My Christmas Caller

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 25 December 1885


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/1, p. 41
Le Diable Boiteux — the lame devil — is from the romance of that name by Alain René Lesage, published in 1707. Named Asmodeus, he performs for the hero of the novel the same sort of services, showing visions that save him by revealing his shortcomings, that he does for Kipling’s narrator. The ghosts in A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens, play the same role for the misanthropic miser, Scrooge. The discontented Smallbones has Dickens, as well as Lesage, on his table as he dreams. ‘The Land of Regrets’ is the title and refrain of a poem by the Indian civil servant, Sir Alfred Lyall. [T.P./J.R.]

The Article

‘I am strictly proper now’ said a voice from behind the big almirah (chest of drawers) which forms the principal ornament of my bachelor dining-room.
Now it couldn’t have been the Bearer, because in the first place he doesn’t speak English; and in the second, if he did, even he dare not utter so huge a fib. This was on Christmas eve, yesterday — a day of all days in the year I detest because it makes me homesick, and morose and irritable. That’s why I always keep within doors and reflect on all the unpleasant things I know — the disgusting ingratitude of the Punjab Government to an able and efficient officer among others.
‘Strictly proper, and immensely improved since Le Sage’s time’ repeated the voice from behind the almirah. ‘May I come in?’
‘Come in’ said I shortly, for my thoughts were not pleasant ones. As a rule, I dislike men dropping in uncalled for.
‘Thanks many. Will you make room for me at the fire — your almirah’s rather draughty.’
It was Le Diable Boiteux. I recognised him even before I read the card which he presented. As he said, he was wonderfully improved from Le Sage’s inimitable but somewhat coarse original. A neat dress suit, studs, a rose in his button-hole, and a pair of immaculate pumps had converted him into a very pleasant gentleman of the nineteenth century, with a slight — a very slight — limp. He pulled an arm-chair up to the fire, and stretched out his feet to the blaze.
‘Hope I haven’t inconvenienced you in any way, Smallbones?’ he said.
‘Not in the least I assure you mon ami. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you so long by name, that it’s almost like meeting an old acquaintance.’
Le Diable Boiteux did not seem pleased: — ‘You knew me at once then’ he said. ‘On my honour I shouldn’t have thought it. I’ve changed so — improved I may fairly say — of late years.’
He adjusted the rose in his buttonhole with a look of ineffable complacency. ‘Le Sage — old Alain René you know — evolved me in the first instance; and since then I’ve been marching in the van of progress. I hope you understand that my moral improvement is on a par with my physical. I’m a reformed character. One of these days I may even lose my tail!’
He must have tucked it into his inexpressibles, for never a sign of a tail could I see.
‘You were much nicer as you were, I think’ said I judicially. ‘Reforms are bad things.’
‘Don’t generalize. In your department perhaps. In mine, never. Just conceive me if you can, knocking about the back streets of Madrid with a vagabond student! I wonder how I could ever have been so low. But I’ve used my opportunities well, haven’t I?’
‘I don’t know. It seems to me you’ve spoilt, if you’ll pardon my saying so, a really superior — ahem — Devil to make a very every-day English gentleman.’
‘Spoilt!’ retorted Le Diable Boiteux, ‘I’ll show you whether reform has curtailed my executive powers. By the head of the great God Mammon I can strip off a roof as neatly as ever! Would you like to see me do it?’
‘I beg your pardon a thousand times’ I said ‘but I really thought from your appearance you had taken your place permanently with us.’
‘Say no more about it’ returned my guest courteously. ‘I’m of an exciteable nature — easily roused, but over in a flash, you know. And it was hard to call my powers in question, just when I’m going to give you a sample of them — a first class séance in fact. I ve toured all over India to see if there was a more discontented man than yourself in the country, and there isn’t. Consequently — me voici. Can I take a cigarette?’
‘By all means. But my dear Devil, it is hardly necessary to remind a man of the world — I may say of both worlds — like yourself, that to call your host discontented, after hiding in his almirah and toasting your shins over his fire is not good form.’ ‘True’ said Le Diable Boiteux — ‘but I’ve been attending a meeting of a Bombay Cotton Mills Company, and there’s nothing so democratic as shareholders in bulk. Still the fact remains that you are the most discontented man in India, and I’m going to spend an evening with you for your benefit and my amusement.’
‘One moment though, my dear Sir! If I’m to go careering about on your back through this frosty night all over the station, I must really put on my ulster.’
My guest sprang to his feet, and addressed me oratorically: — ‘Hastings Macaulay Elphinstone Smallbones! I ask you as a sane and sober man, do you think that I, a self-respecting gentleman, so advanced that I’ve almost forgotten the use of my wings, shall deliberately expose myself to rheumatism and bronchitis by flapping from roof to roof of this particularly chilly station with you on my back? Why you must ride nearly fourteen stone!’
‘Thirteen-seven to be strictly accurate, Devil. How am I to guess how you are going to manage your séance, except after the approved fashion of Le Sage? You really ought to stick to it, you know.’
‘What a fine old crusted Conservative it is! Besides I’m not a devil any longer. I’ve been promoted to the place of a benevolent imp, first class, third grade, sub. pro tem. In time I shall be a graded Goblin, entitled to draw the pay and allowances of a Robin Goodfellow. Ha! Ha! Le Sage never contemplated that Conduct my séances after his bungling manner — not I! Science has done wonders since his death; and I avail myself gratefully of her aid. Come my friend let us begin!’
‘I don’t quite know what you’re going to do; but give me your word there’s nothing wrong about the business — no writing in blood or any lunacy of that kind.’
Le Diable Boiteux laughed merrily: — ‘Blood and parchments and sulphur are relics of an effete and outworn generation.
They served their purpose in life; and in death you use ’em for the Christmas magazines. I dropped them — let me see — a hundred and forty years ago or thereabouts. No, my methods would make old Le Sage stand aghast with horror. Look here.’ He lifted delicately between his finger and thumb a pair of pince-nez, that had till then been reposing unobserved on the ample contours of his waistcoat, slung from his neck by a cord.
‘Ever used a telephone?’ said Le Diable Boiteux airily. ‘Sometimes’ I answered; the telephone in my office being the bane of my daily life. ‘That’s all right’ said Le Diable Boiteux. ‘You will see when you put them on, that this pair of glasses is to the eye exactly what the telephone is to the ear. One hundred and fourteen years hence similar instruments will be invented by your kind, when you shall have brought electro-magnetism to a higher pitch of perfection. Let me slip the cord over your head and adjust the nippers on your nose. It’s an improvement on roof-lifting. What do you want to see?’
I reflected for an instant. Le Diable Boiteux nudged me in the ribs.
‘I know what you are thinking of mon ami. What you are pleased to call home. Be it so. You shall see it.’
Even as he spoke, I found myself staring at the bustle and confusion outside the Criterion. The fog hung heavy over Piccadilly, and there came to my nose, or seemed to come, that delightful composite odour of gas, orange peel and hot asphalte so characteristic of Babylon the mighty. I am a Cockney by birth and education, and both sight and smell were inexpressibly delightful to me.
‘Oh for a glimpse of my own people!’ I sighed aloud.
The scene shifted in a flash, and I was staring at my two brothers, my sisters and a host of relations gathered round a mid-day dinner in the old brown house in West Brompton.
‘Hideous notion, eating a heavy meal in the middle of the day’ murmured Le Diable Boiteux in my ear. ‘It would kill me in a week. Your people seem to be enjoying themselves though: listen a bit and see how much you are in their thoughts.’ I listened attentively for about ten minutes, before it dawned upon me that Le Diable Boiteux was speaking sarcastically. I heard much — the babble of fifteen tongues over turkey and beef and ham and all manner of dainties; but for any reference to myself I might have been dead and buried a century back.
Stay, though, when the dinner was at end, and everyone was toasting every one else, a small, curly-locked boy brought down his pudgy fist on the table with a bang, and gravely swallowing a wine glass full of water cried: — ‘Uncle Djimmy! He gived me my bwicks.’ So my health was drunk in water by a baby unnoticed in the general uproar.
‘What can you expect?’ said Le Diable Boiteux soothingly. ‘You never “gived” the others “bwicks” my dear fellow. Just face the fact that the best and kindest of one’s own people drop you out of their lives as much as you drop out of theirs. Unpleasant notion I admit; but it is so. You haven’t been home for eight years, and that youngster’s “bwicks” only came a month ago. However, try some more, and see if any one remembers. The nippers will work as fast as you can think.’
I tested their powers exhaustively, and found that Le Diable Boiteux had spoken the truth in both instances. They enabled me to see and hear as quickly as I could think, and also to understand that Hastings Macaulay Elphinstone Smallbones had disappeared from the thoughts of all the great family of Smallbones as well as from the minds of his friends. Eight years’ absence is a long time, I am willing to allow; but still I expected that I should have heard my name mentioned at the Christmas gatherings of our clan.
‘Human nature all the world over’ murmured Le Diable Boiteux once more. ‘Didn’t old Alain René make me show Don Cleofas something of the same kind? You know his works better than I.’
Le Sage was the last person in my mind as the visions flashed past. I was penetrated with a deep sense of my personal insignificance — a wholesome but unpleasant experience which some men go through life and miss. I made no answer, but continued to gaze steadfastly through the magic pince-nez. Sisters, cousins, aunts — I have two — old and once dear friends at home, had all alike forgotten me in their Christmas feastings. And here had I been nursing my heimweh (home-sickness) over my solitary fire, and hungering for the sight of their faces — aye even for a glimpse of the surliest and least loveable among them!
Le Diable Boiteux broke in once more upon the current of my thoughts and his pictures.
‘Haven’t you seen enough yet?’ he enquired. ‘Take my word for it — in the multitude of their occupations and interests and desires they have naturally enough forgotten you. What else would you have? See! Your elder sister has six, and your younger four children — ten good and substantial reasons for forgetfulness. Blisworth is gone to Australia; Billiter is engaged; Von Downiski gone to the dogs, Pawson of your college going, if my old insight is what it used to be; and Teague so superbly successful in the things of your penny-farthing world, that he’d cut you if you spoke to him,’
‘But — but — these were all my oldest friends!’ stammered I, still glaring at the pictures as they fled past.
‘I know it — ’ returned Le Diable Boiteux composedly. ‘(Can I have another cigarette. Thanks.) That’s why it does you good to look at ’em. Old Alain Renéhimself couldn’t have improved on the notion!’
(Le Diable Boiteux seemed to relish referring to his creator in this flippant way — just as a shopboy might snatch a fearful joy from calling his employer by his surname unadorned.) He gently tweaked the pince-nez off my nose, and patted me familiarly on the shoulder.
‘It’s unpleasant, but it is also necessary. The memory of you isn’t so indispensably necessary to the comfort of your extensive family circle as you would like to believe. You have all gone your own ways in the world, and you naturally lose touch. Do you mean to say that you’ve been eating your heart out all these eight years through sheer home-sickness and dislike of your surroundings?’
‘I’m afraid so,’ I murmured.
‘Skittles!’ retorted Le Diable Boiteux scornfully, flicking the ash off his cigarette. ‘It’s your morbid vanity. You don’t see a maravedi’s (an old Spanish copper coin) worth of good — I mean a pice worth (a small Indian coin) of good in the whole of this country, do you?’
‘I’m — blessed, if I do’ I responded fervently. ‘Don’t swear’ said Le Diable Boiteux. ‘It’s not good form. Only Doré’s imps do it with us, and they are reckoned very low in the social scale. His anatomy always was most queer you know. Well, as I was saying, it’s your morbid vanity that makes you a dull, discontented, commonplace, unsocial man. Why can’t you accept the conditions of your life?’
‘You are rude Asmodeus,’ I retorted, calling him by his (un)Christian name.
‘How often am I to tell you that I’m no more related to the genuine Asmodeus than you are? Old Alain René gave me that name, but I’m only one of his creations all the same — just like Guzman D’Alfarasche and the rest. Homilies aren’t much in my line, or I’d read you one as long as my ta — hum, as long as my arm. There’s a deal of good in this “Land of Regrets” as one o’ your fools of songsters called it. An enormous amount of good. Just look here!’ He slipped the pince-nez on my nose, and stood behind me like a lecturer before a magic lantern.
‘Here’s old Battlesby of the Commission. You know him and hate him, don’t you? Screw, cold blooded old reptile and all the rest of it? He’s in his duftar (office) now, spending Christmas Eve in a way that would startle you. Look over his shoulder!’
I peeped, and saw, to my unutterable surprise, that old Battlesby was writing cheques, and no meagre ones either, in favour of five or six charities I’d never heard of. I hate charities — specially for. whitey-brown little boys who snivel and wear magenta comforters and sing hymns on state occasions in tuneless falsetto. Battlesby, however, seemed to appreciate them as much as he did soldiers’ children, drunken mariners, widows, or hospitals. The way that grey headed old skinflint squandered his cash in the ten minutes that I looked over his shoulder was sinful!
‘Bad going over the Chedputter race course, Smallbones, when you were stationed there I fancy?’ said the Devil. ‘But there’s a first class thing in the way of Christmas dinners for loafers to come out of it. Pity Battlesby didn’t subscribe, isn’t it?’
‘Go on to the next picture Devil’ I said sharply. ‘Ha! Ha!’ chuckled Le Diable Boiteux. ‘You didn’t know him, wouldn’t come out of your shell to know him; believed the worst you heard — and lost a good friend. Bravo Smallbones! Let me introduce Mrs McStinger — another person you don’t love.’ ‘Tongue set on edge by the fires of’ — ‘Hush!’ interrupted Le Diable Boiteux. ‘Not in my presence. She’s a tongue of her own I admit, but here she is in camp.’
Mrs McStinger was seated in a double-poled tent with McStinger by her side, addressing Christmas cards — some fifty at least. ‘What a wicked waste of time and money’ I growled.
‘Not in the least’ said Le Diable Boiteux. ‘She uses the ones she receives to send on, being a thrifty soul; but there isn’t a man in the Commission who knows her, who doesn’t worship her. Look at young Sapless, he’s sent her a ten-rupee card fit for a girl of eighteen. Who pulled Sapless through his go of typhoid by sheer nursing? Who lent Crane her own shawl-wrap when the boy was coughing himself dead on a frosty night after a Cinderella? Who looked in on the quiverful of kids when their governess was down with diptheria? I’ve the whole world to see after, and you’ve only got about three hundred people to know and like; and yet I know more about the McStinger than you do. That’s another case where you wouldn’t take the trouble to know; would take the trouble to dislike — with the usual result. Come, I haven’t half done yet. Shut your eyes a minute, while I see if I can work a panorama of the province on this size of lens. The instrument’s as good as they make ’em; but it mayn’t stand the strain.’
I closed my eyes obediently, while he whipped off the pince-nez, did something to them, and resettled them upon my nose. There then appeared a perfect miniature picture of the province in which I have the honour to serve, from Peshawur to Delhi — all as clear and as finished as if I had been merely looking down from the top of the Ghor Kathri on to the city below. It was a most curious sensation to watch this tiny struggling world, and to catch the clamour that came up from it.

As I looked, I saw that my brothers were filled — for a time at least — with that peace and good will which for my part I do not pretend to understand. I gazed and gazed and gazed again, and saw and heard English men and women exchanging good wishes and congratulations; saw the letters that bore these flying north and south and east and west in the trains; heard the arrangements for dinners, ‘weeks’, picnics, dances and all the amusements that bring together our scattered bands from Khaibar to the sea being canvassed and discussed; saw old estrangements and misunderstandings, petty spites, small envies and jealousies die away under my feet as the hoarfrost dies when the sun shines; saw hand meet hand in friendly grasp, and in one station — wild horses shall not induce me to say where — lip meet lip behind the sheltering shade of a clump of bougainvillea.

I chuckled audibly at this last. ‘Never mind’ said Le Diable Boiteux cheerily, ‘I’ve got my eye on ’em, and I think I shall personally interest myself in seeing that that little business runs smoothly. Now just take a look at yourself. Morbid vanity is of use at times.’
I looked, and wherever I looked, I saw myself a figure of enormous proportions ‘out of it’. There is no other way to describe the manner in which it was brought home to me that I had neither part nor lot in the general mirth around. No letters save of the most business-like nature were borne to me by the flying mail trains; for me no telegraph clerk clicked out a message of good cheer from some far off friend; in arrangements of balls and ‘weeks’ I stood outside all the arrangements, alone and unconsulted. The very subscription papers for these merry makings flew every way but mine; and gigantic and grotesque in the foreground loomed my dinner table laid with dinner for one, and decorated by my Khitmagar (butler) with a few frost-nipped roses.

‘Cheerful sight isn’t it?’ said Le Diable Boiteux. ‘By the way you’re the only man in the province to-night who dines alone from choice and not from necessity. One bottle Bass, one tumbler, one chair and one lamp. Very pretty arrangement indeed!’
Le Diable Boiteux fell back a step, and contemplated the panorama in the pince-nez with an air of critical satisfaction. While I gazed on the huge presentment of myself, that stopped now like a cloud on the hills by Peshawur; anon stepped over the Indus at Attock; rested on the Dharmsala peaks and blocked out the view of the Simla range, I began to grow uneasy. I was utterly alone in the province.
‘Devil’ said I shuddering, ‘I am frightened.’

‘Oh it’s all right. You’re not so big in everybody’s eyes you know. ’
‘It isn’t that, Devil,’ I replied. ‘Can’t you see that I am alone in the whole panorama? It’s awful — Here roll it up or take the jugglery away.’

‘Can’t I see? Of course I can. But you might ha’ seen it any time this eight years if you’d cared to look. Magnificently your chin comes out against the sunset by Mooltan, doesn’t it? Yes, you are completely alone on this Christmas Eve in the year of grace 1885 — after eight years passed in the country. What do you think of it?’
‘Devil, I don’t like it at all. It’s very horrible! Can you get it altered?’
‘It rests with Monsieur alone as old Alain René would have said. Which life would you prefer? Eating out your heart after a life you can’t get, and which wouldn’t be the faintest pleasure to you when you’d got it: let alone the fact that it doesn’t want you in the least; or coming out of your shell, taking some trouble to know the people you’ve cast in your lot with, and finding this ‘Land of Regrets’ (I should really like to pay the man who wrote that nonsense a visit), a country of charity, and kindly offices, and good will, and broad thought and honest human helpfulness and — Well, homilies aren’t in my line, but you can fill in the rest from what you’ve seen.’
‘There’s no choice about the matter, Devil. My mind’s made up. But how am I to set about it?’
‘So bad as that, is it? Go round and mix with your fellows to begin with; though it’s too late for any one to ask you to their Christmas dinner now. Where was I? Yes, mix with your fellows and — by the great Alain René himself — I had nearly forgotten the most important part of the prescription! Bend low and I’ll whisper.’
‘But that’s nonsense Devil’ I said. ‘She’ll never accept me!’

‘Try and see! I can’t say I’m fond of grumpy recluses of your kidney. But there’s no accounting for tastes.’
He fell to reckoning up my table-gear as before while I laughed aloud out of sheer comfort of heart at the prospect he had opened to me.

‘Well, I’m off. Goodnight, Smallbones’ said Le Diable Boiteux settling himself into his ulster.
‘Oh Devil, Devil!’ I cried ‘I’m afraid you’re an awful imposter. Is this the end of your homily?’
‘I wish you wouldn’t call me Devil” ’ said Le Diable Boiteux, as he pushed the chick (blind) aside preparatory to stepping into the verandah. ‘Don’t you know my other name?’
‘No, indeed!’
‘ “Le Dieu Cupidon: car les poètes m’ont donné ce job nom et ces messieurs me peignent fort avantageusement” (Cupid, the God of Love, for the poets have given me that workname, and those gentlemen have painted me very flatteringly) — Queer French perhaps, but old Alain René never wrote a truer word.’

He dropped the chick with a bang, and I woke up. My Le Sage and Dickens had tumbled on to the floor from the reading table.
‘Bearer!’ quoth I, ’Mi aj rat nautch kojaiga Larens Hall men. Khana ki kupra thaiyar karo’ [‘Tonight I will go to the dance at the Lawrence Hall. Get my dinner clothes ready.’]

There’s nothing like taking a prescription on the spot.