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Full Online Book HomeLong Stories'that Very Mab' - Chapter VIII - THE BEAUTIFUL
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'that Very Mab' - Chapter VIII - THE BEAUTIFUL Post by :Damon Category :Long Stories Author :Andrew Lang Date :August 2011 Read :1070

Click below to download : 'that Very Mab' - Chapter VIII - THE BEAUTIFUL (Format : PDF)

'that Very Mab' - Chapter VIII - THE BEAUTIFUL

CHAPTER VIII - THE BEAUTIFUL

'Tweet!' cried the sparrows, 'it is nothing!
It only looks like something.
Tweet! that is the beautiful.
Can you make anything of it?
I can't?'
Hans Andersen.

'How exceedingly successful,' observed Queen Mab one day, 'the Permanent Scarecrows have been!'

'The Permanent Scarecrows?' said the Owl.

The winged and gifted pair had been on another visit to London, and Mab had found rows on rows of stucco houses, where she had left green fields, running brooks, and hedges white with may, on the northern side of the Strand.

'Yes 'said Mab 'you hardly ever see a crow now, where, in my time, the farmers were so much plagued by the furtive bird. But, as the crows have been thoroughly frightened off, and as there are now no crops to protect, I do think they might remove the permanent scarecrows.'

'Your Majesty's meaning,' said the Owl, 'is beginning to dawn on me. True, in your time there were no statues in London, and the mistake into which you have fallen is natural. You went away before the great development of British Art, and British Sculpture, and British worship of Beauty. The monuments you notice are expressive of our love of loveliness, our devotion to all that is fair. These objects of which you complain are not meant to alarm predatory fowls (though well calculated for that purpose) but to commemorate heroes, often themselves more or less predatory.'

'Do you mean to tell me?' asked Mab, 'that that big burly scarecrow, about to mend a gigantic quill with a blunt sword, was a hero?'

'He was indeed,' said the Owl, 'though I admit that you would never have guessed it from his effigy.'

'And that other scarecrow, all claws and beak, who blocks up the narrow street where the Dragon worshippers throng? Was he a hero?'

'He is believed by some to be the Dragon himself,' said the Owl; 'but no one knows for certain, not even the sculptor.'

'And the Barber's Block with the stuffed dog, looking into the Park?'

'He was a poet,' said the Owl, 'and expressed so much contempt for men that they retorted by that ridiculous caricature. Would you believe it, English sculptors actually quarrelled among themselves as to who made that singular and, for its original purpose, most successful scarecrow!'

'I don't wonder,' remarked the Queen, 'that birds of taste are rare in the Metropolis, and that, on the Embankment especially, a rook would be regarded as a kind of prodigy. Nowhere has the manufacture of permanent scarecrows been conducted with more ingenious success. But tell me, my accomplished fowl, have Britons any other arts? Long ago the men used to paint themselves blue, but, as far as I have remarked, the women are now alone in staining their cheeks with a curious purplish dye and their locks with ginger colour.'

'Among the Arts,' said the Owl, 'the modern English chiefly excel in painting. To-morrow, by the way, the shrine of Loveliness begins to open its gates. The successful worshippers, are admitted to varnish their offerings to Beauty, while the unsuccessful are sent away in disgrace, with their sacrifices. Suppose we go and examine this curious scene.'

'In Polynesia,' replied Mab, 'no well-meant offering is rejected by the gods.'

'The Polynesian gods,' answered the Owl, 'are too indiscriminate.'

On the next morning any one whose eyes were purged with euphrasy and rue might have observed an owl and a fairy queen fluttering in the smoky air above Burlington House. Here a mixed multitude of men and women, young and old, were thronging about the gates, some laughing, some lamenting. A few entered with proud and happy steps, bearing quantities of varnish to the goddess; others sneaked away with pictures under their arms, or hastily concealed the gifts rejected at the shrine of Beauty in the hospitable shelter of four-wheeled cabs.

'Let us enter,' said the Owl, 'and behold how wisely the Forty Priests of Beauty (or the Forty Thieves, as their enemies call them) and the Thirty Acolytes have arranged the gifts of the faithful.

Lightly the unseen pair fluttered past the servants of Beauty, nobly attired in gold and scarlet. They found themselves in a series of stately halls, so covered with pictures in all the hues of the aniline rainbow, that Queen Mab winked, and suffered from an immortal headache.

'How curious it is,' said Queen Mab, 'that of all the many thousand offerings only a very few, namely, those hung at a certain height from the floor, are really visible to any one who is neither a fairy nor a bird.'

'The pieces which you observe,' remarked the Owl, 'are almost in every case the work of the Forty Priests of Beauty, of the Thirty Acolytes, and of their cousins, their sisters, and their aunts. Those other attempts, almost invisible, as you say, to anyone but a bird or a fairy, have been produced by other worshippers not yet admitted to the Holy Band.'

'Then,' asked the Queen, 'are the Forty Priests by far the most expert in devising objects truly beautiful, and really worthy of the Goddess of Beauty?'

'On that subject,' said the Owl, 'your Majesty will be able to form an opinion after you have examined the sacrifices at the shrine.'

Swiftly as Art Critics the winged spectators flew, invisible, round the galleries, and finally paused, breathless, on the gigantic group of St. George and the Dragon, then in the Sculpture Room.

'Well, what do you think?' asked the Owl.

'The Forty Priests,' replied Queen Mab, 'are, with few exceptions, men who seem to have been blinded, perhaps by the Beatific Vision of Beauty. If the Beatific Vision of Beauty has not blinded them, why are they and their friends so hopelessly absurd? Why do they have all the best of the shrine to themselves, while the young worshippers are consigned to holes and corners, or turned out altogether? Who makes the Forty the Forty? Does the goddess choose her own Ministers?'

'By no means,' said the Owl, 'they choose themselves. Who else, in the name of Beauty, would choose them? But you must not think that they are all blind or stupid; there are some very brilliant exceptions,' and he pointed triumphantly to the offerings of the High Priest and of five or six other members of the Fraternity.

'This is all very well, and I am delighted to see it,' said Queen Mab, 'but tell me how the choosing of the Forty and of the Acolytes is arranged. 'When one of the Forty dies,' replied the Owl, 'which happens only at very long intervals, for they belong to the race of Struldbrugs, several worshippers who have become bald, old, nearly sightless, with other worshippers' still young and strong, are paraded before the Thirty-nine. And they generally choose the old men, or, if not, the young men who come from a strange land in the North, where rain falls always when it is not snowing, and whither no native ever returns. If such a man lives in a fine house, and has a cunning cook, then (even though he can paint) he may be admitted among the Forty, or among the Thirty who attain not to the Forty. After that he can take his ease; however ugly his offerings to Beauty, they are presented to the public.'

'Well,' said Queen Mab, 'my curiosity is satisfied, and I no longer wonder at the permanent scarecrows. But one thing still puzzles me. What becomes of the offerings of the Forty after the temple closes?'

'They disappear by means of a very clever invention,' said the Owl. 'Long ago a famous priest, named Chantrey, perceived that the country would be overrun with the offerings to which you allude. He therefore bequeathed a sum of money, called the Chantrey bequest, to enable the Forty to purchase each other's pictures.'

'But what do they do with them after they have bought them?' persisted Mab, who had a very inquiring mind.

'Oh, goodness knows; don't ask me ,' said the Owl crossly; 'nobody ever inquires after them again!'

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