Read CHAPTER XIV of The Green Carnation , free online book, by Robert Smythe Hichens, on ReadCentral.com.

When Lord Reggie asked Lady Locke to come with him into the yew tree walk that Sunday afternoon, he fully intended to tell her that he would be glad to marry her.  It seemed to him that Sunday was a very appropriate day for such a confession, and would give to his remarks a solemnity that they might otherwise lack.  But somehow the conversation became immediately unmanageable, as conversations have a knack of doing, and turned into channels which had less than nothing to do with marriage.  By a series of ingenious modulations Lord Reggie might doubtless have contrived eventually to arrive at the key in which he wanted to breathe out his love song; but the afternoon was too sultry for ingenuities, and so they talked about the influence of Art on Nature, and his anthem, until it was time to dress for dinner.

Lady Locke was a woman, and so it may be taken for granted that she divined her companion’s original intention, and was perhaps a little amused at his failure to carry it into an act.  But she manifested no consciousness, and disappeared to her bedroom without displaying either disappointment or triumph.  She did, however, in fact know that Lord Reggie meant to ask her the fateful question, and she had quite decided now how she meant to answer it.

She had fallen into a curious sort of fondness for this tired, unnatural boy, whom she considered as twisted as if he had been an Egyptian cripple, zigzagging along a sandy track on his hands with his legs tied round his neck; and two or three days ago she had even thought seriously what she would say to him if he asked her to join lives with him permanently.  The motherly feeling had verged on something else, very different; and when one day he carelessly touched her hand she had felt her heart beating with a violence that was painfully natural.  But now, more than one incident that had since occurred had forged links in a new chain of resolution that held her back from a folly.  Although possibly she hardly knew it, the scrap of conversation that she had chanced to overhear between Lord Reggie and Tommy had really decided her to meet the former with a refusal if he asked her to be his wife.  It had opened her eyes, and shown her in a flash the influence that a mere pose may have upon others who are not posing.  Her mother’s heart flushed with a heat of anger at the idea of Tommy, her dead soldier’s son, developing into the sort of young man whom she chose to christen “Modern”; and as her heart flushed, unknown to her her mind really decided.  She still fancied that Lord Reggie was nothing more than a whimsical poseur, bitten by the tarantula of imitation that preys upon weak natures.  She still fancied what she hoped.  But incertitude strengthened resolve, and she never intended to be Lady Reggie Hastings.  Yet she meant Lord Reggie to propose to her.  She liked him so well that, womanlike, she could not quite forbear the pleasure of hearing him even pretend that he loved her she supposed he would feel bound to pretend so much; and his proposal would give to her an opportunity of saying one or two things to him of preaching that affectionate sermon, in fact, that she had long ago written in her thoughts.

Sweet women love to preach to those whom they like, and Lady Locke liked Lord Reggie very much, and wished strongly to have the chance of telling him so.

But he said nothing that night, and she had to wait for a while.  The weather, which had certainly shown the most graceful politeness to the Surrey week, was still in a complaisant frame of mind when Monday morning dawned, and the tents were put up for the school children, and the Aunt Sallies and other instruments of amusement were posed in their places about the garden, without any fear arising lest the rain should prevent their being used.  Esme Amarinth spent the morning in reflecting upon his address, and constructing pale paradoxes; and the rest of the party at the “Retreat” did nothing with all the quiet ingenuity that seems inbred in the English race.

At four o’clock the sound of lusty singing in the dusty distance announced the approach of the expected guests, who, under the direction of Mr. Smith, expressed their youthful feelings of anticipation and excitement in a processional hymn, whose words dealt with certain ritualistic doctrines in a spirit of serene but rather incompetent piety, and whose tune was remarkable for the Gounod spirit that pervaded its rather love-lorn harmonies.  As Mr. Amarinth said, it sounded like a French apostrophe to a Parisian Eros, and was tinged with the amorous music colour of Covent Garden.

Mrs. Windsor received the party with weary grace, and a general salute that might have included all the national schools in the kingdom, so wide and so impersonal was its manner.  She impressed the children as much as Madame Valtesi frightened them by examining them with a stony and sphinx-like gravity through her tortoise-shell eyeglass.  The teachers conducted the programme of games in which, however, Lady Locke, Tommy, and Lord Reggie fitfully took part; and after tea had been munched with trembling delight in the largest of the tents, and more games had been got through, Mr. Smith distributed small presents to all the children, some of whom were quite unstrung by the effort they had to make not to seem too happy in the presence of “the quality.”  The curate then took his leave, as he was obliged to visit a sick parishioner, and, as the sun was evidently on the point of beginning to imitate Turner’s later pictures, Mrs. Windsor directed that the children should be assembled under the great cedar tree on the lawn, to hear Esme Amarinth’s promised address.

The picture that the garden presented at this moment was quite a pretty one.  The sun, as I have said, was declining towards the West in a manner strongly suggestive of a scene at the Lyceum Theatre after many rehearsals with a competent lime-light man.  The monstrous yew trees cast gross misshapen shadows across the smooth, velvet lawns.  The air was heavy with the scents of flowers.  Across the gleaming yellow of the sky a black riband of homeward passing rooks streamed slowly towards the trees they loved.  Under the spreading branches of the cedar stood the big motley group of flushed and receptive children, flanked by their more staid teachers, and faced by Bung, who sat upon his tail before them, and panted serenely, with his tongue hanging out sideways nearly to the ground.  Dotted about upon creaking garden chairs were Mrs. Windsor, Madame Valtesi, Lady Locke, and Lord Reggie, while Tommy in a loose white sailor suit scampered about from one place to another, simmering in perfect enjoyment.  And the central figure of all was Esme Amarinth, who stood leaning upon an ebony stick with a silver knob, surveying his audience with the peculiar smile of humourous self-satisfaction that was so characteristic of his large-featured face.

Just before he began his address Mrs. Windsor fluttered up to him, and whispered in his ear

“Don’t make any classical allusions, will you, Esme?  I promised Mr. Smith there should be nothing of that kind.  He thinks classical allusions corrupting.  Of course he’s wrong good people always are but perhaps we ought to humour him, as he is the curate, you know.”

Esme assented with a graceful bend of his crimpled head, and in a clear and deliberate voice began to speak.

“The art of folly,” he said, “that is to say, the art of being consciously foolish beautifully, has been practised to some extent in all ages, and among all peoples, from the pale, clear dawn of creation, when, as we are told, the man Adam, in glorious nudity, walked perfectly among the perfect glades of Eden, down to the golden noontide of this nineteenth century, in which we subtly live and subtly suffer.  Always throughout the circling ages the soul of man has to some slight extent aspired after folly, as Nature aspires after Art, and as the old and learned aspire after the wonderful ignorance that lies hidden between the scarlet covers of the passionate book of youth.  Always there have been in the world earnest men and earnest women striving with a sacred wisdom to compass the highest forms of folly, seeking with a manifold persistence to sound the depths of that violet main in which the souls of the elect rock to and fro eternally.  But although, even in the morning of the world, there were earnest seekers after lies, the pursuit of ignorance has never been carried on with such unswerving fidelity and with so much lovely unreason as is the case to-day.  We are beginning, only beginning, to understand some of the canons of the beautiful art of folly.”

Here Esme changed his ebony stick into his other hand, and glanced round at Lord Reggie, with a delicate smile of self-approbation.  Then he proceeded, without clearing his throat.

“The mind of man has, however, always clung with a poetic persistence to certain fallacies which have greatly interfered with the proper progress of folly, and have terribly hindered the evolution of disorder out of order, and of unreason out of reason.  To give only a few instances.  For centuries upon centuries we have been told by those unenlightened beings called philosophers, sages, and thinkers, that children should obey their parents, that the old should direct the young, that Nature is the mother of beauty, and that wisdom is the parent of true greatness.  For centuries upon centuries we have had instilled into us the malign conception that in renunciation we shall find peace, and in starvation the most satisfying plenty.  Men and women have lived to be dumb, instead of living to speak; have stopped their ears to the alluring cries of folly; have gone to the grave with all their sublime absurdities still in them, unuttered, unexpressed, unimpressed upon the wildly sensible people by whom they have been surrounded and environed.  The art of folly has been trampled in the dust by the majority; while poor reasonable human beings have been offering up sacrifices to propriety, respectability, common sense, and a thousand grotesque idols, whose very names fall as unmelodiously upon the ear as the shrill and monotonous discords of the nightingales that torture us with their murmurings towards the latter end of May whose very names, when written down upon smooth paper, or, as formerly, graved upon tablets of wax with instruments of ivory, are as disagreeable to the eye as the crude colouring of the Atlantic Ocean, or the unimaginable ugliness of a fine summer’s day in the midland counties of England.  But at last there seems to be a prospect of better things, the flush of a wonderful dawn in the hitherto shadowy sky.  A star with a crimson mouth has arisen in the East to guide wise men and women out of the straight and narrow way down which they have been stumbling so long.  I believe, I tremblingly dare to believe, that a bright era of undisciplined folly is about to dawn over the modern world, and therefore I speak to you, beautiful pink children, and I ask you to recognise your youth, and your exquisite potentiality for foolishness.  For in youth, only in delicate, delicious youth, can we acquire the rudiments of the beautiful art of folly.  When we are old we are so crusted with the hideous lichen of wisdom and experience, so gnarled with thought, and weather-beaten with knowledge, that we can only teach.  We have lost the power to learn, as all teachers infallibly do.”

At this point in Esme’s address the face of the national schoolmaster, a grey person, rather conceited in his own wisdom than wise in his own conceit, began to present as a magic lantern presents pictures upon a sheet various expressions, all of which partook of uneasiness and indignation.  He glanced furtively around, stared defiantly at the children, and shifted from one foot to the other like a boy who is being lectured.  Esme observed his disquietude with considerable satisfaction.

“People teach in order to conceal their ignorance, as people smile in order to conceal their tears, or sin, too often, merely to draw away a curious observation from the amplitude and endurance of their virtue.  The beautiful falling generation are learning to do things for their own sake, and not for the sake of Mrs. Grundy, who will soon sit alone in her dowdy disorder, a chaperon bereft of her debutante, the hopeless and frowsy leader of a lost and discredited cause.  Yes, wisdom has nearly had its day, and the stars are beginning to twinkle in the violet skies of folly.

“It is not, alas! given to all of us to be properly foolish.  The custom of succeeding ages has rendered wisdom a hereditary habit with thousands upon thousands of us, and even the destructive influence of myself, of Lord Reginald” here he indicated Reggie, with one plump, white hand “and of a few, a very few others, among whom I can include Mr. Oscar Wilde, has so far failed to uproot that pestilent plant from its home in the retentive soil of humanity.  What was bad enough for our ridiculous fathers is still bad enough for too many of us.  We are still content with the old virtues, and still timorous of the new vices.  We still fear to clasp the radiant hands of folly, and drown our good impulses in the depths of her enchanted eyes.  But many of us are comparatively elderly, and, believe me, the elderly quickly lose the divine power of faculty of disobedience.  If it were my first word to you, children, I would say to you learn to disobey.  To know how to be disobedient is to know how to live.”

The national schoolmaster at this point planted his feet in the first position with sudden violence, and gave vent to a hem that was a revelation of keen though inarticulate emotion.  Esme indicated that he had heard the sound by slightly elevating his voice.

“Learn,” he said, “to disobey the cold dictates of reason; for reason acts upon life as the breath of frost acts upon water, and binds the leaping streams of the abnormal in the congealing and icy band of the normal.  All that is normal is to be sedulously avoided.  That is what the modern pupil will teach in the future his old-fashioned masters.  That is what you may, if you will have the courage, impress upon the pastors and masters, who must learn to look to you for guidance.”

Extreme disorder of mind was now made manifest in the fantastic postures assumed by the entire staff of teachers, who began to turn their feet in, to construct strange patterns with their fingers, and in all other known ways to mutely express the dire forebodings of those who feel that their empire is passing away from them.

“It has hitherto been the privilege of age to rule the world.  In the blessed era of folly that privilege will be transferred to youth.  Never forget, therefore, to be young, to be young, and, if possible, consciously foolish.”

The expressions of the children at this point indicated intelligent acquiescence, and Esme’s face was irradiated with a tranquil smile.

“It is very difficult to be young, especially up to the age of thirty,” he continued, “and very difficult to be properly foolish up to any age at all; but we must not despair.  Genius is the art of not taking pains, and genius is more common than is generally supposed.  If we do not take proper pains, there is no reason why even the cleverest among us should not in time learn to practise beautifully the beautiful art of folly.  It is always well to be personal, and as egoism is scarcely less artistic than its own brother, vanity, I shall make no apology for now alluding, in as marked a manner as possible, to myself.  I” he spoke here with superb emphasis “I am absurd.  For years I have tried in vain not to hide it.  For years I have striven to call public attention to my exquisite gift, to impress its existence upon a heartless world, to lift it up as a darkness that all may see, and for years I have practically failed.  I have practically failed, but I am not without hope.  I believe that my absurdity is at last beginning to obtain a meed of recognition.  I believe that a few fine spirits are beginning to understand that artistic absurdity, the perfection of folly, has a bright and glorious future before it.  I am absurd, and have been so for very many years, and in very many ways.  I have been an aesthete.  I have lain upon hearth-rugs and eaten passion-flowers.  I have clothed myself in breeches of white samite, and offered my friends yellow jonquils instead of afternoon tea.  But when aestheticism became popular in Bayswater a part of London built for the delectation of the needy rich I felt that it was absurd no longer, and I turned to other things.  It was then, one golden summer day, among the flowering woods of Richmond, that I invented a new art, the art of preposterous conversation.  A middle-class country has prevented me from patenting my exquisite invention, which has been closely imitated by dozens of people much older and much stupider than myself; but nobody so far has been able to rival me in my own particular line of business, and my society ‘turns’ at luncheon parties, dances, and dinners are invariably received with an applause which is almost embarrassing, and which is scarcely necessary to one so admirably conceited as myself.”

At this point, Esme, whose face had been gradually assuming a pained and irritated expression, paused, and looking towards the West, which was barred with green and gold, and flecked with squadrons of rose-coloured cloudlets, exclaimed in a voice expressive of weakness

“That sky is becoming so terribly imitative that I can hardly go on.  Why are modern sunsets so intolerably true to Turner?”

He looked round as if for an answer; but, since nobody had anything to say, he passed one hand over his eyes, as if to shut out some dreadful vision, and continued with rather less vivacity

“For the true artist is always conceited, just as the true Philistine is always fond of going to the Royal Academy.  I have brought the art of preposterous conversation to the pitch of perfection; but I have been greatly handicapped in my efforts by the egregious wisdom of a world that insists upon taking me seriously.  There is nothing that should be taken seriously, except, possibly, an income or the music halls, and I am not an income or a music hall, although I am intensely and strangely refined.  Yet I have been taken seriously throughout my career.  My lectures have been gravely discussed.  My plays have been solemnly criticised by the amusing failures in literature who love to call themselves ‘the gentlemen of the press.’  My poems have been boycotted by prurient publishers; and my novel, ‘The Soul of Bertie Brown,’ has ruined the reputation of a magazine that had been successful in shocking the impious for centuries.  Bishops have declared that I am a monster, and monsters have declared that I ought to be a bishop.  And all this has befallen me because I am an artist in absurdity, a human being who dares to be ridiculous.  I practise the exquisite art of folly, an art that will in the future take rank with the arts of painting, of music, of literature.  I was born to be absurd.  I have lived to be absurd.  I shall die to be absurd; for nothing can be more absurd than the death of a man who has lived to sin, instead of having lived to suffer.  I married to be absurd; for marriage is one of the most brilliant absurdities ever invented by a prolific imagination.  We are all absurd; but we are not all artists, because we are not all self-conscious.  The artist must be self-conscious.  If we marry seriously, if we live solemnly, and die with a decent gravity, we are being absurd; but we do not know it, and therefore our absurdity has no value.  I am an artist, because I am consciously absurd; and I wish to impress upon you to-day, that if you wish to live improperly, you must be consciously absurd too.  You must commit follies; but you must not be under the impression that you are performing sensible acts, otherwise you will take rank with sensible people, who are invariably and hopelessly middle class.”

An interruption occurred here one of the smallest children who was stationed in the front of the group under the cedar tree suddenly bursting into a flood of tears, and having to be led, shrieking, away to a distant corner of the garden.  Esme followed its convulsed form with his eyes, and then remarked

“That child is being absurd; but that child is not an artist, because it is not conscious of its absurdity.  Remember, then, to be self-conscious, to set aside the normal, to be young, and to be eternally foolish.  Take nothing seriously, except yourselves, if possible.  Do not be deceived into thinking the mind greater than the face, or the soul grander than the body.  Strike the words virtue and wickedness out of your dictionaries.  There is nothing good and nothing evil.  There is only art.  Despise the normal, and flee from everything that is hallowed by custom, as you would flee from the seven deadly virtues.  Cling to the abnormal.  Shrink from the cold and freezing touch of Nature.  One touch of Nature makes the whole world commonplace.  Forget your Catechism, and remember the words of Flaubert and of Walter Pater, and remember this, too, that the folly of self-conscious fools is the only true wisdom!  And now sing to us your hymn, sing to us under the cedar tree self-consciously, and we will listen self-consciously, even as Ulysses listened to ”

But here a gentle and penetrating “Hush!” broke from the lips of Mrs. Windsor, and Esme paused.

“Sing to us,” he said, “and we will listen as the old listen to the voices of youth, as the nightingale listens to the properly trained vocalist, as Nature listens to Art.  Sing to us, beautiful rose-coloured children, until we forget that you are singing a hymn, and remember only that you are young, and that some day, in the long-delayed fulness of time, you will be no longer innocent.”

He uttered the last words in a tone so soft and so seductive that it was like honey and the honeycomb, and then stood with his eyes fixed dreamily upon the children, who had been getting decidedly red and fidgety, unaccustomed to be directly addressed, and in so fantastic a manner.  The relief of the teachers at the cessation of Amarinth’s address was tumultuously obvious.  They once more turned out their toes.  The anguished expression died away from their faces, and they ceased to twist their fingers into curious patterns suggestive of freehand drawings.  The national schoolmaster, unlocking his countenance, and delightedly assuming his wonted air of proud authority, stepped forward and called for the Old Hundredth; and in the gentle evening air the well-known tune ascended like incense to the darkening heavens.  Shrilly the youthful voices rose and fell, until the amen came as a full stop.  Then the little troop was marshalled two and two, made a collective obeisance to Mrs. Windsor and her guests, and wheeled out of the garden into the drive at a quick step, warbling poignantly, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”  Gradually the sound decreased in volume, decreased in a long diminuendo, and at last faded away into silence.

Mrs. Windsor sighed.

“Children are very sticky,” she remarked.  “I am glad I never had any.”

“Yes,” said Madame Valtesi; “they are as adhesive as postage-stamps.  What time do we dine to-day?”

“Not till half-past eight.”

“I shall go in, and sit down quietly and try to feel old.  Youth is quite terrible, in spite of what Esme says.  Esme, youth is not passionate; it is merely sticky and excited.”

“What a pity it is not self-consciously sticky,” he murmured, accompanying her into the house.

“Why?”

“Then perhaps it might be induced to wash occasionally.  I wonder if I can find a hock and seltzer.  I feel like a volume of sermons so very dry.”