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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

A Tavern Night

Title:     A Tavern Night
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

Looking back, in weak moments, we are sometimes heard to say: 'After all, youth was a great fool. Look at the tinsel he was sure was solid gold. Can you imagine it? This tawdry tinkling bit of womanhood, a silly doll that says "Don't" when you squeeze it,--he actually mistook her for a goddess.' Ah! reader, don't you wish you could make such a splendid mistake? I do. I'd give anything to be once more sitting before the footlights for the first time, with the wonderful overture just beginning to steal through my senses.

Ah! violins, whither would you take my soul? You call to it like the voice of one waiting by the sea, bathed in sunset. Why do you call me? What are these wonderful things you are whispering to my soul? You promise--ah! what things you promise, strange voices of the string!

O sirens, have pity! It is the soul of a boy comes out to meet you. His heart is pure, his body sweet as apples. Oh, be faithful, betray him not, beautiful voices of the wondrous world!

David and I sat together in a theatre. The overture had succeeded. Our souls had followed it over the footlights, and, floating in the limelight, shone there awaiting the fulfilment of the promise. The play was 'Pygmalion and Galatea.' I almost forget now how the scenes go, I only know that at the appearance of Galatea we knew that the overture had not lied. There, in dazzling white flesh, was all it had promised; and when she called 'Pyg-ma-lion!' how our hearts thumped! for we knew it was really us she was calling.

'Pyg-ma-lion!' 'Pyg-ma-lion!'

It was as though Cleopatra called us from the tomb.

Our hands met. We could hear each other's blood singing. And was not the play itself an allegory of our coming lives? Did not Galatea symbolise all the sleeping beauty of the world that was to awaken warm and fragrant at the kiss of our youth? And somewhere, too, shrouded in enchanted quiet, such a white white woman waited for our kiss.

In a vision we saw life like the treasure cave of the Arabian thief, and we said to our beating hearts that we had the secret of the magic word: that the 'Open Sesame' was youth.

No fall of the curtain could hide the vision from our young eyes. It transfigured the faces of our fellow-pittites, it made another stage of the embers of the sunset, a distant bridge of silver far down the street. Then we took it with us to the tavern: and, as I think of the solemn libations of that night, I know not whether to laugh or cry. Doubtless, you will do the laughing and I the crying.

We had got our own corner. Turning down the gas, the fire played at day and night with our faces. Imagine us in one of the flashes, solemnly raising our glasses, hands clasped across the table, earnest gleaming eyes holding each other above it. 'Old man! some day, somewhere, a woman like that!'

There was still a sequel. At home at last and in bed, how could I sleep? It seemed as if I had got into a rosy sunset cloud in mistake for my bed. The candle was out, and yet the room was full of rolling light.

I'll swear I could have seen to read by it, whatever it was.

It was no use. I must get up. I struck a light, and in a moment was deep in the composition of a fiery sonnet. It was evidently that which had caused all the phosphorescence. But a sonnet is a mere pill-box. It holds nothing. A mere cockleshell. And, oh! the raging sea it could not hold! Besides, being confessedly an art-form, duly licensed to lie, it is apt to be misunderstood. It could not say in plain English, 'Meet me at the pier to-morrow at three in the afternoon'; it could make no assignation nearer than the Isles of the Blest, 'after life's fitful fever.' Therefore, it seemed well to add a postscript to that effect in prose.

And then, how was she to receive it? Needless to say, there was nothing to be hoped from the post; and I should have said before that Tyre and Sidon face each other on opposite sides of the river, and that my home was in Sidon, three miles from the ferry.

Likewise, it was now nearing three in the morning. Just time to catch the half-past three boat, run up to the theatre, a mile away, and meet the return boat. So down down through the creaking house, gingerly, as though I were a Jason picking my way among the coils of the sleeping dragon. Soon I was shooting along the phantom streets, like Mercury on a message through Hades.

At last the river came in sight, growing slate-colour in the earliest dawn. I could see the boat nuzzling up against the pier, and snoring in its sleep. I said to myself that this was Styx and the fare an obolus. As I jumped on board, with hot face and hotter heart, Charon clicked his signal to the engines, the boat slowly snuffled itself half awake, and we shoved out into the sleepy water.

As we crossed, the light grew, and the gas-lamps of Tyre beaconed with fading gleam. Overhead began a restlessness in the clouds, as of a giant drowsily shuffling off some of his bedclothes; but as yet he slept, and only the silver bosom of his spouse the moon was uncovered.

When we landed, the streets of Tyre were already light, but empty: as though they had got up early to meet some one who had not arrived. I sped through them like a seagull that has the harbour to itself, and was not long in reaching the theatre. How desolate the playbills looked that had been so companionable but two or three hours before. And there was her photograph! Surely it was an omen. Ah, my angel! See, I am bringing you my heart in a song 'All my heart in this my singing!'

I dropped the letter into the box: but, as I turned away, momentarily glancing up the long street, I caught sight of an approaching figure that could hardly be mistaken. Good Heavens! it was David, and he too was carrying a letter.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's Essay: Tavern Night