THE BOOK-BILLS OF NARCISSUS
AN ACCOUNT RENDERED BY RICHARD LE GALLIENNE
WITH A FRONTISPIECE BY ROBERT FOWLER
TABLE OF CHAPTERS
II. STILL INTRODUCTORY, BUT THIS TIME
OF A GREATER THAN THE WRITER
III. IN WHICH NARCISSUS OPENS HIS 'GLADSTONE'
IV. ACCOUNTS RENDERED
V. AN IDYLL OF ALICE SUNSHINE, WHICH
REALLY BELONGS TO THE LAST CHAPTER
VI. THE SIBYLLINE BOOKS
VII. THE CHILDREN OF APOLLO
VIII. GEORGE MUNCASTER
IX. THAT THIRTEENTH MAID
X. 'IN VISHNU-LAND WHAT AVATAR?'
Always thy book, too late acknowledged thine,
Now when thine eyes no earthly page may read;
Blinded with death, or blinded with the shine
Of love's own lore celestial. Small need,
Forsooth, for thee to read my earthly line,
That on immortal flowers of fancy feed;
What should my angel do to stoop to mine,
Flowers of decay of no immortal seed.
Yet, love, if in thy lofty dwelling-place,
Higher than notes of any soaring bird,
Beyond the beam of any solar light,
A song of earth may scale the awful height,
And at thy heavenly window find thy face--
know my voice shall never fall unheard.
_December 6th,_ 1894.
NOTE.--_This third edition has been revised, and Chapter V. is entirely
INTRODUCTORY--A WORD OF WISDOM, FOUND WRITTEN, LIKE THE MOST ANCIENT, ON
'Ah! old men's boots don't go there, sir!' said the bootmaker to me one
day, as he pointed to the toes of a pair I had just brought him for
mending. It was a significant observation, I thought; and as I went on
my way home, writing another such chronicle with every springing step,
it filled me with much reflection--largely of the nature of platitude, I
have little doubt: such reflection, Reader, as is even already, I doubt
less, rippling the surface of your mind with ever-widening circles. Yes!
you sigh with an air, it is in the unconscious autobiographies we are
every moment writing--not those we publish in two volumes and a
supplement--where the truth about us is hid. Truly it is a thought that
has 'thrilled dead bosoms,' I agree, but why be afraid of it for that,
Reader? Truth is not become a platitude only in our day. 'The Preacher'
knew it for such some considerable time ago, and yet he did not fear to
'write and set in order many proverbs.'
You have kept a diary for how many years? Thirty? dear me! But have you
kept your wine-bills? If you ever engage me to write that life, which,
of course, must some day be written--I wouldn't write it myself--don't
trouble about your diary. Lend me your private ledger. 'There the action
lies in his true nature.'
Yet I should hardly, perhaps, have evoked this particular corollary from
that man of leather's observation, if I had not chanced one evening to
come across those old book-bills of my friend Narcissus, about which I
have undertaken to write here, and been struck--well-nigh awe-struck--by
the wonderful manner in which there lay revealed in them the story of
the years over which they ran. To a stranger, I am sure, they would be
full of meaning; but to me, who lived so near him through so much of the
time, how truly pregnant does each briefest entry seem.
To Messrs. Oldbuck and Sons they, alas! often came to be but so many
accounts rendered; to you, being a philosopher, they would, as I have
said, mean more; but to me they mean all that great sunrise, the youth
Many modern poets, still young enough, are fond of telling us where
their youth lies buried. That of Narcissus--would ye know--rests among
these old accounts. Lo! I would perform an incantation. I throw these
old leaves into the _elixir vitae_ of sweet memory, as Dr. Heidegger
that old rose into his wonderful crystal water. Have I power to make
Narcissus' rose to bloom again, so that you may know something of the
beauty it wore for us? I wonder. I would I had. I must try.
STILL INTRODUCTORY, BUT THIS TIME OF A GREATER THAN THE WRITER
On the left-hand side of Tithefields, just as one turns out of Prince
Street, in a certain well-known Lancashire town, is the unobtrusive
bookshop of Mr. Samuel Dale. It must, however, be a very superficial
glance which does not discover in it something characteristic,
distinguishing it from other 'second-hand' shops of the same size and
There are, alas! treatises on farriery in the window; geographies,
chemistries, and French grammars, on the trestles outside; for Samuel,
albeit so great a philosopher as indeed to have founded quite a school,
must nevertheless live. Those two cigars and that 'noggin' of whiskey,
which he purchases with such a fine solemnity as he and I go home
together for occasional symposia in his bachelor lodging--those, I say,
come not without sale of such treatises, such geographies, chemistries,
and French grammars.
But I am digressing. There is a distinguishing air, I but meant to say,
about the little shop. Looking closer, one generally finds that it comes
of a choice bit of old binding, or the quaint title-page of some tuneful
Elizabethan. It was an old Crashaw that first drew me inside; and,
though for some reason I did not buy it then, I bought it a year after,
because to it I owed the friendship of Samuel Dale.
And thus for three bright years that little shop came to be, for a daily
hour or so, a blessed palm-tree away from the burden and heat of the
noon, a holy place whither the money-changers and such as sold doves
might never come, let their clamour in the outer courts ring never so
loud. There in Samuel's talk did two weary-hearted bond-servants of
Egypt draw a breath of the Infinite into their lives of the desk; there
could they sit awhile by the eternal springs, and feel the beating of
the central heart.
So it happened one afternoon, about five years ago, that I dropped in
there according to wont. But Samuel was engaged with some one in that
dim corner at the far end of the shop, where his desk and arm-chair,
tripod of that new philosophy, stood: so I turned to a neighbouring
shelf to fill the time. At first I did not notice his visitor; but as,
in taking down this book and that, I had come nearer to the talkers, I
was struck with something familiar in the voice of the stranger. It came
upon me like an old song, and looking up--why, of course, it was
The letter N does not make one of the initials on the Gladstone bag
which he had with him on that occasion, and which, filled with books,
lay open on the floor close by; nor does it appear on any of those
tobacco-pouches, cigar-cases, or handkerchiefs with which men beloved of
fair women are familiar. And Narcissus might, moreover, truthfully say
that _it_ has never appeared upon any manner of stamped paper coming
under a certain notable Act.
To be less indulgent to a vice from which the Reader will, I fear, have
too frequent occasion to suffer in these pages, and for which he may
have a stronger term than digression, let me at once say that Narcissus
is but the name Love knew him by, Love and the Reader; for that name by
which he was known to the postman--and others--is no necessity here. How
and why he came to be so named will appear soon enough.
Yes! it was the same old Narcissus, and he was wielding just the same
old magic, I could see, as in our class-rooms and playgrounds five years
before. What is it in him that made all men take him so on his own
terms, made his talk hold one so, though it so often stumbled in the
dark, and fell dumb on many a verbal _cul-de-sac_? Whatever it is,
Samuel felt it, and, with that fine worshipful spirit of his--an
attitude which always reminds me of the elders listening to the boy
Jesus--was doing that homage for which no beauty or greatness ever
appeals to him in vain. What an eye for soul has Samuel! How inevitably
it pierces through all husks and excrescences to the central beauty! In
that short talk he knew Narcissus through and through; three years or
thirty years could add but little. But the talk was not ended yet;
indeed, it seemed like so many of those Tithefields talks, as if in the
'eternal fitness of things' it never could, would, or should end. It was
I at last who gave it pause, and--yes! indeed, it was he. We had,
somehow, not met for quite three years, chums as we had been at school.
He had left there for an office some time before I did, and, oddly
enough, this was our first meeting since then. A purchaser for one of
those aforesaid treatises on farriery just then coming in, dislodged us;
so, bidding Samuel good-bye--he and Narcissus already arranging for 'a
night'--we obeyed a mutual instinct, and presently found ourselves in
the snuggery of a quaint tavern, which was often to figure hereafter in
our sentimental history, though probably little in these particular
chapters of it. The things 'seen done at "The Mermaid "' may some day be
written in another place, where the Reader will know from the beginning
what to expect, and not feel that he has been induced to buy a volume
under false pretences.
IN WHICH NARCISSUS OPENS HIS 'GLADSTONE'
Though it was so long since we had met--is not three years indeed 'so
long' in youth?--we had hardly to wait for our second glass to be again
_en rapport_. Few men grow so rapidly as Narcissus did in those young
days, but fewer still can look back on old enthusiasms and superannuated
ideals with a tenderness so delicately considerate. Most men hasten to
witness their present altitude by kicking away the old ladders on the
first opportunity; like vulgar lovers, they seek to flatter to-day at
the expense of yesterday. But Narcissus was of another fibre; he could
as soon have insulted the memory of his first love.
So, before long, we had passed together into a sweet necropolis of
dreams, whither, if the Reader care, I will soon take him by the hand.
But just now I would have him concern himself with the afternoon of
which I write, in that sad tense, the past present. Indeed, we did not
ourselves tarry long among the shades, for we were young, and youth has
little use for the preterite; its verbs are wont to have but two tenses.
We soon came up to the surface in one, with eyes turned instinctively on
Narcissus' bag seemed, somehow, a symbol; and I had caught sight of a
binding or two as it lay open in Tithefields that made me curious to see
it open again. He was only beginning to collect when we had parted at
school, if 'collect' is not too sacred a word: beginning to _buy_ more
truly expresses that first glutting of the bookish hunger, which, like
the natural appetite, never passes in some beyond the primary
utilitarian stage of 'eating to live,' otherwise 'buying to read.' Three
years, however, works miracles of refinement in any hunger that is at
all capable of culture; and it was evident, when Narcissus did open his
'Gladstone,' that it had taken him by no means so long to attain that
sublimation of taste which may be expressed as 'reading to buy.' Each
volume had that air--of breeding, one might almost say--by which one can
always know a genuine _bouquin_ at a glance; an alluvial richness of
bloom, coming upon one like an aromatic fragrance in so many old things,
in old lawns, in old flowers, old wines, and many another delicious
simile. One could not but feel that each had turned its golden brown,
just as an apple reddens--as, indeed, it had.
I do not propose to solemnly enumerate and laboriously describe these
good things, because I hardly think they would serve to distinguish
Narcissus, except in respect of luck, from other bookmen in the first
furor of bookish enthusiasm. They were such volumes as Mr. Pendennis ran
up accounts for at Oxford. Narcissus had many other points in common
with that gentleman. Such volumes as, morning after morning, sadden
one's breakfast-table in that Tantalus _menu_, the catalogue. Black
letter, early printed, first editions Elizabethan and Victorian, every
poor fly ambered in large paper, etc. etc.; in short, he ran through the
gamut of that craze which takes its turn in due time with marbles,
peg-tops, beetles, and foreign stamps--with probably the two exceptions
of Bewick, for whom he could never batter up an enthusiasm, and
'facetiae.' These latter needed too much camphor, he used to say.
His two most cherished possessions were a fine copy of the _Stultitiae
Laus_, printed by Froben, which had once been given by William Burton,
the historian, to his brother Robert, when the latter was a youngster of
twenty; and a first edition of one of Walton's lives, 'a presentation
copy from the author.' The former was rich with the autographs and
marginalia of both brothers, and on the latter a friend of his has
already hung a tale, which may or may not be known to the Reader. In the
reverent handling of these treasures, two questions inevitably forced
themselves upon me: where the d----l Narcissus, an apprentice, with an
allowance that would hardly keep most of us in tobacco, had found the
money for such indulgences; and how he could find in his heart to sell
them again so soon. A sorrowful interjection, as he closed his bag,
'Yes!' he sighed, 'they have cost me thirty pounds, and guess how much I
have been offered for them?'
I suggested ten.
'Five,' groaned my poor friend. 'I tried several to get that. "H'm,"
says each one, indifferently turning the most precious in his hand,
"this would hardly be any use to me; and this I might have to keep
months before I could sell. That I could make you an offer for; what
have you thought of for it?" With a great tugging at your heart, and
well-nigh in tears, you name the absurdest minimum. You had given five;
you halve it--surely you can get that! But "O no! I can give nothing
like that figure. In that case it is no use to talk of it." In despair
you cry, "Well, what will you offer?" with a choking voice. "Fifteen
shillings would be about my figure for it," answers the fiend,
relentless as a machine--and so on.'
'I tried pawning them at first,' he continued, 'because there was hope
of getting them back some time that way; but, trudging from shop to
shop, with many prayers, "a sovereign for the lot" was all I could get.
Worse than dress-clothes!' concluded the frank creature.
For Narcissus to be in debt was nothing new: he had always been so at
school, and probably always will be. Had you reproached him with it in
those young self-conscious days of glorious absurdity, he would probably
have retorted, with a toss of his vain young head:--
'Well, and so was Shelley!'
I ventured to enquire the present difficulty that compelled him to make
sacrifice of things so dear.
'Why, to pay for them, of course,' was the answer.
And so I first became initiated into the mad method by which Narcissus
had such a library about him at twenty-one. From some unexplained
reason, largely, I have little doubt, on account of the charm of his
manners, he had the easy credit of those respectable booksellers to whom
reference has been made above. No extravagance seemed to shake their
confidence. I remember calling upon them with him one day some months
following that afternoon--for the madness, as usual, would have its
time, and no sufferings seemed to teach him prudence--and he took me up
to a certain 'fine set' that he had actually resisted, he said, for a
fortnight. Alas! I knew what that meant. Yes, he must have it; it was
just the thing to help him with a something he was writing--'not to
read, you know, but to make an atmosphere,' etc. So he used to talk; and
the odd thing was, that we always took the wildness seriously; he seemed
to make us see just what he wanted. 'I say, John,' was the next I heard,
at the other end of the shop, 'will you kindly send me round that set
of' so-and-so, 'and charge it to my account?' 'John,' the son of old
Oldbuck, and for a short time a sort of friend of Narcissus, would
answer, 'Certainly,' with a voice of the most cheerful trust; and yet,
when we had gone, it was indeed no less a sum than £10, 10s. which he
added to the left-hand side of Mr. N.'s account.
Do not mistake this for a certain vulgar quality, with a vulgar little
name of five letters. No one could have less of that than Narcissus. He
was often, on the contrary, quite painfully diffident. No, it was not
'cheek,' Reader; it was a kind of irrational innocence. I don't think it
ever occurred to him, till the bills came in at the half-years, what
'charge it to my account' really meant. Perhaps it was because, poor
lad, he had so small a practical acquaintance with it, that he knew so
little the value of money. But how he suffered when those accounts did
come in! Of course, there was nothing to be done but to apply to some
long-suffering friend; denials of lunch and threadbare coats but nibbled
at the amount--especially as a fast to-day often found revulsion in a
festival to-morrow. To save was not in Narcissus.
I promised to digress, Reader, and I have kept my word. Now to return to
that afternoon again. It so chanced that on that day in the year I
happened to have in my pocket--what you might meet me every day in five
years without finding there--a ten-pound note. It was for this I felt
after we had been musing awhile--Narcissus, probably, on everything
else in the world except his debts--and it was with this I awoke him
from his reverie. He looked at his hand, and then at me, in
bewilderment. Poor fellow, how he wanted to keep it, yet how he tried to
look as if he couldn't think of doing so. He couldn't help his joy
'But I want you to take it,' I said; 'believe me, I have no immediate
need of it, and you can pay me at your leisure.' Ten pounds towards the
keep of a poet once in a lifetime is, after all, but little interest on
the gold he brings us. At last I 'prevailed,' shall I say? but on no
account without the solemnity of an IOU and a fixed date for repayment,
on which matter poor N. was always extremely emphatic. Alas! Mr. George
Meredith has already told us how this passionate anxiety to be bound by
the heaven above, the earth, and the waters under the earth, is the most
fatal symptom by which to know the confirmed in this kind. Captain
Costigan had it, it may be remembered; and the same solicitude, the same
tearful gratitude, I know, accompanied every such transaction of my
Whether it was as apparent on the due date, or whether of that ten
pounds I have ever looked upon the like again, is surely no affair of
the Reader's; but, lest he should do my friend an injustice, I had
better say--I haven't.
Nothing strikes one more in looking back, either on our own lives or on
those of others, than how little we assimilate from the greatest
experiences; in nothing is Nature's apparent wastefulness of means more
ironically impressive. A great love comes and sets one's whole being
singing like a harp, fills high heaven with rainbows, and makes our
dingy alleys for awhile bright as the streets of the New Jerusalem; and
yet, if five years after we seek for what its incandescence has left us,
we find, maybe, a newly helpful epithet, maybe a fancy, at most a
sonnet. Nothing strikes one more, unless, perhaps, the obverse, when we
see some trifling pebble-cast ripple into eternity, some fateful second
prolific as the fly aphis. And so I find it all again exampled in these
old accounts. The books that mean most for Narcissus to-day could be
carried in the hand without a strap, and could probably be bought for a
sovereign. The rest have survived as a quaint cadence in his style, have
left clinging about his thought a delicate incense of mysticism, or are
bound up in the retrospective tenderness of boyish loves long since gone
Another observation in the same line of reflection also must often
strike one:--for what very different qualities than those for which we
were first passionate do we come afterwards to value our old
enthusiasms. In the day of their bloom it was the thing itself, the
craze, the study, for its own sake; now it is the discipline, or any
broad human culture, in which they may have been influential. The boy
chases the butterfly, and thinks not of the wood and the blue heaven;
but those only does the man remember, for the mark of their beauty upon
him, so unconsciously impressed, for the health of their power and
sweetness still living in his blood--for these does that chase seem
alone of worth, when the dusty entomological relic thereof is in limbo.
And so that long and costly shelf, groaning beneath the weight of Grose
and Dugdale, and many a mighty slab of topographical prose; those
pilgrimages to remote parish churches, with all their attendant ardours
of careful 'rubbings'; those notebooks, filled with patient data; those
long letters to brother antiquaries--of sixteen; even that famous
Exshire Tour itself, which was to have rivalled Pennant's own--what
remains to show where this old passion stood, with all the clustering
foliage of a dream; what but that quaint cadence I spoke of, and an
anecdote or two which seemed but of little import then, with such
breathless business afoot as an old font or a Roman road?
One particular Roman road, I know, is but remembered now, because, in
the rich twilight of an old June evening, it led up the gorsy stretches
of Lancashire 'Heights' to a solemn plateau, wide and solitary as
Salisbury Plain, from the dark border of which, a warm human note
against the lonely infinite of heath and sky, beamed the little
whitewashed 'Traveller's Rest,' its yellow light, growing stronger as
the dusk deepened, meeting the eye with a sense of companionship
becoming a vague need just then.
The seeming spiritual significance of such forlorn wastes of no-man's
land had, I know, a specially strong appeal for Narcissus, and, in some
moods, the challenge which they seem to call from some 'dark tower' of
spiritual adventure would have led him wandering there till star-light;
but a day of rambling alone, in a strange country, among unknown faces,
brings a social hunger by evening, and a craving for some one to speak
to and a voice in return becomes almost a fear. A bright
kitchen-parlour, warm with the health of six workmen, grouped round a
game of dominoes, and one huge quart pot of ale, used among them as
woman in the early world, was a grateful inglenook, indeed, wherein to
close the day. Of course, friend N. joined them, and took his pull and
paid his round, like a Walt Whitman. I like to think of his slight
figure amongst them; his delicate, almost girl-like, profile against
theirs; his dreamy eyes and pale brow, surmounted by one of those dark
clusters of hair in which the fingers of women love to creep--an
incongruity, though of surfaces only, which certain who knew him but 'by
sight,' as the phrase is, might be at a loss to understand. That was one
of the surprises of his constitution. Nature had given him the dainty
and dreamy form of the artist, to which habit had added a bookish touch,
ending in a _tout ensemble_ of gentleness and distinction with little
apparent affinity to a scene like that in the 'Traveller's Rest.' But
there are many whom a suspicion of the dilettante in such an exterior
belies, and Narcissus was one of them. He had very strongly developed
that instinct of manner to which sympathy is a daily courtesy, and he
thus readily, when it suited him, could take the complexion of his
company, and his capacity of 'bend' was well-nigh genius. Of course, all
this is but to say that he was a gentleman; yet is not that in itself a
fine kind of originality? Besides, he had a genuine appetite for the
things of earth, such as many another delicate thing--a damask
rose-bush, for example--must be convicted of too; and often, when some
one has asked him 'what he could have in common with so-and-so,' I have
heard him answer: 'Tobacco and beer.' Samuel Dale once described him as
Shelley with a chin; and perhaps the chin accounted for the absence of
any of those sentimental scruples with regard to beefsteaks and certain
varieties of jokes, for which the saint-like deserter of Harriet
Westbrook was distinguished.
A supremely quaint instance of this gift of accommodation befell during
that same holiday, which should not pass unrecorded, but which I offer
to the Reader with an emphatic _Honi soit qui mal y pense_. Despairing
of reaching a certain large manufacturing town on foot in time to put up
there, one evening, he was doing the last mile or two by rail, and, as
the train slackened speed he turned to his companions in the carriage to
enquire if they could tell him of a good hotel. He had but carelessly
noticed them before: an old man, a slight young woman of perhaps thirty,
and a girl about fifteen; working people, evidently, but marked by that
air of cleanly poverty which in some seems but a touch of ascetic
refinement. The young woman at once mentioned _The Bull_, and thereupon
a little embarrassed consultation in undertone seemed to pass between
her and the old man, resulting in a timid question as to whether
Narcissus would mind putting up with them, as they were poor folk, and
could well do with any little he cared to offer for his accommodation.
There was something of a sad winningness in the woman which had
predisposed him to the group, and without hesitation he at once
accepted, and soon was walking with them to their home, through streets
echoing with Lancashire 'clogs.' On the way he learnt the circumstances
of his companions. The young woman was a widow, and the girl her
daughter. Both worked through the day at one of the great cotton mills,
while the old man, father and grandfather, stayed at home and 'fended'
for them. Thus they managed to live in a comfort which, though
straitened, did not deny them such an occasional holiday as to-day had
been, or the old man the comfort of tobacco. The home was very small,
but clean and sweet; and it was not long before they were all sat down
together over a tea of wholesome bread and butter and eggs, in the
preparation of which it seemed odd to see the old man taking his share.
That over, he and Narcissus sat to smoke and talk of the neighbouring
countryside; N. on the look-out for folk-lore, and especially for any
signs in his companion of a lingering loyalty of belief in the
traditions thereabout, a loyalty which had something in it of a sacred
duty to him in those days. Those were the days when he still turned to
the east a-Sundays, and went out in the early morning, with Herrick
under his arm, to gather May-dew, with a great uplifting of the spirit,
in what indeed was a very real act of worship.
But to my story! As bedtime approached Narcissus could not but be aware
of a growing uneasiness in the manner of the young woman. At last it was
explained. With blushing effort she stammered out the question: Would he
object to share his bed with--the old man? 'Of course not,' answered N.
at once, as though he had all the time intended doing that very thing,
and indeed, thought it the most delightful arrangement in the world.
So up to bed go the oddly consorted pair. But the delicious climax was
yet to come. On entering the room, Narcissus found that there were two
beds there! Why should we leave that other bed empty?--he had almost
asked; but a laughing wonder shot through him, and he stopped in time.
The old man was soon among the blankets, but Narcissus dallied over
undressing, looking at this and that country quaintness on the wall; and
then, while he was in a state of half man and half trousers, the voice
of the woman called from the foot of the stairs: Were they in bed yet?
'Surely, it cannot be! it is too irresistibly simple,' was his thought;
but he had immediately answered, 'In a moment,' as if such a question
was quite a matter of course.
In that space he had blown the candle out, and was by the old man's
side: and then, in the darkness, he heard the two women ascending the
stairs. Just outside his door, which he had left ajar, they seemed to
turn off into a small adjoining room, from whence came immediately the
soft delicious sounds of female disrobing. They were but factory women,
yet Narcissus thought of Saint Agnes and Madeline, we may be sure. And
then, at last--indeed, there was to be no mistake about it--the door was
softly pushed open, and two dim forms whispered across to the adjoining
bed, and, after a little preliminary rustle, settled down to a rather
No one had spoken: not even a Goodnight; but Narcissus could hardly
refrain from ringing out a great mirthful cry, while his heart beat
strangely, and the darkness seemed to ripple, like sunlight in a cup,
with suppressed laughter. The thought of the little innocent deception
as to their sleeping-room, which poverty had caused them to practise,
probably held the breath of the women, while the shyness of sex was a
common bond of silence--at least, on the part of the three younger. It
was long before Narcissus was able to fall asleep, for he kept picturing
the elder woman with burning cheek and open eyes in a kind of 'listening
fear' beneath the coverlet; and the oddity of the thing was so original,
so like some _conte_ of a _Decameron_ or _Heptameron_, with the
wickedness left out. But at last wonder gave place to weariness, and
sleep began to make a still odder magic of the situation. The difficulty
of meeting at breakfast next morning, which had at once suggested itself
to N.'s mind, proved a vain fear; for, when he arose, that other bed was
as smooth as though it had lain untouched through the night, and the
daughters of labour had been gone two hours. But it was not quite
without sign that they had gone, for Narcissus had a dreamlike
impression of opening his eyes in the early light to find a sweet
woman's face leaning over him; and I am sure he wanted to believe that
it had bent down still further, till it had kissed his lips--' for his
mother's sake,' she had said in her heart, as she slipped away and was
seen no more.
'If this were fiction, instead of a veracious study from life,' to make
use of a phrase which one rarely finds out of a novel, it would be
unfitting to let such an incident as that just related fall to the
ground, except as the seed of future development; but, this being as I
have stated, there is nothing more to say of that winning _ouvrière_.
Narcissus saw her no more.
But surely, of all men, he could best afford that one such pleasant
chance should put forth no other blossom save that half-dreamed
kiss;--and how can one ever foresee but that our so cherishable spray of
bloom may in time add but another branch to that orchard of Dead Sea
fruit which grows inevitably about all men's dwellings?
I do not suppose that Narcissus was really as exceptional in the number
and character of his numerous boyish loves as we always regarded him as
being. It is no uncommon matter, of course and alas! for a youth between
the ages of seventeen and nineteen to play the juggler at keeping three,
or even half-a-dozen, female correspondents going at once, each of whom
sleeps nightly with copious documentary evidence of her sole and
incontrovertible possession of the sacred heart. Nor has Narcissus been
the only lover, I suspect, who, in the season of the waning of the moon,
has sent such excuses for scrappy epistolary make-shifts as 'the
strident din of an office, an air so cruelly unsympathetic, as frost to
buds, to the blossoming of all those words of love that press for
birth,' when, as a matter of fact, he has been unblushingly eating the
lotus, in the laziest chair at home, in the quietest night of summer.
Such insincerity is a common besetting sin of the young male;
invariably, I almost think, if he has the artistic temperament. Yet I do
not think it presents itself to his mind in its nudity, but comes
clothed with that sophistry in which youth, the most thoroughgoing of
_philosophes_, is so ingenious. Consideration for the beloved object, it
is called--yes! beloved indeed, though, such is the paradox in the order
of things, but one of the several vestals of the sacred fire. One cannot
help occasional disinclination on a lazy evening, confound it! but it
makes one twinge to think of paining her with such a confession; and a
story of that sort--well, it's a lie, of course; but it's one without
any harm, any seed of potential ill, in it. So the letter goes, maybe to
take its place as the 150th of the sacred writings, and make poor
Daffodilia, who has loved to count the growing score, happy with the
completion of the half-century.
But the disinclination goes not, though the poor passion has, of
course, its occasional leapings in the socket, and the pain has to come
at last, for all that dainty consideration, which, moreover, has been
all the time feeding larger capacities for suffering. For, of course, no
man thinks of marrying his twelfth love, though in the thirteenth there
is usually danger; and he who has jilted, so to say, an earl's daughter
as his sixth, may come to see
'The God of Love, ah! benedicite,
How mighty and how great a lord is he'
in the thirteenth Miss Simpkins.
But this is to write as an outsider: for that thirteenth, by a mystical
process which has given to each of its series in its day the same primal
quality, is, of course, not only the last, but the first. And, indeed,
with little casuistry, that thirteenth may be truly held to be the
first, for it is a fact determined not so much by the chosen maid as by
him who chooses, though he himself is persuaded quite otherwise. To him
his amorous career has been hitherto an unsuccessful pursuit, because
each followed fair in turn, when at length he has caught her flying
skirts, and looked into her face, has proved not that 'ideal'--
'That not impossible she
That shall command my heart and me'--
but another, to be shaken free again in disappointment. In truth,
however, the lack has been in himself all this time. He had yet to learn
what loving indeed meant: and he loves the thirteenth, not because she
is pre-eminent beyond the rest, but because she has come to him at the
moment when that 'lore of loving' has been revealed. Had any of those
earlier maidens fallen on the happy conjunction, they would, doubtless,
have proved no less loveworthy, and seemed no less that 'ideal' which
they have since become, one may be sure, for some other illuminated
Of course, some find that love early--the baby-love, whom one never
marries, and then the faithful service. Probably it happens so with the
majority of men; for it is, I think, especially to the artist nature
that it comes thus late. Living so vividly within the circle of its own
experience, by its very constitution so necessarily egoistic, the
latter, more particularly in its early years, is always a Narcissus,
caring for nought or none except in so much as they reflect back its own
beauty or its own dreams. The face such a youth looks for, as he turns
the coy captured head to meet his glance, is, quite unconsciously, his
own, and the 'ideal' he seeks is but the perfect mirror. Yet it is not
that mirror he marries after all: for when at last he has come to know
what that word--one so distasteful, so 'soiled' to his ear 'with all
ignoble' domesticity--what that word 'wife' really expresses, he has
learnt, too, to discredit those cynical guides of his youth who love so
well to write Ego as the last word of human nature.
But the particular Narcissus of whom I write was a long way off that
thirteenth maid in the days of his antiquarian rambles and his
Pagan-Catholic ardours, and the above digression is at least out of
A copy of Keats which I have by me as I write is a memorial of one of
the pretty loves typical of that period. It is marked all through in
black lead--not so gracefully as one would have expected from the 'taper
fingers' which held the pencil, but rather, it would appear, more with
regard to emphasis than grace. Narcissus had lent it to the queen of the
hour with special instructions to that end, so that when it came to him
again he might ravish his soul with the hugging assurance given by the
thick lead to certain ecstatic lines of _Endymion,_ such as--
'My soul doth melt
For the unhappy youth;'
'He surely cannot now
Thirst for another love;'
and luxuriate in a genial sense of godship where the tremulous pencil
had left the record of a sigh against--
'Each tender maiden whom he once thought fair.'
But it was a magnanimous godship; and, after a moment's leaning back
with closed eyes, to draw in all the sweet incense, how nobly would he
act, in imaginative vignette, the King Cophetua to this poor suppliant
of love; with what a generous waiving of his power--and with what a
grace!--did he see himself raising her from her knees, and seating her
at his right hand. Yet those pencil-marks, alas! mark but a secondary
interest in that volume. A little sketch on the fly-leaf, 'by another
hand,' witness the prettier memory. A sacred valley, guarded by smooth,
green hills; in the midst a little lake, fed at one end by a singing
stream, swallowed at the other by the roaring darkness of a mill; green
rushes prosperous in the shallows, and along the other bank an old
hedgerow; a little island in the midst, circled by silver lilies; and in
the distance, rising from out a cloud of tangled green, above the little
river, an old church tower. Below, though not 'in the picture,' a quaint
country house, surrounded by a garden of fair fruit-trees and wonderful
bowers, through which ran the stream, free once again, and singing for
joy of the light. In the great lone house a solitary old man, cherished
and ruled by--'The Miller's Daughter.' Was scene ever more in need of a
fairy prince? Narcissus sighed, as he broke upon it one rosy evening,
to think what little meaning all its beauty had, suffering that lack;
but as he had come thither with the purpose, at once firm and vague, of
giving it a memory, he could afford to sigh till morning's light
brought, maybe, the opportunity of that transfiguring action. He was to
spend an Easter fortnight there, as the guest of some farmer-relatives
with whom he had stayed years before, in a period to which, being
nineteen, he already alluded as his 'boyhood.'
And it is not quite accurate to say that it had no memory for him, for
he brought with him one of that very miller's daughter, though, indeed,
it was of the shadowiest silver. It had chanced at that early time that
an influx of visitors to the farm had exceeded the sleeping room, and he
and another little fellow had been provided with a bed in the miller's
house. He had never quite forgotten that bedroom--its huge old-fashioned
four-poster, slumbrous with great dark hangings, such as Queen Elizabeth
seems always to have slept in; its walls dim with tapestry, and its
screen of antique bead-work. But it was round the toilet table that
memory grew brightest, for thereon was a crystal phial of a most
marvellous perfume, and two great mother-of-pearl shells, shedding a
mystical radiance--the most commonplace Rimmel's, without doubt, and the
shells 'dreadful,' one may be sure. But to him, as he took a reverent
breath of that phial, it seemed the very sweetbriar fragrance of her
gown that caught his sense; and, surely, he never in all the world found
scent like that again. Thus, long after, she would come to him in
day-dreams, wafted on its strange sweetness, and clothed about with that
mystical lustre of pearl.
There were five years between him and that memory as he stepped into
that enchanted land for the second time. The sweet figure of young
womanhood to which he had turned his boyish soul in hopeless worship,
when it should have been busied rather with birds' nests and
rabbit-snares, had, it is true, come to him in dimmer outline each
Spring, but with magic the deeper for that. As the form faded from the
silver halo, and passed more and more into mythology, it seemed, indeed,
as if she had never lived for him at all, save in dreams, or on another
star. Still, his memory held by those great shells, and he had come at
last to the fabled country on the perilous quest--who of us dare venture
such a one to-day?--of a 'lost saint.' Enquiry of his friends that
evening, cautious as of one on some half-suspected diplomacy, told him
that one with the name of his remembrance did live at the
mill-house--with an old father, too. But how all the beauty of the
singing morning became a scentless flower when, on making the earliest
possible call, he was met at the door with that hollow word, 'Away'--a
word that seemed to echo through long rooms of infinite emptiness and
turn the daylight shabby--till the addendum, 'for the day,' set the
birds singing again, and called the sunshine back.
A few nights after he was sitting at her side, by a half-opened window,
with his arm about her waist, and her head thrillingly near his. With
his pretty gift of recitation he was pouring into her ear that sugared
passage in _Endymion_, appropriately beginning, 'O known unknown,'
previously 'got up' for the purpose; but alas! not too perfectly to
prevent a break-down, though, fortunately, at a point that admitted a
ready turn to the dilemma:--
Let me entwine thee surer, surer ...'
Here exigency compelled N. to make surety doubly, yea, trebly, sure; but
memory still forsaking him, the rascal, having put deeper and deeper
significance into his voice with each repetition, dropped it altogether
as he drew her close to him, and seemed to fail from the very excess of
love. An hour after, he was bounding into the moonlight in an
intoxication of triumph. She was won. The beckoning wonder had come down
to him. And yet it was real moonlight--was not that his own grace in
silhouette, making a mirror even of the hard road?--real grass over
which he had softly stept from her window, real trees, all real,
except--yes! was it real love?
In the lives of all passionate lovers of women there are two
broadly-marked periods, and in some a third: slavery, lordship, and
service. The first is the briefest, and the third, perhaps, seldom
comes; the second is the most familiar.
Awakening, like our forefather, from the deep sleep of childish things,
the boy finds a being by his side of a strange hushing fairness, as
though in the night he had opened his eyes and found an angel by his
bed. Speech he has not at all, and his glance dare not rise beyond her
bosom; till, the presence seeming gracious, he dares at length stretch
out his hand and touch her gown; whereon an inexplicable new joy
trembles through him, as though he stood naked in a May meadow through
the golden rain of a summer shower. Should her fingers touch his arm by
chance, it is as though they swept a harp, and a music of piercing
sweetness runs with a sudden cry along his blood. But by and by he comes
to learn that he has made a comical mistake about this wonder. With his
head bent low in worship, he had not seen the wistfulness of her gaze on
him; and one day, lo! it is she who presses close to him with the timid
appeal of a fawn. Indeed, she has all this time been to him as some
beautiful woodland creature might have seemed, breaking for the first
time upon the sight of primitive man. Fear, wonder inexpressible,
worship, till a sudden laughing thought of comprehension, then a lordly
protectiveness, and, after that--the hunt! At once the masculine
self-respect returns, and the wonder, though no less sweet in itself,
becomes but another form of tribute.
With Narcissus this evolution had taken place early: it was very long
ago--he felt old even then to think of it--since Hesperus had sung like
a nightingale above his first kiss, and his memory counted many trophies
of lordship. But, surely, this last was of all the starriest; perhaps,
indeed, so wonderful was it, it might prove the very love which would
bring back again the dream that had seemed lost for ever with the
passing of that mythical first maid so long ago, a love in which worship
should be all once more, and godship none at all. But is not such a
question all too certainly its own answer? Nay, Narcissus, if indeed you
find that wonder-maid again, you will not question so; you will forget
to watch that graceful shadow in the moonlight; you will but ask to sit
by her silent, as of old, to follow her to the end of the world. Ah me!
'How many queens have ruled and passed
Since first we met;
How thick and fast
The letters used to come at first,
How thin at last;
Then ceased, and winter for a space!
Until another hand
Brought spring into the land,
And went the seasons' pace.'
That Miller's Daughter, although 'so dear, so dear,' why, of course, she
was not that maid: but again the silver halo has grown about her; again
Narcissus asks himself, 'Did she live, or did I dream?'; again she comes
to him at whiles, wafted on that strange incense, and clothed about in
that mystical lustre of pearl.
Doubtless, she lives in that fabled country still: but Narcissus has
grown sadly wise since then, and he goes on pilgrimage no more.
AN IDYLL OF ALICE SUNSHINE, WHICH REALLY BELONGS TO THE LAST CHAPTER
If the Reader has heard enough of the amourettes of the young gentleman
upon whose memoirs I am engaged, let him skip this chapter and pass to
the graver chapters beyond. My one aim is the Reader's pleasure, and I
carry my solicitude so far that if he finds his happiness to lie outside
these pages altogether, has no choice among these various chapters, but
prefers none to any, I am quite content. Such a spirit of
self-abnegation, the Reader must admit, is true love.
Perhaps it was an early unconscious birth-impulse of the true love some
day to be born in his heart, that caused Narcissus to make a confession
to his Miller's Daughter, on one of their pretty decorative evenings,
when they sat together at the fireside, while the scent of the climbing
roses, and the light of the climbing moon, came in at the window.
The immediate effect of the confession was--no wonder--to draw tears.
And how beautiful she looked in tears! Who would dive for pearls when
the pearl-fisheries of a woman's eyes are his to rifle?
Beautiful, beautiful tears, flow on--no dull, leaden rain, no mere
monotonous deluge, but a living, singing fountain, crowned with such
rainbows as hang roses and stars in the fine mist of samite waterfalls,
irradiated by gleaming shafts of lovely anger and scorn.
Like Northern Lights on autumn evenings, the maiden's eyes pierced
Narcissus through and through with many-coloured spears. There was
thunder, too; the earth shook--just a little: but soon Narcissus saw the
white dove of peace flying to him through the glancing showers. For all
her sorrow, his was the peace of confession. His little lie had been
acknowledged, his treason self-betrayed.
And it was this.
I have hinted that Narcissus, like the Catholic Church, worshipped many
saints. At this time, one of them, by a thrilling coincidence, chanced
to have her shrine at a boarding-school, some fifteen miles or so from
the mill-pond on whose banks the Miller's Daughter had drawn into her
lovely face so much of the beauty of the world. Alice Sunshine, shall we
call her, was perhaps more of a cherub than a saint; a rosy, laughing,
plump little arrangement of sunshiny pink and white flesh, with blue
eyes and golden hair. Alice was not overburdened with intellectuality,
and, like others of her sex, her heart was nothing like so soft as her
bosom. Narcissus had first been in love with her sister; but he and the
sister--a budding woman of the world--had soon agreed that they were not
born for each other, and Narcissus had made the transfer of his tragic
passion with inexpensive informality. As the late Anthony Trollope would
finish one novel to-night, and begin another to-morrow morning, so would
Narcissus be off with the old love this Sunday, and visibly on with the
new the next.
Dear little plump, vegetable-marrow Alice! Will Narcissus ever forget
that Sunday night when the church, having at last released its weary
worshippers, he stole, not as aforetime to the soft side of Emily, but
to the still softer side of the little bewildered Alice. For, though
Alice had worshipped him all the time, and certainly during the whole of
the service, she had never dared to hope that he would pass her dashing,
dark-eyed sister to love _her_--little, blonde, phlegmatic, blue-eyed
But Apollo was bent on the capture of his Daphne. Truth to say, it was
but the work of a moment. The golden arrow was in her heart, the wound
kissed whole again, and the new heaven and the new earth all arranged
for, in hardly longer time than it takes to tell.
In youth the mystery of woman is still so fresh and new, that to make a
fuss about a particular woman seems like looking a gift-horse of the
gods in the mouth. The light on the face of womanhood in general is so
bewilderingly beautiful that the young man literally cannot tell one
woman from another. They are all equally wonderful. Masculine
observation leads one to suppose that woman's first vision of man
similarly precludes discrimination.
Ah me! it is easy to laugh to-day, but it was heart--bleeding tragedy
when those powers that oughtn't to be decreed Alice's exile to a
boarding-school in some central Africa of the midland counties.
The hemorrhage of those two young hearts! But, for a time, each
plastered the other's wounds with letters--dear letters--letters every
post. For the postal authorities made no objection to Narcissus
corresponding with two or more maidens at once. And it is only fair to
Alice to say, that she knew as little of the Miller's Daughter as the
Miller's Daughter knew of her.
So, when Narcissus was reciting _Endymion_ to his Miller's Maid, it was
not without a minor chord plaining through the major harmonies of the
present happiness; the sense that Alice was but fifteen miles away--so
near she could almost hear him if he called--only fifteen miles away,
and it was a long three months since they had met.
It now becomes necessary to admit a prosaic fact hitherto concealed
from the Reader. Narcissus rode a bicycle. It was, I must confess, a
rather 'modern' thing to do. But surely the flashing airy wheel is the
most poetical mode of locomotion yet invented, and one looks more like a
fairy prince than ever in knickerbockers. Whenever Narcissus turned his
gleaming spokes along some mapped, but none the less mysterious,
county--road, he thought of Lohengrin in his barge drawn by white swans
to his mystic tryst; he thought of the seven-leagued boots, the flying
carpet, the wishing-cap, and the wooden Pegasus,--so called because it
mounted into the clouds on the turning of a peg. As he passed along by
mead and glade, his wheel sang to him, and he sang to his wheel. It was
a daisied, daisied world.
There were buttercups and violets in it too as he sped along in the
early morning of an unforgotten Easter Sunday, drawn, so he had
shamelessly told his Miller's Daughter, by antiquarian passion to visit
the famous old parish church near which Alice was at school.
Antiquarian passion! Well, certainly it is an antiquarian passion now.
But then--how his heart beat! how his eyes shone as with burning kohl!
That there was anything to be ashamed of in this stolen ride never even
occurred to him. And perhaps there was little wrong in it, after all.
Perhaps, when the secrets of all hearts are revealed, it will come out
that the Miller's Daughter took the opportunity to meet Narcissus'
understudy,--who can tell?
But the wonderful fresh morning-scented air was a delicious fact beyond
dispute. That was sincere. Ah, there used to be real mornings then!--not
merely interrupted nights.
And it was the Easter-morning of romance. There was a sweet passionate
Sabbath-feeling everywhere. Sabbath-bells, and Sabbath-birds, and
Sabbath-flowers. There was even a feeling of restful Sabbath-cheer about
the old inn, where, at last, entering with much awe the village where
Alice nightly slept--clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
--Narcissus provided for the demands of romance by a hearty
country breakfast. A manna of blessing seemed to lie thick upon every
thing. The very ham and eggs seemed as if they had been blessed by the
It was yet an hour to church-time, an hour usually one of spiteful
alacrity; but this morning, it seemed, in defiance of the clock, cruelly
unpunctual. After breakfast, Narcissus strolled about the town, and
inquired the way to Miss Curlpaper's school. It stood outside the little
town. It was pointed out to him in the distance, across billowy clouds
of pear and apple-blossom, making the hollow in which the town nestled
seem a vast pot-pourri jar, overflowing with newly gathered rose-leaves.
Had the Miller's Daughter been able to watch his movements, she would
have remarked that his antiquarian ardour drew him not to the church,
but to a sombre many-windowed house upon the hill.
Narcissus reconnoitred the prison-like edifice from behind a hedge, then
summoned courage to walk past with slow nonchalance. All was as dead and
dull as though Alice was not there. Yet somewhere within those
prison-walls her young beauty was dressing itself to meet the spring.
Perhaps, in delicious linen, soft and white, she was dashing cool water
about her rosebud face, or, flushed with exhilaration, was pinning up
the golden fleeces of her hair. Perhaps she was eating wonderful bacon
and eggs! Could she be thinking of him? She little knew how near he was
to her. He had not written of his coming. Letters at Miss Curlpaper's
had to pass an inspection much more rigorous than the Customs, but still
smuggling was not unknown. For success, however, carefully laid plans
and regular dates were necessary, and Narcissus' visit had fallen
between the dates.
No! there was no sign of her. She was as invisible as the moon at
mid-day. And there were the church-bells beginning to call her: 'Alice,
Alice, put on your things!'
'Alice, Alice, put on your things!
The birds are calling, the church bell rings;
The sun is shining, and I am here,
Waiting--and waiting--for you, my dear.
Alice, Alice, doff your gown of night,
Draw on your bodice as lilies white,
Draw on your petticoats, clasp your stays,--
Oh! Alice, Alice, those milky ways!
Alice, Alice, how long you are!
The hour is late and the church is far;
Slowly, more slowly, the church bell rings--
Alice, Alice, put on your things!'
Really it was not in Narcissus' plans to wait at the school till Alice
appeared. The Misses Curlpaper were terrible unknown quantities to him.
For a girl to have a boy hanging about the premises was a capital crime,
he knew. Boys are to girls' schools what Anarchists are to public
buildings. They come under the Explosives Acts. It was not, indeed,
within the range of his hope that he might be able to speak to Alice. A
look, a long, immortal, all-expressive look, was all he had travelled
fifteen miles to give and win. For that he would have travelled fifteen
His idea was to sit right in front of the nave, where Alice could not
miss seeing him--where others could see him too in his pretty
close-fitting suit of Lincoln green. So down through the lanes he went,
among the pear and apple orchards, from out whose blossom the clanging
tower of the old church jutted sheer, like some Bass Rock amid rosy
clustering billows. Their love had been closely associated from its
beginning with the sacred things of the church, so regular had been
their attendance, not only on Sundays, but at week-night services. To
Alice and Narcissus there were two Sabbaths in the week, Sunday and
Wednesday. I suppose they were far from being the only young people
interested in their particular form of church-work. Leander met Hero, it
will be remembered, on the way to church, and the Reader may recall
Marlowe's beautiful description of her dress upon that fatal morning:
'The outside of her garments were of lawn,
The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;
Her wide sleeves green, and bordered with a grove,
Where Venus in her naked glory strove
To please the careless and disdainful eyes
Of proud Adonis, that before her lies;
Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,
Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain....'
Alice wore pretty dresses too, if less elaborate; and, despite its
change of name, was not the church where she and Narcissus met, as the
church wherein Hero and Leander first looked upon each other, the Temple
of Love? Certainly the country church to which Narcissus
self-consciously passed through groups of Sunday-clothed villagers, was
decked as for no Christian festival this Sabbath morning. The garlands
that twined about the old Norman columns, the clumps of primroses and
violets that sprung at their feet, as at the roots of gigantic beeches,
the branches of palm and black-thorn that transformed the chancel to a
bower: probably for more than knew it, these symbols of the joy and
beauty of earth had simpler, more instinctive, meanings than those of
any arbitrary creed. For others in the church besides Narcissus, no
doubt, they spoke of young love, the bloom and the fragrance thereof, of
mating birds and pairing men and maids, of the eternal principle of
loveliness, which, in spite of winter and of wrong, brings flowers and
faces to bless and beautify this church of the world.
As Narcissus sat in his front row, his eyes drawn up in a prayer to the
painted glories of the great east window, his whole soul lifted up on
the wings of colour, scent, and sound--the whole sacred house had but
one meaning: just his love for Alice. Nothing in the world was too holy
to image that. The windows, the music, the flowers, all were metaphors
of her: and, as the organ swirled his soul along in the rapids of its
passionate, prayerful sound, it seemed to him that Alice and he already
stood at the gate of Heaven!
Presently, across his mingled sensations came a measured tramp as of
boy-soldiers marching in line. You have heard it! You have _listened_
for it!! It was the dear, unmistakable sound of a girls' school on the
march. Quickly it came nearer, it was in the porch--it was in the
church! Narcissus gave a swift glance round. He dare not give a real
searching look yet. His heart beat too fast, his cheek burned too red.
But he saw it was a detachment of girls--it certainly was Alice's
Then came the white-robed choristers, and the white-haired priests: _If
we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not
in us; but, if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive
us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness_.
DEARLY BELOVED BRETHREN....
His heart swelled with a sobbing exaltation of worship such as he had
not known for years. You could hardly have believed that a little
apple-dumpling of a pink and white girl was the real inspirer of that
look in his young face that made old ladies, even more than young ones,
gaze at him, and remark afterwards on the strange boy with the lovely
But, all the time, Narcissus felt that Alice's great eyes were on him,
glowing with glad surprise. The service proceeded, but yet he forbore to
seek her. He took a delight in husbanding his coming joy. He would not
crudely snatch it. It would be all the sweeter for waiting. And the fire
in Alice's eyes would all the time be growing softer and softer. He
nearly looked as he thought of that. And surely that was her dear voice
calling to him in the secret language of the psalm. He sang back to her
with a wild rapture. Thus the morning stars sang together, he thought.
And when the prayers laid lovely hands across the eyes of the
worshippers, still he sought not Alice, but prayed for her as perhaps
only a boy can: O Lord God, be good to Alice--already she is one of thy
angels. May her life be filled with light and joy! And if in the time to
come I am worthy of being ever by her side, may we live our lives
together, high and pure and holy as always in thy sight! Lord, thou
knowest how pure is my love; how I worship her as I worship the holy
angels themselves. But whatsoever is imperfect perfect by the
inspiration of thy Holy Spirit....
So prayed the soul of the boy for the soul of the girl, and his eyes
filled with tears as he prayed; the cup of the wonder and holiness of
the world ran over.
Already, it seemed, that Alice and he lay clasped together in the arms
So Narcissus prayed and sang his love in terms of an alien creed. He
sang of the love of Christ, he thought but of the love of Alice; and
still he refrained from plucking that wonderful passion-flower of her
At length he had waited the whole service through; and, with the last
hallowed vibrations of the benediction, he turned his eyes, brimful of
love-light, greedily, eagerly, fearful lest one single ray should be
wasted on intermediate and irrelevant worshippers.
Wonderful eyes of love!--but alas! where is their Alice? Wildly they
glance along the rosy ranks of chubby girlhood, but where is their
And then the ranks form in line, and once more the sound, the ecstatic
sound it had seemed but a short time before, of girls marching--but
no!--no!--there is no Alice.
In sick despair Narcissus stalked that Amazonian battalion, crouching
behind hedges, dropping into by-lanes, lurking in coppices,--he held his
breath as they passed two and two within a yard of him. Two followed
two, but still no Alice!
Narcissus lay in wait, dinnerless, all that afternoon; he walked about
that dreary house like a patrol, till at last he was observed of the
inmates, and knots of girls gathered at the windows--alas! only to
giggle at his forlorn and desperate appearance.
Still there was no Alice ... and then it began to rain, and he became
aware how hungry he was. So he returned to his inn with a sad heart.
And all the time poor little Alice lay in bed with a sore throat,
oblivious of those passionate boyish eyes that, you would have thought,
must have pierced the very walls of her seclusion.
And, after all, it was not her voice Narcissus had heard in the church.
It was but the still sweeter voice of his own heart.
THE SIBYLLINE BOOKS
I hope it will be allowed to me that I treat the Reader with all
respectful courtesy, and that I am well bred enough to assume him
familiar with all manner of exquisite experience, though in my heart I
may be no less convinced that he has probably gone through life with
nothing worth calling experience whatsoever. It is our jaunty modern
fashion, and I follow it so far as I am able. I take for granted, for
instance, that every man has at one time or another--in his salad days,
you know, before he was embarked in his particular provision
business--had foolish yearnings towards poesy. I respect the mythical
dreams of his 'young days'; I assume that he has been really in love;
but, pray press me not too curiously as to whether I believe it all, as
to whether I really imagine that his youth knew other dreams than those
of the foolish young 'masherdom' one meets in the train every morning,
or that he has married a wife for other than purely 'masculine' reasons.
These matters I do not mind leaving in the form of a postulate--let them
be granted: but that every man has at one time or another had the craze
for saving the world I will not assume. Narcissus took it very early,
and though he has been silent concerning his mission for some time, and
when last we heard of it had considerably modified his propaganda, he
still cherishes it somewhere in secret, I have little doubt; and one may
not be surprised, one of these days, to find it again bursting out 'into
His spiritual experience has probably been the deepest and keenest of
his life. I do not propose to trace his evolution from Anabaptism to
Agnosticism. The steps of such development are comparatively familiar;
they have been traced by greater pens than mine. The 'means' may vary,
but the process is uniform.
Whether a man deserts the ancestral Brahminism that has so long been
'good enough for his parents,' and listens to the voice of the Buddhist
missionary, or joins Lucian in the seat of the scornful, shrugging at
augur and philosopher alike; whether it is Voltaire, or Tom Paine, or
Thomas Carlyle, or Walt Whitman, or a Socialist tract, that is the
emancipator, the emancipation is all one.
The seed that is to rend the rock comes in all manner of odd, and often
unremembered, ways; but somehow, it is there; rains and dews unnoticed
feed it; and surely, one day the rock is rent, the light is pouring in,
and we are free! It is often a matter of anguish that, strive as we may,
it is impossible to remember what helping hand it was that sowed for us.
Our fickle memory seems to convict us of ingratitude, and yet we know
how far that sin is from us; and how, if those sowers could but be
revealed to us, we would fall upon their necks, or at their feet.
I talked of this one day with Narcissus, and some time after he sent me
a few notes headed 'Spiritual Pastors,' in which he had striven to
follow the beautiful example set by Marcus Aurelius, in the anxiously
loving acknowledgment with which he opens his meditations. I know he
regarded it as miserably inefficient; but as it does actually indicate
some of the more individual side of his experience, and is, moreover,
characteristic in its style, I shall copy a few passages from it here:--
'To some person or persons unknown exceeding gratitude for the
suggestion, in some dim talk, antenatal it would almost seem, that Roman
Catholics might, after all, be "saved." Blessed fecundating suggestion,
that was the earliest loophole!
'To my father I owe a mind that, once set on a clue, must follow it, if
need be, to the nethermost darkness, though he has chosen to restrict
the operation of his own within certain limits; and to my mother a
natural leaning to the transcendental side of an alternative, which has
saved me so many a time when reason had thrown me into the abyss. But
one's greatest debt to a good mother must be simply--herself.
'To the Rev. Father Ignatius for his earnest preaching, which might
almost have made me a monk, had not Thomas Carlyle and his _Heroes_,
especially the lecture on Mahomet, given me to understand the true
significance of a Messiah.
'To Bulwer for his _Zanoni_, which first gave me a hint of the possible
natural "supernatural," and thus for ever saved me from dogmatising in
negatives against the transcendental.
'To Sir Edwin Arnold for his _Light of Asia,_ also to Mr. Sinnett for
his _Esoteric Buddhism,_ books which, coming to me about the same time,
together with some others like them, first gave some occupation to an
"unchartered freedom," gained in many forgotten steps, in the form of a
faith which transfigured my life for many months into the most beautiful
enthusiasm a man could know,--and which had almost sent me to the
'That it did not quite achieve that, though much of the light it gave me
still remains, I owe to R.M., who, with no dialectic, but with one bald
question, and the reading of one poem, robbed me of my fairy palace of
Oriental speculation in the twinkling of an eye. Why it went I have
never really quite known; but surely, it was gone, and the wind and the
bare star-light were alone in its place.
'Dear Mac., I have not seen you for ever so long, and surely you have
forgotten how that night, long ago, you asked with such a strange,
almost childlike, simplicity: "_Is_ there a soul?" But I have not
forgotten, nor how I made no answer at all, but only staggered, and how,
with your strange, dreamy voice, you chanted for comfort:--
'"This hot, hard flame with which our bodies burn
Will make some meadow blaze with daffodil;
Ay! and those argent breasts of thine will turn
To water-lilies; the brown fields men till
Will be more fruitful for our love to-night:
Nothing is lost in Nature; all things live in Death's despite.
* * * * *
'"So when men bury us beneath the yew
Thy crimson-stained mouth a rose will be,
And thy soft eyes lush blue-bells dimmed with dew;
And when the white narcissus wantonly
Kisses the wind, its playmate, some faint joy
Will thrill our dust, and we will be again fond maid and boy.
'"... How my heart leaps up
To think of that grand living after death
In beast and bird and flower, when this cup,
Being filled too full of spirit, bursts for breath,
And with the pale leaves of some autumn day,
The soul, earth's earliest conqueror, becomes earth's last great prey.
'"O think of it! We shall inform ourselves
Into all sensuous life; the goat-foot faun,
The centaur, or the merry, bright-eyed elves
That leave they: dancing rings to spite the dawn
Upon the meadows, shall not be more near
Than you and I to Nature's mysteries, for we shall hear
'"The thrush's heart beat, and the daisies grow,
And the wan snowdrop sighing for the sun
On sunless days in winter; we shall know
By whom the silver gossamer is spun,
Who paints the diapered fritillaries,
On what wide wings from shivering pine to pine the eagle flies.
* * * * *
'"We shall be notes in that great symphony
Whose cadence circles through the rhythmic spheres,
And all the live world's throbbing heart shall be
One with our heart; the stealthy, creeping years
Have lost their terrors now; we shall not die--
The universe itself shall be our Immortality!"
Have you forgotten how you chanted these, and told me they were Oscar
Wilde's. You had set my feet firmly on earth for the first time, there
was great darkness with me for many weeks, but, as it lifted, the earth
seemed greener than ever of old, the sunshine a goodlier thing, and
verily a blessedness indeed to draw the breath of life. I had learnt
"the value and significance of flesh"; I no longer scorned a carnal
diet, and once again I turned my eyes on the damsels in the street.
'But an influence soon came to me that kept me from going all the way
with you, and taught me to say, "I know not," where you would say, "It
is not." Blessings on thee who didst throw a rainbow, that may mean a
promise, across the void, that awoke the old instinct of faith within
me, and has left me "an Agnostic with a faith," quite content with "the
brown earth," if that be all, but with the added significance a mystery
gives to living;--thou who first didst teach me Love's lore aright, to
thee do I owe this thing.
'To J.A.W. I owe the first great knowledge of that other love between
man and man, which Whitman has since taught us to call "the dear love of
comrades"; and to him I owe that I never burned those early rhymes, or
broke my little reed--an unequivocal service to me, whatever the
public, should it be consulted, may think.
'To a dear sister I owe that still more exquisite and subtle comradeship
which can only exist between man and woman, but from which the more
disturbing elements of sex must be absent. And here, let me also thank
God that I was brought up in quite a garden of good sisters.
'To Messrs. C. and W., Solicitors and Notaries, I owe, albeit I will say
no thanks to them, the opportunity of that hardly learned good which
dwells for those who can wrest it in a hateful taskwork, that faculty of
"detachment" which Marcus Aurelius learnt so long ago, by means of which
the soul may withdraw, into an inaccessible garden, and sing while the
head bends above a ledger; or, in other words, the faculty of dreaming
with one side of the brain, while calculating with the other. Mrs.
Browning's great _Aurora Leigh_ helped me more to the attainment of that
than any book I know.
'In their office, too, among many other great things, I learnt that a
man may be a good fellow and hate poetry--possibility undreamed of by
sentimental youth; also that Messrs. Bass and Cope are not unworthy of
their great reputation; and I had various nonsense knocked out of me,
though they never succeeded in persuading me in that little matter of
the "ambrosial curls."
'Through Samuel Dale I first came to understand how "whatever is" _can_
be "best," and also won a faith in God which I rather caught by
infection than gained by any process of his reasoning. Of all else I owe
to Samuel, how write? He knows.
'To a certain friend, mentioned last because he is not least, I owe: the
sum of ten pounds, and a loving companionship, up hill and down dale,
for which again I have no words and no--sovereigns.'
When I first read through these, I was somewhat surprised at the
omission of all reference to books which I know marked most striking
periods in Narcissus' spiritual life: _Sartor Resartus_, Thoreau's
_Walden_, for example, Mr. Pater's _Marius the Epicurean_, and
Browning's _Dramatis Personae_. As I reflected, however, I came to the
conclusion that such omission was but justice to his own individuality,
for none of these books had created an _initiative_ in Narcissus'
thought, but rather come, as, after all, I suppose they come to most of
us, as great confirming expressions of states of mind at which he had
already arrived, though, as it were, but by moonlight. In them was the
sunrise bringing all into clear sight and sure knowledge.
It would seem, indeed, that the growth of the soul in the higher spirits
of our race is analogous to the growth of a child in the womb, in this
respect: that in each case the whole gamut of earlier types is run
through, before the ultimate form is attained in which it is decreed
that the particular vital energy shall culminate. And, as in the
physical world the various 'halts,' so to say, of the progress are
illustrated by the co-existence and continual succession of those
earlier types; so in the world of mind, at every point of spiritual
evolution, a man may meet with an historical individuality who is a
concrete embodiment of the particular state to which he has just
attained. This, of course, was what Goethe meant when he referred to
mysticism as being a frame of mind which one could experience all round
and then leave behind. To quote Whitman, in another connection:--
'We but level that lift
To pass and continue beyond.'
But an individuality must 'crystallise out' somewhere, and its final
value will not so much depend on the number of states it has passed
through, as how it has lived each on the way, with what depth of
conviction and force of sincerity. For a modern young man to thus
experience all round, and pass, and continue beyond where such great
ones as St. Bernard, Pascal, and Swedenborg, have anchored their starry
souls to shine thence upon men for all time, is no uncommon thing. It is
more the rule than the exception: but one would hardly say that in going
further they have gone higher, or ended greater. The footpath of pioneer
individualism must inevitably become the highway of the race. Every
American is not a Columbus.
There are two ways in which we may live our spiritual progress: as
critics, or poets. Most men live theirs in that critical attitude which
refuses to commit itself, which tastes all, but enjoys none; but the
greatest in that earnest, final, rooted, creative, fashion which is the
way of the poets. The one is as a man who spends his days passing from
place to place in search of a dwelling to his mind, but dies at last in
an inn, having known nought of the settled peace of a home; but the
other, howsoever often he has to change his quarters, for howsoever
short a time he may remain in any one of his resting-places, makes of
each a home, with roots that shoot in a night to the foundations of the
world, and blossomed branches that mingle with the stars.
Criticism is a good thing, but poetry is a better. Indeed, criticism
properly _is_ not; it is but a process to an end. We could really do
without it much better than we imagine: for, after all, the question is
not so much _how_ we live, but _do_ we live? Who would not a hundred
times rather be a fruitful Parsee than a barren _philosophe_? Yes, all
lies, of course, in original greatness of soul; and there is really no
state of mind which is not like Hamlet's pipe--if we but know the 'touch
of it,' 'it will discourse most eloquent music.'
Now, it was that great sincerity in Narcissus that has always made us
take him so seriously. And here I would remark in parenthesis, that
trivial surface insincerities, such as we have had glimpses of in his
dealings, do not affect such a great organic sincerity as I am speaking
of. They are excrescences, which the great central health will sooner or
later clear away. It was because he never held an opinion to which he
was not, when called upon, practically faithful; never dreamed a dream
without at once setting about its translation into daylight; never
professed a creed for a week without some essay after the realisation of
its new ideal; it was because he had the power and the courage to glow
mightily, and to some purpose; because his life had a fiery centre,
which his eyes were not afraid of revealing--that I speak of his great
sincerity, a great capacity for intense life. Shallow patterers of
divine creeds were, therefore, most abhorrent to him. 'You must excuse
me, sir,' I remember his once saying to such a one, 'but what are you
doing with cigarette and salutaris? If I held such a belief as yours, I
would stand sandalled, with a rope round my waist, before to-morrow.'
One quaint instance of this earnest attitude in all things occurs to me
out of his schooldays. He was a Divine Right man, a fiery Jacobite, in
those days; and, probably not without some absurd unconfessed dream in
his heart that it might somehow help the dead old cause, he one
afternoon fluttered the Hanoverian hearts--all the men we meet in street
and mart are Hanoverians, of course--of our little literary club by
solemnly rising 'to give notice' that at the following meeting he would
read a paper to prove that 'the House of Hanover has no right to the
English throne.' Great was the excitement through the fortnight
intervening, extending even to the masters; and the meeting was a full
one, and no little stormy.
Narcissus rose with the air of a condemned Strafford, and with all his
boyish armoury of eloquence and scorn fought over again the long-lost
battle, hiss and groan falling unheeded into the stream of his young
voice. But vain, vain! hard is the Hanoverian heart in boy, as in man,
and all your glowing periods were in vain--vain as, your peroration told
us, 'was the blood of gallant hearts shed on Culloden's field.' Poor N.,
you had but one timorous supporter, even me, so early your _fidus
Achates_--but one against so many. Yet were you crestfallen? Galileo
with his 'E pur si muove,' Disraeli with his 'The time will come,' wore
such a mien as yours, as we turned from that well-foughten field. Yes!
and you loved to take in earnest vague Hanoverian threats of possible
arrest for your baby-treason, and, for some time, I know, you never
passed a policeman without a dignified tremor, as of one who might at
any moment find a lodging in the Tower.
But the most serious of all N.'s 'mad' enthusiasms was that of which the
Reader has already received some hint, in the few paragraphs of his own
confessions above, that which 'had almost sent him to the Himalayas.'
It belongs to natures like his always through life to cherish a half
belief in their old fairy tales, and a longing, however late in the day,
to prove them true at last. To many such the revelations with which
Madame Blavatsky, as with some mystic trumpet, startled the Western
world some years ago, must have come with most passionate appeal; and to
Narcissus they came like a love arisen from the dead. Long before, he
had 'supped full' of all the necromantic excitements that poet or
romancer could give. Guy Mannering had introduced him to Lilly; Lytton
and Hawthorne had sent him searching in many a musty folio for Elixir
Vitas and the Stone. Like Scythrop, in 'Nightmare Abbey,' he had for a
long period slept with horrid mysteries beneath his pillow. But suddenly
his interest had faded: these phantoms fled before a rationalistic
cock-crow, and Eugenius Philalethes and Robert Fludd went with Mejnour
and Zanoni into a twilight forgetfulness. There was no hand to show the
hidden way to the land that might be, and there were hands beckoning and
voices calling him along the highway to the land that is. So,
dream-light passing, he must, perforce, reconcile himself to daylight,
with its dusty beam and its narrow horizons.
Judge, then, with what a leaping heart he chanced on some newspaper
gossip concerning the sibyl, for it was so that he first stumbled across
her mission. Ironical, indeed, that the so impossible 'key' to the
mystery should come by the hand of 'our own correspondent'; but so it
was, and that paragraph sold no small quantity of 'occult' literature
for the next twelve months. Mr. Sinnett, doorkeeper in the house of
Blavatsky, who, as a precaution against the vision of Bluebeards that
the word Oriental is apt to conjure up in Western minds, is always
dressed in the latest mode, and, so to say, offers his cigar-case along
with some horrid mystery--it was to his prospectus of the new gospel,
his really delightful pages, that Narcissus first applied. Then he
entered within the gloomier Egyptian portals of the _Isis_ itself, and
from thence--well, in brief, he went in for a course of Redway, and
little that figured in that gentleman's thrilling announcements was long
in reaching his hands.
At last a day came when his eye fell upon a notice, couched in suitably
mysterious terms, to the effect that really earnest seekers after divine
truth might, after necessary probation, etc., join a brotherhood of
such--which, it was darkly hinted, could give more than it dared
promise. Up to this point Narcissus had been indecisive. He was,
remember, quite in earnest, and to actually accept this new evangel
meant to him--well, as he said, nothing less in the end than the
Himalayas. Pending his decision, however, he had gradually developed a
certain austerity, and experimented in vegetarianism; and though he was,
oddly enough, free of amorous bond that might have held him to earth,
yet he had grown to love it rather rootedly since the earlier days when
he was a 'seeker.' Moreover, though he read much of 'The Path,' no
actual Mejnour had yet been revealed to set his feet therein. But with
this paragraph all indecision soon came to an end. He felt there a clear
call, to neglect which would be to have seen the light and not to have
followed it, ever for him the most tragic error to be made in life. His
natural predisposition towards it was too great for him to do other than
trust this new revelation; and now he must gird himself for 'the
sacrifice which truth always demands.'
But, sacrifice! of what and for what? An undefined social warmth he was
beginning to feel in the world, some meretricious ambition, and a great
friendship--to which in the long run would he not be all the truer by
the great new power he was to win? If hand might no longer spring to
hand, and friendship vie in little daily acts of brotherhood, might he
not, afar on his mountain-top, keep loving watch with clearer eyes upon
the dear life he had left behind, and be its vigilant fate? Surely! and
there was nothing worth in life that would not gain by such a devotion.
All life's good was of the spirit, and to give that a clearer shining,
even in one soul, must help the rest. For if its light, shining, as now,
through the grimy horn-lantern of the body, in narrow lanes and along
the miasmatic flats of the world, even so helped men, how much more must
it, rising above that earthly fume, in a hidden corner no longer, but
in the open heaven, a star above the city. Sacrifice! yes, it was just
such a tug as a man in the dark warmth of morning sleep feels it to
leave the pillow. The mountain-tops of morning gleam cold and bare: but
O! when, staff in hand, he is out amid the dew, the larks rising like
fountains above him, the gorse bright as a golden fleece on the
hill-side, and all the world a shining singing vision, what thought of
the lost warmth then? What warmth were not well lost for this keen
exhilarated sense in every nerve, in limb, in eye, in brain? What potion
has sleep like this crystalline air it almost takes one's breath to
drink, of such a maddening chastity is its grot-cool sparkle? What
intoxication can she give us for this larger better rapture? So did
Narcissus, an old Son of the Morning, figure to himself the struggle,
and pronounce 'the world well lost.'
But I feel as I write how little I can give the Reader of all the
'splendid purpose in his eyes' as he made this resolve. Perhaps I am the
less able to do so as--let me confess--I also shared his dream. One
could hardly come near him without, in some measure, doing that at all
times; though with me it could only be a dream, for I was not free. I
had Scriptural example to plead 'Therefore I cannot come,' though in any
case I fear I should have held back, for I had no such creative instinct
for realisation as Narcissus, and have, I fear, dreamed many a dream I
had not the courage even to think of clothing in flesh and blood; like,
may I say, the many who are poets for all save song--poets in chrysalis,
all those who dream of what some do, and make the audience of those
great articulate ones. But there were one or two trifling doubts to set
at rest before final decision. The Reader has greatly misconceived
Narcissus if he has deemed him one of those simple souls whom any quack
can gull, and the good faith of this mysterious fraternity was a
difficult point to settle. A tentative application through the address
given, an appropriate _nom de mystère_, had introduced the ugly detail
of preliminary expenses. Divine truth has to pay its postage, its rent,
its taxes, and so on; and the 'guru' feeds not on air--although, of
course, being a 'guru,' he comes as near it as the flesh will allow:
therefore, and surely, Reader, a guinea per annum is, after all,
reasonable enough. Suspect as much as one will, but how gainsay? Also,
before the applicant could be admitted to noviciate even, his horoscope
must be cast, and--well, the poor astrologer also needed bread and--no!
not butter--five shillings for all his calculations, circles, and
significations--well, that again was only reasonable. H'm, ye-e-s, but
it was dubious; and, mad as we were, I don't think we ever got outside
that dubiety, but made up our minds, like other converts, to gulp the
primary postulate, and pay the twenty-six shillings. From the first,
however, Narcissus had never actually entrusted all his spiritual
venture in this particular craft: he saw the truth independent of them,
not they alone held her for him, though she might hold them, and they
might be that one of the many avenues for which he had waited to lead
him nearer to her heart. That was all. His belief in the new
illumination neither stood nor fell with them, though his ardour for it
culminated in the experience. One must take the most doubtful
experiment seriously if we are in earnest for results.
So next came the sacred name of 'the Order,' which, Reader, I cannot
tell thee, as I have never known it, Narcissus being bound by horrid
oaths to whisper it to no man, and to burn at midnight the paper which
gave it to his eyes. From this time, also, we could exchange no deep
confidences of the kind at all, for the various MSS. by means of which
he was to begin his excursions into Urania, and which his 'guru' sent
from time to time--at first, it must be admitted, with a diligent
frequency--were secret too. So several months went by, and my knowledge
of his 'chela-ship' was confined to what I could notice, and such
trifling harmless gossip as 'Heard from "guru" this morning,' 'Copying
an old MS. last night,' and so on. What I could notice was truly, as
Lamb would say, 'great mastery,' for lo! Narcissus, whose eyes had never
missed a maiden since he could walk, and lay in wait to wrest his
tribute of glance and blush from every one that passed, lo! he had
changed all that, and Saint Anthony in an old master looks not more
resolutely 'the other way' than he, his very thoughts crushing his flesh
with invisible pincers. No more softly-scented missives lie upon his
desk a-mornings; and, instead of blowing out the candle to dream of
Daffodilia, he opens his eyes in the dark to defy--the Dweller on the
Threshold, if haply he should indeed already confront him.
One thrilling piece of news in regard to the latter he was unable to
conceal. He read it out to me one flushed morning:--
wrote the 'guru,' in answer to his neophyte's half fearful question.
Fitly underlined and sufficiently spaced, it was a statement calculated
to awe, if only by its mendacity. I wonder if that chapter of Bulwer's
would impress one now as it used to do then. It were better, perhaps,
not to try.
The next news of these mysteries was the conclusion of them. When so
darkly esoteric a body begins to issue an extremely catchpenny 'organ,'
with advertisements of theosophic 'developers,' magic mirrors, and
mesmeric discs, and also advertises large copies of the dread symbol of
the Order, 'suitable for framing,' at five shillings plain and seven and
sixpence coloured, it is, of course, impossible to take it seriously,
except in view of a police-court process, and one is evidently in the
hands of very poor bunglers indeed. Such was the new departure in
propaganda instituted by a little magazine, mean in appearance, as the
mouthpieces of all despised 'isms' seem to be, with the first number of
which, need one say, ended Narcissus' ascent of 'The Path.' I don't
think he was deeply sad at being disillusionised. Unconsciously a
broader philosophy had slowly been undermining his position, and all was
ready for the fall. It cost no such struggle to return to the world as
it had taken to leave it, for the poet had overgrown the philosopher,
and the open mystery of the common day was already exercising an appeal
beyond that of any melodramatic 'arcana.' Of course the period left its
mark upon him, but it is most conspicuous upon his bookshelves.
THE CHILDREN OF APOLLO
'He is a _true_ poet,' or 'He is a _genuine_ artist,' are phrases which
irritate one day after day in modern criticism. One had thought that
'poet' and 'artist' were enough; but there must be a need, we
regretfully suppose, for these re-enforcing qualifications; and there
can be but the one, that the false in each kind do so exceedingly
abound, that none can be taken as genuine without such special
certificate. The widespread confusion with the poet of the rhetorician
and sentimentalist in verse, and again of the mere rhymer without even
rhetoric, not to refer to finer differentiation of error, is also a
fruitful source of bewilderment. The misuse of the word has parallels:
for instance, the spurious generic use of the word 'man' for 'male,'
the substitution of 'artist' for 'painter.' But here we have only to
deal with that one particular abuse. Some rules how to know a poet may
conceivably be of interest, though of no greater value.
Of course, the one first and last test is his work, but 'how to know
poetry' is another matter, which I do not propose treating of here; my
intention rather being to dot down a few personal characteristics--not
so much his 'works' as his 'ways.' I write as they come into my head;
and to any Reader about to cry out against digression, let me add: I
write thinking of Narcissus; for know all men, friend or Philistine, if
you have yet to learn it, my Narcissus is a poet!
First, as to the great question of 'garmenting.' The superstition that
the hat and the cloak 'does it' has gone out in mockery, but only that
the other superstition might reign in its stead--that the hat and cloak
cannot do it. Because one great poet dispensed with 'pontificals,' and
yet brought the fire from heaven, henceforward 'pontificals' are humbug,
and the wearer thereof but charlatan, despite--'the master yonder in
the isle.' Pegasus must pack in favour of a British hunter, and even the
poet at last wear the smug regimentals of mediocrity and mammon. Ye
younger choir especially have a care, for, though you sing with the
tongues of men and angels, and wear not a silk hat, it shall avail you
nothing. Neither Time, which is Mudie, nor Eternity, which is Fame, will
know you, and your verses remain till doom in an ironical _editio
princeps_, which not even the foolish bookman shall rescue from the
threepenny box. It is very unlikely that you will escape as did
Narcissus, for though, indeed,
'He swept a fine majestic sweep
Of toga Tennysonian,
Wore strange soft hat, that such as you
Would tremble to be known in,'
nevertheless, he somehow won happier fates, on which, perhaps, it would
be unbecoming in so close a friend to dilate.
The 'true' poet is, first of all, a gentleman, usually modest, never
arrogant, and only assertive when pushed. He does not by instinct take
himself seriously, as the 'poet-ape' doth, though if he meets with
recognition it becomes, of course, his duty to acknowledge his faculty,
and make good Scriptural use of it.
He is probably least confident, however, when praised; and never, except
in rare moments, especially of eclipse, has he a strong faith in the
truth that is in him. Therefore crush him, saith the Philistine, as we
crush the vine; strike him, as one strikes the lyre. When young, he
imagines the world to be filled with one ambition; later on, he finds
that so indeed it is--but the name thereof is not Poesy. Strange! sighs
he. And if, when he is seventeen, he writes a fluent song, and his
fellow-clerk admire it, why, it is nothing; surely the ledger-man hath
such scraps in his poke, or at least can roll off better. 'True bards
believe all able to achieve what they achieve,' said Naddo. But lo! that
ambition is a word that begins with pounds and ends with pence--like
life, quoth the ledger-man, who, after all, had but card-scores, a
tailor's account, and the bill for his wife's confinement in his pocket.
All through his life he loves his last-written most, and no honey of
Hybla is so sweet as a new rhyme. Let no maid hope to rival it with her
lips--she but interrupts: for the travail of a poet is even as that of
his wife--after the pain comes that dear joy of a new thing born into
the world, which doting sipping dream beware to break. Fifty repetitions
of the new sweetness, fifty deliberate rollings of it under the tongue,
is, I understand, the minimum duration of such, before the passion is
worked off, and the dream-child really breathing free of its
dream-parent. I have occasionally come upon Narcissus about the
twenty-fifth, I suppose, and wondered at my glum reception. 'Poetry gone
sour,' he once gave as the reason. Try it not, Reader, if, indeed, in
thy colony of beavers a poet really dwells.
He is a born palaeontologist: that is, he can build up an epic from a
hint. And, despite modern instances, the old rule obtains for him, he
need not be learned--that is, not deeply or abundantly, only at
points--superficially, the superficial would say. Well, yes, he has an
eye for knowing what surfaces mean, the secret of the divining rod.
Take it this way. We want an expression, say, of the work of Keats, want
to be told wherein lies his individuality. You take Mr. Buxton Forman's
four volumes, and 'work at' Keats! and, after thirty nights and days,
bring your essay. On the morning of the thirtieth the poet read again
the _Grecian Urn_, and at eventide wrote a sonnet; and on the morning of
the thirty-first, essay and sonnet are side by side. But, by the
evening, your essay is in limbo--or in type, all's one--while the sonnet
is singing in our heart, persistently haunting our brain. Some day the
poet, too, writes an essay, and thus plainly shows, says the essayist,
how little he really knew of the matter--he didn't actually know of the
so-and-so--and yet it was his ignorance that gave us that illuminating
line, after all.
I doubt if one would be on safe ground in saying: Take, now, the subject
of wine. We all know how abstemious is the poetical habit; and yet, to
read these songs, one would think 'twas Bacchus' self that wrote, or
that Clarence who lay down to die in a butt of Malmsey. Though the
inference is open to question,
'I often wonder if old Omar drank
One half the quantity he bragged in song.'
Doubtless he sat longest and drank least of all the topers of Naishapur,
and the bell for Saki rang not from his corner half often enough to
please mine host. Certainly the longevity of some modern poets can only
be accounted for by some such supposition in their case. The proposition
is certainly proved inversely in the case of Narcissus, for he has not
written one vinous line, and yet--well, and yet! Furthermore, it may
interest future biographers to know that in his cups he was wont to
recite Hamlet's advice to the players, throned upon a tram-car.
The 'true' poet makes his magic with the least possible ado; he and the
untrue are as the angler who is born to the angler who is made at the
tackle-shop. One encumbers the small of his back with nameless engines,
talks much of creels, hath a rod like a weaver's beam; he travels first
class to some distant show-lake among the hills, and he toils all day
as the fishermen of old toiled all night; while Tom, his gardener's son,
but a mile outside the town, with a willow wand and a bent pin, hath
caught the family supper. So is it with him who is proverbially born not
made. His friends say: 'O, you should go to such-and-such falls; you 'd
write poetry there, if you like. We all said so'; or, 'What are you
doing in here scribbling? Look through the window at the moonlight;
there's poetry for you. Go out into that if you want sonnets.' Of
course, he never takes his friends' advice; he has long known that they
know nothing whatever about it. He is probably quite ignorant of
metrical law, but one precept instinct taught him from the beginning,
and he finds it expressed one day in Wordsworth (with a blessed comfort
of assurance--like in this little, O, may be like, somehow, in the great
thing too!): 'Poetry is emotion remembered in tranquillity.' The
wandlike moments, he remembers, always came to him in haunts all remote
indeed from poetry: a sudden touch at his heart, and the air grows
rhythmical, and seems a-ripple with dreams; and, albeit, in whatever
room of dust or must he be, the song will find him, will throw her arms
about him, so it seems, will close his eyes with her sweet breath, that
he may open them upon the hidden stars.
'Impromptus' are the quackery of the poetaster. One may take it for
granted, as a general rule, that anything written 'on the spot' is
worthless. A certain young poet, who could when he liked do good things,
printed some verses, which he declared in a sub-title were 'Written on
the top of Snowdon in a thunderstorm.' He asked an opinion, and one
replied: 'Written on the top of Snowdon in a thunderstorm.' The poet was
naturally angry--and yet, what need of further criticism?
The poet, when young, although as I said, he is not likely to fall into
the foolishness of conceit which belongs to the poetaster, is yet too
apt in his zeal of dedication to talk much of his 'art,' or, at least,
think much; also to disparage life, and to pronounce much gratuitous
absolution in the name of Poetry:--
Did Burns drink and wench?--yet he sang!
Did Coleridge opiate and neglect his family?--yet he sang!!
Did Shelley--well, whatever Shelley did of callous and foolish, the list
is long--yet he sang!!!
As years pass, however, he grows out of this stage, and, while regarding
his art in a spirit of dedication equally serious, and how much saner,
he comes to realise that, after all, art but forms one integral part,
however great, of a healthy life, and that for the greatest artist there
are still duties in life more imperative than any art can lay upon him.
It is a great hour when he rises up in his resolution first to be a man,
in faith that, if he be such, the artist in him will look after
itself--first a man, and surely all the greater artist for being that;
though if not, still a man. That is the duty that lies' next' to all of
us. Do that, and, as we are told, the other will be clearer for us. In
that hour that earlier form of absolution will reverse itself on his
lips into one of commination. Did they sing?--yet they sinned here and
here; and as a man soweth, so shall he reap, singer or sot. Lo! his
songs are stars in heaven, but his sins are snakes in hell: each shall
bless and torment him in turn.
Pitiable, indeed, will seem to him in that hour the cowardice that dares
to cloak its sinning with some fine-spun theory, that veils the
gratification of its desires in some shrill evangel, and wrecks a
woman's life in the names of--Liberty and Song! Art wants no such
followers: her bravest work is done by brave men, and not by sneaking
opium-eaters and libidinous 'reformers.' We all have sinned, and we all
will go on sinning, but for God's sake, let us be honest about it. There
are worse things than honest sin. If, God help you, you have ruined a
girl, do penance for it through your life; pay your share; but don't,
whatever you do, hope to make up for a bad heart by a good brain.
Foolish art-patterers may suffer the recompense to pass, for likely they
have all the one and none of the other; but good men will care nothing
about you or your work, so long as bad trees refuse to bring forth good
fruit, or figs to grow on thistles.
We have more to learn from Florentine artists than any 'craft mystery.'
If the capacity for using the blossom while missing the evil fruit, of
which Mr. Pater speaks in the case of Aurelius, were only confined to
those evil-bearing trees: alas! it is all blossom with us moderns, good
or bad alike, and purity or putrescence are all one to us, so that they
shine. I suppose few regard Giotto's circle as his greatest work: would
that more did. The lust of the eye, with Gautier as high-priest, is too
much with us.
The poet, too, who perhaps began with the simple ambition of becoming a
'literary man,' soon finds how radically incapable of ever being merely
that he is. Alas! how soon the nimbus fades from the sacred name of
'author.' At one time he had been ready to fall down and kiss the
garment's hem, say, of--of a 'Canterbury' editor (this, of course, when
very, very young), as of a being from another sphere; and a writer in
_The Fortnightly_ had swam into his ken, trailing visible clouds of
glory. But by and by he finds himself breathing with perfect composure
in that rarefied air, and in course of time the grey conviction settles
upon him that these fabled people are in no wise different from the
booksellers and business men he had found so sordid and dull--no more
individual or delightful as a race; and he speedily comes to the old
conclusion he had been at a loss to understand a year or two ago, that,
as a rule, the people who do not write books are infinitely to be
preferred to the people who do. When he finds exceptions, they occur as
they used to do in shop and office--the charm is all independent of the
calling; for just as surely as a man need not grow mean, and hard, and
dried up, however prosperous be his iron-foundry, so sure is it that a
man will not grow generous, rich-minded, loving, and all that is golden
by merely writing of such virtues at so much a column. The inherent
insincerity, more or less, of all literary work is a fact of which he
had not thought. I am speaking of the mere 'author,' the
writer-tradesman, the amateur's superstition; not of men of genius, who,
despite cackle, cannot disappoint. If they seem to do so, it must be
that we have not come close enough to know them. But the man of genius
is rarer, perhaps, in the ranks of authorship than anywhere: you are
far more likely to find him on the exchange. They are as scarce as
Caxtons: London possesses hardly half-a-dozen examples.
Narcissus enjoyed the delight of calling one of these his friend, 'a
certain aristocratic poet who loved all kinds of superiorities,' again
to borrow from Mr. Pater. He had once seen him afar off and worshipped,
as it is the blessedness of boys to be able to worship; but never could
he have dreamed in that day of the dear intimacy that was to come. 'If
he could but know me as I am,' he had sighed; but that was all. With the
almost childlike naturalness which is his greatest charm he confessed
this sigh long after, and won that poet's heart. Well I remember his
bursting into our London lodging late one afternoon, great-eyed and
almost in tears for joy of that first visit. He had pre-eminently the
capacity which most fine men have of falling in love with men--as one
may be sure of a subtle greatness in a woman whose eye singles out a
woman to follow on the stage at the theatre--and certainly, no other
phrase can express that state of shining, trembling exaltation, the
passion of the friendships of Narcissus. And although he was rich in
them--rich, that is, as one can be said to be rich in treasure so
rare--saving one only, they have never proved that fairy-gold which such
do often prove. Saving that one, golden fruit still hangs for every
white cluster of wonderful blossom.
'I thought you must care for me if you could but know me aright,'
Narcissus had said.
'Care for you! Why, you beautiful boy! you seem to have dropped from the
stars,' the poet had replied in the caressing fashion of an elder
He had frankly fallen in love, too: for Narcissus has told me that his
great charm is a boyish naturalness of heart, that ingenuous gusto in
living which is one of the sure witnesses to genius. This is all the
more piquant because no one would suspect it, as, I suppose, few do;
probably, indeed, a consensus would declare him the last man in London
of whom that is true. No one would seem to take more seriously the _beau
monde_ of modern paganism, with its hundred gospels of _La Nuance_; no
one, assuredly, were more _blasé_ than he, with his languors of pose,
and face of so wan a flame. The Oscar Wilde of modern legend were not
more as a dweller in Nirvana. But Narcissus maintained that all this was
but a disguise which the conditions of his life compelled him to wear,
and in wearing which he enjoyed much subtle subterranean merriment;
while underneath the real man lived, fresh as morning, vigorous as a
young sycamore, wild-hearted as an eagle, ever ready to flash out the
'password primeval' to such as alone could understand. How else had he
at once taken the stranger lad to his heart with such a sunlight of
welcome? As the maid every boy must have sighed for but so rarely found,
who makes not as if his love were a weariness which she endured, and the
kisses she suffered, cold as green buds, were charities, but frankly
glows to his avowal with 'I love you, too, dear Jack,' and kisses him
from the first with mouth like a June rose--so did that _blasé_ poet
cast away his conventional Fahrenheit, and call Narcissus friend in
their first hour. Men of genius alone know that fine _abandon_ of soul.
In such is the poet confessed as unmistakably as in his verse, for the
one law of his life is that he be an elemental, and the capacity for
great simple impressions is the spring of his power. Let him beware of
I sometimes wonder as I come across the last frivolous gossip concerning
that poet in the paragraphs of the new journalism, or meet his name in
some distinguished bead-roll in _The Morning Post_, whether Narcissus
was not, after all, mistaken about him, and whether he could still,
season after season, go through the same stale round of reception,
private view, first night, and all the various drill of fashion and
folly, if that boy's heart were alive still. One must believe it once
throbbed in him: we have his poems for that, and a poem cannot lie; but
it is hard to think that it could still keep on its young beating
beneath such a choking pressure of convention, and in an air so 'sunken
from the healthy breath of morn.' But, on the other hand, I have almost
a superstitious reliance on Narcissus' intuition, a faculty in him which
not I alone have marked, but which I know was the main secret of his
appeal for women. They, as the natural possessors of the power, feel a
singular kinship with a man who also possesses it, a gift as rarely
found among his sex as that delicacy which largely depends on it, and
which is the other sure clue to a woman's love. She is so little used,
poor flower, to be understood, and to meet with other regard than the
gaze of satyrs.
However, be Narcissus' intuition at fault or not in the main, still it
was very sure that the boy's heart in that man of the world did wake
from its sleep for a while at the wandlike touch of his youth; and if,
after all, as may be, Narcissus was but a new sensation in his jaded
round, at least he was a healthy one. Nor did the callous ingratitude of
forgetfulness which follows so swiftly upon mere sensation ever add
another to the sorrows of my friend: for, during the last week before he
left us, came a letter of love and cheer in that poet's wonderful
handwriting--handwriting delicious with honeyed lines, each word a
flower, each letter rounded with the firm soft curves of hawthorn in
bud, or the delicate knobs of palm against the sky.
When I spoke of London's men of genius I referred, of course, to such as
are duly accredited, certificated, so to say, by public opinion; but of
those others whose shining is under the bushel of obscurity, few or
many, how can one affirm? That there are such, any man with any happy
experience of living should be able to testify; and I should say, for
fear of misunderstanding, that I do not use the word genius in any
technical sense, not only of men who can _do_ in the great triumphal
way, but also of those who can _be_ in their quiet, effective fashion,
within their own 'scanty plot of ground'; men who, if ever conscious of
it, are content with the diffusion of their influence around the narrow
limits of their daily life, content to bend their creative instincts on
the building and beautifying of home. It is no lax use of the word
genius to apply it to such, for unless you profess the modern heresy
that genius is but a multiplied talent, a coral-island growth, that
earns its right to a new name only when it has lifted its head above the
waters of oblivion, you must agree. For 'you saw at once,' said
Narcissus, in reference to that poet, 'that his writing was so
delightful because he was more so.' His writings, in fact, were but the
accidental emanations of his personality. He might have given himself
out to us in fugues, or canvases, or simply, like the George Muncaster
of whom I am thinking, in the sweet breath and happy shining of his
home. Genius is a personal quality, and if a man has it, whatever his
hand touches will bear the trace of his power, an undying odour, an
unfading radiance. When Rossetti wrote 'Beauty like hers is genius,' he
was not dealing in metaphor, and Meissonier should have abolished for
ever the superstition of large canvases.
These desultory hints of the development of Narcissus would certainly be
more incomplete than necessity demands, if I did not try to give the
Reader some idea of the man of genius of this unobtrusive type to whom I
have just alluded. Samuel Dale used to call himself 'an artist in life,'
and there could be no truer general phrase to describe George Muncaster
than that. His whole life possesses a singular unity, such as is the
most satisfying joy of a fine work of art, considering which it never
occurs to one to think of the limitation of conditions or material. So
with his life, the shortness of man's 'term' is never felt; one could
win no completer effect with eternity than he with every day. Hurry and
false starts seem unknown in his round, and his little home is a
microcosm of the Golden Age.
It would even seem sometimes that he has an artistic rule over his
'accidents,' for 'surprises' have a wonderful knack of falling into the
general plan of his life, as though but waited for. Our first meeting
with him was a singular instance of this. I say 'our,' for Narcissus and
I chanced to be walking a holiday together at the time. It fell on this
wise. At Tewkesbury it was we had arrived, one dull September evening,
just in time to escape a wetting from a grey drizzle then imminent; and
in no very buoyant spirits we turned into _The Swan Inn_. A more dismal
coffee-room for a dismal evening could hardly be--gloomy, vast, and
thinly furnished. We entered sulkily, seeming the only occupants of the
sepulchre. However, there was a small book on the table facing the door,
sufficiently modern in appearance to catch one's eye and arouse a faint
ripple of interest. 'A Canterbury,' we cried. 'And a Whitman, more's the
wonder,' cried Narcissus, who had snatched it up. 'Why, some one's had
the sense, too, to cut out the abominable portrait. I wonder whose it
is. The owner must evidently have some right feeling.'
Then, before there was time for further exclamatory compliment of the
unknown, we were half-startled by the turning round of an arm-chair at
the far end of the room, and were aware of a manly voice of exquisite
quality asking, 'Do you know Whitman?'
And moving towards the speaker, we were for the first time face to face
with the strong and gentle George Muncaster, who since stands in our
little gallery of types as Whitman's Camarado and Divine Husband made
flesh. I wish, Reader, that I could make you see his face; but at best I
have little faith in pen portraits. It is comparatively easy to write a
graphic description of _a_ face; but when it has been read, has the
reader realised _the_ face? I doubt it, and am inclined to believe that
three different readers will carry away three different impressions even
from a really brilliant portrait. Laborious realism may, at least, I
think, be admitted as hopeless. The only chance is in a Meredithian
lightning-flash, and those fly but from one or two bows. I wonder if an
image will help at all here. Think on a pebbly stream, on a brisk,
bright morning; dwell on the soft, shining lines of its flowing; and
then recall the tonic influence, the sensation of grip, which the
pebbles give it. Dip your hand into it again in fancy; realise how
chaste it is, and then again think how bright and good it is. And if you
realise these impressions as they come to me, you will have gained some
idea of George Muncaster's face--the essential spirit of it, I mean,
ever so much more important than the mere features. Such, at least,
seemed the meaning of his face even in the first moment of our
intercourse that September dusk, and so it has never ceased to come upon
us even until now.
And what a night that was! what a talk! How soon did we find each other
out! Long before the maid knocked at the door, and hinted by the
delicate insinuation of a supposed ring that there was 'a budding
morrow' in the air. But our passionate generosity of soul was running in
too strong a tide just then to be stemmed by any such interference; it
could but be diverted, and Muncaster's bedroom served us as well wherein
to squat in one of those close, rapt circles of talk such as, I think,
after all, men who love poetry can alone know--men, anyhow, with _a_
Bed, that had for some time been calling us, unheeded as Juliet's nurse,
had at last to be obeyed; but how grudgingly; and how eagerly we sprang
from it at no late hour in the morning, at the first thought of the
sweet new thing that had come into the world--like children who, half
in a doze before waking, suddenly remember last night's new wonder of a
toy, to awake in an instant, and scramble into clothes to look at it
again. Thus, like children we rose; but it was shy as lovers we met at
the breakfast-table, as lovers shy after last night's kissing. (You may
not have loved a fellow-man in this way, Reader, but we are, any one of
us, as good men as you; so keep your eyebrows down, I beseech you.)
One most winsome trait of our new friend was soon apparent--as, having,
to our sorrow, to part at the inn door right and left, we talked of
meeting again at one or the other's home: a delicate disinclination to
irreverently 'make sure' of the new joy; a 'listening fear,' as though
of a presiding good spirit that might revoke his gift if one stretched
out towards it with too greedy hands. 'Rather let us part and say
nought. You know where a letter will find me. If our last night was a
real thing, we shall meet again, never fear.' With some such words as
those it was that he bade us good-bye.
Of course, letters found all three of us before a fortnight had gone
by, and in but a short time we found his home. There it is that George
should be seen. Away he is full of precious light, but home is his
setting. To Narcissus, who found it in that green period when all
youngsters take vehement vows of celibacy, and talk much of 'free love,'
all ignorant, one is in charity persuaded, of what they quite mean, that
home was certainly as great and lasting a revelation as the first hour
of 'Poetry's divine first finger-touch.' It was not that his own
home-life had been unhappy, for it was the reverse, and rich indeed in
great and sweet influences; but it was rather, I think, that the ideal
of a home is not so easily to be reached from that home in which one is
a child, where one is too apt to miss the whole in consideration of
one's own part in it, as from another on which we can look from the
Our parents, even to the end, partake too much of the nature of
mythology; it always needs an effort to imagine them beings with quite
the same needs and dreams as ourselves. We rarely get a glimpse of
their poetry, for the very reason that we ourselves are factors in it,
and are, therefore, too apt to dwell on the less happy details of the
domestic life, details which one ray of their poetry would transfigure
as the sun transfigures the motes in his beam. Thus, in that green age I
spoke of, one's sickly vision can but see the dusty, world-worn side of
domesticity, the petty daily cares of living, the machinery, so to say,
of 'house and home.' But when one stands in another home, where these
are necessarily unseen by us, stands with the young husband, the
poetry-maker, how different it all seems. One sees the creation bloom
upon it; one ceases to blaspheme, and learns to bless. Later, when at
length one understands why it is sweeter to say 'wife' than
'sweetheart,' how even one may be reconciled to calling one's Daffodilia
'little mother'--because of the children, you know; it would never do
for them to say Daffodilia--then he will understand too how those petty
details, formerly so '_banal_,' are, after all, but notes in the music,
and what poetry can flicker, like its own blue flame, around even the
joint purchase of a frying-pan.
That Narcissus ever understood this great old poetry he owes to George
Muncaster. In the very silence of his home one hears a singing--'There
lies the happiest land.' It was one of his own quaint touches that the
first night we found his nest, after the maid had given us admission,
there should be no one to welcome us into the bright little parlour but
a wee boy of four, standing in the doorway like a robin that has hopped
on to one's window-sill. But with what a dear grace did the little chap
hold out his hand and bid us good evening, and turn his little morsel of
a bird's tongue round our names; to be backed at once by a ring of
laughter from the hidden 'prompter' thereupon revealed. O happy, happy
home! may God for ever smile upon you! There should be a special grace
for happy homes. George's set us 'collecting' such, with results
undreamed of by youthful cynic. Take courage, Reader, if haply you stand
with hesitating toe above the fatal plunge. Fear not, you can swim if
you will. Of course, you must take care that your joint poetry-maker be
such a one as George's. One must not seem to forget the loving wife who
made such dreaming as his possible. He did not; and, indeed, had you
told him of his happiness, he would but have turned to her with a smile
that said, 'All of thee, my love'; while, did one ask of this and that,
how quickly 'Yes! that was George's idea,' laughed along her lips.
While we sat talking that first evening, there suddenly came three
cries, as of three little heads straining out of a nest, for 'Father';
and obedient, with a laugh, he left us. This, we soon learnt, was a part
of the sweet evening ritual of home. After mother's more practical
service had been rendered the little ones, and they were cosily 'tucked
in,' then came 'father's turn,' which consisted of his sitting by their
bedside--Owen and Geoffrey on one hand, and little queen Phyllis,
maidenlike in solitary cot, on the other--and crooning to them a little
evening song. In the dark, too, I should say, for it was one of his wise
provisions that they should be saved from ever fearing that; and that,
whenever they awoke to find it round them in the middle of the night, it
should bring them no other association but 'father's voice.'
A quaint recitative of his own, which he generally contrived to vary
each night, was the song, a loving croon of sleep and rest. The
brotherhood of rest, one might name his theme for grown-up folk; as in
the morning, we afterwards learnt, he is wont to sing them another
little song of the brotherhood of work; the aim of his whole beautiful
effort for them being to fill their hearts with a sense of the
brotherhood of all living things--flowers, butterflies, bees and birds,
the milk-boy, the policeman, the man at the crossing, the grocer's pony,
all within the circle of their little lives, as living and working in
one great _camaraderie_. Sometimes he would extemporise a little rhyme
for them, filling it out with his clear, happy voice, and that tender
pantomime that comes so naturally to a man who not merely loves
children--for who is there that does not?--but one born with the
instinct for intercourse with them. To those not so born it is as
difficult to enter into the life and prattle of birds. I have once or
twice crept outside the bedroom door when neither children nor George
thought of eavesdroppers, and the following little songs are impressions
from memory of his. You must imagine them chanted by a voice full of the
infinite tenderness of fatherhood, and even then you will but dimly
realise the music they have as he sings them. I run the risk of his
forgiving my printing them here:--
Morning comes to little eyes,
Wakens birds and butterflies,
Bids the flower uplift his head,
Calls the whole round world from bed.
Up jump Geoffrey!
Up jump Owen!!
Then up jump Phyllis!!!
And father's going!
The sun is weary, for he ran
So far and fast to-day;
The birds are weary, for who sang
So many songs as they?
The bees and butterflies at last
Are tired out; for just think, too,
How many gardens through the day
Their little wings have fluttered through.
And so, as all tired people do,
They've gone to lay their sleepy heads
Deep, deep in warm and happy beds.
The sun has shut his golden eye,
And gone to sleep beneath the sky;
The birds, and butterflies, and bees
Have all crept into flowers and trees,
And all lie quiet, still as mice,
Till morning comes, like father's voice.
So Phyllis, Owen, Geoffrey, you
Must sleep away till morning too;
Close little eyes, lie down little heads,
And sleep, sleep, sleep in happy beds.
As the Reader has not been afflicted with a great deal of verse in these
pages, I shall also venture to copy here another little song which, as
his brains have grown older, George has been fond of singing to them at
bedtime, and with which the Reader is not likely to have enjoyed a
When the Sun and the Golden Day
Hand in hand are gone away,
At your door shall Sleep and Night
Come and knock in the fair twilight;
Let them in, twin travellers blest;
Each shall be an honoured guest,
And give you rest.
They shall tell of the stars and moon,
And their lips shall move to a glad sweet tune,
Till upon your cool, white bed
Fall at last your nodding head;
Then in dreamland fair and blest,
Farther off than East and West,
They give you rest.
Night and Sleep, that goodly twain,
Tho' they go, shall come again;
When your work and play are done,
And the Sun and Day are gone
Hand in hand thro' the scarlet West,
Each shall come, an honoured guest,
And bring you rest.
Watching at your window-sill,
If upon the Eastern hill
Sun and Day come back no more,
They shall lead you from the door
To their kingdom calm and blest,
Farther off than East or West,
And give you rest.
Arriving down to breakfast earlier than expected next morning, we
discovered George busy at some more of his loving ingenuity. He half
blushed in his shy way, but went on writing in this wise, with chalk,
upon a small blackboard: '_Thursday_--_Thor's-day_--_Jack the Giant
Killer's day_'. Then, in one corner of the board, a sun was rising with
a merry face and flaming locks, and beneath him was written,
'_Phoebus-Apollo';_ while in the other corner was a setting moon, '_Lady
Cynthia_. There were other quaint matters, too, though they have escaped
my memory; but these hints are sufficient to indicate George's morning
occupation. Thus he endeavoured to implant in the young minds he felt so
sacred a trust an ever-present impression of the full significance of
life in every one of its details. The days of the week should mean for
them what they did mean, should come with a veritable personality, such
as the sun and the moon gained for them by thus having actual names,
like friends and playfellows. This Thor's-day was an especially great
day for them; for, in the evening, when George had returned from
business, and there was yet an hour to bedtime, they would come round
him to hear one of the adventures of the great Thor--adventures which he
had already contrived, he laughingly told us, to go on spinning out of
the Edda through no less than the Thursdays of two years. Certainly his
ingenuity of economy with his materials was no little marvel, and he
confessed to often being at his wits' end. For Thursday night was not
alone starred with stories; every night there was one to tell; sometimes
an incident of his day in town, which he would dress up with the
imaginative instinct of a born teller of fairy-tales. He had a knack,
too, of spreading one story over several days which would be invaluable
to a serial writer. I remember one simple instance of his device.
He sat in one of those great cane nursing chairs, Phyllis on one knee,
Owen on the other, and Geoffrey perched in the hollow space in the back
of the chair, leaning over his shoulder, all as solemn as a court
awaiting judgment. George begins with a preliminary glance behind at
Geoffrey: 'Happy there, my boy? That's right. Well, there was once a
'Yes-s-s-s,' go the three solemn young heads.
'And it was full of the most wonderful things.'
'Great trees, so green, for the birds to hide and sing in; and flowers
so fair and sweet that the bees said that, in all their flying hither
and thither, they had never yet found any so full of honey in all the
world. And the birds, too, what songs they knew; and the butterflies,
were there ever any so bright and many-coloured?' etc., etc.
'But the most wonderful thing about the garden was that everything in it
had a wonderful story to tell.'
'The birds, and bees, and butterflies, even the trees and flowers, each
knew a wonderful fairy-tale.'
'But of all in the garden the grasshopper knew the most. He had been a
great traveller, for he had such long legs.'
Again a still deeper murmur of breathless interest.
'Now, would you like to hear what the grasshopper had to tell?'
'Well, you shall--to-morrow night!'
So off his knees they went, as he rose with a merry, loving laugh, and
kissed away the long sighs of disappointment, and sent them to bed,
agog for all the morrow's night should reveal.
Need one say that the children were not the only disappointed listeners?
Besides, they have long since known all the wonderful tale, whereas one
of the poorer grown-up still wonders wistfully what that grasshopper who
was so great a traveller, and had such long legs, had to tell.
But I had better cease. Were I sure that the Reader was seeing what I am
seeing, hearing as I, I should not fear; but how can I be sure of that?
Had I the pen which that same George will persist in keeping for his
letters, I should venture to delight the Reader with more of his story.
One underhand hope of mine, however, for these poor hints is, that they
may by their very imperfection arouse him to give the world 'the true
story' of a happy home. Narcissus repeatedly threatened that, if he did
not take pen in hand, he would some day 'make copy' of him; and now I
have done it instead. Moreover, I shall further presume on his
forbearance by concluding with a quotation from one of his letters that
came to me but a few months back:--
'You know how deeply exercised the little ones are on the subject of
death, and how I had answered their curiosity by the story that after
death all things turn into flowers. Well, what should startle the wife's
ears the other day but "Mother, I wish you would die." "O why, my dear?"
"Because I should so like to water you!" was the delicious explanation.
The theory has, moreover, been called to stand at the bar of experience,
for a week or two ago one of Phyllis' goldfish died. There were tears at
first, of course, but they suddenly dried up as Geoffrey, in his
reflective way, wondered "what flower it would come to." Here was a
dilemma. One had never thought of such contingencies. But, of course, it
was soon solved. "What flower would you like it to be, my boy?" I asked.
"A poppy!" he answered; and after consultation, "a poppy!" agreed the
others. So a poppy it is to be. A visit to the seedsman's procured the
necessary surreptitious poppy seed; and so now poor Sir Goldfish sleeps
with the seed of sleep in his mouth, and the children watch his grave
day by day, breathless for his resplendent resurrection. Will you write
us an epitaph?'
Ariel forgive me! Here is what I sent:
'Five inches deep Sir Goldfish lies;
Here last September was he laid;
Poppies these, that were his eyes,
Of fish-bones are these blue-bells made;
His fins of gold that to and fro
Waved and waved so long ago,
Still as petals wave and wave
To and fro above his grave.
Hearken, too! for so his knell
Tolls all day each tiny bell.'
[Footnote 1: From a tiny privately-printed volume of deliciously
original lyrics by Mr. R.K. Leather, since republished by Mr. Fisher
Unwin, 1890, and at present published by Mr. John Lane.]
THAT THIRTEENTH MAID
'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.'--
_Merchant of Venice_.
It occurs to me here to wonder whether there can be any reader
ungrateful enough to ask with grumbling voice, 'What of the book-bills?
The head-line has been the sole mention of them now for many pages; and
in the last chapter, where a book was referred to, the writer was
perverse enough to choose one that never belonged to Narcissus at all.'
To which I would venture to make humble rejoinder--Well, Goodman Reader,
and what did you expect? Was it accounts, with all their thrilling
details, with totals, 'less discount,' and facsimiles of the receipt
stamps? Take another look at our first chapter. I promised nothing of
the sort there, I am sure. I promised simply to attempt for you the
delineation of a personality which has had for all who came into contact
with it enduring charm, in hope that, though at second-hand, you might
have some pleasure of it also; and I proposed to do this mainly from the
hints of documents which really are more significant than any letters or
other writings could be, for the reason that they are of necessity so
unconscious. I certainly had no intention of burdening you with the
original data, any more than, should you accept the offer I made, also
in that chapter, and entrust me with your private ledger for
biographical purposes, I would think of printing it _in extenso_, and
calling it a biography; though I should feel justified, after the varied
story had been deduced and written out, in calling the product,
metaphorical wise, 'The private ledger of Johannes Browne, Esquire'--a
title which, by the way, is copyright and duly 'entered.' Such was my
attempt, and I maintain that I have so far kept my word. Because whole
shelves have been disposed of in a line, and a ninepenny 'Canterbury'
has rustled out into pages, you have no right to complain, for that is
but the fashion of life, as I have endeavoured to show. And let me say
in passing that that said copy of Mr. Rhys's Whitman, though it could
not manifestly appear in his book-bills, does at the present moment rest
upon his shelf--'a moment's monument.'
Perhaps it would be well, before proceeding with this present 'place in
the story,' to set out with a statement of the various 'authorities' for
it; as, all this being veritable history, perhaps one should. But then,
Reader, here again I should have to catalogue quite a small library.
However, I will enumerate a few of the more significant ones.
'Swinburne's _Tristram of Lyonesse_, 9/-, less dis., 6/9.'
All that this great poem of 'springtide passion with its fire and
flowers' meant to Narcissus and his 'Thirteenth Maid' in the morning of
their love, those that have loved too will hardly need telling, while
those who have not could never understand, though I spake with the
tongue of the poet himself. In this particular copy, which, I need
hardly say, does not rest upon N.'s shelves, but on another in a sweet
little bedchamber, there is a tender inscription and a sonnet which
aimed at acknowledging how the hearts of those young lovers had gone out
to that poet 'with mouth of gold and morning in his eyes.' The latter I
have begged leave to copy here:--
'Dear Heart, what thing may symbolise for us
A love like ours; what gift, whate'er it be,
Hold more significance 'twixt thee and me
Than paltry words a truth miraculous,
Or the poor signs that in astronomy
Tell giant splendours in their gleaming might?
Yet love would still give such, as in delight
To mock their impotence--so this for thee.
'This book for thee; our sweetest honeycomb
Of lovesome thought and passion-hearted rhyme,
Builded of gold, and kisses, and desire,
By that wild poet whom so many a time
Our hungering lips have blessed, until a fire
Burnt speech up, and the wordless hour had come.'
'Meredith's _Richard Feverel_, 6/-, less dis., 4/6.'
Narcissus was never weary of reading those two wonderful chapters where
Lucy and Richard meet, and he used to say that some day he would beg
leave from Mr. Meredith to reprint at his own charges just those two
chapters, to distribute to all true lovers in the kingdom. It would be
hard to say how often he and his maid had read them aloud together, with
amorous punctuation--caresses for commas, and kisses for full-stops.
'Morris' _Sigurd the Volsung_, 12/-, less dis., 9/-.'
This book they loved when their love had grown to have more of earnest
purpose in it, and its first hysteric ecstasy had passed into the more
solemn ardours of the love that goes not with spring, but loves even
unto the winter and beyond. It is marked all through in pencil by
Narcissus; but on one page, where it opens easily, there are written
initials, in a woman's hand, against this great passage:--
'She said: "Thou shalt never unsay it, and thy heart is mine indeed:
Thou shalt bear thy love in thy bosom as thou helpest the earth-folk's
Thou shalt wake to it dawning by dawning; thou shalt sleep and it shall
not be strange:
There is none shall thrust between us till our earthly lives shall
Ah, my love shall fare as a banner in the hand of thy renown,
In the arms of thy fame accomplished shall it lie when we lay us adown.
O deathless fame of Sigurd! O glory of my lord!
O birth of the happy Brynhild to the measureless reward!"
So they sat as the day grew dimmer, and they looked on days to come,
And the fair tale speeding onward, and the glories of their home;
And they saw their crowned children and the kindred of the kings,
And deeds in the world arising and the day of better things:
All the earthly exaltation, till their pomp of life should be passed,
And soft on the bosom of God their love should be laid at the last.'
And on the page facing this lies a pressed flower--there used to be
two--guarded by these tender rhymes:--
'Whoe'er shall read this mighty song
In some forthcoming evensong,
We pray thee guard these simple flowers,
For, gentle Reader, they are "ours."'
But ill has some 'gentle Reader' attended to the behest, for, as I said,
but one of the flowers remains. One is lost--and Narcissus has gone
away. This inscription is but one of many such scattered here and there
through his books, for he had a great facility in such minor graces, as
he had a neat hand at tying a bow. I don't think he ever sent a box of
flowers without his fertility serving him with some rose-leaf fancy to
accompany them; and on birthdays and all red-letter days he was always
to be counted upon for an appropriate rhyme. If his art served no other
purpose, his friend would be grateful to him for that alone, for many
great days would have gone without their 'white stone' but for him;
when, for instance, J.A.W. took that brave plunge of his, which has
since so abundantly justified him and more than fulfilled prophecy; or
when Samuel Dale took that bolder, namely a wife, he being a
philosopher--incidents, Reader, on which I long so to digress, and for
which, if you could only know beforehand, you would, I am sure, give me
freest hand. But beautiful stories both, I may not tell of you here;
though if the Reader and I ever spend together those hinted nights at
the 'Mermaid,' I then may.
But to return. I said above that if I were to enumerate all the books,
so to say, 'implicated' in the love of Narcissus and his Thirteenth
Maid, I should have to catalogue quite a small library. I forgot for the
moment what literal truth I was writing, for it was indeed in quite a
large library that they first met. In 'our town' there is, Reader, an
old-world institution, which, I think, you would well like transported
to yours, a quaint subscription library 'established' ever so long ago,
full of wonderful nooks and corners, where (of course, if you are a
member) one is sure almost at any time of the day of a solitary corner
for a dream. It is a sweet provision, too, that it is managed by ladies,
whom you may, if you can, image to yourself as the Hesperides; for there
are three of them; and may not the innumerable galleries and spiral
staircases, serried with countless shelves, clustered thick with tome on
tome, figure the great tree, with its many branches and its wonderful
gold fruit--the tree of knowledge? The absence of the dragon from the
similitude is as well, don't you think?
Books, of all things, should be tended by reverent hands; and, to my
mind, the perfunctory in things ecclesiastical is hardly more
distressing than the service of books as conducted in many great
libraries. One feels that the _librarii_ should be a sacred order,
nearly allied to the monastic, refined by varying steps of initiation,
and certainly celibates. They should give out their books as the priest
his sacrament, should wear sacred vestments, and bear about with them
the priestlike _aura_, as of divine incarnations of the great spirit of
Truth and Art in whose temples they are ministrants. The next step to
this ideal ministry is to have our books given out to us by women.
Though they may understand them not, they handle them with gentle
courtesy, and are certainly in every way to be preferred to the youthful
freckled monster with red spines upon his head, and nailed boots, 'the
work of the Cyclops,' upon his feet, whose physiognomy is contorted by
cinnamon-balls at the very moment he carries in his arms some great
Golden-lips or gentle Silver-tongue. What good sweet women there are,
too, who would bless heaven for the occupation!
Well, as I said, we in that particular library are more fortunate, and
two of the 'subscribers,' at least, did at one time express their
appreciation of its privileges by a daily dream among its shelves. One
day--had Hercules been there overnight?--we missed one of our fair
attendants. Was it Aegle, Arethusa, or Hesperia? Narcissus probably
knew. And on the next she was still missing; nor on the third had she
returned; but lo! there was another in her stead--and on her Narcissus
bent his gaze, according to wont. A little maid, with noticeable eyes,
and the hair Rossetti loved to paint--called Hesper, 'by many,' said
Narcissus, one day long after, solemnly quoting the Vita Nuova, 'who
know not wherefore.'
'Why! do _you_ know?' I asked.
'Yes!' And then, for the first time, he had told me the story I have now
to tell again. He had, meanwhile, rather surprised me by little touches
of intimate observation of her which he occasionally let slip--as, for
instance, 'Have you noticed her forehead? It has a fine distinction of
form; is pure ivory, surely; and you should watch how deliciously her
hair springs out of it, like little wavy threads of "old gold" set in
the ivory by some cunning artist.'
I had just looked at him and wondered a moment. But such attentive
regard was hardly matter for surprise in his case; and, moreover, I
always tried to avoid the subject of women with him, for it was the one
on which alone there was danger of our disagreeing. It was the only one
in which he seemed to show signs of cruelty in his disposition, though
it was, I well know, but a thoughtless cruelty; and in my heart I always
felt that he was too right-minded and noble in the other great matters
of life not to come right on that too when 'the hour had struck.'
Meanwhile, he had a way of classifying amours by the number of verses
inspired--as, 'Heigho! it's all over; but never mind, I got two sonnets
out of her'--which seemed to me an exhibition of the worst side of his
artist disposition, and which--well, Reader, jarred much on one who
already knew what a true love meant. It was, however, I could see, quite
unconscious; and I tried hard not to be intolerant towards him, because
fortune had blessed me with an earlier illumination.
Pray, go not away with the misconception that Narcissus was ever base to
a woman. No! he left that to Circe's hogs, and the one temptation he
ever had towards it he turned into a shining salvation. No! he had
nothing worse than the sins of the young egoist to answer for, though he
afterwards came to feel those pitiful and mean enough.
Another noticeable feature of Hesper's face was an ever-present
sadness--not as of a dull grief, but as of some shining sorrow, a
quality which gave her face much arresting interest. It seemed one
great, rich tear. One loved to dwell upon it as upon those intense
stretches of evening sky when the day yearns through half-shut eyelids
in the west. One continually wondered what story it meant, for some it
Watching her thus quietly, day by day, it seemed to me that as the weeks
from her first coming went by, this sadness deepened; and I could not
forbear one day questioning the elder Hesperides about her, thus
bringing upon myself a revelation I had little expected. For, said she,
'she was glad I had spoken to her, for she had long wished to ask me to
use my influence with my friend, that he might cease paying Hesper
attentions which he could not mean in earnest, but which she knew were
already causing Hesper to be fond of him. Having become friendly with
her, she had found out her secret and remonstrated with her, with the
result that she had avoided Narcissus for some time, but not without
much misery to herself, over which she was continually brooding.'
All this was an utter surprise, and a saddening one; for I had grown to
feel much interest in the girl, and had been especially pleased by all
absence of the flighty tendencies with which too many girls in public
service tempt men to their own destruction. She had seemed to me to bear
herself with a maidenly self-respect that spoke of no little grace of
breeding. She had two very strong claims on one's regard. She was
evidently a woman, in the deep, tragic sense of that word, and a lady in
the only true sense of that. The thought of a life so rich in womanly
promise becoming but another of the idle playthings of Narcissus filled
me with something akin to rage, and I was not long in saying some strong
words to him. Not that I feared for her the coarse 'ruin' the world
alone thinks of. Is that the worst that can befall woman? What of the
spiritual deflowering, of which the bodily is but a symbol? If the first
fine bloom of the soul has gone, if the dream that is only dreamed once
has grown up in the imagination and been once given, the mere chastity
of the body is a lie, and whatever its fecundity, the soul has nought
but sterility to give to another. It is not those kisses of the
lips--kisses that one forgets as one forgets the roses we smelt last
year--which profane; they but soil the vessel of the sacrament, and it
is the sacrament itself which those consuming spirit-kisses, which burn
but through the eyes, may desecrate. It is strange that man should have
so long taken the precisely opposite attitude in this matter, caring
only for the observation of the vessel, and apparently dreaming not of
any other possible approach to the sanctities. Probably, however, his
care has not been of sanctities at all. Indeed, most have, doubtless,
little suspicion of the existence of such, and the symbol has been and
is but a selfish superstition amongst them--woman, a symbol whose
meaning is forgotten, but still the object of an ignorant veneration,
not unrelated to the preservation of game.
Narcissus took my remonstrance a little flippantly, I thought, evidently
feeling that too much had been made out of very little; for he averred
that his 'attentions' to Hesper had been of the slightest character,
hardly more than occasional looks and whispers, which, from her cold
reception of them, he had felt were more distasteful to her than
otherwise. He had indeed, he said, ceased even these the last few days,
as her reserve always made him feel foolish, as a man fondling a fair
face in his dream wakes on a sudden to find that he is but grimacing at
the air. This reassured me, and I felt little further anxiety. However,
this security only proved how little I really understood the weak side
of my friend. I had not realised how much he really was Narcissus, and
how dear to him was a new mirror. My speaking to him was the one wrong
course possible to be taken. Instead of confirming his growing intention
of indifference, it had, as might have been foreseen, the directly
opposite effect; and from the moment of his learning that Hesper
secretly loved him, she at once became invested with a new glamour, and
grew daily more and more the forbidden fascination few can resist.
I did not learn this for many months. Meanwhile Narcissus chose to
deceive me for the first and only time. At last he told me all; and how
different was his manner of telling it from his former gay relations of
conquest. One needed not to hear the words to see he was unveiling a
sacred thing, a holiness so white and hidden, the most reverent word
seemed a profanation; and, as he laboured for the least soiled wherein
to enfold the revelation, his soul seemed as a maid torn with the
blushing tremors of a new knowledge. Men only speak so after great and
wonderful travail, and by that token I knew Narcissus loved at last. It
had seemed unlikely ground from which love had first sprung forth, that
of a self-worship that could forgo no slightest indulgence--but thence
indeed it had come. The silent service my words had given him to know
that Hesper's heart was offering to him was not enough; he must hear it
articulate, his nostrils craved an actual incense. To gain this he must
deceive two--his friend, and her whose poor face would kindle with
hectic hope, at the false words he must say for the true words he _must_
hear. It was pitifully mean; but whom has not his own hidden lust made
to crawl like a thief, afraid of a shadow, in his own house? Narcissus'
young lust was himself, and Moloch knew no more ruthless hunger than
burns in such. Of course, it did not present itself quite nakedly to
him; he persuaded himself there could be little harm--he meant none.
And so, instead of avoiding Hesper, he sought her the more persistently,
and by some means so far wooed her from her reticence as to win her
consent to a walk together one autumn afternoon. How little do we know
the measure of our own proposing! That walk was to be the most fateful
his feet had ever trodden through field and wood, yet it seemed the most
accidental of gallantries. A little town-maid, with a romantic passion
for 'us'; it would be interesting to watch the child; it would be like
giving her a day's holiday, so much sunshine 'in our presence.' And so
on. But what an entirely different complexion was the whole thing
beginning to take before they had walked a mile. Behind the flippancy
one had gone to meet were surely the growing features of a solemnity.
Why, the child was a woman indeed; she could talk, she had brains,
ideas--and, Lord bless us, Theories! She had that 'excellent thing in
woman,' not only a voice, which she had, too, but character. Narcissus
began to loose his regal robes, and from being merely courteously to be
genuinely interested. Why, she was a discovery! As they walked on, her
genuine delight in the autumnal nature, the real imaginative appeal it
had for her, was another surprise. She had, evidently, a deep poetry in
her disposition, rarest of all female endowments. In a surprisingly few
minutes from the beginning of their walk he found himself taking that
'little child' with extreme seriousness, and wondering many 'whethers.'
They walked out again, and yet again, and Narcissus' first impressions
deepened. He had his theories, too; and, surely, here was the woman! He
was not in love--at least, not with her, but with her fitness for his
They sat by a solitary woodside, beneath a great elm tree. The hour was
full of magic, for though the sun had set, the smile of her day's joy
with him had not yet faded from the face of earth. It was the hour
vulgarised in drawing-room ballads as the 'gloaming.' They sat very near
to each other; he held her hand, toying with it; and now and again their
eyes met with the look that flutters before flight, that says, 'Dare I
give thee all? Dare I throw my eyes on thine as I would throw myself on
thee?' And then, at last, came the inevitable moment when the eyes of
each seem to cry 'O yes!' to the other, and the gates fly back; all the
hidden light springs forth, the woods swim round, and the lips meet with
a strange shock, while the eyes of the spirit close in a lapping dream
of great peace.
If you are not ready to play the man, beware of a kiss such as the lips
of little Hesper, that never knew to kiss before, pressed upon the mouth
of Narcissus. It sent a chill shudder through him, though it was so
sweet, for he could feel her whole life surging behind it; and was the
kiss he had given her for it such a kiss as that? But he had spoken much
to her of his ideas of marriage; she knew he was sworn for ever against
that. She must know the kiss had no such meaning; for, besides, did she
not scorn the soiled 'tie' also? Were not their theories at one in that?
He would be doing her no wrong; it was her own desire. Yet his kiss did
mean more than he could have imagined it meaning a week before. She had
grown to be genuinely desirable. If love tarried, passion was
awake--that dangerous passion, too, to which the intellect has added its
intoxication, and that is, so to say, legitimised by an 'idea.'
Her woman's intuition read the silence and answered to his thought.
'Have no fear,' she said, with the deep deliberation of passion; 'I
love you with my whole life, but I shall never burden you, Narcissus.
Love me as long as you can, I shall be content; and when the end comes,
though another woman takes you, I shall not hinder.'
O great girl-soul! What a poltroon, indeed, was Narcissus beside you at
that moment. You ready to stake your life on the throw, he temporising
and bargaining as over the terms of a lease. Surely, if he could for one
moment have seen himself in the light of your greatness, he had been
crushed beneath the misery of his own meanness. But as yet he had no
such vision; his one thought was, 'She will do it! will she draw back?'
and the feeble warnings he was obliged to utter to keep his own terms,
by assuring his conscience of 'her free-will,' were they not
half-fearfully whispered, and with an inward haste, lest they should
give her pause? 'But the world, my dear--think!' 'It will have cruel
names for thee.' 'It will make thee outcast--think!'
'I know all,' she had answered; 'but I love you, and two years of your
love would pay for all. There is no world for me but you. Till to-night
I have never lived at all, and when you go I shall be as dead. The world
cannot hurt such a one.'
Ah me, it was a wild, sweet dream for both of them, one the woman's, one
the poet's, of a 'sweet impossible' taking flesh! For, do not let us
blame Narcissus overmuch. He was utterly sincere; he meant no wrong. He
but dreamed of following a creed to which his reason had long given a
hopeless assent. In a more kindly-organised community he might have
followed it, and all have been well; but the world has to be dealt with
as one finds it, and we must get sad answers to many a fair calculation
if we 'state' it wrongly in the equation. That there is one law for the
male and another for the female had not as yet vitally entered into his
considerations. He was too dizzy with the dream, or he must have seen
what an unequal bargain he was about to drive.
At last he did awake, and saw it all; and in a burning shame went to
Hesper, and told her that it must not be.
Her answer was unconsciously the most subtly dangerous she could have
chosen: 'If I like to give myself to you, why should you not take me? It
is of my own free-will. My eyes are open.' It was his very thought put
into words, and by her. For a moment he wavered--who could blame him?
'Am I my brother's keeper?'
'Yes! a thousand times yes!' cried his soul; for he was awake now, and
he had come to see the dream as it was, and to shudder at himself as he
had well-nigh been, just as one shudders at the thought of a precipice
barely escaped. In that moment, too, the idea of her love in all its
divineness burst upon him. Here was a heart capable of a great tragic
love like the loves of old he read of and whimpered for in sonnets, and
what had he offered in exchange? A poor, philosophical compromise,
compounded of pessimism and desire, in which a man should have all to
gain and nothing to lose, for
'The light, light love he has wings to fly
At suspicion of a bond.'
'I would I did love her,' his heart was crying as he went away. 'Could I
love her?' was his next thought. 'Do I love her?'--but that is a
question that always needs longer than one day to answer.
Already he was as much in love with her as most men when they take unto
themselves wives. She was desirable--he had pleasure in her presence. He
had that half of love which commonly passes for all--the passion; but he
lacked the additional incentives which nerve the common man to face that
fear which seems well-nigh as universal as the fear of death, I mean the
fear of marriage--life's two fears: that is, he had no desire to
increase his worldly possessions by annexing a dowry, or ambition of
settling down and procuring a wife as part of his establishment. After
all, how full of bachelors the world would be if it were not for these
motives: for the one other motive to a true marriage, the other half of
love, however one names it, is it not a four-leaved clover indeed?
Narcissus was happily poor enough to be above those motives, even had
Hesper been anything but poor too; and if he was to marry her, it would
be because he was capable of loving her with that perfect love which, of
course, has alone right to the sacred name, that which cannot take all
and give nought, but which rather holds as watchword that _to love is
better than to be loved_.
Who shall hope to express the mystery? Yet, is not thus much true, that,
if it must be allowed to the cynic that love rises in self, it yet has
its zenith and setting in another--in woman as in man? Two meet, and
passion, the joy of the selfish part of each, is born; shall love follow
depends on whether they have a particular grace of nature, love being
the thanksgiving of the unselfish part for the boon granted to the
other. The common nature snatches the joy and forgets the giver, but the
finer never forgets, and deems life but a poor service for a gift so
rare; and, though passion be long since passed, love keeps holy an
'Love took up the harp of life and smote on all the chords
Smote the chord of self, that, trembling, pass'd in music
out of sight.'
Since the time of fairy-tales Love has had a way of coming in the
disguise of Duty. What is the story of Beauty and the Beast but an
allegory of true love? We take this maid to be our wedded wife, for her
sake it perhaps seems at the time. She is sweet and beautiful and to be
desired; but, all the same, we had rather shake the loose leg of
bachelordom, if it might be. However it be, so we take her, or maybe it
is she takes us, with a feeling of martyrdom; but lo! when we are home
together, what wonderful new lights are these beginning to ray about
her, as though she had up till now kept a star hidden in her bosom. What
is this new morning strength and peace in our life? Why, we thought it
was but Thestylis, and lo! it is Diana after all. For the Thirteenth
Maid or the Thirteenth Man, both alike, rarely come as we had expected.
There seems no fitness in their arrival. It seems so ridiculously
accidental, as I suppose the hour of death, whenever it comes, will
seem. One had expected some high calm prelude of preparation, ending in
a festival of choice, like an Indian prince's, when the maids of the
land pass before him and he makes deliberate selection of the fateful
She. But, instead, we are hurrying among our day's business, maybe, our
last thought of her; we turn a corner, and suddenly she is before us. Or
perhaps, as it fell with Narcissus, we have tried many loves that proved
but passions; we have just buried the last, and are mournfully leaving
its grave, determined to seek no further, to abjure bright eyes, at
least for a long while, when lo! on a sudden a little maid is in our
path holding out some sweet modest flowers. The maid has a sweet mouth,
too, and, the old Adam being stronger than our infant resolution, we
smell the flowers and kiss the mouth--to find arms that somehow, we know
not why, are clinging as for life about us. Let us beware how we shake
them off, for thus it is decreed shall a man meet her to have missed
whom were to have missed all. Youth, like that faithless generation in
the Scriptures, always craveth after a sign, but rarely shall one be
given. It can only be known whether a man be worthy of Love by the way
in which he looks upon Duty. Rachel often comes in the grey cloak of
Leah. It rests with the man's heart whether he shall know her beneath
the disguise; no other divining-rod shall aid him. If it be as
Bassanio's, brave to 'give and hazard all he hath,' let him not fear to
pass the seeming gold, the seeming silver, to choose the seeming lead.
'Why, _that's_ the lady,' thou poor magnificent Morocco. Nor shall the
gold fail, for her heart is that, and for silver thou shalt have those
'silent silver lights undreamed of' of face and soul.
These are but scattered hints of the story of Narcissus' love as he told
it me at last, in broken, struggling words, but with a light in his face
one power alone could set there.
When he came to the end, and to all that little Hesper had proved to
him, all the strength and illumination she had brought him, he fairly
broke down and sobbed, as one may in a brother's arms. For, of course,
he had come out of the ordeal a man; and Hesper had consented to be his
wife. Often she had dreamed as he had passed her by with such heedless
air: 'If I love him so, can it be that my love shall have no power to
make him mine, somehow, some day? Can I call to him so within my soul
and he not hear? Can I wait and he not come?' And her love had been
strong, strong as a destiny; her voice had reached him, for it was the
voice of God.
When I next saw her, what a strange brightness shone in her face, what a
new beauty was there! Ah, Love, the great transfigurer! And why, too,
was it that his friends began to be dissatisfied with their old
photographs of Narcissus, though they had been taken but six months
before? There seemed something lacking in the photograph, they said.
Yes, there was; but the face had lacked it too. What was the new
thing--'grip' was it, joy, peace? Yes, all three, but more besides, and
Narcissus had but one name for all. It was Hesper.
Strange, too, that in spite of promises we never received a new one.
Narcissus, who used to be so punctual with such a request. Perhaps it
was because he had broken his looking-glass.
'IN VISHNU-LAND WHAT AVATAR?'
'If I love you for a year I shall love you for ever,' Narcissus had said
to his Thirteenth Maid. He did love her so long, and yet he has gone
away. Do you remember your _Les Misérables_, that early chapter where
Valjean robs the child of his florin so soon after that great
illuminating change of heart and mind had come to him? Well, still more
important, do you remember the clue Hugo gives us to aberration? There
is comfort and strength for so many a heart-breaking failure there. It
was the old impetus, we are told, that was as yet too strong for the new
control; the old instinct, too dark for the new light in the brain. It
takes every vessel some time to answer to its helm; with us, human
vessels, years, maybe. Have you never suddenly become sensitive of a
gracious touch in the air, and pondered it, to recognise that in some
half-unconscious act you had that moment been answering for the first
time the helm of an almost forgotten resolution? Ah me, blessed is it to
see the prow strongly sweeping up against the sky at last!
'Send not a poet to London,' said Heine, and it was a true word. At
least, send him not till his thews are laced and his bones set. He may
miss somewhat, of course; there is no gain without a loss. He may be in
ignorance of the last _nuance_, and if he deserves fame he must gain it
unaided of the vulgar notoriety which, if he have a friend or two in the
new journalism, they will be so eager to bestow; but he will have kept
his soul intact, which, after all, is the main matter. It is sweet,
doubtless, to be one of those same mushroom-men, sweet to be placarded
as 'the new' this or that, to step for a day into the triumphal car of
newspaper renown, drawn by teams of willing paragraph-men--who, does it
never strike you? are but doing it all for hire, and earning their bread
by their bent necks. Yet for those to whom it is denied there is solid
comfort; for it is not fame, and, worse still, it is not life, 'tis but
to be 'a Bourbon in a crown of straws.'
If one could only take poor foolish Cockneydom right away outside this
poor vainglorious city, and show them how the stars are smiling to
themselves above it, nudging each other, so to say, at the silly lights
that ape their shining--for such a little while!
Yes, that is one danger of the poet in London, that he should come to
think himself 'somebody'; though, doubtless, in proportion as he is a
poet, the other danger will be the greater, that he should deem himself
'nobody.' Modest by nature, credulous of appearances, the noisy
pretensions of the hundred and one small celebrities, and the din of
their retainers this side and that, in comparison with his own
unattended course, what wonder if his heart sinks and he gives up the
game; how shall his little pipe, though it be of silver, hope to be
heard in this land of bassoons? To take London seriously is death both
to man and artist. Narcissus had sufficient success there to make this a
temptation, and he fell. He lost his hold of the great things of life,
he forgot the stars, he forgot his love, and what wonder that his art
sickened also. For a few months life was but a feverish clutch after
varied sensation, especially the dear tickle of applause; he caught the
facile atheistic flippancy of that poor creature, the 'modern young
man,' all-knowing and all-foolish, and he came very near losing his soul
in the nightmare. But he had too much ballast in him to go quite under,
and at last strength came, and he shook the weakness from him. Yet the
fall had been too far and too cruel for him to be happy again soon. He
had gone forth so confident in his new strength of manly love; and to
fall so, and almost without an effort! Who has not called upon the
mountains to cover him in such an hour of awakening, and who will
wonder that Narcissus dared not look upon the face of Hesper till
solitude had washed him clean, and bathed him in its healing oil? I
alone bade him good-bye. It was in this room wherein I am writing, the
study we had taken together, where still his books look down at me from
the shelves, and all the memorials of his young life remain. O _can_ it
have been but 'a phantom of false morning'? A Milton snatched up at the
last moment was the one book he took with him.
From that night until this he has made but one sign--a little note which
Hesper has shown me, a sob and a cry to which even a love that had been
more deeply wronged could never have turned a deaf ear. Surely not
Hesper, for she has long forgiven him, knowing his weakness for what it
was. She and I sometimes sit here together in the evenings and talk of
him; and every echo in the corridor sets us listening, for he may be at
the other side of the world, or but the other side of the street--we
know so little of his fate. Where he is we know not; but if he still
lives, _what_ he is we have the assurance of faith. This time he has not
failed, we know. But why delay so long?
_November_ 1889--_May_ 1890. _November_ 1894.