This word—realism—has lost its meaning. So, for that matter, has many another word in the language. Sentiment is one and, as a natural consequence, the word sentimental is another. Realism and sentiment, in fact, have got so shuffled about, for all the world like the King and Queen in a pack of cards that now, instead of sentiment being hand in hand with reality, they have become almost opposed. To express a sentiment is now tantamount to ignoring a reality.
Joseph Surface may be responsible for this. It would not seem unlikely. But wherever the responsibility lies, it is an everlasting pity; no one has had the common politeness to replace or even create a substitute for the thing which they have taken away.
Realism, which now means an expression of things as they happen without any relation to things as they immortally are, is robbed of its true significance. But no word is left in its place. Sentiment, which now means an expression of momentary emotionalism, instead of what one perceives to be true in the highest moments of one’s thoughts, has left a blank in the language which no one seems willing to or capable of filling up.
Now all this is an irreparable loss. How great a loss it is can be seen by the fact that no two people’s terminology is the same when they are discussing a subject wherein these words must be employed. In the space of five minutes both are at cross purposes; in a tangle from which they find it well-nigh impossible to extricate themselves.
I do not for one instant propose to supply here a solution to the difficulty; nor can I coin two words to repair the loss sustained. All I wish to do is to tell a real story, one that happened only a short while ago, to illustrate what seems to me to be realism in comparison with what realism is supposed to be.
Our little servant-girl was married—married to the young man who brought the milk of a morning. The courtship had been going on for some time before I realised the glorious things that were happening. Then, when I was told about it, I used to peep out of my bedroom window. As soon as I heard that cry of his—impossible to write—when he opened the gate and rattled with his can down the area steps, then up I jumped from my bed and lifted the window.
They must have been wonderful moments for Emily, those early mornings when, with heart beating at the sound of his cry, she had run for the big white jug, then dragged out the time lest he should think she had opened the door too eagerly.
Many a time have I seen them down at the bottom of those area steps; she leaning up against the pillar of the door watching him, rapt in admiration, while he filled up the big white jug.
It is a fine thing for you when your little maid has eyes for the milkman. You get a good measure, I can tell you. He would not seem stingy to her for the world. I have seen him dipping his little half-pint measure times and again into the big can as he talked to her and, as she held out the white jug, just trickling it in till our two pints were more than accounted for.
All this went on for weeks together. Emily sang like a lark in the morning when she rose betimes to do her work. The worst of the scrubbing was all finished with and Emily’s hair was tidy long before there came that weird falsetto cry, or the sound of the milk cans rattled down the area steps. Oh, I can assure you, it is an excellent thing when your little maid has eyes for the milkman. She never gets up late of a morning.
And then, at last, with great to-doings in Emily’s home out at Walham Green, they were married. I asked Emily what she would like for a wedding present and she said:
“I’d like one o’ them old brass candlesticks—same as what you ’ave in your study.”
You see Emily had acquired some taste. I call it taste because it is mine. Good or bad, she had acquired it.
“Wouldn’t you prefer silver?” I asked, thinking I knew what silver would mean in Walham Green.
But she only replied:
“No—I like the brass ones—’cos they’re old. I’ve a fancy for old things.”
So a pair of old brass candlesticks was what I gave her. She wrote and thanked me for them. She said they looked just lovely on George’s writing table and that one of these days, when I was passing that way, I ought to go and look at them.
I did pass through Walham Green eventually. It was some months later. She had probably forgotten all about having asked me, but I paid my visit all the same.
For a moment or so, as I stood on the doorstep, I felt a twinge of trepidation. I could not remember her married name. But it was all right. She opened the door herself. Then, as she stood there, with a beaming smile lighting her face from ear to ear, reminding me so well of those early mornings when I used to peep out of my bedroom window and peer into the area below, I saw that soon there would be another little Emily or another perky little George to bring a smile or a cry into the world.
“You’re happy?” said I.
“Oh—sir!” said she.
She showed me up then to the sitting-room where was George’s writing table and the pair of old brass candlesticks. She pointed to the table.
“’E made it ’imself,” she said, not meaning it in explanation; but it did explain the queer shape. “’E made it out of an old box and I covered it with felt. Ain’t it splendid?”
I agreed with my whole heart. Everything was splendid. The whole room might have been made out of an old box. And yet I could see what a joy it was to her. There was her acquired taste in evidence everywhere, but except for my poor pair of candlesticks, everything was imitation. It made no matter. She thought they were really old and liked them immeasurably better than the things I had collected with such care at home.
“Could anything be nicer than this?” said I with real enthusiasm.
“I don’t believe it could, sir,” said she.
And then, in little half-amused, half-curious, half-frightened whispers, she told me how they were going to call the baby after me.
“Supposing it’s a girl,” said I.
No—they had not reckoned on that. When you make up your mind properly to a boy—a boy it is up to the last moment. After that, you forget how you made up your mind, you are so wildly delighted that it is alive at all.
I walked across to the window.
“So you’re radiantly happy,” I said.
“’E’s just wonderful,” she replied; “I thought it couldn’t last at first—but it’s just the same.”
I gazed out of the window—envious, perhaps.
“What does this look on to?” I asked.
“A slaughter-house, sir.”
She said it full of cheerfulness, full of the joy of her own life. I stared and stared out of the window. A slaughter-house! A slaughter-house! and here was a little slip of a woman passing through those trembling hours before the birth of her first child!
Now that is what your realist would call a chance! He would make a fine subject out of that. He would show you the growth of that idea in the woman’s mind. He would picture her drawn to gaze out of that awesome window whenever they dragged the lowing, frightened cattle to their doom. And last of all, with wonderful photographic touches, he would describe for you the birth of a still-born child. Then with a feeling of sickness in the heart of you, you would lay down the story and exclaim, “How real!”
That is what is meant by realism to-day.
Yet somehow or other I prefer my Emily; not because the boy is called after me—but because, whatever he may be called, he is alive, he is well, and he kicks his little legs like wind-mills.
Now that is an immortal truth.
When I was a little boy—younger even than I am now—my father had strict ideas upon Sabbath behaviour. We might read nothing, I remember, but what was true. Now, if you come to think of it, that limits your range of literary entertainment in a terrible way. It drove me to such books as “Little Willie’s Promise—a True Story” or “What Alice Found—Taken from Life.”
One Sunday afternoon, perched high in the mulberry-tree, I was found with a copy of the Saturday’s daily paper. It was smeared with the bloodstains of many mulberries, whose glorious last moments had been with me.
“What have you got there?” asked my father from below.
I told him. It was Sunday. My story at least was true.
“Come down at once!” said he.
I descended, finding many more difficulties to overcome than I had discovered in my ascent.
My father waxed impatient.
“Can’t you get down any quicker than that?” he asked. He had a book on rose-growing in his hand, which, being quite true, he was taking out on that glorious afternoon to read and enjoy in the garden.
With all respect, I told him that I did not want to break my neck and I continued slowly with my laborious descent. When I reached the ground, he eyed me suspiciously.
“How dare you read the paper on Sunday?” he asked.
“I was only reading the police reports,” said I, humbly; “I thought they were true.”
He held out his hand expressively. I timidly put forth mine, thinking he wanted to congratulate me on my taste.
“The paper!” said he, emphatically.
I yielded, without a word.
“Now, if you want to read on Sunday,” said he, “go into the house and learn the Collect for the third Sunday after Trinity. And never let me see a boy of your age reading the paper again.”
“Not on week-days?” said I.
“No, never!” he replied, and, as he walked away, he scanned the Stock Exchange quotations with a stern and unrelenting face.
I do not want to argue about the justice of this, for now that I am a little older, the after effect, though not what my father expected, has proved quite admirable. If the newspaper was not true enough to read on week-days, let alone Sundays, I came to the conclusion that it must be very full of lies indeed. And all this has been very helpful to me ever since. I think of it now as I open my daily paper in the morning, and I thank my father for it from the bottom of my heart. It has saved me a deal of unnecessary credulity.
I remember, too, that all games—all games but chess—were strictly forbidden. That also has left an impression on my mind—an ineffaceable impression about the game of chess. It seems a very stern game to me—a game rigid in its expression of the truth. The King and Queen are always real people, moving—far be it from me to allude to Royalty—in straightened paths; the Queen impulsively, the King in staid dignity, one step at a time. I always behold the Knight as one, erratic and Quixotic in all he does; the Bishop swift and to the point, thereby connecting himself in my mind with the days when the Bishops went out to war and brought the Grace of God with them on to the battlefield, rather than with the Bishops of to-day, who keep the Grace of God at home.
So I think of the game of Chess—the only game we were ever allowed to play on Sunday—the game my father loved so well above all others.
I don’t know what it is about the observance of the Sabbath, but to me it seems a beautiful idea, like a beautiful bell; yet a bell that has been cracked and rings with a strange, false, unmeaning note. No one seems to be able to get the true tone of it. Heaven knows they ring it enough. The Church and such followers of the Church as my father are always pealing its message for the world to hear; yet I wonder how many people detect in it the sound of that discordant note of hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, there is something grand in that conception of One creating a vast universe in six days or six ages—whichever you will—and resting at His ease upon the seventh. Nor is it less grand to work throughout a common week, making a home, and on the Sabbath to cease from labour. The whole world is agreed that that day of rest is needed; but are they to lay down a law that what is rest for one man is rest for another?
If that is the only way they can think of doing it; if that is the only interpretation of the word—rest—which they can find, then, so far as the Sabbath is concerned, we shall be a nation of hypocrites or lawbreakers for the rest of our days. And of the two, may I be one who breaks the law. For, do what you will with it, human nature has reached that development when it insists upon thinking for itself and, one man, thinking it all out most carefully, will declare that a game of chess is not an abomination of the Sabbath, while another will read the police reports in the daily papers because they are true.
Fifty years ago, Charles Kingsley, that strenuous apostle of health, urged that it was better to play cricket on the Green at Eversley than stay at home and be a hypocrite—or a gambler, which is much the same thing. But his was only one honest voice amongst the thousands of others who have preached a very different gospel to that.
Only a short while ago, at a little tennis club in the suburbs of London, there came up before the committee the question as to whether play should not be allowed on Sunday. The club was composed of city clerks, of members of the Stock Exchange, of men labouring the daily round to keep together those homes of which both the Church and the nation are so justly proud.
Every one seemed in favour of it, until the Vicar of the parish rose and said that seeing there was a high fence all round the ground, and that the players would be hidden from the sight of the public at large, he saw no reason why play should not be allowed out of Church hours—that was to say, from two till six.
“But,” said he, “I must most vehemently protest against any playing of the game of croquet.”
A member of the committee, one with a lame leg, who was debarred from tennis, but was known to make his ten hoop break at croquet, asked immediately for the reason of this protest.
“I work all the week in the city,” said he; “I have no other chance for playing except late on Saturday and on Sunday. Why should you prevent croquet?”
“Because,” said the Vicar, “the sound of the croquet balls would reach the ears of people passing by. And what do you imagine they’d think if they heard people playing croquet? I make no objection to tennis because, if played in a gentlemanly way, no one outside need know that a game was going on—but croquet! You must remember we have to consider others as well as ourselves.”
“You think it would make them feel envious?” asked the lame man.
“I mean nothing of the kind,” said the Vicar.
“Then what do you imagine they would think?”
“They would realise that the Sabbath—the day of rest—was being broken.”
“Then we have your consent to break it with tennis,” said the Chairman.
“It seems to me,” said the Vicar, “that this discussion is being carried into the region of absurdity.”
“I quite agree with the Vicar,” said the lame man.