The blog is quiet because life is loud and busy, so please accept, with our compliments, some light reading: one of the best ghost stories ever.
Einstein and the Little Lord
by Robertson Davies
I know you will understand when I say it is a great source of satisfaction to me that this College is regularly and extensively haunted. Every part of our great University strives for distinction of one kind or another, but it is everywhere admitted that in the regularity and variety of our ghostly visitations Massey College stands alone. Year after year our ghosts never fail us, and they are shades of unquestionable intellectual distinction, the Cream of the Ectoplasm; in this College, so often accused of elitism, our ghosts at least may truly be called the elite of Who Was Who. It is hard not to fall prey to sinful pride when I think of them.
Early in January, every year, I begin wondering: Who will it be? Ghosts of world-wide renown think it worth their while to drop in on us for an hour or two, which, in the course of a busy afterlife, is uncommonly civil of them. As the custom has arisen of celebrating centenaries and anniversaries of all sorts, and lists of these events are published at the beginning of each year, I look down these columns with an interest that comes close to gloating, wondering who our next unearthly visitant will be. Last January there was one prize I coveted above all. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein.
I see in your faces wonder, tempered with disdain. What does he think he would have to say to Einstein? That is the question I read in your eyes. Ah, but you see, my experience with ghosts has taught me that it is unnecessary to talk to them; their concern is to talk to you. They have no time for chit-chat. It is true I had some misgiving. If Einstein were to entrust me with post-mortem reflections on the Michelson-Morley experiments, or use me as a means of telling the world a few new things about the wavelength of light emitted by atoms, I should have to be careful not to make any mistakes in taking dictation. But on the whole I was confident. Only let Einstein come: I would find a way of coping with him.
But he didn’t come. I waited; I waited. By the beginning of December I began to grow anxious. Had ridiculous pride led me into absurd expectation? Had the other world decided to humble me, to condemn the College to a ghostless year? Of course, I thought, it is not to me, but to the College, that the mighty spectres come, and the College has in no way offended. So I waited as well as I could for one long December week, and just a week ago tonight my vigil was rewarded. Einstein came.
He came unexpectedly, as they always do. It was the night of our Christmas Dance, and as some of you know, that is an affair that not merely raises the roof but rouses the dead. I had stepped out into the quadrangle, to rest my ears; nevertheless the music was still very loud, and I was not surprised to hear a quiet, slightly foreign voice say from behind me, “Not quite my sort of thing.”
I turned and there he was, impossible to mistake. The stout, unremarkable figure, the lamentable clothes, and the large, splendid, melancholy head. He was smoking a pipe, slowly as a good pipe-smoker does, emitting tiny puffs of fragrance with audible poppings of the lips.
“You have come!” I said.
“Oh, I always meant to come,” said he, “but I left you till near the end of my centennial year, when I knew I should be tired. Because of your rules, you know.”
What rules, I wondered? But not for long. He meant our rules about College guests. Our unbreakable rule is that no guest may be asked for a favour, and that any informal opinions expressed by a guest must be regarded as confidential. Einstein had come to us to escape the publicity that pursues an eminent ghost.
He wanted a rest, and I knew what sort of rest he had in mind. Underneath his arm was a violin. He jerked his head toward the sound of music from the dance, and in a friendly fashion he said, “Come on; we can do better than that.”
Quite how I followed him I do not remember but in no time I was in the large room in the basement of my house, where the piano lives. I say it lives there, because I dare not say I keep it there. I am somewhat in awe of it. You see, I have played the piano all my life, without ever having gained any proficiency whatever. Untold gold was spent on my musical education, but I remain a hopeless fumbler; I am perhaps the only man in musical history to play the piano with a stammer. Nevertheless, I play. Almost every day I approach the piano in my basement and endure its Teutonic sneers as I tinkle out the kind of music I like, which I confess is chiefly piano arrangements of music meant for other instruments, and even for the human voice.
Einstein gestured me toward the piano, and began to tune his violin. It was obvious that his pitch was perfect. I was horrified.
“Do you mean you want me to accompany you?” I said, weak with fear.
“No, no, we play together,” he said, and tucked the fiddle under his chin.
My blood ran cold. In all the vast repertoire of music in which the violin and piano can mingle there is only one piece that I would dare attempt. It is a Humoresque by Dvorak—the Number 7 in G flat. You know it. Popular musical taste has accorded words to it, words selected from a well-known railway notice:
Passengers will please refrain
From flushing toilets when the train
Is standing in the station:
I love you.
But when Einstein speaks, who am I to disobey? So I sat at the piano, and to my astonishment I saw, on the music desk before my eyes, the score of Bach’s Six Sonatas for Clavier and Violin. Einstein made a slight dip with his bow, as a signal, my hands flew to the keyboard, and there followed such a flood of exquisite music as had never come out of that piano in its existence. And it was I who was making this glorious sound! Einstein was a pretty good violinist—extremely good for a physicist—but I was a musical marvel. Little by little I took possession of this totally unaccustomed skill. Pride surged through me. I began to refine upon my playing, and to do things properly which Glenn Gould would probably have foozled. I was like a man transformed, endowed with the power to play music as I had imagined it.
Then it happened. There was a sudden discord in the bass end of the piano, and I saw that a gigantic dog had brought its great head down on the keyboard with a crash. Einstein stopped; I stopped; the dog regarded us both with eyes rimmed by nasty, wet red flesh.
“I’m sorry if Dougal has interrupted your music,” said a high, sweet, clear voice. “But I really must speak to Professor Einstein without delay.”
The speaker was the most beautiful boy I have ever seen in my life. His graceful childish figure was dressed in a black velvet suit and close-fitting knee-breeches from which emerged legs, clothed in black silk stockings, that Marlene Dietrich might have envied. The velvet suit had a white collar of exquisite lace, and about the handsome, manly little face clustered lovelocks of long fair hair falling in a profusion of curls.
You know who it was, of course. And I, from recollections of my childhood reading of the novel of which he was the hero, was able to greet him with a cry which surely fell in familiar and welcome cadence on his ears.
“God bless your lordship! God bless your pretty face! Good luck and happiness to your lordship! Welcome to you!”
The child bowed in response to my greeting.
It was Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Modern children do not seem to know his name, or the book by Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett in which his story is told. But surely this is a temporary lapse of fame; his romance is undying, a superb realization of what Dr. Jung of Zurich has named the Archetype of the Miraculous Child.
Most of you are familiar with him, though there may be one or two among you, under thirty, to whom he is a stranger. But millions of readers, old and young, have thrilled to the tale of little Cedric Errol, born in New York of an American mother—whom he never addressed or referred to except as ‘Dearest’, because that is what his English father, who had died so young, had always called her. Cedric considered himself to be an American, and indeed he exhibited all the American characteristics, total candour, boundless self-confidence, naturally fine manners, and a democratic spirit almost too zealous to be wholly believable. But certainly in Cedric there was nothing affected about this democracy; his dearest friends were Mr. Hobbs, the groceryman, Dick the shoeshine boy, and the poor old woman who sold apples at the street-corner; he did good to many others, among the poor and needy, for whom his tender little heart was always grieved. Judge then of the reader’s astonishment when he discovers that this typical little American is, because of the death of a number of relatives on his father’s side, the heir of the great Earl of Dorincourt, and that his true name is Lord Fauntleroy.
How Cedric softens the hard heart of his grandfather, the Earl (a typical English nobleman, proud, domineering, with blood so blue you could use it for ink, but nonetheless a splendid creature and exceedingly rich) and how Cedric makes all his grandfather’s tenants happy, and how Cedric persuades his haughty grandfather to accept Dearest, who, though an American, is nevertheless a lady, and how Cedric gets Mr. Hobbs the groceryman and Dick the shoeshine boy to England, and settles them close to Dorincourt Castle, so that he can go on being democratic at them—all of this is familiar to you. Familiar also are the drawings done for the book by Reginald B. Birch, which made the appearance of all the characters, but especially the ringleted, velvet-suited little lord, familiar to millions of infatuated readers from 1886 at least until 1925.
And there he stood, in my music room, confronting Professor Einstein and myself. Not only Fauntleroy, but the huge, drooling, red-eyed mastiff Dougal, his Grandfather’s pet and the little lord’s inseparable companion.
I wondered what he had come for, so, with a directness which I was sure such a democratic child would appreciate, I put the question.
“What have you come for, m’lord?” said I.
He laughed. It was the characteristic laugh of an innocent child, like silver bells, and it set up an answering echo in the piano.
“I want to ask a favour of Professor Einstein,” he said.
“Certainly not,” said I; “no guest of Massey College may be asked for favours.”
“Oh please—oh pretty-please and sugar-plums,’ said Lord Fauntleroy, winsomely. “Surely you haven’t forgotten that this is the Year of the Child?”
I had forgotten. In spite of all the newspaper hullabaloo, and appeals for this, that and the other thing to increase the influence of children, I had forgotten. Certainly I had not expected the Year of the Child to have anything to do with our College Ghost.
“The Year of the Child is more important than rules,” said Fauntleroy. “Oh, you’d probably never guess how important for the peace of the world. You know, don’t you, that some dear, kind people are trying to establish a Children’s’ Bill of Rights?”
I admitted that I had heard something of the sort. Einstein didn’t bother to answer; he was regarding Little Lord Fauntleroy with big, sad eyes, the expression of which I could read. It was an expression of great weariness, mingled with a noble compassion. It was also the expression of an influential person confronted with a remorseless beggar.
“That is why I have come for advice to Professor Einstein, the author of Why War?” said the beautiful boy. ‘The best of us want a sensible Bill of Rights. You know the sort of thing: nobody is to beat children more than is good for them, and savage people are not to eat children except in case of real necessity, and children are to be loved except when they are unlovable, and children are to be seen and not heard except for exceptional children like me, and children are to be taught sensibly by sensible people, and children are to have pocket-money but not enough to make it possible for them to get into serious trouble. And in return children undertake to be reasonable and pretend to be innocent and believe in Santa Claus and babies being brought by the doctor and all that crap—oh, what have I said!”
“You said, ‘and all that crap’,” said I, wishing to be helpful. Little Lord Fauntleroy was hiding his face in his hands, the very picture of shame.
“I know I did,” he said. “How could I! What would Dearest say if she heard me use such a horrid word! But He makes me do it! It’s His terrible influence. Oh, if I were not the sweetest, most forgiving little soul anybody ever heard of, I could hate Him!”
To emphasize the general grief the big dog, Dougal, set up a melancholy howling, and lashed the piano keys with his great tail.
It was here that Professor Einstein intervened. “My boy,” he said, “if you expect us to understand you, do not begin your story in the middle and wriggle out toward both ends. I recommend the Scientific Method: state your principal thesis, develop it, and work toward a conclusion.”
Little Lord Fauntleroy took his hands from his face and looked at the great man with adoration.
“Just what I wanted,” said he; “you are so wise, Professor Einstein, I knew you could help me. I shall do as you say. Please, may I sit on your knee?”
Einstein pondered for a moment, then said, “No.” My respect for his wisdom rose sharply. “Just stand where you are, and I shall sit down, and you shall tell us both, quietly and clearly, what the trouble is! Now, first of all, where do you come from?”
“From Paradise,” said the Miraculous Child. “Oh, it’s not at all the way silly people imagine. It’s really a huge confederation of self-governing Paradises where everybody can enjoy Eternity with the sort of people they like best. There aren’t any grown-ups in the Children’s Paradise, or else it wouldn’t be a Paradise for children. And of course the fact that we’re all in the Children’s Paradise makes the other paradises paradisal for the grown-ups.”
“Quite true,” said Einstein. “I cannot recall ever having seen, or heard, a child since I entered the Physics Division of the Intellectuals’ Paradise.”
I was troubled by a doubt. “One moment,” I said. “It has always been my understanding that Paradise is for the living who have passed into rest. But you, my lord, never lived. Explain yourself.”
“Oh, you dear old silly-billy,” said Fauntleroy, putting his graceful little hand on my sleeve, as Dougal smeared my trousers with phantom drool. “You, an author, of a sort, to say such a thing! You know jolly well that I lived more fully and gloriously than the ordinary run of children. I was loved by millions of people who had no children of their own. We children of literature are the aristocracy of the Children’s Paradise. We are remembered for generations, when the real children who didn’t have the luck to live to maturity are forgotten, poor little mites! We set the tone of the place. In a quiet way, we run it! There are the Dickens Group—Little Paul Dombey, and Tiny Tim, and Little Nell—and there are the Outdoors Types—Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and Midshipman Easy, and Jackanapes, and Penrod and lots of others—and there are the littlest ones like the Bobbsey Twins and Budge and Toddy—and there are the Fairy Tale Gang—Rose Red and Snow White, and Jack the Giant Killer and all those. You wouldn’t believe what a lot there are, and we are all so much more vivid than the flesh-and-blood children that we naturally take the lead. Or we did,” said the boy, his beautiful countenance darkening, “until He came.”
“A rival?” I said.
“Not a rival,” said the boy with what in a lesser child might have been taken for a pout, “a usurper.”
“Same thing,” said I. “Let’s hear about it.”
“Everything in the Children’s Paradise was paradisal,” said Fauntleroy, “so long as I was the boss. I took care that everybody was happy; I wouldn’t tolerate an instant’s discord. If any of my agents reported anything to me—”
“Agents?” said Professor Einstein; “Spies, do you mean?”
“Don’t be horrid,” said Fauntleroy, smiling his reproach. “Just children who were either naturally very sharp, like the Artful Dodger, and Gavroche out of Les Miserables, or else children who were abnormally trustworthy like Casabianca—you know, the Boy Who Stood on the Burning Deck. If they saw any trouble brewing they tipped me off, and I dealt with it at once, and if the child didn’t see things differently then, Dougal had a little romp with it, and that always worked.”
Dougal gave a sudden lurch that almost knocked me off my chair, and I saw what a romp might involve.
“Let’s hear about the usurper,” I said.
“You know how things have been on earth for the past twenty years,” said Fauntleroy. “Turbulence everywhere, among nations, among university students, and even among children. In fact, the modern child has simply been going straight to—”
Here he blushed deeply, and whispered something in Professor Einstein’s ear.
“And the usurper came from Hell?” said Professor Einstein.
“No, from Toronto,” said Fauntleroy. “His name is Gold-Tooth Flanagan. He is very proud of his gold tooth. He got it by ripping off Old Age Pensioners in supermarkets until he had enough money to buy it. It was his mark of authority. It is a huge adult-size gold tooth, in the worst possible taste. But of course that sort of life can have but one end: Gold-Tooth was knocked on the head with a bottle in a police raid in Cabbage Town and to his surprise he was sent to the Children’s Paradise. Of course he wanted to go to the Hooligans’ Paradise, but he was too young, so he came to us instead. Nobody’s fault but his own; he peaked too soon.”
“And he tried to take over the Children’s Paradise?” said I.
“From the beginning,” said Fauntleroy. “He said very offensive things. He started by picking on a literary child from the Third World, whom we have always known as Little Black Sambo; Gold Tooth called him a horrid racist name, and when I rebuked him—gently, of course, for he was new, and didn’t know our ways—he asked me if I was gay. I said of course I was, and that Dearest had always loved me for being so gay, and he laughed offensively and mimicked me rudely. It wasn’t until Holden Caulfield told me what ‘gay’ means to minds like Flanagan’s that I understood that I had been insulted. Gay, indeed! Me! As if for years I hadn’t been on a footing of special intimacy with Little Miss Muffet!”
“Didn’t it occur to you to put Dougal on him?” said I.
“I was coming to that, just when the real trouble blew up,” said Fauntleroy. “Of course Flanagan sat in on our meetings where we discussed the nature of the Child’s Bill of Rights; they were fully democratic, so he couldn’t be left out. We were trying to hammer out something along the lines I have already mentioned to you. You see, at United Nations and UNESCO all the children’s business is done by adults, who have no idea of what a sensible child wants; the last thing we want is any kind of independence—make us independent and we have lost all our power. To deal as we think best with adults we must be entirely under their thumbs, which is the same thing as being on their backs: our weakness is our strength, every child knows that.”
“This child is wise beyond his years,” said Einstein.
“Indeed I am,” said Little Lord Fauntleroy. “But Gold-Tooth Flanagan simply didn’t know his business as a child. He was agitating for a Bill of Rights that would allow children to vote at the age of three, and get liquor and dope, and sue their parents for failure to bring them up properly, and ensure that when couples divorced all the assets were placed in the hands of their children—such crazy stuff as you never heard of, that would have robbed children of all their real power and loaded them down with a lot of hard work and financial responsibility. So it came to a showdown.”
“Don’t tell me Gold-Tooth Flanagan won!” said I.
“For the present it is a draw,” said Fauntleroy. “You see, the meeting became more and more unruly, and finally Gold-Tooth called Christopher Robin a Mother. At first I didn’t think anything of that, because to me a mother means Dearest, but a Greek boy out of Aesop’s Fables was sitting on the platform near me and he whispered that it was a very offensive expression, and meant somebody called Oedipus, so I asked Gold-Tooth to explain himself, and to the horror of everybody he did. Christopher Robin cried, and Alice from Wonderland hit Gold-Tooth with a croquet mallet, and when order was restored I had to speak very sharply to Gold-Tooth and he challenged me to a fight. I said I would fight him if Dougal were allowed to be the referee, but he wouldn’t have that, and it looked for a moment as if things were going to be very uneven, until Huck Finn slipped something into my right hand which he said would help, and I very cleverly hit Gold-Tooth when he wasn’t looking, and he fell down. But he jumped right up again and shouted Foul, and when I looked at my hand I saw that Huck had put a horseshoe in it. Then Gold-Tooth attacked me unfairly and without warning, and fought in a way that was utterly un-American, and even un-English, and when it was all over—my authority was gone.”
Here the beautiful child faltered and broke into bitter sobs.
Professor Einstein and I exchanged glances. The same thing was in both our minds. With a gentle hand the great scientist reached out towards the golden curls, and removed what was all too plainly a wig. The head beneath had been snatched bald. Little Lord Fauntleroy, at the hands of the unspeakable Gold-Tooth Flanagan, had suffered the fate of Samson.
“Have you tried rubbing it with white of egg?” the great man asked.
“Or perhaps a top-dressing of organic fertilizer?” said I.
“It will take months to grow to its full length,” said Fauntleroy, “and we have no time. Unless the horrible plan for a Children’s Bill of Rights (with which Gold-Tooth Flanagan is at this very moment interpenetrating the brain cells of the Assembly at U.N.) is thwarted, society as we have known it must collapse. Children will rule! Can you imagine what that will lead to—?”
“I am not sure that children would do worse with the world than their elders have done,” said Professor Einstein.
“That would depend on what children,” said I. “Take the advice of a man steeped in literature and legend; this is War in Heaven, and instead of a defeat in which Gold-Tooth Flanagan is cast down into the Pit, to howl in torment with all his evil followers, he has achieved dominance.”
“Indeed he has,” said Fauntleroy. “He’s strutting around the Children’s Paradise flashing his gold tooth and wearing my hair!”
“I see that you are right,” said Professor Einstein. “Like many childless people, I tend to have an extravagantly high opinion of children.”
“You must re-read King Lear,” said I.
“I shall do so,” said he; “but meanwhile, my child, do not lose heart. I shall go to the United Nations Assembly, where I still have some spiritual influence, and do what I can.”
The face of Little Lord Fauntleroy was suffused with a flush of rapture. He rushed to the great man and covered his face with kisses, while Dougal licked Einstein’s violin with his huge tongue, making it disagreeably wet.
“Meanwhile, to be on the safe side, you might try this,” said I, taking a small black bottle from beneath the top of the piano.
“You dear old souls,” said the Wondrous Child, his eyes filling with tears, “shall I really regain my hair?”
“That isn’t hair tonic,” said I; “that is a substance I use for cleaning my piano keys. It is drastic if taken internally; for instance, by anyone who was using it to clean a gold tooth.”
If I am not mistaken, the child winked at me. “Oh what a lovely practical joke that would be,” he said. “Of course Gold-Tooth is beyond Death, but he is certainly not beyond humiliation.” Then, seizing Dougal by the collar Lord Fauntleroy and the great dog ran toward the door. Before they reached it, they had grown dim, and vanished.
“Do you really think that children may take over the world?” I said to Professor Einstein.
“I cannot believe it,” said the great physicist. “Have I not said that God does not play at dice with the fate of the Universe?”
Once again he raised his bow, and off we went into Bach. But because of Dougal’s energetic licking his violin was sadly out of tune. The sound grew fainter, and I was aware of a decline in my own musical abilities until I found myself playing alone, and playing badly, and I knew that the seventeenth ghostly visitation to Massey College had reached its end.