Threads of Grey and Gold
by Myrtle Reed
Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse

It would seem that any man, especially one who writes books, could be sure of a number of women friends. Among these there ought to be at least one whom he could take into his confidence. The gentleman novelist might go to the chosen one and say: "My heroine, in moderate circumstances, is going to the matinee with a girl friend. What shall she wear?"

Instantly the discerning woman would ask the colour of her eyes and hair, and the name of the town she lived in, then behold!

Upon the writer's page would come a radiant feminine vision, clothed in her right mind and in proper clothes, to the joy of every woman who reads the book.

But men are proverbially chary of their confidence, except when they are in love, and being in love is supposed to put even book women out of a man's head. Perhaps in the new Schools of Journalism which are to be inaugurated, there will be supplementary courses in millinery elective, for those who wish to learn the trade of novel writing.

If a man knows no woman to whom he can turn for counsel and advice at the critical point in his book, there are only two courses open to him, aside from the doubtful one of evasion. He may let his fancy run riot and put his heroine into clothes that would give even a dumb woman hysterics, or he may follow the example of Mr. Chatfield-Taylor, who says of one of his heroines that "her pliant body was enshrouded in white muslin with a blue ribbon at the waist."

Lacking the faithful hench-woman who would gladly put them straight, the majority of gentlemen novelists evade the point, and, so far as clothes are concerned, their heroines are as badly off as the Queen of Spain was said to be for legs.

They delve freely into emotional situations, and fearlessly attempt profound psychological problems, but slide off like frightened crabs when they strike the clothesline.

After all, it may be just as well, since fashion is transient and colours and material do not vary much. Still, judging by the painful mistakes that many of them have made, the best advice that one can give the gallant company of literary craftsmen is this: "When you come to millinery, crawfish!"

Maidens of the Sea

Far out in the ocean, deep and blue, Where the winds dance wild and free, In coral caves, dwells a beautiful band— The maidens of the sea.

There are stories old, of the mystic tide, And legends strange, of the deep, How the witching sound of the siren's song Can lull the tempest to sleep.

When moonlight falls on a crystal sea, When the clouds have backward rolled, The mermaids sing their low sweet songs, And their harp strings are of gold.

The billows come from the vast unknown— From their far-away unseen home; The waves bring shells to the sandy bar, And the fairies dance on the foam.

The Technique of the Short Story

An old rule for those who would be well-dressed says: "When you have finished, go to the mirror and see what you can take off." The same rule applies with equal force to the short story: "When you have written it out, go over it carefully, and see what you can take out."

Besides being the best preparation for the writing of novels, short-story writing is undoubtedly, at the present time, the best paying and most satisfactory form of any ephemeral literary work. The qualities which make it successful are to be attained only by constant and patient practice. The real work of writing a story may be brief, but years of preparation must be worked through before a manuscript, which may be written in an hour or so, can present an artistic result.

The first and most important thing to consider is the central idea. There are only a few ideas in the world, but their ramifications are countless, and one need never despair of a theme. Your story may be one of either failure or success, but it must have the true ring. Given the man and the circumstances, we should know his action.

The plot must unfold naturally; otherwise it will be a succession of distinct sensations, rather than a complete and harmonious whole.

There is no better way to produce this effect than to follow Edmund Russell's rule of colour in dress: "When a contrasting colour is introduced, there should be at least two subordinate repetitions of it."

Each character should appear, or be spoken of, at least twice before his main action. Following this rule makes one of the differences between artistic and sensational literature.

The heroine of a dime novel always finds a hero to rescue her in the nick of time, and perhaps she never sees him again. In the artistic novel, while the heroine may see the rescuer first at the time she needs him most, he never disappears altogether from the story.

Description is a thing which is much abused. There is no truer indication of an inexperienced hand than a story beginning with a description of a landscape which is not necessary to the plot. If the peculiarities of the scenery must be understood before the idea can be developed, the briefest possible description is not out of place. Subjectively, a touch of landscape or weather is allowable, but it must be purely incidental. Weather is a very common thing and is apt to be uninteresting.

It is a mistake to tell anything yourself which the people in the story could inform the reader without your assistance. A conversation between two people will bring out all the facts necessary as well as two pages of narration by the author.

There is a way also of telling things from the point of view of the persons which they concern. Those who have studied Latin will find the "indirect discourse" of Cicero a useful model.

The people in the story can tell their own peculiarities better than the author can do it for them. It is not necessary to say that a woman is a snarling, grumpy person. Bring the old lady in, and let her snarl, if she is in your story at all.

The choice of words is not lightly to be considered. Never use two adjectives where one will do, or a weak word where a stronger one is possible. Fallows' 100,000 Synonyms and Antonyms and Roget's Thesaurus of Words and Phrases will prove invaluable to those who wish to improve themselves in this respect.

Analysis of sentences which seem to you particularly strong is a good way to strengthen your vocabulary. Take, for instance, the oft-quoted expression of George Eliot's: "Inclination snatches argument to make indulgence seem judicious choice." Substitute "takes" for "snatches" and read the sentence again. Leave out "seem" and put "appear" in its place. "Proper" is a synonym for "judicious"; substitute it, and put "selection" in the place of "choice."

Reading the sentence again we have: "Inclination takes argument to make indulgence appear proper selection." The strength is wholly gone although the meaning is unchanged.

Find out what you want to say, and then say it, in the most direct English at your command. One of the best models of concise expressions of thought is to be found in the essays of Emerson. He compresses a whole world into a single sentence, and a system of philosophy into an epigram.

"Literary impressionism," which is largely the use of onomatopoetic words, is a valuable factor in the artistic short story. It is possible to convey the impression of a threatening sky and a stormy sea without doing more than alluding to the crash of the surf against the shore. The mind of the reader accustomed to subtle touches will at once picture the rest.

An element of strength is added also by occasionally referring an impression to another sense. For instance, the newspaper poet writes: "The street was white with snow," and makes his line commonplace doggerel. Tennyson says: "The streets were dumb with snow," and his line is poetry.

"Blackening the background" is a common fault with story writers. In many of the Italian operas, everybody who does not appear in the final scene is killed off in the middle of the last act. This wholesale slaughter is useless as well as inartistic. The true artist does not, in order that his central figure may stand out prominently, make his background a solid wall of gloom. Yet gloom has its proper place, as well as joy.

In the old tragedies of the Greeks, just before the final catastrophe, the chorus is supposed to advance to the centre of the theatre and sing a bacchanal of frensied exultation.

In the Antigone of Sophocles, just before the death of Antigone and her lover, the chorus sings an ode which makes one wonder at its extravagant expression. When the catastrophe occurs, the mystery is explained. Sophocles meant the sacrifice of Antigone to come home with its full force; and well he attained his end by use of an artistic method which few of our writers are subtle enough to recognise and claim for their own purposes.

"High-sounding sentences," which an inexperienced writer is apt to put into the mouths of his people, only make them appear ridiculous. The schoolgirl in the story is too apt to say: "The day has been most unpleasant," whereas the real schoolgirl throws her books down with a bang, and declares that she has "had a perfectly horrid time!"

Her grammar may be incorrect, but her method of expression is true to life, and there the business of the writer ends.

Put yourself in your hero's place and see what you would do under similar circumstances. If you were in love with a young woman, you wouldn't get down on your knees, and swear by all that was holy that you would die if she didn't marry you, at the same time tearing your hair out by handfuls, and then endeavour to give her a concise biography of yourself.

You would put your arm around her, the first minute you had her to yourself, if you felt reasonably sure that she cared for you, and tell her what she meant to you—perhaps so low that even the author of the story couldn't hear what you said, and would have to describe what he saw afterward in order to let his reader guess what had really happened.

It is a lamentable fact that the description of a person's features gives absolutely no idea of his appearance. It is better to give a touch or two, and let the imagination do the rest. "Hair like raven's wing," and the "midnight eyes," and many similar things, may be very well spared. The personal charms of the lover may be brought out through the mediations of the lovee, much better than by pages of description.

The law of compensation must always have its place in the artistic story. Those who do wrong must suffer wrong—those who work must be rewarded, if not in the tangible things they seek, at least in the conscious strength that comes from struggling. And "poetic justice," which metes out to those who do the things that they have done, is relentless and eternal, in art, as well as in life.

"Style" is purely an individual matter, and, if it is anything at all, it is the expression of one's self. Zola has said that, "art is nature seen through the medium of a temperament," and the same is true of literature. Bunner's stories are as thoroughly Bunner as the man who wrote them, and The Badge of Courage is nothing unless it be the moody, sensitive, half-morbid Stephen Crane.

Observation of things nearest at hand and the sympathetic understanding of people are the first requisites. Do not place the scene of a story in Europe if you have never been there, and do not assume to comprehend the inner life of a Congressman if you have never seen one. Do not write of mining camps if you have never seen a mountain, or of society if you have never worn evening dress.

James Whitcomb Riley has made himself loved and honoured by writing of the simple things of home, and Louisa Alcott's name is a household word because she wrote of the little women whom she knew. Eugene Field has written of the children that he loved and understood, and won a truer fame than if he had undertaken The Master of Zangwill. Kipling's life in India has given us Plain Tales from the Hills and The Jungle Book, which Mary E. Wilkins could not have written in spite of the genius which made her New England stories the most effective of their kind. Joel Chandler Harris could not have written The Prisoner of Zenda, but those of us who have enjoyed the wiles of that "monstus soon beast, Brer Rabbit," would not have it otherwise.

* * * * *

You cannot write of love unless you have loved, of suffering unless you have suffered, or of death unless some one who was near to you has learned the heavenly secret. A little touch of each must teach you the full meaning of the great thing you mean to write about, or your work will be lacking. There are few of us to whom the great experiences do not come sooner or later, and, in the meantime, there are the little everyday happenings, which are full of sweetness and help, if they are only seen properly, to last until the great things come to test our utmost strength, to crush us if we are not strong, and to make us broader, better men and women if we withstand the blow.

And lastly, remember this, that merit is invariably recognised. If your stories are worth printing, they will fight their way through "the abundance of material on hand." The light of the public square is the unfailing test, and a good story is sure to be published sooner or later, if a fair amount of literary instinct is exercised in sending it out. Meteoric success is not desirable. Slow, hard, conscientious work will surely win its way, and those who are now near the bottom of the ladder are gradually ascending to make room for the next generation of story-writers on the rounds below.

To Dorothy

There's a sleepy look in your violet eyes, So the sails of our ship we'll unfurl, And turn the prow to the Land of Rest, My dear little Dorothy girl.

Twilight is coming soon, little one, The sheep have gone to the fold; See! where our white sails bend and dip In the sunset glow of gold.

The roses nod to the sound of the waves, And the bluebells sweet are ringing; Do you hear the music, Dorothy dear? The song that the angels are singing?

The fairies shall weave their drowsy spell On the shadowy shore of the stream; Dear little voyager say "good-night," For the birds are beginning to dream.

O white little craft, with sails full spread, My heart goes out with thee; God keep thee strong with thy precious freight, My Dorothy—out at sea.

Writing a Book

Having written a few small books which have been published by a reputable house, and which have been pleasantly received by both the press and the public, and having just completed another which I devoutly pray may meet the same fate, I feel that I may henceforth deem myself an author.

I have been considered such for some time among my numerous acquaintances ever since I made my literary bow with a short story in a literary magazine, years and years ago. Being of the feminine persuasion, I am usually presented to strangers as "an authoress." It is at these times that I wish I were a man.

The social side of authorship is extremely interesting. At least once a week, I am asked how I "came to write."

This is difficult, for I do not know. When I so reply, my questioner ascertains by further inquiries where I was educated and how I have been trained. Never having been through a "School of Journalism," my answer is not satisfactory.

"You must read a great deal in order to get all those ideas," is frequently said to me. I reply that I do read a great deal, being naturally bookish, but that it is the great object of my life to avoid getting ideas from books. To an author, "Plagiarist" is like the old cry of "Wolf," and when an idea is once assimilated it is difficult indeed to distinguish it from one's own.

I am often asked how long it takes me to write a book. I am ashamed to tell, but sometimes the secret escapes, since I am naturally truthful, and find it hard to parry a direct question. The actual time of composition is always greeted with astonishment, and I can read the questioner's inference, that if I can do so much in so short a time, how much could I do if I actually worked!

This is always distasteful, so I hasten to add that the composition is really a very small part of the real writing of a book, and that authors' methods differ. My own practice is not to begin to write until my material is fully arranged in my mind, and I often use notes which I have been making for a period of months. Such a report is seldom convincing, however, to my questioners. I am gradually learning, when this inquiry comes, to smile inscrutably.

It seems strange to many people that I do not work all the time. If I can write a short story in two hours and be paid thirty dollars for it, I am an idiot indeed if I do not write at least three in a day! Ninety dollars a day might easily mount up into a very comfortable income.

Still, there are some who understand that an author cannot write continuously any more than a spider or a silkworm can spin all the time. These people ask me when, and where, and how, I get my material.

"Getting material" is supposed to be a secret process, and I am thought a gay deceiver when I say I make no particular effort to get it—that it comes in the daily living—like the morning cream! I am then asked if I rely wholly upon "inspiration." I answer that "inspiration" doubtless has its value as well as hard work, and that the author who would derive all possible benefit from the rare flashes of it must have the same command of technique that a good workman has of his tools.

The majority learn with surprise that there is more to a book than is self-evident. It was once my happy lot to put this fact into the understanding of a lady from the country.

With infinite pains I told her of the constant study of words, illustrated the fine shades of distinction between synonyms, spoke of the different ways in which characters and events might be introduced, and of the subordinate repetition of contrasting themes. She listened in breathless wonder, and then turned to her daughter: "There, Mame," she said, "I told you there was something in it!"

There is nothing so pathetic as the widespread literary ambition among people whose future is utterly hopeless. It is sad enough for one who has attained a small success to see the heights which are ever beyond, and it makes one gentle indeed to those who come seeking aid.

One ambitious soul once asked me if I would teach her to write. I replied that I did not know of any way in which it could be taught, but that I would gladly help her if I could. She said she had absolutely no imagination, and asked me if that would make any difference. I told her it was certainly an unfortunate circumstance and advised her to cultivate that quality before she attempted extensive writing. I suppose she is still doing it, for I have not been asked for further assistance.

People often inquire what qualities I deem essential to literary success. Imagination is, of course, the first, observation, the second, and ambition, perseverance and executive ability are indispensable. Besides these I would place the sense of humour, of proportion, sympathy, insight,—indeed, there is nothing admirable in human nature which would come amiss in the equipment of a writer.

The necessity for the humourous sense was recently brought home to me most forcibly. A woman brought me the manuscript of a novel which she asked me to read. She felt that something was wrong with it, but she did not know just what it was. She said it needed "a few little touches," she thought, such as my experience would have fitted me to give, and she would be grateful, indeed, if I would revise it. She added that, owing to the connection which I had formed with my publishing house, it would be an easy matter for me to get it published, and she generously offered to divide the royalties with me if I would consummate the arrangement!

I began to read the manuscript, and had not gone far when I discovered that it was indeed rare. The entire family read it, or portions of it, with screams of laughter, and with tears in their eyes, although it was not intended to be a funny book at all. To this day, certain phrases from that novel will upset any one of us, even at a solemn time.

Of course it was badly written. Characters appeared, talked for a few pages, and were never seen or heard from again.

Long conversations were intruded which had no connection with such plot as there was. Commonplace descriptions of scenery, also useless, were frequent. Many a time the thread of the story was lost. There were no distinguishing traits in any one of the characters—they all talked very much alike. But the supreme defect was the author's lack of humour. With all seriousness, she made her people say and do things which were absolutely ridiculous and not by any means true to life.

I think I must have an unsuspected bit of tact somewhere for I extricated myself from the situation, and the woman is still my friend. I did not hurt her feelings about her book, nor did I send it to my publishers with a letter of recommendation. I remarked that her central idea was all right, which was true, since it was a love story, but that it had not been properly developed and that she needed to study. She thanked me for my counsel and said she would rewrite it. I wish it might be printed just as it was, however, for it is indeed a sodden and mirthless world in which we live and move.

As the editors say on the refusal blanks, "I am always glad to read manuscripts," although, as a rule, it makes an enemy for me if I try to help the author by criticism, when only praise was expected or desired.

Having written some verse which has landed in respectable places, I am also asked about poetry. Poems written in trochaic metre with the good old rhymes, "trees and breeze," "light and night," soldered on at the end of the lines, are continually brought to me for revision and improvement.

Once, for the benefit of the literary aspirant, I brought out my rhyming dictionary, but I shall never do it again. He looked it over carefully, while I explained the advantage for the writer in having before him all the available rhymes, so that the least common might be quickly chosen and the verse made to run smoothly.

"Humph!" he said; "it's just the book. Anybody can write poetry with one of these books!"

My invaluable thesaurus is chained to my desk in order that it may not escape, and I frequently have to justify its existence when aliens penetrate my den. "It's no wonder you can write," was said to me once. "Here's all the English language right on your desk, and all you've got to do is to put it together."

"Yes," I answered wickedly, "but it's all in the dictionary too."

Last week I had a rare treat. I met a woman who had "never seen a literary person before," and who said "it was quite a novelty!" I beamed upon her, for it is very nice to be a "novelty," and after a while we became quite confidential.

"I want you to tell me just how you write," she said, "so's I can tell the folks at home. I'm going to buy some of your books to give away."

Mindful of "royalty to author," I immediately became willing to tell anything I could.

"Well, I want to know how you write. Do you just sit down and do it?"

"Yes, I just sit down and do it."

"Do you write any special time?"

"No, mornings, usually; but any time will do."

"What do you write with—a pen or a pencil?"

"Neither, I always use a typewriter."

"Why, can you write on a typewriter?"

"Yes, it's much easier than a pen, and it keeps the ink off your hands. You can write with both hands at once, you know."

"You have to write it all out with a pencil, first, don't you?"

"No, I just think into the keys."

"Wouldn't it be easier to write it with a pencil first and then copy it?"

"No, or I'd do it that way."

"Do you dress any special way when you write?"

"No, only I must be neat and also comfortable. I usually wear a shirt-waist and take off my collar. Can't write with a collar on, but I must be well groomed otherwise."

There was a long silence. The little lady was digesting the information which she had just received.

"It seems easy enough," she said. "I should think any one could write. What do you do when it is done?"

"Oh, I go all over it and revise very carefully."

"Why, do you have to go all over it, after it is done?"


"Then it takes you longer than it does most people, doesn't it?"

"I cannot say as to that. Everybody revises."

"Why, when I write a letter, if I go over it I always scratch out so much that I have to do it over."

"That's the idea, exactly," I replied. "I go over it until there isn't a thing to be scratched out, or a word to be changed."

"But you've got lots left," she said, enviously. "When I go over a letter there's hardly anything left."

Innumerable questions followed these, but at last she had her curiosity partially satisfied and turned away from me. I trust, however, that I shall some day meet her again, for she too is "a novelty!"

The mechanical part of a book is a source of great wonder to the uninitiated. My galley proofs were once passed around among the guests at a summer hotel as if they were some new strange animal. They did not understand page proofs nor plates, nor how I could ever know when it was right.

The cover is frequently commented upon as a thing of beauty (which with my publishers it always is), and I am asked if I did it. I am always sorry that I do not know enough to do covers, so I have to explain that an artist does that—that I often do not see it until the first copies come from the bindery, and that I am of such small importance that I am not often consulted in relation to the matter—being merely the poor worm who wrote the book.

There are many people who seem to be afraid to talk before me lest their pearly utterances be transformed into copy. Time and time again I have heard this: "We must be very careful what we say now, or Miss —— will put us into a book!"

People are strangely literal. An author gets no credit whatever for inventive faculty—his characters and stories are supposedly real people and real things. I am asked how I came to know so much about such and such a thing. I once wrote a love story with an unhappy ending and it was at once assumed that I had been disappointed in love!

When my first book came from the press I was pointed out at a reception as the author of it. The man surveyed me long and carefully, then he announced: "That's a mistake. That girl never wrote that book. She's too frivolous and empty headed!"

I have tried, until I am discouraged, to make people understand that a book does not have to be a verity in order to be true—that a story must be possible, instead of actual, and that actual circumstances may be too unreal for literature.

There are always people who will ask that things, even books, may be written especially for them. People often want to tell me a story and let me write it up into a nice book and divide the royalties with them! During a summer at the coast, I had endless opportunities to write biographical sketches of the guests at the hotel—to write a story and put them all into it, or to write something about anything, that they might have as "a souvenir!" As a matter of fact, there were only two people at the hotel who could have been of any possible use as copy, and one of these was a woman to whom only Mr. Stockton could have done justice.

It was hard to be always good-natured, but I lost my temper only once. We stayed late into the autumn and were rewarded by a magnificent storm. I put on my bathing suit and my mackintosh and went down to the beach, in the teeth of a northwest gale. Little needles of sand were blown in my face, and I lost my cap, but it was well worth the effort. For over an hour we stood on the desolate beach, sheltered from the sand by a bath house. I had never seen anything so grand—it was far beyond words. At last it grew dark and I was soaked through and stiff with the cold. So I went back to the hotel, my soul struck dumb by the might and glory of the sea. My heart was too full to speak. The majestic chords were still thundering in my ears; that tempest-tossed ocean was still before my eyes. On my way upstairs I met a woman whom I had formerly liked.

"Oh, Miss ——, I want you to write me a description of that storm!" I brushed past her, rudely, I fear, and she caught hold of the cape of my mackintosh with elephantine playfulness. "You can't go," she said coquettishly, "until you promise to write me a description of that storm!"

"I can't write it," I said coldly. "Please let me go."

"You've got to write it," she returned. "I know you can, and I won't let you go until you promise me."

I wrenched myself away from her, white with wrath, and got to my room before she did, though she was still pursuing me. I locked my door and had a hard fight for my self-control. From the beach came the distant boom of the surf, mingled with the liquid melody of the returning breakers.

Later, just as I had finished dressing for dinner, there was a tap at my door. My friend (?) stood there beaming. "Have you got it done? You know you promised to write me a description of that storm!"

She remained only three days longer, and I stayed away from her as much as possible, but occasional meetings were inevitable. When the gladsome time of parting came, she hung about my neck.

"I want you to come and see me," she said. "You know you haven't done what you said you would. Don't you forget to write me a description of that storm!"

My business arrangements with my publishers are seemingly a matter of public interest. I am asked how much it costs to print a book the size of mine. People are surprised to find that I do not pay the expenses and that I haven't the least idea of what it costs.

Then they want to know if the publisher buys the book of me. I explain that this is sometimes done, but that I myself am paid upon the royalty basis, —— per cent. on the list price of every copy sold. This seems painfully small to the dear public, but it is comparatively easy to demonstrate that the royalty on five or six thousand copies is quite worth while.

They shortly come to the conclusion, however, that the publishers make more money than I do, and that seems to them to be very unfair. They suggest that if I published it myself, I should make a great deal more money!

It is difficult for them to understand that writing books and selling books are two very different propositions—that I don't know enough to sell books, and that the imprint of a reputable house upon the title-page is worth a great deal to any author.

"Well," a man once said to me, "how much did you make out of your book this year?"

I explained that the percentage royalty basis was really an equal division of the profits, everything considered, and that all the financial risk was on one side. I named my few hundreds, with which I was very well satisfied. He absorbed himself in a calculation on the back of an envelope.

"I figure out," said he, at length, "that they must have made at least a third more than you did. That isn't fair!"

My ire arose. "It is perfectly fair," I replied. "Paper is cheap, I know, but composition isn't, and advertising isn't. They are welcome to every penny they can make out of my books. I'd be glad to have them make twice as much as they do now, even if my own income remained the same."

At this point, I became telepathically aware that I was considered crazy, so I changed the subject.

I am often asked how I happened to meet my publishers and "get in with them," and as a very great favour to me, and to them, I am offered the privilege of sending them some "splendid novel which was written by a friend" of somebody—as they know me, "they have decided to let my publishers have the book!"

They are surprised to hear me say that I have never met any member of the firm, though I was in the same city with them for over a year. More than this, there is nothing on earth, except a green worm, which would scare me so much as a summons to that publishing house.

I have walked by in fear and trembling. I have seen a huge pile of my books in the window, and on the bulletin board a poster which bore my name in conspicuous letters, as if I had been cured of something. But I should no more dare to go into that office than I should venture to call upon the wife of the President with a shawl over my head, and my fancywork tucked under my arm.

This is incomprehensible to the uninitiated. The publishers have ever been most courteous and kind. They are people with whom it is a pleasure to have any sort of business dealings, but we are not bosom friends—and I very much fear that they do not care to become chummy with me.

There may be some authors who have taken nerve tonics and are not afraid to meet an editor or publisher. I have even read of some who will walk cheerfully into an editorial sanctum—but I've never seen a sanctum, nor an editor, nor a publisher. I don't even write to an editor when I send him a piece—just put in a stamp. He usually knows what to do with it.

Fame, or long experience, may enable authors to meet the arbiters of their destiny without becoming frightened, but I have had brief experience, and still less fame. The admirable qualities of the pachyderm may have been bestowed upon some authors—but not on this one.

The Man Behind the Gun

Now let the eagle flap his wings And let the cannon roar, For while the conquering bullet sings We pledge the commodore. First battle of a righteous war Right royally he won, But here's a health to the jolly tar— To the man behind the gun!

Now praise be to the flag-ship's spars— To the captain in command, And honour to the Stripes and Stars For whose defence they stand; And for the pilot at his wheel Let the streams of red wine run, But here's a health to the man of steel— The man behind the gun!

Here's to the man who does not swerve In the face of any foe; Here's to the man of iron nerve, On deck and down below; Here's to the man whose heart is glad When the battle has begun; Here's to the health of that daring lad— To the man behind the gun!

Now let the Stars and Stripes float high And let the eagle soar; Until the echoes make reply We pledge the commodore. Here's to the chief and here's to war, And here's to the fleet that won, And here's a health to the jolly tar— To the man behind the gun!

Quaint Old Christmas Customs

Compared with the celebrations of our ancestors, the modern Christmas becomes a very hurried thing. The rush of the twentieth century forbids twelve days of celebration, or even two. Paterfamilias considers himself very indulgent if he gives two nights and a day to the annual festival, because, forsooth, "the office needs him!"

One by one the quaint old customs have vanished. We still have the Christmas tree, evergreens in our houses and churches, and the yawning stocking still waits in many homes for the good St. Nicholas.

But what is poor Santa Claus to do when the chimney leads to the furnace? And what of the city apartment, which boasts a radiator and gas grate, but no chimney? The myth evidently needs reconstruction to meet the times in which we live, and perhaps we shall soon see pictures of Santa Claus arriving in an automobile, and taking the elevator to the ninth floor, flat B, where a single childish stocking is hung upon the radiator.

Nearly all of the Christmas observances began in ancient Rome. The primitive Italians were wont to celebrate the winter solstice and call it the feast of Saturn. Thus Saturnalia came to mean almost any kind of celebration which came in the wake of conquest, and these ceremonies being engrafted upon Anglo-Saxon customs assumed a religious significance.

The pretty maid who hesitates and blushes beneath the overhanging branch of mistletoe, never stops to think of the grim festival with which the Druids celebrated its gathering.

In their mythology the plant was regarded with the utmost reverence, especially when found growing upon an oak.

At the time of the winter solstice, the ancient Britons, accompanied by their priests, the Druids, went out with great pomp and rejoicing to gather the mistletoe, which was believed to possess great curative powers. These processions were usually by night, to the accompaniment of flaring torches and the solemn chanting of the people. When an oak was reached on which the parasite grew, the company paused.

Two white bulls were bound to the tree and the chief Druid, clothed in white to signify purity, climbed, more or less gracefully, to the plant. It was severed from the oak, and another priest, standing below, caught it in the folds of his robe. The bulls were then sacrificed, and often, alas, human victims also. The mistletoe thus gathered was divided into small portions and distributed among the people. The tiny sprays were fastened above the doors of the houses, as propitiation to the sylvan deities during the cold season.

These rites were retained throughout the Roman occupation of Great Britain, and for some time afterward, under the sovereignty of the Jutes, the Saxons, and the Angles.

In Scandinavian mythology there is a beautiful legend of the mistletoe. Balder, the god of poetry, the son of Odin and Friga, one day told his mother that he had dreamed his death was near at hand. Much alarmed, the mother invoked all the powers of nature—earth, air, water, fire, animals and plants, and obtained from them a solemn oath that they would do her son no harm.

Then Balder fearlessly took his place in the combats of the gods and fought unharmed while showers of arrows were falling all about him.

His enemy, Loake, determined to discover the secret of his invulnerability, and, disguising himself as an old woman, went to the mother with a question of the reason of his immunity. Friga answered that she had made a charm and invoked all nature to keep from injuring her son.

"Indeed," said the old woman, "and did you ask all the animals and plants? There are so many, it seems impossible."

"All but one," answered Friga proudly; "all but a little insignificant plant which grows upon the bark of the oak. This I did not think of invoking, since so small a thing could do no harm."

Much delighted, Loake went away and gathered mistletoe. Then he entered the assembly of the gods and made his way to the blind Heda.

"Why do you not shoot with the arrows at Balder?" asked Loake.

"Alas," replied Heda, "I am blind and have no arms."

Loake then gave him an arrow tipped with mistletoe and said: "Balder is before thee." Heda shot and Balder fell, pierced through the heart.

In its natural state, the plant is believed to be propagated by the missel-thrush, which feeds upon its berries, but under favourable climatic conditions one may raise one's own mistletoe by bruising the berries on the bark of fruit trees, where they take root readily. It must be remembered, however, that the plant is a true parasite and will eventually kill whatever tree gives it nourishment.

Kissing under the mistletoe was also a custom of the Druids, and in those uncivilised days men kissed each other. For each kiss, a single white berry was plucked from the spray, and kept as a souvenir by the one who was kissed.

The burning of the Yule log was an ancient Christmas ceremony borrowed from the early Scandinavians. At their feast of Juul (pronounced Yuul), at the time of the winter solstice, they were wont to kindle huge bonfires in honour of their god Thor. The custom soon made its way to England where it is still in vogue in many parts of the country.

One may imagine an ancient feudal castle, heavily fortified, standing in splendid isolation upon a snowy hill, on that night of all others when war was forgotten and peace proclaimed. Drawn by six horses, the great Yule log was brought into the hall and rolled into the vast fireplace, where it was lighted with the charred remnants of last year's Yule log, religiously kept in some secure place as a charm against fire.

As the flames seize upon the oak and the light gleams from the castle windows, a lusty procession of wayfarers passes through, each one raising his hat as he passes the fire which burns all the evil out of the hearts of men, and up to the rafters there rings a stern old Saxon chant.

When the song was finished, the steaming wassail bowl was brought out, and all the company drank to a better understanding.

Up to the time of Henry VI, and even afterward, the Yule log was greeted with bards and minstrelsy. If a squinting person came into the hall while the log was burning, it was sure to bring bad luck. The appearance of a barefooted man was worse, and a flat-footed woman was the worst of all.

As an accompaniment to the Yule log, a monstrous Christmas candle was burned on the table at supper; even now in St. John's College at Oxford, there is an old candle socket of stone, ornamented with the figure of a lamb. What generations of gay students must have sat around that kindly light when Christmas came to Oxford!

Snap-dragon was a favourite Christmas sport at this time. Several raisins were put into a large shallow bowl and thoroughly saturated with brandy. All other lights were extinguished and the brandy ignited. By turns each one of the company tried to snatch a raisin out of the flames, singing meanwhile.

In Devonshire, they burn great bundles of ash sticks, while master and servants sit together, for once on terms of perfect equality, and drink spiced ale, and the season is one of great rejoicing.

Another custom in Devonshire is for the farmer, his family, and friends, to partake of hot cake and cider, and afterward go to the orchard and place a cake ceremoniously in the fork of a big tree, when cider is poured over it while the men fire off pistols and the women sing.

A similar libation, but of spiced ale, used to be sprinkled through the orchards and meadows of Norfolk. Midnight of Christmas was the time usually chosen for the ceremony.

In Devon and Cornwall, a belief is current that, at midnight on Christmas Eve, the cattle kneel in their stalls in honour of the Saviour, as legend claims they did in Bethlehem.

In Wales, they carry about at Christmas time a horse's skull gaily adorned with ribbons, and supported on a pole by a man who is wholly concealed by a white cloth. There is a clever contrivance for opening and shutting the jaws, and this strange creature pursues and bites all who come near it.

The figure is usually accompanied by a party of men and boys grotesquely dressed, who, on reaching a house, sing some verses, often extemporaneous, demanding admittance, and are answered in the same fashion by those within until rhymes have given out on one side or the other.

In Scotland, he who first opens the door on Christmas Day expects more good luck than will fall to the lot of other members of the family during the year, because, as the saying goes, he lets in Yule.

In Germany, Christmas Eve is the children's night, and there is a tree and presents. England and America appear to have borrowed the Christmas tree from Germany, where the custom is ancient and very generally followed.

In the smaller towns and villages in northern Germany, the presents are sent by all the parents to some one fellow who, in high buskins, white robe, mask, and flaxen wig, personates the servant, Rupert. On Christmas night he goes around to every house, and says that his master sent him. The parents and older children receive him with pomp and reverence, while the younger ones are often badly frightened.

He asks for the children, and then demands of their parents a report of their conduct during the past year. The good children are rewarded with sugar-plums and other things, while for the bad ones a rod is given to the parents with instructions to use it freely during the coming year.

In those parts of Pennsylvania where there are many German settlers, the little sinners often find birchen rods suggestively placed in their stockings on Christmas morning.

In Poland, the Christmas gifts are hidden, and the members of the family search for them.

In Sweden and Norway, the house is thoroughly cleaned, and juniper or fir branches are spread over the floor. Then each member of the family goes in turn to the bake house, or outer shed, where he takes his annual bath.

But it is back to Old England, after all, that we look for the merriest Christmas. For two or three weeks beforehand, men and boys of the poorer class, who were called "waits," sang Christmas carols under every window. Until quite recently these carols were sung all through England, and others of similar import were heard in France and Italy.

The English are said to "take their pleasures sadly," but in the matter of Christmas they can "give us cards and spades and still win." Parties of Christmas drummers used to go around to the different houses, grotesquely attired, and play all sorts of tricks. The actors were chiefly boys, and the parish beadle always went along to insure order.

The Christmas dinner of Old England was a thing capable of giving the whole nation dyspepsia if they indulged freely.

The main dish was a boar's head, roasted to a turn, and preceded by trumpets and minstrelsy. Mustard was indispensable to this dish.

Next came a peacock, skinned and roasted. The beak was gilded, and sometimes a bit of cotton, well soaked in spirits, was put into his mouth, and when he was brought to the table this was ignited, so that the bird was literally spouting fire. He was stuffed with spices, basted with yolks of eggs, and served with plenty of gravy.

Geese, capons, pheasants, carps' tongues, frumenty, and mince, or "shred" pies, made up the balance of the feast.

The chief functionary of Christmas was called "The Lord of Misrule."

In the house of king and nobleman he held full sway for twelve days. His badge was a fool's bauble and he was always attended by a page, both of them being masked. So many pranks were played, and so much mischief perpetrated which was far from being amusing, that an edict was eventually issued against this form of liberty, not to say license.

The Lord of Misrule was especially reviled by the Puritans, one of whom set him down as "a grande captain of mischiefe." One may easily imagine that this stern old gentleman had been ducked by a party of revellers following in the wake of the lawless "Captaine" because he had refused to contribute to their entertainment.

We need not lament the passing of Christmas pageantry, if the spirit of the festival remains. Through the centuries that have passed since the first Christmas, the spirit of it has wandered in and out like a golden thread in a dull tapestry, sometimes hidden, but never wholly lost. It behooves us to keep well and reverently such Christmas as we have, else we shall share old Ben Jonson's lament in The Mask of Father Christmas, which was presented before the English Court nearly two hundred years ago:

"Any man or woman ... that can give any knowledge, or tell any tidings of an old, very old, grey haired gentleman called Christmas, who was wont to be a very familiar ghest, and visit all sorts of people both pore and rich, and used to appear in glittering gold, silk and silver in the court, and in all shapes in the theatre in Whitehall, and had singing, feasts and jolitie in all places, both citie and countrie for his coming—whosoever can tel what is become of him, or where he may be found, let them bring him back again into England."


Cathedral spire and lofty architrave, Nor priestly rite and humble reverence, Nor costly fires of myrrh and frankincense May give the consecration that we crave; Upon the shore where tides forever lave With grateful coolness on the fevered sense; Where passion grows to silence, rapt, intense, There waits the chrismal fountain of the wave.

By rock-hewn altars where is said no word, Save by the deep that calleth unto deep, While organ tones of sea resound above; The truth of truths our inmost souls have heard, And in our hearts communion wine we keep, For He Himself hath said it—"God is Love!"


Minor changes have been made to correct typesetters' errors; otherwise, every effort has been made to remain true to the author's words and intent.


Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse