Wanted: A Motive


THERE exist men of scientific acumen who can deal with human nature by laboratory methods, reducing emotions, incentives and volitions to the familiar formulæ of the text-books — x, y, z ; y + 32 = x, and so forth. And there are others, statistically predestined, who can chart and diagram the rise and fall, the expansion and contraction, of human dynamics, making, for instance, the line of volition reach its peak in Bismarck and run down through Napoleon III and Micawber to a very submerged base in Rip Van Winkle. At various times I have fallen under the spell of such experts; but my faith, jolted more than once, has broken down entirely in the presence of William Demarest Mason, a friend of school and college days, and not by any means the least welcome of the many who honor my hearth with an occasional visit.

Quite recently Billy Mason dropped in, with his old casual, frank, cordial, and debonair manner, as if we had parted only yesterday, asking almost before greetings were exchanged for the source of a quotation I had used as a text in opening a debate at ‘The Grill’ (our college debating society) ten years ago, beginning, ‘Of law there can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world.’ He said he had often recalled it, and always when he did so he had a keen desire to know the authorship; but on such occasions he was invariably far away from all authorities, and, curiously enough, he had never remembered the passage when he might have traced its origin. He then went to the piano, played Tschaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile in B flat with exquisite spirit, and at its close wheeled suddenly and said emphatically, ‘I hate Wagner and I hate epics.’

Thus closed the first quarter of an hour of a visit that lasted for two delightful weeks.

While we watched the sunset in the late afternoon, Billy toyed with a succession of cigarettes, flinging each one into the fireplace after two or three whiffs, and spoke sadly about Paris during the early days of the war. How he came to be there, or why, he did not mention. But he was at the corner of the Avenue du Trocadéro and the Rue do Freycinet when a bomb fell from a German aeroplane in September, and several pedestrians were injured. He was partly responsible, at least by giving advice and encouragement to the writer of an article, for the suspension of L’Homme Libre. Earlier, during the battles of the Aisne, he had been in the rear of General Maunoury’s lines in the Compiègne district, and had worked with the ambulance corps around Vic, Morsain, and Nouvron. Of the dashing heroism of the French soldiers he spoke with undisguised admiration, but with a kind of reverence for the patience and sustained courage of the women of Paris: ‘ a kind of religion made up of national confidence and personal pride,’ he called it. Evidently he had seen the worst there was to see all the way along the crescent of carnage from Ypres to St. Mihiel, and he knew every mood of Paris, from the early terrors following the breaking of the Belgian border until the lines became rigid in December.

Throughout the commentary — for what he said was little more than that — his air was as detached and unconcerned as if he were picking out the salient features of a football game between two colleges in which he had no personal interest. He seemed like one whose only concern it was to annotate life or supply footnotes to the chronicle of events.

In college I came to know Billy Mason quite intimately. His scholarship was of a high order, both in the routine classwork and in the contributions he made beyond the curriculum, in the magazines and in the debates. But no one knew whether his accomplishments were incidental or deliberate; the ease with which he did everything well seemed a half-disguised mockery of learning. Yet there was never even a hint of insincerity, neither was there the slightest tinge of the mental or moral pharisee. He admitted candidly that the life we led was not furnishing him with what he needed most, but he never defined that need. On the whole he bore himself with a cheerful resignation, was never cynical, and accepted whatever guidance the traditions of the place or the interest of the professors might offer. He was thoroughly well liked without being popular, was admired without winning praise, and we all accepted his opinions with deference; but no one ever sought his advice.

One evening during his visit Billy spoke of his life as if he were almost detached from it. If there had not been the subtlest accent of questioning in his tone, I should have concluded that he was engaged in a recital given entirely to interest or amuse me. The manner in which he disclosed himself was unromantic in spite of a background and accessories gathered from the most romantic spots on earth — a record of voyages without adventures and expeditions without exploits. He was as pitiably prosaic as the lecturer in conventional black and white standing before the screen and monotonously describing the pictures of a gorgeous panorama. Even now I am not sure that Billy did not deliberately and artistically plan the effect; it was certainly too striking to have been entirely unpremeditated; and yet a lingering cadence of contrition throughout the tale made it convincing and touching at the time.


He admitted that his life so far had been a miscarriage of purpose; ineffective, he preferred to call it. He inherited a temper of inconclusiveness which he sought to compensate in a series of rapid and conspicuous decisions. He never thought in propositions, but in terms; he never wrote in chapters, but in paragraphs; he never painted, but only sketched. During college he joined every society and club and clique for which he was eligible, but he never rose to the dignity of an office, from matriculation to graduation. He stated the fact; curiously, although I had known him intimately, I had not noticed it. His life did not flow forward as a slowly deepening and widening river, but was more like a chain of little pools connected by shallow rapids or plunging waterfalls; he would rest for a while in a backwater, swing into the current and be hurried to the next, only to repeat the experience with an excitement which itself soon grew to be monotonous.

When he was graduated, he adopted literature as a profession, on the ground that it offered more liberty and fewer compulsions than any other occupation, and because he dreaded the prospect of consistent loafing. It was not necessary that he should work at all, for, although he had never balanced his share of his father’s estate, he knew that it was ample, and that if he drew upon it in moderation, it would last indefinitely.

He referred to several attempts to overcome the disposition. At one time he translated two thirds of the ‘Purgatorio,’ preserving the original metre in the English; he left the MS. with an artist in Siena until his return to Italy; but when he went back, his trustee had disappeared. He completed the analytical half of a philosophical treatise on ‘The Primary Concepts,’ but had never resumed the work. After writing eight or ten short stories which had a certain resemblance of mood, he had laid them aside in the hope of finding a dominating motif, when he would weave them into an ambitious novel. Two or three other projects had similarly disappointed him.

Fully conscious of his fatal inability to pursue a course to its issue, he determined upon drastic measures. ‘Then I made a monumental ass of myself,’ he said with a smile.

I was just wondering whether Billy had been spoiled by inherited wealth, when he read my thoughts and assured me that it was not so; he had absolutely no fear of poverty. Never in any year had he used more than one half of his income, not because he wanted to accumulate, but because he had no desire to spend. He attributed his failure to the lack of sufficient stimuli in modern civilization. ‘Conditions to-day,’ he said, ‘absorb motives, but do not create them.’ Society had been refined into sterility and had become incapable of giving either the inspiration or momentum for protracted or consistent effort. Thinking only in terms again, he decided to seek some phenomenal experience where the elemental forces play unhampered and with naked naturalness, and where he might find incentives so fresh that they would not be spent before a decent bit of work could be accomplished. He would understand and describe what he saw and felt. The experience that he gave dated back several years, but he told his story as though the last chapter were just closing.

So, girding himself with a handsome air of resolution, Billy scanned the most distant horizons. At that moment Russia promised enough sensation to generate a frenzy of zeal for an indefinite period. The barricades, the charging Cossacks, the bursting bombs, the reek of blood, and through it all frenzied voices inarticulately shouting for Freedom! The French Revolution would be a bagatelle beside it; the throne must fall; the Duma must rise; the peasantry would be enfranchised; the aristocracy perish in the fumes of lyddite and amid the hurrahs of liberty; each day would shriek with the birthpains of a new era. Billy started for St. Petersburg, via Bremen. But on the ship he met a member of the Hungarian Reichstag, who told him marvelous things about the twin Empire — how the sky was ominously black and the spirit of Kossuth was again stirring in the breasts of the Magyars. The Emperor must give heed at once to the petition of his fierce subjects, the intolerable anomaly of language must be immediately corrected, or again white plumed bands would take the field, and this time it would be Armageddon! The legislator had little hope of peace. Could any member of the House of Hapsburg ever understand the Magyar? The clash was inevitable; it might occur immediately; perhaps it had already begun.

Billy listened, and before the liner buried herself in the North Sea fog, he had changed the labels on his baggage and looked up hotels in Vienna and Budapest. Correspondents of marked ability were swarming in St. Petersburg and Moscow; so far as he knew, Hungary was an open field. In Paris Billy found the American Embassy quite unconcerned about the state of Europe, but alarmed for Northern Africa. Morocco was seriously disturbed and the Sudan in a ferment. A brand-new Mahdi had lifted his green turban as a standard, and the tribesmen were massing with unusual fanaticism. The Sirdar had intercepted an inbound British transport and dropped a seasoned regiment at Suakim; Khartum was alive with troops.

Billy felt the glamour of a desert war steal over his imagination — camel corps, fuzzy-wuzzies, the moonlight dash for the oasis, the hollow square against which the waves of black madmen would break only to throw up a spray of blood and roll back decimated and spent. He could not resist the spell, but rushed to Brindisi, caught the P. and O. mail, and found himself in squat and squalid Port Said within a week. Cairo was uncommunicative; the most that he could discover from an official close to Lord Cromer was to the effect that an effort was being made to detach certain tribes from the revolt, and five or six months might elapse before the results of such diplomacy could be known. In the meantime hostilities were to be avoided; Lord Cromer believed that peace alone could redeem the Sudan.

His ardor somewhat dashed, Billy was on the point of returning to Europe to take up one of his dropped cues, when he met a shipping agent who told him a bizarre story of the pearl-fishery on the northwest coast of Ceylon. The industry is controlled by the British authorities, who watch the precious beds scientifically and announce the hour at which the submarine harvest may be gathered. Such a proclamation, in half a dozen languages, had just been issued, and the lure of the pearl was fast filling the Gulf of Manar with the floating adventurers of the East. Eighty-three million bivalves were ready to be gathered, perhaps to yield ten million pearls. The rendezvous was Marichchikkaddi, a matter of one hundred and twenty miles from Colombo. There is really no permanent place of that unpronounceable name; it is a fleeting city which springs like a rash upon the white skin of the shore, remains at fever heat for a few weeks, and disappears when the last oyster has been opened, leaving only an itching reminiscence of itself, until the agent of the Colonial Secretary shall proclaim another fishery. Nowhere else in the East, and at no other time, can one see such a sight: a hundred languages and dialects assault the ear; the finest samples of Oriental manhood gather for the adventure—Arabs, Cingalese, Tamils, Bengali, Malays, and nameless others; the divers and their sturdy boatmen are most in evidence, but there are also men in British uniform, money-lenders, gamblers, speculators, gem-collectors, agents of mighty pearl-loving rajahs, buyers from London and Paris and New York jewelers, all the bunco-steerers and sharpers from the lands without police, and God only knows what other varieties of uncatalogued humanity.

Billy must go, of course, and he booked at once for Colombo. The voyage down was tedious, the passengers conventional, and the vessel slow, too slow — the fishery had just closed. He sat down in the Galle Face Hotel and flagellated himself for nearly an hour, took a plunge in the swimming tank, called twice for whiskey and soda, and meditated.

What should he do next? Billy vacillated and gyrated, but finally took the hint of a fellow guest and decided upon Tibet. It seems that a company of Japanese Buddhists were visiting the sacred places of their faith. ‘Make for Kashmir,’ advised the officer, who professed to have shot in every inaccessible place throughout the Himalayas. ‘Peshawar, near the Afghan frontier, will be your starting-point. The party intends to follow the route of Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese priest who visited and described the Buddhist shrines of Central Asia in the seventh century. You are likely to meet them anywhere — at Shabatzgari, or at Dahl Lake, or on the Jhelum River, or at Srinagar; but probably at Srinagar, where the Emperor Asoka built more than five hundred monasteries. Of course, there is the chance that you may have to go to Bablit, or the Hunza Valley.’

Why Billy went to Tuticorin and thence by rail through the whole length of India, instead of going to Karachi by sea, he never knew; neither did he know much about the next two or three weeks, in Lahore, which he spent in bed, in a dark inner room with preposterous windows close to an incredibly high ceiling in the ‘Charing Cross Hotel,’ — a name which considerably aggravated his ailment. When able to crawl around again, he took a gharry to the New Museum and learned to his chagrin that the Japanese pilgrimage was already a matter of history. But the great Mala was soon to be held at Allahabad! Probably a million fanatics would gather at the confluence of the Ganges and the Jumna — a sight worth crossing continents to see. There would be an unbelievable number of holy men exhibiting such grotesque and gross forms of holiness that one would pray to be sinful.

Billy proceeded by slow stages and found at Delhi that he might go to Calcutta, replenish his kit, call upon a friend, and return to Allahabad in time for the Mala. In the meanwhile he studied a wretched translation of the Mahabharata until he had the hundred sons of Dhritarashtea and the five Pandara princes so hopelessly mixed that he would never know who won the famous eighteen battles on the plain of Kurushetra, or whether men sacrificed to gods or gods to men; but he had a faint suspicion that they sacrificed each other.

Billy never went back to Allahabad. The Calcutta papers reported trouble in British North Borneo. It was the fault of the Company of course, but a fault for which England might pay dearly. The blunders of the South African Chartered Company were diplomacy itself compared with those of the B. N. B. Co., which issued its own currency, commanded a miniature army, and allowed its sub-clerks, mere boys fresh from the sixth form of an English public school, to act as magistrates. For years it had all been the butt of the East, but now it was intolerable, and at any moment there might be a repetition of the ghastliest phases of the great Mutiny. Still, Englishmen are always game and hold life as lightly as a Dyak.

All of which Billy learned in Singapore, where he landed from a B. I. coaster with as incoherent a mind as a man might carry on his shoulders. For two days he reconstructed geography, for two more he investigated a local currency reform; and, challenged by Chinese mansions and Chinese equipages on the Bund, he devoted several other days to ruminating upon the folly of our exclusion laws. He admitted that they mixed drinks incomparably in the Straits, and he believed they mixed everything else.

I forget why he never reached Borneo, but when he left Singapore it was for Hong Kong. There had been a massacre of American missionaries at Lien Chou, about three hundred miles up the river from Canton. It was promising — perhaps the premonition of another Boxer uprising. But at Hong Kong the way was barred; the American consul could not arrange with the commander of the gunboat for Billy to accompany the investigating commission; and the trouble was over and the Viceroy would meet the bill, whatever it might be.

Billy was furious: he swore; he grew cynical toward people who could not possibly understand his epigrams; he felt homesick and self-sick. He went up to the Peak and looked down on the crowded harbor: it was night, and the myriad lights twinkling from junks and tramps and liners and battleships, and craft of every kind, seemed like sunken stars, as if the world had toppled upside down and the heavens were beneath his feet. He laughed at the conceit. The next day he booked for home.


Such are the outstanding features of Billy Mason’s story. He told it with just a touch of chagrin, particularly toward the close, but without bitterness. The period between his grand tour in search of a motive and the visit to my home was filled with a continuation of the quest but with gradually diminishing hope and ardor. Apparently he ransacked the universe to find some incentive or impulse or inspiration that would put a compulsion upon his will that he could not disallow. For years, indeed for his entire conscious life, he has lived with all the doors and windows of his being wide open, inviting the entrance of any force that might coördinate and direct his energies and faculties, always willing, and in a way anxious, that they should become less variant and vagrant and more determinative and effective.

His reading has been surprisingly systematic, particularly in philosophy, history, sociology, and psychology; twice or thrice he has returned to music and studied under some of the great masters; he has written for the magazines, and both in essays and short fiction has met with an appreciation that many a practiced author would have felt to be gratifying.

Bent upon discovering whether he had exhausted the various resources that suggested themselves to my mind, I deliberately but delicately stimulated conversation such as might lead to further self-disclosures. I spoke of journalism — practical, everyday newspaper work, in which the world and all its ways must be surveyed and evalued each morning; of the pleasure to be derived from the consciousness that one is not only chronicling the life of one’s age but is actually helping to turn the current of contemporaneous thought and action into safer or happier channels.

But I found that Billy knew more about it than I did. In 1912 he had taken hold of a daily paper — a part of his father’s estate — in a city of Pennsylvania, and had run it for more than a year in the interest of the Progressive party. There was something so positive and masterful in the Roosevelt revolt that it gave vivid promise of becoming a permanently cohesive force in his own life and in the development of the nation. He threw himself into the movement with unsimulated ardor, wrenched the party machinery out of the old Republican hands, elected a complete ticket, and drove a stream of new, clean, and vital thought into the local mind. Then there came the ebb of enthusiasm; one by one the converts harked back to their former allegiance; the idealism either faded away or hardened into habits that were indistinguishable from those recently abandoned; and, within nine months, the newly elected officials practically harnessed their power and mortgaged their freedom to the very party they had so recently rebuked and defeated. As Billy persisted editorially in following the gleam that had promised so much, subscribers fell away, advertisers withdrew, and ‘the gang’ started a rival paper. He was left without readers and with a monthly balance-sheet that mocked and humiliated him.

We were standing together looking across the estuary while a tug was straining to pull a barge off the mudflats. Our talk had been of mutual friends, their homes and happiness, and their easy satisfactions with life as expressed through conventionalities. He thought that the ethics of domesticity were largely a surrender, a case of the line of least resistance. There was just the slightest stringency in his tone. He said that a man should love so utterly that he would feel like an irredeemable cad if he offered the woman only his body in exchange for all she had to give; that honor compelled him to contribute some distinctive moral achievement to balance the partnership; that marriage must be more than a physical union or a social pooling of immediate interests: it must be an act of spiritual dedication, the bringing of the first-fruits to the altar. I confess that I hardly gathered the full implication of the doctrine, but I had the distinct impression that Billy must have loved and that he had practiced a renunciation on excessively lofty grounds. The manner in which he spoke of Browning’s Andrea Del Sarto later in the day tended to confirm my inference.

The last day of Billy’s visit fell on a Sunday, and we went together to church. During our homeward walk Billy spoke quite freely of religion, as if it had a pronounced place in his scheme of things and as if it were a fixed and valued element in his life. In setting down what he said I will leave the personal pronouns exactly as he used them: — ‘Many a time I have come out of church carrying a weight I did not take in. The restrained or passionate music of the organ put me in a mood to worship, the “Venite” exalted and purified my faith, the confession subdued me to humility, the lesson made me reverently expectant, the hymns gave a more or less adequate expression to my emotions; then, if the choir had chanted the “ Nunc dimittis” and the clergyman had pronounced a gentle benediction, I could have gone home with a restful or a resolute spirit. But too often the sermon has nullified or even degraded the service; it has been so trivial as to seem an impertinence, so narrow and captious that it savored of impudence.

‘But two years ago I saw a beautiful sermon in St. John Lateran. I say I saw it, because the crowd was too great for a late comer to get within hearing of the preacher’s words. He was a monk, not a day older than thirty-five years; his face was bathed in light that streamed through an ancient and richly colored window, and his voice, as it reached the edge of the standing congregation, was mellow and joyous. I knew it was truly a message of God, full of tender emotion and chiding love and invigorating hope, because it awoke a visible response in that typical Roman audience. Once a smile of gratification rippled over all the faces as if a door had been flung wide open unexpectedly and they were bidden to enter a long-closed palace. And once, when his finger pointed to the streaming window, all eyes followed as if they saw a revelation written in the light. Occasionally neighbor would turn to neighbor and nod, as if a cherished but unuttered hope had been confirmed. A woman with a gorgeous silk scarf about her head held a child upon her shoulder, and when the man standing by her side relieved her of the burden, she looked surprised and grateful and turned eagerly again to the preacher. When he finished there seemed to be scarcely a shadow on any face, and the people trooped out with a buoyancy that was unmistakable. I spent the remainder of the day rereading Le Recit d’une Sœur, and it was the happiest Christmas I have spent since childhood.’

When Billy left me I thought about him anxiously. Here was a man wooed by all the gods, terrestrial and celestial, but whom none had won. Can it be possible that in a universe packed with powers there is not one sufficiently strong to grip and direct this errant man? He is far too good to be allowed to go to waste; too fine in sensibility, too vigorous and versatile in mentality, too spontaneously true in instinct and impulse. Thus far ambition, war, love, religion, and the call of the common weal have been in vain; to each in turn he has responded languidly, but not one has gripped him with any degree of lasting passion. He wanders to and fro upon the face of the earth, always graceful and gracious, always welcomed by his friends and respected by his acquaintances; but always recognized as a man of unrealized possibilities, unused capacities. Is there no one, no cause, no faith, no enterprise, in these days and in this land of dynamics, that can lay an imperious claim upon him? He, not less than I, wishes it might be so.