Second Miracle

I

WORDSWORTH was wrong on that matter of splendor in the grass. Something can bring it back. I make this contradiction flatly, aggressively. I make it from experience: from experience in a well-known hospital in a city on our eastern seaboard — a hospital where most of the surgical staff deal lightly with the letter r, and most of their voices are agreeable, and the urbanities are such that the patient’s fear of being badly hurt passes speedily into the fear of failing to match the manners that surround him.

‘You did n’t know you had blind spots all over your eyes, did you?’ said the oculist affably. The oculist was an excellently tailored yet rather picturesque young man, black-haired, black-eyed, and smooth as a cat in his motions; he really should have been dressed in doublet and hose, crimson or perhaps murrey, with a quilled cap tilted sharply on one temple, and a workmanlike little dagger in his belt. ‘You will be ready for the first operation,’ he said after a further exploration, silent and rather long, ‘in about a year.’

During the months of marking time that followed, a world already more than a little odd to look upon became odder and odder. I do not know whether our normality or only our conservatism is proved by the fact that we do not like to see familiar sights becoming strange. But certainly one crisp crescent of moon has more charm than a cluster of curled silver slivers, and one honest full moon is better than nine or ten rowdy disks overlapping. When a boy strides by in the sunshine on his way to the tennis courts, it is definitely displeasing that he should have three pairs of dazzling white legs, or, more accurately, ‘one and one with a shadowy third.’ That electric signs should go into a madness of superimposed layers of light is vastly irritating. But in my own experience the worst phenomenon by far was the endless procession of silver deer at night.

This procession sprang into being at the hour when drivers of cars turn on their lights. On and on they came, the countless pairs of silver deer, unnaturally tall, narrow, highly stylized deer, all horns and legs, gliding along as smoothly and smugly as if they had every right to look as they did. But we like our earth as it is. Our recoil from abnormal apparitions is a violent one. To my thinking, Macbeth is not, so to speak, licked in Act Five. He is already licked in Act Four, when he gasps, ‘But no more sights!’ And I affirm that even silver deer fail to please, to put it temperately, when they really are not there at all.

II

Probably it is not in the least an uncommon thing to remember the moment, far back in childhood, in which one became aware of beauty. I do not mean the beauty of, say, the red glass pin tray that ravished our infant souls and seemed the sum of desirability, a treasure that must be ours or we could not endure. I mean the beauty of the earth, to which, till then, we had been blind in our pursuit of our so urgent personal affairs. To me, for one, that moment of the unsealed eyes comes back with the utmost vividness. Alone and content and idle, — for the pre-school child in those days remained quite unorganized, — I was sitting one morning in a rope swing dependent from a companionable apple tree near the kitchen door. I think the month must have been May. The sunshine was brilliant; the grass was extraordinarily green, and dandelions blazed in it. At one bright disk I remember staring with the hypnotized stare of childhood; doubtless with a mind quite vacant. Suddenly, not far away, a rooster crowed ringingly. In that instant, magic was wrought. A quite unremarkable child awoke to a marvel — the delight of the eye in the world about it, and the sense of some mystery beyond the green and the gold.

A miracle in childhood is a dreamy wonder, but a miracle in maturity is a wild, incredulous awakening. More glorious than that back-yard transfiguration when the rooster crowed were the hairs, the clear, separate hairs on the head of the chauffeur that afternoon when, the hospital an experience long past, we drove away from the optician’s; more glorious the clean lines between the bricks of the houses on our way; and glorious beyond all telling the vigorous or delicate winter branches, the tracery of twigs, against the gray sky. Not far from the seaboard city is a beautiful old town, ‘the home,’ as modern advertising would put it, of a famous school, and the home as well of magnificent trees. In this town I paid a visit not long after that dizzy, exultant progress from the optician’s. Within an hour, ‘ Stop talking about the trees!’ my hostess, kindest of friends, passionately shrieked. That was many months ago; branches have been in leaf and are bare again, but pagans are as yet no easier to repress.

III

No affectation is more irritating than an overdone cheerfulness. Of this I would not be guilty. I would not deny the existence, for many months before the crisis, of a recurring spectre: the possibility of bringing a weighty burden, and with it inevitably an increasing exasperation, into other lives. I would not deny the occasional sudden physical fear of perpetual darkness — a fear that still growled and muttered for a little when kicked into a corner. I am mindful that memory has her kind and fluttering chicaneries, and inclines to shuffle an odious thing out of sight and to proffer a tidbit over and over. She blurs the hours of dread, of pain, of dragging tedium; and with charming and indefatigable tact she sends past, in review, again and again, the countless kindnesses of which one was the grateful and astonished and almost prostrated object; with perhaps, straggling along here and there, a bad moment or two in which one had managed to behave not quite so faint-heartedly as one had dreaded.

A very old joke is the childish pride, the simple zest of the surgical patient in recounting if not the physiological details at least the dramatic aspects of his operation. This joke is solidly founded. The patient who denies himself this small indemnity is an exceptional creature. Much rarer, I am sure, is the patient who pushes austerity still further, who from the first forbids himself not only the indulgence of recounting but also the indulgence of inwardly rehearsing. Him I believe not only a rare creature but also a foolish one. For smug reverie is a curative thing. A crisp commendation from a surgeon — very likely a conventional, even a routine, formula — may be turned over and over, relishingly, in the slack consciousness of the prostrate one. If the prostrate one is also sightless for the time being, and a little short of diversion, the savory bit will serve him almost indefinitely without losing its savor.

But I am not testifying, let me repeat, that during the time of imprisonment the sweets outweighed the sours. On this point I am unable to take oath. I can only say that the balls tossed up by the juggler memory are mostly of pleasing colors.

IV

Sympathy for those who hear not at all, or only with effort, — for the cruel strain of their nerves, for their isolation, for the depression that only the bravest of them can dissemble, — is not always given generously. I believe that few people pay sufficient tribute of admiration to deafness gallantly borne. But the blind, even the partially or the temporarily blind, receive such an abundance of solicitude and kindness as must bow them down with humility unless they are arrogant indeed. Some black hours are no great price to pay for the extraordinary heightening of living that such a revelation of friendship brings.

Without having given up the world of beauty for lost, it is possible to have wondered a good deal whether it would ever again emerge from its disguises and its clownings. It is a pleasant thing to owe to the kindness of someone particularly near and dear one’s first astonished sight of some special loveliness restored. On a morning in late winter I was driven down to the sea by a young epicure in beauty. (Naturally I so rate him, since his taste is my own.) There had been a rather heavy snowfall. The day was gray and luminous; there was no dazzle, but a perfect clearness. We drove out on a little peninsula, once sacred to the tread of distinguished feet, now in great part a checkerboard of narrow little streets and plain little houses, but on that morning lovely as a fine etching. Very beautiful on the background of snow were the sharp black lines of some small, wind-twisted trees. Beautiful was the gray sea, with one great patch of shifting green and blue. Beautiful and amazing were the visible, the identifiable, wild duck riding in the trough of the waves; and beautiful beyond all telling were the gulls weaving their free pattern against the sky. For these were honest gulls, with clear bodies, clear wings: not those hateful, harsh compositions of three straight lines that for two years or more had been flying over the seaboard city where the excellent hospital stands.

I am glad that it was with the same epicure in beauty that I visited, months later, an inland exhibit — my exhibit this time: a magnificent group of beech trees, as fine as any I have seen on this side of the ocean. What is wrong (pure dementia, to my thinking) with those who do not rank beeches the loveliest of trees — first, if not in beauty, certainly in a subtle quality of enchantment? If the gathering dusk blurred those wonderful lines a little, it called out the essential mystery that belongs to a beech grove. There was no hope of paying in full my debt for that hour of marvel and ecstasy by the sea; but there was an immense though entirely ungrounded pride of proprietorship in showing those magical gray trees, with their grandly towering trunks and the streaming sweep of their branches. — But here, I see, is King Charles’s head once more. Not another mention of trees, I swear.

But I shall see, clearly outlined, the blue of scilla, the blue of chicory, this year, and long grasses running in the wind.

V

Next to the excitement of being set free again in the world of beauty was the excitement of being set free in the world of books. This I say in no ingratitude for the countless hours full of relish in which kind friends read aloud. I remember as one might remember the savor of a particularly genial cocktail one hilarious morning in the hospital — so hilarious that in mercy I had to ask that my door be closed — when one of the best, of companions, lively and just sufficiently malicious, read me a wicked article on a literary critic of immense popularity but to us not dear. But oh, the savor of the first book read with one’s own eyes after long abstinence!

The fact of being severely rationed strengthens the savor tenfold. Fifteen precious minutes are a sustained intoxication. In my case, this glorious first fare was High Wind in Jamaica — as grim a tale as could well be chanced upon by a convalescent, but to me delectable beyond all telling. The thought of that cheap little edition — the heartening bright red covers, the sturdy clear type, the fair wide spaces between the lines — will always bring back a greedy gusto almost physical. This book is as horrible as it is original. If there is a mother in the world who thoroughly enjoys it, I should like to see her; or no, I prefer not to see her, for she must be a bit of a monster. But the zest of those greedy rationed swallowings! And when in the course of time the last crumb was gone, there remained the gluttonous thought: there will be more such feasts, more and more and more; and longer, and still longer. Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! And praise too the quietly speaking, smoothly moving surgeon who ought to have been equipped with a little dagger instead of a little scalpel.

VI

Such a retrospect as this must end soberly if it is to be honest. Life is a corrective old creature. She does not like to see us too much above ourselves. She may work us our little individual miracle, but she will exact her fee. For deliverance from even the briefest eclipse we must pay a tax for the rest of our days: a new pain — a far deeper ache of pity than we had known before for those whose miracle has failed to come off like ours.

But — to be yet more scrupulously honest — the clear new world is very good, and the elation of it endures.