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A Plague Of All Cowards
by [?]

“‘How far is it to Dingley Dell?’ they asked.

“‘Better er seven mile.’

“‘Is it a good road?’

“‘No, t’ant.’…

“The depressed Pickwickians turned moodily away, with the tall quadruped, for which they all felt the most unmitigated disgust, following slowly at their heels.”

“Have you any horses,” I repeated, “that have not been fed on Blat’s Food–horses that are, so to speak, on a diet?”

In the farthest stalls, hidden from the sunlight and the invigorating infection of the day, two beasts were found with sunken chests and hollow eyes, who took us safely to our destination on their hands and knees.

As you may suspect, I do not enjoy riding. There is, it is true, one saddle horse in North Carolina that fears me. If time still spares him, that horse I could ride with content. But I would rather trust myself on the top of a wobbly step-ladder than up the sides of most horses. I am not quite of a mind, however, with Samuel Richardson who owned a hobby-horse and rode on his hearth-rug in the intervals of writing “Pamela.” It is likely that when he had rescued her from an adventure of more than usual danger–perhaps her villainous master has been concealed in her closet–perhaps he has been hiding beneath her bed–it is likely, having brought her safely off, the author locked her in the buttery against a fresh attack. Then he felt, good man, in need of exercise. So while he waits for tea and muffins, he leaps upon his rocking-horse and prances off. As for the hobby-horse itself, I have not heard whether it was of the usual nursery type, or whether it was built in the likeness of the leather camels of a German steamship.

I need hardly say that these confessions of my cowardice are for your ear alone. They must not get abroad to smirch me. If on a country walk I have taken to my heels, you must not twit me with poltroonery. If you charge me with such faint-heartedness while other persons are present, I’ll deny it flat. When I sit in the company of ladies at dinner, I dissemble my true nature, as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat. If then, you taunt me, for want of a better escape, I shall turn it to a jest. I shall engage the table flippantly: Hear how preposterously the fellow talks!–he jests to satisfy a grudge. In appearance I am whole as the marble, founded as a rock.

But really some of us cowards are diverting persons. The lady who directed me against the cow is a most delightful woman with whom I hope I shall again sit at dinner. A witty lady of my acquaintance shivers when a cat walks in the room. A man with whom I pass the time pleasantly and profitably, although he will not admit a fear of ghosts, still will not sleep in an empty house because of possible noises. I would rather spend a Saturday evening in the company of the cowardly Falstaff than of the bold Hotspur. If it were not for sack, villainous sack, and a few spots upon his front, you would go far to find a better companion than the fat old Knight. Bob Acres was not much for valor and he made an ass of himself when he went to fight a duel, yet one could have sat agreeably at mutton with him.

But these things are slight. It matters little whether or not one can mount a ladder comfortably. Now that motors have come in, horses stand remotely in our lives. Nor is it of great moment whether or not we fear to be out of fashion–whether we halt in the wearing of a wrong-shaped hat, or glance fearfully around when we choose from a line of forks. Superstitions rest mostly on the surface and are not deadly in themselves. A man can be true of heart even if he will not sit thirteen at table. But there is a kind of fear that is disastrous to them that have it. It is the fear of the material universe in all its manifestations. There are persons, stout both of chest and limb, who fear drafts and wet feet. A man who is an elephant of valor and who has been feeling this long while a gentle contempt for such as myself, will cry out if a soft breeze strikes against his neck. If a foot slips to the gutter and becomes wet, he will dose himself. Achilles did not more carefully nurse his heel. For him the lofty dome of air is packed with malignant germs. The round world is bottled with contagion. A strong man who, in his time, might have slain the Sofi, is as fearful of his health as though the plague were up the street. Calamities beset him. The slightest sniffling in his nose is the trumpet for a deep disorder. Existence is but a moving hazard. Life for him, poor fellow, is but a room with a window on the night and a storm beating on the casement. God knows, it is better to grow giddy on a ladder than to think that this majestic earth is such an universal pestilence.