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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XII An Excursion in Literature

page 123

Chapter XII An Excursion in Literature

It had all come about through the unpacking of the box of books and Robert's offer to Lena to lend her any volume she cared to read. But one day Robert discovered that history became more intelligible when it was read aloud, because the movement of words was then sufficiently rapid to create pictures, an effect which was not produced in the course of the slow finger-following perusal which his want of practice necessitated. So Lena became the reader. She had a musical voice, full of delicate shades of feeling, and it flowed trippingly over proper nouns in a way that took Robert's breath away until he became used to it. Then in that alien country the Old World scenes, as depicted by the genius of the historian, took fresh being, and they saw the wild English and Saxon hordes, the men who were not to be denied, swoop down on the sacred land, where was yet the dying clasp of the Roman. Other parts of the book they merely skimmed, picking out the battles for special attention, as children pick plums from a cake. But the history of the English till the Conquest, the stirring story of the page 124dominant race through the stormy five hundred years of its childhood, that was a thing of which Robert never grew tired. 'What beggars they were!' he would say, rapt in admiration. 'No wonder their children conquered the world.'

'But,' Lena suggested with misgivings, 'they were always being subdued and ruled over by foreign kings—Norsemen and Danes.'

Robert puzzled over this, and at their next meeting he had an answer ready. 'It was because they were so headstrong that none of their own race could rule them,' he said. 'They were always quarrelling, and their jealousy of one another was so fierce that they could put up with any king so long as he was not one of themselves. I can understand that quite easily. But the people themselves never paid much attention to the kings, and they went straight on as they liked. And if foreigners landed anywhere the English just swallowed them, and remained as much English as they were before. Even after William the Conqueror it only took a few generations to chew the foreigners out of existence, and England was more English than ever. But now just look, and here's the difference—when the English came they found the country full of people, like it might be the Maoris, and they went clean over them and wiped them out, every man Jack, barring a few that got among the mountains and managed to hang on till the English forgot all about them. But did any race ever do that with the English? No; peace or war, they were the better men. And they kept right on, and here they are still; and it's only just exactly what you would expect from the way they began.'

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The reading of the pair was somewhat erratic. The library contained a considerable number of books of reference, and they treated these as seriously as anything else, having but a dim idea of their proper use. The Classical Dictionary had an alphabetical arrangement, which made it somewhat disconnected reading, but it opened glimpses of a remote and surprising world, and they followed its devious path eclectically as far as E. Robert learned and remembered a great deal from this work. Among other things he acquired the knowledge that there was once a poet called Ury Pides (a monosyllable) who wrote plays, and had the misfortune to be devoured by dogs; and he heard also of a gentleman of the name of Archie Medes. Mr. Medes, it appeared, was a mathematician of some eminence in his day who was still supposed to be remembered on account of his invention of the water-screw. But Lena vetoed the Classical Dictionary after awhile, because its contents were occasionally such that she had to stop reading and refer hurriedly to Z, or even, which was safer, to the back cover. There was no system in their examination of the shelves. Robert would select a book, chiefly by its external appearance, and say, 'Try this fellow,' as though it were a special variety of potato. And Lena would take it and begin respectfully at the first word on the first page—unless, indeed, it happened to be in a foreign language, when they would both stare at the mysterious characters, so clear to the eye, so opaque to the understanding. Lena had the devouring curiosity of a high intelligence, and she made an attempt to embark on these strange seas with the aid of a dictionary; but page 126there was considerable contempt mingled with Robert's awe of the unfamiliar characters, and in the end, that they might not lose sight of one another, Lena had to put back to the shore. Their preference, they told one another, was for works of an educational character, but occasionally they were seduced into the enthralling arms of fiction, and stayed there night after night, forgetful of the world. It may be that their understanding grew more rapidly in those hours than when their fare was of a plainer description, for there they found, as nowhere else, life spread before them in its completeness. Danger lurked here, perhaps, but it remained unobserved. Their feet passed lightly and unconsciously over the delicate ground, and the trail of the serpent, if existent, was unmarked of the young readers.

Occasionally the volume proved to be poetry, and at first the unfortunate poets were returned incontinently to the shelves, as being on a par with the foreign books from the point of clearness, and but little in advance of the Classical Dictionary as regards rational sequence of ideas. But there proved to be a great many of them, and Lena at last decided that it was impossible to disregard the poets entirely.

'If there were nothing in them,' she said, 'would your brother have them?' — an argumentum ad hominem which appealed forcibly to Robert, and led to a plunge into the Idylls of the King. Lena was enraptured, a fair proportion of her delight being due to the discovery of her ability to understand; and even Robert was pleased with the fighting and colour of that legendary world.

'How grand it would be if it were all written page 127out plain like Green's Short, he observed; and Lena laughed till the tears stood in her eyes. Green's Short was Robert's first love, and it became in time the literary standard against which he measured all works, prose and poetry indifferently.

One evening Lena came to a word in her reading which arrested her attention like the sound of a bell. 'Oh, Robert,' she exclaimed, 'Shakespeare! Fancy, we have never thought of him once till now. It's like the name of a great country that every one hears of, and to think that we can go there any moment we please!'

'I did look at him,' said Robert. 'He's very close print and a bit long-winded; but there's grit in him in places. He's the man that invented, "Very like a whale."'

'He never did,' Lena replied indignantly. 'He wouldn't be so vulgar.'

'Well, I'll bet you twopence. I saw it with my own eyes. It's in a piece called Hamfet, and it made me think that he might be worth looking into.'

'You thought that because he wrote, "Very like a whale"?'

'Yes,' Robert alleged stoutly.


'Well, it seemed to me that a man who could invent a bit of slang that would keep fresh for three hundred years might have something in him.'

It was just this ability of Robert's to find at all times a reason—whether founded on a misapprehension or not—for the belief that was in him that held Lena's respect, even when she found him totally unable to share her literary enthusiasms. Robert's critical judgment appeared to be an instru-page 128merit of two strings—awed admiration and cheerful contempt—and where the author failed to arouse one he got the other with distressing certainty. Nor was Lena able to console herself with the idea that this lack of appreciation was due to a want of understanding. Robert could crack nuts on occasion, and frequently there was shown to be nothing but dust in the interior. What Robert, in fact, asked of his authors was that they should create pictures of greater or less distinctness, and where he found, after due trial, that no such, effect was produced, he would have nothing of them. Thus, much of their first distaste for poetry arose from the failure of an attempt to read a poem called Fifine at the Fair. Robert thought the title sounded promising, and he got ready for more or less vivid experiences.

After a page or two Lena looked up slily, but Robert was all attention. 'Any sign of Fifine yet?' he asked.

Lena hesitated, and scanned the immensity ahead.

'Or of the fair?' Robert asked further.

Lena shook her head.

'Well, try him a bit farther on. Maybe he's one of the sort that doesn't get going till he's warm.'

So Lena turned a page, and resumed—

'And consequent upon the learning how from strife grew peace from evil good came knowledge that to get acquaintance with the way o' the world we must not fret nor fume on altitudes of self-sufficiency but bid a frank farewell to what we think should be and with as good a grace welcome what is we find.'

'Ah, well,' said Robert, 'he don't seem to be page 129able to get down to it, even when he takes it on in prose!'

'It isn't prose; it's just the same as the other,' said Lena, exasperated. 'But I suppose we are not clever enough to understand!'

'Let's look,' said Robert. Then, after a careful perusal, 'He's talking about some chap who's been bumping his head against a stone wall, and found out the wall's the harder of the two, and he's made up his mind that it's a first-class wall, and just where it should be, and he's going away to look for a gate. That's what it means. But the chap's mumbling in a fog. Fifine at the Fair! What is Fifine? I took it for a girl; but maybe it's only a kind of hardbake.' And Robert closed the volume.

They missed a good many pearls from the difficulty they encountered in opening the oysters.

But Shakespeare draws with a great net, and the most unlikely fish yield to that universality of cast. Lena submitted unreservedly at the first tear, and thereafter she was but a slave to the caprices of the giant. Robert held out doubtfully for awhile. The great wind that blew across the ocean deafened and blinded him. But one night Uncle Toby remarked, 'A plague o' these pickle herrings,' in such a surprisingly natural manner that Robert became entangled and was drawn kicking to the shore.

As time went on Lena developed a surprising power of dramatic utterance, only a degree less wonderful than the insight that inspired it. The untutored girl, by sheer sensitiveness of nature, caught the pulsations of that mighty heart till her page 130own blood vibrated in unison. She was the two wicked sisters; she was Cordelia; she was Lear.

'O, reason not the need:

('Oh, Robert, doesn't it make your heart stand still?')

'Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,—

('How right that is now and always! And to think that this was written three hundred years ago!')

'Do not laugh at me;

For, as I am a man, I think this lady

To be my child Cordelia.

And so I am, I am.

Be your tears wet? yes, 'faith——'

('And so are yours,' Robert interjected softly.)

'I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.
No cause, no cause.'

And so to the conclusion:—

'Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much That would upon the rack of this tough world Stretch him out longer.'

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Lena looked up, the tears trembling on her lashes, her eyes shining with a strange passion. 'Isn't it lovely, lovely? Isn't it the most beautiful thing in the world?'

Robert looked at her and was silent. In those moments it seemed that his practical common-sense could not call her back to the earth of their lives.