THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
ON a day when the wind is in the east you run in, urged by a cheering intent, to see Aunt Selina, and she informs you, with a light humor vastly becoming to a lady in her eighties, that she has, as to her powers of locomotion, set, — or, to use housewife’s patter in preserving-time, jelled, — and can scarce move hand or foot. Her enemy is upon her. At last she is old. But you, harking back to the immediate past of her late seventies, ‘deny the allegations.’ She never will be old. With the first sunray she will find herself at the piano, rehearsing, not the tinkling tunes of yester-year, as their quavers peep out from ‘Ladies’ Annuals,’ but the great old delights of everybody’s past and present ; she may even make circumspect way into the garden, as soon as the dirt begins to dry, kneel in the spring ceremonial she loves, and, with long-practised hand, transplant a few Canterbury bells.
Thus you venture to prophesy. She shakes her head. Then she wavers. She is within a hair’s line of accepting the ameliorating prophecy, but on one point she holds firm.
‘This, at least,’ she says, ‘I have learned: that I have done with things, even with presents, your presents, Sweet Thing. Don’t give me any more silk bags or cushions or footstools, or any of the buffers you are always tucking in between me and this rude old world. The minute has come when they ’re going to worry me to death: the sight of them, the dusting, the putting away, the thought of them, even. Yes, I have done with things.’
‘Joined the Anti-Thing Society? ’ you suggest; and she returns wistfully,—
‘ I am the Anti-Thing Society, I myself, in my own proper person.’ Then she smiles, somewhat in her fashion on non-rheumatic days, and concludes out of mock solemnity, ‘I am all soul.’
Leaving her and musing along over age and youth, it comes over you that although you yourself are many a lap behind the eighties, you also may as well have done with things. After all, the ones you really care about are impalpable as air, and they are, besides, imperishable. You recall what seems to you the one significant passage in Arnold Bennett’s Glimpse, the enhanced vision of the disembodied spirit when he ‘had a view of the whole human race engaged in the business of moving matter from one place to another.’ Your mind traverses the reach of years you have spent in this moving of matter, tons of it: suit-cases with their plethora of ignobly perishable stuff, shoes, gowns, brushes, paper, pens, long, long lists of impedimenta that have often bred in you the vain regret that you were not started on this mortal journey in fur or feathers, not subject to the ignominy of having your life-progress set to an echo of the elevator man’s chant when he wafts you from bottom to top of a department store.
How is humanity handicapped in its fancied need of these orderly accessories to living! And recalling the struggle with matter on a still larger scale, the mind baulks at it anew: the building of houses by the laying of one brick upon another, the furnishing, the assembling of bureaus and beds and curtains and pitchers and double boilers, spades and rakes and beet-seed and onion. It is the litany of the material, the tangible, the earthy, which man did not bring into this world, and which he shall carry out no farther than the oblong house budded by the pickaxe and the spade. Your entire life has been a dream of things, acquiring, conserving, cherishing, rejecting — and acquiring again. You could have done at least the manual labor of a hundred epics in this time you have spent in the struggle, perpetually renewed, over subjugated atoms. And there is a further step it is as well not to take in these speculations, lest the imagination turn fantastic. For were the atoms subjugated after all? Certain it is that you go and they remain, subject to no ordered period of decay, only to chance and change.
The coin, Tiberius.
Rossetti’s lady dies, but her portrait lives. Your best beloved disappears into the great obscurity, but she leaves her dress behind, her gloves curved to the moulding of that hand, the worn, pathetic slipper she loved next to her bedside book, in lazy hours. These are still here, poignant reminders of her eternal absence, —
Less than her shadow on the grass
Or than her image in the stream.
But, as for you, thinking on these things, at last you are emancipated. The breath of a word has done it. Aunt Selina, snatching at her own immunity, has also shared, by suggestion, with you, a new freedom, at once attainable. You walk lightly and eat your bread in hope. You are pure spirit, ready for flight from the body of this death, yet you also think with delight of the years possibly left you here, because they are to be spent in absolutely untrammeled progress on the open road. Once, on this road of free choices, you drove a loaded van, whereas now you step off on your free feet. Your generosity becomes astounding to such as happen to express an unthinking admiration for your spoons or your lace. What to you is the lineage of silver, what the exquisite meandering of a priceless web? You scatter with both hands, not like her who gave her breast-pin to a more worldly sister because of its potentiality of dragging the owner’s soul to hell, but in the sheer exhilaration of ‘traveling light.’ You even dream of a dizzying possibility, a blinding race, though it imply an Icarus fall, toward those epics still uncharted in the dizzying ether, your native air now since you forswore earthpilgrimage and the tyranny of things.
A week or two, a month, a season, your exaltation stands every test of habit and fresh allurement. Then you halt before the window of the antiqueshop that has more than once inoculated you with the fever-germ of possession, and your eye is met by the pink lustre tea-set you probably were born dreaming of, have dreamed of all your life, and have not yet found in its entirety. The spider hung up on his web of expectation inside the shop comes out and psychologically pounces.
‘Got your lustre at last,’ he says. ‘Full set, every piece a gem.’
‘Ah!’ you return, with a carelessness often assumed for trade purposes in the past and, it may be, so unconvincingly as to deceive nobody. ‘I’m out of the notion now. Sorry.’
He smiles that smile which, though of an unimpeachable decorum, has all the value of a wink, and you, too, smile, going on and musing, —
‘Think you’ve got me, don’t you? Well, you have n’t. I’m not the man I was. What is pink lustre to pure spirit of the upper ether? For that’s what I am, I tell you, pure spirit. I’ve done with things.’ That night, before you settle down to evening tranquillities, you telephone Aunt Selina about your find, because she, too, has been for years on the pinklustre quest; adding, with what seems to you a neat humor, that you thought you knew all about pink lustre, its desirability and perfection. But here it is, going a mile or two further on the road of actual use, and starting up just at this time, to show you how little need the soul has for any form of matter whatsoever, since if you find that you don’t in the least covet its glazed loveliness, there’s nothing created you could covet.
‘And isn’t it a joke,’ you inquire, ‘one of those dear old queernesses the celestial humorists love to play on mortal man, that just now, in the nick of time, when we are, so to speak, under conviction of past materialism, they should flaunt this old heart’s desire before us, just to show us on how firm a foundation is set our tent of no desire at all?’
It is a joke, she owns, and you chuckle in unison. Then you settle to your reading and the fire purrs and the train shrieks through the fog its regret at being too far away to lay a sooty finger on you, and at the desk is the run of the pen with a beloved hand guiding it; and although your book is a well of deepest pleasure and you eye to eye with Truth at the bottom of it, somehow it is limpid enough to let a sudden light pierce down to Truth and you, and you look up, a finger between the leaves, in luxurious musing, and you are confronted by — what but things? There they are all about you, the patient, kind ministrants to your comfort and your safety and delight. It is not as if you saw them, as but half an hour ago when you plunged into your bath of pleasure, with the careless recognition of habit. Some inward eye has flashed open on them, and their beauty and their preciousness are blinding almost, they search the heart with such a poignancy of sweet relationship. Words forgotten rush into your mind, all to the defense of these disparaged friends and servitors. You remember that lovely paragraph touching the Egyptians, in the Golden Bough.
‘Not only human beings, but gods and animals, stones and trees, natural and artificial objects, everybody and everything had its own soul or double. The doubles of oxen and sheep were the duplicates of the original oxen or sheep; the doubles of linen or beds, of chairs or knives, had the same form as the real linen, beds, chairs, knives. So thin and subtle was the stuff, so fine and delicate the texture of these doubles, that they made no impression on ordinary eyes. Only certain classes of priests or seers wore enabled, by natural gifts or special training, to perceive the doubles of the gods, and to win from them a knowledge of the past and the future.’
Humbly you know that you are not of those who can by gift interrogate the doubles of the gods; but does that prevent you from perceiving the doubles of these dear and kindly beds and chairs and knives? You can at least see what the kettle is trying to say when it boils your water for you, and how the benevolent old chair loves to receive you when you drink the cup of tea the kettle makes. ‘ Spirits of old ’ that walked the sands of Egypt and built her temples, tell us whether pink lustre is not spirit, too? Why, these are all your friends, your family, your homely loves! Done with things? You’ve just begun with them. The inward eye convinces you of that. You can’t indeed, in the sardonic old phrasing that was but now a step in your formula of repudiation, take them with you on that mysterious, long-anticipated journey where you wear not even your own body; but who knows whether you may not find the doubles of them that the inward eye has glimpsed in their integrity for the first time? You are told there are ‘ many mansions.’ You have been used to considering that the great imagery of a poetic book. But why not mansions and one of them for you? And why not, when you cross the sill, and the lowhung lintel is, in generous breadth, an ample arch of welcome, why not the double of these fire-dogs you have loved so many years? why not the kettle ready by the hearth, the candles that have thrown absurd enchanting shadows all your life? why not these ever blessed things ? And because one thought always signals another kindred thought to keep it company, a little door in the cupboard of your mind flies open and you remember Harold Monro, who has sung the too-seldom-heeded claim of things.
Since man has been articulate . . He has not understood the little cries And foreign conversations of the small Delightful creatures that have followed him Not far behind;
Has failed to hear the sympathetic call Of Crockery and Cutlery, those kind Reposeful Teraphim Of his domestic happiness; the Stool He sat on, or the Door he entered through; He has not thanked them, overbearing fool! What is he coming to?
It is he, this Harold Monro, who may not perceive the doubles of the gods, — an austere height to climb, a dim grove to penetrate, — but who does give a heartening call to these dumb comradeships of ours. He, too, has had his moments of ignoring them; but now, having once seen them with the inward eye, he humbly beseeches them to accept his altered frame of mind. He promises them: &emdash
You, my well-trampled Boots, and you, my Hat, Remain my friends: I feel, though I don’t speak, Your touch grow kindlier from week to week.
You sit in a gentle ecstasy of recognition and gratitude toward these darlings of your outer life. Going up to bed, you touch the stair-rail with an impetuosity of benediction. The playing shadows on the ceiling break into inarticulate language of these homely wonders you have just begun to understand — your other family, only a step outside the human circle. The pillow is ready with the cool caress it never denies your cheek. You float off at one with things — for are not they and you a part of everything?
In the morning it is the same. Your first thought at breakfast is of Mytyl and Tyltyl after their return from the reality of things with the Fairy Bérylune, and their impulse to salute the beneficent, unpretending friends of daily life: ‘ Good-morning, Water! Goodmorning, Bread!’
And all day — for some revelations are not of the moment but forever — it is the same, and at night Aunt Selina telephones. Her voice is as the voice of one newly entered upon life, not leaving it.
‘I have bought the pink lustre,’ she exults. ‘I am keeping six cups and saucers and six plates. The rest I’m sending you, and you’ll get all of it by-and-by.’