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The Hypothetical Householder

We have read of some celebrated philosopher who was so absent-minded that
he paid a call at his own house. My own absent-mindedness is extreme, and
my philosophy, of course, is the marvel of men and angels. But I never
quite managed to be so absent-minded as that. Some yards at least from my
own door, something vaguely familiar has always caught my eye; and thus
the joke has been spoiled. Of course I have quite constantly walked into
another man's house, thinking it was my own house; my visits became almost
monotonous. But walking into my own house and thinking it was another
man's house is a flight of poetic detachment still beyond me. Something
of the sensations that such an absent-minded man must feel I really felt
the other day; and very pleasant sensations they were. The best parts of
every proper romance are the first chapter and the last chapter; and to
knock at a strange door and find a nice wife would be to concentrate the
beginning and end of all romance.

Mine was a milder and slighter experience, but its thrill was of the same
kind. For I strolled through a place I had imagined quite virgin and
unvisited (as far as I was concerned), and I suddenly found I was treading
in my own footprints, and the footprints were nearly twenty years old.

It was one of those stretches of country which always suggests an almost
unnatural decay; thickets and heaths that have grown out of what were once
great gardens. Garden flowers still grow there as wild flowers, as it
says in some good poetic couplet which I forget; and there is something
singularly romantic and disastrous about seeing things that were so long a
human property and care fighting for their own hand in the thicket. One
almost expects to find a decayed dog-kennel; with the dog evolved into a
wolf.

This desolate garden-land had been even in my youth scrappily planned out
for building. The half-built or empty houses had appeared quite
threateningly on the edge of this heath even when I walked over it years
ago and almost as a boy. I was astonished that the building had gone no
farther; I suppose somebody went bankrupt and somebody else disliked
building. But I remember, especially along one side of this tangle or
coppice, that there had once been a row of half-built houses. The brick
of which they were built was a sort of plain pink; everything else was a
blinding white; the houses smoked with white dust and white sawdust; and
on many of the windows were rubbed those round rough disks of white which
always delighted me as a child. They looked like the white eyes of some
blind giant.

I could see the crude, parched pink-and-white villas still; though I had
not thought at all of them for a quarter of my life; and had not thought
much of them even when I saw them. Then I was an idle, but eager youth
walking out from London; now I was a most reluctantly busy middle-aged
person, coming in from the country. Youth, I think, seems farther off
than childhood, for it made itself more of a secret. Like a prenatal
picture, distant, tiny, and quite distinct, I saw this heath on which I
stood; and I looked around for the string of bright, half-baked villas.
They still stood there; but they were quite russet and weather-stained, as
if they had stood for centuries.

I remembered exactly what I had done on that day long ago. I had half
slid on a miry descent; it was still there; a little lower I had knocked
off the top of a thistle; the thistles had not been discouraged, but were
still growing. I recalled it because I had wondered why one knocks off
the tops of thistles; and then I had thought of Tarquin; and then I had
recited most of Macaulay's VIRGINIA to myself, for I was young. And then
I came to a tattered edge where the very tuft had whitened with the
sawdust and brick-dust from the new row of houses; and two or three green
stars of dock and thistle grew spasmodically about the blinding road.

I remembered how I had walked up this new one-sided street all those years
ago; and I remembered what I had thought. I thought that this red and
white glaring terrace at noon was really more creepy and more lonesome
than a glimmering churchyard at midnight. The churchyard could only be
full of the ghosts of the dead; but these houses were full of the ghosts
of the unborn. And a man can never find a home in the future as he can
find it in the past. I was always fascinated by that mediaeval notion of
erecting a rudely carpentered stage in the street, and acting on it a
miracle play of the Holy Family or the Last Judgment. And I thought to
myself that each of these glaring, gaping, new jerry-built boxes was
indeed a rickety stage erected for the acting of a real miracle play; that
human family that is almost the holy one, and that human death that is
near to the last judgment.

For some foolish reason the last house but one in that imperfect row
especially haunted me with its hollow grin and empty window-eyes.
Something in the shape of this brick-and-mortar skeleton was attractive;
and there being no workmen about, I strolled into it for curiosity and
solitude. I gave, with all the sky-deep gravity of youth, a benediction
upon the man who was going to live there. I even remember that for the
convenience of meditation I called him James Harrogate.

As I reflected it crawled back into my memory that I had mildly played the
fool in that house on that distant day. I had some red chalk in my pocket,
I think, and I wrote things on the unpapered plaster walls; things
addressed to Mr. Harrogate. A dim memory told me that I had written up in
what I supposed to be the dining-room:


James Harrogate, thank God for meat,
Then eat and eat and eat and eat,


or something of that kind. I faintly feel that some longer lyric was
scrawled on the walls of what looked like a bedroom, something beginning:


When laying what you call your head,
O Harrogate, upon your bed,


and there all my memory dislimns and decays. But I could still see quite
vividly the plain plastered walls and the rude, irregular writing, and the
places where the red chalk broke. I could see them, I mean, in memory;
for when I came down that road again after a sixth of a century the house
was very different.

I had seen it before at noon, and now I found it in the dusk. But its
windows glowed with lights of many artificial sorts; one of its low square
windows stood open; from this there escaped up the road a stream of
lamplight and a stream of singing. Some sort of girl, at least, was
standing at some sort of piano, and singing a song of healthy
sentimentalism in that house where long ago my blessing had died on the
wind and my poems been covered up by the wallpaper. I stood outside that
lamplit house at dusk full of those thoughts that I shall never express if
I live to be a million any better than I expressed them in red chalk upon
the wall. But after I had hovered a little, and was about to withdraw, a
mad impulse seized me. I rang the bell. I said in distinct accents to a
very smart suburban maid, "Does Mr. James Harrogate live here?"

She said he didn't; but that she would inquire, in case I was looking for
him in the neighbourhood; but I excused her from such exertion. I had one
moment's impulse to look for him all over the world; and then decided not
to look for him at all.


Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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