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Margery by A. A. Milne

I.—A TWICE TOLD TALE

"Is that you, uncle?" said a voice from the nursery, as I hung my coat up in the hall. "I've only got my skin on, but you can come up."

However, she was sitting up in bed with her nightgown on when I found her.

"I was having my bath when you came," she explained. "Have you come all the way from London?"

"All the way."

"Then will you tell me a story?"

"I can't; I'm going to have my dinner. I only came up to say Good-night."

Margery leant forward and whispered coaxingly, "Will you just tell me about Beauty and 'e Beast?"

"But I've told you that such heaps of times. And it's much too long for to-night."

"Tell me HALF of it. As much as THAT." She held her hands about nine inches apart.

"That's too much."

"As much as THAT." The hands came a little nearer together.

"Oh! Well, I'll tell you up to where the Beast died."

"FOUGHT he died," she corrected eagerly.

"Yes. Well—"

"How much will that be? As much as I said?"

I nodded. The preliminary business settled, she gave a little sigh of happiness, put her arms round her knees, and waited breathlessly for the story she had heard twenty times before.

"Once upon a time there was a man who had three daughters. And one day—"

"What was the man's name?"

"Margery," I said reproachfully, annoyed at the interruption, "you know I NEVER tell you the man's name."

"Tell me now."

"Oswald," I said, after a moment's thought.

"I told Daddy it was Thomas," said Margery casually.

"Well, as a matter of fact, he had two names, Oswald AND Thomas."

"Why did he have two names?"

"In case he lost one. Well, one day this man, who was very poor, heard that a lot of money was waiting for him in a ship which had come over the sea to a town some miles off. So he—"

"Was it waiting at Weymouf?"

"Somewhere like that."

"I spex it must have been Weymouf, because there's lots of sea there."

"Yes, I'm sure it was. Well, he thought he'd go to Weymouth and get the money."

"How much monies was it?"

"Oh, lots and lots."

"As much as five pennies?"

"Yes, about that. Well, he said Good-bye to his daughters, and asked them what they'd like him to bring back for a present. And the first asked for some lovely jewels and diamonds and—"

"Like mummy's locket—is THAT jewels?"

"That sort of idea. Well, she wanted a lot of things like that. And the second wanted some beautiful clothes."

"What sort of clothes?"

"Oh, frocks and—well, frocks and all sorts of—er—frocks."

"Did she want any lovely new stockings?"

"Yes, she wanted three pairs of those."

"And did she want any lovely—"

"Yes," I said hastily, "she wanted lots of those, too. Lots of EVERYTHING."

Margery gave a little sob of happiness. "Go on telling me," she said under her breath.

"Well, the third daughter was called Beauty. And she thought to herself, 'Poor Father won't have any money left at all, if we all go on like this!' So she didn't ask for anything very expensive, like her selfish sisters, she only asked for a rose. A simple red rose."

Margery moved uneasily.

"I hope," she said wistfully, "this bit isn't going to be about—YOU know. It never did before."

"About what?"

"Good little girls and bad little girls, and fings like that."

"My darling, no, of course not. I told it wrong. Beauty asked for a rose because she loved roses so. And it was a very particular kind of red rose that she wanted—a sort that they simply COULDN'T get to grow in their own garden because of the soil."

"Go on telling me," said Margery, with a deep sigh of content.

"Well, he started off to Weymouth."

"What day did he start?"

"It was Monday. And when—"

"Oh, well, anyhow, I told daddy it was Tuesday."

"Tuesday—now let me think. Yes, I believe you're right. Because on Monday he went to a meeting of the Vegetable Gardeners, and proposed the health of the Chairman. Yes, well he started off on Tuesday, and when he got there he found that there was no money for him at all!"

"I spex somebody had taken it," said Margery breathlessly.

"Well, it had all gone SOMEHOW."

"Perhaps somebody had swallowed it," said Margery, a little carried away by the subject. "By mistake."

"Anyhow, it was gone. And he had to come home again without any money. He hadn't gone far—"

"How far?" asked Margery. "As far as THAT?" and she measured nine inches in the air.

"About forty-four miles—when he came to a beautiful garden."

"Was it a really lovely big garden? Bigger than ours?"

"Oh, much bigger."

"Bigger than yours?"

"I haven't got a garden."

Margery looked at me wonderingly. She opened her mouth to speak, and then stopped and rested her head upon her hands and thought out this new situation. At last, her face flushed with happiness, she announced her decision.

"Go on telling me about Beauty and the Beast now," she said breathlessly, "and THEN tell me why you haven't got a garden."

My average time for Beauty and the Beast is ten minutes, and, if we stop at the place when the Beast thought he was dead, six minutes twenty-five seconds. But, with the aid of seemingly innocent questions, a determined character can make even the craftiest uncle spin the story out to half an hour.

"Next time," said Margery, when we had reached the appointed place and she was being tucked up in bed, "will you tell me ALL the story?"

Was there the shadow of a smile in her eyes? I don't know. But I'm sure it will be wisest next time to promise her the whole thing. We must make that point clear at the very start, and then we shall get along.

II.—THE LITERARY ART

MARGERY has a passion for writing just now. I can see nothing in it myself, but if people WILL write, I suppose you can't stop them.

"Will you just lend me your pencil?" she asked.

"Remind me to give you a hundred pencils some time," I said as I took it out, "and then you'll always have one. You simply eat pencils."

"Oo, I gave it you back last time."

"Only just. You inveigle me down here—"

"What do I do?"

"I'm not going to say that again for anybody."

"Well, may I have the pencil?"

I gave her the pencil and a sheet of paper, and settled her in a chair.

"B-a-b-y," said Margery to herself, planning out her weekly article for the Reviews. "B-a-b-y, baby." She squared her elbows and began to write....

"There!" she said, after five minutes' composition.

The manuscript was brought over to the critic, and the author stood proudly by to point out subtleties that might have been overlooked at a first reading.

"B-a-b-y," explained the author. "Baby."

"Yes, that's very good; very neatly expressed. 'Baby'—I like that."

"Shall I write some more?" said Margery eagerly.

"Yes, do write some more. This is good, but it's not long enough."

The author retired again, and in five minutes produced this:—

B A B Y

"That's 'baby,'" explained Margery.

"Yes, I like that baby better than the other one. It's more spread out. And it's bigger—it's one of the biggest babies I've seen."

"Shall I write some more?"

"Don't you write anything else ever?"

"I like writing 'baby,'" said Margery carelessly. "B-a-b-y."

"Yes, but you can't do much with just that one word. Suppose you wanted to write to a man at a shop—'Dear Sir,—You never sent me my boots. Please send them at once, as I want to go out this afternoon. I am, yours faithfully, Margery'—it would be no good simply putting 'B-a-b-y,' because he wouldn't know what you meant."

"Well, what WOULD it be good putting?"

"Ah, that's the whole art of writing—to know what it would be any good putting. You want to learn lots and lots of new words, so as to be ready. Now here's a jolly little one that you ought to meet." I took the pencil and wrote GOT. "Got. G-o-t, got."

Margery, her elbows on my knee and her chin resting on her hands, studied the position.

"Yes, that's old 'got,'" she said.

"He's always coming in. When you want to say, 'I've got a bad pain, so I can't accept your kind invitation'; or when you want to say, 'Excuse more, as I've got to go to bed now'; or quite simply, 'You've got my pencil.'"

"G-o-t, got," said Margery. "G-o-t, got. G-o-t, got."

"With appropriate action it makes a very nice recitation."

"Is THAT a 'g'?" said Margery, busy with the pencil, which she had snatched from me.

"The gentleman with the tail. You haven't made his tail quite long enough.... That's better."

Margery retired to her study, charged with an entirely new inspiration, and wrote her second manifesto. It was this:—

G O T

"Got," she pointed out.

I inspected it carefully. Coming fresh to the idea Margery had treated it more spontaneously than the other. But it was distinctly a "got." One of the gots.

"Have you any more words?" she asked, holding tight to the pencil.

"You've about exhausted me, Margery."

"What was that one you said just now? The one you said you wouldn't say again?"

"Oh, you mean 'inveigle'?" I said, pronouncing it differently this time.

"Yes; write that for me."

"It hardly ever comes in. Only when you are writing to your solicitor."

"What's 'solicitor'?"

"He's the gentleman who takes the money. He's ALWAYS coming in."

"Then write 'solicitor.'"

I took the pencil (it was my turn for it) and wrote SOLICITOR. Then I read it out slowly to Margery, spelt it to her three times very carefully, and wrote SOLICITOR again. Then I said it thoughtfully to myself half a dozen times—"Solicitor." Then I looked at it wonderingly.

"I am not sure now," I said, "that there is such a word."

"Why?"

"I thought there was when I began, but now I don't think there can be. 'Solicitor'—it seems so silly."

"Let me write it," said Margery, eagerly taking the paper and pencil, "and see if it looks silly."

She retired, and—as well as she could for her excitement—copied the word down underneath. The combined effort then read as follows:—

SOLICITOR SOLICITOR SOLCTOR

"Yes, you've done it a lot of good," I said. "You've taken some of the creases out. I like that much better."

"Do you think there is such a word now?"

"I'm beginning to feel more easy about it. I'm not certain, but I hope."

"So do I," said Margery. With the pencil in one hand and the various scraps of paper in the other, she climbed on to the writing-desk and gave herself up to literature....

And it seems to me that she is well equipped for the task. For besides having my pencil still (of which I say nothing for the moment) she has now three separate themes upon which to ring the changes—a range wide enough for any writer. These are, "Baby got solicitor" (supposing that there is such a word), "Solicitor got baby," and "Got baby solicitor." Indeed, there are really four themes here, for the last one can have two interpretations. It might mean that you had obtained an ordinary solicitor for Baby, or it might mean that you had got a specially small one for yourself. It lacks, therefore, the lucidity of the best authors, but in a woman writer this may be forgiven.

III.—MY SECRETARY

When, five years ago, I used to write long letters to Margery, for some reason or other she never wrote back. To save her face I had to answer the letters myself—a tedious business. Still, I must admit that the warmth and geniality of the replies gave me a certain standing with my friends, who had not looked for me to be so popular. After some months, however, pride stepped in. One cannot pour out letter after letter to a lady without any acknowledgment save from oneself. And when even my own acknowledgments began to lose their first warmth—when, for instance, I answered four pages about my new pianola with the curt reminder that I was learning to walk and couldn't be bothered with music, why, then at last I saw that a correspondence so one-sided would have to come to an end. I wrote a farewell letter and replied to it with tears....

But, bless you, that was nearly five years ago. Each morning now, among the usual pile of notes on my plate from duchesses, publishers, money-lenders, actor-managers and what-not, I find, likely enough, an envelope in Margery's own handwriting. Not only is my address printed upon it legibly, but there are also such extra directions to the postman as "England" and "Important," for its more speedy arrival. And inside—well, I give you the last but seven.

"MY DEAR UNCLE I thot you wher coming to see me to night but you didn't why didn't you baby has p t o hurt her knee isnt that a pity I have some new toys isnt that jolly we didn't have our five minutes so will you krite to me and tell me all about p t o your work from your loving little MARGIE."

I always think that footnotes to a letter are a mistake, but there are one or two things I should like to explain.

(A) Just as some journalists feel that without the word "economic" a leading article lacks tone, so Margery feels, and I agree with her, that a certain cachet is lent to a letter by a p.t.o. at the bottom of each page.

(B) There are lots of grown-up people who think that "write" is spelt "rite." Margery knows that this is not so. She knows that there is a silent letter in front of the "r," which doesn't do anything but likes to be there. Obviously, if nobody is going to take any notice of this extra letter, it doesn't much matter what it is. Margery happened to want to make a "k" just then; at a pinch it could be as silent as a "w." You will please, therefore, regard the "k" in "krite" as absolutely noiseless.

(C) Both Margery and Bernard Shaw prefer to leave out the apostrophe in writing such words as "isn't" and "don't."

(D) Years ago I claimed the privilege to monopolise, on the occasional evenings when I was there, Margery's last ten minutes before she goes back to some heaven of her own each night. This privilege was granted; it being felt, no doubt, that she owed me some compensation for my early secretarial work on her behalf. We used to spend the ten minutes in listening to my telling a fairy story, always the same one. One day the authorities stepped in and announced that in future the ten minutes would be reduced to five. The procedure seemed to me absolutely illegal (and I should like to bring a test action against somebody), but it certainly did put the lid on my fairy story, of which I was getting more than a little tired.

"Tell me about Beauty and the Beast," said Margery as usual that evening.

"There's not time," I said. "We've only five minutes to-night."

"Oh! Then tell me all the work you've done to-day."

(A little unkind, you'll agree, but you know what relations are.)

And so now I have to cram the record of my day's work into five breathless minutes. You will understand what bare justice I can do to it in the time.

I am sorry that these footnotes have grown so big; let us leave them and return to the letter. There are many ways of answering such a letter. One might say, "MY DEAR MARGERY,—It was jolly to get a real letter from you at last—" but the "at last" would seem rather tactless considering what had passed years before. Or one might say, "MY DEAR MARGERY,—Thank you for your jolly letter. I am so sorry about baby's knee and so glad about your toys. Perhaps if you gave one of the toys to baby, then her knee—" But I feel sure that Margery would expect me to do better than that.

In the particular case of this last letter but seven I wrote:—

"DEAREST MARGERY,—Thank you for your sweet letter. I had a very busy day at the office or I would have come to see you. P.T.O.—I hope to be down next week, and then I will tell you all about my work; but I have a lot more to do now, and so I must say Good-bye. Your loving UNCLE."

There is perhaps nothing in that which demands an immediate answer, but with business-like promptitude Margery replied:—

"MY DEAR UNCLE thank you for your letter I am glad you are coming next week baby is quite well now are you p t o coming on Thursday next week or not say yes if you are I am p t o sorry you are working so hard from your loving MARGIE."

I said "Yes," and that I was her loving uncle. It seemed to be then too late for a "P.T.O.," but I got one in and put on the back, "Love to Baby." The answer came by return of post:—

"MY DEAR UNCLE thank you for your letter come erly on p t o Thursday come at half past nothing baby sends her love and so do p t o I my roking horse has a sirrup broken isnt that a pity say yes or no good-bye from your loving MARGIE."

Of course I thanked Baby for her love and gave my decision that it WAS a pity about the rocking-horse. I did it in large capitals, which (as I ought to have said before) is the means of communication between Margery and her friends. For some reason or other I find printing capitals to be more tiring than the ordinary method of writing.

"MY DEAR UNCLE," wrote Margery—

But we need not go into that. What I want to say is this: I love to get letters, particularly these, but I hate writing them, particularly in capitals. Years ago, I used to answer Margery's letters for her. It is now her turn to answer mine for me.

CHUM

IT is Chum's birthday to-morrow, and I am going to buy him a little whip for a present, with a whistle at the end of it. When I next go into the country to see him I shall take it with me and explain it to him. Two days' firmness would make him quite a sensible dog. I have often threatened to begin the treatment on my very next visit, but somehow it has been put off; the occasion of his birthday offers a last opportunity.

It is rather absurd, though, to talk of birthdays in connection with Chum, for he has been no more than three months old since we have had him. He is a black spaniel who has never grown up. He has a beautiful astrakhan coat which gleams when the sun is on it; but he stands so low in the water that the front of it is always getting dirty, and his ears and the ends of his trousers trail in the mud. A great authority has told us that, but for three white hairs on his shirt (upon so little do class distinctions hang), he would be a Cocker of irreproachable birth. A still greater authority has sworn that he is a Sussex. The family is indifferent—it only calls him a Silly Ass. Why he was christened Chum I do not know; and as he never recognizes the name it doesn't matter.

When he first came to stay with us I took him a walk round the village. I wanted to show him the lie of the land. He had never seen the country before and was full of interest. He trotted into a cottage garden and came back with something to show me.

"You'll never guess," he said. "Look!" and he dropped at my feet a chick just out of the egg.

I smacked his head and took him into the cottage to explain.

"My dog," I said, "has eaten one of your chickens."

Chum nudged me in the ankle and grinned.

"TWO of your chickens," I corrected myself, looking at the fresh evidence which he had just brought to light.

"You don't want me any more?" said Chum, as the financial arrangements proceeded. "Then I'll just go and find somewhere for these two." And he picked them up and trotted into the sun.

When I came out I was greeted effusively.

"This is a wonderful day," he panted, as he wriggled his body. "I didn't know the country was like this. What do we do now?"

"We go home," I said, and we went.

That was Chum's last day of freedom. He keeps inside the front gate now. But he is still a happy dog; there is plenty doing in the garden. There are beds to walk over, there are blackbirds in the apple tree to bark at. The world is still full of wonderful things. "Why, only last Wednesday," he will tell you, "the fishmonger left his basket in the drive. There was a haddock in it, if you'll believe me, for master's breakfast, so of course I saved it for him. I put it on the grass just in front of his study window, where he'd be SURE to notice it. Bless you, there's always SOMETHING to do in this house. One is never idle."

And even when there is nothing doing, he is still happy; waiting cheerfully upon events until they arrange themselves for his amusement. He will sit for twenty minutes opposite the garden bank, watching for a bumble-bee to come out of its hole. "I saw him go in," he says to himself, "so he's bound to come out. Extraordinarily interesting world." But to his inferiors (such as the gardener) he pretends that it is not pleasure but duty which keeps him. "Don't talk to me, fool. Can't you see that I've got a job on here?"

Chum has found, however, that his particular mission in life is to purge his master's garden of all birds. This keeps him busy. As soon as he sees a blackbird on the lawn he is in full cry after it. When he gets to the place and finds the blackbird gone, he pretends that he was going there anyhow; he gallops round in circles, rolls over once or twice, and then trots back again. "You didn't REALLY think I was such a fool as to try to catch a BLACKBIRD?" he says to us. "No, I was just taking a little run—splendid thing for the figure."

And it is just Chum's little runs over the beds which call aloud for firmness—which, in fact, have inspired my birthday present to him. But there is this difficulty to overcome first. When he came to live with us an arrangement was entered into (so he says) by which one bed was given to him as his own. In that bed he could wander at will, burying bones and biscuits, hunting birds. This may have been so, but it is a pity that nobody but Chum knows definitely which is the bed.

"Chum, you bounder," I shout as he is about to wade through the herbaceous border.

He takes no notice; he struggles through to the other side. But a sudden thought strikes him, and he pushes his way back again.

"Did you call me?" he says.

"How DARE you walk over the flowers?"

He comes up meekly.

"I suppose I've done SOMETHING wrong," he says, "but I can't THINK what."

I smack his head for him. He waits until he is quite sure I have finished, and then jumps up with a bark, wipes his paws on my trousers and trots into the herbaceous border again.

"Chum!" I cry.

He sits down in it and looks all round him in amazement.

"My own bed!" he murmurs. "Given to me!"

I don't know what it is in him which so catches hold of you. His way of sitting, a reproachful statue, motionless outside the window of whomever he wants to come out and play with him—until you can bear it no longer, but must either go into the garden or draw down the blinds for the day; his habit, when you ARE out, of sitting up on his back legs and begging you with his front paws to come and DO something—a trick entirely of his own invention, for no one would think of teaching him anything; his funny nautical roll when he walks, which is nearly a swagger, and gives him always the air of having just come back from some rather dashing adventure; beyond all this there is still something. And whatever it is, it is something which every now and then compels you to bend down and catch hold of his long silky ears, to look into his honest eyes and say—

"You silly old ass! You DEAR old SILLY old ass!"

 
 
 

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