"Something Defeasible", by Max Beerbohm
[Sir Henry Maximilian "Max" Beerbohm (24 August 1872 – 20 May 1956) was an English essayist, parodist and caricaturist under the signature Max. He first became known in the 1890s as a dandy and a humorist. He was the drama critic for the Saturday Review from 1898 until 1910, when he relocated to Rapallo, Italy. In his later years he was popular for his occasional radio broadcasts. Among his best-known works is his only novel, Zuleika Dobson, published in 1911.]
And Even Now
The cottage had a good trim garden in front of it, and another behind it. I might not have noticed it at all but for them and their emerald greenness. Yet itself (I saw when I studied it) was worthy of them. Sussex is rich in fine Jacobean cottages; and their example, clearly, had not been lost on the builder of this one. Its proportions had a homely grandeur. It was long and wide and low. It was quite a yard long. It had three admirable gables. It had a substantial and shapely chimney-stack. I liked the look that it had of honest solidity all over, nothing anywhere scamped in the workmanship of it. It looked as though it had been built for all time.
But this was not so. For it was built on sand, and of sand ; and the tide was coming in.
Here and there in its vicinity stood other buildings. None of these possessed any points of interest. They were just old-fashioned ‘castles,’ of the bald and hasty kind which I myself used to make in childhood and could make even now—conic affairs, with or without untidily-dug moats, the nullities of convention and of unskilled labour. When I was a child the charm of a castle was not in the building of it, but in jumping over it when it was built. Nor was this an enduring charm. After a few jumps one abandoned one’s castle and asked one’s nurse for a bun, or picked a quarrel with some child even smaller than oneself, or went paddling. As it was, so it is. My survey of the sands this morning showed me that forty years had made no difference. Here was plenty of animation, plenty of scurrying and gambolling, of laughter and tears. But the actual spadework was a mere empty form. For all but the builder of that cottage. For him, manifestly, a passion, a rite.
He stood, spade in hand, contemplating, from one angle and another, what he had done. He was perhaps nine years old; if so, small for his age. He had very thin legs in very short grey knickerbockers, a pale freckled face, and hair that matched the sand. He was not remarkable. But with a little good-will one can always find something impressive in anybody. When Mr. Mallaby-Deeley won a wide and very sudden fame in connexion with Covent Garden, an awe-stricken reporter wrote of him for The Daily Mail, ‘he has the eyes of a dreamer.’ I believe that Mr. Cecil Rhodes really had. So, it seemed to me, had this little boy. They were pale grey eyes, rather prominent, with an unwavering light in them. I guessed that they were regarding the cottage rather as what it should be than as what it had become. To me it appeared quite perfect. But I surmised that to him, artist that he was, it seemed a poor thing beside his first flushed conception.
He knelt down and, partly with the flat of his spade, partly with the palm of one hand, redressed some (to me obscure) fault in one of the gables. He rose, stood back, his eyes slowly endorsed the amendment. A few moments later, very suddenly, he scudded away to the adjacent breakwater and gave himself to the task of scraping off it some of the short green sea-weed wherewith he had made the cottage’s two gardens so pleasantly realistic, oases so refreshing in the sandy desert. Were the lawns somehow imperfect? Anon, when he darted back, I saw what it was that his taste had required: lichen, moss, for the roof. Sundry morsels and patches of green he deftly disposed in the angles of roof and gables. His stock exhausted, off to the breakwater he darted, and back again, to and fro with the lightning directness of a hermit-bee making its nest of pollen. The low walls that enclosed the two gardens were in need of creepers. Little by little, this grace was added to them. I stood silently watching.
I kept silent for fear of discommoding him. All artists — by which I mean, of course, all good artists — are shy. They are trustees of something not entrusted to us others; they bear fragile treasure, not safe in a jostling crowd; they must ever be wary. And especially shy are those artists whose work is apart from words. A man of letters can mitigate his embarrassment among us by a certain glibness. Not so can the man who works through the medium of visual form and colour. Not so, I was sure, could the young architect and landscape-gardener here creating. I would have moved away had I thought my mere presence was a bother to him; but I decided that it was not : being a grown-up person, I did not matter; he had no fear that I should offer violence to his work. It was his coevals that made him uneasy. Groups of these would pause in their wild career to stand over him and watch him in a fidgety manner that hinted mischief. Suppose one of them suddenly jumped — on to the cottage !
Fragile treasure, this, in a quite literal sense; and how awfully exposed! It was spared, however. There was even legible on the faces of the stolid little boys who viewed it a sort of reluctant approval. Some of the little girls seemed to be forming with their lips the word ‘pretty,’ but then they exchanged glances with one another, signifying ‘silly.’ No one of either sex uttered any word of praise. And so, because artists, be they never so agoraphobious, do want praise, I did at length break my silence to this one.
‘I think it splendid,’ I said to him.
He looked up at me, and down at the cottage.
‘Do you ?’ he asked, looking up again.
I assured him that I did; and to test my opinion of him I asked whether he didn’t think so too. He stood the test well.
‘I wanted it rather diff’rent,’ he answered.
‘In what way different ?’
He searched his vocabulary.
‘More comf’table,’ he found.
I knew now that he was not merely the architect and builder of the cottage, but also, by courtesy of imagination, its tenant; but I was tactful enough not to let him see that I had guessed this deep and delicate secret. I did but ask him, in a quite general way, how the cottage could be better. He said that it ought to have a porch — ‘but porches tumble in.’ He was too young an artist to accept quite meekly the limits imposed by his material. He pointed along the lower edge of the roof:
‘It ought to stick out,’ he said, meaning that it wanted eaves.
I told him not to worry about that: it was the sand’s fault, not his.
‘What really is a pity,’ I said, ‘is that your house can’t last for ever.’
He was tracing now on the roof, with the edge of his spade, a criss-cross pattern, to represent tiles, and he seemed to have forgotten my presence and my kindness.
‘Aren’t you sorry,’ I asked, raising my voice rather sharply, ‘that the sea is coming in ?’
He glanced at the sea.
He said this with a lack of emphasis that seemed to me noble though insincere.
The strain of talking in words of not more than three syllables had begun to tell on me. I bade the artist good-bye, wandered away up the half-dozen steps to the Parade, sat down on a bench, and opened the morning paper that I had brought out unread. During the War one felt it a duty to know the worst before breakfast; now that the English polity is threatened merely from within, one is apt to dally.... Merely from within ? Is that a right phrase when the nerves of unrestful Labour in any one land are interplicated with its nerves in any other, so vibrantly ? News of the dismissal of an erring workman in Timbuctoo is enough nowadays to make us apprehensive of vast and dreadful effects on our own immediate future. How pleasant if we had lived our lives in the nineteenth century and no other, with the ground all firm under our feet ! True, the people who flourished then had recurring alarms. But their alarms were quite needless; whereas ours — !
Ours, as I glanced at this morning’ s news from Timbuctoo and elsewhere, seemed odiously needful. Withal, our Old Nobility in its pleasaunces was treading once more the old graceful measure which the War arrested; Bohemia had resumed its motley; even the middle class was capering, very noticeably... To gad about smiling as though he were quite well, thank you, or to sit down, pull a long face, and make his soul, — which, I wondered, is the better procedure for a man knowing that very soon he will have to undergo a vital operation at the hands of a wholly unqualified surgeon who dislikes him personally ? I inclined to think the gloomier way the less ghastly.
But then, I asked myself, was my analogy a sound one ? We are at the mercy of Labour, certainly; and Labour does not love us; and Labour is not deeply versed in statecraft. But would an unskilled surgeon, however ill-wishing, care to perform a drastic operation on a patient by whose death he himself would forthwith perish ? Labour is wise enough — surely ? — not to will us destruction. Russia has been an awful example. Surely ! And yet, Labour does not seem to think the example so awful as I do. Queer, this; queer and disquieting.
I rose from my bench, strolled to the railing, and gazed forth. The unrestful, the well-organised and minatory sea had been advancing quickly. It was not very far now from the cottage. I thought of all the civilisations that had been, that were not, that were as though they had never been. Must it always be thus ? — always the same old tale of growth and greatness and overthrow, nothingness ? I gazed at the cottage, all so solid and seemly, so full of endearing character, so like to the ‘comf’table’ polity of England as we have known it. I gazed away from it to a largeish castle that the sea was just reaching. A little, then quickly much, the waters swirled into the moat. Many children stood by, all a-dance with excitement. The castle was shedding its sides, lapsing, dwindling, landslipping — gone. O Nineveh ! And now another — O Memphis ? Rome ? — yielded to the cataclysm. I listened to the jubilant screams of the children. What rapture, what wantoning !
Motionless beside his work stood the builder of the cottage, gazing seaward, a pathetic little figure. I hoped the other children would have the decency not to exult over the unmaking of what he had made so well. This hope was not fulfilled. I had not supposed it would be. What did surprise me, when anon the sea rolled close up to the cottage, was the comportment of the young artist himself. His sobriety gave place to an intense animation. He leapt, he waved his spade, he invited the waves with wild gestures and gleeful cries. His face had flushed bright, and now, as the garden walls crumbled, and the paths and lawns were mingled by the waters’ influence and confluence, and the walls of the cottage itself began to totter, and the gables sank, and all, all was swallowed, his leaps were so high in air that they recalled to my memory those of a strange religious sect which once visited London; and the glare of his eyes was less indicative of a dreamer than of a triumphant fiend.
I myself was conscious of a certain wild enthusiasm within me. But this was less surprising for that I had not built the cottage, and my fancy had not enabled me to dwell in it. It was the boy’s own enthusiasm that made me feel, as never before, how deep-rooted in the human breast the love of destruction, of mere destruction, is. And I began to ask myself: ‘Even if England as we know it, the English polity of which that cottage was a symbol to me, were the work of (say) Mr. Robert Smillie’s own unaided hands’ — but I waived the question coming from that hypothesis, and other questions that would have followed; for I wished to be happy while I might."