The Spice of Life and Other Essays/The Peasant

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The genius who shall write a real philosophical pantomime (a thing untried, I think, since Aristophanes) should find many handy symbols in the harlequinades of our youth. The donkey who comes in two suggests infinite speculations about organic unity and by divergent evolution. The policeman made into sausages would be excellent machinery either for a Socialistic satire or for a satire on Socialism. And the red-hot poker quite exactly expresses that most terrible and profound thing in human affairs - a fierce domesticity.

But there is another trick of the old pantomimes which happens to offer the only parallel I can think of to the strange state of our society today. We all remember that beginning of the Transformation Scene when the front scene is still there, but the back scene begins to glow through it. The heroine is still in the dungeon; but the walls grow more and more transparent; and something else (probably the Garden of the Fairy Volatile) is apparent at the same time.

I have exactly the same sensations about our old Victorian political methods and the social realities that are now behind them. I do not ignore the old front scene of Privy Council or Parliament; I can still see it there; it is the England of my boyhood, and I rather like it. But simultaneously with these symbolic figures, these representatives and estates of the realm, I can see the Things that are behind. Another England is shining through political England; whether it will be very like the Garden of the Fairy Volatile remains to be seen. This fact, that the Government and the Commonwealth are often on two different planes of reality, has one peculiar result, too little noticed, on our attitude towards foreigners. There are the same names all over Europe - Parliament, Army, Church, Land, and so on. But these words often stand for astonishingly different things; for widely varying degrees of realism or ritual or memory or conspiracy or indifference. When a man has even one concrete experience of some foreign thing, he will generally find it to be in quite another world from that foreign country as it appears in the newspapers. A man reading the best English journals would have the general impression that the chief event in France is the sudden fall of the Ministry which came as abruptly as that tragic blow out of the air which a few weeks before had struck one of its members dead where he stood.

Now I happened to be in France when the news of this tragedy was scattered abroad, and I want to try and convey an atmosphere which I felt, and which I felt to be France itself. To us in England France seemed to be full of all this crisis and disaster. This was something like what one felt upon the actual scene of it.

I was away in those eastern highlands, where France (so to speak) clings to the rising mountains, till they break away and shoot up into the sky as Switzerland. More to the north was that gap that is the great gate into Germany and is guarded by the Lion of Belfort. Among these hills I met a peasant who was like thousands of the peasants all round: a Jack-of-all-trades. Among other things he owned a ramshackle carriage with an excellent horse, with which he could drive me anywhere; and he was, as far as appearance goes, rather like a very rude beggar. His clothes were coarse and threadbare, his face was rugged, but sharp; he was always in a sweat from drudgeries. A man who looked like that would be `moved on' in London if he tried to open the door of a cab. Well, I got him to drive me away over the hills, and, finding that the mountains grew taller, grander, and (one might say) more incredible at every turn of the road, I persuaded him to make a day's journey of it, and to rest the horse in a high village where (as everywhere in that country) one could get good wine and bread and an omelette at least.

Now, when I stopped before the cottage that could thus become an impromptu inn, I did exactly what every Englishman of my unfortunate class would have done in my place. I addressed the driver with nervous cordiality and extreme vagueness and said that I supposed he would like to have some lunch too, offering him a few francs for the purpose. He did not understand what it meant. He said I had better pay for the carriage at the end. I said it again, and still it was a puzzle to him. I said it again, in French which, however bad, was at least unmistakable; and this time I made myself clear. Whereupon this amazing scarecrow burst into an ungovernable fit of laughter, and slapped his trouser pocket about six times with his squat spread hand, exclaiming, "Money! I have much! I have mountains! I am rich! I am very rich!" And after the conversation I had with him on the road home, I think it perfectly possible that he was considerably richer than I am.

He talked about his dog, which was the best dog in the world; his son, who was the most promising cook in the world; his horse, which was the most astonishing horse in the world; he seemed to find inexhaustible glories in his patch of property. At the end of the journey, warned by that prodigy of the noon, I offered him no extra tip, but only two good cigars that somebody had given me. He at once replied by giving me a bottle of the wine he manufactured himself. It was, he assured me, the best wine in the world.

That is all that happened; only as we drove into the town the papers were flaring with the dreadful death of the French Minister of War and the narrow escape of the French Premier. My friend had never heard of either of them; he took no interest in politics. I think he thought politics a sort of mutiny among slaves. He was a free man. I think my sociological friends really ought to remember that there are many millions of him in Europe.