I had exactly the same feeling when Horace asked his question. Now I am, generally speaking, a truthful man. I have written a good deal about the immorality, the unwisdom, the short-sightedness, the sinful wastefulness of a lie. But at that moment, if Harriet had not been present—and that illustrates one of the purposes of society, to bolster up a man’s morals—I should have evolved as large and perfect a prevarication as it lay within me to do—cheerfully. But I felt Harriet’s moral eye upon me: I was a coward as well as a sinner. I faltered so long that Horace finally looked around at me.
Horace has no poetry in his soul, neither does he understand the philosophy of imperfection nor the art of irregularity.
It is a tender shoot, easily blasted by cold winds, the creative instinct: but persistent. It has many adventitious buds. A late frost destroying the freshness of its early verdure, may be the means of a richer growth in later and more favourable days.
* * * * *
For a week I left my helve standing there in the corner. I did not even look at it. I was slain. I even thought of getting up in the night and putting the helve on the coals—secretly. Then, suddenly, one morning, I took it up not at all tenderly, indeed with a humorous appreciation of my own absurdities, and carried it out into the yard. An axe-helve is not a mere ornament but a thing of sober purpose. The test, after all, of axe-helves is not sublime perfection, but service. We may easily find flaws in the verse of the master—how far the rhythm fails of the final perfect music, how often uncertain the rhyme—but it bears within it, hidden yet evident, that certain incalculable fire which kindles and will continue to kindle the souls of men. The final test is not the perfection of precedent, not regularity, but life, spirit.
It was one of those perfect, sunny, calm mornings that sometimes come in early April: the zest of winter yet in the air, but a promise of summer.
I built a fire of oak chips in the middle of the yard, between two flat stones. I brought out my old axe, and when the fire had burned down somewhat, leaving a foundation of hot coals, I thrust the eye of the axe into the fire. The blade rested on one of the flat stones, and I kept it covered with wet rags in order that it might not heat sufficiently to destroy the temper of the steel. Harriet’s old gray hen, a garrulous fowl, came and stood on one leg and looked at me first with one eye and then with the other. She asked innumerable impertinent questions and was generally disagreeable.
“I am sorry, madam,” I said finally, “but I have grown adamant to criticism. I have done my work as well as it lies in me to do it. It is the part of sanity to throw it aside without compunction. A work must prove itself. Shoo!”
I said this with such conclusiveness and vigour that the critical old hen departed hastily with ruffled feathers.