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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Devils On The Needle

Title:     The Devils On The Needle
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

'... these things are life:
And life, some say, is worthy of the muse.'


There is a famous query of the old schoolman at which we have all flung a jest in our time: _How many angels can dance on the point of a needle?_ In a world with so many real troubles it seems, perhaps, a little idle to worry too long over the question. Yet in the mere question, putting any answer outside possibility, there is a wonderful suggestiveness, if it has happened to come to you illuminated by experience. It becomes a little clearer, perhaps, if we substitute devils for angels. A friend of mine used always to look at it thus inversely when he quarrelled with his wife. Forgive so many enigmas to start with, but it was this way. They never quarrelled more than three times a year, and it was always on the very smallest trifle, one particular trifle too. On the great things of life they were at one. It was but a tiny point, a needle's end of difference, on which they disagreed, and it was on that needle's end that the devils danced. All the devils of hell, you would have said. At any rate, you would have no longer wondered why the old philosopher put so odd a question, for you had only to see little Dora's face lit up with fury over that ridiculous trifle to have exclaimed: 'Is it possible that so many devils can dance on a point where there seems hardly footing for a frown?'

However, so it was, and when I tell you what the needle's end was, you will probably not think me worth a serious person's attention. That I shall, of course, regret, but it was simply this: Dora _would_ write with a 'J' pen--for which it was William's idiosyncrasy to have an unconquerable aversion. She might, you will think, have given way to her husband on so absurd a point, a mere pen-point of disagreement. He was the tenderest of husbands in every other point. There is nothing that love can dream that he was not capable of doing for his wife's sake. But, on the other hand, it was equally true that there can be no other wife in the world more devoted than Dora; with her also there was nothing too hard for love's sake. Could he not waive so ridiculous a blemish? It was little enough for love to achieve, surely. Yes, strange as it seems, their love was equal to impossible heroisms: to have died for each other had been easy, but to surrender this pen-point was impossible. And, alas! as they always do, the devils found out this needle's end--and danced. For their purpose it was as good as a platform. It gave them joy indeed to think what stupendous powers of devilry they could concentrate on so tiny a stage.

It was a sad thing, too, that Dora and William were able to avoid the subject three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, but on that odd day it was sure to crop up. Perhaps they had been out late the night before, and their nerves were against them. The merest accident would bring it on. Dora would ask William to post a letter for her in town. Being out of sorts, and susceptible to the silliest irritation, he would not be able to resist criticising the addressing. If he didn't mention it, Dora would notice his 'expression.' That would be 'quite enough,' you may be sure. Half the tragedies of life depend on 'expression.'

'Well!' she would say.

'Well what?' he would answer, already beginning to tremble.

'You have one of your critical moods on again.'

'Not at all. What's the matter?'

'You have, I say.... Well, why do you look at the envelope in that way? I know what it is, well enough.'

'If you know, dear, why do you ask?'

'Don't try to be sarcastic, dear. It is so vulgar.'

'I hadn't the least intention of being so.'

'Yes, you had.... Give me that letter.'

'All right.'

'Yes, you admire every woman's writing but your wife's.'

'Don't be silly, dear. See, I don't feel very well this morning. I don't want to be angry.'

'Angry! Be angry; what does it matter to me? Be as angry as you like. I wish I had never seen you.'

'Somewhat of a _non sequitur_, is it not, my love?'

'Don't "my love" me. With your nasty cool sarcasm!'

'Isn't it better to try and keep cool rather than to fly into a temper about nothing? See, I know you are a little nervous this morning. Let us be friends before I go.'

'I have no wish to be friends.'


William would then lace his boots, and don his coat in silence, before making a final effort at reconciliation.

'Well, dear, good-bye. Perhaps you will love me again by the time I get home.'

'Perhaps I shan't be here when you come home.'

'For pity's sake, don't begin that silly nonsense, Dora.'

'It isn't silly nonsense. I say again--I mayn't be here when you come home, and I mean it.'

'Oh, all right then. Suppose I were to say that I won't come home?'

'I should be quite indifferent.'

'O Dora!'

'I would. I am weary of our continual quarrels. I can bear this life no longer.' (It was actually sunny as a summer sky.)

'Why, it was only last night you said how happy we were.'

'Yes, but I didn't mean it.'

'Didn't mean it! Don't talk like that, or I shall lose myself completely.'

'You will lose your train if you don't mind. Don't you think you had better go?'

'Can you really talk to me like that?--me?--O Dora, it is not you that is talking: it is some devil in you.'

Then suddenly irritated beyond all control by her silly little set face, he would blurt out a sudden, 'Oh, very well, then!' and before she was aware of it, the door would have banged. By the time William had reached the gate he would be half-way through with a deed of assignment in favour of his wife, who, now that he had really gone, would watch him covertly from the window with slowly thawing heart.

So the devils would begin their dance: for it was by no means ended. Of course, William would come home as usual; and yet, though the sound of his footstep was the one sound she had listened for all day, Dora would immediately begin to petrify again, and when he would approach her with open arms, asking her to forgive and forget the morning, she would demur just long enough to set him alight again. Heaven, how the devils would dance then! And the night would usually end with them lying sleepless in distant beds.


To attempt tragedy out of such absurd material is, you will say, merely stupid. Well, I'm sorry. I know no other way to make it save life's own, and I know that the tragedy of William's life hung upon a silly little ink-stained 'J' pen. I would pretend that it was made of much more grandiose material if I could. But the facts are as I shall tell you. And surely if you fulfil that definition of man which describes him as a reflective being, if you ever think on life at all, you must have noticed how even the great tragedies that go in purple in the great poets all turn on things no less trifling in themselves, all come of people pretending to care for some bauble more than they really do.

And you must have wondered, too, as you stood awestruck before the regal magnificence, the radiant power, the unearthly beauty, of those glorious and terrible angels of passion--that splendid creature of wrath, that sorrow wonderful as a starlit sky--you must have wondered that life has not given these noble elementals material worthier of their fiery operation than the paltry concerns of humanity; just as you may have wondered too, that so god-like a thing as fire should find nothing worthier of its divine fury than the ugly accumulations of man.

At any rate, I know that all the sorrow that saddens, sanctifies, and sometimes terrifies my friend, centres round that silly little 'J' pen. The difference is that the angels dance on its point now, instead of the devils; but it is too late.

A night of unhappiness had ended once more as I described. The long darkness had slowly passed, and morning, sunny with forgiveness, had come at length. William's heart yearned for his wife in the singing of the birds. He would first slip down into the garden and gather her some fresh flowers, then steal with them into the room and kiss her little sulky mouth till she awoke; and, before she remembered their sorrow, her eyes would see the flowers.

It was a lover's simple thought, sweeter even than the flowers he had soon gathered.

But then, reader, why tease you with transparent secrets? You know that Dora could not smell the flowers.

You know that Death had come to dance with the devils that night, and that Dora and William would quarrel about little 'J' pens no more for ever.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Devils On The Needle