The Camera Obscura


THERE was once a thoughtful man who owned a tall Tower — or perhaps he rented it, but that is only a technicality — in the midst of a large and ancient city. The city was set all round about and up and down a hill, and the Tower topped it, although not conspicuously. The people of that city were for the most part unaware of the Tower. It was not a landmark, like the Cathedral and the Castle and the Palace. It did not stand alone ; it was neither the newest nor the oldest thing in the city ; its label was dingy.

The man had filled his Tower full of hypotheses, and other possibilities. He had also been obliged to use a certain amount of space for the storing of books, beautiful books with their leaves uncut, editions that had failed to sell ; books that the thoughtful man had thought the people ought to buy and care for, — and they ought, but they did n’t. The man said that his Tower represented his theory of life ; and this was almost true, but not quite. Most of us have more than one theory of life, at least part of the time.

One day he took me up to the top of his Tower, and on the way up he showed me a little of all the kingdoms of this world ; but we surveyed them calmly. They were expressed in diagrams. Moreover, the man’s attitude toward material things was never possessive, and his guests quickly caught his attitude and kept it — as long as the spell of his personality lasted, for he was a kind of wizard, as I discovered. By the time I had climbed the Tower stairs, all but the last flight, which was very steep and narrow, I found that the kingdoms of this world were no temptation to me, — except in so far as I should have liked to make them all over according to my own somewhat advanced ideas, politically, socially, industrially, artistically, and sanitarily. But then, they never had been one of my great temptations. So, as far as I was concerned, the thoughtful man did not convert me to his way of thinking, he only convinced me that his way was mine, to a certain extent. We all have our reserves and our limitations.

The room at the top of the Tower was small and quite dark. I touched a table with my hand and moved around it to allow the wizard to squeeze in at the door. A loose cord flapped against my cheek. I could hear the wizard groping for something. Then there was a little squeak as of a slide or shutter being drawn aside, and suddenly, on the table, in a disk of ambient atmosphere, the city sprang to life, in miniature. Instinctively I moved aside to escape the pale purple-tinted smoke that curled upward from a chimney-pot immediately beneath my nose. But there was no reek. I felt the wizard’s kindly smile in his voice as he said, “ Only a camera obscura.” I laughed with a little catch in my breath. “ Of course,” I said. But it was not of course.

It is not my purpose to explain the mechanism of the camera obscura. It is a thing that reflects : let that suffice.

Before me, in the circle of light on the table, lay the courtyard of the Castle, its cobblestones reduced according to scale. A group of tourists wandered over these stones, a gesticulatoiy guide in their midst; I imagined him voluble, but all our Liliput was wrapt in a pleasing mystery of silence. The tourists moved to the edge of the circle and vanished. A soldier came briskly across the courtyard; I listened for the click of his bootheels on the stones. In an angle of the Castle wall a girl waited, evidently for him. He came and stood beside her, and when she lifted uj> her face I could see that she smiled. Presently the soldier glanced around the courtyard ; there was no one in sight. He kissed the girl. I felt abashed, I turned aside, and at my elbow I heard the thoughtful wizard chuckle.

By jerking the cord which dangled from the ceiling, the wizard transported us from one section of the city to another in a second’s flash. It was swifter than the magic carpets in the Arabian Nights, and there was no danger of our being spilt over the edge. I have never really approved of those magic carpets, the motion must be so unpleasant.

There was a beautiful public garden in the city, at the base of the rock on which the Castle perched, a long green garden where children frolicked and students meditated. On a bench behind a flowering shrub there sat a middle-aged man reading a book.

“ That is Professor-of our University,” whispered the wizard ; although why he whispered I do not know.

I gazed eagerly at the eminent scholar who thought he was alone. I watched him annotate the margin of his book, pause, lean his head wearily on his hand. Yes, I heard him sigh. Or was it the wizard who sighed ? A trail of rushing smoke tore up a trench in the middle of the greenness.

“ The London Express,” said the wizard. “ The line is sunk below the level of the garden.”

The Professor arose from his bench with a shrug of impatience, and we also moved on.

“ It is true,” I said. “ Your city is one of the most beautiful in all the world.”

The wizard answered nothing ; he only twitched the cord. And I remembered that the city was famous for its squalor and its wickedness as well as for its beauty. Old houses leaned outward, inward, and sidewise, along the narrow hilly streets. In and out of black holes that the wizard said were covered alleys, children crawled like maggots. Filth strewed the sidewalks, and slime dripped from the roofs. Foul humanity choked the way. I breathed sparingly, imagining a stench.

In a little arid square at the bottom of the hill, below the congested region, a few gray children played. Suddenly, at a gallop, a carriage drove across the open place. The children scattered like frighted sparrows; but one wavered, moved this way, that way, uncertain, and the off horse struck it. The people in the carriage huddled together; the horses plunged as, for one brief moment, the driver reined them in. Then, there was some kind of sign from the occupants of the carriage; he gave the horses the whip, and they dashed on.

“ Stop ! ” I shouted, and brought my fist down smash — upon the table. But the carriage slipped over the edge of the circle into the darkness.

“They were probably catching a train,” said the thoughtful man.

The child lay very still in the square, the other little ones fluttering about it. Then a woman came out of a house, and I was glad we could not hear her scream.

“ I do not often see anything so dramatic as this,” observed the wizard.

“ Thank God ! ” said I.

We came down the stairs in silence. By the light of that magic circle at the top I began to read more meaning into the diagrams which represented the excellences and deficiencies of the kingdoms of this world.

“You have given me a most stimulating afternoon,” I said to the thoughtful man when I bade him good-by. “ I mean to have a camera obscura of my own, when I go home.”

“ It is simple and inexpensive,” he replied. “ Observation, reflection, a high place, — these are the chief requisites. It never fails to amuse, and there are some people who get more than amusement out of it.”

“ I shall build my Tower higher than yours,” I continued, “ so as to have as broad an outlook as possible. And when it is finished I shall be at home to my friends. Do you think they will come ? ”

He hesitated, and then he said, “ Perhaps they will if you serve tea.”