Breaking the Spell
April 8, 1921. My seat by the Serpentine was under a small and almost impalpable cloud of almond petals. The babbling of ducks somewhere in the place where the water seemed a pale and wavering fire was like the sound of the upwelling of the hidden spring of life. This was the spot where I could sit and there quietly match the darker shades of trouble in the afternoon papers, the time being April in England, and the sky ineffable. There was not a trace of mourning in the sky; not a black-edged cloud. But human life, being an urgent and serious affair, and not a bright blue emptiness like Heaven; human life being a state of trial in which, as favoured beings, we are "heated hot with burning fears and dipped in baths of hissing tears" for our own good, could not be expected to look as pleasant, during so severe a necessary process, as almond trees in blossom. So I sat down and prepared to measure, from the news in the papers, the depth of the present border on our daily memorial card.
The black border was rather a deep one, when measured. The fears were fairly hot. There were no noticeable signs of any tears in the papers, so far, but one could guess there would be a deep extinguishing bath of them ready to hiss presently, if all went well, and our affairs had uninterrupted development under the usual clever guides. And we had the guides. I could see that. The papers were loud with the inspirations of friends of ours who had not missed a single lesson of the War for those who were not in it; who were still resolute in that last and indispensable ditch which no foe is ever likely to reach. But by now the almond's cloud had vanished. I no longer heard the bubbling of the well of life.
I finished reading the papers. Now I knew our current fate, and felt as if I heard again the gas gong going continuously. I had the feeling in April, unknown to any snail on the thorn, that the park was deafening with the clangour of pallid, tense, and contending lunatics. The Serpentine had receded from this tumult. Its tranquil shimmering was now fatuous and unbelievable. It was but half seen; its glittering was a distant grimacing and mockery at my troubled human intelligence. It was nothing to do with me, and showed it in that impertinent way. Two ducks, two absurd ducks, suddenly appeared before me on the polished water. They were bowing politely to each other--only I was looking at them--and were making soothing noises in imbecile ignorance of the fate overhanging us all. There was a boy not far away. He stood as still as a thought entranced. He was watching a boat with a paper sail. He was as intent as if he were God observing the progress of Columbus, knowing now that America is about to be found.
If that boy had but guessed what I knew! But he had not read the latest news. It is the privilege of knowledge to be superior and grave; to be able to smile sadly at the dream of a Golden Galleon which childhood sees in April by the Serpentine; for knowledge is aware of the truth, the tumult surrounding us of contentious lunatics, endless, inexplicable; the noise of mankind in its upward journey towards the eclipse, or some other heavenly mystery.
Presently that tinted mist which was a tree in flower began to shine again through the dark noise which the papers had made. The uproar cleared a little. The water came nearer, its glittering growing stronger, its fire burning towards me. I saw in surprise through the gloom in my mind that the fire had touched the elms; their dark masses were faintly luminous. And the mallard drake, riding on the outer pulses of that radiation, was purple and emerald. But would the beauty of the spring surprise us, I wonder; would it still give the mind a twinge, sadden us with a nameless disquiet, shoot through us so keen an anguish when the almond tree is there again on a bright day, if we were decent, healthy, and happy creatures? Perhaps not. It is hard to say. It is a great while since our skinless and touchy crowds of the wonderful industrial era, moving as one man to the words of the daily papers, were such creatures. Perhaps we should merely yawn and stretch ourselves, feel revived with the sun a little warmer on our barks, and snuff up a pleasant smell which we remembered; begin to whistle, and grope for an adze.
But we cannot have it so. The spring is not for us. We have been so inventive. We have desired other things, and we have got them. We have cleverly made a way of life that exacts so close an attention, if we would save it from disaster, that we are now its prisoners. Peace and freedom have become but a vision which the imprisoned view through the bars they themselves have made. The spring we see now is in a world not ours, a world we have left, which is still close to us, but is unapproachable. The children are in it, and even, apparently, the ducks. It is a world we see sometimes, as a reminder--once a year or so--of what we could have made of life, and what we have.
Which is the real world? I worried over that as I was leaving the park. I seemed to be getting nearer to reality near Rotten Row. A reassuring policeman was in sight. Motor-cars that were humiliating with their enamel and crystal were threading about. The fashionable ladies and their consorts seemed to be in no doubt about the world they were in. I began to feel mean and actual. While thus composing my mind I chanced to look backwards. A miniature glade was there, where the tree trunks were the columns in an aisle. Was it a sward between them? I doubt whether we could walk it. I call it green. I know of no other word. Perhaps the sun was playing tricks with it. It may not have been there. As I kept my eye on it, disbelieving that light--desirous to believe it, but unable to, faith being weak--a rabbit moved into the aisle. I call it a rabbit, for I know no other word. But I declare now that I do not accept that creature. It sat up, and watched me. I don't say it was there. As far as I know, any rabbit would have been terrified with all those people about. But not this apparition, its back to the sunset, with an aura and radiant whiskers of gold. It regarded me steadfastly. I looked around to see if I were alone in this.
The policeman was unconscious of it. The lady who sat on the chair opposite, the lady with the noticeable yellow legs, was talking in animation, but I doubt it was about this rabbit. The saunterers were passing without a sign. But one little girl stood, her hands behind her, oblivious of all but that admonitory creature in an unearthly light, and was smiling at it. It was the only confirmation I had. I have no recollection now of what I saw in the day's paper. I have later and better news.