“CURIOUSER and curiouser,” as Alice in Wonderland said when she found her neck beginning to grow. Each day under the smoke brings me new and generally unpleasant discoveries. The latest are most on my mind. I hasten to transfer them to yours.
At first, and several times afterwards, I very greatly desired to talk to a thirteen-two subaltern—not because he or I would have anything valuable to say to each outher, but just because he was a subaltern. I wanted to know all about that evergreen polo-pony that “can turn on a sixpence,” and the second-hand charger that, by a series of prefectly unprecedented misfortunes, just failed to win the Calcutta Derby. Then, too, I wished to hear of many old friends across the sea, and who had got his company, and why and where the new Generals were going next cold weather, and how the Commander-in-Chief had been enlivening the Simla season. So I looked east and west, and north and south, but never a thirteen-two subaltern broke through the fog; except once—and he had grown a fifteen-one cot down, and wore a tall hat and frock coat, and was begging for coppers from the Horse-Guards. By the way, if you stand long enough between the mounted sentries—the men who look like reflectors stolen from Christmas trees —you will presently meet every human being you ever knew in India. When I am not happy—that is to say, once a day—I run off and play on the pavement in front of the Horse-Guards, and watch the expressions on the gentlemen’s faces as they come out. But this is a digression.
After some days—I grew lonelier and lonelier every hour—I went away to the other end of the town, and catching a friend, said: “Lend me a man—a young man—to play with. I don’t feel happy. I want rousing. I have liver.” And the friend said: “Ah, yes, of course. What you want is congenial society, something that will stir you up—a fellowmind. Now let me introduce you to a thoroughly nice young man. He’s by way of being an ardent Neo-Alexandrine, and has written some charming papers on the ‘Ethics of the Wood Pavement.’” Concealing my almost visible rapture, I murmured “Oh, bliss!” as they used to say at the Gaiety, and extended the hand of friendship to a young gentleman attired after the fashion of the Neo-Alexandrines, who appear to be a subcaste of social priests. His hand was a limp hand, his face was very smooth because he had not yet had time to grow any hair, and he wore a cloak like a policeman’s cloak, but much more so. On his finger was a cameo-ring about three inches wide, and round his neck, the weather being warm, was a fawn, olive and dead-leaf comforter of soft silk—the sort of thing any right-minded man would give to his mother or his sister without being asked.
We looked at each other cautiously for some minutes. Then he said: “What do you think of the result of the Brighton election?” “Beautiful, beautiful,” I said, watching his eye, which saddened, “One of the worst—that is, entirely the most absurd reductio ad absurdum of the principle of the narrow and narrow-minded majority imposing a will which is necessarily incult on a minority ammated by . . . ” I forget exactly what he said they were animated by, but it was something very fine,
“When I was at Oxford,” he said, “Haward of Exeter”—he spoke as one speaks of Smith of Asia—“always inculcated at the Union—— By the way, you do not know, I suppose, anything of the life at Oxford?” “No,” I said, anxious to propitiate, “but I remember some boys once who seduced an ekka and a pony into a Major’s tent at a camp of exercise, laced up the door, and let the Major fight it out with the horse.” I told that little incident in my best style, and was three parts through it before I discovered that he was looking pained and shocked.
“That—ah—was not the side of Oxford that I had in mind when I was saying that Haward of Exeter——” And he explained all about Mr. Haward, who appeared to be a young gentleman, rising twenty-three, of wonderful mental attainments, and as pernicious a prig as I ever dreamed about. Mr. Haward had schemes for the better management of creation; my friend told me them all—social, political and economical.
Then, just as I was feeling faint and very much in need of a drink, he launched without warning upon the boundless seas of literature. He wished to know whether I had read the works of Messrs. Guy de Maupassant, Paul Bourget and Pierre Loti. This in the tone of a teacher of Euclid. I replied that all my French was confined to the Vie Parisienne and translations of Zola’s novels with illustrations. Here we parted. London is very large, and I do not think we shall meet any more.
I thanked our Mutual Friend for his kindness, and asked for another young man to play with. This gentleman was even younger than the last, but quite as cocksure. He told me in the course of half a cigar that only men of mediocre calibre went into the army, which was a brutalising profession; that he suffered from nerves, and “an uncontrollable desire to walk up and down the room and sob” (that was too many cigarettes), and that he had never set foot out of England, but knew all about the world from his own theories. Thought Dickens coarse; Scott jingling and meretricious; and had not by any chance read the novels of Messrs. Guy de Maupassant, Paul Bourget and Pierre Loti.
Him I left quickly, but sorry that he could not do a six weeks’ training with a Middlesex militia regiment, where he would really get something to sob for. The novel business interested me. I perceived that it was a fashion, like his tie and his collars, and I wanted to work it to the fountain-head. To this end I procured the whole Shibboleth from Guy de Maupassant even unto Pierre Loti by way of Bourget. Unwholesome was a mild term for these interesting books, which the yoimg men assured me that they read for style. When a fat Major makes that remark in an Indian Club, everybody hoots and laughs. But you must not laugh overseas, especially at young gentlemen who have been to Oxford and listened to Mr. Haward of Exeter.
Then I was introduced to another young man who said he belonged to a movement called Toynbee Hall, where, I gathered, young gentlemen took an indecent interest in the affairs of another caste, whom, with rare tact, they called “the poor,” and told them generally how to order their lives. Such was the manner and general aggressiveness of this third young gentleman, that if he had told me that coats were generally worn and good for the protection of the body, I should have paraded Bond Street in my shirt. What the poor thought of him I could not tell, but there is no room for it in this letter. He said that there was going to be an upheaval of the classes—the English are very funny about their castes. They don’t know how to handle them one little bit, and never allow them to draw water or build huts in peace—and the entire social fabric was about to be remodelled on his recommendations, and the world would be generally altered past recognition. No, he had never seen anything of the world, but close acquaintance with authorities had enabled him to form dispassionate judgments on the subjects, and had I, by any chance, read the novels of Guy de Maupassant, Pierre Loti and Paul Bourget?
It was a mean thing to do, but I couldn’t help it. I had read ’em. I put him on, so to speak, far back in Paul Bourget, who is a genial sort of writer. I pinned him to one book. He could not escape from Paul Bourget. He was fed with it till he confessed—and he had been quite ready to point out its beauties—that we could not take much interest in the theories put forward in that particular book. Then I said: “Get a dictionary and read him,” which severed our budding friendship.
Thereafter I sought our Mutual Friend and walked up and down his room sobbing, or words to that eflFect. “Good gracious!” said my friend. “Is that what’s troubling you? Now, I hold the ravaging rights over half a dozen fields and a bit of a wood. You can pot rabbits there in the evenings sometimes, and anyway you get exercise. Come along.”
So I went. I have not yet killed anything, but it seems wasteful to drive good powder and shot after poor little bunnies when there are so many other things in the world that would be better for an ounce and a half of number five at sixty yards—not enough to disable, but just sufiicient to sting, and be pricked out with a penknife.
I should like to wield that penknife.