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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Pathetic Flourish

Title:     The Pathetic Flourish
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

The dash under the signature, the unnecessary rat-tat of the visitor, the extravagant angle of the hat in bowing, the extreme unction in the voice, the business man's importance, the strut of the cock, the swagger of the bad actor, the long hair of the poet, the Salvation bonnet, the blue shirt of the Socialist: against all these, and a hundred examples of the swagger of unreflecting life, did a little brass knocker in Gray's Inn warn me the other evening. I had knocked as no one should who is not a postman, with somewhat of a flourish. I had plainly said, in its metallic reverberations, that I was somebody. As I left my friends, I felt the knocker looking at me, and when I came out into the great square, framing the heavens like an astronomical chart, the big stars repeated the lesson with thousand-fold iteration. How they seemed to nudge each other and twinkle among themselves at the poor ass down there, who actually took himself and his doings so seriously as to flourish, even on a little brass knocker.

Yes, I had once again forgotten Jupiter. How many hundred times was he bigger than the earth? Never mind, there he was, bright as crystal, for me to measure my importance against! The street-lamps did their best, I observed, to brave it out, and the electric lights in Holborn seemed certainly to have the best of it--as cheap jewellery is gaudiest in its glitter. One could much more easily believe that all these hansoms with their jewelled eyes, these pretty, saucily frocked women with theirs, this busy glittering milky way of human life was the enduring, and those dimmed uncertain points up yonder but the reflections of human gas-lights.

A city clerk, with shining evening hat, went by, his sweetheart on his arm. They were wending gaily to the theatre, without a thought of all the happy people who had done the same long ago--hasting down the self-same street, to the self-same theatre, with the very same sweet talk--all long since mouldering in their graves. I felt I ought to rush up and shake them, take them into a bystreet, turn their eyes upon Jupiter, and tell them they must die; but I thought it might spoil the play for them.

Besides, there were so many hundreds in the streets I should have to address in the same way: formidable people, too, clad in respectability as in a coat of mail. The pompous policeman yonder: I longed to go and say to him that there had been policemen before; that he was only the ephemeral example of a world-old type, and needn't take himself so seriously. It was an irresistible temptation to ask him: 'Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? Or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?' But I forbore, and just then, glancing into an oyster shop, I was fascinated by the oysterman. He was rapidly opening a dozen for a new customer, and wore the while the solemnest face I ever saw. Oysters were so evidently, so pathetically, all the world to him. All his surroundings suggested oysters, legends of their prices and qualities made the art on his walls, printed price-lists on his counter made his literature, the prospects and rivalries of trade made his politics: oysters were, in fact, his _raison d'etre_. His associations from boyhood had been oysters, I felt certain that his relatives, even his ancestors, must be oysters, too; and that if he had any idea of a supreme being, it must take the form of an oyster. Indeed, a sort of nightmare seemed suddenly to take possession of the world, in which alternately policemen swallowed oysters and oysters policemen. How sad it all was--that masterly flourish of the knife with which the oysterman ruthlessly hurried dozen after dozen into eternity; that deferential 'Sir' in his voice to every demand of his customer; that brisk alacrity with which he bid his assistant bring 'the gentleman's half-stout.'

There seemed a world of tears in these simple operations, and the plain oysterman had grown suddenly mystical as an astrological symbol. And, indeed, there was planetary influence in the thing, for there was Jupiter high above us, sneering at our little world of policemen and oystermen.

His grin disagreeably reminded me--had I not myself that very night ignorantly flourished on a brass knocker?

It is so hard to remember the respect we owe to death. Yet for me there is always a feeling that if we direct our lives cautiously, with proportionate seriousness and no more, not presuming on life as our natural birthright, but taking it with simple thankfulness as a boon which we have done nothing to deserve, and which may be snatched from us before our next breath: that, if we so order our days, Death may respect our humility.

'The lusty lord, rejoicing in his pride,
He draweth down; before the armed knight
With jingling bridle-rein he still doth ride;
He crosseth the strong captain in the fight';

but such are proud people, arrogant in beauty and strength. With a humble person, who is careful not to flourish beneath his signature, who knocks just as much as he means on the knocker, bows just as much as he respects, smiles cautiously, and never fails to touch his hat to the King of Terrors--may he not deal more gently with such a one?

And yet Death is not a pleasant companion at Life's feast, however kindly disposed. One cannot quite trust him, and he doesn't go well with flowers. Perhaps, after all, they are wisest who forget him, and happy indeed are they who have not yet caught sight of him grinning to himself among the green branches of their Paradise.

Yes, it is good that youth should go with a feather in his cap, that spring should garland herself with blossom, and love's vows make light of death. He is a bad companion for young people. But for older folk the wisdom of that knocker in Gray's Inn applies.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's Essay: Pathetic Flourish