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Chapter 17

Chapter 17


THE THREE BADGERS.

Still more dreamily I found myself following this imperious voice into
a room where the Earl, his daughter, and Arthur, were seated.
"So you're come at last!" said Lady Muriel, in a tone of playful reproach.

"I was delayed," I stammered. Though what it was that had delayed me I
should have been puzzled to explain! Luckily no questions were asked.

The carriage was ordered round, the hamper, containing our contribution
to the Picnic, was duly stowed away, and we set forth.

There was no need for me to maintain the conversation. Lady Muriel and
Arthur were evidently on those most delightful of terms, where one has
no need to check thought after thought, as it rises to the lips, with
the fear 'this will not be appreciated--this will give' offence--
this will sound too serious--this will sound flippant': like very old
friends, in fullest sympathy, their talk rippled on.

"Why shouldn't we desert the Picnic and go in some other direction?"
she suddenly suggested. "A party of four is surely self-sufficing?
And as for food, our hamper--"

"Why shouldn't we? What a genuine lady's argument!" laughed Arthur.
"A lady never knows on which side the onus probandi--the burden of
proving--lies!"

"Do men always know?" she asked with a pretty assumption of meek docility.

"With one exception--the only one I can think of Dr. Watts, who has
asked the senseless question

'Why should I deprive my neighbour
Of his goods against his will?'

Fancy that as an argument for Honesty! His position seems to be 'I'm
only honest because I see no reason to steal.' And the thief's answer
is of course complete and crushing. 'I deprive my neighbour of his
goods because I want them myself. And I do it against his will because
there's no chance of getting him to consent to it!'"

"I can give you one other exception," I said: "an argument I heard only
to-day---and not by a lady. 'Why shouldn't I walk on my own forehead?'"

"What a curious subject for speculation!" said Lady Muriel, turning to me,
with eyes brimming over with laughter. "May we know who propounded
the question? And did he walk on his own forehead?"

"I ca'n't remember who it was that said it!" I faltered. "Nor where I
heard it!"

"Whoever it was, I hope we shall meet him at the Picnic!" said Lady Muriel.
"It's a far more interesting question than 'Isn't this a picturesque ruin?'
Aren't those autumn-tints lovely?' I shall have to answer those two
questions ten times, at least, this afternoon!"

"That's one of the miseries of Society!" said Arthur. "Why ca'n't
people let one enjoy the beauties of Nature without having to say so
every minute? Why should Life be one long Catechism?"

"It's just as bad at a picture-gallery," the Earl remarked.
"I went to the R.A. last May, with a conceited young artist: and he did
torment me! I wouldn't have minded his criticizing the pictures himself:
but I had to agree with him--or else to argue the point, which would have
been worse!"

"It was depreciatory criticism, of course?" said Arthur.

"I don't see the 'of course' at all."

"Why, did you ever know a conceited man dare to praise a picture?
The one thing he dreads (next to not being noticed) is to be proved
fallible! If you once praise a picture, your character for
infallibility hangs by a thread. Suppose it's a figure-picture, and
you venture to say 'draws well.' Somebody measures it, and finds one of
the proportions an eighth of an inch wrong. You are disposed of as a
critic! 'Did you say he draws well?'
your friends enquire sarcastically, while you hang your head and blush.
No. The only safe course, if any one says 'draws well,' is to shrug
your shoulders. 'Draws well?' you repeat thoughtfully. 'Draws well?
Humph!' That's the way to become a great critic!"

Thus airily chatting, after a pleasant drive through a few miles of
beautiful scenery, we reached the rendezvous--a ruined castle--where
the rest of the picnic-party were already assembled. We spent an hour
or two in sauntering about the ruins: gathering at last, by common
consent, into a few random groups, seated on the side of a mound,
which commanded a good view of the old castle and its surroundings.

The momentary silence, that ensued, was promptly taken possession of or,
more correctly, taken into custody--by a Voice; a voice so smooth,
so monotonous, so sonorous, that one felt, with a shudder, that any
other conversation was precluded, and that, unless some desperate
remedy were adopted, we were fated to listen to a Lecture, of which no
man could foresee the end!

The speaker was a broadly-built man, whose large, flat, pale face was
bounded on the North by a fringe of hair, on the East and West by a
fringe of whisker, and on the South by a fringe of beard--the whole
constituting a uniform halo of stubbly whitey-brown bristles. His
features were so entirely destitute of expression that I could not help
saying to myself--helplessly, as if in the clutches of a night-mare--
"they are only penciled in: no final touches as yet!" And he had a way
of ending every sentence with a sudden smile, which spread like a ripple
over that vast blank surface, and was gone in a moment, leaving behind
it such absolute solemnity that I felt impelled to murmur
"it was not he: it was somebody else that smiled!"

"Do you observe?" (such was the phrase with which the wretch began each
sentence) "Do you observe the way in which that broken arch, at the
very top of the ruin, stands out against the clear sky? It is placed
exactly right: and there is exactly enough of it. A little more, or a
little less, and all would be utterly spoiled!"

"Oh gifted architect!" murmured Arthur, inaudibly to all but
Lady Muriel and myself. "Foreseeing the exact effect his work would
have, when in ruins, centuries after his death!"

"And do you observe, where those trees slope down the hill, (indicating
them with a sweep of the hand, and with all the patronising air of the
man who has himself arranged the landscape), "how the mists rising from
the river fill up exactly those intervals where we need indistinctness,
for artistic effect? Here, in the foreground, a few clear touches are
not amiss: but a back-ground without mist, you know! It is simply
barbarous! Yes, we need indistinctness!"

The orator looked so pointedly at me as he uttered these words, that I
felt bound to reply, by murmuring something to the effect that I hardly
felt the need myself--and that I enjoyed looking at a thing, better,
when I could see it.

"Quite so!" the great man sharply took me up. "From your point of
view, that is correctly put. But for anyone who has a soul for Art,
such a view is preposterous. Nature is one thing. Art is another.
Nature shows us the world as it is. But Art--as a Latin author tells
us--Art, you know the words have escaped my memory "Ars est celare
Naturam," Arthur interposed with a delightful promptitude.

"Quite so!" the orator replied with an air of relief. "I thank you!
Ars est celare Naturam but that isn't it." And, for a few peaceful
moments, the orator brooded, frowningly, over the quotation. The
welcome opportunity was seized, and another voice struck into the
silence.

"What a lovely old ruin it is!" cried a young lady in spectacles,
the very embodiment of the March of Mind, looking at Lady Muriel, as the
proper recipient of all really original remarks. "And don't you admire
those autumn-tints on the trees? I do, intensely!"

Lady Muriel shot a meaning glance at me; but replied with admirable
gravity. "Oh yes indeed, indeed! So true!"

"And isn't strange, said the young lady, passing with startling
suddenness from Sentiment to Science, "that the mere impact of certain
coloured rays upon the Retina should give us such exquisite pleasure?"

"You have studied Physiology, then?" a certain young Doctor courteously
enquired.

"Oh, yes! Isn't it a sweet Science?"

Arthur slightly smiled. "It seems a paradox, does it not," he went on,
"that the image formed on the Retina should be inverted?"

"It is puzzling," she candidly admitted. "Why is it we do not see
things upside-down?"

"You have never heard the Theory, then, that the Brain also is
inverted?"

"No indeed! What a beautiful fact! But how is it proved?"

"Thus," replied Arthur, with all the gravity of ten Professors rolled
into one. "What we call the vertex of the Brain is really its base:
and what we call its base is really its vertex: it is simply a question
of nomenclature."

This last polysyllable settled the matter.

"How truly delightful!" the fair Scientist exclaimed with enthusiasm.
"I shall ask our Physiological Lecturer why he never gave us that
exquisite Theory!"

"I'd give something to be present when the question is asked!" Arthur
whispered to me, as, at a signal from Lady Muriel, we moved on to where
the hampers had been collected, and devoted ourselves to the more
substantial business of the day.

We 'waited' on ourselves, as the modern barbarism (combining two good
things in such a way as to secure the discomforts of both and
the advantages of neither) of having a picnic with servants to wait
upon you, had not yet reached this out-of-the-way region--and of course
the gentlemen did not even take their places until the ladies had been
duly provided with all imaginable creature-comforts. Then I supplied
myself with a plate of something solid and a glass of something fluid,
and found a place next to Lady Muriel.

It had been left vacant--apparently for Arthur, as a distinguished
stranger: but he had turned shy, and had placed himself next to the
young lady in spectacles, whose high rasping voice had already cast
loose upon Society such ominous phrases as "Man is a bundle of
Qualities!", "the Objective is only attainable through the Subjective!".
Arthur was bearing it bravely: but several faces wore a look of alarm,
and I thought it high time to start some less metaphysical topic.

"In my nursery days," I began, "when the weather didn't suit for an
out-of-doors picnic, we were allowed to have a peculiar kind, that we
enjoyed hugely. The table cloth was laid under the table, instead of
upon it: we sat round it on the floor: and I believe we really enjoyed
that extremely uncomfortable kind of dinner more than we ever did the
orthodox arrangement!"

"I've no doubt of it," Lady Muriel replied.

"There's nothing a well-regulated child hates so much as regularity.
I believe a really healthy boy would thoroughly enjoy Greek Grammar--
if only he might stand on his head to learn it! And your carpet-dinner
certainly spared you one feature of a picnic, which is to me its chief
drawback."

"The chance of a shower?" I suggested.

"No, the chance--or rather the certainty of live things occurring in
combination with one's food! Spiders are my bugbear. Now my father has
no sympathy with that sentiment--have you, dear?" For the Earl had
caught the word and turned to listen.

"To each his sufferings, all are men," he replied in the sweet sad
tones that seemed natural to him: "each has his pet aversion."

"But you'll never guess his!" Lady Muriel said, with that delicate
silvery laugh that was music to my ears.

I declined to attempt the impossible.

"He doesn't like snakes!" she said, in a stage whisper. "Now, isn't
that an unreasonable aversion? Fancy not liking such a dear, coaxingly,
clingingly affectionate creature as a snake!"

"Not like snakes!" I exclaimed. "Is such a thing possible?"

"No, he doesn't like them," she repeated with a pretty mock-gravity.
"He's not afraid of them, you know. But he doesn't like them.
He says they're too waggly!"

I was more startled than I liked to show. There was something so
uncanny in this echo of the very words I had so lately heard from that
little forest-sprite, that it was only by a great effort I succeeded in
saying, carelessly, "Let us banish so unpleasant a topic. Won't you
sing us something, Lady Muriel? I know you do sing without music."

"The only songs I know--without music--are desperately sentimental,
I'm afraid! Are your tears all ready?"

"Quite ready! Quite ready!" came from all sides, and Lady Muriel--not
being one of those lady-singers who think it de rigueur to decline to
sing till they have been petitioned three or four times, and have
pleaded failure of memory, loss of voice, and other conclusive reasons
for silence--began at once:--

"There be three Badgers on a mossy stone,
Beside a dark and covered way:
Each dreams himself a monarch on his throne,
And so they stay and stay
Though their old Father languishes alone,
They stay, and stay, and stay.

"There be three Herrings loitering around,
Longing to share that mossy seat:
Each Herring tries to sing what she has found
That makes Life seem so sweet.
Thus, with a grating and uncertain sound,
They bleat, and bleat, and bleat,

"The Mother-Herring, on the salt sea-wave,
Sought vainly for her absent ones:
The Father-Badger, writhing in a cave,
Shrieked out ' Return, my sons!
You shalt have buns,' he shrieked,' if you'll behave!
Yea, buns, and buns, and buns!'

"'I fear,' said she, 'your sons have gone astray?
My daughters left me while I slept.'
'Yes 'm,' the Badger said: 'it's as you say.'
'They should be better kept.'
Thus the poor parents talked the time away,
And wept, and wept, and wept."

Here Bruno broke off suddenly. "The Herrings' Song wants anuvver tune,
Sylvie," he said. "And I ca'n't sing it not wizout oo plays it for me!"

Instantly Sylvie seated herself upon a tiny mushroom, that happened
to grow in front of a daisy, as if it were the most ordinary
musical instrument in the world, and played on the petals as if they
were the notes of an organ. And such delicious tiny music it was!
Such teeny-tiny music!

Bruno held his head on one side, and listened very gravely for a few
moments until he had caught the melody. Then the sweet childish voice
rang out once more:--

"Oh, dear beyond our dearest dreams,
Fairer than all that fairest seems!
To feast the rosy hours away,
To revel in a roundelay!
How blest would be
A life so free---
Ipwergis-Pudding to consume,
And drink the subtle Azzigoom!

"And if in other days and hours,
Mid other fluffs and other flowers,
The choice were given me how to dine---
'Name what thou wilt: it shalt be thine!'
Oh, then I see
The life for me
Ipwergis-Pudding to consume,
And drink the subtle Azzigoom!"

"Oo may leave off playing now, Sylvie. I can do the uvver tune much
better wizout a compliment."

"He means 'without accompaniment,'" Sylvie whispered, smiling at my
puzzled look: and she pretended to shut up the stops of the organ.


"The Badgers did not care to talk to Fish:
They did not dote on Herrings' songs:
They never had experienced the dish
To which that name belongs:
And oh, to pinch their tails,' (this was their wish,)
'With tongs, yea, tongs, and tongs!'"

I ought to mention that he marked the parenthesis, in the air, with his
finger. It seemed to me a very good plan. You know there's no sound
to represent it--any more than there is for a question.

Suppose you have said to your friend "You are better to-day," and that
you want him to understand that you are asking him a question, what can
be simpler than just to make a "?". in the air with your finger?
He would understand you in a moment!

"'And are not these the Fish,' the Eldest sighed,
'Whose Mother dwells beneath the foam'
'They are the Fish!' the Second one replied.
'And they have left their home!'
'Oh wicked Fish,' the Youngest Badger cried,
'To roam, yea, roam, and roam!'
"Gently the Badgers trotted to the shore
The sandy shore that fringed the bay:
Each in his mouth a living Herring bore--
Those aged ones waxed gay:
Clear rang their voices through the ocean's roar,
'Hooray, hooray, hooray!'"

"So they all got safe home again," Bruno said, after waiting a minute
to see if I had anything to say: he evidently felt that some remark
ought to be made. And I couldn't help wishing there were some such
rule in Society, at the conclusion of a song--that the singer herself
should say the right thing, and not leave it to the audience. Suppose
a young lady has just been warbling ('with a grating and uncertain sound')
Shelley's exquisite lyric 'I arise from dreams of thee': how much nicer
it would be, instead of your having to say "Oh, thank you, thank you!"
for the young lady herself to remark, as she draws on her gloves,
while the impassioned words 'Oh, press it to thine own, or it will break
at last!' are still ringing in your ears, "--but she wouldn't do it,
you know. So it did break at last."

"And I knew it would!" she added quietly, as I started at the sudden
crash of broken glass. "You've been holding it sideways for the last
minute, and letting all the champagne run out! Were you asleep,
I wonder? I'm so sorry my singing has such a narcotic effect!"