The Toys of Peace and Other Papers/For the Duration of the War
The Rev. Wilfrid Gaspilton, in one of those clerical migrations inconsequent-seeming to the lay mind, had removed from the moderately fashionable parish of St. Luke’s, Kensingate, to the immoderately rural parish of St. Chuddocks, somewhere in Yondershire. There were doubtless substantial advantages connected with the move, but there were certainly some very obvious drawbacks. Neither the migratory clergyman nor his wife were able to adapt themselves naturally and comfortably to the conditions of country life. Beryl, Mrs. Gaspilton, had always looked indulgently on the country as a place where people of irreproachable income and hospitable instincts cultivated tennis-lawns and rose-gardens and Jacobean pleasaunces, wherein selected gatherings of interested week-end guests might disport themselves. Mrs. Gaspilton considered herself as distinctly an interesting personality, and from a limited standpoint she was doubtless right. She had indolent dark eyes and a comfortable chin, which belied the slightly plaintive inflection which she threw into her voice at suitable intervals. She was tolerably well satisfied with the smaller advantages of life, but she regretted that Fate had not seen its way to reserve for her some of the ampler successes for which she felt herself well qualified. She would have liked to be the centre of a literary, slightly political salon, where discerning satellites might have recognised the breadth of her outlook on human affairs and the undoubted smallness of her feet. As it was, Destiny had chosen for her that she should be the wife of a rector, and had now further decreed that a country rectory should be the background to her existence. She rapidly made up her mind that her surroundings did not call for exploration; Noah had predicted the Flood, but no one expected him to swim about in it. Digging in a wet garden or trudging through muddy lanes were exertions which she did not propose to undertake. As long as the garden produced asparagus and carnations at pleasingly frequent intervals Mrs. Gaspilton was content to approve of its expense and otherwise ignore its existence. She would fold herself up, so to speak, in an elegant, indolent little world of her own, enjoying the minor recreations of being gently rude to the doctor’s wife and continuing the leisurely production of her one literary effort, The Forbidden Horsepond, a translation of Baptiste Leopoy’s L’Abreuvoir interdit. It was a labour which had already been so long drawn-out that it seemed probable that Baptiste Lepoy would drop out of vogue before her translation of his temporarily famous novel was finished. However, the languid prosecution of the work had invested Mrs. Gaspilton with a certain literary dignity, even in Kensingate circles, and would place her on a pinnacle in St. Chuddocks, where hardly any one read French, and assuredly no one had heard of L’Abreuvoir interdit.
The Rector’s wife might be content to turn her back complacently on the country; it was the Rector’s tragedy that the country turned its back on him. With the best intention in the world and the immortal example of Gilbert White before him, the Rev. Wilfrid found himself as bored and ill at ease in his new surroundings as Charles II would have been at a modern Wesleyan Conference. The birds that hopped across his lawn hopped across it as though it were their lawn, and not his, and gave him plainly to understand that in their eyes he was infinitely less interesting than a garden worm or the rectory cat. The hedgeside and meadow flowers were equally uninspiring; the lesser celandine seemed particularly unworthy of the attention that English poets had bestowed on it, and the Rector knew that he would be utterly miserable if left alone for a quarter of an hour in its company. With the human inhabitants of his parish he was no better off; to know them was merely to know their ailments, and the ailments were almost invariably rheumatism. Some, of course, had other bodily infirmities, but they always had rheumatism as well. The Rector had not yet grasped the fact that in rural cottage life not to have rheumatism is as glaring an omission as not to have been presented at Court would be in more ambitious circles. And with all this death of local interest there was Beryl shutting herself off with her ridiculous labours on The Forbidden Horsepond.
“I don’t see why you should suppose that any one wants to read Baptiste Lepoy in English,” the Reverend Wilfrid remarked to his wife one morning, finding her surrounded with her usual elegant litter of dictionaries, fountain pens, and scribbling paper; “hardly any one bothers to read him now in France.”
“My dear,” said Beryl, with an intonation of gentle weariness, “haven’t two or three leading London publishers told me they wondered no one had ever translated L’Abreuvoir interdit, and begged me—”
“Publishers always clamour for the books that no one has ever written, and turn a cold shoulder on them as soon as they’re written. If St. Paul were living now they would pester him to write an Epistle to the Esquimaux, but no London publisher would dream of reading his Epistle to the Ephesians.”
“Is there any asparagus in the garden?” asked Beryl; “because I’ve told cook—”
“Not anywhere in the garden,” snapped the Rector, “but there’s no doubt plenty in the asparagus-bed, which is the usual place for it.”
And he walked away into the region of fruit trees and vegetable beds to exchange irritation for boredom. It was there, among the gooseberry bushes and beneath the medlar trees, that the temptation to the perpetration of a great literary fraud came to him.
Some weeks later the Bi-Monthly Review gave to the world, under the guarantee of the Rev. Wilfrid Gaspilton, some fragments of Persian verse, alleged to have been unearthed and translated by a nephew who was at present campaigning somewhere in the Tigris valley. The Rev. Wilfrid possessed a host of nephews, and it was of course, quite possible that one or more of them might be in military employ in Mesopotamia, though no one could call to mind any particular nephew who could have been suspected of being a Persian scholar.
The verses were attributed to one Ghurab, a hunter, or, according to other accounts, warden of the royal fishponds, who lived, in some unspecified century, in the neighbourhood of Karmanshah. They breathed a spirit of comfortable, even-tempered satire and philosophy, disclosing a mockery that did not trouble to be bitter, a joy in life that was not passionate to the verge of being troublesome.
“A Mouse that prayed for Allah’s aid
Blasphemed when no such aid befell:
A Cat, who feasted on that mouse,
Thought Allah managed vastly well.
Pray not for aid to One who made
A set of never-changing Laws,
But in your need remember well
He gave you speed, or guile—or claws.
Some laud a life of mild content:
Content may fall, as well as Pride.
The Frog who hugged his lowly Ditch
Was much disgruntled when it dried.
‘You are not on the Road to Hell,’
You tell me with fanatic glee:
Vain boaster, what shall that avail
If Hell is on the road to thee?
A Poet praised the Evening Star,
Another praised the Parrot’s hue:
A Merchant praised his merchandise,
And he, at least, praised what he knew.”
It was this verse which gave the critics and commentators some clue as to the probable date of the composition; the parrot, they reminded the public, was in high vogue as a type of elegance in the days of Hafiz of Shiraz; in the quatrains of Omar it makes no appearance.
The next verse, it was pointed out, would apply to the political conditions of the present day as strikingly as to the region and era for which it was written—
“A Sultan dreamed day-long of Peace,
The while his Rivals’ armies grew:
They changed his Day-dreams into sleep
—The Peace, methinks, he never knew.”
Woman appeared little, and wine not at all in the verse of the hunter-poet, but there was at least one contribution to the love-philosophy of the East—
“O Moon-faced Charmer, and Star-drownèd Eyes,
And cheeks of soft delight, exhaling musk,
They tell me that thy charm will fade; ah well,
The Rose itself grows hue-less in the Dusk.”
Finally, there was a recognition of the Inevitable, a chill breath blowing across the poet’s comfortable estimate of life—
“There is a sadness in each Dawn,
A sadness that you cannot rede:
The joyous Day brings in its train
The Feast, the Loved One, and the Steed.
Ah, there shall come a Dawn at last
That brings no life-stir to your ken,
A long, cold Dawn without a Day,
And ye shall rede its sadness then.”
The verses of Ghurab came on the public at a moment when a comfortable, slightly quizzical philosophy was certain to be welcome, and their reception was enthusiastic. Elderly colonels, who had outlived the love of truth, wrote to the papers to say that they had been familiar with the works of Ghurab in Afghanistan, and Aden, and other suitable localities a quarter of a century ago. A Ghurab-of-Karmanshah Club sprang into existence, the members of which alluded to each other as Brother Ghurabians on the slightest provocation. And to the flood of inquiries, criticisms, and requests for information, which naturally poured in on the discoverer, or rather the discloser, of this long-hidden poet, the Rev. Wilfrid made one effectual reply: Military considerations forbade any disclosures which might throw unnecessary light on his nephew’s movements.
After the war the Rector’s position will be one of unthinkable embarrassment, but for the moment, at any rate, he has driven The Forbidden Horsepond out of the field.