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AN OLD STRING BONNET

I care not what it is, so long as it be old; but if an object has passed through other hands than mine, it gathers an indefinable charm about it. Old china, old cups and saucers, whether they be ugly or beautiful, are priceless by reason of that faint murmuring of other lives which clings around them. In the mere tinkling of the china as it is brought in upon the tray, I can hear a thousand conversations and gossipings coming dimly to my ears out of the wealth of years which is heaped upon them.
For this reason would I always use the old china which it is my good fortune to possess. A breakfast-table, a tea-table spread with china which can tell you nothing than that it has but lately come from the grimy potteries, makes poor company to sit down with. Yet let it be but Spode, or Worcester, or Lowestoft, and every silence that falls upon you is filled with the whisperings of these priceless companions.
I have no sympathy with the collector who locks his china away because it is rare and worth so much in pounds and shillings and pence. He is no more than a gaoler, incarcerating in an eternal prison the very best friends he has, and just, if you please, because they are his.
What if there is the risk of their being broken! A rivet here, a rivet there will make them speak again. I have a Spode milk-jug with forty-five rivets in it and it is more eloquent to me than all the modern china you could find, however perfect it may be. In fact, I would sooner have a piece that has been mended. It shows that in those long-ago days, where all romance lies hiding for us now, it shows that they cared for their treasures and would not let them be discarded because they happened upon evil times. I have also an old blue and white tea-pot with a silver spout. A dealer sniffed at it the other day.
“May have been good once,” said he.
“’Tis better now,” said I. “So would you and I be if we’d been through the wars.”
“Do you mean to say you’d prefer me with a wooden arm?” he asked.
“I would,” said I. “You’d be a better man. You couldn’t grasp so much.”
But the other day I found a treasure. Miss B——, the old spinster lady in whose farm I have my little dwelling, is by way of being the reincarnation of a jackdaw. She has cupboards and chests in every room in which lie hidden a thousand old things which have been in her family for years. Yesterday, in turning out an old drawer, I came across a quaint little contrivance that looked like a string bag, only it was beautifully made in three parts, all composed of a wonderful lace-work of fine string and knitted together, each one by a delicate stitching of white horsehair.
I brought it out into the kitchen, tenderly in my hand.
“Whatever is this?” I asked.
She took it in her fingers and looked at it for a moment, then, inconsequently, she laid it down upon the kitchen table.
“That—” said she, “that was my great, great grandmother’s bonnet. She wore it up till the time she died.”
“Why, it’s nearly two hundred years old!” I exclaimed.
“If it’s a day,” said she.
I gazed at it for some moments. Then suddenly it seemed to move, to raise itself from the table. Another instant and it was spread out, decked with a tiny piece of pink ribbon, on the head of an old lady—but oh, so old! Her silvery white hair thrust out in little curls and coils through the mesh of the string, and there she was, with a great broad skirt and big puff sleeves bobbing me a curtsey before my very eyes.
I turned to Miss B——
“Do you see?” I asked.
“See what?” said she.
“Your great, great grandmother.”
“I never saw her in my life,” she replied.
“But under the string bonnet!” I exclaimed.
“Goodness! That ’ud fall to pieces if any one tried to put it on now. It’s no good to me. You can have it if you like.”
Then I understood why she could not see her great, great grandmother, and, with a feeling of compassion for her loneliness, I took the old lady into my arms. Miss B—— went to the sink to peel some potatoes.
“You’re perfectly beautiful,” I whispered, and her old face wrinkled all over with smiles.
“They used to tell me that when I was a girl,” said she.
“You’re more beautiful now,” said I.
“What’s that you’re saying?” asked Miss B—— over her shoulder.
“What I should have said,” said I, “if I’d lived two hundred years ago.”

XVI
THE NEW MALADY


XVI
THE NEW MALADY
In every age there is a new disease—there is a new malady—a strange sickness. The whole army of medical science goes out to meet it and there is pitched a battle wherein lives are sacrificed, honour made and lost. But in the end the glorious banner of medical skill is generally carried triumphant from the field. Some old foes truly there are who are not conquered yet, with whom a guerilla warfare is continuously being waged. Never can they be brought into the open field; never can they be come upon at close quarters. Sometimes in a skirmish they are routed and put to flight; yet ever they return, lessened in numbers, no doubt, weakened in strength, but still a marauding enemy to mankind.
Then apart from these, there is that new malady, which, with its stern inevitability, the age always brings amidst its retinue of civilisation.
It would seem, notwithstanding the dictum of the Bab Ballad-maker, that they are not always blessings which follow in Civilisation’s train. One disease after another has come amongst us from out the ranks of civilisation. And now appears the latest of all, seizing upon its victims under the very walls of that fortress of medical science.
It is the disease of bearing children, the disease of making life.
We all know how science with its anæsthetics, with its deftly made instruments and its consummate skill, is attacking the enemy from every quarter. Yet the fatality of the sickness is steadily growing. More women die in childbirth now than ever fell its victims in the days when the services of a common mid-wife were all that were at their disposal.
It is terrible sometimes to think how rapidly this most natural of all functions—since upon it hangs the existence of all people in the world—it is terrible to think how rapidly it is shaping into the awesome features of a disease. Women are as ashamed of its conditions now as they would be if smallpox had pitted their delicate skins. They speak of it as of some dreadful operation—which indeed it has become—and, instead of glorying over a possession which they alone command, they will talk of it as a curse which, suffering alone, they should be given compensation for. They ask for the vote! Great God! As if the vote could compensate them for the loss of bearing children as the God of nature meant they should be borne! As if any form of compensation could ease such a loss as that!
Success and civilisation—these are the two subtle poisons from the effects of which we are all suffering. Nothing fails like success! Nothing degrades so much as civilisation!
A little while ago a woman who had given birth to a fine child told me quite frankly that she herself was not going to feed it.
“Do you mean suckle it?” said I.
She did not like that word and she shuddered.
“You object to the use of the word?” I suggested.
“Is it quite nice?” she asked.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Words are only ugly,” said I, “when they express ugly deeds. I can understand if you find the deed ugly you don’t like the word.”
She answered that she did not mind the thing itself. “You see,” said she, “it’s quite impossible for me to do it. We’ve been asked up—my husband and I—to Chatsworth to meet the King, and it would be foolish to lose such an opportunity—wouldn’t it? I can’t go up like this, so I must have a sort of operation.”
“So you’ve made up your mind?” said I.
She screwed up her eyes as her conscience faltered in her breast.
“Practically,” she replied.
“Well, if not quite,” I suggested, “write to the King, and ask him whether he would sooner meet you at Chatsworth or have a stalwart son given to the country.”
She told me I made the most absurd remarks she had ever heard from any one and she walked away. “Besides,” said she, over her shoulder, “it’s a daughter.”
I found her name amongst those invited to Chatsworth to meet the King. I saw her picture in a photograph of the Chatsworth group and she looked beautiful. Her figure was that of a child who had never known maternity.
There are traitors even in the camp of medical science, thought I. Nothing degrades science so much as the march of civilisation—no social woman fails so utterly as when she succeeds in meeting the King.
I have a friend, in the tiny chintz parlour of whose cottage in the country a certain collection of prints adorn the walls. For the most part they are steel engravings, valuable enough in their way. But it is the subject common to them all, rather than the intrinsic value of each picture, which has persuaded my friend to their collection. One and all, with the tenderest treatment you can imagine, they portray a baby feeding at the gentle breast of its mother. No other pictures in the room are there but these, and there must at least be a fair dozen of them. You cannot fail but notice them. The similarity of their subject alone would force itself upon your mind.
Yet, would you believe it, the ladies who come there to call upon my friend’s wife, regard them with horror and alarm. As their eyes fall upon them, they turn sharply away, only to be met with yet another of those improper pictures upon an opposite wall. With far greater equanimity and even interest would they look upon a series of Hogarth’s prints. The vicar of the parish, too, was alarmed. He asked my friend whether he did not think that such pictures did harm.
“Of course I know,” said he, “it is a natural function and is all right in its proper place. I don’t mean to say that it would do harm to you or to me, of course—we’re old enough to discriminate. But younger people are apt to look at these things in a different light.”
“Do you know that as a fact?” asked my friend quietly.
Now, the vicar was a truthful man, who had read that the devil is the father of all liars. He held his head thoughtfully for a moment.
“It is what I imagine would be the case,” said he. “On which account I always disapprove of those pictures which, what you might say, expose the body of a woman in the so-called interests of Art. With a man and his wife—if I may say so—such things are different; but to make a show of a woman’s nakedness, that is to me a form of prostitution at which honestly I shudder every time it comes my way.”
“I see—I see your point,” said my friend. “If there is to be prostitution, let it be that of the wife. I see your point. But why call marriage a sacrament? And why solemnise it in a church? I should have thought the meat-market had been a better place.”
Great heavens! No wonder the disease is spreading! No wonder is it that women approach the hour of deliverance in fear and trembling, for neither do they fit themselves for it, nor are they proud of the birthright which is theirs alone. For the sake of appearances, because they are not well enough off, because of inconvenience, they will give up all they possess for the mess of pottage. Civilisation indeed has made a strange place of the world. There are few men and women left in it now.
Now and again you may run across a true mother, but all the rest of women that you meet are only fit to be called by a name that is indeed too ugly to write.
A true woman I heard of only the other day. She was brought to her bed of childbirth. In the room there was that still hush, the hush of awe when out of the “nowhere into here” the something which is life is about to be conjured out of the void of nothingness which is death. For long, trembling moments all was still. The faint whispers and muffled sounds only made the quietness yet more potent. And then, suddenly, out of the silence, came the shrill living, trumpet-cry of a new voice—the voice of a little child.
The woman stretched her arms and smiled, as if in that cry she had heard the voice of God.
“You must lie still,” they whispered in her ear—“there is yet another child.”
“Thank God!” she moaned, and the silence fell round them once more.

XVII
BELLWATTLE AND THE DIGNITY OF MEN


XVII
BELLWATTLE AND THE DIGNITY OF MEN
We were all sitting out in the garden having tea under the nut trees—Bellwattle, Cruikshank and I. They use the old Spode tea-service—apple green and gold and black—whenever tea is taken out of doors, and I would give anything to describe to you the pictures that rise in my mind with the sight of that quaint old tea-service, the smell of the sweetbriars and the scent of the stocks. They are indescribable, those pictures. No one will ever paint them to my satisfaction, neither with colours nor with words. They are composed with such historical accuracy, are so redolent of their time, that it would need somebody with a memory reaching over one hundred and fifty years to trace them as they appear to me. Now, if my memory reaches over five minutes it is doing well—and many there are the same as I.
The characters I see are arrayed in costumes so befitting to their period, they speak of things so faithful to their day, that no man, unless he had lived in the eighteenth century, could possibly reproduce them. I see their dainty costumes—I hear their quaint speech, but not one jot or one tittle of it all could I put down upon paper. Yet I know those pictures are true as true can be.
Why is this? Is there a memory within us which harks back to lives we have lived before? Is it by the same reason we feel that certain incidents have come to us again out of the far-off past? I was pondering over it all that afternoon, when suddenly Bellwattle broke the silence which surrounded us.
“Why were elephants called elephants?” she asked.
Cruikshank—of whom, if it cannot be said that he knows the woman in his wife, at least knows her queer little habits—passed his cup without amazement for more tea. But I—well, it took my breath away.
“Whatever made you ask that?” I inquired.
She shrugged her shoulders as eloquently as she could, being occupied with Cruikshank’s third cup of tea.
“I don’t know,” she replied—“Who called them elephants, anyhow?”
To this second question, Cruikshank was as ready as if he were at Sunday school.
“Adam,” said he. “Adam named all the beasts and he called them elephants.”
“But why elephants?” asked Bellwattle.
Cruikshank looked at me across the little garden table. There was an appeal in his eyes, as though he would say, “Go on—I’ve answered mine. It’s your turn now. Don’t let her think we don’t know.”
For you must understand that, in their dealings with women, there is a certain freemasonry amongst men. If by nature their sex is debarred from the greatest of all functions, they must at least steal dignity by the assumption of great wisdom. No man may ever admit ignorance to a woman. So long as her questions have nothing to do with instinct, he will answer them, whether or no he tells her the greatest balderdash you ever heard. All men in their vows of masonry must swear to do this. We should be in a sorry way if women did not look up to us for knowledge.
When then I received this secret sign from Cruikshank, I did the best thing I could for the sex—I answered at a hazard.
“He called it an elephant,” said I, “because the impression he received of its size may have suggested that word to his mind. He may for example have been trodden upon by one of those huge brutes—in which case,” said I, “the impression would have been a vivid one.”
“If one of them trod on me, it wouldn’t suggest the word elephant,” said Bellwattle. “I should think of squash.”
“Probably you would,” said Cruikshank; “but then you’re not Adam.” By which I think he meant to convey the mental superiority of his sex.
Therefore—“She might be Eve,” said I.
Bellwattle closed one eye and looked at me.
I met her gaze steadily and then, as suddenly, she put another question to us.
“Did Adam name everything?”
“Every single thing,” said Cruikshank.
“All the insects?”
“Every blessed one.”
“Why did he call it Daddy Long Legs, then?”
Cruikshank seized the opportunity.
“That was what its long legs suggested to him.”
“But why Daddy?” said Bellwattle very quickly.
Cruikshank dipped into his third cup of tea, drowning all possible answer.
“Why Daddy?” she repeated.
“Because,” said I, “Adam was the father of all living.”
For the moment Cruikshank forgot his table manners and choked. It took a great deal of serious assurance on our part then to convince Bellwattle that we were in earnest. For we were in earnest. No man is so serious, or so put upon his mettle as when a woman bows to him for knowledge. There comes that look into his face as well I remember would creep into the face of the master when I was at school. No doubt it is the same now. The vanity of men does not alter in ten years, or in ten thousand for that matter.
I can see now the German master—that is to say the stolid Englishman who taught us German—I can see him now reading out a sentence for us to translate into the language.
“My heart,” read he, most solemnly, “my heart is in the Highlands—my heart is not here.”
And there was such pathos, such a tone of exile in his voice, that I was prompted to ask him whether, under the circumstances, he could give his proper attention to the class.
“Might we not shut up our books,” said I—“straight away?”
The look that came into his face then was the look—exaggerated a little perhaps—which comes into the faces of most men when the dignity of their great wisdom is upset. Cruikshank and I, then, were struggling for our dignity against the fire of Bellwattle’s questions. It was no good talking about the evolution of language to her. She would never have understood a word of it. Now, when a man tells a woman anything which she does not understand, she is just as likely to think him a consummate fool. And a man will always be a fool rather than be thought one.
We were trying, therefore, to answer Bellwattle as she would have answered herself. In other words, we were making fools of ourselves in order that Bellwattle should think us wise.
It was here that Cruikshank tempted providence. Doubtless he thought we were getting on so well that we could afford to be generous with our information, for in quite an uncalled-for way he volunteered to tell her more.
“Is there anything else,” said he, “that you want to know?”
She nodded her head and around the corners of her lips I believe I caught the suspicion of a smile.
“If Adam called it a cow,” she began——
“He did,” interrupted Cruikshank. “In those days it probably made that sort of noise.”
“Then why,” said Bellwattle, giving him never a moment to retract, “why do they call it a vache in France?”
We all looked at each other—I at Cruikshank, Cruikshank at me, and Bellwattle alternately at both of us.
After a pregnant pause, Cruikshank began to temporise.
“That’s very like a woman,” said he—“you’re going into another issue altogether.”
“Now,” said I, “you’re coming to Bible history.”
“Yes, that’s Bible history,” repeated Cruikshank, “you’re going back to the Tower of Babel.”
“Is that where they wanted to get up to Heaven?” she asked.
We nodded our heads emphatically.
“And it all smashed up, and they began talking like a crowd of tourists?”
“Something like that,” we agreed.
“Then, don’t you see,” went on Cruikshank, finding his feet once more. “Then they all separated, went into different countries, and when they saw a cow in France they called it vache—it’s quite simple.”
“Oh, yes, I see that part of it,” said Bellwattle. You have only to say to a woman—and moreover be it in the proper tone of voice—that a thing is quite simple and she will see it through and through. I have known Bellwattle understand a proposition of Euclid by telling her it was quite simple.
As I say, “If that point is the centre of this circle, all lines drawn from that point to the circumference must be equal; that’s quite simple, isn’t it?”
And she has replied, “Oh—quite—I see that—but who says it’s the centre?”
If I say Euclid, she then asks me if I believe everything which people tell me.
In this manner she saw Cruikshank’s point about the people in France calling a cow vache. But after seeing it, she was silent for a long time. She was giving it due consideration. I knew that another question was to come. At last she looked up.
“But can you explain,” said she, “how they happened to hit upon the same animal? I know vache means cow, but how did the people in France know that it should be that particular animal that they were to call vache? They might have called a pig vache, and then we should all have been topsy-turvy.”
I ran my fingers through my hair.
“My God!” said I——
“It’s no good swearing,” said Bellwattle, “I can see you don’t know.”

XVIII
THE NIGHT THE POPE DIED


XVIII
THE NIGHT THE POPE DIED
It comes back into my mind now, as an echo that is lost among the hills, that night in Ardmore in Ireland, that night when they heard the Pope was dead. I can hear the low, deep note of the sea, monotonous and even as the beating of a heavy drum when the waves rolled up the boat cove, or leapt upon the rocks that crouch to meet the sea beneath the Holy Well. I can see the clouds, great banks of grey, as though a furnace were smouldering below the horizon, I can see them hanging in sullen wet masses, hanging low over the white crests that were breaking away by Helvic Head. I can see the dank, dark coils of seaweed lying, like the hair of women that are drowned, along the dim curved line of the strand. And around the first head, where the bay spreads wide into the great Atlantic, the sound of a rushing wind, muted by the hills, dimly reaches my ears.
It seems fitting that when any great catastrophe falls upon the trembling little people of this world there should be sounded an ominous note—a discord struck upon that great orchestra of the elements. It is the only true accompaniment to the sorrows of mankind, when the thunder bursts, the lightning rends the raiment of the sky and the winds play wildly on their shrillest instruments.
There was no thunder, no lightning that night, but all across the bay and round the headlands you might have felt the despairing sense of foreboding, the heavy hour before a storm, when the very ground seems angry beneath your feet.
Such was the night in Ardmore when they heard the Pope was dead.
In one moment the whole Roman Catholic world had been robbed of its father; the great Church of Christ was without its head on earth. From that moment and for the anxious days to come they were as orphans, knowing not where to turn. The Pope was dead. But there was none to cry in the market-place, there was none to stand upon the chapel steps and shout, “Long live the Pope!”
The Pope was dead. There was no Pope.
You must have seen the silent, questioning faces to have known what such a loss could mean. Around the counters in the public-houses the fishermen sat, afraid to drink. The women crept into their cottages and shut the doors. Presently little flickers of light glowed from each window—candle flames trembling as the draughts of wind caught their feeble glow.
It was as though the spirit of that old aristocrat, with his death-like head and piercing eyes, were making its way to Heaven through the little street of Ardmore, and these few feeble glimmers were set out, tiny beacons, to point his road.
For an hour they were burning before there came from the village courthouse the sounds of instruments being blown, all those weird, unearthly noises which tell you that a village band is about to play.
In ten minutes they were ready—the public-houses were empty. In ten minutes they were putting their instruments to their lips; their cheeks were swelling with the first ready breath to start. A little crowd of boys and girls were surrounding them ready to march by their sides; and then, with a one—two—three, they began. The little solemn, serious crowd strode forth.
Up by the post-office they went, round by the Protestant Church, along down Coffee Lane to where stands the seawall hung with its festoons of red-brown nets. Then through the main street they marched and round again the same route as before.
And ever as they marched, like the band of an army playing the death march at the funeral of their chief, they played the same grim tune—the grimmest tune at such a time I think I have ever heard—“Good-bye, Dolly, I must leave you.” It was the only tune they knew.
After the second round of their journey, the playing ceased while the players gained their breath. In silence then, they tramped over the same ground, the little crowd, eager for the music again, still following at their heels.
When they reached the top of Coffee Lane once more, where the road runs up to meet the Holy Well and wanders from there in a thin straggling path around the wild cliff-heads, there came an elderly woman and a child out of the darkness.
Seven miles they had walked around that dangerous path from the little fishing hamlet of Whiting Bay—seven miles over a way where a goat must choose its steps, where at moments the sheer cliff rushes down four hundred feet to meet the sea—seven miles in that chill darkness with never a lantern’s light to guide their feet—seven miles with hearts throbbing, hope rising and falling, whispering a word to each other now and then, always straining on—seven miles just to learn the truth.
As they came out of the shadows, the woman stopped. The clarionet-player was wetting his lips, fitting his fingers with infinite care upon the notes of his instrument. She caught his arm before he could raise it to his mouth.
“What is ut?” she asked.
“Shure, the Pope’s dead,” he whispered back.
And then, with its one—two—three once more, the band struck up again. The woman and the child stood there silently under a cottage window, the light of the burning candle within making pin-points in their eyes, while in their ears echoed and re-echoed the words, “The Pope is dead,” mingling with the refrain, “Good-bye, Dolly, I must leave you.”

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