A CONTINUOUS PERFORMANCE


WHILE
the Great Man was reading from his own Works to the ladies in the Duchess’s blue drawing-room, O’Malley slipped out unnoticed and made his way into the garden. The Great Man’s vanity, the collective pose of the adoring ladies, the elaborate parade and artifice of the human attitude generally, invited the sweetness of unadvertised open air. O’Malley, old poet whom lack of craft left inarticulate, so that he had never written a line, slipped past the roses towards the trees that fringed the ducal lawn. With him went an echo of the rotund period his exit had interrupted; a picture, too, of the human animal preening itself upon its hind legs in black coat and stiff white collar.

“That rubbidge!” came a gruff voice, as he passed a tool-shed. “Why, I cleaned it up long ago—lars’ noight, if you want to know exact!” The undergardener spat on his hands, as he poured out some aggrieved explanation to the Head. . . . The voices died away. O’Malley entered the stillness of the pinewood, where only the murmur of the summer wind was audible. “It’s rude of me,” he reflected; “possibly it’s affected. But, anyhow, my disappearance for half an hour won’t be noticed . . .” He flung himself down in a sunny patch where a meadow, swinging its flowers gaily in the breeze, ran round the little copse. An old thatched summer-house, neglected, to judge by its state of decay, stood on his right. “I can slip in again before the end,” he finished his reflection, “and stand behind the chairs at the back . . .”

He lay and watched the world of sun and shade about him, the un-selfconscious, lovely wealth of colour, outline, graceful movement, mystery, and wonder. Not “wasting its sweetness on the desert air,” he chuckled, “because I’m here to see it all!”

A momentary memory rose to jar the enjoyment of watching a bee, both clumsy and adept, bear down a head of golden blossom into a lovely curve the wind at once made lovelier—a memory of the Great Man’s answer to a question recently: “They are tiresome, yes, I admit, these Readings; but a man must keep himself before the public, you know. One must adapt oneself to the Age one lives in. Money? Oh, no, of course not; yet—well, it does help one’s sales a bit. When I was lecturing in America last spring, my publisher told me . . .”

The bee, happily loaded, had issued from the golden bell, and O’Malley watched it bear the pollen unconsciously to another honeyed blossom, then, presently, rise into the air, take several circles in a spiral flight before, finally, it darted off swiftly in a line due south. For some minutes he watched other bees behave similarly, and excitement grew in him. It was with difficulty, then, that he caught some half-dozen, one after another, in his coloured handkerchief, released them, watched their spiral flight of observation, and, noting the line all took due south, resisted the desire to be up and after them himself—in a bee-line to the nest in some old tree or broken wall. Many a wild-bees’ nest had he tracked in this way as a boy. The old, first wonder, the enthusiasm, with a touch of worship added now, came back upon him. The gathering of honey, the carrying of pollen, the infallible sense of direction to a nest perhaps a mile or two away . . . the Great Man’s words were all forgotten. In their place he heard the siren voice of Shelley:

“0 follow, follow
Through the caverns hollow,
As the song floats thou pursue,
Where the wild-bee never flew . . .”

while, behind him, the pine-wood murmured with its delicate music “like the farewell of ghosts,” as he turned to listen and to watch.

Nothing stirred, it seemed at first, so peaceful was the summer afternoon, but he remembered that Panthea, too, had heard this faint music in the Indian Caucasus—“kindling æolian modulations in the waved air”—and had whispered her secret into Shelley’s ear. Leaning on one elbow motionless, merged in the scene by the imaginative sympathy of his poet’s heart, he watched and listened. . . . The ground, he saw, was alive with gentle, silent, unobtrusive movement, where half a million ants were busy upon their mysterious, communal purposes, while yet there was none to bid them labour, in ceaseless constructive activity that, beginning with sunrise, ends only with the dusk. He watched them lifting, pushing, piling up their burdens as though their lives depended on it, tiny, mighty engines of energy, each of which could drag 500 times its own weight, while a man, panting with effort, could barely move five of his own kind. The wonder of the insect world swept over him, and a fugitive memory flashed Blake’s picture, The Spirit of the Flea, across his mind, a flea that can leap a thousand times its own height . . . with the artist’s explanation that God made it tiny lest its power and blood-thirsty nature might destroy the planet. . . .

Plop! Something dropped upon the carpet o f needles, and O’Malley, looking up, discerned two brilliant peeping eyes upon a branch, a bushy tail that twitched, and heard a squeaking voice that seemed to mock him. The squirrel was already making plans for its winter apartment, its winter store of food, its small head busily calculating months ahead. The human watcher moved cautiously to obtain a better view. Whisht! It was gone! An audacious leap through mid-air to another tree, perfect distribution of weight, consummate balance, precise relation between impetus and distance—powers no trained acrobat could ever hope to master. . . .

A few scraps of bark fell slowly downwards through the air, but the squirrel was safely perched on a tree some twenty yards away. One scrap of bark, it seemed, caught on a floating spider’s thread—a spider that un-consciously constructs a geometrical design a scholar can only make with the help of many instruments, and whose thread is the finest filament known, so that astronomers use it to map the heavens across the mouths of their huge telescopes. . . . No, it was neither bark nor spider’s web after all, but a fly, apparently stationary, yet actually moving its wings with such rapidity that no eye could distinguish the separate strokes. How many times per second O’Malley could not remember. He could flap his own arms three or four times per second—that he knew. . . .!

The minutes, meanwhile, were slipping away, while he watched a hundred marvels, unadvertised, performed daily, hourly, without Agents, without sales, without applause, mostly, indeed, without recognition. There, over a distant field, fell the tumbling plover under the very eye of a soaring hawk that made no attempt against them, knowing that their skill must ever elude its best endeavour. There, by chance, was the solitary wasp that stings exactly where paralysis, but not death, shall follow, so that its young shall feed on living food. There was the little trap-door spider, peeping, darting, cleverest of ingenious tiny carpenters. There was the beetle feigning death, as its enemy approached. There, again. . . .

A new movement suddenly caught his eve, as he lay motionless, rapt with the wonder of it all. What was it? In the summer-house, along the darkened floor, a rat—yes, a rat—was advancing slowly and with utmost caution. O’Malley watched keenly, as closely as he dared. The bright-eyed creature was dragging a wisp of straw along the decaying boards. Another rat, tentatively rather, as though with uncertain movements, seemed following it, its nose ever against the tip of the drawn straw. The first rat, evidently, was leading the way, showing its companion where to go. But why? Was it a game? Improving his position for observation with extreme caution, O’Malley discovered the meaning of the strange pantomime: The second rat was blind; its companion was leading it to food. . . .

O’Malley sprang up. The rats, the squirrel, the bees, ants, fly, wasp, spider, doubtless the plover and the distant hawk as well, all saw him move. The various processes of mysterious Nature, for the fraction of a second, paused. The perfect performers desired no audience, certainly no applause; recognition, praise, admiration, meant nothing to them. They were not even aware that they were wonderful. O’Malley left them. The Continuous Performance went on. He left Nature and returned to Human Nature. The gardeners, as he passed the tool-shed, were still arguing together. In the Duchess’s blue drawing-room, when he stole back cautiously behind the chairs, the Great Man was still reading from His Own Works, to the assembled ladies, and some of the ladies were still listening, while all would presently tell him how wonderful he was.

Outside, in fragrant wood and meadow, the other performances, unadmired and unadvertised, went on as usual, and the Earth, nourishing all alike, turned calmly, faithfully, on her axis, continuing her journey at eighteen miles a second round a gigantic incandescent fire, some 93,000,000 miles away, that was too commonplace to call for remark as a rule, yet without which the entire Show would be snuffed out in a fraction of a second.

He got back just in time to be deafened by the applause, and to see the Great Man smile and bow.