BY A VILLAGER
SOME future social historian of America is going to be struck by the fact that our civilization has achieved decay — has even, in spots and patches, achieved ruin, squalid or picturesque — without ever having quite achieved maturity. He will not be able merely to describe the fact, and puzzle his head over it as a human being would: being a historian, he will hold himself obliged to put a theory to his fact, for the next historian to discard. And then there will be a zealously professional controversy; and it will be proved successively in the historical journals, with footnotes, that the cause was industrialism, that the cause was the war, that the cause was feminism, that the cause was immigration, prohibition, Christian Science, the automobile, the high cost of living, race-suicide, over-population. And in the end, the final and definitive historian will add up all these errors and calculate the average of them and call it the final and definitive truth; and history can then betake itself in peace to the fundamental causes of the war of 1938 between Czecho-Slovakia and the iniquitously compounded Polish Empire.
Anyway, the fact is so. It is so in our village of Chiswick — which is, I venture to say, a good nine tenths of all America outside the cities, the larger manufacturing towns, and the places which, having been frontiers yesterday, have not yet lost the shine of their first varnish. I know — for I live here—that we are going down hills we have never got to the top of, burning bridges we have never crossed, discarding ideas we have never applied in practice, and generally doddering before we have grown up.
It is impossible to live here — and remember all the while that ‘here’ is a generous slice of the whole United States — without feeling that the community existed from its inception expressly to create something that has never got created, but nevertheless is to be sought back somewhere in the past; something that would have served, if only we could have brought it off, as our moral and æsthetic equivalent of a Golden Age, a Renaissance, a Cinquecento. We needed only to grow on in our pure rusticity to become urbane — for does not any homogeneous and uninterrupted tradition produce urbanity in the end? If we had gone a little deeper into the soil, we should have dug out the arts as well as the stones; if we had kept up the spelling-bee and the parlor melodeon, we should have evolved presently a decent and comely speech, a Choral Union, and a really first-rate two-manual organ; perhaps even a local poet (though an editor is more needed, to tell the truth) and a creditable teacher of music; if we had hung on to our Georgian and Colonial houses, we should have given the new arrivals something to build up to, and found out ourselves how lucky we had been born; if we had kept our Sheraton and Heppelwhite, we might have understood it by this time, and it would in the natural course have outlasted the abominations of the haircloth and waxgarden-under-glass period.
None of these desirable consummations came to pass. Instead, we get what we deserve. Last week an Italian cobbler, eight years from Naples, bought the best surviving Colonial house on Main Street; he will ingeniously cut it up into three ‘rents’ at thirty dollars apiece, and then he will overhang it with a three-decker in the backyard — to do which he will destroy incidentally three elms planted by a onetime Governor of Connectichusetts in 1803, said Governor having been then in his eleventh year. (I happen to know that it cost his last surviving descendant eight hundred dollars to bring those elms, and their coevals in front, through the blight of 1910-12.) The Sheraton and Heppelwhite have gone to the city collectors; the haircloth and wax flowers remain, or have been replaced, for the wrong reasons, with worse things. The spelling-bee disintegrated into the fantastic zoölogical dances of a few years back — the various nondescript bunny-hugs and grizzly bears and their descendants. And as for comely speech, urbanity, and the arts —
We chew spearmint. The flavor lasts.
Consider, for example, the single matter of the church. The hierarchy of organized religion is seven times represented among us — or was until, lately, the Baptists suspended operations because their membership of seven was reduced by death to six. The surviving six will continue to hold the property, tax-free, because that is getting something for nothing; but they will use it no more, and the parsonage will stand untenanted until it crumbles, because, if it were inhabited by another than the pastor, the entire property would cease to be tax-free. The Congregationalists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Unitarians, and Presbyterians still continue — I will not say active, but — operative. Consider, then, for example, this single matter of the church.
Anybody with half a historical eye can see that the predestined function of the Christian church in the New England village was to destroy, by very gradual seepage and attrition, all that was deadening and corrosive in that spirit which the church itself had once generated and which it was long guilty of perpetuating — the outworn obscurantism of the Puritan. It was only historical and poetic justice that the church should atone for its own errors of misdirected influence, and fulfill itself in the lives of the people, by unteaching them dullness, sanctimoniousness, gloom, and religiosity, and teaching them open-mindedness, charity, laughter, and religion. It happens that I am able to supply a concrete enough example of just how it was to do this.
Oddly, perhaps, it is the Congregational church, and not the Episcopalian, which, in Chiswick, has the greatest prestige and social leverage. The newcomer’s signal of wishing to be taken into ‘society’ — supposing him to be an informed newcomer — is a brisk attendance at the Sunday morning services of the Congregational church.
It so happened that, some seven or eight years ago, the Congregational church had a great man for its pastor; one of the few really interesting men who have come out of Chiswick in the last generation. Vaughn grew up in Chiswick; then, after college and divinity school, he came back to it sufficiently a foreigner to be not altogether without honor; and he married, in Chiswick, — through no wish to make to himself friends of the Mammon of unrighteousness,— the daughter of the county boss. It was here also that he grew, together with his first flaxen moustache, two hobbies and a passion. His passion was the belief that public worship can and, for the future of civilization, must be made a deliberate and creative fine art.
One of his hobbies was American and rural applications of the principles of goodness in ecclesiastical architecture. Having a fine 1825 white church on the village green to start with, and a harmonious Colonial house beside it, he tore down the parsonage opposite, a ghastly bit of late Victorian jerry-building, and put up a new parsonage that subtly balanced, without exactly imitating, the Colonial house aforesaid. Chiswick has now the loveliest green in this part of the state.
Vaughn’s other hobby was a row of tall trees (still non-existent) round the county insane asylum a mile up the state road. An asylum that is set on an hill cannot be hid — at least, not all in a moment. Vaughn thought that, if he could prevail on the (then) superintendent to start a row of saplings, that particular brick monstrosity might be hid from, say, the grand-children of his contemporary Chiswickians. This object seemed to him fine and worth working for. That is the kind of man he was. I shall always be convinced that it was the material failure of this hobby that in the end drove him away. If he could have seen the saplings, it might have been enough to sustain faith. But after all his years of persuasion, cajolery, strategic approaches and retreats, all his vast outpourings of urbanity and tact, the superintendent would do nothing. His reason was that he could not comprehend what dark political intrigue lay at the back of Vaughn’s proposal. All acts fell, for him, into one of two categories: (1) those which he could immediately perceive and understand to be harmless or beneficial, and (2) those which were subtly contrived to get him out of office. He could not understand the simple truth that Vaughn wanted to make his insane ayslum less ugly: therefore the idea remained to him inherently suspicious. And upon the rock of this suspicious obtuseness Vaughn’s nerve eventually broke. Vaughn could see himself devoting years — ten, thirty, fifty years — to intermittent efforts to get the saplings planted; letting the project resolve itself into a match of competitive longevity between himself and the superintendent, a whole cycle of superintendents — and in the end perhaps failing. The thing became a sort of concrete symbol of the difference between success and failure in his whole work here — and perhaps he was afraid that his hobby might in time degenerate into an idée fixe and make him one more harmless crank. No: he could not devote himself to a whole life of it. Life was too short, and there were too many other things to be done. So he took his wife and children off to a great parish in Chicago, where there was a little more of the substance of things hoped for. His departure was one lamentable testimony to the stubborn inertia of Chiswickian human nature — But you perceive the kind of man he was.
And now accept — in approximately Vaughn’s own words — his notion of what the church could be made to do to the community. ‘The average man of my congregation,’ he would say, — Chiswick congregations contained men in that high and far-off time, — ‘is a small farmer living a mile or two or three out, coming in to the post-office once a day or twice a week, subscribing to the county paper, attending the Grange, going to church on Sunday morning, and otherwise doing hard manual labor all the hours he can keep himself awake. Do you see what church means to this man? Worship, piety, doctrine — yes, if you like; but there is something else, whatever becomes of these. Church is his last lone forsaken contact, from year’s beginning to year’s end, with art, science, the world he lives in taken as a whole, its relation to the stellar universe, the history of races, civilizations, and religions, the rise and fall of empires, the literatures and philosophies—in fine, the best that is known and thought in the world.
‘This is an age of print and of the consequent cheapening of knowledge; but for my farmer it is not that. Outside the treadmill of his narrow personal routine, he has literally nothing except what the church gives him. He thinks not one impersonal thought, catches not one gleam of anything supernally beautiful or true — and how, without knowing it, that man hungers and thirsts! After righteousness? Well — what is righteousness! Generally speaking, I find the man who knows most to be the most honest; yes, and the most reverent. Anything that can be taught these people comes out in the form of better living; that you can rely on. . . . What you see in these men is the old miraculous passion for learning, unhappily long departed from the universities, and departing from the schools. Learning, to them, is scarce, and valuable; and their spirit toward it, given half a chance, is the spirit that founded our common schools, the spirit that drew a motley of youths from the corners of Europe to the mediæval universities; the love that men had for learning before the supply of it was big enough to have a price in the market, and when you risked your neck to get it.
‘Why, I have talked to these men on Sunday morning about some simple incidental truism of geology or astronomy or physics: and it seemed to me that what was happening to them was exactly what happened to a whole generation, a whole world, in the Renaissance, when the New Learning multiplied the world lengthwise, in time, by creating the past, and exploration multiplied it breadthwise, in space, by creating continents. I used to think that no race of men could ever again live through such stupendous experiences, or regain the excitement of them
— at least, not short of establishing communication with Mars. False, my boy — quite false! Not a smattering of all this wonder has ever recurred to my men since their common-school days — when, being boys, they breathed the air of miracle normally, and remained unimpressed. They have forgotten, just as Wordsworth describes; and their world has dwindled to the few poor acres they plough and harrow. There is nothing better worth living for, or easier to accomplish, than taking them of a Sunday morning to the top of some peak in Darien and letting them stare — for the first time! — at the Pacific.’
And again: ‘Dogma? Oh, well — who knows what he believes, anyhow? I remember a little of the consensus of error we decided to agree on at divinity school. The very men who taught it then doubt parts of it now — in good bold eight-point type, too! Do you think I am going to spend my one pitiful little hour a week with these men — fifty-two hours a year for the best that is known and thought in the world! — telling them how the doctors disagree and call names about thirty-seven practically indistinguishable modern varieties of Arianism and Socinianism? The answer is, I am not, tout court!
‘Here is the church: it exists; it is, after a fashion, a going concern. The question that matters is, What is going to be done with it? Is it going to do what it can, what is needed, what counts — and live and be wanted? or is it going to persist in all its traditional ways of doing nothing in particular — and die, for form’s sake, in a saintly attitude, with its innocuous arms folded on its bosom? It has its choice. For my part, I have my answer in the men. This particular church of mine has a rather sound tradition. You talk with some of the men who have been coming to it for twenty-five years past; and (thanks to that thirst for knowledge we were just speaking about) you’ll find them better worth listening to, on any of the things you may happen to be interested in yourself, than all but a few of your university classmates— unless your classmates are very different from mine. No, I am not interested in putting up a fence, bull-strong, horse-high, and pig-tight, between religion and everything else. The men are what they are, unanswerably; and nothing under heaven but the church could have made them what they are. Think what two more generations of this can mean!’
Thus Vaughn, in moments of confidential expansiveness — Vaughn, with what seems to me his remarkable genius for realities, the specific.
And after him? And after him, a quite correct and stereotyped and amiable and inoffensive and, in his blind fatuity, an altogether ruinous young man of the world, named Holgrave. Two notable consequences ensued within a year after the Holgraves occupied the parsonage. First, the attendance of the farming men dwindled and almost totally ceased. There is this important difference between the church attendance of Chiswick farmers and that of their wives and daughters: the farmers go home and talk about the sermon, the preacher’s opinions, and the new ideas they have heard or been disturbed at not hearing, so that even the stay-athomes receive indirectly a considerable stimulation and profit; whereas the wives and daughters go home to report that Mrs. Dolliver ridiculously wore her new spring straw hat with her old winter fur coat, and that the Callisters, who always came in the buckboard before, appeared this week in a Ford. This loss of precisely those men for whom the church could do, and had done, most, is no light thing in its net effect on a civilization so exclusively provincial and self-dependent as that of our village. It is a loss ’distressing, bitter, afflicting, afflictive, affecting, cheerless, joyless, depressing, depressive, mournful, dreary, melancholy, grievous, pathetic, woful, disastrous, calamitous, tragical, deplorable, dreadful.’ — I borrow this description of it from the invaluable work of the late Peter Mark Roget,1 and am fascinated by the device: why has it never appeared among the recognized stylistic dodges?
The second consequence is even more distressing-to-dreadful, inclusive, than the first, with which it has perhaps something causally to do. I mean the evolution, within Holgrave’s church, of a small aristocracy of which the Holgraves are the centre. An aristocracy, as everybody knows, is a social superstructure reared on a foundation of bestness. But—bestness in what? The answer in this one case is as simple as it is alliterative. It is certainly not bestness in family: Mrs. Amasa Wallingford, who is a D.A.R. in five several ways, and has in her veins enough American patrician blood to carry a whole county election if every drop were a vote, is not included; while Mrs. Burnett, who comes of white trash and used to be a milkmaid (my wife insists she was a barmaid, but I think that is only her sub-conscious deference to a sainted grandfather’s maxim, ’When you tell a story, tell it good’), is next the throne, and arbitress of the elegancies for all the region hereabout. Have we not seen her reign, nay pour, at a tea, in the newest and tightest of white gloves? Nor has the desiderated bestness anything to do with money, or occupation, or intelligence, or motor-cars, or domestic architecture, or furniture, or clothes, or æsthetic taste, or political influence, or even respectability. No. It is neither more nor less than bestness in bridge.
The inner circle consists of the four childless couples who play bridge for a steady and permanent avocation; the outer circle comprises the few intermittents who are always ready to fill in. All others are outsiders and negligibles. Mrs. Holgrave and the other three women play bridge three afternoons a week by programme and the other three by understanding. The men join them at it on most evenings and, that, no moment be wasted, foregather at the parsonage on Thursday after the prayer-meeting — Vaughn’s parsonage. And Holgrave’s sermons and pastoral calls are the sermons and calls of a man dreamily preoccupied with the ingenuities of minor tenaces and grand slams and discarding from strength. The bridge crowd professes to find his sermons inspiring. All I know is, some of
But swoll’n with wind, and the rank mist they draw.
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread.
Holgrave is, as I have said, a very amiable young man, and the theology of his official utterances is certainly more orthodox than Vaughn’s. But it is plainly to be seen from his use of time that to him there is no God but a Game, and Foster is his prophet. Vaughn held the farmers, and their children ran to meet him at the gate. Social cliques became intensely self-conscious in the air he breathed, and dared not raise their heads. Holgrave has lost the farmers; all the urchins in the village hoot at him in derision when his runabout sticks in the mud (a little thing, but it counts); and his church, the church that Vaughn said had a rather sound tradition, is become an organized feud of the social ins against the social outs, and consequently an industrious hive of — as the dependable Roget has it — detraction, obloquy, scurrility, scandal, defamation, aspersion, traducement, slander, calumny, evil-speaking, backbiting; and few are those who have not some petty festering spite. The strongest force holding the congregation together, next to habit, is the universal expectancy of trouble, and curiosity as to when and how it will come.
Meanwhile, Holgrave loses no proper occasion to descant on the evil of needless sectarianism — a thought so strange to our denomination-infested air that it strikes us with a brilliantly epigrammatic force. But, whereas Vaughn would have meant by it that he saw in everybody a human being, and not a member of this denomination or that, Holgrave merely means that he considers everybody free to come and unite with the Congregational church, to the glory of God and the diminishment of the other Protestant sects — which is doubtless the same thing.
Who will say that this church — it retains still, in its enfeebled condition, more than the prestige of the other five communions taken together — has fulfilled any great fraction of its potentially civilizing office among us? It belongs to those farmers — my mind keeps going forlornly back to them — whose great-grandfathers made it and left it in trust to a faithless future. It had no sooner edged out from under the leaden shadow of Puritan repressiveness and obscurantism than — click! something went wrong in the mechanism of its spiritual functioning, and it was converted almost over-night into an organism essentially worldly and non-spiritual, dedicated to froth and frippery and bridge, and the maintenance of a taboo— not against the world, the flesh, and the devil, but against the social ineligible, within or without itself. Into such an organism our farmer does not fit.
And he will never come back. Let no illusion be hugged on that score. He is through. He knows he is through, and flaunts the fact. In the Saturday night conclave at the grocery-store, a stock form of wit — almost a weekly ritual of ribaldry that must be gone through — is the derisive questioning of all by each on the subject of the morrow’s church attendance. Not one of them means to go; hardly one of them but always used to go; not one of them but scrupulously and with suppressed wistfulness excepts the memory of Vaughn from his hard and bitter satire on all things churchly. He is nobody’s fool. He knows who is his friend, and who is not. He has his formula, too, of a ready homespun wit not accessible to the gentle Roget, for the Reverend Doctor Holgrave’s patronizing manner. It is this: ‘Holgrave? Oh, I dunno’s I want him around every week or two, spitting on me to see if I can swim.’
In seven years the Chiswick farmer has got so out of the habit of church that his principal mood seems to be a kind of cold scorn of himself for ever having had the habit at all. I do not know how to convey any adequate sense of the importance of this change. This is the first generation of farmers in whom the tradition has been broken — and it is precisely the generation in which the church first undertook its true modern office in the farmer’s life: to civilize, to refine, to educate, to mollify the old hard Puritan rigor, to flood his granite Hebraism with sweetness and light. The beginnings were there — and no sooner were they there than the whole process stopped, disastrously and finally. The sons and grandsons of these farmers will have all the old hard narrowness without even the semblance of piety and love of learning. It will be an irreverent, cynical, and materialistic hardness, and it will take itself out in driving hard bargains, worship of the prepotent penny, mockery of any sort of idealism, a worse than industrial bondage for womenfolk, — wage-slavery without the wage, — and the shackling of childhood prematurely to the plough and the grindstone. Puritanism without purity. The hard head and the hard fist!
And these youngsters of the new generation will not even have the Bible. This is one respect in which their elders, even the poorest and meanest intellectually, can never be impoverished. You cannot say in their presence two consecutive words from the Old Testament or the New — but especially, I think, from the Old — without catching the gleam of instantaneous recognition. It was reported one Saturday night, in the grocery store, that Scissors, the store cat, had commemorated that day by the slaughter of four mice in ten minutes. I seized the occasion to remark that Scissors is a mighty hunter before the Lord. Yes, the gleam was there—a rippling and applausive murmur ran round the group. The same remark would have left the younger generation inappreciatively dumb. This difference denotes another loss which there is no very great danger of overestimating.
But enough of the church and its lost and irrecoverable opportunities. It is but a type — the crucial and crowning one, to be sure — of all our Chiswick institutions, which have one and all gone awry and aborted just in the hour when they were learning to consummate themselves in serviceable ministry. It is almost as if there were something inherent in the self-development of organizations which necessitates their passing into decadence by the very process which improves them. Disheartened, one wonders whether achieved fitness for life may not, indeed, in this sorry scheme of things, be only the preface to inevitable desuetude and death.
I am going to venture, while I have the courage of my discouragement, a guess that the future of civilization and well-being on this continent is in the cities. There is, to be sure, no more in this than the city-minded have been saying aloud ever since the Civil War. But it is a bitter thought for a countryminded person to be forced to — the more so when his own origins are of the land, bucolic. Once, driven to a year of residence in a middling city, I sacrificed untold hours — and dollars — to live where there were suburban open fields, even a cow or two, and a small are of horizon. And for rest between-whiles, my thought turned instinctively to an ancestral farm near a country village, — another Chiswick, — or to a little cabin on the more thinly settled shore of a Maine lake.
Oft seeks to sweet retired solitude,
Where, with her best nurse contemplation,
She plumes her feathers, and lets grow her wings,
That in the various bustle of resort
Were all too ruffled, and sometimes impaired.
But it becomes less and less fantastic, further and further out of the province of caricature, to suppose a modern Milton sending the jaded villager to the nearest metropolis for a few restoring breaths of quietude and wholesomeness, urbanity and ease. I thoroughly understand at last, under protest and against the grain, the remark of a friend of mine, the librarian of a small town library: ‘ When I am done up, and want the most utter rest that can be packed into one week, I camp in the highest room I can find in New York City, and spend the week riding on Fifth Avenue buses, lolling in Central Park, and going the rounds of the galleries and museums.’ To parody the remark which Conrad quotes from one of his numerous seacaptains, ‘ Villages are all right—it’s the people in ’em!’
This disconsolate view of the comparative merits of town and country as purveyors of sweetness and light is occasioned, of course, by my recent researches here in Chiswick. For I, like Vaughn, went away for a long term just at the age of taking everything for granted; and all the old things are now intriguingly novel and provocative. I have wandered absorbedly at will up and down the sprawling length of North Chiswick, West Chiswick, Chiswick Centre, South Chiswick, Chiswick Village, and Chiswick Neighborhood, not to mention Mt. Valiant (which is in the township in spite of its name), and Chiswick Plain (which is in the adjoining township, in spite of its name); and invariably I have found that every detail which exactly matches my previous illusions of what Chiswick must and would be like, is either a spurious importation from the city, or otherwise remotely derived.
For example: I find the old Hackett homestead in new hands, the very charming hands of two young persons who obviously understand that the roof over their heads gives them a Governor or two, a United States Senator, a distinguished Professor of Divinity, and a Major of 1776, to live up to. Their furniture is all it should be; they know what they ought about rugs, brasses, screens; even pictures and hangings — the betrayal of many country-folk for a whole decade after they understand most other things — in no wise baffle them. Though they do not pretend to be farmers, they have whole rows of yellow pumpkins and green squashes hanging from the hewn rafters, whole heaps of baking-beans on the floor under those same rafters, waiting to be shelled, whole vast closets lined from floor to ceiling with all conceivable preserves, jellies, cordials — and all of their own raising. Aha! say I, here is discovery, here is fulfillment; here is what Chiswick can do when it lays itself out. What farmer from down the valley can have done well enough to bring his son and heir, in one short generation, to this? It is all the rusticities and all the urbanities — honest-to-goodness, home-bred, indigenous urbanities, too — coalesced into one unexceptionable dream of what life can, after all, be!
And what I found was that my gracious host and my most graceful hostess were young reactionaries from — I mean against — Greenwich Village, a little bored with the new spring styles in morals, and inspired to snap up the Hackett homestead very much in the mood of Horace taking himself off to his Sabine farm. With the aid of collectors, restorers, manuals, they had created the whole thing out of the purely literary sense of atmosphere. They were acting, not living — and acting most wondrously in character. But it was as artificial as a piece of vers de société, and, to the thing I had dreamed, as hollow. Reaping where they had not sown! What right have they to all those things? What right have they, with their carefully bred self-consciousness, their dainty mastery of how things ought to be, to dash off this symphony of themes wrought together in a technique which it is for time and need and the turmoiling generations to evolve? All in a moment they have snatched and ravished this foster-child of silence and slow time. The harvest is theirs, though they have not bedewed the ground with their sweat; they pluck the flower, but they never sowed the seed. I had once the impulse to send them Wordsworth’s Admonition to a Traveller, in large gothic, framed. But they would have had the wit to hang it over the fireplace in the hall, as a sign that they saw through themselves — and after all they are nearly the best thing in Chiswick. I have no grudge against them except that they have lived twenty-eight years without finding it practicable to let Chiswick, our Chiswick, make them what they are.
So throughout. The admirable and most winning youth in Mr. Jenkinson’s store, who, charmingly but inscrutably, elects to ask me his questions on diction and syntax, ought to be a local farmer’s boy putting in his nights over books of law and saving up his earnings for a year of Law School. But he is n’t: he is straight from Cornwall, and his inconceivably gaudy name is Athelstan Trebarwith. And Mr. Jenkinson himself, a still youngish man who has the profile of Abraham Lincoln, and is of all men here the most gently lovable, Mr. Jenkinson is from Denver. Almost everybody that is best has come from somewhere else. Sometimes one wonders why they came. So do they, sometimes.
And the indigenes —they likewise reap where they have not sown. While the stranger within our gates has appropriated our country best, we have appropriated the city’s worst and tawdriest. We are not, in an important or fundamental sense, an industrial population; the sprinkling of factoryworkers among us is as nearly negligible as you would expect in a place twenty miles from the nearest manufacturing city, connected therewith by a moderately quick trolley express. Yet it is from the factory and the factory tenement that our life seems to have taken its color — or, shall I say, its drabness? Our library, except for the scattering additions dictated by Vaughn, stops short at Louisa Alcott and Mrs. Stowe and Parkman and Fiske and Sir Walter Besant and E. P. Roe, and begins over again, after the hiatus, at Chambers, Owen Johnson, George Barr McCutcheon, the Williamsons, David Graham Phillips — in short, the cocktailand-limousine novel, Bohemian and eternally triangular; the sort of thing a factory-girl reads for vicarious experience of that kind of life from which she is most hopelessly cut off, and would still be cut off even if it really existed. Swinburne, Stevenson, Hardy, Howells, Bret Harte, Bierce, Mark Twain, Kipling, Stephen Crane, Mrs. Wharton, Synge, Yeats, Wells, Conrad — these and many another simply fell through the hiatus. The magazine we read is, of course, the Cosmocratic. Of three hundred and forty-one persons in the audience at the Christmas play given by the Grange, two hundred and sixty-eight, by actual count, were chewing gum.
It was a native daughter who put Chiswick journalistically on the map by dismounting from the trolley on Main Street wearing the first ankle-watch ever seen in Connectichusetts. Our women dress themselves from the covers of Vogue, and our youths wear waistcoats of a flashiness elsewhere confined to patrons of the nothing-down-and-adollar-a-week tailors, plays of college life, and the more fastidious sort of criminals. Our houses are vivid with green plush and red near-mahogany. Melodeon and square piano and ‘Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still,’ with Brinsley Richards’s variations, have been replaced by the cheap phonograph and ‘Oui, oui, Marie.’ In fine, our atmosphere is that of the factory town. We have not evolved taste out of our provincial vulgarity: we have simply replaced it by a different sort of vulgarity, which has not even the poor merit of expressing our own native deficiencies.
It was our personal luck — for which, by the way, we are universally pitied — to get possession of a house on The Ridge, at the western edge of the village, and facing away from it. We are quite four minutes from Main Street and the trolley. Before us, the land falls away in bold cascades and terraces to the bottom of a three-mile-wide valley, beyond which rises the low range of forested mountains which makes our western sky-line. These mountains are eternal loveliness, eternal variety: merely to watch them an hour is to read a romance crammed with action. One sees them swimming in ethereal detachment against vermilion sunsets; painted the uniform cobalt blue of November afternoons; hooded in ink-wash clouds, with only their flanks showing; rising out of the valley mists, with only their crests showing; sometimes near and menacing as a thunder-cloud; sometimes as remote and unreal as the smoke of vast Northern forest fires. And always they are clothed with loveliness. Looking at them, and stirred thereby to the worldold and universal impulse to help guarantee the lastingness of beauty by helping to renew its audience, I cry inwardly, ‘What an altogether unapproached and unapproachable place to beget and bear and rear children!’
And then, as likely as not, I stroll down past the school to the post-office; and hear the language of the children swarming on the playground; and notice how the boys cluster round young Jimmie Aitkins, who is a thief and degenerate at twelve; and pass, not Pharisaically, by on the other side when I meet ‘Elsie,’ whose eternal pacing vigil is a source of ribald laughter to all. And then I go back to my hills, and sit down and wonder grotesquely why no lawcourt of Christendom judges complicity in the procreation of the species as the act of a dangerous madman, and a crime against humanity.
- Our older readers will not need to be reminded that the author refers to the Thesaurus: a Treasury of the English Words. — THE EDITORS.↩