English Literature

Lore of Proserpine by Maurice Hewlett

Lore of Proserpine by Maurice Hewlett.jpg



You will remember that Socrates considers every soul of us to be at least three persons. He says, in a fine figure, that we are two horses and a charioteer. “The right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only. The other is a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes of blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.” I need not go on to examine with the philosopher the acts of this pair under the whip and spur of love, because I am not going to talk about love. For my present purpose I shall suggest another dichotomy. I will liken the soul itself of man to a house, divided according[2] to the modern fashion into three flats or apartments. Of these the second floor is occupied by the landlord, who wishes to be quiet, and is not, it seems, afraid of fire; the ground-floor by a business man who would like to marry, but doubts if he can afford it, goes to the city every day, looks in at his club of an afternoon, dines out a good deal, and spends at least a month of the year at Dieppe, Harrogate, or one of the German spas. He is a pleasant-faced man, as I see him, neatly dressed, brushed, anointed, polished at the extremities—for his boots vie with his hair in this particular. If he has a fault it is that of jingling half-crowns in his trouser-pocket; but he works hard for them, pays his rent with them, and gives one occasionally to a nephew. That youth, at any rate, likes the cheerful sound. He is rather fond, too, of monopolising the front of the fire in company, and thinks more of what he is going to eat, some time before he eats it, than a man should. But really I can’t accuse him of anything worse than such little weaknesses. The first floor is occupied by a person of whom very little is known, who goes out chiefly at night and is hardly ever seen during the day. Tradesmen, and the crossing-sweeper at the corner, have caught a glimpse on rare occasions of a white face at the window, the startled face of a queer creature, who blinks and wrings at his nails with his[3] teeth; who peers at you, jerks and grins; who seems uncertain what to do; who sometimes shoots out his hands as if he would drive them through the glass: altogether a mischancy, unaccountable apparition, probably mad. Nobody knows how long he has been here; for the landlord found him in possession when he bought the lease, and the ground-floor, who was here also, fancies that they came together, but can’t be sure. There he is, anyhow, and without an open scandal one doesn’t like to give him notice. A curious thing about the man is that neither landlord nor ground-floor will admit acquaintance with him to each other, although, if the truth were known, each of them knows something—for each of them has been through his door; and I will answer for one of them, at least, that he has accompanied the Undesirable upon more than one midnight excursion, and has enjoyed himself enormously. If you could get either of these two alone in a confidential mood you might learn some curious particulars of their coy neighbour; and not the least curious would be the effect of his changing the glass of the first floor windows. It seems that he had that done directly he got into his rooms, saying that it was impossible to see out of such windows, and that a man must have light. Where he got his glass from, by whom it was fitted, I can’t tell you, but the effect of it is[4] most extraordinary. The only summary account I feel able to give of it at the moment is that it transforms the world upon which it opens. You look out upon a new earth, literally that. The trees are not trees at all, but slim grey persons, young men, young women, who stand there quivering with life, like a row of Caryatides—on duty, but tiptoe for a flight, as Keats says. You see life, as it were, rippling up their limbs; for though they appear to be clothed, their clothing is of so thin a texture, and clings so closely that they might as well not be clothed at all. They are eyed, they see intensely; they look at each other so closely that you know what they would be doing. You can see them love each other as you watch. As for the people in the street, the real men and real women, as we say, I hardly know how to tell you what they look like through the first floor’s windows. They are changed of everything but one thing. They occupy the places, fill the standing-room of our neighbours and friends; there is a something about them all by which you recognise them—a trick of the hand, a motion of the body, a set of the head (God knows what it is, how little and how much); but for all that—a new creature! A thing like nothing that lives by bread! Now just look at that policeman at the corner, for instance; not only is he stark naked—everybody is like that—but he’s[5] perfectly different from the sturdy, good-humoured, red-faced, puzzled man you and I know. He is thin, woefully thin, and his ears are long and perpetually twitching. He pricks them up at the least thing; or lays them suddenly back, and we see them trembling. His eyes look all ways and sometimes nothing but the white is to be seen. He has a tail, too, long and leathery, which is always curling about to get hold of something. Now it will be the lamp-post, now the square railings, now one of those breathing trees; but mostly it is one of his own legs. Yet if you consider him carefully you will agree with me that his tail is a more expressive remnant of the man you have always seen there than any other part of him. You may say, and truly, that it is the only recognisable thing left. What do you think of his feet and hands? They startled me at first; they are so long and narrow, so bony and pointed, covered with fine short hair which shines like satin. That way he has of arching his feet and driving his toes into the pavement delights me. And see, too, that his hands are undistinguishable from feet: they are just as long and satiny. He is fond of smoothing his face with them; he brings them both up to his ears and works them forward like slow fans. Transformation indeed. I defy you to recognise him for the same man—except for a faint reminiscence about his tail.[6]

But all’s of a piece. The crossing-sweeper now has shaggy legs which end in hoofs. His way of looking at young people is very unpleasant;—and one had always thought him such a kindly old man. The butcher’s boy—what a torso!—is walking with his arm round the waist of the young lady in Number seven. These are lovers, you see; but it’s mostly on her side. He tilts up her chin and gives her a kiss before he goes; and she stands looking after him with shining eyes, hoping that he will turn round before he gets to the corner. But he doesn’t.

Wait, now, wait, wait—who is this lovely, straining, beating creature darting here and there about the square, bruising herself, poor beautiful thing, against the railings? A sylph, a caught fairy? Surely, surely, I know somebody—is it?—It can’t be. That careworn lady? God in Heaven, is it she? Enough! Show me no more. I will show you no more, my dear sir, if it agitates you; but I confess that I have come to regard it as one of the most interesting spectacles in London. The mere information—to say nothing of the amusement—which I have derived from it would fill a volume; but if it did, I may add, I myself should undoubtedly fill a cell in Holloway. I will therefore spare you what I know about the Doctor’s wife, and what happens to Lieutenant-Colonel Storter when I see him through[7] these windows—I could never have believed it unless I had seen it. These things are not done, I know; but observed in this medium they seem quite ordinary. Lastly—for I can’t go through the catalogue—I will speak of the air as I see it from here. My dear sir, the air is alive, thronged with life. Spirits, forms, lovely immaterial diaphanous shapes, are weaving endless patterns over the face of the day. They shine like salmon at a weir, or they darken the sky as redwings in the autumn fields; they circle, shrieking as they flash, like swallows at evening; they battle and wrangle together; or they join hands and whirl about the square in an endless chain. Of their beauty, their grace of form and movement, of the shifting filmy colour, hue blending in hue, of their swiftness, their glancing eyes, their exuberant joy or grief I cannot now speak. Beside them one man may well seem rat, and another goat. Beside them, indeed, you look for nothing else. And if I go on to hint that the owner of these windows is of them, though imprisoned in my house; that he does at times join them in their streaming flights beyond the housetops, and does at times carry with him his half-bewildered, half-shocked and wholly delighted fellow lodgers, I have come to the end of my tether and your credulity, and, for the time at least, have flowered myself to death. The figure is as good[8] as Plato’s though my Pegasus will never stable in his stall.

We may believe ourselves to be two persons, at least, in one, and I fancy that one at least of them is a constant. So far as my own pair is concerned, either one of them has never grown up at all, or he was born whole and in a flash, as the fairies are. Such as he was, at any rate, when I was ten years old, such he is now when I am heavily more than ten; and the other of us, very conscious of the flight of time and of other things with it, is free to confess that he has little more hold of his fellow with all this authority behind him than he had when we commenced partnership. He has some, and thinks himself lucky, since the bond between the pair is of such a nature as to involve a real partnership—a partnership full of perplexity to the working member of it, the ordinary forensic creature of senses, passions, ambitions, and self-indulgences, the eating, sleeping, vainglorious, assertive male of common experience—and it is not to be denied that it has been fruitful, nor again that by some freak of fate or fortune the house has kept a decent front to the world at large. It is still solvent, still favourably regarded by the police. It is not, it never will be, a mere cage of demons; its walls have not been fretted to trans[9]parency; no passing eye can detect revelry behind its decent stucco; no passing ear thrill to cries out of the dark. No, no. Troubles we may have; but we keep up appearances. The heart knoweth its own bitterness, and if it be a wise one, keepeth it to itself. I am not going to be so foolish as to deny divergences of opinion, even of practice, between the pair in me; but I flatter myself that I have not allowed them to become a common nuisance, a cause of scandal, a stumbling-block, a rock of offence, or anything of that kind. Uneasy tenant, wayward partner as my recondite may be, he has had a relationship with my forensic which at times has touched cordiality. Influential he has not been, for his colleague has always had the upper hand and been in the public eye. He may have instigated to mischief, but has not often been allowed to complete his purpose. If I am a respectable person it is not his fault. He seeks no man’s respect. If he has occasionally lent himself to moral ends, it has been without enthusiasm, for he has no morals of his own, and never did have any. On the other hand, he is by nature too indifferent to temporal circumstances to go about to corrupt his partner. His main desire has ever been to be let alone. Anything which tended to tighten the bonds which held him to his co-tenant would have been a thing to avoid. He[10] desires liberty, and nothing less will content him. This he will only have by inaction, by mewing his sempiternal youth in his cage and on his perch.

But the tie uniting the pair of us is of such a nature that neither can be uninfluenced by the other. It is just that you should hear both sides of the case. My forensic, eating and arguing self has bullied my other into hypocrisy over and over again. He has starved him, deprived him of his holidays, ignored him, ridiculed him, snubbed him mercilessly. This is severe treatment, you’ll allow, and it’s worse even than it seems. For the unconscionable fellow, owing to this coheirship which he pretends to disesteem, has been made privy to experiences which must not only have been extraordinary to so plain and humdrum a person, but which have been, as I happen to know, of great importance to him, and which—to put the thing at its highest—have lifted him, dull dog as he is, into regions where the very dogs have wings. Out upon it! But he has been in and out with his victim over leagues of space where not one man in ten thousand has been privileged to fare. He has been familiar all his life with scenes, with folk, with deeds undreamed of by thirty-nine and three-quarters out of forty millions of people, and by that quarter-million only known as nursery tales. Not only so, but he has been awakened to the signifi[11]cance of common things, having at hand an interpreter, and been enabled to be precise where Wordsworth was vague. He has known Zeus in the thunder, in the lightning beheld the shaking of the dread Ægis. In the river source he has seen the breasted nymph; he has seen the Oreads stream over the bare hillside. There are men who see these things and don’t believe them, others who believe but don’t see. He has both seen and believed. The painted, figured universe has for him a new shape; whispering winds and falling rain speak plainly to his understanding. He has seen trees as men walking. His helot has unlocked the world behind appearance and made him free of the Spirits of Natural Fact who abide there. If he is not the debtor of his comrade—and he protests the debt—he should be. But the rascal laps it all up, as a cat porridge, without so much as a wag of the tail for Thank-you. Such are the exorbitant overlords in mortal men, who pass for reputable persons, with a chief seat at feasts.

Such things, you may say, read incredibly, but, mutatis mutandis, I believe them to be common, though unrecorded, experience. I deprecate in advance questions designed to test the accuracy of my eyesight or the ingenuous habit of my pen. I have already declared that the windows of my first-floor[12] lodger are of such properties that they show you, in Xenophon’s phrase, τὰ ὄντα τε ὡϛ ὄντα, και τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡϛ οὐκ ὄνγα. Now consider it from his side. If I were to tell the owner of those windows that I saw the policeman at the corner, a helmeted, blue-tunicked, chin-scratching, ponderous man, some six foot in his boots, how would he take it? Would he not mock me? What, that rat? Ridiculous! And what on earth could I reply? I tell you, the whole affair is one of windows, or, sometimes, of personally-conducted travel; and who is Guide and who Guided, is one of those nice questions in psychology which perhaps we are not yet ready to handle. Of the many speculations as to the nature of the subliminal Self I have never found one to be that he may be a fairy prisoner, occasionally on parole. But I think that not at all unlikely. May not metempsychosis be a scourge of two worlds? If the soul of my grandam might fitly inhabit a bird, might not a Fairy ruefully inhabit the person of my grandam? If Fairy Godmothers, perchance, were Fairy Grandmothers! I have some evidence to place before the reader which may induce him to consider this hypothesis. Who can doubt, at least, that Shelley’s was not a case where the not-human was a prisoner in the human? Who can doubt that of Blake’s? And what was the result, forensically?[13] Shelley was treated as a scoundrel and Blake as a madman. Shelley, it was said, broke the moral law, and Blake transcended common sense; but the first, I reply, was in the guidance of a being to whom the laws of this world and the accidents of it meant nothing at all; and to the second a wisdom stood revealed which to human eyes was foolishness. Windows! In either case there was a martyrdom, and human exasperation appeased by much broken glass. Let us not, however, condemn the wreckers of windows. Who is to judge even them? Who is to say even of their harsh and cruel reprisals that they were not excusable? May not they too have been ridden by some wild spirit within them, which goaded them to their beastly work? But if the acceptance of the doctrine of multiple personality is going to involve me in the reconsideration of criminal jurisprudence, I must close this essay.

I will close it with the sentence of another philosopher who has considered deeply of these questions. “It is to be observed,” he says, “that the laws of human conduct are precisely made for the conduct of this world of Men, in which we live, breed, and pay rent. They do not affect the Kingdom of the Dogs, nor that of the Fishes; by a parity of reasoning they need not be supposed to obtain in[14] the Kingdom of Heaven, in which the schoolmen discovered the citizens dwelling in nine spheres, apart from the blessed immigrants, whose privileges did not extend so near to the Heart of the Presence. How many realms there may be between mankind’s and that ultimate object of pure desire cannot at present be known, but it may be affirmed with confidence that any denizen of any one of them, brought into relation with human beings, would act, and reasonably act, in ways which to men might seem harsh and unconscionable, without sanction or convenience. Such a being might murder one of the ratepayers of London, compound a felony, or enter into a conspiracy to depose the King himself, and, being detected, very properly be put under restraint, or visited with chastisement, either deterrent or vindictive, or both. But the true inference from the premises would be that although duress or banishment from the kingdom might be essential, yet punishment, so-called, ought not to be visited upon the offender. For he or she could not be nostri juris, and that which were abominable to us might well be reasonable to him or her, and indeed a fulfilment of the law of his being. Punishment, therefore, could not be exemplary, since the person punished exemplified nothing to Mankind; and if vindictive, then would be shocking, since that which is vindi[15]cated, in the mind of the victim either did not exist, or ought not. The Ancient Greek who withheld from the sacrifice to Showery Zeus because a thunder-bolt destroyed his hayrick, or the Egyptian who manumitted his slaves because a God took the life of his eldest son, was neither a pious, nor a reasonable person.”

There is much debatable matter in this considered opinion.


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