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Yet Again


Max Beerbohm

Till I gave myself the task of making a little selection from what I
had written since last I formed a book of essays, I had no notion that
I had put, as it were, my eggs into so many baskets - The Saturday
Review, The New Quarterly, The New Liberal Review, Vanity Fair, The
Daily Mail, Literature, The Traveller, The Pall Mall Magazine, The May
Book, The Souvenir Book of Charing Cross Hospital Bazaar, The Cornhill
Magazine, Harper's Magazine, and The Anglo-Saxon Review...Ouf! But the
sigh of relief that I heave at the end of the list is accompanied by a
smile of thanks to the various authorities for letting me use here what
they were so good as to require.

M. B.






If I were 'seeing over' a house, and found in every room an iron cage
let into the wall, and were told by the caretaker that these cages were
for me to keep lions in, I think I should open my eyes rather wide. Yet
nothing seems to me more natural than a fire in the grate.

Doubtless, when I began to walk, one of my first excursions was to the
fender, that I might gaze more nearly at the live thing roaring and
raging behind it; and I dare say I dimly wondered by what blessed
dispensation this creature was allowed in a domain so peaceful as my
nursery. I do not think I ever needed to be warned against scaling the
fender. I knew by instinct that the creature within it was
dangerous - fiercer still than the cat which had once strayed into the
room and scratched me for my advances. As I grew older, I ceased to
wonder at the creature's presence and learned to call it 'the fire,'
quite lightly. There are so many queer things in the world that we have
no time to go on wondering at the queerness of the things we see
habitually. It is not that these things are in themselves less queer
than they at first seemed to us. It is that our vision of them has been
dimmed. We are lucky when by some chance we see again, for a fleeting
moment, this thing or that as we saw it when it first came within our
ken. We are in the habit of saying that 'first impressions are best,'
and that we must approach every question 'with an open mind'; but we
shirk the logical conclusion that we were wiser in our infancy than we
are now. 'Make yourself even as a little child' we often say, but
recommending the process on moral rather than on intellectual grounds,
and inwardly preening ourselves all the while on having 'put away
childish things,' as though clarity of vision were not one of them.

I look around the room I am writing in - a pleasant room, and my own,
yet how irresponsive, how smug and lifeless! The pattern of the
wallpaper blamelessly repeats itself from wainscote to cornice; and the
pictures are immobile and changeless within their glazed frames - faint,
flat mimicries of life. The chairs and tables are just as their
carpenter fashioned them, and stand with stiff obedience just where
they have been posted. On one side of the room, encased in coverings of
cloth and leather, are myriads of words, which to some people, but not
to me, are a fair substitute for human company. All around me, in fact,
are the products of modern civilisation. But in the whole room there
are but three things living: myself, my dog, and the fire in my grate.
And of these lives the third is very much the most intensely vivid. My
dog is descended, doubtless, from prehistoric wolves; but you could
hardly decipher his pedigree on his mild, domesticated face. My dog is
as tame as his master (in whose veins flows the blood of the old
cavemen). But time has not tamed fire. Fire is as wild a thing as when
Prometheus snatched it from the empyrean. Fire in my grate is as fierce
and terrible a thing as when it was lit by my ancestors, night after
night, at the mouths of their caves, to scare away the ancestors of my
dog. And my dog regards it with the old wonder and misgiving. Even in
his sleep he opens ever and again one eye to see that we are in no
danger. And the fire glowers and roars through its bars at him with the
scorn that a wild beast must needs have for a tame one. 'You are free,'
it rages, 'and yet you do not spring at that man's throat and tear him
limb from limb and make a meal of him! 'and, gazing at me, it licks its
red lips; and I, laughing good-humouredly, rise and give the monster a
shovelful of its proper food, which it leaps at and noisily devours.

Fire is the only one of the elements that inspires awe. We breathe air,
tread earth, bathe in water. Fire alone we approach with deference. And
it is the only one of the elements that is always alert, always good to
watch. We do not see the air we breathe - except sometimes in London,
and who shall say that the sight is pleasant? We do not see the earth
revolving; and the trees and other vegetables that are put forth by it
come up so slowly that there is no fun in watching them. One is apt to
lose patience with the good earth, and to hanker after a sight of those
multitudinous fires whereover it is, after all, but a thin and
comparatively recent crust. Water, when we get it in the form of a
river, is pleasant to watch for a minute or so, after which period the
regularity of its movement becomes as tedious as stagnation. It is only
a whole seaful of water that can rival fire in variety and in
loveliness. But even the spectacle of sea at its very best - say in an
Atlantic storm - is less thrilling than the spectacle of one building
ablaze. And for the rest, the sea has its hours of dulness and
monotony, even when it is not wholly calm. Whereas in the grate even a
quite little fire never ceases to be amusing and inspiring until you
let it out. As much fire as would correspond with a handful of earth or
a tumblerful of water is yet a joy to the eyes, and a lively suggestion
of grandeur. The other elements, even as presented in huge samples,
impress us as less august than fire. Fire alone, according to the
legend, was brought down from Heaven: the rest were here from the dim
outset. When we call a thing earthy we impute cloddishness; by 'watery'
we imply insipidness; 'airy' is for something trivial. 'Fiery' has
always a noble significance. It denotes such things as faith, courage,
genius. Earth lies heavy, and air is void, and water flows down; but
flames aspire, flying back towards the heaven they came from. They
typify for us the spirit of man, as apart from aught that is gross in
him. They are the symbol of purity, of triumph over corruption. Water,
air, earth, can all harbour corruption; but where flames are, or have
been, there is innocence. Our love of fire comes partly, doubtless,
from our natural love of destruction for destruction's sake. Fire is
savage, and so, even after all these centuries, are we, at heart. Our
civilisation is but as the aforesaid crust that encloses the old
planetary flames. To destroy is still the strongest instinct of our
nature. Nature is still 'red in tooth and claw,' though she has begun
to make fine flourishes with tooth-brush and nail-scissors. Even the
mild dog on my hearth-rug has been known to behave like a wolf to his
own species. Scratch his master and you will find the caveman. But the
scratch must be a sharp one: I am thickly veneered. Outwardly, I am as
gentle as you, gentle reader. And one reason for our delight in fire is
that there is no humbug about flames: they are frankly, primaevally
savage. But this is not, I am glad to say, the sole reason. We have a
sense of good and evil. I do not pretend that it carries us very far.
It is but the tooth-brush and nail-scissors that we flourish. Our
innate instincts, not this acquired sense, are what the world really
hinges on. But this acquired sense is an integral part of our minds.
And we revere fire because we have come to regard it as especially the
foe of evil - as a means for destroying weeds, not flowers; a destroyer
of wicked cities, not of good ones.

The idea of hell, as inculcated in the books given to me when I was a
child, never really frightened me at all. I conceived the possibility
of a hell in which were eternal flames to destroy every one who had not
been good. But a hell whose flames were eternally impotent to destroy
these people, a hell where evil was to go on writhing yet thriving for
ever and ever, seemed to me, even at that age, too patently absurd to
be appalling. Nor indeed do I think that to the more credulous children
in England can the idea of eternal burning have ever been quite so
forbidding as their nurses meant it to be. Credulity is but a form of
incaution. I, as I have said, never had any wish to play with fire; but
most English children are strongly attracted, and are much less afraid
of fire than of the dark. Eternal darkness, with a biting east-wind,
were to the English fancy a far more fearful prospect than eternal
flames. The notion of these flames arose in Italy, where heat is no
luxury, and shadows are lurked in, and breezes prayed for. In England
the sun, even at its strongest, is a weak vessel. True, we grumble
whenever its radiance is a trifle less watery than usual. But that is
precisely because we are a people whose nature the sun has not
mellowed - a dour people, like all northerners, ever ready to make the
worst of things. Inwardly, we love the sun, and long for it to come
nearer to us, and to come more often. And it is partly because this
craving is unsatisfied that we cower so fondly over our open hearths.
Our fires are makeshifts for sunshine. Autumn after autumn, 'we see the
swallows gathering in the sky, and in the osier-isle we hear their
noise,' and our hearts sink. Happy, selfish little birds, gathering so
lightly to fly whither we cannot follow you, will you not, this once,
forgo the lands of your desire? 'Shall not the grief of the old time
follow?' Do winter with us, this once! We will strew all England, every
morning, with bread-crumbs for you, will you but stay and help us to
play at summer! But the delicate cruel rogues pay no heed to us,
skimming sharplier than ever in pursuit of gnats, as the hour draws
near for their long flight over gnatless seas.

Only one swallow have I ever known to relent. It had built its nest
under the eaves of a cottage that belonged to a friend of mine, a man
who loved birds. He had a power of making birds trust him. They would
come at his call, circling round him, perching on his shoulders, eating
from his hand. One of the swallows would come too, from his nest under
the eaves. As the summer wore on, he grew quite tame. And when summer
waned, and the other swallows flew away, this one lingered, day after
day, fluttering dubiously over the threshold of the cottage. Presently,
as the air grew chilly, he built a new nest for himself, under the
mantelpiece in my friend's study. And every morning, so soon as the
fire burned brightly, he would flutter down to perch on the fender and
bask in the light and warmth of the coals. But after a few weeks he
began to ail; possibly because the study was a small one, and he could
not get in it the exercise that he needed; more probably because of the
draughts. My friend's wife, who was very clever with her needle, made
for the swallow a little jacket of red flannel, and sought to divert
his mind by teaching him to perform a few simple tricks. For a while he
seemed to regain his spirits. But presently he moped more than ever,
crouching nearer than ever to the fire, and, sidelong, blinking dim
weak reproaches at his disappointed master and mistress. One swallow,
as the adage truly says, does not make a summer. So this one's mistress
hurriedly made for him a little overcoat of sealskin, wearing which, in
a muffled cage, he was personally conducted by his master straight
through to Sicily. There he was nursed back to health, and liberated on
a sunny plain. He never returned to his English home; but the nest he
built under the mantelpiece is still preserved in case he should come
at last.

When the sun's rays slant down upon your grate, then the fire blanches
and blenches, cowers, crumbles, and collapses. It cannot compete with
its archetype. It cannot suffice a sun-steeped swallow, or ripen a
plum, or parch the carpet. Yet, in its modest way, it is to your room
what the sun is to the world; and where, during the greater part of the
year, would you be without it? I do not wonder that the poor, when they
have to choose between fuel and food, choose fuel. Food nourishes the
body; but fuel, warming the body, warms the soul too. I do not wonder
that the hearth has been regarded from time immemorial as the centre,
and used as the symbol, of the home. I like the social tradition that
we must not poke a fire in a friend's drawing-room unless our
friendship dates back full seven years. It rests evidently, this
tradition, on the sentiment that a fire is a thing sacred to the
members of the household in which it burns. I dare say the fender has a
meaning, as well as a use, and is as the rail round an altar. In 'The
New Utopia' these hearths will all have been rased, of course, as
demoralising relics of an age when people went in for privacy and were
not always thinking exclusively about the State. Such heat as may be
needed to prevent us from catching colds (whereby our vitality would be
lowered, and our usefulness to the State impaired) will be supplied
through hot-water pipes (white-enamelled), the supply being strictly
regulated from the municipal water-works. Or has Mr. Wells arranged
that the sun shall always be shining on us? I have mislaid my copy of
the book. Anyhow, fires and hearths will have to go. Let us make the
most of them while we may.

Personally, though I appreciate the radiance of a family fire, I give
preference to a fire that burns for myself alone. And dearest of all to
me is a fire that burns thus in the house of another. I find an
inalienable magic in my bedroom fire when I am staying with friends;
and it is at bedtime that the spell is strongest. 'Good night,' says my
host, shaking my hand warmly on the threshold; you've everything you
want?' 'Everything,' I assure him; 'good night.' 'Good night.' 'Good
night,' and I close my door, close my eyes, heave a long sigh, open my
eyes, set down the candle, draw the armchair close to the fire (my
fire), sink down, and am at peace, with nothing to mar my happiness
except the feeling that it is too good to be true.

At such moments I never see in my fire any likeness to a wild beast. It
roars me as gently as a sucking dove, and is as kind and cordial as my
host and hostess and the other people in the house. And yet I do not
have to say anything to it, I do not have to make myself agreeable to
it. It lavishes its warmth on me, asking nothing in return. For fifteen
mortal hours or so, with few and brief intervals, I have been making
myself agreeable, saying the right thing, asking the apt question,
exhibiting the proper shade of mild or acute surprise, smiling the
appropriate smile or laughing just so long and just so loud as the
occasion seemed to demand. If I were naturally a brilliant and copious
talker, I suppose that to stay in another's house would be no strain on
me. I should be able to impose myself on my host and hostess and their
guests without any effort, and at the end of the day retire quite
unfatigued, pleasantly flushed with the effect of my own magnetism.
Alas, there is no question of my imposing myself. I can repay
hospitality only by strict attention to the humble, arduous process of
making myself agreeable. When I go up to dress for dinner, I have
always a strong impulse to go to bed and sleep off my fatigue; and it
is only by exerting all my will-power that I can array myself for the
final labours: to wit, making myself agreeable to some man or woman for
a minute or two before dinner, to two women during dinner, to men after
dinner, then again to women in the drawing-room, and then once more to
men in the smoking-room. It is a dog's life. But one has to have
suffered before one gets the full savour out of joy. And I do not
grumble at the price I have to pay for the sensation of basking, at
length, in solitude and the glow of my own fireside.

Too tired to undress, too tired to think, I am more than content to
watch the noble and ever-changing pageant of the fire. The finest part
of this spectacle is surely when the flames sink, and gradually the
red-gold caverns are revealed, gorgeous, mysterious, with inmost
recesses of white heat. It is often thus that my fire welcomes me when
the long day's task is done. After I have gazed long into its depths, I
close my eyes to rest them, opening them again, with a start, whenever
a coal shifts its place, or some belated little tongue of flame spurts
forth with a hiss.... Vaguely I liken myself to the watchman one sees
by night in London, wherever a road is up, huddled half-awake in his
tiny cabin of wood, with a cresset of live coal before him.... I have
come down in the world, and am a night-watchman, and I find the life as
pleasant as I had always thought it must be, except when I let the fire
out, and awake shivering.... Shivering I awake, in the twilight of
dawn. Ashes, white and grey, some rusty cinders, a crag or so of coal,
are all that is left over from last night's splendour. Grey is the lawn
beneath my window, and little ghosts of rabbits are nibbling and
hobbling there. But anon the east will be red, and, ere I wake, the sky
will be blue, and the grass quite green again, and my fire will have
arisen from its ashes, a cackling and comfortable phoenix.


I am not good at it. To do it well seems to me one of the most
difficult things in the world, and probably seems so to you, too.

To see a friend off from Waterloo to Vauxhall were easy enough. But we
are never called on to perform that small feat. It is only when a
friend is going on a longish journey, and will be absent for a longish
time, that we turn up at the railway station. The dearer the friend,
and the longer the journey, and the longer the likely absence, the
earlier do we turn up, and the more lamentably do we fail. Our failure
is in exact ratio to the seriousness of the occasion, and to the depth
of our feeling.

In a room, or even on a door-step, we can make the farewell quite
worthily. We can express in our faces the genuine sorrow we feel. Nor
do words fail us. There is no awkwardness, no restraint, on either
side. The thread of our intimacy has not been snapped. The leave-taking
is an ideal one. Why not, then, leave the leave-taking at that? Always,
departing friends implore us not to bother to come to the railway
station next morning. Always, we are deaf to these entreaties, knowing
them to be not quite sincere. The departing friends would think it very
odd of us if we took them at their word. Besides, they really do want
to see us again. And that wish is heartily reciprocated. We duly turn
up. And then, oh then, what a gulf yawns! We stretch our arms vainly
across it. We have utterly lost touch. We have nothing at all to say.
We gaze at each other as dumb animals gaze at human beings. We 'make
conversation' - and such conversation! We know that these are the
friends from whom we parted overnight. They know that we have not
altered. Yet, on the surface, everything is different; and the tension
is such that we only long for the guard to blow his whistle and put an
end to the farce.

On a cold grey morning of last week I duly turned up at Euston, to see
off an old friend who was starting for America.

Overnight, we had given him a farewell dinner, in which sadness was
well mingled with festivity. Years probably would elapse before his
return. Some of us might never see him again. Not ignoring the shadow
of the future, we gaily celebrated the past. We were as thankful to
have known our guest as we were grieved to lose him; and both these
emotions were made evident. It was a perfect farewell.

And now, here we were, stiff and self-conscious on the platform; and,
framed in the window of the railway-carriage, was the face of our
friend; but it was as the face of a stranger - a stranger anxious to
please, an appealing stranger, an awkward stranger. 'Have you got
everything?' asked one of us, breaking a silence. 'Yes, everything,'
said our friend, with a pleasant nod. 'Everything,' he repeated, with
the emphasis of an empty brain. 'You'll be able to lunch on the train,'
said I, though this prophecy had already been made more than once. 'Oh
yes,' he said with conviction. He added that the train went straight
through to Liverpool. This fact seemed to strike us as rather odd. We
exchanged glances. 'Doesn't it stop at Crewe?' asked one of us. 'No,'
said our friend, briefly. He seemed almost disagreeable. There was a
long pause. One of us, with a nod and a forced smile at the traveller,
said 'Well!' The nod, the smile, and the unmeaning monosyllable, were
returned conscientiously. Another pause was broken by one of us with a
fit of coughing. It was an obviously assumed fit, but it served to pass
the time. The bustle of the platform was unabated. There was no sign of
the train's departure. Release - ours, and our friend's - was not yet.

My wandering eye alighted on a rather portly middle-aged man who was
talking earnestly from the platform to a young lady at the next window
but one to ours. His fine profile was vaguely familiar to me. The young
lady was evidently American, and he was evidently English; otherwise I
should have guessed from his impressive air that he was her father. I
wished I could hear what he was saying. I was sure he was giving the
very best advice; and the strong tenderness of his gaze was really
beautiful. He seemed magnetic, as he poured out his final injunctions.
I could feel something of his magnetism even where I stood. And the
magnetism, like the profile, was vaguely familiar to me. Where had I
experienced it?

In a flash I remembered. The man was Hubert le Ros. But how changed
since last I saw him! That was seven or eight years ago, in the Strand.
He was then (as usual) out of an engagement, and borrowed half-a-crown.
It seemed a privilege to lend anything to him. He was always magnetic.
And why his magnetism had never made him successful on the London stage
was always a mystery to me. He was an excellent actor, and a man of
sober habit. But, like many others of his kind, Hubert le Ros (I do
not, of course, give the actual name by which he was known) drifted
seedily away into the provinces; and I, like every one else, ceased to
remember him.

It was strange to see him, after all these years, here on the platform
of Euston, looking so prosperous and solid. It was not only the flesh
that he had put on, but also the clothes, that made him hard to
recognise. In the old days, an imitation fur coat had seemed to be as
integral a part of him as were his ill-shorn lantern jaws. But now his
costume was a model of rich and sombre moderation, drawing, not
calling, attention to itself. He looked like a banker. Any one would
have been proud to be seen off by him.

'Stand back, please.' The train was about to start, and I waved
farewell to my friend. Le Ros did not stand back. He stood clasping in
both hands the hands of the young American. 'Stand back, sir, please!'
He obeyed, but quickly darted forward again to whisper some final word.
I think there were tears in her eyes. There certainly were tears in his
when, at length, having watched the train out of sight, he turned
round. He seemed, nevertheless, delighted to see me. He asked me where
I had been hiding all these years; and simultaneously repaid me the
half-crown as though it had been borrowed yesterday. He linked his arm
in mine, and walked me slowly along the platform, saying with what
pleasure he read my dramatic criticisms every Saturday.

I told him, in return, how much he was missed on the stage. 'Ah, yes,'
he said, 'I never act on the stage nowadays.' He laid some emphasis on

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