Story type: Essay
I was pacing the Euston platform late one winter’s night, waiting for the last train to Watford, when I noticed a man cursing an automatic machine. Twice he shook his fist at it. I expected every moment to see him strike it. Naturally curious, I drew near softly. I wanted to catch what he was saying. However, he heard my approaching footsteps, and turned on me. “Are you the man,” said he, “who was here just now?”
“Just where?” I replied. I had been pacing up and down the platform for about five minutes.
“Why here, where we are standing,” he snapped out. “Where do you think ‘here’ is–over there?” He seemed irritable.
“I may have passed this spot in the course of my peregrinations, if that is what you mean,” I replied. I spoke with studied politeness; my idea was to rebuke his rudeness.
“I mean,” he answered, “are you the man that spoke to me, just a minute ago?”
“I am not that man,” I said; “good-night.”
“Are you sure?” he persisted.
“One is not likely to forget talking to you,” I retorted.
His tone had been most offensive. “I beg your pardon,” he replied grudgingly. “I thought you looked like the man who spoke to me a minute or so ago.”
I felt mollified; he was the only other man on the platform, and I had a quarter of an hour to wait. “No, it certainly wasn’t me,” I returned genially, but ungrammatically. “Why, did you want him?”
“Yes, I did,” he answered. “I put a penny in the slot here,” he continued, feeling apparently the need of unburdening himself: “wanted a box of matches. I couldn’t get anything put, and I was shaking the machine, and swearing at it, as one does, when there came along a man, about your size, and–you’re SURE it wasn’t you?”
“Positive,” I again ungrammatically replied; “I would tell you if it had been. What did he do?”
“Well, he saw what had happened, or guessed it. He said, ‘They are troublesome things, those machines; they want understanding.’ I said, ‘They want taking up and flinging into the sea, that’s what they want!’ I was feeling mad because I hadn’t a match about me, and I use a lot. He said, ‘They stick sometimes; the thing to do is to put another penny in; the weight of the first penny is not always sufficient. The second penny loosens the drawer and tumbles out itself; so that you get your purchase together with your first penny back again. I have often succeeded that way.’ Well, it seemed a silly explanation, but he talked as if he had been weaned by an automatic machine, and I was sawney enough to listen to him. I dropped in what I thought was another penny. I have just discovered it was a two-shilling piece. The fool was right to a certain extent; I have got something out. I have got this.”
He held it towards me; I looked at it. It was a packet of Everton toffee.
“Two and a penny,” he remarked, bitterly. “I’ll sell it for a third of what it cost me.”
“You have put your money into the wrong machine,” I suggested.
“Well, I know that!” he answered, a little crossly, as it seemed to me–he was not a nice man: had there been any one else to talk to I should have left him. “It isn’t losing the money I mind so much; it’s getting this damn thing, that annoys me. If I could find that idiot Id ram it down his throat.”
We walked to the end of the platform, side by side, in silence.
“There are people like that,” he broke out, as we turned, “people who will go about, giving advice. I’ll be getting six months over one of them, I’m always afraid. I remember a pony I had once.” (I judged the man to be a small farmer; he talked in a wurzelly tone. I don’t know if you understand what I mean, but an atmosphere of wurzels was the thing that somehow he suggested.) “It was a thoroughbred Welsh pony, as sound a little beast as ever stepped. I’d had him out to grass all the winter, and one day in the early spring I thought I’d take him for a run. I had to go to Amersham on business. I put him into the cart, and drove him across; it is just ten miles from my place. He was a bit uppish, and had lathered himself pretty freely by the time we reached the town.
“A man was at the door of the hotel. He says, ‘That’s a good pony of yours.’
“‘Pretty middling,’ I says.
“‘It doesn’t do to over-drive ’em, when they’re young,’ he says.
“I says, ‘He’s done ten miles, and I’ve done most of the pulling. I reckon I’m a jolly sight more exhausted than he is.
“I went inside and did my business, and when I came out the man was still there. ‘Going back up the hill?’ he says to me.
“Somehow, I didn’t cotton to him from the beginning. ‘Well, I’ve got to get the other side of it,’ I says, ‘and unless you know any patent way of getting over a hill without going up it, I reckon I am.’
“He says, ‘You take my advice: give him a pint of old ale before you start.’
“‘Old ale,’ I says; ‘why he’s a teetotaler.’
“‘Never you mind that,’ he answers; ‘you give him a pint of old ale. I know these ponies; he’s a good ‘un, but he ain’t set. A pint of old ale, and he’ll take you up that hill like a cable tramway, and not hurt himself.’
“I don’t know what it is about this class of man. One asks oneself afterwards why one didn’t knock his hat over his eyes and run his head into the nearest horse-trough. But at the time one listens to them. I got a pint of old ale in a hand-bowl, and brought it out. About half-a-dozen chaps were standing round, and of course there was a good deal of chaff.
“‘You’re starting him on the downward course, Jim,’ says one of them. ‘He’ll take to gambling, rob a bank, and murder his mother. That’s always the result of a glass of ale, ‘cording to the tracts.’
“‘He won’t drink it like that,’ says another; ‘it’s as flat as ditch water. Put a head on it for him.’
“‘Ain’t you got a cigar for him?’ says a third.
“‘A cup of coffee and a round of buttered toast would do him a sight more good, a cold day like this,’ says a fourth.
“I’d half a mind then to throw the stuff away, or drink it myself; it seemed a piece of bally nonsense, giving good ale to a four-year-old pony; but the moment the beggar smelt the bowl he reached out his head, and lapped it up as though he’d been a Christian; and I jumped into the cart and started off, amid cheers. We got up the hill pretty steady. Then the liquor began to work into his head. I’ve taken home a drunken man more than once and there’s pleasanter jobs than that. I’ve seen a drunken woman, and they’re worse. But a drunken Welsh pony I never want to have anything more to do with so long as I live. Having four legs he managed to hold himself up; but as to guiding himself, he couldn’t; and as for letting me do it, he wouldn’t. First we were one side of the road, and then we were the other. When we were not either side, we were crossways in the middle. I heard a bicycle bell behind me, but I dared not turn my head. All I could do was to shout to the fellow to keep where he was.
“‘I want to pass you,’ he sang out, so soon as he was near enough.
“‘Well, you can’t do it,’ I called back.
“‘Why can’t I?’ he answered. ‘How much of the road do YOU want?’
“‘All of it and a bit over,’ I answered him, ‘for this job, and nothing in the way.’
“He followed me for half-a-mile, abusing me; and every time he thought he saw a chance he tried to pass me. But the pony was always a bit too smart for him. You might have thought the brute was doing it on purpose.
“‘You’re not fit to be driving,’ he shouted. He was quite right; I wasn’t. I was feeling just about dead beat.
“‘What do you think you are?’ he continued, ‘the charge of the Light Brigade?’ (He was a common sort of fellow.) ‘Who sent YOU home with the washing?’
“Well, he was making me wild by this time. ‘What’s the good of talking to me?’ I shouted back. ‘Come and blackguard the pony if you want to blackguard anybody. I’ve got all I can do without the help of that alarm clock of yours. Go away, you’re only making him worse.’
“‘What’s the matter with the pony?’ he called out.
“‘Can’t you see?’ I answered. ‘He’s drunk.’
“Well, of course it sounded foolish; the truth often does.
“‘One of you’s drunk,’ he retorted; ‘for two pins I’d come and haul you out of the cart.’
“I wish to goodness he had; I’d have given something to be out of that cart. But he didn’t have the chance. At that moment the pony gave a sudden swerve; and I take it he must have been a bit too close. I heard a yell and a curse, and at the same instant I was splashed from head to foot with ditch water. Then the brute bolted. A man was coming along, asleep on the top of a cart-load of windsor chairs. It’s disgraceful the way those wagoners go to sleep; I wonder there are not more accidents. I don’t think he ever knew what had happened to him. I couldn’t look round to see what became of him; I only saw him start. Half-way down the hill a policeman holla’d to me to stop. I heard him shouting out something about furious driving. Half-a-mile this side of Chesham we came upon a girls’ school walking two and two–a ‘crocodile’ they call it, I think. I bet you those girls are still talking about it. It must have taken the old woman a good hour to collect them together again.
“It was market-day in Chesham; and I guess there has not been a busier market-day in Chesham before or since. We went through the town at about thirty miles an hour. I’ve never seen Chesham so lively–it’s a sleepy hole as a rule. A mile outside the town I sighted the High Wycombe coach. I didn’t feel I minded much; I had got to that pass when it didn’t seem to matter to me what happened; I only felt curious. A dozen yards off the coach the pony stopped dead; that jerked me off the seat to the bottom of the cart. I couldn’t get up, because the seat was on top of me. I could see nothing but the sky, and occasionally the head of the pony, when he stood upon his hind legs. But I could hear what the driver of the coach said, and I judged he was having trouble also.
“‘Take that damn circus out of the road,’ he shouted. If he’d had any sense he’d have seen how helpless I was. I could hear his cattle plunging about; they are like that, horses–if they see one fool, then they all want to be fools.
“‘Take it home, and tie it up to its organ,’ shouted the guard.
“Then an old woman went into hysterics, and began laughing like an hyena. That started the pony off again, and, as far as I could calculate by watching the clouds, we did about another four miles at the gallop. Then he thought he’d try to jump a gate, and finding, I suppose, that the cart hampered him, he started kicking it to pieces. I’d never have thought a cart could have been separated into so many pieces, if I hadn’t seen it done. When he had got rid of everything but half a wheel and the splashboard he bolted again. I remained behind with the other ruins, and glad I was to get a little rest. He came back later in the afternoon, and I was pleased to sell him the next week for a five-pound-note: it cost me about another ten to repair myself.
“To this day I am chaffed about that pony, and the local temperance society made a lecture out of me. That’s what comes of following advice.”
I sympathized with him. I have suffered from advice myself. I have a friend, a City man, whom I meet occasionally. One of his most ardent passions in life is to make my fortune. He button-holes me in Threadneedle Street. “The very man I wanted to see,” he says; “I’m going to let you in for a good thing. We are getting up a little syndicate.” He is for ever “getting up” a little syndicate, and for every hundred pounds you put into it you take a thousand out. Had I gone into all his little syndicates, I could have been worth at the present moment, I reckon, two million five hundred thousand pounds. But I have not gone into all his little syndicates. I went into one, years ago, when I was younger. I am still in it; my friend is confident that my holding, later on, will yield me thousands. Being, however, hard-up for ready money, I am willing to part with my share to any deserving person at a genuine reduction, upon a cash basis. Another friend of mine knows another man who is “in the know” as regards racing matters. I suppose most people possess a friend of this type. He is generally very popular just before a race, and extremely unpopular immediately afterwards. A third benefactor of mine is an enthusiast upon the subject of diet. One day he brought me something in a packet, and pressed it into my hand with the air of a man who is relieving you of all your troubles.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Open it and see,” he answered, in the tone of a pantomime fairy.
I opened it and looked, but I was no wiser.
“It’s tea,” he explained.
“Oh!” I replied; “I was wondering if it could be snuff.”
“Well, it’s not exactly tea,” he continued, “it’s a sort of tea. You take one cup of that–one cup, and you will never care for any other kind of tea again.”
He was quite right, I took one cup. After drinking it I felt I didn’t care for any other tea. I felt I didn’t care for anything, except to die quietly and inoffensively. He called on me a week later.
“You remember that tea I gave you?” he said.
“Distinctly,” I answered; “I’ve got the taste of it in my mouth now.”
“Did it upset you?” he asked.
“It annoyed me at the time,” I answered; “but that’s all over now.”
He seemed thoughtful. “You were quite correct,” he answered; “it WAS snuff, a very special snuff, sent me all the way from India.”
“I can’t say I liked it,” I replied.
“A stupid mistake of mine,” he went on–“I must have mixed up the packets!”
“Oh, accidents will happen,” I said, “and you won’t make another mistake, I feel sure; so far as I am concerned.”
We can all give advice. I had the honour once of serving an old gentleman whose profession it was to give legal advice, and excellent legal advice he always gave. In common with most men who know the law, he had little respect for it. I have heard him say to a would-be litigant–
“My dear sir, if a villain stopped me in the street and demanded of me my watch and chain, I should refuse to give it to him. If he thereupon said, ‘Then I shall take it from you by brute force,’ I should, old as I am, I feel convinced, reply to him, ‘Come on.’ But if, on the other hand, he were to say to me, ‘Very well, then I shall take proceedings against you in the Court of Queen’s Bench to compel you to give it up to me,’ I should at once take it from my pocket, press it into his hand, and beg of him to say no more about the matter. And I should consider I was getting off cheaply.”
Yet that same old gentleman went to law himself with his next-door neighbour over a dead poll parrot that wasn’t worth sixpence to anybody, and spent from first to last a hundred pounds, if he spent a penny.
“I know I’m a fool,” he confessed. “I have no positive proof that it WAS his cat; but I’ll make him pay for calling me an Old Bailey Attorney, hanged if I don’t!”
We all know how the pudding OUGHT to be made. We do not profess to be able to make it: that is not our business. Our business is to criticize the cook. It seems our business to criticize so many things that it is not our business to do. We are all critics nowadays. I have my opinion of you, Reader, and you possibly have your own opinion of me. I do not seek to know it; personally, I prefer the man who says what he has to say of me behind my back. I remember, when on a lecturing tour, the ground-plan of the hall often necessitated my mingling with the audience as they streamed out. This never happened but I would overhear somebody in front of me whisper to his or her companion–“Take care, he’s just behind you.” I always felt so grateful to that whisperer.
At a Bohemian Club, I was once drinking coffee with a Novelist, who happened to be a broad-shouldered, athletic man. A fellow-member, joining us, said to the Novelist, “I have just finished that last book of yours; I’ll tell you my candid opinion of it.” Promptly replied the Novelist, “I give you fair warning–if you do, I shall punch your head.” We never heard that candid opinion.
Most of our leisure time we spend sneering at one another. It is a wonder, going about as we do with our noses so high in the air, we do not walk off this little round world into space, all of us. The Masses sneer at the Classes. The morals of the Classes are shocking. If only the Classes would consent as a body to be taught behaviour by a Committee of the Masses, how very much better it would be for them. If only the Classes would neglect their own interests and devote themselves to the welfare of the Masses, the Masses would be more pleased with them.
The Classes sneer at the Masses. If only the Masses would follow the advice given them by the Classes; if only they would be thrifty on their ten shillings a week; if only they would all be teetotalers, or drink old claret, which is not intoxicating; if only all the girls would be domestic servants on five pounds a year, and not waste their money on feathers; if only the men would be content to work for fourteen hours a day, and to sing in tune, “God bless the Squire and his relations,” and would consent to be kept in their proper stations, all things would go swimmingly–for the Classes.
The New Woman pooh-poohs the Old; the Old Woman is indignant with the New. The Chapel denounces the Stage; the Stage ridicules Little Bethel; the Minor Poet sneers at the world; the world laughs at the Minor Poet.
Man criticizes Woman. We are not altogether pleased with woman. We discuss her shortcomings, we advise her for her good. If only English wives would dress as French wives, talk as American wives, cook as German wives! if only women would be precisely what we want them to be–patient and hard-working, brilliantly witty and exhaustively domestic, bewitching, amenable, and less suspicious; how very much better it would be for them–also for us. We work so hard to teach them, but they will not listen. Instead of paying attention to our wise counsel, the tiresome creatures are wasting their time criticizing us. It is a popular game, this game of school. All that is needful is a doorstep, a cane, and six other children. The difficulty is the six other children. Every child wants to be the schoolmaster; they will keep jumping up, saying it is their turn.
Woman wants to take the stick now, and put man on the doorstep. There are one or two things she has got to say to him. He is not at all the man she approves of. He must begin by getting rid of all his natural desires and propensities; that done, she will take him in hand and make of him–not a man, but something very much superior.
It would be the best of all possible worlds if everybody would only follow our advice. I wonder, would Jerusalem have been the cleanly city it is reported, if, instead of troubling himself concerning his own twopenny-halfpenny doorstep, each citizen had gone out into the road and given eloquent lectures to all the other inhabitants on the subject of sanitation?
We have taken to criticizing the Creator Himself of late. The world is wrong, we are wrong. If only He had taken our advice, during those first six days!
Why do I seem to have been scooped out and filled up with lead? Why do I hate the smell of bacon, and feel that nobody cares for me? It is because champagne and lobsters have been made wrong.
Why do Edwin and Angelina quarrel? It is because Edwin has been given a fine, high-spirited nature that will not brook contradiction; while Angelina, poor girl, has been cursed with contradictory instincts.
Why is excellent Mr. Jones brought down next door to beggary? Mr. Jones had an income of a thousand a year, secured by the Funds. But there came along a wicked Company promoter (why are wicked Company promoters permitted?) with a prospectus, telling good Mr. Jones how to obtain a hundred per cent. for his money by investing it in some scheme for the swindling of Mr. Jones’s fellow-citizens.
The scheme does not succeed; the people swindled turn out, contrary to the promise of the prospectus, to be Mr. Jones and his fellow-investors. Why does Heaven allow these wrongs?
Why does Mrs. Brown leave her husband and children, to run off with the New Doctor? It is because an ill-advised Creator has given Mrs. Brown and the New Doctor unduly strong emotions. Neither Mrs. Brown nor the New Doctor are to be blamed. If any human being be answerable it is, probably, Mrs. Brown’s grandfather, or some early ancestor of the New Doctor’s.
We shall criticize Heaven when we get there. I doubt if any of us will be pleased with the arrangements; we have grown so exceedingly critical.
It was once said of a very superior young man that he seemed to be under the impression that God Almighty had made the universe chiefly to hear what he would say about it. Consciously or unconsciously, most of us are of this way of thinking. It is an age of mutual improvement societies–a delightful idea, everybody’s business being to improve everybody else; of amateur parliaments, of literary councils, of playgoers’ clubs.
First Night criticism seems to have died out of late, the Student of the Drama having come to the conclusion, possibly, that plays are not worth criticizing. But in my young days we were very earnest at this work. We went to the play, less with the selfish desire of enjoying our evening, than with the noble aim of elevating the Stage. Maybe we did good, maybe we were needed–let us think so. Certain it is, many of the old absurdities have disappeared from the Theatre, and our rough-and-ready criticism may have helped the happy dispatch. A folly is often served by an unwise remedy.
The dramatist in those days had to reckon with his audience. Gallery and Pit took an interest in his work such as Galleries and Pits no longer take. I recollect witnessing the production of a very blood-curdling melodrama at, I think, the old Queen’s Theatre. The heroine had been given by the author a quite unnecessary amount of conversation, so we considered. The woman, whenever she appeared on the stage, talked by the yard; she could not do a simple little thing like cursing the Villain under about twenty lines. When the hero asked her if she loved him she stood up and made a speech about it that lasted three minutes by the watch. One dreaded to see her open her mouth. In the Third Act, somebody got hold of her and shut her up in a dungeon. He was not a nice man, speaking generally, but we felt he was the man for the situation, and the house cheered him to the echo. We flattered ourselves we had got rid of her for the rest of the evening. Then some fool of a turnkey came along, and she appealed to him, through the grating, to let her out for a few minutes. The turnkey, a good but soft-hearted man, hesitated.
“Don’t you do it,” shouted one earnest Student of the Drama, from the Gallery; “she’s all right. Keep her there!”
The old idiot paid no attention to our advice; he argued the matter to himself. “‘Tis but a trifling request,” he remarked; “and it will make her happy.”
“Yes, but what about us?” replied the same voice from the Gallery. “You don’t know her. You’ve only just come on; we’ve been listening to her all the evening. She’s quiet now, you let her be.”
“Oh, let me out, if only for one moment!” shrieked the poor woman. “I have something that I must say to my child.”
“Write it on a bit of paper, and pass it out,” suggested a voice from the Pit. “We’ll see that he gets it.”
“Shall I keep a mother from her dying child?” mused the turnkey. “No, it would be inhuman.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” persisted the voice of the Pit; “not in this instance. It’s too much talk that has made the poor child ill.”
The turnkey would not be guided by us. He opened the cell door amidst the execrations of the whole house. She talked to her child for about five minutes, at the end of which time it died.
“Ah, he is dead!” shrieked the distressed parent.
“Lucky beggar!” was the unsympathetic rejoinder of the house.
Sometimes the criticism of the audience would take the form of remarks, addressed by one gentleman to another. We had been listening one night to a play in which action seemed to be unnecessarily subordinated to dialogue, and somewhat poor dialogue at that. Suddenly, across the wearying talk from the stage, came the stentorian whisper–
“Wake me up when the play begins.”
This was followed by an ostentatious sound as of snoring. Then the voice of the second speaker was heard–
His friend appeared to awake.
“Eh? Yes? What’s up? Has anything happened?”
“Wake you up at half-past eleven in any event, I suppose?”
“Thanks, do, sonny.” And the critic slept again.
Yes, we took an interest in our plays then. I wonder shall I ever enjoy the British Drama again as I enjoyed it in those days? Shall I ever enjoy a supper again as I enjoyed the tripe and onions washed down with bitter beer at the bar of the old Albion? I have tried many suppers after the theatre since then, and some, when friends have been in generous mood, have been expensive and elaborate. The cook may have come from Paris, his portrait may be in the illustrated papers, his salary may be reckoned by hundreds; but there is something wrong with his art, for all that, I miss a flavour in his meats. There is a sauce lacking.
Nature has her coinage, and demands payment in her own currency. At Nature’s shop it is you yourself must pay. Your unearned increment, your inherited fortune, your luck, are not legal tenders across her counter.
You want a good appetite. Nature is quite willing to supply you. “Certainly, sir,” she replies, “I can do you a very excellent article indeed. I have here a real genuine hunger and thirst that will make your meal a delight to you. You shall eat heartily and with zest, and you shall rise from the table refreshed, invigorated, and cheerful.”
“Just the very thing I want,” exclaims the gourmet delightedly. “Tell me the price.”
“The price,” answers Mrs. Nature, “is one long day’s hard work.”
The customer’s face falls; he handles nervously his heavy purse.
“Cannot I pay for it in money?” he asks. “I don’t like work, but I am a rich man, I can afford to keep French cooks, to purchase old wines.”
Nature shakes her head.
“I cannot take your cheques, tissue and nerve are my charges. For these I can give you an appetite that will make a rump-steak and a tankard of ale more delicious to you than any dinner that the greatest chef in Europe could put before you. I can even promise you that a hunk of bread and cheese shall be a banquet to you; but you must pay my price in my money; I do not deal in yours.”
And next the Dilettante enters, demanding a taste for Art and Literature, and this also Nature is quite prepared to supply.
“I can give you true delight in all these things,” she answers. “Music shall be as wings to you, lifting you above the turmoil of the world. Through Art you shall catch a glimpse of Truth. Along the pleasant paths of Literature you shall walk as beside still waters.”
“And your charge?” cries the delighted customer.
“These things are somewhat expensive,” replies Nature. “I want from you a life lived simply, free from all desire of worldly success, a life from which passion has been lived out; a life to which appetite has been subdued.”
“But you mistake, my dear lady,” replies the Dilettante; “I have many friends, possessed of taste, and they are men who do not pay this price for it. Their houses are full of beautiful pictures, they rave about ‘nocturnes’ and ‘symphonies,’ their shelves are packed with first editions. Yet they are men of luxury and wealth and fashion. They trouble much concerning the making of money, and Society is their heaven. Cannot I be as one of these?”
“I do not deal in the tricks of apes,” answers Nature coldly; “the culture of these friends of yours is a mere pose, a fashion of the hour, their talk mere parrot chatter. Yes, you can purchase such culture as this, and pretty cheaply, but a passion for skittles would be of more service to you, and bring you more genuine enjoyment. My goods are of a different class. I fear we waste each other’s time.”
And next comes the boy, asking with a blush for love, and Nature’s motherly old heart goes out to him, for it is an article she loves to sell, and she loves those who come to purchase it of her. So she leans across the counter, smiling, and tells him that she has the very thing he wants, and he, trembling with excitement, likewise asks the figure.
“It costs a good deal,” explains Nature, but in no discouraging tone; “it is the most expensive thing in all my shop.”
“I am rich,” replies the lad. “My father worked hard and saved, and he has left me all his wealth. I have stocks and shares, and lands and factories; and will pay any price in reason for this thing.”
But Nature, looking graver, lays her hand upon his arm.
“Put by your purse, boy,” she says, “my price is not a price in reason, nor is gold the metal that I deal in. There are many shops in various streets where your bank-notes will be accepted. But if you will take an old woman’s advice, you will not go to them. The thing they will sell you will bring sorrow and do evil to you. It is cheap enough, but, like all things cheap, it is not worth the buying. No man purchases it, only the fool.”
“And what is the cost of the thing YOU sell then?” asks the lad.
“Self-forgetfulness, tenderness, strength,” answers the old Dame; “the love of all things that are of good repute, the hate of all things evil–courage, sympathy, self-respect, these things purchase love. Put by your purse, lad, it will serve you in other ways, but it will not buy for you the goods upon my shelves.”
“Then am I no better off than the poor man?” demands the lad.
“I know not wealth or poverty as you understand it,” answers Nature. “Here I exchange realities only for realities. You ask for my treasures, I ask for your brain and heart in exchange–yours, boy, not your father’s, not another’s.”
“And this price,” he argues, “how shall I obtain it?”
“Go about the world,” replies the great Lady. “Labour, suffer, help. Come back to me when you have earned your wages, and according to how much you bring me so we will do business.”
Is real wealth so unevenly distributed as we think? Is not Fate the true Socialist? Who is the rich man, who the poor? Do we know? Does even the man himself know? Are we not striving for the shadow, missing the substance? Take life at its highest; which was the happier man, rich Solomon or poor Socrates? Solomon seems to have had most things that most men most desire–maybe too much of some for his own comfort. Socrates had little beyond what he carried about with him, but that was a good deal. According to our scales, Solomon should have been one of the happiest men that ever lived, Socrates one of the most wretched. But was it so?
Or taking life at its lowest, with pleasure its only goal. Is my lord Tom Noddy, in the stalls, so very much jollier than ‘Arry in the gallery? Were beer ten shillings the bottle, and champagne fourpence a quart, which, think you, we should clamour for? If every West End Club had its skittle alley, and billiards could only be played in East End pubs, which game, my lord, would you select? Is the air of Berkeley Square so much more joy-giving than the atmosphere of Seven Dials? I find myself a piquancy in the air of Seven Dials, missing from Berkeley Square. Is there so vast a difference between horse-hair and straw, when you are tired? Is happiness multiplied by the number of rooms in one’s house? Are Lady Ermintrude’s lips so very much sweeter than Sally’s of the Alley? What IS success in life?