There must be some virtue in a thing that is so immortal. If the doctrine of the survival of the fittest applies to dress, it is the fittest thing we have. Trousers are a thing of yesterday with us, but our top-hat carries us back to the Wars of the Roses and beyond. It is not its beauty that explains it. I have never heard any one deny that it is ugly, though custom may have blunted our sense of its ugliness. It is not its utility. I have never heard any one claim that this strange cylinder had that quality. It is not its comfort It is stiff, it is heavy, it is unmanageable in a wind and ruined by a shower of rain. It needs as much attention as a peevish child or a pet dog. It is not even cheap, and when it is disreputable it is the most disreputable thing on earth. What is the mystery of its strange persistence? Is it simply a habit that we cannot throw off or is there a certain snobbishness about it that appeals to the flunkeyism of men? That is perhaps the explanation. That is perhaps why it has disappeared when snobbishness is felt to be inconsistent with the world of stern realities and bitter sorrows in which we live. We are humble and serious and out of humour with the pretentious vanity of our top-hat.
The case of the soldier in the Keighley Hospital who has lost his memory in the war and has been identified by rival families as a Scotchman, a Yorkshireman, and so on is one of the most singular personal incidents of the war. On the face of it it would seem impossible that a mother should not know her own son, or a brother his brother. Yet in this case it is clear that some of the claimants are mistaken. The incident is not, of course, without precedent. The most notorious case of the sort was that of Arthur Orton, the impudent Tichborne claimant, whose strongest card in his imposture was that Lady Tichborne believed him to be her long-lost son. In that case, no doubt, the maternal passion was the source of a credulity that blinded the old lady to the flagrant evidence of the fraud.
But, generally speaking, our memory of other faces is extremely vague and elusive. I have just come in from a walk with a friend of mine whom I have known intimately for many years. Yet for the life of me I could not at this moment tell you the colour of his eyes, nor could I give a reasonable account of his nose or of the shape of his face. I have a general sense of his appearance, but no absolute knowledge of the details, and if he were to meet me to-morrow with a blank stare and a shaven upper lip I should pass him without a thought of recognition.
Memory, in fact, is largely reciprocal, and when one of the parties has lost his power of response the key is gone. If the lock won’t yield to the key, you are satisfied that the key is the wrong one, no matter how much it looks like the right one. I think I could tell my dog from a thousand other dogs; but if the creature were to lose his memory and to pass me in the street without answering my call, I should pass on, simply observing that he bore a remarkable likeness to my animal.