Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter X
|Chapter IX|| Autobiography
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter X: Friendship and Foolery
There are some who complain of a man for doing nothing; there are some, still more mysterious and amazing, who complain of having nothing to do. When actually presented with some beautiful blank hours or days, they will grumble at their blankness. When given the gift of loneliness, which is the gift of liberty, they will cast it away; they will destroy it deliberately with some dreadful game with cards or a little ball. I speak only for myself; I know it takes all sorts to make a world; but I cannot repress a shudder when I see them throwing away their hard-won holidays by doing something. For my own part, I never can get enough Nothing to do. I feel as if I had never had leisure to unpack a tenth part of the luggage of my life and thoughts. I need not say that there is nothing particularly misanthropic in my desire for isolation; quite the other way. In my morbid boyhood, as I have said, I was sometimes, in quite a horrible sense, solitary in society. But in my manhood, I have never felt more sociable than I do in solitude.
I have already figured here as a lunatic; and have now only to add that I have occasionally been a happy lunatic as well as an unhappy one. And as I have mentioned the joy of solitude, it will be suitably erratic to proceed at once to the joy of many jokes with many companions; and above all, it will be well to begin with the best of all my companionships. I am not going to describe my honeymoon, at some of the more comic incidents of which I have already glanced. After we were married, my wife and I lived for about a year in Kensington, the place of my childhood; but I think we both knew that it was not to be the real place of our abode. I remember that we strolled out one day, for a sort of second honeymoon, and went upon a journey into the void, a voyage deliberately objectless. I saw a passing omnibus labelled "Hanwell" and, feeling this to be an appropriate omen, we boarded it and left it somewhere at a stray station, which I entered and asked the man in the ticket-office where the next train went to. He uttered the pedantic reply, "Where do you want to go to?" And I uttered the profound and philosophical rejoinder, "Wherever the next train goes to." It seemed that it went to Slough; which may seem to be singular taste, even in a train. However, we went to Slough, and from there set out walking with even less notion of where we were going. And in that fashion we passed through the large and quiet cross-roads of a sort of village, and stayed at an inn called The White Hart. We asked the name of the place and were told that it was called Beaconsfield (I mean of course that it was called Beconsfield and not Beaconsfield), and we said to each other, "This is the sort of place where some day we will make our home."
The things that come back to me in my memory, as most worth doing and worth remembering, are all sorts of absurd interludes and escapades with my companions, full of their conversation and coloured with their characters. Belloc still awaits a Boswell. His vivacious and awakening personality has shown all the continuity of Dr. Johnson's; and though he has had personal sorrow and in later years not a little solitude, he was fully entitled to say, like the man in his own song,
For you that took the all in all, the things you left were three,
A loud voice for singing and clear eyes to see
And a spouting fount of life within that never yet has dried.
Bentley or Conrad Noel were characters who could have been put into any comedy; and the levities of Maurice Baring were worthy of some fantastic macaroni or incroyable of the eighteenth century.
Among the memories that are blown back to me, as by a wind over the Downs, is that of the winter day when Belloc dragged us through Sussex to find the source of the Arun. The company included his wife and mine; none of us had been long married, and perhaps we knew less than we do now of the diversity of human temperaments, not to say temperatures. He and I were fond of cold weather; my wife and his wife, who was a very charming Californian, were not. We did find the place where the Arun rose in the hills; and it was indeed, of all the sights I have seen, one of the most beautiful; I might almost say the most classical. For it rose in a (partly frozen) pool in a small grove of slender trees, silver with the frost, that looked somehow like the pale and delicate pillars of a temple. But I think the ladies, though both of them sensitive to scenery, looked on that cold paradise with something of a cold eye. When this began to be discovered, Belloc instantly proposed the remedy of hot rum, in large tumblers at an adjoining inn; and we were puzzled by the fact that the remedy was regarded with almost as much distaste as the disease. However, we ourselves, who did not feel the cold, heartily consumed the rum; and Belloc, who has always had a trick of repeating scraps of recently discovered verse, which happened to please him, would volley out at intervals the lines of Miss Coleridge:
We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise
And the doors stood open at our feast;
When there passed us a woman with the west in her eyes
And a man with his back to the east.
There is no doubt, so far as we were concerned, that we were young and were merry; but I have sometimes doubted since whether we were very, very wise.
We then returned to Belloc's house; where he rather neutralised the effects of the restoring warmth, by continually flinging open the door and rushing out to a telescope in the garden (it was already a frosty starlight) and loudly hallooing to the ladies to come and see God making energy. His wife declined, in terms of not a little humour; to which he retorted cheerfully:
We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise
And the doors stood open at our feast;
When there passed us a woman with the west in her eyes
And a man with his back to the east.
Needless to say, however, his hospitality terminated with a magnificent feast with wine, and all ended in a glow of gaiety; but there lingers a sort of legend of that day in winter, when some of us were so much more interested in the barometer than the telescope. The feminine aspect of the story was afterwards embodied in an echo of the everlasting refrain:
We were cold, we were bitter, we were very nearly dead,
And the doors stood open by desire,
And there faced us a woman with a cold in her head
And a man with his back to the fire.
Those are the sort of silly things that come back to me in memory; and a real life of anybody would almost entirely consist of them. But a real life of anybody is a very difficult thing to write; and as I have failed two or three times in trying to do it to other people, I am under no illusion that I can really do it to myself. I remember another rather ridiculous private incident which had more of what is called public interest. For it involved the meeting of Belloc and a very famous and distinguished author; and I think the meeting was the most comic comedy of cross-purposes that ever happened in the world. One could write books about its significance, social, national, international and historic. It had in it all sorts of things; including the outside and the inside of England. And yet as an anecdote it would probably seem pointless, so subtle and penetrating is the point.
One summer we took a house at Rye, that wonderful inland island, crowned with a town as with a citadel, like a hill in a mediaeval picture. It happened that the house next to us was the old oak-panelled mansion which had attracted, one might almost say across the Atlantic, the fine aquiline eye of Henry James. For Henry James, of course, was an American who had reacted against America; and steeped his sensitive psychology in everything that seemed most antiquatedly and aristocratically English. In his search for the finest shades among the shadows of the past, one might have guessed that he would pick out that town from all towns and that house from all houses. It had been the seat of a considerable patrician family of the neighbourhood, which had long ago decayed and disappeared. It had, I believe, rows of family portraits, which Henry James treated as reverently as family ghosts. I think in a way he really regarded himself as a sort of steward or custodian of the mysteries and secrets of a great house, where ghosts might have walked with all possible propriety. The legend says (I never learned for certain if it was true) that he had actually traced that dead family-tree until he found that there was far away in some manufacturing town, one unconscious descendant of the family, who was a cheerful and commonplace commercial clerk. And it is said that Henry James would ask this youth down to his dark ancestral house, and receive him with funereal hospitality, and I am sure with comments of a quite excruciating tact and delicacy. Henry James always spoke with an air which I can only call gracefully groping; that is not so much groping in the dark in blindness as groping in the light in bewilderment, through seeing too many avenues and obstacles. I would not compare it, in the unkind phrase of Mr. H. G. Wells, to an elephant trying to pick up a pea. But I agree that it was like something with a very sensitive and flexible proboscis, feeling its way through a forest of facts; to us often invisible facts. It is said, I say, that these thin straws of sympathy and subtlety were duly split for the benefit of the astonished commerical gentleman, while Henry James, with his bowed dome-like head, drooped with unfathomable apologies and rendered a sort of silent account of his stewardship. It is also said that the commercial gentleman thought the visit a great bore and the ancestral home a hell of a place; and probably fidgeted about with a longing to go out for a B and S and the Pink 'Un.
Whether this tale be true or not, it is certain that Henry James inhabited the house with all the gravity and loyalty of the family ghost; not without something of the oppressive delicacy of a highly cultured family butler. He was in point of fact a very stately and courteous old gentleman; and, in some social aspects especially, rather uniquely gracious. He proved in one point that there was a truth in his cult of tact. He was serious with children. I saw a little boy gravely present him with a crushed and dirty dandelion. He bowed; but he did not smile. That restraint was a better proof of the understanding of children than the writing of What Maisie Knew. But in all relations of life he erred, if he erred, on the side of solemnity and slowness; and it was this, I suppose, that got at last upon the too lively nerves of Mr. Wells; who used, even in those days, to make irreverent darts and dashes through the sombre house and the sacred garden and drop notes to me over the garden wall. I shall have more to say of Mr. H. G. Wells and his notes later; here we are halted at the moment when Mr. Henry James heard of our arrival in Rye and proceeded (after exactly the correct interval) to pay his call in state.
Needless to say, it was a very stately call of state; and James seemed to fill worthily the formal frock-coat of those far-off days. As no man is so dreadfully well-dressed as a well-dressed American, so no man is so terribly well-mannered as a well-mannered American. He brought his brother William with him, the famous American philosopher; and though William James was breezier than his brother when you knew him, there was something finally ceremonial about this idea of the whole family on the march. We talked about the best literature of the day; James a little tactfully, myself a little nervously. I found he was more strict than I had imagined about the rules of artistic arrangement; he deplored rather than depreciated Bernard Shaw, because plays like Getting Married were practically formless. He said something complimentary about something of mine; but represented himself as respectfully wondering how I wrote all I did. I suspected him of meaning why rather than how. We then proceeded to consider gravely the work of Hugh Walpole, with many delicate degrees of appreciation and doubt; when I heard from the front-garden a loud bellowing noise resembling that of an impatient foghorn. I knew, however, that it was not a fog-horn; because it was roaring out, "Gilbert! Gilbert!" and was like only one voice in the world; as rousing as that recalled in one of its former phrases, of those who
Heard Ney shouting to the guns to unlimber
And hold the Beresina Bridge at night.
I knew it was Belloc, probably shouting for bacon and beer; but even I had no notion of the form or guise under which he would present himself.
I had every reason to believe that he was a hundred miles away in France. And so, apparently, he had been; walking with a friend of his in the Foreign Office, a co-religionist of one of the old Catholic families; and by some miscalculation they had found themselves in the middle of their travels entirely without money. Belloc is legitimately proud of having on occasion lived, and being able to live, the life of the poor. One of the Ballades of the Eye-Witness, which was never published, described tramping abroad in this fashion:
To sleep and smell the incense of the tar,
To wake and watch Italian dawns aglow
And underneath the branch a single star,
Good Lord, how little wealthy people know.
In this spirit they started to get home practically without money. Their clothes collapsed and they managed to get into some workmen's slops. They had no razors and could not afford a shave. They must have saved their last penny to recross the sea; and then they started walking from Dover to Rye; where they knew their nearest friend for the moment resided. They arrived, roaring for food and drink and derisively accusing each other of having secretly washed, in violation of an implied contract between tramps. In this fashion they burst in upon the balanced tea-cup and tentative sentence of Mr. Henry James.
Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men, did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part. He had left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the traditions of lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits in oak-panelled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.
It is only fair to say that my two friends were at the moment so disreputable that even an English inn-keeper was faintly at fault in his unfailing nose for gentlemen. He knew they were not tramps; but he had to rally his powers of belief to become completely convinced that they were a Member of Parliament and an official at the Foreign Office. But, though he was a simple and even stupid man, I am not sure that he did not know more about it than Henry James. The fact that one of my friends insisted on having a bottle of port decanted and carrying it through the streets of Rye, like a part of a religious procession, completely restored his confidence in the class to which such lunatics belonged. I have always been haunted by the contradictions of that comedy; and if I could ever express all that was involved in it, I should write a great book on international affairs. I do not say I should become the champion of an Anglo-American Alliance; for any fool can do that, and indeed generally does. But I should begin to suggest something which is often named and has never been even remotely approached: an Anglo-American Understanding.
In those days down at Rye, as I have said, I saw something of Mr. H. G. Wells, and learnt to appreciate that in him which I think made him rebel against the atmosphere of Henry James; though Henry James did really appreciate that quality in Wells. Indeed, Henry James expressed it as well as it could be expressed by saying, "Whatever Wells writes is not only alive, but kicking." It seems rather unfortunate that, after this, it should have been Henry James who was kicked. But I can sympathise in some ways with H. G's mutiny against the oak-panelling and the ghosts. What I have always liked about Wells is his vigorous and unaffected readiness for a lark. He was one of the best men in the world with whom to start a standing joke; though perhaps he did not like it to stand too long after it was started. I remember we worked a toy-theatre together with a pantomime about Sidney Webb. I also remember that it was we who invented the well-known and widespread national game of Gype. All sorts of variations and complications were invented in connection with Gype. There was Land Gype and Water Gype. I myself cut out and coloured pieces of cardboard of mysterious and significant shapes, the instruments of Table Gype; a game for the little ones. It was even duly settled what disease threatened the over-assiduous player; he tended to suffer from Gype's Ear. My friends and I introduced allusions to the fashionable sport in our articles; Bentley successfully passed one through the Daily News and I through some other paper. Everything was in order and going forward; except the game itself, which has not yet been invented.
I can understand a man like Wells feeling that Henry James would show a certain frigidity towards Gype; and for the sacred memory of Gype I can excuse his reaction; but I have always thought that he reacted too swiftly to everything; possibly as a part of the swiftness of his natural genius. I have never ceased to admire and sympathise; but I think he has always been too much in a state of reaction. To use the name which would probably annoy him most, I think he is a permanent reactionary. Whenever I met him, he seemed to be coming from somewhere, rather than going anywhere. He always had been a Liberal, or had been a Fabian, or had been a friend of Henry James or Bernard Shaw. And he was so often nearly right, that his movements irritated me like the sight of somebody's hat being perpetually washed up by the sea and never touching the shore. But I think he thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.
The name of Mr. H. G. Wells has already inevitably suggested the name of Mr. Bernard Shaw; and it is a mere accident of the arrangement of this book that he has not figured in it fairly prominently from the first. As I have explained on an earlier page, I myself began with an acceptance of Socialism; simply because it seemed at the time the only alternative to the dismal acceptance of Capitalism. I have also noted that my brother, who took Socialism more seriously or at least more scientifically, became a recognised influence in the Fabian Society and was at that time much more familiar with G. B. S. than I. He was also by the nature of the case, much more in agreement with him. My principal experience, from first to last, has been in argument with him. And it is worth remarking that I have learned to have a warmer admiration and affection out of all that argument than most people get out of agreement. Bernard Shaw, unlike some whom I have had to consider here, is seen at his best when he is antagonistic. I might say that he is seen at his best when he is wrong. Or rather, everything is wrong about him but himself.
I began arguing with Mr. Bernard Shaw in print almost as early as I began doing anything. It was about my Pro-Boer sympathies in the South African War. Those who do not understand what the Fabian political philosophy was may not realise that the leading Fabians were nearly all Imperialists. Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb were in that matter strong Imperialists; Hubert Bland was a still stronger Imperialist; my brother was as strong an Imperialist as Hubert Bland. And even Bernard Shaw, though retaining a certain liberty to chaff everybody, was quite definitely an Imperialist, as compared with myself and my friends the Pro-Boers. Since then a legend has arisen, especially among his stupidest opponents, that Mr. Bernard Shaw is an impudent Irish revolutionary who has always been Anti-British. The truth is that Mr. Bernard Shaw has always been a great deal too Pro-British. The play of John Bull's Other Island is a great deal too Pro-British. It makes the Other Island a great deal too much John Bull's. It credits the English business man with a success in Ireland that he has never had. It suggests indeed that the success is almost due to the stupidity. But in fact the attempts of men like Balfour and Birrell and Wyndham and Morley to rule Ireland might be much more truly described as a brilliant failure than a stupid success. The point was not that stupid men made something out of it, but that clever men made nothing. So it was in this old and determining crisis of the war with the Dutch Republic. As compared with Belloc or myself, Bernard Shaw was definitely in favour of the South African War. At any rate, he was very definitely in favour of the South African Peace, the particular Pax Britannica that was aimed at by the South African War. It was the same, for that matter, with Mr. H. G. Wells; then a sort of semi-detached Fabian. He went out of his way to scoff at the indignation of the Pro-Boers against the Concentration Camps. Indeed he still maintains, while holding all wars indefensible, that this is the only sort of war to be defended. He says that great wars between great powers are absurd, but that it might be necessary, in policing the planet, to force backward peoples to open their resources to cosmopolitan commerce. In other words, he defends the only sort of war I thoroughly despise, the bullying of small states for their oil or gold; and he despises the only sort of war that I really defend, a war of civilisations and religions, to determine the moral destiny of mankind.
I say this as a compliment to the Fabians. I say it as a compliment to their consistency, as well as contradiction of their controversial views. They were and are quite right, holding their views about centralisation, to be on the side of the Big Battalions and the Big Businesses. It is the sentimental Socialists (as Mr. Wells quite truly points out) who are inconsistent, in saying that a peasant has no right to a corn-field, but a peasantry has a right to an oil-field. It is they who are the more nebulous thinkers when they defend small nationalities but not small properties; more nebulous but sometimes much nicer. There is only a thin sheet of paper between the Imperialist and the Internationalist; and the first Fabians had the lucidity to see the fact. Most of the other Socialists have preferred sheets of paper, and they have grown thinner and thinner sheets.
In the same way Mr. Bernard Shaw has been highly flattered by the false charges brought against him; especially the general charge of being a sort of Irish rebel. Anyone who remembers those old times knows that he was, if anything, the very reverse. It was a part of the Fabian cult of commonsense to regard Irish nationalism as a narrow sentimentalism, distracting men from the main business of socialising the resources of the whole world. But I only note this error here to emphasise the fact that my controversy with G. B. S., both logically and chronologically, is from the beginning. Since then I have argued with him on almost every subject in the world; and we have always been on opposite sides, without affectation or animosity. I have defended the institution of the family against his Platonist fancies about the State. I have defended the institutions of Beef and Beer against his hygienic severity of vegetarianism and total abstinence. I have defended the old Liberal notion of nationalism against the new Socialist notion of internationalism. I have defended the cause of the Allies against the perverse sympathy felt by pacifists for the militarism of the Central Empires. I have defended what I regard as the sacred limitations of Man against what he regards as the soaring illimitability of Superman. Indeed it was in this last matter of Man and Superman that I felt the difference to become most clear and acute; and we had many discussions upon it with all sides. It was my friend Lucian Oldershaw who announced his intention of writing an answer to "Man and Superman," called "Shaw and Oldershaw."
For in fact all these differences come back to a religious difference; indeed I think all differences do. I did not know myself, at the beginning, what the religious difference was; still less what the religion was. But the difference is this; that the Shavians believe in evolution exactly as the old Imperialists believed in expansion. They believe in a great growing and groping thing like a tree; but I believe in the flower and the fruit; and the flower is often small. The fruit is final and in that sense finite; it has a form and therefore a limit. There has been stamped upon it an image, which is the crown and consummation of an aim; and the mediaeval mystics used the same metaphor and called it Fruition. And as applied to man, it means this; that man has been made more sacred than any superman or super-monkey; that his very limitations have already become holy and like a home; because of that sunken chamber in the rocks, where God became very small.
I have dwelt on this long duel that I may end with the right salute to the duellist. It is not easy to dispute violently with a man for twenty years, about sex, about sin, about sacraments, about personal points of honour, about all the most sacred or delicate essentials of existence, without sometimes being irritated or feeling that he hits unfair blows or employs discreditable ingenuities. And I can testify that I have never read a reply by Bernard Shaw that did not leave me in a better and not a worse temper or frame of mind; which did not seem to come out of inexhaustible fountains of fair-mindedness and intellectual geniality; which did not savour somehow of that native largeness which the philosopher attributed to the Magnanimous Man. It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as much as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.
Thus it happened that, while there are few of my contemporaries I like better, we have met more in public than in private; and generally upon platforms; especially upon platforms where we were put up to fight each other, like two knock-about comedians. And indeed he has his eccentricities, rather perhaps to be called consistencies, which often hamper conventional conviviality. Even hostesses, let alone hosts, are sometimes puzzled by a gentleman who has rather more horror of tea than of wine or beer. When I have met him among my more festive friends, he has always stood up starkly for his negative ideals, sometimes to the point of defiance. Among the more joyful of the memories that I am stirring in this chapter were many of the moonstruck banquets given by Mr. Maurice Baring; who in such matters might well have a chapter to himself. The trouble is that I fear the chapter would be found incredible and cast discredit on the rest of this laborious but reliable narrative. It is not for me to do justice here to the godlike joy of life that induced a gentleman to celebrate his fiftieth birthday in a Brighton hotel at midnight by dancing a Russian dance with inconceivable contortions and then plunging into the sea in evening dress. It were not wholly wise perhaps to tell the whole story of that great supper-party in a vast tent in a garden in Westminster; after which eggs were boiled in Sir Herbert Tree's hat (because it was the most chic and shining of the hats of the company); and I remember indulging in a wild fencing match with real swords against a gentleman who was, fortunately, more intoxicated than I. The whole of that great occasion was actually recorded in cold blood, of all places in the world, in a French newspaper. The reason was that a little French journalist, after making a placid and witty speech full of compliments, had then indulged for the rest of the evening in the treacherous Gallic trick of strict temperance. I remember that his article (which was highly unreliable), began with the words, "'I denounce Shaw. He is sober.' Who said these words? These were the words of George Wells;" and continued in an equally personal vein. But it is really true, and I know that Shaw would think it merely consistent and creditable, that he himself got up and sternly protested and then stalked out of the room as a seventeenth-century Puritan might have left a tavern full of Cavaliers.
But even the most sincere seventeenth-century Puritan was in error in supposing that Cavaliers could not be sincere, and even serious. He may often have classed with mere roysterers men of the quality of Donne or Herbert or Sir Thomas Browne. There was a great deal of wisdom as well as wit over the nuts and wine in those riots of my youth; and not only outstanding wisdom but outstanding virtue. It is a coincidence that I have already symbolised such virtue in the surname of Herbert. Maurice Baring himself has recorded in a noble elegy the virtues of the Herbert of his own generation; the second Auberon Herbert, son of the eccentric Individualist, who afterwards inherited the title of Lord Lucas. He was assuredly the good cavalier. Every man was the better for meeting him, in however Bacchanalian an environment; courage and frankness and the love of freedom stood out of him like staring signals, though he was entirely modest and natural; and the battered party name of Liberal meant something so long as he was alive. His courage was of the queerest quality; casual and as it were, in a quiet way, crazy. He had a wooden leg or foot, having lost the use of one limb in the South African War; and I have known him climb out of the window at the top of a dizzy tower of flats and crawl somehow like a fly to the next window, without railing or balcony or any apparent foothold; and having re-entered by the next window climb out again by the next, so weaving a sort of winding pattern round the top of the building. This story is strictly true; but there were a great many legends in that circle, the growth of which it was amusing to watch. I once smashed an ordinary tumbler at Herbert's table, and an ever-blossoming tradition sprang up that it had been a vessel of inconceivable artistic and monetary value, its price perpetually mounting into millions and its form and colour taking on the glories of the Arabian Nights. From this incident (and from the joyful manner in which Baring trampled like an elephant among the fragments of the crystal) arose a catchword used by many of us in many subsequent controversies, in defence of romantic and revolutionary things; the expression: "I like the noise of breaking glass." I made it the refrain of a ballade which began:
Prince, when I took your goblet tall
And smashed it with inebriate care,
I knew not how from Rome and Gaul
You gained it; I was unaware
It stood by Charlemagne's great chair
And served St. Peter at High Mass.
... I'm sorry if the thing was rare;
I like the noise of breaking glass.
It is only just to our happy company to say that we did not confine ourselves to saying or singing our own lyrics; though Belloc was generally ready to oblige; and the loud and roaring but none the less pathetic song with the chorus:
And the Gates of Heaven are opening wide
To let poor Hilary in
was first heard, I think, at one of these quiet evenings for mutual edification and culture. But we must have sung a vast number of the finest songs in the English language, by poets ancient and modern; and a legend persists that, when Herbert had rooms not far from Buckingham Palace, we sang "Drake's Drum" with such passionate patriotism that King Edward the Seventh sent in a request for the noise to stop.
I was mainly led to the mention of these idle though agreeable memories, by remarking that his quite unaffected aversion to this sort of thing marked the Puritanic element in Bernard Shaw. He is probably still regarded by many as a buffoon; as a fact he has far too little sympathy with mere buffoonery. His austerity in such things is so much a part of his personality and purity of aim, that one can hardly wish it altered; but the truth remains that the Puritan cannot understand the morality and religion of the Cavalier. In most matters I have found myself rather more in sympathy with Mr. Bernard Shaw than with Mr. H. G. Wells, the other genius of the Fabians, warmly as I admire them both. But, in this matter. Wells was more of my sort than Shaw. Wells does understand the glow and body of good spirits, even when they are animal spirits; and he understands the Saturnalia in which the senator can sometimes relax like the slave. Even here, however, there is a distinction. Shaw has plenty of appetite for adventure; but in his case it would be most welcome as open air adventure. He would not see the fun of cellars or smugglers' caves; but require a levity in some sense celestial in the literal sense of being sub divo. To put it shortly. Wells would understand larking; but Shaw would only understand skylarking.
I was destined to see some of his skylarking on one occasion at least; and to be privileged to play the fool with him far from the political platform, if not so very far from the theatrical stage. It began by Bernard Shaw coming down to my house in Beaconsfield, in the heartiest spirits and proposing that we should appear together, disguised as Cowboys, in a film of some sort projected by Sir James Barrie. I will not describe the purpose or character of the performance; because nobody ever discovered it; presumably with the exception of Sir James Barrie. But throughout the proceedings, even Barrie had rather the appearance of concealing his secret from himself. All I could gather was that two other well-known persons, Lord Howard de Walden and Mr. William Archer, the grave Scottish critic and translator of Ibsen, had also consented to be Cowboys. "Well," I said, after a somewhat blank pause of reflection, "God forbid that anyone should say I did not see a joke, if William Archer could see it." Then after a pause I asked, "But what is the joke?" Shaw replied with hilarious vagueness that nobody knew what the joke was. That was the joke.
I found that the mysterious proceeding practically divided itself into two parts. Both were pleasantly conspiratorial in the manner of Mr. Oppenheim or Mr. Edgar Wallace. One consisted of an appointment in a sort of abandoned brickfield somewhere in the wilds of Essex; in which spot, it was alleged, our cowpunching costumes were already concealed. The other consisted of an invitation to supper at the Savoy, to "talk things over" with Barrie and Granville Barker. I kept both these melodramatic assignations; and though neither of them threw any light upon what we were supposed to be doing, they were both very amusing in their way and rather different from what might have been expected. We went down to the waste land in Essex and found our Wild West equipment. But considerable indignation was felt against William Archer; who, with true Scottish foresight, arrived there first and put on the best pair of trousers. They were indeed a magnificent pair of fur trousers; while the other three riders of the prairie had to be content with canvas trousers. A running commentary upon this piece of individualism continued throughout the afternoon; while we were being rolled in barrels, roped over faked precipices and eventually turned loose in a field to lasso wild ponies, which were so tame that they ran after us instead of our running after them, and nosed in our pockets for pieces of sugar. Whatever may be the strain on credulity, it is also a fact that we all got onto the same motor-bicycle; the wheels of which were spun round under us to produce the illusion of hurtling like a thunderbolt down the mountain-pass. When the rest finally vanished over the cliffs clinging to the rope, they left me behind as a necessary weight to secure it; and Granville Barker kept on calling out to me to Register Self-Sacrifice and Register Resignation, which I did with such wild and sweeping gestures as occurred to me; not, I am proud to say, without general applause. And all this time Barrie, with his little figure behind his large pipe, was standing about in an impenetrable manner; and nothing could extract from him the faintest indication of why we were being put through these ordeals. Never had the silencing effects of the Arcadia Mixture appeared to me more powerful or more unscrupulous. It was as if the smoke that rose from that pipe was a vapour not only of magic, but of black magic.
But the other half of the mystery was, if possible, more mysterious. It was all the more mysterious because it was public, not to say crowded. I went to the Savoy supper under the impression that Barrie and Barker would explain to a small party some small part of the scheme. Instead of that I found the stage of the Savoy Theatre thronged with nearly everybody in London, as the Society papers say when they mean everybody in Society. From the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith to the yellowest and most cryptic Oriental attache, they were all there, dining at little tables and talking about everything but the matter in hand. At least they were all there except Sir James Barrie; who on this occasion made himself almost completely invisible. Towards the end of the meal. Sir Edward Elgar casually remarked to my wife, "I suppose you know you're being filmed all this time."
From what I know of the lady, it is unlikely that she was brandishing a champagne-bottle or otherwise attracting social attention; but some of them were throwing bread about and showing marked relaxation from the cares of State. Then the Original Four, whom destiny had selected for a wild western life, were approached with private instructions, which worked out in public as follows. The stage was cleared and the company adjourned to the auditorium, where Bernard Shaw harangued them in a furious speech, with savage gesticulations denouncing Barker and Barrie and finally drawing an enormous sword. The other three of us rose at this signal, also brandishing swords, and stormed the stage, going out through the back scenery. And there We (whoever We were) disappear for ever from the record and reasonable understanding of mankind; for never from that day to this has the faintest light been thrown on the reasons of our remarkable behaviour. I have since heard in a remote and roundabout way certain vague suggestions, to the effect that there was some symbolical notion of our vanishing from real life and being captured or caught up into the film world of romance; being engaged through all the rest of the play in struggling to fight our way back to reality. Whether this was the idea I have never known for certain; I only know that I received immediately afterwards a friendly and apologetic note from Sir James Barrie, saying that the whole scheme was going to be dropped.
I do not know; but I have often wondered. And I have sometimes fancied that there was another sense, darker than my own fancy, in which the secret put in Barrie's pipe had ended in smoke. There had really been a sort of unearthly unreality in all the levity of those last hours; like something high and shrill that might crack; and it did crack. I have sometimes wondered whether it was felt that this fantasy of fashionable London would appear incongruous with something that happened some days later. For what happened then was that a certain Ultimatum went out from the Austrian Government against Serbia. I rang up Maurice Baring at a further stage of that rapidly developing business; and I can remember the tones of his voice when he said, "We've got to fight. They've all got to fight. I don't see how anybody can help it."
If the Cowboys were indeed struggling to find the road back to Reality they found it all right.