The Letter R

A WAS an apple — do you remember? And B was the fat-legged little glutton who bit it, and C, all in pert frills, cut it; and can you turn the remembered pages and go on? Perhaps modern efficiency caught you and handed you a primer of Modern Philology, and you never fingered that blessed Alphabet. Perhaps you gabbled A B C in a Chinese chorus and never really knew your letters. Really to know them takes a lifetime, of course, but you can glimpse their personalities in your early years. And there is such necessity for studying their stubborn little egos, if you ever hope to stay on the right side of them! Punctuation is treacherous enough, but I know nothing inanimate that can equal letters, for that sheer impish power of revenge. I suppose they have to be prickly to keep their personalities intact in all the stupid situations they are thrust into. But like all prickly characters, from the great Stickly Prickly down, they repay watching. I love to see them on their best behavior — marshaled in orderly and docile little rows, each piping his own little note, tractable as an earnest little choir. And quite as well I like to see them under the hand of an insensitive stylist — messing his music into bedlam, just because he neglected to learn his letters.

R is my particular delight, I think. I am fond of his appearance, he is so manifestly an energetic letter, — on his own feet, — with none of B’s fat comfort or of S’s sinuous repose about him. There are many standing letters — A, sturdily astraddle, hands in pocket, and F, meditative on one leg, and K flinging hilarious legs on the wind. But R is of another mind than these: just look at him, erect and hatted, and tapping the floor impatiently with one foot. R is the restless letter, the Irishman of letters, the essential younger son. R is of the temperament of Reuben; and ’I will arise and get ’ence,’ says R. G is a moving letter, too, but. G is a pilgrim. R is a vagabond with the trekking soul.

I found R in the dictionary once — that can be a pleasant bypath if you don’t go looking for information. Verbs are especially revealing about the temperament of a letter. All R’s verbs are the verbs of purposeful movement — verbs of restless youth and change. R ranges far afield. He is the reamer and the rover. His gait is variable — he can rush and run and race, or lapse into a ramble. For the spice of travel he can ride or even roll. R’s is the windy breath of the foot-loose. He blows it in the face of the restless and whispers, ’Rise.’ Reveille is the bugle-call of R.

R is at heart a primitive traveler. His is the road. He has adopted the railroad and the roadster, in this mechanical age. But he has never really taken to the sea, or to any water-way. And the only scion of the house of R that is concerned with ships is Kenneth Grahame’s Spanish Sea-Rat. He has his beasts; his totem protects all those fleet things that run for their living: the rabbit and the rat and the roe. He has his birds. Do you know that sudden quail-call — the hwe-heeeeew-hew that makes the knee-muscles tighten and the head lift? What is it but human wireless — the dot-dash-dot that is R?

R is untidy and unprosperous, and guiltless of the moss that is the reward of the stay-at-home. He is a frank Ragged Robin. But rags have their uses. They clothe R in romance. One is a little tenderer with R than with other letters. There is something intangible about him—perhaps the fragrance of the country of Romany, that sweeter land than Arcady the placid. When I call up most clearly the insouciant figure of R, he is in gay red; just that red that the gypsiest leaves get before they throw themselves off the tree, and the most western string of cloud is on the eve of a windy night. And the first real coals of a wanderer’s cooking-fire. You know. And others know. There is that New England gypsy-heart who draws the little vagabond winds that say ‘Rise’ most wooingly, and she colors them red. There is that gypsy-foot in Old England who chants before the gods of the trail — as the Red Gods. Dunsany the Irishman, though, has made the real deity of R, and set him idol-wise for all the lovers of R forever. And do you think that the troubling God Roon, out of Time and the Gods, by any other name would smell as strange? I don’t. But then, I am a lover of R.