The Celestial Omnibus is the title story in Forster’s 1912 collection, The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories. [Painting at right by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Omnibus company, 1888.]
The boy who resided at Agathox Lodge, 28, Buckingham Park Road, Surbiton, had often been puzzled by the old sign-post that stood almost opposite. He asked his mother about it, and she replied that it was a joke, and not a very nice one, which had been made many years back by some naughty young men, and that the police ought to remove it. For there were two strange things about this sign-post: firstly, it pointed up a blank alley, and, secondly, it had painted on it in faded characters, the words, “To Heaven.”
“What kind of young men were they?” he asked.
“I think your father told me that one of them wrote verses, and was expelled from the University and came to grief in other ways. Still, it was a long time ago. You must ask your father about it. He will say the same as I do, that it was put up as a joke.”
“So it doesn’t mean anything at all?”
She sent him upstairs to put on his best things, for the Bonses were coming to tea, and he was to hand the cake-stand.
It struck him, as he wrenched on his tightening trousers, that he might do worse than ask Mr. Bons about the sign-post. His father, though very kind, always laughed at him—shrieked with laughter whenever he or any other child asked a question or spoke. But Mr. Bons was serious as well as kind. He had a beautiful house and lent one books, he was a churchwarden, and a candidate for the County Council; he had donated to the Free Library enormously, he presided over the Literary Society, and had Members of Parliament to stop with him—in short, he was probably the wisest person alive.
Yet even Mr. Bons could only say that the sign-post was a joke—the joke of a person named Shelley.
“Off course!” cried the mother; “I told you so, dear. That was the name.”
“Had you never heard of Shelley?” asked Mr. Bons.
“No,” said the boy, and hung his head.
“But is there no Shelley in the house?”
“Why, yes!” exclaimed the lady, in much agitation. “Dear Mr. Bons, we aren’t such Philistines as that. Two at the least. One a wedding present, and the other, smaller print, in one of the spare rooms.”
“I believe we have seven Shelleys,” said Mr. Bons, with a slow smile. Then he brushed the cake crumbs off his stomach, and, together with his daughter, rose to go.
The boy, obeying a wink from his mother, saw them all the way to the garden gate, and when they had gone he did not at once return to the house, but gazed for a little up and down Buckingham Park Road.
His parents lived at the right end of it. After No. 39 the quality of the houses dropped very suddenly, and 64 had not even a separate servants’ entrance. But at the present moment the whole road looked rather pretty, for the sun had just set in splendour, and the inequalities of rent were drowned in a saffron afterglow. Small birds twittered, and the breadwinners’ train shrieked musically down through the cutting—that wonderful cutting which has drawn to itself the whole beauty out of Surbiton, and clad itself, like any Alpine valley, with the glory of the fir and the silver birch and the primrose. It was this cutting that had first stirred desires within the boy—desires for something just a little different, he knew not what, desires that would return whenever things were sunlit, as they were this evening, running up and down inside him, up and down, up and down, till he would feel quite unusual all over, and as likely as not would want to cry. This evening he was even sillier, for he slipped across the road towards the sign-post and began to run up the blank alley.
The alley runs between high walls—the walls of the gardens of “Ivanhoe” and “Belle Vista” respectively. It smells a little all the way, and is scarcely twenty yards long, including the turn at the end. So not unnaturally the boy soon came to a standstill. “I’d like to kick that Shelley,” he exclaimed, and glanced idly at a piece of paper which was pasted on the wall. Rather an odd piece of paper, and he read it carefully before he turned back. This is what he read:
S. AND C.R.C.C. Alteration in Service. Owing to lack of patronage the Company are regretfully compelled to suspend the hourly service, and to retain only the
Sunrise and Sunset Omnibuses, which will run as usual. It is to be hoped that the public will patronize an arrangement which is intended for their convenience. As an extra inducement, the Company will, for the first time, now issue
Return Tickets! (available one day only), which may be obtained of the driver. Passengers are again reminded that no tickets are issued at the other end, and that no complaints in this connection will receive consideration from the Company. Nor will the Company be responsible for any negligence or stupidity on the part of Passengers, nor for Hailstorms, Lightning, Loss of Tickets, nor for any Act of God.
For the Direction. Now he had never seen this notice before, nor could he imagine where the omnibus went to. S. of course was for Surbiton, and R.C.C. meant Road Car Company. But what was the meaning or the other C.? Coombe and Maiden, perhaps, of possibly “City.” Yet it could not hope to compete with the South-Western. The whole thing, the boy reflected, was run on hopelessly unbusiness-like lines. Why no tickets from the other end? And what an hour to start! Then he realized that unless the notice was a hoax, an omnibus must have been starting just as he was wishing the Bonses good-bye. He peered at the ground through the gathering dusk, and there he saw what might or might not be the marks of wheels. Yet nothing had come out of the alley. And he had never seen an omnibus at any time in the Buckingham Park Road. No: it must be a hoax, like the sign-posts, like the fairy tales, like the dreams upon which he would wake suddenly in the night. And with a sigh he stepped from the alley—right into the arms of his father.
Oh, how his father laughed! “Poor, poor Popsey!” he cried. “Diddums! Diddums! Diddums think he’d walky-palky up to Evvink!” And his mother, also convulsed with laughter, appeared on the steps of Agathox Lodge. “Don’t, Bob!” she gasped. “Don’t be so naughty! Oh, you’ll kill me! Oh, leave the boy alone!”
But all that evening the joke was kept up. The father implored to be taken too. Was it a very tiring walk? Need one wipe one’s shoes on the door-mat? And the boy went to bed feeling faint and sore, and thankful for only one thing—that he had not said a word about the omnibus. It was a hoax, yet through his dreams it grew more and more real, and the streets of Surbiton, through which he saw it driving, seemed instead to become hoaxes and shadows. And very early in the morning he woke with a cry, for he had had a glimpse of its destination.
He struck a match, and its light fell not only on his watch but also on his calendar, so that he knew it to be half-an-hour to sunrise. It was pitch dark, for the fog had come down from London in the night, and all Surbiton was wrapped in its embraces. Yet he sprang out and dressed himself, for he was determined to settle once for all which was real: the omnibus or the streets. “I shall be a fool one way or the other,” he thought, “until I know.” Soon he was shivering in the road under the gas lamp that guarded the entrance to the alley.
To enter the alley itself required some courage. Not only was it horribly dark, but he now realized that it was an impossible terminus for an omnibus. If it had not been for a policeman, whom he heard approaching through the fog, he would never have made the attempt. The next moment he had made the attempt and failed. Nothing. Nothing but a blank alley and a very silly boy gaping at its dirty floor. It was a hoax. “I’ll tell papa and mamma,” he decided. “I deserve it. I deserve that they should know. I am too silly to be alive.” And he went back to the gate of Agathox Lodge.
There he remembered that his watch was fast. The sun was not risen; it would not rise for two minutes. “Give the bus every chance,” he thought cynically, and returned into the alley.
But the omnibus was there.
It had two horses, whose sides were still smoking from their journey, and its two great lamps shone through the fog against the alley’s walls, changing their cobwebs and moss into tissues of fairyland. The driver was huddled up in a cape. He faced the blank wall, and how he had managed to drive in so neatly and so silently was one of the many things that the boy never discovered. Nor could he imagine how ever he would drive out.
“Please,” his voice quavered through the foul brown air, “Please, is that an omnibus?”
“Omnibus est,” said the driver, without turning round. There was a moment’s silence. The policeman passed, coughing, by the entrance of the alley. The boy crouched in the shadow, for he did not want to be found out. He was pretty sure, too, that it was a Pirate; nothing else, he reasoned, would go from such odd places and at such odd hours.
“About when do you start?” He tried to sound nonchalant.
“How far do you go?”
“The whole way.”
“And can I have a return ticket which will bring me all the way back?”
“Do you know, I half think I’ll come.” The driver made no answer. The sun must have risen, for he unhitched the brake. And scarcely had the boy jumped in before the omnibus was off.
How? Did it turn? There was no room. Did it go forward? There was a blank wall. Yet it was moving—moving at a stately pace through the fog, which had turned from brown to yellow. The thought of warm bed and warmer breakfast made the boy feel faint. He wished he had not come. His parents would not have approved. He would have gone back to them if the weather had not made it impossible. The solitude was terrible; he was the only passenger. And the omnibus, though well-built, was cold and somewhat musty. He drew his coat round him, and in so doing chanced to feel his pocket. It was empty. He had forgotten his purse.
“Stop!” he shouted. “Stop!” And then, being of a polite disposition, he glanced up at the painted notice-board so that he might call the driver by name. “Mr. Browne! stop; O, do please stop!”
Mr. Browne did not stop, but he opened a little window and looked in at the boy. His face was a surprise, so kind it was and modest.
“Mr. Browne, I’ve left my purse behind. I’ve not got a penny. I can’t pay for the ticket. Will you take my watch, please? I am in the most awful hole.”
“Tickets on this line,” said the driver, “whether single or return, can be purchased by coinage from no terrene mint. And a chronometer, though it had solaced the vigils of Charlemagne, or measured the slumbers of Laura, can acquire by no mutation the double-cake that charms the fangless Cerberus of Heaven!” So saying, he handed in the necessary ticket, and, while the boy said “Thank you,” continued: “Titular pretensions, I know it well, are vanity. Yet they merit no censure when uttered on a laughing lip, and in an homonymous world are in some sort useful, since they do serve to distinguish one Jack from his fellow. Remember me, therefore, as Sir Thomas Browne.”
“Are you a Sir? Oh, sorry!” He had heard of these gentlemen drivers. “It is good of you about the ticket. But if you go on at this rate, however does your bus pay?”
“It does not pay. It was not intended to pay. Many are the faults of my equipage; it is compounded too curiously of foreign woods; its cushions tickle erudition rather than promote repose; and my horses are nourished not on the evergreen pastures of the moment, but on the dried bents and clovers of Latinity. But that it pays!—that error at all events was never intended and never attained.”
“Sorry again,” said the boy rather hopelessly. Sir Thomas looked sad, fearing that, even for a moment, he had been the cause of sadness. He invited the boy to come up and sit beside him on the box, and together they journeyed on through the fog, which was now changing from yellow to white. There were no houses by the road; so it must be either Putney Heath or Wimbledon Common.
“Have you been a driver always?”
“I was a physician once.”
“But why did you stop? Weren’t you good?”
“As a healer of bodies I had scant success, and several score of my patients preceded me. But as a healer of the spirit I have succeeded beyond my hopes and my deserts. For though my draughts were not better nor subtler than those of other men, yet, by reason of the cunning goblets wherein I offered them, the queasy soul was ofttimes tempted to sip and be refreshed.”
“The queasy soul,” he murmured; “if the sun sets with trees in front of it, and you suddenly come strange all over, is that a queasy soul?”
“Have you felt that?”
After a pause he told the boy a little, a very little, about the journey’s end. But they did not chatter much, for the boy, when he liked a person, would as soon sit silent in his company as speak, and this, he discovered, was also the mind of Sir Thomas Browne and of many others with whom he was to be acquainted. He heard, however, about the young man Shelley, who was now quite a famous person, with a carriage of his own, and about some of the other drivers who are in the service of the Company. Meanwhile the light grew stronger, though the fog did not disperse. It was now more like mist than fog, and at times would travel quickly across them, as if it was part of a cloud. They had been ascending, too, in a most puzzling way; for over two hours the horses had been pulling against the collar, and even if it were Richmond Hill they ought to have been at the top long ago. Perhaps it was Epsom, or even the North Downs; yet the air seemed keener than that which blows on either. And as to the name of their destination, Sir Thomas Browne was silent.
“Thunder, by Jove!” said the boy, “and not so far off either. Listen to the echoes! It’s more like mountains.”
He thought, not very vividly, of his father and mother. He saw them sitting down to sausages and listening to the storm. He saw his own empty place. Then there would be questions, alarms, theories, jokes, consolations. They would expect him back at lunch. To lunch he would not come, nor to tea, but he would be in for dinner, and so his day’s truancy would be over. If he had had his purse he would have bought them presents—not that he should have known what to get them.
The peal and the lightning came together. The cloud quivered as if it were alive, and torn streamers of mist rushed past. “Are you afraid?” asked Sir Thomas Browne.
“What is there to be afraid of? Is it much farther?”
The horses of the omnibus stopped just as a ball of fire burst up and exploded with a ringing noise that was deafening but clear, like the noise of a blacksmith’s forge. All the cloud was shattered.
“Oh, listen. Sir Thomas Browne! No, I mean look; we shall get a view at last. No, I mean listen; that sounds like a rainbow!”
The noise had died into the faintest murmur, beneath which another murmur grew, spreading stealthily, steadily, in a curve that widened but did not vary. And in widening curves a rainbow was spreading from the horses’ feet into the dissolving mists.
“But how beautiful! What colours! Where will it stop? It is more like the rainbows you can tread on. More like dreams.”
The colour and the sound grew together. The rainbow spanned an enormous gulf. Clouds rushed under it and were pierced by it, and still it grew, reaching forward, conquering the darkness, until it touched something that seemed more solid than a cloud.
The boy stood up. “What is that out there?” he called. “What does it rest on, out at that other end?”
In the morning sunshine a precipice shone forth beyond the gulf A precipice—or was it a castle? The horses moved. They set their feet upon the rainbow.
“Oh, look!” the boy shouted. “Oh, listen! Those caves—or are they gateways? Oh, look between those cliffs at those ledges. I see people! I see trees!”
“Look also below,” whispered Sir Thomas. “Neglect not the diviner Acheron.”
The boy looked below, past the flames of the rainbow that licked against their wheels. The gulf also had cleared, and in its depths there flowed an everlasting river. One sunbeam entered and struck a green pool, and as they passed over he saw three maidens rise to the surface of the pool, singing, and playing with something that glistened like a ring.
“You down in the water——” he called.
They answered, “You up on the bridge——” There was a burst of music. “You up on the bridge, good luck to you. Truth in the depth, truth on the height.”
“You down in the water, what are you doing?”
Sir Thomas Browne replied: “They sport in the mancipiary possession of their gold”; and the omnibus arrived.
The boy was in disgrace. He sat locked up in the nursery of Agathox Lodge, learning poetry for a punishment. His father had said, “My boy! I can pardon anything but untruthfulness,” and had caned him, saying at each stroke, “There is no omnibus, no driver, no bridge, no mountain; you are a truant, guttersnipe, a liar.” His father could be very stern at times. His mother had begged him to say he was sorry. But he could not say that. It was the greatest day of his life, in spite of the caning, and the poetry at the end of it.
He had returned punctually at sunset—driven not by Sir Thomas Browne, but by a maiden lady who was full of quiet fun. They had talked of omnibuses and also of barouche landaus. How far away her gentle voice seemed now! Yet it was scarcely three hours since he had left her up the alley.
His mother called through the door. “Dear, you are to come down and to bring your poetry with you.”
He came down, and found that Mr. Bons was in the smoking-room with his father. It had been a dinner party.
“Here is the great traveller!” said his father grimly. “Here is the young gentleman who drives in an omnibus over rainbows, while young ladies sing to him.” Pleased with his wit, he laughed.
“After all,” said Mr. Bons, smiling, “there is something a little like it in Wagner. It is odd how, in quite illiterate minds, you will find glimmers of Artistic Truth. The case interests me. Let me plead for the culprit. We have all romanced in our time, haven’t we?”
“Hear how kind Mr. Bons is,” said his mother, while his father said, “Very well. Let him say his Poem, and that will do. He is going away to my sister on Tuesday, and she will cure him of this alley-slopering.” (Laughter.) “Say your Poem.”
The boy began. “‘Standing aloof in giant ignorance.'”
His father laughed again—roared. “One for you, my son! ‘Standing aloof in giant ignorance!’ I never knew these poets talked sense. Just describes you. Here, Bons, you go in for poetry. Put him through it, will you, while I fetch up the whisky?”
“Yes, give me the Keats,” said Mr. Bons. “Let him say his Keats to me.”
So for a few moments the wise man and the ignorant boy were left alone in the smoking-room.
“‘Standing aloof in giant ignorance, of thee I dream and of the Cyclades, as one who sits ashore and longs perchance to visit——'”
“Quite right. To visit what?”
“‘To visit dolphin coral in deep seas,'” said the boy, and burst into tears.
“Come, come! why do you cry?”
“Because—because all these words that only rhymed before, now that I’ve come back they’re me.”
Mr. Bons laid the Keats down. The case was more interesting than he had expected. “You?” he exclaimed, “This sonnet, you?”
“Yes—and look further on: ‘Aye, on the shores of darkness there is light, and precipices show untrodden green.’ It is so, sir. All these things are true.”
“I never doubted it,” said Mr. Bons, with closed eyes.
“You—then you believe me? You believe in the omnibus and the driver and the storm and that return ticket I got for nothing and——”
“Tut, tut! No more of your yarns, my boy. I meant that I never doubted the essential truth of Poetry. Some day, when you read more, you will understand what I mean.”
“But Mr. Bons, it is so. There is light upon the shores of darkness. I have seen it coming. Light and a wind.”
“Nonsense,” said Mr. Bons.
“If I had stopped! They tempted me. They told me to give up my ticket—for you cannot come back if you lose your ticket. They called from the river for it, and indeed I was tempted, for I have never been so happy as among those precipices. But I thought of my mother and father, and that I must fetch them. Yet they will not come, though the road starts opposite our house. It has all happened as the people up there warned me, and Mr. Bons has disbelieved me like every one else. I have been caned. I shall never see that mountain again.”
“What’s that about me?” said Mr. Bons, sitting up in his chair very suddenly.
“I told them about you, and how clever you were, and how many books you had, and they said, ‘Mr. Bons will certainly disbelieve you.'”
“Stuff and nonsense, my young friend. You grow impertinent. I—well—I will settle the matter. Not a word to your father. I will cure you. To-morrow evening I will myself call here to take you for a walk, and at sunset we will go up this alley opposite and hunt for your omnibus, you silly little boy.”
His face grew serious, for the boy was not disconcerted, but leapt about the room singing, “Joy! joy! I told them you would believe me. We will drive together over the rainbow. I told them that you would come.” After all, could there be anything in the story? Wagner? Keats? Shelley? Sir Thomas Browne? Certainly the case was interesting.
And on the morrow evening, though it was pouring with rain, Mr. Bons did not omit to call at Agathox Lodge.
The boy was ready, bubbling with excitement, and skipping about in a way that rather vexed the President of the Literary Society. They took a turn down Buckingham Park Road, and then—having seen that no one was watching them—slipped up the alley. Naturally enough (for the sun was setting) they ran straight against the omnibus.
“Good heavens!” exclaimed Mr. Bons. “Good gracious heavens!”
It was not the omnibus in which the boy had driven first, nor yet that in which he had returned. There were three horses—black, gray, and white, the gray being the finest. The driver, who turned round at the mention of goodness and of heaven, was a sallow man with terrifying jaws and sunken eyes. Mr. Bons, on seeing him, gave a cry as if of recognition, and began to tremble violently.
The boy jumped in.
“Is it possible?” cried Mr. Bons. “Is the impossible possible?”
“Sir; come in, sir. It is such a fine omnibus. Oh, here is his name—Dan some one.”
Mr. Bons sprang in too. A blast of wind immediately slammed the omnibus door, and the shock jerked down all the omnibus blinds, which were very weak on their springs.
“Dan…. Show me. Good gracious heavens! we’re moving.”
“Hooray!” said the boy.
Mr. Bons became flustered. He had not intended to be kidnapped. He could not find the door-handle, nor push up the blinds. The omnibus was quite dark, and by the time he had struck a match, night had come on outside also. They were moving rapidly.
“A strange, a memorable adventure,” he said, surveying the interior of the omnibus, which was large, roomy, and constructed with extreme regularity, every part exactly answering to every other part. Over the door (the handle of which was outside) was written, “Lasciate ogni baldanza voi che entrate”—at least, that was what was written, but Mr. Bons said that it was Lashy arty something, and that baldanza was a mistake for speranza. His voice sounded as if he was in church. Meanwhile, the boy called to the cadaverous driver for two return tickets. They were handed in without a word. Mr. Bons covered his face with his hand and again trembled. “Do you know who that is!” he whispered, when the little window had shut upon them. “It is the impossible.”
“Well, I don’t like him as much as Sir Thomas Browne, though I shouldn’t be surprised if he had even more in him.”
“More in him?” He stamped irritably. “By accident you have made the greatest discovery of the century, and all you can say is that there is more in this man. Do you remember those vellum books in my library, stamped with red lilies? This—sit still, I bring you stupendous news!—this is the man who wrote them.”
The boy sat quite still. “I wonder if we shall see Mrs. Gamp?” he asked, after a civil pause.
“Mrs. Gamp and Mrs. Harris. I like Mrs. Harris. I came upon them quite suddenly. Mrs. Gamp’s bandboxes have moved over the rainbow so badly. All the bottoms have fallen out, and two of the pippins off her bedstead tumbled into the stream.”
“Out there sits the man who wrote my vellum books!” thundered Mr. Bons, “and you talk to me of Dickens and of Mrs. Gamp?”
“I know Mrs. Gamp so well,” he apologized. “I could not help being glad to see her. I recognized her voice. She was telling Mrs. Harris about Mrs. Prig.”
“Did you spend the whole day in her elevating company?”
“Oh, no. I raced. I met a man who took me out beyond to a race-course. You run, and there are dolphins out at sea.”
“Indeed. Do you remember the man’s name?”
“Achilles. No; he was later. Tom Jones.”
Mr. Bons sighed heavily. “Well, my lad, you have made a miserable mess of it. Think of a cultured person with your opportunities! A cultured person would have known all these characters and known what to have said to each. He would not have wasted his time with a Mrs. Gamp or a Tom Jones. The creations of Homer, of Shakespeare, and of Him who drives us now, would alone have contented him. He would not have raced. He would have asked intelligent questions.”
“But, Mr. Bons,” said the boy humbly, “you will be a cultured person. I told them so.”
“True, true, and I beg you not to disgrace me when we arrive. No gossiping. No running. Keep close to my side, and never speak to these Immortals unless they speak to you. Yes, and give me the return tickets. You will be losing them.”
The boy surrendered the tickets, but felt a little sore. After all, he had found the way to this place. It was hard first to be disbelieved and then to be lectured. Meanwhile, the rain had stopped, and moonlight crept into the omnibus through the cracks in the blinds.
“But how is there to be a rainbow?” cried the boy.
“You distract me,” snapped Mr. Bons. “I wish to meditate on beauty. I wish to goodness I was with a reverent and sympathetic person.”
The lad bit his lip. He made a hundred good resolutions. He would imitate Mr. Bons all the visit. He would not laugh, or run, or sing, or do any of the vulgar things that must have disgusted his new friends last time. He would be very careful to pronounce their names properly, and to remember who knew whom. Achilles did not know Tom Jones—at least, so Mr. Bons said. The Duchess of Malfi was older than Mrs. Gamp—at least, so Mr. Bons said. He would be self-conscious, reticent, and prim. He would never say he liked any one. Yet when the Wind flew up at a chance touch of his head, all these good resolutions went to the winds, for the omnibus had reached the summit of a moonlit hill, and there was the chasm, and there, across it, stood the old precipices, dreaming, with their feet in the everlasting river. He exclaimed, “The mountain! Listen to the new tune in the water! Look at the camp fires in the ravines,” and Mr. Bons, after a hasty glance, retorted, “Water? Camp fires? Ridiculous rubbish. Hold your tongue. There is nothing at all.”
Yet, under his eyes, a rainbow formed, compounded not of sunlight and storm, but of moonlight and the spray of the river. The three horses put their feet upon it. He thought it the finest rainbow he had seen, but did not dare to say so, since Mr. Bons said that nothing was there. He leant out—the window had opened—and sang the tune that rose from the sleeping waters.
“The prelude to Rhinegold?” said Mr. Bons suddenly. “Who taught you these leit motifs?” He, too, looked out of the window. Then he behaved very oddly. He gave a choking cry, and fell back on to the omnibus floor. He writhed and kicked. His face was green.
“Does the bridge make you dizzy?” the boy asked.
“Dizzy!” gasped Mr. Bons. “I want to go back. Tell the driver.”
But the driver shook his head.
“We are nearly there,” said the boy, “They are asleep. Shall I call? They will be so pleased to see you, for I have prepared them.”
Mr. Bons moaned. They moved over the lunar rainbow, which ever and ever broke away behind their wheels. How still the night was! Who would be sentry at the Gate?
“I am coming,” he shouted, again forgetting the hundred resolutions. “I am returning—I, the boy.”
“The boy is returning,” cried a voice to other voices, who repeated, “The boy is returning.”
“I am bringing Mr. Bons with me.”
“I should have said Mr. Bons is bringing me with him.”
“Who stands sentry?”
And on the rocky causeway, close to the springing of the rainbow bridge, he saw a young man who carried a wonderful shield.
“Mr. Bons, it is Achilles, armed.”
“I want to go back,” said Mr. Bons.
The last fragment of the rainbow melted, the wheels sang upon the living rock, the door of the omnibus burst open. Out leapt the boy—he could not resist—and sprang to meet the warrior, who, stooping suddenly, caught him on his shield.
“Achilles!” he cried, “let me get down, for I am ignorant and vulgar, and I must wait for that Mr. Bons of whom I told you yesterday.”
But Achilles raised him aloft. He crouched on the wonderful shield, on heroes and burning cities, on vineyards graven in gold, on every dear passion, every joy, on the entire image of the Mountain that he had discovered, encircled, like it, with an everlasting stream. “No, no,” he protested, “I am not worthy. It is Mr. Bons who must be up here.”
But Mr. Bons was whimpering, and Achilles trumpeted and cried, “Stand upright upon my shield!”
“Sir, I did not mean to stand! something made me stand. Sir, why do you delay? Here is only the great Achilles, whom you knew.”
Mr. Bons screamed, “I see no one. I see nothing. I want to go back.” Then he cried to the driver, “Save me! Let me stop in your chariot. I have honoured you. I have quoted you. I have bound you in vellum. Take me back to my world.”
The driver replied, “I am the means and not the end. I am the food and not the life. Stand by yourself, as that boy has stood. I cannot save you. For poetry is a spirit; and they that would worship it must worship in spirit and in truth.”
Mr. Bons—he could not resist—crawled out of the beautiful omnibus. His face appeared, gaping horribly. His hands followed, one gripping the step, the other beating the air. Now his shoulders emerged, his chest, his stomach. With a shriek of “I see London,” he fell—fell against the hard, moonlit rock, fell into it as if it were water, fell through it, vanished, and was seen by the boy no more.
“Where have you fallen to, Mr. Bons? Here is a procession arriving to honour you with music and torches. Here come the men and women whose names you know. The mountain is awake, the river is awake, over the race-course the sea is awaking those dolphins, and it is all for you. They want you——”
There was the touch of fresh leaves on his forehead. Some one had crowned him.
TELOS From the Kingston Gazette, Surbiton Times, and Paynes Park Observer.
The body of Mr. Septimus Bons has been found in a shockingly mutilated condition in the vicinity of the Bermondsey gas-works. The deceased’s pockets contained a sovereign-purse, a silver cigar-case, a bijou pronouncing dictionary, and a couple of omnibus tickets. The unfortunate gentleman had apparently been hurled from a considerable height. Foul play is suspected, and a thorough investigation is pending by the authorities.