It was explained to me the other day, the meaning of this elusive little word of three letters. All my pre-conceived opinions were dashed to the ground and, in the space of half an hour, I was taught the modern appreciation of the meaning of that word—Art.
It chanced I wanted a copy of that picture by Furze, “Diana of the Uplands”—Furze whom the gods loved or envied, I don’t know which. I wanted a copy of it to hang in my bedroom in a little farmhouse in the country. I wanted to hang it near my bed so that when I woke of a morning, I could start straight away across the Uplands, feeling the generous give of the heather beneath my feet, tasting the freshening draught of wind in my nostrils, taking into my limbs the energy of those hounds ever ready to strain away from their leash and leave their mistress a speck upon a dim horizon.
It chanced that I wanted all that—which is not a little. But these are the real good things of life which are so seldom bought because they are so cheap. A small print-seller’s in Regent Street was good enough for me.
I walked in. On the threshold I was met by a little serving-maid with a chubby red face and a brand-new green apron.
“Yes?” said she.
It opened the conversation excellently.
“I want a coloured print of ‘Diana of the Uplands,’” said I.
She hurried to a portfolio and began turning over coloured prints at an incredible speed. Before she had found it, she looked up.
“Will you have it plain?” she asked, “or with a B.A.M.?”
“A B.A.M.?” said I. I could not describe to you the effect of those three mysterious letters. It sounded almost improper. “You ought not to say things like that to me,” I continued solemnly. “Supposing I said that you were a V.P.G.”
She became at a loss between confusion and amusement.
“I forgot,” she said, apologetically. “I’m new here, and that’s what we call them. It means British Art Mount.”
At that moment there came another serving-maid in a green apron.
“What is it you want, sir?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m being attended to, thank you,” I replied.
“Yes, but this young lady’s new to the shop,” she said; “she’s not quite used to serving yet.”
“She’s doing very well indeed,” said I. “She’s already nearly persuaded me to buy a thing I don’t want—a thing I don’t even know the meaning of.”
The little girl with the chubby cheeks wriggled her shoulders with delight.
“I asked him if he wanted a B.A.M.,” she explained.
The other looked quite shocked.
“You know I’ve told you not to say that,” she said. “You’d better go up to Miss Nelson, she wants you upstairs.”
The little maid departed. I was left with her more elderly and more experienced sister in trade. In a moment she had discovered the picture in question and had laid it out for my approval. I did approve; and then she asked me if I wanted it framed.
“If you do framing here, I shall be very glad,” said I.
“Then what sort of frame would you like?” she asked.
I hesitated. I was trying to see it in my mind’s eye on that bedroom wall; see it when the sun was pouring in through the open window; when the rain was pattering against the panes, and the sky was grey. Therefore, while I made up my mind—just, perhaps, to conceal from her the fact that I could be in doubt about such a matter—I asked her what she would suggest.
She drew herself up, conscious of the state of importance which she had attained with my question.
“Well,” she said, and her head hung thoughtfully on one side—“that depends on what room it’s for. Is it for the dining-room or the drawing-room?”
Now what possessed me, I do not know; but when I thought of that little farmhouse in the valley between the Uplands, the words dining-room and drawing-room sounded ridiculous. There is just a sitting-room—and a small sitting-room—that is all. This dining-room and drawing-room seemed nonsensical, and what with one thing and another it put me in a nonsensical mood.
“’Tis for the cook’s bedroom,” said I.
If only you had seen her face! It fell like a stone over a cliff and, what is more, it never seemed to reach the bottom of that expression of bewilderment.
“Oh,” she replied—“I see. Well, then, I’m sure I couldn’t advise you. Tastes differ—don’t they?”
“So I’ve heard,” said I. “But I wish you would advise me, all the same. I’m quite ignorant about these things. I’m only a farmer. I’ve just come up to London for the day and I’ve been given this commission for—well, she’s more than the cook—she’s the housekeeper. She didn’t tell me anything about the frame. What frame would you suggest? I thought a nice rosewood one; but you know much better about these sort of things than I do.”
“A rosewood one won’t be bad,” said she, in a quaint little tone of voice that gently patronised me. “A rosewood one’ll do,” she repeated; “but it’s not Art.”
That phrase had an electrical sound to me; and when I say electrical, I mean, beside the shock of it, something which neither you nor I nor any of us understand.
“Why isn’t it Art?” I asked quickly. “You mustn’t think me foolish,” I added, “but really I suppose I’m what you call a country bumpkin; I know nothing about these things. Why isn’t it Art?”
“Just——it isn’t,” she replied, and she took down a sample of black moulding and a sample of gold; then she laid a sample of rosewood on one side of the picture. “There,” she said, “that’s your cook’s taste.” She did not quite like to call it mine. Then she laid the other two samples on the other sides of the print—“and that’s Art.”
I looked at the picture, then I looked at her. Then I looked back at the picture again.
“But how do you know it’s Art?” said I.
She pulled herself up still straighter and she answered, with all the confidence in the world—
“Because I’ve been taught—that’s why. Because I’ve been educated to it. I haven’t spent five years here amongst all these pictures without learning what’s Art and what isn’t.”
“And now you know?” said I.
She nodded her head heavily with wisdom.
“But are you sure you’ve been taught right?” I went on. “How are you to know that the people who taught you knew?”
“’Cos they’ve been in the business all their lives,” she replied. “’Cos they’ve found out what the public like and they give it to them. It’s like one person learning music on a grand piano and another learning music on a cheap cottage piano. Do you mean to tell me that the one as learns on the grand piano isn’t going to be a better musician than the one as learns on the cottage?”
“It’s more likely that they’d be a better judge of pianos,” said I.
She told me I was talking silly and which frame would I have.
“I’m trying not to talk silly,” I assured her. “I mean every word I say, only I haven’t been educated as you have. You must remember that, and make allowances. I only said that about the piano because I knew a lady who had a satinwood Blüthner grand piano, and she never played on it from one day to another, so that she did not even know what a good piano was, and much less did she know about music.”
“I wish she’d give it to me,” said the little serving-maid.
“I wish she would,” said I; “then perhaps you’d admit that there was something in what I said, after all. But, joking aside, if you’ve been taught what is Art and what isn’t, couldn’t you teach me? I love the country. I think the fields of corn that grow up on my land every year are beautiful. And when I see them getting ripe and being gathered, then going out to feed the whole world—you here in the cities, who don’t know the gold of a ripening field of corn—every single one of you, all fed from those wonderful fields that have waves like the sea when the winds blow across them—things like that I know about—things like that I appreciate.”
“Oh—well—that’s Nature,” said she. “We were talking about Art. Art’s holdin’ the mirror up to Nature—see.”
“Then what’s the matter with the mirror?” I asked.
“The mirror of Art?”
“Why there’s nothing the matter with it.”
“Well—I don’t know,” said I, “but it seems to me as if so many people have been taught to look into it, that it has become dulled with their breath and won’t reflect anything now.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“I don’t believe I know myself,” I replied. “I haven’t been taught like you have.”
“Well—which frame would you like?” she asked a little testily.
“I’m afraid my housekeeper’ll be annoyed if I don’t take the rosewood one,” said I.
THE VALUE OF IDLENESS
THE VALUE OF IDLENESS
THE VALUE OF IDLENESS
“If you want to be quiet,” said my friend, “you had better go and sit up in the old mill.”
I acquiesced at once.
“Just give me a table and a chair,” said I. “I shall be quite comfortable.”
“Are you going to write?” he asked.
I nodded my head.
“The Value of Idleness.”
“You’ll do that well,” said he, and he told the gardener to take up to the mill all that I required.
So here am I, writing the Value of Idleness in the little oak-beamed loft of an old mill.
To do nothing is to be receptive of everything. Idleness of the body alone will serve you not at all. It is only when the mind—but to follow the mood, to understand the drift of this philosophy of idleness, you must see, as I see it, this old white mill in which I sit and write.
Last night, as we walked out in the garden, the moon was in her chariot, whirling in a mad race through the heavens. In and out of a thousand clouds she rode recklessly.
She carries news, thought I, and were she the daughter of Nimshi, she could not drive more furiously.
And there, under her shifting light, with great arms raised appealingly into the wind, stood the old wind-mill, just at the end of the little red-brick path which runs through an avenue of gnarled apple trees.
I touched my friend’s arm and pointed.
“She’s very beautiful,” said I.
“She’s very old,” said he.
Then I suddenly saw in her the figure of a patient woman, who has given up her youth, appealing with passionate arms to God to grant her rest. Another moment and there came a faint moaning sigh falling upon my ears—a sigh like the fluttering of an autumn leaf that eddies slowly to the ground.
“What is that?” I asked.
“The wind-mill,” said my friend. “She’s crying to be set free, to have her arms unloosed.”
As he said that, I saw her as a tired woman no longer. She became majestic in her agony then. So it seemed to me must the women in Siberia cry at night with faces turned, and hands stretched forth towards their native Russia.
“How long has she been idle?” I inquired.
“Oh—many, many years,” said he.
It was this which made me think of writing the Value of Idleness. So here am I, writing my essay on Idleness in the little oak-beamed loft of an old mill.
You cannot think how silent it is. I feel away and above the world. From the wee square window between the beams I can see the miller’s cottage with its broad sloping roof of old red tiles, leaning down until it nearly touches the ground. But beyond that, on one side, stretches the whole weald of Kent and, on the other, lie the Romney marshes spreading forth to meet the sea. And there is the sea—that faint, far margin of blue—a chaplet upon the smooth, broad forehead of the world.
Yet silent and still as it all is, I can nevertheless hear voices. Upon the great oak shaft, the tireless vertebra of this goddess of the wind, there are two initials carved by some patient hand. L.B. are the letters cut, and following them comes the date—1790. There is a voice to be heard from that, if you do but listen well. I can see one of those young millers who, when never a leaf was rustling on the trees and the air was still in a breathless calm, I can see him sitting there in a moment of idleness, carving out his initials and the date in deep, bold characters. Then saying aloud to himself, “Maybe there’ll be some as’ll read that in a hundred years, and wonder who be I.”
I can hear the incisions of his knife as he cut into the stern hard oak, the little silences, the little grunts of his breath as he laboured over each letter. No—for all its stillness, there are voices in this old mill. Up the oak ladder that leads through the ceiling to another floor I can just see the great heavy wheel that turned the shaft. It is grey even now with the dust of flour and, as its sharp teeth gleam down at me out of the darkness, the echoes of those rumbling sounds when the wind was high and the sails were racing round, comes faintly to my ears like thunder afar off.
So here am I, in the midst of these silent voices of the mill—here am I, writing an essay on the Value of Idleness.
“Idleness of the body,” I had begun, “will serve you not at all. It is only when the mind is yielding to the drug of laziness as well, that your ears are attuned to the silent voices and you can speak——”
What was that?
A sudden clatter, a beating of sudden wings around my head!
Only a bat. I watch it as it circles round the old loft. The evening is beginning to fall; I see the cows being driven home along the road. A soft greyness is wrapping its fine web about the world and this little creature is venturing forth from its hiding-place before the day is yet quite dead.
What a wonderful house to live in—this old, old mill! I scarcely wonder at the beauty and simplicity of the “Lettres de mon Moulin” as I sit here with the upper half of the creaking door wide open, and the far hills stretching out to sleep as the night draws round about them.
But now, as the grey light grows deeper and twilight hangs upon a frail thread ere it drops into the lap of darkness; now, as though it were a herald of the night to come, a wind springs up across the land. I hear it as its first whispers begin to tell their secrets in the corners and the crevices. Yet it whispers not for long. Soon, with a loud, insistent voice, it is crying its importunate passion to the mill. But she is chained. The fetters cling unmercifully to her arms. She cannot move. Again and again the wind envelops her in its embrace, but she makes no answer to its passion. Only now and again there comes her faint, despairing cry—the cry of a woman in pain—the cry of a woman in prison. I feel so sorely tempted to set her free, just to see her great generous arms sweeping in a joyous abandonment of life before the wind she loves so well.
And here am I, in this old, old silent mill, writing an essay on the Value of Idleness.
Night is on the verge now. The words run into one another upon the paper. It is so dark that my pen wanders from the faint ruled line and sets out on its own account across the dim grey page.
At last comes the voice of my friend far below.
“Have you finished your idleness yet?”
“It’s finished,” say I with a sense of loss of the moments that have been mine—mine and this dear, sad woman’s in prison. I bolt the doors and come down.
“Come and read it to me now,” says he.
And I read it all.
* * * * *
“But there’s nothing about idleness,” he said. “Where’s the Value of Idleness?”
“Here,” said I, and I threw the papers across to him. “It’s all Idleness. To do nothing is to be receptive of everything. I’ve been doing nothing.”
THE SPIRIT OF COMPETITION
THE SPIRIT OF COMPETITION
THE SPIRIT OF COMPETITION
Not a few are there to applaud this spirit of competition, this modern endeavour to do things well, not because they are worth doing, but from the desire to do them better than other people.
Yet it is a canker that eats its way into the heart of everything. Bellwattle, in her happiest mood of distinction, would call it one of the laws of God. But whether it be a law of God or of Nature; whether, in fact, it be a law at all and not simply one of these fungoid growths of civilisation, it is a deceptive matter whichever way you look at it.
You would imagine, whether you were Jesuit or not, that the end would justify the means in such a question as this. You might believe that, so long as the thing were done well, it would matter little, if at all, the motive which prompted its well-doing. Yet this is just where the subtle poison of it lurks. For it is not of necessity doing a thing well, to do it better than any one else. The moment you begin to work like this, you create a false standard, lowering the value of everything you do. It is not the spirit of charity to give more than your next door neighbour. That is the spirit of competition. The spirit of charity it is to give the last penny you can spare. The widow’s mite is charity. The millionaire’s thousand is bombast.
But this confusion of terms—this confusion of motives is so growing into the language we speak that words, which once were so priceless, are become like weapons worn out and blunted. There is but little edge left to any words now. They will cut nothing.
And so this spirit of competition is a fetish to-day. We do not speak of having done a thing as well as we can do it, but of having done it better than this man or that.
“I bet you,” says the actor, “I could play that part better than the man who plays it now.”
“Do you mean to tell me,” says the politician, “that the speech I made last Friday wasn’t as good as Disraeli at his best?”
“That last book of mine,” says the writer, “was nearly as good as ‘The Old Curiosity Shop.’ I think myself that the death-scene was better in a way.”
Ah! but if we only did say these things aloud, instead of thinking them in silence. For ’tis only in silence now—as they would understand it in Ireland—that we say what we really mean.
So is it that there creeps this spirit of working by comparison into the soul and tissue of everything we do. Yet you would think, would you not, that the Church had kept herself free of it? But the Church is more eaten away with the spirit of competition than is many a humble labourer, driven to earn his living wage by making his work better than the rest.
Take this story for what it is worth; apply it as you will. It has only one meaning for me.
In Ireland, they call the wandering beggars, who live an itinerant existence, living from one town to another—they call them tinkers. A certain tinker woman, then, came into the city of Cork. Down one of the quays, seeking the scraps that fall in these places, dragging three wretched children at the frayed hem of her skirt, she was seen by a Protestant vicar.
Shifting one bare foot behind the other, she bobbed him a curtesy.
“For the love an’ honour av God, yeer riv’rance, give a poor ’ooman a copper, that the Almighty blessin’s av God may discind on ye, yeer riv’rance. Oh, sure, God Almighty give ye grace.”
The Vicar stopped.
“Where do you come from?” he asked.
“I’m after walkin’ all the ways from Macroon, yeer riv’rance—an’ I in me feet.”
She held up a bare blistered foot, at the sight of which the Vicar shudderingly closed his eyes.
“Where’s your husband?” he inquired.
“Me husband, yeer riv’rance? Shure, glory be, I haven’t had a sight or a sound av him these two years. ’Twas the day Ginnet’s circus was in Dingarvin, an’ he along wid ’em clanin’ the horses, and faith that was the last I saw av him, good or bad. I’m thinkin’ he’s gone foreign—he has indeed.”
“Why don’t you go to a priest? He’s the person to help you—not me. I’m a Protestant clergyman.”
“Shure, I know that yeer riv’rance—an’ why would I be goin’ to a preyst, an’ I wid me three little children here—the poor darlin’s—they’ve had divil a bit to eat this whole day.”
The competitive instincts of the Vicar cried aloud with a resonant voice in his ear.
“Do you mean to say they haven’t been brought up in the Roman Catholic Church?” he asked quickly.
“They have not indeed. Shure, what good would that be doin’ them?”
“Haven’t they been baptised at all into any Church?”
“They have not.”
The Vicar felt in his pocket and produced a sixpence.
“Get them something to eat,” said he, “and then come and see me. I shudder when I think they haven’t been baptised. Have you?”
“I was when I was a child,” said she, “but I haven’t been to Mass these fifteen years. Glory be to God, what’ud I be doin’ at Mass when I might be gettin’ charity from a grand gintleman like yeerself?”
“My poor woman,” said the Vicar, “it was Christ’s wish that we should help the poor. I’m thinking, too, of the hereafter of those poor little children of yours. What hope of salvation do you think there is for them if they have never been baptised?”
“If ’tis as difficult in this world as it is to get a bite or a sup, ’tis a hard thing indeed. But what good would I be getting to baptise ’em?”
“If you let them come to my church and be baptised, I’ll see that you won’t be forgotten.”
“Will yeer riv’rance give me something the way I cud be goin’ on with?”
“I will, of course.”
“An’ how much?”
“I’ll give you five shillings, my poor woman. You can get a week’s lodging and food with that.”
“Oh—shure I’d want five shillings for each wan of them,” she replied quickly.
The Vicar paused. The tone of this bargaining jarred upon his ears; but yet, as he thought of it—three little souls saved—three little souls caught from the grasp of the Roman Church—three more names upon his baptismal register. And only fifteen shillings! It was money nobly spent, honourably set aside for the great interest and reward hereafter.
“I’ll give you fifteen shillings,” said he, “if you bring them to the church to-morrow morning to be baptised.”
She clasped her hands in ecstasy.
“May the Almighty God give ye the blessings of his Holy Name, and may all the saints be wid ye in the hour of need. Faith, I niver met a finer Christian or a grander gintleman in all me life.”
She caught her children round her and told them the great things that were in store for them. With a warm feeling that the day had not passed in vain, the Vicar hurried away.
Directly he was out of sight, the woman made her way to the presbytery of the first Roman Catholic church she could find.
“I want to see the preyst,” said she, when they opened the door to her knocking.
They looked at her ragged clothes. It was with difficulty that she gained an audience.
“Go round into the chapel,” they said, “and Father —— will be with you in a minute.”
She plunged quickly into her story directly he came.
“Indeed, he was a nice gintleman,” she concluded, “and ’twas fifteen shillings he offered me if I’d bring the three of them to the church to-morrow morning.”
She gazed down at them and they gazed up at her. In some vague way they realised that they were under discussion. Their little mouths were open in wonder.
“’Tis a disgraceful thing, indeed!” said the priest in wrath, “to think ye’d go and sell the souls of yeer own children to one of those Protestant fellas who’d only be too glad the way they could be counting three more names in their Church. I’m ashamed of ye—I am indeed! If I give ye twelve shillings now, will ye bring them here to me?”
“Oh—glory be to God, Father—shure that’s only four shillings for each wan of the pore t’ings. I thought ’twas the way ye’d have offered me a poond at least to save the pore creatures the way they wouldn’t be havin’ their souls damned.”
“Yeer a disgraceful woman,” said he, “to barter the souls of yeer children like that. I’ll give ye seventeen shillings, and I won’t give ye a penny more.”
She clasped her hands again and the tears rolled down her cheeks.
“The blessing av God and av the Blessed Mother be wid ye,” she cried. “Ye’ve saved the souls of three pore creatures this blessed day.”