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 realised 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 has 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 forehead 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, 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.$1hat 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.
“Then,” I said, massaging my ankles, “next time I shall try to miss.”