|‘Thy Lord spoke by inspiration to the Bee.’ AL KORAN.
I HAVE, to my grief and loss, suppressed several notable stories of my friend, the Hon. A. M. Penfentenyou, once Minister of Woods and Waysides in De Thouar’s first administration; later, Premier in all but name of one of Our great and growing Dominions; and now, as always, the idol of his own Province, which is two and one-half the size of England.
For this reason I hold myself at liberty to deal with some portion of the truth concerning Penfentenyou’s latest visit to Our shores. He arrived at my house by car, on a hot summer day, in a white waistcoat and spats, sweeping black frock-coat and glistening top-hat—a little rounded, perhaps, at the edges, but agile as ever in mind and body.
‘What is the trouble now?’ I asked, for the last time we had met, Penfentenyou was floating a three-million pound loan for his beloved but unscrupulous Province, and I did not wish to entertain any more of his financial friends.
‘We,’ Penfentenyou replied ambassadorially, ‘have come to have a Voice in Your Councils. By the way, the Voice is coming down on the evening train with my Agent-General. I thought you wouldn’t mind if I invited ’em. You know We’re going to share Your burdens henceforward. You’d better get into training.’
‘Certainly,’ I replied. ‘What’s the Voice like?’
‘He’s in earnest,’ said Penfentenyou. ‘He’s got It, and he’s got It bad. He’ll give It to you,’ he said.
‘What’s his name?’
‘We call him all sorts of names, but I think you’d better call him Mr. Lingnam. You won’t have to do it more than once.’
‘What’s he suffering from?’
‘The Empire. He’s pretty nearly cured us all of Imperialism at home. P’raps he’ll cure you.’
‘Very good. What am I to do with him?’
‘Don’t you worry,’ said Pen fentenyou. ‘He’ll do it.’
And when Mr. Lingnam appeared half-an-hour later with the Agent-General for Penfentenyou’s Dominion, he did just that.
He advanced across the lawn eloquent as all the tides. He said he had been observing to the Agent-General that it was both politically immoral and strategically unsound that forty-four million people should bear the entire weight of the defences of Our mighty Empire, but, as he had observed (here the Agent-General evaporated), we stood now upon the threshold of a new era in which the self-governing and self-respecting (bis) Dominions would rightly and righteously, as copartners in Empery, shoulder their share of any burden which the Pan-Imperial Council of the Future should allot. The Agent-General was already arranging for drinks with Penfentenyou at the other end of the garden. Mr. Lingnam swept me on to the most remote bench and settled to his theme.
We dined at eight. At nine Mr. Lingnam was only drawing abreast of things Imperial. At ten the Agent-General, who earns his salary, was shamelessly dozing on the sofa. At eleven he and Penfentenyou went to bed. At midnight Mr. Lingnam brought down his big-bellied despatch box with the newspaper clippings and set to federating the Empire in earnest. I remember that he had three alternative plans. As a dealer in words, I plumped for the resonant third—‘Reciprocally co-ordinated Senatorial Hegemony’—which he then elaborated in detail for three-quarters of an hour. At half-past one he urged me to have faith and to remember that nothing mattered except the Idea. Then he retired to his room, accompanied by one glass of cold water, and I went into the dawn-lit garden and prayed to any Power that might be off duty for the blood of Mr. Lingnam, Penfentenyou, and the Agent-General.
To me, as I have often observed elsewhere, the hour of earliest dawn is fortunate, and the wind that runs before it has ever been my most comfortable counsellor.
‘Wait!’ it said, all among the night’s expectant rosebuds. ‘To-morrow is also a day. Wait upon the Event!’
I went to bed so at peace with God and Man and Guest that when I waked I visited Mr. Lingnam in pyjamas, and he talked to me Pan-Imperially for half-an-hour before his bath. Later, the Agent-General said he had letters to write, and Penfentenyou invented a Cabinet crisis in his adored Dominion which would keep him busy with codes and cables all the forenoon. But I said firmly, ‘Mr. Lingnam wishes to see a little of the country round here. You are coming with us in your own car.’
‘It’s a hired one,’ Penfentenyou objected.
‘Yes. Paid for by me as a taxpayer,’ I replied.
‘And yours has a top, and the weather looks thundery,’ said the Agent-General. ‘Ours hasn’t a wind-screen. Even our goggles were hired.’
‘I’ll lend you goggles,’ I said. ‘My car is under repairs.’
The hireling who had looked to be returned to London spat and growled on the drive. She was an open car, capable of some eighteen miles on the flat, with tetanic gears and a perpetual palsy.
‘It won’t make the least difference,’ sighed the Agent-General. ‘He’ll only raise his voice. He did it all the way coming down.’
‘I say,’ said Penfentenyou suspiciously, ‘what are you doing all this for?’
‘Love of the Empire,’ I answered, as Mr. Lingnam tripped up in dust-coat and binoculars. ‘Now, Mr. Lingnam will tell us exactly what he wants to see. He probably knows more about England than the rest of us put together.’
‘I read it up yesterday,’ said Mr. Lingnam simply. While we stowed the lunch-basket (one can never make too sure with a hired car) he outlined a very pretty and instructive little day’s run.
‘You’ll drive, of course?’ said Penfentenyou to him. ‘It’s the only thing you know anything about.’
This astonished me, for your greater Federationists are rarely mechanicians, but Mr. Lingnam said he would prefer to be inside for the present and. enjoy our conversation.
Well settled on the back seat, he did not once lift his eyes to the mellow landscape around him, or throw a word at the life of the English road which to me is one renewed and unreasoned orgy of delight. The mustard-coloured scouts of the Automobile Association; their natural enemies, the unjust police; our natural enemies, the deliberate market-day cattle, broadside-on at all corners, the bicycling butcher-boy a furlong behind; road-engines that pulled giddy-go-rounds, rifle galleries, and swings, and sucked snortingly from wayside ponds in defiance of the noticeboard; traction-engines, their trailers piled high with road metal; uniformed village nurses, one per seven statute miles, flitting by on their wheels; governess-carts full of pink children jogging unconcernedly past roaring, brazen touring-cars; the wayside rector with virgins in attendance, their faces screwed up against our dust; motor-bicycles of every shape charging down at every angle; red flags of rifle-ranges; detachments of dusty-putteed Territorials; coveys of flagrant children playing in mid-street, and the wise, educated English dog safe and quite silent on the pavement if his fool-mistress would but cease from trying to save him, passed and repassed us in sunlit or shaded settings. But Mr. Lingnam only talked. He talked—we all sat together behind so that we could not escape him—and he talked above the worn gears and a certain maddening swish of one badly patched tire—and he talked of the Federation of the Empire against all conceivable dangers except himself. Yet I was neither brutally rude like Penfentenyou, nor swooningly bored like the Agent-General. I remembered a certain Joseph Finsbury who delighted the Tregonwell Arms on the borders of the New Forest with ‘nine’—it should have been ten—‘versions of a single income of two hundred pounds’ placing the imaginary person in—but I could not recall the list of towns further than ‘London, Paris, Bagdad, and Spitzbergen.’ This last I must have murmured aloud, for the Agent-General suddenly became human and went on: ‘Bussorah, Heligoland, and the Scilly Islands——’
‘What?’ growled Penfentenyou.
‘Nothing,’ said the Agent-General, squeezing my hand affectionately. ‘Only we have just found out that we are brothers.’
‘Exactly,’ said Mr. Lingnam. ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to lead up to. We’re all brothers. D’you realise that fifteen years ago such a conversation as we’re having would have been unthinkable? The Empire wouldn’t have been ripe for it. To go back, even ten years——’
‘I’ve got it,’ cried the Agent-General. ‘“Brighton, Cincinnati, and Nijni-Novgorod!” God bless R.L.S.! Go on, Uncle Joseph. I can endure much now.’
Mr. Lingnam went on like our shandrydan, slowly and loudly. He admitted that a man obsessed with a Central Idea—and, after all, the only thing that mattered was the Idea—might become a bore, but the World’s Work, he pointed out, had been done by bores. So he laid his bones down to that work till we abandoned ourselves to the passage of time and the Mercy of Allah, Who Alone closes the Mouths of His Prophets. And we wasted more than fifty miles of summer’s vivid own England upon him the while.
About two o’clock we topped Sumtner Rising and looked down on the village of Sumtner Barton, which lies just across a single railway line, spanned by a red brick bridge. The thick, thunderous June airs brought us gusts of melody from a giddy-go-round steam-organ in full blast near the pond on the village green. Drums, too, thumped and banners waved and regalia flashed at the far end of the broad village street. Mr. Lingnam asked why.
‘Nothing Imperial, I’m afraid. It looks like a Foresters’ Fête—one of our big Mutual Benefit Societies,’ I explained.
‘The Idea only needs to be co-ordinated to Imperial scale——’ he began.
‘But it means that the pub. will be crowded,’ I went on.
‘What’s the matter with lunching by the roadside here?’ said Penfentenyou. ‘We’ve got the lunch-basket.’
‘Haven’t you ever heard of Sumtner Barton ales?’ I demanded, and he became the administrator at once, saying, ‘I see! Lingnam can drive us in and we’ll get some, while Holford’—this was the hireling chauffeur, whose views on beer we knew not—‘lays out lunch here. That’ll be better than eating at the pub. We can take in the Foresters’ Fête as well, and perhaps I can buy some newspapers at the station.’
‘True,’ I answered. ‘The railway station is just under that bridge, and we’ll come back and lunch here.’
I indicated a terrace of cool clean shade beneath kindly beeches at the head of Sumtner Rise. As Holford got out the lunch-basket, a detachment of Regular troops on manœuvres swung down the baking road.
‘Ah!’ said Mr. Lingnam, the monthlymagazine roll in his voice. ‘All Europe is an armed camp, groaning, as I remember I once wrote, under the weight of its accoutrements.’
‘Oh, hop in and drive,’ cried Penfentenyou. ‘We want that beer!’
It made no difference. Mr. Lingnam could have federated the Empire from a tight rope. He continued his oration at the wheel as we trundled.
‘The danger to the Younger Nations is of being drawn into this vortex of Militarism,’ he went on, dodging the rear of the soldiery.
‘Slow past troops,’ I hinted. ‘It saves ’em dust. And we overtake on the right as a rule in England.’
‘Thanks!’ Mr. Lingnam slued over ‘That’s another detail which needs to be co-ordinated throughout the Empire. But to go back to what I was saying. My idea has always been that the component parts of the Empire should take counsel among themselves on the approach of war, so that, after we have decided on the merits of the casus belli, we can co-ordinate what part each Dominion shall play whenever war is, unfortunately, a possibility.’
We neared the hog-back railway bridge, and the hireling knocked piteously at the grade. Mr. Lingnam changed gears, and she hoisted herself up to a joyous Youp-i-addy-i-ay! from the steam-organ. As we topped the arch we saw a Foresters’ band with banners marching down the street.
‘That’s all very fine,’ said the Agent-General, ‘but in real life things have a knack of happening without approaching——’
(Some schools of Thought hold that Time is not; and that when we attain complete enlightenment we shall behold past, present, and future as One Awful Whole. I myself have nearly achieved this.)
We dipped over the bridge into the village. A boy on a bicycle, loaded with four paper bonnet-boxes, pedalled towards us, out of an alley on our right. He bowed his head the better to overcome the ascent, and naturally took his left. Mr. Lingnam swerved frantically to the right. Penfentenyou shouted. The boy looked up, saw the car was like to squeeze him against the bridge wall, flung himself off his machine and across the narrow pavement into the nearest house. He slammed the door at the precise moment when the car, all brakes set, bunted the abandoned bicycle, shattering three of the bonnet-boxes and jerking the fourth over the unscreened dashboard into Mr. Lingnam’s arms.
There was a dead stillness, then a hiss like that of escaping steam, and a man who had been running towards us ran the other way.
‘Why! I think that those must be bees,’ said Mr. Lingnam.
They were—four full swarms—and the first living objects which he had remarked upon all day.
Some one said, ‘Oh, God!’ The Agent-General went out over the back of the car, crying resolutely: ‘Stop the traffic! Stop the traffic, there!’ Penfentenyou was already on the pavement ringing a door-bell, so I had both their rugs, which—for I am an apiarist—I threw over my head. While I was tucking my trousers into my socks—for I am an apiarist of experience—Mr. Lingnam picked up the unexploded bonnet-box and with a single magnificent gesture (he told us afterwards he thought there was a river beneath) hurled it over the parapet of the bridge, ere he ran across the road toward the village green. Now, the station platform immediately below was crowded with Foresters and their friends waiting to welcome a delegation from a sister Court. I saw the box burst on the flint edging of the station garden and the contents sweep forward cone-wise like shrapnel. But the result was stimulating rather than sedative. All those well-dressed people below shouted like Sodom and Gomorrah. Then they moved as a unit into the booking-office, the waiting-rooms, and other places, shut doors and windows and declaimed aloud, while the incoming train whistled far down the line.
I pivoted round cross-legged on the back seat, like a Circassian beauty beneath her veil, and saw Penfentenyou, his coat-collar over his ears, dancing before a shut door and holding up handfuls of currency to a silver-haired woman at an upper window, who only mouthed and shook her head. A little child, carrying a kitten, came smiling round a corner. Suddenly (but these things moved me no more than so many yards of threepenny cinematograph-film) the kitten leaped spitting from her arms, the child burst into tears, Penfentenyou, still dancing, snatched her up and tucked her under his coat, the woman’s countenance blanched, the front door opened, Penfentenyou and the child pressed through, and I was alone in an inhospitable world where every one was shutting windows and calling children home.
A voice cried: ‘You’ve frowtened ’em! You’ve frowtened ’em! Throw dust on ’em and they’ll settle!’
I did not desire to throw dust on any created thing. I needed both hands for my draperies and two more for my stockings. Besides, the bees were doing me no hurt. They recognised me as a member of the County Bee-keepers’ Association who had paid his annual subscription and was entitled to a free seat at all apicultural exhibitions. The quiver and the churn of the hireling car, or it might have been the lurching banners and the arrogant big drum, inclined many of them to go up street, and pay court to the advancing Foresters’ band. So they went, such as had not followed Mr. Lingnam in his flight toward the green, and I looked out of two goggled eyes instead of half a one at the approaching musicians, while I listened with both ears to the delayed train’s second whistle down the line beneath me.
The Foresters’ band no more knew what was coming than do troops under sudden fire. Indeed, there were the same extravagant gestures and contortions as attend wounds and deaths in war; the very same uncanny cessations of speech—for the trombone was cut off at midslide, even as a man drops with a syllable on his tongue. They clawed, they slapped, they fled, leaving behind them a trophy of banners and brasses crudely arranged round the big drum. Then that end of the street also shut its windows, and the village, stripped of life, lay round me like a reef at low tide. Though I am, as I have said, an apiarist in good standing, I never realised that there were so many bees in the world. When they had woven a flashing haze from one end of the desert street to the other, there remained reserves enough to form knops and pendules on all window-sills and gutter-ends, without diminishing the multitudes in the three oozing bonnet-boxes, or drawing on the Fourth (Railway) Battalion in charge of the station below. The prisoners in the waiting-rooms and other places there cried out a great deal (I argued that they were dying of the heat), and at regular intervals the stationmaster called and called to a signalman who was not on duty, and the train whistled as it drew nearer.
Then Penfentenyou, venal and adaptable politician of the type that survives at the price of all the higher emotions, appeared at the window of the house on my right, broken and congested with mirth, the woman beside him, and the child in his arms. I saw his mouth open and shut, he hollowed his hands round it, but the churr of the motor and the bees drowned his words. He pointed dramatically across the street many times and fell back, tears running down his face. I turned like a hooded barbette in a heavy seaway (not knowing when my trousers would come out of my socks again) through one hundred and eighty degrees, and in due time bore on the village green. There was a salmon in the pond, rising short at a cloud of midges to the tune of Yip-i-addy; but there was none to gaff him. The swing-boats were empty, cocoa-nuts sat still on their red sticks before white screens, and the gay-painted horses of the giddy-go-rounds revolved riderless, All was melody, green turf, bright water, and this greedy gambolling fish. When I had identified it by its grey gills and binoculars as Lingnam, I prostrated myself before Allah in that mirth which is more truly labour than any prayer. Then I turned to the purple Penfentenycu at the window, and wiped my eyes on the rug edge.
He raised the window half one cautious inch and bellowed through the crack: ‘Did you see him? Have they got you? I can see lots of things from here. It’s like a three-ring circus!’
‘Can you see the station?’ I replied, nodding toward the right rear mudguard.
He twisted and craned sideways, but could not command that beautiful view.
‘No! What’s it like?’ he cried.
‘Hell!’ I shouted. The silvery-haired woman frowned; so did Penfentenyou, and, I think, apologised to her for my language.
‘You’re always so extreme,’ he fluted reproachfully. ‘You forget that nothing matters except the Idea. Besides, they are this lady’s bees.’
He closed the window, and introduced us through it in dumb show; but he contrived to give the impression that I was the specimen under glass.
A spurt of damp steam saved me from apoplexy. The train had lost patience at last, and was coming into the station directly beneath me to see what was the matter. Happy voices sang and heads were thrust out all along the compartments, but none answered their songs or greetings. She halted, and the people began to get out. Then they began to get in again, as their friends in the waiting-rooms advised. All did not catch the warning, so there was congestion at the doors, but those whom the bees caught got in first.
Still the bees, more bent on their own business than wanton torture, kept to the south end of the platform by the bookstall, and that was why the completely exposed engine-driver at the north end of the train did not at first understand the hermetically sealed stationmaster when the latter shouted to him many times to ‘get on out o’ this.’
‘Where are you?’ was the reply. ‘And what for?’
‘It don’t matter where I am, an’ you’ll get what-for in a minute if you don’t shift,’ said the stationmaster. ‘Drop ’em at Parson’s Meadow and they can walk up over the fields.’
That bare-armed, thin-shirted idiot, leaning out of the cab, took the stationmaster’s orders as an insult to his dignity, and roared at the shut offices: ‘You’ll give me what for, will you? Look ’ere, I’m not in the ’abit of——’ His outstretched hand flew to his neck . . . . Do you know that if you sting an engine-driver it is the same as stinging his train? She starts with a jerk that nearly smashes the couplings, and runs, barking like a dog, till she is out of sight. Nor does she think about spilled people and parted families on the platform behind her. I had to do all that. There was a man called Fred, and his wife Harriet—a cheery, full-blooded couple—who interested me immensely before they battered their way into a small detached building, already densely occupied. There was also a nameless bachelor who sat under a half-opened umbrella and twirled it dizzily, which was so new a game that I applauded aloud.
When they had thoroughly cleared the ground, the bees set about making comb for publication at the bookstall counter. Presently some bold hearts tiptoed out of the waiting-rooms over the loud gravel with the consciously modest air of men leaving church, climbed the wooden staircase to the bridge, and so reached my level, where the inexhaustible bonnet-boxes were still vomiting squadrons and platoons. There was little need to bid them descend. They had wrapped their heads in handkerchiefs, so that they looked like the disappointed dead scuttling back to Purgatory. Only one old gentleman, pontifically draped in a banner embroidered ‘Temperance and Fortitude,’ ran the gauntlet up-street, shouting as he passed me, ‘It’s night or Blücher, Mister.’ They let him in at the White Hart, the pub, where I should have bought the beer.
After this the day sagged. I fell to reckoning how long a man in a Turkish bath, weakened by excessive laughter, could live without food, and specially drink; and how long a disenfranchised bee could hold out under the same conditions.
Obviously, since her one practical joke costs her her life, the bee can have but small sense of humour; but her fundamentally dismal and ungracious outlook on life impressed me beyond words. She had paralysed locomotion, wiped out trade, social intercourse, mutual trust, love, friendship, sport, music (the lonely steam-organ had run down at last), all that gives substance, colour or savour to life, and yet, in the barren desert she had created, was not one whit more near to the evolution of a saner order of things. The Heavens were darkened with the swarms’ divided counsels; the street shimmered with their purposeless sallies. They clotted on tiles and gutter-pipes, and began frenziedly to build a cell or two of comb ere they discovered that their queen was not with them; then flung off to seek her, or whirled, dishevelled and insane, into another hissing nebula on the false rumour that she was there. I scowled upon them with disfavour, and a massy, blue thunderhead rose majestically from behind the elm-trees of Sumtner Barton Rectory, arched over and scowled with me. Then I realised that it was not bees nor locusts that had darkened the skies, but the oncoming of the malignant English thunderstorm—the one thing before which even Deborah the bee cannot express her silly little self.
‘Aha! Now you’ll catch it,’ I said, as the herald gusts set the big drum rolling down the street like a box-kite. Up and up yearned the dark cloud, till the first lightning quivered and cut. Deborah cowered. Where she flew, there she fled; where she was, there she sat still; and the solid rain closed in on her as a book that is closed when the chapter is finished. By the time it had soaked to my second rug, Penfentenyou appeared at the window, wiping his false mouth on a napkin.
‘Are you all right?’ he inquired. ‘Then that’s all right! Mrs. Bellamy says that her bees don’t sting in the wet. You’d better fetch Lingnam over. He’s got to pay for them and the bicycle.’
I had no words which the silver-haired lady could listen to, but paddled across the flooded street between flashes to the pond on the green. Mr. Lingnam, scarcely visible through the sheeting downpour, trotted round the edge. He bore himself nobly, and lied at the mere sight of me.
‘Isn’t this wet?’ he cried. ‘It has drenched me to the skin. I shall need a change.’
‘Come along,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what you’ll get, but you deserve more.’
Penfentenyou, dry, fed, and in command, let us in. ‘You,’ he whispered to me, ‘are to wait in the scullery. Mrs. Bellamy didn’t like the way you talked about her bees. Hsh! Hsh! She’s a kind-hearted lady. She’s a widow, Lingnam, but she’s kept his clothes, and as soon as you’ve paid for the damage she’ll rent you a suit. I’ve arranged it all!’
‘Then tell him he mustn’t undress in my hall,’ said a voice from the stair-head.
‘Tell her——’ Lingnam began.
‘Come and look at the pretty suit I’ve chosen,’ Penfentenyou cooed, as one cajoling a maniac.
I staggered out-of-doors again, and fell into the car, whose ever-running machinery masked my yelps and hiccups. When I raised my forehead from the wheel, I saw that traffic through the village had been resumed, after, as my watch showed, one and one-half hour’s suspension. There were two limousines, one landau, one doctor’s car, three touring-cars, one patent steam-laundry van, three tricars, one traction-engine, some motorcycles, one with a side-car, and one brewery lorry. It was the allegory of my own imperturbable country, delayed for a short time by unforeseen external events but now going about her business, and I blessed Her with tears in my eyes, even though I knew She looked upon me as drunk and incapable.
Then troops came over the bridge behind mea company of dripping wet Regulars without any expression. In their rear, carrying the lunchbasket, marched the Agent-General and Holford the hired chauffeur.
‘I say,’ said the Agent-General, nodding at the darkened khaki backs. ‘If that’s what we’ve got to depend on in event of war they’re a broken reed. They ran like hares—ran like hares, I tell you.
‘And you?’ I asked.
‘Oh, I just sauntered back over the bridge and stopped the traffic that end. Then I had lunch. ’Pity about the beer, though. I say—these cushions are sopping wet!’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I haven’t had time to turn ’em.’
‘Nor there wasn’t any need to ’ave kept the engine runnin’ all this time,’ said Holford sternly. ‘I’ll ’ave to account for the expenditure of petrol. It exceeds the mileage indicated, you see.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I repeated. After all, that is the way that taxpayers regard most crises.
The house-door opened and Penfentenyou and another came out into the now thinning rain.
‘Ah! There you both are! Here’s Lingnam,’ he cried. ‘He’s got a little wet. He’s had to change.’
‘We saw that. I was too sore and weak to begin another laugh, but the Agent-General crumpled up where he stood. The late Mr. Bellamy must have been a man of tremendous personality, which he had impressed on every angle of his garments. I was told later that he had died in delirium tremens, which at once explained the pattern, and the reason why Mr. Lingnam, writhing inside it, swore so inspiredly. Of the deliberate and diffuse Federationist there remained no trace, save the binoculars and two damp whiskers. We stood on the pavement, before Elemental Man calling on Elemental Powers to condemn and incinerate Creation.
‘Well, hadn’t we better be getting back?” said the Agent-General.
‘Look out!’ I remarked casually. ‘Those bonnet-boxes are full of bees still!’
‘Are they?’ said the livid Mr. Lingnam, and tilted them over with the late Mr. Bellamy’s large boots. Deborah rolled out in drenched lumps into the swilling gutter. There was a muffled shriek at the window where Mrs. Bellamy gesticulated.
‘It’s all right. I’ve paid for them,’ said Mr. Lingnam. He dumped out the last dregs like mould from a pot-bound flower-pot.
‘What? Are you going to take ’em home with you?’said the Agent-General.
‘No!’ He passed a wet hand over his streaky forehead. ‘Wasn’t there a bicycle that was the beginning of this trouble?’ said he.
‘It’s under the fore-axle, sir,’ said Holford promptly. ‘I can fish it out from ’ere.’
‘Not till I’ve done with it, please.’ Before we could stop him, he had jumped into the car and taken charge. The hireling leaped into her collar, surged, shrieked (less loudly than Mrs. Bellamy at the window), and swept on. That which came out behind her was, as Holford truly observed, no joy-wheel. Mr. Lingnam swung round the big drum in the market-place and thundered back, shouting: ‘Leave it alone. It’s my meat!’
‘Mince-meat, ’e means,’ said Holford after this second trituration. ‘You couldn’t say now it ’ad ever been one, could you?’
Mrs. Bellamy opened the window and spoke. It appears she had only charged for damage to the bicycle, not for the entire machine which Mr. Lingnam was ruthlessly gleaning, spoke by spoke, from the highway and cramming into the slack of the hood. At last he answered, and I have never seen a man foam at the mouth before. ‘If you don’t stop, I shall come into your house—in this car—and drive upstairs and—kill you!’
She stopped; he stopped. Holford took the wheel, and we got away. It was time, for the sun shone after the storm, and Deborah beneath the tiles and the eaves already felt its reviving influence compel her to her interrupted labours of federation. We warned the village policeman at the far end of the street that he might have to suspend traffic again. The proprietor of the giddy-go-round, swings, and cocoanut-shies wanted to know from whom, in this world or another, he could recover damages. Mr. Lingnam referred him most directly to Mrs. Bellamy . . . . Then we went home.
After dinner that evening Mr. Lingnam rose stiffly in his place to make a few remarks on the Federation of the Empire on the lines of Coordinated, Offensive Operations, backed by the Entire Effective Forces, Moral, Military and Fiscal, of Permanently Mobilised Communities, the whole brought to bear, without any respect to the merits of any casus belli, instantaneously, automatically, and remorselessly at the first faint buzz of war.
‘The trouble with Us,’ said he, ‘is that We take such an infernally long time making sure that We are right that We don’t go ahead when things happen. For instance, I ought to have gone ahead instead of pulling up when I hit that bicycle.’
‘But you were in the wrong, Lingnam, when you turned to the right,’ I put in.
‘I don’t want to hear any more of your damned, detached, mugwumping excuses for the other fellow,’ he snapped.
‘Now you’re beginning to see things,’ said Penfentenyou. ‘I hope you won’t backslide when the swellings go down.’