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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Answer Of The Rose

Title:     The Answer Of The Rose
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

The Sphinx and I sat in our little box at _Romeo and Juliet_. It was the first time she had seen that fairy-tale of passion upon the stage. I had seen it played once before--in Paradise. Therefore, I rather trembled to see it again in an earthly play-house, and as much as possible kept my eyes from the stage. All I knew of the performance--but how much was that!--was two lovely voices making love like angels; and when there were no words, the music told me what was going on. Love speaks so many languages.

One might as well look. It was as clear as moonlight to the tragic eye within the heart. The Sphinx was gazing on it all with those eyes that will never grow old, neither for years nor tears; but though I seemed to be seeing nothing but an advertisement of Paderewski pianos on the programme, I saw it--oh, didn't I see it?--all. The house had grown dark, and the music low and passionate, and for a moment no one was speaking. Only, deep in the thickets of my heart there sang a tragic nightingale that, happily, only I could hear; and I said to myself, 'Now the young fool is climbing the orchard wall! Yes, there go Benvolio and Mercutio calling him; and now,--"he jests at scars who never felt a wound"--the other young fool is coming out on to the balcony. God help them both! They have no eyes--no eyes--or surely they would see the shadow that sings "Love! Love! Love!" like a fountain in the moonlight, and then shrinks away to chuckle "Death! Death! Death!" in the darkness!'

But, soft, what light from yonder window breaks!

The Sphinx turned to me for sympathy--this time it was the soul of Shakespeare in her eyes.

'Yes!' I whispered, 'it is the Opening of the Eternal Rose, sung by the Eternal Nightingale!'

She pressed my hand approvingly; and while the lovely voices made their heavenly love, I slipped out my silver-bound pocket-book of ivory and pressed within it the rose which had just fallen from my lips.

The worst of a great play is that one is so dull between the acts. Wit is sacrilege, and sentiment is bathos. Not another rose fell from my lips during the performance, though that I minded little, as I was the more able to count the pearls that fell from the Sphinx's eyes.

It took quite half a bottle of champagne to pull us up to our usual spirits, as we sat at supper at a window where we could see London spread out beneath us like a huge black velvet flower, dotted with fiery embroideries, sudden flaring stamens, and rows of ant-like fireflies moving in slow zig-zag processions along and across its petals.

'How strange it seems,' said the Sphinx, 'to think that for every two of those moving double-lights, which we know to be the eyes of hansoms, but which seem up here nothing but gold dots in a very barbaric pattern of black and gold, there are two human beings, no doubt at this time of night two lovers, throbbing with the joy of life, and dreaming, heaven knows what dreams!'

'Yes,' I rejoined;' and to them I'm afraid we are even more impersonal. From their little Piccadilly coracles our watch-tower in the skies is merely a radiant facade of glowing windows, and no one of all who glide by realises that the spirited illumination is every bit due to your eyes. You have but to close them, and every one will be asking what has gone wrong with the electric light.'

A little nonsense is a great healer of the heart, and by means of such nonsense as this we grew merry again. And anon we grew sentimental and poetic, but--thank heaven! we were no longer tragic.

Presently I had news for the Sphinx. 'The rose-tree that grows in the garden of my mind,' I said, 'desires to blossom.'

'May it blossom indeed,' she replied; 'for it has been flowerless all this long evening; and bring me a rose fresh with all the dews of inspiration--no florist's flower, wired and artificially scented, no bloom of yesterday's hard-driven brains.'

'I was only thinking,' I said, '_a propos_ of nightingales and roses, that though all the world has heard the song of the nightingale to the rose, only the nightingale has heard the answer of the rose. You know what I mean?'

'Know what you mean! Of course, that's always easy enough,' retorted the Sphinx, who knows well how to be hard on me.

'I'm so glad,' I ventured to thrust back; 'for lucidity is the first success of expression: to make others see clearly what we ourselves are struggling to see, believe with all their hearts what we are just daring to hope, is--well, the religion of a literary man!'

'Yes! it's a pretty idea,' said the Sphinx, once more pressing the rose of my thought to her brain; 'and indeed it's more than pretty ...'

'Thank you!' I said humbly.

'Yes, it's _true_--and many a humble little rose will thank you for it. For, your nightingale is a self-advertising bird. He never sings a song without an eye on the critics, sitting up there in their stalls among the stars. He never, or seldom, sings a song for pure love, just because he must sing it or die. Indeed, he has a great fear of death, unless--you will guarantee him immortality. But the rose, the trusting little earth-born rose, that must stay all her life rooted in one spot till some nightingale comes to choose her--some nightingale whose song maybe has been inspired and perfected by a hundred other roses, which are at the moment pot-pourri--ah, the shy bosom-song of the rose ...'

Here the Sphinx paused, and added abruptly--

'Well--there is no nightingale worthy to hear it!'

'It is true,' I agreed, 'O trusting little earth-born rose!'

'Do you know why the rose has thorns?' suddenly asked the Sphinx. Of course I knew, but I always respect a joke, particularly when it is but half-born--humourists always prefer to deliver themselves--so I shook my head.

'To keep off the nightingales, of course,' said the Sphinx, the tone of her voice holding in mocking solution the words 'Donkey' and 'Stupid,'--which I recognised and meekly bore.

'What an excellent idea!' I said. 'I never thought of it before. But don't you think it's a little unkind? For, after all, if there were no nightingales, one shouldn't hear so much about the rose; and there is always the danger that if the rose continues too painfully thorny, the nightingale may go off and seek, say, a more accommodating lily.'

'I have no opinion of lilies,' said the Sphinx.

'Nor have I,' I answered soothingly; 'I much prefer roses--but ... but....'

'But what?'

'But--well, I much prefer roses. Indeed I do.'

'Rose of the World,' I continued with sentiment, 'draw in your thorns. I cannot bear them.'

'Ah!' she answered eagerly, 'that is just it. The nightingale that is worthy of the rose will not only bear, but positively love, her thorns. It is for that reason she wears them. The thorns of the rose properly understood are but the tests of the nightingale. The nightingale that is frightened of the thorns is not worthy of the rose--of that you may be sure....'

'I am not frightened of the thorns,' I managed to interject.

'Sing then once more,' she cried, 'the Song of the Nightingale.'

And it was thus I sang:--

O Rose of the World, a nightingale,
A Bird of the World, am I,
I have loved all the world and sung all the world,
But I come to your side to die.

Tired of the world, as the world of me,
I plead for your quiet breast,
I have loved all the world and sung all the world--
But--where is the nightingale's nest?

In a hundred gardens I sung the rose,
Rose of the World, I confess--
But for every rose I have sung before
I love you the more, not less.

Perfect it grew by each rose that died,
Each rose that has died for you,
The song that I sing--yea, 'tis no new song,
It is tried--and so it is true.

Petal or thorn, yea! I have no care,
So that I here abide;
Pierce me, my love, or kiss me, my love,
But keep me close to your side.

I know not your kiss from your scorn, my love,
Your breast from your thorn, my rose,
And if you must kill me, well, kill me, my love!
But--say 'twas the death I chose.

'Is it true?' asked the Rose.

'As I am a nightingale,' I replied; and as we bade each other good-night, I whispered:

'When may I expect the Answer of the Rose?'

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Answer Of The Rose