Page images
PDF
EPUB

Gossip boasted in the baths and the birds are not so much dramatis persona agora of the untold sums which had as items in a menu. been lavished on the feathered dresses Aristophanes was the very type of of the actors, precisely in the strain the sophisticated literary man who which the “Matin” and the "Figaro" lisped in parodies and sang quotations. have made so dismally familiar. The But it is a primitive tradition which climax, the triumph of the whole amaz- Rostand has revived. He has done ing show was a realistic use of stage with art what the fabulists did thunder, heralded with bombast, and naïvely. The essence of Æsop and his acclaimed in choruses, something ap- spiritual kinsmen in all ages and naparently new and wonderful, an inno. tions is that they were really interested vation in the mechanics of the theatre. in the characterization of their birds But it would be difficult to push the and beasts. These are not men in comparison beyond these externals. masks and skins. They are the felRostand's farmyard, for all its ro- low-creatures whom primitive men obmances and its allegories, is a home of serted and considered with a symparealism. The birds of Aristophanes thy and an interest not yet distorted by were engaged in building a cloud- the arrogance of the rational biped. cuckoo-city. The creatures of the The tradition reappears in all primitive French farmyard are depicted as be- literatures. It revels through some of ings with a separate and autonomous the French fabliaux. It has its modern life of their own. The Greek birds, classic in "Uncle Remus,” where memon the other hand, to borrow the Look- ories of African animism and totemism ing-Glass phrase, are only things in have translated themselves into the lanAristophanes's dream. Their king is a guage of the Christian English-speakhuman prince metamorphosed into a ing negro. The fund of wisdom that hoopoe, and they are, throughout the made these tales must be older by graceful and ingenious farce, only a whole epochs than any literature, older chorus which comments on the doings even than any language which has surof actors who are either human or di- vived. It seems to date from a time vine. The play is by turns a satire on when man, himself a hunter, competed Athenian institutions and a reckless with the larger carnivora in the chase. comedy at the expense of Athenian re. He knew the beasts as formidable eneligion, but a sub-human drama it never mies, whom he did not affect to despise. for a moment is. The chorus may flut- He could not match their strength. He ter its wings and mingle bird-cries with recognized in some of them a cunning its moralizings, but it is, after all, only like his own. He did not disdain to a commentary on human affairs, a ve- wear their skins, and to rob them for bicle for literary satire and political his own adorning. He shared with suggestion. It never had entered the them the fortune of the weather, and brain of Aristophanes to treat his birds faced with them the malice of the seaas creatures interesting in themselves. He had no pride of reason, for His human hero does, indeed, propose he conceived of thought and will as the to lead and organize them for the coer- function of everything which seemed to cion of the earth and the confounding act and move. So far from despising of the gods. But it is of the essence the "brute" beasts, he did not even deof the comedy that he interrupts his spise the inanimate stone. He lived plot to make a savory bird-stew with in a democratic community, with no that peculiarly appetizing sauce which suspicion that any impassable gulf sepHeracles found so irresistible. His arated him from the creatures of in

sons.

stinct. It was in no vein of symbol- sanguine, over all our thinking about ism or allegory that he took this beast the beasts. We do not naively conor the other for the ancestor of his ceive of them, as the first fabulists tribe, consecrated, it as a totem, and must have done, as our equals, our felworshipped it as divine. The primeval lows, if not our ancestors. But they fables of the beasts grew up while this are once more for us the possible perkindly sense of equality still lingered. sons of a drama whose obscure pasThe wolf or the bear which spoke in sions and dim reasonings we can folthe savage tale was not for the original low with a distant sympathy. fabulist an unreasoning beast which he The primitive beast-fable had always consciously personified by a sort of its moral, and Rostand's play is true literary fiction. It was the ancestor of to type. Theirs was the pedestrian wisbis clan, which he venerated with di- dom of daily experience. He has vine honors. The conviction that the taken for his theme a parable which animal is hopelessly inferior to man makes of his poem a profound and must have dawned about the time that moving commentary on life. The Artemis evolved from a bear-totem into critics see in his Chantecler the naa huntress-goddess, accompanied by a tional totem, the Gallic cock. They symbolic bear, while the owl-eyed are proud to recognize and adopt the Athene developed from a bird-totem pathetic megalomania of the bird who into the spirit of wisdom associated imagines that it is his crowing which with a heraldic owl. The memory of commands the dawn. The parable has the stage through which his savage an- certainly its bearing on French history. cestors had passed vanished utterly The Gallic cock began to indulge in this from the traditions of civilized man. conviction under the “Roi Soleil." He His mythology was an elaborate the- was more than ever convinced of it ory, formed to explain the symbols and when his crowing became a democratic ritual which had become, for him, unin- reveillé at the Revolution. Nor was telligible. He even inverted the his- he by any means alone in that convictoric process. The beast totem evolved tion. The woodland birds who flutinto the anthropomorphic god. Mythol- tered to his farmyard were quite of his ogy turned the development upside mind. The birds of darkness and redown, by fairy tales in which the god action fostered his self-esteem by conwas metamorphosed into the beast. spiring against the sun in his person. But in folk-lore and peasant fable the And did not Karl Marx say in 1848 that relies of the kindly consanguinity still it was the crowing of the Gallic cock survived. Nurses told tales of the days which would compel the social revoluwhen the beasts could talk, little guess- tion? It may have been that this and ing that in sober history there really no more than this was what Rostand was a phase when man as yet claimed had in his mind when he traced the for himself no supremacy, and affected grandeur and disillusionment of Channo aloofness. The wheel of thought tecler. But the moral has a wider apin our own day has turned full circle. plication. Chantecler is magnificently Man was never further from the beasts French, but he is also simply human. than when Descartes based a system on This cock who conceives that the sun self-consciousness, and taught in bald, rises at his summons, what is he but literal words that the animals are auto- the human race which saw in its earth mata. The doctrine of evolution has the centre of the universe, made its bridged the gulf once more, and in- gods in its own image, and dreamed scribed the abolitionists' legend, Ab uno that all creation was a design for its own perfection and fulfilment? agreed that Voltaire was the most Chantecler was the author of the French of Frenchmen. It divides the Ptolemaic system; he wrote the “Essay honor to-day between Rostand and on Man"; he composed Paley's “Evi- Anatole France. They say that megadences.” He is the name of every lomania is the national vice. One is prophet and thinker, from the great forced to the conclusion that typical Leibnitz to drunken Christopher Sly, Frenchmen come into the world to prowho conceived of himself and his kind test against the national vice. For the as the centre of the solar system. The moral of "Chantecler" is the moral of disillusionment began with the uncom- “Candide." It is on the disastrous fortable discoveries of one Copernicus; morning when the sun has risen with it was completed by Darwin. And the its usual imperturbable punctuality dehuman Chantecler, his world-romance spite the fact that one has forgotten to over, convinced at last that he is but crow, that one first resolves to cultivate an item and a detail in the goings and one's own garden. What is really comings of the sun, has fluttered back French is not so much the megalomato the positive task of being master in nia as the sanity which follows it. his own farmyard. The world is

The Nation,

THE CROOKED LIMB.

If

On his ride from Pimlico to Bromp- lic school and university; and each unton Charles Fortune met with tokens derstood from the first that on leaving of sincere respect. He had not cut college he must shift for himself. A so good a figure for five-and-twenty sum had been left in trust by an uncle, years. More people acknowledged him enough to educate the three as "Engin an hour or so than had acknowl- lish gentlemen": this money spent, they edged him since he was a very young must make their own way in life. man. Many hats were raised. Charles anything, Charles, the middle of the the shabby was become almost a three, promised best of them. He Charles the splendid. From head to shone a little brighter than his brothtoe he rode brand new. There had ers, first at school, then at college. He been a metamorphosis with him: he was not said to be the genius of the had pupated from the worn-out grub family; that is a danger-signal; but he into a smart chrysalid cased in black could do a little more than his elder or and gold--and perhaps awaited now his younger brother at a little less exerwho knows?—the final change from tion, better in the schools and better in chrysalid to imago, the winged thing. the playing-fields. It was the funeral of Charles Fortune, How came it then that, whilst the and in the coach behind him rode his eldest Fortune after reaching full mantwo brothers, one of whom was very hood never had a serious check on his fortunate on the Stock Exchange and path to success in the City and the the other not less fortunate in Orders. youngest never a 'serious check on his Charles was the crooked limb of the path to preferment in the Church, Fortune tree. The three brothers Charles the middle Fortune went down started absolutely equal in life to all and down in the world as they went outward seeming. They had the usual up and up? Some who knew Charles generous education of their class, pub- Fortune and his brothers well in old

days may set it to the truth that he not only in every member of the Forwas "a better fellow" than either of tune family, but in every member of them. Charles indeed had a loveable every family which has a dangerous way with him. He seemed a trifle flaw-of which families there are more more careless than his brothers; there than Burke and Walford and the othwas an abandon, a touch of gaiety, ers know; but it lies dormant or half about him which they lacked. He did dormant in many members, and somenot cultivate the authorities quite so times even sleeps through whole genersteadily as his brothers did--the young- ations. The Fortune speck slept in est Fortune had kept a grand total of the eldest and the youngest brother, five hundred and forty-six chapels in and awoke in the middle; that seems his three and a half stainless years at the queer, prankish way of heredity, Corpus. Nor did Charles cultivate the the heir. They say you can shut up a best set so steadily as they. The eld- fever germ in a chest of drawers, or est Fortune, a Student at the House, any spot from which light and air are had mixed freely with the best set in shut, and it will live for months Peck, though he had nothing but good therein. But here is a something of looks and good blood to help him there. far subtler poison than that, something The eldest Fortune took Theology in which is shut up for years, lifetimes, his final school and went on to the generations even, in the body of a famStock Exchange; the youngest took fig. ily and yet can keep its full strength. ures and went into Orders; whilst It awoke in Charles Fortune ere he was Charles, the middle, took the Human- five-and-twenty, and by the time that ities for his final school and never went he was fifty it had eaten him up eninto anything. But from these things tire. It grew and grew, like all these one could deduce nothing. What sig family specks, feeding on his vitals, nificance in the unravelling of the tan- draining all the strength of him to itgled skein of fate can there be in a sub- self. ject set at an exam.?

In the end the speck was simply The real, deep, inner reason why Charles Fortune, and Charles Fortune they got on whilst Charles got out had was the speck. nothing to do with his choice of Humanities instead of theirs of Theology The youngest Fortune, the Church and figures, nor with his smaller num- Fortune, read the service, the greatest ber of chapels and smaller circle of men of all the services and the least of all worth knowing. The cause was a tiny the services to man, the sublimest seryspeck, unnamed, mysterious speck, ice, the earthiest. He had so wonderwithin him. It was a family speck. It ful a voice it was almost worth while may be that no member of the Fortune dying to have the service read over one family for centuries had been born by a man like this. Then the two without that speck. If we had the brothers went back in the glittering whole history of the family before us sun of one of those false winter days in true detail, we should notice that that affect the spring; back quicker from time to time, from no clear cause, than they came, according to the cussome Fortune, man or woman, had tom; back lighter or heavier, who gone wrong and under. That is the could say exactly which, the mind even work of the speck, a terrible little thing in the direct successful man of action which skips about among the genera- being so curious-complex in its worktions in a flighty, wicked-seeming way. ing? They went back to the street It may be the speck is actually born, where Charles Fortune had lived se

cluded with the family speck in two Heaven knew what unsuspected indisdark rooms. Petrified Pimlico! Could cretions, follies. But the chest held there be a place fitter for such a man nothing save old bottles, old clothes. as Charles Fortune in decay and death? old envelopes, old odds and ends. The

The youngest Fortune drew from his man had been long past fresh indiscrepocket the key, turned it in the lock, tions and fresh follies. He had got and the brothers went into the sitting into such a deep groove with the old room, which had not been touched since ones that new enterprise was impossiCharles fell sick and took to his bed. ble. The family speck is not fond of If any place is haunted, it must be a novelties. It is a conservative speck. dead man's room left exactly as it was Besides, new enterprise whether in whilst he still moved in it. It is dif- folly or in wisdom implies competition, ferent afterwards. We soon exorcise and Charles Fortune had not competed the spirits, sweep and burn and paint in the least degree for ten years, twenty them out. What spirit could' with- years, gone. He had stood utterly stand a lodging-house keeper keen to apart from the great swirling stream of get a new tenant without delay? There men. He never wanted to get on; is no psychical research about a char- never beat down any poor struggling woman.

fellow-man; never fought for his posiAs the brothers went here and there tion; had no fear for the future. in that dark room, to pry into cupboard With the family speck Charles Forand corner, to draw forth and read old tune lived unspotted from the crass letters that fell out of tattered blotters competition of life. How shameful in or lay strewn in drawers and on dusty Charles—how saintly in Charles! shelves among broken crocks, the Charles' brothers had always worked strange sad years thrilled through well together, and as time went on they them. More dreamlike than a dream seemed to work still better together; the world of the fabled past lit faintly for as the eldest got on in the City he up; and these strong men, each intent took more interest in the Church, and to bide it from the other, were shook. as the youngest got on in the Church The scapegrace of the family was once he took more interest in the City. Both more the darling of the family. All the were men of affairs, organizers. They wounded family pride, the angry had done all they could for the poor shame, that for years Charles Fortune one, housed and clothed and fed him; had caused in his two successful broth- and if they had done no more it was ers, was dead with Charles Fortune. because no more could be done. The They had come to the search half ex- speck had been too mighty. pecting to find some fresh sign of a Both knew the law; and, faithful to misspent life. But all the proofs were its very word, they said that ere anyold enough. Empty bottles of brandy, thing could be done with the estate of of whisky, of rum, of gin, bottles on Charles Fortune, letters of administrathe shelf, under the table, in the cup- tion must be taken out. Is there not a boards-little enough of fresh proof five-hundred-pound fine against him there. How carefully he had kept his who seizes without authority the esempty bottles, corks and all!

tate of the dead? So it was agreed the The youngest Fortune had the bunch youngest Fortune should apply for letof keys. He unlocked a chest, and ters. He for twenty years had acted the two were on their knees to examine guardian--visited Charles regularly six what it held. Here might be some times a year, settled the lodging-house damaging documents, hinting at weekly account out of the money which

« PreviousContinue »