An Autumn Morning
September 28, 1918. The way to my suburban station and the morning train admonishes me sadly with its stream of season-ticket holders carrying dispatch-cases, and all of them anxious, their resolute pace makes it evident, for work. This morning two aeroplanes were over us in the blue, in mimic combat; they were, of course, getting into trim for the raid to-night, because the barometer is beautifully high and steady. But the people on their way to the 9.30 did not look up at the fight. Life is real, life is earnest. When I doubt that humanity knows what it is doing, I get comfort from watching our local brigadiers and Whitehall ladies on their way these tranquil autumnn mornings to give our planet another good shove towards the millennium. Progress, progress! I hear their feet overtaking me, brisk and resolute, as though a revelation had come to them overnight, and so now they knew what to do, undiverted by any doubt. There is a brief glimpse of a downcast face looking as though it had just chanted the "Dies Iræ" through the mouthfuls of a hurried breakfast; and once more this laggard is passed in the day's race towards the higher peak. The reproof goes home. It justly humiliates. But the weather is only a little west of south for one of the last fair days of the year; and the gloom of the yew in the churchyard--which stands over the obscure headstone of a man named Puplett--that yew which seems time residue of the dark past, has its antiquity full of little smouldering embers of new life again and so a lazy man has reasons to doubt whether the millennium is worth all this hurry. As it is, we seem to have as much trouble as there is time to classify before supper; by which time, from the look of the weather, there will be more. Then why hurry over it? The tombstone says Puplett was a "thrifty and industrious parent," and I can see what happened to him in 1727. What would I not give, I ask myself, as I pause by the yew, and listen to the aeroplanes overhead, for a few words from this Puplett on thrift, industry, and progress! Does he now know more than brigadiers?
It may be that what Europe is suffering from in our time is the consequence of having worked too hard, since that unlucky day when Watt gave too much thought to a boiling kettle. We have worked too hard without knowing why we were doing it, or what our work would do with us. We were never wise enough to loaf properly, to stop and glance casually around for our bearings. We went blindly on. Consider the newspapers, as they are now! A casual inspection of the mixture of their hard and congested sentences is enough to show that what is wanted by our writers famous for their virility, their power of "graphic description" as their outpour is called by their disciples, and their knowledge of what everybody ought to be doing, is perhaps no more than an occasional bromide. They would feel better for a long sleep. This direction by them of our destiny is an intoxicating pursuit, but it is as exhausting as would be any other indulgence. We might do quite well if they would only leave it to us. But they will never believe it. Ah! the Great Men of Action! What the world has suffered from their inspired efforts to shepherd humanity into worried flocks hurrying nobody knew whither, every schoolboy reads; and our strong men to-day, without whose names and portraits no periodical is considered attractive, would surely have been of greater benefit to us if they had remained absorbed in their earlier skittles. If the famous magician, who, with several others, is winning the war by suggestion, and that true soldier, General FitzChutney, and that godly and eloquent publicist, Mr. Blufflerlow, had been persuaded to stick to marbles, what misleading excitement and unprofitable anxiety would have been spared to the commonweal! Boys should be warned against and protected from Great Careers. Better still if embryologists could discover something which would enable midwives unfailingly to recognize Strong Men at birth. It would be easy then to issue to those ladies secret but specific instructions.
There is a street which turns abruptly from my straight road to the station. It goes like a sudden resolution to get out of this daily hurry and excitement. It is a pre-war street. It is an ancient thoroughfare of ours, a rambling and unfrequented by-way. It is more than four years since it was a habit of mine to loiter through it, with a man with whom I shall do no more pleasant idling. We enjoyed its old and ruinous shops and its stalls, where all things could be bought at second-hand, excepting young doves, ferrets, and dogs. I saw it again this morning, and felt, somehow, that it was the first time I had noticed it since the world suddenly changed. Where had it been in the meantime? It was empty this morning, it was still, it was luminous. It might have been waiting, a place that was, for the return of what can never return. Its sunlight was different from the glare in the hurrying road to the station. It was the apparition of a light which has gone out. I stopped, and was a little fearful. Was that street really there? I thought its illumination might be a ghostly sunlight haunting an avenue leading only to the nowhere of the memory. Did the others who were passing see that by-way? I do not think so. They never paused. They did not glance sideways in surprise, stare in an expectancy which changed almost at once into regret for what was good, but is not.
Who would not retire into the near past, and stay there, if it were possible? (What a weakness!) Retrospection was once a way of escape for those who had not the vitality to face their own fine day with its exacting demands. Yet who now can look squarely at the present, except officials, armament shareholders, and those in perambulators? This side-turning offered me a chance to dodge the calendar and enter the light of a day not ours. The morning train of the day I saw in that street went before the War. I decided to lose it, and visit the shop at the top of the street, where once you could buy anything from a toddy glass to an emu's egg having a cameo on it of a ship in full sail. It was also a secondhand bookshop. Most lovers of such books would have despised it. It was of little use to go there for valuable editions, or even for such works as Sowerby's Botany. But when last the other man and myself rummaged in it we found the first volume of the Boy's Own Paper, and an excellent lens for our landscape camera. An alligator, sadly in need of upholstering, stood at the door, holding old umbrellas and walking-sticks in its arms. The proprietor, with a sombre nature and a black beard so like the established shadows of his lumbered premises that he could have been overlooked for part of the unsaleable stock, read Swedenborg, Plato, Plutarch, and Young's Night Thoughts--the latter an edition of the eighteenth century in which an Edinburgh parson had made frail marginal comments, yellow and barely discernible, such as: "How true!" This dealer in lumber read through large goggles, and when he had decided to admit he knew you were in his shop he bent his head, and questioned you steadily but without a word over the top of his spectacles. If you showed no real interest in what you proposed to buy he would refuse to sell it.
There I found him again, still reading--Swedenborg this time--with most of the old things about him, including the Duckbilled Platypus; for nobody, apparently, had shown sufficient interest in them. The shop, therefore, was as I have always known it. There was a spark of a summer's day of 1914 still burning in the heart of a necromancer's crystal ball on the upper shelf by the window.
The curio there which was really animated put down his book after I had been in the shop for some minutes, regarded me deliberately as though looking to see what change had come to me in four such years, and then glanced up and nodded to the soothsayer's crystal. "It's a pity," he said, "that those things won't really work." He asked no questions. He did not inquire after my friend. He did not refer to those problems which the crowds in the morning trains were eagerly discussing at that moment. He sat on a heap of forgotten magazines, and remained apart with Swedenborg. I loafed in the fertile dust and quiet among old prints, geological specimens, antlers, pewter, bed-warmers, amphoræ, and books. The proprietor presided over the dim litter of his world, bowed, pensive, and silent, suggesting in his aloofness not indifference but a retired sadness for those for whom the mysteries could be made plain, but who are wilful in their blindness, and so cannot be helped.
I came upon a copy of Walden, in its earliest Camelot dress (price sixpence), and remembered that one who was not there had once said he was looking for it in that edition. I turned to the last page and read: "Only that day dawns to which we are awake . . ."
I reserved the book for him at once, though knowing I could not give it to him. But what is the good of cold reason? Are we awake in such dawns as we now witness? Or has there been no dawn yet because we are only restless in our sleep? It might be either way, and in such a perplexity reason cannot help us. I thought that perhaps I might now be stirring, on the point of actually rousing. There, in any case, was the evidence of that fugitive spark of the early summer of 1914 still imprisoned in its crystal, proof that the world had experienced a dawn or two. An entirely unreasonable serenity possessed me--perhaps because I was not fully roused--because of the indestructibility of those few voiceless hopes we cherish that seem as fugitive as the glint in the crystal ball, hopes without which our existence would have no meaning, for if we lost them we should know the universe was a witless jest, with Nobody to laugh at it.
"I want this book," I said to the shopman.
"I know," he answered, without looking up. "I've kept it for you."