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Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow
ON THE PLAYING OF MARCHES AT THE FUNERALS OF MARIONETTES
HE began the day badly. He took me out and lost me. It would be so much better would he consent to the usual arrangement, and allow me to take him out. I am far the abler leader; I say it without conceit. I am older than he is, and I am less excitable. I do not stop and talk with every person I meet, and. then forget where I am. I do less to distract myself: I rarely fight; I never feel I want to run after cats; I take but little pleasure in frightening children. I have nothing to think about but the walk and the getting home again. If, as I say, he would give up taking me out, and let me take him out, there would be less trouble all round. But into this I have never been able to persuade him.
He had mislaid me once or twice, but in Sloane Square he lost me entirely. When he loses me he stands and barks for me. If only he would remain where he first barked, I might find my way to him; but before I can cross the road, he is barking halfway down the next street. I am not so young as I was; and I sometimes think he exercises me more than is good for me. I could see him from where 1 was standing in the King's road. Evidently he was most indignant. I was too far off to distinguish the barks, but I could guess what he was saying, –
"Damn that man! he's off again."
He made inquiries of a passing dog, –
"You haven't smelt my man about anywhere, have you?"
(A dog, of course, would never speak of seeing anybody or anything, smell being his leading sense. Reaching the top of a hill, he would say to his companion, "Lovely smell from here, I always think; I could sit and sniff here all the afternoon." Or, proposing a walk, he would say, "I like the road by the canal, don't you? There's something interesting to catch your nose at every turn.")
"No, I haven't smelt any man in particular," answered the other dog. "What sort of a smelling man is yours?"
"Oh, an egg-and-bacony sort of a man, with a dash of soap about him."
"That's nothing to go by," retorted the other; "most men would answer to that description, this time of the morning. Where were you when you last noticed him?"
At this moment he caught sight of me, and came up, pleased to find me, but vexed with me for having got lost.
"Oh, here you are," he barked; "didn't you see me go round the corner? Do keep closer. Bothered if half my time isn't taken up finding you and losing you again."
The incident appeared to have made him bad-tempered; he was just in the humour for a row of any sort. At the top of Sloane Street, a stout military-looking gentleman started running after the Chelsea 'bus. With a "Hooroo" William Smith was after him. Had the old gentleman taken no notice, all would have been well. A butcher boy, driving just behind, would – I could read it in his eye – have caught Smith a flick as he darted into the road, which would have served him right; the old gentleman would have captured his 'bus; and the affair would have been ended. Unfortunately, he was that type of retired military man all gout and curry and no sense. He stopped to swear at the dog. That, of course, was what Smith wanted. It is not often he gets a scrimmage with a full-grown man. "They're a poor-spirited lot, most of them," he thinks; "they won't even answer you back. I like a man who shows a bit of pluck." He was frenzied with delight at his success. He flew round his victim, weaving whooping circles and curves that paralysed the old gentleman as though they had been the mystic figures of a Merlin. The colonel clubbed his umbrella, and attempted to defend himself. I called to the dog, I gave good advice to the colonel (I judged him to be a colonel; the louder he spoke, the less one could understand him), but both were too excited to listen to me. A sympathetic 'bus driver leaned over and whispered hoarse counsel.
"Ketch 'im by the tail, sir," he advised the old gentleman; "don't you be afraid of him; you ketch 'im firmly by the tail."
A milkman, on the other hand, sought rather to encourage Smith, shouting as he passed, –
"'Good dog, kill him!"
A child, brained within an inch by the old gentleman's umbrella, began to cry. The nurse told the old gentleman he was a fool, – a remark which struck me as singularly apt. The old gentleman gasped back that perambulators were illegal on the pavement, and, between his exercises, inquired after myself. A crowd began to collect, and a policeman strolled up.
It was not the right thing: I do not defend myself; but, at this point, the temptation came to me to desert William Smith. He likes a street row; I don't. These things are matters of temperament. I have also noticed that he has the happy instinct of knowing when to disappear from a crisis, and the ability to do so; mysteriously turning up, quarter of a mile off, clad in a peaceful and preoccupied air, and to all appearances another and a better dog.
Consoling myself with the reflection that I could be of no practical assistance to him, and remembering with some satisfaction that, by a fortunate accident, he was without his collar, which bears my name and address, I slipped round the off side of a Vauxhall 'bus, making no attempt at ostentation, and worked my way home through Lowndes Square and the Park.
Five minutes after I had sat down to lunch, he flung open the dining-room door and marched in. It is his customary "entrance." In a previous state of existence, his soul was probably that of an Actor-Manager.
From his exuberant self-satisfaction, I was inclined to think he must have succeeded in following the milkman's advice; at all events, I have not seen the colonel since. His bad temper had disappeared, but his "uppishness" had, if possible, increased. Previous to his return, I had given The O'Shannon a biscuit. The O'Shannon had been insulted; he did not want a dog biscuit; if he could not have a grilled kidney he did not want anything. He had thrown the biscuit on the floor. Smith saw it and made for it. Now Smith never eats biscuits. I give him one occasionally, and he at once proceeds to hide it. He is a thrifty dog; he thinks of the future. "You never know what may happen," he says; "suppose the Guv'nor dies, or goes mad, or bankrupt, I may be glad even of this biscuit; I'll put it under the door-mat – no, I won't, somebody will find it there; I'll scratch a hole in the tennis lawn and bury it there. That's a good idea; perhaps it'll grow." Once I caught him hiding it in my study, behind the shelf devoted to my own books. It offended me, his doing that; the argument was so palpable. Generally, wherever he hides it somebody finds it. We find it under our pillows, inside our boots; no place seems safe. This time he had said to himself, "By Jove! a whole row of the Guv'nor's books. Nobody will ever want to take these out: I'll hide it here." One feels a thing like that from one's own dog.
But The O'Shannon's biscuit was another matter. Honesty is the best policy; but dishonesty is the better fun. He made a dash for it and commenced to devour it greedily; you might have thought he had not tasted food for a week.
The indignation of The O'Shannon was a sight for the gods. He has the good nature of his race: had Smith asked him for the biscuit, he would probably have given it to him; it was the insult, the immorality of the proceeding, that maddened The O'Shannon.
For a moment he was paralysed.
"Well, of all the – Did ye see that now?" he said to me with his eyes. Then he made a rush and snatched the biscuit out of Smith's very jaws. "Ye onprincipled black Saxon thief," growled The O'Shannon, "how dare ye take my biscuit?"
"You miserable Irish cur," growled Smith, "how was I to know it was your biscuit? Does everything on the floor belong to you? Perhaps you think I belong to you; I'm on the floor. I don't believe it is your biscuit, you long-eared, snubbed-nosed bog-trotter; give it me back."
"I don't require any of your argument, you flop-eared son of a tramp with half a tail," replied The O'Shannon. "You come and take it, if you think you are dog enough."
He did think he was dog enough. He is half the size of The O'Shannon, but such considerations weigh not with him. His argument is, if a dog is too big for you to fight the whole of him, take a bit of him and fight that. He generally gets licked, but what is left of him invariably swaggers about afterwards under the impression it is the victor. When he is dead, he will say to himself, as he settles himself in his grave, "Well, I flatter myself I've laid out that old world at last. It won't trouble me any more, I'm thinking."
On this occasion, I took a hand in the fight. It becomes necessary at intervals to remind Master Smith that the man, as the useful and faithful friend of dog, has his rights. I deemed such interval had arrived. He flung himself on to the sofa, muttering. It sounded like, "Wish I'd never got up this morning. Nobody understands me."
Nothing, however, sobers him for long. Half-an-hour later, he was killing the nextdoor cat. He will never learn sense; he has been killing that cat for the last three months. Why the next morning his nose is invariably twice its natural size, while for the next week he can see objects on one side of his head only, he never seems to grasp; I suppose he attributes it to change in the weather.
He ended up the afternoon with what he no doubt regarded as a complete and satisfying success. Dorothea had invited a lady to take tea with her that day. I heard the sound of laughter, and, being near the nursery, I looked in to see what was the joke. Smith was worrying a doll. I have rarely seen a more worried-looking doll. Its head was off, and its sawdust strewed the floor. Both the children were crowing with delight; Dorothea, in particular, was in an ecstasy of amusement.
"Whose doll is it?" I asked.
"Eva's," answered Dorothea, between her peals of laughter.
"Oh, no, it isn't," explained Eva, in a tone of sweet content; "Here's my doll." She had been sitting on it, and now drew it forth, warm but whole. "That's Dorry's doll."
The change from joy to grief on the part of Dorothea was distinctly dramatic. Even Smith, accustomed to storm, was nonplussed at the suddenness of the attack upon him.
Dorothea's sorrow lasted longer than I had expected. I promised her another doll. But it seemed she did not want another; that was the only doll she would ever care for so long as life lasted; no other doll could ever take its place; no other doll would be to her what that doll had been. These little people are so absurd: as if it could matter whether you loved one doll or another, when all are so much alike! They have curly hair and pink-and-white complexions, big eyes that open and shut, a little red mouth, two little hands. Yet these foolish little people! they will love one, while another they will not look upon. I find the best plan is not to reason with them, but to sympathise. Later on – but not too soon – introduce to them another doll. They will not care for it at first, but in time they will come to take an interest in it. Of course it cannot make them forget the first doll; no doll ever born in Lowther Arcadia could be as that, but still – It is many weeks before they forget entirely the first love.
We buried Dolly in the country under the yew-tree. A friend of mine who plays the fiddle came down on purpose to assist. We buried her in the hot spring sunshine, while the birds from shady nooks sang joyously of life and love. And our chief mourner cried real tears, just for all the world as though it were not the fate of dolls, sooner or later, to get broken, – the little fragile things, made for an hour, to be dressed and kissed; then, paintless and stript, to be thrown aside on the nursery floor. Poor little dolls! I wonder do they take themselves seriously, not knowing the springs that stir their sawdust bosoms are but clockwork, not seeing the wires to which they dance. Poor little marionettes! do they talk together, I wonder, when the lights of the booth are out.
You, little sister doll, were the heroine. You lived in the whitewashed cottage, all honeysuckle and clematis without, – ear-wiggy and damp within, maybe. How pretty you always looked in your simple, neatlyfitting print dress! How good you were! How nobly you bore your poverty! How patient you were under your many wrongs! You never harboured an evil thought, a revengeful wish – never, little doll? Were there never moments when you longed to play the wicked woman's part, live in a room with many doors, beclad in furs and jewels, with lovers galore at your feet? In those long winter evenings? the household work is done, – the greasy dishes washed, the floor scrubbed; the excellent child is asleep in the corner; the one-and-eleven-penny lamp sheds its dismal light on the darned table-cloth; you sit, busy at your coarse sewing, waiting for Hero Dick, knowing, guessing, at least, where he is –! Yes, dear, I remember your fine speeches, when you told her, in stirring language the gallery cheered to the echo, what you thought of her and of such women as she; when, lifting your hand to Heaven, you declared you were happier in your attic, working your fingers to the bone, than she in her gilded salon – I think "gilded salon" was the term, was it not? – furnished by sin. But speaking of yourself, weak little sister doll, not of your fine speeches, the gallery listening, did you not in your secret heart envy her? Did you never, before blowing out the one candle, stand for a minute in front of the cracked glass, and think to yourself that you, too, would look well in low-cut dresses from Paris, the diamonds flashing on your white smooth skin ? Did you never, toiling home through the mud, bearing your bundle of needlework, feel bitter with the wages of virtue, as she splashed you, passing by in her carriage? Alone, over your cup of weak tea, did you never feel tempted to pay the price for champagne suppers and gaiety and admiration? Ah, yes, it is easy for folks who have had their good time to prepare copy-books for weary little ink-stained fingers longing for play. The fine maxims sound such cant when we are in that mood, do they not? You, too, were young and handsome: did the author of the play think you were never hungry for the good things of life? Did he think that reading tracts ta crotchety old women was joy to a fullblooded girl in her twenties? Why should she have all the love and all the laughter? How fortunate that the villain, the Wicked Baronet, never opened the cottage door at that moment, eh, dear? He always came when you were strong, when you felt that you could denounce him, and scorn his temptations. Would that the villain came to all of us at such time; then we would all, perhaps, be heroes and heroines.
Ah, well, it was only a play: it is over now. You and I, little tired dolls, lying here side by side, waiting to know our next part, we can look back and laugh. Where is she, this wicked dolly, that made such a stir on our tiny stage? Ah, here you are, Madam; I thought you could not be far; they have thrown us all into this corner together. But how changed you are, Dolly, your paint rubbed off, your golden hair worn to a wisp! No wonder; it was a trying part you had to play. How tired you rnust have grown of the glare and the glitter! And even hope was denied you. The peace you so longed for you knew you had lost the power to enjoy. Like the girl bewitched in the fairy tale, you knew you must dance ever faster and faster, with limbs growing palsied, with face growing ashen and hair growing grey, till Death should come to release you; and your only prayer was he might come ere your dancing grew comic.
Like the smell of the roses to Nancy, hawking them through the hot streets, must the stifling atmosphere of love have been to you. The song of passion, how monotonous in your ears, sung now by the young and now by the old; now shouted, now whined, now shrieked; but ever the one strident tune. Do you remember when first you heard it? You dreamt it the morning hymn of Heaven. You came to think it the dancemusic of Hell, ground out of a cracked hurdy-gurdy, lent out by the Devil on hire.
An evil race we must have seemed to you, Dolly Faustine, as to some Old Bailey lawyer. You saw but one side of us. You lived in a world upside down, where the leaves and the blossoms were hidden, and only the roots saw your day. You imagined the wormbeslimed fibres the plant, and all things beautiful you deemed cant. Chivalry, love, honour! how you laughed at the lying words! You knew the truth – as you thought: aye, half the truth. We were swine while your spell was upon us, Daughter of Circe, and you, not knowing your island secret, deemed it our natural shape.
No wonder, Dolly, your battered waxen face is stamped with an angry sneer. The Hero, who eventually came into his estates amid the plaudits of the Pit, while you were left to die in the streets, you remembered, but the house had forgotten those earlier scenes in always wicked Paris. The good friend of the family, the breezy man of the world, the Deus ex Machina of the play, who was so good to everybody, whom everybody loved! aye, you loved him once – but that was in the Prologue. In the Play proper, he was respectable. (How you loathed that word, that meant to you all you vainly longed for!) To him the Prologue was a period past and dead; a memory, giving flavour to his life. To you, it was the First Act of the Play, shaping all the others. His sins the house had forgotten; at yours, they held up their hands in horror. No wonder the sneer lies on your waxen lips.
Never mind, Dolly; it was a stupid house. Next time, perhaps, you will play a better part; and then they will cheer, instead of hissing you. You were wasted, I am inclined to think, on modern comedy. You should have been cast for the heroine of some old-world tragedy. The strength of character, the courage, the power of selfforgetfulness, the enthusiasm, were yours: it was the part that was lacking. You might have worn the mantle of a Judith, a Boadicea, or a Jeanne d'Arc, had such plays been popular in your time. Perhaps they, had they played in your day, might have had to be content with such a part as yours. They could not have played the meek heroine, and what else would there have been for them in modern drama? Catherine of Russia! had she been a waiter's daughter in the days of the Second Empire, should we have called her Great? The Magdalene! had her lodging in those days been in some bye-street of Rome instead of in Jerusalem, should we mention her name in our churches?
You were necessary, you see, Dolly, to the piece. We cannot all play heroes and heroines. There must be wicked people in the play, or it would not interest. Think of it, Dolly, a play where all the women were virtuous, all the men honest! We might close the booth; the world would be as dull as an oyster-bed. Without you wicked folk there would be no good. How should we have known and honoured the heroine's worth, but by contrast with your worthlessness? Where would have been her fine speeches, but for you to listen to them? Where lay the hero's strength, but in resisting temptation of you? Had not you and the Wicked Baronet between you robbed him of his estates, falsely accused him of crime, he would have lived to the end of the play an idle, unheroic, incomplete existence. You brought him down to poverty; you made him earn his own bread, – a most excellent thing for him; gave him the opportunity to play the man. But for your conduct in the Prologue, of what value would have been that fine scene at the end of the Third Act, that stirred the house to tears and laughter. You and your accomplice, the Wicked Baronet, made the play possible. How would Pit and Gallery have known they were virtuous, but for the indignation that came to them, watching your misdeeds? Pity, sympathy, excitement, all that goes to the making of a play, you were necessary for. It was ungrateful of the house to hiss you.
And you, Mr. Merryman, the painted grin worn from your pale lips, you too were dissatisfied, if I remember rightly, with your part. You wanted to make the people cry, not laugh. Was it a higher ambition? The poor tired people! so much happens outside the booth to make them weep, is it not good sport to make them merry for awhile? Do you remember that old soul in the front row of the Pit? How she laughed when you sat down on the pie! I thought she would have to be carried out. I heard her talking to her companion as they passed the stagedoor on their way home. "I have not laughed, my dear, till to-night," she was saying, the good, gay tears still in her eyes, "since the day poor Sally died." Was not that alone worth the old stale tricks you so hated? Aye, they were commonplace and conventional, those antics of yours that made us laugh; are not the antics that make us weep commonplace and conventional also? Are not all the plays, played since the booth was opened, but of one pattern, the plot oldfashioned now, the scenes now commonplace? Hero, villain, cynic, – are their parts so much the fresher? The love duets, are they so very new? The death-bed scenes, would you call them uncommonplace? Hate and Anger and Wrong, – are their voices new to the booth? What are you waiting for, people? a play with a plot that is novel, with characters that have never strutted before? It will be ready for you, perhaps, when you are ready for it, with new tears and new laughter.
You, Mr. Merryman, were the true philosopher. You saved us from forgetting the reality when the friction grew somewhat strenuous. How we all applauded your gag in answer to the hero, when, bewailing his sad fate, he demanded of heaven how much longer he was to suffer evil fortune. "Well, there cannot be much more of it in store for you," you answered him; "it's nearly nine o'clock already, and the show closes at ten." And, true to your prophecy, the curtain fell at the time appointed, and his troubles were of the past. You showed us the truth behind the mask. When pompous Lord Shallow, in ermine and wig, went to take his seat amid the fawning crowd, you pulled the chair from under him, and down he sat plump on the floor. His robe flew open; his wig flew off. No longer he awed us. His aped dignity fell from him; we saw him a stupid-eyed, bald little man; he imposed no longer upon us. It is your fool who is the only true wise man.
Yours was the best part in the play, Brother Merryman, had you and the audience but known it. But you dreamt of a showier part, where you loved and fought. I have heard you now and again, when you did not know I was near, shouting with sword in hand before your looking-glass. You had thrown your motley aside to don a dingy red coat; you were the hero of the play; you performed the gallant deeds; you made the noble speeches. I wonder what the play would be like, were we all to write our own parts. There would be no clowns, no singing chambermaids. We would all be playing lead in the centre of the stage, with the lime-light exclusively devoted to ourselves. Would it not be so?
What grand acting parts they are, these characters we write for ourselves alone in our dressing-rooms. We are always brave and noble, – wicked sometimes, but if so, in a great, high-minded way; never in a mean or little way. What wondrous deeds we do, while the house looks on and marvels! Now we are soldiers, leading armies to victory. What if we die! it is in the hour of triumph, and a nation is left to mourn. Not in some forgotten skirmish do we ever fall; not for some "affair of outposts" do we give our blood, our very name unmentioned in the despatches home. Now we are passionate lovers, well losing a world for love, – a very different thing to being a laughter-provoking co-respondent in a sordid divorce case.
And the house is always crowded when we play. Our fine speeches always fall on sympathetic ears; our brave deeds are noted and applauded. It is so different in the real performance. So often we play our parts to empty benches, or if a thin house be present, they misunderstand, and laugh at the pathetic passages. And when our finest opportunity comes, the royal box, in which he or she should be present to watch us, is vacant.
Poor little doll's how seriously we take ourselves, not knowing the springs that stir our bosoms are but clockwork, not seeing the wires to which we dance! Poor little marionettes! shall we talk together, I wonder, when the lights of the booth are out?
We are little wax dollies with hearts. We are little tin soldiers with souls. Oh, King of many toys, are you merely playing with us? Is it only clockwork within us, this thing that throbs and aches? Have you wound us up but to let us run down? Will you wind us again to-morrow, or leave us here to rust? Is it only clockwork to which we respond and quiver? Now we laugh, now we cry, now we dance; our little arms go out to clasp one another, our little lips kiss, then say good-bye. We strive, and we strain, and we struggle. We reach now for gold, now for laurel. We call it desire and ambition: are they only wires that you play? Will you throw the clockwork aside, or use it again, O Master?
The lights of the booth grow dim. The springs are broken that kept our eyes awake. The wire that held us erect is snapped, and helpless we fall in a heap on the stage. Oh, brother and sister dollies that we played beside, where are you? Why is it so dark and silent? Why are we being put into this black box? And hark! the little doll orchestra – how far away the music sounds! – what is it they are playing? –