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    The Hypothetical Householder

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    We have read of some celebrated philosopher who was so absent-minded that
    he paid a call at his own house. My own absent-mindedness is extreme, and
    my philosophy, of course, is the marvel of men and angels. But I never
    quite managed to be so absent-minded as that. Some yards at least from my
    own door, something vaguely familiar has always caught my eye; and thus
    the joke has been spoiled. Of course I have quite constantly walked into
    another man's house, thinking it was my own house; my visits became almost
    monotonous. But walking into my own house and thinking it was another
    man's house is a flight of poetic detachment still beyond me. Something
    of the sensations that such an absent-minded man must feel I really felt
    the other day; and very pleasant sensations they were. The best parts of
    every proper romance are the first chapter and the last chapter; and to
    knock at a strange door and find a nice wife would be to concentrate the
    beginning and end of all romance.

    Mine was a milder and slighter experience, but its thrill was of the same
    kind. For I strolled through a place I had imagined quite virgin and
    unvisited (as far as I was concerned), and I suddenly found I was treading
    in my own footprints, and the footprints were nearly twenty years old.

    It was one of those stretches of country which always suggests an almost
    unnatural decay; thickets and heaths that have grown out of what were once
    great gardens. Garden flowers still grow there as wild flowers, as it
    says in some good poetic couplet which I forget; and there is something
    singularly romantic and disastrous about seeing things that were so long a
    human property and care fighting for their own hand in the thicket. One
    almost expects to find a decayed dog-kennel; with the dog evolved into a
    wolf.

    This desolate garden-land had been even in my youth scrappily planned out
    for building. The half-built or empty houses had appeared quite
    threateningly on the edge of this heath even when I walked over it years
    ago and almost as a boy. I was astonished that the building had gone no
    farther; I suppose somebody went bankrupt and somebody else disliked
    building. But I remember, especially along one side of this tangle or
    coppice, that there had once been a row of half-built houses. The brick
    of which they were built was a sort of plain pink; everything else was a
    blinding white; the houses smoked with white dust and white sawdust; and
    on many of the windows were rubbed those round rough disks of white which
    always delighted me as a child. They looked like the white eyes of some
    blind giant.

    I could see the crude, parched pink-and-white villas still; though I had
    not thought at all of them for a quarter of my life; and had not thought
    much of them even when I saw them. Then I was an idle, but eager youth
    walking out from London; now I was a most reluctantly busy middle-aged
    person, coming in from the country. Youth, I think, seems farther off
    than childhood, for it made itself more of a secret. Like a prenatal
    picture, distant, tiny, and quite distinct, I saw this heath on which I
    stood; and I looked around for the string of bright, half-baked villas.
    They still stood there; but they were quite russet and weather-stained, as
    if they had stood for centuries.

    I remembered exactly what I had done on that day long ago. I had half
    slid on a miry descent; it was still there; a little lower I had knocked
    off the top of a thistle; the thistles had not been discouraged, but were
    still growing. I recalled it because I had wondered why one knocks off
    the tops of thistles; and then I had thought of Tarquin; and then I had
    recited most of Macaulay's VIRGINIA to myself, for I was young. And then
    I came to a tattered edge where the very tuft had whitened with the
    sawdust and brick-dust from the new row of houses; and two or three green
    stars of dock and thistle grew spasmodically about the blinding road.

    I remembered how I had walked up this new one-sided street all those years
    ago; and I remembered what I had thought. I thought that this red and
    white glaring terrace at noon was really more creepy and more lonesome
    than a glimmering churchyard at midnight. The churchyard could only be
    full of the ghosts of the dead; but these houses were full of the ghosts
    of the unborn. And a man can never find a home in the future as he can
    find it in the past. I was always fascinated by that mediaeval notion of
    erecting a rudely carpentered stage in the street, and acting on it a
    miracle play of the Holy Family or the Last Judgment. And I thought to
    myself that each of these glaring, gaping, new jerry-built boxes was
    indeed a rickety stage erected for the acting of a real miracle play; that
    human family that is almost the holy one, and that human death that is
    near to the last judgment.

    For some foolish reason the last house but one in that imperfect row
    especially haunted me with its hollow grin and empty window-eyes.
    Something in the shape of this brick-and-mortar skeleton was attractive;
    and there being no workmen about, I strolled into it for curiosity and
    solitude. I gave, with all the sky-deep gravity of youth, a benediction
    upon the man who was going to live there. I even remember that for the
    convenience of meditation I called him James Harrogate.

    As I reflected it crawled back into my memory that I had mildly played the
    fool in that house on that distant day. I had some red chalk in my pocket,
    I think, and I wrote things on the unpapered plaster walls; things
    addressed to Mr. Harrogate. A dim memory told me that I had written up in
    what I supposed to be the dining-room:

    James Harrogate, thank God for meat,
    Then eat and eat and eat and eat,

    or something of that kind. I faintly feel that some longer lyric was
    scrawled on the walls of what looked like a bedroom, something beginning:

    When laying what you call your head,
    O Harrogate, upon your bed,

    and there all my memory dislimns and decays. But I could still see quite
    vividly the plain plastered walls and the rude, irregular writing, and the
    places where the red chalk broke. I could see them, I mean, in memory;
    for when I came down that road again after a sixth of a century the house
    was very different.

    I had seen it before at noon, and now I found it in the dusk. But its
    windows glowed with lights of many artificial sorts; one of its low square
    windows stood open; from this there escaped up the road a stream of
    lamplight and a stream of singing. Some sort of girl, at least, was
    standing at some sort of piano, and singing a song of healthy
    sentimentalism in that house where long ago my blessing had died on the
    wind and my poems been covered up by the wallpaper. I stood outside that
    lamplit house at dusk full of those thoughts that I shall never express if
    I live to be a million any better than I expressed them in red chalk upon
    the wall. But after I had hovered a little, and was about to withdraw, a
    mad impulse seized me. I rang the bell. I said in distinct accents to a
    very smart suburban maid, "Does Mr. James Harrogate live here?"

    She said he didn't; but that she would inquire, in case I was looking for
    him in the neighbourhood; but I excused her from such exertion. I had one
    moment's impulse to look for him all over the world; and then decided not
    to look for him at all.
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