A Wet Day, by Richard Middleton

As we grow older it becomes more and more apparent that our moments are the ghosts of old moments, our days but pale repetitions of days that we have known in the past. It might almost be said that after a certain age we never meet a stranger or win to a new place. The palace of our soul, grown larger let us hope with the years, is haunted by little memories that creep out of corners to peep at us wistfully when we are most sure that we are alone. Sometimes we cannot hear the voice of the present for the whisperings of the past; sometimes the room is so full of ghosts that we can hardly breathe. And yet it is often difficult to find the significance of these dead days, restored to us to disturb our sense of passing time. Why have our minds kept secret these trivial records so many years to give them to us at last when they have no apparent consequence? Perhaps it is only that we are not clever enough to read the riddle; perhaps these trifles that we have remembered unconsciously year after year are in truth the tremendous forces that have made our lives what they are.

Standing at the window this morning and watching the rain, I suddenly became conscious of a wet morning long ago when I stood as I stood now and saw the drops sliding one after another down the steamy panes. I was a boy of eight years old, dressed in a sailor suit, and with my hair clipped quite short like a French boy's, and my right knee was stiff with a half-healed cut where I had fallen on the gravel path under the schoolroom window, it was a really wet, grey day. I could hear the rain dripping from the fir-trees on to the scullery roof, and every now and then a gust of wind drove the rain down on the soaked lawn with a noise like breaking surf. I could hear the water gurgling in the pipe that was hidden by the ivy, and I saw with interest that one of the paths was flooded, so that a canal ran between the standard rose bushes and recalled pictures of Venice. I thought it would be nice if it rained truly hard and flooded the house, so that we should all have to starve for three weeks, and then be rescued excitingly in boats; but I had not really any hope. Behind me in the schoolroom my two brothers were playing chess, but had not yet started quarrelling, and in a corner my little sister was patiently beating a doll. There was a fire in the grate, but it was one of those sombre, smoky fires in which it is impossible to take any interest. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked very slowly, and I realised that an eternity of these long seconds separated me from dinner-time. I thought I would like to go out.

The enterprise presented certain difficulties and dangers, but none that could not be surpassed. I would have to steal down to the hall and get my boots and waterproof on unobserved. I would have to open the front door without making too much noise, for the other doors were well guarded by underlings, and I would have to run down the front drive under the eyes of many windows. Once beyond the gate I would be safe, for the wetness of the day would secure me from dangerous encounters. Walking in the rain would be pleasant than staying in the dull schoolroom, where life remained unchanged for a quarter of an hour at a time; and I remembered that there was a little wood near our house in which I had never been when it was raining hard. Perhaps I would meet the magician for whom I had looked so often in vain on sunny days, for it was quite likely that he preferred walking in bad weather when no one else was about. It would be nice to hear the drops of rain falling on the roof of the trees, and to be quite warm and dry underneath. Perhaps the magician would give me a magic wand, and I would do things like the conjurer last Christmas.

Certainly I would be punished when I got home, for even if I were not missed they would see that my boots were muddy and that my waterproof was wet. I would have no pudding for dinner and be sent to bed in the afternoon: but these things had happened to me before, and though I had not liked them at the time, they did not seem very terrible in retrospect. And life was so dull in the schoolroom that wet morning when I was eight years old!

And yet I did not go out, but stood hesitating at the window, while with every gust earth seemed to fling back its curls of rain from its shining forehead. To stand on the brink of adventure is interesting in itself, and now that I could think over the details of my expedition was no longer bored. So I stayed dreaming till the golden moment for action was passed, and a violent exclamation from one of the chess-players called me back to a prosaic world. In a second the board was overturned and the players were locked in battle. My little sister, who had already the feminine craving for tidiness, crept out of her corner and meekly gathered the chessmen from under the feet of the combatants. I had seen it all before, and while I led my forces to the aid of the brother with whom at the moment I had some sort of alliance, I reflected that I would have done better to dare the adventure and set forth into the rainy world.

And this morning when I stood at my window, and my memory a little cruelly restored to this vision of a day long dead, I was still of the same opinion. Oh! I should have put on my boots and my waterproof and gone down to the little wood to meet the enchanter! He would have given me the cap of invisibility, the purse of Fortunatus, and a pair of seven-league boots. He would have taught me to conquer worlds, and to leave the easy triumphs of dreamers to madmen, philosophers, and poets, He would have made me a man of action, a statesman, a soldier, a founder of cities or a digger of graves. For there are two kinds of men in the world when we have put aside the minor distinctions of shape and colour. There are the men who do things and the men who dream about them. No man can be both a dreamer and a man of action, and we are called upon to determine what rôle we shall play in life when we are too young to know what to do.

I do not believe that it was a mere wantonness of memory that preserved the image of that hour with such affectionate detail, where so many brighter and more eventful hours have disappeared for ever. It seems to me likely enough that that moment of hesitation before the schoolroom window determined a habit of mind that has kept me dreaming ever since. For all my life I have preferred thought to action; I have never run to the little wood; I have never met the enchanter. And so this morning, when Fate played me this trick and my dream was chilled for an instant by the icy breath of the past, I did not rush out into the streets of life and lay about me with a flaming sword. No; I picked up my pen and wrote some words on a piece of paper and lulled my shocked senses with the tranquillity of the idlest dream of all.