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Chapter 7

THE LANTERN-BEARERS

I


THESE boys congregated every autumn about a certain easterly
fisher-village, where they tasted in a high degree the glory of
existence. The place was created seemingly on purpose for the
diversion of young gentlemen. A street or two of houses, mostly
red and many of, them tiled; a number of fine trees clustered about
the manse and the kirkyard, and turning the chief street into a
shady alley; many little gardens more than usually bright with
flowers; nets a-drying, and fisher-wives scolding in the backward
parts; a smell of fish, a genial smell of seaweed; whiffs of
blowing sand at the street-corners; shops with golf-balls and
bottled lollipops; another shop with penny pickwicks (that
remarkable cigar) and the LONDON JOURNAL, dear to me for its
startling pictures, and a few novels, dear for their suggestive
names: such, as well as memory serves me, were the ingredients of
the town. These, you are to conceive posted on a spit between two
sandy bays, and sparsely flanked with villas enough for the boys to
lodge in with their subsidiary parents, not enough (not yet enough)
to cocknify the scene: a haven in the rocks in front: in front of
that, a file of gray islets: to the left, endless links and sand
wreaths, a wilderness of hiding-holes, alive with popping rabbits
and soaring gulls: to the right, a range of seaward crags, one
rugged brow beyond another; the ruins of a mighty and ancient
fortress on the brink of one; coves between - now charmed into
sunshine quiet, now whistling with wind and clamorous with bursting
surges; the dens and sheltered hollows redolent of thyme and
southernwood, the air at the cliff's edge brisk and clean and
pungent of the sea - in front of all, the Bass Rock, tilted seaward
like a doubtful bather, the surf ringing it with white, the solan-
geese hanging round its summit like a great and glittering smoke.
This choice piece of seaboard was sacred, besides, to the wrecker;
and the Bass, in the eye of fancy, still flew the colours of King
James; and in the ear of fancy the arches of Tantallon still rang
with horse-shoe iron, and echoed to the commands of Bell-the-Cat.

There was nothing to mar your days, if you were a boy summering in
that part, but the embarrassment of pleasure. You might golf if
you wanted; but I seem to have been better employed. You might
secrete yourself in the Lady's Walk, a certain sunless dingle of
elders, all mossed over by the damp as green as grass, and dotted
here and there by the stream-side with roofless walls, the cold
homes of anchorites. To fit themselves for life, and with a
special eye to acquire the art of smoking, it was even common for
the boys to harbour there; and you might have seen a single penny
pickwick, honestly shared in lengths with a blunt knife, bestrew
the glen with these apprentices. Again, you might join our fishing
parties, where we sat perched as thick as solan-geese, a covey of
little anglers, boy and girl, angling over each other's heads, to
the to the much entanglement of lines and loss of podleys and
consequent shrill recrimination - shrill as the geese themselves.
Indeed, had that been all, you might have done this often; but
though fishing be a fine pastime, the podley is scarce to be
regarded as a dainty for the table; and it was a point of honour
that a boy should eat all that he had taken. Or again, you might
climb the Law, where the whale's jawbone stood landmark in the
buzzing wind, and behold the face of many counties, and the smoke
and spires of many towns, and the sails of distant ships. You
might bathe, now in the flaws of fine weather, that we pathetically
call our summer, now in a gale of wind, with the sand scourging
your bare hide, your clothes thrashing abroad from underneath their
guardian stone, the froth of the great breakers casting you
headlong ere it had drowned your knees. Or you might explore the
tidal rocks, above all in the ebb of springs, when the very roots
of the hills were for the nonce discovered; following my leader
from one group to another, groping in slippery tangle for the wreck
of ships, wading in pools after the abominable creatures of the
sea, and ever with an eye cast backward on the march off the tide
and the menaced line of your retreat. And then you might go
Crusoeing, a word that covers all extempore eating in the open air:
digging perhaps a house under the margin of the links, kindling a
fire of the sea-ware, and cooking apples there - if they were truly
apples, for I sometimes suppose the merchant must have played us
off with some inferior and quite local fruit capable of resolving,
in the neighbourhood of fire, into mere sand and smoke and iodine;
or perhaps pushing to Tantallon, you might lunch on sandwiches and
visions in the grassy court, while the wind hummed in the crumbling
turrets; or clambering along the coast, eat geans (the worst, I
must suppose, in Christendom) from an adventurous gean tree that
had taken root under a cliff, where it was shaken with an ague of
east wind, and silvered after gales with salt, and grew so foreign
among its bleak surroundings that to eat of its produce was an
adventure in itself.

There are mingled some dismal memories with so many that were
joyous. Of the fisher-wife, for instance, who had cut her throat
at Canty Bay; and of how I ran with the other children to the top
of the Quadrant, and beheld a posse of silent people escorting a
cart, and on the cart, bound in a chair, her throat bandaged, and
the bandage all bloody - horror! - the fisher-wife herself, who
continued thenceforth to hag-ride my thoughts, and even to-day (as
I recall the scene) darkens daylight. She was lodged in the little
old jail in the chief street; but whether or no she died there,
with a wise terror of the worst, I never inquired. She had been
tippling; it was but a dingy tragedy; and it seems strange and hard
that, after all these years, the poor crazy sinner should be still
pilloried on her cart in the scrap-book of my memory. Nor shall I
readily forget a certain house in the Quadrant where a visitor
died, and a dark old woman continued to dwell alone with the dead
body; nor how this old woman conceived a hatred to myself and one
of my cousins, and in the dread hour of the dusk, as we were
clambering on the garden-walls, opened a window in that house of
mortality and cursed us in a shrill voice and with a marrowy choice
of language. It was a pair of very colourless urchins that fled
down the lane from this remarkable experience! But I recall with a
more doubtful sentiment, compounded out of fear and exultation, the
coil of equinoctial tempests; trumpeting squalls, scouring flaws of
rain; the boats with their reefed lugsails scudding for the harbour
mouth, where danger lay, for it was hard to make when the wind had
any east in it; the wives clustered with blowing shawls at the
pier-head, where (if fate was against them) they might see boat and
husband and sons - their whole wealth and their whole family -
engulfed under their eyes; and (what I saw but once) a troop of
neighbours forcing such an unfortunate homeward, and she squalling
and battling in their midst, a figure scarcely human, a tragic
Maenad.

These are things that I recall with interest; but what my memory
dwells upon the most, I have been all this while withholding. It
was a sport peculiar to the place, and indeed to a week or so of
our two months' holiday there. Maybe it still flourishes in its
native spot; for boys and their pastimes are swayed by periodic
forces inscrutable to man; so that tops and marbles reappear in
their due season, regular like the sun and moon; and the harmless
art of knucklebones has seen the fall of the Roman empire and the
rise of the United States. It may still flourish in its native
spot, but nowhere else, I am persuaded; for I tried myself to
introduce it on Tweedside, and was defeated lamentably; its charm
being quite local, like a country wine that cannot be exported.

The idle manner of it was this:-

Toward the end of September, when school-time was drawing near and
the nights were already black, we would begin to sally from our-
respective villas, each equipped with a tin bull's-eye lantern.
The thing was so well known that it had worn a rut in the commerce
of Great Britain; and the grocers, about the due time, began to
garnish their windows with our particular brand of luminary. We
wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt, and over them,
such was the rigour of the game, a buttoned top-coat. They smelled
noisomely of blistered tin; they never burned aright, though they
would always burn our fingers; their use was naught; the pleasure
of them merely fanciful; and yet a boy with a bull's-eye under his
top-coat asked for nothing more. The fishermen used lanterns about
their boats, and it was from them, I suppose, that we had got the
hint; but theirs were not bull's-eyes, nor did we ever play at
being fishermen. The police carried them at their belts, and we
had plainly copied them in that; yet we did not pretend to be
policemen. Burglars, indeed, we may have had some haunting
thoughts of; and we had certainly an eye to past ages when lanterns
were more common, and to certain story-books in which we had found
them to figure very largely. But take it for all in all, the
pleasure of the thing was substantive; and to be a boy with a
bull's-eye under his top-coat was good enough for us.

When two of these asses met, there would be an anxious "Have you
got your lantern?" and a gratified "Yes!" That was the shibboleth,
and very needful too; for, as it was the rule to keep our glory
contained, none could recognise a lantern-bearer, unless (like the
polecat) by the smell. Four or five would sometimes climb into the
belly of a ten-man lugger, with nothing but the thwarts above them
- for the cabin was usually locked, or choose out some hollow of
the links where the wind might whistle overhead. There the coats
would be unbuttoned and the bull's-eyes discovered; and in the
chequering glimmer, under the huge windy hall of the night, and
cheered by a rich steam of toasting tinware, these fortunate young
gentlemen would crouch together in the cold sand of the links or on
the scaly bilges of the fishing-boat, and delight themselves with
inappropriate talk. Woe is me that I may not give some specimens -
some of their foresights of life, or deep inquiries into the
rudiments of man and nature, these were so fiery and so innocent,
they were so richly silly, so romantically young. But the talk, at
any rate, was but a condiment; and these gatherings themselves only
accidents in the career of the lantern-bearer. The essence of this
bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut,
the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your
footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness
in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your
fool's heart, to know you had a bull's-eye at your belt, and to
exult and sing over the knowledge.


II


It is said that a poet has died young in the breast of the most
stolid. It may be contended, rather, that this (somewhat minor)
bard in almost every case survives, and is the spice of life to his
possessor. Justice is not done to the versatility and the
unplumbed childishness of man's imagination. His life from without
may seem but a rude mound of mud; there will be some golden chamber
at the heart of it, in which he dwells delighted; and for as dark
as his pathway seems to the observer, he will have some kind of a
bull's-eye at his belt.

It would be hard to pick out a career more cheerless than that of
Dancer, the miser, as he figures in the "Old Bailey Reports," a
prey to the most sordid persecutions, the butt of his
neighbourhood, betrayed by his hired man, his house beleaguered by
the impish schoolboy, and he himself grinding and fuming and
impotently fleeing to the law against these pin-pricks. You marvel
at first that any one should willingly prolong a life so destitute
of charm and dignity; and then you call to memory that had he
chosen, had he ceased to be a miser, he could have been freed at
once from these trials, and might have built himself a castle and
gone escorted by a squadron. For the love of more recondite joys,
which we cannot estimate, which, it may be, we should envy, the man
had willingly forgone both comfort and consideration. "His mind to
him a kingdom was"; and sure enough, digging into that mind, which
seems at first a dust-heap, we unearth some priceless jewels. For
Dancer must have had the love of power and the disdain of using it,
a noble character in itself; disdain of many pleasures, a chief
part of what is commonly called wisdom; disdain of the inevitable
end, that finest trait of mankind; scorn of men's opinions, another
element of virtue; and at the back of all, a conscience just like
yours and mine, whining like a cur, swindling like a thimble-
rigger, but still pointing (there or there-about) to some
conventional standard. Here were a cabinet portrait to which
Hawthorne perhaps had done justice; and yet not Hawthorne either,
for he was mildly minded, and it lay not in him to create for us
that throb of the miser's pulse, his fretful energy of gusto, his
vast arms of ambition clutching in he knows not what: insatiable,
insane, a god with a muck-rake. Thus, at least, looking in the
bosom of the miser, consideration detects the poet in the full tide
of life, with more, indeed, of the poetic fire than usually goes to
epics; and tracing that mean man about his cold hearth, and to and
fro in his discomfortable house, spies within him a blazing bonfire
of delight. And so with others, who do not live by bread alone,
but by some cherished and perhaps fantastic pleasure; who are meat
salesmen to the external eye, and possibly to themselves are
Shakespeares, Napoleons, or Beethovens; who have not one virtue to
rub against another in the field of active life, and yet perhaps,
in the life of contemplation, sit with the saints. We see them on
the street, and we can count their buttons; but heaven knows in
what they pride themselves! heaven knows where they have set their
treasure!

There is one fable that touches very near the quick of life: the
fable of the monk who passed into the woods, heard a bird break
into song, hearkened for a trill or two, and found himself on his
return a stranger at his convent gates; for he had been absent
fifty years, and of all his comrades there survived but one to
recognise him. It is not only in the woods that this enchanter
carols, though perhaps he is native there. He sings in the most
doleful places. The miser hears him and chuckles, and the days are
moments. With no more apparatus than an ill-smelling lantern I
have evoked him on the naked links. All life that is not merely
mechanical is spun out of two strands: seeking for that bird and
hearing him. And it is just this that makes life so hard to value,
and the delight of each so incommunicable. And just a knowledge of
this, and a remembrance of those fortunate hours in which the bird
has sung to us, that fills us with such wonder when we turn the
pages of the realist. There, to be sure, we find a picture of life
in so far as it consists of mud and of old iron, cheap desires and
cheap fears, that which we are ashamed to remember and that which
we are careless whether we forget; but of the note of that time-
devouring nightingale we hear no news.

The case of these writers of romance is most obscure. They have
been boys and youths; they have lingered outside the window of the
beloved, who was then most probably writing to some one else; they
have sat before a sheet of paper, and felt themselves mere
continents of congested poetry, not one line of which would flow;
they have walked alone in the woods, they have walked in cities
under the countless lamps; they have been to sea, they have hated,
they have feared, they have longed to knife a man, and maybe done
it; the wild taste of life has stung their palate. Or, if you deny
them all the rest, one pleasure at least they have tasted to the
full - their books are there to prove it - the keen pleasure of
successful literary composition. And yet they fill the globe with
volumes, whose cleverness inspires me with despairing admiration,
and whose consistent falsity to all I care to call existence, with
despairing wrath. If I had no better hope than to continue to
revolve among the dreary and petty businesses, and to be moved by
the paltry hopes and fears with which they surround and animate
their heroes, I declare I would die now. But there has never an
hour of mine gone quite so dully yet; if it were spent waiting at a
railway junction, I would have some scattering thoughts, I could
count some grains of memory, compared to which the whole of one of
these romances seems but dross.

These writers would retort (if I take them properly) that this was
very true; that it was the same with themselves and other persons
of (what they call) the artistic temperament; that in this we were
exceptional, and should apparently be ashamed of ourselves; but
that our works must deal exclusively with (what they call) the
average man, who was a prodigious dull fellow, and quite dead to
all but the paltriest considerations. I accept the issue. We can
only know others by ourselves. The artistic temperament (a plague
on the expression!) does not make us different from our fellowmen,
or it would make us incapable of writing novels; and the average
man (a murrain on the word!) is just like you and me, or he would
not be average. It was Whitman who stamped a kind of Birmingham
sacredness upon the latter phrase; but Whitman knew very well, and
showed very nobly, that the average man was full of joys and full
of a poetry of his own. And this harping on life's dulness and
man's meanness is a loud profession of incompetence; it is one of
two things: the cry of the blind eye, I CANNOT SEE, or the
complaint of the dumb tongue, I CANNOT UTTER. To draw a life
without delights is to prove I have not realised it. To picture a
man without some sort of poetry - well, it goes near to prove my
case, for it shows an author may have little enough. To see Dancer
only as a dirty, old, small-minded, impotently fuming man, in a
dirty house, besieged by Harrow boys, and probably beset by small
attorneys, is to show myself as keen an observer as . . . the
Harrow boys. But these young gentlemen (with a more becoming
modesty) were content to pluck Dancer by the coat-tails; they did
not suppose they had surprised his secret or could put him living
in a book: and it is there my error would have lain. Or say that
in the same romance - I continue to call these books romances, in
the hope of giving pain - say that in the same romance, which now
begins really to take shape, I should leave to speak of Dancer, and
follow instead the Harrow boys; and say that I came on some such
business as that of my lantern-bearers on the links; and described
the boys as very cold, spat upon by flurries of rain, and drearily
surrounded, all of which they were; and their talk as silly and
indecent, which it certainly was. I might upon these lines, and
had I Zola's genius, turn out, in a page or so, a gem of literary
art, render the lantern-light with the touches of a master, and lay
on the indecency with the ungrudging hand of love; and when all was
done, what a triumph would my picture be of shallowness and
dulness! how it would have missed the point! how it would have
belied the boys! To the ear of the stenographer, the talk is
merely silly and indecent; but ask the boys themselves, and they
are discussing (as it is highly proper they should) the
possibilities of existence. To the eye of the observer they are
wet and cold and drearily surrounded; but ask themselves, and they
are in the heaven of a recondite pleasure, the ground of which is
an ill-smelling lantern.


III


For, to repeat, the ground of a man's joy is often hard to hit. It
may hinge at times upon a mere accessory, like the lantern; it may
reside, like Dancer's, in the mysterious inwards of psychology. It
may consist with perpetual failure, and find exercise in the
continued chase. It has so little bond with externals (such as the
observer scribbles in his note-book) that it may even touch them
not; and the man's true life, for which he consents to live, lie
altogether in the field of fancy. The clergyman, in his spare
hours, may be winning battles, the farmer sailing ships, the banker
reaping triumph in the arts: all leading another life, plying
another trade from that they chose; like the poet's housebuilder,
who, after all, is cased in stone,

"By his fireside, as impotent fancy prompts.
Rebuilds it to his liking."

In such a case the poetry runs underground. The observer (poor
soul, with his documents!) is all abroad. For to look at the man
is but to court deception. We shall see the trunk from which he
draws his nourishment; but he himself is above and abroad in the
green dome of foliage, hummed through by winds and nested in by
nightingales. And the true realism were that of the poets, to
climb up after him like a squirrel, and catch some glimpse of the
heaven for which he lives.

And, the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets:
to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond
singing.

For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies
the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse.
To one who has not the secret of the lanterns, the scene upon the
links is meaningless. And hence the haunting and truly spectral
unreality of realistic books. Hence, when we read the English
realists, the incredulous wonder with which we observe the hero's
constancy under the submerging tide of dulness, and how he bears up
with his jibbing sweetheart, and endures the chatter of idiot
girls, and stands by his whole unfeatured wilderness of an
existence, instead of seeking relief in drink or foreign travel.
Hence in the French, in that meat-market of middle-aged sensuality,
the disgusted surprise with which we see the hero drift sidelong,
and practically quite untempted, into every description of
misconduct and dishonour. In each, we miss the personal poetry,
the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy that clothes
what is naked and seems to ennoble what is base; in each, life
falls dead like dough, instead of soaring away like a balloon into
the colours of the sunset; each is true, each inconceivable; for no
man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids, but in the
warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows
and the storied walls.

Of this falsity we have had a recent example from a man who knows
far better - Tolstoi's POWERS OF DARKNESS. Here is a piece full of
force and truth, yet quite untrue. For before Mikita was led into
so dire a situation he was tempted, and temptations are beautiful
at least in part; and a work which dwells on the ugliness of crime
and gives no hint of any loveliness in the temptation, sins against
the modesty of life, and even when a Tolstoi writes it, sinks to
melodrama. The peasants are not understood; they saw their life in
fairer colours; even the deaf girl was clothed in poetry for
Mikita, or he had never fallen. And so, once again, even an Old
Bailey melodrama, without some brightness of poetry and lustre of
existence, falls into the inconceivable and ranks with fairy tales.


IV


In nobler books we are moved with something like the emotions of
life; and this emotion is very variously provoked. We are so moved
when Levine labours in the field, when Andre sinks beyond emotion,
when Richard Feverel and Lucy Desborough meet beside the river,
when Antony, "not cowardly, puts off his helmet," when Kent has
infinite pity on the dying Lear, when, in Dostoieffky's DESPISED
AND REJECTED, the uncomplaining hero drains his cup of suffering
and virtue. These are notes that please the great heart of man.
Not only love, and the fields, and the bright face of danger, but
sacrifice and death and unmerited suffering humbly supported, touch
in us the vein of the poetic. We love to think of them, we long to
try them, we are humbly hopeful that we may prove heroes also.

We have heard, perhaps, too much of lesser matters. Here is the
door, here is the open air. ITUR IN ANTIQUAM SILVAM.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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