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The Perfect Game

We have all met the man who says that some odd things have
happened to him, but that he does not really believe that they
were supernatural. My own position is the opposite of this.
I believe in the supernatural as a matter of intellect and reason,
not as a matter of personal experience. I do not see ghosts;
I only see their inherent probability. But it is entirely
a matter of the mere intelligence, not even of the motions;
my nerves and body are altogether of this earth, very earthy.
But upon people of this temperament one weird incident will often
leave a peculiar impression. And the weirdest circumstance
that ever occurred to me occurred a little while ago. It consisted
in nothing less than my playing a game, and playing it quite well
for some seventeen consecutive minutes. The ghost of my grandfather
would have astonished me less.

On one of these blue and burning afternoons I found myself, to my
inexpressible astonishment, playing a game called croquet. I had
imagined that it belonged to the epoch of Leach and Anthony Trollope,
and I had neglected to provide myself with those very long and
luxuriant side whiskers which are really essential to such a scene.
I played it with a man whom we will call Parkinson, and with whom I had
a semi-philosophical argument which lasted through the entire contest.
It is deeply implanted in my mind that I had the best of the argument;
but it is certain and beyond dispute that I had the worst of the game.

"Oh, Parkinson, Parkinson!" I cried, patting him affectionately
on the head with a mallet, "how far you really are from the pure
love of the sport--you who can play. It is only we who play badly
who love the Game itself. You love glory; you love applause;
you love the earthquake voice of victory; you do not love croquet.
You do not love croquet until you love being beaten at croquet.
It is we the bunglers who adore the occupation in the abstract.
It is we to whom it is art for art's sake. If we may see the face
of Croquet herself (if I may so express myself) we are content to
see her face turned upon us in anger. Our play is called amateurish;
and we wear proudly the name of amateur, for amateurs is but the
French for Lovers. We accept all adventures from our Lady, the most
disastrous or the most dreary. We wait outside her iron gates (I
allude to the hoops), vainly essaying to enter. Our devoted balls,
impetuous and full of chivalry, will not be confined within
the pedantic boundaries of the mere croquet ground. Our balls seek
honour in the ends of the earth; they turn up in the flower-beds
and the conservatory; they are to be found in the front garden
and the next street. No, Parkinson! The good painter has skill.
It is the bad painter who loves his art. The good musician
loves being a musician, the bad musician loves music. With such a
pure and hopeless passion do I worship croquet. I love the game
itself. I love the parallelogram of grass marked out with chalk or
tape, as if its limits were the frontiers of my sacred Fatherland,
the four seas of Britain. I love the mere swing of the mallets, and
the click of the balls is music. The four colours are to me
sacramental and symbolic, like the red of martyrdom, or the white
of Easter Day. You lose all this, my poor Parkinson. You have to
solace yourself for the absence of this vision by the paltry
consolation of being able to go through hoops and to hit the stick."

And I waved my mallet in the air with a graceful gaiety.

"Don't be too sorry for me," said Parkinson, with his simple sarcasm.
"I shall get over it in time. But it seems to me that the more
a man likes a game the better he would want to play it. Granted that
the pleasure in the thing itself comes first, does not the pleasure
of success come naturally and inevitably afterwards? Or, take your
own simile of the Knight and his Lady-love. I admit the gentleman
does first and foremost want to be in the lady's presence. But I
never yet heard of a gentleman who wanted to look an utter ass when
he was there."

"Perhaps not; though he generally looks it," I replied. "But the truth
is that there is a fallacy in the simile, although it was my own. The
happiness at which the lover is aiming is an infinite happiness, which
can be extended without limit. The more he is loved, normally speaking,
the jollier he will be. It is definitely true that the stronger the
love of both lovers, the stronger will be the happiness. But it is not
true that the stronger the play of both croquet players the stronger
will be the game. It is logically possible--(follow me closely here,
Parkinson!)--it is logically possible, to play croquet too well to
enjoy it at all. If you could put this blue ball through that distant
hoop as easily as you could pick it up with your hand, then you would
not put it through that hoop any more than you pick it up with your
hand; it would not be worth doing. If you could play unerringly you
would not play at all. The moment the game is perfect the game
disappears."

"I do not think, however," said Parkinson, "that you are in any
immediate danger of effecting that sort of destruction. I do not
think your croquet will vanish through its own faultless excellence.
You are safe for the present."

I again caressed him with the mallet, knocked a ball about, wired myself,
and resumed the thread of my discourse.

The long, warm evening had been gradually closing in, and by this
time it was almost twilight. By the time I had delivered four
more fundamental principles, and my companion had gone through five
more hoops, the dusk was verging upon dark.

"We shall have to give this up," said Parkinson, as he missed
a ball almost for the first time, "I can't see a thing."

"Nor can I," I answered, "and it is a comfort to reflect that I
could not hit anything if I saw it."

With that I struck a ball smartly, and sent it away into the darkness
towards where the shadowy figure of Parkinson moved in the hot haze.
Parkinson immediately uttered a loud and dramatic cry. The situation,
indeed, called for it. I had hit the right ball.

Stunned with astonishment, I crossed the gloomy ground, and hit my ball
again. It went through a hoop. I could not see the hoop; but it was
the right hoop. I shuddered from head to foot.

Words were wholly inadequate, so I slouched heavily after that
impossible ball. Again I hit it away into the night, in what I
supposed was the vague direction of the quite invisible stick.
And in the dead silence I heard the stick rattle as the ball
struck it heavily.

I threw down my mallet. "I can't stand this," I said. "My ball has
gone right three times. These things are not of this world."

"Pick your mallet up ," said Parkinson, "have another go."

"I tell you I daren't. If I made another hoop like that I should see
all the devils dancing there on the blessed grass."

"Why devils?" asked Parkinson; "they may be only fairies making fun of
you. They are sending you the 'Perfect Game,' which is no game."

I looked about me. The garden was full of a burning darkness,
in which the faint glimmers had the look of fire. I stepped across
the grass as if it burnt me, picked up the mallet, and hit the ball
somewhere--somewhere where another ball might be. I heard the dull
click of the balls touching, and ran into the house like one pursued.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton