The Tragedy Of Washington Square by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

One of our favorite amusements at lunch-time is to walk down to Henry Rosa’s pastry shop, and buy a slab of cinnamon bun. Then we walk round Washington Square, musing, and gradually walking round and engulfing the cinnamon bun at the same time. It is surprising what a large circumference those buns of Henry’s have. By the time we have gnashed our way through one of those warm and mystic phenomena we don’t want to eat again for a month.

The real reason for the cinnamon bun is to fortify us for the contemplation and onslaught upon a tragic problem that Washington Square presents to our pondering soul.

Washington Square is a delightful place. There are trees there, and publishing houses and warm green grass and a fire engine station. There are children playing about on the broad pavements that criss-cross the sward; there is a fine roof of blue sky, kept from falling down by the enormous building at the north side of the Square. But these things present no problems. To our simple philosophy a tree is a vegetable, a child is an animal, a building is a mineral and this classification needs no further scrutiny or analysis. But there is one thing in Washington Square that embodies an intellectual problem, a grappling of the soul, a matter for continual anguish and decision.

On the west side of the Square is the Swiss consulate, and, it is this that weighs upon our brooding spirit. How many times we have paused before that quiet little house and gazed upon the little red cross, a Maltese Cross, or a Cross of St. Hieronymus; or whatever the heraldic term is, that represents and symbolizes the diplomatic and spiritual presence of the Swiss republic. We have stood there and thought about William Tell and the Berne Convention and the St. Gothard Tunnel and St. Bernard dogs and winter sports and alpenstocks and edelweiss and the Jungfrau and all the other trappings and trappists that make Switzerland notable. We have mused upon the Swiss military system, which is so perfect that it has never had to be tested by war; and we have wondered what is the name of the President of Switzerland and how he keeps it out of the papers so successfully. One day we lugged an encyclopedia and the Statesman’s Year Book out to the Square with us and sat down on a bench facing the consulate and read up about the Swiss cabinet and the national bank of Switzerland and her child labor problems. Accidentally we discovered the name of the Swiss President, but as he has kept it so dark we are not going to give away his secret.

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Our dilemma is quite simple. Where there is a consulate there must be a consul, and it seems to us a dreadful thing that inside that building there lurks a Swiss envoy who does not know that we, here, we who are walking round the Square with our mouth full of Henry Rosa’s bun, once spent a night in Switzerland. We want him to know that; we think he ought to know it; we think it is part of his diplomatic duty to know it. And yet how can we burst in on him and tell him that apparently irrelevant piece of information?

We have thought of various ways of breaking it to him, or should we say breaking him to it?

Should we rush in and say the Swiss national debt is $—-, or —- kopecks, and then lead on to other topics such as the comparative heights of mountain peaks, letting the consul gradually grasp the fact that we have been in Switzerland? Or should we call him up on the telephone and make a mysterious appointment with him, when we could blurt it out brutally?

We are a modest and diffident man, and this little problem, which would be so trifling to many, presents inscrutable hardships to us.

Another aspect of the matter is this. We think the consul ought to know that we spent one night in Switzerland once; we think he ought to know what we were doing that night; but we also think he ought to know just why it was that we spent only one night in his beautiful country. We don’t want him to think we hurried away because we were annoyed by anything, or because the national debt was so many rupees or piasters, or because child labor in Switzerland is—-. It is the thought that the consul and all his staff are in total ignorance of our existence that galls us. Here we are, walking round and round the Square, bursting with information and enthusiasm about Swiss republicanism, and the consul never heard of us. How can we summon up courage enough to tell him the truth? That is the tragedy of Washington Square.

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It was a dark, rainy night when we bicycled into Basel. We hid been riding all day long, coming down from the dark clefts of the Black Forest, and we and our knapsack were wet through. We had been bicycling for six weeks with no more luggage than a rucksack could hold. We never saw such rain as fell that day we slithered and sloshed on the rugged slopes that tumble down to the Rhine at Basel. (The annual rainfall in Switzerland is—-.) When we got to the little hotel at Basel we sat in the dining room with water running off us in trickles, until the head waiter glared. And so all we saw of Switzerland was the interior of the tobacconist’s where we tried, unsuccessfully, to get some English baccy. Then he went to bed while our garments were dried. We stayed in bed for ten hours, reading, fairy tales and smoking and answering modestly through the transom when any one asked us questions.

The next morning we overhauled our wardrobe. We will not particularize, but we decided that one change of duds, after six weeks’ bicycling, was not enough of a wardrobe to face the Jungfrau and the national debt and the child-labor problenm, not to speak of the anonymous President and the other sights that matter (such as the Matterhorn). Also, our stock of tobacco had run out, and German or French tobacco we simply cannot smoke. Even if we could get along on substitute fumigants the issue of garments was imperative. The nearest place where we could get any clothes of the kind that we are accustomed to, the kind of clothes that are familiarly symbolized by three well-known initials, was London. And the only way we had to get to London was on our bicycle. We thought we had better get busy. It’s a long bike ride from Basel to London. So we just went as far as the Basel Cathedral, so as not to seem too unappreciative of all the treasures that Switzerland had been saving for us for countless centuries; then we got on board our patient steed and trundled off through Alsace.

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That was in August, 1912, and we firmly intended to go back to Switzerland the next year to have another look at, the rainfall and the rest of the statistics and status quos. But the opportunity has not come.

So that is why we wander disconsolately about Washington Square, trying to make up our mind to unburden our bosom to the Swiss consul and tell him the worst. But how can one go and interrupt a consul to tell him that sort of thing? Perhaps he wouldn’t understand it at all; he would misunderstand our pathetic little story and be angry that we took up his time. He wouldn’t think that a shortage of tobacco and clothing was a sufficient excuse for slighting William Tell and the Jungfrau. He wouldn’t appreciate the frustrated emotion and longing with which we watch the little red cross at his front door, and think of all it means to us and all it might have meant.

We took another turn around Washington Square, trying to embolden ourself enough to go in and tell the consul all this. And then our heart failed us. We decided to write a piece for the paper about it, and if the consul ever sees it he will be generous and understand. He will know why, behind the humble facade of his consulate on Washington Square, we see the heaven-piercing summits of Switzerland rising like a dream, blue and silvery and tantalizing.

P.S. Since the above we have definitely decided not to go to call on the Swiss consul. Suppose he were only a vice-consul, a Philadelphia Swiss, who had never been to Switzerland in his life!

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