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Sir Timothy's Dinner Party by James Owen Hannay

An Extract from - Our Casualty And Other Stories

Mr. Courtney, the R.M., was a man of ideas, and prided himself on his sympathy with progress, the advance of thought, and similar delights. If he had been thirty years younger, and had lived in Dublin, he would have been classed among the “Intellectuals.” He would then have written a gloomy play or two, several poems and an essay, published at a shilling, in a green paper cover, on the “Civilization of the Future.” Being, unfortunately, fifty-five years of age, he could not write poetry or gloomy plays. Nobody can after the age of forty. Being a Resident Magistrate, he was debarred from discussing the Civilization of the Future in print. No Government allows its paid servant to write books on controversial subjects. But Mr. Courtney remained intellectually alert, and was a determined champion of the cause of progress, even amid the uncongenial society of a West of Ireland town.

The introduction of Summer Time gave Mr. Courtney a great opportunity. Almost everyone else in the neighbourhood objected to the change of the clock. Cows, it was said, disliked being milked before their accustomed hour. Dew collects in deep pools, and renders farm work impossible in the early morning. It is unreasonable to expect labourers, who have to rise early in any case, to get out of their beds before the day is properly warm. Mr. Courtney combated all these objections with arguments which struck him as sound, but irritated everybody else. When it appeared that Ireland, worse treated as usual than England, was to be fined an additional twenty-five minutes, and was to lose the proud privilege of Irish time, Mr. Courtney was more pleased than ever. He made merry over what he called the arguments of reactionary patriotism.

Sir Timothy was the principal landlord, and, socially, the most important person in the neighbourhood. Sir Timothy did not like Mr. Courtney. He was of opinion that the R.M. was inclined to take a high hand at Petty Sessions and to bully the other magistrates—Sir Timothy was himself a magistrate—who sat with him on the Bench. He also thought that Mr. Courtney was “too d——d superior” in private life. Sir Timothy had the lowest possible opinion of the progress made by civilization in his own time. The Civilization of the Future, about which Mr. Courtney talked a great deal, seemed to Sir Timothy a nasty kind of nightmare.

It was natural, almost inevitable, that Sir Timothy should take a conservative view on the subject of the new time.

“I don't see the use of playing silly tricks with the clock,” he said. “You might just as well say that I'd live ten years longer if everybody agreed to say that I'm forty-eight instead of fifty-eight. I'd still be fifty-eight in reality. It's just the same with the time. We may all make up our minds to pretend it's eight o'clock when it's really seven, but it will still be seven.”

Mr. Courtney smiled in a gentle, but very annoying manner.

“My dear Sir Timothy,” he said, “don't you see that what is really wanted is a complete change in the habits of the population? We've been gradually slipping into wasteful ways of living. Our expenditure on artificial light———”

“I know all about that,” said Sir Timothy. “If you've said it to me once, you've said it a dozen times, and last year I did alter my docks. But this year—hang it all! They're sticking another twenty-five minutes on it. If they go on at this rate, moving us back an extra half hour every May, we'll be living in the middle of the night before we die.”

“I'm sorry to hear you taking up that question of the so-called Irish time,” said Mr. Courtney. “Reactionary patriotism——”

Sir Timothy spluttered. Being an Irish gentleman, he hated to be accused of patriotism, which he held—following Dr. Johnson—to be the last refuge of a scoundrel.

“There's nothing patriotic about it,” he said. “What I object to hasn't anything to do with any particular country. It's simply a direct insult to the sun.”

“The sun,” said Mr. Courtney, smiling more offensively than ever, “can take care of itself.”

“It can,” said Sir Timothy, “and does. It takes jolly good care not to rise in Dublin at the same time that it does in Greenwich, and what you're trying to do is to bluff it into saying it does. When you come to think of it, the sun doesn't rise here the same time it does in Dublin. We're a hundred and twenty miles west of Dublin, so the real time here——”

“We can't have a different time in every parish,” said Mr. Courtney. “In the interests of international civilization——”

“I don't care a row of pins about international civilization. We're something like twenty minutes wrong already here. When you've made your silly change to summer time, and wiped out that twenty-five minutes Irish time, we shall be an hour and three quarters wrong.”

“At all events,” said Mr. Courtney, “you'll have to do it.”

“I won't.”

“And when you've got accustomed to it, you'll see the advantages of the change.”

Sir Timothy was profoundly irritated.

“You may do as you like,” he said, “I mean to stick to the proper time. The proper time, mind you, strictly according to the sun, as it rises in this neighbourhood. I haven't worked it out exactly yet, but I should say, roughly, that there'll be two hours' difference between your watch and mine.”

Mr. Courtney gasped.

“Do you mean to say that you're actually going to add on two hours?

“I'm going to take off two hours,” said Sir Timothy.

Mr. Courtney thought for a moment.

“You'll be adding on those two hours,” he said, “not taking them off——”

“You're an extraordinarily muddle-headed man, Courtney. Can't you see that if I call it six when you say it's eight I'm taking off——”

“You're not. The way to look at it is this: A day is twenty-four hours long. You say it's twenty-six hours. Therefore, you add on.”

“I don't do anything of the sort,” said Sir Timothy. “Look here, the sun rises, say, at 6 a.m. You and a lot of other silly people choose to say that it rises at 8. What I'm doing—I and the sun, Courtney—mind that. The sun's with me——What we're doing is taking off two hours.”

The argument went on for some time. Its result was that Sir Timothy and Mr. Courtney did not speak to each other again for a fortnight Arguments, religious, political and economic, often end in this way.

During that fortnight summer time established itself, more or less, in the neighbourhood. Mr. Courtney, the local bank, the railway company, and the police observed the new time in its full intensity. The parish priest and most of the farmers took a moderate line. They sacrificed the twenty-five minutes of the original Irish time, but resisted the imposition of a whole extra hour. With them it was eight o'clock when the nine o'clock train started for Dublin. A few extremists stood out for their full rights as Irishmen, and insisted that the bank, which said it opened at 10 a.m., was really beginning business at 8.35 a.m. Sir Timothy, dragging his household with him, set up what he called actual time, and breakfasted a full two hours after the progressive party.

The practical inconvenience of these differences of opinion became obvious when Sir Timothy arrived at the Petty Sessions Court to take his seat on the Bench just as Mr. Courtney, having completed the business of the day, was going home for a rather late luncheon.

“No cases to-day?” said Sir Timothy, coldly polite.

“Oh, yes, there were, several. I've finished them off.”

“But,” said Sir Timothy, “it's only just the hour for beginning.”

“Excuse me, it's 2 p.m.”

“12 noon,” said Sir Timothy.

“2 p.m.,” repeated Mr. Courtney.

Sir Timothy took out his watch. The hands were together at the hour of 12. He showed it to Mr. Courtney, who grimed. Sir Timothy scowled at him and turned fiercely to a police sergeant who stood by.

“Sergeant,” he said, “what time is it?”

It is not the function of the Irish police to decide great questions of State. Their business is to enforce what the higher powers, for the time being, wish the law to be. In case of any uncertainty about which power is the higher, the police occupy the uncomfortable position of neutrals. The sergeant was not quite sure whether Sir Timothy or Mr. Courtney were the more influential man. He answered cautiously.

“There's some,” he said, “who do be saying that it's one o'clock at the present time. There's others—and I'm not saying they're wrong—who are of opinion that it's half-past twelve, or about that. There's them—and some of the most respectable people is with them there—that says it's 2 p.m. If I was to be put on my oath this minute, I'd find it mortal hard to say what time it was.”

“By Act of Parliament,” said Mr. Courtney, its 2 p.m.

“In the matter of an Act of Parliament,” said the sergeant, “I wouldn't like to be contradicting your honour.”

Sir Timothy turned on his heel and walked away. The victory was with Mr. Courtney, but not because he had an Act of Parliament behind him. Nobody in Ireland pays much attention to Acts of Parliament. He made his point successfully, because the police did not like to contradict him. From that day on Sir Timothy made no attempt to take his seat on the Magistrates' Bench in the Court House.

Late in the summer Sir Archibald Chesney visited the neighbourhood. Sir Archibald is, of course, a great man. He is one of the people who are supposed to govern Ireland. He does not actually do so. Nobody could. But he dispenses patronage, which, after all, is one of the most important functions of any Government. It was, for instance, in Sir Archibald's power to give Mr. Courtney a pleasant and well-paid post in Dublin, to remove him from the uncongenial atmosphere of Connaught, and set him in an office in the Lower Castle Yard. There, and in a house in Ailesbury Road—houses in Ailesbury Road are most desirable—Mr. Courtney could mingle in really intellectual society.

Mr. Courtney knew this, and invited Sir Archibald to be his guest during his stay in the neighbourhood. Sir Archibald gracefully accepted the invitation.

Then a surprising thing happened. Mr. Courtney received a very friendly letter from Sir Timothy.

“I hear,” so the letter ran, “that Sir Archibald Chesney is to be with you for a few days next week. We shall be very pleased if you will bring him out to dine with us some evening. Shall we say Tuesday at 7.30? I shall not ask anyone else. Three of us will be enough for a couple of bottles of my old port.”

Sir Timothy's port was very old and remarkably good. Mr. Courtney had tasted it once or twice before the days when summer time was thought of. No doubt, Sir Archibald would appreciate the port.

He might afterwards take an optimistic view of life, and feel well disposed towards Mr. Courtney. The invitation was accepted.

Sir Archibald and Mr. Courtney dressed for dinner, as gentlemen belonging to the high official classes in Ireland should and do. They put on shirts with stiff fronts and cuffs. With painful efforts they drove studs through tightly sealed buttonholes. They fastened white ties round their collars. They encased their stomachs in stiff white waistcoats. They struggled into silk-lined, silk-faced, long-tailed coats. They wrapped their necks in white silk scarves. They even put high silk hats on their heads. Their overcoats were becomingly open, for the day was warm. They took their seats in the motor. Every policeman in the village saluted them as they passed. They sped up the long, tree-lined avenue which led to Sir Timothy's house. They reached the lofty doorway, over which crouched lions upheld a shield, bearing a coat of arms.

On the lawn opposite the door Sir Timothy, his two daughters and a young man whom Mr. Courtney recognized as the police inspector, were playing tennis. It was a bright and agreeable scene. The sun shone pleasantly. Sir Timothy and the police inspector were in white flannels. The girls wore pretty cotton frocks.

Sir Archibald looked at Mr. Courtney.

“We've come the wrong day,” he said, “or the wrong hour, or something.”

“It is Tuesday,” said Mr. Courtney, “and he certainly said 7.30.”

“It's infernally awkward,” said Sir Archibald, glancing at his clothes.

Sir Timothy crossed the lawn, swinging his tennis racket and smiling.

“Delighted to see you,” he said. “I'd have asked you to come up for a game of tennis if I'd thought you'd have cared for it. Had an idea you'd be busy all day, and would rather dress at your own place. Hullo, you are dressed! A bit early, isn't it? But I'm delighted to see you.”

Sir Archibald stepped slowly from the car. Men who undertake the task of governing Ireland must expect to find themselves looking like fools occasionally. But it is doubtful whether any turn of the political or administrative machine can make a man look as foolish as he feels when, elaborately dressed in evening clothes, he is suddenly set down on a sunny lawn in the middle of a group of people suitably attired for tennis. Sir Archibald, puzzled and annoyed, turned to Mr. Courtney with a frown.

“He said half-past seven,” said Mr. Courtney.

“I'm delighted to see you now or at any time, but, as a matter of fact, it's only half-past five,” said Sir Timothy.

Sir Archibald looked at his watch.

“It's—surely my watch can't have gained two hours?”

“It's half-past seven,” said Mr. Courtney, firmly.

“Oh, no it isn't,” said Sir Timothy. “I don't dine by Act of Parliament.”

Sir Archibald frowned angrily.

“We'd better go home again,” he said. “We mustn't interrupt the tennis.”

He climbed stiffly into the motor.

“I suppose,” he said to Mr. Courtney a few minutes later, “that this is some kind of Irish joke.”

Mr. Courtney explained, elaborately and fully, Sir Timothy's peculiar views about time.

“If I'd known,” said Sir Archibald, “that you were taking me to dine with a lunatic, I should not have agreed to go.”

Mr. Courtney recognized that his chances of promotion to a pleasant post in Dublin had vanished. The Irish Government had no use for men who place their superiors in embarrassing positions.