Reader, I have sent you off upon a wrong direction. I have twisted the wooden finger at the crossroads. The man of oil does not exist. He is a piece of fiction with which to point a moral. Pig-iron or cotton-cloth would have served as well; anything, in fact, whereon, by too close squinting, one may blunt his sight.
We have all observed a growing tendency in many persons to put, as it were, electric lights in all the corners and attics of their brains, until it is too much a rarity to find any one who will admit a twilight in his whole establishment. This is carrying mental housekeeping too far. I will confess that I prefer a light at the foot of the back stairs, where the steps are narrow at the turn, for Annie is precious to us. I will confess, also, that it is well to have a switch in the kitchen to throw light in the basement, on the chance that the wood-box may get empty before the evening has spent itself. There is comfort, too, in not being forced to go darkling to bed, like Childe Roland to the tower, but to put out the light from the floor above. But we are carrying this business too far in mental concerns. Here is properly a place for a rare twilight. It is not well that a man should always flare himself like a lighted ballroom.
Much of our best mental stuff—if you exclude the harsher grindings of our business hours—fades in too coarse a light. 'Tis a brocade that for best preservation must not be hung always in the sun. There must be regions in you unguessed at—cornered and shadowed places—recesses to be shown at peep of finger width, yielding only to the knock of fancy, dim sequesterings tucked obscurely from the noises of the world, where one must be taken by the hand and led—dusky closets beyond the common use. It is in such places—your finger on your lips and your feet a-tiptoe on the stairs—that you will hide away from baser uses the stowage of moonlight stuff and such other gaseous and delightful foolery as may lie in your inheritance.
HOOPSKIRTS & OTHER LIVELY MATTER
HOOPSKIRTS & OTHER LIVELY MATTER
Several months ago I had occasion to go through a deserted "mansion." It was a gaunt building with long windows and it sat in a great yard. Over the windows were painted scrolls, like eyebrows lifted in astonishment. Whatever was the cause of this, it has long since departed, for it is thirty years since the building was tenanted. It would seem as if it fell asleep—for so the blinds and the drawn curtains attest—before the lines of this first astonishment were off its face. I am told that the faces of men dead in battle show in similar fashion the marks of conflict. But there is a shocked expression on the face of this house as if a scandal were on the street. It is crying, as it were, "Fie, shame!" upon its neighbors.
Inside there are old carpets and curtains which spit dust at you if you touch them. (Is there not some fabulous animal which does the same, thereby to escape in the mirk it has itself created?) Most of the furniture has been removed, but here and there bulky pieces remain, an antique sideboard, maybe too large to be taken away; like Robinson Crusoe's boat, too heavy to be launched. In each room is a chandelier for gas, resplendent as though Louis XV had come again to life, with tinkling glass pendants and globules interlinked, like enormous Kohinoors.
Down in the kitchen—which is below stairs as in an old English comedy—you can see the place where the range stood. And there are smoky streaks upon the walls that may have come from the coals of ancient feasts. If you sniff, and put your fancy in it—it is an unsavory thought—it is likely even that you can get the stale smell from such hospitable preparation.
From the first floor to the second is a flaring staircase with a landing where opulence can get its breath. And then there is a choice of upward steps, either to the right or left as your wish shall direct. And on each side is a balustrade unbroken by posts from top to bottom. Now the first excitement of my own life was on such a rail, which seemed a funicular made for my special benefit. The seats of all my early breeches, I have been told, were worn shiny thereon, like a rubbed apple. These descents were executed slowly at the turn, but gathered wild speed on the straight-away. There was slight need for Annie to dust the "balusters."
An old house is strong in its class distinctions. There is a front part and a back part. To know the front part is to know it in its spacious and generous moods. But somewhere you will find a door and there will be three steps behind it, and poof!—you will be prying into the darker life of the place. In this particular house of which I write, it was as if the back rooms, the back halls and the innumerable closets had been playing at hide and seek and had not been told when the game was over, and so still kept to their hiding places. It is in such obscure closets that a family skeleton, if it be kept at all, might be kept most safely. There would be slight hazard of its discovery if the skeleton restrained itself from clanking, as is the whim of skeletons.
It was in the back part of this house that I came on a closet, where, after all these years, women's garments were still hanging. A lighted match—for I am no burglar with a bull's-eye as you might suspect—displayed to me an array of petticoats—the flounced kind that gladdened the eye of woman in those remote days—also certain gauzy matters which the writers of the eighteenth century called by the name of smocks. Besides these, there were suspended from hooks those sartorial deceits, those lying mounds of fashion, that false incrustation on the surface of nature, known as "bustles." Also, there was a hoopskirt curled upon the floor, and an open barrel with a stowage of books—a novel or two of E. P. Roe, the poems of John Saxe, a table copy of Whittier in padded leather, an album with a flourish on the cover—these at the top of the heap.
I choose to trace the connection between the styles of dress and books, and—where my knowledge serves—to show the effect of political change on both. For it is written that when Constantinople fell in the fifteenth century Turkish costumes became the fashion through western Europe—maybe a flash of eastern color across the shoulders or an oriental buckle for the shoes. Similarly the Balkan War gave us hints for dress. Many styles to-day are marks of our kinship with the East. These are mere broken promptings for your own elaboration. And it seems to sort with this theory of close relation, that the generation which flared and flounced its person until nature was no more than a kernel in the midst, which puffed itself like a muffin with but a finger-point of dough within, should be the generation that particularly delighted in romantic literature, in which likewise nature is so prudently wrapped that scarce an ankle can show itself. It would be a nice inquiry whether the hoopskirt was not introduced—it was midway in the eighteenth century, I think—at the time of the first budding of romantic sentiment. The "Man of Feeling" came after and Anne Radcliffe's novels. Is it not significant also, in these present days of Russian novels and naked realism, that costume should advance sympathetically to the edge of modesty?
There is something, however, to be said in favor of romantic books, despite the horrible examples at the top of this barrel. Perhaps our own literature shivers in too thin a shift. For once upon a time somewhere between the age of bustles and ourselves there were writers who ended their stories "and they were married and lived happily ever after." Whereas at this present day stories are begun "They were married and straightway things began to go to the devil." And for my own part I have read enough of family quarrels. I am tired of the tune upon the triangle and I am ready for softer flutings. When I visit my neighbors, I want them to make a decent pretense. It was Charles Lamb who found his married friends too loving in his presence, but let us not go to extremes! And so, after I have read a few books of marital complication, I yearn for the old-fashioned couple in the older books who went hand in hand to old age. At this minute there is a black book that looks down upon me like a crow. It is "Crime and Punishment." I read it once when I was ill, and I nearly died of it. I confess that after a very little acquaintance with such books I am tempted to sequester them on a top shelf somewhere, beyond reach of tiptoe, where they may brood upon their banishment and rail against the world.
Encyclopedias and the tonnage of learning properly take their places on the lowest shelves, for their lump and mass make a fitting foundation. I must say, however, that the habit of the dictionary of secreting itself in the darkest corner of the lowest shelf contributes to general illiteracy. I have known families wrangle for ten minutes on the meaning of a word rather than lift this laggard from its depths. Be that as it may, the novels and poetry should be on the fifth shelf from the bottom, just off the end of the nose, so to speak.
Now, the vinegar cruet is never the largest vessel in the house. So by strict analogy, sour books—the kind that bite the temper and snarl upon your better moods—should be in a small minority. Do not mistake me! I shall find a place, maybe, for a volume or two of Nietzsche, and all of Ibsen surely. I would admit uplift too, for my taste is catholic. And there will be other books of a kind that never rouse a chuckle in you. For these are necessary if for no more than as alarm clocks to awake us from our dreaming self-content. But in the main I would not have books too insistent upon the wrongs of the world and the impossibility of remedy.
I confess to a liking for tales of adventure, for wrecks in the South Seas, for treasure islands, for pirates with red shirts. Mark you, how a red shirt lights up a dull page! It is like a scarlet leaf on a gray November day. Also I have a weakness for the bang of pistols, round oaths and other desperate rascality. In such stories there is no small mincing. A villain proclaims himself on his first appearance—unless John Silver be an exception—and retains his villainy until the rope tightens about his neck in the last chapter but one; the very last being set aside for the softer commerce of the hero and heroine.
You will remember that about twenty years ago a fine crop of such stories came out of the Balkans. At that time it was a dim, unknown land, a kind of novelists' Coast of Bohemia, an appropriate setting for distressed princesses. I'll hazard a guess that there was not a peak in all that district on which there was not some Black Rudolph's castle, not a road that did not clack romantically with horses' hoofs on bold adventure. But the wars have changed all this by bringing too sharp a light upon the dim scenery of this pageantry, and swash-bucklery is all but dead.
To confess the truth, it is in such stories that I like horses best. In real life I really do not like them at all. I am rather afraid of them as of strange organisms that I can neither start with ease nor stop with safety. It is not that I never rode or drove a horse. I have achieved both. But I don't urge him to deviltry. Instead I humor his whims. Some horses even I might be fond of. Give me a horse that nears the age of slippered pantaloon and is, moreover, phlegmatic in his tastes, and then, as the stories say "with tightened girth and feet well home"—but enough! I must not be led into boasting.
But in these older stories I love a horse. With what fire do his hoofs ring out in the flight of elopement! "Pursuit's at the turn. Speed my brave Dobbin!" And when the Prince has kissed the Princess' hand, you know that the story is nearly over and that they will live happily ever after. Of course there is always someone to suggest that Cinderella was never happy after she left her ashes and pumpkins and went to live in the palace. But this is idle gossip. Even if there were "occasional bickerings" between her and the Prince, this is as Lamb says it should be among "near relations."
I nearly died of "Crime and Punishment." These Russian novelists have too distressful a point of view. They remind me too painfully of the poem—
It was dreadful dark In that doleful ark When the elephants went to bed.
Doubtless if the lights burn high in you, it is well to read such gloom as is theirs. Perhaps they depict life. These things may be true and if so, we ought to know them. At the best, theirs is a real attempt "to cleanse the foul body of the infected world." But if there be a blast without and driving rain, must we be always running to the door to get it in our face? Will not one glance in the evening be enough? Shall we be always exposing ourselves "to feel what wretches feel"? It is true that we are too content under the suffering of others, but it is true, also, that too few of us were born under a laughing star. Gray shadows fall too often on our minds. A sunny road is the best to travel by. Furthermore—and here is a deep platitude—there is many a man who sobs upon a doleful book, who to the end of time will blithely underpay his factory girls. His grief upon the book is diffuse. It ranges across the mountains of the world, but misses the nicer point of his own conduct. Is this not sentimentally like the gray yarn hysteria under the spell of which wealthy women clicked their needles in public places for the soldiers? Let me not underrate the number of garments that they made—surely a single machine might produce as many within a week. But there is danger that their work was only a sentimental expression of their world-grief. I'll sink to depths of practicality and claim that a pittance from their allowances would have bought more and better garments in the market.
Perhaps we read too many tragical books. In the decalogue the inheritance of evil is too strongly visited on the children to the third and fourth generation, and there is scant sanction as to the inheritance of goodness. It is the sins of the fathers that live in the children. It is the evil that men do that lives after them, while the good, alas, is oft interred with their bones. If a doleful book stirs you up to life, for God's sake read it! If it wraps you all about as in a winding sheet for death, you had best have none of it.
I had now burned several matches—and my fingers too—in the inspection of the closet where the women's garments hung. And it came on me as I poked the books within the barrel and saw what silly books were there, that perhaps I have overstated my position. It would be a lighter doom, I thought, to be rived and shriveled by the lightning flash of a modern book, even "Crime and Punishment," than stultified by such as were within.
Then, like the lady of the poem
Having sat me down upon a mound To think on life, I concluded that my views were sound And got me up and turned me round, And went me home again.
In old literature life was compared to a journey, and wise men rejoiced to question old men because, like travelers, they knew the sloughs and roughnesses of the long road. Men arose with the sun, and toddled forth as children on the day's journey of their lives, and became strong to endure the heaviness of noonday. They strived forward during the hours of early afternoon while their sun's ambition was hot, and then as the heat cooled they reached the crest of the last hill, and their road dipped gently to the valley where all roads end. And on into the quiet evening, until, at last, they lie down in that shadowed valley, and await the long night.
This figure has lost its meaning, for we now travel by rail, and life is expressed in terms of the railway time-table. As has been said, we leave and arrive at places, but we no longer travel. Consequently we cannot understand the hubbub that Marco Polo must have caused among his townsmen when he swaggered in. He and his crew were bronzed by the sun, were dressed as Tartars, and could speak their native Italian with difficulty. To convince the Venetians of their identity, Marco gave a magnificent entertainment, at which he and his officers received, clad in oriental dress of red satin. Three times during the banquet they changed their dress, distributing the discarded garments among their guests. At last, the rough Tartar clothing worn on their travels was displayed and then ripped open. Within was a profusion of jewels of the Orient, the gifts of Kublai Khan of Cathay. The proof was regarded as perfect, and from that time Marco was acknowledged by his countrymen, and loaded with distinction. When Drake returned from the Straits of Magellan and, powdered and beflunkied, told his lies at fashionable London dinners, no doubt he was believed. And his crew, let loose on the beer-shops, gathered each his circle of listeners, drank at his admirers' expense, and yarned far into the night. It was worth one's while to be a traveler in those times.
But traveling has fallen to the yellow leaf. The greatest traveler is now the brakeman. Next is he who sells colored cotton. A poor third pursues health and flees from restlessness. Wise men have ceased to question travelers, except to inquire of the arrival of trains and of the comfort of hotels.
To-day I am a thousand miles from home. From my window the world stretches massive, homewards. Even though I stood on the most distant range of mountains and looked west, still I would look on a world that contained no suggestion of home; and if I leaped to that horizon and the next, the result would be the same—so insignificant would be the relative distance accomplished. And here I am set down with no knowledge of how I came. There was a continuous jar and the noise of motion. We passed a barn or two, I believe, and on one hillside animals were frightened from their grazing as we passed. There were the cluttered streets of several cities and villages. There was a prodigious number of telegraph poles going in the opposite direction, hell-bent as fast as we, which poles considerately went at half speed through towns, for fear of hitting children. The United States was once an immense country, and extended quite to the sunset. For convenience we have reduced its size, and made it but a map of its former self. Any section of this map can be unrolled and inspected in a day's time.
In the books for children is the story of the seven-league boots—wonderful boots, worth a cobbler's fortune. If a prince is escaping from an ogre, if he is eloping with a princess, if he has an engagement at the realm's frontier and the wires are down, he straps these boots to his feet and strides the mountains and spans the valleys. For with the clicking of the silver buckles he has destroyed the dimensions of space. Length, breadth and depth are measured for him but in wishes. One wish and perhaps a snap of the fingers, or an invocation to the devil of locomotion, and he stands on a mountain-top, the next range of hills blue in the distance; another wish and another snap and he has leaped the valley. Wonderful boots, these! Worth a king's ransom. And this prince, too, as he travels thus dizzily may remember one or two barns, animals frightened from their grazing, and the cluttered streets nested in the valley. When he reaches his journey's end he will be just as wise and just as ignorant as we who now travel by rail in magic, seven-league fashion. For here I am set down, and all save the last half-mile of my path is lost in the curve of the mountains. From my window I see the green-covered mountains, so different from city streets with their horizon of buildings.
I fancy that, on the memorable morning when Aladdin's Palace was set down in Africa after its magic night's ride from the Chinese capital, a housemaid must have gone to the window, thrown back the hangings and looked out, astounded, on the barren mountains, when she expected to see only the courtyard of the palace and its swarm of Chinese life. She then recalled that the building rocked gently in the night, and that she heard a whirling sound as of wind. These were the only evidences of the devil-guided flight. Now she looked on a new world, and the familiar pagodas lay far to the east within the eye of the rising sun.
There are summer evenings in my recollection when I have traveled the skies, landing from the sky's blue sea upon the cloud continent, and traversing its mountain ranges, its inland lakes, harbors and valleys. Over the wind-swept ridges I have gone, watching the world-change, seeing
the hungry ocean gain Advantage on the Kingdom of the shore, And the firm soil win of the watery main, Increasing store with loss and loss with store.
The greatest traveler that I know is a little man, slightly bent, who walks with a stick in his garden or sits passive in his library. Other friends have boasted of travels in the Orient, of mornings spent on the Athenian Acropolis, of visiting the Theatre of Dionysius, and of hallooing to the empty seats that re-echoed. They warn me of this and that hotel, and advise me concerning the journey from London. The usual tale of travelers is that Athens is a ruin. I have heard it rumored, for instance, that the Parthenon marbles are in London, and that the Parthenon itself has suffered from the "wreckful siege of battering days"; that the walls to Piraeus contain hardly one stone left upon another.
And this sets me to thinking, for my friend denies all this with such an air of sincerity that I am almost inclined to believe his word against all the others. The Athens he pictures is not ruinous. The Parthenon stands before him as it left the hand of Phidias. The walls to Piraeus stand high as on that morning, now almost forgotten, when Athens awaited the Spartan attack. For him the Dionysian Theatre does not echo to tourists' shouts, but gives forth the sounds of many-voiced Greek life. He knows, too, the people of Athens. He walked one day with Socrates along the banks of the Ilissus, and afterwards visited him in his prison when about to drink the hemlock. It is of the grandeur of Athens and her sons that he speaks, not of her ruins. The best of his travels is that he buys no tickets of Cook, nor, indeed, of any one, and when he has seen the cities' sights, his wife enters and says, "Isn't it time for the bookworm to eat?" So he has his American supper in the next room overlooking Attica, so to speak.
THROUGH THE SCUTTLE WITH THE TINMAN
THROUGH THE SCUTTLE WITH THE TINMAN
Yesterday I was on the roof with the tinman. He did not resemble the tinman of the "Wizard of Oz" or the flaming tinman of "Lavengro," for he wore a derby hat, had a shiny seat, and smoked a ragged cigar. It was a flue he was fixing, a thing of metal for the gastronomic whiffs journeying from the kitchen to the upper airs. There was a vent through the roof with a cone on top to shed the rain. I watched him from the level cover of a second-story porch as he scrambled up the shingles. I admire men who can climb high places and stand upright and unmoved at the gutter's edge. But their bravado forces on me unpleasantly how closely I am tied because of dizziness to Mother Earth's apron strings. These fellows who perch on scaffolds and flaunt themselves on steeple tops are frontiersmen. They stand as the outposts of this flying globe. Often when I observe a workman descend from his eagle's nest in the open steel frame of a lofty building, I look into his face for some trace of exaltation, some message from his wider horizon. You may remember how they gazed into Alcestis' face when she returned from the House of Hades, that they might find there a token of her shadowed journey. It is lucky that I am no taller than six feet; if ten, giddiness would set in and reversion to type on all fours. An undizzied man is to me as much of a marvel as one who in his heart of hearts is not afraid of a horse.
Maybe after all, it is just because I am so cowardly and dizzy that I have a liking for high places and especially for roofs. Although here my people have lived for thousands of years on the very rim of things, with the unimagined miles above them and the glitter of Orion on their windows, so little have I learned of these verities that I am frightened on my shed top and the grasses below make me crouch in terror. And yet to my fearful perceptions there may be pleasures that cannot exist for the accustomed and jaded senses of the tinman. Could he feel stimulus in Hugo's description of Paris from the towers of Notre Dame? He is too much the gargoyle himself for the delights of dizziness.
Quite a little could be said about the creative power of gooseflesh. If Shakespeare had been a tinman he could not have felt the giddy height and grandeur of the Dover Cliffs; Ibsen could not have wrought the climbing of the steeple into the crisis and calamity of "The Master Builder"; Teufelsdroeckh could not have uttered his extraordinary night thoughts above the town of Weissnichtwo; "Prometheus Bound" would have been impossible. Only one with at least a dram of dizziness could have conceived an "eagle-baffling mountain, black, wintry, dead, unmeasured." In the days when we read Jules Verne, was not our chief pleasure found in his marvelous way of suspending us with swimming senses over some fearful abyss; wet and slippery crags maybe, and void and blackness before us and below; and then just to give full measure of fright, a sound of running water in the depths. Doesn't it raise the hair? Could a tinman have written it?
But even so, I would like to feel at home on my own roof and have a slippered familiarity with my slates and spouts. A chimney-sweep in the old days doubtless had an ugly occupation, and the fear of a sooty death must have been recurrent to him. But what a sable triumph was his when he had cleared his awful tunnel and had emerged into daylight, blooming, as Lamb would say, in his first tender nigritude! "I seem to remember," he continues, "that a bad sweep was once left in a stack with his brush to indicate which way the wind blew." After observing the tinman for a while, I put on rubber shoes and slunk up to the ridgepole, the very watershed of my sixty-foot kingdom, my legs slanting into the infinities of the North and South. It sounds unexciting when written, but there I was, astride my house, up among the vents and exhausts of my former cloistered life, my head outspinning the weathercock. My Matterhorn had been climbed, "the pikes of darkness named and stormed." Next winter when I sit below snug by the fire and hear the wind funneling down the chimney, will not my peace be deeper because I have known the heights where the tempest blows, and the rain goes pattering, and the whirling tin cones go mad?
Right now, if I dared, I would climb to the roof again, and I would sit with my feet over the edge and crane forward and do crazy things just because I could. Then maybe my neighbors would mistake the point of my philosophy and lock me up; would sympathize with my fancies as did Sir Toby and Maria with Malvolio. If one is to escape bread and water in the basement, one's opinions on such slight things as garters and roofs must be kept dark. Be a freethinker, if you will, on the devil, the deep sea, and the sunrise, but repress yourself in the trifles.
I like flat roofs. There is in my town a public library on the top story of a tall building, and on my way home at night I often stop to read a bit before its windows. When my eyes leave my book and wander to the view of the roofs, I fancy that the giant hands of a phrenologist are feeling the buildings which are the bumps of the city. And listening, I seem to hear his dictum "Vanity"; for below is the market of fashion. The world has sunk to ankle height. I sit on the shoulders of the world, above the tar-and-gravel scum of the city. And at my back are the books—the past, all that has been, the manners of dress and thought—they too peeping aslant through these windows. Soon it will be dark and this day also will be done and burn its ceremonial candles; and the roar from the pavement will be the roar of yesterday.
Astronomy would have come much later if it had not been for the flat roofs of the Orient and its glistening nights. In the cloudy North, where the roofs were thatched or peaked, the philosophers slept indoors tucked to the chin. But where the nights were hot, men, banished from sleep, watched the rising of the stars that they might point the hours. They studied the recurrence of the star patterns until they knew when to look for their reappearance. It was under a cloudless, breathless sky that the constellations were named and their measures and orbits allotted. On the flat roof of some Babylonian temple of Bel came into life astrology, "foolish daughter of a wise mother," that was to bind the eyes of the world for nearly two thousand years, the most enduring and the strongest of superstitions. It was on these roofs, too, that the planets were first maligned as wanderers, celestial tramps; and this gossip continued until recent years when at last it appeared that they are bodies of regular and irreproachable habits, eccentric in appearance only, doing a cosmic beat with a time-clock at each end, which they have never failed to punch at the proper moment.
Somewhere, if I could but find it, must exist a diary of one of these ancient astronomers—and from it I quote in anticipation. "Early this night to my roof," it runs, "the heavens being bare of clouds (_coelo aperto_). Set myself to measure the elevation of Sagittarius Alpha with my new astrolabe sent me by my friend and master, Hafiz, from out Arabia. Did this night compute the equation a=(Dx/2T)f(a, b c T_3). Thus did I prove the variations of the ellipse and show Hassan Sabah to be the mule he is. Then rested, pacing my roof even to the rising of the morning star, which burned red above the Sultan's turret. To bed, satisfied with this night."
Northern literature has never taken the roof seriously. There have been many books written from the viewpoint of windows. The study window is usual. Then there is the college window and the Thrums window. Also there is a window viewpoint as yet scarcely expressed; that of the boy of Stevenson's poems with his nose flattened against the glass—convalescence looking for sailormen with one leg. What is "Un Philosophe sous les Toits" but a garret and its prospect? But does Souvestre ever go up on the roof? He contents himself with opening his casement and feeding crumbs to the birds. Not once does he climb out and scramble around the mansard. On wintry nights neither his legs nor thoughts join the windy devils that play tempest overhead. Then again, from Westminster bridges, from country lanes, from crowded streets, from ships at sea, and mountain tops have sonnets been thrown to the moon; not once from the roof.
Is not this neglect of the roof the chief reason why we Northerners fear the night? When darkness is concerned, the cowardice of our poetry is notorious. It skulks, so to speak, when beyond the glare of the street lights. I propound it as a question for scholars.
'Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world.
Why is the night conceived as the time for the bogey to be abroad?—an
... evil thing that walks by night, In fog or fire, by lake or moorish fen, Blue meager hag, or stubborn unlaid ghost That breaks his magic chains at curfew time.
Why does not this slender, cerulean dame keep normal hours and get sleepy after dinner with the rest of us—and so to bed? Such a baneful thing is night, "hideous," reeking with cold shivers and gloom, from which morning alone gives relief.
Pack, clouds, away! and welcome, day! With night we banish sorrow.
Day is jocund that stands on the misty mountain tops.
But we cannot expect the night to be friendly and wag its tail when we slam against it our doors and, until lately, our windows. Naturally it takes to ghoulishness. It was in the South where the roofs are flat and men sleep as friends with the night that it was written, "The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament showeth his handiwork."
I get full of my subject as I write and a kind of rage comes over me as I think of the wrongs the roof has suffered. It is the only part of the house that has not kept pace with the times. To say that you have a good roof is taken as meaning that your roof is tight, that it keeps out the water, that it excels in those qualities in which it excelled equally three thousand years ago. What you ought to mean is that you have a roof that is flat and has things on it that make it livable, where you can walk, disport yourself, or sleep; a house-top view of your neighbors' affairs; an airy pleasance with a full sweep of stars; a place to listen of nights to the drone of the city; a place of observation, and if you are so inclined, of meditation.
Everything but the roof has been improved. The basement has been coddled with electric lights until a coal hole is no longer an abode of mystery. Even the garret, that used to be but a dusty suburb of the house and lumber room for early Victorian furniture, has been plastered and strewn with servants' bedrooms.
There was a garret once: somewhat misty now after these twenty years. It was not daubed to respectability with paint, nor was it furnished forth as bedrooms; but it was rough-timbered, and resounded with drops when the dark clouds passed above. On bright days a cheerful light lay along the floor and dust motes danced in its luminous shaft. And always there was cobwebbed stillness. But on dark days, when the roof pattered and the branches of trees scratched the shingles and when windows rattled, a deeper obscurity crept out of the corners. Yet was there little fear in the place. This was the front garret where the theatre was, with the practicable curtain. But when the darker mood was on us, there was the back garret. It was six steps lower and over it the roof crouched as if to hide its secrets. The very men that built it must have been lowering, bearded fellows; for they put into it many corners and niches and black holes. The wood, too, from which it was fashioned must have been gnarled and knotted and the nails rusty and crooked. One window cast a narrow light down the middle of this room, but at both sides was immeasurable night. When you had stooped in from the sunlight and had accustomed your eyes to the dimness, you found yourself in an uncertain anchorage of old furniture, abandoned but offering dusty covert for boys with the light of brigands in their eyes. A pirates' den lay safe behind the chimney, protected by a bristling thicket of chairs and table legs, to be approached only on hands and knees after divers rappings. And back there in the dark were strange boxes—strange boxes, stout and securely nailed. But the garret has gone.
Whither have the pirates fled? Maybe some rumor of the great change reached them in their fastnesses; and then in the light of early dawn, in single file they climbed the ladder, up through the scuttle. And straddling the ridgepole with daggers between their teeth, alas, they became dizzy and toppled down the steep shingles to the gutter, to be whirled away in the torrent of an April shower. Ah me! Had only the roof been flat! Then it would have been for them a reservation where they might have lived on and waited for the sound of children's feet to come again. Then when those feet had come and the old life had returned, then from aloft you would hear the old cry of Ship-ahoy, and you would know that at last your house had again slipped its moorings and was off to Madagascar or the Straits.
Where shall we adventure, to-day that we're afloat, Wary of the weather and steering by a star? Shall it be to Africa, asteering of the boat, To Providence, or Babylon, or off to Malabar?
So a roof must be more than a cover. The roof of a boat, its deck, is arranged for occupation and is its best part. Consider the omnibus! Even it has seats on top, the best seats in fine weather. When Martin Chuzzlewit went up to London it was on the top of the coach he sat. Pickwick betook himself, gaiters, small-clothes, and all, to the roof. Even the immaculate Rollo scorned the inside seats. He sat on top, you may remember, and sucked oranges to ward off malaria, he and that prince of roisterers, Uncle George. De Quincey is the authority on mail coaches and for the roof seats he is all fire and enthusiasm. It happened once, to continue with De Quincey, that a state coach was presented by His Majesty George the Third of England, as a gift to the Chinese Emperor. This kind of vehicle being unknown in Peking, "it became necessary to call a cabinet council on the grand state question, 'Where was the Emperor to sit?' The hammer cloth happened to be unusually gorgeous; and partly on that consideration, but partly also because the box offered the most elevated seat, was nearest the moon, and undeniably went foremost, it was resolved by acclamation that the box was the Imperial throne, and for the scoundrel who drove, he could sit where he could find a perch."
Consider that the summer day has ended and that you are tired with its rush and heat. Up you must climb to your house-roof. On the rim of the sky is the blurred light from the steel furnaces at the city's edge and, paneling this, stands a line of poplars stirring and sounding in the night wind.
Alone upon the house-top to the North I turn and watch the lightnings in the sky.
Is it fanciful to think that into the mind comes a little of the beauty of the older world when roofs were flat and men meditated under the stars and saw visions in the night?
Once upon a time I crossed the city of Nuremberg after dark; the market cleared of all traces of its morning sale, the "Schoener Brunnen" at its edge, the narrow defile leading to the citadel, the climb at the top. And then I came to an open parade above the town—"except the Schlosskirche Weathercock no biped stands so high." The night had swept away all details of buildings. Nuremberg lay below like a dark etching, the centuries folded and creased in its obscurities. Then from some gaunt tower came a peal of bells, the hour maybe, and then an answering peal. "Thus stands the night," they said; "thus stand the stars." I was in the presence of Time and its black wings were brushing past me. What star was in the ascendant, I knew not. And yet in me I felt a throb that came by blind, circuitous ways from some far-off Chaldean temple, seven-storied in the night. In me was the blood of the star-gazer, my emotions recalling the rejected beliefs, the signs and wonders of the heavens. The waves of old thought had but lately receded from the world; and I, but a chink and hollow on the beach, had caught my drop of the ebbing ocean.