A CONTINUOUS PERFORMANCE
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.