Dies Irae

Dies Irae


Kenneth Grahame

THOSE memorable days that move in procession, their heads just
out of the mist of years long dead—the most of them are
full-eyed as the dandelion that from dawn to shade has steeped itself
in sunlight. Here and there in their ranks, however, moves a
forlorn one who is blind—blind in the sense of the dulled window-
pane on which the pelting raindrops have mingled and run down,
obscuring sunshine and the circling birds, happy fields and storied
garden ; blind with the spatter of a misery uncomprehended,
unanalysed, only felt as something corporeal in its buffeting

Martha began it ; and yet Martha was not really to blame. Indeed,
that was half the trouble of it—no solid person stood full in view,
to be blamed and to make atonement. There was only a wretched,
impalpable condition to deal with. Breakfast was just over ; the
sun was summoning us, imperious as a herald with clamour of
trumpet ; I ran upstairs to her with a broken bootlace in my hand,
and there she was, crying in a corner, her head in her apron.
Nothing could be got from her but the same dismal succession of
sobs that would not have done, that struck and hurt like a physical
beating ; and meanwhile the sun was getting impatient, and I
wanted my bootlace.


102 Dies Irae

Enquiry below stairs revealed the cause. Martha's brother was
dead, it seemed—her sailor brother Billy ; drowned in one of those
strange far-off seas it was our dream to navigate one day. We had
known Billy well, and appreciated him. When an approaching
visit of Billy to his sister had been announced, we had counted the
days to it. When his cheery voice was at last heard in the kitchen
and we had descended with shouts, first of all he had to exhibit his
tattoed arms, always a subject for fresh delight and envy and awe ;
then he was called upon for tricks, jugglings, and strange, fearful
gymnastics ; and lastly came yarns, and more yarns, and yarns till
bedtime. There had never been any one like Billy in his own
particular sphere ; and now he was drowned, they said, and Martha
was miserable, and—and I couldn't get a new bootlace. They
told me that Billy would never come back any more, and I stared
out of the window at the sun which came back, right enough,
every day, and their news conveyed nothing whatever to me.
Martha's sorrow hit home a little, but only because the actual sight
and sound of it gave me a dull, bad sort of pain low down inside—
a pain not to be actually located. Moreover, I was still wanting
my bootlace.

This was a poor sort of a beginning to a day that, so far as
outside conditions went, had promised so well. I rigged up a sort
of jurymast of a bootlace with a bit of old string, and wandered
off to look up the girls, conscious of a jar and a discordance in the
scheme of things. The moment I entered the schoolroom some-
thing in the air seemed to tell me that here, too, matters were
strained and awry. Selina was staring listlessly out of the window,
one foot curled round her leg. When I spoke to her she jerked a
shoulder testily, but did not condescend to the civility of a reply.
Charlotte sprawled in a chair absolutely unoccupied, and there were
signs of sniffles about her, even at that early hour. It was but a


By Kenneth Grahame 103

trifling matter that had caused all this electricity in the atmosphere,
and the girls' manner of taking it seemed to me most unreasonable.
Within the last few days the time had come round for the despatch
of a hamper to Edward at school. Only one hamper a term
was permitted him, so its preparation was a sort of blend of revelry
and religious ceremony. After the main corpus of the thing had
been carefully selected and safely bestowed—the pots of jam, the
cake, the sausages, and the apples that filled up corners so nicely—
after the last package had been wedged in, the girls had deposited
their own private and personal offerings on the top. I forget their
precise nature ; anyhow, they were nothing of any particular
practical use to a boy. But they had involved some contrivance
and labour, some skimping of pocket money, and much delightful
cloud-building as to the effect on their enraptured recipient. Well,
yesterday there had come a terse acknowledgment from Edward
heartily commending the cakes and the jam, stamping the sausages
with the seal of Smith major's approval, and finally hinting that,
fortified as he now was, nothing more was necessary but a remit-
tance of five shillings in postage stamps to enable him to face the
world armed against every buffet of fate. That was all. Never
a word or a hint of the personal tributes or of his appreciation of
them. To us—to Harold and me, that is—the letter seemed
natural and sensible enough. After all, provender was the main
thing, and five shillings stood for a complete equipment against the
most unexpected turns of luck. The presents were very well in
their way—very nice, and so on—but life was a serious matter, and
the contest called for cakes and half-crowns to carry it on, not
gew-gaws and knitted mittens and the like. The girls, however,
in their obstinate way, persisted in taking their own view of the
slight. Hence it was that I received my second rebuff of the


104 Dies Irae

Somewhat disheartened, I made my way downstairs and out
into the sunlight, where I found Harold, playing Conspirators by
himself on the gravel. He had dug a small hole in the walk and
had laid an imaginary train of powder thereto ; and, as he sought
refuge in the laurels from the inevitable explosion, I heard him
murmur : " My God ! said the Czar, my plans are frustrated ! "
It seemed an excellent occasion for being a black puma. Harold
liked black pumas, on the whole, as well as any animal we were
familiar with. So I launched myself on him, with the appropriate
howl, rolling him over on the gravel.

Life may be said to be composed of things that come off and
things that don't come off. This thing, unfortunately, was one
of the things that didn't come off. From beneath me I heard a
shrill cry of, " O, it's my sore knee ! " And Harold wriggled
himself free from the puma's clutches, bellowing dismally. Now,
I honestly didn't know he had a sore knee, and, what's more, he
knew I didn't know he had a sore knee. According to boy-
ethics, therefore, his attitude was wrong, sore knee or not, and no
apology was due from me. I made half-way advances, however,
suggesting we should lie in ambush by the edge of the pond and
cut off the ducks as they waddled down in simple, unsuspecting
single file ; then hunt them as bisons, flying scattered over the
vast prairie. A fascinating pursuit this, and strictly illicit. But
Harold would none of my overtures, and retreated to the house
wailing with full lungs.

Things were getting simply infernal. I struck out blindly for
the open country ; and even as I made for the gate a shrill voice
from a window bade we keep off the flower-beds. When the
gate had swung to behind me with a vicious click I felt better,
and after ten minutes along the road it began to grow on me that
some radical change was needed, that I was in a blind alley, and


By Kenneth Grahame 105

that this intolerable state of things must somehow cease. All
that I could do I had already done. As well-meaning a fellow as
ever stepped was pounding along the road that day, with an
exceeding sore heart ; one who only wished to live and let live,
in touch with his fellows, and appreciating what joys life had to
offer. What was wanted now was a complete change of environ-
ment. Somewhere in the world, I felt sure, justice and sympathy
still resided. There were places called pampas, for instance, that
sounded well. League upon league of grass, with just an occa-
sional wild horse, and not a relation within the horizon ! To a
bruised spirit this seemed a sane and a healing sort of existence.
There were other pleasant corners, again, where you dived for
pearls and stabbed sharks in the stomach with your big knife. No
relations would be likely to come interfering with you when thus
blissfully occupied. And yet I did not wish—just yet—to have
done with relations entirely. They should be made to feel their
position first, to see themselves as they really were, and to wish—
when it was too late—that they had behaved more properly.

Of all professions, the army seemed to lend itself the most
thoroughly to the scheme. You enlisted, you followed the drum,
you marched, fought, and ported arms, under strange skies,
through unrecorded years. At last, at long last, your opportunity
would come, when the horrors of war were flickering through the
quiet country-side where you were cradled and bred, but where
the memory of you had long been dim. Folk would run together,
clamorous, palsied with fear ; and among the terror-stricken
groups would figure certain aunts. " What hope is left us ? "
they would ask themselves, " save in the clemency of the General,
the mysterious, invincible General, of whom men tell such romantic
tales ? " And the army would march in, and the guns would
rattle and leap along the village street, and last of all you—you,


106 Dies Irae

the General, the fabled hero—you would enter, on your coal-black
charger, your pale set face seamed by an interesting sabre-cut
And then—but every boy has rehearsed this familiar piece a score
of times. You are magnanimous, in fine—that goes without
saying ; you have a coal-black horse, and a sabre-cut, and you can
afford to be very magnanimous. But all the same you give them
a good talking-to.

This pleasant conceit simply ravished my soul for some twenty
minutes, and then the old sense of injury began to well up afresh,
and to call for new plasters and soothing syrups. This time I took
refuge in happy thoughts of the sea. The sea -was my real sphere,
after all. On the sea, in especial, you could combine distinction
with lawlessness, whereas the army seemed to be always weighted
by a certain plodding submission to discipline. To be sure, by
all accounts, the life was at first a rough one. But just then I
wanted to suffer keenly ; I wanted to be a poor devil of a cabin-
boy, kicked, beaten, and sworn at—for a time. Perhaps some
hint, some inkling of my sufferings might reach their ears. In
due course the sloop or felucca would turn up—it always did—
the rakish-looking craft, black of hull, low in the water, and
bristling with guns ; the jolly Roger flapping overhead, and my-
self for sole commander. By and bye, as usually happened, an
East Indiaman would come sailing along full of relations—not a
necessary relation would be missing. And the crew should walk
the plank, and the captain should dance from his own yard-arm,
and then I would take the passengers in hand—that miserable
group of well-known figures cowering on the quarter-deck !—and
then—and then the same old performance : the air thick with
magnanimity. In all the repertory of heroes, none is more truly
magnanimous than your pirate chief.

When at last I brought myself back from the future to the


By Kenneth Grahame 107

actual present, I found that these delectable visions had helped me
over a longer stretch of road than I had imagined ; and I looked
around and took my bearings. To the right of me was a long
low building of grey stone, new, and yet not smugly so ; new, and
yet possessing distinction, marked with a character that did not
depend on lichen or on crumbling semi-effacement of moulding
and mullion. Strangers might have been puzzled to classify it ;
to me, an explorer from earliest years, the place was familiar
enough. Most folk called it " The Settlement," others, with
quite sufficient conciseness for our neighbourhood, spoke of " them
there fellows up by Halliday's " ; others again, with a hint of
derision, named them the " monks." This last title I supposed to
be intended for satire, and knew to be fatuously wrong. I was
thoroughly acquainted with monks—in books—and well knew the
cut of their long frocks, their shaven polls, and their fascinating
big dogs, with brandy-bottles round their necks, incessantly haul-
ing happy travellers out of the snow. The only dog at the
settlement was an Irish terrier, and the good fellows who owned
him, and were owned by him, in common, wore clothes of the
most nondescript order, and mostly cultivated side-whiskers. I
had wandered up there one day, searching (as usual) for something
I never found, and had been taken in by them and treated as
friend and comrade. They had made me free of their ideal little
rooms, full of books and pictures, and clean of the antimacassar
taint ; they had shown me their chapel, high, hushed, and faintly
scented, beautiful with a strange new beauty born both of what it
had and what it had not—that too-familiar dowdiness of common
places of worship. They had also fed me in their dining-hall,
where a long table stood on trestles plain to view, and all the
woodwork was natural, unpainted, healthily scrubbed, and redolent
of the forest it came from. I brought away from that visit, and


108 Dies Irae

kept by me for many days, a sense of cleanness, of the freshness
that pricks the senses—the freshness of cool spring water ; and
the large swept spaces of the rooms, the red tiles, and the oaken
settles, suggested a comfort that had no connexion with padded

On this particular morning I was in much too unsociable a
mind for paying friendly calls. Still, something in the aspect of
the place harmonised with my humour, and I worked my way
round to the back, where the ground, after affording level enough
for a kitchen-garden, broke steeply away. Both the word Gothic
and the thing itself were still unknown to me ; yet doubtless the
architecture of the place, consistent throughout, accounted for its
sense of comradeship in my hour of disheartenment. As I mused
there, with the low, grey, purposeful-looking building before me,
and thought of my pleasant friends within, and what good times
they always seemed to be having, and how they larked with the
Irish terrier, whose footing was one of a perfect equality, I
thought of a certain look in their faces, as if they had a common
purpose and a business, and were acting under orders thoroughly
recognised and understood. I remembered, too, something that
Martha had told me, about these same fellows doing " a power o'
good," and other hints I had collected vaguely, of renouncements,
rules, self-denials, and the like. Thereupon, out of the depths of
my morbid soul swam up a new and fascinating idea ; and at
once the career of arms seemed over-acted and stale, and piracy,
as a profession, flat and unprofitable. This, then, or something
like it, should be my vocation and my revenge. A severer line
of business, perhaps, such as I had read of ; something that in-
cluded black bread and a hair-shirt. There should be vows, too
—irrevocable, blood-curdling vows ; and an iron grating. This
iron grating was the most necessary feature of all, for I intended


By Kenneth Grahame 109

that on the other side of it my relations should range themselves—
I mentally ran over the catalogue, and saw that the whole gang
was present, all in their proper places—a sad-eyed row, combined
in tristful appeal. " We see our error now," they would say ; " we
were always dull dogs, slow to catch—especially in those akin to
us—the finer qualities of soul ! We misunderstood you, mis-
appreciated you, and we own up to it. And now—" " Alas,
my dear friends," I would strike in here, waving towards them an
ascetic hand—one of the emaciated sort, that lets the light shine
through at the finger-tips—" Alas, you come too late ! This
conduct is fitting and meritorious on your part, and indeed I
always expected it of you, sooner or later ; but the die is cast,
and you may go home again and bewail at your leisure this too
tardy repentance of yours. For me, I am vowed and dedicated,
and my relations henceforth are austerity and holy works. Once
a month, should you wish it, it shall be your privilege to come
and gaze at me through this very solid grating ; but—"
Whack !

A well-aimed clod of garden soil, whizzing just past my ear,
starred on a tree-trunk behind, spattering me with dirt. The
present came back to me in a flash, and I nimbly took cover
behind the tree, realising that the enemy was up and abroad, with
ambuscades, alarms, and thrilling sallies. It was the gardener's
boy, I knew well enough ; a red proletariat, who hated me just
because I was a gentleman. Hastily picking up a nice sticky
clod in one hand, with the other I delicately projected my hat
beyond the shelter of the tree-trunk. I had not fought with Red-
skins all these years for nothing.

As I had expected, another clod, of the first class for size and
stickiness, took my poor hat full in the centre. Then, Ajax-like,
shouting terribly, I issued from shelter and discharged my

The Yellow Book—Vol. VIII. G


110 dies Irae

ammunition. Woe then for the gardener's boy, who, unprepared,
skipping in premature triumph, took the clod full in his stomach !
He, the foolish one, witless on whose side the gods were fighting
that day, discharged yet other missiles, wavering and wide of the
mark ; for his wind had been taken with the first clod, and he
shot wildly, as one already desperate and in flight. I got another
clod in at short range ; we clinched on the brow of the hill, and
rolled down to the bottom together. When he had shaken him-
self free and regained his legs, he trotted smartly off in the direc-
tion of his mother's cottage ; but over his shoulder he discharged
at me both imprecation and deprecation, menace mixed up with
an under-current of tears.

But as for me, I made off smartly for the road, my frame
tingling, my head high, with never a backward look at the
Settlement of suggestive aspect, or at my well-planned future
which lay in fragments around it. Life had its jollities, then, life
was action, contest, victory ! The present was rosy once more,
surprises lurked on every side, and I was beginning to feel
villainously hungry.

Just as I gained the road a cart came rattling by, and I rushed
for it, caught the chain that hung below, and swung thrillingly
between the dizzy wheels, choked and blinded with delicious-
smelling dust, the world slipping by me like a streaky ribbon
below, till the driver licked at me with his whip, and I had to
descend to earth again. Abandoning the beaten track, I then
struck homewards through the fields ; not that the way was very
much shorter, but rather because on that route one avoided the
bridge, and had to splash through the stream and get refreshingly
wet. Bridges were made for narrow folk, for people with aims
and vocations which compelled abandonment of many of life's
highest pleasures. Truly wise men called on each element alike


By Kenneth Grahame 111

to minister to their joy, and while the touch of sun-bathed air,
the fragrance of garden soil, the ductible qualities of mud, and the
spark-whirling rapture of playing with fire, had each their special
charm, they did not overlook the bliss of getting their feet wet.
As I came forth on the common Harold broke out of an adjoining
copse and ran to meet me, the morning rain-clouds all blown away
from his face. He had made a new squirrel-stick, it seemed.
Made it all himself ; melted the lead and everything ! I ex-
amined the instrument critically, and pronounced it absolutely
magnificent. As we passed in at our gate the girls were distantly
visible, gardening with a zeal in cheerful contrast to their heartsick
lassitude of the morning. " There's bin another letter come to-
day," Harold explained, " and the hamper got joggled about on
the journey, and the presents worked down into the straw and all
over the place. One of 'em turned up inside the cold duck. And
that's why they weren't found at first. And Edward said, Thanks
awfully ! "

I did not see Martha again until we were all re-assembled at
teatime, when she seemed red-eyed and strangely silent, neither
scolding nor finding fault with anything. Instead, she was very
kind and thoughtful with jams and things, feverishly pressing
unwonted delicacies on us, who wanted little pressing enough.
Then suddenly, when I was busiest, she disappeared ; and Char-
lotte whispered me presently that she had heard her go to her
room and lock herself in. This struck me as a funny sort of

MLA citation: Grahame, Kenneth. "Dies Irae." The Yellow Book 8 (January 1896): 101-111. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2012. Web. [Date of access]. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV8_grahame_dies.html