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An Inland Voyage by A. A. Milne

 

Thomas took a day off last Monday in order to play golf with me. For that day the Admiralty had to get along without Thomas. I tremble to think what would have happened if war had broken out on Monday. Could a Thomasless Admiralty have coped with it? I trow not. Even as it was, battleships grounded, crews mutinied, and several awkward questions in the House of Commons had to be postponed till Tuesday.

Something—some premonition of this, no doubt—seemed to be weighing on him all day.

"Rotten weather," he growled, as he came up the steps of the club.

"I'm very sorry," I said. "I keep on complaining to the secretary about it. He does his best."

"What's that?"

"He taps the barometer every morning, and says it will clear up in the afternoon. Shall we go out now, or shall we give it a chance to stop?"

Thomas looked at the rain and decided to let it stop. I made him as comfortable as I could. I gave him a drink, a cigarette, and Mistakes with the Mashie. On the table at his elbow I had in reserve Faulty Play with the Brassy and a West Middlesex Directory. For myself I wandered about restlessly, pausing now and again to read enviously a notice which said that C. D. Topping's handicap was reduced from 24 to 22. Lucky man!

At about half-past eleven the rain stopped for a moment, and we hurried out.

"The course is a little wet," I said apologetically, as we stood on the first tee, "but with your naval experience you won't mind that. By the way, I ought to warn you that this isn't all casual water. Some of it is river."

"How do you know which is which?"

"You'll soon find out. The river is much deeper. Go on—your drive."

Thomas won the first hole very easily. We both took four to the green, Thomas in addition having five splashes of mud on his face while I only had three. Unfortunately the immediate neighbourhood of the hole was under water. Thomas, the bounder, had a small heavy ball, which he managed to sink in nine. My own, being lighter, refused to go into the tin at all, and floated above the hole in the most exasperating way.

"I expect there's a rule about it," I said, "if we only knew, which gives me the match. However, until we find that out, I suppose you must call yourself one up."

"I shall want some dry socks for lunch," he muttered, as he sploshed off to the tee.

"Anything you want for lunch you can have, my dear Thomas. I promise you that you shall not be stinted. The next green is below sea-level altogether, I'm afraid. The first in the water wins."

Honours, it turned out, were divided. I lost the hole, and Thomas lost his ball. The third tee having disappeared, we moved on to the fourth.

"There's rather a nasty place along here," I said.

"The Secretary was sucked in the other day, and only rescued by the hair."

Thomas drove a good one. I topped mine badly, and it settled down in the mud fifty yards off. "Excuse me," I shouted as I ran quickly after it, and I got my niblick on to it just as it was disappearing. It was a very close thing.

"Well," said Thomas, as he reached his ball, "that's not what I call a brassy lie."

"It's what we call a corkscrew lie down here," I explained. "If you haven't got a corkscrew, you'd better dig round it with something, and then when the position is thoroughly undermined—Oh, good shot!"

Thomas had got out of the fairway in one, but he still seemed unhappy.

"My eye," he said, bending down in agony; "I've got about half Middlesex in it."

He walked round in circles saying strange nautical things, and my suggestions that he should (1) rub the other eye, and (2) blow his nose suddenly, were received ungenerously.

"Anything you'd like me to do with my ears?" he asked bitterly. "If you'd come and take some mud out for me, instead of talking rot—"

I approached with my handkerchief and examined the eye carefully.

"See anything?" asked Thomas.

"My dear Thomas, it's FULL of turf. We mustn't forget to replace this if we can get it out. What the Secretary would say—There! How's that?"

"Worse than ever."

"Try not to think about it. Keep the OTHER eye on the ball as much as possible. This is my hole by the way. Your ball is lost."

"How do you know?"

"I saw it losing itself. It went into the bad place I told you about. It's gone to join the Secretary. Oh, no, we got him out, of course; I keep forgetting. Anyhow, it's my hole."

"I think I shall turn my trousers up again," said Thomas, bending down to do so. "Is there a local rule about it?"

"No; it is left entirely to the discretion and good taste of the members. Naturally a little extra licence is allowed on a very muddy day. Of course, if—Oh, I see. You meant a local rule about losing your ball in the mud? No, I don't know of one—unless it comes under the heading of casual land. Be a sportsman, Thomas, and don't begrudge me the hole."

The game proceeded, and we reached the twelfth tee without any further contretemps; save that I accidentally lost the sixth, ninth and tenth holes, and that Thomas lost his iron at the eighth. He had carelessly laid it down for a moment while he got out of a hole with his niblick, and when he turned round for it the thing was gone.

At the twelfth tee it was raining harder than ever. We pounded along with our coat-collars up and reached the green absolutely wet through.

"How about it?" said Thomas.

"My hole, I think; and that makes us all square."

"I mean how about the rain? And it's just one o'clock."

"Just as you like. Well, I suppose it is rather wet. All right, let's have lunch."

We had lunch. Thomas had it in the only dry things he had brought with him—an ulster and a pair of Vardon cuffs, and sat as near the fire as possible. It was still raining in torrents after lunch, and Thomas, who is not what I call keen about golf, preferred to remain before the fire. Perhaps he was right. I raked up an old copy of Strumers with the Niblick for him, and read bits of the Telephone Directory out aloud.

After tea his proper clothes were dry enough in places to put on, and as it was still raining hard, and he seemed disinclined to come out again, I ordered a cab for us both.

"It's really rotten luck," said Thomas, as we prepared to leave, "that on the one day when I take a holiday, it should be so beastly."

"Beastly, Thomas?" I said in amazement. "The ONE day? I'm afraid you don't play inland golf much?"

"I hardly ever play round London."

"I thought not. Then let me tell you that to-day's was the best day's golf I've had for three weeks."

"Golly!" said Thomas.

AN INFORMAL EVENING

DINNER was a very quiet affair. Not a soul drew my chair away from under me as I sat down, and during the meal nobody threw bread about. We talked gently of art and politics and things; and when the ladies left there was no booby trap waiting for them at the door. In a word, nothing to prepare me for what was to follow.

We strolled leisurely into the drawing-room. A glance told me the worst. The ladies were in a cluster round Miss Power, and Miss Power was on the floor. She got up quickly as we came in.

"We were trying to go underneath the poker," she explained. "Can you do it?"

I waved the poker back.

"Let me see you do it again," I said. "I missed the first part."

"Oh, I can never do it. Bob, you show us."

Bob is an active young fellow. He took the poker, rested the end on the floor, and then twisted himself underneath his right arm. I expected to see him come up inside out, but he looked much the same after it. However, no doubt his organs are all on the wrong side now.

"Yes, that's how I should do it," I said hastily.

But Miss Power was firm. She gave me the poker. I pressed it hard on the floor, said good-bye to them all, and dived. I got half-way round, and was supporting myself upside down by one toe and the slippery end of the poker, when it suddenly occurred to me that the earth was revolving at an incredible speed on its own axis, and that, in addition, we were hurtling at thousands of miles a minute round the sun. It seemed impossible in these circumstances that I should keep my balance any longer; and as soon as I realized this, the poker began to slip. I was in no sort of position to do anything about it, and we came down heavily together.

"Oh, what a pity!" said Miss Power. "I quite thought you'd done it."

"Being actually on the spot," I said, "I knew that I hadn't."

"Do try again."

"Not till the ground's a little softer."

"Let's do the jam-pot trick," said another girl.

"I'm not going under a jam-pot for anybody," I murmured.

However, it turned out that this trick was quite different. You place a book (Macaulay's Essays or what not) on the jam-pot and sit on the book, one heel only touching the ground. In the right hand you have a box of matches, in the left a candle. The jam-pot, of course, is on its side, so that it can roll beneath you. Then you light the candle ... and hand it to anybody who wants to go to bed.

I was ready to give way to the ladies here, but even while I was bowing and saying, "Not at all," I found myself on one of the jam-pots with Bob next to me on another. To balance with the arms outstretched was not so difficult; but as the matches were then about six feet from the candle and there seemed no way of getting them nearer together the solution of the problem was as remote as ever. Three times I brought my hands together, and three times the jam-pot left me.

"Well played, Bob," said somebody. The bounder had done it.

I looked at his jam-pot.

"There you are," I said, "'Raspberry—1909.' Mine's 'Gooseberry-1911,' a rotten vintage. And look at my book, Alone on the Prairie; and you've got The Mormon's Wedding. No wonder I couldn't do it."

I refused to try it again as I didn't think I was being treated fairly; and after Bob and Miss Power had had a race at it, which Bob won, we got on to something else.

"Of course you can pick a pin out of a chair with your teeth?" said Miss Power.

"Not properly," I said. "I always swallow the pin."

"I suppose it doesn't count if you swallow the pin," said Miss Power thoughtfully.

"I don't know. I've never really thought about that side of it much. Anyhow, unless you've got a whole lot of pins you don't want, don't ask me to do it to-night."

Accordingly we passed on to the water-trick. I refused at this, but Miss Power went full length on the floor with a glass of water balanced on her fore-head and came up again without spilling a single drop. Personally, I shouldn't have minded spilling a single drop; it was the thought of spilling the whole glass that kept me back. Anyway, it is a useless trick, the need for which never arises in an ordinary career. Picking up The Times with the teeth, while clasping the left ankle with the right hand, is another matter. That might come in useful on occasions; as, for instance, if having lost your left arm on the field and having to staunch with the right hand the flow of blood from a bullet wound in the opposite ankle, you desired to glance through the Financial Supplement while waiting for the ambulance.

"Here's a nice little trick," broke in Bob, as I was preparing myself in this way for the German invasion.

He had put two chairs together, front to front, and was standing over them—a foot on the floor on each side of them, if that conveys it to you. Then he jumped up, turned round in the air, and came down facing the other way.

"Can YOU do it?" I said to Miss Power.

"Come and try," said Bob to me. "It's not really difficult."

I went and stood over the chairs. Then I moved them apart and walked over to my hostess.

"Good-bye," I said; "I'm afraid I must go now."

"Coward!" said somebody, who knew me rather better than the others.

"It's much easier than you think," said Bob.

"I don't think it's easy at all," I protested. "I think it's impossible."

I went back and stood over the chairs again. For some time I waited there in deep thought. Then I bent my knees preparatory to the spring, straightened them up, and said:

"What happens if you just miss it?"

"I suppose you bark your shins a bit."

"Yes, that's what I thought."

I bent my knees again, worked my arms up and down, and then stopped suddenly and said:

"What happens if you miss it pretty easily?"

"Oh, YOU can do it, if Bob can," said Miss Power kindly.

"He's practised. I expect he started with two hassocks and worked up to this. I'm not afraid but I want to know the possibilities. If it's only a broken leg or two, I don't mind. If it's permanent disfigurement I think I ought to consult my family first."

I jumped up and came down again the same way for practice.

"Very well," I said. "Now I'm going to try. I haven't the faintest hope of doing it, but you all seem to want to see an accident, and, anyhow, I'm not going to be called a coward. One, two, three..."

"Well done," cried everybody.

"Did I do it?" I whispered, as I sat on the floor and pressed a cushion against my shins.

"Rather!"

"Then," I said, massaging my ankles, "next time I shall try to miss."

THE CONTINENTAL MANNER

OF course I should recognize Simpson anywhere, even at a masked ball. Besides, who but Simpson would go to a fancy-dress dance as a short-sighted executioner, and wear his spectacles outside his mask? But it was a surprise to me to see him there at all.

"Samuel," I said gravely, tapping him on the shoulder, "I shall have to write home about this."

He turned round with a start.

"Hallo!" he said eagerly. "How splendid! But, my dear old chap, why aren't you in costume?"

"I am," I explained. "I've come as an architect. Luckily the evening clothes of an architect are similar to my own. Excuse me, sir, but do you want a house built?"

"How do you like my dress? I am an executioner. I left my axe in the cloak-room."

"So I observe. You know, in real life, one hardly ever meets an executioner who wears spectacles. And yet, of course, if one CAN'T see the head properly without glasses—"

"By Jove," said Simpson, "there she is again."

Columbine in a mask hurried past us and mixed with the crowd. What one could see of her face looked pretty; it seemed to have upset Simpson altogether.

"Ask her for a dance," I suggested. "Be a gay dog, Simpson. Wake London up. At a masked ball one is allowed a certain amount of licence."

"Exactly," said Simpson in some excitement. "One naturally looks for a little Continental ABANDON at these dances." (PORTRAIT OF SIMPSON SHOWING CONTINENTAL abandon.) "And so I did ask her for a dance just now."

"She was cold, Samuel, I fear?"

"She said, 'Sorry, I'm full up.'"

"A ruse, a mere subterfuge. Now, look here, ask her again, and be more debonair and dashing this time. What you want is to endue her with the spirit of revelry. Perhaps you'd better go to the bar first and have a dry ginger-ale, and then you'll feel more in the Continental mood."

"By Jove, I will," said Simpson, with great decision.

I wandered into the ball-room and looked round. Columbine was standing in a corner alone; some outsider had cut her dance. As I looked at her I thought of Simpson letting himself go, and smiled to myself. She caught the edge of the smile and unconsciously smiled back. Remembering the good advice which I had just given another, I decided to risk it.

"Do you ever dance with architects?" I asked her.

"I do sometimes." she said. "Not in Lent," she added.

"In Lent," I agreed, "one has to give up the more furious pleasures. Shall we just finish off this dance? And don't let's talk shop about architecture."

We finished the dance and retired to the stairs.

"I want you to do something for me," I began cautiously.

"Anything except go into supper again. I've just done that for somebody else."

"No, it's not that. The fact is, I have a great friend called Simpson."

"It sounds a case for help," she murmured.

"He is here to-night disguised as an executioner in glasses. He is, in fact, the only spectacled beheader present. You can't miss him."

"All the same, I managed to just now," she gurgled.

"I know. He asked you for a dance and you rebuffed him. Well, he is now fortifying himself with a small dry ginger, and he will then ask you again. Do be kind this time; he's really a delightful person when you get to know him. For instance, both his whiskers are false."

"No doubt I should grow to love him," she agreed; "but I didn't much like his outward appearance. However, if both whiskers are false, and if he's really a friend of yours—"

"He is naturally as harmless as a lamb," I said; "but at a dance like this he considers it his duty to throw a little Continental ABANDON into his manner."

Columbine looked at me thoughtfully, nodding her head, and slowly began to smile.

"You see," I said, "the possibilities."

"He shall have his dance," she said decidedly.

"Thank you very much. I should like to ask for another dance for myself later on, but I am afraid I should try to get out of you what he said, and that wouldn't be fair."

"Of course I shouldn't tell you."

"Well, anyhow, you'll have had enough of us by then. But softly—he approaches, and I must needs fly, lest he should pierce my disguise. Good-bye, and thank you so much."

. . . . . . .

So I can't say with authority what happened between Simpson and Columbine when they met. But Simpson and I had a cigarette together afterwards and certain things came out; enough to make it plain that she must have enjoyed herself.

"Oh, I say, old chap," he began jauntily, "do you know—match, thanks—er—whereabouts is Finsbury Circus?"

"You're too old to go to a circus now, Simpson. Come and have a day at the Polytechnic instead."

"Don't be an ass; it's a place like Oxford Circus. I suppose it's in the City somewhere? I wonder," he murmured to himself, "what she would be doing in the City at eleven o'clock in the morning."

"Perhaps her rich uncle is in a bank, and she wants to shoot him. I wish you'd tell me what you're talking about."

Simpson took off his mask and spectacles and wiped his brow.

"Dear old chap," he said in a solemn voice, "in the case of a woman one cannot tell even one's best friend. You know how it is."

"Well, if there's going to be a duel you should have chosen some quieter spot than Finsbury Circus. The motor-buses distract one's aim."

Simpson was silent for a minute or two. Then a foolish smile flitted across his face, to be followed suddenly by a look of alarm.

"Don't do anything that your mother wouldn't like," I said warningly.

He frowned and put on his mask again.

"Are chrysanthemums in season?" he asked casually. "Anyhow, I suppose I could always get a yellow one?"

"You could, Simpson. And you could put it in your button-hole, so that you can be recognized, and go to Finsbury Circus to meet somebody at eleven o'clock to-morrow morning. Samuel, I'm ashamed of you. Er—where do you lunch?"

"At the Carlton. Old chap, I got quite carried away. Things seemed to be arranged before I knew where I was."

"And what's she going to wear so that you can recognize HER?"

"Yes," said Simpson, getting up, "that's the worst of it. I told her it was quite out of date, and that only the suburbs wore fashions a year old, but she insisted on it. I had no idea she was that sort of girl. Well, I'm in for it now." He sighed heavily and went off for another ginger-ale.

I think that I must be at Finsbury Circus to-morrow, for certainly no Columbine in a harem skirt will be there. Simpson in his loneliness will be delighted to see me, and then we can throw away his button-hole and have a nice little lunch together.

 
 
 

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