THIS is a slim, thin little story, but it serves to explain a great many things. I picked it up in a four-wheeler in the company of an eminent novelist, a pink-eyed young gentleman who lived on his income, and a gentleman who knew more than he ought; and I preserved it, thinking it would serve to interest you. It may be an old story, but the G.W.K.T.H.O., whom, for the sake of brevity, we will call Captain Kydd, declared that his best friend had heard it himself. Consequently, I doubted its newness more than ever. For when a man raises his voice and vows that the incident occurred opposite his own Club window, all the listening world know that they are about to hear what is vulgarly called a cracker. This rule holds good in London as well as in Lahore. When we left the house of the highly distinguished politician who had been entertaining us, we stepped into a London Particular, which has nothing whatever to do with the story, but was interesting from the little fact that we could not see our hands before our faces. The black, brutal fog had turned each gas-jet into a pin-prick of light, visible only at six inches range. There were no houses, there were no pavements. There were no points of the compass. There were only the eminent novelist, the young gentleman with the pink eyes. Captain Kydd and myself, holding each other’s shoulders in the gloom of Tophet. Then the eminent novelist delivered himself of an epigram.
“Let’s go home,” said he.
“Let us try,” said Captain Kydd, and incontinently fell down an area into somebody’s kitchen yard and disappeared into chaos. When he had climbed out again we heard a something on wheels swearing even worse than Captain Kydd was, all among the railings of a square. So .we shouted, and presently a four-wheeler drove gracefully on to the pavement.
“I’m trying to get ’ome,” said the cabby. “But if you gents make it worth while . . . though heaven knows ’ow we ever shall. Guess ’arf a crown apiece might . . . and any’ow I won’t promise anywheres in particular.”
The cabby kept his word nobly. He did not find anywheres in particular, but he found several places. First he discovered a pavement kerb and drove pressing his wheel against it till we came to a lamp-post, and that we hit grievously. Then he came to what ought to have been a corner, but was a ’bus, and we embraced the thing amid terrific language. Then he sailed out into nothing at all—blank fog—and there he commended himself to heaven and his horse to the other place, while the eminent novelist put his head out of the window and gave directions. I begin to understand now why the eminent novelist’s villains are so lifelike and his plots so obscure. He has a marvellous breadth of speech, but no ingenuity in directing the course of events. We drove into the island of refuge near the Brompton Oratory just when he was telling the cabby to be sure and avoid the Regents’ Park Canal.
Then we began to talk about the weather and Mister Gladstone. If an Englishman is unhappy he always talks about Mister Gladstone in terms of reproof. The eminent novelist was a socialistic-Neo-Plastic-Unionistic-Demagoglot Radical of the Extreme Left, and that is the latest novelty of the thing yet invented. He withdrew his head to answer Captain Kydd’s arguments, which were forcible. “Well, you’ll admit he’s all sorts of a madman,” said Captain Kydd sweetly.
“He’s a saint,” said the eminent novelist, “and he moves in an atmosphere that you and those like you cannot breathe.”
“Yes, I always said it was a pretty thick fog. Now I know it’s as thick as this one. I say, we’re on the pavement again; we shall be in a shop in a minute,” said Captain Kydd.
But I wanted to see the eminent novelist fight, so I reintroduced Mister Gladstone while the cab crawled up a wall.
“It’s not exactly a wholesome atmosphere,” said Captain Kydd when the novelist had finished speaking. “That reminds me of a story—perfectly true story. In the old days, before he went off his chump—”
“Yah-h-h!” said the eminent novelist, wrapping himself in his Inverness.
“—went off his nut, he used to consort a good deal with his friends on his own side—visit ’em, y’ know, and deliver addresses out of their own bedroom windows, and steal their postcards, and generally be friendly. Well, one man he stayed with had a house, a country house, y’ know, and in the garden there was a path which was supposed to divide Kent and Surrey or some counties. They led the old man forth for his walk, y’ know, and followed him in gangs to hear that the weather was fine, and of course his host pointed out the path, the old man took in the situation, and put one I daresay they had strewn rose-leaves on it, or spread it with homespun trousers. Anyhow, one leg on one side of the path and the other on the other, and with one of those wonderfill flashes of humour that come to him when he chooses to frisk among his friends, he said: ‘Now I am in Kent and in Surrey at the same time.’”
Captain Kydd ceased speaking as the cab tried to force a way into the South Kensington Museum.
“Well, what’s there in that?” said the eminent novelist.
“Oh, nothing much. Let’s see how it goes afterwards. Mrs. Gladstone, who was close behind him, turned round and whispered to the hostess in an ecstatic shriek: ‘Oh, Mrs. Whateverhemamewas, you will plant a tree there, won’t you?’ “
“By Jove!” said the young gentleman with the pink eyes.
“I don’t believe it,” said the eminent novelist.
I said nothing, but it seemed very likely. Captain Kydd laughed: “Well, I don’t consider that sort of atmosphere exactly wholesome, y’ know.”
And when the cab had landed us in the drinking-fountain in High Street, Kensington, and the horse fell down, and the cabby collected our half-crowns and gave us his beery blessing, and I had to grope my way home on foot, it occurred to me that perhaps you might be interested in that anecdote. As I have said, it explains a great deal more than appears at first sight.