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- Through the Magic Door - 10/23 -


Cribb, Spring, Langan, and many others, were successful publicans. Strangest of all, perhaps, was Broughton, who spent his old age haunting every sale of old pictures and bric-a-brac. One who saw him has recorded his impression of the silent old gentleman, clad in old-fashioned garb, with his catalogue in his hand--Broughton, once the terror of England, and now the harmless and gentle collector.

Many of them, as was but natural, died violent deaths, some by accident and a few by their own hands. No man of the first class ever died in the ring. The nearest approach to it was the singular and mournful fate which befell Simon Byrne, the brave Irishman, who had the misfortune to cause the death of his antagonist, Angus Mackay, and afterwards met his own end at the hands of Deaf Burke. Neither Byrne nor Mackay could, however, be said to be boxers of the very first rank. It certainly would appear, if we may argue from the prize-ring, that the human machine becomes more delicate and is more sensitive to jar or shock. In the early days a fatal end to a fight was exceedingly rare. Gradually such tragedies became rather more common, until now even with the gloves they have shocked us by their frequency, and we feel that the rude play of our forefathers is indeed too rough for a more highly organized generation. Still, it may help us to clear our minds of cant if we remember that within two or three years the hunting-field and the steeple-chase claim more victims than the prize-ring has done in two centuries.

Many of these men had served their country well with that strength and courage which brought them fame. Cribb was, if I mistake not, in the Royal Navy. So was the terrible dwarf Scroggins, all chest and shoulders, whose springing hits for many a year carried all before them until the canny Welshman, Ned Turner, stopped his career, only to be stopped in turn by the brilliant Irishman, Jack Randall. Shaw, who stood high among the heavy-weights, was cut to pieces by the French Cuirassiers in the first charge at Waterloo. The brutal Berks died greatly in the breach of Badajos. The lives of these men stood for something, and that was just the one supreme thing which the times called for--an unflinching endurance which could bear up against a world in arms. Look at Jem Belcher--beautiful, heroic Jem, a manlier Byron--but there, this is not an essay on the old prize-ring, and one man's lore is another man's bore. Let us pass those three low-down, unjustifiable, fascinating volumes, and on to nobler topics beyond!

VI.

Which are the great short stories of the English language? Not a bad basis for a debate! This I am sure of: that there are far fewer supremely good short stories than there are supremely good long books. It takes more exquisite skill to carve the cameo than the statue. But the strangest thing is that the two excellences seem to be separate and even antagonistic. Skill in the one by no means ensures skill in the other. The great masters of our literature, Fielding, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Reade, have left no single short story of outstanding merit behind them, with the possible exception of Wandering Willie's Tale in "Red Gauntlet." On the other hand, men who have been very great in the short story, Stevenson, Poe, and Bret Harte, have written no great book. The champion sprinter is seldom a five-miler as well.

Well, now, if you had to choose your team whom would you put in? You have not really a large choice. What are the points by which you judge them? You want strength, novelty, compactness, intensity of interest, a single vivid impression left upon the mind. Poe is the master of all. I may remark by the way that it is the sight of his green cover, the next in order upon my favourite shelf, which has started this train of thought. Poe is, to my mind, the supreme original short story writer of all time. His brain was like a seed-pod full of seeds which flew carelessly around, and from which have sprung nearly all our modern types of story. Just think of what he did in his offhand, prodigal fashion, seldom troubling to repeat a success, but pushing on to some new achievement. To him must be ascribed the monstrous progeny of writers on the detection of crime--"quorum pars parva fui!" Each may find some little development of his own, but his main art must trace back to those admirable stories of Monsieur Dupin, so wonderful in their masterful force, their reticence, their quick dramatic point. After all, mental acuteness is the one quality which can be ascribed to the ideal detective, and when that has once been admirably done, succeeding writers must necessarily be content for all time to follow in the same main track. But not only is Poe the originator of the detective story; all treasure-hunting, cryptogram-solving yarns trace back to his "Gold Bug," just as all pseudo-scientific Verne-and-Wells stories have their prototypes in the "Voyage to the Moon," and the "Case of Monsieur Valdemar." If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay tithe to a monument for the master, he would have a pyramid as big as that of Cheops.

And yet I could only give him two places in my team. One would be for the "Gold Bug," the other for the "Murder in the Rue Morgue." I do not see how either of those could be bettered. But I would not admit _perfect_ excellence to any other of his stories. These two have a proportion and a perspective which are lacking in the others, the horror or weirdness of the idea intensified by the coolness of the narrator and of the principal actor, Dupin in the one case and Le Grand in the other. The same may be said of Bret Harte, also one of those great short story tellers who proved himself incapable of a longer flight. He was always like one of his own gold-miners who struck a rich pocket, but found no continuous reef. The pocket was, alas, a very limited one, but the gold was of the best. "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "Tennessee's Partner" are both, I think, worthy of a place among my immortals. They are, it is true, so tinged with Dickens as to be almost parodies of the master, but they have a symmetry and satisfying completeness as short stories to which Dickens himself never attained. The man who can read those two stories without a gulp in the throat is not a man I envy.

And Stevenson? Surely he shall have two places also, for where is a finer sense of what the short story can do? He wrote, in my judgment, two masterpieces in his life, and each of them is essentially a short story, though the one happened to be published as a volume. The one is "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which, whether you take it as a vivid narrative or as a wonderfully deep and true allegory, is a supremely fine bit of work. The other story of my choice would be "The Pavilion on the Links"--the very model of dramatic narrative. That story stamped itself so clearly on my brain when I read it in Cornhill that when I came across it again many years afterwards in volume form, I was able instantly to recognize two small modifications of the text--each very much for the worse--from the original form. They were small things, but they seemed somehow like a chip on a perfect statue. Surely it is only a very fine work, of art which could leave so definite an impression as that. Of course, there are a dozen other of his stories which would put the average writer's best work to shame, all with the strange Stevenson glamour upon them, of which I may discourse later, but only to those two would I be disposed to admit that complete excellence which would pass them into such a team as this.

And who else? If it be not an impertinence to mention a contemporary, I should certainly have a brace from Rudyard Kipling. His power, his compression, his dramatic sense, his way of glowing suddenly into a vivid flame, all mark him as a great master. But which are we to choose from that long and varied collection, many of which have claims to the highest? Speaking from memory, I should say that the stories of his which have impressed me most are "The Drums of the Fore and Aft," "The Man who Would be King," "The Man who Was," and "The Brushwood Boy." Perhaps, on the whole, it is the first two which I should choose to add to my list of masterpieces.

They are stories which invite criticism and yet defy it. The great batsman at cricket is the man who can play an unorthodox game, take every liberty which is denied to inferior players, and yet succeed brilliantly in the face of his disregard of law. So it is here. I should think the model of these stories is the most dangerous that any young writer could follow. There is digression, that most deadly fault in the short narrative; there is incoherence, there is want of proportion which makes the story stand still for pages and bound forward in a few sentences. But genius overrides all that, just as the great cricketer hooks the off ball and glides the straight one to leg. There is a dash, an exuberance, a full-blooded, confident mastery which carries everything before it. Yes, no team of immortals would be complete which did not contain at least two representatives of Kipling.

And now whom? Nathaniel Hawthorne never appealed in the highest degree to me. The fault, I am sure, is my own, but I always seemed to crave stronger fare than he gave me. It was too subtle, too elusive, for effect. Indeed, I have been more affected by some of the short work of his son Julian, though I can quite understand the high artistic claims which the senior writer has, and the delicate charm of his style. There is Bulwer Lytton as a claimant. His "Haunted and the Haunters" is the very best ghost story that I know. As such I should include it in my list. There was a story, too, in one of the old Blackwoods--"Metempsychosis" it was called, which left so deep an impression upon my mind that I should be inclined, though it is many years since I read it, to number it with the best. Another story which has the characteristics of great work is Grant Allen's "John Creedy." So good a story upon so philosophic a basis deserves a place among the best. There is some first-class work to be picked also from the contemporary work of Wells and of Quiller-Couch which reaches a high standard. One little sketch--"Old Oeson" in "Noughts and Crosses"--is, in my opinion, as good as anything of the kind which I have ever read.

And all this didactic talk comes from looking at that old green cover of Poe. I am sure that if I had to name the few books which have really influenced my own life I should have to put this one second only to Macaulay's Essays. I read it young when my mind was plastic. It stimulated my imagination and set before me a supreme example of dignity and force in the methods of telling a story. It is not altogether a healthy influence, perhaps. It turns the thoughts too forcibly to the morbid and the strange.

He was a saturnine creature, devoid of humour and geniality, with a love for the grotesque and the terrible. The reader must himself furnish the counteracting qualities or Poe may become a dangerous comrade. We know along what perilous tracks and into what deadly quagmires his strange mind led him, down to that grey October Sunday morning when he was picked up, a dying man, on the side-walk at Baltimore, at an age which should have seen him at the very prime of his strength and his manhood.

I have said that I look upon Poe as the world's supreme short story writer. His nearest rival, I should say, was Maupassant. The great Norman never rose to the extreme force and originality of the American, but he had a natural inherited power, an inborn instinct towards the right way of making his effects, which mark him as a great master. He produced stories because it was in him to do so, as


Through the Magic Door - 10/23

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