I took refuge in silence. The only honest
reply would have been `That was not my
didn't say it, and it isn't true
!' But I had not the moral courage to make such a confession. The character of a `lunatic
' is not, I believe, very difficult to acquire
; but it is amazingly difficult to get rid of
: and it seemed quite certain that any such speech as that
justify the issue of a writ `de lunatico inquirendo
Lady Muriel evidently thought I had failed to hear her question, and turned to Arthur with a remark on some other subject; and I had time to recover from my shock of surprise--or to awake out of my momentary `eerie' condition, whichever it was.
When things around me seemed once more to be real, Arthur was saying `I'm afraid there's no help for it: they must be finite in number.'
`I should be sorry to have to believe it,' said Lady Muriel. `Yet, when one comes to think of it, there are no new melodies, now-a-days. What people talk of as "the last new song" always recalls to me some tune I've known as a child!'
`The day must come--if the world lasts long enough--' said Arthur, `when every possible tune will have been composed--every possible pun perpetrated--' (Lady Muriel wrung her hands, like a tragedy-queen) `and, worse than that, every possible book written! For the number of words is finite.'
`It'll make very little difference to the authors,' I suggested. `Instead of saying "what book shall I write?" an author will ask himself "which book shall I write?" A mere verbal distinction!'
Lady Muriel gave me an approving smile. `But lunatics would always write new books, surely?' she went on. `They couldn't write the sane books over again!'
`True,' said Arthur. `But their books would come to an end, also. The number of lunatic books is as finite as the number of lunatics.'
`And that number is becoming greater every year,' said a pompous man, whom I recognized as the self-appointed showman on the day of the picnic.
`So they say,' replied Arthur. `And, when ninety per cent. of us are lunatics,' (he seemed to be in a wildly nonsensical mood) `the asylums will be put to their proper use.'
`And that is--?' the pompous man gravely enquired.
`To shelter the sane!' said Arthur. `We shall bar ourselves in. The lunatics will have it all their own way, outside. They'll do it a little queerly, no doubt. Railway-collisions will be always happening: steamers always blowing up: most of the towns will be burnt down: most of the ships sunk--'
`And most of the men killed!' murmured the pompous man, who was evidently hopelessly bewildered.
`Certainly,' Arthur assented. `Till at last there will be fewer lunatics than sane men. Then we come out: they go in: and things return to their normal condition!'
The pompous man frowned darkly, and bit his lip, and folded his arms vainly trying to think it out. `He is jesting!' he muttered to himself at last, in a tone of withering contempt, as he stalked away.