(also on probation).
They were good stars, none better in the service; and as we didn't like the sound of "on probation" Celia put a few stitches in them to make them more permanent. This proved effective. Six months later I had a very pleasant note from the King telling me that the days of probation were now over, and making it clear that he and I were friends.
I was now a real Second Lieutenant. On my right sleeve I had a single star. Thus:
* (not on probation).
On my left sleeve I also had a single star. In this manner:
This star also was now a fixed one.
From that time forward my thoughts dwelt naturally on promotion. There were exalted persons in the regiment called Lieutenants. They had two stars on each sleeve. So:
I decided to become a Lieutenant.
Promotion in our regiment was difficult. After giving the matter every consideration I came to the conclusion that the only way to win my second star was to save the Colonel's life. I used to follow him about affectionately in the hope that he would fall into the sea. He was a big strong man and a powerful swimmer, but once in the water it would not be difficult to cling round his neck and give an impression that I was rescuing him. However, he refused to fall in. I fancy that he wore somebody's Military Soles which prevent slipping.
Years rolled on. I used to look at my stars sometimes, one on each sleeve; they seemed very lonely. At times they came close together; but at other times as, for instance, when I was semaphoring, they were very far apart. To prevent these occasional separations Celia took them off my sleeves and put them on my shoulders. One on each shoulder. So:
There they stayed.
And more years rolled on.
One day Celia came to me in great excitement.
"Have you seen this in the paper about promotion?" she said eagerly.
"No; what is it?" I asked. "Are they making more generals?"
"I don't know about generals; it's Second Lieutenants being Lieutenants."
"You're joking on a very grave subject," I said seriously. "You can't expect to win the War if you go on like that."
"Well, you read it," she said, handing me the paper.
I took the paper with a trembling hand, and read. She was right! If the paper was to be believed, all Second Lieutenants were to become Lieutenants after eighteen years' service. At last my chance had come.
"My dear, this is wonderful," I said. "In another fifteen years we shall be there. You might buy two more stars this afternoon and practise sewing them on, in order to be ready. You mustn't be taken by surprise when the actual moment comes."
"But you're a Lieutenant now," she said, "if that's true. It says that 'after eighteen months—'"
I snatched up the paper again. Good Heavens! it was eighteen months—not years.
"Then I am a Lieutenant," I said.
We had a bottle of champagne for dinner that night, and Celia got the paper and read it aloud to my tunic. And just for practice she took the two stars off my other tunic and sewed them on this one—thus:
And we had a very happy evening.
"I suppose it will be a few days before it's officially announced," I said.
"Bother, I suppose it will," said Celia, and very reluctantly she took one star off each shoulder,
leaving the matter—so:
And the years rolled on....
And I am still a Second Lieutenant....
I do not complain; indeed I am even rather proud of it. If I am not gaining on my original one star, at least I am keeping pace with it. I might so easily have been a corporal by now.
But I should like to have seen a little more notice taken of me in the "Gazette." I scan it every day, hoping for some such announcement as this:
"Second Lieutenant M —— to remain a Second Lieutenant."
"Second Lieutenant M —— to be seconded and to retain his present rank of Second Lieutenant."
Or even this:
"Second Lieutenant M —— relinquishes the rank of Acting Second Lieutenant on ceasing to command a Battalion, and reverts to the rank of Second Lieutenant."
Failing this, I have thought sometimes of making an announcement in the Personal Column of "The Times":
"Second Lieutenant M —— regrets that his duties as a Second Lieutenant prevent him from replying personally to the many kind inquiries he has received, and begs to take this opportunity of announcing that he still retains a star on each shoulder. Both doing well."
But perhaps that is unnecessary now. I think that by this time I have made it clear just how many stars I possess.
One on the right shoulder. So:
And one on the left shoulder. So:
That is all.
THE JOKE: A TRAGEDY
The Joke was born one October day in the trench called Mechanics, not so far from Loos. We had just come back into the line after six days in reserve, and, the afternoon being quiet, I was writing my daily letter to Celia. I was telling her about our cat, imported into our dug-out in the hope that it would keep the rats down, when suddenly the Joke came. I was so surprised by it that I added in brackets, "This is quite my own. I've only just thought of it." Later on the Post-Corporal came, and the Joke started on its way to England.
Chapter II finds me some months later at home again.
"Do you remember that joke about the rats in one of your letters?" said Celia one evening.
"Yes. You never told me if you liked it."
"I simply loved it. You aren't going to waste it, are you?"
"If you simply loved it, it wasn't wasted."
"But I want everybody else—Couldn't you use it in the Revue?"
I was supposed to be writing a Revue at this time for a certain impresario. I wasn't getting on very fast, because whenever I suggested a scene to him, he either said, "Oh, that's been done," which killed it, or else he said, "Oh, but that's never been done," which killed it even more completely.
"Good idea," I said to Celia. "We'll have a Trench Scene."
I suggested it to the impresario when next I saw him.
"Oh, that's been done," he said.
"Mine will be quite different from anybody else's," I said firmly.
He brightened up a little.
"All right, try it," he said.
I seemed to have discovered the secret of successful revue-writing.
The Trench Scene was written. It was written round the Joke, whose bright beams, like a perfect jewel in a perfect setting—However, I said all that to Celia at the time. She was just going to have said it herself, she told me.
So far, so good. But a month later the Revue collapsed. The impresario and I agreed upon many things—as, for instance, that the War would be a long one, and that Hindenburg was no fool—but there were two points upon which we could never quite agree: (1) What was funny, and (2) which of us was writing the Revue. So, with mutual expressions of goodwill, and hopes that one day we might write a tragedy together, we parted.
That ended the Revue; it ended the Trench Scene; and, for the moment, it ended the Joke.
Chapter III finds the war over and Celia still at it.
"You haven't got that Joke in yet."
She had just read an article of mine called "Autumn in a Country Vicarage."
"It wouldn't go in there very well," I said.
"It would go in anywhere where there were rats. There might easily be rats in a vicarage."
"Not in this one."
"You talk about 'poor as a church mouse.'"
"I am an artist," I said, thumping my heart and forehead and other seats of the emotions. "I don't happen to see rats there, and if I don't see them I can't write about them. Anyhow, they wouldn't be secular rats, like the ones I made my joke about."
"I don't mind whether the rats are secular or circular," said Celia, "but do get them in soon."
Well, I tried. I really did try, but for months I couldn't get those rats in. It was a near thing sometimes, and I would think that I had them, but at the last moment they would whisk off and back into their holes again. I even wrote an article about "Cooking in the Great War," feeling that that would surely tempt them, but they were not to be drawn....
But at last the perfect opportunity came. I received a letter from a botanical paper asking for an article on the Flora of Trench Life.
"Horray!" said Celia. "There you are."
I sat down and wrote the article. Working up gradually to the subject of rats, and even more gradually intertwining it, so to speak, with the subject of cats, I brought off in one perfect climax the great Joke.
"Lovely!" said Celia excitedly.
"There is one small point which has occurred to me. Rats are fauna, not flora; I've just remembered."
"Oh, does it matter?"
"For a botanical paper, yes."
And then Celia had a brilliant inspiration.
"Send it to another paper," she said.
I did. Two days later it appeared. Considering that I hadn't had a proof, it came out extraordinarily well. There was only one misprint. It was at the critical word of the Joke.
"That's torn it," I said to Celia.
"I suppose it has," she said sadly.
"The world will never hear the Joke now. It's had it wrong, but still it's had it, and I can't repeat it."
Celia began to smile.
"It's sickening," she said; "but it's really rather funny, you know."
And then she had another brilliant inspiration.
"In fact you might write an article about it."
And, as you see, I have.
Having read thus far, Celia says, "But you still haven't got the Joke in."
Oh, well, here goes.
Extract from letter: "We came back to the line to-day to find that the cat had kittened. However, as all the rats seem to have rottened we are much as we were."
"Rottened" was misprinted "rattened," which seems to me to spoil the Joke....
Yet I must confess that there are times now when I feel that perhaps after all I may have overrated it....
But it was a pleasant joke in its day.
THE LAST POT
Let others hymn the weariness and pain (Or, if they will, the glory and the glamour) Of holding fast, from Flanders to Lorraine, The thin brown line at which the Germans hammer; My Muse, a more domesticated maid, Aspires to sing a song of Marmalade.
O Marmalade!—I do not mean the sort, Sweet marrow-pulp, for babes and maidens fitter, But that wherein the golden fishes sport On oranges seas (with just a dash of bitter), Not falsely coy, but eager to parade Their Southern birth—in short, O Marmalade!
Much have I sacrificed: my happy home, My faith in experts' figures, half my money, The fortnight that I meant to spend in Rome, My weekly effort to be fairly funny; But these are trifles, light as air when weighed Against this other—Breakfast Marmalade.
Fair was the porridge in the days of peace, And still more fair the cream and sugar taken; Plump were the twin poached eggs, yet not obese, Upon their thrones of toast, and crisp the bacon— I face their loss undaunted, unafraid, If only I may keep my Marmalade.
An evening press without Callisthenes; A tables Staff; an immobile spaghetti; A Shaw with whom the Common Man agrees; A Zambra searching vainly for Negretti; When spades are trumps, a hand without a spade— So is my breakfast lacking Marmalade.
O Northcliffe (Lord)! O Keiller! O Dundee! O Crosse and Blackwell, Limited! O Seville! O orange groves along the Middle Sea! (O Jaffa, for example) O the devil— Let Beef and Butter, Rolls and Rabbits fade, But give me back my love, my Marmalade.
THE STORY THAT WENT WEST
"Why don't you write a war story?" said Celia one autumn day when that sort of story was popular.
"Because everybody else does," I said. "I forget how many bayonets we have on the Western Front, but there must be at least twice as many fountain-pens."
"It needn't be about the Western Front."
"Unfortunately that's the only front I know anything about."
"I thought writers used their imagination sometimes," said Celia to anybody who might happen to be listening.
"Oh, well, if you put it like that," I said, "I suppose I must."
So I settled down to a story about the Salonica Front.
The scene of my story was laid in an old clay hut amid the wattles.
"What are wattles?" asked Celia, when I told her the good news.
"Local colour," I explained. "They grow in Bulgaria."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure that these ones did; I don't know about any others."
Of course more local colour was wanted than a mere wattle or two. It was necessary therefore for my Bulgarians always to go about in comitadjis. Celia thought that these were a kind of native trouser laced at the knee. She may be right. My own impression is that they are a species of platoon. Anyhow the Bulgars always went about in them.
There was a fierce fight which raged round the old clay hut in the wattles. The Greeks shouted "[Greek: Tupto tuptomai]" The Serbs, for reasons into which I need not enter, were inarticulate with rage. With the French and British I had, of course, no difficulty, and the Bulgars (fortunately) were content with hoarse guttural noises. It was a fierce fight while it lasted, and I was sorry when it was over, because for the first time I began to feel at home with my story. I need not say that many a Bulgar had licked the wattles before I had finished.
Unfortunately something else happened before I had finished.
"What do you think?" cried Celia, bursting into my room one evening, just when I was wondering whether my readers would expect to know more of the heroine's native costume than that it was "simple yet becoming."
"Wait a moment," I said.
"It's too good to wait," said Celia excitedly. "Bulgaria has surrendered."
Celia may be a good patriot, but she lacks the artistic temperament.
"Oh, has she?" I said bitterly. "Then she's jolly well spoilt my story."
"The one about the wattles?"
"Tut-tuttles," said Celia frivolously.
Well, I wasn't going to waste my wattles. With great presence of mind I decided to transfer my story to the Palestine Front.
Under a hard blue sky of intense brilliance the old clay hut stood among the wattles. A wadi ran by the side of it; not a small Turkish dog, as Celia thought, but—well, everybody knows what a wadi is. The battle went on much as before, except that the Turks were naturally more outspoken than the Bulgars, calling freely upon Allah at the beginning of the fight, and reconciling themselves to the end of it with "Kismet." I also turned some of the horses into camels, and (for the sake of the Indian troops) several pairs of puttees into chupaties. It was a good story while it lasted.
However, nobody seems to care about art nowadays.
"What do you think?" cried Celia, bursting into my room.
I held up a delaying hand. I had suddenly thought of the word "adobe." My story seemed to need it somewhere. If possible, among the wattles.
"But listen!" She read out the headline: "'Turkey Surrenders at Discretion.'"
"Discretion!" I said indignantly. "I have never heard of anything so tactless. And it isn't as though I could even move on to Mesopotamia."
"Couldn't there be a little local rising in Persia?" suggested Celia.
"I doubt it, I doubt it," I said thoughtfully. "You can't do much with just wattles and a little sherbet—I mean you can't expect the public to be interested in Persia at such a moment as this. No, we shall have to step westward. We must see what we can do with the Italian Front."
But I had very little hope. A curious foreboding of evil came over me as I placed those wattles tenderly along the west bank of the Piave. The old clay hut still stood proudly amid them; the Bersaglieri advanced impetuously with cries of "En avant!"—no, that's wrong—with cries of—well, anyhow they advanced.
And as I shut my eyes I seemed to see—no, not that old clay hut amid the wattles, nor yet the adobe edifice on the heights of Asiago, but Celia coming into the library with another paper announcing that yet another country was deaf to the call of art.
* * * * *
If anybody wants a really good story about the Peninsular War and will drop me a line, I shall be glad to enter into negotiations with him. The scene is laid in the neighbourhood of Badajoz, and the chief interest centres round an old—yes, you have guessed it—an old clay hut in the wattles.
THE TWO VISITS,
("Dispersal Areas, 10a, 10b, 10c—Crystal Palace.")
It was, I think, in '88 That Luck or Providence or Fate Assumed the more material state Of Aunt (or Great-Aunt) Alice, And took (the weather being fine, And Bill, the eldest, only nine) Three of us by the Brighton line To see the Crystal Palace.
Observe us, then, an eager four Advancing on the Western Door, Or possibly the Northern, or— Well, anyhow, advancing; Aunt Alice bending from the hips, And Bill in little runs and trips, And John with frequent hops and skips, While I was fairly dancing.
Aunt Alice pays; the turnstile clicks, And with the happy crowds we mix To gaze upon—well, I was six, Say, getting on for seven; And, looking back on it to-day, The memories have passed away— I find that I can only say (Roughly) to gaze on heaven.
Heaven it was which came to pass Within those magic walls of glass (Though William, like a silly ass, Had lost my bag of bull's-eyes). The wonders of that wonder-hall! The—all the things I can't recall, And, dominating over all, The statues, more than full-size.
Adam and Niobe were there, Disraeli much the worse for wear, Samson before he'd cut his hair, Lord Byron and Apollo; A female group surrounded by A camel (though I don't know why)— And all of them were ten feet high And all, I think, were hollow.
These gods looked down on us and smiled To see how utterly a child By simple things may be beguiled To happiness and laughter; It warmed their kindly hearts to see The joy of Bill and John and me From ten to lunch, from lunch to tea, From tea to six or after.
That evening, when the day was dead, They tucked a babe of six in bed, Arranged the pillows for his head, And saw the lights were shaded; Too sleepy for the Good-night kiss His only conscious thought was this: "No man shall ever taste the bliss That I this blessed day did."
When one is six one cannot tell; And John, who at the Palace fell A victim to the Blondin Belle, Is wedded to another; And I, my intimates allow, Have lost the taste for bull's-eyes now, And baldness decorates the brow Of Bill, our elder brother.
Well, more than thirty years have passed... But all the same on Thursday last My heart was beating just as fast Within that Hall of Wonder; My bliss was every bit as great As what it was in '88— Impossible to look sedate Or keep my feelings under.
The gods of old still gazed upon The scene where, thirty years agone, The lines of Bill and me and John Were cast in pleasant places; And "Friends," I murmured, "what's the odds If you are rather battered gods? This is no time for Ichabods And eheu—er—fugaces."
Ah, no; I did not mourn the years' Fell work upon those poor old dears, Nor Pitt nor Venus drew my tears And set me slowly sobbing; I hailed them with a happy laugh And slapped old Samson on the calf, And asked a member of the staff For "Officers Demobbing."
That evening, being then dispersed I swore (as I had sworn it first When three of us went on the burst With Aunt, or Great-Aunt, Alice), "Although one finds, as man or boy, A thousand pleasures to enjoy, For happiness without alloy Give me the Crystal Palace!"
V. HOME NOTES
THE WAY DOWN
Sydney Smith, or Napoleon or Marcus Aurelius (somebody about that time) said that after ten days any letter would answer itself. You see what he meant. Left to itself your invitation from the Duchess to lunch next Tuesday is no longer a matter to worry about by Wednesday morning. You were either there or not there; it is unnecessary to write now and say that a previous invitation from the Prime Minister—and so on. It was Napoleon's idea (or Dr. Johnson's or Mark Antony's—one of that circle) that all correspondence can be treated in this manner.
I have followed these early Masters (or whichever one it was) to the best of my ability. At any given moment in the last few years there have been ten letters that I absolutely must write, thirty which I ought to write, and fifty which any other person in my position would have written. Probably I have written two. After all, when your profession is writing, you have some excuse for demanding a change of occupation in your leisure hours. No doubt if I were a coal-heaver by day, my wife would see to the fire after dinner while I wrote letters. As it is, she does the correspondence, while I gaze into the fire and think about things.
You will say, no doubt, that this was all very well before the War, but that in the Army a little writing would be a pleasant change after the day's duties. Allow me to disillusion you. If, years ago, I had ever conceived a glorious future in which my autograph might be of value to the more promiscuous collectors, that conception has now been shattered. Four years in the Army has absolutely spoilt the market. Even were I revered in the year 2000 A.D. as Shakespeare is revered now, my half-million autographs, scattered so lavishly on charge-sheets, passes, chits, requisitions, indents and applications would keep the price at a dead level of about ten a penny. No, I have had enough of writing in the Army and I never want to sign my own name again. "Yours sincerely, Herbert Asquith," "Faithfully yours, J. Jellicoe"—these by all means; but not my own.
However, I wrote a letter in the third year of the war; it was to the bank. It informed the Manager that I had arrived in London from France and should be troubling them again shortly, London being to all appearances an expensive place. It also called attention to my new address—a small furnished flat in which Celia and I could just turn round if we did it separately. When it was written, then came the question of posting it. I was all for waiting till the next morning, but Celia explained that there was actually a letterbox on our own floor, twenty yards down the passage. I took the letter along and dropped it into the slit.
Then a wonderful thing happened. It went
I listened intently, hoping for more ... but that was all. Deeply disappointed that it was over, but absolutely thrilled with my discovery, I hurried back to Celia.
"Any letters you want posted?" I said in an off-hand way.
"No, thank you," she said.
"Have you written any while we've been here?"
"I don't think I've had anything to write."
"I think," I said reproachfully, "it's quite time you wrote to your—your bank or your mother or somebody."
She looked at me and seemed to be struggling for words.
"I know exactly what you're going to say," I said, "but don't say it; write a little letter instead."
"Well, as a matter of fact I must just write a note to the laundress."
"To the laundress," I said. "Of course, just a note."
When it was written I insisted on her coming with me to post it. With great generosity I allowed her to place it in the slit. A delightful thing happened. It went Flipperty—flipperty—flipperty flipperty—flipperty—flipperty—flipperty—flipperty flipperty—flipperty—FLOP.
Right down to the letter-box in the hall. Two flipperties a floor. (A simple calculation shows that we are perched on the fifth floor. I am glad now that we live so high. It must be very dull to be on the fourth floor with only eight flipperties, unbearable to be on the first with only two.)
"O-oh! How fas-cinating!" said Celia.
"Now don't you think you ought to write to your mother?"
"Oh, I must."
She wrote. We posted it. It went.
Flipperty—flipperty—However, you know all about that now.
Since this great discovery of mine, life has been a more pleasurable business. We feel now that there are romantic possibilities about Letters setting forth on their journey from our floor. To start life with so many flipperties might lead to anything. Each time that we send a letter off we listen in a tremble of excitement for the final FLOP, and when it comes I think we both feel vaguely that we are still waiting for something. We are waiting to hear some magic letter go flipperty—flipperty—flipperty—flipperty ... and behold! there is no FLOP ... and still it goes on—flipperty—flipperty—flipperty—flipperty—growing fainter in the distance ... until it arrives at some wonderland of its own. One day it must happen so. For we cannot listen always for that FLOP, and hear it always; nothing in this world is as inevitable as that. One day we shall look at each other with awe in our faces and say, "But it's still flipperting!" and from that time forward the Hill of Campden will be a place holy and enchanted. Perhaps on Midsummer Eve—
At any rate I am sure that it is the only way in which to post a letter to Father Christmas.
Well, what I want to say is this: if I have been a bad correspondent in the past I am a good one now; and Celia, who was always a good one, is a better one. It takes at least ten letters a day to satisfy us, and we prefer to catch ten different posts. With the ten in your hand together there is always a temptation to waste them in one wild rush of flipperties, all catching each other up. It would be a great moment, but I do not think we can afford it yet; we must wait until we get more practised at letter-writing. And even then I am doubtful; for it might be that, lost in the confusion of that one wild rush, the magic letter would start on its way—flipperty—flipperty—to the never-land, and we should forever have missed it.
So, friends, acquaintances, yes, and even strangers, I beg you now to give me another chance. I will answer your letters, how gladly. I still think that Napoleon (or Canute or the younger Pliny—one of the pre-Raphaelites) took a perfectly correct view of his correspondence ... but then he never had a letter-box which went
Flipperty—flipperty—flipperty—flipperty flipperty—flipperty—flipperty—flipperty—flipperty flipperty—FLOP.
Every now and then doctors slap me about and ask me if I was always as thin as this.
"As thin as what?" I say with as much dignity as is possible to a man who has had his shirt taken away from him.
"As thin as this," says the doctor, hooking his stethoscope on to one of my ribs, and then going round to the other side to see how I am getting on there.
I am slightly better on the other side, but he runs his pencil up and down me and produces that pleasing noise which small boys get by dragging a stick along railings.
I explain that I was always delicately slender, but that latterly my ribs have been overdoing it.
"You must put on more flesh," he says sternly, running his pencil up and down them again. (He must have been a great nuisance as a small boy.)
"I will," I say fervently, "I will."
Satisfied by my promise he gives me back my shirt.
But it is not only the doctor who complains; Celia is even more upset by it. She says tearfully that I remind her of a herring. Unfortunately she does not like herrings. It is my hope some day to remind her of a turbot and make her happy. She, too, has my promise that I will put on flesh.
We had a fortnight's leave a little while ago, which seemed to give me a good opportunity of putting some on. So we retired to a house in the country where there is a weighing-machine in the bathroom. We felt that the mere sight of this weighing-machine twice daily would stimulate the gaps between my ribs. They would realize that they had been brought down there on business.
The first morning I weighed myself just before stepping into the water. When I got down to breakfast I told Celia the result.
"You are a herring," she said sadly.
"But think what an opportunity it gives me. If I started the right weight, the rest of the fortnight would be practically wasted. By the way, the doctor talks about putting on flesh, but he didn't say how much he wanted. What do you think would be a nice amount?"
"About another stone," said Celia. "You were just a nice size before the War."
"All right. Perhaps I had better tell the weighing-machine. This is a co-operative job; I can't do it all myself."
The next morning I was the same as before, and the next, and the next, and the next.
"Really," said Celia, pathetically, "we might just as well have gone to a house where there wasn't a weighing-machine at all. I don't believe it's trying. Are you sure you stand on it long enough?"
"Long enough for me. It's a bit cold, you know."
"Well, make quite sure to-morrow. I must have you not quite so herringy."
I made quite sure the next morning. I had eight stone and a half on the weight part, and the-little-thing-you-move-up-and-down was on the "4" notch, and the bar balanced midway between the top and the bottom. To have had a crowd in to see would have been quite unnecessary; the whole machine was shouting eight-stone-eleven as loudly as it could.
"I expect it's got used to you," said Celia when I told her the sad state of affairs. "It likes eight-stone-eleven people."
"We will give it," I said, "one more chance."
Next morning the weights were as I had left them, and I stepped on without much hope, expecting that the bar would come slowly up to its midway position of rest. To my immense delight, however, it never hesitated but went straight up to the top. At last I had put on flesh!
Very delicately I moved the-thing-you-move-up-and-down to its next notch. Still the bar stayed at the top. I had put on at least another ounce of flesh!
I continued to put on more ounces. Still the bar remained up! I was eight-stone-thirteen.... Good heavens, I was eight-stone-fourteen!
I pushed the-thing-you-move-up-and-down back to the zero position, and exchanged the half-stone weight for a stone one. Excited but a trifle cold, for it was a fresh morning, and the upper part of the window was wide open, I went up from nine stone ounce by ounce....
At nine-stone-twelve I jumped off for a moment and shut the window....
At eleven-stone-eight I had to get off again in order to attend to the bath, which was in danger of overflowing....
At fifteen-stone-eleven the breakfast gong went....
At nineteen-stone-nine I realized that I had overdone it. However I decided to know the worst. The worst that the machine could tell me was twenty-stone-seven. At twenty-stone-seven I left it.
Celia, who had nearly finished breakfast, looked up eagerly as I came in.
"Well?" she said.
"I am sorry I am late," I apologized, "but I have been putting on flesh."
"Have you really gone up?" she asked excitedly.
"Yes." I began mechanically to help myself to porridge, and then stopped. "No, perhaps not," I said thoughtfully.
"Have you gone up much?"
"Much," I said. "Quite much."
"How much? Quick!"
"Celia," I said sadly, "I am twenty-stone-seven. I may be more; the weighing-machine gave out then."
"Oh, but, darling, that's much too much."
"Still, it's what we came here for," I pointed out. "No, no bacon, thanks; a small piece of dry toast."
"I suppose the machine couldn't have made a mistake?"
"It seemed very decided about it. It didn't hesitate at all."
"Just try again after breakfast to make sure."
"Perhaps I'd better try now," I said, getting up, "because if I turned out to be only twenty-stone-six I might venture on a little porridge after all. I shan't be long."
I went upstairs. I didn't dare face that weighing-machine in my clothes after the way in which I had already strained it without them. I took them off hurriedly and stepped on. To my joy the bar stayed in its downward position. I took off an ounce ... then another ounce. The bar remained down....
At eighteen-stone-two I jumped off for a moment in order to shut the window, which some careless housemaid had opened again....
At twelve-stone-seven I shouted through the door to Celia that I shouldn't be long, and that I should want the porridge after all....
At four-stone-six I said that I had better have an egg or two as well.
At three ounces I stepped off, feeling rather shaken.
* * * * *
I have not used the weighing-machine since; partly because I do not believe it is trustworthy, partly because I spent the rest of my leave in bed with a severe cold. We are now in London again, where I am putting on flesh. At least the doctor who slapped me about yesterday said that I must, and I promised him that I would.
This is a true story. Unless you promise to believe me, it is not much good my going on ... You promise? Very well.
Years ago I bought a pianola. I went into the shop to buy a gramophone record, and I came out with a pianola—so golden-tongued was the manager. You would think that one could then retire into private life for a little, but it is only the beginning. There is the music-stool to be purchased, the library subscription, the tuner's fee (four visits a year, if you please), the cabinet for the rolls, the man to oil the pedals, the—However, one gets out of the shop at last. Nor do I regret my venture. It is common talk that my pianola was the chief thing about me which attracted Celia. "I must marry a man with a pianola," she said ... and there was I ... and here, in fact, we are. My blessings, then, on the golden tongue of the manager.
Now there is something very charming in a proper modesty about one's attainments, but it is necessary that the attainments should be generally recognized first. It was admirable in Stephenson to have said (as I am sure he did), when they congratulated him on his first steam-engine, "Tut-tut, it's nothing"; but he could only say this so long as the others were in a position to offer the congratulations. In order to place you in that position I must let you know how extraordinarily well I played the pianola. I brought to my interpretation of different Ops an elan, a verve, a je ne sais quoi—and several other French words—which were the astonishment of all who listened to me. But chiefly I was famous for my playing of one piece: "The Charge of the Uhlans," by Karl Bohm. Others may have seen Venice by moonlight, or heard the Vicar's daughter recite "Little Jim," but the favoured few who have been present when Bohm and I were collaborating are the ones who have really lived. Indeed, even the coldest professional critic would have spoken of it as "a noteworthy rendition."
"The Charge of the Uhlans." If you came to see me, you had to hear it. As arranged for the pianola, it was marked to be played throughout at a lightning pace and with the loudest pedal on. So one would play it if one wished to annoy the man in the flat below; but a true musician has, I take it, a higher aim. I disregarded the "FF.'s" and the other sign-posts on the way, and gave it my own interpretation. As played by me, "The Charge of the Uhlans" became a whole battle scene. Indeed, it was necessary, before I began, that I should turn to my audience and describe the scene to them—in the manner, but not in the words, of a Queen's Hall programme:—
"Er—first of all you hear the cavalry galloping past, and then there's a short hymn before action while they form up, and then conies the charge, and then there's a slow bit while they—er—pick up the wounded, and then they trot slowly back again. And if you listen carefully to the last bit you'll actually hear the horses limping."
Something like that I would say; and it might happen that an insufferable guest (who never got asked again) would object that the hymn part was unusual in real warfare.
"They sang it in this piece, anyhow," I would say stiffly, and turn my back on him and begin.
But the war put a stop to music, as to many other things. For years the pianola was not played by either of us. We had other things to do. And in our case, curiously enough, absence from the pianola did not make the heart grow fonder. On the contrary, we seemed to lose our taste for music, and when at last we were restored to our pianola, we found that we had grown out of it.
"It's very ugly," announced Celia.
"We can't help our looks," I said in my grandmother's voice.
"A book-case would be much prettier there."
"But not so tuneful."
"A pianola isn't tuneful if you never play it."
"True," I said.
Celia then became very alluring, and suggested that I might find somebody who would like to be lent a delightful pianola by somebody whose "I put in 'The Charge of the Uhlans,'" I said, "and it played 'God Save the King.'"
Unfortunately he was a very patriotic man, and he believed it. So that is how the story is now going about. But you who read this know the real truth of the matter.
A QUESTION OF LIGHT
As soon as Celia had got a cheque-book of her own (and I had explained the mysteries of "—— & Co." to her), she looked round for a safe investment of her balance, which amounted to several pounds. My offers, first of an old stocking and afterwards of mines, mortgages and aerated breads, were rejected at once.
"I'll leave a little in the bank in case of accidents," she said, "and the rest must go somewhere absolutely safe and earn me five per cent. Otherwise they shan't have it."
We did what we could for her; we offered the money to archdeacons and other men of pronounced probity; and finally we invested it in the Blanktown Electric Light Company. Blanktown is not its real name, of course; but I do not like to let out any information which may be of value to Celia's enemies—the wicked ones who are trying to snatch her little fortune from her. The world, we feel, is a dangerous place for a young woman with money.
"Can't I possibly lose it now?" she asked.
"Only in two ways," I said. "Blanktown might disappear in the night, or the inhabitants might give up using electric light."
It seemed safe enough. At the same time we watched the newspapers anxiously for details of the latest inventions; and anybody who happened to mention when dining with us that he was experimenting with a new and powerful illuminant was handed his hat at once.
You have Blanktown, then, as the depository of Celia's fortune. Now it comes on the scene in another guise. I made the announcement with some pride at breakfast yesterday.
"My dear," I said, "I have been asked to deliver a lecture."
"Whatever on?" asked Celia.
"Anything I like. The last person lectured on 'The Minor Satellites of Jupiter,' and the one who comes after me is doing 'The Architecture of the Byzantine Period,' so I can take something in between."
"Like 'Frostbites,'" said Celia helpfully. "But I don't quite understand. Where is it, and why?"
"The Blanktown Literary and Philosophical Society ask me to lecture to them at Blanktown. The man who was coming is ill."
"But why you particularly?"
"One comes down to me in the end," I said modestly.
"I expect it's because of my electric lights. Do they give you any money for it?"
"They ask me to name my fee."
"Then say a thousand pounds, and lecture on the need for more electric light. Fancy if I got six per cent!"
"This is a very sordid conversation," I said. "If I agree to lecture at all, it will be simply because I feel that I have a message to deliver ... I will now retire into the library and consider what that message is to be."
I placed the encyclopaedia handy and sat down at my desk. I had already grasped the fact that the title of my discourse was the important thing. In the list of the Society's lectures sent to me there was hardly one whose title did not impress the imagination in advance. I must be equally impressive ...
After a little thought I began to write.
"WASPS AND THEIR YOUNG
"Lecture delivered before the Blanktown Literary and Philosophical Society, Tuesday, December 8th.
"Ladies and Gentlemen—"
"Well," said Celia, drifting in, "how's it going?"
I showed her how far I had got.
"I thought you always began, 'My Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen,'" she said.
"Only if the Lord Mayor's there."
"But how will you know?"
"Yes, that's rather awkward. I shall have to ask the Secretary beforehand."
I began again.
"WASPS AND THEIR YOUNG
"Lecture delivered, etc....
"My Lord Mayor, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen—"
It looked much better.
"What about Baronets?" said Celia. "There's sure to be lots."
"Yes, this is going to be difficult. I shall have to have a long talk with the Secretary ... How's this?—'My Lord Mayor, Lords, Baronets, Ladies and Gentlemen and Sundries.' That's got in everybody."
"That's all right. And I wanted to ask you: Have you got any lantern slides?"
"They're not necessary."
"But they're much more fun. Perhaps they'll have some old ones of Vesuvius you can work in. Well, good-bye." And she drifted out.
I went on thinking.
"No," I said to myself, "I'm on the wrong tack." So I began again:—
"SOME YORKSHIRE POT-HOLES
"Lecture delivered before the Blanktown Literary and Philosophical Society, Tuesday, December 8th.
"My Lord Mayor, my Lords—"
"I don't want to interrupt," said Celia coming in suddenly, "but—oh, what's a pot-hole?"
"A curious underground cavern sometimes found in the North."
"Aren't caverns always underground? But you're busy. Will you be in for lunch?"
"I shall be writing my lecture all day," I said busily.
At lunch I decided to have a little financial talk with Celia.
"What I feel is this," I said. "At most I can ask ten guineas for my lecture. Now my expense all the way to the North, with a night at an hotel, will be at least five pounds."
"Five-pounds-ten profit," said Celia. "Not bad."
"Ah, but wait. I have never spoken in public before. In an immense hall, whose acoustics—"
"Who are they?"
"Well, never mind. What I mean is that I shall want some elocution lessons. Say five, at a guinea each."
"That still leaves five shillings."
"If only it left that, it might be worth it. But there's a new white waistcoat. An audience soon gets tired of a lecture, and then there's nothing for the wakeful ones to concentrate on but the white waistcoat of the lecturer. It must be of a virgin whiteness. Say thirty-five shillings. So I lose thirty shillings by it. Can I afford so much?"
"But you gain the acoustics and the waistcoat."
"True. Of course, if you insist—"
"Oh, you must," said Celia.
So I returned to the library. By tea-time I had got as far as this:—
"ADVENTURES WITH A CAMERA IN SOMALILAND
"Lecture delivered before the Blanktown Literary and Philo—"
And then I had an idea. This time a brilliant one.
"Celia," I said at tea, "I have been wondering whether I ought to take advantage of your generosity."
"In letting me deliver this lecture."
"It isn't generosity, it's swank. I want to be able to tell everybody."
"Ah, but the sacrifices you are making."
"Am I?" said Celia, with interest.
"Of course you are. Consider. I ask a fee of ten guineas. They cannot possibly charge more than a shilling a head to listen to me. It would be robbery. So that if there is to be a profit at all, as presumably they anticipate, I shall have a gate of at least two hundred and fifty."
"I should hope so."
"Two hundred and fifty. And what does that mean? It means that at seven-thirty o'clock on the night of December the 8th two hundred and fifty residents of Blanktown will turn out the electric lights in their drawing-rooms ... PERHAPS EVEN IN THEIR HALLS ... and proceed to the lecture-room. True, the lecture-room will be lit up—a small compensation—but not for long. When the slides of Vesuvius are thrown upon the screen—"
Celia was going pale.
"But if it's not you," she faltered, "it will be somebody else."
"No; if I refuse, it will be too late then to get a substitute. Besides, they must have tried everybody else before they got down to me... Celia it is noble of you to sacrifice—"
"Don't go!" she cried in anguish.
I gave a deep sigh.
"For your sake," I said, "I won't."
So that settles it. If my lecture on "First Principles in Homoeopathy" is ever to be delivered, it must be delivered elsewhere.
Before I introduce Bingo I must say a word for Humphrey, his sparring partner. Humphrey found himself on the top of my stocking last December, put there, I fancy, by Celia, though she says it was Father Christmas. He is a small yellow dog, with glass optics, and the label round his neck said, "His eyes move." When I had finished the oranges and sweets and nuts, when Celia and I had pulled the crackers, Humphrey remained over to sit on the music-stool, with the air of one playing the pianola. In this position he found his uses. There are times when a husband may legitimately be annoyed; at these times it was pleasant to kick Humphrey off his stool on to the divan, to stand on the divan and kick him on to the sofa, to stand on the sofa and kick him on to the bookcase; and then, feeling another man, to replace him on the music-stool and apologize to Celia. It was thus that he lost his tail.
Here we say good-bye to Humphrey for the present; Bingo claims our attention. Bingo arrived as an absurd little black tub of puppiness, warranted (by a pedigree as long as your arm) to grow into a Pekinese. It was Celia's idea to call him Bingo; because (a ridiculous reason) as a child she had had a poodle called Bingo. The less said about poodles the better; why rake up the past?
"If there is the slightest chance of Bingo—of this animal growing up into a poodle," I said, "he leaves my house at once."
"My poodle," said Celia, "was a lovely dog."
(Of course she was only a child then. She wouldn't know.)
"The point is this," I said firmly, "our puppy is meant for a Pekinese—the pedigree says so. From the look of him it will be touch and go whether he pulls it off. To call him by the name of a late poodle may just be the deciding factor. Now I hate poodles; I hate pet dogs. A Pekinese is not a pet dog; he is an undersized lion. Our puppy may grow into a small lion, or a mastiff, or anything like that; but I will not have him a poodle. If we call him Bingo, will you promise never to mention in his presence that you once had a—a—you know what I mean—called Bingo?"
She promised. I have forgiven her for having once loved a poodle. I beg you to forget about it. There is now only one Bingo, and he is a Pekinese puppy.
However, after we had decided to call him Bingo, a difficulty arose. Bingo's pedigree is full of names like Li Hung Chang and Sun Yat Sen; had we chosen a sufficiently Chinese name for him? Apart from what was due to his ancestors, were we encouraging him enough to grow into a Pekinese? What was there Oriental about "Bingo"?
In itself, apparently, little. And Bingo himself must have felt this; for his tail continued to be nothing but a rat's tail, and his body to be nothing but a fat tub, and his head to be almost the head of any little puppy in the world. He felt it deeply. When I ragged him about it he tried to eat my ankles. I had only to go into the room in which he was, and murmur, "Rat's tail," to myself, or (more offensive still) "Chewed string," for him to rush at me. "Where, O Bingo, is that delicate feather curling gracefully over the back, which was the pride and glory of thy great-grandfather? Is the caudal affix of the rodent thy apology for it?" And Bingo would whimper with shame.
Then we began to look him up in the map.
I found a Chinese town called "Ning-po," which strikes me as very much like "Bing-go," and Celia found another one called "Yung-Ping," which might just as well be "Yung-Bing," the obvious name of Bingo's heir when he has one. These facts being communicated to Bingo, his nose immediately began to go back a little and his tub to develop something of a waist. But what finally decided him was a discovery of mine made only yesterday. There is a Japanese province called Bingo. Japanese, not Chinese, it is true; but at least it is Oriental. In any case conceive one's pride in realizing suddenly that one has been called after a province and not after a poodle. It has determined Bingo unalterably to grow up in the right way.
You have Bingo now definitely a Pekinese. That being so, I may refer to his ancestors, always an object of veneration among these Easterns. I speak of (hats off, please!) Ch. Goodwood Lo.
Of course you know (I didn't myself till last week) that "Ch." stands for "Champion." On the male side Champion Goodwood Lo is Bingo's great-great-grandfather. On the female side the same animal is Bingo's great-grandfather. One couldn't be a poodle after that. A fortnight after Bingo came to us we found in a Pekinese book a photograph of Goodwood Lo. How proud we all were! Then we saw above it, "Celebrities of the Past. The Late—"
Champion Goodwood Lo was no more! In one moment Bingo had lost both his great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather!
We broke it to him as gently as possible, but the double shock was too much, and he passed the evening in acute depression. Annoyed with my tactlessness in letting him know anything about it, I kicked Humphrey off his stool. Humphrey, I forgot to say, has a squeak if kicked in the right place. He squeaked.
Bingo, at that time still uncertain of his destiny, had at least the courage of the lion. Just for a moment he hesitated. Then with a pounce he was upon Humphrey.
Till then I had regarded Humphrey—save for his power of rolling the eyes and his habit of taking long jumps from the music-stool to the book-case—as rather a sedentary character. But in the fight which followed he put up an amazingly good resistance. At one time he was underneath Bingo; the next moment he had Bingo down; first one, then the other, seemed to gain the advantage. But blood will tell. Humphrey's ancestry is unknown; I blush to say that it may possibly be German. Bingo had Goodwood Lo to support him—in two places. Gradually he got the upper hand; and at last, taking the reluctant Humphrey by the ear, he dragged him laboriously beneath the sofa. He emerged alone, with tail wagging, and was taken on to his mistress's lap. There he slept, his grief forgotten.
So Humphrey was found a job. Whenever Bingo wants exercise, Humphrey plants himself in the middle of the room, his eyes cast upwards in an affectation of innocence. "I'm just sitting here," says Humphrey; "I believe there's a fly on the ceiling." It is a challenge which no great-grandson of Goodwood Lo could resist. With a rush Bingo is at him. "I'll learn you to stand in my way," he splutters. And the great dust-up begins....
Brave little Bingo! I don't wonder that so warlike a race as the Japanese has called a province after him.
A WARM HALF-HOUR
Whatever the papers say, it was the hottest afternoon of the year. At six-thirty I had just finished dressing after my third cold bath since lunch, when Celia tapped on the door.
"I want you to do something for me," she said. "It's a shame to ask you on a day like this."
"It is rather a shame," I agreed, "but I can always refuse."
"Oh, but you mustn't. We haven't got any ice, and the Thompsons are coming to dinner. Do you think you could go and buy threepennyworth? Jane's busy, and I'm busy, and—"
"And I'm busy," I said, opening and shutting a drawer with great rapidity.
"Just threepennyworth," she pleaded. "Nice cool ice. Think of sliding home on it."
Well, of course it had to be done. I took my hat and staggered out. On an ordinary cool day it is about half a mile to the fishmonger; to-day it was about two miles and a quarter. I arrived exhausted, and with only just strength enough to kneel down and press my forehead against the large block of ice in the middle of the shop, round which the lobsters nestled.
"Here, you mustn't do that," said the fishmonger, waving me away.
I got up, slightly refreshed.
"I want," I said, "some—" and then a thought occurred to me.
After all, did fishmongers sell ice? Probably the large block in front of me was just a trade sign like the coloured bottles at the chemist's. Suppose I said to a fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society, "I want some of that green stuff in the window," he would only laugh. The tactful thing to do would be to buy a pint or two of laudanum first, and then, having established pleasant relations, ask him as a friend to lend me his green bottle for a bit.
So I said to the fishmonger, "I want some—some nice lobsters."
"How many would you like?"
"One," I said.
We selected a nice one between us, and he wrapped a piece of "Daily Mail" round it, leaving only the whiskers visible, and gave it to me. The ice being now broken—I mean the ice being now—well, you see what I mean—I was now in a position to ask for some of his ice.
"I wonder if you could let me have a little piece of your ice," I ventured.
"How much ice do you want?" he said promptly.
"Sixpennyworth," I said, feeling suddenly that Celia's threepennyworth sounded rather paltry.
"Six of ice, Bill," he shouted to an inferior at the back, and Bill tottered up with a block about the size of one of the lions in Trafalgar Square. He wrapped a piece of "Daily News" round it and gave it to me.
"Is that all?" asked the fishmonger.
"That is all," I said faintly; and, with Algernon, the overwhiskered crustacean, firmly clutched in the right hand and Stonehenge supported on the palm of the left hand, I retired.
The flat seemed a very long way away, but having bought twice as much ice as I wanted, and an entirely unnecessary lobster, I was not going to waste still more money in taxis. Hot though it was, I would walk.
For some miles all went well. Then the ice began to drip through the paper, and in a little while, the underneath part of "The Daily News" had disappeared altogether. Tucking the lobster under my arm I turned the block over, so that it rested on another part of the paper. Soon that had dissolved too. By the time I had got half-way our Radical contemporary had been entirely eaten.
Fortunately "The Daily Mail" remained. But to get it I had to disentangle Algernon first, and I had no hand available. There was only one thing to do. I put the block of ice down on the pavement, unwrapped the lobster, put the lobster next to the ice, spread its "Daily Mail" out, lifted the ice on to the paper, and—looked up and saw Mrs. Thompson approaching.
She was the last person I wanted at that moment. In an hour and a half she would be dining with us. Algernon would not be dining with us. If Algernon and Mrs. Thompson were to meet now, would she not be expecting him to turn up at every course? Think of the long drawn-out disappointment for her; not even lobster sauce!
There was no time to lose. I decided to abandon the ice. Leaving it on the pavement I clutched the lobster and walked hastily back the way I had come.
By the time I had shaken off Mrs. Thompson I was almost at the fishmonger's. That decided me. I would begin all over again, and would do it properly this time. "I want three of ice," I said with an air.
"Three of ice, Bill," said the fishmonger, and Bill gave me quite a respectable segment in "The Morning Post."
"And I want a taxi," I said, and I waved my lobster at one.
We drove quickly home.
But as we neared the flat I suddenly became nervous about Algernon. I could not take him, red and undraped, past the hall-porter, past all the other residents who might spring out at me on the stairs. Accordingly, I placed the block of ice on the seat, took off some of its "Morning Post," and wrapped Algernon up decently. Then I sprang out, gave the man a coin, and hastened into the building.
* * * * *
"Bless you," said Celia, "have you got it? How sweet of you!" And she took my parcel from me. "Now we shall be able—Why, what's this?"
I looked at it closely.
"It's—it's a lobster," I said. "Didn't you say lobster?"
"I said ice."
"Oh," I said, "oh, I didn't understand. I thought you said lobster."
"You can't put lobster in cider cup," said Celia severely.
Of course I quite see that. It was foolish of me. However, it's pleasant to think that the taxi must have been nice and cool for the next man.
You've heard of Willy Ferrero, the Boy Conductor? A musical prodigy, seven years old, who will order the fifth oboe out of the Albert Hall as soon as look at him. Well, he has a rival.
Willy, as perhaps you know, does not play any instrument himself; he only conducts. His rival (Johnny, as I think of him) does not conduct as yet; at least, not audibly. His line is the actual manipulation of the pianoforte—the Paderewski touch. Johnny lives in the flat below, and I hear him touching.
On certain mornings in the week—no need to specify them—I enter my library and give myself up to literary composition. On the same mornings little Johnny enters his music-room (underneath) and gives himself up to musical composition. Thus we are at work together.
The worst of literary composition is this: that when you have got hold of what you feel is a really powerful idea, you find suddenly that you have been forestalled by some earlier writer—Sophocles or Shakespeare or George R. Sims. Then you have to think again. This frequently happens to me upstairs; and downstairs poor Johnny will find to his horror one day that his great work has already been given to the world by another—a certain Dr. John Bull.
Johnny, in fact, is discovering "God Save the King" with one finger.
As I dip my pen in the ink and begin to write, Johnny strikes up. On the first day when this happened, some three months ago, I rose from my chair and stood stiffly through the performance—an affair of some minutes, owing to a little difficulty with "Send him victorious," a line which always bothers Johnny. However, he got right through it at last, after harking back no more than twice, and I sat down to my work again. Generally speaking, "God Save the King" ends a show; it would be disloyal to play any other tune after that. Johnny quite saw this ... and so began to play "God Save the King" again.
I hope that His Majesty, the Lord Chamberlain, the late Dr. Bull, or whoever is most concerned, will sympathize with me when I say that this time I remained seated. I have my living to earn.
From that day Johnny has interpreted Dr. John Bull's favourite composition nine times every morning. As this has been going on for three months, and as the line I mentioned has two special rehearsals to itself before coming out right, you can easily work out how many send-him-victoriouses Johnny and I have collaborated in. About two thousand.
Very well. Now, you ask yourself, why did I not send a polite note to Johnny's father asking him to restrain his little boy from over-composition, begging him not to force the child's musical genius too quickly, imploring him (in short) to lock up the piano and lose the key? What kept me from this course? The answer is "Patriotism." Those deep feelings for his country which one man will express glibly by rising nine times during the morning at the sound of the National Anthem, another will direct to more solid uses. It was my duty, I felt, not to discourage Johnny. He was showing qualities which could not fail, when he grew up, to be of value to the nation. Loyalty, musical genius, determination, patience, industry—never before have these qualities been so finely united in a child of six. Was I to say a single word to disturb the delicate balance of such a boy's mind? At six one is extraordinarily susceptible to outside influence. A word from his father to the effect that the gentleman above was getting sick of it, and Johnny's whole life might be altered.
No, I would bear it grimly.
And then, yesterday, who should write to me but Johnny's father himself. This was the letter:
"Dear Sir—I do not wish to interfere unduly in the affairs of the other occupants of these flats, but I feel bound to call your attention to the fact that for many weeks now there has been a flow of water from your bathroom, which has penetrated through the ceiling of my bathroom, particularly after you have been using the room in the mornings. May I therefore beg you to be more careful in future not to splash or spill water on your floor, seeing that it causes inconvenience to the tenants beneath you?
"Yours faithfully, Jno. McAndrew."
You can understand how I felt about this. For months I had been suffering Johnny in silence; yet, at the first little drop of water from above, Johnny's father must break out into violent abuse of me. A fine reward! Well, Johnny's future could look after itself now; anyhow, he was doomed with a selfish father like that.
"Dear Sir," I answered defiantly, "Now that we are writing to each other I wish to call your attention to the fact that for many months past there has been a constant flow of one-fingered music from your little boy, which penetrates through the floor of my library and makes all work impossible. May I beg you, therefore, to see that your child is taught a new tune immediately, seeing that the National Anthem has lost its first freshness for the tenants above him?"
His reply to this came to-day.
"Dear Sir,—I have no child.
"Yours faithfully, Jno. McAndrew."
I was so staggered that I could only think of one adequate retort.
"DEAR SIR," I wrote,—"I never have a bath."
* * * * *
So that's the end of Johnny, my boy prodigy, for whom I have suffered so long. It is not Johnny but Jno. who struggles with the National Anthem. He will give up music now, for he knows I have the bulge on him; I can flood his bathroom whenever I like. Probably he will learn something quieter—like painting. Anyway, Dr. John Bull's masterpiece will rise no more through the ceiling of the flat below.
On referring to my encyclopedia, I see that, according to some authorities, "God Save the King" is "wrongly attributed" to Dr. Bull. Well, I wrongly attributed it to Johnny. It is easy to make these mistakes.
A HANGING GARDEN IN BABYLON
"Are you taking me to the Flower Show this afternoon?" asked Celia at breakfast.
"No," I said thoughtfully; "no."
"Well, that's that. What other breakfast conversation have I? Have you been to any theatres lately?"
"Do you really want to go to the Flower Show?" I asked. "Because I don't believe I could bear it."
"I've saved up two shillings."
"It isn't that—not only that. But there'll be thousands of people there, all with gardens of their own, all pointing to things and saying, 'We've got one of those in the east bed,' or 'Wouldn't that look nice in the south orchid house?' and you and I will be quite, quite out of it." I sighed, and helped myself from the west toast-rack.
It is very delightful to have a flat in London, but there are times in the summer when I long for a garden of my own. I show people round our little place, and I point out hopefully the Hot Tap Doultonii in the scullery, and the Dorothy Perkins doormat, but it isn't the same thing as taking your guest round your garden and telling him that what you really want is rain. Until I can do that, the Chelsea Flower Show is no place for us.
"Then I haven't told you the good news," said Celia. "We are gardeners." She paused a moment for effect. "I have ordered a window-box."
I dropped the marmalade and jumped up eagerly.
"But this is glorious news! I haven't been so excited since I recognized a calceolaria last year, and told my host it was a calceolaria just before he told me. A window-box! What's in it?"
"Pink geraniums and—and pink geraniums, and—er—"
"Pink geraniums?" I suggested.
"Yes. They're very pretty, you know."
"I know. But I could have wished for something more difficult. If we had something like—well, I don't want to seem to harp on it, but say calceolarias, then quite a lot of people mightn't recognize them, and I should be able to tell them what they were. I should be able to show them the calceolarias; you can't show people the geraniums."
"You can say, 'What do you think of that for a geranium?'" said Celia. "Anyhow," she added, "you've got to take me to the Flower Show now."
"Of course I will. It is not only a pleasure, but a duty. As gardeners we must keep up with floricultural progress. Even though we start with pink geraniums now, we may have—er—calceolarias next year. Rotation of crops and—what not."
Accordingly we made our way in the afternoon to the Show.
"I think we're a little over-dressed," I said as we paid our shillings. "We ought to look as if we'd just run up from our little window-box in the country and were going back by the last train. I should be in gaiters, really."
"Our little window-box is not in the country," objected Celia. "It's what you might call a pied de terre in town. French joke," she added kindly. "Much more difficult than the ordinary sort."
"Don't forget it; we can always use it again on visitors. Now what shall we look at first?"
"The flowers first; then the tea."
I had bought a catalogue and was scanning it rapidly.
"We don't want flowers," I said. "Our window-box—our garden is already full. It may be that James, the head boxer, has overdone the pink geraniums this year, but there it is. We can sack him and promote Thomas, but the mischief is done. Luckily there are other things we want. What about a dove-cot? I should like to see doves cooing round our geraniums."
"Aren't dove-cots very big for a window-box?"
"We could get a small one—for small doves. Do you have to buy the doves too, or do they just come? I never know. Or there," I broke off suddenly; "my dear, that's just the thing." And I pointed with my stick.
"We have seven clocks already," said Celia.
"But a sun-dial! How romantic. Particularly as only two of the clocks go. Celia, if you'd let me have a sun-dial in my window-box, I would meet you by it alone sometimes."
"It sounds lovely," she said doubtfully.
"You do want to make this window-box a success, don't you?" I asked as we wandered on. "Well, then, help me to buy something for it. I don't suggest one of those," and I pointed to a summer-house, "or even a weather-cock; but we must do something now we're here. For instance, what about one of these patent extension ladders, in case the geraniums grow very tall and you want to climb up and smell them? Or would you rather have some mushroom spawn? I would get up early and pick the mushrooms for breakfast. What do you think?"
"I think it's too hot for anything, and I must sit down. Is this seat an exhibit or is it meant for sitting on?"
"It's an exhibit, but we might easily want to buy one some day, when our window-box gets bigger. Let's try it."
It was so hot that I think, if the man in charge of the Rustic Bench Section had tried to move us on, we should have bought the seat at once. But nobody bothered us. Indeed it was quite obvious that the news that we owned a large window-box had not yet got about.
"I shall leave you here," I said, after I had smoked a cigarette and dipped into the catalogue again, "and make my purchase. It will be quite inexpensive; indeed, it is marked in the catalogue at one-and-six-pence, which means that they will probably offer me the nine-shilling size first. But I shall be firm. Good-bye."
I went and bought one and returned to her with it.
"No, not now," I said, as she held out her hand eagerly. "Wait till we get home."
It was cooler now, and we wandered through the tents, chatting patronizingly to the stall-keeper whenever we came to pink geraniums. At the orchids we were contemptuously sniffy. "Of course," I said, "for those who like orchids—" and led the way back to the geraniums again. It was an interesting afternoon.
And to our great joy the window-box was in position when we got home again.
"Now!" I said dramatically, and I unwrapped my purchase and placed it in the middle of our new-made garden.
"A slug-trap," I explained proudly.
"But how could slugs get up here?" asked Celia in surprise.
"How do slugs get anywhere? They climb up the walls, or they come up in the lift, or they get blown about by the wind—I don't know. They can fly up if they like; but, however it be, when they do come, I mean to be ready for them."
Still, though our slug-trap will no doubt come in usefully, it is not what we really want. What we gardeners really want is rain.
I was talking to a very stupid man the other day. He was the stupidest man I have come across for many years. It is a hard thing to say of any man, but he appeared to me to be entirely lacking in intellect.
It was Celia who introduced me to him. She had rung up her brother at the flat where he was staying, and, finding that he was out, she gave a message for him to the porter. It was simply that he was to ring her up as soon as he came in.
"Ring up who?" said the porter. At least I suppose he did, for Celia repeated her name (and mine) very slowly and distinctly.
"Mrs. who?" said the porter, "What?" or "I can't hear," or something equally foolish.
Celia then repeated our name again.
There followed a long conversation between the two of them, the audible part of it (that is Celia's) consisting of my name given forth in a variety of intonations, in the manner of one who sings an anthem—hopefully, pathetically, dramatically, despairingly.
Up to this moment I had been rather attached to my name. True, it wants a little explaining to shopkeepers. There are certain consonants in it which require to be elided or swallowed or swivelled round the glottis, in order to give the name its proper due. But after five or six applications the shopkeeper grasps one's meaning.
Well, as I say, I was attached to my name. But after listening to Celia for five minutes I realized that there had been some horrible mistake. People weren't called that.
"Just wait a moment," I said to her rather anxiously, and picked up the telephone book. To my great relief I found that Celia was right. There was a person of that name living at my address.
"You're quite right," I said. "Go on."
"I wish I had married somebody called Jones," said Celia, looking up at me rather reproachfully. "No, no, not Jones," she added hastily down the telephone, and once more she repeated the unhappy name.
"It isn't my fault," I protested. "You did have a choice; I had none. Try spelling it. It spells all right."
Celia tried spelling it.
"I'm going to spell it," she announced very distinctly down the telephone. "Are you ready? ... M ... No, M. M for mother."
That gave me an idea.
"Come away," I said, seizing the telephone; "leave it to me. Now, then," I called to the porter. "Never mind about the name. Just tell him to ring up his sister." And I looked at Celia triumphantly.
"Ask him to ring up his mother," said the porter. "Very well, sir."
"No, not the mother. That was something else. Forget all about that mother. He's to ring up his sister ... sister ... SISTER."
"You'll have to spell it," said Celia.
"I'm going to spell it," I shouted. "Are you ready? ... S for—for sister."
"Now you're going to muddle him," murmured Celia.
"S for sister; have you got that? ... No, sister, idiot. I for idiot," I added quickly. "S for sister—this is another sister, of course. T for two. Got that? No, two. Two anything—two more sisters, if you like. E for—E for—" I turned helplessly to Celia: "quick, a word to begin with E! I've got him moving now. E for—quick, before his tympanum runs down."
"Er—er—" Desperately she tried to think.
"E for er," I shouted. "That'll be another sister, I expect ... Celia, I believe we ought to spell it with an 'H.' Can't you think of a better word?"
"Enny," said Celia, having quite lost her nerve by this time.
"E for enny," I shouted. "Any anything. Any of the sisters I've been telling you about. R for—quick, Celia!"
"Rose," she said hastily.
"R for Rose," I shouted. "Rose the flower—or the sister if you like. There you are, that's the whole word. Now then, I'll just spell it to you over again.... Celia, I want another word for E. That last was a bad one."
I took a deep breath and began.
"S for sister. I for Isabel—Isabel is the name of the sister. S for another sister—I'll tell you her name directly. T for two sisters, these two that we're talking about. E for Edith, that's the second sister whose name I was going to tell you. R for Rose. Perhaps I ought to explain Rose. She was the sister whom these two sisters were sisters of. Got that?" I turned to Celia. "I'm going to get the sister idea into his head if I die for it."
"Just a moment, sir," said the dazed voice of the porter.
"What's the matter? Didn't I make it clear about Rose? She was the sister whom the—"
"Just hold the line a moment, sir," implored the porter. "Here's the gentleman himself coming in."
I handed the telephone to Celia. "Here he is," I said.
But I was quite sorry to go, for I was getting interested in those sisters. Rose, I think, will always be my favourite. Her life, though short, was full of incident, and there were many things about her which I could have told that porter. But perhaps he would not have appreciated them. It is a hard thing to say of any man, but he appeared to me to be entirely lacking in intellect.
Celia had been calling on a newly married friend of hers. They had been schoolgirls together; they had looked over the same algebra book (or whatever it was that Celia learnt at school—I have never been quite certain); they had done their calisthenics side by side; they had compared picture post cards of Lewis Waller. Ah, me! the fairy princes they had imagined together in those days ... and here am I, and somewhere in the City (I believe he is a stockbroker) is Ermyntrude's husband, and we play our golf on Saturday afternoons, and go to sleep after dinner, and—Well, anyhow, they were both married, and Celia had been calling on Ermyntrude.
"I hope you did all the right things," I said. "Asked to see the wedding-ring, and admired the charming little house, and gave a few hints on the proper way to manage a husband."
"Rather," said Celia. "But it did seem funny, because she used to be older than me at school."
"Isn't she still?"
"Oh, no! I'm ever so much older now.... Talking about wedding-rings," she went on, as she twisted her own round and round, "she's got all sorts of things written inside hers—the date and their initials and I don't know what else."
"There can't be much else—unless perhaps she has a very large finger."
"Well, I haven't got anything in mine," said Celia, mournfully. She took off the offending ring and gave it to me.
On the day when I first put the ring on her finger, Celia swore an oath that nothing but death, extreme poverty or brigands should ever remove it. I swore too. Unfortunately it fell off in the course of the afternoon, which seemed to break the spell somehow. So now it goes off and on just like any other ring. I took it from her and looked inside.
"There are all sorts of things here too," I said. "Really, you don't seem to have read your wedding-ring at all. Or, anyhow, you've been skipping."
"There's nothing," said Celia in the same mournful voice. "I do think you might have put something."
I went and sat on the arm of her chair, and held the ring up.
"You're an ungrateful wife," I said, "after all the trouble I took. Now look there," and I pointed with a pencil, "what's the first thing you see?"
"Twenty-two. That's only the—"
"That was your age when you married me. I had it put in at enormous expense. If you had been eighteen, the man said, or—or nine, it would have come much cheaper. But no, I would have your exact age. You were twenty-two and that's what I had engraved on it. Very well. Now what do you see next to it?"
"Yes. And what does that mean? In the language of—er—crowns it means 'You are my queen.' I insisted on a crown. It would have been cheaper to have had a lion, which means—er—lions, but I was determined not to spare myself. For I thought," I went on pathetically, "I quite thought you would like a crown."
"Oh, I do," cried Celia quickly, "if it really means that." She took the ring in her hands and looked at it lovingly. "And what's that there? Sort of a man's head."
I gazed at her sadly.
"You don't recognize it? Has a year of marriage so greatly changed me? Celia, it is your Ronald! I sat for that, hour after hour, day after day, for your sake, Celia. It is not a perfect likeness; in the small space allotted to him the sculptor has hardly done me justice. And there," I added, "is his initial 'r.' Oh, woman, the amount of thought I spent on that ring!"
She came a little closer and slipped the ring on my finger.
"Spend a little more," she pleaded. "There's plenty of room. Just have something nice written in it—something about you and me."
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know. Perhaps it's 'Mizpah,' or 'Ichabod,' or 'Habakkuk.' I'm sure there's a word you put on rings—I expect they'd know at the shop."
"But I don't want what they know at shops. It must be something quite private and special."
"But the shop has got to know about it when I tell them. And I don't like telling strange men in shops private and special things about ourselves. I love you, Celia, but—"
"That would be a lovely thing," she said, clasping her hands eagerly.
"'I love you, Celia.'"
I looked at her aghast.
"Do you want me to order that in cold blood from the shopman?"
"He wouldn't mind. Besides, if he saw us together he'd probably know. You aren't afraid of a goldsmith, are you?"
"I'm not afraid of any goldsmith living—or goldfish either, if it come to that. But I should prefer to be sentimental in some other language than plain English. I could order 'Cars sposa,' or—or 'Spaghetti,' or anything like that, without a tremor."
"But of course you shall put just whatever you like. Only—only let it be original. Not Mizpahs."
"Right," I said.
For three days I wandered past gold and silversmiths with the ring in my pocket ... and for three days Celia went about without a wedding-ring, and, for all I know, without even her marriage-lines in her muff. And on the fourth day I walked boldly in.
"I want," I said, "a wedding-ring engraved," and I felt in my pockets. "Not initials," I said, and I felt in some more pockets, "but—but—" I tried the trousers pockets again. "Well, look here, I'll be quite frank with you. I—er—want—" I fumbled in my ticket-pocket, "I want 'I love you' on it," and I went through the waistcoat pockets a third time. "'I—er—love you.'"
"Me?" said the shopman, surprised.
"I love you," I repeated mechanically. "I love you. I love you, I—Well, look here, perhaps I'd better go back and get the ring."
On the next day I was there again; but there was a different man behind the counter.
"I want this ring engraved," I said.
"Certainly. What shall we put?"
I had felt the question coming. I had a sort of instinct that he would ask me that. But I couldn't get the words out again.
"Well," I hesitated, "I—er—well."
"Ladies often like the date put in. When is it to be?"
"When is what to be?"
"The wedding," he smiled.
"It has been," I said. "It's all over. You're too late for it."
I gave myself up to thought. At all costs I must be original. There must be something on Celia's wedding-ring that had never been in any other's....
There was only one thing I could think of.
* * * * *
The engraved ring arrived as we were at tea a few days later, and I had a sudden overwhelming fear that Celia would not be pleased. I saw that I must explain it to her. After all, there was a distinguished precedent.
"Come into the bath-room a moment," I said, and I led the way.
She followed, wondering.
"What is that?" I asked, pointing to a blue thing on the floor.
"The bath-mat," she said, surprised.
"And what is written on it?"
"Why—'bath-mat,' of course."
"Of course," I said ... and I handed her the wedding-ring.
VI. A FEW GUESTS
BAD LORD BLIGHT
(A Moral Story for the Middle-aged)
Seated in the well-appointed library of Blight Hall, John Blighter, Seventeenth Earl of Blight, bowed his head in his hands and gave himself up to despair. The day of reckoning had come.
Were appearances not so deceptive, one would have said that Lord Blight ("Blight," as he was known familiarly to his friends) was a man to be envied. In a revolving book-case in the middle of the spacious library were countless treasured volumes, including a complete edition of Thackeray; outside in the well-kept grounds of the estate was a new lawn-mower; a bottle of sherry, freshly uncorked, stood upon the sideboard in the dining-room. But worldly possessions are not everything. An untroubled mind, as Shakespeare knew (even if he didn't actually say it), is more to be valued than riches. The seventeenth Earl of Blight's mind was not untroubled. His conscience was gnawing him.
Some people would say, no doubt, that his conscience was too sensitive. True, there were episodes in his past life of which in later years he could not wholly approve; but is not this the case with every one of us? Far better, as must often have occurred to Milton, to strive for the future than to regret the past. Ten years ago Lord Blight had been plain John Blighter, with no prospects in front of him. Realizing that he could expect little help from others, he decided to push for himself. He began by pushing three cousins over the cliffs at Scarborough, thus becoming second heir to the earldom. A week later he pushed an elder brother over the same cliff, and was openly referred to in the Press as the next bearer of the title. Barely a fortnight had elapsed before a final push diverted the last member of the family (a valued uncle) into the ever-changing sea, the venue in this case being Whitby, presumably in order to avoid suspicion.
But all this had happened ten years ago. The past is the past, as Wordsworth probably said to Coleridge more than once. It was time for Lord Blight to forget these incidents of his eager and impetuous youth. Yet somehow he could not. Within the last few days his conscience had begun to gnaw him, and in his despair he told himself that at last the day of reckoning had come. Poor Blight! It is difficult to withhold our sympathy from him.
The door opened, and his wife, the Countess of Blight, came into the library.
"Blight!" she whispered. "My poor Blight! What has happened?"
He looked up haggardly.
"Gertie," he said, for that was her name, "it is all over. My sins have found me out."
"Not sins," she said gently. "Mistakes."
"Mistakes, yes—you are right." He stretched out a hand, took a letter from the desk in front of him and gave it to her. "Read that." With a groan he buried his head in his hands again. She took it and read, slowly and wonderingly, these words:—
"To lawn-mower as delivered, L5 17s. 6d."
Lord Blight looked up with an impatient ejaculation "Give it to me," he said in some annoyance, snatching it away from her and throwing it into the waste-paper basket. "Here, this is the one. Read it; read it quickly; for we must decide what to do."
She read it with starting eyes.
"DEAR SIR,—I am prepared to lend you anything from L10 to L10,000 on your note-of-hand alone. Should you wish—"
"D—n!" said the seventeenth Earl of Blight. "Here, where is the blessed thing?" He felt in his pockets. "I must have—I only had it a—Ah, here it is. Perhaps I had better read it to you this time." He put on his spectacles—a present from an aunt—and read as follows:—
"MY LORD,—We regret to inform you that a claimant to the title has arisen. It seems that, soon after the death of his first wife, the sixteenth Earl of Blight contracted a second and secret marriage to Ellen Podby, by whom he had eleven sons, the eldest of whom is now asserting his right to the earldom and estates. Trusting to be favoured with your instructions in the matter, We are, my lord,