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Two Prose Fancies

I—The Silver Girl

SOMETIMES when I have thought that the Sphinx’s mouth is
cruel, and could not forget its stern line for all her soft eyes,
I have reassured myself with the memory of a day when I saw
it so soft and tender with heavenly pity that I could have gone
down on my knees then and there by the side of the luncheon
table, where the champagne was already cooling in the ice-pail,
and worshipped her—would have done so had I thought such
public worship to her taste. It was no tenderness to me, but
that was just why I valued it. Tender she has been to me, and
stern anon, as I have merited ; but, would you understand the
heart of woman, know if it be soft or hard, you will not trust her
tenderness (or fear her sternness) to yourself; you will watch, with
a prayer in your heart, for her tenderness to others.

She came late to our lunch that day, and explained that she had
travelled by omnibus. As she said the word omnibus, for some
reason as yet mysterious to me, I saw the northern lights I love
playing in the heaven of her face. I wondered why, but did not
ask as yet, delaying, that I might watch those fairy fires of
emotion, for her face was indeed like a star of which a little child

The Yellow Book—Vol. XII. U


                        334 Two Prose Fancies

told me the other day. I think some one must have told him
first, for as we looked through the window one starlit night, he
communicated very confidentially that whenever any one in the
world shed a tear of pure pity, God’s angels caught it in lily-cups
and carried it right up to heaven, and that when God had thus
collected enough of them, he made them into a new star. “So,”
said the little boy, “there must have been a good deal of kind
people in the world to cry all those stars.”

It was of that story I thought as I said to the Sphinx :

“What is the matter, dear Madonna ? Your face is the Star or

And then I ventured gently to tease her.

“What can have happened? No sooner did you speak the
magic word ‘omnibus,’ than you were transfigured and taken from
my sight in a silver cloud of tears. An omnibus does not usually
awaken such tenderness, or call up northern lights to the face as
one mentions it, … though,” I added wistfully, “one has met
passengers to and from heaven in its musty corners, travelled life’s
journey with them a penny stage, and lost them for ever. . . .”

“So,” I further ventured, “may you have seemed to some
fortunate fellow-passenger, an accidental companion of your
wonder, as from your yellow throne by the driver. . . .”

“Oh, do be quiet,” she said, with a little flash of steel. “How
can you be so flippant,” and then, noting the champagne, she
exclaimed with fervour : ” No wine for me to day ! It s heartless,
it’s brutal. All the world is heartless and brutal . . . how selfish
we all are. Poor fellow ! . . . I wish you could have seen his
face !”

“I sincerely wish I could,” I said ; “for then I should no doubt
have understood why the words ‘omnibus’ and ‘champagne,’ not
unfamiliar words, should . . . well, make you look so beautiful.”


                        By Richard Le Gallienne 335

“Oh, forgive me ! Haven’t I told you ?” she said, as absent-
mindedly she watched the waiter rilling her glass with cham-

“Well,” she continued, “you know the something Arms,
where the bus always stops a minute or so on its way from
Kensington. I was on top, near the driver, and, while we waited,
my neighbour began to peel an orange and throw the pieces of
peel down on to the pavement. Suddenly a dreadful, tattered
figure of a man sprang out of some corner, and, eagerly picking
up the pieces of peel, began ravenously to eat them, looking up
hungrily for more. Poor fellow ! he had quite a refined, gentle
face, and I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear him quote
Horace, after the manner of Stevenson’s gentlemen in distress. I
was glad to see that the others noticed him too. Quite a murmur
of sympathy sprang up amongst us, and a penny or two rang on
the pavement. But it was the driver who did the thing that
made me cry. He was one of those prosperous young drivers,
with beaver hats and smart overcoats, and he had just lit a most
well-to-do cigar. With the rest of us he had looked down on
poor Lazarus, and for a moment, but only for a moment, with a
certain contempt. Then a wonderful kindness came into his
face, and, next minute, he had done a great deed—he had thrown
Lazarus his newly-lit cigar.”

“Splendid !” I ventured to interject.

“Yes, indeed !” she continued ; “and I couldn’t help telling
him so. … But you should have seen the poor fellow’s face as
he picked it up. Evidently his first thought was that it had
fallen by mistake, and he made as if to return it to his patron. It
was an impossible dream that it could be for him—a mere rancid
cigar-end had been a windfall, but this was practically a complete,
unsmoked cigar. But the driver nodded reassuringly, and then


                        336 Two Prose Fancies

you should have seen the poor fellow’s joy. There was almost a
look of awe, that such fortune should have befallen him, and tears
of gratitude sprang into his eyes. Really, I don’t exaggerate a
bit. I’d have given anything for you to have seen him—though
it was heart-breaking, that terrible look of joy, such tragic joy.
No look of misery or wretchedness could have touched one like
that. Think how utterly, abjectly destitute one must be for a
stranger’s orange-peel to represent dessert, and an omnibus-driver’s
cigar set us crying for joy. . . .”

“Gentle heart,” I said. ” I fear poor Lazarus did not keep his
cigar for long. . . .”

“But why? . . .”

“Why ? Is it not already among the stars, carried up by those
angels who catch the tears of pity, and along with Uncle Toby’s
‘damn,’ and such bric-a-brac, in God’s museum of fair deeds?
We shall see it shining down on us as the stars come out to-night.
Yes ! that will be a pretty astronomical theory to exchange with
the little boy who told me that the stars are made of tears. Some
are made of tears, I shall say, but some are the glowing ends of
newly lit cigars, thrown down by good omnibus-drivers to poor ?
starving fellows who haven’t a bed to sleep in, nor a dinner to eat,
nor a heart to love them, and not even a single cigar left to put in
their silver cigar-cases.”

“That driver is sure of heaven, anyhow,” said the Sphinx.

“Perhaps, dear, when the time comes for us to arrive there, we
will find him driving the station bus—who knows ? But it was
a pretty story, I must say. That driver deserves to be decorated.”

“That’s what I thought,” said the Sphinx, eagerly.

“Yes ! We might start a new society : The League of Kind
Hearts ; a Society for the Encouragement of Acts of Kindness. How
would that do ? Or we might endow a fund to bear the name of


                        By Richard Le Gallienne 337

your ‘bus-driver, and to be devoted in perpetuity to supplying
destitute smokers with choice cigars.”

“Yes,” said the Sphinx, musingly, “that driver made me
thoroughly ashamed of myself. I wish I was as sure of heaven as
he is.”

“But you are heaven,” I whispered ; “and à propos of heaven,
here is a little song which I wrote for you last night, and with
which I propose presently to settle the bill. I call it the Silver

    Whiter than whiteness was her breast,
    And softer than new fallen snow,
    So pure a peace, so deep a rest,
    Yet purer peace below.

    Her face was like a moon-white flower
    That swayed upon an ivory stem,
    Her hair a whispering silver shower,
    Each foot a silver gem.

    And in a fair white house of dreams,
    With hallowed windows all of pearl,
    She sat amid the haunted gleams,
    That little silver girl ;

    Sat singing songs of snowy white,
    And watched all day, with soft blue eyes,
    Her white doves flying in her sight,
    And fed her butterflies.

    Then when the long white day was passed,
    The white world sleeping in the moon,
    White bed, and long white sleep at last—
    She will not waken soon.


                        338 Two Prose Fancies

            II—Words Written to Music

IT is one of the many advantages of that simplicity of taste
which is ignorance, that an incorrigible capacity for con-
noisseurship in the sister arts of cookery and music should enable
one to be as happy with a bad dinner eaten to the sound of bad
music, as others whose palates are attuned to the Neronian
nightingales, and whose ears admit no harmonies less refined than
the bejewelled harmonies of Chopin.

I have eaten dinners delicate as silverpoints, in rooms of canary-
coloured quiet, where the candles burn hushedly in their little
silken tents, and the soft voices of lovers rise and fall upon the
dreaming ear ; but I confess that it was the soothing quiet, the
healing tones of light and colour, and the face of the Sphinx
irradiated by some dream of halcyon’s tongues à la Persane, rather
than the beautiful food, that inspired my passionate peace. Mere
roast lamb, new potatoes and peas of living green had made me
just as happy, gastronomically speaking, and I dare not mention
what I order sometimes, and even day after day with a love that
never tires, when I dine alone. Alone !

    . . . the very word is like a bell
    To toll me back from thee to my sole self;

for even this very night have I dined alone in a great solitude of
social faces, low necks, electric lights, and the spirited band that
has given me more pleasure than any music in London, always
excepting my Bayreuth, the barrel-organ. Yes ! strange as it
may seem, I had come deliberately to hear this music, and second-
arily to eat this dinner. What effect selections from Sullivan and
“The Shop Girl,” in collaboration with the three-and-sixpenny


                        By Richard Le Gallienne 339

table d’hôte, would have upon more educated digestions its concerns
me not to inquire ; on mine they produce a sort of agonised
ecstasy of loneliness—and to-night as I sat at our little lonely
table in a corner of the great gallery and looked out across the
glittering peristyle, ate that dinner and listened to that music, I
shuddered with joy at my fearful loneliness.

I might have dined with the Beautiful, or have sent a tele-
graphic invitation to the Witty, I might have sat at meat with
the Wise ; but no ! I would dine instead with the memories or
dinners that were gone, and as the music did Miltonic battle near
the ceiling, marched with clashing tread, or danced on myriad
silken feet, wailed like the winds of the world, or laughed like the
sun, my solitude grew peopled awhile with shapes fair and kind,
who sat with me and lifted the glass and gave me their deep eyes,
ladies who had intelligence in love, as Dante wrote, ladies of great
gentleness and consolation, for whom God be thanked. But
always in my ears, whatever the piece that was a-playing, the music
came sweeping with dark surge across my fantasy, as though a
sudden wind had dashed open a warm window, and let in a black
night of homeless seas.

For in truth one I loved was out to-night on dark seas.
She fares out across an ocean I have never sailed, to a land
of which no man knows ; and for her voyage she has only her
silver feet, walking the inky waters, and the great light of her
holy face to guide her steps. Ah ! that I were with her to-
night, walking hand in hand those dark waters. Oh, wherefore
slip away thus companionless, fearless little voyager ? Was it
that I was unworthy to voyage those seas with you, that the
weight of my mortality would have dragged down your bright
immortality—youngest of the immortals. . . . But from that sea
which the Divine alone may tread, comes back no answer, nor


                        340 Two Prose Fancies

light of any star ; but there has stolen to my side and kissed my
brow, a shape dearer than all the rest, dear beyond dearness, a
little earthly-heavenly shape who always comes when the rest have
gone, and loves to find me sitting alone. She it is who leans her
cheek against mine as I try to read beautiful words out of the
dead man’s book at my side, she it is who whispers that we shall
be too late to find a seat in the pit unless we hurry, and she it is
who gaily takes my arm as we trot off together on happy feet.
The great commissionaire takes no note of her, he thinks I am
alone ; besides we seldom go in hansoms, and seldom sit in stalls.
. . . Enough, O, music ! be merciful. Be lonely no more, lest
you break the heart of the lonely.

“Ah ! you have never seen her !” I whisper to myself as the
waiter brings me my coffee—and I look at him again with a
certain curiosity as I think that he has never seen her. Never
to have seen her !

And then presently, as if in pity, the music will change, perhaps
it will play some sustaining song of faith, and strike a sort of
glory across one’s heart, the haughty heart of sorrow ; or it will
be human and gay, and suddenly turn this solitude of diners into
a sort of family gathering of humanity, throwing open sad hearts
that, like oneself, appear to be doing nothing but dine, and giving
one glimpses into dreaming heads, linking all in one great friend-
ship of common joys and sorrows, the one sweet beginning, and
the one mysterious end.

In this mood faces one has seen more than once become friends,
and I confess that the sight of certain waiters moving in their
accustomed places almost moved me to tears. Such is the pathos
of familiarity.

So my thoughts took another turn, and I fell to thinking with
tenderness of the friends about town that the Sphinx and I had


                        By Richard Le Gallienne 341

made in our dinings—friends whom it had cost us but a few odd
shillings and sixpences to make, yet friends we had fancied we
might trust, and even seek in a day of need. If they found me
starving some night in the streets, I think they would take me in ;
and I think I know a coffee-stall man who would give me an
early-morning cup of coffee, and add a piece of cake, were I to
come to him bare-footed some wintry dawn.

I have heard purists object to the smiles that are bought, as if
smiles can or should be had for nothing, and as if it shows a bad
nature in a waiter to smile more sweetly upon a shilling than a
penny. After all, is he so far wrong in deeming the heart that
prompts the shilling better worth a smile than the reluctant hand
of copper ? Besides, we are never so mean to ourselves as when
we are mean to others. A few shillings per annum sown about
town will surround the path of the diner with smiles year in and
year out. The doors fly open as by magic at his approach, and
the cosiest tables in a dozen restaurants are in perpetual reserve
for him. I am even persuaded that a consistent generosity to
cabmen gets known in due course among the fraternity, and that
thus, in process of time, the nicest people may rely on getting the
nicest hansoms—though this may be a dream. Certain I am
that it brings luck to be kind to a pathetic race of men for whom
I have a special tenderness, those amateur footmen, the cab-
openers. Have you ever noticed the fine manners of some or
them, and their lover-like gentleness with the silk skirts that it is
theirs to save from soilure of muddy wheels ? A practical head
might reflect how much they do towards keeping down your
wife’s dressmaker’s bills. I daresay they save her a dress a year—
and yet they are not treated with gratitude as a race. How
involuntarily one seems to assume that they will accept nothing
over a penny, and how fingers, not penurious on other occasions,


                        342 Two Prose Fancies

automatically reject silver as they ferret in pence-pockets for
suitable alms. No ! not alms—payment, and sometimes poor
payment, for a courtesy that adds another smile to your illusion or
a smiling world.

Among the many lessons I have learnt from the Sphinx is one
of the fair wage of the cab-opener. It was the very afternoon she
had seen that cigar fall down from heaven, and her mood was thus
the more attuned to pity. As we were about to drive away from
the place of our lunching, having been ushered to our hansom by
a tatterdemalion of distinguished manners, but marred unhappy
countenance, I fumbled so long for the regulation twopence, that
it seemed likely he should miss his reward or be run over in
running after it. But at that moment the Sphinx’s hand shot
past mine and dropped something into the outstretched palm.
The man took it mechanically, and in a second his face flashed
surprise. Evidently she had given him something extravagant.
She was watching for his look, and telegraphed a smile that she
meant it. Then you never saw such a figure of grateful joy as
that shabby fellow became. His face fairly shone, and for a few
moments he ran by our cabside wildly waving his hat, with an
indescribable emotion of affectionate thankfulness.

“What did you give him dear ?” I asked.

“Never mind !”

“It wasn’t a sovereign ?”

“Never mind.”

So I have never known what coin it was that thus transfigured
him, but of this I am sure : that when the time of the great
Terror has come to London, when the red flags wave on the
barricades, and the puddles of red blood beneath the great guillotine
in Trafalgar Square luridly catch the setting sun, the Sphinx and
I will have a friend in that poor cab-opener.


                        By Richard Le Gallienne 343

There is another friend to whom we should fly for safety in
those days of wrath. He, too, is a cab-opener, but, so to say, of
higher rank—for he is the voluntary manager of a thriving cab-
rank which we often have occasion to patronise. For some
unknown reason he is always addressed as “Cap’n,” and we never
omit the courtesy as we salute him. So we have come to know
him as The Captain of the Cab Rank. He is a short, thick-set,
sturdy little man, with an overcoat buttoned straight beneath his
chin, hands deep in his pockets, a firm, determined step, and a
fiery face. He walks his pavement like a veritable captain on his
quarter-deck, and his “Hansom up !” rings out like a stern word
of command. At the call a shining door of the tavern opposite is
thrown open with a slam, and a wild figure of a driver clatters
across in terrified haste, and with his head still wrapped in the
warm glow he has just forsaken, he climbs his dark throne, and
once more shakes the weary reins. Then, as the little Captain
briskly shut us in, with a salute that seems to say that he has
thus given us a successful start in life, and it is not his fault if we
don’t go on as we’ve begun, he blows a shrill note upon his
whistle, half to call up the next cab to its place in the rank, half
to signalise our departure, as when sometimes a great boat sets
out to sea they fire guns in the harbour, and excited crowds wave
weeping handkerchiefs from the pier.

Yes ! There are many faces I meet daily, faces I do business
with and faces I take down to dinner, faces or the important and
the brilliant, that I should miss much less than the little Captain of
the Cab Rank. Our intercourse is of the slightest, we have little
opportunities of studying each other’s nature, and yet he is
strangely vivid in my consciousness, quite a necessary figure in
my picture of the world—so stamped is every part of him with
that most appealing and attaching of all qualities, that of our


                        344 Two Prose Fancies

common human nature. He has the great gift of character, and
however poor and humble his lot, failure is surely no word to
describe him, for he is a personality, and to be a personality is to
have succeeded in life.

Yes ! I often think of the Captain as I think of the famous
characters in fiction, or notable figures in history ; and I should
feel very proud if I could believe he sometimes thought of me.

Well, well. . . . it is late. The bill, waiter, please ! Good
night ! Good-night !

MLA citation:

Le Gallienne, Richard. “Two Prose Fancies.” The Yellow Book, vol. 12, January 1897, pp. 333-344. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.