Binding a Spell
YOU may never have addressed a meeting of the public, but you have long cherished a vision of a figure (well known to your private mirror) standing where it overlooks an intent and silent multitude to which it communicates with apt and fluent words those things not seen by mortal eyes, the dream of a world not ours. . . . You know what I mean. (Loud and prolonged applause.)
"I should be glad," wrote one who is still unashamed to call himself my friend, "if you could run down here one evening and address a meeting on your experiences. Just conversationally, you know."
A casual sort of letter. Designedly so. But I could see through it. It was an invitation which did not wish to scare me from accepting it. I smiled with serene amusement at its concluding sentence. Conversationally! Why, that would be merely talking; tongue-work; keeping on and on after one usually, if merciful to a friend, lets him off. I felt instantly that for once it might be even more pleasant to entertain an audience than to be one of the crowd and bored. And it happened that my experiences really did give me something to say, and were exactly what an audience, in war-time, might be glad to hear. I therefore wrote a brief note of acceptance, as one to whom this sort of thing comes ten times a day; and thought no more about it.
No more, that is to say, till I saw the local paper announced me as a coming event, a treat in store. I was on the list. There were those that evening who, instead of going to a theatre, a concert, or to see Vesta Tilley, would come to hear me. I felt then the first cold underdraught of doubt, the chilling intimation from the bleak unknown, where it is your own affair entirely whether you flourish or perish. What a draught! I got up, shut the door, and looked at the day of the month.
That was all right; yet another fortnight!
But what weakness was this? Anybody could do it, if they knew as much of my subject as did I. Many men would do it, without a tremor, without shame, if they knew next to nothing about it. Look at old Brown, for example, whose only emotions are evoked by being late for dinner, the price of building materials, the scandalous incapacity of workmen, and the restriction of the liberty of the subject by trade unions! He will sit, everybody knows, while wearing plaid trousers and side-whiskers, on the right hand of a peer, in full view of thousands, at a political meeting, untroubled, bland, conscious of his worth, and will rise at the word, thumbs carelessly thrust into his waistcoat pockets, begin with a jest (the same one), and for an hour make aspirates as uncommon as are bathrooms in his many houses.
He has nothing to say, and could not say it if he had; but he can speak in public. You will observe the inference is obvious. One who is really capable of constructive thought (like you and me); who has a wide range of words to choose from even when running; who is touched, by events, to admiration, to indignation, to alarm, to--to all that sort of thing, he could . . . the plastic audience would be in his skilful hands, there is no doubt. (Hear, hear!)
Time passed. As Mr. A. Ward once pointed out, it is a way time has. The night came, as at last I began to fear it would. My brief notes were in my pocket, for I had resolutely put from me the dishonourable and barren safety of a written lecture. In the train--how cold was the night--I wished I had gone more fully into the matter. Slightly shivering, I tried to recall the dry humour of those carefully prepared opening sentences which shortly would prove to my audience that I had their measure, and was at ease; would prove that my elevation on the platform was not merely through four feet of deal planking, but was a real overlooking. But those delicate sentences had broken somehow. They were shards, and not a glitter of humour was sticking to the fragments.
I felt I would rather again approach one of those towns in France, where it was likely you would run into the Uhlans, than go to that lecture hall. No doubt, too, my friend had explained to them what a clever fellow I was, in order to get some reflected glory out of it. Then it would serve him right; there would be two of us.
The hall was nearly full. What surprises one is to find so many ladies present. A most disquieting fact, entirely unforeseen. They sit in the front rows and wait, evidently in a tranquil, alert, and mirthful mind, for you to begin. I could hear their leisurely converse and occasional subdued laughter (about what?) even where, in a sort of frozen, lucid calm, indifferent to my fate, the mood of all Englishmen in moments of extreme peril, I was handing my hat and coat to my friend in a room behind the platform. All those people out there were waiting for me.
When we got on the platform the chairman told them something about me, I don't know what, but when I looked up it was to find, like the soul in torment, that a multitude of bodiless eyes had fixed me--eyes intent, curious, passionless.
"I call upon----" said the chairman.
I stood up. The sound of my voice uplifted in that silence was the most startling sound I have ever heard. Shortly after that there came the paralysing discovery that it is a gift to be able to think while hundreds wait patiently to see what the thought is like when it comes. This made my brow hot. There was a boy in an Eton suit, sitting in front with his legs wide apart, who was grinning at me through his spectacles. How he got there I don't know. I think he was the gift of the gods. His smile so annoyed me that I forgot myself, which saved me. I just talked to that boy.
Once there was loud laughter. Why? It is inexplicable. I talked for about an hour. About what? Heaven knows. The chairman kindly let me out through a side entrance.