ON THE EXCEPTIONAL MERIT ATTACHING TO THE THINGS WE MEANT TO DO
I can remember--but then I can remember a long time ago. You,
gentle Reader, just entering upon the prime of life, that age by
thoughtless youth called middle, I cannot, of course, expect to
follow me--when there was in great demand a certain periodical
ycleped The Amateur. Its aim was noble. It sought to teach the
beautiful lesson of independence, to inculcate the fine doctrine of
self-help. One chapter explained to a man how he might make
flower-pots out of Australian meat cans; another how he might turn
butter-tubs into music-stools; a third how he might utilize old
bonnet boxes for Venetian blinds: that was the principle of the
whole scheme, you made everything from something not intended for
it, and as ill-suited to the purpose as possible.
Two pages, I distinctly recollect, were devoted to the encouragement
of the manufacture of umbrella stands out of old gaspiping.
Anything less adapted to the receipt of hats and umbrellas than
gas-piping I cannot myself conceive: had there been, I feel sure the
author would have thought of it, and would have recommended it.
Picture-frames you fashioned out of gingerbeer corks. You saved
your ginger-beer corks, you found a picture--and the thing was
complete. How much ginger-beer it would be necessary to drink,
preparatory to the making of each frame; and the effect of it upon
the frame-maker's physical, mental and moral well-being, did not
concern The Amateur. I calculate that for a fair-sized picture
sixteen dozen bottles might suffice. Whether, after sixteen dozen
of ginger-beer, a man would take any interest in framing a picture--
whether he would retain any pride in the picture itself, is
doubtful. But this, of course, was not the point.
One young gentleman of my acquaintance--the son of the gardener of
my sister, as friend Ollendorff would have described him--did
succeed in getting through sufficient ginger-beer to frame his
grandfather, but the result was not encouraging. Indeed, the
gardener's wife herself was but ill satisfied.
"What's all them corks round father?" was her first question.
"Can't you see," was the somewhat indignant reply, "that's the
"Oh! but why corks?"
"Well, the book said corks."
Still the old lady remained unimpressed.
"Somehow it don't look like father now," she sighed.
Her eldest born grew irritable: none of us appreciate criticism!
"What does it look like, then?" he growled.
"Well, I dunno. Seems to me to look like nothing but corks."
The old lady's view was correct. Certain schools of art possibly
lend themselves to this method of framing. I myself have seen a
funeral card improved by it; but, generally speaking, the
consequence was a predominance of frame at the expense of the thing
framed. The more honest and tasteful of the framemakers would admit
as much themselves.
"Yes, it is ugly when you look at it," said one to me, as we stood
surveying it from the centre of the room. "But what one feels about
it is that one has done it oneself."
Which reflection, I have noticed, reconciles us to many other things
beside cork frames.
Another young gentleman friend of mine--for I am bound to admit it
was youth that profited most by the advice and counsel of The
Amateur: I suppose as one grows older one grows less daring, less
industrious--made a rocking-chair, according to the instructions of
this book, out of a couple of beer barrels. From every practical
point of view it was a bad rocking-chair. It rocked too much, and
it rocked in too many directions at one and the same time. I take
it, a man sitting on a rocking-chair does not want to be continually
rocking. There comes a time when he says to himself--"Now I have
rocked sufficiently for the present; now I will sit still for a
while, lest a worse thing befall me." But this was one of those
headstrong rocking-chairs that are a danger to humanity, and a
nuisance to themselves. Its notion was that it was made to rock,
and that when it was not rocking, it was wasting its time. Once
started nothing could stop it--nothing ever did stop it, until it
found itself topsy turvy on its own occupant. That was the only
thing that ever sobered it.
I had called, and had been shown into the empty drawing-room. The
rocking-chair nodded invitingly at me. I never guessed it was an
amateur rocking-chair. I was young in those days, with faith in
human nature, and I imagined that, whatever else a man might attempt
without knowledge or experience, no one would be fool enough to
experiment upon a rocking-chair.
I threw myself into it lightly and carelessly. I immediately
noticed the ceiling. I made an instinctive movement forward. The
window and a momentary glimpse of the wooded hills beyond shot
upwards and disappeared. The carpet flashed across my eyes, and I
caught sight of my own boots vanishing beneath me at the rate of
about two hundred miles an hour. I made a convulsive effort to
recover them. I suppose I over-did it. I saw the whole of the room
at once, the four walls, the ceiling, and the floor at the same
moment. It was a sort of vision. I saw the cottage piano upside
down, and I again saw my own boots flash past me, this time over my
head, soles uppermost. Never before had I been in a position where
my own boots had seemed so all-pervading. The next moment I lost my
boots, and stopped the carpet with my head just as it was rushing
past me. At the same instant something hit me violently in the
small of the back. Reason, when recovered, suggested that my
assailant must be the rocking-chair.
Investigation proved the surmise correct. Fortunately I was still
alone, and in consequence was able, a few minutes later, to meet my
hostess with calm and dignity. I said nothing about the
rocking-chair. As a matter of fact, I was hoping to have the
pleasure, before I went, of seeing some other guest arrive and
sample it: I had purposely replaced it in the most prominent and
convenient position. But though I felt capable of schooling myself
to silence, I found myself unable to agree with my hostess when she
called for my admiration of the thing. My recent experiences had
too deeply embittered me.
"Willie made it himself," explained the fond mother. "Don't you
think it was very clever of him?"
"Oh yes, it was clever," I replied, "I am willing to admit that."
"He made it out of some old beer barrels," she continued; she seemed
proud of it.
My resentment, though I tried to keep it under control, was mounting
"Oh! did he?" I said; "I should have thought he might have found
something better to do with them."
"What?" she asked.
"Oh! well, many things," I retorted. "He might have filled them
again with beer."
My hostess looked at me astonished. I felt some reason for my tone
"You see," I explained, "it is not a well-made chair. These rockers
are too short, and they are too curved, and one of them, if you
notice, is higher than the other and of a smaller radius; the back
is at too obtuse an angle. When it is occupied the centre of
My hostess interrupted me.
"You have been sitting on it," she said.
"Not for long," I assured her.
Her tone changed. She became apologetic.
"I am so sorry," she said. "It looks all right."
"It does," I agreed; "that is where the dear lad's cleverness
displays itself. Its appearance disarms suspicion. With judgment
that chair might be made to serve a really useful purpose. There
are mutual acquaintances of ours--I mention no names, you will know
them--pompous, self-satisfied, superior persons who would be
improved by that chair. If I were Willie I should disguise the
mechanism with some artistic drapery, bait the thing with a couple
of exceptionally inviting cushions, and employ it to inculcate
modesty and diffidence. I defy any human being to get out of that
chair, feeling as important as when he got into it. What the dear
boy has done has been to construct an automatic exponent of the
transitory nature of human greatness. As a moral agency that chair
should prove a blessing in disguise."
My hostess smiled feebly; more, I fear, from politeness than genuine
"I think you are too severe," she said. "When you remember that the
boy has never tried his hand at anything of the kind before, that he
has no knowledge and no experience, it really is not so bad."
Considering the matter from that point of view I was bound to
concur. I did not like to suggest to her that before entering upon
a difficult task it would be better for young men to ACQUIRE
knowledge and experience: that is so unpopular a theory.
But the thing that The Amateur put in the front and foremost of its
propaganda was the manufacture of household furniture out of
egg-boxes. Why egg-boxes I have never been able to understand, but
egg-boxes, according to the prescription of The Amateur, formed the
foundation of household existence. With a sufficient supply of
egg-boxes, and what The Amateur termed a "natural deftness," no
young couple need hesitate to face the furnishing problem. Three
egg-boxes made a writing-table; on another egg-box you sat to write;
your books were ranged in egg-boxes around you--and there was your
For the dining-room two egg-boxes made an overmantel; four egg-boxes
and a piece of looking-glass a sideboard; while six egg-boxes, with
some wadding and a yard or so of cretonne, constituted a so-called
"cosy corner." About the "corner" there could be no possible doubt.
You sat on a corner, you leant against a corner; whichever way you
moved you struck a fresh corner. The "cosiness," however, I deny.
Egg-boxes I admit can be made useful; I am even prepared to imagine
them ornamental; but "cosy," no. I have sampled egg-boxes in many
shapes. I speak of years ago, when the world and we were younger,
when our fortune was the Future; secure in which, we hesitated not
to set up house upon incomes folks with lesser expectations might
have deemed insufficient. Under such circumstances, the sole
alternative to the egg-box, or similar school of furniture, would
have been the strictly classical, consisting of a doorway joined to
I have from Saturday to Monday, as honoured guest, hung my clothes
I have sat on an egg-box at an egg-box to take my dish of tea. I
have made love on egg-boxes.--Aye, and to feel again the blood
running through my veins as then it ran, I would be content to sit
only on egg-boxes till the time should come when I could be buried
in an egg-box, with an egg-box reared above me as tombstone.--I have
spent many an evening on an egg-box; I have gone to bed in
egg-boxes. They have their points--I am intending no pun--but to
claim for them cosiness would be but to deceive.
How quaint they were, those home-made rooms! They rise out of the
shadows and shape themselves again before my eyes. I see the
knobbly sofa; the easy-chairs that might have been designed by the
Grand Inquisitor himself; the dented settle that was a bed by night;
the few blue plates, purchased in the slums off Wardour Street; the
enamelled stool to which one always stuck; the mirror framed in
silk; the two Japanese fans crossed beneath each cheap engraving;
the piano cloth embroidered in peacock's feathers by Annie's sister;
the tea-cloth worked by Cousin Jenny. We dreamt, sitting on those
egg-boxes--for we were young ladies and gentlemen with artistic
taste--of the days when we would eat in Chippendale dining-rooms;
sip our coffee in Louis Quatorze drawing-rooms; and be happy. Well,
we have got on, some of us, since then, as Mr. Bumpus used to say;
and I notice, when on visits, that some of us have contrived so that
we do sit on Chippendale chairs, at Sheraton dining-tables, and are
warmed from Adam's fireplaces; but, ah me, where are the dreams, the
hopes, the enthusiasms that clung like the scent of a March morning
about those gim-crack second floors? In the dustbin, I fear, with
the cretonne-covered egg-boxes and the penny fans. Fate is so
terribly even-handed. As she gives she ever takes away. She flung
us a few shillings and hope, where now she doles us out pounds and
fears. Why did not we know how happy we were, sitting crowned with
sweet conceit upon our egg-box thrones?
Yes, Dick, you have climbed well. You edit a great newspaper. You
spread abroad the message--well, the message that Sir Joseph
Goldbug, your proprietor, instructs you to spread abroad. You teach
mankind the lessons that Sir Joseph Goldbug wishes them to learn.
They say he is to have a peerage next year. I am sure he has earned
it; and perhaps there may be a knighthood for you, Dick.
Tom, you are getting on now. You have abandoned those unsaleable
allegories. What rich art patron cares to be told continually by
his own walls that Midas had ass's ears; that Lazarus sits ever at
the gate? You paint portraits now, and everybody tells me you are
the coming man. That "Impression" of old Lady Jezebel was really
wonderful. The woman looks quite handsome, and yet it is her
ladyship. Your touch is truly marvellous.
But into your success, Tom--Dick, old friend, do not there creep
moments when you would that we could fish up those old egg-boxes
from the past, refurnish with them the dingy rooms in Camden Town,
and find there our youth, our loves, and our beliefs?
An incident brought back to my mind, the other day, the thought of
all these things. I called for the first time upon a man, an actor,
who had asked me to come and see him in the little home where he
lives with his old father. To my astonishment--for the craze, I
believe, has long since died out--I found the house half furnished
out of packing cases, butter tubs, and egg-boxes. My friend earns
his twenty pounds a week, but it was the old father's hobby, so he
explained to me, the making of these monstrosities; and of them he
was as proud as though they were specimen furniture out of the South
He took me into the dining-room to show me the latest outrage--a new
book-case. A greater disfigurement to the room, which was otherwise
prettily furnished, could hardly be imagined. There was no need for
him to assure me, as he did, that it had been made out of nothing
but egg-boxes. One could see at a glance that it was made out of
egg-boxes, and badly constructed egg-boxes at that--egg-boxes that
were a disgrace to the firm that had turned them out; egg-boxes not
worthy the storage of "shop 'uns" at eighteen the shilling.
We went upstairs to my friend's bedroom. He opened the door as a
man might open the door of a museum of gems.
"The old boy," he said, as he stood with his hand upon the
door-knob, "made everything you see here, everything," and we
entered. He drew my attention to the wardrobe. "Now I will hold it
up," he said, "while you pull the door open; I think the floor must
be a bit uneven, it wobbles if you are not careful." It wobbled
notwithstanding, but by coaxing and humouring we succeeded without
mishap. I was surprised to notice a very small supply of clothes
within, although my friend is a dressy man.
"You see," he explained, "I dare not use it more than I can help. I
am a clumsy chap, and as likely as not, if I happened to be in a
hurry, I'd have the whole thing over:" which seemed probable.
I asked him how he contrived. "I dress in the bath-room as a rule,"
he replied; "I keep most of my things there. Of course the old boy
He showed me a chest of drawers. One drawer stood half open.
"I'm bound to leave that drawer open," he said; "I keep the things I
use in that. They don't shut quite easily, these drawers; or
rather, they shut all right, but then they won't open. It is the
weather, I think. They will open and shut all right in the summer,
I dare say." He is of a hopeful disposition.
But the pride of the room was the washstand.
"What do you think of this?" cried he enthusiastically, "real marble
He did not expatiate further. In his excitement he had laid his
hand upon the thing, with the natural result that it collapsed.
More by accident than design I caught the jug in my arms. I also
caught the water it contained. The basin rolled on its edge and
little damage was done, except to me and the soap-box.
I could not pump up much admiration for this washstand; I was
feeling too wet.
"What do you do when you want to wash?" I asked, as together we
reset the trap.
There fell upon him the manner of a conspirator revealing secrets.
He glanced guiltily round the room; then, creeping on tip-toe, he
opened a cupboard behind the bed. Within was a tin basin and a
"Don't tell the old boy," he said. "I keep these things here, and
wash on the floor."
That was the best thing I myself ever got out of egg-boxes--that
picture of a deceitful son stealthily washing himself upon the floor
behind the bed, trembling at every footstep lest it might be the
"old boy" coming to the door.
One wonders whether the Ten Commandments are so all-sufficient as we
good folk deem them--whether the eleventh is not worth the whole
pack of them: "that ye love one another" with just a common-place,
human, practical love. Could not the other ten be comfortably
stowed away into a corner of that! One is inclined, in one's
anarchic moments, to agree with Louis Stevenson, that to be amiable
and cheerful is a good religion for a work-a-day world. We are so
busy NOT killing, NOT stealing, NOT coveting our neighbour's wife,
we have not time to be even just to one another for the little while
we are together here. Need we be so cocksure that our present list
of virtues and vices is the only possibly correct and complete one?
Is the kind, unselfish man necessarily a villain because he does not
always succeed in suppressing his natural instincts? Is the
narrow-hearted, sour-souled man, incapable of a generous thought or
act, necessarily a saint because he has none? Have we not--we unco
guid--arrived at a wrong method of estimating our frailer brothers
and sisters? We judge them, as critics judge books, not by the good
that is in them, but by their faults. Poor King David! What would
the local Vigilance Society have had to say to him?
Noah, according to our plan, would be denounced from every teetotal
platform in the country, and Ham would head the Local Vestry poll as
a reward for having exposed him. And St. Peter! weak, frail St.
Peter, how lucky for him that his fellow-disciples and their Master
were not as strict in their notions of virtue as are we to-day.
Have we not forgotten the meaning of the word "virtue"? Once it
stood for the good that was in a man, irrespective of the evil that
might lie there also, as tares among the wheat. We have abolished
virtue, and for it substituted virtues. Not the hero--he was too
full of faults--but the blameless valet; not the man who does any
good, but the man who has not been found out in any evil, is our
modern ideal. The most virtuous thing in nature, according to this
new theory, should be the oyster. He is always at home, and always
sober. He is not noisy. He gives no trouble to the police. I
cannot think of a single one of the Ten Commandments that he ever
breaks. He never enjoys himself, and he never, so long as he lives,
gives a moment's pleasure to any other living thing.
I can imagine the oyster lecturing a lion on the subject of
"You never hear me," the oyster might say, "howling round camps and
villages, making night hideous, frightening quiet folk out of their
lives. Why don't you go to bed early, as I do? I never prowl round
the oyster-bed, fighting other gentlemen oysters, making love to
lady oysters already married. I never kill antelopes or
missionaries. Why can't you live as I do on salt water and germs,
or whatever it is that I do live on? Why don't you try to be more
An oyster has no evil passions, therefore we say he is a virtuous
fish. We never ask ourselves--"Has he any good passions?" A lion's
behaviour is often such as no just man could condone. Has he not
his good points also?
Will the fat, sleek, "virtuous" man be as Welcome at the gate of
heaven as he supposes?
"Well," St. Peter may say to him, opening the door a little way and
looking him up and down, "what is it now?"
"It's me," the virtuous man will reply, with an oily, self-satisfied
smile; "I should say, I--I've come."
"Yes, I see you have come; but what is your claim to admittance?
What have you done with your three score years and ten?"
"Done!" the virtuous man will answer, "I have done nothing, I assure
"Nothing; that is my strong point; that is why I am here. I have
never done any wrong."
"And what good have you done?"
"Aye, what good? Do not you even know the meaning of the word?
What human creature is the better for your having eaten and drunk
and slept these years? You have done no harm--no harm to yourself.
Perhaps, if you had you might have done some good with it; the two
are generally to be found together down below, I remember. What
good have you done that you should enter here? This is no mummy
chamber; this is the place of men and women who have lived, who have
wrought good--and evil also, alas!--for the sinners who fight for
the right, not the righteous who run with their souls from the
It was not, however, to speak of these things that I remembered The
Amateur and its lessons. My intention was but to lead up to the
story of a certain small boy, who in the doing of tasks not required
of him was exceedingly clever. I wish to tell you his story,
because, as do most true tales, it possesses a moral, and stories
without a moral I deem to be but foolish literature, resembling
roads that lead to nowhere, such as sick folk tramp for exercise.
I have known this little boy to take an expensive eight-day clock to
pieces, and make of it a toy steamboat. True, it was not, when
made, very much of a steamboat; but taking into consideration all
the difficulties--the inadaptability of eight-day clock machinery to
steamboat requirements, the necessity of getting the work
accomplished quickly, before conservatively-minded people with no
enthusiasm for science could interfere--a good enough steamboat.
With merely an ironing-board and a few dozen meat-skewers, he
would--provided the ironing-board was not missed in time--turn out
quite a practicable rabbit-hutch. He could make a gun out of an
umbrella and a gas-bracket, which, if not so accurate as a
Martini-Henry, was, at all events, more deadly. With half the
garden-hose, a copper scalding-pan out of the dairy, and a few
Dresden china ornaments off the drawing-room mantelpiece, he would
build a fountain for the garden. He could make bookshelves out of
kitchen tables, and crossbows out of crinolines. He could dam you a
stream so that all the water would flow over the croquet lawn. He
knew how to make red paint and oxygen gas, together with many other
suchlike commodities handy to have about a house. Among other
things he learned how to make fireworks, and after a few explosions
of an unimportant character, came to make them very well indeed.
The boy who can play a good game of cricket is liked. The boy who
can fight well is respected. The boy who can cheek a master is
loved. But the boy who can make fireworks is revered above all
others as a boy belonging to a superior order of beings. The fifth
of November was at hand, and with the consent of an indulgent
mother, he determined to give to the world a proof of his powers. A
large party of friends, relatives, and school-mates was invited, and
for a fortnight beforehand the scullery was converted into a
manufactory for fireworks. The female servants went about in hourly
terror of their lives, and the villa, did we judge exclusively by
smell, one might have imagined had been taken over by Satan, his
main premises being inconveniently crowded, as an annex. By the
evening of the fourth all was in readiness, and samples were tested
to make sure that no contretemps should occur the following night.
All was found to be perfect.
The rockets rushed heavenward and descended in stars, the Roman
candles tossed their fiery balls into the darkness, the Catherine
wheels sparkled and whirled, the crackers cracked, and the squibs
banged. That night he went to bed a proud and happy boy, and
dreamed of fame. He stood surrounded by blazing fireworks, and the
vast crowd cheered him. His relations, most of whom, he knew,
regarded him as the coming idiot of the family, were there to
witness his triumph; so too was Dickey Bowles, who laughed at him
because he could not throw straight. The girl at the bun-shop, she
also was there, and saw that he was clever.
The night of the festival arrived, and with it the guests. They
sat, wrapped up in shawls and cloaks, outside the hall door--uncles,
cousins, aunts, little boys and big boys, little girls and big
girls, with, as the theatre posters say, villagers and retainers,
some forty of them in all, and waited.
But the fireworks did not go off. Why they did not go off I cannot
explain; nobody ever COULD explain. The laws of nature seemed to be
suspended for that night only. The rockets fell down and died where
they stood. No human agency seemed able to ignite the squibs. The
crackers gave one bang and collapsed. The Roman candles might have
been English rushlights. The Catherine wheels became mere revolving
glow-worms. The fiery serpents could not collect among them the
spirit of a tortoise. The set piece, a ship at sea, showed one mast
and the captain, and then went out. One or two items did their
duty, but this only served to render the foolishness of the whole
more striking. The little girls giggled, the little boys chaffed,
the aunts and cousins said it was beautiful, the uncles inquired if
it was all over, and talked about supper and trains, the "villagers
and retainers" dispersed laughing, the indulgent mother said "never
mind," and explained how well everything had gone off yesterday; the
clever little boy crept upstairs to his room, and blubbered his
heart out in the dark.
Hours later, when the crowd had forgotten him, he stole out again
into the garden. He sat down amid the ruins of his hope, and
wondered what could have caused the fiasco. Still puzzled, he drew
from his pocket a box of matches, and, lighting one, he held it to
the seared end of a rocket he had tried in vain to light four hours
ago. It smouldered for an instant, then shot with a swish into the
air and broke into a hundred points of fire. He tried another and
another with the same result. He made a fresh attempt to fire the
set piece. Point by point the whole picture--minus the captain and
one mast--came out of the night, and stood revealed in all the
majesty of flame. Its sparks fell upon the piled-up heap of
candles, wheels, and rockets that a little while before had
obstinately refused to burn, and that, one after another, had been
thrown aside as useless. Now with the night frost upon them, they
leaped to light in one grand volcanic eruption. And in front of the
gorgeous spectacle he stood with only one consolation--his mother's
hand in his.
The whole thing was a mystery to him at the time, but, as he learned
to know life better, he came to understand that it was only one
example of a solid but inexplicable fact, ruling all human
affairs--YOUR FIREWORKS WON'T GO OFF WHILE THE CROWD IS AROUND.
Our brilliant repartees do not occur to us till the door is closed
upon us and we are alone in the street, or, as the French would say,
are coming down the stairs. Our after-dinner oratory, that sounded
so telling as we delivered it before the looking-glass, falls
strangely flat amidst the clinking of the glasses. The passionate
torrent of words we meant to pour into her ear becomes a halting
rigmarole, at which--small blame to her--she only laughs.
I would, gentle Reader, you could hear the stories that I meant to
tell you. You judge me, of course, by the stories of mine that you
have read--by this sort of thing, perhaps; but that is not just to
me. The stories I have not told you, that I am going to tell you
one day, I would that you judge me by those.
They are so beautiful; you will say so; over them, you will laugh
and cry with me.
They come into my brain unbidden, they clamour to be written, yet
when I take my pen in hand they are gone. It is as though they were
shy of publicity, as though they would say to me--"You alone, you
shall read us, but you must not write us; we are too real, too true.
We are like the thoughts you cannot speak. Perhaps a little later,
when you know more of life, then you shall tell us."
Next to these in merit I would place, were I writing a critical
essay on myself, the stories I have begun to write and that remain
unfinished, why I cannot explain to myself. They are good stories,
most of them; better far than the stories I have accomplished.
Another time, perhaps, if you care to listen, I will tell you the
beginning of one or two and you shall judge. Strangely enough, for
I have always regarded myself as a practical, commonsensed man, so
many of these still-born children of my mind I find, on looking
through the cupboard where their thin bodies lie, are ghost stories.
I suppose the hope of ghosts is with us all. The world grows
somewhat interesting to us heirs of all the ages. Year by year,
Science with broom and duster tears down the moth-worn tapestry,
forces the doors of the locked chambers, lets light into the secret
stairways, cleans out the dungeons, explores the hidden passages--
finding everywhere only dust. This echoing old castle, the world,
so full of mystery in the days when we were children, is losing
somewhat its charm for us as we grow older. The king sleeps no
longer in the hollow of the hills. We have tunnelled through his
mountain chamber. We have shivered his beard with our pick. We
have driven the gods from Olympus. No wanderer through the moonlit
groves now fears or hopes the sweet, death-giving gleam of
Aphrodite's face. Thor's hammer echoes not among the peaks--'tis
but the thunder of the excursion train. We have swept the woods of
the fairies. We have filtered the sea of its nymphs. Even the
ghosts are leaving us, chased by the Psychical Research Society.
Perhaps of all, they are the least, however, to be regretted. They
were dull old fellows, clanking their rusty chains and groaning and
sighing. Let them go.
And yet how interesting they might be, if only they would. The old
gentleman in the coat of mail, who lived in King John's reign, who
was murdered, so they say, on the outskirts of the very wood I can
see from my window as I write--stabbed in the back, poor gentleman,
as he was riding home, his body flung into the moat that to this day
is called Tor's tomb. Dry enough it is now, and the primroses love
its steep banks; but a gloomy enough place in those days, no doubt,
with its twenty feet of stagnant water. Why does he haunt the
forest paths at night, as they tell me he does, frightening the
children out of their wits, blanching the faces and stilling the
laughter of the peasant lads and lasses, slouching home from the
village dance? Instead, why does he not come up here and talk to
me? He should have my easy-chair and welcome, would he only be
cheerful and companionable.
What brave tales could he not tell me. He fought in the first
Crusade, heard the clarion voice of Peter, met the great Godfrey
face to face, stood, hand on sword-hilt, at Runny-mede, perhaps.
Better than a whole library of historical novels would an evening's
chat be with such a ghost. What has he done with his eight hundred
years of death? where has he been? what has he seen? Maybe he has
visited Mars; has spoken to the strange spirits who can live in the
liquid fires of Jupiter. What has he learned of the great secret?
Has he found the truth? or is he, even as I, a wanderer still
seeking the unknown?
You, poor, pale, grey nun--they tell me that of midnights one may
see your white face peering from the ruined belfry window, hear the
clash of sword and shield among the cedar-trees beneath.
It was very sad, I quite understand, my dear lady. Your lovers both
were killed, and you retired to a convent. Believe me, I am
sincerely sorry for you, but why waste every night renewing the
whole painful experience? Would it not be better forgotten? Good
Heavens, madam, suppose we living folk were to spend our lives
wailing and wringing our hands because of the wrongs done to us when
we were children? It is all over now. Had he lived, and had you
married him, you might not have been happy. I do not wish to say
anything unkind, but marriages founded upon the sincerest mutual
love have sometimes turned out unfortunately, as you must surely
Do take my advice. Talk the matter over with the young men
themselves. Persuade them to shake hands and be friends. Come in,
all of you, out of the cold, and let us have some reasonable talk.
Why seek you to trouble us, you poor pale ghosts? Are we not your
children? Be our wise friends. Tell me, how loved the young men in
your young days? how answered the maidens? Has the world changed
much, do you think? Had you not new women even then? girls who
hated the everlasting tapestry frame and spinning-wheel? Your
father's servants, were they so much worse off than the freemen who
live in our East-end slums and sew slippers for fourteen hours a day
at a wage of nine shillings a week? Do you think Society much
improved during the last thousand years? Is it worse? is it better?
or is it, on the whole, about the same, save that we call things by
other names? Tell me, what have YOU learned?
Yet might not familiarity breed contempt, even for ghosts.
One has had a tiring day's shooting. One is looking forward to
one's bed. As one opens the door, however, a ghostly laugh comes
from behind the bed-curtains, and one groans inwardly, knowing what
is in store for one: a two or three hours' talk with rowdy old Sir
Lanval--he of the lance. We know all his tales by heart, and he
will shout them. Suppose our aunt, from whom we have expectations,
and who sleeps in the next room, should wake and overhear! They
were fit and proper enough stories, no doubt, for the Round Table,
but we feel sure our aunt would not appreciate them:--that story
about Sir Agravain and the cooper's wife! and he always will tell
Or imagine the maid entering after dinner to say--
"Oh, if you please, sir, here is the veiled lady."
"What, again!" says your wife, looking up from her work.
"Yes, ma'am; shall I show her up into the bedroom?"
"You had better ask your master," is the reply. The tone is
suggestive of an unpleasant five minutes so soon as the girl shall
have withdrawn, but what are you to do?
"Yes, yes, show her up," you say, and the girl goes out, closing the
Your wife gathers her work together, and rises.
"Where are you going?" you ask.
"To sleep with the children," is the frigid answer.
"It will look so rude," you urge. "We must be civil to the poor
thing; and you see it really is her room, as one might say. She has
always haunted it. "
"It is very curious," returns the wife of your bosom, still more
icily, "that she never haunts it except when you are down here.
Where she goes when you are in town I'm sure I don't know."
This is unjust. You cannot restrain your indignation.
"What nonsense you talk, Elizabeth," you reply; "I am only barely
polite to her."
"Some men have such curious notions of politeness," returns
Elizabeth. "But pray do not let us quarrel. I am only anxious not
to disturb you. Two are company, you know. I don't choose to be
the third, that's all." With which she goes out.
And the veiled lady is still waiting for you up-stairs. You wonder
how long she will stop, also what will happen after she is gone.
I fear there is no room for you, ghosts, in this our world. You
remember how they came to Hiawatha--the ghosts of the departed loved
ones. He had prayed to them that they would come back to him to
comfort him, so one day they crept into his wigwam, sat in silence
round his fireside, chilled the air for Hiawatha, froze the smiles
of Laughing Water.
There is no room for you, oh you poor pale ghosts, in this our
world. Do not trouble us. Let us forget. You, stout elderly
matron, your thin locks turning grey, your eyes grown weak, your
chin more ample, your voice harsh with much scolding and
complaining, needful, alas! to household management, I pray you
leave me. I loved you while you lived. How sweet, how beautiful
you were. I see you now in your white frock among the
apple-blossom. But you are dead, and your ghost disturbs my dreams.
I would it haunted me not.
You, dull old fellow, looking out at me from the glass at which I
shave, why do you haunt me? You are the ghost of a bright lad I
once knew well. He might have done much, had he lived. I always
had faith in him. Why do you haunt me? I would rather think of him
as I remember him. I never imagined he would make such a poor