Whatever the papers say, it was the hottest afternoon of the year. At six-thirty I had just finished dressing after my third cold bath since lunch, when Celia tapped on the door.
“I want you to do something for me,” she said. “It’s a shame to ask you on a day like this.”
“It is rather a shame,” I agreed, “but I can always refuse.”
“Oh, but you mustn’t. We haven’t got any ice, and the Thompsons are coming to dinner. Do you think you could go and buy threepennyworth? Jane’s busy, and I’m busy, and–“
“And I’m busy,” I said, opening and shutting a drawer with great rapidity.
“Just threepennyworth,” she pleaded. “Nice cool ice. Think of sliding home on it.”
Well, of course it had to be done. I took my hat and staggered out. On an ordinary cool day it is about half a mile to the fishmonger; to-day it was about two miles and a quarter. I arrived exhausted, and with only just strength enough to kneel down and press my forehead against the large block of ice in the middle of the shop, round which the lobsters nestled.
“Here, you mustn’t do that,” said the fishmonger, waving me away.
I got up, slightly refreshed.
“I want,” I said, “some–” and then a thought occurred to me.
After all, did fishmongers sell ice? Probably the large block in front of me was just a trade sign like the coloured bottles at the chemist’s. Suppose I said to a fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society, “I want some of that green stuff in the window,” he would only laugh. The tactful thing to do would be to buy a pint or two of laudanum first, and then, having established pleasant relations, ask him as a friend to lend me his green bottle for a bit.
So I said to the fishmonger, “I want some–some nice lobsters.”
“How many would you like?”
“One,” I said.
We selected a nice one between us, and he wrapped a piece of “Daily Mail” round it, leaving only the whiskers visible, and gave it to me. The ice being now broken–I mean the ice being now–well, you see what I mean–I was now in a position to ask for some of his ice.
“I wonder if you could let me have a little piece of your ice,” I ventured.
“How much ice do you want?” he said promptly.
“Sixpennyworth,” I said, feeling suddenly that Celia’s threepennyworth sounded rather paltry.
“Six of ice, Bill,” he shouted to an inferior at the back, and Bill tottered up with a block about the size of one of the lions in Trafalgar Square. He wrapped a piece of “Daily News” round it and gave it to me.
“Is that all?” asked the fishmonger.
“That is all,” I said faintly; and, with Algernon, the overwhiskered crustacean, firmly clutched in the right hand and Stonehenge supported on the palm of the left hand, I retired.
The flat seemed a very long way away, but having bought twice as much ice as I wanted, and an entirely unnecessary lobster, I was not going to waste still more money in taxis. Hot though it was, I would walk.
For some miles all went well. Then the ice began to drip through the paper, and in a little while, the underneath part of “The Daily News” had disappeared altogether. Tucking the lobster under my arm I turned the block over, so that it rested on another part of the paper. Soon that had dissolved too. By the time I had got half-way our Radical contemporary had been entirely eaten.
Fortunately “The Daily Mail” remained. But to get it I had to disentangle Algernon first, and I had no hand available. There was only one thing to do. I put the block of ice down on the pavement, unwrapped the lobster, put the lobster next to the ice, spread its “Daily Mail” out, lifted the ice on to the paper, and–looked up and saw Mrs. Thompson approaching.
She was the last person I wanted at that moment. In an hour and a half she would be dining with us. Algernon would not be dining with us. If Algernon and Mrs. Thompson were to meet now, would she not be expecting him to turn up at every course? Think of the long drawn-out disappointment for her; not even lobster sauce!
There was no time to lose. I decided to abandon the ice. Leaving it on the pavement I clutched the lobster and walked hastily back the way I had come.
By the time I had shaken off Mrs. Thompson I was almost at the fishmonger’s. That decided me. I would begin all over again, and would do it properly this time. “I want three of ice,” I said with an air.
“Three of ice, Bill,” said the fishmonger, and Bill gave me quite a respectable segment in “The Morning Post.”
“And I want a taxi,” I said, and I waved my lobster at one.
We drove quickly home.
But as we neared the flat I suddenly became nervous about Algernon. I could not take him, red and undraped, past the hall-porter, past all the other residents who might spring out at me on the stairs. Accordingly, I placed the block of ice on the seat, took off some of its “Morning Post,” and wrapped Algernon up decently. Then I sprang out, gave the man a coin, and hastened into the building.
* * * * *
“Bless you,” said Celia, “have you got it? How sweet of you!” And she took my parcel from me. “Now we shall be able–Why, what’s this?”
I looked at it closely.
“It’s–it’s a lobster,” I said. “Didn’t you say lobster?”
“I said ice.”
“Oh,” I said, “oh, I didn’t understand. I thought you said lobster.”
“You can’t put lobster in cider cup,” said Celia severely.
Of course I quite see that. It was foolish of me. However, it’s pleasant to think that the taxi must have been nice and cool for the next man.