Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn
In the Hall of the Ancient Company of Milkmen round thegreat fireplace at the end, when the winter logs are burningand all the craft are assembled they tell to-day, as theirgrandfathers told before them, why the milkman shudders whenhe perceives the dawn.
When dawn comes creeping over the edges of hills, peersthrough the tree-trunks making wonderful shadows, touchesthe tops of tall columns of smoke going up from awakeningcottages in the valleys, and breaks all golden over Kentishfields, when going on tip-toe thence it comes to the wallsof London and slips all shyly up those gloomy streets themilkman perceives it and shudders.
A man may be a Milkman's Working Apprentice, may knowwhat borax is and how to mix it, yet not for that is thestory told to him. There are five men alone that tell thatstory, five men appointed by the Master of the Company, bywhom each place is filled as it falls vacant, and if you donot hear it from one of them you hear the story from no oneand so can never know why the milkman shudders when heperceives the dawn.
It is the way of one of these five men, greybeards alland milkmen from infancy, to rub his hands by the fire whenthe great logs burn, and to settle himself more easily inhis chair, perhaps to sip some drink far other than milk,then to look round to see that none are there to whom itwould not be fitting the tale should be told and, lookingfrom face to face and seeing none but the men of the AncientCompany, and questioning mutely the rest of the five withhis eyes, if some of the five be there, and receiving theirpermission, to cough and to tell the tale. And a great hushfalls in the Hall of the Ancient Company, and somethingabout the shape of the roof and the rafters makes the taleresonant all down the hall so that the youngest hears it faraway from the fire and knows, and dreams of the day whenperhaps he will tell himself why the milkman shudders whenhe perceives the dawn.
Not as one tells some casual fact is it told, nor is itcommented on from man to man, but it is told by that greatfire only and when the occasion and the stillness of theroom and the merit of the wine and the profit of all seem towarrant it in the opinion of the five deputed men: then doesone of them tell it, as I have said, not heralded by anymaster of ceremonies but as though it arose out of thewarmth of the fire before which his knotted hands wouldchance to be; not a thing learned by rote, but tolddifferently by each teller, and differently according to hismood, yet never has one of them dared to alter its salientpoints, there is none so base among the Company of Milkmen. The Company of Powderers for the Face know of this story andhave envied it, the Worthy Company of Chin-Barbers, and theCompany of Whiskerers; but none have heard it in theMilkmen's Hall, through whose wall no rumour of the secretgoes, and though they have invented tales of their ownAntiquity mocks them.
This mellow story was ripe with honourable years whenmilkmen wore beaver hats, its origin was still mysteriouswhen smocks were the vogue, men asked one another whenStuarts were on the throne (and only the Ancient Companyknew the answer) why the milkman shudders when he perceivesthe dawn. It is all for envy of this tale's reputation thatthe Company of Powderers for the Face have invented the talethat they too tell of an evening, "Why the Dog Barks when hehears the step of the Baker"; and because probably all menknow that tale the Company of the Powderers for the Facehave dared to consider it famous. Yet it lacks mystery andis not ancient, is not fortified with classical allusion,has no secret lore, is common to all who care for an idletale, and shares with "The Wars of the Elves," theCalf-butcher's tale, and "The Story of the Unicorn and theRose," which is the tale of the Company of Horse-drivers,their obvious inferiority.
But unlike all these tales so new to time, and manyanother that the last two centuries tell, the tale that themilkmen tell ripples wisely on, so full of quotation fromthe profoundest writers, so full of recondite allusion, sodeeply tinged with all the wisdom of man and instructivewith the experience of all times that they that hear it inthe Milkmen's Hall as they interpret allusion after allusionand trace obscure quotation lose idle curiosity and forgetto question why the milkman shudders when he perceives thedawn.
You also, O my reader, give not yourself up tocuriosity. Consider of how many it is the bane. Would youto gratify this tear away the mystery from the Milkmen'sHall and wrong the Ancient Company of Milkmen? Would theyif all the world knew it and it became a common thing totell that tale any more that they have told for the lastfour hundred years? Rather a silence would settle upontheir hall and a universal regret for the ancient tale andthe ancient winter evenings. And though curiosity were aproper consideration yet even then this is not the properplace nor this the proper occasion for the Tale. For theproper place is only the Milkmen's Hall and the properoccasion only when logs burn well and when wine has beendeeply drunken, then when the candles were burning well inlong rows down to the dimness, down to the darkness andmystery that lie at the end of the hall, then were you oneof the Company, and were I one of the five, would I risefrom my seat by the fireside and tell you with all theembellishments that it has gleaned from the ages that storythat is the heirloom of the milkmen. And the long candleswould burn lower and lower and gutter and gutter away tillthey liquefied in their sockets, and draughts would blowfrom the shadowy end of the hall stronger and stronger tillthe shadows came after them, and still I would hold you withthat treasured story, not by any wit of mine but all for thesake of its glamour and the times out of which it came; oneby one the candles would flare and die and, when all weregone, by the light of ominous sparks when each milkman'sface looks fearful to his fellow, you would know, as now youcannot, why the milkman shudders when he perceives the dawn.