Read CHAPTER VIII of The Book-Bills of Narcissus, free online book, by Le Gallienne‚ Richard, on


When I spoke of London’s men of genius I referred, of course, to such as are duly accredited, certificated, so to say, by public opinion; but of those others whose shining is under the bushel of obscurity, few or many, how can one affirm? That there are such, any man with any happy experience of living should be able to testify; and I should say, for fear of misunderstanding, that I do not use the word genius in any technical sense, not only of men who can do in the great triumphal way, but also of those who can be in their quiet, effective fashion, within their own ‘scanty plot of ground’; men who, if ever conscious of it, are content with the diffusion of their influence around the narrow limits of their daily life, content to bend their creative instincts on the building and beautifying of home. It is no lax use of the word genius to apply it to such, for unless you profess the modern heresy that genius is but a multiplied talent, a coral-island growth, that earns its right to a new name only when it has lifted its head above the waters of oblivion, you must agree. For ‘you saw at once,’ said Narcissus, in reference to that poet, ’that his writing was so delightful because he was more so.’ His writings, in fact, were but the accidental emanations of his personality. He might have given himself out to us in fugues, or canvases, or simply, like the George Muncaster of whom I am thinking, in the sweet breath and happy shining of his home. Genius is a personal quality, and if a man has it, whatever his hand touches will bear the trace of his power, an undying odour, an unfading radiance. When Rossetti wrote ‘Beauty like hers is genius,’ he was not dealing in metaphor, and Meissonier should have abolished for ever the superstition of large canvases.

These desultory hints of the development of Narcissus would certainly be more incomplete than necessity demands, if I did not try to give the Reader some idea of the man of genius of this unobtrusive type to whom I have just alluded. Samuel Dale used to call himself ‘an artist in life,’ and there could be no truer general phrase to describe George Muncaster than that. His whole life possesses a singular unity, such as is the most satisfying joy of a fine work of art, considering which it never occurs to one to think of the limitation of conditions or material. So with his life, the shortness of man’s ‘term’ is never felt; one could win no completer effect with eternity than he with every day. Hurry and false starts seem unknown in his round, and his little home is a microcosm of the Golden Age.

It would even seem sometimes that he has an artistic rule over his ‘accidents,’ for ‘surprises’ have a wonderful knack of falling into the general plan of his life, as though but waited for. Our first meeting with him was a singular instance of this. I say ‘our,’ for Narcissus and I chanced to be walking a holiday together at the time. It fell on this wise. At Tewkesbury it was we had arrived, one dull September evening, just in time to escape a wetting from a grey drizzle then imminent; and in no very buoyant spirits we turned into The Swan Inn. A more dismal coffee-room for a dismal evening could hardly be gloomy, vast, and thinly furnished. We entered sulkily, seeming the only occupants of the sepulchre. However, there was a small book on the table facing the door, sufficiently modern in appearance to catch one’s eye and arouse a faint ripple of interest. ‘A Canterbury,’ we cried. ’And a Whitman, more’s the wonder,’ cried Narcissus, who had snatched it up. ’Why, some one’s had the sense, too, to cut out the abominable portrait. I wonder whose it is. The owner must evidently have some right feeling.’

Then, before there was time for further exclamatory compliment of the unknown, we were half-startled by the turning round of an arm-chair at the far end of the room, and were aware of a manly voice of exquisite quality asking, ‘Do you know Whitman?’

And moving towards the speaker, we were for the first time face to face with the strong and gentle George Muncaster, who since stands in our little gallery of types as Whitman’s Camarado and Divine Husband made flesh. I wish, Reader, that I could make you see his face; but at best I have little faith in pen portraits. It is comparatively easy to write a graphic description of a face; but when it has been read, has the reader realised the face? I doubt it, and am inclined to believe that three different readers will carry away three different impressions even from a really brilliant portrait. Laborious realism may, at least, I think, be admitted as hopeless. The only chance is in a Meredithian lightning-flash, and those fly but from one or two bows. I wonder if an image will help at all here. Think on a pebbly stream, on a brisk, bright morning; dwell on the soft, shining lines of its flowing; and then recall the tonic influence, the sensation of grip, which the pebbles give it. Dip your hand into it again in fancy; realise how chaste it is, and then again think how bright and good it is. And if you realise these impressions as they come to me, you will have gained some idea of George Muncaster’s face the essential spirit of it, I mean, ever so much more important than the mere features. Such, at least, seemed the meaning of his face even in the first moment of our intercourse that September dusk, and so it has never ceased to come upon us even until now.

And what a night that was! what a talk! How soon did we find each other out! Long before the maid knocked at the door, and hinted by the delicate insinuation of a supposed ring that there was ’a budding morrow’ in the air. But our passionate generosity of soul was running in too strong a tide just then to be stemmed by any such interference; it could but be diverted, and Muncaster’s bedroom served us as well wherein to squat in one of those close, rapt circles of talk such as, I think, after all, men who love poetry can alone know men, anyhow, with a poetry.

Bed, that had for some time been calling us, unheeded as Juliet’s nurse, had at last to be obeyed; but how grudgingly; and how eagerly we sprang from it at no late hour in the morning, at the first thought of the sweet new thing that had come into the world like children who, half in a doze before waking, suddenly remember last night’s new wonder of a toy, to awake in an instant, and scramble into clothes to look at it again. Thus, like children we rose; but it was shy as lovers we met at the breakfast-table, as lovers shy after last night’s kissing. (You may not have loved a fellow-man in this way, Reader, but we are, any one of us, as good men as you; so keep your eyebrows down, I beseech you.)

One most winsome trait of our new friend was soon apparent as, having, to our sorrow, to part at the inn door right and left, we talked of meeting again at one or the other’s home: a delicate disinclination to irreverently ‘make sure’ of the new joy; a ‘listening fear,’ as though of a presiding good spirit that might revoke his gift if one stretched out towards it with too greedy hands. ’Rather let us part and say nought. You know where a letter will find me. If our last night was a real thing, we shall meet again, never fear.’ With some such words as those it was that he bade us good-bye.

Of course, letters found all three of us before a fortnight had gone by, and in but a short time we found his home. There it is that George should be seen. Away he is full of precious light, but home is his setting. To Narcissus, who found it in that green period when all youngsters take vehement vows of celibacy, and talk much of ‘free love,’ all ignorant, one is in charity persuaded, of what they quite mean, that home was certainly as great and lasting a revelation as the first hour of ‘Poetry’s divine first finger-touch.’ It was not that his own home-life had been unhappy, for it was the reverse, and rich indeed in great and sweet influences; but it was rather, I think, that the ideal of a home is not so easily to be reached from that home in which one is a child, where one is too apt to miss the whole in consideration of one’s own part in it, as from another on which we can look from the outside.

Our parents, even to the end, partake too much of the nature of mythology; it always needs an effort to imagine them beings with quite the same needs and dreams as ourselves. We rarely get a glimpse of their poetry, for the very reason that we ourselves are factors in it, and are, therefore, too apt to dwell on the less happy details of the domestic life, details which one ray of their poetry would transfigure as the sun transfigures the motes in his beam. Thus, in that green age I spoke of, one’s sickly vision can but see the dusty, world-worn side of domesticity, the petty daily cares of living, the machinery, so to say, of ‘house and home.’ But when one stands in another home, where these are necessarily unseen by us, stands with the young husband, the poetry-maker, how different it all seems. One sees the creation bloom upon it; one ceases to blaspheme, and learns to bless. Later, when at length one understands why it is sweeter to say ‘wife’ than ‘sweetheart,’ how even one may be reconciled to calling one’s Daffodilia ’little mother’ because of the children, you know; it would never do for them to say Daffodilia then he will understand too how those petty details, formerly so ‘banal,’ are, after all, but notes in the music, and what poetry can flicker, like its own blue flame, around even the joint purchase of a frying-pan.

That Narcissus ever understood this great old poetry he owes to George Muncaster. In the very silence of his home one hears a singing ’There lies the happiest land.’ It was one of his own quaint touches that the first night we found his nest, after the maid had given us admission, there should be no one to welcome us into the bright little parlour but a wee boy of four, standing in the doorway like a robin that has hopped on to one’s window-sill. But with what a dear grace did the little chap hold out his hand and bid us good evening, and turn his little morsel of a bird’s tongue round our names; to be backed at once by a ring of laughter from the hidden ‘prompter’ thereupon revealed. O happy, happy home! may God for ever smile upon you! There should be a special grace for happy homes. George’s set us ‘collecting’ such, with results undreamed of by youthful cynic. Take courage, Reader, if haply you stand with hesitating toe above the fatal plunge. Fear not, you can swim if you will. Of course, you must take care that your joint poetry-maker be such a one as George’s. One must not seem to forget the loving wife who made such dreaming as his possible. He did not; and, indeed, had you told him of his happiness, he would but have turned to her with a smile that said, ‘All of thee, my love’; while, did one ask of this and that, how quickly ‘Yes! that was George’s idea,’ laughed along her lips.

While we sat talking that first evening, there suddenly came three cries, as of three little heads straining out of a nest, for ‘Father’; and obedient, with a laugh, he left us. This, we soon learnt, was a part of the sweet evening ritual of home. After mother’s more practical service had been rendered the little ones, and they were cosily ’tucked in,’ then came ‘father’s turn,’ which consisted of his sitting by their bedside Owen and Geoffrey on one hand, and little queen Phyllis, maidenlike in solitary cot, on the other and crooning to them a little evening song. In the dark, too, I should say, for it was one of his wise provisions that they should be saved from ever fearing that; and that, whenever they awoke to find it round them in the middle of the night, it should bring them no other association but ‘father’s voice.’

A quaint recitative of his own, which he generally contrived to vary each night, was the song, a loving croon of sleep and rest. The brotherhood of rest, one might name his theme for grown-up folk; as in the morning, we afterwards learnt, he is wont to sing them another little song of the brotherhood of work; the aim of his whole beautiful effort for them being to fill their hearts with a sense of the brotherhood of all living things flowers, butterflies, bees and birds, the milk-boy, the policeman, the man at the crossing, the grocer’s pony, all within the circle of their little lives, as living and working in one great camaraderie. Sometimes he would extemporise a little rhyme for them, filling it out with his clear, happy voice, and that tender pantomime that comes so naturally to a man who not merely loves children for who is there that does not? but one born with the instinct for intercourse with them. To those not so born it is as difficult to enter into the life and prattle of birds. I have once or twice crept outside the bedroom door when neither children nor George thought of eavesdroppers, and the following little songs are impressions from memory of his. You must imagine them chanted by a voice full of the infinite tenderness of fatherhood, and even then you will but dimly realise the music they have as he sings them. I run the risk of his forgiving my printing them here:


Morning comes to little eyes,
Wakens birds and butterflies,
Bids the flower uplift his head,
Calls the whole round world from bed.
Up jump Geoffrey!
Up jump Owen!!
Then up jump Phyllis!!!
And father’s going!


The sun is weary, for he ran
So far and fast to-day;
The birds are weary, for who sang
So many songs as they?
The bees and butterflies at last
Are tired out; for just think, too,
How many gardens through the day
Their little wings have fluttered through.

And so, as all tired people do,
They’ve gone to lay their sleepy heads
Deep, deep in warm and happy beds.
The sun has shut his golden eye,
And gone to sleep beneath the sky;
The birds, and butterflies, and bees
Have all crept into flowers and trees,
And all lie quiet, still as mice,
Till morning comes, like father’s voice.
So Phyllis, Owen, Geoffrey, you
Must sleep away till morning too;
Close little eyes, lie down little heads,
And sleep, sleep, sleep in happy beds.

As the Reader has not been afflicted with a great deal of verse in these pages, I shall also venture to copy here another little song which, as his brains have grown older, George has been fond of singing to them at bedtime, and with which the Reader is not likely to have enjoyed a previous acquaintance:


When the Sun and the Golden Day
Hand in hand are gone away,
At your door shall Sleep and Night
Come and knock in the fair twilight;
Let them in, twin travellers blest;
Each shall be an honoured guest,
And give you rest.

They shall tell of the stars and moon,
And their lips shall move to a glad sweet tune,
Till upon your cool, white bed
Fall at last your nodding head;
Then in dreamland fair and blest,
Farther off than East and West,
They give you rest.

Night and Sleep, that goodly twain,
Tho’ they go, shall come again;
When your work and play are done,
And the Sun and Day are gone
Hand in hand thro’ the scarlet West,
Each shall come, an honoured guest,
And bring you rest.

Watching at your window-sill,
If upon the Eastern hill
Sun and Day come back no more,
They shall lead you from the door
To their kingdom calm and blest,
Farther off than East or West,
And give you rest.

Arriving down to breakfast earlier than expected next morning, we discovered George busy at some more of his loving ingenuity. He half blushed in his shy way, but went on writing in this wise, with chalk, upon a small blackboard: ’Thursday Thor’s-day Jack the Giant Killer’s day’. Then, in one corner of the board, a sun was rising with a merry face and flaming locks, and beneath him was written, ’Phoebus-Apollo’; while in the other corner was a setting moon, ’Lady Cynthia. There were other quaint matters, too, though they have escaped my memory; but these hints are sufficient to indicate George’s morning occupation. Thus he endeavoured to implant in the young minds he felt so sacred a trust an ever-present impression of the full significance of life in every one of its details. The days of the week should mean for them what they did mean, should come with a veritable personality, such as the sun and the moon gained for them by thus having actual names, like friends and playfellows. This Thor’s-day was an especially great day for them; for, in the evening, when George had returned from business, and there was yet an hour to bedtime, they would come round him to hear one of the adventures of the great Thor adventures which he had already contrived, he laughingly told us, to go on spinning out of the Edda through no less than the Thursdays of two years. Certainly his ingenuity of economy with his materials was no little marvel, and he confessed to often being at his wits’ end. For Thursday night was not alone starred with stories; every night there was one to tell; sometimes an incident of his day in town, which he would dress up with the imaginative instinct of a born teller of fairy-tales. He had a knack, too, of spreading one story over several days which would be invaluable to a serial writer. I remember one simple instance of his device.

He sat in one of those great cane nursing chairs, Phyllis on one knee, Owen on the other, and Geoffrey perched in the hollow space in the back of the chair, leaning over his shoulder, all as solemn as a court awaiting judgment. George begins with a preliminary glance behind at Geoffrey: ’Happy there, my boy? That’s right. Well, there was once a beautiful garden.’

‘Yes-s-s-s,’ go the three solemn young heads.

‘And it was full of the most wonderful things.’


’Great trees, so green, for the birds to hide and sing in; and flowers so fair and sweet that the bees said that, in all their flying hither and thither, they had never yet found any so full of honey in all the world. And the birds, too, what songs they knew; and the butterflies, were there ever any so bright and many-coloured?’ etc., etc.

’But the most wonderful thing about the garden was that everything in it had a wonderful story to tell.’

‘Yes-s-s s.’

’The birds, and bees, and butterflies, even the trees and flowers, each knew a wonderful fairy-tale.’


’But of all in the garden the grasshopper knew the most. He had been a great traveller, for he had such long legs.’

Again a still deeper murmur of breathless interest.

‘Now, would you like to hear what the grasshopper had to tell?’

‘Oh, yes-s-s-s.’

‘Well, you shall to-morrow night!’

So off his knees they went, as he rose with a merry, loving laugh, and kissed away the long sighs of disappointment, and sent them to bed, agog for all the morrow’s night should reveal.

Need one say that the children were not the only disappointed listeners? Besides, they have long since known all the wonderful tale, whereas one of the poorer grown-up still wonders wistfully what that grasshopper who was so great a traveller, and had such long legs, had to tell.

But I had better cease. Were I sure that the Reader was seeing what I am seeing, hearing as I, I should not fear; but how can I be sure of that? Had I the pen which that same George will persist in keeping for his letters, I should venture to delight the Reader with more of his story. One underhand hope of mine, however, for these poor hints is, that they may by their very imperfection arouse him to give the world ’the true story’ of a happy home. Narcissus repeatedly threatened that, if he did not take pen in hand, he would some day ‘make copy’ of him; and now I have done it instead. Moreover, I shall further presume on his forbearance by concluding with a quotation from one of his letters that came to me but a few months back:

’You know how deeply exercised the little ones are on the subject of death, and how I had answered their curiosity by the story that after death all things turn into flowers. Well, what should startle the wife’s ears the other day but “Mother, I wish you would die.” “O why, my dear?” “Because I should so like to water you!” was the delicious explanation. The theory has, moreover, been called to stand at the bar of experience, for a week or two ago one of Phyllis’ goldfish died. There were tears at first, of course, but they suddenly dried up as Geoffrey, in his reflective way, wondered “what flower it would come to.” Here was a dilemma. One had never thought of such contingencies. But, of course, it was soon solved. “What flower would you like it to be, my boy?” I asked. “A poppy!” he answered; and after consultation, “a poppy!” agreed the others. So a poppy it is to be. A visit to the seedsman’s procured the necessary surreptitious poppy seed; and so now poor Sir Goldfish sleeps with the seed of sleep in his mouth, and the children watch his grave day by day, breathless for his resplendent resurrection. Will you write us an epitaph?’

Ariel forgive me! Here is what I sent:

’Five inches deep Sir Goldfish lies;
Here last September was he laid;
Poppies these, that were his eyes,
Of fish-bones are these blue-bells made;
His fins of gold that to and fro
Waved and waved so long ago,
Still as petals wave and wave
To and fro above his grave.
Hearken, too! for so his knell
Tolls all day each tiny bell.’