Some text styles have been preserved in this text by enclosing between special characters. Italics uses underlines, small caps uses tildes and bold uses equals.
Font sizes are not preserved.
BY A.A. MILNE
NEW YORK GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
This book is made up from my contributions to Punch—a casual selection from the four hundred or so which have appeared in the last nine years. It is offered to the American public as a sample of that Punch humour (and perhaps, therefore, British humour) which Americans so often profess not to understand. According to whether they like it or do not like it, I hope they will consider it a representative or an unrepresentative sample.
I. Her Sock 13
II. How We Play the Pianola 20
III. The Knight of the Chimney-Piece 27
IV. The Art of Conversation 32
V. Afternoon Sleep 38
VI. A Twice Told Tale 44
VII. The Literary Art 50
VIII. My Secretary 56
IX. The Truth About Home Rails 62
LIFE'S LITTLE TRAGEDIES
X. A Crown of Sorrows 71
XI. The Lucky Month 76
XII. The Rescue 83
XIII. The Portuguese Cigar 90
XIV. A Cold World 96
XV. A Breath of Life 103
XVI. The Doctor 113
XVII. The Financier 120
XVIII. The Things That Matter 126
XIX. The Making of a Christmas Story 135
XX. A Matter-of-Fact Fairy Tale 151
XXI. The Seaside Novelette 166
XXII. The First of Spring 181
XXIII. The Coming of the Crocus 188
XXIV. The Landscape Gardener 195
XXV. Pat-Ball 202
XXVI. Ten and Eight 208
XXVII. An Inland Voyage 214
XXVIII. One of Our Sufferers 221
XXIX. Chum 228
XXX. "Under Entirely New Management" 234
XXXI. A Farewell Tour 241
XXXII. Physical Culture 251
XXXIII. An Insurance Act 258
XXXIV. Getting the Needle 264
XXXV. Dressing Up 270
XXXVI. The Complete Kitchen 276
XXXVII. An Informal Evening 283
XXXVIII. A Billiard Lesson 290
XXXIX. Bachelor Relics 297
LITTLE PLAYS FOR AMATEURS
XL. "Fair Mistress Dorothy" 305
XLI. "A Slight Misunderstanding" 312
XLII. "Miss Prendergast" 319
XLIII. "At Dead of Night" 326
XLIV. "The Lost Heiress" 335
XLV. "The Literary Life" 340
XLVI. The Solicitor 349
XLVII. The Painter 356
XLVIII. The Barrister 363
XLIX. The Civil Servant 370
L. The Actor 377
LI. The Collector 384
LII. The Statesman 391
LIII. The Magnate 400
LIV. The Adventurer 407
LV. The Explorer 414
LVI. The Newspaper Proprietor 421
I. HER SOCK
When Margery was three months old I wrote a letter to her mother:
Dear Madam,—If you have a copy in Class D at 1/10d. net, I shall be glad to hear from you.
I am, The Baby's Uncle.
On Tuesday I got an answer by the morning post:
Dear Sir,—In reply to yours: How dare you insult my child? She is in Class A1, priceless and bought in by the owner. Four months old (and two days) on Christmas Day. Fancy!
I am, The Baby's Mother.
Margery had been getting into an expensive way of celebrating her birthday every week. Hitherto I had ignored it. But now I wrote:
Dear Madam,—Automatically your baby should be in Class D by now. I cannot understand why it is not so. Perhaps I shall hear from you later on with regard to this. Meanwhile I think that the extraordinary coincidence (all but two days) of the baby's birthday with Christmas Day calls for some recognition on my part. What would Margery like? You, who are in constant communication with her, should be able to tell me. I hear coral necklaces well spoken of. What do you think? I remember reading once of a robber who "killed a little baby for the coral on its neck"—which shows at any rate that they are worn. Do you know how coral reefs are made? It is a most fascinating business.
Then there is a silver mug to be considered. The only thing you can drink out of a mug is beer; yet it is a popular present. Perhaps you, with your (supposed) greater knowledge of babies, will explain this.
Meanwhile, I am, The Baby's Uncle.
P.S.—Which is a much finer thing than a mother.
To which her mother:
My Dear Boy,—It is too sweet of you to say you would like to get Baby something. No, I don't know how coral reefs are made, and don't want to. I think it is wicked of you to talk like that; I'm sure I shan't dare let her wear anything valuable now. And I don't think she really wants a mug.
I'm sure I don't know what she does want, except to see her uncle (There!) but it ought to be something that she'll value when she grows up. And of course we could keep it for her in the meantime.
Her Father has smoked his last cigar to-day. Isn't it awful? I have forbidden him to waste his money on any more, but he says he must give me 500 for a Christmas present. If he does, I shall give him that sideboard that I want so badly, and then we shall both go to prison together. You will look after Baby, won't you?
I am, The Baby's Mother.
P.S.—Which she isn't proud, but does think it's a little bit classier than an uncle.
And so finally, I:
Dear Child,—I've thought of the very thing.
I am, The Baby's Uncle.
That ends Chapter I. Here we go on to
Chapter II finds me in the Toy Department of the Stores. "I want," I said, "a present for a child."
"Yes, sir. About how old?"
"It must be quite new," I said sternly. "Don't be silly. Oh, I see; well, the child is only a baby."
"Ah, yes. Now here—if it's at all fond of animals——"
"I say, you mustn't call it 'IT.' I get in an awful row if I do. Of course, I suppose it's all right for you, only—well, be careful, won't you?"
The attendant promised, and asked whether the child was a boy or girl.
"And had you thought of anything for the little girl?"
"Well, yes. I had rather thought of a sideboard."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The Sideboard Department is upstairs. Was there anything else for the little girl?"
"Well, a box of cigars. Rather full, and if you have any——"
"The Cigar Department is on the ground floor."
"But your Lord Chamberlain told me I was to come here if I wanted a present for a child."
"If you require anything in the toy line——"
"Yes, but what good are toys to a baby of four months? Do be reasonable."
"What was it you suggested? A sideboard and a cigar?"
"That was my idea. It may not be the best possible, but at least it is better than perfectly useless toys. You can always blow smoke in its face, or bump its head against the sideboard. Experto crede, if you have the Latin."
Whereupon with great dignity I made my way to the lift.
In the Sideboard Department I said: "I want a sideboard for a little girl of four months, and please don't call her 'IT.' I nearly had a row with one of your downstairs staff about that."
"I will try to be careful about that, Sir," he replied. "What sort of a one?"
"Blue eyes and not much hair, and really rather a sweet smile.... Was that what you wanted to know?"
"Thank you, Sir. But I meant, what sort of a sideboard?"
I took him confidentially by the arm.
"Look here," I said, "you know how, when one is carrying a baby about, one bumps its head at all the corners? Well, not too much of that. The mothers don't really like it, you know. They smile at the time, but.... Well, not too many corners.... Yes, I like that very much. No, I won't take it with me."
The attendant wrote out the bill.
"She's the first. That's why I'm so nervous. I've never bought a sideboard for a child before.
"Your Stores number, I mean, Sir."
"I haven't got one. Is it necessary?"
"Must have a number, Sir."
"Then I'll think of a nice one for you.... Let's see—12345, how does that strike you?"
"And the name?"
"Oh, I can't tell you that. You must look that up for yourself. Good-day."
Downstairs I bought some cigars.
"For a little girl of four months," I said, "and she likes them rather full. Please don't argue with me. All your men chatter so."
"I must," said the attendant. "It's like this. If she is only four months, she is obviously little. Your observation is therefore tautological."
"As a matter of fact," I said hotly, "she is rather big for four months."
"Then it was a lie."
"Look here, you give me those cigars, and don't talk so much. I've already had words with your Master of the Sideboards and your Under-Secretary for the Toy Department.... Thank you. If you would kindly send them."
So there it is. I have given the spirit rather than the actual letter, of what happened at the Stores. But that the things have been ordered there is no doubt. And when Margery wakes up on Christmas Day to find a sideboard and a box of cigars in her sock I hope she will remember that she has chiefly her mother to thank for it.
II. HOW WE PLAY THE PIANOLA
[FOREWORD. Margery wishes me to publish the following correspondence, which has recently passed between us. It occurs to me that the name under which I appear in it may perhaps need explanation. I hate explanations, but here it is.
When Margery was eight months old, she was taught to call me "Uncle." I must suppose that at this time I was always giving her things—things she really wanted, such as boot-laces, the best china, evening papers and so on—which had been withheld by those in authority. Later on, these persons came round to my way of thinking, and gave her, if not the best china, at any rate cake and bread-and-butter. Naturally their offerings, being appreciated at last, were greeted with the familiar cry of "Uncle," "No, dear, not 'Uncle,' 'Thank-you,'" came the correction.]
Dear Thankyou,—I've some wonderful news for you! Guess what it is; but no, you never will. Well, I'll tell you. I can walk! Really and really.
It is most awfully interesting. You put one foot out to the right, and then you bring the left after it. That's one walk, and I have done seven altogether. You have to keep your hands out in front of you, so as to balance properly. That's all the rules—the rest is just knack. I got it quite suddenly. It is such fun; I wake up about five every morning now, thinking of it.
Of course I fall down now and then. You see, I'm only beginning. When I fall, Mother comes and picks me up. That reminds me, I don't want you to call me "Baby" any more now I can walk. Babies can't walk, they just get carried about and put in perambulators. I was given a lot of names a long time ago, but I forget what they were. I think one was rather silly, like Margery, but I have never had it used lately. Mother always calls me O.D. now.
Good-bye. Write directly you get this.
Your loving. O.D.
My Dear O.D.,—I was so glad to get your letter, because I was just going to write to you. What do you think? No, you'll never guess—shall I tell you?—no—yes—no; well, I've bought a pianola!
It's really rather difficult to play it properly. I know people like Paderewski and—I can only think of Paderewski for the moment, I know that sort of person doesn't think much of the pianola artist; but they are quite wrong about it all. The mechanical agility with the fingers is nothing, the soul is everything. Now you can get the soul, the con molto expressione feeling, just as well in the pianola as in the piano. Of course you have to keep a sharp eye on the music. Some people roll it off just like a barrel-organ; but when I see Allegro or Andante or anything of that kind on the score, I'm on it like a bird.
No time for more now, as I've just got a new lot of music in.
Your loving, Thankyou.
P.S.—When are you coming to hear me play? I did "Mumbling Mose" just now, with one hand and lots of soul.
P.P.S.—I am glad you can walk.
Dear Thankyou,—I am rather upset about my walking. You remember I told you I had done seven in my last? Well, this morning I couldn't do a single one! Well, I did do one, as a matter of fact, but I suppose some people would say it didn't count, because I fell down directly after, though I don't see that that matters,—do you, Thankyou? But even with that one it was only one, and yet I know I did seven the day before. I wonder why it is. I do it the right way, I'm sure, and I keep my hands out so as to balance, so perhaps it's the shoes that are wrong. I must ask Mother to get me a new pair, and tell the man they're for walks.
Now do write me a nice long letter, Thankyou, because I feel very miserable about this. It is right, isn't it, when you have the right leg out, only to bring the left one just up to it, and not beyond? And does it matter which foot you start with? Let me know quickly, because Father is coming home to-morrow and I want to show him.
Your loving. O.D.
P.S.—I am glad you like your pianola
Dear O.D.,—Very glad to get yours. If you really want a long letter, you shall have one; only I warn you that if once I begin nothing less than any earthquake can stop me. Well, first, then, I played the Merry Widow Waltz yesterday to Mrs. Polacca, who is a great authority on music, and in with all the Queen's Hall set, and she said that my touch reminded her of—I've forgotten the man's name now, which is rather sickening, because it spoils the story a bit, but he was one of the real tiptoppers who makes hundreds a week, and well, that was the sort of man I reminded her of. If I can do that with a waltz, it stands to reason that with something classic there'd be no holding me. I think I shall give a recital. Tickets 10/6d. No free seats. No emergency exit. It is a great mistake to have an emergency exit at a recital.
(Three pages omitted.)
Really, O.D., you must hear me doing the double F in the Boston Cake Walk to get me at my best. You've heard Kubelik on the violin? Well, it's not a bit like that, and yet there's just the something which links great artists together, no matter what their medium of expression.
Your loving, Thankyou.
P.S.—Glad you're getting on so well with your walking.
Dearest Thankyou,—Hooray, hooray, hooray—I did twenty-five walks to-day! Father counted. He says my style reminds him of "Cancer Vulgaris" rather. How many times can he do it? Not twenty-five on the third day, I'm sure.
Isn't it splendid of me? I see now where I was wrong yesterday. I got the knack again suddenly this morning, and I'm all right now. To-morrow I shall walk round the table. It is a longish way and there are four turns, which I am not sure about. How do you turn? I suppose you put the right hand out?
Your very loving. O.D.
Dear O.D.,—I am rather hurt by your letters. I have written several times to tell you all about my new pianola, and you don't seem to take any interest at all. I was going to have told you this time that the man in the flat below had sent me a note, just as if it had been a real piano. He says he doesn't mind my playing all day, so long as I don't start before eight in the morning, as he is in his bath then, and in listening to the music quite forgets to come out sometimes, which I can see might be very awkward.
Write to yours affectionately, Thankyou.
Darling Thankyou,—I am so sorry, dear, and I will come and hear your pianola to-morrow, and I think it lovely, and you must be clever to play it so well; but you musn't be angry with me because I am so taken up with my walking. You see, it is all so new to me. I feel as though I want everybody to know all about it.
Your pianola must be lovely, Thankyou. Dear Thankyou, could you, do you think, put all the letters we wrote to each other about my walking in some book, so that other people would know how to do it the way I do? You might call it "Letters on Walking," or "How to Walk," or—but you could get a better title than I could. Do!
Your very loving, O.D.
P.S.—I'm so glad about the pianola and do you mind if I just tell you that I did walk round the table, corners and all?
Dearest O.D.,—Right you are. I will think of a good title.
Your loving, Thankyou.
III. THE KNIGHT OF THE CHIMNEY-PIECE
We don't know his real name, but we have decided to call him "Arthur" ("Sir Arthur," I suppose he would be). He stands in bronze upon the chimney-piece, and in his right hand is a javelin; this makes him a very dangerous person. Opposite him, but behind the clock (Coward!), stands the other fellow, similarly armed. Most people imagine that the two are fighting for the hand of the lady on the clock, and they aver that they can hear her heart beating with the excitement of it; but, to let you into the secret, the other fellow doesn't come into the story at all. Only Margery and I know the true story. I think I told it to her one night when she wouldn't go to sleep—or perhaps she told it to me.
The best of this tale (I say it as the possible author) is that it is modern. It were easy to have invented something more in keeping with the knight's armour, but we had to remember that this was the twentieth century, and that here in this twentieth century was Sir Arthur on the chimney-piece, with his javelin drawn back. For whom is he waiting?
"It all began," I said, "a year ago, when Sir Arthur became a member of the South African Chartered Incorporated Co-operative Stores Society Limited Ten per cents at Par (Men only). He wasn't exactly a real member, having been elected under Rule Two for meritorious performances, Rule One being that this club shall be called what I said just now; but for nearly a year he enjoyed all the privileges of membership, including those of paying a large entrance fee and a still larger subscription. At the end of a year, however, a dreadful thing happened. They made a Third Rule; to wit, that no member should go to sleep on the billiard table.
"Of course, Sir Arthur having only got in under Rule Two, had to resign. He had, as I have said, paid his entrance fee, and (as it happened) his second year's subscription in advance. Naturally he was annoyed....
"And that, in fact, is why he stands on the chimney-piece with his javelin drawn back. He is waiting for the Secretary. Sir Arthur is considered to be a good shot, and the Secretary wants all the flowers to be white."
At this point Margery said her best word, "Gorky," which means, "A thousand thanks for the verisimilitude of your charming and interesting story, but is not the love element a trifle weak?" (Margery is a true woman.)
"We must leave something to the imagination," I pleaded. "The Secretary no doubt had a delightful niece, and Sir Arthur's hopeless passion for her, after he had hit her uncle in a vital spot, would be the basis of a most powerful situation."
Margery said "Gorky" again, which, as I have explained, means, "Are such distressing situations within the province of the Highest Art?"
When Margery says "Gorky" twice in one night, it is useless to argue. I gave in at once. "Butter," I said, "placed upon the haft of the javelin, would make it slip, and put him off his shot. He would miss the Secretary and marry the niece." So we put a good deal of butter on Sir Arthur, and for the moment the Secretary is safe. I don't know if we shall be able to keep it there; but in case jam does as well, Margery has promised to stroke him every day.
However, I anticipate. As soon as the secretarial life was saved, Margery said "Agga," which is as it were, "Encore," or "Bis," so that I have her permission to tell you that story all over again. Instead I will give you the tragedy of George, the other fellow (no knight he), as she told it to me afterwards.
"George was quite a different man from Sir Arthur. So far from being elected to anything under Rule Two, he got blackballed for the North London Toilet Club. Opinions differed as to why this happened; some said that it was his personal unpopularity (he had previously been up, without success, for the membership of the local Ratepayers Association) others (among them the Proprietor), that his hair grew too quickly. Anyhow, it was a great shock to George, and they had to have a man in to break it to him. (It's always the way when you have a man in.)
"George was stricken to the heart. This last blow was too much for what had always been a proud nature. He decided to emigrate. Accordingly he left home, and moved to Islington. Whether he is still there or not I cannot say; but a card with that postmark reached his niece only this week. It was unsigned, and bore on the space reserved for inland communications these words: 'The old, old wish—A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.'"
"But what about the javelin?" I asked Margery. (This fellow had a javelin too, you remember.)
"Gorky," said Margery for the third time, which means——
Well, upon my word, I don't know what it means. But it would explain it all.
Meanwhile Sir Arthur (he was in my story, you know) is still waiting for the Secretary. In case the butter gives out, have I mentioned that the Secretary wants all the flowers to be white?
IV. THE ART OF CONVERSATION
"In conversation," said somebody (I think it was my grandfather), "there should always be a give and take. The ball must be kept rolling." If he had ever had a niece two years old, I don't think he would have bothered.
"What's 'at?" said Margery, pointing suddenly.
"That," I said, stroking it, "is dear uncle's nose."
"Take your finger away. Ah, yes, that is dear uncle's eye. The left one."
"Dear uncle's left one," said Margery thoughtfully. "What's it doing?"
"What dear uncle does every afternoon after lunch."
"Eggs, sardines, macaroons—everything."
With a great effort Margery resisted the temptation to ask what "everything" was (a difficult question), and made a statement of her own.
"Santa Claus bring Margie a balloon from Daddy," she announced.
"A balloon! How jolly!" I said with interest. "What sort are you having? One of those semi-detached ones with the gas laid on, or the pink ones with a velvet collar?"
"Down chimney," said Margery.
"Oh, that kind. Do you think—I mean, isn't it rather——"
"Tell Margie a story about a balloon."
"Bother," I murmured.
"Bother is what you say when relations ask you to tell them a story about a balloon. It means, 'But for the fact that we both have the Montmorency blood in our veins, I should be compelled to decline your kind invitation, all the stories I know about balloons being stiff 'uns.' It also means, 'Instead of talking about balloons, won't you sing me a little song?'"
"Nope," said Margery.
"Bother, she's forgotten her music."
"What did you say, uncle dear; what did you say?"
I sighed and began.
"Once upon a time there was a balloon, a dear little toy balloon, and—and——"
"What's 'at?" asked Margery, making a dab at my chest. "What's 'at, uncle dear?"
"That," I said, "is a button. More particularly a red waistcoat button. More particularly still, my top red waistcoat button."
"What's 'at?" she asked, going down one.
"That is a button. Description: second red waistcoat. Parents living: both. Infectious diseases: scarlet fever slightly once."
"That's a—ah, yes, a button. The third. A good little chap, but not so chubby as his brothers. He couldn't go down to Margate with them last year, and so, of course—Well, as I was saying, there was once a balloon, and——"
"What's a-a-'at?" said Margery, bending forward suddenly and kissing it.
"Look here, you've jolly well got to enclose a stamped addressed envelope with the next question. As a matter of fact, though you won't believe me, that again is a button."
"What's 'at?" asked Margery, digging at the fifth button.
"Owing to extreme pressure on space," I began.... "Thank you. That also is a button. Its responsibility is greater than that of its brethren. The crash may come at any moment. Luckily it has booked its passage to the—where was I? Oh yes—well, this balloon——"
"What's 'at?" said Margery, pointing to the last one.
"I must have written notice of that question. I can't tell you offhand."
"What's 'at, uncle dear?"
"Well, I don't know, Margie. It looks something like a collar stud, only somehow you wouldn't expect to find a collar stud there. Of course it may have slipped.... Or could it be one of those red beads, do you think?... N-no—no, it isn't a bead.... And it isn't a raspberry, because this is the wrong week for raspberries. Of course it might be a—By Jove, I've got it! It's a button."
I gave the sort of war-whoop with which one announces these discoveries, and Margery whooped too.
"A button," she cried. "A dear little button!" She thought for a moment. "What's a button?"
This was ridiculous.
"You don't mean to say," I reproached her, "that I've got to tell you now what a button is. That," I added severely, pointing to the top of my waistcoat, "is a button."
"What's 'at?" said Margery, pointing to the next one.
I looked at her in horror. Then I began to talk very quickly. "There was once a balloon," I said rapidly, "a dear little boy balloon—I mean toy balloon, and this balloon was a jolly little balloon just two minutes old, and he wasn't always asking silly questions, and when he fell down and exploded himself they used to wring him out and say, 'Come, come now, be a little airship about it,' and so——"
"What's 'at?" asked Margery, pointing to the top button.
There was only one way out of it. I began to sing a carol in a very shrill voice.
All the artist rose in Margery.
"Don't sing," she said hurriedly; "Margie sing. What shall Margie sing, uncle?"
Before I could suggest anything she was off. It was a scandalous song. She began by announcing that she wanted to be among the boys, and (anticipating my objections) assured me that it was no good kicking up a noise, because it was no fun going out when there weren't any boys about, you were so lonely-onely-onely....
Here the tune became undecided; and, a chance word recalling another context to her mind, she drifted suddenly into a hymn, and sang it with the same religious fervour as she had sung the other, her fair head flung back, and her hazel eyes gazing into Heaven....
I listened carefully. This was a bit I didn't recognise.... The tune wavered for a moment ... and out of it these words emerged triumphant—
"Talk of me to the boys you meet. Remember me kindly to Regent Street. And give them my love in the——"
"What's 'at, uncle?"
"That," I said, stroking it, "is dear uncle's nose."
By the way, would you like it all over again? No? Oh, very well.
V. AFTERNOON SLEEP
["In the afternoon they came unto a land In which it seemed always afternoon."]
I am like Napoleon in that I can go to sleep at any moment; I am unlike him (I believe) in that I am always doing so. One makes no apology for doing so on Sunday afternoon; the apology indeed should come from the others, the wakeful parties....
"Will you come and play wiv me?"
"I'm rather busy just now," I said with closed eyes. "After tea."
"Why are you raver busy just now? My baby's only raver busy sometimes."
"Well then, you know what it's like; how important it is that one shouldn't be disturbed."
"But you must be beturbed when I ask you to come and play wiv me."
"Oh, well ... what shall we play at?"
"Trains," said Margery eagerly.
When we play at trains I have to be a tunnel. I don't know if you have ever been a tunnel? No; well, it's an over-rated profession.
"We won't play trains," I announced firmly, "because it's Sunday."
"Why not because it's Sunday?"
(Oh, you little pagan!)
"Hasn't Mummy told you about Sunday?"
"Oh, yes, Maud did tell me," said Margery casually. Then she gave an innocent little smile. "Oh, I called Mummy Maud," she said in pretended surprise. "I quite fought I was upstairs!"
I hope you follow. The manners and customs of good society must be observed on the ground floor where visitors may happen; upstairs one relaxes a little.
"Do you know," Margery went on with the air of a discoverer, "you mustn't say 'prayers' downstairs. Or 'corsets.'"
"I never do," I affirmed. "Well, anyhow I never will again."
"Why mayn't you?"
"I don't know," I said sleepily.
"Well—prehaps it's because your mother tells you not to."
"Well, 'at's a silly fing to say," said Margery scornfully.
"It is. I'm thoroughly ashamed of it. I apologise. Good night." And I closed my eyes again....
"I fought you were going to play wiv me, Mr. Bingle," sighed Margery to herself.
"My name is not Bingle," I said, opening one eye.
"Why isn't it Bingle?"
"The story is a very long and sad one. When I wake up I will tell it to you. Good night."
"Tell it to me now."
There was no help for it.
"Once upon a time," I said rapidly, "there was a man called Bingle, Oliver Bingle, and he married a lady called Pringle. And his brother married a lady called Jingle; and his other brother married a Miss Wingle. And his cousin remained single.... That is all."
"Oh, I see," said Margery doubtfully. "Now will you play wiv me?"
How can one resist the pleading of a young child?
"All right," I said. "We'll pretend I'm a little girl, and you're my mummy, and you've just put me to bed.... Good night, mummy dear."
"Oh, but I must cover you up." She fetched a table-cloth, and a pram-cover, and The Times, and a handkerchief, and the cat, and a doll's what-I-mustn't-say-downstairs, and a cushion; and she covered me up and tucked me in. "'Ere, 'ere, now go to sleep, my darling," she said, and kissed me lovingly.
"Oh, Margie, you dear," I whispered.
"You called me 'Margie'!" she cried in horror.
"I meant 'Mummy.' Good night."
One, two, three seconds passed rapidly.
"It's morning," said a bright voice in my ear. "Get up."
"I'm very ill," I pleaded; "I want to stay in bed all day."
"But your dear uncle," said Margery, inventing hastily, "came last night after you were in bed, and stayed 'e night. Do you see? And he wants you to sit on him in bed and talk to him."
"Where is he? Show me the bounder."
"'Ere he is," said Margery, pointing at me.
"But look here, I can't sit on my own chest and talk to myself. I'll take the two parts if you insist, Sir Herbert, but I can't play them simultaneously. Not even Irving——"
"Why can't you play them simrulaleously?"
"Well, I can't. Margie, will you let me go to sleep?"
"Nope," said Margery, shaking her head.
"You should say, 'No thank you, revered and highly respected Uncle.'"
"No hank you, Mr. Cann."
"I have already informed you that my name is not Bingle and I have now to add that neither is it Cann."
"Why neiver is it Cann?"
"That isn't grammar. You should say, 'Why can it not either?'"
"I don't know."
"No, I can't even say prehaps."
"Well, say I shall understand when I'm a big girl."
"You'll understand when you're a big girl, Margery," I said solemnly.
"Oh, I see."
"That's right. Now then, what about going to sleep?"
She was silent for a moment, and I thought I was safe. Then.
"Uncle, just tell me—why was 'at little boy crying vis morning?"
"Which little boy?"
"Ve one in 'e road."
"Oh, that one. Well, he was crying because his Uncle hadn't had any sleep all night, and when he tried to go to sleep in the afternoon——"
"Say prehaps again."
My first rejected contribution! I sighed and had another shot. "Well, then," I said gallantly, "it must have been because he hadn't got a sweet little girl of three to play with him."
"Yes," said Margery, nodding her head thoughtfully, "'at was it."
VI. A TWICE TOLD TALE
"Is that you, uncle?" said a voice from the nursery, as I hung my coat up in the hall. "I've only got my skin on, but you can come up."
However, she was sitting up in bed with her nightgown on when I found her.
"I was having my bath when you came," she explained. "Have you come all the way from London?"
"All the way."
"Then will you tell me a story?"
"I can't; I'm going to have my dinner. I only came up to say good night."
Margery leant forward and whispered coaxingly, "Will you just tell me about Beauty and 'e Beast?"
"But I've told you that such heaps of times. And it's much too long for to-night."
"Tell me half of it. As much as that." She held her hands about nine inches apart.
"That's too much."
"As much as that." The hands came a little nearer together.
"Oh! Well, I'll tell you up to where the Beast died."
"Fought he died," she corrected eagerly.
"How much will that be? As much as I said?"
I nodded. The preliminary business settled, she gave a little sigh of happiness, put her arms round her knees, and waited breathlessly for the story she had heard twenty times before.
"Once upon a time there was a man who had three daughters. And one day——"
"What was the man's name?"
"Margery," I said reproachfully, annoyed at the interruption, "you know I never tell you the man's name."
"Tell me now."
"Oswald," I said after a moment's thought.
"I told Daddy it was Thomas," said Margery casually.
"Well, as a matter of fact he had two names, Oswald and Thomas."
"Why did he have two names?"
"In case he lost one. Well, one day this man, who was very poor, heard that a lot of money was waiting for him in a ship which had come over the sea to a town some miles off. So he——"
"Was it waiting at Weymouf?"
"Somewhere like that."
"I spex it must have been Weymouf, because there's lots of sea there."
"Yes, I'm sure it was. Well, he thought he'd go to Weymouth and get the money."
"How much monies was it?"
"Oh, lots and lots."
"As much as five pennies?"
"Yes, about that. Well, he said good-bye to his daughters and asked them what they'd like him to bring back for a present. And the first asked for some lovely jewels and diamonds and——"
"Like Mummy's locket—is that jewels?"
"That sort of idea. Well, she wanted a lot of things like that. And the second wanted some beautiful clothes."
"What sort of clothes?"
"Oh, frocks and—well, frocks and all sorts of—er frocks."
"Did she want any lovely new stockings?"
"Yes, she wanted three pairs of those."
"And did she want any lovely——"
"Yes," I said hastily, "she wanted lots of those, too. Lots of everything."
Margery gave a little sob of happiness. "Go on telling me," she said under her breath.
"Well, the third daughter was called Beauty. And she thought to herself, 'Poor Father won't have any money left at all, if we all go on like this!' So she didn't ask for anything very expensive, like her selfish sisters, she only asked for a rose. A simple red rose."
Margery moved uneasily.
"I hope," she said wistfully, "this bit isn't going to be about—you know. It never did before."
"Good little girls and bad little girls, and fings like that."
"My darling, no, of course not. I told it wrong. Beauty asked for a rose because she loved roses so. And it was a very particular kind of red rose that she wanted—a sort that they simply couldn't get to grow in their own garden because of the soil."
"Go on telling me," said Margery, with a deep sigh of content.
"Well, he started off to Weymouth."
"What day did he start?"
"It was Monday. And when——"
"Oh, well, anyhow, I told Daddy it was Tuesday."
"Tuesday—now let me think. Yes, I believe you're right. Because on Monday he went to a meeting of the Vegetable Gardeners, and proposed the health of the Chairman. Yes, well he started off on Tuesday, and when he got there he found that there was no money for him at all!"
"I spex somebody had taken it," said Margery breathlessly.
"Well, it had all gone somehow."
"Prehaps somebody had swallowed it," said Margery, a little carried away by the subject, "by mistake."
"Anyhow, it was gone. And he had to come home again without any money. He hadn't gone far——"
"How far?" asked Margery. "As far as that?" and she measured nine inches in the air.
"About forty-four miles—when he came to a beautiful garden."
"Was it a really lovely big garden? Bigger than ours?"
"Oh, much bigger."
"Bigger than yours?"
"I haven't got a garden."
Margery looked at me wonderingly. She opened her mouth to speak, and then stopped and rested her head upon her hands and thought out this new situation. At last, her face flushed with happiness, she announced her decision.
"Go on telling me about Beauty and the Beast now," she said breathlessly, "and then tell me why you haven't got a garden."
My average time for Beauty and the Beast is ten minutes, and, if we stop at the place where the Beast thought he was dead, six minutes twenty-five seconds. But, with the aid of seemingly innocent questions, a determined character can make even the craftiest uncle spin the story out to half-an-hour.
"Next time," said Margery, when we had reached the appointed place and she was being tucked up in bed, "will you tell me all the story?"
Was there the shadow of a smile in her eyes? I don't know. But I'm sure it will be wisest next time to promise her the whole thing. We must make that point clear at the very start, and then we shall get along.
VII. THE LITERARY ART
Margery has a passion for writing just now. I can see nothing in it myself, but if people will write I suppose you can't stop them.
"Will you just lend me your pencil?" she asked.
"Remind me to give you a hundred pencils some time," I said as I took it out, "and then you'll always have one. You simply eat pencils."
"Oo, I gave it you back last time."
"Only just. You inveigle me down here——"
"What do I do?"
"I'm not going to say that again for anybody."
"Well, may I have the pencil?"
I gave her the pencil and a sheet of paper, and settled her in a chair.
"B-a-b-y," said Margery to herself, planning out her weekly article for the Reviews. "B-a-b-y, baby." She squared her elbows and began to write....
"There!" she said, after five minutes' composition.
The manuscript was brought over to the critic, and the author stood proudly by to point out subtleties that might have been overlooked at a first reading.
"B-a-b-y," explained the author. "Baby."
"Yes, that's very good; very neatly expressed. 'Baby'—I like that."
"Shall I write some more?" said Margery eagerly.
"Yes, do write some more. This is good, but it's not long enough."
The author retired again, and in five minutes produced this:
B A B Y
"That's 'baby,'" explained Margery.
"Yes, I like that baby better than the other one. It's more spread out. And it's bigger—it's one of the biggest babies I've seen."
"Shall I write some more?"
"Don't you write anything else ever?"
"I like writing 'baby,'" said Margery carelessly. "B-a-b-y."
"Yes, but you can't do much with just that one word. Suppose you wanted to write to a man at a shop—'Dear Sir, You never sent me my boots. Please send them at once as I want to go out this afternoon. I am yours faithfully, Margery'—it would be no good simply putting 'B-a-b-y,' because he wouldn't know what you meant."
"Well, what would it be good putting?"
"Ah, that's the whole art of writing—to know what it would be any good putting. You want to learn lots and lots of new words, so as to be ready. Now here's a jolly little one that you ought to meet." I took the pencil and wrote G O T. "Got. G-o-t, got."
Margery, her elbows on my knee and her chin resting on her hands, studied the position.
"Yes, that's old 'got,'" she said.
"He's always coming in. When you want to say, 'I've got a bad pain, so I can't accept your kind invitation'; or when you want to say, 'Excuse more, as I've got to go to bed now'; or quite simply, 'You've got my pencil.'"
"G-o-t, got," said Margery. "G-o-t, got. G-o-t, got."
"With appropriate action it makes a very nice recitation."
"Is that a 'g'?" said Margery, busy with the pencil, which she had snatched from me.
"The gentleman with the tail. You haven't made his tail quite long enough.... That's better."
Margery retired to her study charged with an entirely new inspiration, and wrote her second manifesto. It was this:
G O T
"Got," she pointed out.
I inspected it carefully. Coming fresh to the idea Margery had treated it more spontaneously than the other. But it was distinctly a "got." One of the gots.
"Have you any more words?" she asked, holding tight to the pencil.
"You've about exhausted me, Margery."
"What was that one you said just now? The one you said you wouldn't say again?"
"Oh, you mean 'inveigle'?" I said, pronouncing it differently this time.
"Yes; write that for me."
"It hardly ever comes in. Only when you are writing to your solicitor."
"He's the gentleman who takes the money. He's always coming in."
"Then write 'solicitor.'"
I took the pencil (it was my turn for it) and wrote SOLICITOR. Then I read it out slowly to Margery, spelt it to her three times very carefully, and wrote SOLICITOR again. Then I said it thoughtfully to myself half-a-dozen times—"Solicitor." Then I looked at it wonderingly.
"I am not sure now," I said, "that there is such a word."
"I thought there was when I began, but now I don't think there can be. 'Solicitor'—it seems so silly."
"Let me write it," said Margery, eagerly taking the paper and pencil, "and see if it looks silly."
She retired, and—as well as she could for her excitement—copied the word down underneath. The combined effort then read as follows:
SOLICITOR SOLICITOR SOLCTOR
"Yes, you've done it a lot of good," I said. "You've taken some of the creases out. I like that much better."
"Do you think there is such a word now?"
"I'm beginning to feel more easy about it. I'm not certain, but I hope."
"So do I," said Margery. With the pencil in one hand and the various scraps of paper in the other, she climbed on to the writing desk and gave herself up to literature....
And it seems to me that she is well equipped for the task. For besides having my pencil still (of which I say nothing for the moment) she has now three separate themes upon which to ring the changes—a range wide enough for any writer. These are, "Baby got solicitor" (supposing that there is such a word), "Solicitor got baby," and "Got baby solicitor." Indeed, there are really four themes here, for the last one can have two interpretations. It might mean that you had obtained an ordinary solicitor for Baby or it might mean that you had got a specially small one for yourself. It lacks, therefore, the lucidity of the best authors, but in a woman writer this may be forgiven.
VIII. MY SECRETARY
When, five years ago, I used to write long letters to Margery, for some reason or other she never wrote back. To save her face I had to answer the letters myself—a tedious business. Still, I must admit that the warmth and geniality of the replies gave me a certain standing with my friends, who had not looked for me to be so popular. After some months, however, pride stepped in. One cannot pour out letter after letter to a lady without any acknowledgment save from oneself. And when even my own acknowledgments began to lose their first warmth—when, for instance, I answered four pages about my new pianola with the curt reminder that I was learning to walk and couldn't be bothered with music, why, then at last I saw that a correspondence so one-sided would have to come to an end. I wrote a farewell letter and replied to it with tears....
But, bless you, that was nearly five years ago. Each morning now, among the usual pile of notes on my plate from duchesses, publishers, moneylenders, actor-managers and what-not, I find, likely enough, an envelope in Margery's own handwriting.
Not only is my address printed upon it legibly, but there are also such extra directions to the postman as "England" and "Important" for its more speedy arrival. And inside—well, I give you the last but seven.
"MY DEAR UNCLE I thot you wher coming to see me to night but you didnt why didnt you baby has p t o hurt her knee isnt that a pity I have some new toys isnt that jolly we didnt have our five minutes so will you krite to me and tell me all about p t o your work from your loving little MARGIE."
I always think that footnotes to a letter are a mistake, but there are one or two things I should like to explain.
(a) Just as some journalists feel that without the word "economic" a leading article lacks tone, so Margery feels, and I agree with her, that a certain cachet is lent to a letter by a p. t. o. at the bottom of each page.
(b) There are lots of grown-up people who think that "write" is spelt "rite." Margery knows that this is not so. She knows that there is a silent letter in front of the "r," which doesn't do anything, but likes to be there. Obviously, if nobody is going to take any notice of this extra letter, it doesn't much matter what it is. Margery happened to want to make a "k" just then; at a pinch it could be as silent as a "w." You will please, therefore, regard the "k" in "Krite" as absolutely noiseless.
(c) Years ago I claimed the privilege to monopolise on the occasional evenings when I was there, Margery's last ten minutes before she goes back to some heaven of her own each night. This privilege was granted; it being felt, no doubt, that she owed me some compensation for my early secretarial work on her behalf. We used to spend the ten minutes in listening to my telling a fairy story, always the same one. One day the authorities stepped in and announced that in future the ten minutes would be reduced to five. The procedure seemed to me absolutely illegal (and I should like to bring an action against somebody) but it certainly did put the lid on my fairy story, of which I was getting more than a little tired.
"Tell me about Beauty and the Beast," said Margery as usual, that evening.
"There's not time," I said. "We've only five minutes to-night."
"Oh! Then tell me all the work you've done to-day."
(A little unkind, you'll agree, but you know what relations are.)
And so now I have to cram the record of my day's work into five breathless minutes. You will understand what bare justice I can do it in the time.
I am sorry that these footnotes have grown so big; let us leave them and return to the letter. There are many ways of answering such a letter. One might say, "MY DEAR MARGERY,—It was jolly to get a real letter from you at last——" but the "at last" would seem rather tactless considering what had passed years before. Or one might say, "MY DEAR MARGERY,—Thank you for your jolly letter. I am so sorry about baby's knee and so glad about your toys. Perhaps if you gave one of the toys to baby, then her knee——" But I feel sure that Margery would expect me to do better than that.
In the particular case of this last letter but seven I wrote:
"DEAREST MARGERY,—Thank you for your sweet letter. I had a very busy day at the office or I would have come to see you. P.T.O.
[Transcriber's note: Page break in original.]
—I hope to be down next week and then I will tell you all about my work; but I have a lot more to do now, and so I must say good-bye. Your loving UNCLE."
There is perhaps nothing in that which demands an immediate answer, but with business-like promptitude Margery replied:
"MY DEAR UNCLE thank you for your letter I am glad you are coming next week baby is quite well now are you p t o coming on Thursday next week or not say yes if you are I am p t o sorry you are working so hard from your loving MARGIE."
I said "Yes," and that I was her loving uncle. It seemed to be then too late for a "P.T.O.," but I got one in and put on the back, "Love to Baby." The answer came by return of post:
"MY DEAR UNCLE thank you for your letter come erly on p t o Thursday come at half past nothing baby sends her love and so do p t o I my roking horse has a sirrup broken isnt that a pity say yes or no good-bye from your loving MARGIE."
Of course I thanked Baby for her love and gave my decision that it was a pity about the rocking-horse. I did it in large capitals, which (as I ought to have said before) is the means of communication between Margery and her friends. For some reason or other I find printing capitals to be more tiring than the ordinary method of writing.
"MY DEAR UNCLE," wrote Margery—
But we need not go into that. What I want to say is this: I love to get letters, particularly these, but I hate writing them, particularly in capitals. Years ago I used to answer Margery's letter for her. It is now her turn to answer mine for me.
IX. THE TRUTH ABOUT HOME RAILS
Imagine us, if you can, sitting one on each side of the fire, I with my feet on the mantelpiece, Margery curled up in the blue arm-chair, both of us intent on the morning paper. To me, by good chance, has fallen the sporting page; to Margery, the foreign, political and financial intelligence of the day.
"What," said Margery, "does it mean when it says——" she stopped and spelt it over to herself again.
I put down my piece of the paper and prepared to explain. The desire for knowledge in the young cannot be too strongly encouraged, and I have always flattered myself that I can explain in perfectly simple language anything which a child wants to know. For instance, I once told Margery what "Miniature Rifle Shooting" meant; it was a head-line which she had come across in her paper. The explanation took some time, owing to Margery's pre-conceived idea that a bird entered into it somewhere; several times, when I thought the lesson was over, she said, "Well, what about the bird?" But I think I made it plain to her in the end, though maybe she has forgotten about it now.
"What," said Margery, "does it mean when it says 'Home Rails Firm'?"
I took up my paper again. The Cambridge fifteen I was glad to see, were rapidly developing into a first-class team, and——
"'Home Rails Firm,'" repeated Margery, and looked up at me.
My mind worked rapidly, as it always does in a crisis.
"What did you say?" I asked in surprise.
"What does 'Home Rails Firm' mean?"
"Where does it say that?" I went on, still thinking at lightning speed.
"There. It said it yesterday too."
"Ah, yes." I made up my mind. "Well, that," I said—"I think that is something you must ask your father."
"I did ask him yesterday."
"He told me to ask Mummy."
"You can be sure," I said firmly, "that what Mummy told you would be right," and I returned to my paper.
"Mummy told me to wait till you came."
Really, these parents! The way they shirk their responsibilities nowadays is disgusting.
"'Home Rails Firm.'" said Margery, and settled herself to listen.
It is good that children should be encouraged to take an interest in the affairs of the day, but I do think that a little girl might be taught by its father (or if more convenient, mother) which part of a newspaper to read. Had Margery asked me the difference between a bunker and a banker, had she demanded an explanation of "ultimatum" or "guillotine," I could have done something with it; but to let a child of six fill her head with ideas as to the firmness or otherwise of Home Rails is hardly nice. However, an explanation had to be given.
"Well, it's like this, Margery," I said at last. "Supposing—well—you see, supposing,—that is to say, if I——" and then I stopped. I had a sort of feeling—intuition, they call it—that I was beginning in the wrong way.
"Go on," said Margery.
"Perhaps, I had better put it this way. Supposing you were to—Well, we'd better begin further back than that. You know what—No, I don't suppose you do know that. Well, if I—that is to say, when a man—you know, it's rather difficult to explain this, Margery."
"Are you explaining it now?"
"I'm just going to begin."
"Thank you, uncle."
I lit my pipe slowly, while I considered again how best to approach the matter.
"'Home Rails Firm,'" said Margery. "Isn't it a funny thing to say?"
It was. It was a very silly thing to say. Whoever said it first might have known what it would lead to.
"Perhaps I can explain it best like this, Margery," I said, beginning on a new tack. "I suppose you know what 'firm' means?"
"What does it mean?"
"Ah, well, if you don't know that," I said, rather pleased, "perhaps I had better explain that first. 'Firm' means that—that is to say, you call a thing firm if it—well, if it doesn't—that is to say, a thing is firm if it can't move."
"Like a house."
"Well, something like that. This chair for instance," and I put my hand on her chair, "is firm because you can't shake it. You see, it's quite—Hallo, what's that?"
"Oh, you bad uncle, you've knocked the castor off again," cried Margery, greatly excited at the incident.
"This is too much," I said bitterly. "Even the furniture is against me."
"Go on explaining," said Margery, rocking herself in the now wobbly chair.
I decided to leave "firm." It is not an easy word to explain at the best of times, and when everything you touch goes and breaks itself it becomes perfectly impossible.
"Well, so much for that," I said. "And now we come to 'rails.' You know what rails are?"
"Like I've got in the nursery?"
This was splendid. I had forgotten these for the moment.
"Exactly. The rails your train goes on. Well, then, 'Home Rails' would be rails at home."
"Well, I've got them at home," said Margery in surprise. "I couldn't have them anywhere else."
"Quite so. Then 'Home Rails Firm' would mean that—er—home rails were—er—firm."
"But mine aren't, because they wobble. You know they do."
"Well, why do they say 'Home Rails Firm' when they mean 'Home Rails Wobble'?"
"Ah, that's just it. The point is that when they say 'Home Rails Firm,' they don't mean that the rails themselves are firm. In fact they don't mean at all what you think they mean. They mean something quite different."
"What do they mean?"
"I am just going to explain," I said stiffly.
* * * * *
"Or perhaps I had better put it this way," I said ten minutes later. "Supposing—Oh, Margery, it is difficult to explain."
"I must know," said Margery.
"Why do you want to know so badly?"
"I want to know a million million times more than anything else in the whole world."
"So as I can tell Angela," said Margery.
I plunged into my explanation again. Angela is three, and I can quite see how important it is that she should be sound on the question.
LIFE'S LITTLE TRAGEDIES
X. A CROWN OF SORROWS
There is something on my mind, of which I must relieve myself. If I am ever to face the world again with a smile I must share my trouble with others. I cannot bear my burden alone.
Friends, I have lost my hat. Will the gentleman who took it by mistake, and forgot to leave his own in its place, kindly return my hat to me at once?
I am very miserable without my hat. It was one of those nice soft ones with a dent down the middle to collect the rain; one of those soft hats which wrap themselves so lovingly round the cranium that they ultimately absorb the personality of the wearer underneath, responding to his every emotion. When people said nice things about me my hat would swell in sympathy; when they said nasty things, or when I had had my hair cut, it would adapt itself automatically to my lesser requirements. In a word, it fitted—and that is more than can be said for your hard, unyielding bowler.
My hat and I dropped into a hall of music one night last week. I placed it under the seat, put a coat on it to keep it warm, and settled down to enjoy myself. My hat could see nothing, but it knew that it would hear all about the entertainment on the way home. When the last moving picture had moved away, my hat and I prepared to depart together. I drew out the coat and felt around for my—Where on earth....
I was calm at first.
"Excuse me," I said politely to the man next to me, "but have you got two hats?"
"Several," he replied, mistaking my meaning.
I dived under the seat again, and came up with some more dust.
"Some one," I said to the programme girl, "has taken my hat."
"Have you looked under the seat for it?" she asked.
It was such a sound suggestion that I went under the seat for the third time.
"It may have been kicked further along," suggested another attendant. She walked up and down the row looking for it; and, in case somebody had kicked it into the row above, walked up and down that one too; and, in case somebody had kicked it on to the other side of the house, many other girls spread themselves in pursuit; and soon we had the whole pack hunting for it.
Then the fireman came up, suspecting the worst. I told him it was even worse than that—my hat had been stolen.
He had a flash of inspiration.
"Are you sure you brought it with you?" he asked.
The programme girls seemed to think that it would solve the whole mystery if I hadn't brought it with me.
"Are you sure you are the fireman?" I said coldly.
He thought for a moment, and then unburdened himself of another idea.
"Perhaps it's just been kicked under the seat," he said.
I left him under the seat and went downstairs with a heavy heart. At the door I said to the hall porter, "Have you seen anybody going out with two hats by mistake?"
"What's the matter?" he said. "Lost your hat?"
"It has been stolen."
"Have you looked under the seats? It may have been kicked along a bit."
"Perhaps I'd better see the manager," I said. "Is it any good looking under the seats for him?"
"I expect it's just been kicked along a bit," the hall porter repeated confidently. "I'll come up with you and look for it."
"If there's any more talk about being kicked along a bit," I said bitterly, "somebody will be. I want the manager."
I was led to the manager's room, and there I explained the matter to him. He was very pleasant about it.
"I expect you haven't looked for it properly," he said, with a charming smile. "Just take this gentleman up," he added to the hall porter, "and find his hat for him. It has probably been kicked under one of the other seats."
We were smiled irresistibly out, and I was dragged up to the grand circle again. The seats by this time were laid out in white draperies; the house looked very desolate; I knew that my poor hat was dead.
With an air of cheery confidence the hall porter turned into the first row of seats....
"It may have been kicked on to the stage," I said, as he began to slow down. "It may have jumped into one of the boxes. It may have turned into a rabbit. You know, I expect you aren't looking for it properly."
The manager was extremely sympathetic when we came back to him. He said. "Oh, I'm sorry." Just like that—"Oh, I'm sorry."
"My hat," I said firmly, "has been stolen."
"I'm sorry," he repeated with a bored smile, and turned to look at himself in the glass.
Then I became angry with him and his attendants and his whole blessed theatre.
"My hat," I said bitingly, "has been stolen from me—while I slept."
* * * * *
You must have seen me wearing it in the dear old days. Greeny brown it was in colour; but it wasn't the colour that drew your eyes to it—no, nor yet the shape, nor the angle at which it sat. It was just the essential rightness of it. If you have ever seen a hat which you felt instinctively was a clever hat, an alive hat, a profound hat, then that was my hat—and that was myself underneath it.
XI. THE LUCKY MONTH
"Know thyself," said the old Greek motto. (In Greek—but this is an English book.) So I bought a little red volume called, tersely enough, Were you born in January? I was; and, reassured on this point, the author told me all about myself.
For the most part he told me nothing new. "You are," he said in effect, "good-tempered, courageous, ambitious, loyal, quick to resent wrong, an excellent raconteur, and a leader of men." True. "Generous to a fault"—(Yes, I was overdoing that rather)—"you have a ready sympathy with the distressed. People born in this month will always keep their promises." And so on. There was no doubt that the author had the idea all right. Even when he went on to warn me of my weaknesses he maintained the correct note. "People born in January," he said, "must be on their guard against working too strenuously. Their extraordinarily active brains——" Well, you see what he means. It is a fault perhaps, and I shall be more careful in future. Mind, I do not take offence with him for calling my attention to it. In fact, my only objection to the book is its surface application to all the people who were born in January. There should have been more distinction made between me and the rabble.
I have said that he told me little that was new. In one matter, however, he did open my eyes. He introduced me to an aspect of myself entirely unsuspected.
"They," he said—meaning me, "have unusual business capacity, and are destined to be leaders in great commercial enterprises."
One gets at times these flashes of self-revelation. In an instant I realised how wasted my life had been; in an instant I resolved that here and now I would put my great gifts to their proper uses. I would be a leader in an immense commercial enterprise.
One cannot start commercial enterprises without capital. The first thing was to determine the exact nature of my balance at the bank. This was a matter for the bank to arrange, and I drove there rapidly.
"Good morning," I said to the cashier, "I am in rather a hurry. May I have my pass-book?"
He assented and retired. After an interminable wait, during which many psychological moments for commercial enterprise must have lapsed, he returned.
"I think you have it," he said shortly.
"Thank you," I replied, and drove rapidly home again.
A lengthy search followed; but after an hour of it one of those white-hot flashes of thought, such as only occur to the natural business genius, seared my mind and sent me post-haste to the bank again.
"After all," I said to the cashier, "I only want to know my balance. What is it?"
He withdrew and gave himself up to calculation. I paced the floor impatiently. Opportunities were slipping by. At last he pushed a slip of paper across at me. My balance!
It was in four figures. Unfortunately two of them were shillings and pence. Still, there was a matter of fifty pounds odd as well, and fortunes have been built up on less.
Out in the street I had a moment's pause. Hitherto I had regarded my commercial enterprise in the bulk, as a finished monument of industry; the little niggling preliminary details had not come up for consideration. Just for a second I wondered how to begin.
Only for a second. An unsuspected talent which has long lain dormant needs, when waked, a second or so to turn round in. At the end of that time I had made up my mind. I knew exactly what I would do. I would ring up my solicitor.
"Hallo, is that you? Yes, this is me. What? Yes, awfully, thanks. How are you? Good. Look here, come and lunch with me. What? No, at once. Good-bye."
Business, particularly that sort of commercial enterprise to which I had now decided to lend my genius, can only be discussed properly over a cigar. During the meal itself my solicitor and I indulged in the ordinary small-talk of the pleasure-loving world.
"You're looking very fit," said my solicitor. "No, not fat, fit."
"You don't think I'm looking thin?" I asked anxiously. "People are warning me that I may be overdoing it rather. They tell me that I must be seriously on my guard against brain strain."
"I suppose they think you oughtn't to strain it too suddenly," said my solicitor. Though he is now a solicitor he was once just an ordinary boy like the rest of us, and it was in those days that he acquired the habit of being rude to me, a habit he has never quite forgotten.
"What is an onyx?" I said, changing the conversation.
"Why?" asked my solicitor, with his usual business acumen.
"Well, I was practically certain that I had seen one in the Zoo, in the reptile house, but I have just learnt that it is my lucky month stone. Naturally I want to get one."
The coffee came and we settled down to commerce.
"I was just going to ask you," said my solicitor—"have you any money lying idle at the bank? Because if so——"
"Whatever else it is doing, it isn't lying idle," I protested. "I was at the bank to-day, and there were men chivying it about with shovels all the time."
"Well, how much have you got?"
"About fifty pounds."
"It ought to be more than that."
"That's what I say, but you know what those banks are. Actual merit counts for nothing with them."
"Well, what did you want to do with it?"
"Exactly. That was why I rang you up. I—er——" This was really my moment, but somehow I was not quite ready to seize it. My vast commercial enterprise still lacked a few trifling details. "Er—I—well, it's like that."
"I might get you a few ground rents."
"Don't. I shouldn't know where to put them."
"But if you really have fifty pounds simply lying idle I wish you'd lend it to me for a bit. I'm confoundedly hard up."
("Generous to a fault, you have a ready sympathy with the distressed." Dash it, what could I do?)
"Is it quite etiquette for clients to lend solicitors money?" I asked. "I thought it was always solicitors who had to lend it to clients. If I must, I'd rather lend it to you—I mean I'd dislike it less—as to the old friend of my childhood."
"Yes, that's how I wanted to pay it back."
"Bother. Then I'll send you a cheque to-night," I sighed.
And that's where we are at the moment. "People born in this month always keep their promises." The money has got to go to-night. If I hadn't been born in January, I shouldn't be sending it; I certainly shouldn't have promised it; I shouldn't even have known that I had it. Sometimes I almost wish that I had been born in one of the decent months. March, say.
XII. THE RESCUE
William Bales—as nice a young man as ever wore a cummerbund on an esplanade—was in despair. For half-an-hour he and Miss Spratt had been sitting in silence on the pier, and it was still William's turn to say something. Miss Spratt's last remark had been, "Oh, Mr. Bales, you do say things!" and William felt that his next observation must at all costs live up to the standard set for it. Three or four times he had opened his mouth to speak, and then on second thoughts had rejected the intended utterance as unworthy. At the end of half-an-hour his mind was still working fruitlessly. He knew that the longer he waited the more brilliant he would have to be, and he told himself that even Bernard Shaw or one of those clever writing fellows would have been hard put to it now.
William was at odds with the world. He was a romantic young man who had once been told that he nearly looked like Lewis Waller when he frowned, and he had resolved that his holiday this year should be a very dashing affair indeed. He had chosen the sea in the hopes that some old gentleman would fall off the pier and let himself be saved by—and, later on, photographed with—William Bales, who in a subsequent interview would modestly refuse to take any credit for the gallant rescue. As his holiday had progressed he had felt the need for some such old gentleman more and more; for only thus, he realised, could he capture the heart of the wayward Miss Spratt. But so far it had been a dull season; in a whole fortnight nobody had gone out of his way to oblige William, and to-morrow he must return to the City as unknown and as unloved as when he left it.
"Got to go back to-morrow," he said at last. As an impromptu it would have served, but as the result of half-an-hour's earnest thought he felt that it did not do him justice.
"So you said before," remarked Miss Spratt.
"Well, it's still true."
"Talking about it won't help it," said Miss Spratt.
William sighed and looked round the pier. There was an old gentleman fishing at the end of it, his back turned invitingly to William. In half-an-hour he had caught one small fish (which he had had to return as under the age limit) and a bunch of seaweed. William felt that here was a wasted life; a life, however, which a sudden kick and a heroic rescue by W. Bales might yet do something to justify. At the Paddington Baths, a month ago, he had won a plate-diving competition; and, though there is a difference between diving for plates and diving for old gentlemen, he was prepared to waive it. One kick and then ... Fame! And, not only Fame, but the admiration of Angelina Spratt.
It was perhaps as well for the old gentleman—who was really quite worthy, and an hour later caught a full-sized whiting—that Miss Spratt spoke at this moment.
"Well, you're good company, I must say," she observed to William.
"It's so hot," said William.
"You can't say I asked to come here."
"Let's go on the beach," said William desperately. "We can find a shady cave or something." Fate was against him; there was to be no rescue that day.
"I'm sure I'm agreeable," said Miss Spratt.
They walked in silence along the beach, and, rounding a corner of the cliffs, they came presently to a cave. In earlier days W. Bales could have done desperate deeds against smugglers there, with Miss Spratt looking on. Alas for this unromantic age! It was now a place for picnics, and a crumpled sheet of newspaper on the sand showed that there had been one there that very afternoon.
They sat in a corner of the cave, out of the sun, out of sight of the sea, and William prepared to renew his efforts as a conversationalist. In the hope of collecting a few ideas as to what the London clubs were talking about he picked up the discarded newspaper, and saw with disgust that it was the local Herald. But just as he threw it down, a line in it caught his eye and remained in his mind——
"High tide to-day—3.30."
William's heart leapt. He looked at his watch; it was 2.30. In one hour the waves would be dashing remorselessly into the cave, would be leaping up the cliff, what time he and Miss Spratt——
Suppose they were caught by the tide....
Meanwhile the lady, despairing of entertainment, had removed her hat.
"Really," she said, "I'm that sleepy—I suppose the tide's safe, Mr. Bales?"
It was William's chance.
"Quite, quite safe," he said earnestly. "It's going down hard."
"Well, then, I almost think——" She closed her eyes. "Wake me up when you've thought of something really funny, Mr. Bales."
William was left alone with Romance.
He went out of the cave and looked round. The sea was still some way out, but it came up quickly on this coast. In an hour ... in an hour....
He scanned the cliffs, and saw the ledge whither he would drag her. She would cling to him crying, calling him her rescuer....
What should he do then? Should he leave her and swim for help? Or should he scale the mighty cliff?
He returned to the cave and, gazing romantically at the sleeping Miss Spratt, conjured up the scene. It would go like this, he thought.
Miss Spratt (wakened by the spray dashing over her face). Oh, Mr. Bales! We're cut off by the tide! Save me!
W. Bales (lightly). Tut-tut, there's no danger. It's nothing. (Aside) Great Heavens! Death stares us in the face!
Miss Spratt (throwing her arms around his neck). William, save me; I cannot swim!
W. Bales (with Waller face). Trust me, Angelina. I will fight my way round yon point and obtain help. (Aside) An Englishman can only die once.
Miss Spratt. Don't leave me!
W. Bales. Fear not, sweetheart. See, there is a ledge where you will be beyond the reach of the hungry tide. I will carry you thither in my arms and will then——
At this point in his day-dream William took another look at the sleeping Miss Spratt, felt his biceps doubtfully, and went on—
W. Bales. I will assist you to climb thither, and will then swim for help.
Miss Spratt. My hero!
Again and again William reviewed the scene to himself. It was perfect. His photograph would be in the papers; Miss Spratt would worship him; he would be a hero in his City office. The actual danger was slight, for at the worst she could shelter in the far end of the cave; but he would not let her know this. He would do the thing heroically—drag her to the ledge on the cliff, and then swim round the point to obtain help.
The thought struck him that he could conduct the scene better in his shirt sleeves. He removed his coat, and then went out of the cave to reconnoitre the ledge.
* * * * *
Miss Spratt awoke with a start and looked at her watch. It was 4.15. The cave was empty save for a crumpled page of newspaper. She glanced at this idly and saw that it was the local Herald ... eight days old.
Far away on the horizon William Bales was throwing stones bitterly at the still retreating sea.
XIII. THE PORTUGUESE CIGAR
Everything promised well for my week-end with Charles. The weather was warm and sunny, I was bringing my golf clubs down with me, and I had just discovered (and meant to put into practice) an entirely new stance which made it impossible to miss the object ball. It was this that I was explaining to Charles and his wife at dinner on Friday, when the interruption occurred.
"By the way," said Charles, as I took out a cigarette, "I've got a cigar for you. Don't smoke that thing."
"You haven't let him go in for cigars?" I said reproachfully to Mrs. Charles. I can be very firm about other people's extravagances.
"This is one I picked up in Portugal," explained Charles. "You can get them absurdly cheap out there. Let's see, dear; where did I put it?"
"I saw it on your dressing-table last week," said his wife, getting up to leave us. He followed her out and went in search of it, while I waited with an interest which I made no effort to conceal. I had never heard before of a man going all the way to Portugal to buy one cigar for a friend.
"Here it is," said Charles, coming in again. He put down in front of me an ash-tray, the matches and a—and a—well, a cigar. I examined it slowly. Half of it looked very tired.
"Well," said Charles, "what do you think of it?"
"When you say you—er—picked it up in Portugal," I began carefully. "I suppose you don't mean——" I stopped and tried to bite the end off.
"Have a knife," said Charles.
I had another bite, and then I decided to be frank.
"Why did you pick it up?" I asked.
"The fact was," said Charles, "I found myself one day in Lisbon without my pipe, and so I bought that thing; I never smoke them in the ordinary way."
"Did you smoke this?" I asked. It was obvious that something had happened to it.
"No, you see, I found some cigarettes at the last moment, and so, knowing that you liked cigars, I thought I'd bring it home for you."
"It's very nice of you, Charles. Of course I can see that it has travelled. Well, we must do what we can with it."
I took the knife and started chipping away at the mahogany end. The other end—the brown-paper end, which had come ungummed—I intended to reserve for the match. When everything was ready I applied a light, leant back in my chair, and pulled.
"That's all right, isn't it?" said Charles. "You'd be surprised if I told you what I paid for it."
"No, no, you mustn't think that," I protested. "Probably things are dearer in Portugal." I put it down by my plate for a moment's rest. "All I've got against it at present is that its pores don't act as freely as they should."
"I've got a cigar-cutter somewhere, if——"
"No, don't bother, I think I can do it with the nut-crackers. There's no doubt it was a good cigar once, but it hasn't wintered well."
I squeezed it as hard as I could, lit it again, pressed my feet against the table and pulled.
"Now it's going," said Charles.
"I'm afraid it keeps very reticent at my end. The follow-through is poor. Is your end alight still?"
"It's a pity that I should be missing all that. How would it be if we were to make a knitting-needle red-hot and bore a tunnel from this end? We might establish a draught that way. Only there's always the danger, of course, of coming out at the side."
I took the cigar up and put it to my ear.
"I can't hear anything wrong," I said. "I expect what it really wants is massage."
Charles filled his pipe again and got up. "Let's go for a stroll," he said. "It's a beautiful night. Bring your cigar with you."
"It may prefer the open air," I said. "There's always that. You know we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the Portuguese climate is different from ours. The thing's pores may have acted more readily in the South. On the other hand, the unfastened end may have been more adhesive. I gather that though you have never actually met anybody who has smoked a cigar like this, yet you understand that the experiment is a practicable one. As far as you know this had no brothers. No, no, Charles, I'm going on with it, but I should like to know all that you can tell me of its parentage. It had a Portuguese father and an American mother, I should say, and there has been a good deal of trouble in the family. One moment"—and as we went outside I stopped and cracked it in the door.
It was an inspiration. At the very next application of the match I found that I had established a connection with the lighted end. Not a long and steady connection, but one that came in gusts. After two gusts I decided that it was perhaps safer to blow from my end, and for a little while we had in this way as much smoke around us as the most fastidious cigar-smoker could want. Then I accidentally dropped it; something in the middle of it shifted, I suppose—and for the rest of my stay behind it only one end was at work.
"Well," said Charles, when we were back in the smoking-room and I was giving the cigar a short breather, "it's not a bad one, is it?"
"I have enjoyed it," I said truthfully, for I like trying to get the mastery over a thing that defies me.
"You'll never guess what it cost," he chuckled.
"Tell me," I said. "I daren't guess."
"Well, in English money it works out at exactly three farthings."
I looked at him for a long time and then shook my head sadly.
"Charles, old friend," I said, "you've been done."
XIV. A COLD WORLD
Herbert is a man who knows all about railway tickets, and packing, and being in time for trains, and things like that. But I fancy I have taught him a lesson at last. He won't talk quite so much about tickets in future.
I was just thinking about getting up when he came into my room. He looked at me in horror.
"My dear fellow!" he said. "And you haven't even packed! You'll be late. Here, get up, and I'll pack for you while you dress."
"Do," I said briefly.
"First of all, what clothes are you going to travel in?"
There was no help for it. I sat up in bed and directed operations.
"Right," said Herbert. "Now what about your return ticket? You mustn't forget that."
"You remind me of a little story," I said. "I'll tell it you while you pack—that will be nice for you. Once upon a time I lost my return ticket, and I had to pay two pounds for another. And a month afterwards I met a man—a man like you who knows all about tickets—and he said, 'You could have got the money back if you had applied at once.' So I said, 'Give me a cigarette now, and I'll transfer all my rights in the business to you.' And he gave me a cigarette; but unfortunately——"
"It was too late?"
"No. Unfortunately it wasn't. He got the two pounds. The most expensive cigarette I've ever smoked."
"Well, that just shows you," said Herbert. "Here's your ticket. Put it in your waistcoat pocket now."
"But I haven't got a waistcoat on, silly."
"Which one are you going to put on?"
"I don't know yet. This is a matter which requires thought. Give me time, give me air."
"Well, I shall put the ticket here on the dressing-table, and then you can't miss it." He looked at his watch. "And the trap starts in half an hour."
"Help!" I cried, and I leapt out of bed.
Half an hour later I was saying good-bye to Herbert.
"I've had an awfully jolly time," I said, "and I'll come again."
"You've got the ticket all right?"
"Rather!" and I drove away amidst cheers. Cheers of sorrow.
It was half-an-hour's drive to the station. For the first five minutes I thought how sickening it was to be leaving the country; then I had a slight shock; and for the next twenty-five minutes I tried to remember how much a third single to the nearest part of London cost. Because I had left my ticket on the dressing-table after all.
I gave my luggage to a porter and went off to the station-master.
"I wonder if you can help me," I said. "I've left my ticket on the dress—— Well, we needn't worry about that, I've left it at home."
He didn't seem intensely excited.
"What did you think of doing?" he asked.
"I had rather hoped that you would do something."
"You can buy another ticket, and get the money back afterwards."
"Yes, yes; but can I? I've only got about one pound six."
"The fare to London is one pound five and tenpence ha'penny."
"Ah; well, that leaves a penny ha'penny to be divided between the porter this end, lunch, tea, the porter the other end, and the cab. I don't believe it's enough. Even if I gave it all to the porter here, think how reproachfully he would look at you ever afterwards. It would haunt you."
The station-master was evidently moved. He thought for a moment, and then asked if I knew anybody who would vouch for me. I mentioned Herbert confidently. He had never even heard of Herbert.
"I've got a tie-pin," I said (station-masters have a weakness for tie-pins), "and a watch and a cigarette case. I shall be happy to lend you any of those."
The idea didn't appeal to him.
"The best thing you can do," he said, "is to take a ticket to the next station and talk to them there. This is only a branch line, and I have no power to give you a pass."
So that was what I had to do. I began to see myself taking a ticket at every stop and appealing to the station-master at the next. Well, the money would last longer that way, but unless I could overcome quickly the distrust which I seemed to inspire in station-masters there would not be much left for lunch. I gave the porter all I could afford—a ha'penny, mentioned apologetically that I was coming back, and stepped into the train.
At the junction I jumped out quickly and dived into the sacred office.
"I've left my ticket on the dressing—that is to say, I forgot—— Well, anyhow, I haven't got it," I began, and we plunged into explanations once more. This station-master was even more unemotional than the last. He asked me if I knew anybody who could vouch for me. I mentioned Herbert diffidently. He had never even heard of Herbert. I showed him my gold watch, my silver cigarette case, and my emerald and diamond tie-pin—that was the sort of man I was.