“I can give you one other exception,” I said: “an argument I heard only
to-day—and not by a lady. ‘Why shouldn’t I walk on my own forehead?'”
“What a curious subject for speculation!” said Lady Muriel, turning to me,
with eyes brimming over with laughter. “May we know who propounded
the question? And did he walk on his own forehead?”
“I ca’n’t remember who it was that said it!” I faltered. “Nor where I
“Whoever it was, I hope we shall meet him at the Picnic!” said Lady Muriel.
“It’s a far more interesting question than ‘Isn’t this a picturesque ruin?’
Aren’t those autumn-tints lovely?’ I shall have to answer those two
questions ten times, at least, this afternoon!”
“That’s one of the miseries of Society!” said Arthur. “Why ca’n’t
people let one enjoy the beauties of Nature without having to say so
every minute? Why should Life be one long Catechism?”
“It’s just as bad at a picture-gallery,” the Earl remarked.
“I went to the R.A. last May, with a conceited young artist: and he did
torment me! I wouldn’t have minded his criticizing the pictures himself:
but I had to agree with him–or else to argue the point, which would have
“It was depreciatory criticism, of course?” said Arthur.
“I don’t see the ‘of course’ at all.”
“Why, did you ever know a conceited man dare to praise a picture?
The one thing he dreads (next to not being noticed) is to be proved
fallible! If you once praise a picture, your character for
infallibility hangs by a thread. Suppose it’s a figure-picture, and
you venture to say ‘draws well.’ Somebody measures it, and finds one of
the proportions an eighth of an inch wrong. You are disposed of as a
critic! ‘Did you say he draws well?’
your friends enquire sarcastically, while you hang your head and blush.
No. The only safe course, if any one says ‘draws well,’ is to shrug
your shoulders. ‘Draws well?’ you repeat thoughtfully. ‘Draws well?
Humph!’ That’s the way to become a great critic!”
Thus airily chatting, after a pleasant drive through a few miles of
beautiful scenery, we reached the rendezvous–a ruined castle–where
the rest of the picnic-party were already assembled. We spent an hour
or two in sauntering about the ruins: gathering at last, by common
consent, into a few random groups, seated on the side of a mound,
which commanded a good view of the old castle and its surroundings.
The momentary silence, that ensued, was promptly taken possession of or,
more correctly, taken into custody–by a Voice; a voice so smooth,
so monotonous, so sonorous, that one felt, with a shudder, that any
other conversation was precluded, and that, unless some desperate
remedy were adopted, we were fated to listen to a Lecture, of which no
man could foresee the end!
The speaker was a broadly-built man, whose large, flat, pale face was
bounded on the North by a fringe of hair, on the East and West by a
fringe of whisker, and on the South by a fringe of beard–the whole
constituting a uniform halo of stubbly whitey-brown bristles. His
features were so entirely destitute of expression that I could not help
saying to myself–helplessly, as if in the clutches of a night-mare–
“they are only penciled in: no final touches as yet!” And he had a way
of ending every sentence with a sudden smile, which spread like a ripple
over that vast blank surface, and was gone in a moment, leaving behind
it such absolute solemnity that I felt impelled to murmur
“it was not he: it was somebody else that smiled!”
“Do you observe?” (such was the phrase with which the wretch began each
sentence) “Do you observe the way in which that broken arch, at the
very top of the ruin, stands out against the clear sky? It is placed
exactly right: and there is exactly enough of it. A little more, or a
little less, and all would be utterly spoiled!”
[Image…A lecture, on art]
“Oh gifted architect!” murmured Arthur, inaudibly to all but
Lady Muriel and myself. “Foreseeing the exact effect his work would
have, when in ruins, centuries after his death!”