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The Civil Servant by A. A. Milne

 

It was three o'clock, and the afternoon sun reddened the western windows of one of the busiest of Government offices. In an airy room on the third floor Richard Dale was batting. Standing in front of the coal-box with the fire-shovel in his hands, he was a model of the strenuous young Englishman; and as for the third time he turned the Government india-rubber neatly in the direction of square-leg, and so completed his fifty, the bowler could hardly repress a sigh of envious admiration. Even the reserved Matthews, who was too old for cricket, looked up a moment from his putting, and said, "Well played, Dick!"

The fourth occupant of the room was busy at his desk, as if to give the lie to the thoughtless accusation that the Civil Service cultivates the body at the expense of the mind. The eager shouts of the players seemed to annoy him, for he frowned and bit his pen, or else passed his fingers restlessly through his hair.

"How the dickens you expect any one to think in this confounded noise," he cried suddenly.

"What's the matter, Ashby?"

"You're the matter. How am I going to get these verses done for The Evening Surprise if you make such a row? Why don't you go out to tea?"

"Good idea. Come on, Dale. You coming, Matthews?" They went out, leaving the room to Ashby.

In his youth Harold Ashby had often been told by his relations that he had a literary bent. His letters home from school were generally pronounced to be good enough for Punch, and some of them, together with a certificate of character from his Vicar, were actually sent to that paper. But as he grew up he realized that his genius was better fitted for work of a more solid character. His post in the Civil Service gave him full leisure for his Adam: A Fragment, his History of the Microscope, and his Studies in Rural Campanology, and yet left him ample time in which to contribute to the journalism of the day.

The poem he was now finishing for The Evening Surprise was his first contribution to that paper, but he had little doubt that it would be accepted. It was called quite simply, "Love and Death," and it began like this:

"Love! O love! (All other things above).—Why, O why, Am I afraid to die?"

There were six more lines which I have forgotten, but I suppose they gave the reason for this absurd diffidence.

Having written the poem out neatly, Harold put it in an envelope and took it round to The Evening Surprise. The strain of composition had left him rather weak, and he decided to give his brain a rest for the next few days. So it happened that he was at the wickets on the following Wednesday afternoon when the commissionaire brought him in the historic letter. He opened it hastily, the shovel under his arm.

"DEAR SIR," wrote the editor of The Surprise, "will you come round and see me as soon as convenient?"

Harold lost no time. Explaining that he would finish his innings later, he put his coat on, took his hat and stick, and dashed out.

"How do you do?" said the editor. "I wanted to talk to you about your work. We all liked your little poem very much. It will be coming out to-morrow."

"Thursday," said Harold helpfully.

"I was wondering whether we couldn't get you to join our staff. Does the idea of doing 'Aunt Miriam's Cosy Corner' in our afternoon edition appeal to you at all?"

"No," said Harold, "not a bit."

"Ah, that's a pity." He tapped his desk thoughtfully. "Well then, how would you like to be a war correspondent?"

"Very much," said Harold. "I was considered to write rather good letters home from school."

"Splendid! There's this little war in Mexico. When can you start? All expenses and fifty pounds a week. You're not very busy at the office, I suppose, just now?"

"I could get sick leave easily enough," said Harold, "if it wasn't for more than eight or nine months."

"Do; that will be excellent. Here's a blank cheque for your outfit. Can you get off to-morrow? But I suppose you'll have one or two things to finish up at the office first?"

"Well," said Harold cautiously, "I WAS in, and I'd made ninety-six. But if I go back and finish my innings now, and then have to-morrow for buying things, I could get off on Friday."

"Good," said the editor. "Well, here's luck. Come back alive if you can, and if you do we shan't forget you."

Harold spent the next day buying a war correspondent's outfit:—the camel, the travelling bath, the putties, the pith helmet, the quinine, the sleeping-bag, and the thousand-and-one other necessities of active service. On the Friday his colleagues at the office came down in a body to Southampton to see him off. Little did they think that nearly a year would elapse before he again set foot upon England.

I shall not describe all his famous coups in Mexico. Sufficient to say that experience taught him quickly all that he had need to learn; and that whereas he was more than a week late with his cabled account of the first engagement of the war, he was frequently more than a week early afterwards. Indeed, the battle of Parson's Nose, so realistically described in his last telegram, is still waiting to be fought. It is to be hoped that it will be in time for his aptly-named book, With the Mexicans in Mexico, which is coming out next month.

On his return to England Harold found that time had wrought many changes. To begin with, the editor of The Evening Surprise had passed on to The Morning Exclamation.

"You had better take his place," said the ducal proprietor to Harold.

"Right," said Harold. "I suppose I shall have to resign my post at the office?"

"Just as you like. I don't see why you should."

"I should miss the cricket," said Harold wistfully, "and the salary. I'll go round and see what I can arrange."

But there were also changes at the office. Harold had been rising steadily in salary and seniority during his absence, and he found to his delight that he was now a Principal Clerk. He found, too, that he had acquired quite a reputation in the office for quickness and efficiency in his new work.

The first thing to arrange about was his holiday. He had had no holiday for more than a year, and there were some eight weeks owing to him.

"Hullo," said the Assistant Secretary as Harold came in, "you're looking well. I suppose you manage to get away for the week-ends?"

"I've been away on sick leave for some time," said Harold pathetically.

"Have you? You've kept it very secret. Come out and have lunch with me, and we'll do a matinee afterwards."

Harold went out with him happily. It would be pleasant to accept the editorship of The Evening Surprise without giving up the Governmental work which was so dear to him, and the Assistant Secretary's words made this possible for a year or so anyhow. Then, when his absence from the office first began to be noticed, it would be time to think of retiring on an adequate pension.

 
 
 

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