Part 3 out of 3
And now consider what happens when the year is over. The
fortune-teller has done her part; she has given you a year's happiness
for two guineas. It is now your uncle's turn to step forward. He is
going to give you twenty years' happiness by leaving you a million
pounds. Probably he doesn't; he hasn't got a million pounds to leave;
he has, in fact, just written to you to ask you to lend him a fiver.
Well, surely it is the uncle who has let you down, not the
fortune-teller. Curse him by all means, cut him out of your will, but
don't blame the fortune-teller, who fulfilled her part of the
contract. The only reason why you went to her was to get your
happiness in advance. Well, you got it in advance; and seeing that it
was the only happiness you got, her claim on your gratitude shines out
the more clearly. You might decently send her another guinea.
This is the case if you honestly believe your fortune-teller. Now let
us suppose that you don't believe. It seems to me that in this case
you are entitled to the return of your money.
Of course, I am not supposing that you are a complete sceptic about
these things. It is plainly impossible for a fortune-teller to defraud
a sceptic, otherwise than by telling him the truth. For if a sceptic
went to consult the crystal, and was told that he would marry again
before the month was out, when in fact he was a bachelor, then he has
not been defrauded, for he is now in a position to tell all his
friends that fortune-telling is absolute nonsense--on evidence for
which he deliberately paid two guineas. Indeed, it is just on this
ground that police prosecutions seem to me to fail. For a policeman
(suitably disguised) pays his money simply for the purpose of getting
evidence against the crystal-gazer. Having got his evidence, it is
ridiculous of him to pretend that he has been cheated. But if he
wasted two guineas of the public money, and was told nothing but the
truth about himself and his family, then he could indeed complain that
the money had been taken from him under false pretences.
However, to get back to your own case. You, we assume, are not a
sceptic. You believe that certain inspired people can tell your
future, and that the fee which they ask for doing this is a reasonable
one. But on this particular occasion the spirits are not working
properly, and all that emerges is that your uncle in Australia----
But with the best will in the world you cannot believe this. The
spirits must have got mixed; they are slightly under-proof this
morning; you have no uncle. The fortune-teller gives you her word of
honour that she firmly believes you to have at least three uncles in
Australia, one of whom will shortly leave you a mill---- It is no
good. You cannot believe it. And it seems to me that on the morning's
transaction you have certainly been defrauded. You must insist on "a
tall dark man from India" at the next sitting.
It is "the tall dark man" which the amateur crystal-gazer really
wants. He doesn't want the future. There is so little to foretell in
most of our lives. Nobody is going to pay two guineas to be told that
he will be off his drive next Saturday and have a stomach-ache on the
following Monday. He wants something a little more romantic than that.
Even if he is never going to be influenced by a tall dark man from
India, it makes life a little more interesting to be told that he is
going to be.
For the average man finds life very uninteresting as it is. And I
think that the reason why he finds it uninteresting is that he is
always waiting for something to happen to him instead of setting to
work to make things happen. For one person who dreams of earning fifty
thousand pounds, a hundred people dream of being left fifty thousand
pounds. I imagine that if a young man went to a crystal-gazer and was
told that he would work desperately hard for the next twenty years,
and would by that time have earned (and saved) a fortune, he would be
very disappointed. Probably he would ask for his money back.
The Largest Circulation
There died recently a gentleman named Nat Gould, twenty million copies
of whose books had been sold. They were hardly ever reviewed in the
literary papers; advertisements of them rarely appeared; no puffs nor
photographs of the author were thrust upon one, Unostentatiously he
wrote them--five in a year--and his million public was assured to him.
It is perhaps too late now to begin to read them, but we cannot help
wondering whence came his enormous popularity.
Mr. Gould, as all the world knows, wrote racing novels. They were
called, _Won by a Neck_, or _Lost by a Head_, or _Odds On_, or _The
Stable-lad's Dilemma_. Every third man in the Army carried one about
with him. I was unlucky in this matter, for all my men belonged to the
other two-thirds; they read detective stories about a certain Sexton
Blake, who kept bursting into rooms and finding finger-marks. In your
innocence you may think that Sherlock Holmes is the supreme British
detective, but he is a child to Blake. If I learnt nothing else in the
Army, I learnt that. Possibly these detective stories were a side-line
of Mr. Gould's, or possibly my regiment was the one anti-Gould
regiment in the Army. At any rate, I was demobilized without any
acquaintance with the _Won by a Neck_ stories.
There must be something about the followers of racing which makes them
different from the followers of any other sport. I suppose that I am
at least as keen on the Lunch Scores as any other man can be on the
Two-thirty Winner; yet I have no desire whatever to read a succession
of stories entitled _How's That, Umpire?_ or _Run Out_, or _Lost by a
Wicket_. I can waste my time and money with as much pleasure on the
golf-course as Mr. Gould's readers can on the race-course, but those
great works, _Stymied_ and _The Foozle on the Fifth Tee_, leave me
cold. My lack of interest in racing explains my lack of interest in
racing novels, but why is there no twenty million public for
_Off-side_ and _Fouled on the Touchline_? It is a mystery.
Though I have never read a racing novel, I can imagine it quite
easily. Lord Newmarket's old home is mortgaged, mortgaged everywhere.
His house is mortgaged, his park is mortgaged, his stud is mortgaged,
his tie-pin is mortgaged; yet he wants to marry Lady Angela. How can
he restore his old home to its earlier glories? There is only one
chance. He must put his shirt (the only thing that isn't mortgaged) on
Fido for the Portland Vase. Fido is a rank outsider--most of the
bookmakers thought that he was a fox-terrier, not a horse--and he is
starting at a thousand to one. When the starting-gate goes up, Fido
will carry not only Lord Newmarket's shirt, but Lady Angela's
happiness. Was there ever such a race before in the history of racing?
Only in the five thousand other racing novels. But Lord Newmarket is
reckoning without Rupert Blacknose. Blacknose has not only sworn to
wed Lady Angela, but it is he who holds the mortgages on Lord
Newmarket's old home. It is at Newmarket Villa that he means to settle
down when he is married. If Fido wins, his dreams are shattered. At
dead of night he climbs into Fido's stable, and paints him white with
a few black splotches. Surely _now_ he will be disqualified as a
fox-terrier! He climbs out again, laughing sardonically to himself....
The day of the great race dawns. The Portland Vasel Who has not heard
of it? In the far-away Malay Archipelago... in the remotest parts of
the Australian bush... in West Kensington... etc., etc. Anyway, the
downs were black with people, and the stands were black with more
people, and the paddock was packed with black people. But of all these
people none concealed beneath a mask of impassivity a heart more
anxious than Lord Newmarket's. He wandered restlessly into the
weighing-room. He weighed himself. He had gone down a pound. He
wandered out again. The downs were still black with humanity. Then
came a hoarse cry from twenty thousand throats. _"They're off!"_
Yes, well, Mr. Gould's novels are probably better than that. But it is
a terrifying thought that he wrote a hundred and thirty of them. A
hundred and thirty times he described that hoarse cry from twenty
thousand throats, "They're off!" A hundred and thirty times he
described the downs black with humanity, and the grandstand, and the
race itself, and what the bookmakers were saying, and the scene in the
paddock. How did he do it? Had he a special rubber stamp for all these
usual features, which saved him the trouble of writing them every
time? Or did he come quite fresh to it with each book? He wrote five
of them every year; did he forget in March what he said in January,
only to forget in June and visualize the scene afresh? To describe a
race-course a hundred thirty times--what a man!
Yet perhaps, after all, it is not difficult to understand why he was
so popular, why he had a following even greater than Mr. Garvice. Mr.
Garvice wrote love-stories, stories of that sweet and fair young
English girl and that charming, handsome, athletic young Englishman.
Every one who is not yet in love, or who is unhappily married, dreams
of meeting one or the other, and to read such stories transports the
loveless for a moment into the land where they would be. But then
there are many more moneyless people in the world than loveless; many
more people who want money than who want love. It is these people who
are transported by Mr. Nat Gould. He does not (I imagine) write of the
stern-chinned, silent millionaire who has forced his way to the top by
solid grit; we have no hopes of getting rich that way. But he does (I
imagine) write of the lucky fellow who puts his shirt both ways on an
outsider and pulls off a cool thousand. Well, that might happen to any
of us. It never has yet... but five times a year Mr. Gould carried us
away from the world where it never has into that beautiful dream-world
where it happens quite naturally. No wonder that he was popular.
The Watson Touch
There used to be a song which affirmed (how truly, I do not know) that
every nice girl loved a sailor. I am prepared to state, though I do
not propose to make a song about it, that every nice man loves a
detective story. This week I have been reading the last adventures of
Sherlock Holmes--I mean really the last adventures, ending with his
triumph over the German spy in 1914. Having saved the Empire, Holmes
returned to his farm on the Sussex downs, and there, for all I mind,
he may stay. I have no great affection for the twentieth-century
Holmes. But I will give the warmest welcome to as many adventures of
the Baker Street Holmes as Watson likes to reconstruct for us. There
is no reason why the supply of these should ever give out. "It was, I
remember, at the close of a winter's day in 1894"--when Watson begins
like this, then I am prepared to listen. Fortunately, all the stories
in this last book, with the exception of the very indifferent spy
story, are of the Baker Street days, the days when Watson said,
"Holmes, this is marvellous!" Reading them now--with, I suppose, a
more critical mind than I exhibited twenty years ago--I see that
Holmes was not only a great detective, but a very lucky one. There is
an occasion when he suddenly asks the doctor why he had a Turkish
bath. Utterly unnerved, Watson asks how he knew, to which the great
detective says that it is as obvious as is the fact that the doctor
had shared a hansom with a friend that morning. But when Holmes
explains further, we see how lucky he is. Watson, he says, has some
mud on his left trouser; therefore he sat on the left side of a
hansom; therefore he shared it with a friend, for otherwise he would
have sat in the middle. Watson's boots, he continues, had obviously
been tied by a stranger; therefore he has had them off in a Turkish
bath or a boot shop, and since the newness of the boots makes it
unlikely that he has been buying another pair, therefore he must have
been to a Turkish bath. "Holmes," says Watson, "this is
Marvellously lucky, anyway. For, however new his boots, poor old
Watson might have been buying a pair of pumps, or bedroom slippers, or
tennis shoes that morning, or even, if the practice allowed such
extravagance, a second pair of boots. And there was, of course, no
reason whatever why he should not have sat at the side of his hansom,
even if alone. It is much more comfortable, and is, in fact, what one
always did in the hansom days, and still does in a taxi. So if Holmes
was right on this occasion, he was right by luck and not by deduction.
But that must be the best of writing a detective story, that you can
always make the lucky shots come off. In no other form of fiction, I
imagine, does the author feel so certainly that he is the captain of
the ship. If he wants it so, he has it so. Is the solution going to be
too easy! Then he puts in an unexpected footprint in the geranium bed,
or a strange face at the window, and makes it more difficult, Is the
reader being kept too much in the dark? Then a conversation overheard
in the library will make it easier for him. The author's only trouble
is that he can never be certain whether his plot is too obscure or too
obvious. He knows himself that the governess is guilty, and, in
consequence, she can hardly raise her eyebrows without seeming to him
to give the whole thing away.
There was a time when I began to write a detective story for myself.
My murder, I thought, was rather cleverly carried out. The villain
sent a letter to his victim, enclosing a stamped addressed envelope
for an answer. The gum of the envelope was poisoned. I did not know,
nor did I bother to find out, whether it was possible, but this, as I
said just now, is the beauty of writing a detective story. If there is
no such quick-working poison, then you invent one. If up to the moment
when the doubt occurs to you, your villain had been living in Brixton,
you immediately send him to Central Africa, where he extracts a poison
from a "deadly root" according to the prescription of the chief
medicine-man. ("It is the poison into which the Swabiji dip their
arrows," you tell the reader casually, as if he really ought to have
known it for himself.) Well, then, I invented my poison, and my
villain put it on the gum of a self-addressed envelope, and enclosed
it with a letter asking for his victim's autograph. He then posted the
letter, whereupon a very tragic thing happened.
What happened was that, having left the letter in the post for some
years while I formed fours and saluted, I picked up a magazine in the
Mess one day and began to read a detective story. It was a very
baffling one, and I really didn't see how the murderer could possibly
have committed his foul deed. But the detective was on to it at once.
He searched the wastepaper basket, and, picking an envelope therefrom,
said "Ha!" It was just about then that I said "Ha!" too, and also
other things, for my half-finished story was now useless. Somebody
else had thought of the same idea. But though I was very sorry for
this, I could not help feeling proud that my idea made such a good
story. Indeed, since then I have fancied myself rather as a
detective-story-writer, and if only I could think of something which
nobody else would think of while I was thinking of it, I would try
Some Old Companions
In the days of the last-war-but-thirty-seven, when (as you will
remember) the Peers were fighting the People, Lord Curzon defended the
hereditary system by telling us that it worked very well in India,
where a tailor's son invariably became a tailor. The obvious answer,
if anyone bothered to give it, was that the tailor's son, having had
his career mapped out for him at birth, presumably prepared to be a
tailor, whereas a peer's eldest son, as far as one observed, did not
prepare to be a statesman. Indeed, the only profession in this country
to which one is apprenticed in one's childhood is that of royalty. The
future King can begin to learn the "tactful smile," the "memory for
faces," the knowledge of foreign languages and orders, almost as soon
as he begins to learn anything. He alone need not regret his youth and
say, "If only I had been taught this, that, and the other instead!"
These gloomy reflections have been forced on me by the re-discovery of
all those educational books which I absorbed, or was supposed to have
absorbed, at school and college. They made an imposing collection when
I had got them all together; fifty mathematical works by eminent Den,
from a well-thumbed, dog's-eared _Euclid_ to a clean uncut copy of
_Functions of a Quaternion_. It is doubtful if you even know what a
quaternion is, still less how it functions; probably you think of it
as a small four-legged animal with a hard shell. You may be right--it
is so long since I bought the book. But once I knew all about
quaternions; kept them, possibly, at the bottom of the garden; and now
I ask myself in Latin (for I learnt Latin too), _"Cui bono?"_ How
much better if I had learnt this, that, and the other instead!
History for instance. How useful a knowledge of history would be to me
now. To lighten an article like this with a reference to what
Garibaldi said to Cavour in '53; to round off a sentence with the
casual remark, "As was the custom in Alexander's day"; to trace back
a religious tendency, or a fair complexion, or the price of boots to
some barbarian invasion of a thousand years ago--how delightfully easy
it would be, I tell myself, to write with such knowledge at one's
disposal. One would never be at a loss for a subject, and plots for
stories, plays, and historical novels would be piled up in one's brain
for the choosing. But what can one do with mathematics--save count the
words of an article (when written) with rather more quickness and
accuracy than one's fellow writer? Did I spend ten years at
mathematics for this? The waste of it!
But perhaps those years were not so wasted as they seem to have been.
Not only Functions of a Quaternion, but other of these books, chatty
books about hydro-mechanics and dynamics of a particle (no, not an
article--that might have been helpful--a particle), gossipy books
about optics and differential equations, many of these have a
comforting air of cleanness; as if, having bought them at the
instigation of my instructor, I had felt that this was enough, and
that their mere presence in my bookcase was a sufficient talisman; a
talisman the more effective because my instructor had marked some of
the chapters "R"--meaning, no doubt, _"Read carefully"_--and other
chapters "RR" or _"Read twice as carefully."_ For these seem to be
the only marks in some of the books, and there are no traces of
midnight oil nor of that earnest thumb which one might expect from the
perspiring seeker after knowledge.
So I feel--indeed, I seem to remember--that the years were not so
wasted after all. When I should have been looking after my
quaternions, I was doing something else, something not so useful to
one who would be a mathematician, but perhaps more useful to a writer
who had already learnt enough to count the words in an article and to
estimate the number of guineas due to him. But whether this be so or
not, at least I have another reason for gratitude that I treated some
of these volumes so reverently. For I have now sold them all to a
secondhand bookseller, and he at least was influenced by the clean
look of those which I had placed upon the top.
So they stand now, my books, in a shelf outside the shop waiting for a
new master. Fifteen shillings I paid for some of them, and you or
anybody else can get them for three and sixpence, with my autograph
inside and the "R" and "RR" of some of our most learned
mathematicians. I should like to hear from the purchaser, and to know
that he is giving my books as kind a home as I gave them, treating
them as reverently, exercising them as gently. He can never be a
mathematician, or anything else, unless he has them on his shelves,
but let him not force his attentions upon them. Left to themselves
they will exert their own influence.
I shall wonder sometimes what he is going to be, this young fellow who
is now reading the books on which I was brought up. Spurred on by the
differential equations, will he decide to be a lawyer, or will the
dynamics of a particle help him to realize his ambition of painting?
Well, whatever he becomes, I wish him luck. And when he sells the
books again, may he get a better price than I did.
A Haunted House
We have been trying to hide it from each other, but the truth must now
come out. Our house is haunted.
Well, of course, anybody's house might be haunted. Anybody might have
a headless ghost walking about the battlements or the bath-room at
midnight, and if it were no more than that, I should not trouble you
with the details. But our house is haunted in a peculiar way. No house
that I have heard of has ever been affected in quite this way before.
I must begin by explaining that it is a new house, built just before
the war. (Before the war, not after; this is a true story.) Its first
and only tenant was a Mrs. Watson-Watson, who lived here with her
daughter. Add her three servants, and you have filled the house. No
doubt she could have stowed people away in the cellar, but I have
never heard that she did; she preferred to keep it for such coal and
wood as came her way. When Mrs. Watson-Watson decided six months ago
to retire to the country, we took the house, and have lived here
since. And very comfortably, except for this haunting business.
As was to be expected, we were busy for the first few weeks in sending
on Mrs. Watson-Watson's letters. Gradually, as the news of her removal
got round to her less intimate friends, the flow of them grew less,
and at last--to our great relief, for we were always mislaying her
address--it ceased altogether. It was not until then that we felt
ourselves to be really in possession of our house.
We were not in possession for long. A month later a letter arrived for
Lady Elizabeth Mullins. Supposing this to be a _nom-de-guerre_ of Mrs.
Watson-Watson's, we searched for, and with great difficulty found, the
missing address, and sent the letter on. Next day there were two more
letters for Lady Elizabeth; by the end of the week there were half a
dozen; and for the rest of that month they came trickling in at the
rate of one a day. Mrs. Watson-Watson's address was now definitely
lost, so we tied Lady-Elizabeth's letters up in a packet and sent them
to the ground-landlord's solicitors. Solicitors like letters.
It was annoying at this time, when one was expecting, perhaps, a very
important cheque or communication from the Prime Minister, to go
downstairs eagerly at the postman's knock and find a couple of letters
for Lady Elizabeth and a belated copy of the _Church Times_ for Mrs.
Watson-Watson. It was still more annoying, that, just when we were
getting rid of Lady Elizabeth, Mr. J. Garcia should have arrived to
take her place.
Mr. Garcia seems to be a Spaniard. At any rate, most of his letters
came from Spain. This makes it difficult to know what to do with them.
There was something clever in Spanish on the back of the last one,
which may be the address to which we ought to return it, but on the
other hand, may be just the Spanish for "Always faithful" or
"Perseverance" or "Down with the bourgeoisie." He seems to be a
busier person than Lady Elizabeth. Ten people wrote to him the other
week, whereas there were never more than seven letters in a week for
Until lately, I have always been annoyed by the fact that there is no
Sunday post in London. To come down to breakfast knowing that on this
morning anyhow there is no chance of an O.B.E. takes the edge off
one's appetite. But lately, I have been glad of the weekly respite.
For one day in seven I can do without the excitement of wondering
whether there will be three letters for Mr. Garcia this morning, or
two for Lady Elizabeth, or three for Lady Elizabeth, or one for Mrs.
Watson-Watson. I will gladly let my own correspondence go in order to
be saved from theirs. But on Sunday last, about tea-time, there came a
knock at the front-door and the unmistakable scuttle of a letter being
pushed through the slit and dropping into the hall, My senses are now
so acute in this matter, that I can almost distinguish the scuffle of
a genuine Garcia from that of a Mullins or even a Watson-Watson. There
was a novelty about this arrival which was interesting. I went into
the hall, and saw a letter on the floor, unstamped and evidently
delivered by hand. It was inscribed to Sir John Poling.
Will somebody offer an explanation? I have given you our
story--leaving out as accidental, and not of sufficient historic
interest, the postcard to the Countess of Westbury and the obvious
income-tax form to Colonel Todgers, C.B.--and I feel that it is up to
you or the Psychical Research Society or somebody to tell us what it
all means. My own explanation is this. I think that our house is
haunted by ghosts, but by the ghosts of living persons only, and that
these ghosts are visible to outsiders, but invisible to the inmates
Thus Mr. Lopez, while passing down our street, suddenly sees J. Garcia
looking at him from our drawing-room window. "Caramba!" he says, "I
thought he was in Barcelona." He makes a note of the address, and
when he gets back to Spain writes long letters to Garcia begging him
to come back to his Barcelonian wife and family. At another time
somebody else sees Sir John Poling letting himself in at the front
door with a latch-key. "So that's where he lives now," she says to
herself, and spreads the news among their mutual friends. Of course,
this is very annoying for us, and one cannot help wishing that these
ghosts would confine themselves to one of the back bedrooms. Failing
this, they might leave some kind of address in indelible letters on
Another explanation is that our address has become in some way a sort
of typical address, just as "Thomas Atkins" became the typical
soldier for the purpose of filling up forms, and "John Doe" the
typical litigant. When a busy woman puts our address on an envelope
beneath the name of Lady Elizabeth Mullins, all she means is that Lady
Elizabeth lives somewhere, and that the secretary had better look up
the proper address and write it in before posting the letter. Every
now and then the secretary forgets to do this, and the letter comes
here. This may be a compliment to the desirability of our house, but
it is a compliment of which we are getting tired. I must ask that it
should now cease.
Round the World and Back
A friend of mine is just going off for his holiday. He is having a
longer holiday than usual this time. Instead of his customary three
weeks, he is having a year, and he is going to see the world. He
begins with India. Probably some of our Territorials will wonder why
he wants to see India particularly. They would gladly give him all of
it. However, he is determined to go, and I cannot do less than wish
him luck and a safe return.
There are several places to which I should be glad to accompany him,
but India is not one of them. Kipling ruined India for me, as I
suspect he did for many other of his readers. I picture India as full
of intriguing, snobbish Anglo-Indians, who are always damning the Home
Government for ruining the country. It is an odd thing that, although
I have lived between thirty and forty years in England, nobody
believes that I know how to govern England, and yet the stupidest
Anglo-Indian, who claims to know all about the proper government of
India because he has lived there ten or twenty years, is believed by
quite a number of people to be speaking with authority. No doubt my
friend will have the decisive word in future in all his arguments on
Indian questions with less travelled acquaintances. But he shall not
get round me.
From India he goes to China, and thither I would follow him with
greater willingness, albeit more tremulously. I can never get it out
of my head that the Chinese habitually torture the inquiring visitor.
Probably I read the wrong sort of books when I was young. One of them,
I remember, had illustrations. No doubt they were illustrations of
mediaeval implements; no doubt I am as foolish as the Chinaman would
be who had read about the Tower of London and feared to disembark at
Folkstone; but it is hard to dispel these early impressions. "Yes,
yes," I should say rather hastily, as they pointed out the Great Wall
to me, and I should lead the way unostentatiously but quite definitely
Before deciding how long to stay in Japan, one would have to ask
oneself what one wants from a strange country. I think that the answer
in my case is "Scenery." The customs of Japan, or Thibet, or Utah
are interesting, no doubt, but one can be equally interested in a
description of them. The people of these countries are interesting,
but then I have by no means exhausted my interest in the people of
England, and five minutes or five months among an entirely new set of
people is not going to help me very much. But a five-second view of
(say) the Victoria Falls is worth acres of canvas or film on the
subject, and as many gallons of ink as you please. So I shall go to
Japan for what I can see, and (since it is so well worth seeing)
remain there as long as I can.
I am not sure where we go next. New Zealand, if the holiday were mine;
for I have always believed New Zealand to be the most beautiful
country in the world. Also it is from all accounts a nice clean
country. If I were to arrange a world-tour for myself, instead of
following some other traveller about in imagination, my course would
be settled, not, in the first place, by questions of climate or
scenery or the larger inhabitants, but by consideration of those
smaller natives--the Tarantula, the Scorpion, and the Centipede. If I
were told that in such-and-such a country one often found a lion in
one's bath, I might be prepared to risk it. I should feel that there
was always a chance that the lion might not object to me. But if I
heard that one might find a tarantula in one's hotel, then that
country would be barred to me for ever. For I should be dead long
before the beast had got to close quarters; dead of disgust.
This is why South America, which always looks so delightful on the
map, will never see me. I have had to give up most of Africa, India
(though, as I have said, this is a country which I can spare), the
West Indies, and many other places whose names I have forgotten. In a
world limited to inhabitants with not more than four legs I could
travel with much greater freedom. At present the two great
difficulties in my way are this insect trouble, and (much less
serious, but still more important) the language trouble. You can
understand, then, how it is that, since also it is a beautiful
country, I look so kindly on New Zealand.
But I doubt if I could be happy even in a dozen New Zealands, each one
more beautiful than the last, seeing that it would mean being away
from London for a year. The number of things which might happen in the
year while one was away! The new plays produced, the literary and
political reputations made and lost, a complete cricket championship
fought out; in one's over-anxious mind there would never be such a
year as the year which one was missing. My friend may retain his calm
as he hears of our distant doings in Kiplingized India, but it would
never do for me. Even to-day, after a fortnight in the country, I am
beginning to get restless. Really, I think I ought to get back
The State of the Theatre
We are told that the theatre is in a bad way, that the English Drama
is dead, but I suspect that every generation in its turn has been told
the same thing. I have been reading some old numbers of the Theatrical
Magazine of a hundred years ago. These were the palmy days of the
stage, when blank verse flourished, and every serious play had to
begin like this:
_Scene. A place without._ Rinaldo _discovered dying. Enter_ Marco_._
_Mar._ What ho, Rinaldo! Lo, the horned moon
Dims the cold radiance of the westering stars,
Pale sentinels of the approaching dawn. How now, Rinaldo?
_Rin._ Marco, I am dying, Struck down by Tomasino's treacherous hand.
_Mar._ What, Tomasino?
_Rin._ Tomasino. Ere
The flaming chariot of Phoebus mounts
The vaults of Heaven, Rinaldo will be dead.
_Mar._ Oh, horror piled on horror!
Lo, the moon----
And so on. The result was called--and I think rightly--"a tragedy."
The alternative to these tragedies was a farce, in which everybody
went to an inn and was mistaken for somebody else (causing great fun
and amusement), the heat and burden of the evening resting upon a
humorous man-servant called _Trickett_ (or something good like that).
And whether the superior people of the day said that English Drama was
dead, I do not know; but they may be excused for having thought that,
if it wasn't dead, it ought to have been.
Fortunately we are doing better than that to-day. But we are not doing
as well as we should be, and the reason generally given is that we
have not enough theatres. No doubt we have many more theatres than we
had a hundred years ago, even if you only count those which confine
themselves to plays without music, but the mass-effect of all these
music-hall-theatres is to make many people think and say that English
Drama is (once more) dead.
It is customary to blame the manager for this--the new type of
manager, the Mr. Albert de Lauributt who has been evolved by the war.
He existed before the war, of course, but he limited his activities to
the music-hall. Now he spreads himself over half a dozen theatres, and
produces a revue or a musical comedy at each. He does not care for
Art, but only for Money. He would be just as proud of a successful
production of _Kiss Me, Katie_, as of _Hamlet_; and, to do him
justice, as proud of a successful production of _Hamlet_, as of _Kiss
Me, Katie_. But by "successful" he means "financially successful";
no more and no less. He is frankly out for the stuff, and he thinks
that it is musical comedy which brings in the stuff.
It seems absurd to single him out for blame, when there are so many
thousands of other people in the world who are out for the stuff. Why
should Mr. Albert de Lauributt lose two thousand pounds over your or
my serious play, when he can make ten thousand over _Hug me, Harriet_?
We do not blame other rich men for being as little quixotic with their
money. We do not expect a financier to back a young inventor because
he is a genius, in preference to backing some other inventor because
he has discovered a saleable, though quite inartistic, breakfast food.
So if Mr. de Lauributt produces six versions in his six different
theatres of _Cuddle Me, Constance_, it is only because this happens to
be his way of making money. He may even be spending his own evenings
secretly at the "Old Vic." For he runs his theatre, not as an
artist, but as a business man; and, as any business man will tell you,
"Business is business, my boy."
We cannot blame him then. But we can regret that he is allowed to own
six different theatres. In Paris it is "one man, one theatre," and
if it were so in London then there would be less the matter with the
English Drama. But, failing such an enactment, all that remains is to
persuade the public that what it really wants is something a little
better than _Kiss Me, Katie_. For Mr. de Lauributt is quite ready to
provide Shakespeare, Ibsen, Galsworthy, modern drama, modern comedy,
anything you like as long as it brings him in pots of money. And he
would probably do the thing well. He would have the sense to know that
the producer of _Hug Me, Harriet_, would not be the best possible
producer of _The Wild Duck_; he would try to get the best possible
producer and the best possible designer and the best possible cast,
knowing that all these would help to bring in the best possible
box-office receipts. Yes, he would do the thing well, if only the
public really asked for it.
How can the public ask for it? Obviously it can only do this by
staying away from _Cuddle Me, Constance_, and visiting instead those
plays whose authors take themselves seriously, whenever such plays are
available. It should be the business, therefore, of the critics (the
people who are really concerned to improve the public taste in plays)
to lead the public in the right direction; away, that is, from the
Bareback Theatre, and towards those theatres whose managers have other
than financial standards. But it is unfortunately the fact that they
don't do this. Without meaning it, they lead the public the wrong way.
They mislead them simply because they have two standards of
criticism--which the public does not understand. They go to the
Bareback Theatre for the first night of _Kiss Me, Katie_, and they
write something like this:--
"Immense enthusiasm.... A feast of colour to delight the eye. Mr.
Albert de Lauributt has surpassed himself.... Delightfully catchy
music.... The audience laughed continuously.... Mr. Ponk, the new
comedian from America, was a triumphant success.... Ravishing Miss
Rosie Romeo was more ravishing than ever... Immense enthusiasm."
On the next night they go to see Mr. A. W. Galsbarrie's new play,
_Three Men_. They write like this:--
"Our first feeling is one of disappointment. Certainly not Galsbarrie
at his best.... The weak point of the play is that the character of
Sir John is not properly developed.... A perceptible dragging in the
Third Act.... It is a little difficult to understand why.... We should
hardly have expected Galsbarrie to have... The dialogue is perhaps a
trifle lacking in... Mr. Macready Jones did his best with the part of
Sir John, but as we have said... Mr. Kean-Smith was extremely unsuited
to the part of George.... The reception, on the whole, was
You see the difference? Of course there is bound to be a difference,
and Mr. A. W. Galsbarrie would be very much disappointed if there were
not. He understands the critic's feeling, which is simply that _Kiss
Me, Katie_, is not worth criticizing, and that _Three Men_ most
emphatically is. Rut it is not surprising that the plain
man-in-the-street, who has saved up in order to take his girl to one
of the two new plays of the week, and is waiting for the reviews to
appear before booking his seats, should come to the conclusion that
_Three Men_ seems to be a pretty rotten play, and that, tired though
they are of musical comedy, _Kiss Me, Katie_, is evidently something
rather extra special which they ought not to miss.
Which means pots more money for Mr. Albert de Lauributt.
The Fires of Autumn
The most important article of furniture in any room is the fireplace.
For half the year we sit round it, warming ourselves at its heat; for
the other half of the year we continue to sit round it, moved thereto
by habit and the position of the chairs. Yet how many people choose
their house by reason of its fireplaces, or, having chosen it for some
other reason, spend their money on a new grate rather than on a new
sofa or a grand piano? Not many.
For one who has so chosen his house the lighting of the first fire is
something of a ceremony. But in any case the first fire of the autumn
is a notable event. Much as I regret the passing of summer, I cannot
help rejoicing in the first autumn days, days so cheerful and so very
much alive. By November the freshness has left them; one's thoughts go
backwards regretfully to August or forwards hopefully to April; but
while October lasts, one can still live in the present. It is in
October that one tastes again the delights of the fireside, and finds
them to be even more attractive than one had remembered.
But though I write "October," let me confess that, Coal Controller
or no Coal Controller, it was in September that I lit my first fire
this year. Perhaps as the owner of a new and (as I think) very
attractive grate I may be excused. There was some doubt as to whether
a fireplace so delightful could actually support a fire, a doubt which
had to be resolved as soon as possible. The match was struck with all
solemnity; the sticks caught up the flame from the dying paper and
handed it on to the coal; in a little while the coal had made room for
the logs, and the first autumn fire was in being.
Among the benefits which the war has brought to London, and a little
less uncertain than some, is the log fire. In the country we have
always burnt logs, with the air of one who was thus identifying
himself with the old English manner, but in London never--unless it
were those ship's logs, which gave off a blue flame and very little
else, but seemed to bring the fact that we were an island people more
closely home to us. Now wood fires are universal. Whether the air will
be purer in consequence and fogs less common, let the scientist
decide; but we are all entitled to the opinion that our drawing-rooms
are more cheerful for the change.
However, if you have a wood fire, you must have a pair of bellows. I
know a man who always calls them "bellus," which is, I believe, the
professional pronunciation. He also talks about a "hussif" and a
"cold chisel." A cold chisel is apparently the ordinary sort of
chisel which you chisel with; what a hot chisel is I never discovered.
But whether one calls them "bellows" or "bellus," in these days
one cannot do without them. They are as necessary to a wood fire as a
poker is to a coal fire, and they serve much the same purpose. There
is something very soothing about poking a fire, even if one's
companions point out that one is doing it all wrong, and offer an
exhibition of the correct method. To play upon a wood fire with a
bellows gives one the same satisfaction, and is just as pleasantly
annoying to the onlookers. They alone know how to rouse the dying
spark and fan it gently to a flame, until the whole log is a
triumphant blaze again; you, they tell you, are merely blowing the
whole thing out.
It is necessary, then, that the bellows-making industry should revive.
My impression is that a pair of bellows is usually catalogued under
the heading, "antique furniture," and I doubt if it is possible to
buy a pair anywhere but in an old furniture shop. There must be a
limit to the number of these available, a limit which has very nearly
been reached. Here is a chance for our ironmongers (or carpenters, or
upholsterers, or whoever have the secret of it). Let them get to work
before we are swamped with German bellows. It is no use to offer us
pokers with which to keep our log fires burning; we must have wind.
There is one respect in which I must confess that the coal fire has
the advantage of the wood fire. If your favourite position is on the
hearth-rug with your back to whatever is burning, your right hand
gesticulating as you tell your hearers what is wrong with the
confounded Government, then it does not greatly matter what brings you
that pleasant dorsal warmth which inspires you to such eloquence. But
if your favourite position is in an armchair facing the fire, and your
customary habit one of passive thought rather than of active speech,
then you will not get those visions from the burning wood which the
pictures in a coal fire bring you. There are no deep, glowing caverns
in the logs from which friendly faces wink back at you as your head
begins gently to nod to them. Perhaps it is as well. These are not the
days for quiet reflection, but for action. At least, people tell me
so, and I am very glad to hand on the information.
As I descended the stairs to breakfast, the maid was coming up.
"A policeman to see you, sir," she said, in a hushed voice. "I've
shown him into the library."
"Thank you," I answered calmly, just as if I had expected him.
And in a sense, I suppose, I had expected him. Not particularly this
morning, of course; but I knew that the day was bound to come when I
should be arrested and hurried off to prison. Well, it was to be this
morning. I could have wished that it had been a little later in the
day, when I had more complete command of myself. I wondered if he
would let me have my breakfast first before taking me away. It is
impossible for an arrested man to do himself justice on an empty
stomach, but after breakfast he can play the part as it should be
played. He can "preserve a calm exterior" while at the same time
"hardly seeming to realize his position"; he can "go quietly" to
the police-station and "protest that he has a complete answer to the
charge." He can, in fact, do all the things which I decided to do as
I walked to the library--if only I was allowed to have my breakfast
As I entered the library, I wondered what it was that I had done; or,
rather, what it was that I had looked as if I were doing. For that is
my trouble--that I look guilty so easily. I never cash a cheque at the
bank but I expect to feel a hand on my shoulder and to hear a stern
voice saying, "You cummer longer me." If I walk through any of the
big stores with a parcel in my hand I expect to hear a voice
whispering in my ear, "The manager would like to see you quietly in
his office." I have never forged or shoplifted in my life, but the
knowledge that a real forger or shoplifter would try to have the
outward appearance of a man as innocent as myself helps to give me the
outward appearance of a man as guilty as he. When I settle a bill by
cheque, my "face-of-a-man-whose-account-is-already-overdrawn" can be
read across the whole length of the shop as soon as I enter the door.
Indeed, it is so expressive that I had to give up banking at Cox's
during the war.
"Good morning," said the policeman. "I thought I'd better tell you
that I found your dining-room window open at six o'clock this morning
when I came on duty."
"Oh!" I said, rather disappointed.
For by this time I had prepared my speech from the dock, and it seemed
a pity to waste it. There is no part quite so popular as that of the
Wrongly Accused. Every hero of every melodrama has had to meet that
false accusation at some moment during the play; otherwise we should
not know that he was the hero. I saw myself in the dock, protesting my
innocence to the last; I saw myself entering the witness box and
remaining unshaken by the most relentless cross-examination; I saw my
friends coming forward to give evidence as to my unimpeachable
And yet, after all, what could one's friends say? Imagine yourself in
the dock, on whatever charge it may be, and imagine this and that
friend coming forward to speak to you. What can they say?
What do they know? They know that you are a bore or not a bore, a
grouser or not a grouser, generous or mean, sentimental or cynical, an
optimist or a pessimist, and that you have or have not a sense of
humour. None of these is a criminal offence. Is there anything else
that your friends can say about you which can establish the likelihood
of your innocence? Not very much. Nor should we be flattered if there
were. When somebody says of us, "Oh, I can read old Jones like a
book; I know him inside and out--for the most straightforward, simple
creature," we protest indignantly. But if somebody says, "There's a
lot more in Jones than you think; I shall never quite understand
him," then we look modestly down our nose and tell ourselves that we
are Jones, the Human Enigma. Women have learnt all about this. They
realize that the best way to flatter us is to say earnestly, with a
shake of the head, "Your face is such a mask; I shall never know what
you're really thinking." How that makes us purr!
No, our friends cannot help us much, once we are in the dock. They
will protest, good friends that they are, that we are utterly
incapable of the crime of which we are accused (and in my case, of
course, they will be right), but the jury will know that our friends
do not really know; or at any rate the jury will guess that we have
not asked those of our friends who did know to speak for us. We must
rely on ourselves; on our speech from the dock; on our demeanour under
"Your dining-room window open," said the policeman reproachfully.
"I'm sorry," I said; "I won't leave it open again."
Fortunately, however, they can't arrest you for it. So I led the way
out of the library and opened the front door. The policeman went
My omnibus left the broad and easy way which leads to Victoria Station
and plunged into the strait and narrow paths which land you into the
river at Vauxhall if you aren't careful, and I peered over the back to
have another look at its number. The road-mending season is in full
swing now, but no amount of road-mending could account for such a
comprehensive compass as we were fetching. For a moment I thought that
the revolution had begun. "'Busful of Bourgeoisie Kidnapped" would
make a good head-line for the papers. Or perhaps it was merely a
private enterprise. We were to be held for ransom in some deserted
warehouse on the margin of the Thames, into which, if the money were
not forthcoming, we should be dropped with a weight at the feet on
some dark and lonely night.... Fortunately the conductor came up at
this stage of the journey and said "Ennimorfairplees," whereupon I
laid my fears before him and begged him to let me know the worst. He
replied briefly, "Shorerpersher," and went down again. So that was
Why is the Shah of Persia so popular? Even in these days when kings
are two a penny, and there is a never-ending procession of Napoleons
and Nelsons to the Guildhall to receive swords and freedoms and
honorary degrees, the arrival of a Shah of Persia stirs the
imagination of the man in the street. He feels something of the old
thrill. But in the nineties, of course, we talked about nothing else
for weeks. "Have you seen the Shah?" was the popular catch-phrase of
the day; there were music hall songs about him; he was almost as
important as a jubilee.
It is curious that this should have been so, for a Shah of Persia is
not really as important as that. There was never a catch-phrase,
"Have you seen the French President?" or even "Have you seen the
Tsar?" both of whom one would expect to take precedence of a Persian
ruler. But they are more commonplace people. The Shah makes his
appeal, not on account of his importance but on account of his
romantic associations. He fills the mind with thoughts of uncut
rubies, diamond-studded swords, Arab chargers, veiled houris, and the
very best Persian sherbet. One does not stand outside Victoria in the
hope of seeing any of these things in the carriage with him, but one
feels that is the sort of man he is, and that if only he could talk
English like you or me, he could tell us a story worth the telling.
"Hooray for the Shah!"
Seated on my omnibus, and thinking of these things--(we had tacked by
this time, and were beating up for Pimlico)--I remembered suddenly a
little personal incident in connexion with the visit of that earlier
Shah which is not without its moral for all of us. It teaches us the
lesson that--well, we can settle this afterwards. Anyway, here is the
The Shah of Persia was in England, and all England was talking about
him. Naturally, we were talking about him at my private school. I was
about nine at the time; it is not the age at which one knows much
about high politics, but it is almost the only age when one really
knows where Persia is. I have no doubt that we "did" Persia in that
term, out of honour to the Shah. One result of all this talk in the
school about the Persian Potentate was (as you might expect) that a
certain boy was nicknamed "The Shah," presumably on account of some
magnificence of person or costume. Now it happened that the school was
busying itself just then over some election--to the presidency of the
Debating Society, or membership of the Games Committee, or something
of that sort--and "The Shah" was a very popular candidate. I was one
of his humble but admiring supporters.
Observe me, then, on the polling day, busily at work in a corner of
the schoolroom. I am writing in bold capitals on a piece of exercise
paper, "Vote for the shah." Having written it, I pinned it proudly
up in a corner of the room, and stood back awhile to look at it. My
first effort at electioneering. There was no immediate sensation, for
everybody else was too busy over his own affairs to notice my little
poster, and so I went about from one little knot of talkers to
another, hanging shyly on the outskirts in the hope that, when it
broke up, I might lead the way casually towards my masterpiece--"VOTE
FOR THE SHAH."
Suddenly my attention was attracted to another boy, who, even as I had
been a few minutes ago, was now busily writing. I kept my eye on him,
and when he had finished his work, and was walking across the room
with a piece of paper in his hand, I followed him eagerly. He was at
least twelve; I was only nine. Can you wonder that he seemed to me
almost the last word in wisdom? So I followed him. Could it really be
that my poster had forstalled his? What glory if it were so! He pinned
up his notice. He moved away, and I read it. It said: "VOTE FOR THE
You can imagine my feelings. I went hot all over. "Shar," of course,
not "Shah." How ever could I have been such an idiot as to have
thought it was "Shah"? S-h-a-h obviously spelt shash, not shar. How
nearly I had exposed my appalling ignorance to my fellows! "Vote for
the--"; I blushed again, hardly able to think of it. And oh! how
thankful I was now that everybody else had been too busy to read my
poster. Hastily I went over to it, and tore it down; hastily I went
back to my desk and wrote another poster. Observe me now again. I am
writing in bold capitals on a piece of exercise paper: "VOTE FOR THE
And the moral? Well, my omnibus has now; fetched its compass round
Victoria, we are back on the main route again, and I think I must
leave the moral to you.
I know very little about the Stock Exchange. I know, of course, that
stockbrokers wear very shiny top-hats, which they remove when they
sing "God Save the King," as they invariably do in a crisis. When
they go out to lunch, the younger ones leave their top-hats behind
them, and take the air with plastered polls; and after lunch is over,
young and old alike have a round of dominoes before placing threepence
under the coffee-cup and returning to business. If business is slack,
they tell each other jokes, which get into the papers with some such
introduction as, "A good story going the round of the Stock
Exchange." Probably it was going the round of the nurseries in 72,
but the stockbrokers have been so busy making Consols go up and down
that they have not been able to listen to it before. Anyway, the
careful man always avoids a good story which is going the round of the
But apart from these minor activities of the City, the financial world
has always been a mystery to me. To this day I do not understand why
Consols go up and down. Perhaps they only go down now, but there was a
time when they would be 78 1/4 in the morning, 78 1/2 after the Stock
Exchange had returned from its coffee, and 78 when it went out to play
dominoes again. When they thudded down to 78, this proved that the
Government had lost the confidence of the country. But I never heard
an explanation of it all which carried any conviction.
Once I asked a noted financial authority to tell me all about it in
words of one syllable. He did his best. He said it was "simply a
question of supply and demand." In that case one would expect
umbrellas to go up and down according to the weather--I mean, of
course, the price of umbrellas. But apparently umbrellas aren't so
sensitive as stocks, which are the most sensitive things in the world.
In the happy days before the war, when the President of Nicaragua sent
a stiff note to the President of Uruguay, Consols immediately dropped
a quarter of a point. The President of Uruguay answered, "Sorry, my
mistake," and Consols went back again. Evidently, several gentlemen,
who would have bought Consols in the ordinary way on that Thursday,
decided to buy Haricot Beans instead, as being, I suppose, more useful
in the event of a war between Nicaragua and Uruguay. So Consols
feeling the neglect, went down. But on the Friday, as soon as Uruguay
had apologized, the gentlemen who had just sold the Haricot Beans
hurried out to buy Consols, as being quite safe again now that there
was no more chance of war. So Consols went cheerfully up again. You
But the financial problem is getting very much more difficult than
this, The vagaries of Consols, or even of the reputed gold-mine in
which I once had shares--(this is a sad story, but, fortunately, when
they had dropped to six-and-sixpence, there was a demand for them by a
man called Wilkinson, poor fellow, which arrested the fall just long
enough for me to get out. They are now three a penny, so I hope
Wilkinson found a demand, too)--well, then, even the vagaries of the
West African market are a simple matter compared with the vagaries of
the Exchange. The mystery of the mark, for instance, is so utterly
beyond that, in trying to understand it, I do not even know where to
begin. I see no mental foothold anywhere.
The mark, we are told, is now worth tuppence-ha'penny. Why? I mean,
who said so? Who is it who arranges these things? Is it Rockefeller or
one of the Geddeses or Samuel Gompers--a superman of some kind? Or is
it a Committee of the Stock Exchange and Greenwich Observatory? And
how does it decide? Does it put a mark up for auction and see what the
demand is like? Or does it decide on moral grounds? Does it say
contemptuously, "Oh, I should think about tuppence-ha'penny, and
serve 'em dashed well right for losing the war"?
Let us go slowly, and see if we can make any sense of it. Suppose that
I produce something worth a shilling, something, that is, which I can
sell in this country for a shilling--a blank verse tragedy, say. Let
us suppose also that, having received the shilling, I propose to buy a
bag of nuts. A German offers me a mark for my tragedy. Now that mark
has got to be spent in Germany by somebody; not, of course,
necessarily by me. I probably hand it to Thomas Cook or his Son, who
gives it to somebody else, who eventually takes it back to Germany
again. Obviously, then, what I have to consider, when I am offered a
mark instead of the customary shilling for my blank verse, is this:
"Can this mark purchase a similar-sized bag of nuts in Germany?" If
the answer is "Yes," then the mark is worth a shilling; if the answer
is that it will only buy a bag of about a fifth of the English size,
then the mark is worth tuppence-ha'penny.
Well, is everything in Germany five times as dear as it is in England?
No. Not by any means. If a mark is regarded as tuppence-ha'penny,
everything is extraordinarily cheap; much cheaper than in England.
Also it occurs to me suddenly that if this were the way in which the
pundits decided upon the price of the mark and the franc and the
peseta and the cowrie-shell, then the price of living in every country
would be exactly the same, and we should have nowhere to retire to
when the taxes were too high. Which would be absurd. So we must have
done the sum wrong. Let us try again.
The price of the mark (this is our new theory) depends on the amount
of goods which Germany is exporting. A German offers me a mark for my
tragedy, but if no other German has got anything to give me, or Thomas
Cook or his Son, in exchange for that mark, then the mark is obviously
no good to us. If, then, we say that the mark is worth tuppence-
ha'penny, we mean that Germany is importing (or buying) five times as
much as she is exporting (or selling). Similarly, when the rouble was
about ten a penny, Russia was importing a hundred times as much as she
was exporting. But she was not importing anything then because of the
blockade. Therefore--no, it's no good. You see, we can't do it. We
shall have to stand about on the Brighton road until one of those
stockbrokers comes by. He will explain it to us.
But perhaps a better man to consult in these matters of High Finance
is the Strong Man whom we see so often upon the stage. Sometimes he
builds bridges, and sometimes he makes steel, but the one I like best
is the one who controls the markets of the world. He strides to the
telephone and says grimly down it: "Sell Chilled Tomatoes.... No....
Yes... Keep on selling," and in far-away Nan-Kang-Foo a man shoots
himself. He had too many Chilled Tomatoes--or too few.
But the Strong Man goes on his way. He is married to a young and
beautiful girl, whom he has adored silently for years. He has never
told her; partly because he thought it would not be fair to her,
partly because he knows it would spoil the play. He is too busy to see
much of her, but sometimes they meet at dinner, and then he strokes
her head and asks her kindly what she is doing that evening. Probably
she is going out with George B. Pusher. What else could you expect?
All the time when Staunton is buying Tomatoes and Salmon and Tintacks
and Locomotives and Peanuts and lots of things that he doesn't really
want, George B. Pusher is in attendance on the Heroine.
There is a terrible scene when Staunton discovers what is going on.
Who is this puppy? George B. Pusher? That settles it. He will ruin
He sells Tomatoes. Pusher hasn't got any. He buys Raspberry Jam.
Pusher doesn't want any. Damn the fellow, he refuses to be ruined.
Everybody is shooting himself except Pusher.
At last. Wire Netting! Why didn't he think of Wire Netting before? He
buys all the Wire Netting that there is. Then he sells it all. George
R. Pusher is ruined. He comes round to beg for mercy.
Now, perhaps, if we listen very carefully, we shall understand how it
is all done.
The cabinet, or whatever I am to call it, has looked stolidly at me
from the corner of the library for years. It is nothing more than a
row of pigeon-holes in which I keep my secret papers. At least, the
man who sold it to me recommended it for this purpose, dwelling
lovingly as he did so upon the strength of the lock. So I bought
it--in those first days (how far away!) when I came to London to set
the Thames on fire.
It was not long before I lost the key. I made one or two half-hearted
efforts to get into it with a button-hook; but, finding that the lock
lived up to its reputation, I resigned myself to regarding it for the
future as an article for ornament, not for use. In this capacity it
has followed me about from house to house. As an ornament it is
without beauty, and many people have urged me to throw it away. My
answer has been that it contained my secret papers. Some day I would
get a locksmith to open it, and we should see what we should see.
The war being over, I came into the library and sat down at my desk.
Perhaps it was not too late, even now, to set the Thames on fire. I
would write an incendiary article on--what? The cabinet caught my eye.
I went idly up to it and pulled at the drawers, before I remembered
that it was locked. And suddenly I was annoyed with it for being
locked; the more I pulled at it, the more I was annoyed; and I ended
up by telling it with some heat that, if it persisted in its defiant
attitude, I would shoot it down with my revolver. (This is how the
hero breaks his way into the room wherein the heroine is immured, and
I have often envied him.)
However, the revolver was not necessary. The lock surrendered, after a
short struggle, to the poker. For the first time for seventeen years
my secret papers were before me. Can you not imagine how eagerly I
went through them?
They were a strange collection, these trifles which had (I suppose)
seemed so important to me seventeen years ago. There was the
inevitable dance programme, covered with initials which must have
stirred me delightfully once, but now left me cold. There was a
receipt from a Cambridge tailor, my last outstanding Cambridge bill,
perhaps--preserved as a sign that I was now free. There was a notice
of a short-story competition, stories not to exceed 5000 words;
another of a short-sketch competition, sketches not to exceed 1200
words. Apparently I was prepared to write you anything in those days.
There was an autograph of a famous man; "Many thanks" and the
signature on a postcard, I suppose I had told him that I admired his
style, or that I proposed to model myself on him, or had bought his
last book, or--who knows? At any rate, he had thanked me.
There were letters from editors; editors whom I know well now, but who
in those distant days addressed me as "Sir," and were mine
faithfully. They regretted that they could not use the present
contribution, but hoped that I would continue to write. I continued to
write. Trusting that I would persevere, they were mine very truly. I
persevered. Now they are mine ever. From what a long way off those
letters have come. "Dear Sir," the Great Man wrote to me, and
overawed I locked the precious letter up. Yesterday I smacked him on
There was a list of my first fifteen contributions to the Press. Three
of them were accepted; two of the three appeared in a paper which
immediately went bankrupt. For the fifteenth I seem to have received
fifteen shillings. A shilling an attempt, you see, for those early
efforts to set the Thames on fire. Reading the titles of them, I am
not surprised. One was called (I blush to record it) "The Diary of a
Free-Lance." Was there ever a literary aspirant who did not begin
with just such an article on just such a subject?--a subject so
engagingly fresh to himself, so hackneyed to the editor. I have
returned a hundred of them since without a word of encouragement to
the writers, blissfully forgetful of the fact (now brought to light)
that I, too, had begun like that.
And last of all, in this locked cabinet I came upon an actual
contribution, one of the fifteen which had gone the rounds and had
been put away, perhaps for a re-writing.... Dear, dear! I must have
been very hopeful in those days. Youth and hope--I am afraid that
those were my only qualifications for setting the Thames on fire.
Yet I was very scornful of editors seventeen years ago. The outsider,
I held forth, was not given a chance; the young writer with fresh
ideas was cold-shouldered. Well, well! Reading this early contribution
of mine seventeen years later, reading again what editors had to say
about it, I am no longer scornful of them. I can only wonder why they
hoped that I would go on writing.
But I shall not throw the broken cabinet away, even though it is no
longer available for secret papers. It must continue to sit in a
corner of the library, a corrective against secret pride.