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The pathetic tale of the Gloomster having been told and discussed, it turned out that Haarlem Bridge was the holder of the next ball in the sequence, the eighth. Haarley had been looking rather nervous all the evening, and two or three times he manifested some desire to withdraw from the scene. By order of the chairman, however, the precaution had been taken to lock all the doors, so that none of the Dreamers should escape, and, consequently, when the evil hour arrived, Haarley was perforce on hand.
He rose up reluctantly, and, taking a single page of manuscript from his pocket, after a few preliminary remarks that were no more nor less coherent than the average after-dinner speech, read the following lines, which he termed a magazine poem:
“O argent-browed Sarcophagus,
That looms so through the ethered trees,
Why dost thou seem to those of us
Who drink the poisoned chalice on our knees
So distant and so empyrean,
So dour yet full of mystery?
Hast thou the oracle as yet unseen
To guide thy fell misogyny?
“Nay, let the spirit of the age
With all its mystic beauty stand
Translucent ever, aye, in spite the rage
Of Cossack and of Samarcand!
Thou art enough for any soul’s desire!
Thou hast the beauty of cerulean fire!
But we who grovel on the damask earth
Are we despoilt of thy exigeant mirth?
“Canst listen to a prayer, Sarcophagus?
Indeed O art thou there, Sarcophagus?
What time the Philistine denies,
What time the raucous cynic cries,
Avaunt, yet spare! Let this thy motto be,
With thy thesaurian verbosity.
Nor think that I, a caterpillian worm,
Before thy glance should ever honk or squirm.
“’Tis but the stern condition of the poor
That panting brings me pottering at thy door,
To breathe of love and argent charity
For thee, for thee, iguanodonic thee!”
“That’s an excellent specimen of magazine poetry,” said Billy Jones. “But I observe, Haarley, that you haven’t given it a title. Perhaps if you gave it a title we might get at the mystery of its meaning. A title is a sort of Baedeker to the general run of magazine poems.”
Haarlem grew rather red of countenance as he answered, “Well, I didn’t exactly like to give it the title I dreamed; it didn’t seem to shed quite as much light on the subject as a title should.”
“Still, it may help,” said Huddy Rivers. “I read a poem in a magazine the other day on ‘Mystery.’ And if it hadn’t had a title I’d never have understood it. It ran this way:
“Life, what art thou? Whence springest thou?
The past, the future, or the now?
Whence comes thy lowering lunacy?
Whence comes thy mizzling mystery?
Hast thou a form, a shape, a lineament?
Hast thou a single seraph-eyed medicament
To ease our sorrow and our twitching woe?
Hast thou one laudable Alsatian glow
To compensate, commensurate, and condign
For all these dastard, sleekish qualms of mine?
Hast thou indeed an abject agate plot
To show that what exists is really not?
Or art thou just content to sit and say
Life’s but a specious, coral roundelay?”
“I committed the thing to memory because it struck me as being a good thing to remember—it was so full of good phrases. ‘Twitching woe,’ for instance, and ‘sleekish qualms,’” he continued.
“Quaking qualms would have been better,” put in Tenafly Paterson, who judged poetry from an alliterative point of view.
“Nevertheless, I liked sleekish qualms,” retorted Huddy. “Quaking qualms might be more alliterative, but sleekish qualms is less commonplace.”
“No doubt,” said Tenafly. “I never had ’em myself, so I’ll take your word for it. But what do you make out of ‘coral roundelay’?”
“Nothing at all,” said Huddy. “I don’t bother my head about ‘coral roundelay’ or ‘seraph-eyed medicament.’ I haven’t wasted an atom of my gray matter on ‘lowering lunacy’ or ‘agate plot’ or ‘mizzling mystery.’ And all because the poet gave his poem a title. He called the thing ‘Mystery,’ and when I had read it over half a dozen times I concluded that he was right; and if the thing remained a mystery to the author, I don’t see why a reader should expect ever to be able to understand it.”
“Very logical conclusion, Huddy,” said Billy Jones, approvingly. “If a poet chooses a name for his poem, you may make up your mind that there is good reason for it, and certainly the verses you have recited about the ‘coral roundelay’ are properly designated.”
“Well, I’d like to have the title of that yard of rhyme Haarlem Bridge just recited,” put in Dobbs Ferry, scratching his head in bewilderment. “It strikes me as being quite as mysterious as Huddy’s. What the deuce can a man mean by referring to an ‘auburn-haired Sarcophagus’?”
“It wasn’t auburn-haired,” expostulated Haarlem. “It was argent-browed.”
“Old Sarcophagus had nickel-plated eyebrows, Dobby,” cried Tom Snobbe, forgetting himself for a moment.
“Well, who the dickens was old Sarcophagus?” queried Dobby, unappeased.
“He was one of the Egyptian kings, my dear boy,” vouchsafed Billy Jones, exploding internally with mirth. “You’ve heard of Augustus Cæsar, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” said Dobby.
“Well,” explained Billy Jones, “Sarcophagus occupied the same relation to the Egyptians that Augustus did to the Romans—in fact, the irreverent used to call him Sarcophagustus, instead of Sarcophagus, which was his real name. This poem of Haarley’s is manifestly addressed to him.”
“Did he have nickel-plated eyebrows?” asked Bedfork Parke, satirically.
“No,” said Billy Jones. “As I remember the story of Sarcophagus as I read of him in college, he was a very pallid sort of a potentate—his forehead was white as marble. So they called him the Argent-browed Sarcophagus.”
“It’s a good thing for us we have Billy Jones with us to tell us all these things,” whispered Tom Snobbe to his brother Dick.
“You bet your life,” said Dick. “There’s nothing, after all, like a classical education. I wish I’d known it while I was getting mine.”
“What’s ‘fell misogyny’?” asked Tenafly Paterson, who seemed to be somewhat enamoured of the phrase. “Didn’t old Sarcophagus care for chemistry?”
“Chemistry?” demanded the chairman.
“That’s what I said,” said Tenny. “Isn’t misogyny a chemical compound of metal and gas?”
Tenny had been to the School of Mines for two weeks, and had retired because he didn’t care for mathematics and the table at the college restaurant wasn’t good.
“I fancy you are thinking of heterophemy, which is an infusion of unorthodox gases into a solution of vocabulary particles,” suggested Billy Jones, grasping his sides madly to keep them from shaking.
“Oh yes,” said Tenny, “of course. I remember now.” Then he laughed somewhat, and added, “I always get misogyny and heterophemy mixed.”
“Who wouldn’t?” cried Harry Snobbe. “I do myself! There’s no chance to talk about either where I live,” he added. “Half the people don’t know what they mean. They’re not very anthropological up my way.”
“What’s a Samarcand?” asked Tenafly, again. “Haarley’s poem speaks of Cossack and of Samarcand. Of course we all know that a Cossack is a garment worn by the Russian peasants, but I never heard of a Samarcand.”
“It’s a thing to put about your neck,” said Dick Snobbe. “They wear ’em in winter out in Siberia. I looked it up some years ago.”
“Let’s take up ‘cerulean fire,’” said Bedford Parke, Tenafly appearing to be satisfied with Snobbe’s explanation.
“What’s ‘cerulean fire’?”
“Blue ruin,” said Huddy.
“And ‘damask earth’?” said Bedford.
“Easy,” cried Huddy. “Even I can understand that. Did you never hear, Beddy, of painting a town red? That’s damask earth in a small way. If you can paint a town red with your limited resources, what couldn’t a god do with a godlike credit? As I understand the poem, old Sarcophagus comes down out of the cerulean fire, and goes in for a little damask earth. That’s why the poet later says:
“‘Canst listen to a prayer, Sarcophagus?
Indeed O art thou there, Sarcophagus?’
He wanted to pray to him, but didn’t know if he’d got back from damask earth yet.”
“You’re a perfect wonder, Huddy,” said Billy Jones. “As a thought-detector you are a beauty. I believe you’d succeed if you opened up a literary bureau somewhere and devoted your time to explaining Browning and Meredith and others to a mystified public.”
“’Tis an excellent idea,” said Tom Snobbe. “I’d really rejoice to see certain modern British masterpieces translated into English, and, with headquarters in Boston, the institution ought to flourish. Do worms honk?”
“I never heard of any doing so,” replied the chairman, “but in these days it is hardly safe to say that anything is impossible. If you have watched the development of the circus in the last five years—I mean the real circus, not the literary—you must have observed what an advance intellectually has been made by the various members of the animal kingdom. Elephants have been taught to sit at table and dine like civilized beings on things that aren’t good for them; pigs have been educated so that, instead of evincing none but the more domestic virtues and staying contentedly at home, they now play poker with the sangfroid of a man about town; while the seal, a creature hitherto considered useful only in the production of sacques for our wives, and ear-tabs for our children, and mittens for our hired men, are now branching out as rivals to the college glee clubs, singing songs, playing banjoes, and raising thunder generally. Therefore it need surprise no one if a worm should learn to honk as high as any goose that ever honked. Anyhow, you can’t criticise a poet for anything of that kind. His license permits him to take any liberties he may see fit with existing conditions.”
“All of which,” observed Dick Snobbe, “is wandering from the original point of discussion. What is the meaning of Haarley’s poem? I can’t see that as yet we have reached a definite understanding on that point.”
“Well, I must confess,” said Jones, “that I can’t understand it myself; but I never could understand magazine poetry, so that doesn’t prove anything. I’m only a newspaper man.”
“Let’s have the title, Haarley,” cried Tenafly Paterson. “Was it called ‘Life,’ or ‘Nerve Cells,’ or what?”
For a second Bridge’s cheeks grew red.
“Oh, well, if you must have it,” he said, desperately, “here it is. It was called, ‘A Thought on Hearing, While Visiting Gibraltar in June, 1898, that the War Department at Washington Had Failed to Send Derricks to Cuba, Thereby Delaying the Landing of General Shafter Three Days and Giving Comfort to the Enemy.’”
“Great Scott!” roared Dick Snobbe. “What a title!”
“It is excellent,” said Billy Jones. “I now understand the intent of the poem.”
“Which was—?” asked Rivers.
“To supply a real hiatus in latter-day letters,” Jones replied; “to give the public a war poem that would make them think, which is what a true war poem should do. Who has the ninth ball?”
“I am the unfortunate holder of that,” said Greenwich Place. “I’d just been reading Anthony Hope and Mr. Dooley. The result is a composite, which I will read.”
“What do you call it, Mr. Place?” asked the stenographer.
“Well, I don’t know,” replied Greenwich. “I guess ‘A Dooley Dialogue’ about describes it.”
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