Read CHAPTER V. - ST. GEORGE FOR MERRY ENGLAND of 'That Very Mab' , free online book, by Andrew Lang., on ReadCentral.com.

     ‘Geese are swans, and swans are geese,’
     M. Arnold.

At first Mab was so overwhelmed at the nature of her reception by Science and Theology, that she meditated an immediate return to Polynesia; but the birds implored her so pathetically to stay longer, that she yielded, and went with the owl into Surrey.  She had seen enough of Epping Forest.

Surrey was very beautiful, and once pleasantly established in Richmond Park, she watched the human life that seemed so strange to her with great interest, taking care nevertheless, for some time, to keep clear of anything that looked like a scientific man.  The owl supported her in this policy.  He was not intimately acquainted with any of the members of the learned societies, but he had a deeply-rooted and perhaps overstrained horror of vivisection.  Still, being a liberal-minded bird, he extenuated the professor’s conduct as far as possible.

‘Perhaps he did not mean to do you any harm,’ he suggested.  ’He only wanted to put you under the microscope.’

‘He might have had more sense, then?’ returned Queen Mab, still ruffled.  ’He might have seen that I was a fairy.  The child suspected something at once.’

‘Ah, he was an exceptional child,’ said the Owl.  ’Most of the children, nowadays, don’t believe anything.  In fact, now that education is spreading so widely, I don’t suppose one of them will in ten years’ time.’

‘It is very dreadful,’ said Queen Mab.  ‘What are we coming to?’

‘I am sure I don’t know,’ said the Owl.  ’But we are being educated up to a very high point.  It saves people the trouble of thinking for themselves, certainly; they can always get all their thoughts now, ready made, on every kind of subject, and at extremely low prices.  They only have to make up their minds what to take, and generally they take the cheapest.  There is a great demand for cheap thought just now, especially when it is advertised as being of superior quality.’

‘How do they buy it?’ asked Queen Mab.  ‘I don’t quite understand.’

’Well, you know a little about Commerce.  Education is another kind of commerce.  The authors and publishers are the wholesale market, and teachers and schools and colleges are a kind of retail dealers.  Of course, not being human, we can’t expect to find it quite clear, but that is what we do make out.  The kingfisher and I were listening lately to a whole course of lectures on Political Economy; we were on a skylight in the roof of the building, and we found that Popular Education was part of the system of co-operation.  The people who don’t think, you know, but want thoughts, hand education over to the people who do think, or who buy up old thoughts cheap, and remake them, and this class furnishes the community.  So that, by division of labour, no one is obliged to think who doesn’t want to think, and this saves any amount of time and expense.  It is really astonishing, I hear, how few people have to think under this new system.  But Thought is in great demand, as I said, and so is Knowledge-whether there was any difference between the two we could not quite gather.  It is a law that everyone must buy a certain quantity from the dealers:  in other words, education is compulsory.  Eating is not compulsory; you may starve, you must learn.  The Government has founded a large system of retail establishments, or schools, and up to a certain age all the children are taught there whose parents do not undertake to have them supplied with thoughts at other establishments.  I say thoughts, but it is facts principally that they acquire.  Of course, some thoughts are necessary to mix the facts together with; but they generally take as few as possible, because facts are a cheaper article, and by the principles of competition and profit, people use the cheapest article that will sell again for the same price.  Some writers say that thoughts at retail establishments are very inferior, and that customers had better go to wholesale dealers at once, or else make on the premises; but I don’t know about that.  Generally people buy the kind that comes handiest; they are not half so particular about them as about articles of food and dress, and the dealers, wholesale or retail, can sell almost anything they like if they have a good reputation.  History, languages, science, art, theology, are all so many departments.  Politics are always in demand, and there are many great manufacturers who issue supplies at a penny, every day, all over the kingdom.  There is no branch where the labourers employed have such stirring times as the makers of politics:  we call them statesmen.  They seem, however, rather to enjoy it, and I suppose they get used to the heat, like stokers.  I think that the burden of the whole scheme really falls most heavily on the children.  But you are tired.’

‘Tell me about the children,’ said Queen Mab.  ’I shall understand that better.’

‘They have to learn facts, facts, for ever facts,’ said the Owl compassionately.  ’It makes one’s head ache to think of it.  I am a pretty well educated bird myself, though I say it; but if I had spent my time in acquiring a quarter of the knowledge those children have to acquire, then I should certainly never have been able to look at things in the broadly scientific light in which they should be looked at.  It does not seem to matter what the facts are, so long as they are cheap and plenty of them; it does not even matter whether they are true, or, at least, that is of very minor importance.  But see! see there!  That is an example of what I have been telling you.’

A child was passing below them with a weary step.  Queen Mab trembled at the sight of him, secure as she was among the broad chestnut leaves, and her fear was justified, for in another moment the professor himself came into view.  The fairy-had seen the child before, and, as Mr. Trollope used to say, ’she had been to him as a god’-it was the professor’s little boy.  But this time the philosopher was without his butterfly-net, and she found him much less alarming.  He was occupied with the pale, tired child, and telling him charming stories about coral islands, that sounded to Queen Mab’s astonished ears almost like a real fairy tale.  They sat down, while the professor talked.  Wonderful things he told, and said not a word all the time about generalisation or classification.

‘It is like a fairy tale,’ said the boy, echoing Queen Mab’s thought, when at last they rose to go.  ’Oh, father, how I wish we could see Dala again!’

Dala, my boy?  What, the lepidoptera?  Ah, I wish we could!  You will find, as you grow older, Walter, that science is better than a butterfly.’

The boy looked up wistfully, and over the face of the philosopher, too, came a sudden shadow.  When Walter grew older?  Hand in hand, the two passed silently out of sight.

‘He is a good man, after all,’ said the Owl sententiously.  And then there came by a British manufacturer, in a gold watch-chain and patent creaking leather boots, warranted to creak everywhere without losing tone.

‘Who is that?’ asked Queen Mab.

‘It is one of the pillars of the Church,’ replied the Owl.  ’The Dragon’s church, I mean, where he is worshipped by himself.  In some places you may worship St. George and the Dragon together; but in the Stock Exchange, for instance, you may only worship the Dragon.’

‘Is the Dragon very wicked?’

‘I don’t know,’ said the Owl.  ’I think he can’t be, or else so many respectable people would not worship him.  The professor doesn’t, or very little; but then he doesn’t worship St. George either.  The people who worship the Dragon are sometimes called Snobs-not by themselves though; it is one of the marks of the true Snob that he never knows he is one.  They never call the Dragon by that name either.  He has as many other names as Jupiter used to have, and all the altars, and temples, and sacrifices are made to him under the other names.’

‘Sacrifices!’ exclaimed Queen Mab.  ‘What do they sacrifice?’

‘It would be shorter to say what they don’t sacrifice,’ replied the Owl.  ’Only nobody knows, for many of his worshippers sacrifice anything and everything.  The manufacturer you saw go past-

‘Yes,’ said Queen Mab, a good deal impressed, for the owl was speaking solemnly.

’He is sacrificing the happiness, and even the lives of hundreds of men and women.  Also the playtime of the children and their innocence.  As for his own peace and charity, he sacrificed them long ago.  And yet-it is very strange; he calls himself a worshipper of St. George.  You remember, in very early times there used to be sacrifices to the Dragon.’

‘I remember,’ said the fairy.  ’In wicker baskets.  But never anything. like this!’

‘I daresay not,’ said the Owl ’We do things on a larger scale now, sacrifices and all.  Everybody prefers, of course, to make sacrifices of the belongings of other people; but there are certain possessions of their own that unavoidably go too-as Truth, Sympathy, Justice; abstract nouns, the names of any quality, property, state or action,’ murmured the Owl, falling unconsciously into his old habit of parsing.  ’The English,’ he added, ’are very generous with their abstract nouns, and will sacrifice or give away any quantity of them.  It is a national characteristic, of which they are justly proud.’

‘Do the women worship the Dragon?’

‘Certainly!’ said the Owl.  ’They generally profess a great deal of veneration for St. George too; but they will worship either to get front seats.  I don’t know why the English are so fond of front seats; back ones are just as comfortable, and one can often hear better in them; but they don’t suit dragon-worshippers.  They want front seats anywhere-at concerts, in the church, in art or literature, or even in subscription lists.  The persons who can’t afford front seats generally adore those who can, and those who can, say that the others ought to be grateful to Providence for putting them in the gallery or letting them into the free pews.  There is a great deal of veneration in the English, and it shows itself in this way; they reverence the people with reserved tickets.  That is why they are so fond of a noble lord, and that is why they admire Abraham, and even Lazarus, because he ultimately got such an excellent place in the next world.  They don’t care much about Lazarus in this, because their souls have not such a natural affinity with his when he is hanging about anyone’s doorstep, or loafing round street-corners with oranges to sell or a barrel-organ.  Sometimes they give him the crumbs that fall from their tables, and sometimes they don’t, because they are afraid he will take advantage of it to steal the spoons.  Or else they take the lofty patriotic ground, and say that their principles forbid them to countenance vagrancy, and that Heaven helps those who help themselves.  This is very consoling to Lazarus, and it always gives him pleasure to hear what good moral principles the Philistines-or Snobs-have got, even if he hasn’t got any himself.  From what they frequently say, you would not think that they looked forward to seeing him in Heaven.  It is part of their great-mindedness-a national characteristic-that the chords of their nature are more deeply stirred by sympathy with him when he has got into a good berth.  I can fancy how, in Paradise, a British Snob will edge round to some retired crossing-sweeper, who was converted by the Salvation Army, and went straight up among the front row of angels and prophets, and will say: 

’"Pardon me; but I remember you so well!” And I can fancy that the seraph might reply: 

’"Ah, yes!  I used to sweep a crossing up your street.  I asked you for a copper once, and you told me to go-not where you find me.”

’It would be a little awkward for the Snob:  things often are; but he would soon get over it.  His sense of locality, you perceive, is extremely acute.  He may not always know at a glance exactly what men are in themselves, but he can always tell where they are.  If you put one of Madame Tussaud’s waxworks into a front seat, or on a Woolsack, or on a Board of Directors, the English would venerate it more than most real persons.  Their sensibilities are so strong that the merest symbol stirs them.  A noble lord need not do anything remarkable; but he is in the front row, and if he just radiates ability, that is quite enough.  And he can’t help radiating “ability;” it is one of his characteristics, and has become automatic.’

‘What is automatic?’

’Automatic!  Oh, it means acting of its own accord, without any effort of the will to make it work.  Automatic actions may go on a very long time without stopping, sometimes for ever.  If I continued in this strain much longer it might get automatic too:  speaking often does, especially with Members of Parliament.  It is as if they were wound up to say similar things one after the other, like musical-boxes, by reflex action, and you never know when they will give up.  The automatic method has this advantage, that when you have had some experience of an automaton, you can always tell-suppose that it is wound up, for instance, to speak on a motion-what it will probably say next, and certainly how it will vote, and that gives you a sense of calm peace.  It is a method very common among stump orators, because it comes cheaper in the long run.  But there are other things-novel-writing, for instance.  Novelists, many of them, are wound up at the beginning to write novels periodically, and the action gradually gets feebler and feebler, till at last it stops.  It does not, however, generally stop till they die, and that is why we have so many bad novels from some writers.  All authors, though, don’t write automatically, any more than all clergymen preach automatically.  But it is a very easy habit to fall into:  I have done it myself more than once.  Of course it is very useful, and very inexpensive, and an immense saving of energy, and one would advise the rising generation to cultivate it as much as possible, that their years may be long in the land.  But one ought never to allow such a habit as swearing,-or shooting,’ added the Owl gravely, ’to become automatic.  Let me see, where did I begin?  I was telling you about the female dragon-worshippers, who dress in symbolical costumes, like the old priestesses or the Salvation Army captains.  Lately, though, a good many of the women who were brought up to it have taken “a new departure,” and gone off after the wholesale education establishments at Camford, where they are fed on biscuits and marmalade, and illuminate the fragments of Sappho on vellum.  This may not be very good:  still I think it is better than the Dragon; the worst of it is that it forces up the educational prices.’

With which remark the Owl began a long series of observations, a mixture of political economy and his views on popular education, which Queen Mab found rather tedious.  But they inspired her with a few verses, which she resolved, being the most philanthropic of fairies, and full of compassion for the dreary state of Great Britain in general, and of the rising generation in particular, to circulate among the Polynesian children as soon as she returned home.  In this determination, unfortunately, she either forgot or ignored the fact that she had left her happy island a prey to the combined effects of annexation, civilisation, and evangelisation.  But the verses ran thus: 

     ’Upon my childhood’s pallid morn
     No tropic summer smiled,
     In foreign lands I was not born,
     A happy, heathen child.

     Alas! but in a colder clime,
     A cultured clime, I dwell
     All in the foremost ranks of time,
     They say:  I know it well.

You never learn geography, No grammar makes you wild, A book, a slate you never see, You happy, heathen child.

     I know in forest and in glade
     Your games are odd but gay,
     Think of the little British maid,
     Who has no place for play.

     When ended is the day’s long joy,
     And you to rest have gone,
     Think of the little British boy,
     Who still is toiling on.

     The many things we learn about,
     We cannot understand. 
     Ah, send your missionaries out
     To this benighted land!

     You blessed little foreigner,
     In weather fair and mild,
     Think of the tiny Britisher,
     Oh, happy heathen child.

     Ah! highly favoured Pagan, born
     In some far hemisphere,
     Pity the British child forlorn,
     And drop one sorrowing tear!’