A Question Of Light by A. A. Milne

As soon as Celia had got a cheque-book of her own (and I had explained the mysteries of “—- & Co.” to her), she looked round for a safe investment of her balance, whi …

As soon as Celia had got a cheque-book of her own (and I had explained the mysteries of “—- & Co.” to her), she looked round for a safe investment of her balance, which amounted to several pounds. My offers, first of an old stocking and afterwards of mines, mortgages and aerated breads, were rejected at once.

“I’ll leave a little in the bank in case of accidents,” she said, “and the rest must go somewhere absolutely safe and earn me five per cent. Otherwise they shan’t have it.”

We did what we could for her; we offered the money to archdeacons and other men of pronounced probity; and finally we invested it in the Blanktown Electric Light Company. Blanktown is not its real name, of course; but I do not like to let out any information which may be of value to Celia’s enemies–the wicked ones who are trying to snatch her little fortune from her. The world, we feel, is a dangerous place for a young woman with money.

“Can’t I possibly lose it now?” she asked.

“Only in two ways,” I said. “Blanktown might disappear in the night, or the inhabitants might give up using electric light.”

It seemed safe enough. At the same time we watched the newspapers anxiously for details of the latest inventions; and anybody who happened to mention when dining with us that he was experimenting with a new and powerful illuminant was handed his hat at once.

You have Blanktown, then, as the depository of Celia’s fortune. Now it comes on the scene in another guise. I made the announcement with some pride at breakfast yesterday.

“My dear,” I said, “I have been asked to deliver a lecture.”

“Whatever on?” asked Celia.

“Anything I like. The last person lectured on ‘The Minor Satellites of Jupiter,’ and the one who comes after me is doing ‘The Architecture of the Byzantine Period,’ so I can take something in between.”

“Like ‘Frostbites,’” said Celia helpfully. “But I don’t quite understand. Where is it, and why?”

“The Blanktown Literary and Philosophical Society ask me to lecture to them at Blanktown. The man who was coming is ill.”

“But why you particularly?”

“One comes down to me in the end,” I said modestly.

“I expect it’s because of my electric lights. Do they give you any money for it?”

“They ask me to name my fee.”

“Then say a thousand pounds, and lecture on the need for more electric light. Fancy if I got six per cent!”

“This is a very sordid conversation,” I said. “If I agree to lecture at all, it will be simply because I feel that I have a message to deliver … I will now retire into the library and consider what that message is to be.”

I placed the encyclopaedia handy and sat down at my desk. I had already grasped the fact that the title of my discourse was the important thing. In the list of the Society’s lectures sent to me there was hardly one whose title did not impress the imagination in advance. I must be equally impressive …

After a little thought I began to write.

“WASPS AND THEIR YOUNG

Lecture delivered before the Blanktown Literary and Philosophical Society, Tuesday, December 8th.

Ladies and Gentlemen–“

“Well,” said Celia, drifting in, “how’s it going?”

I showed her how far I had got.

“I thought you always began, ‘My Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen,’” she said.

“Only if the Lord Mayor’s there.”

“But how will you know?”

“Yes, that’s rather awkward. I shall have to ask the Secretary beforehand.”

I began again.

“WASPS AND THEIR YOUNG

Lecture delivered, etc….

My Lord Mayor, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen–“

It looked much better.

“What about Baronets?” said Celia. “There’s sure to be lots.”

“Yes, this is going to be difficult. I shall have to have a long talk with the Secretary … How’s this?–‘My Lord Mayor, Lords, Baronets, Ladies and Gentlemen and Sundries.’ That’s got in everybody.”

“That’s all right. And I wanted to ask you: Have you got any lantern slides?”

“They’re not necessary.”

“But they’re much more fun. Perhaps they’ll have some old ones of Vesuvius you can work in. Well, good-bye.” And she drifted out.

I went on thinking.

“No,” I said to myself, “I’m on the wrong tack.” So I began again:–

“SOME YORKSHIRE POT-HOLES

Lecture delivered before the Blanktown Literary and Philosophical Society, Tuesday, December 8th.

My Lord Mayor, my Lords–“

“I don’t want to interrupt,” said Celia coming in suddenly, “but–oh, what’s a pot-hole?”

“A curious underground cavern sometimes found in the North.”

“Aren’t caverns always underground? But you’re busy. Will you be in for lunch?”

“I shall be writing my lecture all day,” I said busily.

At lunch I decided to have a little financial talk with Celia.

“What I feel is this,” I said. “At most I can ask ten guineas for my lecture. Now my expense all the way to the North, with a night at an hotel, will be at least five pounds.”

“Five-pounds-ten profit,” said Celia. “Not bad.”

“Ah, but wait. I have never spoken in public before. In an immense hall, whose acoustics–“

“Who are they?”

“Well, never mind. What I mean is that I shall want some elocution lessons. Say five, at a guinea each.”

“That still leaves five shillings.”

“If only it left that, it might be worth it. But there’s a new white waistcoat. An audience soon gets tired of a lecture, and then there’s nothing for the wakeful ones to concentrate on but the white waistcoat of the lecturer. It must be of a virgin whiteness. Say thirty-five shillings. So I lose thirty shillings by it. Can I afford so much?”

“But you gain the acoustics and the waistcoat.”

“True. Of course, if you insist–“

“Oh, you must,” said Celia.

So I returned to the library. By tea-time I had got as far as this:–

“ADVENTURES WITH A CAMERA IN SOMALILAND

Lecture delivered before the Blanktown Literary and Philo–“

And then I had an idea. This time a brilliant one.

“Celia,” I said at tea, “I have been wondering whether I ought to take advantage of your generosity.”

“What generosity?”

“In letting me deliver this lecture.”

“It isn’t generosity, it’s swank. I want to be able to tell everybody.”

“Ah, but the sacrifices you are making.”

“Am I?” said Celia, with interest.

“Of course you are. Consider. I ask a fee of ten guineas. They cannot possibly charge more than a shilling a head to listen to me. It would be robbery. So that if there is to be a profit at all, as presumably they anticipate, I shall have a gate of at least two hundred and fifty.”

“I should hope so.”

“Two hundred and fifty. And what does that mean? It means that at seven-thirty o’clock on the night of December the 8th two hundred and fifty residents of Blanktown will turn out the electric lights in their drawing-rooms … PERHAPS EVEN IN THEIR HALLS … and proceed to the lecture-room. True, the lecture-room will be lit up–a small compensation–but not for long. When the slides of Vesuvius are thrown upon the screen–“

Celia was going pale.

“But if it’s not you,” she faltered, “it will be somebody else.”

“No; if I refuse, it will be too late then to get a substitute. Besides, they must have tried everybody else before they got down to me… Celia it is noble of you to sacrifice–“

“Don’t go!” she cried in anguish.

I gave a deep sigh.

“For your sake,” I said, “I won’t.”

So that settles it. If my lecture on “First Principles in Homoeopathy” is ever to be delivered, it must be delivered elsewhere.

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