrails in this fashion. I have noticed again and again that he loses a little of his gaiety if the dinner is served slowly enough to give him time to think. The gay meal, like the farce, must be enacted quickly. The very spectacle of waiters hurrying to and fro with an air of peril to the dishes quickens the fancy, and the gastric juices flow to an anapstic measure. Who does not know what it is to sit through a slow meal and digest in spondees? One is given time between the courses to turn philosopher—to meditate becoming a hermit and dining on a bowl of rice in a cave. Nothing can prevent one from there and then coming to a decision on the matter save a waiter with the eye of a psychoanalyst ready to rush forward at the first sadness of an eyelid and tempt one either with a new dish or with a glass refilled. "Stay me with flagons; comfort me with apples." It is a universal cry. Our desire is for the banqueting-house. Perhaps it is not so much that we feel gay as that we are afraid of feeling gloomy. We have no force within us that will enable us to laugh over a lettuce and become wits on water. There must be an element of riot in our eating and drinking if we are to drive dull care away. That is the defence of cakes and ale. Cakes, no doubt, are not what they used to be, and ale is even less so. But human beings are symbolists, and, if you give them something that looks like cakes and something that looks like beer, it is surprising how content they will be. Our eating and drinking is but a game, and we deceive ourselves at table like children among their toys. Even the vegetarian lies his food into grandeur not its own. There is a vegetarian restaurant in London in which one of the dishes on the bill of fare bears the name "Like chicken." Splendide mendax!
One of the most amazing features in the appearance of London at the present time is surely the absence of the signs of widespread mourning. The windows of the shops are full of all the colours of the parrot. The hats are as bright as a scrap-book. The confectioners' shops are making a desperate effort to look as if nothing had happened. The death of a single monarch would have darkened Christmas in Regent Street more effectually than the million mournings of the war. It is as though we were eager to conceal from ourselves the news of this terrible disaster. After all, to judge by the crowds in the streets, most people still remain alive. We have sworn we will never forget those others, but one has only to read some of the election speeches to see that with many of us our own greed and vindictiveness are already ousting the ideals for which hundreds of thousands of men gave up their lives. Can it be that we are feeling gay not only because we have escaped from the disasters of the war but because we are escaping from the ideals of the war? It is as though we had returned from the barren snows of the mountain-tops to the cosy plenty of the valleys. We are glad to exchange the stars as companions for the nearer illuminations of the streets. The familiar world is coming back, and civilian youths have begun once more to sing music-hall choruses on the way home on the tops of buses:—
So I dillied, And dallied, And dallied, And dillied; But you can't trust a speshul Like an old-time copper When you can't find your way home.
Peace had returned without question when nonsense of this venerable kind sped into the air from the roof of a late bus. Well, we have always wanted the world to be "as usual." We were angry with the Germans for plunging us into the unusualness of war, and we feel scarcely more friendly to those who would plunge us into the unusualness of Utopia. We feel at home among neither horrors nor ideals. We are glad at the prospect of having the old world back rather than at having to make a new world. Lord Birkenhead, I observe, declares that it would be an awful thing if the war had left us unchanged, but we look in vain for signs of any deep change even in the speeches of Lord Birkenhead. One noticeable change the war has unquestionably made: more women smoke in the restaurants than formerly. Sanguine people declare that other changes are impending; but other people, equally sanguine, are doing their best to prevent this. The human race is gradually feeling its way back to its traditional division into those who desire a change and those who desire to keep things as they are. The Christmas festival appeals to both equally. It is at once an old custom and the prophecy of a new earth. On such a day one can rejoice even without currants or the League of Nations. The world is a good place. Let us eat, drink, and be merry.
IN THE TRAIN
It is said that travelling by train is to be made still more uncomfortable. I doubt if there is a man of sufficient genius in the Government to accomplish this. Are not the trains already merely elongated buses without the racing instincts of the bus? Have they not already learned to crawl past mile after mile of backyard and back garden at such a snail's pace that we have come to know like an old friend every disreputable garment hung out on the clothes-lines of a score of suburbs? Do they not stand still at the most unreasonable places with the obstinacy of an ass? Stations, the names of which used to be an indistinguishable blur as we swept past them as on a swallow's wing, have now become a part of the known world, and have as much attention paid to them as though they were Paris or Vienna. Equality has not yet been established among men, but it has been established among stations. There never was such a democracy of frightfulness.
We seldom see a station which has about it the air of permanence. There are, I believe good historical reasons why there are no Tudor stations or Queen Anne stations to be found in the country. Still, I know of no reason why so many stations should look as though they had been built hurriedly to serve the needs of a month, like a travelling show in a piece of waste ground. Not that the railway station has any of the gaudy detail of the travelling show. It resembles it only in its dusty and haphazard setting. It is more like a builder's or a tombstone-maker's yard. The very letters in which the name of the station is printed are often of a deliberate ugliness. No newspaper would tolerate letters of such an ugliness in its headlines. They stare at one vacuously, joylessly. It is said that the village of Amberley is known to the natives as "Amberley, God help us!" How many stations look at us from their name-plates with that "God help us!" air! What I should like to see would be a name-plate that would seem to announce to us in passing: "Glasgow, thank God!" or whatever the name of the station may be. I have never yet discovered a merry station. Here and there a station-master has done his best to make the place attractive by planting geraniums in the form of letters to spell the name of the place on a neighbouring embankment. But these things remind one of the flowers on a grave. And the people who walk up and down the platform, their noses cold in the wind, are hardly more cheerful than undertakers' men. Even the porters in their green trousers, who roll the milk-cans along the platform to the luggage-van with an energy and a clatter that would satisfy the ambition of any healthy child, do not look merry. There was one cheerful porter who used to welcome you like a host, and make a jest as he clipped your railway ticket—"Just to lighten your load, sir!"—but the Government had him removed and put to mind gates at a crossing where he would not be able to speak to the passengers. As a rule, however, nobody looks as if he liked being in a railway station or would stop there if he could go anywhere else. I trust the Ministry of Reconstruction will see to it that the railway stations of the country are rebuilt and vivified. One does not really wish to stop at any station at all except one's own station. But if one has to do so, let the stations be made more amusing.
Unfortunately, it is not only the frequent stops that have made railway travelling almost ideally uncomfortable. The Government seems also to have hired a staff of workers to impregnate the seats of the carriages with dust and to scatter all the dust that can be spared in these exiguous days on the floors. They have also a gang of old and wheezy gentlemen who travel up and down the line all day shutting the windows. This work is sometimes deputed to women. They are forbidden to say "May I?" or "Do you mind?" or to make use of any civil expression that might mollify the traveller sitting by the window. It is part of their instructions to reach past him with an air of independence and to have the window shut and the book that he is reading knocked out of his hand before he has time to see what has happened. Some day someone will write a book about the alteration of English manners that took place during the Great War. I believe the alteration is largely due to these Government hirelings whose duty it is to make railway travel a burden and never to say "Please" or "Thank you."
Even now, however, there are compensations. In the morning the shadows are long, and, as one rattles north among the water-meadows, the flying plumes of the engine leave a procession of melting silhouettes on the fields to the west. Rooks oar their way towards their homes with long twigs in their beaks. Horses go through the last days of their kingship dragging ploughs and harrows over the fields with slow and monotonous tread. Here a hill has been ploughed into a sea of little brown waves. Further on a meadow is already bright with the green of winter-sown corn. The country has never been so laboured before. Chalk and sand and brown earth and red are all being turned up and broken and bathed in the sun and wind. Adam has begun to delve again. There is the urgency of life in fields long idle. It is not that the fields have become populous. One sees many laboured fields, but little labour. The occasional plough-horse, however, brings strength into the stillness. How noble a figure of energy he makes!
As for us who sit in the railway train, we do not look at him much. We are all either reading papers or talking. Two old men, bearded and greasy-coated, tramps of a bygone era, sit opposite one another and neither read nor talk. One of them is blear-eyed and coughs, and has an unclean moustache. All his friend ever says to him is: "Clean your nose," making an impatient gesture. A young man in a bowler hat and spectacles, who smokes a pipe in inward-drawn lips, discusses the Labour situation with some acquaintances. "They would be all right," he explains, "if it wasn't for the Labour leaders. You know what a Labour leader is. He's a chap that never did an honest day's work in his life. He finds it pays better to jaw than to work, and I don't blame him. After all, it's human nature. Every man's out to do the best for himself, isn't he?" "Your nose—blow your nose," mumbled the tramp across the carriage. "Take Australia," continues the young man; "they've had Labour Governments in Australia. What good did they do for the working man? Did they satisfy him? Why, there were more strikes in Australia under the Labour Government than there ever had been before." "Did you hear that, Johnny?" I heard another voice saying. "A tame rabbit was sold Sat'day in Guildford market for twelve-and-sixpence!" "How did they know it was a tame one?" "Ah, now you're asking!" A man looked up from The Morning Post with interest in his face. "Why," he said, "is a tame rabbit considered to be better eating than a wild one?" It was explained to him that wild rabbits were often kept for a long time after they were killed, and were therefore regarded as more dangerous. Otherwise, the tame rabbit had no point of superiority. "What do you say, Johnny?" Johnny had a fat face and no eyelashes, and wore a muffler instead of a collar. "I say, give me a wild one." The man with The Morning Post went on to talk about rabbits and the price at which he had sold them. At intervals, during everything he said, Johnny kept nodding and saying, with a smile of relish: "Give me a wild one!" He said it even when the talk had drifted altogether away from rabbits. He went on repeating it to himself in lower tones, as though at last he had found a thought that suited him. "Municipalisation means jobbery," said the young man with the bowler hat; "look at the County Council tramways." "Give me a wild one," said Johnny, in a dreamy whisper; "I say, give me a wild one." "Why, it stands to reason, if you have a friend, and you see a chance of shovin' him into a job at the public expense, you'll do it, won't you?" said the young man, addressing the reader of The Morning Post, who merely cleared his throat nervously in answer. "It's human nature," said the young man. "Give me a wild one" whispered Johnny. "I'm afraid there's going to be trouble in Ireland," the man with The Morning Post turned the subject. The young man was ready for him. "There will always be trouble in Ireland," he said, with what the novelists describe as a curl of his lip, "so long as Ireland exists." The tramp continued to mumble about the condition of his friend's nose, Johnny relapsed into silence, and the young man made the man with The Morning Post tremble by a horrible picture of what the country would be like under a Labour Government. "It would be all U.P.," he said firmly; "all up...." Who would travel in such days if he could possibly avoid it?
THE MOST CURIOUS ANIMAL
Curiosity is the first of the sins. On the day on which Eve gave way to her curiosity, man broke off his communion with the angels and allied himself with the beasts. To-day we usually applaud curiosity; we think of it as the alternative to stagnation. The tradition of mankind, however, is against us. The fables never pretend that curiosity is anything but an evil. Literature is full of tales of forbidden rooms that cannot be peeped into without disaster. Fatima in Bluebeard escapes punishment, but her escape is narrow enough to leave her a warning to the nursery. A version of the Pandora legend imputes the state of mankind to the curiosity of one disastrous fool who raised the lid of the sacred box, with the result that the blessings intended for our race escaped and flew away. We have cursed the inquisitive person through the centuries. We have instinctively hated him to the point of persecution. The curious among mankind have gone about their business at peril of their lives. It is probable that Athens was a city as much given to curiosity as any city has ever been, and yet the Athenians put Socrates to death on account of his curiosity. He was accused of speculating about the heavens above and inquiring into the earth beneath as well as of corrupting the youth and making the worse appear the better reason. History may be read as the story of the magnificent rearguard action fought during several thousand years by dogma against curiosity. Dogma is always in the majority and is therefore detestable, but it is also always beaten and is therefore admirable. It rallies its forces afresh on some new field in every generation. It fights with its back to the sunrise under a banner of darkness, but even when we abominate it most we cannot but marvel at its endurance. The odd thing is that man clings to dogma from a sense of safety. He can hardly help feeling that he was never so safe as he is in the present in possession of this little patch his fathers have bequeathed to him. He felt quite safe without printed books, without chloroform, without flying machines. He mocked at Icarus as the last word in human folly. We say nowadays "as safe as the Bank of England," but he felt safer without the Bank of England. We are told that when the Bank was founded in 1694 its institution was warmly opposed by all the dogmatic believers in things as they were. But it is against curiosity about knowledge that men have fought most stubbornly. Galileo was forbidden to be curious about the moon. One of the most difficult things to establish is our right to be curious about facts. The dogmatists offer to provide us with all the facts a reasonable man can desire. If we persist in believing that there is a world of facts yet undiscovered and that it is our duty to set out in quest of it, in the eyes of the dogmatists we are scorned as heretics and charlatans. Even at the present day, when the orthodoxies sit on shaky thrones, dogma still opposes itself to curiosity at many points. A great deal of the popular dislike of psychical research is due to hatred of curiosity in a new direction. People who admit the existence of a world of the dead commonly feel that none the less it ought to be taboo to the too-curious intellect of man. They feel there is something uncanny about spirits that makes it unsafe to approach them with an inquisitive mind. I am not concerned either to attack or defend Spiritualism. I merely suggest that a rational attack on Spiritualism must be based on the insufficiency of the evidence put forward in its behalf, not on the ground that the curiosity which goes in search of such evidence is in itself wicked.
It is odd to see how men who take sides with dogma give themselves the airs of men who live for duty, while they regard the more curious among their fellows as licentious, trifling, irreverent and self-indulgent. The truth is, there is no greater luxury than dogma. It puts an eminence under the most stupid. At the same time I am not going to deny the pleasures of curiosity. We have only to see a cat looking up the chimney or examining the nooks of a box-room or looking over the edge of a trunk to see what is inside in order to realise that this is a vice, if it is a vice, which we inherit from the animals. We find a comparable curiosity in children and other simple creatures. Servants will rummage through drawer after drawer of old, dull letters out of idle curiosity. There are men who declare that no woman could be trusted not to read a letter. We persuade ourselves that man is a higher animal, above curiosity and a slave to his sense of honour. But man, too, likes to spy upon his neighbours when he is not indifferent to them. No scrupulous person of either sex would read another person's letter surreptitiously. But that is not to say that we do not want to know what is in the letter. We can hardly see a parcel lying unopened in a hall without speculating on what it contains. We should always feel happier if the owner of the parcel indulged us to the point of opening it in our presence. I know a man whose curiosity extends so far as to set him uncorking any medicine-bottles he sees in a friend's house, sniffing at them, and even sipping them to see what they taste like. "Oh, I have had that one," he says, as he lingers over the bitter flavour of strychnine. "Let me see," he reflects, as he sips another bottle, "there's nux vomica in that." Half the interesting books of the world were written by men who had just this sipping kind of curiosity. Curiosity was the chief pleasure of Montaigne and of Boswell. We cannot read an early book of science without finding signs of the pleasure of curiosity in its pages. Theophrastus, we may be sure, was a happy man when he wrote:
"However, there is one question which applies to all perfumes, namely, why it is that they appear to be sweetest when they come from the wrist; so that perfumers apply the scent to this part."
To be curious about such matters would keep many a man entertained for an evening. Some people are so much in love with their curiosity that they object even to having it satisfied too quickly with an obvious explanation. We have an instance of this in a pleasant anecdote about Democritus, which Montaigne borrowed from Plutarch. Montaigne, who substitutes figs for cucumbers in the story, relates:
"Democritus, having eaten figs at his table that tasted of honey, fell presently to consider within himself whence they should derive this unusual sweetness; and to be satisfied in it, was about to rise from the table to see the place whence the figs had been gathered; which his maid observing, and having understood the cause, she smilingly told him that he need not trouble himself about that, for she had put them into a vessel in which there had been honey. He was vexed that she had thus deprived him of the occasion of this inquisition and robbed his curiosity of matter to work upon. 'Go thy way,' said he, 'thou hast done me wrong; but for all that I will seek out the cause, as if it were natural'; and would willingly have found out some true reason for a false and imaginary effect."
The novel-reader who becomes furious with someone for letting him into the secret of the end of the story is of the same mind as Democritus. "Go thy way," he says in effect, "thou hast done me wrong." The child protests in the same way to a too-informative elder: "You weren't to tell me!" He would like to wander in the garden paths of curiosity. He has no wish to be led off hurriedly into the schoolroom of knowledge. He instinctively loves to guess. He loves at least to guess at one moment and to be told the next.
The greater part of human curiosity has as little to be said for it—or against it—as a child's whim. It is an affair of the senses, and an extraordinarily innocent one. It is a vanity of the eye or ear. It is another form of the hatred of being left out. So many human beings do not like to miss things. We saw during Saturday's aeroplane raid how far men and women will go rather than miss things. Thousands of Londoners stood in the streets and at their windows and gazed at what seemed to be the approach of one of the plagues of Egypt. No plague of locusts ever came out of the sky with a greater air of the will to destruction. It was as though the eastern sky were hung with these monstrous insects, leisurely hovering over a people they meant to destroy. They had the cupidity of hawks at one moment. At another they had the innocence of a school of little fishes. Shell-smoke opened out among them like a sponge thrown into the water. It swelled into larger clouds monstrous in shape as the things doctors preserve in bottles. But the plague did not rest. One saw a little black aeroplane hurry across them, a mere water beetle of a thing, and one wondered if a collision would send one of them to earth with broken wings. But one did not really know whether this was the manoeuvre of an enemy or the daring of a friend. There was never a more astonishing spectacle. A desperate battle in the air would have been less of a surprise. But that there should have been nobody to interfere with them! ... Yes, it was certainly a curious sight, and London was justified in putting its head out of its house, like a tortoise under its shell, till the bombs began to fall. Still, the more often they come the less curious we shall be about them. A few years ago we gladly paid five shillings for the pleasure of seeing an aeroplane float round a big field. There is a limit, however, to our curiosity even about German aeroplanes. Speaking for myself, I may say my curiosity is satisfied. I do not care if they never come again.
THE OLD INDIFFERENCE
It was an old belief of the poets and the common people that nature was sympathetic towards human beings at certain great crises. Comets flared and the sun was darkened at the death of a great man. Even the death of a friend was supposed to bow nature with despair; and Milton in Lycidas mourned the friend he had lost in what nowadays seems to us the pasteboard hyperbole:
The willows and the hazel copses green Shall now no more be seen Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.
It may be contended that Milton was here speaking, not of nature, but of his vision of nature; and certainly one cannot help reading one's own joys and sorrows into the face of the earth. When the lover in Maud affirms:
A livelier emerald twinkled in the grass,
he states a fact. He utters a truth of the eye and heart. The wonder of the world resides in him who sees it. The earth becomes a new place to a man who has fallen in love or who has just returned to it from the edge of the grave. It is as though he saw the flowers as a stranger. Larks ascending make the planet a ball of music for him. He may well begin to lie about nature, for he has seen it for the first time. Experience is not long in warning him, however, that it is he and not the world that has changed. He meets a funeral in the midsummer of his happiness, and larks sing the same songs above the fields whether it is the lover or the mourner that goes by. The continuity of nature is not broken either for our gladness or our grief. Mr Hardy frequently introduces the mournful drip of rain into his picture of men and women unhappily mated. But the rain is not at the beck and call of the unhappy. The unhappy would still be unhappy though they were in a cherry orchard on the loveliest morning of the year. The happy would still be happy though St Swithin's Day were streaming in floods down the window-panes. Who does not know what it is to be happy watching the rain-drops racing down the glass and hearing the gutter chattering like a hedgeful of sparrows or tinkling like a bell? Who is there, on the other hand, who has not found, and been perplexed to find, the world going on its way in full song and bloom on a day that has seemed to him to darken all human experience? Burns's reproach to the indifferent earth has often been quoted as an expression of this realisation that nature does not mind:
How can ye sing, ye little birds, And I sae weary, fu' o' care?
Nature, we discover, passes us and our sorrows by. We are of little account to the race of birds. We are of little account, for that matter, to the race of men. The end of Hamlet is not the end even of a kingdom. Fortinbras comes upon the scene, and life goes on. Our mournings are only interruptions. The ranks of the procession close up and little is changed. Even the funeral of a king is as a rule less an occasion for grief than a spectacle for the curious. The crowd may have filled the streets all night, but they did not forget to bring their sandwiches and whisky-flasks with them. The theatres and the tea-shops and the public-houses will be as full as ever the next day. And for the death of a great author not even the sweet-shops will be closed. The funeral ceremonies over the dead body of Herbert Spencer drew a smaller crowd than would gather to see a dog that had been run over in the street.
We were never before so conscious of the indifference of Nature to human tragedy as since the outbreak of the war. Here, one would think, was a tragedy that all but threatened to crack the globe. One would imagine that the sides of Nature must be in pain with it and the earth in peril of being hurled out of her accustomed path round the sun. Yet the sparrows in the Surrey valleys have not heard of it, and the sea-birds know nothing of it, save that occasionally they are bewildered to find a submarine rising from the waters instead of the porpoise for whose presence they had hoped. It is said that the pheasants in a Sussex wood awoke and screamed on Sunday night during the barrage fire around London. But this was egotism on the part of the pheasants. The pheasants of Wiltshire did not have their sleep broken, and so were not troubled about the sufferings of Londoners. Wordsworth assured Toussaint L'Ouverture:
There's not a breathing of the common air That will forget thee.
He exaggerated. The common air is more perturbed in the year 1918 by the passing of a single gnat than by the memory of Toussaint L'Ouverture. On Sunday I walked along a quiet hill road within thirty miles of London, and it seemed for an hour or two as though one were as remote from the war as a man living a century hence. The catkins in the hazels by the roadside were beautiful as falling rain: they hung on the branches like notes of music. The country children see them as lambs' tails, dangling in twos and threes in the gentle air. They have been growing longer every day since Christmas and the red tips of the female flowers have now begun to appear. In the hedge there are still the remains of old man's beard that, in one light, looks like dirty wool, but, with the sun shining on it, seems at a distance to be hawthorn in the full glory of blossom. Every now and then a crooked caterpillar of down is detached from it by the wind and sails off vaguely over a field. A few weeks ago sparrows were singing choruses as they gorged themselves upon it, but lately they have been scraping their beaks busily on the bark of trees as though they had found more satisfying dishes. At the lower end of the road there is a glow of crimson among the sallows, which have begun to festoon their straight rods with silver buds. Chaffinches are beginning to pipe more solitarily to each other in the tall elms. A few weeks ago they fluttered everywhere in companies, occupying now a hedge, now a road, and now a tree. The naturalists tell us that these winter companies of chaffinches are usually composed of birds of one sex only, the males consorting together for the time as in a boys' school. The chaffinch, I think, is the commonest bird in this part of the country. It is so common that its loveliness has hardly been appreciated as it ought to be. It is a little world of colour, like a small jay, and nothing could be more beautiful than its flushed breast as it sits on the top of a tall tree in the sunset. As for the jay, it hurries away like a thief before one has time to see its coat of many colours. The jay, like the cuckoo, is a bird with a guilty conscience. The wood here is full of jays, uttering their one monotonous shriek, like the ripping of a skirt. They scuttle among the trees at one's approach, showing the white feather. Occasionally, however, they too will sit in a tree and allow the sun to flush their cinnamon-coloured breasts. But we shall see hundreds of them before we see a single one in the crested and passive splendour of the jays in the picture-books. As a matter of fact, nearly all the birds in the picture-books are guesses and exaggerations. The birds, we discover before long, are a secret kingdom into which it is given to few to enter.
The whole of Nature, indeed, is curiously secretive. She does not tell much about herself save to the importunate. Not many of us can speak her language or have learned the password to her cave of treasure. She thrusts upon our notice a few birds, a few insects, a few animals, a few flowers. But for the most part there is no finding her population without seeking for it. Hundreds of her flowers are hidden from the lazy eye, and we may pass a lifetime without seeing so common a bird as a tree-creeper or so common an animal as a shrew-mouse. How seldom it is one sees even a rat! There are human beings who will never discover an early flower, however many miles they cover in their country walks. They take no pleasure in finding a wild-strawberry flower in January or a campion blossom in the first week in February. They are as indifferent to Nature as Nature is to them. The honeysuckle that breaks out with leaves as with green flames; the thrust of the leaves of the wild hyacinth under the trees, like the return of youth; the flowering of the elm; the young moon like a white bird with spread wings in the afternoon sky; the golden journey of Orion and his dog across the heavens by night—these things, they feel, are not interwoven with man's fate. They were before him, and they will be after him. Therefore, he cares more for his little brick house in the suburbs, which will at least be changed when he goes. I do not suggest that anyone consciously adopts a philosophy of this kind. But most of us are undoubtedly a little offended at some time in our lives when we realise that Nature has so little regard for our passions and our tears. She is a consoler, but it is on her own terms. Matthew Arnold found the secret of life in becoming as resigned to obedience as the stars and the tide. Who knows but, if we do this, Nature may be found to care after all? But she does not care in the way in which most of us want her to care. The religious discovered that long ago. They found that Nature was guilty of neutrality in human affairs if they did not go further and suspect her of enmity. It is only when philosophy has been added to religion that men have been able to reconcile without gloom the indifference of Nature with the idea of the love of God. And even the religious and the philosophers are puzzled by the spectacle of the worm that writhes on the garden path while the robin pecks at it, triumphant in his fatness and praising the fine weather.
EGGS: AN EASTER HOMILY